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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Politics of Tragedies

Many tragedies have political causes, but we can’t exploit tragedy for partisan ends…

Before screaming at a Muslim woman and stabbing two people to death on a bus in Portland, Jeremy Christian had paraded around the city draped in an American flag. He had held signs that said “Trump Makes America Great Again,” attacked a black woman with a bottle of Gatorade, and shouted slurs about Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Before shooting two NYPD officers in Brooklyn, Ismaaiyl Brinsley had posted “#RIPEricGarner” on Facebook and promised to put “wings on pigs.” He had also shot his ex-girlfriend in the abdomen after she dissuaded him from committing suicide. Before Omar Mateen took 49 lives at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, he had been diagnosed bipolar, abused his first wife, and pledged allegiance to ISIS. He may also have had gay lovers and been friends with drag queens at Pulse itself. Before Craig Stephen Hicks killed three Muslim students in North Carolina, he had joined an online group called “Atheists for Equality” and posted quotes from Richard Dawkins on Facebook. He had also obsessed over the Michael Douglas movie Falling Down and complained about his neighbors playing Risk too loudly. Before Seung-Hui Cho committed the Virginia Tech massacre, he had disturbed his classmates by writing a play called Richard McBeef, featuring copious amounts of violence, swearing, and references to child molestation. And before Jared Loughner shot Gabrielle Giffords and 13 others at a town hall event in a Phoenix strip mall, he had publicly asked Giffords the inscrutable question “What is government if words have no meaning?

I’ve never liked the idea that you shouldn’t “politicize a tragedy.” Many tragedies are inherently political; they are the direct consequences of decisions made by people in particular positions of authority. The recent horrific London tower block fire, for example, is a story about inequality. The residents of Grenfell Tower were some of the poorest residents of one of the richest boroughs in Britain. As CityLab documented, thanks to government austerity policies, local authorities have tried to raise revenue by redeveloping properties to accommodate greater numbers of residents, possibly compromising fire safety features in the process. Poor residents had been crammed into a death trap, and instead of installing a fire escape or a second staircase, the tower’s owners had tried to make the building less of an eyesore to wealthy Kensington residents nearby through minor cosmetic improvements, such as an exterior polyethylene cladding that may have been responsible for the near-instantaneous spread of the fire to all parts of the building.  

What happened at the Grenfell Tower can’t be understood without understanding the operation of pressures toward privatization and gentrification. In recent years, the prevailing philosophy of British government (among both the Conservative and Labour parties) has been toward reductions in the role of the state, and toward letting wealth do as it pleases. Residents of social housing in rich districts like Kensington have therefore been willfully neglected by their local councils, who would much prefer to see such people pack up and leave. And people’s safety and welfare has been placed in the hands of the private sector, who (shockingly enough) may not have their best interests at heart. In the case of Grenfell Tower, millions of pounds in taxpayer money had been paid to a management company that handsomely compensated its directors, while leaving the building in a state of utter neglect. Even decisions as to whether to install fire sprinklers were left up to private companies; the former Conservative housing minister had resisted implementing a mandatory sprinkler requirement, saying “We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.” (Theresa May’s government had ignored a report on the risk of fire in high-rise buildings like Grenfell Tower.)

Residents of Grenfell Tower had known exactly what would result from this. Time after time they lodged complaints about fire safety with the management company and the local council. 90 percent of residents signed a petition calling for an investigation into the building’s management. One woman filed 19 complaints over fire safety, only to be rebuffed every single time. The residents’ warnings are downright chilling. They insisted that the Tories on the local council were ignoring them because they were poor and marginalized, and came to the depressing conclusion that they would only be listened to after the inevitable deadly inferno:

[We] believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the  KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions [here]… Only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation. It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!…We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower and we believe that these investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the KCTMO should a fire affect any other of their properties and cause the loss of life that we are predicting.

