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April 18, 2007

"Politicizing" events and "exploiting" tragedies

I'm so sick of the charges and counter-charges of "exploitation" of the Va-Tech massacre for political purposes.

If people of good will think that they have an apt political point to make, let them make it without assailing them for somehow taking advantage of the tragedy. That goes for both the gun control and the anti-gun control camps.

Current events should shape policy discussions.

It's not a question of exploitation. It's a matter of proffering solutions and offering critiques while our increasingly fragmented national attention is focused on an issue.

If Instapundit thinks that the concealed carry ban caused the tragedy, let him say so. I think it's a dumb argument, but I don't see why there should be any kind of inverse statute of limitations for offering it. Yesterday I made fun of some wingnuts for rifling through their personal anxiety closets in public, trying to come to terms with the killings--but I was mocking them for saying stupid and venal things, not for "exploiting" anyone's death.

Trying to enforce an arbitrary line between "human" and "political" responses to tragedies is a political strategy in its own right.

Remember the intense pressure to avoid "politicizing" 9/11? I'm talking about the taboo against criticizing the president that went virtually unchallenged in the mainstream media for years after the attacks. The real effect of the taboo was not to keep our reactions to the tragedy pure. When we shut down serious discussion and debate, we ceded interpretation of our history to the Bush administration. We let them own it.  Those who wanted to keep the reaction to 9/11 "above" politics ensured the ultimate politicization of the event. If we had challenged the president from the beginning, he might not have been able to use 9/11 to goad us into war.

The administration loves to shield itself from criticism by accusing its opponents of "politicizing" some gaffe or scandal, or "exploiting" some monumental failure for political gain. It seems like a lot of Americans, liberal and conservative, are still taking their cues from Bush in this regard.

When a gunman shoots 33 people, it's only natural for the human mind to turn to larger questions, such as, "Are guns in school a good idea?" or, "Can we solve this problem with more guns?"

The gun lobby knows how this game is played. The Second Ammendment foundation accused gun control advocates of dancing in the blood of the victims. That was a bad faith attempt to shut down legitimate discussion by shaming their critics. Of course, they do this every time there's a gun-related tragedy. Every time we defer to them, we miss an opportunity for a national conversation about guns, and so, the status quo is perpetuated indefinitely by bullying rather than real consensus.

I agree with Jeralyn that we shouldn't make policy based on any individual crisis. Whatever policy we do adopt has to be based on a sober assessment of the big picture, the costs and benefits that will accrue to a whole society over many years. On the other hand, human nature is such that it sometimes takes a crisis to focus attention.

Why not have an honest and respectful debate about gun control, or misogyny, or any other issues that might arise in our attempts to understand this tragedy? Obviously, it's still very early in the investigation, and nobody has all the facts. On the other hand, it's never too early to start asking questions.

The taboo against "political" arguments in the wake of tragedies infantilizes the public and cheapens our discourse. If we rule out substantive discussion, we're left with a residue of content-free sentiment. If we refuse to debate, analyze, contextualize, or explain, we turn mass killings vacuous celebrity deathfests.


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I have to agree, and not just because I (like ten million others) have written a blog post on the VTech killings. In order to understand things, much less someday reach a consensus about how to change things (or even prevent tragedies like this one, if possible), we have to be willing to really examine the event itself and our understandings and preconceptions and those of others. Unlike most, I think this sort of tragedy is all too understandable, is not unthinkable, and needs to be thought about. Thanks.

This time I think you're wrong. I think you answered yourself when you said "Obviously, it's still very early in the investigation, and nobody has all the facts." Exactly. We all have our agendas and political views. They won't go away in a week or two. In the meantime, it's just a decent thing to wait a little while for people - particularly those at Virgina Tech - to absorb the shock and for the police and others to do their jobs to reconstruct just exactly what happened. I think it was precisely the need for some immediate "answer" to 9/11 that started us down the terrible path we're still on.
My two cents.


I do think it's extremely important to resist the temptation to speculate publicly about what the shooter's motivation might have been, to pass around rumors, to invent a narrative, etc., before we know more about what really happened. For example, I am sick of seeing people repeat the idea that the first victim was the shooter's girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend -- as far as I know there is no reason to believe this, it's just a story people are telling because it provides a motivation on which to hang further speculation. Makes me think of the Columbine "Christian martyr" meme.

