Gabrielle Giffords:The Helpless Pawn On The Ethics Train Wreck


Ex-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords


James Taranto, the witty conservative commentator on the Wall Street Journal’s “Best of the Web” blog, properly takes aim at the New York Times op-ed supposedly authored by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and shoots it full of holes, quite accurately finding the piece guilty of almost every ethical violation that has characterized the shameless, and deservedly unsuccessful, effort to exploit the Sandy Hook massacre for gun reform. “Giffords’s 900-word jeremiad should be included in every textbook of logic and political rhetoric, so rife is it with examples of fallacious reasoning and demagogic appeals,’ he writes, noting that she is a “practitioner of incivility and unreason.”  Some of Taranto’s indictments:

  • “The argumentum ad passiones, or appeal to emotion. She leads with this one: “Senators say they fear the N.R.A. and the gun lobby. But I think that fear must be nothing compared to the fear the first graders in Sandy Hook Elementary School felt as their lives ended in a hail of bullets. The fear that those children who survived the massacre must feel every time they remember their teachers stacking them into closets and bathrooms, whispering that they loved them, so that love would be the last thing the students heard if the gunman found them.”
  • “The appeal to motives. Giffords claims that the senators who voted against the measures “looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby” and “made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association.” She also asserts that “their decision was based on a misplaced sense of self-interest” and on “cowardice.” These characterizations are mutually inconsistent–can a senator’s decision have been based on both unreasoning fear and a cold (but erroneous!) calculation of self-interest?–and they are also entirely unsubstantiated. So is her assertion that “the status quo” is “desperately protected by the gun lobby so that they can make more money by spreading fear and misinformation.”
  • “Guilt by association. See the references to the “gun lobby” in the preceding paragraph.”
  • “Poisoning the well. She reveals that some of the senators who voted against the amendments “have met with grieving parents” and that some “have also looked into my eyes . . . and expressed sympathy” for her and other Tucson victims. Her purpose in citing these facts is to impugn the senators’ sincerity: “And still these senators decided to do nothing. Shame on them.” In reality, they didn’t “do nothing”; they rejected particular legislative proposals. It does not follow, and indeed it seems unlikely and is boorish to assert, that their expressions of sympathy were not heartfelt.”
  • “Begging the question. Giffords characterizes the proposed amendments as “common-sense legislation” that “could prevent future tragedies.” She also describes them as “these most benign and practical of solutions.” She pretends that the central matter in dispute–whether the benefits would outweigh the costs or indeed whether the proposals would have yielded the benefits their advocates promised at all–has already been settled in her side’s favor.”
  • “The no-true-Scotsman move. “These senators have heard from their constituents–who polls show overwhelmingly favored expanding background checks,” Giffords writes. She ignores the possibility that those polls are flawed and that the senators are hearing a different message from their constituents. Then she qualifies her claim of public unanimity: “I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth . . .” See what she did there? (The switcheroo to every reasonable American reminds us of a probably apocryphal tale about Adlai Stevenson. A woman is supposed to have said to him, “Senator, you have the support of every thinking American,” to which he replied: “But madam, I need a majority.”)
  • The argumentum ad miserecordiam, or appeal to pity. “Speaking is physically difficult for me,” she writes. “But my feelings are clear: I’m furious.” It should be obvious that this in no way speaks to the merits of the legislation or even the character of its supporters and opponents.
  • “The false dilemma. This is Giffords’s closing gambit: “To do nothing while others are in danger is not the American way.”

Taranto is correct in these and his other points, but my ethics concerns lie elsewhere. What is the likelihood that this is really Gaby Giffords speaking, her words or even her thoughts? Last we saw Giffords making a public statement, she was reading from notes with simple words scrawled in large letters, and her testimony was even more simplistic than her notes. In interviews, she has difficulty finding words to express what she wants to say; she seems profoundly brain-damaged, which she is. Yet she turned out this articulate op-ed in time for the New York Times deadline, a day after the Senate vote? I don’t believe it. There is no way.

All right, it was ghost-written by someone else. Most op-eds by public figures are—but most public figures aren’t brain damaged. [Gratuitous Joe Biden joke deleted.] I think it is highly unlikely that Giffords fully understood what was published in her name sufficiently to approve it: look at her notes from January. They suggest that she has trouble reading as well as speaking.  Did her handlers just read the op-ed to her? That is not sufficient to get informed approval from a brain-damaged individual who is going to have to take responsibility for a sharply-worded nationally published opinion piece.

