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On Politicizing Tragedies

An ISIS-supporting immigrant runs down pedestrians in New York, killing eight. A white man in Texas opens fire in a church, killing 27. And partisans on both sides gleefully point out their opponents' hypocrisy -- they were quick to draw political conclusions from one of these incidents, while warning us not to politicize tragedies after the other. There is certainly hypocrisy enough to go around on both sides of the aisle, but people of good will seem to agree that it would be possible to have a consistent, content-neutral standard for what constitutes politicizing a tragedy. By that standard, you could recognize when your opponents were or were not drawing legitimate political conclusions from a tragedy even when you didn't agree with them. But I'm not so sure.

To see why, we need to have a clear idea of what it means to improperly politicize a tragedy. On the one hand, it seems obvious that it's possible to crassly wield a tragedy for political gain, so there are some political connections that should be ruled out. On the other hand, it also seems obvious that we should be able to examine tragedies in order to come up with strategies -- including ones involving policy changes -- to prevent them from happening again. It seems that improper politicizing of a tragedy then means linking it to political conclusions that are themselves inappropriate -- that is, conclusions that don't really follow from the tragedy. The wrongness of politicizing a tragedy consists in demonstrating that you care more about the political agenda you're attempting to advance than you do about the victims of the tragedy.

Now, here's the rub: you can't determine whether a political conclusion drawn from a tragedy is inappropriate without evaluating the substance of that conclusion. And that evaluation is going to be shaped by your political stance. Liberals see calls for gun control after the Texas shooting as legitimate, and thus not "politicizing," because within a liberal framework, gun control is an entirely sensible solution to what happened. But within a conservative framework, gun control is illegitimate -- both wrong on the face of it, and inappropriate as a solution to the specific incident in Texas. From this point of view, calls for gun control must inevitably seem like inappropriate politicization. There's no way to judge whether saying "the Texas shooting shows the need for gun control" is illegitimate politicization or not, aside from making a judgment as to whether the Texas shooting really does show the need for gun control. Therefore, one's ideological opponents are always going to look like they are illegitimately politicizing tragedies, because they will always be proposing political conclusions that you think are illegitimate. Only the rightness of their proposed solutions could justify linking them to the tragedy, but you already know their proposed solutions are wrong.

A further implication of this way of thinking is that drawing political conclusions from tragedies will have limited effectiveness. Everyone likes to believe that tragedies are clarifying moments, events whose implications are so clear that they break through the walls of ideology and make your conclusions obvious to anyone but the worst partisan hacks. (This is why we imagine we can have an ideology-neutral standard for politicization.) But ideologies are flexible and adaptable. They can easily interpret a wide variety of events in ways that don't disturb their basic premises and political commitments. This is especially true for types of tragedies that occur repeatedly -- such as Islamist vehicle attacks or mass shootings with high-powered weapons. There is no reason to think that this tragedy is going to be the one that somehow finally convinces your opponents to see the error of their ways.


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