Historical Lessons from Tucson
History records that President Garfield was shot by a deranged political office seeker. President McKinley was shot by an anarchist in 1901. Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assasinate President Truman in 1950. JFK was killed by a confused Lee Harvey Oswald. Lynnette “Squeaky’ Fromme tried to kill Ford in a crazy attempt to free Charles Manson. John Hinckley shot President Reagan in an attempt to impress actress Jody Foster, whose film Taxi Driver depicted a scene where a political candidate was assassinated. And there are cases of attacks on Members of Congress during the history of our Republic.
The political vitriol preceding the War Between the States was so severe that Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) was caned on the floor of the US Senate by Rep. Preston Brooks (D-SC). Prior to the attack, Sen. Stephen Douglas warned, "this damn fool [Sumner] is going to get himself shot by some other damn fool." In recent memory, Senator Robert Kennedy was killed by Sirhan Sirhan and only one Member of the House of Representatives has been murdered while in office. California congressman Leo Ryan was killed in Georgetown, Guyana by followers of Rev. Jim Jones before they committed mass suicide. In 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to shoot up Congress, wounding five Members. Anarchists, secessionists, abolitionists, nationalists, segregationists, “birthers”, Tea Partiers, etc., have existed throughout our history. Few of the people holding anti-government feelings resort to violence. Even fewer of the paranoid schizophrenic among us resort to political violence.
The danger of handguns comes not from the weapons themselves but from the criminals and mentally unstable people who manage to acquire them. The states must redouble their efforts to legally deny the mentally ill, violent felons and domestic abusers from freely accessing firearms. Banning access to guns will not solve the problem of violence in our society. Just this week, a woman in my former assembly district was found murdered in her apartment. That woman, who was beloved and led by example, was active in her building's tenant patrol and did not shy away from confronting loiterers. As a civil society, we must protect everyone from violent crime. While we cannot shroud our citizens or political representatives in a blanket of security, we must do all we can to reduce the likelihood of the violent incidents.
Pressing the flesh at constituent meet-and-greet events and town hall meetings are the lifeblood of politics (and re-election). We should never stop or curtail contact with the public. Staff can be trained to identify persons who are behaving suspiciously and inform law enforcement of violent threats. Public officials have many friends in law enforcement who will, no doubt, volunteer their time at major public events and during heated elections. The low pay, public corruption cases, and time requirements have kept many good people from seeking public office. We can not let the threat of violence be added to the list of deterrents.
Many years ago, while touring the United State Air Force Academy with congressional aides from across the nation, I found that we all had similar tales of constituents who wore aluminum foil to deflect radio signals beamed at them by the government. We concluded that mentally ill people sensing that something is wrong with them mistakenly believe that the government is to blame therefore look to their elected representatives to stop it. They are not unlike persons who call about the need for a traffic light at a dangerous intersection, except that they may be the potential danger.
Jared Lee Loughner is another in a long line of disturbed three-name killers who will continue to gain infamy until we improve upon identifying, destigmatizing and treating mental illness. The public service campaign "See Something, Say Something" should be expanded to include looking for signs of dangerous mental illness in friends and family members.
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