Thanks to some insightful commentators at Leiter Reports, I was able to find a couple of interesting articles on Jared Loughner, the shooter in the recent massacre in Tuscon, AZ, and the philosophy that inspired him. As the American Left and Right point fingers and hurl insults and threats, veiled and not so veiled, back and forth, both equally miss the point. Loughner was probably no more inspired by Sarah Palin than he was by Barack Obama, by Ayn Rand than he was by Karl Marx (both Rand and Marx make appearances on his list of “favorite books,” which, by the way, appears to be a copy of the list of books every liberal arts major reads in his first two years of college). Equally, Loughner’s actions were probably not, as many have begun to chant loudly over the Left-Right finger pointing, entirely the result of any form of mental illness or insanity (I think I’ve heard and/or read about a dozen different guesses at what his mental ailment was thus far). Mental illness is the modern man’s version of the ancient man’s “demonic possession” or “lunacy.” It is a decent general explanation, generally unfalsifiable, for the actions of anyone who does something contrary to the norms of society; basically, it’s a cop out that allows us to avoid looking deeply at what were surely cultural and social factors motivating such aberrant behavior. The constant need to turn to “mental illness” to explain away evil actions and dismiss larger society from any culpability is a pseudo-scientific superstition.
So, if it wasn’t the American political climate or mental illness that prompted Loughner’s actions, what was it? I don’t mean to sound apocalyptic, but Loughner is a “sign of the times.” He was a nihilist. The New York Times reported the mention by one of Loughner’s friends of his interest in Nietzsche and dreams shortly before the shootings:
The new details from Mr. Gutierrez about Mr. Loughner — including his philosophy of anarchy and his expertise with a handgun, suggest that the earliest signs of behavior that may have ultimately led to the attacks started several years ago.
Mr. Gutierrez said his friend had become obsessed with the meaning of dreams and their importance. He talked about reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s book “The Will To Power” and embraced ideas about the corrosive, destructive effects of nihilism — a belief in nothing. And every day, his friend said, Mr. Loughner would get up and write in his dream journal, recording the world he experienced in sleep and its possible meanings.
This article, and this passage of the article in particular, has rightfully been mocked in several places online and elsewhere for the obvious ignorance of the reporter on the subjects he mentions here. He seems to indicate that reading Nietzsche and keeping dream journals are indicators of impending violent behavior. Clearly, they aren’t, unless every awkward teenage boy is a potential murderer.
But there is something to the observations, if not the analysis, in this report. Matt Feeney at Slate.com seems to get much closer to the target with his analysis of the Loughner-Nietzsche connection. Loughner was not a Nietzschean; he was a nihilist. And the two, in spite of the beliefs of the philosically illiterate, are not the same thing. He may have thought he was a Nietzschean, but he was living out what Nietzsche was fighting against. Loughner is an example of that form of nihilism that embraces chaos and destruction; Nietzsche attempted to rescue modern man from that nihilism by proposing, as one of his books is titled, “the reevaluation of all values.”
Friedrich Nietzsche is probably the most important, most popular, and yet most misunderstood modern philosopher. I certainly don’t claim to understand him completely. And Loughner doesn’t appear to have understood him much either. What can be said, however, is that Nietzche’s proclamation (more accurately, observation) that “God is dead” permeates the modern world. Sure, most Americans still say they believe in God, but when we get specific into what precisely that means, things get a little sticky. Modern man’s “God” is not the personal, historical God of the Judeo-Christian tradition; it (not “he,” but sometimes “she”) is Nature (with a capital “N”), Science (with a capital “S”), a good luck charm, and, more often than not in practice, material wealth and physical health. We cannot do away with the Judeo-Christian God and simultaneously cling to values and morals which originate with and depend upon a belief in that God. Nihilism is the embrace of the logical implications of what that means: it is the destruction of all meaning and all value. Mitchell Heisman, the young man who recently killed himself and left a 1905 page suicide note explaining nihilism and its implications, is a particularly vivid example.
Nietzsche looked nihilism in the face and sought to overcome it with his concept of the “superman” who would create new values for himself and, it seems, impose them on others. In some sense, Loughner was, as Feeney points out, running contrary to Nietzsche in his nihilism, and yet he did just what Nietzsche proposed, if not in the way that Nietzsche would have preferred: he created his own values and meaning — in the destruction of the lives of others.
It is not some undoubtedly short-lived political bickering that will be forgotten in a decade or two that prompted Loughner, nor is it some vaguely defined and over-eagerly diagnosed mental illness. It is the state of modern Western man, one who lives increasingly in a world hostile to and in denial of its own foundations in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Westerners continue to chip away at their own cultural heritage, nihilism will become, just as Nietzsche predicted that it would, increasingly the philosophy, even if by default if not by conscious adoption, of the modern man. Imagine a generation of children raised with no concept of a personal God and with the ingrained belief that life is ultimately futile and meaningless, that man is a puny, small speck of no significance who came into being entirely as the result of biomechanical processes and who will one day, not only individually but as a species, cease to exist. That generation is now. And Jared Loughner is an example of what that generation will inevitably produce.