People at the Safeway on January 8 were grocery shopping, hanging out with their friends and families, and doing their normal Saturday morning chores; Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords was holding a “meet and greet” with her constituents. Then Jared Lee Loughner opened fire and all hell broke loose.
Six people were killed, including a nine year old girl; many were wounded, and as of January 9, Representative Giffords, the main target of the attack, lies in a medically induced coma in a hospital in Tucson, recovering from a point blank gunshot wound. Armed with a semi-automatic bought in a local store in Tucson, Loughner didn’t have the courage to look in Giffords’ eyes and pull the trigger; instead he snuck up on her from behind, shot her in the head, and then released the rest of his bullets indiscriminately into the crowd, killing six people and wounding 14, counting Giffords.
There was no room for anyone to run away; Giffords had no chance to escape from a danger she didn’t even know was there. The bullet penetrated the left side of her brain, above and behind her ear, and exited through her forehead. For most people the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and is also used for language functions such as speaking, listening, reading, and writing, verbal memory, and the ability to analyze information. She has suffered devastating brain damage; it is not possible to predict the arc of her recovery.
People who knew him were aware that Jared Loughner, the Arizona shooter, was disturbed. Jared is twenty-two years old; legally of age but still pretty young– he lives with his parents. He was asked to leave college because he was unable to participate in his classes without yelling out inappropriately; his classmates avoided sitting next to him because they were afraid of him, and school authorities told him to get psychiatric clearance before returning to his studies. He tried to join the army, but was rejected because of drug use.
Loughner published several videos- painful, hostile, frightening and confused statements that seem deranged. His recent actions and the content of his videos point to a possible diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. We don’t know yet if Loughner experienced hallucinations or delusions, but his behavior does include many indicators of schizophrenia, such as extreme anger, violence, emotional distance, argumentativeness, an over-estimation of self importance, and possible plans to commit suicide after committing multiple murders. Another common diagnostic indicator of psychosis is the inability to process and understand proverbs and metaphors, which are taken as concrete, literal, and direct statements of truth. This failure in brain processing may have been one of the many pathways leading to Loughner’s violent acts.
Many commentators have discussed the vitriolic, contemptuous and abusive statements that have unfortunately become part of the American political scene. Although perhaps not a direct cause of violent behavior, they have heated up the dialogue and begun a cycle of increasingly violent “us against them” statements. Most people can simply tune this ugly cacophony out, but many others find themselves amped up and made more and more angry. Opponents are demonized, seen as enemies who must be conquered, rather than people with different points of view that bear consideration. Someone who is emotionally disturbed may take campaign rhetoric which employs vicious language and imagery as direct orders for action and respond accordingly. For example, Giffords’ office was “targeted” in a map of the United States, which appeared on Sarah Palin’s website; a disturbed individual could understand the target as a place to aim a gun, rather than symbolically as a place to initiate a discussion, ask a question, or direct an argument.
I treasure the right of free speech and the benefits of open disagreements between individuals, but differences must be presented respectfully with full awareness of the other’s rights to hold different opinions, so that disagreements don’t become battles turning all sides rigid in their rejection of other beliefs.
We all need to remember to speak in ways that enable people to hear and take in opposing points of view. “Taking in” doesn’t mean agreeing, but rather it means entertaining the possibility of multiple truths. Yelling, insulting, making wisecracks, or trying to force someone to submit to your point of view doesn’t work between people seeking mutual understanding either on an individual or a collective basis, and is anathema to a democratic society.
Both privately as a family member and member of society, and professionally as a psychotherapist, I represent Contemplative Psychology, Yoga, and Object Relations Theory. The word “relations” is the key. We must relate to one another at all levels, from the personal individual to the social political, holding our own and one another’s individuality with integrity and compassion.
Want to see a peaceful world? Look in the mirror, and be peace.
I’ll be presenting a free workshop, “The Sacred Bridge,” about how psychotherapy and yoga breathing can work together to help people with their anxiety, on Sunday, January 16 from 4:00 to 6:30 at Pure Vision Art, 114 West 17th Street, 3rd Floor, NY NY. If you plan to attend please RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org.
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