The stink of gunsmoke was still hanging over Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va., as politicians and social media citizens took to microphones, cameras and keyboards to advise us on how to discuss or not discuss the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and four others at a congressional baseball practice this morning.
Writing in The Week, Anthony L. Fisher articulated the soft consensus often peddled following a violent act like this by pleading that we not “politicize” the shooting. We must remain “prudent, calm and decent in a time of high anxiety” and avoid “blame,” Fisher wrote. How, exactly, do you depoliticize the attempted assassination of a dugout full of Republican congressmen by a vocal Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) supporter? Fisher, bless his heart, can’t implement his own instruction, going on to predict—rightly, I should add—that the shooting would be “exploited by partisans on the right” who believe the cultural elite’s attacks on President Donald Trump somehow encouraged the attempted assassination.
The president’s son, Donald Jr., for one, embraced that line of thought, with a retweet that linked the shooting to the New York Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar. Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) sided with Donald Jr., telling a Buffalo radio station that outrageous Democratic “rhetoric” was culpable for the attack. MSNBC’s Joy Reid dismissed the exponents of that sentiment as “ridiculous.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) took a uniquely centrist stand, pouring a weak cocktail that expressed both the “don’t politicize” and the “politicize the hell out it” positions in one sentence. “This is not what today is about” but there “are too many guns on the street,” he said at the crime scene.
How did we come to the view that there is a right time and a wrong time to discuss politics? Who invented the idea that we must never risk overexciting the nation by raising contentious political points at times of tragedy? When did we assent to the idea that we’re fragile children who can’t handle dreadful news?
These impulses are surely part superstition, part social manners. Shootings such as the Alexandria incident usually end in the death of innocents, and some of us have come to believe, somewhat superstitiously, that silence somehow conveys “respect” upon the dead. Likewise, our silence is solicited after a shooting because it’s the polite thing to do—the victims’ survivors are suffering from emotional overload and can’t tolerate any more venom. Sometimes a third justification is floated: We mustn’t sensationalize shootings because they might stir other shooters to action.
Like most directives on the proper ways to jaw about murderous tragedies, the “now’s not the time” or “lower your voice” commands are mostly about diluting the debate to the advantage of one side. Even a dime-store rhetorician will tell you if you can restrict your opponent’s vocabulary and the range of his emotion to your advantage—doing all you can to block full-throatedness—you’ve got a better chance of winning the argument.
The call to politicize or depoliticize a shooting is just that. It’s also about convenience. President Barack Obama waited only a few hours to say that gun violence was “something we should politicize” after a 2015 shooting at an Oregon community college because saying so dovetailed perfectly with his political position. The Republicans who can’t resist the opportunity today to use the ballpark shooting to hush Democrats didn’t feel that way when Sandy Hook Elementary’s schoolchildren and their teachers were slaughtered. At full voice, they insisted that we mustn’t use the killings for political ends.
Political violence runs through the American story like a razor slash. Gunplay has harvested four presidents—Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy—and depending on how you count, assassins have taken target practice on another eight or nine sitting presidents and presidential candidates. The list of other assassinated American politicians runs for pages on Wikipedia, and let’s not forget the time four revolutionaries shouting “Viva Puerto Rico Libre” shot up the 83rd Congress in 1954, wounding five members of the House and a page.
Politics exists as the best place to hash out our differences—to do battle in the most extreme fashion with words rather than with guns. When in doubt, politicize.
I’m not a musical theater guy, but Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins does it for me. Send insights about your favorite musical to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts hit the high notes, my Twitter feed can dance, but the Secret Service has an open file on my RSS feed.