There Is No Such Thing as 'Politicizing' a Tragedy

It hasn't even been 24 hours since a gunman opened fire on a crowded movie theater in Colorado and you can already predict the entire, familiar scene: the days and days of arguments about gun control, about mental health treatment access, about violence in movies and television. And, of course, the angry accusations that one person or another is "politicizing tragedy," unquestionably the worst sin in post-tragedy rhetoric.

This is stupid. There is no such thing as "politicizing" tragedy. James Holmes did not materialize in a movie theater in Aurora this morning, free of any relationship to law and authority and the structures of power in this country; nor did he exit those relationships and structures by murdering 12 people and injuring several dozen more. Before he entered the theater, he purchased guns, whether legally or illegally, under a framework of laws and regulations governed and negotiated by politics; in the parking lot outside, he was arrested by a police force whose salaries, equipment, tactics and rights were shaped and determined by politics. Holmes' ability to seek, or to not seek, mental health care; the government's ability, or inability, to lock up persons deemed unstable — these are things decided and directed by politics. You cannot "politicize" a tragedy because the tragedy is already political. When you talk about the tragedy you're already talking about politics.

It's easy to understand the impulse to decry "politicization": politics is necessarily antagonistic, and in the aftermath of a violent tragedy confrontation seems distasteful and disrespectful. No one wants to be accused of using a tragedy for "political ends." But you don't really get to escape. The insistence that no one talk about politics is itself a political act. Politics is how we effect change in the systems and structures that govern our lives. To take the stance that tragedies are or should remain "apolitical" or "depoliticized" is to say, essentially, that everything is fine and nothing needs to be fixed; that such an act was random and unpreventable. (In a country with rates of violent crime that far exceed our economic and cultural peers, such a sentiment seems misguided at best.) To demand politics be left out of the conversation is only to hide them.

None of which is to say that we should stop calling stupid people stupid. ABC's Brian Ross idiotically attempted to connect Holmes to the Tea Party; Breitbart's Joel Pollak incompetently sought to show that Holmes was a registered Democrat. They both failed not because they "politicized" the tragedy but because they're both exceptionally bad at their jobs. Even if they'd been right about Holmes' party affiliation, the failure wouldn't lie in writing about politics in connection with the massacre but doing so in a superficial, primitive way. They need to be argued against, not hushed up.

Because ultimately, as Dave Weigel and Adam Serwer point out, huge national tragedies are often the only time these issues are brought close enough to the surface that this conversation and negotiation — this politicking — can occur. And often that's the only way things will change. Forbidding the "politicization" of tragedy simply ensures that it will happen again.