By now everyone has seen the picture. Smiling -- beaming, even -- and wide-eyed in the first photo taken of him by Pima County Sheriffs Department, Jared Lee Loughner defies what everyone wanted him to be. One hesitates to speak too soon, given that more information surely will come out. But all the evidence so far suggests that, rather than a tea bagger nutcase Nazi, Loughner might just be yet another in an increasingly long line of run of the mill psychopaths that each have taken their fifteen minutes of fame in a blaze of bloody, homicidal glory. The kind of psychopath we're getting increasingly familiar with in the US. Since news of the shooting first broke, the country has struggled to overcome its assumptions about the man alleged to have attempted to assassinate Representative Gabrielle Giffords and to have murdered and wounded nearly twenty others in what surely will mark one of the worst tragedies in recent Arizona history.
Friends said he like to shock with his politics, perhaps explaining his book list which, other than Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto, looked like a typical reading list for high school English. Some people forget, Arizona is a hardcore libertarian state -- anti-government is the default position for a large portion of the population. Going after a politician in that respect doesn't necessarily mean it fits into some grand narrative about immigration or health care. Indeed, there is little indication that Loughner is a racist beyond what is standard for Arizona these days.
During those first few hours, the sense that the left hoped he was a Tea Partier was palpable. Self-righteous speeches were at the ready and fingers were warming up for enthusiastic wagging. Cathartic choruses of "I told you so" seemed about to break out at any moment. When now, as it seems more and more likely, it turns out he was just another madman in a country that seems to have made madness its chief commodity, just more wreckage from a collapsing society, you can feel the disappointment in the air.
There will be political haymaking, as there always is, once things have calmed down a bit, but Loughner's apparent insanity rather than political drive seems to have given most everyone some pause for now. More facts may emerge, but as of now, the shooting appears to be Arizona's Virginia Tech massacre, with Loughner playing the part of Seung-Hui Cho rather than Booth to Lincoln.
An escapist in fact, seeking solace in "lucid dreaming", and having given up on finding any meaning in this world, Loughner kept a dream journal of his late night experiments. Like the electronic palaces conjured in ephemeral online games like Second Life, or the fake farms of Farmville, in dreams Loughner felt like he had the kind of power he could never have in real life. It's reported by one of his friends that in his dreams, Loughner claimed he could take control and fly. He spent more and more time sleeping, they say. And he lost touch with them.
Alienation seems almost an understatement when describing Loughner. Living at home in a working class Tucson suburban neighborhood, rejected by the military, unable to maintain himself at school, slipping further away from friends, raised as an only child by reclusive, private parents, at one point he posted to the abyss of Myspace: "[W]hy doesn't anyone talk to me?"
What we see when we look at Loughner and at the repulsive and bloody massacre he wrought in that Safeway is the Columbinization of political assassination. Fucking shoot everyone, essentially. The politician, the judge, the marshal, the old lady, the nine year-old girl who, in true made for movie fashion, was born on September 11th, 2001 and herself had just been elected to the student council at her school. An extreme expression of total alienation. Like Dennis Klebold and Eric Harris, living in the shadow of a missile factory, everyone asks why but then, quietly, nods in understanding. It's not irony.
And in a way, how can it be a surprise either? Mass murder is more and more a fact of life in post-industrial America, and Arizona, too. Last August a jilted father busted into a birthday party and shot six people, including the mother of his kids and her new boyfriend, before absconding to California with the children. He killed himself in his car. Did Loughner plan a similar self-immolation, had he not been interrupted in his task? The leaving of a note claiming responsibility, if true, certainly suggests it.
Generally lacking class consciousness despite daily enduring Capital's withering, unending attacks, alienated from the traditional, now bankrupt mechanisms of class struggle like unions, with families ripped apart by a capitalism that needs dispersed production, and surrounded by the cheap but high definition facsimile of everyday living that is spectacular life in the 21st century United States, the answer more and more seems to be: explode! It doesn't need politics. Goodbye already to "Yes We Can!", increasingly the slogan of late-era life in the US is less inspirational poster and more Samuel Jackson's "When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room." One remarkable fact about the massacre was the equal opportunity of it. Everyone got it. He didn't seem to single out people by race or gender. The political chattering class was befuddled.
Interviewed in Mother Jones magazine, a friend of Loughner's, Bryce Tierney, had this to say about why Loughner did what he did: "I think the reason he did it was mainly to just promote chaos. He wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing. He wanted exactly what's happening. He wants all of that. He fucks things up to fuck shit up, there's no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn. He probably wanted to take everyone out of their monotonous lives: 'Another Saturday, going to go get groceries'—to take people out of these norms that he thought society had trapped us in."
But what's interesting about spectacular violence like Loughner's killing spree is how it highlights the lack of outrage expressed by people about the daily violence that exists in Arizona. Like the off white walls in a rented apartment, or elevator music on the way to the office, we don't really notice it most of the time. This despite all the teary-eyed consternation about overheated political rhetoric and polarization. While everyone searched for a hint of Glenn Beck on Loughner's TiVo or an Alex Jones bookmark on his browser, the banal crunch that is, for instance, the police state's bone-breaking weight on the increasingly precarious migrant population fades into the background.
