The media are now in full backlash against the idea that the alleged shooter in Arizona, Jared Loughner, was motivated to shoot Gabrielle Gifford by the violent content of the country’s political discourse. Completely disassociating Loughner’s violence from its political environment at this early stage is as wrongheaded as asserting a direct cause and effect between them.
The relationship between environment and violence in the mentally ill is poorly understood. That there is a relationship has been scientifically established. For example, a recent study by psychiatrists at Duke, Yale, Chapel Hill and Columbia found environmental factors like family conflict, joblessness and victimization, combined with paranoid ideation, increased violence among schizophrenics.
In an article on the study in Psychiatry News on July 7, 2006, one of the study’s authors, Marvin Swartz, M.D. of Duke, said, “These findings reinforce the view that violence risk reduction should be an important goal and component of community-based treatment for schizophrenia and that risk reduction needs to focus on clinical as well as nonclinical factors that may contribute to violence.” (My emphasis). When people who are psychotic (either organically or through drug-use or a combination of the two) get violent, they can be reacting and responding in part to their environment.
Would Loughner have become violent in any event? We don’t know what, if any, psychiatric problems Loughner has and whether they are organic, drug-fueled or both or neither. But let’s say he is just a “nut”. That doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant that he was exposed to violent political rhetoric. On the contrary, precisely because environment is related to violence in psychotics the fact that his web postings include rantings about the constitution, currency and other hot political topics that have been tinged with violent rhetoric legitimately raises the possibility that his target was chosen in part because of the political environment. Put more simply, if you are a violent paranoiac and someone tells you someone else is a threat to you, you may believe them and act on it.
Does that mean Sarah Palin’s targets caused Loughner to shoot Gabrielle Giffords? No. But it does mean he could have been influenced in the choice of his targets by those and many other politically violent messages combined with paranoid ideation. And there is a big difference whether violent psychopaths focus on political figures or not, because it brings violence into our national political life. Which is dangerous for everyone.