Barack Obama is learning to be the mourner-in-chief

Tucson shooting causes Americans to pause and reflect on their political culture

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Barack Obama is learning that one of the roles of the U.S. president is to be the country's mourner-in-chief, as Bill Clinton was after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and as Ronald Reagan was after the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983.

Being Obama, at today's memorial for victims of the Tucson shooting spree last weekend, he might also try to transform the event into what he calls "a teachable moment."

What makes this shooting different from other random events where a crazy man with a gun creates murder and mayhem? What took this shooting to a higher level of a potentially transformational occurrence?

First, there was the attempted assassination of a personable young congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, a moderate Democrat married to an astronaut. Her personal narrative was already compelling. Her survival of a gunshot wound to the head, apparently without serious brain damage, makes it all the more so.

Then, the attempted assassination of one member of Congress is an attack on all 435 members of the House of Representatives and all 100 members of the Senate.

The nature of their work takes them home to their districts and states for the very kind of town-hall event where Giffords and others were shot last weekend. Town halls are where politicians engage with voters, the heart and soul of democracy. The shooting spree was like a murder in a cathedral.

Second, among the random victims of the shooting was the senior federal judge in the state of Arizona, John Roll, who just happened to be on the scene and stopped to have a friendly word with Giffords.

While she was the target of a would-be assassin, the judge was one of the collateral victims who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nevertheless, the shooting rampage was an attack on the judiciary, as well as the legislative, branch of the U.S. government. Among other consequences, the shooter's trial, if he's found mentally fit, will have to be moved from Arizona to another state, as he is charged with federal offences, and every federal judge in Arizona has already recused himself.

Finally, and most poignantly, there was the death of a 9-year girl, Christina Taylor Green, born on one day of infamy, Sept. 11, 2001, and killed on another in 2011. In between, as her parents told network interviewers, her many interests included politics, and she was on the student council of her school. They said they were grateful for the nine years they had with her. No parent watching could fail to be moved by their amazing grace and courage.

Her mother, Roxanna Green, said she hoped her daughter's death would lead to a national reflection on the toxic levels of public discourse in America. "I think there's been a lot of hatred going on," she said, "and it needs to stop." She's uniquely entitled by tragic circumstance to make the point.

For the rest, the airwaves have resonated with predictable finger-pointing by both the left and the right, by people who shout the news on cable rather than presenting it. They're really quite tiresome, both the voices of MSBNC on the left and Fox News on the right. But the worst offenders are the stars of rant radio, notably Rush Limbaugh.

The culture of shouted news didn't begin with Fox. It can be traced back to a CNN prime-time nightly show called Crossfire. Remember? "From the left, I'm Michael Kinsley. From the right, I'm Pat Buchanan." It was very entertaining, but it had nothing to do with the news. And those guys were models of decorum compared with today's news shouters in the U.S.

Finally there's the matter of the gun. How did an obviously unstable person, who was kicked out of college for his anti-social behaviour and turned down by the U.S. army as unfit for service, manage to get his hands on a semiautomatic Glock pistol with two clips of 33 bullets each?

It was easy. He just walked into a store and bought the weapon, and because he had no criminal record or history of mental illness, no warning lights went off. But Jared Loughner was known to be a weirdo, and he had his own website to prove it. This is one of the curses of new media - any loser can sit in his basement and put his lunatic ravings up on the Internet.

The tragedy is that no one reported him to the cops as a person of interest. The tragic irony is that Giffords herself, in gun-happy Arizona, owns a Glock pistol and told the New York Times last summer that she was "a pretty good shot."

It isn't a crime to carry a concealed weapon in her state. So her assailant just took a taxi to the scene of the crime, the pistol in his pocket.

 
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