The Denial Smile

February 15, 2011

"K1F" Kirby Farrell

The first media photos of Jared Loughner after his rampage in Tucson showed a sunny, poignantly ordinary teenager. But as shock sank in, a new mugshot accompanied the story, showing the murderer with shaved head and an eerie smile. Journalists plastered it about like a circus poster. The smile was uncanny. Was it malicious? Deranged? Childishly pleased? Its prominence has something to tell us about denial.

In the New York Times, Frank Rich saw denial at work in the media focus solely on the gunman’s motives, which blocked attention to the vitriolic atmosphere in the nation that has been pumped up by talk media rant and pit bull politicians. On this level, denial works by blocking a feeling of responsibility of even guilt for an angry atmosphere.  It also soothes fears of living in a world whose anger is beyond one’s control.  For journalists, this sort of denial enables them to avoid retaliation from angry public voices that can and do attack when criticized.

That sort of retaliation is strategic denial: “Don’t blame me.  I’m not hostile.”  Sarah Palin, for example, claimed that the rifle cross-hairs that her website used to target Congresswoman Giffords’ district were really just a harmless surveyor’s transit.  When that excuse flopped, Palin lashed out, claiming that criticism of her hostility was a “blood libel.”  As a last resort, her staff told the media, without evidence or involving the police, that Palin was now also a victim of death threats.

But this is where denial gets really interesting.  The retaliation implies a deeper, less conscious level of denial.  Rebuke of someone like the “pit bull hockey mom” threatens her survival as a charismatic public figure.  In effect, the rebuke can be felt as a reminder or even threat of death.  And as Ernest Becker argued, reminders of death, however conscious, spur us to lash out.

In rampage killers such as Jared Loughner this force is magnified. Workers who “go postal” are usually acting out symbolic survival fears.  As in military slang, to be “terminated” is to be killed. Whether it comes from outside in the workplace or from inner distress, the rampage killer’s grievances are rooted in fear of being canceled out.

Think of Jared Loughner trying to dramatize his life by posing for photos in a G-string with 9-mm bullets tattooed on his back and a pistol on his hip. You could say he stripped down to deny his troubled everyday self.  But the denial was driving an irresistible fantasy of being larger than life and attacking a threatening world.  He was gambling his life, and it was a desperate all-or-nothing gamble.  The photos show either either a heroic avenger saving the world or a doomed nobody.

Posing, Loughner was symbolically making himself a weapon.  No more conflicts, no more fears.  Just pure force.  I am a bullet. But following the murders, in a similar reflex, people rushed to buy guns and ammo. The trigger finger masters all threats. It’s a fantasy of course. A bystander at the scene in Tucson confessed that only sheer luck kept him from mistakenly shooting another bystander with a drawn gun. Tellingly, he was afraid to draw his pistol for fear of being mistaken for the gunman and shot.

It would be hard to exaggerate this mirroring.

Media laments Loughner’s “senseless” violence. But who isn’t tempted by the dream? The nation dreams of being “the world’s policeman.” The airwaves are choked with wannabe talkshow heroes and primetime fictional heroes pumping up outrage at “enemies”  And the audiences are avidly tuned in.

We emphasize Loughner’s delusions.  He argued that the government is sinister and, without a gold standard, debasing the currency.  He feared that like paper money, all words are artificial and losing their meaning. To friends he described the way dreaming and waking were blurring together in his mind.

These are fears that the ground of things is dissolving, as in schizophrenia. Yet denial keeps us from recognizing that these symptoms are also distorted versions of widely held beliefs. Government does routinely subvert words – we call it “spin.”  In the financial press “goldbugs” take for granted that the government is deliberately cheapening the dollar to escape from the nation’s unprecedented debt.  And as the movies and pop song lyrics remind us, life always has dreamlike qualities.

Since Jared Loughner was unemployed and adrift, with a darkening future, he was sharing in the stress felt by many others in this brutal economy. Beset by illness, withdrawn, he faced social death. Lashing out at the world, he was proving he was alive, that he mattered.

And of course he was influenced.  Like the Columbine duo and many other copycat berserkers, he knew that sensational murder would compel the world’s attention. If you fear that your self is disintegrating, you can be sure that a sensational crime will make the world define you. In the global spotlight fame will make you real. If you die in the attack, better to go out in a blaze of glory than to sink alone into terrified, helpless madness.

Fear of death and futility is uniquely human.  No other creature is haunted as we are by the awareness of death.  You can see this basic fear in the public’s overwhelming focus on Gabrielle Giffords’ survival while screening out the reality of the grave cognitive damage she may have suffered. Still, how we react to that basic fear varies a lot.  Some people mourned by lighting candles, while others stocked up on ammunition.

As history shows, people who feel threatened are apt to lash out.

This is one way of understanding why audiences are drawn to figures who pump up their outrage.  Like the troubled rampage killer’s seething, a daily dose of anger can relieve depression and anxiety. Pumping up your nervous system converts flight into fight, and turns gloom into feelgood indignation.  Seen this way, rant radio and vindictive politics are mood drugs. Their followers are self-medicating, taking a daily dose of anger as a stimulant like caffeine or a release from inhibitions like alcohol.

Some rampage killers have openly acknowledged the influence of rant media. Why should it surprise us? Listeners are hearing disembodied voices in the air that urge them to heroic outrage against enemies. And the brilliance of the program is that it’s advertising enjoyable, guilt-free, righteous rage.  Heroic rage.

That is, until someone actually murders innocent people in a schoolroom or a supermarket.

The point is not that we’re all rampage killers. Nor do we need to claim that rant directly causes a particular rampage. Rather, denial shows us how, under stress, some of us will use the ideas and passions around us to make a story we can act on. You could be excused for thinking that reducing stress would be better policy than pumping up outrage.  More investment in healthy heroism:  education, employment, [your favorite here], less in trigger-finger heroics.

In an underemployed nation that’s stripped down to its G-string at home and is paying for history’s most expensive weapons, that’s a policy that cries out for attention.


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