Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Lessons of Tucson

It has been nearly a month since Jared Loughner opened fire at a Tucson Safeway, targeting Representative Gabrielle Giffords and anyone who had the misfortune to be standing nearby. Like everything else that happens in the world, we have moved on from this tragedy with all deliberate speed; Giffords is rehabilitating in Houston much faster than expected; Loughner is now in the hands of the criminal justice system; the news cycle must now progress to the next crisis du jour.

As a writer I have not commented on the attack that left six people dead, including a nine year old girl. After having watched the reaction of the news media and the opinionated masses rise, crest, and recede over the intervening several weeks, I thought that there might be a few relevant observations that had yet to be made, and perhaps it is well time someone made them before this tragedy, like so many others, passes completely from the harried American psyche.

Every major news outlet got the story terribly wrong as they announced that Giffords had succumbed to her gunshot wounds, when she was still very much alive. In their rush to "scoop" the competition, journalists forewent any notion of integrity and instead went with the story that was the most tragically enticing. Once one news outlet falsely reported Giffords death (the supposedly august NPR), the rest fell in line quickly. The press were essentially fumbling over themselves to be the first ones to report that a member of Congress had been shot and killed, so focused in fact that they missed the obvious: the tragedy didn't need to be fictionalized, didn't need to be sensationalized.

It seems there was an unspoken hope in the media that a story could progress something like this: Congresswoman Giffords (a fairly moderate Democrat from a generally Republican state) gets killed by a crazed right wing lunatic, whose apartment would ideally be plastered with Tea Party paraphernalia, NRA magazines, and maniacal rantings about Obamacare and the Constitution. That story would practically write itself, and permit the media to declare open season on perennial whipping posts like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. But that narcissistic bubble burst when Giffords pulled through the worst of the worst, and Loughner turned out only to be seriously mentally ill. The sense of letdown one got from the media was nearly palpable.

As it went, many talking heads started to simply assume that Loughner was driven by a political agenda. Even when the facts started to become clear about just what it was that inspired this 22 year troubled soul to kill, they stuck with the implication that somehow, somewhere, Sarah Palin's fingerprints were on this attack. The media was chomping at the bit to make associations that simply were not there, and had no basis in reality.

Ownership of this tragedy belongs to Jared Lee Loughner alone.

As the media made us all aware, Sarah Palin's political operation put out a map that had a rifle scope's cross hairs on Gifford's district, symbolically targeting her for defeat in this past November's election. Sarah Palin did not command her disciples to start shooting members of Congress. She didn't purchase a pistol and a box of ammunition, nor scheme and plot with Loughner to pull off this dirty deed. In fact, no meaningful connection has been made between anything that Palin has ever done and anything Loughner has ever done, including this killing. It is not even clear that Loughner ever even saw Palin's 'target map.'

Sarah Palin and Glenn beck have done much to perpetuate the erosion of civility in this nation. They are by no means alone, nor are they pioneers in that field. However, that erosion was more evident in the actions of the bloodthirsty media than it was in the twisted mind of the accused killer.

I sincerely hope that Gabrielle Giffords continues her miraculous recovery. I hope that those who lost their lives in this catastrophe rest in tranquility, and that their surviving family and friends can get at least a modicum of peace as the tremendous pain loosens its grip over time. I hope that we can get those with mental illness the treatment they need before they arrive at the doorstep of violence towards others, and I hope that justice is served on behalf of Christina Taylor-Green, John Roll, Dorothy Morris, Dorwan Stoddard, Gabe Zimmerman, and Phyllis Schneck.

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