Monday, January 10, 2011

A Few Further Thoughts on the Shooting

The more one reads about Jared Lee Loughner, the more it seems that his thoughts were so completely disconnected from reality that it's impossible to know if there is anyone to blame. In one article, Loughner's philosophy professor relates how he once handed in a philosophy paper that was nothing more than a series of geometric shapes.

It's especially important for cool heads to prevail in a situation like this. And even if one believes that the American Right is currently doing everything within its power to prod wingnuts into such terrible acts, it would be a contortion of logic to interpret this act as anything but the result of the sad disorder of a mind corrupted by mental illness.

But there is another side to this story, and one that bears mention. A mind like Jared Lee Loughner cannot help but interpret what he hears and reads. And even if he interprets information in a manner that other extremists would find illogical, why has this only happened in Arizona?

Death threats are a way of life for public figures in Arizona. The sherriff involved in this case called Arizona the "Mecca for prejudice." But Arizona is a uniquely multicultural state, diverse and polyglot on a level probably unequaled in the country. Poor whites rub up against rich Hispanics and resentment inevitably boils. Nowhere in the US is the immigration fight more intense. Nowhere in the US is it easier for a person's politics to turn into an echo chamber of conspiracy theories. But if that's true, it is only because Arizona is so unique - a civilization in the desert which arose only in the last forty years. In 1950, the Phoenix metropolitan area was a hundred thousand strong. Today, the metro area is over three million - hispanics and whites, Spanish and English speakers coexisting in a very new and diverse city, containing as much cooperation as hatred.

The growing pains of Phoenix are felt almost as keenly in Tuscon, which until recent decades was barely more than a small desert hamlet. The problems of both cities are the problems of any place transformed by modernity, with many people not knowing how to cope with the rules of a new world. Many whites feel left behind by the new order, and cling to conspiratorial notions as a means to grapple with what they can't understand. If crazy beliefs are the norm for so many otherwise sane people, what is crazy by their standards?

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