Lexicon Valley

A Brief, Inglorious History of “Not Politicizing Tragedy”

President Barack Obama speaks about the Orlando, Florida, mass shooting—the deadliest in U.S. history—at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sunday.

Reuters/Joshua Roberts

In the wake of a horrific shooting—the deadliest in American history—at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, early Sunday, our eyes turned to the prominent politicians of the day. How would they respond? Would they make meaningless noises or outline transformative policy proposals? Conversely, would they offer words of sorrow and empathy, or would they make the catastrophe all about them and their agendas?

On one end of the spectrum, Trump justifiably came in for criticism when he used the massacre as an occasion to accept (nonexistent) congratulations on his perspicuity in matters of Islamic terrorism. (“Donald Trump Needs to Quit Politicizing Post-Orlando Shooting and Get His Priorities Straight,” admonished Bustle.)

On the other hand, in a deeply felt but circumspect and ultimately anodyne speech to the nation Sunday afternoon, President Obama seemed too cognizant of the pressure not to politicize tragedy. His most politically charged statements alluded faintly to past slaughter, reminding Americans “how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or in a house of worship or a movie theater or in a nightclub.” Yet the President’s remarks focused on supporting the families and mourning the victims.  

As Max Read observed in 2012 after the fatal shootout at a Dark Knight screening in Aurora, Colorado, Americans know the anti-politicization script by heart. Pundits roar on cue about exploiting calamity. “Doesn’t the politicization of all of this, the relentless lying by the administration about the Islamic terror threat we face, make it harder for people to want to step forward and say what they see?” asked Tucker Carlson on Fox News. (I can’t unravel his logic, but he seems to suggest that by not confirming facts we don’t yet have, Obama is preventing citizens from speaking up with their own baseless accusations.) And when Bernie Sanders brought up gun control on NBC, Chuck Todd questioned whether it was possible to “ever have a conversation where we have the terrorism conversation and the gun conversation … without trying to politicize one version of events over the other.”

The impulse to resist “politicizing tragedy” has a long history. Some early stirrings came in 1988 when the National Association of Broadcasters objected to a drunk driving workshop coordinated by the Surgeon General’s office. The NAB felt the workshops had a “built-in bias” against beer and wine advertisements, and accused the SGO of “politicizing the emotional tragedy of drunk driving.”   

Three years later, in 1991, an official from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development batted away sobering shelter statistics by calling them “inaccurate” and adding: “Homelessness is too great a tragedy, individual and social, to politicize.” 

After refusing to wear a red AIDS ribbon to the 1992 Emmy Awards, soap opera star Deidre Hall explained that “activists are now attempting to make the ribbon a visible litmus test for separating those who empathize and those who do not. This is misguided … It politicizes human tragedy.”

And so on. The first time the office of the presidency invoked “politicization” to deflect censure was in 1994, when White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers took then–Minority Whip Newt Gingrich to task for claiming that a helicopter crash might have been prevented had Clinton set aside more money for the military. “I think that we are very close to a significant mismatch between our defense budget and our foreign policy,” Gingrich said. Myers responded: “Any attempts to politicize that kind of tragedy are just highly inappropriate. … At a time when the next of kin hasn’t even been notified, to try to use an incident like that for political advantage is just unacceptable.”

A year later, however, it was Clinton being accused of exploiting the Oklahoma City bombing to take shots at his critics. After the president decried hateful speech spreading through the media and creating a poisonous anti-government climate, a Washington Post op-ed page featured a letter arguing that “President Clinton’s insensitive attempt to politicize this tragedy is an unconscionable act by a desperate politician” which “cheapens the lives of those unfortunate victims.” A few months later, then–House Rep. John Kasich slammed Clinton for politicizing base closings.

The term was taking off. In the span of two months during 1996, a car crash, a slain cop, and the accidental death of a toddler living in poverty were all wrongfully “politicized,” in the words of government officials. By the time mass shooters rampaged through Columbine High School in 1999, President Clinton was on his guard. He told a crowd in Houston that he “did not want to politicize” the incident. Then, recounted a journalist for the Washington Post, Clinton “pointed out that he favors reinstating gun buyer waiting periods under federal law, closing loopholes in the assault weapons ban that are ‘big enough to drive a truck through,’ and requiring background checks for those who buy weapons at gun shows.”

Running for president, George W. Bush accused his rival Al Gore of “making a political issue” out of shootings at a church in Fort Worth, Texas. When Gore asked, “How can you allow guns in churches?” a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign replied: “The American people are tired of politicians trying to politicize every tragedy.”

Since then, practically every calamity you can name has been, in the eyes of some, unjustly politicized: Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, Sandy Hook, Washington Navy Yard, et cetera. Others have already written voluminously about why this script needs to be retired. Things that happen for political reasons, and have political consequences, demand that we scrutinize them through a political lens.  

Crying “politicization” is itself politicization—a way to advance whatever slate of politics favors the status quo. Often people invoke policy goals in order to get things done; what’s at stake is whether these tragedies should be regarded as irreducible lightning strikes or problems with potential solutions. I’m sympathetic to those who say that death is irreversible and specific, not “about” anything but itself. And yet we know that lessons and change can come out of horror—it seems irresponsible to blind ourselves to the past’s instruction. As these lethal incidents recur, echoing each other down the years, Americans should put their pieties on hold and honor human pain through actions, not just words. We should accept that reducing the body count might just fall within our power.