In the aftermath of any atrocity, tragedy, or trauma, Americans tend to give a platform to the victims and their families. That’s a good and generous instinct, and it frequently means letting people vent their raw emotions in ways that are overwrought, irrational, angry, even rude, mean, or bigoted. Whether we listen or just turn our heads away respectfully from the scene, the act of speaking on a public platform can be cathartic.
People directly involved in a traumatic event have something to tell us about the event. And in some cases, they may have especially strong claims on subjects such as how the event is memorialized. But of course, because they are sympathetic figures, politicians are all too often tempted to use their raw emotions to score political points. The worst temptation comes when people try to endow them with what Maureen Dowd famously called Cindy Sheehan’s “absolute moral authority” to advance arguments without being questioned. And of course, that rhetorical gambit — especially common on the left side of the aisle — is never deployed symmetrically; for example, Dowd and her crew no longer believed Sheehan’s authority was absolute when she ran for Congress against Nancy Pelosi, and they certainly didn’t think Debra Burlingame had absolute moral authority in the Ground Zero Mosque debate, and they don’t think Steve Scalise has absolute moral authority on guns.
So naturally, we have a chorus now of Democratic politicians and liberal pundits trying to use a few handfuls of Parkland High School students (not the ones taking positions they disagree with, mind you) as a bludgeon to break through the gun-control debate in ways they have failed for years on end to do — just a small sampling:
Sen. Bill Nelson delivers a powerful message to Pres. Trump in the wake of the deadly shooting at a Florida high school: “Listen to the students. Listen to the kids…they want action." https://t.co/fQlsxrPDDo pic.twitter.com/6rp0Glyjea
— ABC News (@ABC) February 16, 2018
"Without action, ideas stay ideas and students die."
I sincerely hope my colleagues listen to what these students have to say. pic.twitter.com/F7DWjf7OrN
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) February 15, 2018
Now is the time to listen to the students, teachers, and parents demanding that we end this carnage once and for all with gun safety laws that keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 16, 2018
Kids are taking control of the narrative. Please let it work. https://t.co/HxaBoq8Sid
— Raw Story (@RawStory) February 19, 2018
The "Youthquake" is finally here! The tragedy in Florida revealed kids who fight for themselves because the "grown-ups" won't. Can a new generation bring a new Congress to end our insane gun laws – AND Trump's presidency? My NEW column https://t.co/2aPUWk4ted
— Will Bunch Sign Up For My Newsletter (@Will_Bunch) February 18, 2018
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) February 16, 2018
John Oliver on the Parkland shooting: “This time felt slightly different because when the ‘now’s not the time’ argument came out, the kids from that school said, ‘You know what? Yes it f*cking is.’” https://t.co/SRtvrNW2SR
— The Daily Beast (@thedailybeast) February 19, 2018
Listen to these kids https://t.co/x8Ufcr34pZ
— Clara Jeffery (@ClaraJeffery) February 17, 2018
So far, Parkland is *not* fading from the news the way that mass shootings usually do. (The graph shows Google searches for the term "gun control".) The students speaking out makes a pretty big difference. pic.twitter.com/8IcJuJ6yTS
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) February 18, 2018
This is ultimately a tawdry effort to paper over the fact that liberal politicians have lost the argument on guns again and again, in part because they don’t actually have coherent solutions that would stop these kinds of shootings, and are hoping that the chorus of “do something” overrides the question of what that “something” actually is.
Moreover, these are teenagers. If you have ever been, or known, a teenager, you know that even comparatively well-informed teens are almost always just advancing arguments they’ve heard from adults, and typically without much consideration of the opposing arguments. (Ironically, the people arguing that we should let teenagers set national gun policy are in the same breath arguing that we should not let 19-year-olds own guns).
I’m never in favor of the whole spectacle of using kids as political props, which both sides do, but it’s one thing when it’s relatively benign stuff — a politician campaigning with his family, a Trump or an Obama bringing out a young fan or honoring a kid who did something good. Those aren’t efforts to use kids as human shields against hard questions being asked in a serious public-policy debate. Turning “listen to the kids” into a mantra and marching a few steps behind them is.
That’s particularly the case because divisive issue debates inevitably mean the people carrying the point of the spear are going to come in for a lot of pushback from people who feel viscerally about the other side of the issue. Pushing distraught teenagers to the forefront means they will be the ones absorbing that. As adults, we are supposed to know better than that.
Let the kids talk. But at the end of the day, the rest of America gets a say, too.