Politics & Policy

Stop Exploiting Victims for Political Gain

Rep. Steve Scalise returns to the House chamber for the first time since the shooting in June, September 28, 2017. (Photo: US House TV/Handout/via Reuters)
Let’s judge political arguments on their merits, not on the pain of the advocate.

Let me begin with a crass question. Does the fact that Representative Steve Scalise got shot make him more or less of an expert on gun control? In other words, does his suffering render him a political voice worth listening to in debates over background checks, bump stocks, or so-called assault rifles? I’d submit that in some quarters the answer to that question depends entirely on his politics. If he’s got the right politics, his suffering alone (apart from any other substantive knowledge) renders him an authoritative voice on matters of public policy. In those same quarters, his suffering quickly becomes irrelevant if it interferes with the desire to make a political point.

NBC ran a story last week declaring that Scalise “still opposes more gun control.” This shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s not remotely scandalous. After all, he’s a grown adult with fully formed political opinions. He knew that guns can kill. He knew that evil men use them to commit murder. And he knows full well that the allegedly “common sense” policies that are proposed after mass shootings wouldn’t have stopped the man who tried to kill him.

But will the mainstream media treat him with the same reverence and respect as they treat other victims of gun violence — people who suffer profound loss and come to different political conclusions? After all, victims who advocate for gun control receive an avalanche of positive publicity. They engage in political activism (as is their right), and the coverage is extraordinary. They’re often treated as heroes, and in any given gun debate progressives will often demand that we defer to their experience, that we treat their voice as authoritative.

And it’s not just guns. Let’s take war and peace. Remember when the mainstream Left celebrated Cindy Sheehan as a leader of the resistance to the Iraq War? A grieving mom camped outside of George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, and the New York TimesMaureen Dowd declared, “The moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute.” Make no mistake, Gold Star parents should be treated with respect. A decent society honors their sacrifice, but that does not mean that a decent society has to agree with their politics. After all, Sheehan once said this:

Am I emotional? Yes, my first born was murdered. Am I angry? Yes, he was killed for lies and for a PNAC Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel. My son joined the army to protect America, not Israel. Am I stupid? No, I know full well that my son, my family, this nation and this world were betrayed by George Bush who was influenced by the neo-con PNAC agendas after 9/11. We were told that we were attacked on 9/11 because the terrorists hate our freedoms and democracy . . . not for the real reason, because the Arab Muslims who attacked us hate our middle-eastern foreign policy.

As the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out at the time, this statement was sheer nonsense. We need not grant it authority because its author suffered immense loss.

Here’s the sad reality — grief doesn’t always make us wise. Horror confers a special kind of knowledge directly related to our experience, but it doesn’t also confer expertise outside of that experience. But grief can also make us vulnerable to exploitation, and I fear that elements of our culture have grown so desperate to win political debate that they’re encouraging victims to share their pain and then demand that we honor that pain by agreeing with the victims’ politics. But pain doesn’t yield ideological uniformity, and pain should never end an argument.

Not long ago I was speaking at an Ivy League university when a student challenged my ability to speak about Black Lives Matter and police tactics. He said that he was from a tough part of Los Angeles and that he’d lost friends. He was obviously distraught and wanted me to not just listen to his thoughts (which I was happy to do) but also to defer to his political perspective.

I answered with a comment and a question of my own. I told him that I too had lost those close to me — when I served in Iraq — and at times the grief had felt almost overwhelming. I asked him if that experience and that grief meant that he should defer to my views about the war. He did not respond.

In our polarized times, too many politicians, activists, and journalists are eager to use suffering. It’s a simple equation, really. Suffering plus the right politics yields honor and moral authority. Suffering plus the wrong politics sometimes yields a degree of compassion, but it it’s often accompanied by confusion. Occasionally, suffering plus the wrong politics yields contempt — just ask Khizr Khan or Patricia Smith.

No one should try to silence any victim, and there are many times when their experience is invaluable — especially when telling the stories of terrible events — but we have to know the limits of that experience. There is a difference between persuasion and emotional manipulation. Grief-stricken and wrong is still wrong. We can and should show immense compassion for those who’ve suffered the most, but we need not defer to their ideas, and we should resist a politics that tries to guilt Americans into ideological conformity.

Steve Scalise is the victim of a horrible crime, and he could be sure that if he’d moved left on gun control he’d now be a liberal hero, with his suffering granting his ideas new public weight. But he stayed right. Will his suffering grant him the same moral authority when he defends the Second Amendment? Perhaps with some folks, but certainly not with most of the media. There’s a better way, however. Let’s show bipartisan compassion for his pain and universally celebrate his courage and resolve in his recovery. As for his ideas about gun policy? They can stand on their merits, not on his terrible experience.


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