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Jared Loughner Is a Tragedy, Not a Nut Job or the Embodiment of Evil

3 years ago
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I'm haunted by last week's episode of ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," in which a disturbed young man opens fire on dozens of people on a college campus. Several doctors are put to the ultimate test when they realize the man they are trying desperately to save is the shooter. Back in the waiting room, relatives of the many victims are comforting one another – except for a tearful woman sitting alone in a corner.

Dr. Jackson Avery had walked out of the operating room rather than help save the perpetrator. But his compassion is reawakened when he sees that lonely woman waiting for news. "Excuse me ma'am, has anyone talked to you about your son?" he asks her.

"The police questioned me for hours, like I should have known something," she says between sobs. "They found a suicide note in his jeans and I didn't know anything. My whole life, everything I ever knew, is a lie. He's my baby. All I want to know is if he's alive. Is that terrible? All these people he hurt. Does that make me a terrible person?" Avery kneels and gently says her son is still alive, and the doctor will give her an update when surgery is complete.

So, why am I telling you this? It's because an alarming number and range of people keep calling Jared Loughner a nut job, a whack job, a lunatic and an evil person (1.1 million Google hits on the first three terms within 48 hours of the Arizona shootings that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords). They keep asking why his parents didn't meet their responsibilities, get him treatment, commit him to a hospital, make sure he takes medication.

Rush Limbaugh managed to cover all those bases Monday on his radio show. He repeatedly called Loughner a "nut," as well as deranged, evil and possibly badly parented. "Real question: Who are the parents of this kid? What kind of a job did they do raising this kid? Are the parents derelicts?" he asked. Later he asked again, slightly more charitably, "Are they derelicts? Or did they just draw an unlucky card, get a kid born with mental issues?"

Let's tackle terminology first. I realize that, having already noted the surfeit of weapons and war imagery in the political realm, I'm risking a political correctness/nanny-state backlash. There's already a pretty funny Twitter stream about the #newtone (Wolf Blitzer needs to pick a new name, etc.). But raised consciousness about this is, if anything, even more important. Why is it okay to casually describe people with mental illnesses as nut jobs or whack jobs? Would you refer to a cancer victim in such a dismissive, insensitive way?

It's disturbing that an otherwise serious piece about mental instability and violent rhetoric in the Independent Examiner has a headline that begins, "AZ Shooter Is a Nutjob . . . " It is jarring to read Howard Kurtz, a very smart and thoughtful commentator, calling Loughner "a lone nut job who doesn't value human life." As if a disturbed brain reasons in the same way as a healthy one.

Even President Obama is inching, understandably perhaps, into that territory. In his initial statement Saturday, he called the rampage an "unspeakable act." On Monday he used the phrase "heinous crime." Both adjectives strongly suggest evil and wickedness. Yet we may be dealing here with a brain so sick that "reality" as we know it, and motives as we know them, are so distorted as to be irrelevant.

(Update: To be fair, Loughner's parents also used the word "heinous" in a statement Tuesday night. "We don't understand why this happened," they said. "It may not make any difference, but we wish that we could change the heinous events of Saturday.")

The evidence in this case, including online ramblings and classroom behavior, certainly suggests mental illness. But Loughner is 22. It's very difficult from a legal standpoint to force someone 18 or older to get help, or even to take his pills, until he harms himself or others. And of course at that point, it's too late.

Pete Earley, an author with a mentally ill son, wrote a book about the destructive and illogical Catch-22 nature of the mental health system. It can defeat even the most knowledgeable and persistent of parents. He urged advocates Monday, in light of the Tucson shootings, to renew their efforts to fix it.

"Having a mental illness does not make a person violent," Earley wrote on his website. "But we also need to acknowledge that persons, who are clearly sick, can harm others if they do not have access to meaningful community treatment services and their relatives are prevented by misguided laws from helping them get those services."

This is a tough problem. It requires balancing of so many competing interests and imperatives: A patient's right to refuse treatment versus the consequences of untreated mental illness for patients, their families and society; a family's desire to get help for a relative versus the potential for unwarranted, abusive commitments as in the past; society's desire to help people with mental illness versus the financial strains on the health-care system and the government; gun and privacy rights versus a system that prevents weapons sales to unstable people; the need for justice to be served versus the possibility that a perpetrator is ill and delusional, and perhaps himself a victim of a failed system.

The Loughner case, like the John Hinckley case decades ago, could be an education for Americans who do not have mental illness in the family. If we emerge more enlightened for the debates to come, that would be one tiny saving grace from a shattering, shocking tragedy.

