Humans beings generally recognize how and when to allow people to grieve. A parent losing a child in an act of random violence deserves some modicum of privacy and support. That can be tricky for reporters, tasked with telling the stories of such acts but wary of exacerbating a family’s pain. We, reporters and everyone else, evaluate boundaries and balance needs.
One thing on which everyone would probably agree is that no one should force a parent, friend or family member who has lost a loved one to engage in a political discussion about their loss — or, for that matter, any other discussion. Often, though, we’re told that any such discussion is somehow an unacceptable intrusion, that talking abstractly about political factors to those not directly affected by a tragedy is “politicizing” what occurred in a disrespectful way.
It’s certainly true that people might cynically leverage a tragedy to try to take political steps forward. There are examples of this that would be universally understood to be inappropriate. Often, it’s subjective: if you disagree with the political point being made, you’re more likely to view the interjection of politics as inappropriate. We also sometimes see allegations about cynical opportunism deployed not as a sincere complaint but as a way to defuse anger that might spur political change.
After the killing of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Tex., we are once again in a “don’t politicize this” moment on guns. It’s worth assessing what that suggested boundary actually means.
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Consider the comments of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), speaking in Washington hours after the massacre in Uvalde.
“As sure as night follows day, you can bet there are going to be Democrat politicians looking to advance their own political agenda,” he said, “rather than to work to stop this kind of horrific violence and to keep everyone safe.” Democrats, in other words, want to politicize this.
“Politicize” can means lots of things. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting spree, Cruz tweeted his condolences to those affected. It’s a sort of politicization — politician expressing his condolences — to which no one would object.
On Wednesday, though, Cruz was making comments like this on television.
Is this not a “politician looking to advance their own political agenda”? Why is this not “politicizing” the attack?
What often emerges at moments like this is a vague sort of “not yet”-ing generally applied to those who advocate for restrictions on the availability of firearms. That the time has not yet come for any such discussion, given that parents (or, more vaguely, “communities”) are still grieving. Sometimes, the proposed boundary is that the victims have not yet been buried, suggesting that discussion of politics wait until that’s happened.
The immediate intent of this chiding, obviously, is to cast the person raising the political issue as somehow morally deficient or unsympathetic to the victims. The broader intent is to let anger dissipate — something that happens very quickly.
Since 2010, there have been 77 mass shootings in which three or more people were killed, according to data compiled by Mother Jones. It’s hard to gauge how long it takes for attention to fade after those incidents, but it appears to be about four or five days. That’s the average duration that cable news networks spend an unusual amount of time talking about shootings in the wake of a major incident.
This is how that looks visually. (Each darker-purple block indicates that the cable network had more 15-second blocks mentioning “shooting” on a given day than its annual average for a day.) You can see that some shooting incidents led to longer periods of discussion.
There were between 16 and 19 shooting incidents in which the cable networks subsequently spent more than seven straight days talking about “shooting” more than normal. At least three-quarters of the time, the networks lost interest before then.
Presumably, so too did many Americans. If your goal is to keep people from transmuting their anger into political advocacy, insisting that your opponents muffle their rhetoric for a few days helps get you to that point.
The other challenge, of course, is that incidents in which multiple people are shot to death occur so frequently that there’s almost never a time in which no community in America is suffering from the aftermath. Data from the Gun Violence Archive shows that the longest stretch this year in which no place in America saw an incident in which at least two people were killed and two injured is nine days, ending on Jan. 18.
If the boundary is victims being buried, we’re always in a “don’t politicize” period. The massacre in Uvalde occurred before the victims of this month’s mass shooting in Buffalo had been buried.
Not all of the demands that tragedies not be politicized are offered in bad faith. Partisans often see their opponents’ concerns as invalid or insincere in ways that are not warranted. And, of course, there are hard-to-define ways in which boundaries of propriety might be crossed.
We should however recognize this demand for what it often is: itself an effort to politicize tragedy. Demanding that people not advocate their own responses to tragedy because it’s “politicizing” things is, itself, a political tactic. It is politicization, leveraging the suffering of those affected to bolster one’s own political position.
Using victims’ pain to deflect your opponents’ political goals is no different from using victims’ pain to advance your own.