WASHINGTON -- Shortly after 10 a.m. MST on Saturday, Jan. 8, an apparently unstable young man goes on a murderous rampage at a grocery in Tucson, Ariz. A federal judge and five others are murdered in cold blood. Thirteen others -- including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- are seriously injured. Those are the cold, hard facts.
It's a serious story. It begs the inevitable question: "How could this happen?" But instead of starting a dispassionate examination of the details, members of the mainstream media, politicians and pundits -- within minutes of the event -- began twisting the atrocity in Tucson. In the days since, exploitation of this tragedy has become a national pastime.
Understandably, in this era of "instant news," some of the first reports were simply wrong. We initially were told that Giffords had been "assassinated." And less than an hour later, the real spin began.
While victims still were being triaged by trauma teams at University Medical Center, we were "informed" that the killer was a "tea party activist" motivated to violence by "extremist right-wing rhetoric." Breathless reporters "notified" us that an accomplice or co-conspirator was being sought, and Arizona state Sen. Linda Lopez posited, "The shooter is likely, from what I've heard, an Afghan vet."
A day after the tragedy in Tucson, when we knew little more than the name of the accused perpetrator, an editorial in The New York Times claimed that "it is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats, setting the nation on edge." Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik went even further, claiming, "The kind of rhetoric that flows from people like Rush Limbaugh" was to blame because it "angers" people "against government, angers them against elected officials." This sentiment was echoed by liberal pundits and columnists, many of whom indicted Sarah Palin, Republicans and conservative radio and television personalities for "fomenting the attack" and "opposing common-sense gun control laws," exacerbating the carnage.
It turns out that none of this is true. We now know that Jared Loughner, the accused killer, apparently acted alone, that there is no evidence he was influenced by "right-wing rhetoric" and that among his favorite readings is "The Communist Manifesto," hardly a conservative screed. We're now aware that the accused killer is not a veteran -- he was turned away by military recruiters when he tried to enlist in the Army -- and that while enrolled at Pima Community College, Loughner exhibited evidence of "bizarre behavior" and drug abuse.
Though investigators have yet to discern all the facts surrounding last Saturday's assault, others continue to exploit the terrible incident for their own political purposes. Some already have discovered a solution to "the problem": to abridge the First and Second amendments of our Constitution.
Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., wants to introduce a bill making it a federal crime to "use language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a federal official or member of Congress." Which government entity would determine what is or is not "perceived as threatening" is as yet unknown.
Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., long an advocate for stringent "gun control measures," observes that the Tucson shooter "legally purchased the gun he used" and now says she wants new legislation to restrict access to certain types of firearms, ammunition and "clips" (apparently, she means magazines) because they are "unnecessary to the general public." Sheriff Dupnik now acknowledges there were "several incidents" with the alleged gunman, "to the point where law enforcement at Pima College got involved and ... decided to expel him." Yet no official has explained why these events were not pursued to the point where they would warrant entries in the FBI's "instant check" criminal database. That alone would have precluded any gun store from selling Loughner the weapon that police say he used in last Saturday's attack.
I am thankful that new legislation to abbreviate our Bill of Rights will be debated and voted on in calmer moments, not in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy in Tucson. That, of course, did not preclude the president from seizing the moment.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama quite appropriately flew to Tucson, visited the victims of the outrage and their families, and spent time in the hospital room with severely wounded Rep. "Gabby" Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly. The president then addressed a moving memorial service. In lengthy prepared remarks -- interrupted no fewer than 50 times by applause some consider surreal in a prayer service -- Obama announced, "Right after we went to visit, a few minutes after we left her room and some of her colleagues from Congress were in the room, Gabby opened her eyes for the first time."
Afterward, an on-scene correspondent said, "It was as though the president had become reporter in chief." Thus far, no one has described Obama as "healer in chief." Perhaps that title is being saved for next week's State of the Union address. That would be a travesty.