News & Politics

Jared Loughner: Was It the Family’s Fault?


Details on Jared Lee Loughner and what occurred (and what may have occurred) prior to his shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and more than a dozen others, killing six, in a Tucson Safeway supermarket last Saturday continue to unfold. The questions everyone wants answers to, of course: Could we have stopped him? Should we have known? And…why didn’t someone know? Particularly, say, his parents?

Inevitably, in situations like these, people seek someone or thing to blame — whether it’s “political rhetoric” (45% of people blame it as a motivating force) or a failure of family members or teachers to seek help for someone they’ve identified as troubled, even as that person is demonized as “crazy” and perhaps beyond help.

Yesterday the Loughner family issued a statement saying, among other things, “We don’t understand why this happened.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that the police visited the Loughners “on more than one occasion before the attack” — although the calls related to nonviolent incidents and, in some cases, had nothing to do with Jared.

Quotes in the Times piece, however, paint Jared — and perhaps his family — as troubled. (Let’s note that hindsight is generally 20-20, and, without detracting from those quoted, that the statements are being made in light of a tragic, dramatic shooting that’s been widely reported. Because if we knew then what we know now, well…things would hopefully be different, right?)

“He was a nihilist and loves causing chaos, and that is probably why he did the shooting, along with the fact he was sick in the head,” said Zane Gutierrez, 21, who was living in a trailer outside Tucson and met Mr. Loughner sometimes to shoot at cans for target practice.

“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,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Normal people don’t talk about that stuff.”

He also said that Mr. Loughner had increasing trouble interacting in social settings — during one party, for instance, Mr. Loughner retreated upstairs alone to a room and was found reading a dictionary.

The entire Loughner family seems to have faced isolation, self-enforced or otherwise. Neighbors cite a wall built between houses and mention that Jared’s dad, Randy, was a “silent and often sullen presence.” Next-door neighbor Leslie Cooper told the Times,

“I’d tell my son, those are not normal people over there — there’s a reason why they stick to themselves,” she said, adding that she had warned him to steer clear of Randy Loughner.

The AP reports today that Randy Loughner pursued his son, who was carrying a “mysterious black bag,” by truck into the desert on Saturday morning. Attempts to catch up with him were unsuccessful.

On the morning of the shooting, a mumbling Jared Loughner fled after his father asked him why he was removing a black bag from the trunk of a family car, said Nanos and Rick Kastigar, chief of the department’s investigations bureau. Investigators are still searching for the bag.

AP also points out that among the evidence linking Loughner to the shooting of Giffords found at the family home was a handwritten notes with the words “Die, bitch,” which authorities believe was in reference to the Congresswoman.

But coming back to the question “Who should we blame?” — and can we blame anyone, including and especially the Loughner family — the answers are as complicated as the situation itself. Even if the family knew (and it seems they knew something was wrong, if not how wrong, exactly) could they have stopped it? Nothing is black and white, except for the fact that everyone desperately wishes this hadn’t happened. And few of those blaming the family know what dealing with a mentally ill loved one actually involves.

As Elizabeth Spiers points out on her blog, in response to comments on a Gawker post about the family’s statement:

Unless someone becomes violent, getting a reasonably high-functioning adult into treatment — or even into a clinic for a diagnosis — without their consent is exceedingly difficult. And not because it requires effort, though it does, and quite a lot of it, but because the threshold for compulsion is extremely high and most patients won’t meet it. (And reading about Loughner, he would fall into the high-functioning category. And I don’t see anything obvious — even the junior college expulsion — that would have resulted in compulsory institutionalization.)

So I actually feel some sympathy for the Loughner family. When they say they don’t know how this happened, I don’t think they necessarily mean that literally. I think they mean it in the way that anyone who’s had a child with serious mental issues means it: as a genuine way of asking why. Because no one deserves to have to deal with something like this. And schizophrenia is not a matter of bad parenting — unless you consider having defective genes bad parenting, which I don’t. Breaks often occur in early adulthood, after the patient may have had a completely normal and happy childhood, in which case it’s even more difficult for the parents to process because they can’t believe that their child — who was totally fine just a few years ago — isn’t simply going through a phase.

Certainly, the young guy we see in the picture at the Tucson book fair seems so different from the villain’s mask we see in the mugshot that it’s hard to believe they are the same person.

There was a breakdown, somewhere, probably in multiple places, and it led to a tragedy. What people could and should have done to prevent that tragedy — and the transformation from book fair volunteer to grimacing murderer — remains to be seen, discussed, and, we hope, ultimately implemented to prevent it from happening again.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 12, 2011

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