Discuss the Capitol Hill Shootings with Michael Grunwald
Today, we discuss the shootings of two police officers on Capitol Hill with Washington Post Staff Writer Michael Grunwald.
Grunwald has been covering the story since the shootings took place last Friday. A former reporter for The Boston Globe and a graduate of Harvard College, he joined the Post earlier this year.
Our originally scheduled guest was the governor of Virginia, Jim Gilmore. Gov. Gilmore was forced to cancel. He will be rescheduled.
Your questions and comments for Michael Grunwald are welcome throughout the hour.
Old Bridge, NJ: In the last few years it has been obligatory for politicians running for office and radio talk show hosts to put down the Federal and State govt and its employees. What responsibility do you think these individuals bear for this violence?
Michael Grunwald: Well...not much. The shooter was apparently convinced that he was cloned at birth, that President Clinton had killed JFK, that the CIA was spying on him through satellite dishes, etc. It seems like he was more influenced by the little voices in his head than the voices on the radio.
Rockville, MD: In at least two Post articles about the shooting, it states the suspect (Weston) "allegedly" gunned down the two (capitol) policeman...Even though, if he survives and is charged, he will ultimately be found not guilty by reason of insanity (our great judicial system), it is beyond a doubt that he did, in fact, gun down/shoot the policeman. Why the use of the word allegedly? Becaus he hasn't been formally charged?
Michael Grunwald: That's a great question. I'm not an expert on the Post stylebook, but most newspapers use "allegedly" any time charges have been filed but have not been upheld in court. You're right: it's basically a legalism, since in this case there doesn't seem to be too much question who did it. But it still probably makes sense as a rule of thumb to use "allegedly" until there's a conviction.
First, my condolences to the family of the two slain officers.
Michael Grunwald: Another good question. This obviously would have been a lot worse if the shooter had an automatic weapon. But there's a difficult balance between providing security in the Capitol and preserving access to the Capitol. It is, after all, a public building. The people need to be able to see their representatives. And if you let people in, you might let a wacko in.
As a long-time Senate staffer, I watched the weekend's events unfold with much shock and sadness. I have great respect for the USCP and the service and dedication they provide.
Michael Grunwald: I see what you're saying. But the Post certainly hasn't focused on the "breach" of security. In this case, it seems like security worked pretty well. The core mission of the Capitol Police is to protect members of Congress, and in this case, they did. It's like airport security: it can't stop someone from blasting his way into the airport, but it will hopefully stop him from hijacking the plane. As for copycat crimes, we obviously hope they don't happen. But we also have to report what happened. I just don't see any alternative.
Washington, DC: How should a person voice their opinion against closing off the Capitol and controling access through a visitor's center? It's my Capitol too!
Michael Grunwald: I guess you should call your representative. But the point of the visitor's center is not to keep you out of the Capitol. In fact, it would provide some history and other exhibits for you to look at before you get into the Capitol. But it would also provide security forces a single access point away from the Capitol to screen all visitors, which would make their job easier. (It would also cost $125 million, so there's another side to it, too.)
Bob Levey: The Weston case is sure to rekindle an old problem in law enforcement: Do you lock up someone just because he MIGHT become violent? In Weston's case, it seems that he uttered a lot of wild words, but didn't commit violence except upon his father's cats. How could law enforcement have predicted that Weston would do what he is now charged with doinbg?
Michael Grunwald: This is a perennial problem. In our story today, we pointed out that in general, the mentally ill are no more likely to commit violent acts than the general population - unless they have histories of substance abuse or violence. This guy apparently didn't. In most states, judges can throw someone into a mental hospital if they are a clear danger to themselves or others, or if they can't take care of themselves, but things have changed since the 1950s, when just about all schizophrenics were herded into institutions. Now most of them live in the community. In this case, there was no shortage of people (and federal agencies) who knew that Weston was deeply disturbed. They just had no way of knowing he would go off. The mental health folks seem to think the real problem is the lack of services for people like him: disturbed, but not necessarily dangerous.
Tbilisi, Georgia: I've been reading alot of the accounts of the shootings from here in the former Soviet Union. It seems in this case, as with almost every shooting like this, there is a probing of the person's state of mental health or were there any clues that told us this was coming. Does all this discussion really tell us anything? Is the main point just to rule out that there wa any political motivation behind the crime or to say that mostly crazy people do these kinds of things? Or is there something else? Does this kind of psychological probing help law enforcement to predict and to stop future attacks?
Michael Grunwald: You know, I wonder about that, too. In a lot of these spectacular cases, we find out so much information about these suspects, and we never really add much to our readers' understanding except: That guy was really wacked. Obviously, law enforcement types want to know if this guy was attached to a larger conspiracy. But since they've basically decided that he was a lone weirdo, there's only so much more they can do. On the other hand, the FBI has decided lately that the main threat in big-time terrorism is this kind of lone wolf type. So it's worth knowing. And hey, let's face it, when somebody does something this bizarre, people want to know why. And if it's because the little green men were talking to him, they want to know that, too.