It’s somewhat stunning to read through the resident activists’ blog about the tower, documenting their endless attempts to get somebody from the management company or local government to pay attention to fire safety. The residents had begged for their lives; they had essentially cried out: “They are going to burn us alive here, we are all going to die and nobody is going to care until it’s too late.” And they were right. It seems inexplicable that so many people could have been warned so frequently, and yet done nothing. (That is not strictly true: lawyers for the borough did send the bloggers a threatening notice demanding that they take down the allegations. This is not nothing.)

In fact, it only makes sense when we understand the tragedy in its political context. The Grenfell Tower fire was not the result of a criminal plot to burn the poor, nor was it a freak accident. It was the logical end result of a process of decision-making driven by a particular philosophy of governance and a particular set of economic laws. If there is no money to be made in housing the destitute in safe buildings, and the prevailing ethos is that profit should be allowed to determine the social good, then destitute people will be housed in unsafe buildings. If wealthy Kensington residents have no financial interest in doing anything to improve the living conditions of poor Kensington residents (in fact, driving out the poor might improve property values for everybody else), and the local government responds to the interests of its most influential citizens, then poor Kensington residents will languish. These are not conspiracy theories; they do not depend on collusion or maliciousness on the part of some cabal of elites. They are simply descriptions of how a society operating under certain rules will produce certain results. Corporations operate under a mandate to produce profit, not to safeguard human lives. Thus human lives will only be safeguarded to the extent that doing so directly coincides with the production of profit. For people with no wealth, it rarely will. Thus in the 1900s, the laissez-faire approach gave us the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Today, it gives us Grenfell Tower and factory collapses in Bangladesh. It will be the same everywhere and always. The system of incentives put in place will create a set of predictable results. The Grenfell Tower resident bloggers knew it. But they also knew that the nature of the political system was such that nobody was going to listen to the powerless. That is, after all, what it means to be the powerless.

The degree of politics in any given tragedy varies, but most tragedies are political to some extent, just as nearly everything that human beings do is political to some extent. That’s because politics is the process by which power and resources are distributed among people, and usually when something horrible happens, the question of who has power and resources will often affect the outcome in some way. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a “natural” disaster, in that nature makes hurricanes. But it was also a man-made and politically-made disaster, because the question of who received help was a function of who had wealth, and who has wealth is determined by how wealth is distributed. (After the storm, Blackwater mercenaries were called in to guard the homes of wealthy Uptown residents. Needless to say, most New Orleanians did not receive comparable protection.) How many people will die in car accidents is a function of the cost-benefit decisions taken by car companies over new safety measures. Whether a sacred burial ground is flattened and turned into condos depends on whether one lives in an economic system that incentivizes the production of condos, and whether one lives in a political system that cares about sacred burial grounds. Rich people have the power to destroy the lives of their enemies, while poor people have hardly any power at all, meaning that the question of what happens in the world is fundamentally dependent on how wealth is distributed.

Yet there’s a dangerous temptation one must be wary of. Because so many things are political in some respect or other, it’s tempting to find politics everywhere, to believe that every event must offer some kind of obvious political lesson or message. Pretending that tragedies occur in a vacuum is irresponsible, and exonerates those (like austerity politicians) whose decisions directly result in the loss of human life. But it’s equally irresponsible to see every tragedy through the lens of one’s pre-existing political commitments, and to use people’s suffering and death to attack one’s ideological opponents. There is a misleading and tawdry way of “politicizing” tragedies, which views every event as the confirmation of views one already holds.

In the United States, mass shootings have not just become regular lurid grist for television ratings, but also offer ongoing opportunities for commentators to discern larger political patterns from the actions of individual mentally ill people. Every time an angry nutcase opens fire in a public place (and because this is America, that happens frequently), people rapidly scramble to uncover the perpetrator’s political inclinations through careful scrutiny of their social media accounts. Upon hearing the news, they keep their fingers crossed that the killer is from the other side. So, if you’re a conservative, you want the shooter to be a radical Islamist or a Black Lives Matter supporter. If you’re a liberal, you want them to be a Tea Party racist or Christian zealot.

