At an event roughly three years ago, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords took a question from Jared Loughner, the man accused of trying to assassinate her and killing six other people.
According to two of his high school friends, the question was essentially this: "What is government if words have no meaning?" Mr. Loughner was angry about her response — she read the question and had nothing to say.
"He did not like government officials, how they spoke. Like they were just trying to cover up some conspiracy," one friend told the Associated Press on Sunday.
Both friends spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they wanted to avoid the publicity surrounding the case. To them, the question was classic Jared: confrontational, nonlinear and obsessed with how words create reality.
The friends' comments paint a picture, bolstered by other former classmates and Mr. Loughner's own Internet postings: That of a pot-smoking social outcast with atheistic, nihilistic, almost indecipherable beliefs steeped in mistrust and paranoia.
"If you call me a terrorist then the argument to call me a terrorist is Ad hominem," the 22-year-old wrote Dec. 15, part of a wide-ranging screed that was posted in video form and ended with this: "What's government if words don't have meaning?"
His high school friends said they fell out of touch with Mr. Loughner and last spoke to him around March, when one of them was going to set up some bottles in the desert for target practice and Mr. Loughner suggested he might come along. It was unusual — Mr. Loughner hadn't expressed an interest in guns before — and his increasingly confrontational behavior was pushing them apart.
He would send nonsensical text messages, but also break off contact for weeks on end.
"We just started getting sketched out about him," the friend said. It was the first time he'd felt that way.
Around the same time, Mr. Loughner's behavior also began to worry officials at Pima Community College, where Mr. Loughner began attending classes in 2005, the school said in a release.
Between February and September, Mr. Loughner "had five contacts with PCC police for classroom and library disruptions," the statement said. He was suspended in September 2010 after college police discovered a YouTube video in which Mr. Loughner claimed the college was illegal according to the U.S. Constitution.
He withdrew voluntarily the following month, and was told he could return only if he met certain conditions, including getting a mental health professional to agree that his presence on campus did not present a danger, the school said.
Mistrust of government was his defining conviction, the friends said. He believed the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and worried that governments were maneuvering to create a unified monetary system ("a New World Order currency," one friend said) so that social elites and bureaucrats could control the rest of the world.
On his YouTube page, he listed among his favorite books "Animal Farm" and "Brave New World" — two novels about how authorities control the masses. Other books he listed included "Mein Kampf," "The Communist Manifesto" and Ayn Rand's "We the Living."
Over time, Mr. Loughner became increasingly engrossed in his own thoughts — what one of the friends described as a "nihilistic rut." Mr. Loughner, an ardent atheist, began to characterize people as sheep whose free will was being sapped by the monotony of modern life.
Several people who knew Mr. Loughner at community college said he did not seem especially political, but was socially awkward. He laughed at the wrong things and made inappropriate comments.
Poetry student Don Coorough, said that after one woman read a poem about abortion, "he was turning all shades of red and laughing," and said, "Wow, she's just like a terrorist, she killed a baby."
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