Washington, D.C.: After viewing this morning's Today Show, it is obvious that Mr. Weston's family is in need of counseling. The father truly believes that all of this is his fault. Do you think that the government might offer the family some type of support?
Michael Grunwald: I haven't the foggiest idea. But it's an interesting question.
What kind of reaction have you heard from people about the live television coverage of the shootings?
Michael Grunwald: I'm not really up on who screwed what up. (I don't think I've screwed anything up yet, because I still have my job.) But TV is a competitive business, and I know the reporters are under a lot of pressure to get on the air with information. Sometimes they get it wrong at first. Probably even more often than we do. I'm not sure what there is to say about that, except that it's better to get it right.
One aspect of the Weston case is really strange. The Post reported Weston tried suing a lady for assault but the judge saw Weston as unbalanced and threw it out. From that, the Federal government began giving Weston disability checks on a monthly basis.
Michael Grunwald: I think you read that wrong, actually. There was a bizarro case where Weston sued his 86-year-old landlady for assault and battery and took it all the way to the state Supreme Court. But my understanding is that the disability checks came after he was injured in a fall. He was checked out by a Social Security Administration doctor, who also diagnosed him as mentally ill as well. I don't think the two incidents were connected.
Bob Levey: I'm not from Montana, but if I were, I'd be very upset by the media's portrayal of that state as Freakville. In particular, I'd be upset by reporters who compare or link Weston to the Unabomber and to other lone-wolf criminals. Any comment on this?
Michael Grunwald: I ran into this a few months ago when I did a story in Ruby Ridge. (We're not all government-bashing, militia-joining racist lunatics, etc.) It's true: We shouldn't portray Montana as Psycho City. And we really haven't, I don't think; there was a story today about how most Montanans are normal. But I also think it's true that if you were a weirdo loner like Russell Weston or Ted Kaczinski, you might want to go to a wide-open state like Montana where people will respect your privacy. Hey, we didn't force the Freemen to go there...
Michael Grunwald: To be honest - and not to sound callous - this one hasn't been so bad for me, because I haven't really been dealing with the officer's families and friends. But I don't think I'll cause too much controversy by admitting that yes, reporters are humans, too. I used to cover a lot of child welfare stories, and they used to give me nightmares.
Half an hour remaining in our discussion of the U.S. Capitol shootings with our guest, Washington Post Staff Writer Michael Grunwald.
Buffalo, NY: As horrible as this senseless tragedy is, why do you think the country is focusing on this act of violence so intently in comparison to the countless similar acts of violence that happen every day across our land? Do you think the media has played a part in sensationalizing this act of terrorism and in a sense providing a climate where other potential terrorists might act just to get the same attention?
Michael Grunwald: Dude, this happened in the U.S. Capitol - the ultimate symbol of American democracy. I mean, yes, the media has sensationalized it. But it's also pretty sensational.
Bob Levey: You reported in Monday's Post that Weston is expected to invoke the insanity defense. Can you clear up exactly what this would mean? As I get it, the insanity defense means that you acknowledge committing a crime, but deny that you knew right from wrong at the time. Therefore, you hope to be sentenced to treatment rather than jail. Correct?
Michael Grunwald: That's right. To be found competent to stand trial, a defendant has to understand the charges against him and be able to assist in his own defense. And if he then pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, the government has to prove that he knew what he was doing was wrong.
Washington, DC: Has the press requested the security video tape and are we likely to see that on t.v. or will the networks display some respect and keep it off the air.
Michael Grunwald: The press has requested the security videotapes. We have talked to a source who watched one of the tapes, and it sounds pretty gruesome. But I don't know what the TV stations would do if they got their hot little hands on it.
Washington, DC: This is kind of strange, but I thought it was worth a shot. Okay, on one of the soap opera message boards, some viewers are posting messages indicating that they were displeased because their soap operas were interrupted at a very pivotal moment for coverage of the Capitol shootings. These people maintain that the networks should have waited ten or fifteen minutes (until the soap operas were over). Regardless of how many times I try to tell them that the shootings were simply more important, they remain upset. Perhaps you could explain (with greater clarity than I am able to provide) why this news was more important than a pivotal moment in a soap opera. Thanks.
Michael Grunwald: I would say that an assault on the bastion of American democracy is somewhat more important than the latest travails of All My Children. Although assuredly less entertaining.
Baltimore, MD: A previous questioner asked about the role of radio personalities and the potential effect on people like Weston. I seem to remember a comment by G. Gordon Liddy who noted that when shooting federal officers that "you should go for the head". I just can't help but think that this type of inflammatory language could help to set some one off. What are your thoughts?
Michael Grunwald: I don't know. Maybe someone else. I think this guy was more influenced by the aliens talking to him through his neighbor's satellite dish.
