Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
If you haven’t been living under a rock for this past week, you know about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona by mentally ill loner Jared Loughner. (You can find the details on Wikipedia.) Part of the blame for this tragedy has been laid at the feet of Sarah Palin for the use of this now infamous image on her web page:
On this image are crosshairs over the district of Gabrielle Giffords. What has made this more compelling was that prior to the shootings Rep. Giffords had specifically called out Palin over the violent images and rhetoric.
In March 2010, shortly after the map’s posting and her office’s subsequent vandalization, Giffords said: “We’re in Sarah Palin‘s ‘targeted’ list, but the thing is that the way she has it depicted, we’re in the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize that there are consequences to that action.”
This is hardly the first time a mentally ill person has acted out in this manner as a result of inflammatory speech.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shooting was a shooting at that nation’s memorial to The Holocaust in Washington, D.C. on June 10, 2009, at 12:50 p.m. Security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, was shot, and later died from his injuries. Suspect James Wenneker von Brunn, 88, was charged in federal court on June 11, 2009, with first-degree murder and firearms violations.
- March 10, 1993: Dr. David Gunn of Pensacola, Florida was fatally shot during a protest. He had been the subject of wanted-style posters distributed by Operation Rescue in the summer of 1992. Michael F. Griffin was found guilty of Dr. Gunn’s murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
- July 29, 1994: Dr. John Britton and James Barrett, a clinic escort, were both shot to death outside another facility in Pensacola. Rev. Paul Jennings Hill was charged with the killings. Hill received a death sentence and was executed on September 3, 2003.
- December 30, 1994: Two receptionists, Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, were killed in two clinic attacks in Brookline, Massachusetts. John Salvi was arrested and confessed to the killings. He died in prison and guards found his body under his bed with a plastic garbage bag tied around his head. Salvi had also confessed to a non-lethal attack in Norfolk, Virginia days before the Brookline killings.
- January 29, 1998: Robert Sanderson, an off-duty police officer who worked as a security guard at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, was killed when his workplace was bombed. Eric Robert Rudolph, who was also responsible for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, was charged with the crime and received two life sentences as a result.
- October 23, 1998: Dr. Barnett Slepian was shot to death at his home in Amherst, New York. His was the last in a series of similar shootings against providers in Canada and northern New York state which were all likely committed by James Kopp. Kopp was convicted of Dr. Slepian’s murder after finally being apprehended in France in 2001.
- May 31, 2009: Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed by Scott Roeder as he served as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas.
What all of these murders and shootings had in common (and this is by no means a complete list) was that they started with hate speech; they began with demonizing a group of people and narrowed down to acts of violence. What started out as free speech ended up as capital crimes.
No one questions whether the individuals who committed these crimes were responsible for committing them, rather the debate surrounds the question of responsibility for the rest of society. For instance: Is this sign inflammatory? This sign, which is in Tuscon, Arizona by the way, has now entered the realm of the incredibly tacky at the very least. Is stuff like this encouraging mentally unbalanced people to become shooters?
Naturally, opinion is pretty much divided along ideological lines.
This is a complicated issue because the presence of symbols of violence alone are not sufficient to set these people off. Violence, set in a realm of fantasy is not the same as when it is set in a politically charged arena, such as abortion, bigotry or political alignment in general. World of Warcraft and Mafiawars do not carry over into actual violence or we would have descended into total anarchy about 10 years ago. Somehow, violent imagery, when it is politicized, becomes more dangerous. Why? And why is the violence predominantly right wing?
If we look at consciousness as a group effort, and one that is defined primarily by emotion, not rational thoughts, a case can be made that hateful emotions are carrying over to mentally ill people who act on them. I don’t know if there is any research on this, but my experience is that the mentally ill as a group are not especially strong willed; more the opposite. They are also more likely to be attracted to thoughts of conflict and strife. This is a bad combination for holding off the emotions of hate and fear that emanate from political wing nuts.
The political right is going to be far more vulnerable to mentally ill people acting out an extreme version of their politics because conservatism is ultimately based in fear. I don’t make this claim lightly; look at any conservative social platform and you will find fear of homosexuals, loose women, strong women, minorities of pretty much any stripe; fear of different ideas and fear of exposing their children to those ideas; fear of science challenging their beliefs and fear of other people getting a better deal than they have. Above all, never try or do anything new.
One of the best indicators of an ideology based in fear is the level of irrationality that is present. Scratch the surface of the political right and this can be found everywhere. The average right wing conservative is against nearly every social policy that they might benefit from, such as universal health care and higher wages and socially chooses policies that have often run for decades with no success and cause more problems than they solve. (i.e. the war on drugs). They want smaller government and fewer regulations even though this means having larger and more invasive and controlling corporations. Their answer for every problem involves controlling behavior through punishment no matter how badly that works. It’s why they love their guns and gun analogies.
The ability of conservatives to remain in denial about a wide range of issues when confronted with contrary evidence is nothing short of breathtaking. This is only possible because they have tied their political opinions to their deep seated fears.
These attitudes are quite reason and fact resistant; it is extremely hard to change the mind and attitude of conservatives. What this demonstrates is that the attitudes and beliefs are emotionally based rather than relying on fact and reason. The normal form of argument for conservatives is not the rational, factual argument, but rather bullying, belittling and insults. And the emotion that all this is based on is clearly fear.
It takes a lot of fear to be scared into irrationality and this fear is what bleeds into the consciousness of the mentally ill. They become immersed in this fear and eventually lose their ability to distinguish between the blustery rhetoric of tough talk and the insanity of acting on it.
Given that conservatism itself is a mild form of mental instability, it should come as no surprise that that the truly mentally ill would be attracted to the political right where they are bombarded with the violent images and rhetoric that plays to the darkness that is already in their minds. As they become immersed in this ideology, they merge with a group consciousness filled with fear and hate. Is it any wonder that a few of them eventually act out with tragic consequences?