Here we go: The media world is working hard to make sense of the shootings in Tucson on Saturday that killed six people and wounded 13 others, including Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. First the blame fell on Sarah Palin and her “hit list” of Congresspeople she wanted eliminated from politics. Then shooter Jared Lee Loughner’s wacky YouTube videos were discovered. Then college classmates of Loughner’s began sharing stories about how strangely he acted in school. Apparently, multiple contacts with college police led him to drop out.
You’d think all this was enough to help people connect the dots, but a news photographer captured an image from Loughner’s backyard, depicting a toy skull in a flower pot surrounded by desiccated oranges and some candles, and suddenly he’s “obsessed by the occult.” Many media outlets spent Monday analyzing the image. Some were more rational than others.
There are a couple of possibilities that explain this scene. One is that Loughner created some kind of Halloween-inspired arrangement with the skull and the oranges (other photos of the property reveal an orange tree in the backyard) and then forgot about it, which would explain the state of the fruit.
The other possibility is that this really is some kind of pagan gesture. The difficulty, then, is in pinpointing the origin. Skulls are used in some pagan traditions, including Vodun-inspired paths as well as Satanism, but they’re usually real skulls or high-quality replicas, not toy skulls like the one pictured here. Oranges are also used in some faiths, predominantly as offerings to Buddha or African-based spirits. However, out of respect for the gods involved, offerings are not allowed to rot. That doesn’t mean Loughner wasn’t making this kind of gesture, but if he was, it suggests it was an ad-hoc effort, and one he abandoned pretty quickly. That hardly suggests a dedication to the occult.
Some articles have suggested that the candles contribute to the idea that this is a shrine or altar of some kind, but these are cheap candles easily purchased at the grocery store. They’re just as often used during blackouts as they are during ceremonies. Other articles went so far as to claim that the potting soil might play a ceremonial role. It’s true that a few faiths (such as Wicca) use earth or “graveyard dirt” (Hoodoo), but this really looks like it’s a place where Loughner’s family was storing its gardening supplies and other random knick-knacks. Storing potting soil on your pagan shrine is a little like storing a box of Triscuits on the altar in a Cathedral. Not only is it not generally done, but the presence of such a mundane item suggests a lack of respect for the whole procedure.
The larger question is: even if Loughner was exploring the occult, what does that have to do with his alleged shooting rampage? There is no known pagan or occult practice that calls for homicide in this manner (or most any manner). Does this scene tell us anything about Loughner as a person? Not really, unless being either a lazy occult dabbler or someone who makes Halloween decorations and then doesn’t clean them up afterwards really says anything. The most we can say about the “twisted shrine” is that it adds to Loughner’s emerging image as an aimless young man. Having a skull and some candles doesn’t make him any more evil, or any more capable of mass murder, than Martha Stewart or even Alice Cooper.
Unfortunately, the press loves this kind of detail because it allows reporters to paint a particularly striking image of someone we know very little about — and understand even less. Most of us can’t comprehend what would drive a 22-year-old to shoot anyone. It can’t be explained by any of the measures we have on hand. So we point to political rhetoric, or mental derangement, or skulls in flower pots. Those don’t truthfully explain it either, but it gives us something we can cling to, and this comforts our minds, which have trouble with the slippery nature of explanationlessness.
It’s important to understand why humans — and Americans in particular — do this when confronted with terrible acts they don’t understand. Check out these quotes from Robert C. Fuller’s important book, Naming the Antichrist:
“The symbol of the Antichrist has played a surprisingly signifiant role in shaping Americans’ self-understanding. Because they tend to view their nation as uniquely blessed by God, they have been especially prone to demonize their enemies. Throughout their nation’s history, they have suspected that those who oppose the American way must be in league with the Antichrist’s confederation of evil.”
“The history of Americans’ obsession with naming the Antichrist draws attention to their almost limitless capacity for mythologizing life. … Everyday life is viewed against a cosmic background in which the forces of good are continually embattled by the forces of evil. The problems and confusions that Americans face consequently can never be reduced to political, social, or economic causes.”
“[According to biologist Garrett Hardin], Any group of people that perceives itself as a distinct group, and which is so perceived by the outside world, may be called a tribe. … The essential characteristic of a tribe is that it should follow a double standard if morality – one kind of behavior for in-group relations, another for out-group.”
“The act of ‘naming the Antichrist’ has time and again promoted precisely this kind of tribalistic boundary posturing. It has made it possible to love one’s family and religious community while hating all who are associated with the Antichrist. Belief that Jews, Catholics, socialists, humanists, or feminists are in league with the Beast has made the most uncivil behavior toward the ‘social other’ a badge of piety and religious devotion.”
“Those who engage in naming the Antichrist feel themselves exorcised of the demons of disbelief and consequently numbered among those who will be vindicated on the day of final reckoning.”
In short, calling Loughner evil because of his actions helps us feel like we are separate from him. It allows us to assure ourselves that he is not like us, that we could never do what he did. Discovering toy skulls and strange fruit arrangements in his backyard only seems to confirm this evil. It puts everything into a safe, tidy little box. A box we don’t fit into.
But it’s not that simple. Stories like these lead the public to believe that people who legitimately and respectfully follow occult faiths are somehow evil — and even prone to violence. This is tantamount to occult profiling. It creates space for discrimination and religious intolerance. And honestly, this country does not need any more discrimination or intolerance. We’re already bursting at the seams with it.