The Tucson Shootings: Lessons from the Eggshell Rule
My heart, thoughts, and prayers are with the victims of the Tucson shooting this past Saturday which happened when a lone-gunman identified as Jared Lee Loughner took a cab to a small political meet and greet staged outside a Tucson supermarket and shot at 18 people while attempting to assassinate House of Representative member Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). He injured several and killed the following:
-U.S. District Judge John Roll, 63.
– Gabe Zimmerman, 30, Giffords’ director of community outreach.
– Dorwin Stoddard, 76, a pastor at Mountain Ave. Church of Christ.
– Christina Greene, 9, a student at Mesa Verde Elementary.
– Dorthy Murray, 76.
– Phyllis Scheck, 79.
As we remember these lost souls and pray for the healing of the injured including US Representative Gabrielle Giffords who remains in stable condition from a direct gunshot wound to her head that pierced her skull and went through her brain, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge at least the possibility that toxic and violent political rhetoric may have played a hand in the killer’s motives. It’s the natural thing to do when incidents like these happen: try to diagnose what went wrong.
There is this legal doctrine in law called the eggshell rule or “take the victim as you find them” which means, for example, if you approach a person only intending to rob him or her and unbeknownst to you, the person has a weak heart, suffers a heart attack from the shock of the robbery and dies, you would be charged with murder. The law doesn’t care if the intent was only to rob. It was the risk you took in robbing in the first place.
The action of robbing is a supervening event, meaning, but for the fact of being robbed, the victim would still be alive. Equally so, politicians and media types need to assume the risk in using ultra violent rhetoric and gun references in their language. There needs to be some acknowledgment that when relaying a message to a large audience and one that has such passionate rhetoric, it can reach equally passionate, but possibly unstable people. Of course, the intent of those who use such language is not for those who do not understand metaphor to take it literally but rather the intent is to motivate the base, constituency and audience to side with their political perspective, go vote, rally other supporters etc. Nonetheless, the speaker has to take responsibility for the good, bad and ugly and prepare for the consequences if someone does take it too far.
Many conservatives and people on the right of the political spectrum, including Tea Party movement members, are asking the country to slow down in the finger pointing. While it is true, we still do not know the motives of Jared Lee Loughner, let’s review what we do know:
1. we do know that he has read political literature, seemed aggravated with the government and obviously had some political motivations because he targeted a politician in an assassination attempt.
2. we know he was more than likely deranged, disturbed and unbalanced.
3. we know his movements were not random and were not motivated by passion, jealousy, personal vendetta or some of the other reasons people kill. Generally, assassination attempts are on political figures because the would be assassin dislikes something about that person’s politics.
To dance around these known facts and ask to reserve judgment that this was not politically-motivated would be taking a head in the sand approach to reality. Who can deny the intensity of the debate and the toxicity of the language in political rhetoric today? Look at these signs:
It’s the pussy footing around that has gotten this country in the state it is in today where people are fearful about calling a spade a spade for fear of hurting someone’s feelings.
Many have pointed fingers at Sarah Palin as well, which may be unfair. Only the killer is responsible for what he did. However, we cannot ignore the fact that Palin and her staff must have believed they may have had some culpability in Loughner’s actions because if they did not, there would have been no need to delete Palin’s tweet, “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead-RELOAD”” and then pointing people to her Facebook page featuring a graphic of districts with Democrats that then were planning on voting for the HealthCare Reform bill – Giffords was one of them. That chart was also removed from the SarahPAC site. Having this conversation is part of the natural course whenever a tragedy happens. To try to hush all the talk now is disingenuous especially coming from people who ask the same type of questions whenever any other tragedy like this occurs.
Back when Gifford’s district was first listed last spring, Rep Gifford herself told MSNCC she objected to it and said she felt threatened by it. People asked Palin’s staff to remove it but they did not, citing they saw no need to. If her staff felt no harm in it being there then, why did they remove them after the shooting? Obviously, Palin’s camp were fearful that those words and images might indeed had been part of Loughner’s motivation. Perhaps they were not, but at least now, they are realizing the insensitivity of them and possible harm that could come from those words and images, especially if they trigger copy cats.
If anything positive can come from this tragedy is the dialogue the nation will have to have about the political rhetoric and language. To be honest, all parties must acknowledge how toxic it has become from both sides, but particularly from those who often hail the second amendment right to bear arms. There has to be an admittance that hyperbole, metaphors and other clever lexicon and jargon are lost on many and by using too much violent-filled language, you may influence, in the wrong way a person that does not get it or will “get it” but literally. It would be irresponsible to ignore this possibility. The same way you can’t ignore the chance that someone would get hurt if you shout “Fire” in a crowded theater.
What would be responsible for all on both sides of the political spectrum to do is “man up” or “woman up” and openly state that they mean no violence or harm to anyone in their use of guns, target, crosshairs or any violent rhetoric. That would be the honest and noble first step rather than continue the across the aisle finger pointing. Then go from there.
Who knows, that gesture may work to dissuade the plans of some other domestic terrorist – And that’s another thing, let’s not tiptoe around about calling this kid what he was- “unstable” or disturbed or not as the sympathetic media likes to characterize non-Muslim killers who look like the American boy next door.
Nonetheless, to totally deny the vitriol and its possible effect on the would-be insane lunatic out there would also be irresponsible.
It’s a call that conservatives and liberals need to make. Being conservative doesn’t mean you lack compassion and are not willing to acknowledge how language can and has hurt.