On Bullies and Secrets – a Non-Defense of Dick Cheney

by Bruce A. Clark

As much as I respect Jonathan Wallace for his writings and, especially, for maintaining this very excellent web site, there is one issue on which he consistently stumbles. That issue is firearms, and I (and others) have felt the need to try to straighten out the facts in these pages, from time to time, over the last ten years. In a manner seemingly out of character, Mr. Wallace does not apply his usual logic and insistence on sticking to the known facts. Mr. Wallace’s latest foray into the minefield occurred in his March, 2006, essay Bullies and Secrets.

Mr. Wallace sums up his main point by saying “A major symptom of the loss of democracy is the scrubbing of public discourse. The narrowing of the permissible public terms of discussion of an issue is just the first step towards propaganda or silence.” I wholeheartedly agree, but in the process of making his case, he does it with wholly unnecessary cheap shots at Vice President Dick Cheney and at hunters in general. Furthermore, the photograph used with the essay also seems intended to offend, as it is a cropped version of a picture taken at a presentation of a flintlock rifle to Cheney by the National Rifle Association in 2004.

I don’t intervene to try to protect Cheney. In nearly every aspect of his public/political existence, I despise him. But when Mr. Wallace takes one incident from Cheney’s life and uses it to smear all sorts of other honest, well-intentioned people, something needs to be said.

Dick Cheney accidentally shot a hunting companion in the face while bird hunting a few months back. The results, while potentially fatal, were not too serious. Early news reports about the incident were, as usual, short on facts, but they included a statement by, I think, the owner of the property that said that the victim shouldn’t have been where he was. As the smokes cleared and, perhaps, Cheney got over the initial shock of having shot a friend, the Vice President publicly took all responsibility for what had happened.

Mr. Wallace’s approach was to say, “Like most administration sagas these days, it is most significant for what was never said about it.” This is altogether too reminiscent of what we see in the media every day – instead of researching or just waiting until the facts become apparent, media people tend to fill the gap with speculation, home-grown psychoanalysis and, basically, by making something up so that there will be copy for the next edition. It’s true that the current administration hides all sorts of information from the public. That makes it extremely difficult to distinguish, for a given situation, whether public silence is more of the instinct to cover up or is actually an indication that the government is waiting for the facts to emerge, or perhaps, doesn’t think the incident is worthy of a big to-do. Since even a stopped clock is right twice a day, it’s irresponsible not to allow for those latter possibilities. But the media, including in this case, Mr. Wallace, takes the route of assuming the worst and attacks with sharp knives.

In his article, Mr. Wallace stated that he’d like to hear from hunters about the circumstances. I’ve seen no hunters stepping in, so I decided to. I don’t hunt. I do shoot at targets, however, and the same safety rules apply. Dick Cheney violated a bunch of them:

And he might even have broken other safety rules! Why did an experienced hunter and shooter blow it so badly? I can only speculate, but I suspect tunnel vision. He heard the sound of the game and followed it, blocking out the rest of the world. When he fired, the situation was already lost and his friend was injured.

Cheney has no defense for doing something like that. Mr. Wallace, however, took the event out of the context of hunting and shooting in general and described it as gross negligence. He then used the event to confront hunters with the false dichotomy of labeling it either as “normal” or “shocking.” If hunters (Mr. Wallace seems to assume that they are all alike, with one uniform opinion) choose “shocking,” then Mr. Wallace brands Cheney as “establishing his gross negligence.” On the other hand, if the mythical Everyhunter chooses “normal,” then “hunters constitute a culture of gross negligence–something I already suspected… .” It’s an old rhetorical trick, a lot like “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

There are more possibilities to describe Dick Cheney’s action than just those two. In order to see them, however, one must look at the participants as people, not as political enemies. It wasn’t a big event; it was just a hunting trip where someone had an accident. Do hunters (or anyone else) think Cheney was unconcerned about injuring his friend? Was he unaware for even an instant that he had screwed up badly? Does Mr. Wallace think that Cheney was one bit happy about having lost sight of what he should have been doing and the safety rules he should have been following?

As I said, I’m not a hunter, but I do read the gun press to a certain extent. The incident has, of course, been discussed, and many of the writers are hunters themselves. What I have read indicates that a common view is one of sympathy for both Cheney and for his friend and victim. No, the articles I read didn’t try to cover up the fact that a number of the basic safety rules of shooting and hunting were violated. But they did take the view that accidents happen, and that’s because hunters are human, and humans make mistakes. For example, in the July, 2006, issue of Guns & Ammo, well-known gun writer Bart Skelton wrote an article entitled A Life-Altering Experience. He began the article with “‘Gut wrenching’ isn’t nearly explicit enough to describe the feeling. If you handle firearms regularly, it could happen to you … Accidental firearms mishaps are not frivolous matters by any stretch, and for those with any semblance of responsibility regarding the handling of guns, they can be life-altering occurrences.”

Later in his article, Mr. Skelton says, “The list of well-known gun handlers who have made mistakes with firearms is long. Many accounts of holes in walls, ceilings and televisions are told. More solemn accounts of bystanders being shot and sometimes killed exist but are touchy subjects. John Wayne is on that list. Many people don’t know that he had an incident similar to Vice President Cheney’s. It occurred on a quail hunt during which Wayne accidentally shot his friend and fellow actor Ward Bond. The media was, of course, kinder to John Wayne than it was to Cheney, but that was a different era.” He concludes by saying “And for the record, I wouldn’t hesitate to hunt with Dick Cheney, now or ever.”

The difference between Wallace’s article and Skelton’s is that the latter emphasized the humanity of the parties involved, instead of trying to use the incident to score political points.

Lest the reader take the view that the whole incident means that guns are too dangerous, there are some other points to be considered. Around the time World War I began, the number of people killed in firearms accidents was about the same as the number of people killed in automobile accidents. Since then, the toll from auto accidents has been going up and that from gun accidents has been going down. The reason for the difference is a great increase in safety education and awareness for firearms users, the principal vehicle for which has been the NRA. The NRA also has a safety program for school children that teaches kids to stay away from any firearm they see lying around unattended and to get an adult. It’s interesting to note that a lot of the same people who favor sex education, to help cut teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, will scream bloody murder at the thought of having their kids go through a program in school that would teach them to be safe around guns.

There is one final point to be made. I would suggest that instead of overtly or covertly attacking individuals and hunters, in general, about a private firearms accident, journalists (by vocation or avocation) should concentrate on the damage their own craft does to society. Mr. Wallace discussed some of this toward the end of his article, but only after the gratuitous, unnecessary and misdirected attack on Dick Cheney. Objective journalism is now almost non-existent. Whether it is liberal bias or conservative bias, bias is bias, and it’s all bad. Sometimes it is accomplished by slanted writing and sometimes by simply leaving out relevant information, to wit:

all for the purpose of showing that guns and hunters are dangerous. Given the common wisdom that the pen is mightier than the sword, much more strife and misery could be prevented by concentrating on the faults of the wielders of the pen than on individual accidents by users of the sword.