Commentary: Science tells us what set Loughner off - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Commentary: Science tells us what set Loughner off

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Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 3:26 pm

In the still-churning wake of the Tucson slaughter, it is easy to come to a mistaken conclusion.

That the target was a beloved member of the United States House of Representatives, 40-year-old Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, makes the story an instant headline. She was severely wounded with a bullet to the brain. The extent of the wound's physical and mental damage will come slowly to a concerned nation in installments.

Six people were killed. Among them a U.S. District Judge, John Roll; nine-year-old Christina Green, Giffords's 30-year-old aide Gabe Zimmerman, and three victims in their seventies, Dorothy Morris, Dorwin Stoddard, and Phyllis Schneck. Nineteen others were wounded.

And then the 22-year-old man who created the national havoc.

Add them up and you have news stories and analyses for weeks, and books telling us what it all means for years to come.

Arizona Republic columnist E. J. Montini was an early one, asking why? He shared Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva's immediate reaction: "We need to set the example...(and) disagree in a way that is not mean-spirited, hateful and so full of anger that people feel they have some sort of permission to treat their elected officials as fodder."

When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killing 149 adults and 19 children under the age of six, are we all responsible, even though the social environment was toxic?

Is it our responsibility to direct our behavior to sober, clear, insightful thinking and acting to protect our private, public and civic lives from killers?

The alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, might have told us himself, in a disjointed way, what this is all about.

The United Press International's analysis of Loughner's YouTube posting three weeks ago reported he said, "If you call me a terrorist, then the argument to call me a terrorist is ad hominem."

"Ad hominem" is Latin for an argument directed against a person rather than the person's arguments. It means "to the man." It also means "appealing to prejudice or passions; illogical." Taken literally, the Tucson shooting was an irrational terrorist attack against the public and those representing it as we know it.

The same week of the shooting spree, Dr. Douglas Fields in The Huffington Post wrote about how toxic environments can form in a "disrespectful, stressful social environment" that acts "as a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent." It's a warning that all that talk about putting political adversaries in the "cross-hairs" and second-amendment retribution and sporting weapons at political events is not simply blather and bluster but brainwashing with a poison gas made of words and tauntings that pollute the social environment.

We have seen this in hate crimes. Now we see it as democratocide.

Fields reports that human brains develop largely after we are born, and get nurtured by the environment mostly during the first two decades of life. Environment and experiences determine how individuals' brains, including 22-year-old Loughner's, are wired. Modern brain imaging can show children's' brain damage "as clearly as a bone fracture on an X-ray," he says.

Harvard Medical School brain imaging studies by Martin Teicher show that even hostile words in the form of verbal abuse can cause brain changes and enduring psychiatric risks for young adults.

A 2006 study showed that parental verbal abuse was even more strongly associated with detrimental effects on brain development than was parental physical abuse. A study published last July concludes that exposure to verbal abuse from peers is associated with elevated psychiatric symptoms and corpus callosum abnormalities (connecting the left and right sides of the brain).

So what effect does one think the elevated smack-talk, denigration, belittling, uncouth taunting in Arizona (not the exclusive site of such ethnic hostility) might have? Isn't a toxic brew of hostility, weapons, noxious ideology and strong-over-weak mentality a psychic conditioning and proneness to violence where this is weapons lassaiz faire?

The next time we hear our political leaders dismiss the putrid political environment as simply a lack of civility, realize that somebody is not thinking hard enough. Science gives us serious evidence of brain damage potential shot through toxic words and deeds, wounding just as clearly as the bullet sustained by Gabrielle Giffords.

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