Night thoughts on vigilantism

Suppose that you’re the American media, and you’re trying to make sense of the recent mass murder and attempted assassination in Arizona. There are many simple ways that you can try to come to terms with the event. And since you’re the American media, you are going to treat the process of explanation as if it were as easy as doing a multiple choice test. So the murders happened because a) Jared Loughner is crazy; or they happened because b) America’s crazy; or, c) We don’t know one way or another. Using the pencil provided, pick one (1) option that best fits your answer.

You can predict which answers people will give by asking them their party affiliation and political ideology. Partisan Democrats will point to SarahPAC‘s crosshairs. Ideological democrats will tend to be skeptical that we can tell a simple causal story that will explain these seemingly unexplainable acts. And Republicans will say: he was mentally incompetent, and had nothing to do with the right-wing regime.

Me? — I’d have a hard time filling out my Scantron sheet. Based on the evidence, it’s reasonable to think that Loughner is not mentally competent. But I don’t know if the alleged assassin is mentally competent — that’s one of the things that we’re going to have to find out. And I don’t know if the climate of hostility is responsible for the actions of someone who is not mentally competent, because I don’t know how you go about holding a culture responsible for anything. But that doesn’t mean that the culture of violence and vigilante justice didn’t help cause it.

That’s option d): all of the above.


While we may not know much about the details of the case, we certainly do know that post-9/11 politics is unhinged from reality. The right-wing noise machine is the vanguard of the American Tea Party movement. We also know that the vanguard of the Tea Party self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence against civilians. And we know that Loughner was influenced by the right-wing group American Renaissance. So if the right-wing vanguard has created a society that acts as an incubator for violent resentment, and if this culture gave an outlet for a disturbed mind, then it would be a plausible explanation for why Loughner’s actions took the form that they did.

I can hear some of you gentle readers bristling at one of these premises. You might think that it is very bold for someone to say, “so-and-so self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence”. Like Jon Stewart, you might shudder at any suggestion that there is a causal connection between the culture of vigilantism and Loughner’s attack.

But you have no right to bristle. There’s no reasonable doubt that their explicit intent is to legitimize violence against civilians. Consider these opinions about the fate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange:

“I’d like to ask a simple question: Why isn’t Julian Assange dead? …Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago? It’s a serious question.” Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online

“Julian Assange should be targeted like the Taliban.”Sarah Palin

“This fellow Anwar al-Awlaki – a joint U.S. citizen hiding out in Yemen – is on a ‘kill list’ [for inciting terrorism against the U.S.]. Mr. Assange should be put on the same list.”G Gordon Liddy, former Nixon advisor and ex-felon

And so on. That is their vision of justice. As a corporate whole, they think they’re The Punisher. The vanguard believes in do-it-yourself homicide, not law and order or due process. Vigilantism is a lynchpin of the Tea Party ethos.

Notice: I am not saying that the case of Julian Assange is identical to that of Gabrielle Giffords. Nor do I bring it up in order to suggest that Loughner was directly influenced by the right-wing vanguard — presumably, he has never met Palin in person, for instance. My point is that you can’t underestimate the causal role of a climate of violence. You might absolve the vanguard of responsibility for crimes committed by irrational actors — but you can hold the vanguard accountable for bringing about the culture.



To see what I’m arguing against, consider Brandon’s recent post (at the philosophy blog Siris). Brandon rightly calls for moderation and temperance by saying:

In cases like this it is important not to over-read the evidence. There is at present no evidence whatsoever linking Loughner to Sarah Palin, and no evidence whatsoever that Loughner was influenced by Palin’s crosshairs list (or, since it had become a popular device in the past three or four years, any of the many bullseye/crosshairs/target lists, Republican or Democrat, that predate Palin’s). There is at present, in fact, no clear association of Loughner with any political group… All these are rather elementary examples, and don’t require much more than basic critical thinking skills and a little research.

(Note: this was written before we found out that Loughner is associated with American Renaissance, so it’s not fair to criticize Brandon for not making that connection.)

The quoted paragraph includes a red herring. For, the way I see it, the “climate of violence” argument doesn’t depend on us knowing anything about Loughner’s “link” to Sarah Palin. A culture is a feature of populations, not just particular interacting persons. You don’t need to know the details about how a society connects specific people with other specific people in order to understand how the culture has had a predictable influence. You just need to establish that the person plays some role in the culture, and that the culture has certain features. By analogy, we will sometimes explain a case of the flu by saying, “there’s a flu going around” — we don’t bother going through the effort of naming the exact person who gave you the virus.

I find it puzzling that Brandon seems to want more evidence before we can offer responsible explanations on the basis of what we have. Our explanations will, of course, be revisable and tentative. And just because we say that the Tea Party helped cause these events, doesn’t mean we’re entitled to lay the blame on particular people. But we can sure blame particular people — the vanguard — for making the culture in the first place.


There is another possible objection. You might say that, even if the climate of violence played some role in Loughner’s crime, it would still not be Palin’s fault for producing that culture of violence. The idea is that there is some analogy between Palin’s role in the Tucson murders and Marilyn Manson’s role in the murders at Columbine. In the next post,  Some time soon, I’m going to show you how this analogy is completely off base.

Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. “So if the right-wing vanguard has created a society that acts as an incubator for violent resentment, and if this culture gave an outlet for a disturbed mind, then it would be a plausible explanation for why Loughner’s actions took the form that they did.”

    For every right wing quote inciting violence, it easy to find a left wing quote inciting equal or more violence.

    This is probably the poorest example of reasoning and argument I’ve seen on this site.

    Instead of looking to either the left or the right, you might want to consider why these tragedies occur so frequently in the US and so infrequently in other similar countries.

  2. Keith, I’m afraid your criticism is misdirected, in three ways.

    First, it’s not just a matter of quote-shaming. The quotes are supporting evidence to tell us something about the movement and the culture. Hence, your suggestion to look at left-wing militant quotes would be germane only if, as a matter of fact, Arizona were a state with a mainstream left-wing vigilantist movement in it. (And for all I know it might. So if you have some in mind, then show them. I’ll gladly edit the post to condemn them as well.)

    Second, since the very point of the argument was to say that culture is a cause, your suggested revision is redundant.

    Third, if we were to find these mainstream left-wing vigilantes, then it would only strengthen the first of my key points: which is that it is entirely reasonable to explain the acts of an unstable mind by showing how they were caused by the vigilante culture. True, my second key point (which is that the Tea Party movement is partially responsible for that vigilante culture) would have to be widened to include left-wing militants. But even if there were a mainstream vigilantist left, it wouldn’t absolve the Tea Party of blame. To think so would be to commit what’s called the “tu quoque” fallacy — bad reasoning at its worst.

