The Loughner boy’s eyes

When young men take up guns and set about killing to satisfy whatever dark insanity has possessed them, I think of my sons. I think about the world in which they walk, a world that is physically safer than most people have ever known, but which is singed by the devil all the same, and which sometimes feels like it’s sinking beneath our feet. I wonder what in this world gets hold of young butchers, what inside them snaps or rots or never forms rightly in the first place.

Perhaps like some of you, I’m gripped with a fear that one day it will be my son leering at the world like that Loughner boy, his loveless eyes like a demon’s, his smile divorced from joy.

I read that his mother has been in bed weeping since she heard what he did. His parents blame themselves. Perhaps they should. Perhaps they shouldn’t. Neither will make their boy not a monster.

There is a soul-sickness in the human monster, but there is a soul-sickness in me, and maybe in you. Why does it swamp the storm-tossed hearts of some, but not of others? Will it claim my child one day? Will it claim yours?

It’s easy to imagine this only happens to the bad, bad children of bad, bad parents. I had such a notion, back when I thought I knew how to be a good father. But most days, these days, I struggle to be a decent father. I snap at one of my sons, and I see his heart close up. I get caught up in work or distraction and a precious day is gone, another day I didn’t knit up the ever-fraying bonds between father and sons. I want to believe a parent has to be utterly negligent to yield a boy gunning down people on street corners, but then I think of that woman weeping in her bed over her lost, monstrous son, and I don’t know. I simply don’t know.

I want to get it right. I’m terrified I’ll get it more wrong than a father can bear. Does anyone know, before it’s too late, that he’s taken a wrong path? Can we retrace our steps?

Maybe it’s madness, and nothing more. I don’t sleep any easier at night, thinking on it that way. Why do some minds crumble? Will it happen to my child? Will it happen to yours?

I feel like I could pray all the days and nights I have left, and it still won’t be enough. I could get all the father-son moments right, and it still won’t save their lives, their hearts, their souls. God spare my child the madness in that Loughner boy’s eyes.


  1. J Davidson

    I don’t have the words to express how much this resonates with me. After the Columbine massacre, I wept for those parents as I feared for my own troubled son. I expended every effort I could to prevent anything like that ever happening. He is now a well-adjusted 30-something husband and father, successful beyond our wildest dreams during those dark days. It is easy for me to forget what it was like back then — and then something like this happens and I’m right there all over again.

    They say there are only two kinds of prayer: Help me help me help me, and thank you thank you thank you. Back then I prayed the first without ceasing. Today, the second. And I want to say thank you thank you thank you to you as well.

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  3. Marc V

    I believe we need to keep in mind that these are isolated incidents, one-in-a-million things that the MSM happens to blow up. We end up wringing our hands: what can we do about it, God forbid it should happen to my family. The Lord has blessed us with freedom, and this is part of the price tag. More gun laws and more psychiatric evaluations are not going to help.

    We don’t know what causes one child’s mind to snap later in life and another turns out to be a contributing member of society, when both were raised the same. We can monitor activities, but we cannot monitor how dark a soul gets until it’s too late. We can love them as much as we can and show them our best example of how we trust and obey God eash day. Trust and obey … easy to say, tough to live out.

  4. Jerry

    I wish we could do a brain scan on Loughner and other monsters like him. If we could scan his brain and actually see what is going on chemically and in the lobes, we could probably find something that helped lead him down this dark path.

    Many factors could have led to this brain dysfunction such as an injury, drug use or genetic malformation. Too often we don’t look at the machine that is driving the madness.

  5. Ella

    I was fortunate to have been directed to this post from Andrew Sullivan’s site. I can’t concur enough with how I agree and identify with your sentiments here. I almost cried.

    We definitely are a 100% normal, well-adjusted family that has taken our job in raising our kids incredibly seriously. Fortunately, we have been blessed with what are very normal, intelligent, well-adjusted kids. Parenting my four has been an utter privilege and joy, and yet…things have occurred over time that not only took us by surprise, but were terrifying brushes with some of the worst parent nightmares.

