Inside Loughner's Mind: What His Writings Reveal

Two weeks after the tragic shooting in Tucson, little is known about the gunman's motives or state of mind. NPR's Wade Goodwyn explores the different views people have about the shooting, the alleged gunman and the debate the incident has sparked.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Two weeks after the horrific shootings in Tucson, people are still talking about what might have motivated the gunman. Why did he open fire on so many innocent people, and why did he target Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords?

The suspect reportedly has said nothing since the shooting, but NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports he said plenty before, in a series of web postings that are open to interpretation.

WADE GOODWYN: Giffords' accused gunman, Jared Loughner, left a trail of evidence on the Internet, clues about his state of mind. Mark Potok is the director of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center,and he's been combing through Loughner's writings.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Director, Intelligence Project, Southern Poverty Law Center): And I thought quite clearly, overall, he was very mentally ill and also virtually illiterate, extremely difficult to follow.

GOODWYN: Potok says that beneath the rambling discourse, a hint, an outline of political ideology is evident.

Mr. POTOK: I also felt that this was a person who was mentally ill, who had absorbed some very particular ideas from the radical right and in particular, from conspiracy theorists on the radical right.

GOODWYN: Potok believes that though Loughner is mentally disturbed, it's no accident that he allegedly targeted Giffords.

Mr. POTOK: It seems to me just as likely that someone like Loughner might have targeted his own family, or a McDonald's restaurant - or an elementary school, God help us. But he chose to attack the highest representative of the federal government in his area. So I think it's legitimate to wonder, how did this man select his target? That seems to me distinct from somehow trying to blame Sarah Palin.

GOODWYN: Loughner's writings and videos on YouTube, MySpace, and a conspiracy website called Above Top Secret reveal, above all, a deep distrust of the federal government. Some of his posts reflect relatively conventional far-right-wing ideas - for example, that the American currency is worthless because it's not backed by gold and silver. Loughner especially seems to believe that NASA is in the business of perpetuating frauds - that the space station is really empty, and that the Mars Rover program is a fake.

Loughner also wrote about the government trying to use grammar to enslave citizens through mind control - a theory he may have borrowed from patriot conspiracy theorist David Wynn Miller. Chip Berlet, a political research associate, says Loughner also wrote about something called the second American Constitution. That refers to the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments after Reconstruction, which freed the slaves and granted citizenship to anyone born in the U.S.

Mr. CHIP BERLET (Political Research Associate): In white supremacist circles, and in certain right-wing conspiracy circles, the argument is that these Reconstruction amendments invalidated the actual first, legitimate Constitution and that ever since then, the government of the United States has been operating illegally.

GOODWYN: In the aftermath of the shooting, there were accusations by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik that were subsequently echoed by others on the left. The contention was that angry political rhetoric by conservative talk radio and other right-wing pundits and politicians - about health-care reform and so-called treasonous Democrats - might have goaded Loughner to target a Democratic congresswoman. That's been met by scorn in conservative quarters.

Mr. CHARLES HELLER (Radio Talk Show Host, Liberty Watch): What a bunch of horse crap. I mean, give me a break.

GOODWYN: Charles Heller is a radio talk show host of Liberty Watch and America Armed and Free, in Tucson. Heller says if you read Jared Loughner's postings, you can see one thing clearly: He's mentally unbalanced. The rest is ridiculous speculation by liberals trying to make political hay out of a tragedy.

Mr. HELLER: There's no way of knowing whether he was angry at the government or not. His writings would seem to indicate that was true, but how do we know that he wasn't angry about his French toast that morning? We just don't.

GOODWYN: Amber Troy is a linguistics student at the University of Arizona who shared a poetry class with Jared Loughner at the local community college. Troy says that Loughner would bring up subjects like currency conspiracies, but that he was so incoherent he was practically unintelligible.

Ms. AMBER TROY: I mean, I don't even remember what we were talking about at the point when he was talking about currency. Like, the topic wasn't even related to anything political or currency or anything. But I remember it being very -like, out of nowhere.

GOODWYN: Troy says Loughner seemed so out of it, she doubts his motivations were political. In some ways, the debate about Loughner's alleged motives mirrors the debate about violent video games that followed the school shootings in Paducah, Jonesboro and Columbine.

Dr. Michael Brennan is the president of the Arizona Psychiatric Society,and the medical director at a hospital in Phoenix.

Dr. MICHAEL BRENNAN (President, Arizona Psychiatric Society): Lots of people have the idea that government is less than benign. But when it takes on a very concerted effort to specifically try and undermine you and somehow control you as though you were slave-like, that takes on a delusional proportion. And a delusion is a false, fixed belief that is not amenable to reason.

GOODWYN: Brennan says there are more people than we might think who are prone to political delusions. Some of those delusions simply skirt the edges of logic while others are out there - way out there. But Brennan says delusional rarely equals violent - rarely, but not never.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Tucson.

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