Saturday, January 8, 2011

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords Shot, U.S. District Court Judge John Roll Killed

You don't have to be a fan of Speaker John Boehner to appreciate that he got it exactly right today when he reacted to the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in which six others, including U.S. District Court Judge John Roll and a child, were killed and Giffords was critically wounded.
An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.
Eighteen additional people were injured in the shooting, which occurred outside a grocery store in Tucson during a public event hosted by Giffords.  The alleged shooter is a 22-year-old man who, in various social media, talks about himself as the "mind controller" and lists Mein Kampf andThe Communist Manifesto among his favorite books.

I'm not from Arizona and, like many Americans, I knew nothing about Rep. Giffords before today's attack.  Yet the story grabbed my -- and the country's -- attention almost instantly.  If it were just me we could chalk it up to the subject matter of my blog.  After all, my family no longer says, "Did you hear this horrible news?" when something bad happens.  They say, "Do you need a blog topic?"  But it isn't just me.  As I write this than four and a half hours after the shooting, Google News is listing nearly 4,000 news articles online about this event.

To me, this raises two questions of the sort where you think you know the answer until you try to articulate it.  The first is, why do we care about the shooting of someone we've never heard of?  The second is, if we have a reason to care, why do we focus on the fact that Rep. Giffords was shot and not on the death of another public servant, Judge Roll?

The answer to the first question, I think, goes back to Speaker Boehner's remarks.  Understandably, he feels a personal connection when someone targets a member of Congress.  By the same token, we as citizens feel a personal connection because, as the title suggests, congressional representatives represent us. They are our voice in government, whether we love them or hate them.  When someone attacks a member of Congress, we know on a gut level that they are attacking the people that person represents, or at least the people who voted for them.  Whether we ever heard of Gabby Giffords before today or not, the position she holds makes us assign particular and personal significance to her shooting, what it means to us as individuals, and what it means to our system of government.

That having been said, what about Judge Roll?  He was a public servant.  His job was to ensure equal and fair protection of the law for all.  He had received death threats over a recent immigration case, and surely we should worry for our system of government if judges cannot rule without worrying about their lives.  Why aren't we focused on him?

I think there are a couple of reasons.  First of all, eyewitness accounts seem to indicate that Giffords was the first one shot and the original intended target.  In the chaos that followed, she was the only person shot whom everyone knew had been shot.  The news of Judge Roll's death came several hours later, and the story had already been "branded" as being about Giffords.

Still, I suspect that even if Roll had been the target and Giffords had not been there, this would not be as big of a news story.  And I think that's largely because your average person on the street doesn't have a very clear idea of what a District Court judge does.  We understand judges in general, and we understand Supreme Court justices, but we don't have a good mental image of the importance of mid-level federal judges and their day-to-day impact.  We also don't elect federal judges, so we don't feel the connection that we do to members of Congress.  No one out there is thinking, "I know who John Roll is.  He's my judge."

Intellectually, I think that we should care very much about the assassination of Judge Roll, at least as much as the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords.  But reactions to traumatic events are not about what we think, they're about what we feel in that fleeting moment before our thinking brain takes over. So my gut is focused on Rep. Giffords and her family.  My brain, and the heart that sometimes follows it, also expresses horror and condolences to the family of Judge Roll and the other five people who died in Tucson today.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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