  3. Benjamin, I think your analogy to a flu going around is a good one.

  4. You don’t need to know the details about how a society connects specific people with other specific people in order to understand how the culture has had a predictable influence.

    Yes, but you can’t assume that because culture has predictable effects on a group of people that it has that effect on any particular person (even if the person acts in a way that seems to confirm the link).

    So, for example, all these things might be true:

    (a) The Tea Party encourages a culture of violence;

    (b) Culture of violence makes events such as the Giffords attack more likely;

    (c) Loughner played some role in the culture (whatever that means);

    (d) This role made it *less* likely that he’d carry out his act (maybe, for example, he hated Sarah Palin; maybe he didn’t want to be seen to be doing the “bidding” of any political elite; maybe his exposure to the symbolism of violence had been cathartic; maybe he was consumed with violent impulses (for reasons to do with mental illness), but felt sickened when he saw real life examples of violence; etc; etc).

    Okay, fine, none of that is particularly plausible. But it doesn’t alter the fact that you can’t argue from effects at the level of population to effects at the level of any particular individual (if that’s what you’re doing).

    This is fairly basic sociology. We tend to teach it at high school level using Durkheim’s “Suicide” study. You’re mixing up levels of abstraction if you think you can draw straightforward lines between what’s true at the level of a population and what’s true at the level of any particular individual.

    (However, having said that, if your thesis about the Tea Party is true – and I’m not sure that it is – then it doesn’t necessarily let Palin et al off the hook, because the particular details of any specific incident aren’t really what’s important. The important thing is that by encouraging a culture of violence you’re making these sorts of events more likely, even if on any particular occasion it so happened your interventions made it less likely).

  5. There must be quite some high schools where you live, Jeremy.

    Where I live, the kids are considered literate if they can read the logo on a can of beer.

    (Just a pretext to receive this dialogue, which promises to be enlightening, by email.)

  6. Thomas, I think so too. But it has its limits in interesting ways. So I would think that certain kinds of populations (like children or the mentally incompetent) are more susceptible to the virus than others. Reasonable actors are far more unpredictable, and the viral metaphor loses a lot of traction when it comes to them.

    Jeremy, thanks for that. And yes, that is what I’m doing: attempting to tentatively explain individual effects partly by appeal to known properties of the aggregate. Think of the viral analogy.

    However, my effort here is consistent with your gloss on basic sociology. Agreed: you can’t make a logical argument from particular effect to aggregate cause, in the sense that you can prove that the effect necessarily followed from the cause. But my argument isn’t about straightforward logical necessity — it’s about plausible and responsible first attempts at explanation on the basis of the facts. I don’t see why that provisional argument can’t be made, in the absence of knowledge about the truth or falsity of (d). Sure, the best explanation will have to be a complete one, including information about (d) — which involves drawing “straightforward lines”, as you put it. But my present point is not about the best explanation overall, it’s about the most plausible one we have at the moment.

    In substance, I think your parenthetical paragraph simply agrees with and restates my conclusion, even if we differ on what it means. My conclusion was: the Palin vanguard are at least partially responsible for the culture without being responsible for the massacre, even when we assume that the massacre is more likely to come about in the culture.

  7. And we know that Loughner was influenced by the right-wing group American Renaissance.

    I don’t know if this is anything more than a nitpick but, er – no we don’t. The DHS have claimed he was but as they also describe AmRen as anti-semitic when it’s fairly well known for hatin’ on immigrants rather than Jews I wouldn’t be surprised if (a) they weren’t quite sure of what they were talking about, (b) wanted a bone to throw to the media or (c) both.

  8. Ben, that’s a fair point. It’ll all depend on whether or not we believe Homeland Security.

  9. What a crock of shit. Ultimately you are trying to assign meaning to something which has no meaning. You might as well say that it was the recent spate of movies about exorcism, sunspots, his overly tight g-string, or anything that strikes your fancy, that drove, caused – whatever your metaphor of delight – this pathetically screwed up jerk to go shoot some people. Maybe he thought he was an Islamic fundamentalist for a few minutes.

  10. SW, I’m convinced that you’re offering a completely bogus comparison. But like I said in my final paragraph, that’ll have to wait for the next post.

    Edit: actually, I misread you as making a genuine comparison to movies, etc., when you’re actually just dismissing all social explanations. That’s a radically skeptical point of view. So, unfortunately, I won’t be spending any time on it in the immediate future, because I think it’s obviously wrong and almost nobody believes in it. Maybe some other time.

  11. Ben,
    I am freaked. I hardly ever come back to postings. but I did tonight. What are you doing responding?
    Anyway, thanks for the comments.
    Yes, I suppose it is ‘radical’ to suggest that there is no meaning to be obtained – and certainly not via the road upon which you are traveling – but I think it bears further argument.
    Firstly, in philosophy, is the question of relevance. This is a priori. (Perhaps relevance is not the word; but there are limits to questions that have sustainable interest. Do goats enjoy farting? Not a whole lot there.)
    I see the Tucson shooting as questionable in value along the same lines – even as a subject.
    Largely it is in the news because of the numbers and the representative who suffers in recovery, she being, as representative, a proxy for all – as opposed to the young teenager recently disappeared in my neighborhood.
    The accused appears to have become completely unglued, with an history of failures along the seams. He shot a whole lot of people.
    That’s it.
    Why he shot a lot of people cannot be explained or ‘justified.’ He is comparable to the aforementioned goat.
    Any and all of the explanations you were chewing on above are based in your will to tie this event to a meaning frame preexistent.
    I say that it is doomed as an exercise and as a meaning attributive event.
    I am inclined to think that, upon further review, we will find that he had long had a tendency to wear his g-string too tight and that this lead to a small lesion in his ‘pubic cortex.’
    There is an interesting ‘story’ here. Already people are calling for him to be punished. What he did was hurtful, destructive – wrong. And he impresses me as one screwed up human being – really out there. What do we do now? What do we do with him?

  12. Charles M. Blow: “The only problem is that there was no evidence then, and even now, that overheated rhetoric from the right had anything to do with the shooting. (In fact, a couple of people who said they knew him have described him as either apolitical or “quite liberal.”) The picture emerging is of a sad and lonely soul slowly, and publicly, slipping into insanity.

