Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Some (Hopefully) Final Thoughts on the Giffords Shooting

Ten days ago very few people outside of her congressional district had heard of Gabriella Giffords. Now we get daily updates on her condition. She is the latest example of people who became heroes by virtue of being a victim. I have yet to hear anything about her career in Congress. I know that she was a moderate "Blue Dog Democrat" and that she voted with President Bush on at least one important vote but not much else. How about telling us something about her?

The news that we get is exaggerating her condition. There is talk of her going home soon. Yesterday the big news was that she gave her husband a neck massage. If you actually pay attention to what the doctors are saying then the message is completely different. Giffords suffered an injury to her brain and the doctors have been so busy saving her life that they have not spent any time assessing her mental condition. They do not know if she is expressing affection for her beloved husband or if these are random movements. The same thing happened with her husband's wedding ring. She took it off his hand and tried it on different fingers. He interpreted this as her trying to say something about their marriage. Unfortunately it sounds more like a child playing with a shiny object. By glossing over this, the news media is setting the nation up for additional trauma if it turns out that her faculties are affected. To date, no one has talked about possible loss of motor function. At best, Giffords faces years of rehabilitation.

The press focused on Giffords and three of the victims. We know a great deal about the child who was killed and a little bit about the intern and the judge. Next to nothing has been said about the final three, all seniors. Less than nothing was said about the other survivors.

Giffords's husband, Mark Kelly, has said that he would meet with Jared Loughner's parents and tell then that the shooting wasn't their fault. This is the same person who blamed the shooting on inflammatory rhetoric. Has he cooled off or does he still blame the Tea Party?

Despite it being clear that Loughner was not motivated by any heated rhetoric from either side. Regardless, most news accounts about Congress are still covering the rhetoric angle.

It is also clear that any speculation that Sarah Palin inspired the shooting was irresponsible. Even the New York Time admitted that their coverage was over the top. That did not stop pundits from saying that Palin should not have defended herself. In one example, Euegene Robinson justified publishing the Palin-shooting tie because Giffords herself had speculated that such a thing would happen.

In the days since, we have learned that the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, appears to be an unbalanced young man whose political views are confused and perhaps irrelevant. But at the time, nothing was known about the assailant or his motives. I am confident that at least one of Palin's professors must have taught her that in reporting about a shooting, the fact that the principal target felt threatened is highly relevant information, as is the specific nature of that threat.

In fact, within hours of the shooting information came out that made the Palin tie-in seem dubious. By the time the flood of "Palin did it" columns hit the stands Monday morning we knew that Loughner was either apolitical or loony-left. I suspect that Palin's professors had some warnings about writing a story before the facts were in. I would bet money that journalism professors never advise their students to completely ignore the facts. A column that Robinson wrote the Tuesday after the shooting shows that he was still in complete denial. It begins: We may not be sure that the bloodbath in Tucson had anything to do with politics.

While people wasted time looking for a political motive, the press seems to have missed the obvious - Loughner's attack most resembles a school shooting. In fact, some of his class-mates say that they worried that he would become a school shooter. This is bad news for the nation in general and the political class in specific. A well-publicized school shooting often leads to copy-cat crimes. I worry that other crazies will start shooting politicians.

There seems to be a push-back from mental health advocates. I have seen three different columns saying that we should not blame the shooting on mental illness. I would like to know why not? If Loughner's delusions drove him to shoot twenty people, killing six, then we should be investigating his delusions. Only a few delusional people become violent. How can we spot the right ones in time? This is not a case of the mental health profession failing Loughner. They were never involved. Why not?

At the same time, we have to be careful of civil liberties. It would be all too easy to rush laws into place to deal with the Tucson shooting only to have them used to silence political dissent.

One final thought - usually a shooter like Loughner dies before he can be questioned. That leaves the country wondering why he did it. Apparently capturing the murderer does not help. Nothing has been made public from either Loughner nor the Fort Hood shooter.

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