Albert Peterson, a defense contractor from Virginia, shot his wife, Kathleen, and two children, Matthew and Christopher, before turning the gun on himself. None survived.
Peterson had recently lost a beloved uncle to suicide, and reportedly battled mental illness himself – including severe paranoia – for years. His acquaintances claim that in addition to those personal struggles, Peterson had become increasingly concerned with the state of the country and the prospect of President Barack Obama’s reelection as of late. He talked often of his worries that his two teenage sons would inherit the massive debt of an “irresponsible” government. A family friend revealed to the Daily Mail that he had begun sending frequent political emails that were increasingly paranoid, sometimes more than once per day.
Apparently, Peterson had also told this friend that he was under a lot of pressure at work. As a defense contractor, he felt that Obama’s reelection would lead to a drastic reduction of defense spending, which he feared would cause him to lose his job. The defense industry is facing half a billion dollars worth of cuts thanks to a bipartisan sequestration measure that cuts a percentage of each department if Congress cannot reach a budget agreement.
This isn’t the first tragedy that has political roots. In January of 2011, Arizona House representative Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down during a meet and greet with constituents at a local supermarket. Giffords survived, but six others did not, including a nine-year-old girl. The shooter, Jared Loughner, was also severely mentally ill and found incompetent to stand trial twice before pleading guilty.
A small percentage of mentally ill persons have the propensity for shocking acts a violence; it’s a reality that is unavoidable without proper and accessible care. But is amped up negative political coverage adding fuel to the fire?
It’s true that this is the most negative political campaign in history, on both sides. Super PACs, organizations that are not technically affiliated with candidates and can receive unlimited money from individuals, corporations, and other organizations without the barriers of campaign finance laws, are not allowed to explicitly endorse a candidate. By virtue, the majority of the ads these bottomless money pits will produce will be negative. The 2010 campaign, the first to take place after the Citizens United decision that allowed for Super PACs, was also quite negative.
And beyond the campaign, the electorate has grown incredibly polarized since President Obama took office. The Tea Party, famous for its incendiary rhetoric and disregard for facts, took root as both a movement among conservatives and a serious faction within Congress. Media heroes like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have been painting the Obama administration as the end of America.
Politicians and pundits can’t be held personally responsible for how their statements land with those who struggle with paranoia, nor should they be. But unfortunately, as political discontent reaches a fever pitch, people who are already susceptible to paranoia and violence will be driven to violence.