Ghosts in Arizona tragedy

Yesterday afternoon brought the horrible news about a mass shooting in Arizona.

One of the more interesting media topics to debate in coming days will likely be the misinformation that came out immediately after the shooting. Namely, most media outlets (but not the Associated Press, to their credit) reported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been killed in the shooting.

She has, in fact, survived the shooting and doctors are hopeful about her condition. Some media critics seemed to be quite upset about that misinformation. I am reminded — for the thousandth time — how important it is to wait for accurate information and how important it is to avoid rushes to judgment.

Some 18 people were shot, six were killed. Police arrested Jared Lee Loughner and say there’s another person of interest they’re seeking. I think that relates to questions about how the shooter made it to the site of the shooting.

Rep. Giffords, who the Sheriff of Pima County says was the target, is a blue dog Democrat. She’s known for having friends across the political spectrum. She was in the news this week for her efforts to cut Congressional pay. She is married to an active duty Navy Captain (who is an astronaut) and has two step-children.

While some people have attempted and will continue to attempt to make sense of this attempted assassination, my review of the alleged shooter’s YouTube videos indicate that he is clearly dealing with serious mental illness. You can check out his politically incoherent — and generally less-than-coherent — ramblings here. I’d classify his politics as “potentially paranoid schizophrenic.” He does list Mein Kampf among his favorite books. Which brings us to our first potential religion angle.

Rep. Giffords is Jewish. Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman, in fact. You can read about her religious life in this touching vows column in the New York Times about her recent marriage. There is no suggestion that the alleged shooter’s alleged love of Mein Kampf is related to the shooting, but there’s not a lot of evidence about motive period at this point. One of the victims, a staffer of Giffords, was Jewish.

Another early religion angle comes from one of the victims of the shooting. News reports indicate U.S. District Judge John M. Roll had just left mass when he stopped by the Congressional meet-and-greet Rep. Giffords was hosting at a Safeway. His death means that federal charges could be brought against the shooter, and the penalty for killing a federal judge can include the death penalty.

Christina Taylor Greene, the little 9-year-old girl who was killed in the shooting, was born on September 11, 2001, and had just been elected to the student council at her school.

GetReligion’s Bobby Ross reports on two other victims. Dorwan Stoddard, a member of the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ in Tucson, was killed in the shooting. His wife Mavy was shot but survived. A different media outlet reported that Stoddard was the pastor of the church, although the church website does not list him as such. I checked with Bobby and confirmed he is not a pastor. The Stoddards were in charge of the benevolence committee. Yet another reminder about how quickly misinformation spreads.

I watched the alleged shooter’s YouTube videos, from which I mostly took that he was mentally ill. He seemed to also have some hatred of America (he posted a video of someone, possibly himself, burning an American flag) and made comments critical of religion.

This New York Times profile of Jared Loughner by Eric Lipton, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane is headlined “Arizona Suspect’s Online Trail Offers Hints of Alienation.” The article is really well done and does a great job of explaining why people think mental instability was a major contributing factor to the day’s carnage. Rather than force the story into a particular narrative, it allows different people to give different views of his state:

Mr. Loughner grew up in Tucson, attended public schools and was an unremarkable student at Mountain View High School, said Ali Freedman, a classmate.

“He was just a normal, nice person,” Ms. Freedman said, adding that she had not been in contact with him since about 2007.

Sara Due, however, took advanced poetry writing with Mr. Loughner at Pima Community College in spring 2010 and said that “he creeped my classmates and I out.”

“He always had a smirk/weird smile on his face,” she said in a Facebook message. “I just remember the comments he used to make about poems other kids would write. Just seemed a little off.”

Another former high school classmate said that Mr. Loughner’s politics were left of center, and that he may have met Representative Giffords, who was shot in the head outside the Safeway supermarket, sometime before the attack.

“As I knew him he was left wing, quite liberal. & oddly obsessed with the 2012 prophecy,” the former classmate, Caitie Parker, wrote in a series of Twitter feeds Saturday. “I haven’t seen him since ’07 though. He became very reclusive.”

“He was a political radical & met Giffords once before in ’07, asked her a question & he told me she was ‘stupid & unintelligent,’” she wrote.

There have been almost no facts revealed about the shooter or his potential motivations. This story did a good job of providing information and giving a feel for the suspect with those limitations.