    I have written about violent rhetoric before, and I’m convinced that it’s poisonous to our politics, that the preponderance of it comes from the right, and that it has the potential to manifest in massacres like the one in Tucson.

    But I also know that potential, possibility and even plausibility are not proof.

    The American people know it, too. According to a USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday, 42 percent of those asked said that political rhetoric was not a factor at all in the shooting, 22 percent said that it was a minor factor and 20 percent said that it was a major factor. Furthermore, most agreed that focusing on conservative rhetoric as a link in the shooting was ‘not a legitimate point but mostly an attempt to use the tragedy to make conservatives look bad.’ And nearly an equal number of people said that Republicans, the Tea Party and Democrats had all ‘gone too far in using inflammatory language’ to criticize their opponents.”

  13. Ben,
    I am trying to think of the culturally conditioned bases for your justification in trying to link the acts of a deranged individual to societal influences. Mostly emotional, they are: OMG, some ‘fill-in-the-blank’ (‘nigger’ or ‘kike’ might do if the times and audience were properly in alignment) has killed a whole lot of people ( the ‘law of large numbers’ thingy); one of the victims was a ‘Democrat,’ ‘Republican,’ ‘wanker.’
    Another basis: I do not like what people are saying.
    Next step: link the two together: People who I do not like are linked to this event which we all abhor.
    (Or, we can always go with the astrological signs – signs that no one responded to; or, government conspiracy.)
    Write a friggin poem, a song.
    There is no philosophy here.
    In statistical terms – this is an outlier.
    Anyway, I look forward to your expando issue.
    (This is an upsetting subject, made all the more painful by the absurdly weird events in the life of the accused prior to the crime; the weird way that the news has left out of coverage all the ‘collateral’ damage; and the bizarro politiciking on the subject.)
    With respect.

  14. SW, thanks for clarifying.

    If I understand you correctly, I think you’re essentially dealing with the question: how do you go about explaining acts that are just plain evil?

    It’s true that such acts seem completely unexplainable.

    For one thing, it seems as though there’s a taboo on even trying to explain evil acts. The idea behind this taboo, I think, is that we will somehow be less horrified if we try to understand this man. So we have this instinctive self-defense mechanism, where we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t even bother trying to empathize. The fear is that empathy will lead to sympathy with the wrongdoer, and sympathy with the wrongdoer will lead to trivialization of the crime.

    And sure enough, I do think that we have this natural instinct. On some level, very good and moral people know that they should not inquire into these matters, for fear that they’ll lose the sense of anger, outrage, and justice. I think there’s something almost rational about the taboo on trying to understand evil acts: as if people thought that this was the only way to quarantine their compassionate for the purposes of justice. And this instinct isn’t totally unfounded — there are plenty of relevant examples where evil has prospered because the meek have been excessive in their compassion.

    But that’s just the taboo. As a matter of fact, regardless of the social consequences, I do think that evil can be explained if we want to. As Terry Eagleton argues in his last book (“On Evil”), evil is actually pretty banal in the sense that it admits of various sorts of explanations: ontological/existential, biological, psychological, and social. Moreover, in this case, I have a bit of personal experience that allows me to understand men that are dissociative, paranoid, depressive, and so on (as Loughner appears to be). So it’s possible to understand evil, objectively — to attribute meaning to it.

    Also, for various reasons, I think we’re morally obliged to explain the causes of evil. And while I don’t think everyone has either the appetite or the inclination to go about those explanations, I think that (some) people can achieve an understanding of evil without warping the moral compass within them. It just takes training. They have to teach themselves to refuse to jump from empathy to sympathy without first putting the agent to up to a tribunal.

    So what do you do with him? You put him on trial, like every American citizen who commits any crime, and bring him to justice. And you try to change the conditions that brought him about, regardless of whether he’s guilty or insane.

    On your second post, I hope my reply to Keith (below) will shed some light. If not, feel free to ask questions and what-not.


    Actually, the American people don’t know that — any of it. But neither do I, and I have not pretended to.

    I’m not saying I “know” it. I’m saying there’s a plausible explanation and there’s no good reason to dismiss it yet. Here’s the key paragraph: “While we may not know much about the details of the case, we certainly do know that post-9/11 politics is unhinged from reality. The right-wing noise machine is the vanguard of the American Tea Party movement. We also know that the vanguard of the Tea Party self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence against civilians. And we know that Loughner was influenced by the right-wing group American Renaissance.” [Assuming we trust Homeland Security.] “So if the right-wing vanguard has created a society that acts as an incubator for violent resentment, and if this culture gave an outlet for a disturbed mind, then it would be a plausible explanation for why Loughner’s actions took the form that they did.” Notice the weakness of the conclusion: it’s a plausible or reasonable explanation, not knowledge.

    Perhaps you might ask: if we don’t know it, why bother bringing it up and insisting upon it? Well, I bring it up and insist on forcing it into the conversation because it’s wrong to put it aside. I think that the culture of vigilantism is certainly real (as you seem to admit), and got worse post-9/11. And if it turns out that this culture did play a role, then I think people will regret putting the possibility aside prematurely.

  15. Benjamin: “I’m saying there’s a plausible explanation and there’s no good reason to dismiss it yet.”

    If all you want to do is lay a claim for a “plausible” explanation, then I will not disagree. But there also other “plausible” explanations that can also be stated.

    Benjamin: “And if it turns out that this culture did play a role, then I think people will regret putting the possibility aside prematurely.”

    But is anyone actually putting this “explanation aside”? To the contrary, many of the media reports I have read of the event have been pushing just this explanation. I honestly don’t know why you think you need to force “into the conversation” an explanation that many commentators made shortly after the tragedy was known.

    Benjamin: “I think that the culture of vigilantism is certainly real (as you seem to admit).” There may be a culture of vigilantism in the US. I do not know well enough to either confirm or deny this. The author of the quote I cited thinks there is. I expect I could find others who disagreed.

