Congressman Jim McDermott, a Former Psychiatrist, Talks About Jared Loughner and the Arizona Shooting
Democratic Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott, who worked as a psychiatrist for 20 years before becoming a politician, and whose D.C. office is right down the hall from Rep. Gabrielle Giffords', may be in a better position than most to parse the thorny questions about human psychology and political speech that are now swirling in the wake of Saturday's shooting.
Following standard psychiatric practice, McDermott was careful in a phone interview just now to say that it's impossible to meaningfully understand a person's psyche without having a relationship of some sort with him or her.
But, he told me: “I think we do know enough about human behavior to know that there are people who are unable to separate words from deeds. That when they hear something, or somebody makes a suggestion, they think that’s something they should go out and act on."
Was he surprised, given the tone of American political discourse, that the shooting occurred? “I can’t say I was surprised," McDermott said. "I can’t say that I expected it, or that I had any inkling of anything, but knowing what I know professionally... As I’ve watched the political process over the last couple of years, I’ve been troubled a number of times, knowing that there are people—from a professional standpoint I know there are people out there—that there are people being stirred up by this."
Does he think it's reasonable to suspect that heated political rhetoric may have contributed to Loughner's alleged actions? “This happened, not because of Gabrielle Giffords, but because somehow she became not a human being," McDermott said. "She became an object. She was dehumanized. And once you start doing that to people, you can do awful things to people who are dehumanized—that’s the troubling aspect to this sort of rhetoric. You see it and you say, 'Man, you’re just egging people on.' All this stuff about 'Take my country back'—all these things. Somehow we have stopped having the ability to sit down and talk.”
Any other specific rhetoric that he's found troubling? How about the Sarah Palin target map that's been much discussed in the last few days? "People can judge for themselves whether things are good or bad," McDermott said. "But I would say that anything that incites people to think that it’s alright to hurt somebody is not within the pale of acceptable rhetoric. And I really find there has been a general coarsening of the discourse in this country over the last ten years. To pick out any particular thing, I think, is not useful. Everybody’s got to stop.”
He says he'll continue to hold public meetings here in the 7th Congressional District because to do otherwise would give up far too much. “At that point, the Democracy is gone," he said.