What do we call Jared Loughner?

Lesson: problems with labeling criminals and crimes

In the still fresh aftermath of Jared Loughner’s shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killing of six others last weekend, some labels feel appropriate to use— “frightening” and “shocking” come to mind. But in the flood of descriptors, whether used in media reports or conversations at the office, it’s important to think about labels before we use them.

The day of the attack, I was watching a report on my local news station. After showing a video clip from the Arizona crime scene, the news anchor chimed in with what I hope was non-scripted banter, saying, “Yeah . . . that guy’s a nut job.”

According to this study, “nuts” is the derogatory word most frequently used toward young people with a mental disorder. Not only is it offensive toward all mentally-disordered people, it does not adequately explain the problem at hand. Experts now believe Loughner to be schizophrenic. Is the problem that he may be a schizophrenic, or that he may be a schizophrenic who did not access proper psychological and psychiatric treatment? Calling him a “nut job” doesn’t help a sad situation. Plus it adds to the ongoing stigma mentally-disorderd people face daily. Why not be more accurate, and simply refer to him as “the shooter”?

In addition to considering how we label the criminal in this case, we must also be accurate in describing the crime. Roy Peter Clark raised some interesting ideas about this subject in his recent Poynter article. According to Clark, “It’s the status of the victim that counts. The higher the status—Lincoln, Gandhi, John and Robert Kennedy, Dr. King, John Lennon, Sadat, Bhutto—the more the word ‘assassination’ seems to apply.” With this thinking, perhaps wounding Giffords could be an “assassination attempt” and Federal Judge John M. Roll an “assassination,” if they are deemed to be high-profile figures. But are the others Loughner killed, who were not the intended targets and not high-profile figures, victims of “assassination”? Or were they victims of a “fatal shooting”?

In his article, Clark also delves into the etymology of the word “assassin.” Here is how Clark explains the origins of the word:

“We users of English have inherited the word ‘assassin,’ through Italian or French, from an Arab word that means ‘hashish.’ We can trace the word back to the 12th century, when Christian Crusaders from Europe invented their own version of senseless holy war against the Saracens. A group of Muslim fanatics became known as the ‘hash users,’ either because they drugged themselves in preparation for mayhem and martyrdom, or because the availability of pleasurable drugs was part of the promise of paradise.”

He also cites the American Heritage Dictionary’s explanation of the word’s beginnings:

“ . . . those who gave us the word assassin . . . were members of a secret Islamic order . . . who believed it was a religious duty to harass and murder their enemies. The most important members of the order were those who actually did the killing. Having been promised paradise in return for dying in action, the killers . . . were made to yearn for paradise by being given a life of pleasure that included the use of hashish. From this came the name for the secret order as a whole, hassasin, ‘hashish users.’”

I hope you find the story of the word “assassin” as interesting as I do and the previous points thought provoking. If you would like to learn more about stigma and mental illness, consider browsing the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s StigmaBusters archives.

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