Did art play a role in Tucson’s tragedy?

Pima County Sheriffs Department/MCT

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Piecing together what we now know, Jared Loughner is not that different from many other 22-year-olds in this country.

He found work at mainstream employers such as Quiznos and Banana Republic. He was restless in school, spent a lot of time online, enjoyed using drugs to trip out and uploaded a few half-baked videos to his YouTube channel.

He likes the heavy-metal bands Drowning Pool and Slipknot — the latter of which more than 5.2 million people also “like” on Facebook.

But unlike those others, Loughner spent Jan. 8 shooting up a Tucson supermarket. A 9-year-old girl died, and a congresswoman was shot in the head. When the incident fades from the spotlight, there may or may not be a reason for the shootings.

When someone decides to fire a gun in a classroom, or on a bucolic college campus, or in any public space, we look for motivational clues in pop culture.

And that’s how many of us spent last week.

It doesn’t matter if that person is mentally unstable, or ostracized, or has expressed his aggression in an online video game forum, as Loughner did in May.

It’s our collective will to understand, to blame. The will to quickly lock down an answer, to separate this person’s motivations and inclinations from that of our own. To put the event and the perpetrator’s actions at arm’s length. Fast.

Did violent video games inspire him? Did heavy metal amplify his already dark moods?

No answers, of course. Just more questions.

But here are the two that remain fresh after a week of reading, watching and wondering: What do we do about it? More important, can we do anything about it?

Quick to point fingers

We’ve been here before. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold marched into Columbine High School in the spring of 1999 with guns concealed under trench coats, we pointed fingers at “The Matrix” — a film that went on to win four Oscars several months later.

Even before that. History reminds us that Charles Manson and Mark David Chapman liked the Beatles, a band that sold 2 million songs during its first week on iTunes last fall.

Blaming Paul McCartney or Keanu Reeves did not make sense then. And the challenges such discussions yield — to censor artists or to listen to them more closely — appear equally unrealistic. To simply blame popular culture for the actions of troubled individuals is to devalue the art. At the same time, to give artists, writers and filmmakers a free pass to be as provocative as “necessary” seems like equally flawed logic. Without fundamental cultural norms and even the glimmer of boundaries, we are caught in a shouting match. These days, the shouting is louder than ever — given the fact that we all have megaphones in the form of keystrokes and webcams.

As for that second question, it may simply be too late. Mass media is more massive than ever, and no one can control it. Especially not governments.

We are drunk on media, so much so that the notion of “shock value” or “edginess” may soon disappear.

In 2011, the problem is not so much the content itself as it is the sheer number of voices and stimuli in the conversation. Expressing one’s opinions has become a national addiction.

One week after the shooting, it’s not merely enough to have an opinion on Loughner’s actions, we need to have a stance on Sarah Palin’s potential influence on the event, on her use of the phrase “blood libel,” on Arizona gun laws and their possible reformation.

With so many voices shouting, the core issue — whether Loughner was cognizant of his actions or whether he is mentally ill — is left in the dust.

In an interview with “Good Morning America” earlier this week, Loughner’s high school friend Zach Osler sobbed tears of regret over not being able to intervene before the tragedy. During his breakdown, Osler insisted that Loughner 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,” Osler pleaded.

Thus, is it fair to put Sarah Palin in the cross hairs of her own cross hairs? Should federal prosecutors subpoena four rockers from Dallas (Drowning Pool) for writing a song with repetition of the phrase “Let the bodies hit the floor” — a song that Loughner used to soundtrack one of his YouTube videos? Moreover, should YouTube have censored the whole video, which depicts a hooded figure burning an American flag?

Influences from everywhere

The argument of artistic freedom vs. free speech is a tired one, no doubt. The real problem feels like the inability to escape compounding influence.

With so much media to digest, so many avenues for consumption, so many pages to like and groups to join and hash tags and listserves and RSS feeds and blue hyperlinks to click through, many of us now only seek what we already “like.” We opt in to tastes and stories rather than coming across them organically. And once we decide to officially pursue these tastes through a search bar, they follow us. The advertisements in our e-mail accounts or Facebook profiles become specialized, our smartphones vibrate with push notifications and alerts the moment X is mentioned in Y. Modern forms of media pin us in a chokehold and force us to react. They give us a microphone even if we have nothing to say, and so we find something.

Looking for his motivation

It will probably be a while, if ever, before we learn whether Loughner’s motivations were external or the result of chemical imbalance, or a mixture of both. His mug shot — a bulgy shaved head with marble eyes and a crooked smile — resembles Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” probably the most revered fictional psychopath of the past decade. Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for the role; should we take it back if FBI agents find a copy of the film in Loughner’s home?

Two and a half hours before the shooting, Loughner ran a stoplight, was pulled over by police and then let go with a warning because he had no outstanding warrants on his record. Like a few thousand other Americans that Saturday morning, he went shopping at Walmart. And then, like more than a few disturbing individuals do every year, he started shooting innocent people in a public space.

His actions were not normal by any standards, yet the story feels somewhat familiar. It’s a story that, in recent years, has become ingrained in our popular culture. We are shocked and saddened and frightened every time there’s a Columbine or a Virginia Tech, although we are on the violent hunt for a scapegoat the moment such an event happens. We do not want shooting sprees to dominate public discourse, nor do we want to censor the “art” of violence in our film, television and music. And still, we seek violence in our cultural lives — at the movies, in a mosh pit, in a video game, just not while shopping at the grocery store.