  16. This is proving interesting.
    Our frames of reference are badly askew.
    No. I am not worried about explaining or justifying bad acts. There is nothing to explain or justify.
    I said that what the accused did was destructive – wrong. Evil is something else entirely. Evil presumes a malicious intent to do harm greater than the act itself: I will put a tack in chair of teacher not merely to cause pain but to humiliate. … .
    I am not even appealing to some taboo against lessening the crime by explaining it away.
    I don’t think that there is any meaning here to begin with. If my dog got run over by a car: does that MEAN anything?
    I could make up meanings – that cars are evil, that people are selfish and drive too fast, … etc.
    That is just-so-stories.
    My dog would still be dead and I would mourn him and feel his absence and cry … . But he would be dead. The meaning is experiential to me. There is no other meaning.
    Most annoying: lack of definition of poignant terms – ‘vigilantism.’ What are you bitching about here? The great unwashed’s on-going search for purification?
    Is it necessary to pull the Jim Jones card out? Is it necessary to slur Tucson by reminding everyone that the rampage took place in Tucson, Arizona!? Is it necessary to pull the stats on the fact that the SW USA is the most violent area in the USA?
    Your argument is not ‘plausible’ ; it is dismissible. There is no PLAUSIBLE way that you can make a ‘plausible’ argument.
    Make an argument that the young man shot people because he was high on goat farts. That is ‘plausible’.
    Make an argument that he shot people because he wore his g-string too tight, that his mother didn’t like him, that sunspots exploded on the day that he was born, that Cheerios made him do it. …. .
    There is no sustainable argument here for some ‘atmosphere’ of meanness, etc.

    You are exploiting the event.

    Thousands of years of moaning over an explanation for evil – and you can wrap it all up? Cool.

  17. Keith, I insist on it because many are trying to push it aside. Wrongly, I think. Also because the debate (at least at the time that I was writing the post) was stuck on false choices, like “he was unbalanced vs. he was influenced by culture”.

    In my view, it’s beyond any reasonable doubt that the heads of the right-wing noise machine have endorsed a culture of vigilantism. How else would you explain the Assange quotes? Or the Minute Men? The easy flouting of the Geneva conventions? This is a coherent pattern of behavior that tells us something about what people value and/or willing to live with. I think that it would be very naive to ignore it.

    Sam, in one sense, I think we disagree in a pretty unproductive way. By saying that the Tucson incident is like a car running over a dog, you’re treating Loughner’s action as if it were an accident. I think that’s a mistake, and I think most people would reject it as a mistake. So long as a man is acting intentionally, he is not like a force of nature, or like a car running over a dog. Why should we think otherwise?

    Still, even if your analogy works — that is, even if his actions were a meaningless accident — then we would still be obliged to find out what caused the acts. Sometimes accidents are preventable; e.g., if it was all brought about by goat farts, then you might produce an ad campaign raising awareness of the hallucinogenic dangers of goat flatulence. Right?

    And I’m not very far off from your “no meaning” position, anyway. Meaning usually involves vigorous finger-pointing. But remember, all I’ve suggested that a vigilante culture has helped caused the event. I haven’t suggested that anyone can be held responsible for the event apart from Loughner himself.

    That’s hardly exploitative. I think it’s pretty objective, really. If I were a partisan hack, I would say: Sarah Palin is responsible for the incident. I don’t say that; I think that’s a silly view. What I say is that Palin and all the rest of them are responsible for making a culture of vigilantism.

    I’m not using “vigilantism” in any special sense. What I mean is the idea that, if you aren’t satisfied by your government, then you can take the law into your own hands. For instance, Assange, the Minute Men, etc. I don’t know what you mean by the phrase, “the need for purification”, or what it has to do with vigilantism.

  18. Benjamin: “Also because the debate (at least at the time that I was writing the post) was stuck on false choices, like ‘he was unbalanced vs. he was influenced by culture’.”

    So your argument is that he was unbalanced and may have been influenced by culture?

    Yet one friend of Loughner recalled him as a “left-wing” and “quite liberal”. Another said he “did not watch TV. He disliked the news. He didn’t listen to political radio. He didn’t take sides. He wasn’t on the left. He wasn’t on the right.” The idiot’s own online writing indicates that he opposed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and believed the US government was responsible for September 11.

    And then there is this:

    GERALDO RIVERA: This is a Fox News alert. Despite Mr. Obama’s appeal to our better angels, there was a very public death threat today in Tucson that prompted police action. Ironically, it came from a hard-core liberal. At a town hall meeting packed with eyewitnesses, concerned citizens and a member of Congress, Eric Fuller, a well-known left-wing activist, took a close-up photo of the local Tea Party spokesman Trent Humphries. Then Fuller said, “You’re dead.”

    The problem I see here is that by blaming particular politicians, or political parties, for the actions of someone who was clearly deranged, you may encourage people to attack them. Further, I am unconvinced that violent rhetoric comes exclusively from the conservative side of politics.

  19. He was most definitely influenced by culture — but that’s so true that it’s almost trivial, and certainly not worth arguing for.

    Rather, my argument is that there’s a strain of vigilante culture in mainstream American politics that almost certainly had an influence. I think it is beyond question that there is such a pattern of behavior, and that it is especially pronounced post-9/11. In that context, it is not hard to believe that the activist made the comments he did. If it results in escalation, with left-wingers upping the ante (as Mr. Fuller did), then that’s more or less what we’d expect. (Or, as Tim Blair says at the start of his article, tongue firmly in cheek: “Crazy is infectious. It can consume entire cultures.” True.)

    Again: I am not blaming particular politicians or political parties for the actions of a madman. That is your misreading. What I *am* doing is saying that they’re partly responsible for the culture, and the culture has consequences. And I think that I have been clear on this. Hence, for instance, Jeremy correctly thought that I might be letting Palin et al. “off the hook” — and this is quite the opposite of how you’ve read the post.

    Also, I too don’t doubt that there are vigilante-types all over the spectrum. That’s just a given. (For instance, the “black bloc” anarchists at the G20 are often self-identified leftists.) The question is, where are they in the American mainstream? Sarah Palin is a national, public figure — as are Limbaugh, G.G. Libby, and to a lesser extent, Jonah Goldberg.

    Putting all that aside, Tim Blair’s op-ed does include an interesting statistic. Blair shows that there is a falling rate in violent crime, and that this is evidence that any potential culture of vigilantism hasn’t got any real world effects. If I can’t make any observations about the facts about the population, then by my own reasoning I certainly can’t make any justifiable inference from culture to this incident. That’s an extremely good — possibly devastating — point. Without some demographic facts, my argument in principle can’t be applied coherently in practice.

    But I certainly do have cases that have the right kind of link, which I mentioned before: the Assange threats, the Minute Men, Geneva / Abu Ghraib, etc.

  20. Benjamin, thank you. Your most recent reply certainly clarifies a few points which I appear to have been misinterpreting.

    You say: “Rather, my argument is that there’s a strain of vigilante culture in mainstream American politics that almost certainly had an influence. I think it is beyond question that there is such a pattern of behavior, and that it is especially pronounced post-9/11. In that context, it is not hard to believe that the activist made the comments he did. If it results in escalation, with left-wingers upping the ante (as Mr. Fuller did), then that’s more or less what we’d expect.”