I'm going to go hug my daughter now.

To clarify, "Agreed" meant "with Lindsay" -- though obviously I also agree with much of what Ralph said.

Ultimately, if you need people to be in an extreme emotional state for your argument to be effective, then your argument is flawed and your goals are probably unjust. If your advocating needed reforms and your arguments are strong, then waiting a week won't be a problem. I would have thought the 9/11=Iraq debacle would be enough to drive this point home. Decisions made under emotional duress suck.

Although I often disagree with you, IMHO you do an excellent (and rare) job of fostering honest and respectful debate. I'm neither being sarcastic nor sucking up; it's a sincere compliment.

With that said, I must confess that I strongly dislike this sentiment:
It's only natural for people to try to interpret current events in light of their pre-existing social and political beliefs.

Though you're probably right, I don't think that what's "only natural" has any relevance at a time like this. Humans have consciences, and we're capable of using those consciences to subdue our natural instincts. And IMHO, these events are so awful that we should swallow natural instincts, avoid politics, and unify in support of the university and the victims' families.

I'm a cynical guy so I don't usually say things like this, but I think people need to be generous in this situation. The best response for everyone is to say, "OK, even though I've got strong feelings on the underlying issues this tragedy raises, in the interests of unity and compassion I'm going to keep my mouth shut until a more appropriate time."

I've been becoming more and more disgusted with the blogosphere; it's electronic Jerry Springer Show, both on the right and on the left. I've seen a lot of things on the blogosphere -- mockery, lies, death threats -- but the three least common things are (1) apologies, (2) restraint, and (3) someone changing his/her mind.

I dunno, maybe I should just stick to soccer blogs.

Cf4, I modified that sentence before I saw your comment. I didn't mean to pull the rug out from under you. I don't mean that it's good because it's natural. I mean that it's not mean-spirited or opportunistic to start analyzing issues in political terms (or moral, or religious, or historical terms, depending on your interests...). We're always trying to make sense of events in light of our background theories. There's no alternative, really.

Soullite, I'm not denying that there are demagogues out there. On the other hand, the news cycle is driven by current events.

In theory, we could wait and have a reasoned national discussion about gun control six weeks from now. Yet, somehow we never do because it's either not topical, or too close to some kind of tragedy for the NRA discourse police.

I agree with Lindsay on this. Where exactly is the harm in discussing the political implications of a tragedy - even immediately after it happens? People seem to think it's disrespectful to the victim's families, or necessarily constitutes exploitation of the victim's suffering, but I've yet to hear a convincing argument for why exactly that might be.

Naturally, I wouldn't go up to one of the victims's loved ones just after they found out and choose that time to give my spiel as to why we just have to adopt stricter gun control laws. That would be crass, insensitive, and rude. But I don't see any reason why that should carry over into the *national* political discourse.

I do think it is in poor taste to start using this as part of any axe to grind before the bodies are even cold. I also think that poor decisions are made when done in haste and when emotional. Like now.

That said, I agree, it is also good to discuss an issue when attention is focused on it. Maybe not the same day, but a week later, probably fine.

To a certain degree, those who critisize this are like people saying we can't debate what to do after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor right away because to discuss the problems just "politicizes" the issue.

"If people of good will think that they have an apt political point to make, let them make it without assailing them for somehow taking advantage of the tragedy."
Well, that's a relief. It's barely twenty-four hours since you were slagging Reynolds for "making hay".
"Current events should shape policy discussions."
That's exactly right, and "there is no time like the present" when it comes to something like this.
"If Instapundit thinks that the concealed carry ban caused the tragedy, let him say so."
Hey, when he's got you to put words in his editor, he doesn't have to bother. However, it is a fact that the "gun free zone" at Va. Tech wasn't: that campus rule had no effect whatever on that little creep, and this is a fact well-known throughout the whole history of civilization: criminals have absolutely no regard for rules, no matter who writes them. That being the actual, factual case, the next question is how to deal with that fact, which is what it is, whether you like it or not. Another fact is that Reynolds speculated on whether "things might have turned out differently", and you're just pissed-off because he didn't say what you'd like him to say so you could call him "dumb". Which you did, anyway.

