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HETRICK: From Indiana and Tucson, a tale of two tragedies

January 22, 2011

It’s morning. A few hundred people have shaken off a sound sleep, grabbed that first cup of Joe or Cheerios, hopped in the shower, fired up the curling iron or blow dryer, and suited themselves in jeans and T-shirts, slacks and jackets, leather and metal, cashmere and polyester, even boots and bolo ties.

They come alone. They come as couples. They come in groups. However they come, they park in the massive lot, queue up at the doors, and fan out through the crowded aisles.

They’re happy. They’re feeling lucky. It’s their big chance to kick back, drop a few dollars, grab some snacks, and have a drink.

The guests will stick around for an hour or two, pulling levers, placing bets. The staff will be on hand for a full shift, catering to the customers’ every whim; sharing their joy when things go right; offering solace when things go wrong; empathizing, always empathizing, eager to help with every request.

In the midst of these masses, trouble emerges. It’s pulled from a purse or vest pocket. Sometimes, it’s a lone assassin. Other times, a dastardly pair. Sometimes, a dirty dozen, a scheming score, a hundred killers or more.

They arrive armed and dangerous, filtered and unfiltered, silent but deadly, ready for their sneak attack. Then all at once, or in choreographed sequence, or with endless repetition, they trigger their chemical weapons—a cloud of haze that poisons the lungs, squeezes the veins, smacks the heart, slams the head, wrinkles the skin and worse.

It’s Glocks and Gatling guns all in one—and all at once.

A suicide bombing far more deadly than the ones in Iraq.

An annual U.S. death toll (450,000) nearly twice as high as the long-term death toll from atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined (270,000).

And this entire enterprise is legal, sanctioned and—most important—taxed by your government. For employees, it’s officially endorsed daily and nightly death duty at taverns, casinos, bowling alleys, Legion halls, dance clubs and more.

Meanwhile, America went ape (and rightly so) a few weeks ago. It started in one city (Tucson, Ariz.) when a small group of people got up on a Saturday morning.

They shook off a sound sleep, grabbed their first cup of Joe or Cheerios, hopped in the shower, fired up the curling iron or blow dryer, and suited themselves in jeans and T-shirts, slacks and jackets, leather and metal, cashmere and polyester, boots and bolo ties.

They went to a Safeway supermarket at the corner of Oracle and Ina. They came as singles. They came as couples. They came as families and neighbors.

They parked in the Safeway lot, queued up outside the front door, and waited to chat with their congresswoman and her staff.

They were happy. They were feeling lucky to have their hand shaken or their problem solved. After the event, maybe they were going to kick back for the weekend, or go for a hike in the desert. Maybe they’d drop a few dollars on groceries, grab some snacks, and have a drink while watching sports on TV.

Whatever the case, the guests planned to stick around for a few minutes. The congresswoman and her staff would be there all morning. And they’d talk about the constituents’ every whim, sharing in their joy if things were going right, offering solace if things were going wrong. Empathizing, always empathizing, eager to help with every request.

Trouble arrived in the form of Jared Lee Loughner. With a high-capacity clip in his 9mm Glock, he killed six and wounded 13. Those hit included congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded by a shot through the brain; federal Judge John Roll, who was shot dead; and Christina Taylor Green, a 9-year-old girl, born on 9/11—also shot dead.

One gunman. One weapon. Eighteen victims. The bad guy is locked up, denied bail and likely facing the death penalty. The event triggers an appropriate and overdue national debate on hate speech, political rhetoric, firearms legislation, mental-health issues and more. We watch the funerals and weep.

Meanwhile, the biggest killer of all—cigarette smoke—knocks off 450,000 Americans a year—400,000 of those smokers themselves, 50,000 innocent bystanders.

The bad guys—Big Tobacco—not only stay in business, but are encouraged to export their death and disease worldwide. There’s little debate. Smoke-free-workplace legislation gets watered down, amended to death (literally) and set aside year after year. And the hearses roll by—filled with the bodies of bartenders, waitresses, card dealers and, yes, newspaper reporters whose jobs take them to smoke-choked environments.

Despite the carnage, public officials look the other way, happy to have sin taxes filling budget gaps, content to have tobacco money lining campaign coffers.

One tragedy we didn’t see coming. The other we refuse to prevent. And those of us with loved ones lost watch the funerals and weep.•

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Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.

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