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Image: Jared Loughner
U.S. Marshals
Jared Loughner, seen in this picture taken by Pima County sheriff's investigators, made his first court appearance Monday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/10/2011 6:06:36 PM ET 2011-01-10T23:06:36

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 basically this: "What is government if words have no meaning?"

Loughner, who allegedly shot Giffords and 19 other people Saturday, killing six, was angry about her response — she read the question but didn't have much to say.

"He was like ... 'What do you think of these people who are working for the government and they can't describe what they do?'" one friend told The Associated Press on Sunday.

"He did not like government officials, how they spoke. Like they were just trying to cover up some conspiracy," the friend added.

Both friends spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they wanted to avoid the publicity surrounding the case.

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To them, the question was classic Jared: confrontational, nonsensical and obsessed with how words create reality.

The friends' comments paint a picture bolstered by other former classmates and Loughner's own Internet postings: That of a social outcast with 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 in a wide-ranging screed that was posted in video form and ended with nearly the same question his friends said he posed to Giffords: "What's government if words don't have meaning?"

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Loughner was a registered independent, but didn't vote in the 2010 election, The Washington Post reported, citing Pima County voting registry records.

He lived with his parents about a five-minute drive from the shootings, in a middle-class neighborhood lined with desert landscaping and palm trees.

The New York Daily News on Monday published what it said were pictures of a sinister shrine — a miniature altar with a skull replica sitting atop a pot filled with shriveled oranges — in a backyard tent in Loughner's home. The authenticity of the photos could not be independently verified.

Image: 2006 yearbook picture of Loughner
AFP - Getty Images
2006 Mountain View High School yearbook picture of Jared Loughner.

Neighbors said Loughner kept to himself and was often seen walking his dog, almost always wearing a hooded sweatshirt and listening to his iPod.

They said they found the Loughner family unpleasant at times, particularly Loughner's father Randy, the Times said.

"Sometimes our trash would be out, and he would come up and yell that the trash stinks," next-door neighbor Anthony Woods, 19, told the Times. "He's very aggressive."

High school friends said they fell out of touch with 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 Loughner suggested he might come along.

It was unusual — Loughner hadn't expressed an interest in guns before — and his increasingly confrontational behavior was pushing them apart. He would send bizarre text messages, but also break off contact for weeks on end.

"We just started getting sketched out about him," the friend said.

Mental health concerns
Around the same time, Loughner's behavior also began to worry officials at Pima Community College, where Loughner began attending classes in 2005, the school said in a release.

Between February and September, 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 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, among other things, a mental health professional agreed he did not present a danger, the school said.

It was at the college that Loughner had posed his question to Giffords about government and words, one friend said.

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A college spokesman said Giffords often has used school property for open events; a Giffords spokesman said he was not sure at which event the exchange would have taken place.

Loughner's alienation from his friends was gradual.

The Loughner they met when he was a freshman at Mountain View High School may have been socially awkward, but he was generally happy and fun to be around.

The crew smoked marijuana every day, and when they weren't going to concerts or watching movies they talked about the meaning of life and dabbled in conspiracy theories.

For a time, Loughner drank heavily, to the point of poisoning himself, the friends said.

Once, during school lunch break as a junior, he downed so much tequila that he came back to class, within five minutes passed out cold, had to be rushed to the hospital and "almost died," one friend said.

New World Order
Mistrust of government was Loughner's defining conviction, the friends said.

He believed the U.S. government was behind 9/11, and worried that governments were maneuvering to create a unified monetary system ("a New World Order currency" one friend said) so that 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 in the wide-ranging list included "Mein Kampf," "The Communist Manifesto," "Peter Pan" and Aesop's Fables.

Over time, Loughner became increasingly introspective — what one of the friends described as a "nihilistic rut."

An ardent atheist, he began to characterize people as sheep whose free will was being sapped by the government and the monotony of modern life.

"He didn't want people to wake up and do the same thing every day. He wanted more chaos, he wanted less regularity," one friend said.

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The friends said Loughner told anyone who would listen that the world we see does not exist, that words have no meaning — and that the only way to derive meaning was during sleep.

Loughner began obsessing about a practice called lucid dreaming, in which people try to actively control their sleeping world.

Several people who knew Loughner at community college said he did not engage in political discussions — in fact, he didn't talk much at all, and when he did classmates cringed.

At least one student expressed the fear that Loughner would turn violent.

Lynda Sorenson, 52, a former college classmate who previously worked as a mental health technician at a psychiatric hospital in upstate New York, told the TODAY show that she suspected he might return to the college with a gun.

"My very first impression was that he was unstable, mentally and emotionally. He frightened me," she said. "His behavior was just so inexplicable. He had outbursts that were completely nonsensical. His behavior was angry and aggressive and something about him just frightened me."