I actually don’t mean to sound excessively cynical or critical by saying that people “hope” a killer is from the other side. After all, we all know that when the killer is from our side, it’s going to be used against us. I can’t imagine the feeling of dread that must come over Muslims every time they hear the words “suicide bombing” on the news. After all, they know that any time some disturbed jihadist murders a bunch of children, bigots will use it as evidence against all Muslims and their families. For Muslim parents, a prominent jihadi attack means they have to live in greater fear that their children will suffer bullying and violence. In a climate where people are judged by the actions of those that share their demographic characteristics, it is natural to hope that the harm has been done by some group that doesn’t easily reinforce dominant political narratives (e.g. Symbionese liberationists or Vermont separatists).

The shameful aspect, then, is less in the “hoping it’s not your people” than in the extraordinary rapidity with which people conclude that a shooting is the direct consequence of something the other side did. After the atheist shot the Muslim students, there were instant calls for a “moment of reckoning” among atheists; the Islamophobic rhetoric of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins had allegedly created a kind of cocksureness among atheists that provided ready justification for murder. A New Republic article called the killings the “outgrowth of a system” that dangerously convinced people–young white men especially—of their superior rationality. 

However, when we look at the full facts about mass killers, rather than the convenient ones, everything becomes much messier. When the two NYPD officers were shot in Brooklyn, conservative commentator Heather MacDonald wrote that the attack was the “poisonous effect” of the “lies” of the “anti-cop left.” She treated the action as a direct consequence of an ideology. Yet she didn’t mention that the killer had also shot his ex-girlfriend. That’s because it didn’t fit the narrative: if his violence was motivated by his support for the Black Lives Matter movement, why did he shoot the ex-girlfriend as well? In fact, the man was severely mentally ill and had a long criminal history. But acknowledging the mental illness would undermine the idea that the killings were political, so MacDonald simply didn’t mention it.

It’s the same every time. The Portland attack was taken as proof that Trump had unleashed an army of violent racists. After Gabrielle Giffords was shot, liberals instantly began pointing a finger at… Sarah Palin, of all people, who had once released an ad “targeting” Giffords’ congressional district. In fact, Jared Loughner did not despise Giffords because she was a Democrat, but because she subscribed to the false belief that words had meaning, and had not taken seriously his attempt to prove that they do not. In other words, the attack was not exactly “political” in the commonly understood sense. (Though, since everything is still political, untreated mental illness and the ubiquity of firearm access still raise serious policy questions.) But the desire to find a political narrative does not die easy; the New York Times recently resurrected the Palin/Loughner connection again, before being forced to issue a retraction.

Yesterday, a man named James Hodgkinson shot up a GOP congressional baseball game, wounding four people including Louisiana representative Steven Scalise. Before that, Hodgkinson had posted a bunch of anti-corporate memes and volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. He was also alleged to have brutally abused his foster daughters, one of whom killed herself after only a few months of living with him by lighting herself on fire.

Of course, with a congressman having been shot, it was not long before people began discerning a larger political message. Since Hodgkinson called Donald Trump a “traitor,” some people blamed Democrats for pushing conspiracy theories about Trump and Russia. Since Hodgkinson was anti-Clinton, others suggested he was “radicalized by Russian propaganda.” Meanwhile, conservatives blamed liberals (specifically “progressive terrorism”) and liberals blamed Our Vitriolic National Political Discourse. (There were, of course, calls for A Renewed Commitment To Civility.)

The New York Times pondered whether Bernie Sanders himself might be at fault, in a piece by Times writer Yamiche Alcindor (who once asked Sanders whether it was “sexist” for him to run against Hillary Clinton and who had posted, without comment, a video of an anti-Semitic rant about Sanders’ “ties to Jewish real estate owners”). Entitled “Attack Tests Movement Sanders Founded,” the article said that Hodgkinson’s words were “not far from Mr. Sanders’s own message,” and quoted a Trump-supporting political consultant suggesting that Sanders was offering “a passive justification for the kind of violence we saw” and should “accept the consequences” of his words because by calling Donald Trump “dangerous,” “you are empowering the people that follow you to take whatever sort of action that they deem necessary.” Alcindor said Sanders’s supporters had “earned a belligerent reputation” and have “harassed reporters” in defending their “idol.”  