As what was published reflects poorly on her, it was unfair, manipulative, cruel and wrong to place her name under it. (Where was her husband? Did he approve this?) Even if Giffords did understand the piece, for we can only speculate, the woman is cognitive impaired. She is not the same person who was elected Congresswoman, nor does she have the same abilities of mind and expression. Allowing her to harm her reputation by exhibiting her in this fashion while crafting her words for a partisan attack is a terrible betrayal, and a cold, despicable act of exploitation. Knowing this, it was irresponsible for the Times to publish the op-ed. I wonder if the Times would have published an op-ed by Terri Schiavo…

Is no tactic too revolting for the anti-gun forces? Based on their manipulation and debasement of a vulnerable victim of a life-altering catastrophe, I must conclude that the answer is no. Gaby Giffords is trapped on the Sandy Hook Ethics Train Wreck, but someone else bought her ticket.


Source: Wall Street Journal, New York Times

25 thoughts on “Gabrielle Giffords:The Helpless Pawn On The Ethics Train Wreck

  1. “Is no tactic too revolting for the anti-gun forces?” Obviously revolting tactic is de rigueur to pro-gun advocates,WSJ blogger or ethics columnist.

    A rhetorical question..a projection from one who profess to be an ethics arbiter…or an incredibly stupid post parrotting an equally thoughtless article by ‘witty’ Taranto.
    Check your empathy meter!

    • In a word, Huh? You don’t think it’s wrong to manipulate a brain-damaged women into being a mouthpiece? It doesn’t matter what the issue or position is, you know.This is wrong. I don’t think “empathy” means what you think it does. An empathetic person would be horrified that Giffords is being used like this.

      Check your vocabulary. It profits one naught to use “de rigeur” and then make no coherent observation afterwards, except to prove that you will assent to the abuse of the brain-damaged for a political objective you favor. Or, perhaps YOU are brain damaged, and Giffords’ unscrupulous husband drafted this for you. In empathy and compassion, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

  2. Shucks! I was just about to post one of my signature rambling comments in the other thread about the rejected legislation. I’ll go ahead and post it, the Gabrielle Snerd op-ed piece notwithstanding. Didn’t President Wilson’s wife and his (and her) handlers also get away with crap like this?

  3. How sad that this entire nation prayed (ok, those who believe in praying to an Almighty Power) for her healing when the dirty deed happened. How many in this country would have even survived that attack without the tax payers money shipping her by air ambulance to the best medical facility in the world? Zero! Thrilled she survived. But now go home and rest. You deserve it Gabbie! I don’t need to continue to see a whining reason why you think that shoving your views in that manner will be nothing but a complete turn off to the masses. We are sick of it. Go home and rest and be quite. You have had more television coverage in 4 months than Mickey Mouse did in 1959. And he was just a cartoon.

    • Remember, she isn’t necessarily able to understand your argument. She appears in public and in interviews more like a second grader (at best) reading from scripts and being happy when she pleases her handlers. It is unlikely that she is able to reason enough to understand your argument any more than a second grader could. It is her handlers who must be accountable for this.

  4. In interviews, she strikes me as comprehending questions perfectly well, but not being able to vocalize responses well. I’m no expert, of course – but then, neither are you.

    • Which still doesn’t address the question—what are the odds that the sentiments and wording of the article fairly reflects her intentions, as opposed to those of her handlers?

      • My assessment of her from watching an interview earlier this year is that she seemed engaged with her surroundings, appeared to understand the interviewer’s questions, and was passionate about her one-or-two word answers. She seems like someone who both understands what’s happening around her and is not indifferent about being understood.

        If my assessment was correct – and that’s a big if – then I’d say there are very high odds that sentiments of the article fairly reflect her intentions. The woman I saw on that interview seemed completely capable of both knowing what she wanted an essay to say, and emphatically demanding changes if there was something she didn’t like.

        The exact wording probably isn’t what she would have written herself. But this is true of hundreds of politicians who rely on others to write the exact words; I can understand if you object to the practice generally, but to object to it only in Gifford’s case seems unfair.