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72 Comments

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gon2cthewizard

Having mental illness, does not automatically imply, that one's parents failed at raising them. Mental illness is a brain disorder that many people want to deny exists. Therefor the mentally ill must be "evil", "unable to feel compassion", "choose to be that way" and I could go on with many more incorrect statements that only serve to further stigmatize people with mental illness. I have mental illness. My parents did the best job they could raising me (since I didn't come with an owner's manual). I have had many difficult times in my life as a result of my mental illness. I use to and at times still do have feelings of shame related to my illness, mostly because I know that people have labeled me with many of the stereotypical labels. They have not judged me based on my character, abilities, talents,and accomplishments in my life. Not every mentally ill person, during times of acute exacerbation of their illness, have went out purchased a gun and committed a mass shooting spree. I have accomplished a great deal of wonderful things in my life. I have two college degrees (and am working on a third), raised two wonderful children-both have college degrees and are successful well adjusted people with no signs of mental illness, have a wonderful husband and marriage, and I have work in the medical profession for 20 yrs. It is easy to say that your child will never "get mental illness" but one never knows. We should not judge Jared Loughner's parents we are not privileged with all the facts, only what we hear from the media and they are out to sensationalize their stories.

February 18 2011 at 6:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
kuchingtwo

What kind of parents does Jared have? Apparently no worse than the ones Ruah Limbaugh has since they obviously did not teach Rush how to have compassion for others and did not teach him to have any manners.

February 09 2011 at 9:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mebertandalex

Regardless of the concept of "mental incompetence," "evil," any of the titles, designations, euphemisms, endlessly trailing off into the distance, the bottom line is that persons who are found to be dangerous to others need to be off the street where they cannot do harm.

January 20 2011 at 9:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mebertandalex's comment
gon2cthewizard

Does this include all of the drunk drivers who use their legal weapon, a car, to kill innocent people. Many drunk drivers have multiple DUIs, are well known to authorities as habitual offenders, and a danger to others (many others). Most get a slap on the hand for their prior offenses. Then when they actually do kill someone, they get short prison sentences (in my state they average (34 months) and are allowed to return to their lives once they have served their time. Why don't we lock them up and throw away the key?

February 18 2011 at 7:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
trobaughca

At this point, we do not know whether Laughner is "insane" or just "angry" in a very confused way. It takes a qualified psychiatrist examination submitted to a judge who can declare a person "insane." Unstable behavior can appear within any economic or social group. I cite the Unabomber as an example. He was a Harvard graduate and had a PhD in mathematics. He left a long and bloody trail. Do we point a finger at his family? It is very hard for a family to get psychiatric help for a family member. They hear a trite refrain, "Well, we can't do anything until he does something." I am not against gun ownership, but we need stricter sanctions put upon those that are troubled mentally or those that have long rap sheets. These individuals don't need guns...ever.

January 20 2011 at 12:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
FRANK MORRIS

Jill Lawrence is very brave to write as she did, knowing full well the kind of response she would get. For sure, we all condemn what happened. But what we now have to do is not lash out and blame everyone in sight, but try to put in place safeguards for the future. That is very difficult, but we must address the issue. We have to do better at identifying potential threats to society. It is not just terrorists we have to fear, but also those with dereanged minds.

January 16 2011 at 7:48 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
kmhjbh

Although you seem offended by those who see Jared Loughner as evil, I don't see how you can define him as anything other than evil. Have you ever considered that what you call mental illness is the devil working on the human mind? That true mental illnesses exists I have no doubt but sometimes, maybe we as a society try too hard to find reasons where none exist. No matter what "reason" you try to ascribe to his actions he is still a criminal... a mass murderer in fact.

January 14 2011 at 5:57 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to kmhjbh's comment
mickeyrjames

You are right friend, it is justice, not revenge. Because of him, those 6 people won't ever get to "see their family every saturday" - they'll never see them again period. They should fry the freak.

January 30 2011 at 2:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
marly5555

You make a good point about how difficult it may be to intervene when they are adults. HOWEVER, do some more reading and you'll discover that this guy was drinking in high school (literally even, during lunch breaks), doing drugs in high school, owned a handgun in high school, and Lord knows what else that hasn't been reported yet. I'm the father of an 8 year old boy, and I can tell you right now that nonsense isn't going to happen in this house when he's 16...

January 14 2011 at 9:45 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to marly5555's comment
George Hammann

Keep an open eye to everything your childer do & say. Know who their friends are, so No to them being around what you think are Bad Influences. STOP being your kids friends and start being their Parents!
marly5555 will give tuff love, and it will Work!