"When I heard about the shooting, the first thought in my mind was I bet you it's Jared," she told TODAY. "I spoke to my husband and my father earlier that morning, and said, 'I'm not going to be surprised if I find out that this is who did the shooting.' When I found out it was indeed him, I was quite shaken."

'Scares the living crap out of me'
On June 1, the first day of the class, she emailed a friend, detailing her concerns.

"One day down and nineteen to go. We do have one student in the class who was disruptive today, I'm not certain yet if he was on drugs (as one person surmised) or disturbed," Sorenson said.

"He scares me a bit. The teacher tried to throw him out and he refused to go, so I talked to the teacher afterward," she added. "Hopefully he will be out of class very soon, and not come back with an automatic weapon."

On June 14, she described in an email how Loughner "scares the living crap out of me."

"He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon," Sorenson wrote. "Everyone interviewed would say, Yeah, he was in my math class and he was really weird. I sit by the door with my purse handy. If you see it on the news one night, know that I got out fast..."

Asked about the emails, she told TODAY: "It's the one time that I wish I had been wrong."

Lydian Ali, another classmate, told the Times that Loughner would "laugh a lot at inappropriate times."

"He presented a poem to the class that he'd written called 'Meathead' that was mostly just about him going to the gym to work out. But it included a line about touching himself in the shower while thinking about girls. He was very enthusiastic when he read the poem out loud," he told the paper.

Video: Rep. Giffords receives threats over health care

Another poetry student, Don Coorough, said Loughner read a poem about bland tasks such as showering, going to the gym and riding the bus in wild "poetry slam" style — "grabbing his crotch and jumping around the room."

When other students, always seated, read their poems, Coorough said Loughner "would laugh at things that you wouldn't laugh at."

Coorough said that after one woman read a poem about abortion, Loughner was "turning all shades of red and laughing," and said, "Wow, she's just like a terrorist, she killed a baby."

"He appeared to be to me an emotional cripple or an emotional child," Coorough said. "He lacked compassion, he lacked understanding and he lacked an ability to connect."

Steven Cates, another poetry student, said Loughner "didn't have the social intelligence, but he definitely had the academic intelligence."

"He was very into the knowledge aspect of school. He was really into his philosophy classes and he was really into logic and English. And he would get frustrated by the dumbed-down words people used in class," Cates said.

Aggressive, bizarre, hysterical
The New York Times reported one incident at the college last June when algebra class instructor Ben McGahee asked a simple arithmetic question.

According to McGahee, Loughner gave a random number and then said: "How can you deny math instead of accepting it?", the paper reported.

It said McGahee complained to the school authorities. He told the Times Loughner exhibited a pattern of behavior that included aggressive outbursts, bizarre comments and hysterical laughter.

"I was getting concerned about the safety of the students and the school. I was afraid he was going to pull out a weapon,"McGahee told the paper.

Loughner expressed his interest in grammar and logic on the Internet as he made bizarre claims — such as that the Mars rover and the space shuttle missions were faked.

He frequently used "if-then" constructions in making nonsensical arguments. For instance: "If the living space is able to maintain the crews life at a temperature of -454F then the human body is alive in the NASA Space Shuttle. The human body isn't alive in the NASA Space Shuttle. Thus, the living space isn't able to maintain the crews life at a temperature of -454F."

Loughner also said in one video that government is "implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar."

He described America's laws as "treasonous" and said that "every human who's mentally capable is always able to be treasurer of their new currency."

Loughner described himself as a U.S. military recruit in the video, but the Army released a statement saying he tried to enlist but was rejected.

An Army official said Monday that

Loughner was rejected by the military in December 2008 after he admitted that he was a drug user.

Loughner was questioned by an Army recruiter as part of a standard screening process for all recruits, said Army spokesman Jared Lee Loughner. When he admitted being a drug user, he was turned down and never underwent a urinalysis or other drug tests. "It never got that far," said Tallman. "He was denied entry and was never a recruit."

Army officials had reported earlier that Loughner had "failed a drug test" but now say his application to enlist was rejected because of his response to the usual questions about possible drug abuse.

Loughner has also had prior minor brushes with the law. In October 2007, Loughner was cited in Pima County for possession of drug paraphernalia, which was dismissed after he completed a diversion program, according to online records.

A year later he was cited for criminal damage-graffiti after someone saw him using a marker to deface a street sign with symbols, according to police and court records cited by The Arizona Republic.

Records show the case was dismissed on Dec. 9, 2008, after he completed a diversion program, according to the Republic.

The Associated Press, NBC News and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Video: Picking up the pieces in Tucson

  1. Closed captioning of: Picking up the pieces in Tucson

    >>> we now want to go to lester holt , who is across town from us here in tucson, at university medical center with an update on congresswoman gabby giffords ' condition tonight. good evening.