    The healthy 100% breast fed baby who wakes you up in the night gasping for air from RSV, requiring a week-long stay in the hospital. The four year old that steals his brother’s toys and makes up frighteningly complex stories to cover his tracks; the 10 year old honor student who on an astoundingly psychopathic whim with a friend, rides his bike through the soft, wet concrete sidewalk of your sweet elderly next door neighbor, requiring you spend the weekend replacing it; the 16 year-old HS soccer champ who sneaks off campus to get high, gets caught, suspended and is disqualified from being considered for a pending scholarship. The 13 year-old, very naive dreamer of a daughter who is lured over the web by an adult who drives across country to meet her at her school and has her sneak out to meet him in the middle of the night, only to be caught in the very last moments of his crime. The phone call from the emergency room about the 21 year-old who was stabbed in the face, back, shoulder and stomach by thugs because he and his friend were in the wrong place at the wrong time. REALLY, I could go on and on.

    What is one of the most challenging parts of parenting is NOT knowing what potential bad things could happen to you, or that your child is capable of–and yet not turning into a paranoid, controlling, and over protective parent. (Made harder yet, if your kid dares take a brief turn down “deliquency lane”.) A good parent’s job is to remain as calm, constructive, and optimistic as possible in the face of kids ups and downs.

    So, if you have a troubled child, like the Loughner’s clearly did, is it any easier to let go of that hope? Especially if it appears that he wasn’t seriously troubled until recent history? Don’t you have to keep trying, keep hoping you’re making mountains out of mole hills, reassuring yourself that things will eventually turn out right?

    My God, I can’t imagine the depth of agony and despair a parent would feel when they find out that they were horribly, tragically wrong. My heart goes out to the Loughner’s, and I, too , find myself sharing their grief for the loss of what was once a bright and shining spark of hope in the world in the face of an innocent, smiling baby. God bless the whole family.

  6. Lindsay

    Thanks for this resonant post. I don’t have children yet, but I can empathize with your fear of somehow doing (or not doing) that one thing that will flip some switch in your child.

    But it’s also important to keep in mind that (in at least some cases, including this one) what we’re dealing with is not evil, or soul-sickness, but insanity – a broken brain. Your post mentions this a couple of times, but it seems like a mistake to conceptualize whatever went on in his brain as ‘dark insanity’, with that overtone of malice or evil. Similarly, it’s correct to say that Loughner is ‘monstrous’, in accordance with the original meaning of that word – deformed. It’s a mistake to imbue that deformity with a sense of moral inferiority; it seems not unlike the primitive cultures who view deformed babies first as omens of evil, and then eventually (inevitably) as evil in themselves.

  7. Jonny

    While it is correct to describe acts as “monstrous,” it is a terrible thing to describe another human as a “monster.” However, I think you are missing the connection between evil and insanity. If it was not for the former, the latter would not exist. Further, although the latter may be the proximate cause for the acts of Loughner, the acts of Loughner are intrinsically evil and have perpetuated evil in this world. However, Loughner is not evil, and we should shy away from all description of him as such. He is a human being, made in the image of God. He has committed great evil, but, in the end, is his evil fundamentally any worse than a secret lust I may carry in my heart, than a lie I tell, than the disrespect that I show another human being? Certainly, its effects may be, but these are the evils I commit, the evils against which I struggle. Sometimes I succeed in that struggle, and sometimes I fail. The important thing is that I continue to try and leave judgment of others and myself to God Who knows the heart of each man and is able to judge omnisciently and with compassion. Those of us, like myself, who tend toward judgmentalism, will do best in these circumstances to flee to the refuge of prayer– prayer for the deceased, the wounded, the affected, and the insane, for we are all sick, all infected with the sin that infects this world. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.

