THE LAST words that society heard from Jared Lee Loughner before the Tucson massacre came at 5 a.m. on Saturday, five hours before his encounter with U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and with infamy in a Safeway parking lot.

"Goodbye," Loughner wrote on his MySpace page. "Dear friends ... Please don't be mad at me."

It may also have been one of the few things that the 22-year-old gunman wrote on the Internet that made any sense to rational people.

In the hours following Loughner's Tucson, Ariz., shooting rampage that killed six people and wounded Giffords and 13 others, experts pored over an extensive trail of online postings attributed to the failed community-college student and rejected military enlistee.

Loughner's strange ramblings are a source of frustration for anyone seeking to place his ideas within the well-known framework of American political rhetoric in the 2010s by finding references to touchstones such as immigration or abortion or the rise of the tea-party movement.

But several experts say the writings depict Loughner, who lived with his parents, as a disturbed young man who was influenced by several obscure Internet conspiracy theories, several of which skew to the political far-right fringe.

"The ideas we see in his writings reflect the narratives of a right-wing milieu — that of the militias or the Posse Comitatus movement," said Chip Berlet, who tracks ultraconservative political movements through his firm Political Research Associates.

Berlet cited Loughner's online postings that seem to refer to the post Civil War amendments to the Constitution that banned slavery and established birthright citizenship, including for children of immigrants, and to gold and currency issues often discussed on the far right.

The head-shaved Loughner said nothing of consequence yesterday during a roughly 15-minute appearance before a federal judge in Phoenix, where he faces felony charges that include the attempted assassination of Giffords and the murder of a federal judge, John Roll, who was speaking with Giffords when the shots were fired.

But Loughner's state of mind has taken center stage in a swirling national debate over what role, if any, America's increasingly toxic political discourse played in motivating Loughner, or whether his warped actions should be blamed solely on mental illness.

Indeed, as more and more reports surfaced from classmates and neighbors about increasingly unhinged behavior and statements from Loughner in the months before Saturday's shooting, some wonder if he could have been stopped.

"We have a mentally unstable person in the class that scares the living crap out of me," Loughner's Pima Community College classmate Lynda Sorenson wrote in a June e-mail that was circulated to the media. "He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he has come into class with an automatic weapon."

Despite a string of incidents at the school, there was little officials there could do about Loughner other than to bar him from taking classes, which they did in the fall. David Leibow, an assistant clinical-psychiatry professor at Columbia University, told the Huffington Post last night that colleges cannot legally force students into treatment unless they pose a threat, an extremely difficult standard to meet.

Meanwhile, experts say that whatever Loughner's state of mental distress, his ideas were almost certainly being shaped by conspiracy theories and other ideas made popular on the Internet.

Some of Loughner's specific writings that interested experts.

  • Post-Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution. On Dec. 15, Loughner wrote on his MySpace page: "Reading the second United States constitution I can't trust the current government because of the ratifications."

    Berlet said that "the second United States constitution" is often used by extremists to describe the amendments enacted in the late 1860s, including the 13th Amendment that banned slavery and the 14th Amendment, which defines natural-born citizens and which has become a right-wing target for guaranteeing citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants born here.
  • Currency. In another posting on a conspiracy website, Loughner allegedly asked: "Is it possible that politicians are taking advantage of the money system? It's possible to overthrow a government and change the currency." In the Dec. 15 posting, he added: "No! I won't pay debt with a currency that's not backed by gold and silver!"

    In the last couple of years, numerous conservative commentators — including Glenn Beck of the Fox News Channel — have publicly questioned the stability of America's paper money and talked up the value of gold.
  • Grammar. Loughner made several inexplicable referencesonline to issues surrounding language, arguing in one post that the government engages in "mind control...by controlling grammar."
  • Online references by Loughner to what he called "conscience dreaming" are believed by experts to be a garbled reference to a phenomenon known as "conscious dreaming" or "lucid dreaming."

    A longtime friend, Bryce Tierney, told Mother Jones magazine that Loughner was obsessed with "the idea that conscious dreams are an alternative reality that a person can inhabit and control — and said that Loughner became 'more interested in this world than our reality.'"

    Perhaps — but in 15 or so blood-soaked seconds in an Arizona parking lot, Loughner's grim reality became America's reality, and it's quite possible we will never fully understand why. *