Politicizing a Tragedy

We hear a lot these days about conservatives politicizing tragedy.

In May, former White House Press Sec. Jay Carney called the formation of the Benghazi select committee “an attempt by Republicans to politicize a tragedy.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed the charge on ABC on Monday, attacking Republicans for “politicizing this at the expense of four dead Americans.” Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal expressed dismay over the “politicizing” of the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl; an attack for which he earned high praise from liberal columnist E.J. Dionne.

The instinct among the White House’s supporters to accuse the opposition of being political actors is not a new one. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) joined MSNBC host Al Sharpton for a recent segment where both accused the GOP of politicizing the VA scandal, while simultaneously defending the care vets receive at VA facilities as “top notch.” Republicans were criticized from a number of sources for politicizing the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. “People have to stop politicizing it,” said then Deputy Campaign Manager for President Barack Obama, Stephanie Cutter.

But for all their competence at both recognizing and shaming the politicization of tragic events, there is one sadly recurrent element of American life that liberals appear to believe not only merits politicization but demands it: gun violence.

“There is no such thing as ‘politicizing’ tragedy,” read an honest post from Gawker’s Max Read in the wake of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. “You cannot ‘politicize’ a tragedy because the tragedy is already political. When you talk about the tragedy you’re already talking about politics.”

His sentiments were echoed by Michael Grunwald who, writing in Time Magazine, articulated a slightly more nuanced view on the inevitability of politics invading tragic moments. “I feel terrible about what happened in that movie theater, and I’m agnostic about gun control, but there is nothing wrong with politicizing tragedy,” he wrote. “It’s telling that the people who get paid to analyze politics recoil at the notion that its practitioners should connect it to real-life pain.”

Since 2012, an annus horribilis in terms of the number of high profile mass shootings, politicizing gun violence has become a grim and obligatory rite on the left. As an expression of tribal loyalty, progressives conveying their devotion to the cause of stricter gun laws in the wake of a shooting has become as reflexive as a salute.

Perhaps that explains why, even while a high school shooting in Oregon was ongoing on Tuesday, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell was tasked with interviewing Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America founder Shannon Watts.

“It’s not like we don’t have to control to stop it. We do,” Watts insisted as the active shooting situation in Oregon unfolded. “We have to act.”

When asked what proposal she would back to “stop” shootings like these, Watts replied by attacking Congress for “protecting the gun lobbyists” rather than their constituents.

“It is time to vote to close the background check loophole,” she declared. “We need the help of business people, of members of Congress, of legislators, but most of all to people listening to your show right now. You can’t wait to act.”

Watts could not have known how stricter background checks might have prevented this tragedy at the time of her avowal, because the identity of the gunman and the weapons used were still unknown. But she was not invited on the program for her policy acumen. She was there to reaffirm her and the audience’s fealty to a cause.

Just about an hour later, MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow invited The Daily Beast’s Cliff Schechter on his program to refine the villain in this episode from generic members of Congress to Republican members of Congress and the National Rifle Association.

“We know how to stop this,” Schechter insisted. He cited Australia’s strict 1996 gun laws as an example of how to reduce gun-related homicides, a causal link that scholars inconveniently continue to debate.

“We’ve got kids walking around either who are mentally troubled,” Schechter continued. “We’ve got right wing — people with far-right wing politics like those who shot two police officers in Las Vegas, execution style, and left a Nazi swastika and a ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag on them, and others like that who have easy access to guns.”

Schechter and Farrow proceeded to define for the audience how they can become politically involved in an effort to agitate for new gun laws. Among the advocacy groups Schechter cited as a example of a powerful anti-gun organization was Moms Demand Action, founded by our previous guest, Shannon Watts. It’s funny how that works.

The lamentable reality is that politicizing events which capture the nation’s attention can also decalcify American politics and pave the way for sweeping reforms impossible in the absence of tragedy. The right knows it. The left apparently knows it, too. Politicizing tragedy, while distasteful, is a small price to pay if you are convinced the ends justify the means.

We can, however, dispense with the mock indignation over Republicans exclusively politicizing tragedy. The implicit claim to moral superiority in that charge is wholly unearned.