Everyone agrees that the murders in your Capitol Building were terrible. However, there were precautions being taken but the gunman just tried walking around the detectors.
Michael Grunwald: Well, you're not the first to say that. Gun control is a perennial topic of conversation around here, like abortion and the Redskins and the humidity. There's obviously a broad difference of opinion about whether gun control works, and how much gun control is allowed under the Second Amendment. If this had been an assault weapon of an automatic weapon, the issue might have been launched even more powerfully. But even with a .38 Smith & Wesson, I'm sure we'll be hearing more about it...
Boston, MA: Do you think that the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue was a mistake? What will keep Congress from doing something similar on Capitol Hill?
Michael Grunwald: I haven't heard much of a groundswell for shutting off the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. There's been a lot of rhetoric about the Capitol being the people's building, and I think everyone wants to keep it pretty accessible. They may go ahead and build that visitor's center, which would help the cops control access, and they are already extending the perimeter security of the Capitol. (They were even before the shootings.) But I think that's about as far as they'll go.
Bob Levey: Usually, in stories of this sort, the media are vilified for trampling on the privacy of grieving families--you know, TV crews who shove a microphone in a widow's face and ask how she's feeling, that sort of thing. But it hasn't happened in this case, to my knowledge. Why? Are we in the business wising up?
Michael Grunwald: I can't really blame people for vilifying us when we do that. If it hasn't happened in this case, I'm glad. I wouldn't say that the media have wised up, though. I would never say that.
Bob Levey: One of the great ironies in this story is that the two slain officers did exactly what they were trained to do, and they clearly prevented worse bloodshed. But so much of the public thinks the story is about a terrible security breach. Any comment?
Michael Grunwald: I think that's true. In a story like this, you have to check and see if the security system failed. And I must say - at the risk of irritating the guy who was worried about copycat crimes - that I walked into a Senate office building last Wednesday where there was nobody watching the metal detector. But in this case, the system worked. You can't stop someone from walking up to a security checkpoint and blasting away at the officers, no matter where you put the security checkpoint. The question is whether you can stop him from harming the people you're there to protect, and the Capitol Police did that.
Are there complete videotapes of the shooting incident?
Michael Grunwald: There are a bunch of security cameras in the area where the shootings took place, and we know that at least one camera captured the gunman walking up to Officer Chestnut and shooting him in the back of the head. The police officers were not wearing bulletproof vests; they were not required to. The Capitol Police spokesman was very angry when someone asked about that, because he said it made it sound like the officers had deserved to die. But to answer your question, no.
Herndon, VA: Why is the press giving so much attention to the parents of the alleged murderer? While they have experienced a tradegedy, shouldn't more or equal time be given to the families of the victims?
Michael Grunwald: The families of the victims have been pretty quiet, understandably; they've been given every opportunity to speak. There's been a lot of attention to Weston's parents because there's obviously the hope that they will help shed light on what made their son freak out like this. Allegedly.
Falls Church, VA: My condolences are also sent to the family of the "alleged" gunman. They have been living with their son's mental illness for years. Doesn't this incident (and other like it) raise questions about the whole community mental health situation in our country? People wil severe mental illness cannot be allowed to just roam. There has to be some way of monitoring their medication and supervising their activities.
Michael Grunwald: That's an interesting point. This does raise questions about community mental health services; most people seem to think they're pretty inadequate. But it's also hard to force someone to take their meds if they don't want to and they don't seem dangerous. You can seek a civil commitment, which requires you to show that the guy is a danger to himself or others. In some states, there is even "outpatient commitment," which would force the guy to take his meds, but it is almost never used. I would say again that most mentally ill people live normal lives in the community, and the research shows that they are no more likely to commit violent acts than anyone else, unless they have histories of substance abuse or violence.
Washington, DC: It has been suggested that, had Agent Gibson not been in Rep. DeLay's office, Weston would probably have taken the office workers hostage and shot even more people. Doesn't it seem more logical and efficient to station bodyguards in the congressional offices near entrances to the Capitol rather than build an expensive new visitors' center?
Michael Grunwald: Well, you're always fighting the last war. The argument for the visitor's center is that it would provide a single access point to screen visitors before they get into the Capitol. (It would also provide a nice visitors center with exhibits about the Capitol.) I don't know if more bodyguards would help; I'm not a security expert.
I work on Capitol Hill and while I did not know the officers personally, it has affected our entire staff because it is our workplace, which granted is one special place.
Michael Grunwald: I think it's a good thing, really. It seems to show that people value the officers who protect the bigshots as much (maybe more) as they value the bigshots. And I do think it reflects a general respect for law enforcement.
Bob Levey: Any sign that tourist traffic at the Capitol has declined in the four days since the shooting?
Michael Grunwald: Not that I've seen. It's still a mob scene out there.
That's it for today. Our thanks to Washington Post Staff Writer Michael Grunwald. Be sure to join us next Tuesday for another edition of "Levey Live."