By Yolande M. S. Tomlinson
The consensus in the mainstream media, both on the left and right, is that Jared Lee Loughner’s decision to shoot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head at point blank range, to kill six people, and to wound thirteen others happened because he is mentally unstable. The terms used repeatedly to describe Loughner are “crazed,” “mad,” “troubled,” “incoherent,” and the like. No doubt Loughner has psychological issues that contributed to his actions—as Alan Lipman, director of the Center of the Study of Violence at Georgetown University, claims, he exhibits “classic signs of psychosis”—but, as one of my friends succinctly posted as her Facebook status, Loughner’s psychological troubles provide a convenient cover for those who wish to obfuscate the operation of violence in the U.S. as it masquerades through race and gender privileges.
Making sense of how Loughner was able to carry out his violence requires that we not rely on insanity or his purported mental issues as the sole defense because doing so implicitly denies the reality that ALL acts of violence are displays of insanity. There are, of course, those who disagree with me and who would make allowance for so-called legitimate acts of violence such as self-defense, revolutionary violence, or justifiable wars. But, if we accept the notion that violence emanates from a sense of powerlessness on one hand and an excess of power on the other, then we can agree that its enactment sets up a vicious cycle that potentially has no end. And, in its uncontrollable nature lies its insanity, its non-productivity, its inability to create and maintain that creation without relying on forms of violence to do so. Making sense of Loughner’s actions requires that we make poignant connections between his sense of powerlessness, as expressed on his Facebook page and to his friends, specifically that Congresswoman Giffords did not get it (whatever it was), and his decision to shoot her in the head.
Shooting Giffords in the head, and not in the chest or some other limb, for example, poignantly marks Loughner’s attempt to make sure she gets it (his point that is) through her skull—if not through rhetorical exchanges, which were his first attempts, then through expressed actions, in this case a bullet in the head. His decision to settle his feud with Giffords (on at least two occasions Loughner tried to communicate with Rep. Giffords, once at a town hall meeting and again via a written letter) through violence makes sense to me, especially in a culture such as ours that promotes violence as a generative solution to disagreements.
If we are to make sense of Loughner’s actions, we must also acknowledge the reality of race in America. As much as the mainstream media wants us to believe that the election of President Obama signals a post-racial era in American race relations, this incident along with countless others exposes that myth for what it is. In thinking about the Tucson incident, I can’t help but be reminded of the Fort Hood incident in which Major Nidal Hasan went on a shooting rampage against his fellow comrades. He, too, exhibited signs of being “unhinged,” as President Obama recently classified those who can be easily swayed or affected by the venomous political rhetoric currently in circulation, yet the media, right-wing pundits, and bloggers did not seek to classify his actions as those of a psychologically disturbed individual. Why was that? Maybe it’s because Maj. Hasan is Muslim, which, in his act of violence, many used to link him with foreign terrorists, and, in the linkage, he loses his American identity.
The reality of race in America is that when a person of color commits an act of violence, s/he loses her individuality and becomes representative of her group. For example, Maj. Hasan’s actions were perhaps those of an individual who had difficulty reconciling his identity as Muslim with his responsibilities as part of the American military responsible for acts of violence against members of his transnational community. In fact, according to one Fort Hood captain, he went as far as to suggest that military officials prosecute some soldiers as war criminals because of their confessions in his counsel. And, if we are to believe some of the reports that came out of Afghanistan in the first set of WikiLeaks documents, he had good reasons for suggesting as much. Instead, in the eyes of the media and many Americans, he became an extension of a foreign terrorist cell, although no such link has been established, and he comes to represent the supposedly latent, easily-ignited potential of any or even all Muslim-Americans to act out against fellow Americans.
By insisting that we see Loughner solely as a crazed individual who acted without forethought or ideological underpinning, he’s allowed to maintain his singularity and his individual identity, and thus his whiteness. More than anything, he’s allowed to retain his humanity. The acts he has committed can be monstrous and horrific, but Loughner himself is not. Maj. Hasan on the other hand, in being labeled a terrorist without taking into account the exorbitant amount of stress and cultural and emotional duress he was under at work, is allowed no such humanity.
While many are loathed to see connections between Loughner’s actions and those of Maj. Hasan, it should be easier to see their actions as similar expressions of masculine aggression. Irrespective of how we characterize them, both men were responding to cultural cues about acceptable modes of protest and masculine expression. In Hasan’s case, this might be clearer because he’s already raced as Muslim ‘other’, i.e. as terrorist. But, in Loughner’s case, the designation of madness and insanity mask the gendered ways in which violence operates, particularly as it coheres with a certain type of American masculinity. Ironically enough, in mislabeling Hasan’s actions as those of a terrorist, we, again, miss the opportunity to reflect on how American masculinity and violence masquerade as one via the military. Unmasking the operation of violence in both cases requires our honesty about a continued misreading of the second amendment, which does not, in fact, grant individuals the right to private gun ownership. What we have yet to be forthright about in regards the second amendment is the ways in which legal protection of its misreading buttresses a particularly American fantasy of a gun-wielding masculine type, e.g., the American frontiersman, the American cowboy a la Clint Eastwood, the American soldier, the vigilante, and, more recently, the military-trained second-career badass, such as in The Transporter, Taken, and others. Making sense of Loughner’s violence means unmasking the tangled web between American masculinity as, in part, a fantasy of violence, which all too often collide in bilious duets, such as the ones we’ve been experiencing.
If we are to truly make sense of violence in the aftermath of Tucson, it means revealing the operations of white, male privilege. In Loughner’s case, the continued misreading of him as insane or unhinged leads to the potential profiling of the disabled population in much the same way that Muslim Americans are profiled and it leaves masculinity as unmarked and unremarked of much in the same way that white privilege functions. Until we are able to cogently unmask the connections among race, masculinity, and violence, then we all remain vulnerable to future acts of violence.
Yolande M. S. Tomlinson holds a Ph.D. in American Studies, with a concentration in Women’s Studies, from the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University. Her research interests are in visual and literary representations of the body, black women’s literature, intersections of sexuality, race, and violence, and global black feminisms. Dr. Tomlinson currently works for the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies. She is also the recent parent of a daughter, Zoë Rose.