    I have no argument with this, although any change post-9/11 may spread beyond the US.

    You say: “If I can’t make any observations about the facts about the population, then by my own reasoning I certainly can’t make any justifiable inference from culture to this incident. That’s an extremely good — possibly devastating — point. Without some demographic facts, my argument in principle can’t be applied coherently in practice.”

    I think this was partly my concern and you have articulated it more clearly than I have been able to.

    In Australia I would argue (many would disagree, I expect) that violent rhetoric comes more from the left wing of politics than the right. And this is largely from commentators as violent rhetoric from politicians is most unusual (and would probably result in them being disendorsed by their party).

    In my original reply I said: “Instead of looking to either the left or the right, you might want to consider why these tragedies occur so frequently in the US and so infrequently in other similar countries.”

    Now your “vigilante culture” may be part, but only part, of the explanation for this.

  21. Benjamin: ‘I’m not using “vigilantism” in any special sense. What I mean is the idea that, if you aren’t satisfied by your government, then you can take the law into your own hands.

    Perhaps Benjamin what you do need to do though IS use “vigilantism” in a special sense: one extended to cover more than the model where an indivdual or a group of citizens break the law of the land because they believe the authorities have failed, or are failing, to provide their view of proper ‘justice’.

    In the case of Assange, the examples of vitriolic rhetoric you cite, however unpleasant and plain stupid they may be, do not seem to be calls for ordinary indivduals to ignore US law and commit murder in the name of some supposed greater good*. Rather they seem to be calls on the powers-that-be to extend the list of those selected for ‘targeted’ or ‘extra-judicial’ killing to include Mr Assange (presumably on the grounds that he is a threat to national security during a time of ‘war’). If what they are calling for is vigilante behaviour, it is vigilante behaviour on the part of the state itself.

    * Fox News commentator Bob Beckel’s public call for people to “illegally shoot the son of a bitch” is a better example of that.

  22. Keith, not a problem. Though without some kind of data, I can’t speak so glibly about a “culture of vigilantism” at all, left or right or otherwise. I still stand by the argument in principle, but I can’t honestly hold up to it without some kind of demographic or sociological facts ready at hand. Otherwise, I’m explaining an effect without knowing whether or not it exists. (So much the worse for armchair philosophy.)

    Anyway, thanks for your persistence and engagement.

    Dubious, yes, though I’m not sure that’s much of a stretch. My sense of vigilantism involves “taking the law into your own hands”, no matter whose law. In the Assange case would absolutely have to involve subverting the rule of law of local countries, unless we presume Assange was sitting in the middle of the Atlantic at the time of his would-be assassination. Sure enough, as far as foreign policy goes (esp. with respect to Latin American countries), it’s pretty clear that the American government has turned vigiliantism into an exact science.

    Still, on the subject of the international arena. No doubt there’s an interesting relationship between what I called the “culture of vigilantism” and close cognates; e.g., the politics of neoconservatism. But I would like to keep these ideas distinct, at least for the time-being.

  23. Benjamin

    It may not be much of a stretch to think of the USA as less the ‘world policeman’ and more the global vigilante. Still, Citizen R can (1) call on the state to ‘eliminate’ Assange as a percieved threat to national security and (2) show support for – some of – the armed groups who help ‘police’ the Mexican border whilst (3) demanding absolute obedience to domestic law (upon, in extreme cases such as Jared Loughner’s or indeed Bradley Manning’s, penalty of death). We can reasonably have some disdain for Citizen R and his politics but can we plausibly take him to be advocating ‘vigilantism’?

  24. Dubious, that’s correct. But the two examples don’t define what it means to be a part of a culture of vigilantism — instead, they’re just instances that happen to be a part of it. So it’s no surprise that there’s no logical necessity.

  25. Benjamin,

    I presume what you mean is that it is correct to say Citizen R can not be plausibly accused of advocating ‘vigilantism’ (except perhaps in a special sense related to state action). The question I would then raise is can Citzen R’s set of beliefs not be reasonably ascribed to the majority of the ‘New Right’ Vanguard? If so, odious as the Palin & co. movement may be, the Vanguard is not (openly) advocating ‘vigilantism’ in the ordinary sense.

    You can, of course, dispute this characterisation of the Vanguard (perhaps you feel it is more GOP than Tea Party?). However you could also accept it and still argue that whilst the Vanguard do not argue for or (openly) advocate vigilantism (my tentative suggestion), their actions do cause (or help sustain) a post 911 culture of ‘vigilantism’.

    Law-abiding vigilancy on the border (as prompted by the events of 911) soon descends into vigilante behaviour. So, plausibly you can say that, if the Vanguard support the former they help cause the latter.

    You can also say that whilst, calls for Mr Assange’s execution are not, strictly speaking, calls for vigilante action in the ordinary sense, they do argue for a certain standard of behaviour on the part of the government that some of its citizens might well try to live down to.

    There are, I believe, stronger arguments you can make in this regard. In any case all I was trying to do was attend to the notion of ‘vigilantism’ and draw to wider attention the distinction between what is argued for and what is caused.

  26. Dubious, sorry I wasn’t clear before. You’ve understood me rightly — the person who you call “Citizen R” is more or less just what we might call a neoconservative. And to be sure, the thing that I’m criticizing goes beyond mere libertarianism or neoconservatism; I don’t mean to criticize either of these doctrines at the moment. The “culture of vigilantism” has to mean something else.

    To be clear, by the New Right vanguard, I’m thinking of the radical majority of members of the Republican party, as well as their connections in industry and culture. I don’t doubt that the beliefs of the Tea Party activists can be largely characterized as vigilantist, if we judge them by the incendiary placards they carry around.

    To answer your immediate question — no, I’m not convinced that the New Right has that kind of respect for domestic authority. In other words, I’m not satisfied with the idea that we can explain them all as mere neoconservatives. There is a strain of contempt for the processes of government that re-emerged during the Bush administration, especially under the leadership of Tom DeLay (and others), that can be characterized by its interest in subverting the rule of law and processes of government. This was shown in various ways: the creation of “free speech zones”, the repeal of habeas corpus, the creation of hurdles for voters in black districts during elections, Republican heads of committee storming out of meetings and turning out the lights so that embarrassing testimonies could not be given, a flexible cowboy attitude towards Senate rules, slandering judges as “activist judges” for doing their jobs, etc. They even symbolically made a mockery of the entire institutional structure when one of their ranks shouted at the President during a State of the Union speech. (I’m sure there are other examples — obviously, some of them are more serious than others.)

