I had a very strange and disconcerting experience this afternoon driving through Maryland. As I was driving, five people were shot to death and others injured in a targeted attack in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette, a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. What shocked me was the reaction I heard from someone I'd never met.
I first heard about the shooting on the radio driving up I-95, but they still didn't know much at the time other than that a shooting had occurred at the paper, there were multiple victims, and police had a suspect in custody.
I turned off the highway to get gas. As I pulled into the gas station, there was a Maryland State Police helicopter with blades spinning and an ambulance and emergency medical workers at the helipad across the street, just down the hill from a fire and rescue station. There were also additional state police personnel at the gas station. A few minutes later, the helicopter lifted off, I'm guessing heading to the scene of the shooting.
I walked into a store by the gas station to look around and stretch my legs, and as I entered I held the door for a merchandise delivery guy pushing a dolly. I looked around the small store a bit, and as I was looking I overheard the delivery guy and an employee behind the checkout counter say something about the shooting as they watched news coverage on a TV on the wall. The delivery guy wondered out loud about a school shooting--and the fact that he immediately assumed the clutch of law enforcement on the scene meant it was at a school shooting should make us all more than a bit sad. But that's not what shocked me.
I spoke up and said something like, "Actually, it was at a newspaper office."
This is what shocked me.
He said, loudly enough for the whole room to hear, "Oh, well I've certainly wanted to go and shoot up a newspaper. So, I don't blame him."
I said nothing. I didn't know what to say. I sort of expected him to laugh, or say something to indicate he was kidding, or say something along the lines of "But of course I wouldn't actually do it."
And I thought, "Is that really your first reaction which you decided to say out loud regarding this tragedy?"
I mean, think about it: "I don't blame him." Really? Are you serious?
If I knew this guy, I would have probably reported him to police. That's just not funny.
Now, I have no idea who this delivery guy voted for or what sort of ideology he subscribes to. I also don't know the details and history of the shooting suspect's legal dispute with the paper.
But I have to ask: regardless of why or how the attack occurred, how are we at a point in the United States where this person thinks it's OK to declare in a public place, among people he doesn't know, that he too has desired to shoot up a newsroom of journalists? Is that what it looks like to have a culture in which we value the free press and the First Amendment to our Constitution? Is this the kind of place where we flippantly dismiss the lives of real people doing a difficult and important job in a struggling industry (local print news)?
I know it's just one guy in one store in one strip mall. But, the way he seemed to assume it was OK to treat journalists like a disposable, better-off-without-'em, enemy infestation was shocking to me.
Journalists are not "the enemy of the people." We need them, particularly the type who value their craft enough to continue to do their jobs for little pay or recognition. As Jim DeButts, an editor at the Capital Gazette, said, “There are no 40-hour weeks, no big paydays — just a passion for telling stories from our community.”
[For more on the way the reaction of public figures to this event immediately devolved into a polarized finger-pointing mess, see this article from the Washington Post.]