I was on the treadmill Saturday morning when I looked up and saw Gabby Giffords’ face on two television screens. Then a third lit up with her image. That’s not right, I thought. I unplugged the earbuds from the iPod and clicked into the Alaska Club’s television system. There it was. Rep. Giffords, had been shot at a public event in Tucson. I lived in Tucson before moving to Anchorage in 2003, and I had followed Gabrielle Giffords’ career. She is my age, and I had admired her quick rise and centrist politics.
I was shaken, and returned home to tell my husband what had happened that morning at a Safeway on the northwest side of the city where we used to live. At that point, some news outlets were reporting that Giffords had died, and a witness on the scene told CNN that there were several bodies in the parking lot of the grocery store.
To fill the void, some of the television stations began speculating about what could have driven someone to open fire on a member of Congress meeting with constituents. Some of the coverage was unprincipled speculation, lacking any grounding in fact because facts don’t just pile up for news anchors thousands of miles away from the mayhem. It takes time for reporters on the scene to find out what happened, who died, who was injured. The speculation was all over the place. Was the violence caused by the angry vitriol in politics? Could we pin blame for the attack on the fact the Arizona is the heart of the immigration debate while Giffords has stood against her state’s new anti-illegal immigrant laws? Or was it a mentally unstable person who happened to open fire on retirees and children for no good reason?
Although I understand the need to find a motive, and try to find it quickly, I wanted everyone to slow down. Here were people, lined to meet with a congresswoman, to ask her questions or thank her for her public service. They were participating in American democracy, and they were murdered or badly injured for it. It shouldn’t happen here, right? Isn’t this particular headline reminiscent of Afghanistan, or Pakistan, where the governor of Punjab was assassinated earlier in the week and his assassin showered with rose petals? Although I do think vitriol — whether it's political or aimed at the BSC — is rampant, I'm not sure that was the cause here. Sirhan Sirhan did not kill Bobby Kennedy for political reasons; I'm not sure we've ever really figured out what motivated him. What motivated John Hinckley Jr.? Not politics, but mental illness.
Besides wishing we could bring back the dead and see Rep. Giffords to a speedy recovery, I do hope this awful event helps us reflect on what we mean by American democracy and citizenship.
Her husband, Mark Kelly, a Navy pilot and NASA astronaut, in a statement released today, asked that people wanting to help should send a contribution to one of two organizations she has long supported, the Tucson Community Food Bank and the American Red Cross. For me, I’m praying for friends who are front-line reporters in Tucson and have to cover this traumatic story. And I’m going to send a contribution to a local nonprofit.