Friday, January 21, 2011

Suspicious of Tragedy

Gabrielle Giffords has become a superstar.

All it took was surviving a bullet to the head, fired from a weirdo wanting to assassinate her.

Granted, that's doing it the hard way. And Giffords didn't even have a say in the matter.

She was already a politician - a Jewish Democrat in a state with a reputation for WASPish conservative politics and a Hispanic Catholic heritage. But little did we know.

If anything, the tragedy in Tucson revealed a level of diversity in Arizona that few outsiders knew existed. As historian Allen Ginsberg mused to Mark Shields of PBS Newshour, "We saw a white, Catholic, Republican federal judge murdered on his way to greet a Democratic woman, member of Congress, who was his friend and was Jewish. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year-old Mexican-American college student, who saved her, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon... And then it was all eulogized and explained by our African-American president."

Which says more about the vibrancy of the American electorate than the miserable details of shooter Jared Loughner.

The Story Continues

Today, Congresswoman Giffords was flown to a specialty hospital in Houston, where her astronaut husband lives, and from which he predicts she'll walk in a matter of months. I certainly join with all of civilized humanity and hope that if he's wrong, it'll be by a matter of weeks instead of months.

But as I scan headlines from news organizations around the globe today, almost two weeks after the shooting, the media - and, from what they say, the Tucson community - has yet to find anything more sensationalistic to take its place. And yes, I'm choosing the word "sensationalistic" intentionally. Maybe even, um, sensationalistically.

I'm not trying to begrudge Giffords and the other victims the attention due them as innocents. I'm not saying that an attempted assassination of a United States Congresswoman and the murder of a Federal judge aren't major news stories. I'm not denying that the grief that most certainly continues to wash over the families of those who were injured and killed isn't deep, confusing, and raw.

Why Aren't We Moving On?

I do wonder, however, when it's time to move on from these things. I've already confessed to an ambivalence over President Barak Obama's hosting of a community wake. Was there one when Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968? How about when Representative Leo Ryan of San Francisco was ambushed during the Jonestown cult massacre in 1978?

I also wonder, perhaps because I'm a guy, the extent to which Gifford's photogenic looks and swashbuckling astronaut husband come in to play as news outlets try and capitalize on their highly unconventional lifestyle. It's a lot easier to sell ad space with such pleasing photos than, say, um... and I don't mean to be rude, but take your pick from the current class of congresswomen.

Maybe it's just my cynicism revving in overdrive. Maybe the amount of time I'm spending researching my blog essays on the Internet is beginning to drain me of whatever aptitude for empathy I may have had. Maybe I've become accustomed to smelling the unpleasant odor of politics wafting from prolonged exposure to emotionally-driven news items.

It's not like I begrudge the victims the compassion being bestowed upon them. I'm actually surprised our vapid pop culture has been feeding the media binge on this story as long as it has. And hopefully, the press will get this story completely out of its system before Loughner's long and winding journey through the courts.

Of course, if the media dropped this story like a hot potato, then some victims might feel like the nation doesn't care about them any more. That they've been forgotten.

This would speak to the reliance our society has developed on our media as purveyors of significance. Do you really matter if lots of other people don't know your story?

Wow, I Hate to Admit It

The thing that tipped me off as to the faint hint of politics in the air was President Obama's nationally-televised speech in the wake of the shootings. I'm not a liberal, and I'm not a far-right-wing conservative, but it smelled suspiciously, innocuously, staged for something broader than sympathy.

Not that there was anything wrong with his speech. But maybe there would be more right with it if somebody other than the President had given it. Particularly since he'd been languishing in the polls.

And surprise - now he's not. Rasmussen says as of today, Obama is polling at his highest numbers in almost a year, while CNN says he's up 5 points over November. The Wall Street Journal says that as of yesterday, he is up 8 points over December. Several news outlets credit Obama's Tucson speech for much of these increases.

Let's face it - there's little magic in politics. The pandering formula is probably as old as democracy itself. Some liberals might point to 43's grave address in the National Cathedral after 9/11 as proof that grandstanding over tragedies is a bipartisan affair. Yet to Bush's credit, 9/11's unprecedented horror seared the conscience of the entire world in a way that forever changed how we live. Like it or not, Tucson's current sorrow will soon fade into the background like so many other atrocities do in our violent society.

Until it does, however, I guess Tucson's grief will continue to be, at least in theory, America's. Unfortunately, though, that means when right-wing radio talk show hosts start complaining about Democrats milking this story for every drop of political value, I fear I'll have to take their side on that one.


Please hurry up and get well quick, Gabby!

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