I turned on the car radio Monday morning just in time to hear Rush Limbaugh reporting that the gossip website TMZ.com was reporting that the Match.com profile of Aurora, Colo., shooting suspect James Holmes listed him as “middle of the road” when it comes to politics.
My first thought: Who cares about his voter registration?
Later, I realized Limbaugh was gamely trying to answer the mistaken reporting of ABC’s Brian Ross, who said on Friday that he’d found a page on a Colorado Tea Party website about the enrollment of one “Jim Holmes” of Aurora last year.
Get it? The Tea Party made him do it.
Ross later corrected his report – it was not the same man – and ABC apologized on behalf of Ross and the network. “ABC News and Brian Ross apologize for the mistake, and for disseminating that information before it was properly vetted,” the network wrote in a statement.
It would probably have been better for Ross himself to apologize to viewers, and to explain how the error would not happen again.
But it will, of course. Last month when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but struck down a justification for the law under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, CNN and Fox News mistakenly reported the law had been voided. So long as we have a 24/7/365 news cycle, errors will be made as journalists strive to be first.
There’s another way Ross could have avoided his mistake, of course. And that’s not to assume politics is a factor in a disturbed person’s depraved act. Are we now so polarized, so suspicious and distrustful of each other, that our conversation in the wake of a tragedy must quickly devolve into whether an unhinged person did an unspeakable thing because he’s a Tea Partier or a radical liberal?
Scanning the Review-Journal’s website on Tuesday, I found plenty of murder and mayhem. “Man arrested in Central Valley shooting,” read one headline. “Man found shot to death in apartment identified,” read another. “Police seek suspect in Sunday night shooting,” “Henderson police shoot, kill homicide suspect” and “Police seek subject, release video in fatal stabbing” were others.
I don’t know whether the victims or perpetrators of these violent acts are Republicans, Democrats, Independent American Party members, Libertarians or Greens. I don’t know whether they’re liberals or conservatives, whether they voted for President Barack Obama or U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008. I don’t know if they like Sarah Palin or Elizabeth Warren.
What I see in these events – and what we should all see – is tragedy. Somebody’s son, brother or father is dead. Somebody’s daughter is gone forever. Somebody’s little boy went wrong somewhere along the way and ended up taking a life. Circumstances, bad choices and misfortune combined to create the ultimate tragedy, one no parent, no spouse, no sibling and no friend should ever have to face.
Against that backdrop, who cares how the person responsible for all that suffering voted? It’s no more to blame than the weapons used to carry out the crime, or the vehicle used to get away.
Are there murderers motivated by politics? Yes, there are, and sometimes their crimes are horrific, from Moscow to Berlin to the World Trade Center to Oklahoma City. But those are the awful exceptions that prove the rule.
In most all cases, politics has nothing to do with death, and we cheapen the loss, and ourselves, by reaching for a political explanation for tragedy. We – all of us – should keep that in mind, whether we’re professional broadcasters such as Ross and Limbaugh, or regular people.
Senseless, random death is bad enough.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.