It is a commentary on our times that the moment we hear of an outrage like the shootings in Alexandria, Virginia, last week, one of our first thoughts is, "I hope it's not ..."
• An attack by Muslims.
• An attack on Muslims.
• Someone who shares my opinions on gun control.
• Someone who shares my opinions about Donald Trump.
• Someone who listens to my news sources.
• Someone on my side of the political spectrum.
I hope ... I hope ... I hope ...
Numskulls can't just be numskulls anymore. They have to represent a social or political agenda. They have to reinforce our own values, and if they don't, we must find something in their background to help us put distance between them and us.
The Alexandria shooter, it turns out, espoused liberal views. How a man who turns an assault rifle on a field of unarmed middle-aged baseball players reflects the values of the bleeding-heart gun-control crowd is a bit of a mystery, but there certainly were plenty of commentators who couldn't wait to inveigh against "the liberals."
The same thing happens whenever the perpetrator claims conservative views. It emphasizes the need for thorough and dispassionate coverage of assailants in such cases.
For the Belleville News-Democrat, hometown newspaper of the Alexandria shooter, that meant digging deep into his background. A story in the Columbia Journalism Review details how the News-Democrat's marshaled its 30-person newsroom to tell the story of the shooter's life.
We at the Harrisburg Register know the drill, unfortunately. We know, too, the delicate balance that must be found to describe the person who commits a heinous act without making him or her the poster child for a cause -- or even worse, a heroic one. Such coverage requires uncommon depth at certain times; it requires uncommon restraint at others.
We can answer the "I hope it's not" questions with the truth of what it is. And, who knows, if we do it right enough times, maybe we'll help readers see that, in the jargon of the psychoanalyst, sometimes a numskull is just a numskull.