  8. Don

    “He [Loughner] has committed great evil, but, in the end, is his evil fundamentally any worse than a secret lust I may carry in my heart, than a lie I tell, than the disrespect that I show another human being?”

    This is so off base as to be staggering in its stupidity and religious self-righteousness. A truly pathetic misuse of faith.

    “A secret lust”? Such as, what, food? Sex? Or is it that your typical body-phobic Christianity is so saturated in the idea of “sin” in small things that have little to no impact on the world – unlike mass murder – that you actually believe (let us assume) that your craving for sex or some other lust puts you on the same footing as Loughner?

    Beside, I really find your sappy Christianity a real problem. Be an adult first, then reconsider your comparing of your “sins” to those of Loughner.

    You make a mockery of morality and of religion.

  9. Eric

    Would also never have found your website with Sullivan. Really loved your post, outstanding thinking and writing.
    I liked your post, got me thinking…which I presume is why both of us write? This person “Don”‘s post compelled me to comment if only to blunt his/her’s negative energy and false assertions.

    Keep blogging, keep posting…keep thinking outloud. It benefits us all as a society.


    Eric in Chicago

  10. Ruth

    This discussion needs to take place because this is not an isolated incident. Have we watched this before?—young, angry loners killing with handguns. It’s extremely complex but yet it’s not. It’s the sign of North American culture in disintegration. The loneliness. The anger. The sense of entitlement. I see people losing it with each other all the time- in stores, boardrooms, on tv, in our homes, in sports, and on and on. Respect has all but disappeard. We need to find our way again. You hit on a small part of the solution in your book I think. When you work hard (physically) there’s no time at the end of the day for mischief. You serve, you commune with others, you sleep and repeat. I don’t know? I’m so sad I’m just rambling…

  11. Dan

    I find Don’s comments fascinating. Tony is ruminating, following this horrific tragedy, about his own children, and is doing some deep soul-searching. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, self-examination certainly is an important part of religion and faith, not a mockery of it.
    Jesus, who was not a “sappy” Christian, taught that moral failings “in the heart” are as bad as moral failings carried out. Of course the consequences are vastly different, but that doesn’t change the measure of the sin.
    Tony, thank you for your blogs. I read them all, and deeply appreciate your heart.

  12. Stephen Spencer

    I initially wrote this in response to my brother’s posting the link on his facebook page and thought I would share it here as well.

    In the context of the general abstract–a fascinating and moving piece; however, in the face of this event, I have to take issue with the rather medieval perspective that mental illness is somehow connected with Evil, though.

    If you’ve never had to sit with a good friend while they were in a schizophrenic fugue, trying to make some sort of connection to drag them away from the completely upside-down logic that ties their mind into knots, you’re fortunate. At the same time, being given that opportunity to be close enough to someone that they allow you, even in that state, to be with them and to allow you to try to connect with them gives you the opportunity to help and to get them into the hands of others that can help.

    When I read the accounts given by this man’s community college professors and fellow students, about how Loughner was constantly employing (or attempting to employ) syllogistic methods that connect completely unrelated concepts to justify his thought processes–how he would turn in what were to supposed to be written assignments in the form of random geometric drawings, I was taken back to those days when I was sitting with my friend who was lost in the grip of his own misfiring brain and endocrine system. It is scary. You can see the person you know, but it’s like looking through mud-spattered glasses; only in this case, it’s as if the muddy glass surrounds the person you know and love, and you want nothing more than to help them achieve perceptive clarity.

    But you can’t. In most cases it’s an inherited disease. Like diabetes, it’s passed from generation to generation. The difference is that there isn’t yet a blood test to determine its presence. My friend’s mother has struggled with mental illness for decades as did her father before her. I do not wish for this statement to be one of Science vs. Spirituality. Spirituality can definitely and often does play a role in recovery from this kind of illness, but to not acknowledge our culture’s general denial of mental illness as a societal problem does the sick an incredible disservice. Our discomfort with the concept of mental illness leaves us with only our primitive, fearful, instinctual response to the resulting behavior–Monster! Evil!