        • Barry, do you then think it is fair for Taranto to attack her for the nuances and rhetorical choices of her op-ed? I don’t, and I don’t think you can have it both ways.

          I think, as I have always thought, that she is the victim here. Yes, she seems aware, and she also seems to be operating at the cognitive level of a child. She should not be held to a healthy adult’s level of accountability, and therefore should not be ghostwritten by a healthy adult with a political agenda.

          • I don’t see anything to support your view that she’s “operating at the cognitive level of a child.”

            If she were, then I’d agree with you. But she doesn’t appear to be.

            As it is, and assuming that she is operating at a level where she is making her own major decisions and is aware of what’s going on around her, I think that it’s fair to hold her responsible for the nuances of an op-ed. She’s aware of her own condition, and she chose to put her name on the piece. A politician who chooses to let his or her name be put on a piece, accepts responsibility for what’s written in the piece.

            • I don’t see anything to support your view that she isn’t. She expresses herself like a child. She appears incapable of caring for herself. She seems to be led and supervised in all things by her husband. What has she done or said since her injury that shows you she functions at an adult level?

              As to your earlier question: yes, in many cases I think ghostwritten opinion pieces are unethical and deceptive. I’ll elaborate in a post this weekend.

              • Jack, having aphasia means one can’t speak well; it doesn’t mean that one has the cognitive level of a child. (By the way, I live with two children, both of whom are childlike, and both of whom speak far better than Giffords now does. There is nothing childlike about aphasia.)

                Nor does needing care mean that you have the cognitive level of a child. A lot of adults need care, for all sorts of reasons. Giffords had a bullet pass through the left hemisphere of her brain (she’s actually very lucky it didn’t go through both hemispheres); she suffered a similar amount of brain damage to someone who survives a stroke. There are plenty of stroke survivors who need assistance, have aphasia, but nonetheless have adult cognition.

                Ghost-writing… I actually have mixed feelings about it. But it seems to me to be normalized enough in our system that it feels weird to me when people pick out individual politicians they dislike and criticize just those politicians for the practice. Sort of like the way Republicans go on and on about Obama using teleprompters, to the point that we’ve more than once seen them read Obama teleprompter jokes off their own teleprompters.

                • Ghostwriting for Giffords is obviously materially different. Her degree of brain injury goes way, way, beyond aphasia. Her personality and cognitive changes appear far closer to the symptoms described here, which describe Memory Problems, Aggressive Behaviors, Self-Centered Attitude, Poor Concentration, Lack of Awareness of Deficits,Emotional Liability and more.

                    • Touche!
                      But there’s a difference—doctors’ diagnoses were at the heart of the Schiavo matter, and Frist knew it was unethical to render a supposedly professional diagnosis in rebuttal without actually examining the patient.

                      In Giffords’s case, we haven’t been informed what her condition is, and, now that I think of it, we should be, if she is going to be asserting authority and expertise. So we have no choice but to speculate and make educated judgments, since the truth is being withheld—legally and ethically by the physicians, but not ethically by Giffords.

                    • Giffords “authority,” such as it is, comes from being a public figure who was critically injured in a mass gun shooting. Since none of that is in any reasonable doubt, I don’t see how she owes us any more information.

                      As for the rest, you’ve reversed the burden of proof. It’s not up to Giffords to prove that she can actually think and isn’t being controlled by a shadowy conspiracy of liars. If you want to make the case that a public figure is being controlled by a shadowy conspiracy of liars, then the burden of proof is entirely on you.

                      (Note: “proof” is not the same as “irresponsible, uninformed speculation.” So far you’ve provided a lot of the latter and absolutely none of the former.)

                    • She has a serious, massive brain injuries, and medical precedents are clear. If she is going to be an opinion-maker without the benefit of speech, she has the burden of showing she is capable of independent, coherent and respectable thought, because the rational presumption is that she is not. it is convenient to pretend that she is the same woman who was elected to Congress, but she isn’t, and you know that.

                    • The medical precedents are clear that it’s not uncommon for people with serious brain injuries to lose specific parts of their cognitive capacity (such as language) but not all.

                      The neurologist Oliver Sacks, for instance, would certainly not agree with you that it’s the “rational presumption” that a woman who can’t speak well because of a brain injury, but who can do things like be interviewed, should be presumed to be incapable of independent, coherent thought; he’s written many books of case studies of people with major brain injuries and communication difficulties who are nonetheless intelligent, adult thinkers.

