By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 9:08 PM
What are Jared Loughner's parents thinking today?
Do they blame themselves for the rampage allegedly committed by their son that killed six people and gravely injured U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) in Tucson on Saturday? Should we?
In a parenting climate that is fraught with mixed messages, conflicting studies and thousands of theories, mothers and fathers across America are taking a moment and perhaps shuddering at the thought of their children doing something horrific. Inside plenty of parental hearts this week is a probing self-evaluation of whether red flags are waving in their own homes.
"My child listens to heavy metal. Is that okay?"
"He's wearing black! All the time!"
"His drawings are all war scenes."
"He is sullen and reclusive."
When something like this happens, we pounce on the obvious signs we think we would have caught. The incoherent video rantings, the diary full of violent thoughts, the dark drawings. Wouldn't a good parent see all of this?
Infuriating, adolescent ticks will register on parents' danger scales. Lots of earnest talks will happen in heinously messy bedrooms this week.
Parents want to know what to look for and how something like this can be prevented. Answers are scant because the few parents who have been in that unimaginable hell have little to say to us.
After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold made the word "Columbine" shorthand for "school massacre" in 1999, their parents were the objects of a nation's scorn.
They didn't speak out, defend their children or their parenting while we were all dissecting their kids' clothes and hair and plans.
Nada. Zip. Radio silence.
Ten years later, one of the mothers finally spoke, then quietly receded into her own grief, refusing to take questions.
"I was widely viewed as a perpetrator or at least an accomplice since I was the person who had raised a 'monster.' . . . If I turned on the radio, I heard angry voices condemning us for Dylan's actions. Our elected officials stated publicly that bad parenting was the cause of the massacre," wrote Susan Klebold, in a 2009 essay published in O Magazine.
"Through all of this, I felt extreme humiliation. For months I refused to use my last name in public. I avoided eye contact when I walked. Dylan was a product of my life's work, but his final actions implied that he had never been taught the fundamentals of right and wrong. There was no way to atone for my son's behavior," she wrote.
She described her son as being quiet, sullen and short with her. The stuff of the teen years, right? He liked origami and Legos. But mass murder? It never occurred to her.
"I tried to identify a pivotal event in his upbringing that could account for his anger. Had I been too strict? Not strict enough? Had I pushed too hard, or not hard enough?" she said.
Questions we all ask. But where are the answers?
Eleven years later, we still don't know. Left without a blueprint for the creation of a peach-fuzz-faced killer, we wonder if we should be more wary of Legos or trenchcoats.
Even when the signs of trouble are more obvious, as they were with Seung Hui Cho, the gunman who killed 32 people and then committed suicide in April 2007 at Virginia Tech, the urgency of the problem did not register with the people closest to Cho - his parents and sister.
"We never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence," wrote his sister, Sun Kyung Cho days after that tragedy.
"He has made the world weep. We are living a nightmare," she said.
With Jared Loughner, the flags seemed to be waving everywhere.
All around him - at school, at the gym, online and in the neighborhood - folks knew that Jared Loughner was deeply disturbed.
At 22, he was living with his parents, rejected from the military, and sent home by the community college that didn't want him back unless he had mental evaluations. The school sent a letter to his parents last October, asking them to get him treated.
Maybe the Columbine killers had their dark thoughts stashed in journals their parents couldn't find, but today, parents can spy on their kids' YouTube postings and MySpace or Facebook pages to see what they're up to. Did Amy and Randy Loughner know about their son's vitriolic and disjointed online ramblings?
His parents haven't spoken publicly . Some neighbors said they were as reclusive as he was, and few people had any information to offer publicly about the family.
But we want to hear from them. We want to know whether the signs were all over the house, but went ignored. Or whether they tried hard to fix him, but couldn't. We want to learn from them.
"There are always warning signs. Nobody simply snaps," said Helen Smith, a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, Tenn., who has written books on school violence and specializes in boys and young men.
She's got plenty of young men in her Knoxville practice who have violent thoughts. But they are getting help because their parents paid attention and pounced.
"It takes a lot of work to get them to open up. It's a matter of sheer time and effort. And it isn't easy," she said.
Let's hope all parents will learn to know when it's that time.