January 16 2011 at 4:11 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
gon2cthewizard

Ummm... I'd like to talk with you in 8 yrs. Teenagers test the limits. They are in adult size bodies, but the maturity of the brain hasn't quite caught up yet. Even if you rule with an iron fist, he will make choices and do things that you call "nonsense".

February 18 2011 at 6:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mxoverdriv

The sad truth is that our mental health solutions have not caught up with our mental health problems. We no longer shove our mentally ill behind closed walls to be abused and experimented upon, but neither can we afford to give every single mentally ill person around the clock medical supervision. Most people receive care and medication, in fact our anti psychotic medications are WAY over prescribed! Relapse generally occurs when the mentally ill patient stops taking their medications without informing anyone, because they feel much better and do not like the side effects of their medication. And those side effects can be considerable
Removing the stigma of mental illness with open and honest dialog will help. But we also need to address the issue of mental illness when we see it...evidently no one had braved facing Jared Loughner with his mental illness, not his parent, his school or his college. And we need to quit shoving pills down our children's throats if they show any hint of not meeting the "baby book" standards of maturity and start parenting instead of trying to be our children's best friend.

January 13 2011 at 12:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
YaketyYak52

Where were the parents??? They were, most likely, right THERE, trying to deal with an ADULT child with issues, who was non-compliant. You cannot force an ADULT child to get help. You cannot force an ADULT child to take a pill. You cannot force an ADULT child to continue therapy. You have no rights over them, as soon as they are 18. Doctors will not discuss them with you, and even schools won't talk to you. Because of past abuses, you cannot INVOLUNTARILY have someone committed. You are told that you are powerless until something happens... Some may believe that this article is trying to make the shooter a "victim," but unless someone has experienced the difficulty in getting treatment for an ADULT, they couldn't possibly know what it is like to have your hands tied, as far as getting a loved one any kind of help. The article, far from championing this troubled young man, is simply stating that this was a tragedy for everyone immediately involved, and for all of the rest of us who live with the untreated mentally ill who walk among us.

January 11 2011 at 8:44 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to YaketyYak52's comment
mxoverdriv

This young man had openly and obviously needed treatment for his mental illness long before he became an adult. Perhaps his parents DID do the best they knew to do in dealing with a very difficult child OR perhaps like far too many parents today they were in complete denial that there was something wrong with their child. We simply do not know enough at this point. Had some school counselor suggested mental aid for young Jared and the parents turned them down, or is Jared one of those who truly slipped through the cracks. Either way, there will always be parents who ignore those who point out that their children need help (in many ways other than with their mental health!) and there will always be cracks that individuals will slip through.
BUT there ARE ways to make sure that ADULTS receive the mental health treatment that they needs. A parent may need to take their evidence of mental health issues before a judge and gain power of attorney over that adult. Police can force a 72 hour observation period if they come into contact with someone they suspect has untreated or poorly controlled mental illness. We need to quit making excuses for everyone around this young man and start finding out WHY no one around him took that actions that they needed to take. Those are HARD questions and will have HARD answers, but they need to be asked, honestly answered and then those answers need to be shared with others so this is less likely to happen in the future.

January 13 2011 at 11:53 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
medguy42

Jill Lawrence writes as if she already knows that Loughner and his parents did not have access to mental health care--ever. That's a big assumption to make. Hearing from the neighbors--as we have--that Loughner's parents isolated themselves from their neighbors gives me the feeling (I said 'the feeling," not the certainty) that the Loughners did not seriously seek help for their son. At first blush, it sounds like their approach to things was to keep the boy out of sight like in some melodrama from the 60's. We'll hear more about the reality of his childhood, no doubt. Then, we can see whether Ms. Lawrence has had a knee-jerk reaction to the deeds of Mr. Loughner: blaming society.

January 11 2011 at 7:58 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to medguy42's comment
Kathy

It's called protecting their child and themselves. It may not have been the thing to do but that is the choice they made.

January 11 2011 at 8:52 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
mxoverdriv

Kathy, yes that is the choice they made and it was the WRONG choice. Just as the sheriff department which had multiple contact with this young man made WRONG choices in not forcing him into a hospital for an observation period. His high school and the community college made the WRONG choice when they all put him out of sight and out of mind instead of doing the hard thing and getting him the help he needed. EVERYONE around this young man made WRONG choices and EVERYONE around him needs to be questioned and hard answers need to be sought and shared with the public. Not with the desire to place blame, but with the objective of making sure there is MUCH less chance of this happening again, because Jared Loughner is NOT the only untreated, seriously mentally ill adult who walks among us.

January 13 2011 at 12:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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