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Searching for Answers and Questions

The media on what motivated Jared Lee Loughner
January 13, 2011

Rhetoric didn’t pull the trigger in Tucson. That, most people have come to agree upon.

So what did?

That’s the question those who’ve extricated themselves from the rhetoric debate have been focusing on in the past few days: what in Jared Lee Loughner’s head, home, city, or past contributed to his decision to shoot Congresswoman Giffords and so many others last Saturday.

The best reporting on that question has come from the diggers—those reporters who’ve gone into records from Pima Community College, for example, and found a troubling history of instances which hint at an as yet unproven mental illness. Or those like Chris Cillizza, who reported that Loughner was once a registered independent, and brought some clarity to the initial political blame game that followed the weekend shooting. Yet these are all fragments from which to speculate until the picture fills out.

Time’s Maia Szalavits tries to enhance our picture of Loughner in a post titled “Politics, Parenting, Pot or Psychosis: What Caused the Arizona Shootings.”

It’s an interesting run-through of issues which seem to be increasingly germane to any discussion of Loughner—the relationship between schizophrenia and violence, the role that smoking pot may play in exacerbating that, or not. But ultimately we are left with just more questions as complications crowd and prevent simple connections being drawn.

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And just to make things even more complicated, there’s another factor that contributes not just to the risk for violence, but to the risk for both addiction and schizophrenia. That’s child abuse and childhood exposure to traumatic violence. Although we don’t know much about Loughner’s childhood, a neighbor told the New York Times that Loughner’s father is “very aggressive.”

That paragraph hints at some of the frustration inherent in trying to piece together the reasons behind a tragedy like Arizona—there are always more factors, and we only have the vaguest of evidence (“a neighbor said”) to hint at which factors might be relevant. Still, it is good to ask, and prod, as at the very least these seem to be the right questions to be struggling with as the reporting becomes clearer.

In other corners, though, questions are becoming distractions, feeding a hunger for more Loughner tidbits, and more “analysis,” while adding next to no value in our understanding of his person or motivations. This certainly seems to be the case with reporting on Loughner’s high school girlfriend, Kelsey Hawkes, who spoke exclusively to British tabloid the Daily Mail for a story headlined “‘Our high school love split tipped gun killer over edge’: Childhood sweetheart of Jared Loughner speaks of his descent into madness.” It asks—and then answer in the affirmative—did heartbreak make the monster?

Hawkes is quoted:

Speaking exclusively to the Daily Mail, Miss Hawkes, 21, said: ‘My breaking up with him was not the cause of him going off the rails but it was definitely the start of it.

‘Something changed in him, he was not the same person when I told him it was over.
‘I remember his face clearly—he just looked like he had nothing to live for. It was my first relationship and it was his first relationship.

From there, Loughner allegedly began drinking and taking drugs. Interestingly, another friend tells Mother Jones that Loughner stopped partying completely in 2008, quitting smoking and pot for a healthy lifestyle, and after that, “he was just off the wall.” We’re left with speculation, some he said then she said, and not much more of value.

But we expect that from the Mail. More troubling are reports like this eyeball-snatching post on the Daily Beast today, which asks if the legal drug salvia divinorum had anything to do with the shooting. The question arises from an ABC News Radio report, in which a one-time friend says that Loughner had used the drug following the breakup. You may have heard of salvia—it was the drug Miley Cyrus was caught smoking, the Daily Beast reminds us in the precede, and again in the body of the text.

The article has little reason to exist—a throwaway “did salvia have anything to do with it?” based on an as yet unproven claim by an ex-friend. It feels like a quick way to sexily link a teenage pop star to what happened Saturday, despite zero reports that Loughner had used the drug on the day of the shooting or any time recently at all. And despite reporting that salvia has allegedly led to one reported mental breakdown and induced a Delaware man to suicide, reporter Kate Dailey struggles in the face of there being very little research on salvia and even less that might prove its connection to Loughner. Dailey admits as much:

The effect Salvia had, if any, on Loughner’s mental state is thus far impossible to ascertain. In describing his tenuous connection with reality, one friend told the New York Times, “He would ask me constantly, ‘Do you see that blue tree over there?’ He would admit to seeing the sky as orange and the grass as blue.” While that sounds like the ramblings of someone on a powerful trip, it’s not consistent with the Salvia experience.

I’d recommend skipping to the very end of the piece, where Matthew Johnson from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine sets things straight:

“Alcohol can have horrible, horrible interactions with mental illness, but it doesn’t sound so scary because we all know people who drink,” he says, noting that there’s no evidence to prove that Salvia can have negative effects on those with psychological problems. “People have a need to explain these things, but I’d advise caution in leading people to grasp on something that’s probably not there,” he says. “The big factor is this guy was probably very mentally ill.”

It’s certainly a time for questions—even ones to which we may not have immediate answers. Choosing the right questions to ask is the challenge.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.