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Take it from a guy who's been there: We don't know anything about Orlando yet

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What the Devil won't tell you

Take it from a guy who's been there: We don't know anything about Orlando yet

Lessons from Tucson to Florida is that we don't know what we don't know

  • Morlock, right, with others at a Democratic Party meeting just moments before learning of the Jan. 8, 2011, attack.
    courtesy Curtis DutielMorlock, right, with others at a Democratic Party meeting just moments before learning of the Jan. 8, 2011, attack.

The Orlando shootings bring back Tucson memories and the most uncomfortable truth of all: We think we know things, but we don't. Omar Mateen, a native New Yorker and Florida resident, appears to have massacred at least 50 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando. He claimed an allegiance to ISIS. 

This is the news today. Tomorrow? Who knows? We don't even know what we don't know we should ask about. Boy, do I remember this too well.

I was pacing in front of the blackboard leading a class about "political messaging." It was Saturday morning, Jan. 8, 2011. I was at the Pima County Democratic Party's organizing meeting. We had a city election coming up and had to figure out how to prevent Rio Nuevo from drowning the city race.

The local party was choosing its leadership later, so seated at the desks in front of me were a who's who of local Democrats. Future Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, future party chairman Don Jorgensen and chairwoman Cheryl Cage — plus the grassroots leadership of the local party.

Messaging is what the political world calls "getting your point across." I was pressing home the need to settle on a single message and repeat it. Democrats love to freelance. Everyone's got their own point that no one thought of, so there is no focused message. Republicans fall into a single turn of phrase voters hear over and over. That's a message.

With a few minutes to go in my hour-long session, party regular Curtis Dutiel jumped up from his first row seat and put his cell phone in my face. The message was simple: "Gabby Giffords shot in head." Gulp. (Dutiel had coincidentally taken a photo of me and other Dems at nearly the precise moment that the attack happened.)

I looked down at the screen and up at the local Democratic establishment looking back at me. Something up?

The newsguy in me screamed in equal measure both blurt it out and wait to verify. My friends, co-workers and compatriots populated the very community that would be immediately affected by the news, if true. At that moment they were my audience.

I went with discretion. I finished up the talk without a mention of Giffords. It didn't matter because text messages started coming into the room and within 10 minutes everyone knew.

We also knew not a damned thing. Oh, there was information. We were buried in it and it stunk.

We wandered and loitered in front of the school in the bus pickup zone and found out everyone was dead. Giffords' district director Ron Barber was dead. Her communications director C.J. Karamargin was dead. Her head of constituent services, Gabe Zimmerman, was dead. If they worked for Giffords, we were told they were there and they were killed. We knew it was the Tea Party behind it. The words "They got her" kept running through my head.

Tucson police showed up to protect us from any further attack on local Democrats because the "they" was the crowd who called anyone to the left of John McCain Nazi-esque destroyers of freedom, dead set on ruining the country under a Stalinesque regime seeking a servile populous. God. Why not shoot those people?

Of course, only the news of Zimmerman proved true. Everything else was either a wild-ass rumor (Karamargin, my friend, former co-worker and occasional drinking buddy, wasn't even in town) or drawing quick conclusions. City Councilman Paul Cunningham was at University Medical Center with Giffords' family imploring us via cell phone that the whole of the (national ... there were a couple of responsible local outlets that held back from incorrectly declaring the worst) media was wrong. Giffords was alive.

It's now five years later and we still don't know whether Jared Lee Loughner, the convicted gunman, claims any allegiance to the Tea Party. Even if he were to claim to be Rush-inspired, I wouldn't believe it. Anyone can claim allegiance to anything.

In the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shootings, our thoughts there on the sidewalk weren't too far afield from the current voices yakking away to fill up the 24-hour news cycle. Remember all the calls for civility in politics? The not-so-subtle suggestion was that political barbarism was to blame for what went down in the Safeway parking lot.

