Unpacking Jared Lee Loughner: If You're the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Media Will Treat Your Guesses like Gold

Article excerpt

THE SOUTHERN POVERTY Law Center presents itself as a watchdog monitoring the political extremes, and a large portion of the press takes that pose at face value, despite decades of evidence that the group's real specialties are fundraising and fearmongering. So when the organization offered an opinion about Jared Lee Loughner's worldview, reporters paid attention. It was "hard to say" whether the murderer was "a right-wing extremist," spokesman Mark Potok wrote a day after the Tucson shootings, but it's "pretty clear that Loughner is taking ideas from Patriot conspiracy theorist David Wynn Miller of Milwaukee." Potok elaborated: "Miller claims that the government uses grammar to 'enslave' Americans and offers up his trulyweird 'Truth-language' as an antidote. For example, he says that if you add colons and hyphens to your name in a certain way, you are no longer taxable." And since Loughner wrote that the government was performing "mind control on the people by controlling grammar" ... well, you do the math.

We may well eventually learn that Loughner encountered Miller's odd ideas at some point. But it's worth noting some things that Loughner hasn't done. For one, he hasn't added any colons or hyphens to his name. Also, he hasn't declared that he isn't taxable. Miller's following, to the extent that he has one, consists of people who think his ideas will allow them to avoid penalties in court. Yet when Loughner was arraigned, just a day after Potok published his speculations, he didn't invoke a single Millerism.

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And while Miller believes he has discovered a "Correct Language" (sorry, ":Correct-Language:") that everyone should be using instead of the "bastardized" English imposed by shadowy elites, Loughner's YouTube channel raised the possibility of creating new languages. What exactly he meant by that is anyone's guess, but it sounds rather different from Miller's project.

Nonetheless, The New York Times jumped on Potok's comments and gave Miller a call; Miller, as any self-promoting crank would do, declared that yes, Loughner had "probably been on my Web site." And on January 12--two days after Loughner had appeared in court without drawing on any of Miller's peculiar legal strategies--the Los Angeles Times was citing Potok's Loughner speculations as well, in an article originally slugged "Loughner's ramblings appear rooted in far right." The article also followed Potok in wondering whether Loughner's obsession with currency sprang from right-wing monetary theories, and quoted another professional extremism-watcher, Chip Berlet, who felt he had found rightist undercurrents in Loughner's use of the phrase "second Constitution."

In the meantime, people who actually knew the killer were talking to the press, dropping clues about what Loughner really was reading and viewing. Loughner's friend Zach Osier, for example, told ABC that while the killer wasn't interested in mainstream political debates, he was a fan of Peter Joseph's 2007 documentary Zeitgeist. Joseph's movie is one-third arguments that religion is a fraud, one-third 9/11 trutherism, and one-third conspiracy theories about bankers.

Loughner's interest in Zeitgeist clears up the currency question a bit. After the shooting, there was a lot of speculation about one of Loughner's comments on YouTube, "I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver!" Writers at several outlets, including Reuters and The New York Times, noted that this sounds like something a gold bug would say. The theory that Loughner wanted a gold standard suffered a pretty big blow, though, after some of his writings turned up on the UFO/conspiracy site AboveTopSecret.com. In one of the discussion forums there, the future killer spouted impenetrable ideas about an "infinite source of currency. …