Nihilism or Sarah Palin: What motivated Arizona shooting suspect?

Early reports suggest that the philosophies of shooting suspect Jared Loughner are tangled and largely incoherent – ranging from nihilism to 'lucid dreaming.' So far, there does not appear to be clear link to talk radio or hyperpartisanship, though that could change.

Bill Robles/AP
In this artist rendering, Jared Loughner makes his first court appearance at the Sandra Day O'Connor United States Courthouse in Phoenix Monday. Loughner appeared in federal court on charges he tried to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in a shooting rampage that left six people dead.
Pima County Sheriff's Dept./The Arizona Republic/AP
This undated photo released by the Pima County Sheriff's Office shows shooting suspect Jared Loughner.

Initial reports about Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old college dropout charged with killing six and gravely wounding Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, so far present a picture of a person inspired by a tangled and in some ways nonsensical web of philosophies more than any one person, political movement, or line of thought.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik suggested Saturday that the shootings might have been influenced by "vitriolic rhetoric" in the political discourse. He went on to single out talk radio and Sarah Palin, who, on her website last fall, targeted 20 House districts for Republican takeovers with cross hairs – including Congresswoman Giffords's.

Rep. Robert Brady (D) of Pennsylvania is reportedly preparing a bill that would outlaw the use of threatening rhetoric against lawmakers.

The investigation of the incident has clearly not finished, and new revelations are sure to come. But at this early stage, no clear links have emerged between Loughner and the current political climate. Rather, acquaintences and criminologists point to a convoluted worldview that appears largely incoherent – ranging from a fascination with dreams to an apparent penchant for nihilism.

His writings merge everything from the Communist Manifesto to discussions of the gold standard to the government's oppression by use of grammar.

"That is in a nutshell what schizophrenics tend to do, they pick up a concept, but it doesn't stay a coherent concept the way it would with someone else's mind," says Mark Pitcavage, the director of investigative research at the Anti-Defamation League. "They just throw it into the big pile of things that ends up being their own delusional structures."

Loughner's childhood friend, Bryce Tierney, told Mother Jones magazine that Loughner kept a dream journal and believed in "lucid dreaming" – existing in a separate plane between dreams and reality.

Mr. Tierney, who said he was a close friend of Loughner's in middle and high school added: "By the time he was 19 or 20, he was really fascinated with semantics and how the world is really nothing – illusion."

Like the Joker in the Batman franchise, Loughner wanted to create chaos for the sake of chaos, Tierney said. "There's no rhyme or reason, he wanted to watch the world burn."

Last fall, Loughner was forced out of Pima Community College for erratic and threatening behavior during poetry classes. In an interview with Slate, Kent Slinker, an adjunct philosophy professor at Pima Community College who taught Loughner, described Loughner as "someone whose brains were scrambled."

"His thoughts were unrelated to anything in our world," said Mr. Slinker.

Some observers have found disparate philosophical threads in his writings. They point to the rhetoric of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement, for instance Loughner's suspicions about the government using grammar to enslave Americans – a position espoused by David Wynn Miller, a prominent Patriot leader. The Department of Homeland Security is also reportedly exploring "possible links" between Loughner and American Renaissance, a magazine devoted to what the ADL calls "intellectualized white supremacy."

Investigators have unearthed a direct connection between Loughner and Giffords: a letter from Giffords' office thanking him for participating in a "Congress on Your Corner" event in 2007. Loughner reportedly asked Giffords: "What is government if words have no meaning?" Giffords reportedly responded to him in Spanish and moved on with the meeting.

"Ever since that, he thought she was fake, he had something against her," Tierney tells Mother Jones.

Hate-crime experts say they've seen such mergers of ideology and personal motives result in other attacks, including the shooting of two Army recruiters in Little Rock, Ark., in 2009 by an American-born Muslim convert, Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad.

In many cases, there's "a mix of personal and ideological motives in an actual attack," says Mr. Pitcavage at the ADL. "It's a pattern we see sometimes with hate crimes and sometimes with crimes against the government ... that personal factors may be the primary mover to violence, and it's the ideological component to their belief system that often will help them choose the target when they do decide to strike out."

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