Politics & Policy

It’s Hard Not to Politicize Such a Horrible Tragedy

Dallas police cars remain at the scene of Thursday’s shootings, July 8, 2016. (Brandon Wade/Reuters)
But it will ultimately be worth the effort.

Salena Zito, the wise and even-handed columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, pleaded with her fellow citizens not to respond to last night’s shocking sniper attack with the predictable cycle of bitter recrimination.

“We need to stop doing this to each other,” she wrote. “Their deaths were not the fault of the NRA, or Barack Obama, or the protestors in downtown Dallas.”

It is a noble sentiment, but her arguments are likely to fall on deaf ears. There is an unresolved question of whether an effort to honor traditional notions of decorum and decency amount to capitulation in a 24-7 news cycle and no-holds-barred media environment.

There is nothing new about the deeply human habit of responding intemperately to a horrible act of violence. And there have always been those who, like Zito, counseled civility in the aftermath of such crimes. But in 2016, civility is harder than ever to come by. Social media gives anyone a platform to blurt out whatever angry thoughts pop into their minds immediately upon hearing of an atrocity such as the Dallas attack. It’s inevitable that the most extreme or incendiary responses get the most attention; the instinct to highlight the worst thoughts coming from the other side of the political aisle is a key factor in the viral spread of information online. But sometimes it’s not merely some schmo who jumps onto social media and begins casting blame. Sometimes it’s those with a larger platform, stature, and some responsibility for leadership at a time like this.

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Last night, President Obama offered his first remarks about the Dallas shootings. After a series of appropriate comments, Obama couldn’t help but throw in a reference to gun control: “We also know that when people are armed with powerful weapons, unfortunately it makes attacks like these more deadly and more tragic. And in the days ahead, we’re going to have to consider those realities as well.”

It was less than a month ago that the New York Daily News reacted to Omar Mateen’s brutal terrorist attack in Orlando with the headline, “Thanks, NRA.”

Sometimes a couple of days doesn’t dispel the wild finger-pointing. Three days after the Orlando shooting, the New York Times editorial board seemed to achieve the impossible, ignoring Mateen’s open pledge of loyalty to ISIS and insisting, against all evidence, that he was “driven” to murder by conservative ideology.

While the precise motivation for the rampage remains unclear, it is evident that Mr. Mateen was driven by hatred toward gays and lesbians. Hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur where bigotry is allowed to fester, where minorities are vilified and where people are scapegoated for political gain. Tragically, this is the state of American politics, driven too often by Republican politicians who see prejudice as something to exploit, not extinguish.

So what to do if you’re a pro–Second Amendment Republican who doesn’t want to see your party or firearms turned into a national scapegoat? If you honor Zito’s high-minded call for decency and decorum, you concede the stage; you’ve engaged in a form of unilateral disarmament. But if you do respond, and argue that the accusations of transitory-property responsibility are nonsense, you’re inevitably accused of adding to the shameless, coarsening politicization of a national tragedy.

No doubt there are plenty of Black Lives Matter sympathizers who wholeheartedly denounce violence targeting police, and see the events in Dallas as a nightmarish perversion of their most closely cherished beliefs. Connecting the horror in Dallas — or the killing of police in Brooklyn, or the ambush on police in Ferguson — to the Black Lives Matter movement undoubtedly strikes them as wildly unfair. But unfair connections have become the bread-and-butter of our politics in recent years.

#share#What’s most maddening are the voices who not only exploit the double standard but attempt to institutionalize it. CNN commentator Sally Kohn can be counted on to offer the least logical, least consistent responses to breaking news on television; everything that happens in the world is further evidence that her political allies are good and her political opponents are bad. She did not disappoint today:

In pro-life eyes, to call an abortionist a “baby killer” is to state a simple, straightforward fact: the unborn child is a baby, and it is the job of the abortionist to kill babies. To suggest facts can incite violence is to contend we must all assent to a lie for the sake of peace.

To suggest facts can incite violence is to contend we must all assent to a lie for the sake of peace.

As for Kohn’s assertion that Black Lives Matter’s message “literally opposes violence,” outsiders aren’t so sure, mostly stemming from anti-police groups chanting “What do we want? Dead Cops! When do we want it? Now!” and “Time to Kill a Cop!” Perhaps those chanting such messages are an unruly fringe, unrepresentative of the whole movement. If so, pro-lifers, gun owners, and Republicans know exactly how Black Lives Matter activists feel right now.

From the moment a conservative steps into the public debate, he learns, bitterly, that if there’s any nut job out there claiming to act in the name of a cause he supports — from opposing government overreach to opposing abortion — he and his political allies will inevitably have that figure used as a cudgel against them. There are liberals who still rotely insist that Timothy McVeigh was a “Christian terrorist,” even though he was a self-described agnostic and his agenda had nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

#related#Zito is completely right that America deserves better than the debates it invariably has after national tragedies and other shocking events. We should all be afforded the time and space to mourn, to process, to cope. But it’s hard to take a deep breath and reflect when your Twitter feed blows up with complete strangers insisting “YOU HAVE BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS!” for the actions of a madman.

Neither side of the political divide can fix American discourse alone. To truly heed voices of sanity such as Zito’s, those on the left and the right will first need to acknowledge the good faith of their political opponents. And that can only happen if we find better leaders, ones with the decency to realize that disrupting a moment of silence isn’t the right way to make a point. There was a time when such leaders were the norm rather than the exception in this country. It won’t be easy to make that so again, but it will be worth it.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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