Walking the talk of Gabby Giffords

By Jenny Westberg – The Oregonian, February 6, 2011

On January 8 at 10:10 a.m., a then-unidentified gunman opened fire outside a Tuscon, Arizona supermarket, killing six people and injuring 13 others. The suspect was detained at 10:15 a.m. By 3:11 p.m., the Associated Press had his name: Jared Lee Loughner. At 6:59 p.m., police served a search warrant at Loughner’s parents’ home.

By that time, we knew everything we needed to know. Mental illness.

Jared Lee Loughner

Jared Lee Loughner

We called it different names, but we were talking about the same thing. And because we’re experts, we didn’t speculate; we knew.

Most of us took one of three basic positions:

  1. Loughner’s a psycho menace on a rampage.
  2. Loughner’s a tragic victim of untreated mental illness, and of our general lack of caring.
  3. Loughner’s a dangerously sick individual who must be warehoused for his own good — and ours as well.

No matter the words, we had a name and “mental illness”; that was enough. Instantly we were well-qualified to offer all sorts of opinions. And we did.

The Arizona Daily Star, on January 8, found former classmates of Loughner with such expertise, they could perform a mental status exam on the basis of having shared a classroom. Lynda Sorenson concluded Loughner was “obviously very disturbed.”

On January 9, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik considered possible motives for the shooting, but quickly found his way back, reminding us the suspect “may have a mental issue.”

In The Oregonian, experts were out in force, and it didn’t take much to qualify. In a Jan. 10 opinion piece, one expert slammed all the lesser experts. “I said to myself: “Are these writers blind? Don’t they know anything? He is 100% showing all of the signs of paranoid schizophrenia.”’ Her diagnostic credentials? A daughter with bipolar disorder.

We’re experts. We know all of this.

Still, on January 23, when The Oregonian published actual data on the link between violence and mental illness, we were glad for the information — half of it.

Some of us skipped the parts about the “weak” link between mental illness and violence.

The rest of us skipped the parts that said, “Yet, there is a link.”

Perhaps it would be better if we were a little less smart, a little less sure, a little less perfect.

If we were, we might take a look around. What we’d see is appalling. Incivility, hate and vitriol — but not where we’ve been looking. It’s in the constant, cruel, over-the-top bigotry used to characterize Jared Lee Loughner. We call him names, say he’s “evil,” a “monster,” set him outside humanity. Do any of us dare to call Loughner a person? Would anyone add, “…like me”?

Of course not. He’s no longer a human accused of a crime, he’s a monster. He’s entirely unlike us in every way.

It’s even in his face — and because he’s so terrible and strange, it’s okay to talk about appearance or ridicule his expression.

Loughner “would sit [in class] with a grin on his face and mumble something to himself.” (Oregonian, Jan. 11)

Loughner “appeared in federal court…. with a smirk on his lips and a red strawberry bruise on the right side of his forehead.” (Arizona Republic, Jan. 11)

“The smiling mugshot of Jared Loughner, meanwhile, has I’m sure sent chills down people’s spine.”

That’s from Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, an associate professor of psychology at Berkeley, in an article venturing Loughner might not, in fact, be a monster. (Berkeley Blog, Jan. 12) He continues: “The picture, and the reports of his increasingly erratic behavior over the past year, convince me that mental illness played a critical factor.”

To a college psychology professor, a smile is substantial proof of mental illness.

It’s widespread. It’s not pretty. But — bigotry?

It’s there, but it’s hard to see. So let’s change the context, and suppose for a moment that Gabrielle Giffords was shot by a black man.

Would you talk about his appearance? His smile? Would you trade statistics on the link between race and violent crime? Would you draw conclusions about all black persons? Would you use slang terms with no thought at all you might offend someone?

Consider: “Psycho killer Jared Lee Loughner’s eyes look ‘dead — he’s pure evil,’ one prison worker told a visitor. Another person… said the madman with the ghoulish grin is living up to his image as a coldblooded murderer. “ (New York Post, Jan. 17)

That’s offensive. Not to “crazies.” To human beings.

Consider this as well.

We talk about honoring Gabrielle Giffords, while forgetting what she honored: rights and dignity of all persons — including people with mental illness.

In 2004, Mental Health America of Arizona named Giffords Legislator of the Year. In 2008, her office issued a press release celebrating passage of mental health parity; it included a quote from Giffords: “Discrimination has no place in our society.” In the next years, she sponsored bills to aid veterans with mental health problems.

If we really want to honor Giffords, let’s stop repudiating her work.

If we really want to reduce incivility, let’s look in our own backyards.

Let’s dial down the expertise, and ask ourselves the question that’s now a “mantra” for Giffords’ staff.

“What would Gabby do?”