Sunday, January 9, 2011

To Congresswoman Gifford's Staffers, From a Staffer

It is the randomness that shocks me. Congresswoman Gifford was not the type of elected official who inspired anger and hatred. Quite the opposite. The unstable person who committed mass murder yesterday just happened to be someone physically in her locality. He could have been here in New York, or Missouri, or even Rhode Island and would likely have committed the same crime. But he was in Arizona and shot a good woman who was doing her job, unlike other elected officials I know. And he took the life of a child, a judge who had just showed up on a whim, and several other innocent people.

We can ask all day why that particular day, in front of that particular grocery store, at that particular elected official’s event. But there’s no point. These unstable people do exist. And what sets one killer into action and keeps another killer at home is completely random. A series of coincidences that lead to opportunity for one, and the prevention or inaction of another. This killer gained access to a gun. Some other was shown the door by a gun seller. This killer sent out signals that were ignored. Another may have gotten mental help.

I worked for a senator who did inspire anger and hatred in some of his constituents. Former Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada, Jr. One day last spring, I was sitting with the senator and other lead staff in a meeting in his personal office.  Out of the blue, there was a cacophony of loud voices from the outer office. We are used to crowds, so we simply shut the door so we could continue the meeting. Then (and the linked video doesn't show this) there was an insistent banging on the door, like several pounding fists, and we could hear obscenities being shouted along with the senator’s name. We were all startled for a moment, and then the pounding stopped. There was a pause, then a loud heavy thump, over and over again, like a linebacker was putting all his weight into breaking the door down. 

Our chief of staff leaped for the phone to call the outer office and make sure the staff out there was okay. The office manager told him that over a hundred people were trying to squeeze into the office, that they were standing on her desk and spilling out into the hallway. No one had threatened or hurt her or the other staffer, they were mostly calm and orderly, but there were a few of them that were all riled up, clearly targeting the senator. She had already called security. 

Two hours and six uniformed troopers later, the outer office was clear and the door to the hallway shut. It was lunchtime. We were hungry, shaken, some needing the bathroom, but those protesters were still outside that main door. We couldn't know if they were dangerous or not. We doubted for no other reason than that one or two people who were trying to break down that inner office door. If someone would do that, what else would they do? So we waited. The law allows protesters to be present in the halls of the State Capitol. They camped out there with the press, shouting, chanting, daring the senator to step outside that door. At least we could access our desks again and get some work done. When in doubt, work. One of the staffers who was from the district office in New York City said knowingly, “Their bus back to the City will likely leave around 3 or 4pm, so they’ll be gone by then.” He was right.

Constituents have a right to let their views be known. If they are angry with an elected official, they should say so. But I'm not physically afraid of a hundred people who are chanting peaceably, which is what you mostly see in the video. I am worried about just that one person, an unbalanced person, who would not know how to control himself in such a scene. One of those angry protesters, possibly the guy trying to break the door down, could be someone unbalanced enough to want to shoot the senator and all the staff around him who are just trying to earn their daily bread, feed their families, and be good public servants. Why didn’t he? Maybe he wasn't unbalanced - maybe he (or they) just got too wrapped up in the spirit of the protest. Or, maybe he was unbalanced but knew enough that you can’t get a weapon past security in the Capitol. Sitting in the back office with the senator and hearing that door having a heavy weight thrown against it, I assure you, not one of us didn't wonder whether there was a gun out there. As impossible as our logical brains said that would be, that question did arise.

But what happened in Tucson could easily have happened in the senator’s district. (God forbid!) He also moves about in public, including crime-known areas, to meet and greet constituents.  Violent crime happens in New York City every day. And he did inspire deep-rooted anger among a certain section of his constituents. But yesterday's mass murder didn’t happen in the Bronx, with a gunman rising from a crowd of angry people. It happened in the district of a personable and well-liked congresswoman by a single unstable person rising from a crowd of generally happy, everyday people. 

I repeat. What happened in Tucson happened because a series of coincidental events, over years probably, led to the opportunity for it to happen. No stronger gun laws or increased mental health support can change that. Maybe those things would have stopped this killer, this time. But no way can we predict everything, foresee every circumstance. 

Make the stronger gun laws. Expand mental health programs. Dial down the violent rhetoric. Those are all smart, common sense things to do. But know this. Someone, somewhere, will always slip through the cracks. So as someone who has served as staff to public officials, and as a parent, I have to ask myself. Would it be better to avoid this kind of work or to continue in public service, knowing it could happen to me or any of us at any time? Well, this level of tragedy hasn’t happened to me, and I can’t live my life always looking over my shoulder. I want my children to understand and witness courage. Not foolhardiness – some level of protection is always appropriate. But as Ben Franklin once said, people who will give up their freedom in exchange for safety don’t deserve to be free.

To the staff of Congresswoman Gifford: thank you. Thank you for your public service, for the sacrifices you have made to devote time to a bigger cause, and thank you for springing into action when the worst fear of any staffer happened – an assassination attempt made on your elected official. Right now, in the aftermath and surrounded by your loved ones, you may be deciding whether to continue in service or to stand down. Well, you have already given up your safety in the cause of a free democracy.  You have served your country in the face of severe danger, and no one has any right to ask any more of you.  Whatever your decision, I and this country fully support you. It’s our turn to step up and protect your freedom. My heartfelt sorrow and prayers for all of you, especially those of you who died in the line of duty. You are all heroes. You make me proud to be a public servant. 

And please God, let that assassination attempt remain just that, an unsuccessful attempt. We are all pulling for Congresswoman Gifford’s full recovery. God bless you all.

1 comment:

  1. Well said...and thank you for this perspective (it's so easy to just see the elected official and not take note of the number of private citizens who actually carry out the day-to-day business of public administration).

    My secondary concern (after, of course, the well-being of the survivors and mourning of those killed) is the loss of accessibility. It sounds as if one of the many good things about Ms. Gifford was her availability to speak in public settings with her constituency.

    I'll bet that most legislators (state and federal) will think twice about their public appearances terms of both the amount of them and accessibility to the public.