A Troubled Voice

Jared Loughner's online writings offer possible clues about his motivations, his psyche

With the release of the now-omnipresent Pima County Sheriff's Department photo of Jared Loughner, we have an image of the accused shooter in our head.

He has a shaved head. Perhaps he's been beaten up a little bit. He's staring straight ahead, with what looks like a bemused smile.

On the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 8, when his name started floating around the Internet as the alleged shooter of 19 people—and the murderer of six—the search was on for information about the 22-year-old.

At first, some people thought Loughner might perhaps be a political ideologue of some sort, furious about immigration or maybe socialized health care. But when we pressed play on the collection of YouTube videos under his name, it quickly became clear that Loughner wasn't operating on a stable logical plane.

It's impossible to make sense of what Loughner posted as his "final thoughts." He obsesses over the definition of terms like "terrorism" and "sleepwalking," and spits out streams of numbers that are supposed to be years marking the difference between B.C.E. and A.D.E.

There are some aspects of Loughner's messages that sound familiar. Loughner complained that people in Giffords' Congressional District 8 were not able to speak English. He seemed to want a return to the gold standard.

But then you see Loughner burning an American flag while wearing what appears to be a skirt made out of garbage bags.

It doesn't seem like he was making much of an effort to hide the thoughts that were going through his troubled head. In a posting on a friend's MySpace profile nearly three months ago, he ranted about his now-well-documented problems at Pima Community College, saying to not "be afraid of the stars" and telling a story about a bird on his right shoulder (a bird which is mentioned in the flag-burning video as well).

For some reason, it was important to describe the bird in great detail: "The beak is two feet and lime green. The rarest bird on earth, there's no feathers, but small grey scales all over the body. It's with one large red eye with a light blue iris. The bird feet are the same as a woodpecker. This new bird and there's only one, the gender is not female or male. The wings of this bird are beautiful; 3 feet wide with the shape of a bald eagle that you could die for. If you can see this bird then you will understand."

We really don't understand.

Another thing I don't understand: When I first looked to see what presence Loughner had online, the first thing I checked was Facebook. It seemed like a 22-year-old would have a page on the most popular website in the world, but it doesn't appear that he does. To some extent, it's possible that few people noticed what he was saying online, because he wasn't connected in the same way that most people of his age are. Rather, he had a MySpace page, where he posted a picture of a gun placed on top of a history textbook. It was a place where he could write, "I don't feel good: I'm ready to kill a police officer! I can say it," without anybody intervening.

There are hundreds of comments on our website arguing what influences, if any, are to blame for the shootings in front of the Safeway. Some people seem to think that we could solve the problem of senseless violence by, say, taking away Glenn Beck's access to the media. If that were true, it would be easier for our cause-and-effect-minded brains to handle.

Instead, nothing makes sense—especially whatever message it was that Loughner intended to leave. And now, according to law-enforcement officials, he's not talking.

There are innumerable troubling aspects to what happened at Oracle and Ina roads on the 8th. Families were shattered; love stories were cut short; innocence was lost. Part of the narrative that continues to shake me, personally, is the fact that people who knew Jared Loughner now say they suspected he would meet a violent end—like the Pima classmate who told The New York Times that she once fearfully clutched her purse in class, ready to flee Loughner's possible wrath. Or like the old friend who told Mother Jones that he felt uneasy when Loughner became interested in guns.

Perhaps someone should have done more. That's easier said than done when someone is spiraling out of control but hasn't yet made some sort of specific threat, but there were signs all over the place that something was not right with Jared Lee Loughner.

I spoke to Dr. Laura Nelson from the Arizona Department of Health Services' Division of Behavioral Health. While she acknowledged that there's a delicate challenge to approaching possible mental-health issues with friends and family, she was quite clear that when a situation crosses the line into an area where a person might hurt themselves or others, a call should be made.

Many law-enforcement officers are trained to deal with these issues, and there are several organizations in town that provide crisis services, including the Southern Arizona Mental Health Corporation (622-6000).

Even though the Arizona Legislature has hacked away at funding for mental-health services (and then hacked some more), there are still professional, qualified people available to help. Right now, even. How someone makes the decision to make that call, I have no idea, but it's important to know that someone is there to help.

I have no desire or ability to make an armchair diagnosis of what troubled Jared Loughner. But there was plenty of stuff on the Internet that could have raised concerns prior to Saturday's terrible events.

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