Green Room

‘Whatever Happened to Crazy?’ Pentagon Shooter J. Patrick Bedell, the Analysis of Failure and the Failure of Analysis

posted at 10:36 am on March 6, 2010 by

In April 1999, newspaper op-ed pages, weekly news magazines and cable-TV networks were swamped with “experts” offering competing theories for the massacre at Columbine High School. Psychologists, culture critics, religious leaders, gun-control activists, think-tank wonks – for about two weeks after the shootings, the expert analysts were ubiquitous.

Ultimately, however, the best explanation of Columbine came from comedian Chris Rock: “Whatever happened to crazy?”

“What, you can’t be crazy no more? Did we eliminate ‘crazy’ from the dictionary? . . . When l was a kid, they used to separate the crazy kids from everybody. When l was a kid, the crazy kids went to school in a little-a– bus. They had a class at the end of the school . . . Just in case they went crazy, they would only hurt other crazy kids. And we was all safe.”

Chris Rock’s analysis came to mind Friday as I watched this YouTube video in which Pentagon shooter J. Patrick Bedell explained his idea of “information currency”:

We could analyze Bedell’s “invention,” or we could analyze Bedell’s behavior — his geeky mannerisms, etc. — but no such analysis would suffice to explain why Bedell decided to show up Thursday at the Pentagon with a pair of 9-mm pistols and multiple ammunition clips. In the end, it’s hard to look at Bedell’s sad little video without thinking of Chris Rock’s question: “Whatever happened to crazy?”

In fact, a family friend told the Los Angeles Times, Bedell had been mentally ill for more than a decade:

San Benito County Supervisor Reb Monaco said he had been a close friend of the Bedell family for 35 years. . . .
Patrick, he said, had suffered from mental illness for at least 15 years.
“He probably was mentally ill for that period of time,” said Monaco, a retired schoolteacher. “He seemed rather paranoid. He was a heavy marijuana user and tended to self-medicate with marijuana. . . .”

The San Francisco Chronicle similarly reports:

A portrait emerged of 36-year-old John Patrick Bedell as a man who appeared to deteriorate mentally in recent years as he ran up a record of minor crimes and posted conspiracy theories about the government on the Internet. . . .
Bedell lived off and on with his parents in his native Hollister and had himself admitted to mental health centers four times in recent years . . .

By all accounts, Bedell was very intelligent and did well in school, but in real life — outside the classroom — he appears to have been a failure, a misfit, the stereotypical loner:

Students knew him as someone who was dedicated to his work but did not socialize much.
“I used to see him study a lot,” said Miguel Munguia, an electrical engineering undergraduate. “Nobody really knew him personally. I think he kept to himself.”

This is the man whom many are now trying to portray as a “right-wing extremist,” a symbol of the Tea Party movement or libertarianism or “lone wolf” terrorism. But whatever happened to crazy?

Failure and Scapegoating

Several pundits seeking to view Bedell’s final act of suicidal violence through the prism of contemporary politics have compared him to Joseph Stack III, whose kamikaze dive into an Internal Revenue Service office in Texas stirred New York Times columnist Frank Rich to new heights of ridiculousness.

The comparison of Stack and Bedell is apt, however, in that both of them were failures who ended their lives with attacks on scapegoats. As was clear from Stack’s suicide note, he blamed not only the IRS, but also his accountants, President Bush and “the monsters of organized religion” for his failures. Bedell’s own scapegoating of the Pentagon was even crazier, involving his claim that the suicide of a Marine in 1991 was related to a U.S. government conspiracy in the 9/11 attacks.

Scapegoating represents the externalization of blame, and we see this pattern clearly in Stack’s case. Tens of millions of Americans deal with the IRS every year without having their lives ruined by the experience. Was it really true, as Stack claimed, that his accountants, the IRS and others were exclusively responsible for his tax problems? Or – far more likely — was Stack blaming others because he was unable to accept responsibility for his own failures?

Compared to Stack, whose tax grievances were specific and personal, Bedell’s scapegoating was more elaborate and grandiose. Why? Because Bedell’s failure was so complete and so chronic.

Whereas Stack had a job, a home and a wife — he even played bass in a country-rock band – Bedell appears to have spent most of his adulthood living with his parents. So far, no reporter has even suggested that Bedell had a career or romantic interests. His only hobbies seem to have been computers and marijuana.

Victimhood and the Blameless Self

“[T]herapeutic morality encourages a permanent suspension of the moral sense. There is a close connection, in turn, between the erosion of moral responsibility and the waning capacity for self-help . . . between the elimination of culpability and the elimination of competence.”
Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979)

Lasch’s insight about the connection between culpability and competence, and the way in which “therapeutic morality” undermines self-sufficiency by negating personal responsibility, is essential to understanding the impact of a culture that fosters narcissistic personality traits.

Good mental health is characterized by optimism and a sense of agency — that is to say, the belief that we are ultimately in control of our own lives. The sense of agency is critical to success and happiness in every area of life, in large part because it is necessary to self-improvement and problem-solving.

Everyone encounters failure and disappointment, but a person who believes that his life is within his own control will respond to such setbacks in a positive, constructive way — analyzing the cause of the failure, seeking ways to improve, determing to work harder to overcome disadvantages and remedy personal deficiencies. A psychologically healthy person therefore must accept responsibility for his failures and shortcomings just as willingly as he accepts reward for his successes and abilities.

