Journalism & Commentary: Responsibilities All Around

— This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 10 January 2011, was last revised on 18 May 2013. © Govinthenews Vol. 2:1(1).

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It has now been four days since Arizona Representative Gabrielle (Gabby) Giffords and 18 others were gunned down in a hail of bullets outside a Safeway in Tucson. Gabby, now known to have been the gunman’s prime target, is thankfully recovering in a Tucson hospital from the horrific gunshot wound she suffered to her head. Six others died.

The shooter, a young man of 22 who apparently has suffered from mental problems for some time, is in custody. In his first court appearance he told the presiding judge he understood the charges against him.

Now we find ourselves asking all the whys we always confront after such things happen. And, as in times past, the answers are muddied by a flurry of editorials  that swirl around the political climate of the day, all of them biased according to where the author stands on the political compass.

It is far too easy, in the heat of the first few days and weeks that follow such events, to cross the line beyond responsible journalism (objective reportage of fact) and irresponsible diatribe (forceful and bitter verbal attacks against someone or something). Mature journalists and commentators must know that, yet many—some among them the most mature in the business, at least in terms of chronological age and time on the job — persist in making unsubstantiated accusations while calling for sweeping changes in laws and regulations.

Don’t we know by now that neither could possibly be wise? That no precipitous action of any kind—being borne by the emotion, anger, and disgust that emanates from the unfathomable depths of our souls—could possibly be founded on the best logic or reason that would otherwise be at our command?

We ought to. Frankly, it is much too early to speak out in any venue regarding this terrible event. Rather than contribute to that common, and—in my humble opinion—premature dialogue, I would counsel all of those who have opinions, one way or another, to hold them in until the dust has settled. Only then can we trust our true feelings to come to the fore. We need time, individually and as a nation, to sort things out.

This is a time—not for reaction—but for reflection. As we reflect on our lives and the life of our culture it is helpful to look back at similar tragedies of the past, to remind ourselves of the causes behind them, and the consequences that they spawned.

For me, recounting the events that took place at the Luby’s Massacre of 16 October 1991, in Killeen, Texas, seems particularly appropriate.

That cafeteria was a favorite meeting spot for me and a good friend. My erstwhile Luby’s luncheon companion was, at the time, the administrator of a nearby Copperas Cove, Texas nursing facility. He met me there once a month to discuss various and sundry topics over a good meal, the kind Luby’s could always be counted on to provide.

When I first heard that George Jo Hennard had driven his pickup truck through the front window of that Luby’s, and then had shot and killed 23 innocent people while wounding 20 more, the shock was practically overwhelming. In the days and weeks that followed I tried to digest what was slowly becoming known about the man who committed that crime.

Today we know that George Jo Hennard, 35, had once been so addicted to marijuana that–two years and five months prior to the massacre–he’d lost his merchant marine license after a bag of pot was found in his room aboard ship. He was unable or unwilling, afterward, to find regular work, and was unemployed at the time the massacre took place.

He possessed poor social skills, and was variously described by those who knew him as a loud, rude, impatient, troubled, vindictive, combative loner.

Perhaps most telling of all, he had major difficulties relating to women, to the point that he began stalking two young women who lived nearby the home where he lived in Belton, Texas. His behavior so frightened those young ladies that they sought help from the local sheriff’s department. They were told, at the time, that law enforcement personnel were powerless to protect them unless or until Hennard first committed a chargeable criminal act.

Never mind that the most likely criminal acts that male stalkers of female victims carry out usually results in their rape, murder, or both. And, in those days, concealed carry of firearms by ordinary citizens was unlawful, so even if these women were willing to protect themselves, outside the home, with deadly force—should the need arise—they were prohibited by law from carrying a firearm for personal protection.

In the end, they were never harmed by this man, though from events that later unfolded it can be presumed that the risks they faced were enormous. Four months after he began stalking them in his neighborhood, Hennard drove his pickup through the front window of the Killeen Luby’s Cafeteria. The possibility that he was motivated, at least in part, by an intense hostility toward women, may explain why 14 of the 23 innocents whose lives were taken at his hand that day were women.

Does any of this sound familiar?

As details about the young gunman in Tucson, Arizona, emerge, a number of parallels can be seen. In fact, thus far the only prominent differences between the two incidents involve geography and numbers. George Jo Hennard and this young gunman were remarkably alike in personality and, from all indications, psychology as well.

We don’t know the full picture yet, but this man, as opposed to George Jo Hennard–who died at the scene of his crime–is still alive. The possibility exists that we may learn more about what made him tick, on that fateful day, as time goes by…

One thing is certain. We need to analyze this situation carefully, soberly, and cautiously. When we can do that, and only then, it may be time to look into the future, adjust, and move forward.

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