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Column: Annapolis

Posted: July 2, 2018 7:26 a.m.
Updated: July 3, 2018 1:00 a.m.

On Friday, I felt ready to write about what happened in Annapolis, Md., the day before. I needed to wait at least 24 hours, in order to know as much as I could about the senseless murder of five people working at The Capitol Gazette in Annapolis, Md., on Thursday. Friday, though, I went on Facebook and posted a draft version of this column -- admitting that parts of it could have ended up being outdated almost as soon as I wrote it -- with the intention of publishing it as my column for this Friday.

Editor Jim Tatum read it and asked me if I wanted to publish it today; I agreed. So, here we are.

Let’s get two things out of the way right now. First, I’m not going to use this tragedy to get into a debate on gun control. For once, I agree it’s neither appropriate nor, actually, relevant in this case.

Second, I cannot and will not blame President Donald Trump directly for the tragedy in Annapolis. Unless I hear differently after writing this, I see no direct connection between Trump’s incessant and unwarranted attacks on the media (including newspapers) and Jarrod Ramos’ murder of five Gazette employees. There have been some indications that Ramos had connections to the alt-right, but they appear to date back to before Trump took office; I think he had barely begun campaigning. He may have tweeted about Trump; I’m unsure as to the context or timing.

That being said, I hope no one combines the climate Trump’s created and Ramos’ crime as justification to make attacks of their own -- physical or verbal. No one who believes Trump is right about the media should celebrate what happened Thursday or use it and the murders as excuses to commit atrocities of their own.

The truth is both more and less complicated than anything political. The simple explanation is that Ramos was a very angry man for a very long time with an ongoing grudge specifically aimed at the Gazette and he acted on that anger in the worst way possible. The complicated answer takes us into the realms of human behavior and psychology. Why was Ramos, based on accounts I’ve read so far, angry all the time (and not just at the Gazette)? Why would he believe killing people was a solution?

That Ramos had a long-standing beef with the Gazette is being firmly reported. Apparently, he had pleaded guilty at some point to criminal harassment in connection with his treatment of a woman he used to know in high school. The Gazette reported -- accurately, mind you -- about what had the plea hearing revealed. Ramos sued the paper for defamation and, when the case reached an appellate judge, that judge ruled against him saying there was nothing to prove the paper reported anything false about him or his case. The judge dismissed Ramos’ suit.

Ramos then spent years, apparently obsessed with the paper, making threats, including at least one death threat.

And then Thursday came.

Maryland State Attorney Wes Adams said Ramos blocked the back entrance to the Gazette’s office so he could “systematically” hunt and kill employees. CNN reported Ramos then went around to the front entrance and used a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun to blast the door to the newspaper, and then went on to target his victims. Some reports show he may have also had smoke grenades, although I couldn’t find a consistent account. Police said they arrested Ramos after finding him hiding under a desk in the building, according to CNN. Evidence has been found at his residence -- I haven’t gotten a clear picture of exactly what, though -- that he planned the attack.

The five murdered employees were Deputy Editor Rob Hiaasen, Editorial Page Editor Gerald Fischman, Sales Assistant Rebecca Smith, and reporters Wendy Winters and John McNamara (who was also an editor). Two or three other employees were wounded, treated at a hospital and released.

And what does a newsroom committed to quality journalism do when it is attacked, even like this? “Yes, we’re putting out a damn paper tomorrow,” the Gazette staff tweeted Thursday afternoon. And they did, too, with the front page devoted to a story about what happened. Its opinion page Friday morning served as a stark homage to their colleagues: “Today, we are speechless. This page is intentionally left blank today to commemorate victims of Thursday’s shooting at our office.” It then listed Hiaasen, Fischman, Smith, Winters and McNamara’s names, followed by, “Tomorrow this paper will return to its steady purpose of offering our readers informed opinion about the world around them, that they might be better citizens.”

That is what journalism is about: Reporting the news, whatever it may be, accurately and fairly, and offering opinions to help readers make decisions about their lives. Journalists do this every day because they believe in that dual purpose. They should not be killed because of it, whether it be by regimes and criminal organizations in other countries or by anyone they have written about here at home.

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