I was planning a different column for today, but the Colorado Springs shooting on Friday has prompted me to take on something far more serious.
In the hours during and after “active shooter” situations like what happened in Colorado (as well as the Boston Marathon bombings and other such incidents), rumors run amok about suspects, motives and anything else ripe for conjecture.
During active investigations (which the Colorado case still is), police necessarily keep most facts under wraps … to prevent panic and preserve the integrity of the evidence in the case, among other reasons. For conspiratorial sorts and agitators, though, that secrecy is just what they need to sell their vision of what’s happening, regardless of evidence. Add to that the increasing pressure to be first with the “big get” in a never-ending news cycle, and you have the foundation for tall tales that never go away entirely.
I don’t even remember clearly the confusion in the first few hours of the Westside Middle School shooting in 1998 near Jonesboro, Ark., but I do remember the worry I felt for the son of a friend who was in junior high in Jonesboro at the time. For some time after shooting began, news reports were inconsistent on the location as well as the identity of some victims; one teacher was reported as dead when she actually survived. It ultimately wasn’t Josh’s school, which was a relief, but it turned out that the teacher killed had been my biology lab partner at ASU.
The confusion of that day was not unusual. On The Media notes that in situations like this, the media often get it wrong in the immediate aftermath. The more reputable sources are more careful and more apt to quickly correct their mistakes. The site cautions news consumers to understand that, and to not trust anonymous sources, or stories that cite only other news outlets as their source (just as with fact-checking, original sources are always best). It also notes that wording such as “we’re getting reports” or “we have learned” should be taken with a dose of skepticism.
What’s true and what’s false in the latest case isn’t known at this moment, though some stories were suspicious from the outset, such as suspect Robert Lewis Dear being a left-wing transgender activist, a claim that has yet to be independently verified, based on a voter registration listing him as female (a clerical error, according to the El Paso County clerk’s office). There was also a report, supposedly from an anonymous police official, that Dear said something about “baby parts” when he was taken into custody, but that too has not yet been verified. Not that it mattered to the people who took to Twitter and other media platforms to spread the tales far and wide.
The fact that some people continue to insist that the transgender storyline is true despite the lack of evidence showing that Dear is just that (or left-wing either) is disturbing on many levels. As one wag put it, if Dear is transgender, he’s doing it wrong.
Even after some details in early reports were corrected by police and others with relevant knowledge, some—generally the more partisan—refused to give up the mistaken narrative. Several pundits continued to run with the bank-robbery-gone-bad story even after Chase Bank officials tweeted that its bank was not where the shooting began.
Denver Post political editor (and Democrat-Gazette alum) Chuck Plunkett was one of the more conscientious, tweeting confirmation from the Chase spokeswoman.
Some, like Erick Erickson of RedState.com, had to backtrack once partisan assumptions proved mistaken. Erickson had tweeted, “Left upset the only people dying at Planned Parenthood today are babies. They were hoping for Christian shooters to narrative shift Paris.” After reports that the shooting was indeed at Planned Parenthood, Erickson deleted the tweet and offered prayers for the victims.
If only tasteless cracks like that were the only danger of leaping to conclusions.
The Guardian reported that, at the vigil for the victims at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Colorado Springs, politics invaded the sanctuary. After one speech, a woman in the audience stood up to speak: “I support Planned Parenthood 100 percent,” she said. “But I came here today because I feel lucky that my entire family is alive, and I thought that we would grieve for the people who died, and not make political statements. So, have a nice day.”
With that, she walked out.
That woman had an excellent point. In all of this, what we should be focusing on is helping the victims and their families. The families of the three who died especially need support. (By the way, if you’d like to contribute to the memorial funds for the families, click the link in the caption under their pictures.)
Officer Garrett Swasey of the University of Colorado’s police force was a father of two, co-pastor at his church, and a junior ice-skating champion who had responded to the report of shots fired at the clinic.
Jennifer Markovsky was a stay-at-home mother of two with a husband formerly in the military and now working for Lockheed-Martin; she reportedly was at the clinic to support a friend.
Ke’Arre Stewart was an Iraqi war vet and father of two. Stewart’s sister told CNN that he had just found out he was going to have a third child shortly before he was killed, and had stepped outside to get better cell reception when he was shot. Police say he ran back in to the clinic to warn people to get down, likely saving lives.
This is what we should be thinking about, not those who wish to make political hay out of tragedy.