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?"
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.
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.