News travels fast on the internet, and not always along the most predictable channels. Urban Dead is a sadly compulsive and hugely popular text-based MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) in which human and zombie characters battle for control of a post-apocalyptic virtual city. The general idea is that people are meant to kill zombies and zombies are meant to kill people, but there are players who think it’s more fun to attack their own kind. People who kill people are known as PKers. You can pick up objects of varying degrees of usefulness: baseball bats, bottles of beer, fire axes, first-aid kits, mobile phones, pistols, shotguns, spray cans etc. If you have a spray can, you can paint graffiti on the walls of buildings. A few weeks ago, messages started to appear informing players that ‘Dick Cheney is a PKer!’
Not being a regular reader of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, I assumed at first that the slogans were warnings about a character in the game, ‘Dick Cheney’ after all being quite an amusing and not inappropriate moniker for a PKer, considering the vice-president’s record as a warmonger. Then variations on the theme began to crop up: ‘Dick Cheney attacked you for 10 damage’ (this is the way the computer informs you that someone’s blasted you with a shotgun). By this time, the scoop of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times – ‘Cheney accidentally shoots fellow hunter at nearby ranch’ – was all over the world press.
At half-past five in the afternoon on Saturday, 11 February, the vice-president was out hunting quail with a group of friends on a ranch in Kenedy County, Texas. Cheney’s victim was Harry Whittington, a 78-year-old lawyer from Austin. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Hunting Accident and Incident Report Form, issued on 13 February, the terrain was flat, the visibility was fair, the cover was light, the lighting was sunny, and the weather was clear. Both men were wearing ‘blaze orange’ caps and coats. The ‘distance from muzzle to victim’ was less than fifty yards. ‘Whittington downed a bird and went to retrieve it. While he was out of the hunting line another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest.’
Early the next morning, Chief Deputy Gilberto San Miguel Jr went to the Armstrong Ranch to investigate. After his car had been thoroughly ‘inspected’ by the Secret Service, he wrote in his report of 15 February, he ‘got comfortable at a table inside the main house’, and ‘asked Mr Cheney if he could explain to me what had happened’. Cheney told San Miguel that ‘there was a single bird that flew behind him and he followed the bird by line of sight in a counter-clockwise direction not realising Harry Whittington had walked up from behind.’ The next day San Miguel visited Whittington in hospital. A nurse asked him ‘to kind of hurry up so Mr Whittington could rest’, but not before Whittington had ‘again reiterated that this incident was just an accident’, and expressed his concern that ‘this incident would bring a bad image to hunting in Texas.’
Whittington was standing on lower ground than Cheney, according to the vice-president’s statement; if he’d been ‘on the same ground level’ then ‘the injuries might have been lower on Mr Whittington’s body’ – which would, presumably, have been preferable. This is the first indication that Whittington might have been at fault, a view later confirmed by Whittington himself when he emerged from hospital after having heart surgery and apologised for causing Cheney so much trouble.
It couldn’t have happened here. For one thing, there’s no way legally to shoot quail in the UK: migratory quail (of a different species anyway from the ones Cheney was ‘swinging’ at) come to Britain only in the summer, i.e. during the close season. The close season for pheasants and partridges begins on 1 February (for grouse, on 10 December). In Texas, you can keep on shooting quail until 26 February, so long as you don’t bag more than 15 a day. More to the point, the senior members of Blair’s cabinet don’t use guns to relax. The closest thing we’ve had over here to Cheney’s peppering his buddy with lead is John Prescott’s lamping that farm worker who threw an egg at him in 2001.
I know I’m not alone in thinking that Cheney’s cavalier way with a shotgun and disregard for the safety of his shooting companions pales in comparison to, say, his role in the war in Iraq or the inadequacy of the official response to Hurricane Katrina. But that hasn’t stopped the press having a field day with it. The White House press corps is scandalised at not having been informed, as if it were somehow the business of politicians to ring the papers up every time they do something wrong (‘Hello? Is that Carl Bernstein? Richard Nixon here . . .’). The Corpus Christi Caller-Times knows differently, and so do its readers, one of whom, Hugh Smith, sent it this letter of support:
The National Press Corps is sitting around with egg on its face, trying to blame anyone they can think of for not ‘giving’ them the news. Someone needs to tell them to get off their collective rear ends and go to work and quit waiting for someone to tell them what is happening. If they don’t know how to do this, have them come on down to Corpus Christi. I am sure the good folks at the Caller-Times would be happy to give them some training.
Perhaps they could give Dick Cheney some gun-safety training while they’re about it, or encourage him to take up a less hazardous pursuit, such as playing Urban Dead on his computer.