In late December, just about two weeks before the supermarket bloodbath, three young migrants were found dead floating in a canal near Gila Bend. A sheriff had stopped their vehicle and, lacking papers, everyone fled to a nearby canal to hide, where three drowned. Then, earlier in the week of Loughner's rampage, a boy was shot and killed by the border patrol when he climbed over the fence into the US. The border police said he and his friends had been throwing rocks. Border patrol denied the shooting at first, but coroners officials in Nogales said they knew a bullet wound when they saw one.
The spectacular nature of Loughner's spree, as well as it's target, clearly contributed to the great shock it caused to so many people, but the real story is the acclimatization of the people of Arizona to the ongoing violence surrounding them. Especially when considered in the context of 2010's record-breaking 252 known deaths of migrants crossing the Arizona desert. With all this talk of polarization in the state, the truth is most everyone seems quite okay with the yearly death toll. The problem seems not to be schism so much as a broad agreement that low level terrorism aimed at Mexicans is a small price to pay for the contemporary ruins of suburban life. While it's true that there are vocal extremists on the right, like the marginalized National Socialist Movement, polls continue to show overwhelming support for SB1070 in Arizona, and every anti-immigrant measure in the last several years has passed with overwhelming support. This isn't polarization -- it's broad agreement with dissenters at the margins.
Indeed, some real polarization would be a good thing. Instead we have this poor substitute, where Democrats and Republicans turn up the volume and the rhetoric precisely to conceal the fact that there's not much difference between the two at all. Consider the last election in Arizona. While the candidates had some differences over SB1070, they virtually agreed on the question of militarization of the border. Terry Goddard, the liberal in the race, hailed Israel and its "separation barrier" as an example to look to in solving our "immigration problem". One may remember the Minutemen plan to build a fence based on Israeli plans on a mile-long strip of private land down south. In a piece entitled, "Can Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?", Goddard wrote, "any barrier on our border should be effective without being hostile and maintain security without being offensive." A Berlin Wall with a smiley-face. A little real polarization might do everyone some good.
All the calls for the toning down of debate and for the return to the responsible middle, whether from Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik or Jon Stewart, suffer from the same deficiency: moderation has so little to recommend it. Moderation is the soil from which the national unity government springs, for instance. It is the enemy of debate. It is based on the false presumption that good ideas, correct ideas, come from the middle and from compromise. Consider the Abolitionists. What use moderation in the face of the outrage of slavery? The moderate position amounted to advocacy for its containment in the South. Or in other words, the responsible middle was the argument for continued bondage for Blacks in the South.
What is needed, then, is a rejection of false polarization and an advocacy for real polarization, the kind that reflects the seething anger that more and more boils over in supermarkets, workplaces and homes all across the country. We need a polarization equivalent to the righteous rage of a population fed up with being tagged, foreclosed, imprisoned, poisoned, entertained and drugged. One that rejects a life where we cheer the new freeway because it will get us to work ten minutes sooner, as if that time accrues to us in the end anyhow. Or a life where we feel lucky to have a job even if it bores the fuck out of us. Or a life increasingly reduced to the size of the electrons that feed our internet and our televisions. I'm sure it's been said before: atomized lives in an electronic age. We need a schism equal to the open wound that is modern life for sure, but Loughner's spree offers nothing for us. His was an inward, Columbinized attack on everyone and everything. Loughner is yet another warning about what we will keep getting if we continue down this path.
Loughner's cryptic obsession with a "new grammar" strikes me in this context as fitting indeed. Rejecting politics as we know it, he had gone so far that he could no longer express himself in terms that anyone else could understand. "What is government if words have no meaning?" he is said to have asked Giffords at a previous forum. Her lack of response set him off. "She's an idiot," he later told friends. He was not having the same dialog as the responsible political class. He was off the map. Thus he could find no collaborators. And he could find no outlets for his rage, no cooperative struggle in which to engage himself towards the relieving of the conditions that drove him mad. Instead, we get an explosion at a Safeway grocery store. His frustration must have been epic.
Now, this last human detonation over, we are left wondering, when and where will come the next one? Surely we look around at our frayed and tattered society and can take no solace that the forces that set this man off have been tamed. Capital's slash and burn war on our lives rages into a new year of crisis, as hungry for blood as ever. And more people are closer to the edge than ever, precarious if they are lucky, and isolated. The frustrations continue to build and our modern life provides little to hold on to for a lot of people. Until we rise up and burn this empty society to the ground, finding new friends and new relationships in the process, we will continue on, like Loughner in many ways, lucid dreaming from a prison cell. "I am a sleepwalker -- who turns off the alarm clock," wrote Loughner in one of his videos. With everyday life offering so little to so many, in the end even the most determined dreamer can only dream for so long.