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The Carletonian

Politicizing tragedies must be done carefully

<o bad things happen to good people?

Don’t worry. This is not going to be some dreary, philosophical piece. I think, however, that starting off with the above question is important in getting across my overall point. Since the birth of human existence, bad things have happened to “good” people. (I put good in quotation marks, as society’s perception of a good person has evolved throughout history, but that is a conversation for another time.) One of the clearest examples of this situation in the contemporary world is mass shootings. Mass shootings have happened at numerous times throughout my life, but the first one that I truly absorbed and comprehended was the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The main reason: the shooting happened in Newtown, which is less than 45 minutes from my home in Westport. I will always remember that Friday. I was a sophomore in high school. Around the end of Latin class that day a classmate announced after looking at his phone that there was a shooting at a Newtown school.

“Oh,” I replied. “That is where Magistra is from.” Magistra was how we referred to our school’s other Latin teacher. While she did not technically live in Newtown, she had taught at Newtown High School for many years and spoke of the town as if it were her home. At that point, very little information had been released on what happened. The news said that just one teacher had been shot. Of course that in itself was tragic, but we all sensed that the upcoming information would be no better. The bell rang and we proceeded to the final class of the day.

Ironically, my next class would be journalism. Nobody talked during the entire class period. We all just had our eyes peeled at live news reports. By the end of the day, we knew that 20 students and six staff members had been killed. There were still many questions. When I made it home on the bus, the scene was basically the same. My mom never puts the TV on in the early afternoon, with the exception of that day. The whole weekend would be consumed by news and tears. Less than a week later, President Obama made a trip to Connecticut. A trip that should have never had to happen in the first place.

While I did not know any of the victims, so many people in my direct community did. Westport was within the radius in which the hurt was the most severe. By the beginning of my senior year, my high school had installed significant security measures, such as bulletproofing the ground. Just this last winter, my alma mater experienced the threat of a student to commit a mass shooting. As a result, there was an evacuation, the student was arrested and thankfully no shooting occurred. The anxiety, though, was skyrocketing among us Westporters. A space I had frequented every day just a few years ago had become a target.

I just told this heavily detailed story to get across the personal elements of this tragedy. You would think, after Sandy Hook, efforts to prevent another tragedy of similar nature would be especially prevalent. Among some, this idea is true. I am grateful that my state’s members of the House and Senate, as well as numerous community organizers, have fully supported passing gun control legislation. They recognize the need to lessen the likelihood of similar tragedies in the future. If the rest of the country was as passionate about this issue as Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal are, maybe we would have gone somewhere in related legislation in the last almost-six years since the shooting.

Every mass shooting has a political element to it. While I admit there are many factors involved in each case, the most important aspect is why the perpetrator had access to a gun. I also realize that there is no single way to respond to mass shootings, as the concept of gun control can manifest in various ways. However, politicization is the process of the ground moving for the necessary legislation to be able to be enacted. In an ideal world where no mass shootings have occurred, I would still expect for there to be high level of gun control. The momentum, of course, would not be the same.

Unfortunately, tragedy can also lead to politicization in less than ideal ways that dangerously enforce certain biases. A notorious recent example is the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, a student at the University of Iowa. Conservatives pounced on this case, as Mollie’s murderer happened to be an undocumented immigrant originally from Mexico. Donald Trump and his cult followers used it as an opportunity to further vouch for the border wall and other anti-immigration policies, enforcing the harmful belief that immigrants are inherently more violent. The xenophobia became so intense that members of Mollie’s family had to speak out several times, stressing that the one horrible person responsible for her death did not in any way represent either immigrants or the Latinx community of this country.

I am well aware that my partisan bias affects my view on what is the appropriate politicization of a tragedy. I also know that all these cases are never as simple as a good/bad binary. The distinction really lies in what the underlying intentions are. Mollie’s death could have just as likely been caused by a U.S. citizen. If that had been the case, I can basically guarantee that Trump would have not even cared to learn her name. Regardless of citizenship status, cases of gender-based violence in the U.S. happen far more often than they should. If conservatives pushed away their biases and used basic logic, they would realize the necessary issue of focus here is violence against women. Going back to Sandy Hook, the kind of damage done was by, yes, a gun. Adam Lanza could not have done the level of damage he did without his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle and ten magazines. When right-wing figures throw out the “guns don’t kill people” line and suddenly point the finger at mental health, you wonder why they ignore statistics showing that people with mental health issues are more likely to be the victims rather than the perpetrators of violent attacks, or don’t talk about mental health at literally any other time.

Essentially, as evidenced by Sandy Hook and the murder of Mollie, a tragedy is an important source of politicization. However, there are only certain factors that deserve politicization in each case. For the politicians that actually have a basic human conscience, tragedies would not be an excuse to take advantage of a typically problematic political agenda.

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