Well, evidence today suggests Loughner would have opened fire if American political discourse was ruled by Code Duello and the writings of Emily Post. He is just a very broken person.

We think.

We don't know.

The complete facts of the case weren't presented in a court of law, to save the victims and their families from enduring a trial. There was plenty of medical evidence presented that Loughner is severely mentally ill, and he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life behind bars. He never had to face questioning.

Civility is great for civility's sake but what does it have to do with a mentally ill person killing a bunch of people? It has as much to do with mass casualty events as Son of Sam murders had to do with dogs.

Fifteen hours after the Orlando shootings, we were demanding the kind of answers that take time to unfold.

We're not going to find out the whole truth about Orlando in five days, five weeks or the five months between now and Election Day. We're going to be subsisting on the facts presented by a jonesing, insomniac media that blathers and insist guests draw conclusions from them. Then the media will demand complete responses from political leaders in an election year.

Politicos will have complete answers ready because both sides have pre-existing agendas the Orlando shootings serve to further. The attack also exposes weaknesses in the political opposition that can be exploited for votes and power. One side is blinded by nuance. The other side is blinded by personal firepower.

Again ... that's fine. That's politics. The problem is when we start invading, three-strikes-and-your-outing and politically over-correcting our way toward policy that has lasting effects.

Bombing the shit out of ISIS wouldn't have protected Orlando citizens any more than a ban on Muslim refugees, any more than a ban of arm sales to people on the no-fly or background check lists. People obsessing about who calls what what, is it right to call southern lynchings and cross burnings Christian terrorism? They burned crosses. If you are convinced nothing is being done about ISIS, then check out retired Gen. David Petraeus' interview with Charlie Rose

So beware the agendas.

High school daze

The 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., presents another case of the public learning all the wrong facts about a tragedy. No, the shooters weren't goth outcasts in the Trench Coat Mafia targeting jocks and other popular jocks. That's just how most of us remember it because it's how the 24-hour news media presented the tragedy as it scarfed down rumors and hearsay.

I have another memory (unfortunately) about how this happens. A month before I graduated high school, I walked with a friend of mine after final period to the parking lot. I had to get to work. Pamela Howk had to catch a ride to Syracuse to watch her boyfriend playing in the state lacrosse playoffs. We said goodbye saying "see ya oldest friend." We'd been in the same blow-up pools as four-year-olds. A half-hour later, she was dead. Killed in a car accident with four others. At school the next day, my best friend Paul found me in one of my classes and asked me to drive him home. He ate lunch every day with the other three of our schoolmates killed in the head-on collision.

The point is that the crash dominated local news for a week. The media was crawling over Fairport High School. I saw a girl being interviewed who was not close to Pam, talking to TV cameras about what she was like. I stopped in my footsteps full of 18-year-old purist indignation: Who the hell are you? What do you know about Pam?

The press, as I would find out, just needed to know that they had a source. Video to fill. Quotes to type. Experts to speculate. Bylines to produce. Airtime to fill.

The tragic events of ...

So 15 years after the crash, when I knocked on the door of the Islamic Center of Tucson on the morning of Sept. 11, I approached with some humility.

Imam Omar Shahin took me in but acted as if his end were nigh. They were coming for him because Christians, in his words, "didn't want to know about Islam." The country, he was certain, would over-react.

There was some of that at the hyper-local level. Security used the "tragic events of Sept. 11" to take over the Tucson Newspapers building. Should an employee forget a badge, the security guards served as gatekeepers for who got in and who didn't (you always got in but some judged you for it). Security guards like ... ta-da, ta-da ...  Omar Mateen. Mateen, see, was a good guy with a gun until he decidedly wasn't. I digress.

Shahin's larger fear wasn't realized. In fact, he was met with so much demand from other denominations to visit and discuss Islam he practically needed representation by William Morris. Shahin became Arizona's go-to ecumenical imam.

The state's faithful wanted to know more.

It's a good instinct. Go with it, Tucson. Run with it, world. 

One Sentinel to another ... 

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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