    >> reporter: brian, good evening. as of this morning, officials said only eight shooting victims remain. the most seriously injured is congresswoman giffords. they say she's nowhere out of the woods, but she is holding her own and that in itself offers hope. doctors say two days after being shot through the brain, the congresswoman's condition remained unchanged today. and that ironically is progress.

    >> recovery at this phase in the game, no change is good. and we have no change. that is to say she's still following those basic commands. on top of that, the cat scans are showing that there is no progression of that swelling.

    >> reporter: it was clear from the start, this would not be a normal back-to-back, back-to-class monday. memorials and tributes abound. joit side the hospital, outside the school, 9-year-old christina taylor green attended. outside slain federal judge john roll's old high school . and in the arizona statehouse, where the governor replaced her planned state of the state speech with another message.

    >> tragedy and terror sometimes comes from the shadows and steals our joy and takes away our peace.

    >> reporter: while the parents of the youngest victim, little christina , talked of the call that changed their lives. a call telling them that their daughter's trip with a neighbor to meet congresswoman giffords had gone terribly wrong.

    >> i had received a phone call from my friend's husband, and he said that suzy and christina were at the university medical center , and i assumed immediately they might have been in a car accident .

    >> reporter: and you get to the emergency room and what happens next?

    >> i realized it was bigger than just a car accident .

    >> reporter: nurse nancy bowman and her physician husband happened to be at the safeway when it happened and joined others treating victims. she won't forget the heroic effort to try to save christina .

    >> i don't know who that was, it must have been a medical person that was doing chest compressions on the little girl , but she was so tiny that it just took a lot of care.

    >> reporter: bowman was trying to save judge john roll.

    >> my husband came back around after we had done cpr for several minutes for what seemed like an eternity. it just seemed like forever before -- before my husband got back to me and he finally said to me, you know what, honey? there's other people there bleeding that need your help and you can't help him anymore. so i just -- i just looked at him and i said, i'm so, so, so sorry.

    >> reporter: you know, the physical wounds from this shooting have been easy to tally. brian, it's the emotional ones spread across this community that are so very, very difficult to quantify.

    >> achingly sad stories still emerging across tucson tonight. lester holt . lester, thanks for your reporting tonight.

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Interactive: Giffords' shooting

