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The Times Loses It

Sense and nonsense about Tucson.

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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It was a weekend of great sorrow. On Saturday, January 8, an insane young man tried to kill Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, injuring her horribly. The man then fired his gun into a small political gathering, murdering a nine-year-old girl, a federal judge, a congressional staffer, and three of Giffords’s constituents. Thirteen other people were wounded. In the midst of life we are in death. There is, in this world, no making sense of such events.

The Times Loses It

David Clark

Among the worldly, however, there is a temptation to make nonsense. Thus it was that on Sunday, January 9, the New York Times provided a further grief, much less important than the death and mutilation of innocents but shameful nonetheless.

The Times ran, as its second lead, above the fold on the front page, a story about the Tucson shootings headlined “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Vitriol in Politics.” The article, by Carl Hulse and Kate Zernike, contains almost nothing newsworthy. Nor can it be called news analysis, beginning as it does with an attempt to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: “The shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords .  .  . set off what is likely to be a wrenching debate over anger and violence in American politics.”

If self-fulfilling prophecies were wanted from reporters​—​and they are not​—​a better one would have been “Bloodshed Puts New Focus on Mental Health Policies.” The person in custody for the Tucson crimes is, according to all accounts, profoundly crazy. For decades in America there has been an effort to ensure that the rights of those who are not sane are the same as the rights of those who are. Perhaps a wrenching debate over this should be had.

In the article’s second paragraph we are told that the accused, Jared Loughner, had an Internet site that “contained antigovernment ramblings.” The same may be said​—​at least in respect to ramblings against the newly sworn-in House of Representatives​—​about Internet sites posting speeches by President Obama.

But antigovernment ramblings coming from outside the government are so sinister that they are sinister whether they are sinister or not. “And regardless of what led to the episode,” Hulse and Zernike say, “it quickly focused attention on the degree to which inflammatory language, threats and implicit instigations to violence have become a steady undercurrent in the nation’s political culture.”

To maintain that there’s a lack of evidence for such a sweeping statement would be inaccurate since Hulse and Zernike themselves are doing what they claim is being done. And given the tight deadlines of a Sunday edition they have focused their attention quickly indeed.

They make an interesting choice of verb tense in “have become.” Maybe Hulse and Zernike are very young and, what with the way American history is taught these days, are unaware of riots, bombings, lynchings, exterminations of native peoples, assassinations, assassination attempts, gun fights, and the Civil War, not to mention the inflammatory language, threats, and implicit instigations to violence in the writings of Tom Paine.

Or maybe Hulse and Zernike are old hacks in the pocket of certain political interests that feel threatened by populism. A member of the populace​—​however deranged​—​has shot a liberal​—​albeit one who is independent and selective in her liberalism. Even this most pathetic of excuses will serve. Ordinary Americans skeptical about the powers, prerogatives, and expense of certain political interests shall be execrated.

Hulse and Zernike do say, “In the hours immediately after the shooting .  .  . top Republicans including Speaker John A. Boehner and Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona quickly condemned the violence.” There’s that word “quickly” again, a superfluous modifier, this time implying that slow, reluctant condemnation might have been expected.

The sheriff of Pima County is quoted: “He said it was time for the country to ‘do a little soul-searching.’ ” Hulse and Zernike don’t take his advice and recommence arguing beside the point about health care legislation that “ignited opposition from the Tea Party movement” and “stirred strong feelings that flared at angry town hall meeting held by many Democratic lawmakers.” This, it seems, is part of a “broader anger and suspicion rising about the government, its finances and its goals, with the discourse partially fueled by talk shows and websites.”

Hulse and Zernike pause and duly note, “Tea Party activists also condemned the shooting.” Nice use of also.

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