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Posted at 1:57 PM ET, 01/10/2011

Giffords shooter Jared Lee Loughner's YouTube message to the world

By Alexandra Petri


This weekend, the New York Times focused on the idea of the digital afterlife -- what becomes of our Online Presence when we shuffle off our mortal coils?

But in the aftermath of the Tucson shooting, another question emerges: When someone commits a heinous act that thrusts him into the spotlight, what happens to his Online Presence? Jared Lee Loughner shot twelve people, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), killing six.

Now, millions of people are poring over Loughner's YouTube channel (his MySpace page, which featured an apologetic note and photographs of a gun on top of a U.S. history textbook, was taken down) and combing his videos and photos for clues. The Internet is a perverse window that allows us to peer into the minds of everyone -- famous or infamous -- to see what makes them tick, and, more importantly, what makes them go cuckoo. It gives us Jared Lee Loughner in his own words. What immediately emerges from his bizarre, meandering, syllogism-rich videos, on subjects from "currency" to the "mind controller" to "new grammar," is that he was not in his right mind.

The tangential relationship at best that his ideas bear to any recognizable ideology paints him as an isolated nut, and where our fingers point after his heinous deed says more about our view of the national conversation than it does about its effect on him.

But the fact that this was all public says something, too.

One of the hallmarks of crazy people used to be the idea that they possessed a unique messianic appeal and had marvelous revelations to share with the rest of us. Now everyone seems to act that way. In the bygone days when private thoughts were private, the only people who would post public manifestos detailing their thoughts about the government, conspiracies, and mind-control were clearly nuts. Now -- well, it's more complicated.

It's like the old question: Crazy person, or bluetooth headset? The same is true online. Delusions of grandeur are as common as head-colds.

The outlet for exceptionally deranged individuals used to be to send letters to the papers and write unnerving notes to their congressmembers about using "well drink" to tap the prowess of the Novel See. These would be quietly consigned to the sewer of history until, years later, the individual in question did something truly heinous and his notes about the Masons floated back up into the public eye.

Now everybody just posts them on the Internet.

The problem with the Internet is that it can produce monstrous echoes of what should be cries for help. You are not alone, the Internet says, even when you ought to be. It creates communities -- often wonderfully, but sometimes terribly. Some of these are communities that should not exist, where pedophiles gather or people encourage each other's anorexia or conspiracy theorists simmer together. It is a gray area, a perverse echo chamber where it is impossible to be proven wrong. You can't tag things "true" and "false" -- Google "government grammar conspiracy," and you find things like this.

Still, for the most part, if someone drops a meandering conspiracy theory into the Internet, it doesn't make a sound. Mr. Loughner was able to change that.

Suddenly, he's gone from nobody to assassin -- a name that should be worse than nobody, but, somehow, isn't. And in this era where we're able to control how we're presented, each of us acting as our own PR person, this has produced disturbing ramifications.

With his actions, Loughner went from an isolated nutjob addressing an imaginary audience of "listeners," to an isolated nutjob with a real audience. His YouTube channel has more than 2 million views since he posted the videos a scant three weeks to a month ago.

And this is a little unnerving.

One of the terrible facts about assassinations that Loughner seems to have grasped is that you can't commit one without becoming an "assassin" -- a boldface, tri-partite name that gets slung down through history. If you have three names, your career choices seem limited to: assassin or questionably successful actor from the '80s or '90s. Neil Patrick Harris. Jonathan Taylor Thomas. Haley Joel Osment. John Wilkes Booth.

Both are, sadly, efficient tools for developing an online following.

But assassins are simply murderers. Loughner in particular was a nutcase. Yet he saw himself as more than that. Loughner's ideas about the world, as revealed through his YouTube channel, are exceedingly nebulous, fixated on currency, grammar, and seemingly dominated by the idea that if you say something multiple times in a vaguely syllogistic way, it will become true. But they're also strangely didactic. He addresses viewers as "listeners." A few weeks ago, no one was listening.

Now we all are. He was getting his message out there.

As his friend Bryce Tierney told Mother Jones, "He wanted exactly what's happening."

By Alexandra Petri  | January 10, 2011; 1:57 PM ET
Categories:  Big Deals, Only on the Internet, Petri  | Tags:  America, YouTube, online comments, scary  
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Next: The Great Gatsby in 3D? Yes, please!


This "digital afterlife" phenomenon is a Good Thing. In the instant case it allows people to see for themselves just how deranged the killer was, without various "experts" weighing in and imparting spin to the story. We can only speculate how different America would be today if the Internet had been launched in 1955 and all the information regarding the JFK assassination had been available immediately, rather than leaving a nation in agony for two generations.

Posted by: phil8192 | January 10, 2011 3:22 PM | Report abuse

For the record,since elsewhere on WaPo it's been stated that Loughner is a Liberal, here's his page from Arizona State Voter Information - He's a REPUBLICAN rom District 08:

Posted by: TruthFairy | January 10, 2011 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Why do we feel saddest for the 9-year-old girl who Jared Lee Loughner murdered? Perhaps it's partly because we can't pin a dehumanizing label on her.

We label people.
We are not labels.
Therefore, we are people!

At his 2000 (unsuccessful) parole hearing, Mark David Chapman said:

"I feel that I see John Lennon now not as a celebrity. I did then. I saw him as a cardboard cutout on an album cover. I was very young and stupid, and you get caught up in the media and the records and the music. And now I I’ve come to grips with the fact that John Lennon was a person. This has nothing to do with being a Beatle or a celebrity or famous. He was breathing, and I knocked him right off his feet.."

Posted by: divtune | January 10, 2011 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I think you need to buy a thesaurus Alexandra. You use the word "nut" five times in one article. Is that what a Harvard education gets you now days? You need to step up your game.

And also-- what exactly was the point of the article? It seemed to meander from one idea to the next. Crazy people seeking the limelight is hardly a new phenomenon.

Posted by: rojac68 | January 10, 2011 4:58 PM | Report abuse

I think it's interesting to look at his obsession with currency. While it's as garbled as the rest, it's not an original idea. The paranoia about government control of money is very much a right-wing sentiment. Take a look this analysis from an economist -- it explains it all:

Posted by: BryceCovert | January 10, 2011 5:20 PM | Report abuse

rojac68 wrote: ... see above.
I wrote: ... see below.

Yeah Petri, are you thesaurus-challenged? You only get two "nuts" per column. But you're right that he's a daft, deranged, idiotic, insane, kooky, lunatic, maniacal, out to lunch, psycho, round the bend, unhinged, wacko ... nut.

It sounds like rojac68 thinks Petri is a few french fries short of a Happy Meal.

And what IS the point of the column? Are you trying to say that his delusions were reinforced by what he read on the Internet when he Googled "government grammar conspiracy?" Are you trying to say that maybe his motive for murder was partly to get 2 million YouTube hits to spread his delusions?

Hmmm, maybe Petri DOES have a complete Happy Meal. I think rojac68 just missed the fries at the bottom of the bag.

Posted by: divtune | January 10, 2011 5:56 PM | Report abuse

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