After yet another mass school shooting, Obama once again addressed the nation to express his deep sadness and to offer his condolences to families, as well as to call for gun control. One of the most striking lines in his speech was his comment that “this is something we should politicize” as a preemptive response to critics who would accuse him of “politicizing” this tragedy. Sure enough, in a Fox News interview, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson asked, “When do we get to the point where we have people who actually want to solve our problems rather than just politicize everything?”
To many, the term “politicize” is used like a slur, as a symbol for blatant manipulation of events for personal or party-motivated gains. In this light, politicizing an event like a school shooting cheapens the lives of the victims and turns human tragedy into political gain. But politicizing a topic is, by definition, trying to take an event and use it to spur political action, whether that be executive or legislative. This “politicization” is what can lead to meaningful change.
In this case, Obama is correct in saying that repeated incidences of mass shootings on school campus are an issue that should be politicized. When gun advocates urge against politicization, they are telling people not to look at the practical consequences, both good and bad, of political action. It is impossible to remove the politics from these situations because legislation that stems from political action, such as harsher gun control laws, can prevent similar situations in the future. The political aspects of the tragedy cannot be removed if the nation wants to change.
But statements like Ben Carson’s, which warn against politicizing tragedies, are often used to halt meaningful action towards change. When he tells people not to look at the Oregon shooting as a political problem, he steers the conversation away from how to stop future shootings and onto Obama’s personal approach to the debate. By pivoting discussion away from gun control and towards “politicizing” tragedy, Carson is attempting to stall even talk of reforms.
This stalling can be clearly seen in the tactics of the National Rifle Association (NRA) immediately following the Sandy Hook school shooting. Obama and liberal congressmen tried to use the tragedy as a springboard for gun control regulations, such as expanding background checks and banning the purchase of assault rifles. But the NRA immediately accused Obama of exploiting the deaths of children for his own political gain, and they lobbied congressional Republicans to filibuster the reform bills.
While some may say that the time to discuss politics is not directly after the tragedy, times when emotions are fresh are often when the public is most in tune with the reality of the issue. When the nation’s collective attention is focused on a particular issue is the best time to address it within the political processes of change. If something is affecting the lives and safety of the country, it is important enough to immediately politicize.
Emily Petillon is a first-year at Scripps and is planning on majoring in history.