Here is Senator Diane Feinstein explaining her qualifications to lead the charge on Capital Hill to restrict firearms, after Sen Ted Cruz (R-Tx) implied that she was not sufficiently schooled in the Second Amendment: “I’m not a sixth grader. Senator, I’ve been on the committee for 20 years,” Feinstein said angrily. “I was a mayor for nine years. I walked in, I saw people shot, I’ve looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons, I’ve seen the bullets that implode. And Sandy Hook youngsters were dismembered… I’m not a lawyer, but after 20 years, I’ve been up close and personal with the Constitution. I have great respect for it.” Her emotional statement echoed her similar response to a challenge during another assault weapon ban debate, twenty years ago, when she was a freshman and could not cite her legislative experience. Then she said,
“I am quite familiar with firearms. I became mayor as a product of assassination. I found my assassinated colleague [Harvey Milk] and put a finger through a bullet hole trying to get a pulse. Senator, I know something about what firearms can do.”
So now we know. Diane Feinstein has reason to know guns can kill people, and has been personally traumatized by them. That is supposed to qualify her as a cool, rational, balanced and fair legislator in deliberations over whether citizens who have never broken the law and don’t intend to can buy the weapons they want to.
In fact, it should be unnecessary to point out, Feinstein’s “qualifications” are actually disqualifications. She is phobic about guns, and has good reason, from her perspective, to hate and fear them. A rational judge with so much accumulated emotion and bias regarding an issue in litigation would almost certainly feel the need to recuse herself from ruling on it, yet in Congress, particularly in the mad—and it is mad—rush to “do something!” about gun violence while the blood of the Sandy Hook massacre is still dripping fresh in voters minds, football season is over, the Final Four haven’t been determined and baseball hasn’t begun, a passion fed by visceral responses and bias is considered a legitimate tool of persuasion.
Allowing leaders to determine laws and policy regarding matters where their judgment is clouded by emotion has led this nation into too many horrors to count. If our seventh President, Andrew Jackson, had been asked why he pursued cruel and relentless policies to persecute Native Americans and banish them from United States soil, he may well have answered, “I am quite familiar with Indians. I grew up where there were lots of them. I knew saw settlers who had been massacred by Indians. Members of my family were killed by the British, who used Indians as their allies and pawns. Senator, I know something about what Indians can do.” We know now that for all the other national issues and crises that Andrew Jackson may have handled wisely, well and even brilliantly, having a man with entrenched antipathy toward Native Americans in charge of national policy toward them at that time in our history led to a human rights disaster. Similarly, If George W. Bush had been asked, prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, why he was so certain that Saddam Hussein posed a deadly threat to the nation he was bound to protect, he well might have answered, “I am quite familiar with Saddam Hussein. My father went to war with him, and Saddam Hussein tried to have my dad killed. My father gave him a second chance when he could have taken him out, and Saddam Hussein double-crossed him, and slaughtered his own people. I know something about what Saddam Hussein can do.”
It is undeniable that this kind of emotional bias often leads to rash and emotional decisions, yet elected officials attempt to build public support for legislative initiatives by creating the same kinds of bias in the public, through such tactics as using maudlin and non-substantive testimony by Gabby Giffords and the fathers of victims in the Sandy Hook shooting to justify banning guns. Disgracefully, news media commentators not only refuse to deplore such tactics but applaud and encourage them, at least when they are directed at a goal that aligns sufficiently with the media’s own policy biases, as opposition to guns surely does. Thus Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen U.S. serviceman whose death unhinged her, was hailed by the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd and others as having “moral authority” to lead opposition to the Iraq occupation. This is an irresponsible way to make policy, and an irresponsible way to conduct nation policy debates. Grief, hysteria, anger, fear and sentimentality are the foes of rational decision-making, yet a Senator like Feinstein can repeatedly cite them as valid qualifications, and get credit from the Washington Post for giving critics “a beatdown.”
Perhaps this is because journalists are shameless in their own use of emotion to manipulate public opinion. In November, the Post and many other news outlets published the heart-bursting photo of a Palestinian man overcome with in grief as he clutched the body of his infant son. The Washington Post’s caption on the photo said the child had died “after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City,” implying that Israeli bombs were responsible for the child’s death. Palestinians used the photo, shot by an Associated Press photographer, as effective anti-Israeli propaganda, and Israel’s supporters accused the news media of intentionally creating sympathy for Palestinians and antipathy toward Israel, as the photo obviously did. Now, the Post reveals, the explosive photograph should have told a completely different story:
“Nearly four months after the image was circulated worldwide, a U.N. commission has concluded that Israel was not directly responsible for the child’s death. The baby apparently was killed by a Palestinian rocket that fell on his family’s house in Gaza, it said. The rocket, fired by militants in Gaza, was one of hundreds aimed at Israelis during the eight-day conflict.”
In its article about the wrongly captioned photo, as both the Post and the AP issued corrections—-more than three months after it ran—-the Washington Post attributed the mistake to “the fog of war.” Yes, and the media’s carelessness in its eagerness to play to emotion contributes to that fog, just as the tears of Sandy Hook parents do nothing to clarify the complex—yes, complex—issue of gun violence, and do everything to blur it. The child’s father, we are now told, was a journalist employed by the BBC! So a journalist was the subject of the photograph, the image was obviously going to stir up emotions, and the Post tells us that it was delivered to the public as visceral proof that Israelis were killing the children of innocent Palestinians accidentally? If not “maliciously” or “intentionally,” the more appropriate word is certainly “negligently.”
The news media knows that emotion trumps reasoned analysis, and understands that images are more powerful than words. It has an ethical obligation to check the facts behind such photos thoroughly, and if it cannot be determined that an image conveys what is truthful and factual, the photo, no matter how powerful, should not run. As judges sometimes say when juries have heard prejudicial evidence that should not have been allowed into court, “that bell can’t be unrung.” The corrections being run now are nearly useless. The seeds of emotion have been planted, and once planted, such seeds root firmly. Try telling Diane Feinstein, who “put a finger through a bullet hole trying to get a pulse” of a dying colleague, that Harvey Milk’s death would probably not have been prevented by any of the measures she is proposing. She doesn’t want to hear it, and won’t hear it. Not only are her emotion-based biases entrenched, she regards them as qualifications and credentials, and absurdly, so do a large segment of the public and far too many journalists.
That’s how they make decisions and form their opinions too. It’s just wrong, and ultimately dangerous, because the practice degrades the quality of decisions affecting our lives.
Sources: Washington Post