One can see how these incidents are used as excuses for dismissing opposing political viewpoints. The Times, which once hastily re-edited an article so that it would not reflect too positively on Bernie Sanders, throws together the shooting, Sanders’s critique of “corporate media,” and allegations of harassment. In doing so, it provides those who already dislike Sanders with material to confirm their worldview. “This is the logical consequence of ‘BernieBro’ ideology,” they can say. But we can do this for anything. Mass killers grab on to all kinds of semi-formed political ideologies, and if we always view such people as the logical consequence of whatever idea they choose to spout, we will end up indicting every single religion and political persuasion. Furthermore, we must be extremely selective: we ignore the case of the man who shot three people at a UPS warehouse on the same day, but the GOP baseball attack must have been the consequence of politics.

All of this is made harder by the fact that sometimes such attacks probably are fueled by ideologies. It would be foolish to deny that ideas have consequences, and if a charismatic leader demonizes and dehumanizes people, exhorting his followers to rid the earth of them, he certainly bears responsibility for whatever violence results. It’s also, however, incredibly difficult to actually draw concrete connections, and incredibly easy to make unwarranted assumptions. We might think it obvious that Omar Mateen was motivated by radical Islam. But the Newtown and Aurora shooters did the same thing without any belief that they were serving the will of Allah. The tendency seems to be that people become violent first and craft an ideological justification later. If 99.9999% of Bernie Sanders supporters do not shoot their congressmen or commit acts of hideous public violence, but a far higher percentage of serial domestic abusers do, and our suspect is both a Bernie Sanders supporter and a serial domestic abuser, which of his characteristics should be most relevant? For any belief system, there will be a psychopath who shares its tenets, and perhaps the best approach is statistical rather than anecdotal. Rather than asking “Did a person with Belief X commit Crime Y?” in order to assess the consequences of Belief X, we should ask “Is a person with Belief X statistically more likely to commit Crime Y?” Only then can we say something interesting about belief X, and probably not even then.

It’s tough, then: beliefs cause action, but not always, and it’s not clear when and how much, and which kinds of evidence prove what kinds of connection. It would be strange to say that racists who beat up a homeless immigrant while yelling about Donald Trump are in no way influenced by Donald Trump. Likewise, it would be strange to say that a Wahhabist who blows himself up at a teen pop concert was in no way influenced by Wahhabism. But when we look at the chaotic facts of people’s lives, it usually becomes impossible to draw straight lines. And we’re always going to see simple meanings and lessons when they aren’t necessarily there. The human impulse is to tell stories, and as people reel after a devastating tragedy, it’s more tempting than ever to find some obvious explanation to latch onto, anything that keeps us from having to face the difficult truth that sometimes the universe is absurd in its cruelty, and sometimes you get no answers.

The best thing we can do is to be cautious, consistent, and fair. Causal speculation is inevitable, but consistent standards have to be applied. If a mass shooting in the name of candidate A tells us something about Candidate A, then it must necessarily also do so in the case of Candidate Y. The unacceptable position is the one that says: “the tragedies that indict my political opponents are political, while the tragedies that indict my own politics are simply unfortunate accidents.”

All tragedies are political; life is political, people are political and so are the things that happen to them. Demands to avoid “politicizing” a tragedy are frequently demands to forgo serious scrutiny of the social, economic, and ideological causes of human misery. Yet we can draw a distinction between two definitions of the term: if “politicizing” means intentionally injecting politics when it isn’t there, and exploiting something horrible for ideological ends, then nobody should politicize. But if “politicize” means a serious and clear-headed search for political implications, then it is a necessity, for a true assessment of the political causes of tragedy is the only way to prevent their recurrence.

(Note: Current Affairs ordinarily observes a policy of not naming or displaying the photographs of mass shooters. This is important for reasons of both due process and public safety. However, in this case, I believe an exception is justified, because the lives of the perpetrators are being examined closely, and names help keep them distinct. A deliberate decision was taken, however, not to show photographs of the perpetrators. Current Affairs remains opposed to exploitative and sensationalistic coverage of violent acts.)

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