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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tragedy in Tucson: The Debate

The people of Tucson, Arizona remain in mourning for those lost in Saturday's attack on congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford's public forum with constituents outside a commercial outlet in the city. The attack left 5 dead, including a federal judge, with Gifford now in a stabilising condition in a nearby University Medical Centre.  The 22 year-old gun man named as Jared Loughner will face charges which may result in a sentence as severe as the death penalty.

The coverage now seems to be turning towards motive and the prevention of further attacks of this nature from re-occurring. As a general rule of thumb after tragedies of this nature that force people to do considerable amounts of soul searching numerous figures appear on television (indeed generally with far more expertise than myself) hypothesising as to what could have spurred someone to commit such an atrocity. While I do not profess to be an authority or even have any considerable knowledge of mass killings of this kind I hope you may indulge me in some opinions of my own on this tragic event.

The first remark I will make on the coverage of the shootings is how distanced this case is being viewed as from other similar mass killing cases. For example, at the time of the Virginia Tech Massacre of 2007 comparisons were constantly drawn to other similar shooting sprees in other educational institutions in the US, for example the infamous tragedy in Columbine.

News outlets appear to be treating this case as a purely politically motivated attack. This, to me, is certainly a mistake. Discussions on Sky News (24-hour news network in the UK) and CBS in America that I have been following in the last few days have seemed to be placing the blame squarely on two aspects of American society for the Arizona attack. The first point they raise is that of the harsh political partisan rhetoric coming out of both sides of the political spectrum in the States.

An image that as been central to British/Irish coverage of this issue is that of Sarah Palin's cross-hair targeting of key battle grounds in the recent mid-term elections. Indeed many times while watching speeches by Palin and shockingly harsh rhetoric used by those such as Glenn Beck I have found it overly severe, hate filled and lacking in any sort of civility. I don't mean to highlight solely Republican examples as experts have been quick to point out that such harsh speeches have been visible from all sides of the political sphere. However, to suggest that this had a significant role to play in the attack is in my belief searching for an easy answer and masking rather than treating the real issue here.

The second point raised constantly in reports is in my opinion clearly a more credible issue. In Arizona mental health funding has been significantly reduced over the past few years and indeed Arizona has the poorest funded mental health care facilities in the US. A report carried last year by CBS News showed that there are measures in place allowing even those suspected of being severely ill to be committed without proof. This is a controversial measure but greater awareness about mental health facilities could surely help in the fight against such behaviour in the future.

However, I find it hard not to ask the same question as someone working for Irish national broadcaster RTE on Monday. It seems absurd to me and anyone I have discussed this issue with on this side of the Atlantic that a discussion on how to prevent similar violence would take place without a mention of gun control. Coming, as I do from a nation in which not even the police are allowed to carry arms I find it shocking that the right to bear arms is constitutionally enshrined. In my whole life I can never remember even setting eyes on a gun that wasn't behind a glass case in a museum.

America is a nation noted for its history of violent gun crime. I am dumbfounded how lobby groups still defend the right of Americans to carry weapons. Perhaps it is owing to the debt of patriotism in the country or a sense of insecurity but for the sake of the memories of those gunned down and the thousands of people whom their deaths has effected over the years then it is pivotal in my view that America's sole searching leads it to a population in which gun ownership is not seen as a necessary security or indeed a necessity to honour the memory of the founding fathers but rather a last resort or something which is wholly wrongful in a society which prides itself on civility or liberty and justice for all.

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