On Sunday evening, Politico’s Alex Isenstadt did what one is not under any circumstances supposed to do: He criticized former congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
Since she was shot in the head in 2010, Isenstadt wrote, Giffords has become a “much-admired survivor” and “irreproachable figure of sympathy,” whose terrible story renders her critics “largely helpless to hit back.” Alas, he continued, she has not elected to use her immunity well, choosing of late to play the role of a “mean” and “ruthless attack dog” who has steadfastly refused to adopt the “new tone” that her ordeal was supposed to usher in. This, Isenstadt concluded, is a problem primarily for her opponents, who will find it tough to land any blows without appearing insensitive. Oppose stricter gun control? Well, then you’ll have to oppose Saint Gabby. And now she’s coming at you hard.
Isenstadt is right to be concerned. If human history teaches us anything at all it is that those who become uncriticizable quickly become unaccountable, too. Able to short-circuit any debate — and to privilege mawkishness and haste above detachment and sobriety — public victims such as Giffords often represent a threat to reason and to liberty and a boon to sentimental movements that hope to reduce the prevalence of both. And yet, for all the attention and impetus that she brings to the issue, there remain serious questions as to how effective her new approach will be in the end. Last week, the moderate Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, slammed an advertisement put out by Giffords’s group, Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC, even mentioning Giffords by name. The spot, which accused a Republican congressional candidate in Arizona of murder because she is content with existing firearms regulations, was “base and vile,” the Republic concluded, and it “exploits a family’s tragedy to score cheap political points.” Pulling no punches, the paper went on to charge that the offering represented a “nasty piece of work,” offered voters little more than “demagoguery in heart-rending tones,” and served as a prime example of a victim’s “[waving] the bloody shirt” in lieu of making an argument. The ad, editors suggested, “bounces off” its target and “sticks to Gabby Giffords.” So negative was the response that, having gained national condemnation, the advertisement was taken off the air. If this is the new model, it needs some work.
One can only imagine how harshly this must have stung, for Giffords has become accustomed to playing hero in the media. When, last year, Harry Reid proved unable to muster enough votes to pass a bill that expanded background checks to private gun sales, a “furious” Giffords took to the New York Times to complain. “Some of the senators who voted against the background-check amendments,” Giffords wrote, “have met with grieving parents whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook, in Newtown.” Others, she revealed, had “looked into my eyes as I talked about being shot in the head at point-blank range.” Despite this “these senators decided to do nothing.” Her implication was clear: How dare they defy me!
The usual crowd cheered the Times piece. But, a year and a half on, it has not aged well. All told, Giffords comes across as presumptuous and unbalanced, her contentions being, in no particular order, that a) anyone who disagrees with her is bought and paid for by the NRA and doesn’t care about children; b) that doing something after an abomination is axiomatically a better course than doing nothing; and c) that it is in some way uncouth or undemocratic for American senators to refuse to barter off the Constitution they swore to uphold if they are confronted by grieving constituents. All in all, one gets the impression that Giffords believes that legislative decisions should turn on the question of whether Americans are sad about a given problem and not on how that problem can best be addressed. Which is to say that the column is lacking in moral imagination, attributes the worst of motives to all and sundry, and exhibits the ugly calling card of the political narcissist: namely, the presumption that to disagree with one’s proposals is to disagree with one’s aims and one’s empathy. How effective can this be when the heat of the moment has passed? I suspect not very.
More dangerous, perhaps, is Giffords’s casual disrespect for the truth. In her angry New York Times piece, Giffords claimed that the rejected legislation could have served to “prevent future tragedies like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., [and] Blacksburg, Va.” This emotionally resonant claim was supported by nothing but indignation. None of those massacres had anything whatsoever to do with background checks on private sales — the subject of the Senate legislation that failed — and everybody knows it. The shooters in Colorado and in Blacksburg both passed background checks in gun stores, as, for that matter, did Giffords’s own assailant, while the shooter at Newtown took his weapons from his mother. At no point in her piece, moreover, did Giffords provide any evidence linking background checks and mass shootings at all. Instead, she clung bitterly to vitriol and to accusation, as is her wont.
Her recent broadside against Martha McSally, too, played fast and loose with the truth. In the (now pulled) commercial, Giffords’s team accuses the candidate of failing to care about women who have been stalked and of objecting to laws that make it tough for stalkers to get guns — both of which charges, it turns out, are false. McSally, the Arizona Republic reports, has not only been a victim of stalking herself, but she supports all the existing laws that make it tough for convicted stalkers to obtain firearms. Oops.
“Being shot in the head by a lunatic,” my colleague Kevin Williamson proposed bluntly last year, “does not give one any special grace to pronounce upon public-policy questions.” Nor, he added for good measure, “does it give one moral license to call people ‘cowards’ for holding public-policy views at variance with one’s own.” Williamson is correct. But he is also in the minority. Given our modern penchant for drama, one suspects that Gabby Giffords could be effective if she took to debating the issue calmly, honestly, and with demonstrable respect for her opponents. When that happens, I will join Alex Isenstadt in worrying for her critics. While she permits her tragedy to bring out the worst in her, however, she is likely to get nowhere fast, remaining in the culture as a “much-loved survivor,” but as little else besides.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.