    That’s where our accounts must differ. I think there are compelling grounds for us to hold the New Right responsible for a vigilantist culture. It’s more than just a causal link — it’s what they’re trying to do (or, at any rate, what the DeLay cabal were trying to do).

  27. Benjamin,

    Thank you for fleshing things out somewhat. Your comments prompted some thought.

    It had not occurred to me to categorise Bush W’s free speech zones, ‘repeal’ of habeas corpus and so on as ‘vigilantism’. I can see your argument though: laws, including Constitutional amendments, were not adhered to, and the US Government acted in a vigilante fashion (domestically as well as abroad). Bush, I suppose, could argue the Nixon doctrine: that in times of ‘war’, “when the president does it that means” (by definition) “that it is not illegal”. Like Nixon himself he could perhaps allude to Lincoln’s argument that “measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation”. Whether Lincoln had a point or not, I wouldn’t expect you to buy it on the part of Nixon or Bush. In power I think the ‘New Right’ was just the same old wrong – the not so great and not so good deeming themselves above the law.

    Regarding the Tea Party, having reviewed some of their placards (and there does not seem to be much content beyond the placards),
    I have, I think, gained a better appreciation of your viewpoint. I suppose a charitable view is that they are not inciting vigilantism as such but advocating, in principle, the right of the people to defend the Constitution (and patriotism does appear to mean loyalty to the President when he’s a Republican and loyalty to the Constitution when he’s not) and themselves against tyranny (taxes?) with the means that the second amendment has furnished them. I don’t expect you to buy that eithier. However it does seem to me that the Tea Party Vangaurd is in fact very much opposed to transgression of the law. Its just that it isn’t necessarily the law of men.

  28. Ben,
    This dog still won’t hunt.
    Maybe you have put up your followup essay.
    Your original post was -in essence – an attempt to link rough speech by the right ( and I can post links to similar vitriolic expressions by the left ) to the actions of Tucson Whacko.
    That is rhetoric, not philosophy; it is not even legal argumentation. It is not science. It is rabble-rousing at best.
    Ultimately you are left arguing about the intentions of a madman!
    Good luck with that.
    The rest is just puffery.
    This guy is no ‘vigilante’; he is plumb crazy!

  29. I just don’t find it useful to expand the definition of vigilantism past that of a private citizen acting illegally to invoke “justice.” What it _looks_ like to me is happening here is that the definition of vigilantism is being expanded so that it covers potentially extralegal actions by the executive branch of government (geneva convention violations, rendition), legal but “vigilant” activities by some to invoke official action (border watchers), and violent, illegal action to achieve a personal interpretation of “justice” (the shooter, possibly.) It is not clear that these can be meaningfully connected, nor am I taking for granted or have even found good reason to investigate if one causes the other directly or indirectly. It may be an influence, I’m not saying it shouldn’t be investigated, but I’m just not seeing the meat here, it just looks like a word was expanded to make a categorical connection.

    The problem I am seeing is that the popular ideas being pushed are rapidly moving goalposts that are increasingly widened. At first it was a politically motivated act by a presumed right wing tea partier brought on by a right wing culture promotion of vigilantism, revolution, etc. Then it turns out he doesn’t appear to be Republican or Tea Party right wing or even _any_ conventional definition of right wing if right wing at all. Well, he still might have been influenced by it. Then it turns out he’s kind of crazy. Well, that doesn’t preclude a political motive. Then his writings, upon further discovery and analysis, appear to indicate that his psychosis seems to be influencing his politics rather than vice-versa (to me it appeared his connection to Giffords is that she was his state representative, he asked her questions in 2007 that were more related to his mental illness than politics, asking her about grammar.) Until finally you have people like Cenk Uygur (of The Young Turks) saying in essence that you cannot abandon assuming a political motive because attempting to murder a politician is inherently a political act. I don’t buy what he seems to be implying, like what if her husband shot her because he wanted her Congressional pension? Would that be political? Could we blame NASA for that? But there’s so little left that now that people desperate to retain the connections are taking this and running with it.

    I have a theory about this that is similar to yours, I really don’t know if it’s true, but I’d like to run it up the flagpole to see if other people think it’s worth investigation: The right wing media, I would say undeniably, has been heading (back) into paranoia politics. Birther movement is hinged on a semi-plausible conspiracy theory that can be interpreted as narrow as questions about Obama’s birthplace (considering that he’s lived in the USA his whole life and is thoroughly culturally American, this is a technical/legal quibble) to a conspiracy to plant a foreign operative into the highest office in the country. Glenn Beck is dredging up right wing conspiracies from the 1980′s about FEMA camps and martial law and the communist infiltration menace. Stuff like this. They also have been pushing a hardcore message of despair and urgency about the current state, not so much implying direct action, but it’s a natural consequence. Like, “we” need to act now because what’s happening right now is “them” executing their endgame scenario: implementing socialism, healthcare bill, hijacking the presidency, there are tons of them but they all mean imply “I sure wish SOMEone would do something about all this, is SOMEone out there listening who will take a stand?” Honestly I think those in the media doing this are cynically using it to create populist support with their base, they don’t expect or want anybody to do this. Normal people don’t respond to this in any other way than to get angry, but a mentally sick person might actually be motivated to act on it.

    There is a large paranoia/conspiracy culture out there, of which these things are only a subset, and I suspect both that you will find someone prone to believing one is susceptible to the others, and that being introduced to one acts as a gateway to others. Loughner was for example very interested in lucid dreaming being a window into other realities, which either gave him the idea or confirmed to him that what constituted reality wasn’t what we usually think it is. He frequented conspiracy sites that covered these types of things. Seeing your delusion or other conspiratorial ideas being championed on television gives your delusion a firmer rooting in your mind, which perhaps makes you more likely to act on it. Finally, certain types of mental illness make you particularly susceptible to paranoia and conspiracy, perhaps Loughner has this type.

    So what I am proposing is that the right-wing media, by taking on the paranoid style, elevated and promoted the conspiracy theory interpretation of history, which in turn influenced paranoid types to be more active. So, not a direct connection at all, but at least indirectly connected and partially responsible.

    By the way, I just found your web site and I think it’s great.

  30. Erik, thanks very much for your thoughts. You point out that there are three kinds of examples here: (a) collective actions (including extralegal actions), (b) “vigilant” citizen actions, and (c) subversive citizen actions. I’ll try to refine my view by paying closer attention to these categories.