I'm not seeing a lot of room around here to moan about "honest debate".

Nobody's making any snap decisions. What decision is there to make? As far as I know, nobody has introduced gun control legislation in the VA legislature, or anything.

The only snap decision is to arbitrarily table the discussion, or restrict it to "safe" expressions of generic sympathy.

Now, I appreciate that not everyone feels like participating in the discussion right now. Some people would prefer to revisit the discussion later. That's fine. I hope they do. However, I don't see where the NRA gets off telling me what an appropriate reaction is.

The harm is that immediately after the tragedy happens entirely too many people are talking straight out of their asses, speculating or just plain making shit up that turns out to have little relationship to the facts which can only be determined after investigation that necessarily takes a certain amount of time.

But by then those speculations or fabrications have become cemented in people's minds - and the chances of learning the right lessons and making wise public policy decisions are accordingly reduced.

"The harm is that immediately after the tragedy happens entirely too many people are talking straight out of their asses, speculating or just plain making shit up that turns out to have little relationship to the facts which can only be determined after investigation that necessarily takes a certain amount of time."

And this is different from the normal state of the blogosphere... how?

More seriously, I'm sure plenty of people are saying plenty of shit that's plenty dumb. Maybe thats bad for the national discourse. But I just don't see the moral problem with it.

Anon, I'd say the answer is more speech, not less. If we want high-quality discourse, we've got to cultivate it. We can't just stand back and wring our hands about how all those other people are speculating irresponsibly. We've actually got to engage, if we care about the quality of the discussion.

Realistically, there's going to be a lot of discussion about an event like this. Narratives will get established. If we're worried about an emerging consensus affecting future policy debates, it seems irresponsible to cede the discourse to the crazies.

People seem to think it's disrespectful to the victim's families, or necessarily constitutes exploitation of the victim's suffering, but I've yet to hear a convincing argument for why exactly that might be.

Because it's treating the deceased as objects rather than as humans. As commodities. As "supporting arguments", rather than as suffering people.

I was just looking at an execrable site which criticized the Washington Post because they ran a picture of mourning VT students and two of the female students were wearing head scarves. Gasp! The WaPo is pro-Muslim and anti-Jewish...just like the site owner KNEW ALL ALONG! Who woulda thunk?

And I just hate that crap, right and left. My biggest complaint with Americans of all political leanings is self-absorption. Whenever someone reacts to a tragedy by saying "see, this just supports what I've been saying about..." I want to grab them and yell, "this is NOT ABOUT YOU. This is about SOMEBODY ELSE. And that somebody else needs you to focus on them right now and not on how you can leverage the tragedy to advance you and your beliefs."

Damn, now I'm trembling. I'm going to the Met.

Lindsay, riddle me this: as I understand it, Canada has a gun ownership rate that is close to the US's, yet has a gun violence rate way below ours. Do you have any insights on this?

We're not treating the deceased as objects by discussing the larger context in which their deaths took place.

We're trying to make sense of what happened to them and figure out how to prevent future tragedies. To me, that's far more respectful than a lot of the sentimental "news" coverage we're seeing. If I were a victim, I'd want people to think about the larger issues, not just the details of my individual case.

This is the best piece I've seen on this issue so far. Of course it's going to be politicized! Of course it's going to be exploited! I think it was Heller's Catch 22 that had a line about how the greater the tragedy, the greater it's ability to be exploited.

So while I find the argument that concealed handguns are our best defense against nut jobs with evil intentions to be very stupid, at best (see an old All In The Family where Archie argues on a television editorial that airline passengers should be armed so they can fight against hijackers - the line drew a hearty laugh - but, sigh, that was the early 1970s!) I can't help but be a little pissed when I see liberals whining about the Right raising this issue, AT SUCH A SENSITIVE TIME (sniff), but see no contradiction that their first response was to scream "Gun control! Gun control!" as though that's not politicizing the issue!

My feeling is that it's all political, and nothing is personal, down to how we live and love in our own "personal lives." The question is how do progressives try to build something better out of the tattered pieces of something like this, since we know damn well that reactionaries will use it to increase repression and fear.