While the story did mention much of his internet-based ramblings, it didn’t mention much about his views on religion. One of the three videos he posted dealt with his views that he was able to control all religion “by being the mind controller.” Here a different video’s reference to religion is mentioned:

One of his videos also suggests that he may have applied to join the Army at a recruiting station in Phoenix. It says he received a miniature Bible before taking tests there, and that he did not write a belief on his application form, so a recruiter wrote “none.”

Army officials said Saturday night that he had tried to enlist but had been rejected for military service. Privacy rules prevented them from disclosing the reason.

His YouTube page also listed a series of favorite books. Some were novels about political dystopias — “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, “Fahrenheit 451″ by Ray Bradbury, and “We the Living” by Ayn Rand.

Others were about falling into fantasy worlds — “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll; “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum; “Peter Pan” by J. M. Barrie; and “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift.

Still others were a range of political tracts: “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx, “Mein Kampf” by Adolph Hitler, “The Republic” and “Meno” by Plato.

This KTLA profile is not bad. And while the top of this Associated Press story seems downright irresponsible in its attempts to force a particular political narrative — one that doesn’t seem to match the few facts on the ground — it did make some mention of the suspect’s religious views:

High school classmate Grant Wiens, 22, said Loughner seemed to be “floating through life” and “doing his own thing.”

“Sometimes religion was brought up or drugs. He smoked pot, I don’t know how regularly. And he wasn’t too keen on religion, from what I could tell,” Wiens said.

You can see a full collection of his videos at BoingBoing. On that note, BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin is upset that so many broadcast journalists were saying that they were praying for everyone involved.

I have to note how weird it was to keep hearing the broadcasters say “There is no indication this is a terrorist attack.” Really? When you attempt to kill a politician and take out dozens of innocent bystanders, that’s not a terrorist attack? It seems to me that what the journalists meant was “There is no indication that this man is motivated by Muslim extremism.” It’s a good reminder of why it’s important to not use “terrorist” as a euphemism or otherwise confuse the issues or downplay when religion plays a role in a given terror attack.

Please keep any comments focused on journalism.

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  • Jerry

    “There is no indication this is a terrorist attack.” Really? When you attempt to kill a politician and take out dozens of innocent bystanders, that’s not a terrorist attack? It seems to me that what the journalists meant was “There is no indication that this man is motivated by Muslim extremism.”

    Clunk. Not all terrorists are Muslims. I took the comment as meaning that the shootings were not apparently politically motivated to cause fear and terror in people. I hope we’ve not reached the point, but perhaps we have, that people’s first reactions to a shooting has become “is the killer a Muslim?”.

  • Grace Manning

    Good job! Thank you for the clarity and the information.

    And I’m thankful for the journalists and others who are not afraid to mention prayer.

  • Duane

    Nice piece, Mollie.

    Another ghost I came across in a story about the little girl who was killed:

    Christina-Taylor also enjoyed singing in a church choir at St. Odilia’s Catholic Church, where she had received her first Holy Communion in the spring.

  • Steve Ahlquist

    I’d like to point out that also listed among Loughner’s favorite books are both The Communist Manifesto and Plato’s Republic. This seems to indicate a preference for political books in general and primary sources for extreme political views. Also among his favorites were Orwell’s Animal Farm and Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, as well as many other fantasy novels, but curiously all with some sort of perceived political relevance.

    So reading too much into the listing of Mein Kampf among his favorite books seems to be a wrong turn up a blind alley.

  • JM Ormond

    Not to be snarky, but is it possible that there isn’t any substantive religious angle to this story, other than that some of the participants do have a religious affiliation? The (presumably mentally ill) shooter doesn’t seem to be religiously motivated, nor are there clearly any religious issues in play in Rep. Gifford’s politics. The “ghosts” here seem especially diaphanous.

  • piotr

    Maybe it is time to change gun laws in the US.

  • James Joseph

    Please change:

    “News reports indicate U.S. District Judge John M. Roll had just left mass when he stopped by…”


    News reports indicate U.S. District Judge John M. Roll, who according to his wife went to church everyday, had just participated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass when he stopped by…

    Thank you.

  • Will

    Note: “Potentially” does not mean “possibly (or possibly not).” One of my current peeves.

    “Potentially” would mean “he is no schizophrenic now, but may become so at an unspecified time in the future” (like the characters in Larry Niven’s stories who have a brain chemistry defect which makes them “potential paranoids”.)

  • sui sen

    I am disgusted by this kind of senseless violence. But I have one observation: the killer here is not a Muslim and it seems everyone is trying hard to dissociate him from any religious intent to kill by pointing to his “mental illness” or “irreligiousity”. But when a Muslim is the suspect, everyone is trying hard to connect his evil action to his religion. It seems when a Muslim does evil act, his religion is always blamed, but when a non-Muslim is the suspect religion is intentionally left out.