    First, I don’t mean to discuss citizens that are merely vigilant (b). When I talk about Minutemen, I mean to describe the Minutemen that engage in activity that goes beyond civic vigilance, and cross the line into genuine vigilante activity. A central case of vigilante is Shawna Forde:

    “There have been some interesting developments in the bizarre and telling case of Shawna Forde, the Everett, WA, woman who led an offshoot unit of Minutemen who ran armed border patrols for patriotic “fun” and then decided to go “operational.” They concocted a scheme to raid drug smugglers and take their money and drugs and use it to finance a border race war and “start a revolution against the government”. They mistakenly chose the home of Raul Flores and his wife and two daughters, which had neither money nor drugs; first they shot the father in the head and wounded the mother, and then, while she pleaded for her life, they shot 9-year-old Brisenia in cold blood.”

    A terrible crime. And it’s not terribly surprising that it happened — it’s pretty reasonable to think that the Minutemen overlap with white supremacist organizations and ideals. That’s why I referred to “Minutemen” in an offhanded way. But I should have been more specific. If this is a genuine point of contention, I should clarify that I only have Fordean Minutemen in mind.

    Hence, when I use the term “vigilante”, I only mean to refer to two categories: state actions (a), and violent illegal actors (c). Of our remaining categories, there’s no question that (c) is vigilantist. Only state actions (a) seem problematic. So that raises our second question: why should we think of (a) as vigilantist?

    (Note: for the purposes of the discussion, I take it for granted that collective bodies (like states) are kinds of actors. If they’re not, then my examples of (a) are nonsense. Still, I won’t argue for the idea that corporate bodies are actors. I’ll just take it as a given, since it’s a fairly common way of speaking.)

    There are a few different types of dubious actions that I’ve mentioned, and which you might think are heterogeneous. There are (1) crimes against the constitution (e.g., the repeal of habeas corpus); there is (2) exsurrectionism (e.g., when the CIA tampers with foreign democracies); and there are (3) violations of international treaty and law (e.g., Geneva, extraordinary rendition). In other words, a government can deviate from the laws of the state that it represents; the government can deviate from the laws of other sovereign states; and the government can deviate from international and moral law.

    I haven’t spent much time on (1), but I think it is supported by Dubious’s illustration of Nixon. The executive branch under Bush thought that it was above the laws of the country, but as a matter of fact they were not.

    In a reply to someone above, I argued briefly in favor of (2). Surely it is a vigilante action when and if the United States violates the laws of stable countries with the intent to overthrow their governments. Insurrectionists are a paradigm case of vigilantes. I would like to suggest that exsurrectionists share the same feature. The only difference between the two is that the exsurrectionists happen to be citizens of another land — but this is irrelevant, since our concern is with the character of the crime, not with the homeland of the individual. In fact, the only way that exsurrectionists could not be supposed to be vigilantes is if we thought they had diplomatic immunity, by virtue of being representatives of the state. But in fact, exsurrectionists working for the CIA (or, in Reagan’s case, even at the whims of the President himself) are supposed to be off-the-grid: they are, at best, agents of the government, but surely not agents of the state. Hence, they have no pretense of immunity; hence, vigilantes.

    Of the three, I think (3) seems the weakest on first blush. For starters, we have to note Dubious’s helpful distinction between being “world police” and being a “vigilante state”. And this distinction only makes sense against the background of international law; a “world police” obeys international law, while a “vigilante state” subverts it. This is a problem, since there is no world federation, and hence no legitimate legal monopoly on power, and hence, no law to enforce or subvert. So there is no objective sense in which America can be considered to be either the “world police” or a “vigilante state”. It is just one game-theoretic actor among others in an ongoing game of Risk.

    What you would expect from this dialogue is that intelligent and informed political commentators would not pretend to use the language of law when it comes to extralegal actions (e.g., ignoring the Geneva conventions). But of course they do use that language. International lawyer Francis Boyle refers to the war on Afghanistan as “illegal”, as did Kofi Annan; while others use similar language to describe Hussein’s war crimes against the Kurds. So it is at least a tolerable way of speaking, even though (admittedly) it is not an obvious or clear case of vigilantism.

    So that’s how I think the examples hang together conceptually. I think (a) and (c)-(1) and (c)-(2) are part of the core of the concept of “vigilantism”; I think that (b) is entirely outside of the concept; and I think that (c)-(3) is a borderline case. That’s not to say, though, that people who engage in actions that can be described by any one of these conceptions must be logically committed to all the others.

    But on the other hand, I also think that there are non-logical psychological associations between all of these elements. They all occupy a similar region in conceptual space; they’re all associated with kinds of narratives that appeal to the vanity of a romantic rebel. The standards that are required to begin an investigation (which is what you’re worried about) do not need to be logically coherent; we’re free to investigate what we like, on the basis of messy no-good intuitions. But I’ve been asking for more than just the start of an investigation — I want to say something about how the investigation might proceed — which means I have to take your challenges quite seriously.

    On shifting goalposts. I think that in my comments here, while I’ve explicated a lot, I haven’t changed my views in ad hoc sorts of ways. I admitted one place where my argument has a glaring hole: I haven’t actually shown that there is a culture of vigilantism, I have just relied upon my fanciful gut interpretation that there is one. So if somebody were to look at my argument and say, “This is the same sort of crap that right-wingers spew when they accuse leftists of advocating a ‘culture of death’”, I would have to admit that there’s a passing resemblance. But then again, most people who push the “culture of death” line aren’t as careful as I’ve tried to be.

    I do think that Loughner committed a political act, because I have every reason to believe that he meant it as such. But I agree with you in your response to the Young Turk, when you say that killing a politician on purpose is not sufficient for a thing to be a political act. Your counter-example seems on-target.

    I agree with your analysis (in the final paragraphs). But it seems consistent with mine; there’s a connection of responsibility between the vanguard and the culture, but the connection between the culture and this event is merely causal. After all, all hands agree, craziness sure played a pretty big part.

  31. OK, the example you give here is definitely vigilante action, so I see where you are coming from. I was confused because there is an actual formal group called the Minutemen, and they have a set of rules that members must abide by which are carefully constructed to avoid breaking the law. It’s common for people to call those guys “vigilantes” but I don’t think it’s appropriate because they do try to stay within the law. The one area I would say they may qualify as vigilantes is that even if they aren’t breaking any laws, there is a clear intention to intimidate. I believe that there were breakaway groups because there is an overlap with both some racist groups and people who wanted direct action disallowed by the original organization. So while many may find the “Minutemen Proper” actions distasteful (I’m mixed, personally) I don’t believe it’s fair to group them all back together for the purposes of discussion when as a group they had to split to engage in illegal and explicitly racist actions. Since I was not thinking of this, I was trying to find a way to distinguish legal activities from illegal, “vigilant” from “vigilante.” But anyway, that’s less important because I see that your intent was to cover the illegal actions.