                      You’re trying to slime Giffords as an idiot and the people around her as lying puppetmasters. It’s obvious that ethically, you should have some actual evidence – and you have cited NONE – before making such an serious and malicious accusation.

                      Finally, she’s obviously not in the same condition as she was when elected (and I never said she was; you’re just pretending I did). But since she’s no longer serving in Congress that’s an irrelevant point.

                    • It’s not an irrelevant point at all. The reason she is being featured in the gun debate is because her views are accorded respect and authority as those of a former Congresswoman, with the experience and ability that implies, just as other former elected officials are regularly featured as op-ed authors. But if she no longer had the intellectual conceptual or analytical abilities she had when she was an elected official, as seems the overwhelmingly likely case, then this presumption is misleading, and using a ghost-writer to further the deception is unethical.

                      You never answered my question: is she properly held accountable by Taranto for her words and the attitudes and illogic they convey, if she was not fully aware of their import and incapable of making them herself? I don’t think she’s an idiot–that’s you putting words in MY mouth. I think she is a profoundly brain damaged individual whose likely cognitive deficiencies have been withheld from the public in order to use her as a hand-puppet (and to protect her privacy, which is a contradiction since the use of her in this fashion forfeits her privacy.) Her particular kind of injury—being shot in the head and actually losing brain tissue but surviving—is relatively rare. These cases are not the general closed head injuries that Sacks discusses—they aren’t really even properly closed head injuries (I know I used the term.)

                      The presumption, in cases where an individual has lost brain matter is that their abilities are diminished. From the beginning, the media and Democrats deceitfully pretended this wasn’t so—thus the absurd discussions of her returning to the House, running for re-election, etc, when such was essentially impossible. Nothing she has demonstrated by her words and actions counters the assumptions that she is diminished, and thus an op-ed that she could not have composed herself or read out loud that is presented as her words, thoughts and beliefs is inherently and properly suspicious.

                      I don’t know why you would insist otherwise. She’s the victim here.

                    • The reason she is being featured in the gun debate is because her views are accorded respect and authority as those of a former Congresswoman, with the experience and ability that implies, just as other former elected officials are regularly featured as op-ed authors.

                      There are many dozens of elected Congressfolk who are in favor of gun control; the reason that Giffords is more prominent than most is not due just to being an ex-Representative, but due to being an ex-Representative who was critically injured by someone with a gun. The combination of those two roles is what makes her view especially interesting and relevant.

                      Part of this is, I think, your view that it’s unethical to mention the victims of gun violence when debating gun control. Giffords, who has been so harmed by gun violence, is a living rebuke to those who think that the harms of guns have no place in debate. Since she can’t be swept under the carpet as easily as other victims of gun violence, you’re resorting to saying, based on your nonexistent medical expertise, that you’ve diagnosed her as having the cognitive level of a child, and therefore she should be dismissed her as a pathetic puppet of evil puppet-masters.

                      It’s true that her capacities are diminished, and I don’t deny that. (You’re trying to sweep me in with people who saw no reason for her to resign from Congress, but that’s not my position, and to respond to me as if it were my position is strawmanning.)

                      But there’s a huge gulf between saying that we can be certain her capabilities are diminished, and saying that we can be certain she’s “operating at the cognitive level of a child” even though we are not qualified to make such a determination and haven’t had the opportunity to examine her. What you’re doing is not justifiable, ethically, morally, or politically. You’re refusing to give the benefit of the doubt, and engaging in the most personal of personal attacks.

                      You never answered my question: is she properly held accountable by Taranto for her words and the attitudes and illogic they convey, if she was not fully aware of their import and incapable of making them herself?

                      That’s a big “IF.” My answer is, no, IF that is the case, then she can’t properly be held accountable.

                      However, there’s no reason to assume that is the case. And your claims that you know otherwise are not in any way supported by evidence.

                      This is not a hard case. Someone who claims to be a functioning adult should be given the benefit of the doubt until there is actual evidence to the contrary. And there is no such evidence at hand in this case, only partisan-motivated speculation from someone who has an obvious, passionate loathing for gun control advocates.

  5. Pingback: The Ghostwriting Ethics Scale | Ethics Alarms

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