The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy

On Jan. 8, a man at war with "normal" unleashed other forces also at war with normal, people who are turning our politics into a freak show for their own cynical or sanctimonious reasons

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Illustration by Sean McCabe for TIME

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The Boy for Whom Things Went Awry
Up to this moment on the sidewalk outside the grocery store, Loughner's war against normal has been waged mostly inside his head. The symptoms and trajectory of his disease followed the classic pattern so completely that research psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey could say, without ever meeting Loughner, that "chances are 99% that he has schizophrenia." Loughner was a nice, friendly boy, tooting his saxophone in the school band, until his mid-teens, when things began to go awry. He quit the band and began drinking heavily and doing drugs. He lost touch with his friends. "There were times when he would just hang out by himself, and you could tell he didn't want to be bothered by people," says Ashley Beager, a classmate at Mountain View High School. Eventually, Loughner dropped out of school.

Schizophrenia, if Loughner does indeed suffer from that mental illness, often strikes in the mid- to late teens and is a harrowing disease. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, "people with the disorder may hear voices other people don't hear. They may believe other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts or plotting to harm them. This can terrify people with the illness and make them withdrawn or extremely agitated. People with schizophrenia may not make sense when they talk. They may sit for hours without moving or talking. Sometimes people with schizophrenia seem perfectly fine until they talk about what they are really thinking."

By the time he turned 20, Loughner had begun to elaborate bizarre belief systems. He was a victim of government mind control, he believed. He could fight back by inventing a new currency. He could learn to dream while conscious, which would give him the power to fly. He could invent a new grammar that would reduce government to a mere word. It was this concept that led him to ask Representative Giffords, at an open meeting in 2007, "What is government if words have no meaning?" Giffords skipped lightly to the next question. Loughner was outraged that she didn't indulge his delusion. "He said, 'Can you believe it? They wouldn't answer my question,' and I told him, 'Dude, no one's going to answer that,' " Loughner's friend Bryce Tierney told reporter Nick Baumann of Mother Jones magazine. "Ever since that, he thought she was fake, he had something against her."

Note the date: 2007. George W. Bush was in the White House. Hillary Clinton was the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, some 30 points ahead of a freshman U.S. Senator named Barack Obama. And Sarah Palin, for what it is worth, was the little-known first-year governor of Alaska.

When Kylie Smith, a friend of Loughner's, met him at a party the following year, he told her that he was trying to get his life back in order. Tierney says his friend stopped drinking, cut back on the weed, began working out. Loughner tried to enlist in the Army but was bounced after admitting to a history of dope smoking. His effort to pull himself together was a failure at Pima Community College as well, where Loughner's strange outbursts grew more frequent and his demeanor more unsettling.

"On the surface, at first, he seemed like a normal guy, until he started making some disruptive comments that were pretty random and senseless," says math professor Benjamin McGahee, who had Loughner in his algebra class last fall. "He started making students feel uncomfortable from the first day. He had this bright red complexion and kind of shaking and trembling as if he was under the influence of drugs."

Unnerved, a number of McGahee's students stayed after class to complain. McGahee tried to reason with Loughner, but it did no good. He just accused the teacher of violating his First Amendment rights. Other students continued to complain. Four weeks into the term, the college suspended Loughner, telling him that he could not return to class until he had a letter from a mental-health professional certifying that he was not dangerous.

He didn't return. But he did buy a gun.

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