While it is true that other people sometimes contribute to our failures by undermining our efforts, it is also true that our successes generally require the assistance of others. Factors which are genuinely beyond our control tend to even out over time. In a free and prosperous society, few people are so disastrously disadvantaged as to have no hope whatsoever of improving their lot in life.

 Thus, it is psychologically unhealthy to blame others whenever things go wrong in our lives, but this is exactly what “therapeutic morality” encourages.

Attempting to comfort people by flattering their sense of blamelessness — “It’s not your fault” — therapeutic morality ultimately undermines the vital sense of agency, in effect telling people that they are neither culpable nor competent. It promotes the notion of innocent victimhood, the blameless self, and encourages people to avoid responsibility for their failures by wallowing in self-pitying rationalizations.

The Politics of Envy

Self-pity and envy are closely associated emotions. If we are not to blame for our own failures, then others deserve no credit for their success. And here the conservative reader recognizes the basic content of a main theme of modern liberalism, namely class warfare.

Liberalism tells us that rich people are rich because they have some advantage that is fundamentally unfair, and that poor people are victims of an unjust system that is rigged against them. Mocking this attitude in 1964 — at the very height of liberalism’s prestige during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson — Ronald Reagan famously quipped: “We have so many people who can’t see a fat man standing beside a thin one without coming to the conclusion the fat man got that way by taking advantage of the thin one.”

What does all this have to do with J. Patrick Bedell? Consider his evident aimlessness, his retreat into a marijuana-induced fog, and his fantasy of marketing “information currency” software when he couldn’t even find and keep a meaningful job. Now consider his appetite for conspiracy theories, his rantings against powerful forces that secretly control the world – paranoia.

Paranoia is rooted in the narcissist’s need to rationalize failure, to find scapegoats for his own shortcomings. Bedell had been mired in hopeless failure for years, and his scapegoats had to be large enough to psychologically compensate that failure. Rather than comparing Bedell to Joseph Stack, then, we might more profitably compare the Pentagon shooter to John Hinckley, who succumbed to the psychotic delusion that he could win the affection of Jodie Foster by assassinating Ronald Reagan.

Much like Hinckley, Bedell seems to have believed that his act of violence would lend significance to his otherwise meaningless existence. And though both Hinckley and Bedell attacked politically symbolic targets, their attacks were not ultimately political acts. They were both just crazy.

Political Psychosis

Very little knowledge of Bedell’s personal story was necessary, however, for some people to construe his Pentagon attack as politically important. They had their explanations ready-made, thanks to an army of “experts” who had been warning since last year that political opposition to the Obama administration was inherently dangerous, rooted in irrational malevolence with an extraordinary potential for violence.

In December, a Democrat delivered one of the most remarkable Senate speeches in recent memory:

Even before the Senate voted on cloture, the Democrats’ health-care legislation was already delivering benefits in the form of a free mental-health screening delivered by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: If you oppose this bill, you’re a dangerous nut.
Such was the essence of Sunday’s floor speech in which the junior senator from Rhode Island quoted at length from Richard Hofstadter’s 1965 classic, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and offered it as a diagnosis of the health bill’s opponents.
Whitehouse paraphrased Hofstadter’s thesis, warning of “the dangers of an aggrieved right-wing minority with the power to create what [Hofstadter] called a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible.”

For decades, liberals have cherished the Hofstadter theory that, because no one could rationally oppose liberal policies, therefore opponents must be suffering from mass psychosis. This belief in the irrationality of their opponents means that liberals don’t actually have to debate policy on its merits, they need merely point out that conservatives are scary kooks.

So it was that every liberal journalist and blogger was eager to be the first to declare that J. Patrick Bedell was the smoking-gun proof of conservative kookery. Never mind the evidence that Bedell was just plain crazy, and that his particular brand of craziness didn’t match squarely with the Left’s pre-fab motif of Deranged Tea Party Terrorist. Heedless of these contradictions, liberals engaged in a laughably predictable rush to judgment. It deserved to be mocked, and often, and by someone who knows how:

Maybe an “Irony Alert” would have been helpful. A Twitter buddy asked, “Dude, what have you got against libertarians?” Nothing at all, actually. I was merely mocking a certain blogger’s declaration that Bedell was “an extreme right wing libertarian” and “an anti-government right wing extremist of the Ron Paulian persuasion.”

This raises the question of agency, you see. Who was really responsible for the Pentagon attack: Patrick Bedell or Ron Paul? Was Bedell’s violence endorsed or praised by Campaign for Liberty? Are there other “extreme right wing libertarian” killers lurking out there?

No, Bedell was just a crazy dopehead loser. And whatever happened to crazy?

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Comments

Excellent analysis. Goes along with zombie’s article—the guy was just a nut. So was Stack. The current fashionable political paranoia is latched onto by unstable minds. Doesn’t mean it was political.

Sekhmet on March 6, 2010 at 1:34 PM

A nice analysis, but unfortunately a waste of breath. If the media is willing to take the Austin plane kamikaze Joe Stack’s denunciation of George Bush, the Catholic Church, religion in general, and US corporations in his defiant suicide note calling for a socialist uprising as proof that he’s a “right-wing nut” and bury his manifesto until the story blows over, a plea to take a crazy person with actual right-ish views as an outlier is going to fall on deaf, if not indignant, ears.

HitNRun on March 6, 2010 at 11:24 PM

The ‘D’ in BDS stands for Deraingement.

percysunshine on March 7, 2010 at 11:25 AM