Anyway, great piece, it adds much more substance to this discussion than "guns=bad or guns=good" or "violence against women=yawn or =yikes!"

The only thing that could be done, given the fact that the state of Virginia has a concealed carry law with an exception to that right being on universities, is for concealed weapons to be allowed on campus.

I don't know what statistics could be brought to bear to evaluate that policy's effectiveness.

Of course, the NRA doesn't want to talk about the nearly 30,000 gun deaths that aren't clumped together on one morning in Blacksburg.

I think there are several reasons to be more circumspect in voicing strong political judgements in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like this. First, there's value in respecting the raw nerves of people directly and indirectly affected. This is not "content free sentiment" it is just kindness. Second, it is useful to remember that most of us have strong emotional responses, if we allow ourselves, to horrible tragedies like this. It is wise to respect that and wait until they have subsided a little to make our judgements. And last, though better gun control may be smart social policy (or heck, the NRA could be right - though I doubt it), we don't really know if this is an example that proves the point or something that almost no amount of reasonable gun control could have stopped.
In a week or so (no, I don't know just how long this should be) , when the pictures of the dead aren't splashed everywhere, when the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and classmates have had a chance to grieve a little and when some greater clarity about the exact sequence of events and the nature of the killer has been determined, then go at it, have a healthy, no-holds barred debate. Until then, it won't hurt to hold one's tongue. So, now, I'll try to do just that .
P.S. I sent a similar post to a more gun-friendly site and, unlike here, immediately received nasty personal attacks from people who don't know me from Ralph Kramden.

Great essay.

"We can't just stand back and wring our hands about how all those other people are speculating irresponsibly."
Right: like you did with Reynolds.

Just cop to it, Lindsay. It's the right thing. Lead the way.

This is not snark, like most of the rest of what goes on around here. I mean it: it's the respectable thing to do.

I just wanted to add that my last paragraph sounded pretty dismissive of what people are trying to say about this, so I want to apologize for that. These are never easy times to figure out how to make sense of anything. I'll admit that hearing the police and school officials say that there was no reason to believe that a guy who murdered two people in cold blood could be a danger to anyone has left me stunned and outraged.

But it's an impotent outrage, as outrage so often can be, especially when you're a woman. I just wanted to put this out because if I sounded like I was mocking people for their reactiveness, well, I'm as guilty of it as anyone.

Lindsay, while I can respect your desire to cultivate higher quality speech, you are starting about a decade too late in the lifetime of your audience. In both audience and arguer, the context of a shocking tragedy reduces all arguments to the fallacy of argument by emotional appeal except in those with rigorous critical thinking backgrounds -- and almost nobody has this. Fix the schooling first, or you're building on sand as the ocean rolls in.

Additionally, it's generally impossible to formulate useful policy decisions based upon spectacular events because by definition spectacular events are not representative of daily reality. Taking gun control as a single example, any argument about gun control policy that uses VT as a backdrop without considering accident rates, effects of training, deterrent effects on criminals and abusive governments, local vs. larger government disputes, and probably other critical issues that someone who follows gun control more closely than I do would know are important, is going to be wrong -- or to quote Pauli, not even wrong.

Nobody is doing this now who wasn't doing this already. I'd say offhand that as a result, any claim that someone referring to the VT tragedy to push a policy decision is exploiting the emotional power of the tragedy is probably correct.

And all of this is without counting in the fact that, as others have pointed out, there are real human beings involved here, being treated like so many pawns on the chessboard, irrespective of how being used as an argument one way or another may make them feel.

I like your post but obviously I disagree.

The problem here is that every group with an agenda immediately makes it about their agenda, based on a loose understanding of the facts. Surprising right?

Some people latched onto the fact that that he was Asian to claim that he was a Pakistani terrorist. Others latched onto the girlfriend angle to claim that he was a misogynyst.

When you look hard enough for something, you'll find it. Looking through the lens of your narrow agenda is not a good way to find real answers.

If someone wants to examine the facts carefully then draw some conclusions that's fine. But a lot of people are just hunting down facts that will reinforce their world view and that isn't fine.

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