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Thinking sociologically about the Tucson shooting

The attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords, and the murder of six people at Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” event on Saturday, has weighed heavily on me all weekend. This is partially a very personal response: the little girl who was murdered was only two weeks younger than my sons, and sounds very much like the boys’ classmates: smart, inquisitive, and full of life. And a “Congress on Your Corner” is exactly the sort of event I’d take my Cub Scouts to; anything that makes government close and personal is a good way to introduce kids to politics.

I’ve also been mulling over the shooting, and the responses to it, from a sociological perspective. There will be, in the coming weeks, much psychologizing of Jared Lee Loughner, the young man who likely committed this crime: a portrait of a troubled mind, possibly clinically so, will emerge, and the psychological answer–“He did it because he’s crazy”–will become the accepted wisdom. That’s a tautology, of course: he did something crazy because he’s crazy, and the craziness of his actions are proof of his craziness. It’s a pat, though comforting, explanation, in part because it gets the rest of us off the hook: we would never do something like that because we’re not crazy, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent crazy people from doing crazy things.

It’s also not a terribly useful explanation; there isn’t much we can do with it. So I’d like to offer, dredged up from decades-old memories of my last immersion in the sociological imagination, some other thoughts that might actually be helpful. Whether sociological explanations could prevent a tragedy like this from being repeated is certainly questionable; but the standard pop-psych explanations don’t have much of a track record, either.

The social integration theory

First, cribbing a bit from both Emile Durkheim and Albert Camus: the question isn’t, “Why do people do crazy things?” The question is, “Why don’t more people do crazy things?” And the answer, I suggest, is our level of social integration.

We behave ourselves most of the time according to the norms and mores of the groups to which we belong. If we are well-integrated into a social group, we care about what others think of our actions; and we’ll curb our urges to act crazily if we fear that the people in our group will disapprove. I’m not at all surprised that Jared Loughner hasn’t been found on the member lists of any Tea Party group; I’d be very surprised to learn that he was active in any groups at all: I would predict that his ties to school, family, neighbors, and other social groups were very weak indeed. Without the brakes applied by group membership, Loughner was able to follow his urges to their logical and tragic extreme.

There’s a chicken-and-egg problem here, of course, with Loughner’s potential mental illness: was he crazy because he was unaffiliated, or unaffiliated because he was crazy? I’d suggest that it’s a vicious cycle, with one condition feeding the other; had he been better connected to other people, maybe he would have received help for his condition, or maybe the symptoms wouldn’t have presented themselves so horribly.

The sociologist’s suggestion for using this insight? Reach out. Integrate the unaffiliated. Let people know that they’re connected. Even a smile from a stranger or a kind word from an acquaintance is enough to apply some gentle persuasion to stay within the norms.

The social permission theory

Much of the analysis after the fact has focused on the violent political rhetoric of the last several years: Sarah Palin’s target map, Sharron Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies”, Michele Bachmann’s “armed and dangerous” suggestion, scores of gun and revolution signs at Tea Party events. And the people who have been responsible for this rhetoric have predictably bristled: they weren’t giving orders, they say, they were simply using metaphors. While some have tested the line between “colorful” rhetoric and incitement to violence, none have actually crossed it.

While I don’t think Jared Loughner was taking direct orders from the Tea Party in committing his crime, I do think that he was acting within the context of the overheated vitriol of the last couple years. All of the talk of guns and nooses, the misprisions of Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” words, have created a space in which to think about doing violence to political leaders is permissible. Even before it happened, we could imagine Loughner’s acts: indeed, it almost wasn’t even a surprise after the summer of discontent leading up to the health care vote, and the acts of vandalism that followed that vote (including vandalism directed at Giffords). The rhetoric didn’t make a crime like Saturday’s inevitable, but it certainly made it thinkable.

The blame for the effects of this sort of violent rhetoric is pretty widely dispersed. First, of course, are the people who spew it: many of them (Palin, Bachmann) ought to know better, and need to be held to account for stoking the embers of fear and anger for political gain. Also to blame are the moderates in the GOP–Steele, Boehner–who should have been imploring the fringe to tone down the rhetoric, and should have been making a reasonable case for their party’s positions instead of allowing the fringe to set the tenor of debate; and if the fringe doesn’t tone down the violent rhetoric, then they need to be shunned. The adults in the room, too, are culpable for letting the immature language go on far too long: if the news stations weren’t broadcasting the Tea Party signs, if the Sunday show talking heads were reminding us that we are a nation ruled by ballots and not bullets, if the President were giving occasional civics lessons about how democracy works, perhaps we wouldn’t have such a fetid political culture.

There will always be moral monsters who justify political violence. It would be nice if we could simply ignore them. Unfortunately, though, we can’t; the anger, fear, and manipulative lies need to be addressed. Political violence needs to be made unthinkable again: the permission to solve political disagreements with a gun must be rescinded.

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