    When a Muslim kills, they say Islam is the reason but when a non-Muslim kills, it is always insanity…

    I hope the enthusiasm to dissociate the evil act of any person from any religion should take the same form.

    All religions preach peace and it is only the followers that kills…

    My sympathy to the victims of this tragedy…My heart is bleeding out of sadness and sorrow for all of them…

  • http://none Henri Schmitt

    Obviously someone with a very disturbed personnality. The idea of terrorism in all this seems to me rather dubious.
    On the other hand, the rather strange patchwork of reading interests leaves me puzzled with disbelief. Orwell, Hitler, Plato, and Lewis Carrol? And then, death…?

  • Will

    Saying that this is not “terrorism” could mean that an isolated deranged attacker was not in the service on ANY particular ideological group. I doubt that anyone would call Colin Ferguson a “terrorist”.

    On the other hand, the treatment of his mass shooting on the LIRR showed sui sen’s point applies in other contexts. We were told that Ferguson was simply a “nut” and his acts had nothing to do with race, while we can be sure that if a white gunman started shooting black commuters, we would be told that race had everything to do with it.

  • Tapestry

    We also read he was dropped off by a man in his 40s, he lived with his parents and I wouldn’t be surprised that his Dad dropped him off at the shopping center like he had a million times before this time.
    The poor parents of this killer, who was once their baby boy and now they will be putting up their house for sale and changing their names before the year is out. How he has destroyed their lives!
    Parents never know what that bundle of joy will turn out to be you can only love them and hope for the best. You can ask him to get help but when adult children have issues they have to decide to get help, somehow that seems wrong. My sympathies to the victims.. and to the shooter’s folks God be with them all.

  • Bobby

    The Telegraph in UK has a New York correspondent “reporting” on the religion angle. Rather, I should say that this correspondent is taking direct quotes from The Christian Chronicle and The Arizona Daily Star and using them without attribution. Is that called plagiarism or is this how The Telegraph always operates?:

    By Jon Swaine 6:11PM GMT 09 Jan 2011

    Witnesses said he and his wife Mavy were waiting in a queue to see Congresswoman Giffords when the gunman began shooting.

    The Stoddards were described by friends as “the lifeblood” of their 120-member congregation. Mr Stoddard was said to have been shot in the head as he tried to protect his wife, who was wounded. QUOTE FROM THE CHRISTIAN CHRONICLE. NO ATTRIBUTION.

    “He got on top of her and tried to shield her,” said Jessica Knapp, who worked with them at the church. “This is going to be a huge hole in our congregation”.QUOTE FROM THE CHRISTIAN CHRONICLE. NO ATTRIBUTION.

    Mike Nowak, the minister at Mountain Avenue, described the couple as generous and said Mr Stoddard was often called upon to carry out maintenance work and odd jobs around the church.

    “He always gave of himself and never asked for anything in return,” Mr Nowak said. QUOTE FROM THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR. NO ATTRIBUTION.

    Frankie Williams, an 85-year-old friend, said: “This is such a tragedy for us to think about: our personal friends at the wrong place at the wrong time.”QUOTE FROM THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR. NO ATTRIBUTION.

    Mrs Williams said she was confident that Mavy would recover. “She’s a very strong person,” she said. “With the help of those of us who love her, she’ll get through it.”QUOTE FROM THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR. NO ATTRIBUTION.

  • Ben

    Wow, Bobby, don’t let him get away with it.

  • Bobby


    I put this on my Twitter page:

    CofCnews Bobby Ross Jr.
    Hey @jonswaine from The Telegraph, please don’t plagiarize Christian Chronicle content without attribution:

    Also shared my above comment with Romenesko/Poynter in case it’s of any interest. I’m fine if you want to use my quotes and give me credit (see BBC and AOL News), but I don’t like people stealing my work.

  • Ann

    I find it strange when people questions whether a shooter is mentally unbalanced. Does anyone without mental problems commit violent crimes?

    Fox News:

    The suspect being held over Saturday’s shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) may have links to anti-Semitic race hate group American Renaissance, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo quoted by FOX News Channel on Sunday.

    The Fox report is being covered by other websites.

  • Dave G.

