Loughner: Where Does Sanity End and Madness Begin?

Loughner: Where Does Sanity End and Madness Begin?

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After Jared Lee Loughner’s horrid attack on a U.S. Congresswoman, a judge, and several bystanders, the media now casts about for blame. Some commentators suggest that an inflammatory political culture contributes to such violence. Others dismiss the shooting as the unavoidable actions of a mentally deranged young man.

My experience as a former journalist who used to field calls from readers expressing a wide array of viewpoints – some rational and some fringe – has taught me to be more open minded toward those on the margins.

I never worked at major daily, but plied long hours at several neighborhood newspapers and, later, at a newswire in San Francisco. Whether it was my frequent position as lowly copy editor or my generally patient and friendly demeanor, receptionists at these organizations invariably passed calls from the “mentally challenged” on to me.

Remember that scene in “A Beautiful Mind,” when mathematician John Nash’s wife stumbles into his backyard workshop and finds its walls plastered floor-to-ceiling with scribbled-upon newspapers? In my experience, that’s pretty accurate. The news of the day, whether about document leaks, environmental contamination or geo-political machinations, intrigues many a healthy mind. For the mentally ill, it can be a source of obsession.

At one newspaper, I would field calls from Larry. Larry needed to talk about radiation beaming from Sutro Tower, a giant radio antenna that loomed over the city, and, he claimed, affected his health and caused “ghosting and double imaging” on his television set. True or not, Larry couldn’t let it go. Bernice was another caller. The paper’s managing editor, who tended to adopt stray people along with animals, tried to reassure Bernice that the CIA was not in fact watching her as she dressed. The editor even visited Bernice’s home and, in an attempt to calm her, authoritatively examined her showerhead for hidden cameras.

Later, at the newswire, I often spoke with Andre, who was onto a “big story” involving the Merchant Marine, Donald Rumsfeld, pharmaceutical companies and Chinese Premier Wen Jaibao. Andre would growl as I tried to politely brush him off and get back to work. How could I not see the connections? What kind of news service were we, anyway?

After these calls, I usually felt both the humor and the tragedy of the situation. There but for the grace of God, genetics, or simple fate go I. My offbeat callers seemed intelligent and “normal,” except for a compulsion to trace connections that seemed illogical to my own mind. The longer you chatted, the more actors were brought into the story -- a whole ecology of deceit and treachery that no one but they seemed to understand. Their anger and frustration were palpable.

So, as for the question of who is to blame, my own experience with obsessive callers suggests the more holistic viewpoint. True, no one need take full responsibility for the actions of individuals who have lost touch with reality. Yet sometimes my callers seemed to resemble sensitive, perhaps oversensitive, barometers of the day’s climate. To call them “lost in their own head” disguises the fact that they are very much a part of our own world.

And what a strange world it has become. Surely, I’m not the only one who’s noticed a marked increase in conspiratorial musings within the culture at large? Forget the punditocracy for a moment -- in the past few months, supposedly well-adjusted friends have suggested to me that: 9/11 was an inside job; aliens may have directed human evolution; and radiation from cell phone towers is causing redwood trees to “bleed.”

What’s going on? For one thing, a few large news organizations used to act as gatekeepers of newsworthy events and acceptable opinion – a phenomenon that no doubt excluded many important perspectives, yet also quelled reckless, conspiratorial tales. With the advent of cable and especially the Internet, the gates are thrown wide open.

Fact and opinion now swirl in a sea of “content” unmoored from context and any authoritative voice that might evaluate truth claims. The large media conglomerates stay in the game by employing entertainers like Glenn Beck, who thrive in such waters, profiting from, and contributing to, the paranoia of the times. Many politicians aren’t far behind.

If we Americans don’t know who or what to believe anymore, if we feel powerless and manipulated, we’re surely suffering in ways more than just metaphorically schizophrenic. Are we being manipulated? How, and by whom? They’re important questions that need careful answers.

I never spoke with shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner, of course. But, increasingly, I feel I know milder versions of the type. Let’s not obliterate the distinction between healthy minds and sick ones. But mental health is often a continuum, and even the highly disturbed -- most of whom, it should be said, are not violent -- are not cut off from us. They might better be described as canaries in a coal mine that have grown ever more inhospitable to reasoned debate.

Brian Shott is a freelance writer based in San Jose.