A member of my family is paranoid schizophrenic. As I read about Jared Loughner, I think of this relative. There are many points of congruence - the decent but incomplete education, a fascination with intellectual discourse, a seemingly coherent exterior, a deep core of paranoia.
A familiarity with firearms.
There was an incident, when no one he trusted could explain what was going on when strangers showed up on the doorstep and wanted him to leave his home. No one was injured, and no further episodes have had that edge of danger.
It's not clear he thinks he's crazy. Sometimes, he might acknowledge things aren't quite right, but there's nothing to indicate he agrees that he needs treatment, medication or minding. The world he inhabits touches the world the rest of the family lives in, but always at oblique angles, the emphasis falling on a different syllable, the meaning of something blindingly obvious to him and opaque to the rest of us.
He makes sense in most part, but there are moments when you realize this guy is nuts. He watches the news, listens to the radio, reads the papers, wanders down to the coffee shop, absorbs the culture just like everyone else, and then it gets out of whack. 1 + 1 = green. Or 6. Or the guy who chased him through the casbah in Tunisia. How does this background buzz transform into the dream/nightmare our relative inhabits? I don't know.
What I do know is that the kinds of logical leaps and paranoid turns this relative makes negotiating his private world are disturbingly similar to what I read in the public sphere, the world in common that is becoming less common place. While there is no equivalence in the rhetorical output of the right and left, there is a mode of thought on the left that shares the deep paranoia of authority and the comfort in conspiracies that fuels much of right-wing arguments. In the blogosphere it is sophistry, clever pretense at being persecuted by "them" and endless speculation on what nefarious deals are being cut to get "us" for daring to oppose the tyranny de jour, batting the outrage back and forth in the comments to show our disdain for The Man. Perfectly normal behavior by political opponents or state actors become occasions for expressions of outrage and the spinning of bigger and less coherent conspiracy fantasies. It's a bonding exercise more than anything, to find one's tribe and hold a haka.
This mode surfaces in my relative in a darker form, and is on display with Loughner. In these men's minds, they provide all the voices needed for their world and there is no gainsaying them. I'm struck by the isolation and the attempts to force the worlds back into alignment, the world inside the head and the world that keeps refusing to play by the other's rules. Is it easier for their imaginations to conjure up violent methods when the cultural chatter around them reinforces the idea that only violent reaction can counter the irredeemably corrupt body politic? Again, I don't know. My relative does not appear more volatile in the face of hyperventilation of either political extreme. Then again, no one has tried to remove him from his new home, either. I don't think it is politics per se that captures his attention.
I think it is dangerous to draw a direct line between specific political events and the acts of deranged individuals, if only because the mentally ill become demonized and because true political opposition can be trivialized as mere mental imbalance. Conversely, it is irresponsible to say that pervasive rhetoric and appeals for violence have no effect on what does or does not fall within the bounds of acceptable acts. While the focus is and rightfully should be on the eliminationist rhetoric of the right because they are openly advocating the murder of the political opposition, it is time for the Democratic Party and the left blogosphere to confront that tendency on the left, something that has become louder and stronger in stomach turning imitation of the right. This mode is what poisoned the 2008 primaries, with threats of violence against HRC, her constituents and the party convention itself if opposition to Obama continued, and it has its roots in the CDS of the early 90s, absorbing whole-hog the tropes and claims of the Movement Conservatives. It is mixed on the left as it is on the right with an unhealthy dose of petulant faux-victimhood.
My relative has reduced capacity to judge the common world, so immersed in the one inside his head. Some days, he'd possibly be considered sane. Other days, not so much. I hope he will live the remainder of his life quietly and not harm or be harmed by someone else because of his mental illness. I am sorry for Jared Loughner that he did not, and horrified at the murders he committed. I don't want to know the voices in his head.
It is the acts of those who have full capacity that need to be observed, judged and condemned. Time to drown out those voices worming their way inside our heads.
Update: I have received a number of comments and emails from people who mention family members and close friends suffering from mental illness. I will not be posting any of them as I don't feel comfortable making that information public (even if the commenter didn't ask to keep it private), but rest assured I am reading them.
Note: I am not claiming Loughner suffers from the same mental illness as my relative, only that what has been reported of his behavior and actions reminds me of things that have happened to this person whom I know. Only a psychiatrist can provide a diagnosis for Loughner.