    My reaction to the idea that illegal state actions might influence vigilante action was that it reminded me of an animal rights activist claim that letting your kids hunt sets the psychological groundwork for thenm becoming domestic abusers and serial killers. My response is that it’s not as gut-obvious to me that that’s the case, so I’d like to see some empirical evidence to convince me.

    I do agree that our theories are pretty close, but significantly different. The way I am reading your theory is that the political message (vigilante culture) is a necessary part. I believe it is the paranoid flavor of the message that is critical to establishing a connection between Loughner and current right wing political discourse. In another time and place it could be the left wing with a different political message, devoid of the seeming promotion of lawbreaking justice. Of course under mine or your theories, the right wing still has to take some responsibility for this, so please don’t read this as absolving them.

    Maybe I am splitting hairs, because it’s possible that either could cause this and both could be acting simultaneously. But the message I want to get out there (because I believe it to be true, and so, I suppose, people can be made aware of it so it can be more closely investigated) is that paranoia and the conspiracy theory are dangerous for individuals and it’s disastrous for the media or a major political party to give credence to this type of thinking. The reason is because I believe that the conspiracy theory masks itself as a coherent belief (actually, more coherent than reality, lol) where really it’s a complex ball of beliefs that work together to defy falsifiability of the whole, and acts as a device to create despair that’s either going to lead one to recede from the world or explode into aggressive action. the reason I am pushing this so hard is because Loughner’s dedication to paranoia and the conspiracy seems to me stronger and more established than his particular politics. I am going to edge back a bit before moving forward and say that yes his actions were political, but his politics were so much his own that it’s hard to say what he did is likely to explode across the population. If it can be said that his actions are the causal result of the the right wing political atmosphere, I think it’s still an outlier and we probably aren’t going to be able to make any good policy decisions out of it that will stop people like him and leave the rest of us unaffected politically. I am completely open to any and all avenues of investigation, however.

    That said, I rescind my goalpost shifting statement, I get where you’re coming from now. Honestly I didn’t read this thread as carefully as I should have, and probably still haven’t. There is much, much more going on with this event than people realize. I hope I have time to cover this more on my own blog…

  32. You cannot sufficiently engage Stangroom’s criticism and remain intellectually consistent with your atheism.

    To say that culture informs and influences members of that culture is a reasonable statement, but it is a weak claim. To move from the level of generalization to an explanation of a specific action of a specific individual is to make a considerably stronger claim which needs to be supported by detailed evidence. Your assertion that “You don’t need to know the details about how a society connects specific people with other specific people in order to understand how the culture has had a predictable influence.” fails when operating at the level of particulars. You absolutely need to know the interrelation of societal features and personal traits as well as the subject’s interpretation of the stimulus in order to offer explanations of his behavior and motivation. Consider the case of contrarians, while it would be correct to say that their behavior is the direct result of the cultural paradigm, the output is inverted as a result of personal traits. Conversely, consider the case of Pol Pot, the output is ordered by the subject’s interpretation of the message. Your claims risks proving too much, as I have just offered two examples of cultural (perhaps Pol Pot should be labeled as intellectual) influence that have atypical (in direct reply to your claims read “unpredictable”) results.

    You have not offered any evidence for being able to move from a generalized claim about the population to a specific individual. Furthermore, you will have considerable difficulty asserting this modification of the video game and pornography argument because of the subject’s atypical response. You can’t establish which is the cause and which is the effect – is the action a product of dementia that is the extreme, but logical effect of cultural influences, or is the action a product of a demented interpretation of a normally benign culture? To pre-empt a potential move (which I know you would never dream of making) appealing to outcome as proof that the culture is warping, is circular.

    You will likely repeat your claim that you do not need to offer specific proof because you are advancing an argument about what one might say, or how one might plausibly interpret the events. Such arguments are nearly worthless, because one might offer any number of plausible, but ultimately untrue accounts about what might have happened. It is simply spinning fables. You’re carving out space for weak claims while implying strong conclusions. Furthermore, you might claim that is possible that a culture of vigilantism could have influenced Loughner, but where is your evidence? Why would you be interested in advancing any particular story in the absence of any evidence merely on the basis of possibility? Here is where I appeal to your commitment to atheism. Deists might make any number of possible claims, which are not able to be disproven (in the strong sense of the term). But they are nevertheless rejected, and appropriately so, for complete lack of evidence, and because there are no plausible reasons prompting the offering of such an account.

    If you want to condemn the partisan political culture, or the extremism of vigilante rhetoric, simply condemn it for what it is – ugly. Failing that, you need to offer specific proof to back up strong, specific claims or you’re just story telling.

  33. Peter, thanks for your post.

    You rightly point to issues that have to be involved that have to be tackled when making the best explanation of the evidence. Correct, on all counts. Unfortunately, when evidence is temporarily in short supply, we have to offer explanations that are in line with the evidence we have available. In other words, we need to separate prime facie evidence from sheer trivialities. You and Jeremy are both correct in pointing out that we will eventually need to specify particular mechanisms between the particular person and the culture, by learning more about what makes Loughner himself tick. But you absolutely don’t need to know those mechanisms when you’re trying to come up with a reasonable explanation. Those are very different projects.

    Coming up with reasonable explanations might be a method of storytelling, if you like. Sure. But some stories are justifiable, while others are not. I think it’s a justifiable story, and I think the Marilyn Manson/GTA stories are not justifiable. This is an extremely important distinction. If I’m wrong, then I will have made a mistake, but the people who give the Marilyn Manson stories are making sheer blunders.

    There are two disanalogies between this sort of case and Marilyn Manson/Columbine. First, there’s no correlation between Manson and relevant popular behaviors, and hence no evidence of a causal connection. Second, popular entertainment is not a political event, so there’s no evidence to suggest they’re directly responsible for the culture. And I should add that when I say “the culture”, I mean concrete demographic facts: for instance, the rise of death threats against public servants.

    Notice, though, that I haven’t made a strong case. I admit this. I think my views here can be defeated by the best explanation on the basis of new evidence. By contrast, the naturalist has the best explanation — and that’s why your analogy to atheism doesn’t work.