    What Loughner did was monsterous. What he did was evil. He will and should be held accountable under the law, and that is the right thing to have happen. It might ultimately be unfair, but the law exists to provide a stable platform for our society, and the presence of Laughner’s brand of instability conflicts with our ability to maintain that stability.

    I believe this in the same way that I believe that a dog that is so meticulously abused that they can’t help but to attack anyone that approaches should be put down. Similarly, though, I believe we, as a society, should take this time to recognize this as our failure to him and others that suffer from similar types of illness. To genuinely appreciate our failure, go visit your local homeless haunts. Look up the statistics on how many of them magically appeared when the state of Kansas decided it was no longer a public imperative to operate public mental health facilities.

    While putting the onus of his disease on the Devil or some other personification of spiritual evil is comforting to those of us who But For The Grace of God do not struggle with this sort of disease, it is just that: a way for us to shirk the social responsibility that most religions encourage us to shoulder.

  13. stefanie

    I agree with Stephen Spencer above. As a society, we’ve already decided that mental illness isn’t a public-health priority. Maybe this horrific situation will lead us to reconsider.

  14. Lindsay

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. One important difference between your struggles to resist evil and Loughner’s is that you are equipped with a fully functional, working mind, one that is capable of taking on those temptations, seeing them clearly and struggling with them. Loughner, by all accounts, doesn’t have access to that tool, at least not reliably. Isn’t it a mistake to fault him morally for failing to win a battle he wasn’t remotely equipped for?

    And as per Stephen’s comments, whether you believe that insanity is caused by Evil, by God as a test or as an example, or whatever, retreat into prayer can’t possibly be the right response. Even if insanity were the work of the devil (which I’d dispute), wouldn’t we still have an obligation to try to help fix it, if we can?

  15. Jonny


    I can’t begin to know Loughner’s mind but only my own. By the grace of God, I can struggle with my temptations– sometimes I win and sometimes I don’t. I think we can certainly judge evil for what it is. What Loughner did was objectively evil. Yet, at the same time, I can’t point a finger at him for his moral failings– which is why I believe that it is important “to try and leave judgment of others and myself to God Who knows the heart of each man and is able to judge omnisciently and with compassion.”

    As to your other point, I don’t know this boy. I don’t have any power to change what he did or what happens to him. I do have the power to pray and struggle in the spiritual battle– which is an aspect of real life perhaps that we often forget. I do have the power to struggle in my own life to be kind to others, to encourage those who are down, to sit, as did Stephen Spencer, above, with a good friend through a schizophrenic fugue, etc. This disease of sin infects the world, all of us. It won’t be stamped out with some massive does of worldwide spiritual antibiotic, but I can do what I can where I am with what I have to stamp it out in my own soul and wherever it touches me through others. If each of us was to take seriously (and I admit that I often do not) this duty to care for others and to pray, our world just might be a phenomenally better place.

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  17. Tony

    I’m struck by the thoughtfulness of the comments here, as well as the way several of you are pierced with the same fears as I.

    A thought that touches on what several of you wrote: I think we have developed over centuries, especially in the West, a notion that mind and soul are more distinct than they really are, and further, that the mind is more mechanistic, like a knee cap, say, or a spine, than it really is.

    It makes more sense, to me, that the mind and soul are linked, that what distorts the one distorts the other. This is why Church Fathers warned us to guard against negative logismoi, the thoughts (e.g., obsessive consideration of something we want; pondering the wrongs we have suffered; considering the possibility that someone may be in the process of betraying us) that when unchecked multiply and induce us to do bad things.

    Some people with unguarded but sufficiently powerful and undistracted minds let those minds become laboratories where monstrous, distorted visions are crafted. Then they give themselves over to these delusions and desires, becoming, in effect, what they have crafted.

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