Truly senseless acts make for poor sloganeering. Jared Lee Loughner, the gunman who killed six people at a Tucson congressional town meeting, while gravely wounding his apparent target, Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, seems to have been not at all working from any traditional set of motivations. His now-infamous cache of YouTube videos throws around theories of a new currency and the illegitimate seizure of private property, together with a barely intelligible discussion of himself as a terrorist. He also announced plans to introduce a new number and letter to the alphabet, both represented as bursts of incoherent scribbling—a fair depiction, it seems, of the thought process involved in producing these conceptual breakthroughs. Loughner also described himself as a “conscience dreamer,” though it’s unclear whether he meant that as a sideways indictment of the absence of ethical probity in American life, or simply couldn’t spell “conscious.”
Nevertheless, even a very "different" worldview can be made to serve as a stand-in for one’s pet nemesis in the toy-soldier confrontation. Since Giffords was among the lawmakers featured in the crosshairs-graphics on SarahPAC’s thuggish pitch to unseat pro-health-reform Democrats from districts that went Republican in the 2008 presidential vote, many left-leaning commentators rushed to equate Loughner’s act with tea-party rhetoric run amok. (Palin’s operation has since scrubbed the graphic from the SarahPAC site, with typically dishonest and self-dramatizing flourishes.) Commentators on the right rallied just as briskly to deride “the media"—the right’s own scapegoat of first resort in culture-war agons—for dragging Palin and the Tea Party into the picture. Conservatives gleefully noted that Loughner counted The Communist Manifesto among his favorite books; the left sniped back that he also included Ayn Rand’s gruesome objectivist fantasy We the Living on the same list. Both sides pinned Mein Kampf on the opposition, in strict adherence to Godwin’s law. (Inexplicably, neither political tendency has come forward to denounce the other incendiary literary entries on Loughner’s YouTube profile; The Old Man and the Sea, after all, is a blueprint for violent mayhem right up there with The Anarchist’s Cookbook—and The Phantom Tollbooth may as well be subtitled “The Turner Diaries.”)
Most of this rampant political branding of the Despised Other can, and should, be written off to the desperate point-scoring outlook of the pundit world. But it also bespeaks a little-noted and more serious impulse: to make a delusional event somehow intelligible, arising from a discernible set of motives and designed to achieve a clear (if senseless) public end. It seems likely that Loughner was expecting to declare himself a sovereign ruler—so as to reward himself a fiat currency of his own devising?—in the wake of his crime. But we need him not to be simply a sad, burnt-out weirdo, any more than we can accept that the cast members of “Jersey Shore” are simply alcoholic dullards. This same quest for utter public certainty is a defining feature of the retrograde ideologies of communism and militia-ism that interested parties on all sides set out to denounce. You might even surmise that something like this comforting retreat into absolute postulates drove Loughner mad; or you might not, but it is, at any rate, at least as likely a culprit as The Phantom Tollbooth was.
Religion is another name for the effort to impose a fanciful narrative order on an uncooperative universe, and it’s often baffled me why we don’t own up to it more broadly in our public discourse. Oh, sure, there’s a longstanding theory of political belief as a surrogate—or “functionalist,” as the sociological jargon has it—form of religion. But it’s not so much that we cleave to ideology as a substitute for religion; rather, we typically find political affiliations shoring up the more basic foundation of our identities, even if just by the simple power of exclusion. Take the so-called sovereign citizens movement—the political formation that Loughner’s rantings seem to be in closest accord with. The Anti-Defamation League writes that sovereign adherents subscribe to:
an unusual form of right-wing anarchism that focuses, on the one hand on the importance of local control and, on the other hand, on the avoidance of virtually all forms of authority and obligation. Sovereign citizen ideology justifies these goals by claiming that at one time there was an American utopia governed by English "common law," a utopia in which every citizen was a "sovereign," and there were no oppressive laws, taxes, regulations or court orders. However, a conspiracy gradually subverted this system, replacing it with an illegitimate successor.
By the time America took its currency off the gold standard, sovereignty theorists hold, “the United States government was completely illegitimate, using emergency war powers and other unlawful measures to rule unconstitutionally.” From here it’s but a short step to the various self-dramatizing, and all-too often, self-destructive, flourishes of the sovereign citizen, living within U.S. borders, but proudly outside the country’s governing power (at least in his—and oh boy, are these autodidactic souls ever usually men—own private scheme of governance). Hence the rather bloody litany of the sovereign movement’s public exploits: your Montana Freemen uprising of the 1990s; the smug, ostentatious antics of Timothy McVeigh’s sovereign-minded confrere Terry Nichols at McVeigh’s court proceedings; and just last year, sovereign tax protestor Jerry Kane and his son’s slaughter of two Arkansas police officers. Kane, who had been killed with his son in an ensuing shootout at a Wal-Mart parking lot that wounded two other officers, was a sovereign prophet for the post-meltdown age, holding seminars purporting to show how lienholders could dodge mortgage obligations and foreclosure proceedings, even though his counsel had no actual foundation in law.
But as it happens, the efficacy of these remedies ultimately matters less than the mystical power believers ascribe to them. Groups such as the Freemen dub themselves “Christian patriots,” while last spring, a clutch of Christian militia members in Michigan called the Hutaree planned to stage an attack on local law enforcement as part of the run-up to the endtimes. It’s true that Loughner disavowed organized religion—writing a propos of the government’s illegitimate currency that he refused to “trust in God.” But it’s hard to know what else to call a belief system that outfits an adherent so thoroughly for citizenship in an alternative reality. As the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, the sovereign community—or as it’s sometimes known, the redemption movement—shares many affinities with the separatist subculture of the fundamentalist world (right down, it seems, to the literalist misreading of key founding scripture):
Once in the movement, it's an immersive and heady experience. In the last three decades, the redemptionist subculture has grown from small groups of like-minded individuals in localized pockets around the nation to a richly layered society. Redemptionists attend specialized seminars and national conferences, enjoy a large assortment of alternative newspapers and radio networks, and subscribe to sovereign-oriented magazines and websites. They home school their children so that a new generation will not have to go through the same learning curve that they did to see past the government's curtain to the common-law utopia beyond.
It bears repeating that Loughner’s relative interest in this, or indeed in any, formal political subculture remains largely a matter of conjecture—though according to a memo obtained by Fox News, the Department of Homeland Security has suggested that he had a “possible link” to the kindred anti-Semitic and racist American Renaissance group. (A link that the racist assholes at American Renaissance, for their part, deny.) It seems that at the least, some variant of the sovereign faith recommended itself to this confused kid, and he adopted it as a sort of private religion—that being, by the way, Freud’s definition of neurosis. Armed with the bogus certitudes of an alternate theory of the authentic American republic, Loughner could envision a new currency, an improved English grammar, a career as a terrorist—all while fantasizing about the unconstitutionality of the community college from which he would soon be suspended.
All of us are neurotics, to varying degrees, and we all cope with our condition by succumbing to recuperative fantasies of our own—like, oh, depicting a glyph-like assassin as an adherent of a rival ideological tendency. But then again, the other luxury that comes with a religious world view is the dogmatic conviction that woolly irrational beliefs only belong to heretics.
Chris Lehmann is our religion columnist now.