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Jared Loughner’s Zeitgeist Obsession

Did a conspiracy cult film inspire the Tucson shooter?

By 1.17.11

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The two-hour video is anti-Christian, anti-American and anti-capitalist, and Jared Lee Loughner became obsessed with it. Zeitgeist, a conspiracy-theory documentary released in 2007, has spawned its own cult following. According to Loughner's friends, the accused Tucson gunman was one of the cult's most zealous converts. And many of Loughner's otherwise inexplicable obsessions -- from his fascination with currency to his rantings against illiteracy to his paranoid fears of "mind control" -- parallel ideas promoted in Zeitgeist.

The first disclosure of the movie's influence on the mass murder suspect's beliefs came in an interview Wednesday with ABC News. "I really think that this Zeitgeist documentary had a profound impact upon Jared Loughner's mindset and how he views the world that he lives in," Zach Osler, 22, told ABC's Ashleigh Banfield. Osler's father confirmed that influence in an interview published Sunday by the Arizona Republic. "He wanted to watch [Zeitgeist] all the time," George Osler told the Phoenix newspaper. "It was cool at first. But then it got weird. It was all he wanted to do."

The Zeitgeist connection may be the most crucial clue to understanding the bizarre ideas that seemed to crowd Loughner's disordered mind in months leading up to the Jan. 8 shootings that left six dead and 12 wounded in Arizona. By the time he latched onto the conspiracy-theory film, Loughner was already a very troubled young man.  Described as quiet and awkward, Loughner had been a promising saxophonist, playing in a student jazz group, but began using drugs and alcohol in high school. Some friends have traced the start of his decline to his sophomore year of high school in 2005, when he broke up with a girlfriend. He dropped out of high school after his junior year and thereafter lost touch with many of his former friends, including Caitlyn Parker. On the day of the shooting which targeted Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords, Parker was one of the first of the accused gunman's acquaintances to push back against speculation that the crime had been perpetrated by a right-winger. No, Parker said in a series of Twitter messages, the Jared Loughner she remembered was "quite liberal," even "radical" in his politics. But Parker hadn't been in contact with Loughner in more than four years. Could it be that, in the interval, Loughner's orientation had changed? After all, some observers said, his disjointed online messages about currency could reflect the kind of anti-Federal Reserve views of many free-market purists on the Right.

Loughner's Zeitgeist fixation help clears up that confusion. Zach Osler and Loughner remained friends after high school, until late 2008, and what Loughner absorbed from Zeitgeist certainly wasn't conservatism. Jesse Walker of Reason magazine has called the movie's worldview "New Age paranoia," a fringe that is also beyond the range of mainstream liberalism, but its assertion that the 9/11 attacks were conspiracy orchestrated by the U.S. government clearly makes it a phenomenon of the Left. And while Zeitgeist has been associated with the so-called "Truther" movement -- like the 2005 movie Loose Change, of which Loughner was also reportedly a fan -- it adds other ideas that make it far more complex.

Divided into three parts, Zeitgeist begins with a half-hour assault on Christianity as a myth. The film asserts that Jesus is "a literary and astrological hybrid… a plagiarization of the Egyptian sun-god Horus." This is a thesis promoted in a series of books, including The Christ Conspiracy (1999), by author D.M. Murdock, who writes under the pen-name "Achyra S." Murdock served as an adviser on Zeitgeist, and the film's popularization of her "Christ-myth" ideas has brought it to the attention of Christian writer James Patrick Holding of Tektonics Ministry. He notes that many viewers of Zeitgeist claim it has "shown them the truth for the first time," and that it evidently appeals to those "disaffected with the status quo." Holding said Zietgeist "also seems to have appeal among what I call 'fundamentalist atheists' who are deeply hostile to Christianity."

Deeply hostile, indeed, as the film tells viewers: "Christianity, along with all other theistic belief systems, is the fraud of the age." This idea of fraudulent mythology is then carried over into the film's second segment, about the 9/11 attacks: "A myth is an idea that, while widely believed, is false. In a deeper sense, in the religious sense, a myth serves as an orienting and mobilizing story for a people." That 35-minute segment ends with audio of a speech by John F. Kennedy talking about a "ruthless and monolithic conspiracy." Of course, JFK was talking about communism, but after a half-hour of claims that the U.S. government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, Kennedy's words about "infiltration" and "subversion" take on a different meaning for the intended audience. And that segment ends with scenes of Kennedy's 1963 assassination in Dallas.

What follows in the third segment of Zeitgeist is a mélange of conspiracy-theory stuff about "ruthless banking interests," in which such usual suspects as the Rothschilds make their appearance. The narrator declares the income tax "completely unconstitutional," despite the 16th Amendment, which specifically authorizes it. U.S. involvement in World War I, World War II and Vietnam are all denounced as the results of secret plots, and Prescott Bush -- father and grandfather of presidents -- is portrayed as a Nazi collaborator. Finally, Zeitgeist pushes fears of a government scheme to implant communications chips into people to track their whereabouts, and concludes by warning of a "surveillance society," a future "where everyone is tracked, everyone is on camera and everyone is subordinated." Indeed, the film's narrator tells viewers in the closing monologue, "social manipulation" has already "completely inhibited the culture," creating "a controlled population utterly malleable in the hands of the few."

This is the paranoid worldview that Jared Loughner absorbed as he watched Zeitgeist obsessively. He was not the only one obsessed with it. The film has created a worldwide "movement" with thousands of followers, in which the director, Peter Joseph, has joined forces with Jacque Fresco, promoter of the utopian "Venus Project" that promises a currency-free "resource-based" future.

"They do not want you to think too much.… You had better wake up and understand that there are people guiding your life, and you don't even know it," says one of the film's "experts," anti-Masonic conspiracy theorist Jordan Maxwell, near the end of Zeitgeist, after the narrator has denounced "the stupefying downward slide" of American education. A few minutes later, while images including Jesus Christ, Bill O'Reilly and Saddam Hussein flash across the screen, the narrator says: "The last thing the men behind the curtain want is a conscious, informed public, capable of critical thinking, which is why a continually fraudulent zeitgeist is output via religion, the mass media and the educational system."

Did Jared Loughner imagine himself part of that "conscious, informed public"? Did he believe his demented rantings represented "critical thinking"? These are questions that those trying to understand the carnage in Tucson may need to begin asking.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.