WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 8, 2021
Has the Post prejudged this question?: The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt died suddenly this week, at age 66.
It's impressive to see the esteem with which Hiatt was regarded by his colleagues. He had served as editorial page editor from the year 2000 on.
We assume that Hiatt played no role in the editorial we cite today. We think the editorial showcases a pair of tendencies we all should try to avoid.
For starters, we'll mention the love of punishment and the desire for retribution in the wake of horrible tragedies.
Sometimes, punishment is necessary, but that doesn't mean we should love it. The headline on yesterday's editorial employs a type of language we have specifically tried to question over the past few years:
When parents enable gun massacres, they should be locked up, too
If a parent "enables a gun massacre," should that parent be charged with a crime?
Depending on the circumstances, the answer may be yes. In the recent incident under consideration, we're mainly struck by the eagerness with which the board dreams of "locking them up."
The incident under consideration, of course, is the recent school shooting in Oxford, Michigan. Four high school students were shot and killed. Should the parents of the 15-year-old shooter be convicted of a crime? Should they be "locked up?"
As always, we'd recommend suspending judgment until all the facts are in. In the following passage, is it possible that the board got out over its skis?
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (12/7/21): [District Attorney Karen] McDonald on Friday announced that James and Jennifer Crumbley have been charged with involuntary manslaughter... “While the shooter was the one who entered the high school and pulled the trigger,” Ms. McDonald said, “there are other individuals who contributed to the events on Nov. 30.”
She detailed the events that culminated in the deadliest school shooting in more than three years. The day after Thanksgiving, the father took his son to buy a semiautomatic handgun. “My new beauty,” Ethan posted online. He and his mother spent a day testing the gun. They stored it unlocked in the parents’ bedroom...
The editors state, as a matter of fact, that the gun had been "stored unlocked." That may well be true.
But at the arraignment of the parents, their defense attorney, Shannon Smith, specifically contradicted that claim. In its news report on the arraignment, the Post didn't report Smith's statement, but the New York Times did:
MULLANY ET AL (12/5/21): The defense lawyers also disputed the prosecutor’s statement that the gun was easily accessible in the Crumbley home. “The court is only aware of the facts the prosecution has presented, but that gun was actually locked,” Ms. Smith said. She also said that “there is far more going on than what this court has been made aware of.”
We don't know if Smith's statement is accurate. In its own report of the arraignment, CNN offered more detail:
SUNG ET AL (12/4/21): During Saturday's arraignment, defense lawyers denied prosecutors' contentions that the parents gave Ethan Crumbley unfettered access to the gun he's accused of using.
Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald has alleged that James Crumbley on November 26 bought the gun at a store in Oxford, and that the parents gave the weapon to their son as an early Christmas present.
During Saturday's arraignment, McDonald said, "It's ... clear from the facts that (Ethan Crumbley) had total access to this weapon," and that the parents "didn't secure (the gun) and they allowed him free access to it."
James Crumbley shook his head as McDonald made both statements.
One of the parents' attorneys, Shannon Smith, countered during the hearing that "the gun was actually locked."
"When the prosecution is stating that this child had free access to a gun, that is just absolutely not true," Smith said. "This court is going to see ... there is far more going on than what this court has been made aware of."
We have no idea what the truth is on this point. Reportedly, there is no state law in Michigan which would have required the Crumbleys to keep the gun locked up.
Based on McDonald's behavior in the past week, we would be slow to assume that her statements are always accurate. Meanwhile, Sheriff Bouchard has offered a snide remark to the effect that the gun obviously hadn't been locked up securely enough.
(Sorry, we can't find a transcript.)
Our tribe has been trying to "lock up" quite a few people lately. We often cast a very wide net as we look for people to blame and punish.
In recent years, we've also prejudged an array of major cases where the facts turned out to be vastly different than we first widely assumed. In other cases, we simply cling to the inaccurate claims which drive our inaccurate stories.
We human beings never seem to learn from such experiences. Despite this recent history, we seem eager to lock more people up, and to assume the truth of the first account we hear of some event, even when it comes to us from a prosecutor who now seems to live at CNN.
Was the lawyer's statement accurate? We don't have the slightest idea. Does the Post editorial board know?
The Post is going to miss Fred Hiatt. The world is full of good people.