Photos: Mourning follows deadly shooting in Arizona

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  1. A hearse carrying the remains of U.S. District Judge John Roll arrives at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church before his funeral on in Tucson, Ariz., Friday, Jan. 14. Roll was killed in the Jan. 8 shooting that left six dead and wounded 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. (Morry Gash / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Mary Kool holds a single red rose outside the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church where the funeral of U.S. District Judge John Roll was to take place. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mourners arrive at the funeral service of Judge Roll. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A flag recovered from ground zero is raised during funeral service for 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green at the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Tucson, on Thursday, Jan. 13. Green was the youngest victim of the shooting rampage. Green was born on Sept. 11, 2001. (Mamta Popat / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Left to right, Roxanna and John Green, mother and father of Christina Taylor Green, and their son Dallas Green, arrive at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church for her funeral in Tucson on Thursday. (Mamta Popat / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 2,000 mourners were in attendance at the funeral of Christina Taylor Green on Thursday in Tucson. (Mamta Popat  / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. People dressed as angels line the street leading to the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church where the funeral for Christina Taylor Green was to take place in Tucson on Thursday. Hundreds, dressed in white, lined the streets for more than a quarter mile of the funeral procession. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. John Green kisses his son Dallas on the head as the family follows the casket of Christina Taylor Green at her funeral mass in Tucson, on Thursday. At left is Christina's mother Roxanna and at right is Camden Grant, Christina's godmother's son. (Rick Wilking / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A young mourner carries flowers and a teddy bear to the funeral of Christina Taylor Green in Tucson on Thursday. (Mamta Popat / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cindy and John McCain listen during the funeral service for shooting victim Christina Taylor Green in Tucson on Thursday. (Greg Bryan / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A woman holds the service program from the funeral for 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green outside St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Tucson on Thursday. (Mike Segar / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Arizona's McKale Memorial Center during the memorial service for victims of the shootings in Tucson. Obama told the crowd on Wednesday, Jan. 12, that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had opened her eyes for the first time since being shot in the head during the attack on Jan. 8. Six people were killed and 13 wounded by the lone gunman. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Daniel Hernandez , the 20-year-old intern credited with likely saving the life of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, hugs her husband, NASA shuttle commander Mark Kelly, as U.S. first lady Michelle Obama applauds. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. First lady Michelle Obama holds the hand of Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's husband, NASA shuttle commander Mark Kelly, as they listen to President Barack Obama speak. (Jim Young / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. People sing the national anthem during the memorial service on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama at the start of the memorial event. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. People line up at the University of Arizona campus for the memorial service. (David Becker / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Barb Tuttle is overcome with emotion at a makeshift memorial outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Jan. 12 in Tucson. (Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Women waiting in line for the memorial service look at the campus paper at the University of Arizona. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Mark Kelly, husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, holds his wife's hand in the congresswoman's hospital room at University Medical Center on Jan. 9. (Offiice Of Gabrielle Giffords / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ron Barber, 65, district director for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is visited by Giffords aide Daniel Hernandez in his hospital room on Jan. 9. Hernandez rushed to Gifford's aid after she was shot. Hernandez said that while he held the wounded Giffords, he asked another bystander to put pressure on Barber's wounds. He also asked Barber for his wife's phone number and then shouted it out to someone so that Barber's wife, Nancy, could be informed of the shooting. (Gabrielle Giffords' Office / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama observe a moment of silence with White House staff members on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Jan. 10. (Jewel Samad / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Congressional staff observe a moment of silence to honor victims of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. (Michael Reynolds / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Rachel Cooper-Blackmore, 9, adds a note to a memorial at Mesa Verde Elementary School in Tucson, on Jan. 10. Christina Taylor Green, 9, was killed during the Tucson attack. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Rachel Crabb, 5, holds hands with teachers, parents and other students during a moment of silence for her slain schoolmate, Christina Taylor Green, at Mesa Verde Elementary School on Jan. 9. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Candles are lit on Sunday at a makeshift memorial outside University Medical Center in Tuscon, Ariz., for those killed or wounded during the attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords . (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ellie Steve, 6, from left, Lucia Reeves, 6, and Zoe Reeves, 18, gather for a candlelight vigil outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., on Sunday. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Six balloons representing the six people killed in Saturday's shooting spree, as part of a prayer vigil.Rep. Gabrielle Giffords battled for her life on Sunday after an assailant shot her in the head and killed six others in a rampage that has launched a debate about extreme political rhetoric in America. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. People console each other at a makeshift memorial located outside the University Medical Center on Jan. 9 in Tucson, Ariz. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. The American flag flies at half-staff on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Jan. 9. In a brief statement Sunday morning, House Speaker John Boehner said flags on the House side of the Capitol in Washington will be flown at half-staff to honor the slain aide, Gabe Zimmerman, of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Thirty-year-old Zimmerman was among six killed Saturday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. The congregation prays for the victims of Saturday's shooting in Tuscon, at the Pantano Christian Church in East Tucson, Jan. 9. (Rick Wilking / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Monty Edmonds, 36, left, of Tucson; Maggie Kipling, 34, of Tucson; Leigh Harris, 50, of Phoenix; Bella Furr, 21, of Tucson; and Sarah Herrmann, 22, of Tucson participate in a vigil at University Medical Center for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot during an event in front of a Safeway grocery store Jan. 8, in Tucson, Ariz. (Laura Segall / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Emergency personnel use a stretcher to move Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head outside a shopping center in Tucson on Saturday. (James Palka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Ernie Freuler fights back tears as Ray Lilley takes photos of the scene outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head by a gunman who opened fire outside a grocery store, Saturday, Jan. 8, in Tucson, Ariz. (Chris Morrison / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A law enforcement officer stands outside the home of Jared L. Loughner, identified by federal officials as the suspect arrested in connection with the shooting of U.S Representative Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., Jan. 8. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. People gather for a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting in Arizona at the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Saturday Jan. 8. (Jose Luis Magana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Vera Rapcsak and others hold signs outside the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday after she was shot while meeting constituents. (Chris Morrison / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Emergency personnel attend to a shooting victim outside a shopping center in Tucson, Ariz. on Saturday, Jan. 8, where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others were shot as the congresswoman was meeting with constituents. Rep. Giffords, 40, a Democrat, took office in January 2007, emphasizing issues such as immigration reform, embryonic stem-cell research, alternative energy sources and a higher minimum wage. The gunman shot Giffords in the head, seriously wounding her, and killed six other people in a shooting rampage at a public meeting in Tucson on Saturday. Giffords was airlifted to a hospital in Tucson where she underwent surgery. One of the doctors who treated her said he was optimistic about her recovery. (James Palka / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A woman places flowers by the office of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Capitol Hill in Washington on Saturday after she was shot in Tucson by a gunman who opened fire, killing six people, including a U.S. district judge, John M. Roll. (Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. In this photo provided by The White House, President Barack Obama talks with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer about the shooting. (Pete Souza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Emergency personnel at the scene where Giffords and others were shot outside a Safeway grocery store in Tucson on Saturday. (Matt York / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Law enforcement personnel work the crime scene on Saturday. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A medical helicopter evacuates victims from the shooting scene. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (45) Mourning follows deadly shooting in Arizona
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    Slideshow (26) Former Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

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