    When a Muslim kills, they say Islam is the reason but when a non-Muslim kills, it is always insanity…

    I’m not sure that’s 100% correct. In fact, it seems like it takes wild horses to get us to say ‘yeah, it was Islam that did it.’ Even more, I’m not sure anyone since 9/11 has said Islam did any of it, rather just extremists who are common to any group, while making sure nobody actually blames Islam as a religion. At least that’s what I’ve noticed. Certainly in cases like the Fort Hood shooter where I’m not sure if anyone in the media has said, “There, you go, that’s Islam for you.”

  • Ryan

    I think the article is right in not YET attributing terrorism to the shooter’s actions. If this is a person who is out of their mind, schizophrenic, and out of their mind then I doubt we can account much more from them than a deranged mental state.

    The article seems to be highlighting that terrorizing people includes a reason of political, ideology, or religion as the root reason for doing so. I would say this is correct. If you seek to disrupt terrorize people and cause fear and panic, it is motivated by a belief or value system, even if you are just an anarchist who wants chaos.

    If you truly are crazy, you might do something like this for no real reason at all. This is hard for us to understand, but being mentality deranged is not something most of us can really identify with.

  • Anne H.

    If a person has no religious affiliation and has made anti religious comments will we ever hear the label “atheist extremist”?

  • Ryan

    I doubt it Anne, in such cases I think the media would feel more comfortable just looking for a political motive than open that can of worms.

  • Patrick

    A terrorist is not necessarily someone who acts in a way that terrorizes the civilian populace. Rather, the action must have political reasoning, perhaps not good reasoning, but something is there.

    In this case, the motivation was indeed political, but the politics proclaimed was…well…schizophrenic. He was a committed left-wing Democrat that obsessed over worthless fiat currency that is normally associated with the hard-Right. He “got” Marx, Hitler AND Rand simultaneously, and yet any of those is enough for many people to back away slowly and signal to others that he’s a headcase. He seriously thought that English grammar was an instrument of mind control. Seriously, this guy was more shattered than merely cracked.

  • Ray Ingles

    Anne H. – Why wouldn’t the label “agnostic extremist” work just as well?

    Seeing as the guy’s politics were, ahem, a little mixed, why should we expect his religious thoughts to be more coherent and recognizable?

  • Jettboy

    “He was a committed left-wing Democrat”

    NO, that can’t be! Haven’t you heard that he was a right wing Tea Party supporter acting under the express orders of Sarah Palin? Everyone knows that! How dare you suppress the truth.

  • Joel

    He was a committed left-wing Democrat…

    Patrick, have you got a solid source for that? I’ve been getting grief about this from liberal family and I could use a rebuttal. (Sorry for the digression.)

  • Chris

    Ann (#16):
    Violent crimes are often committed by sane people for personal gain. Organized crime is an example. This man’s statements suggest that he had delusions (fixed, false, idiosyncratic beliefs). That is what suggests he has a psychosis, in the medical meaning of the word. Searching for a rationale in someone who has a psychosis is a fruitless exercise.

  • TeaPot562

    Arthur Bremer (who in 1968 disabled George Wallace with a gunshot in the spine) had earlier tried to get close to both Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. He was apparently not motivated by ideology as such; he just wanted to assassinate “somebody big”.
    The accused who tried to kill Rep. Giffords had some excuse, however twisted, having apparently met her briefly at some time in the past. In the USA, assassinations often help the cause opposed by the assassin. Lincoln’s assassination probably made situation in the Confederacy worse than it would have been, for example.

  • Joel

    At the risk of being pedantic, the war was over when Lincoln was assassinated, so it was the former Confederacy. But yes, the Reconstruction was much harsher than it might have been had he lived, as revenge became a factor.

  • John Pack Lambert

    He also listed “The Communist Manifesto” which was written by a Jew.

    The bigger question is, how likely was the killer to know that Ms. Giffords was a Jew? More precisely, is there any evidence that he knew she was a Jew?

  • John Pack Lambert

    I have never seen Animal Farm considered a fantasy novel before. It is basically universally understood to be political, which agrees with the classification of it as “distopian”, although even that could be argued against.

    What that list did make me wonder though was, are there more books listed than these? Also, is there any evidence he ever read “Mein Kampf” or did he put it there to show his radicalism?

    One of the things that I find interesting is that the media has not turned up any people who have actually spoken of seeing this guy read anything.

    I would also like to see some real journalism and less reporting on twitter posts. Send in a reporter to get contacts and do person to person interviews in Tucson. Just go around the Pima Community College campus, with the number of disruptions he made there I am sure some sort of feedback will be obtained.