Commentary Magazine


Topic: grief

Politicizing the Aurora Massacre

On the massacre that occurred in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this morning, the most obvious thing to say is that the lives of the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded have been altered in an awful, nightmarish direction.

We all know evil exists, that life is fragile, and that people die. But the suddenness and scale of an event like this, in a country like this, is what shocks our system. And for all the efforts by the greatest theological minds in history to explain theodicy, nothing I have ever read or heard addresses it in a satisfactory manner. The “problem of pain” is something that some people might be able to wrestle to the ground when the issue is abstract. But when pain pierces our lives in ways we could never imagine, the neat, tidy explanations – that tragedy is the consequence of the fall of man, that God allows human beings to choose evil, and all the rest – often wash away like sandcastles on the edge of the ocean.

It isn’t that these explanations are necessarily wrong. It’s that they offer very little comfort to those besieged by sorrow. Because what we learn in time is that (to paraphrase the writer Chad Walsh) grief is the price of knowledge – not the knowledge of the mind but of the heart. It is the knowledge of friendship, of affection, of love. Those who live in the shadow of people’s love eventually live in the shadow of grief. Understanding this basic fact of life doesn’t make it any easier to endure. Bereavement can fracture even the sturdiest foundations of our lives.

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On the massacre that occurred in Aurora, Colorado, earlier this morning, the most obvious thing to say is that the lives of the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded have been altered in an awful, nightmarish direction.

We all know evil exists, that life is fragile, and that people die. But the suddenness and scale of an event like this, in a country like this, is what shocks our system. And for all the efforts by the greatest theological minds in history to explain theodicy, nothing I have ever read or heard addresses it in a satisfactory manner. The “problem of pain” is something that some people might be able to wrestle to the ground when the issue is abstract. But when pain pierces our lives in ways we could never imagine, the neat, tidy explanations – that tragedy is the consequence of the fall of man, that God allows human beings to choose evil, and all the rest – often wash away like sandcastles on the edge of the ocean.

It isn’t that these explanations are necessarily wrong. It’s that they offer very little comfort to those besieged by sorrow. Because what we learn in time is that (to paraphrase the writer Chad Walsh) grief is the price of knowledge – not the knowledge of the mind but of the heart. It is the knowledge of friendship, of affection, of love. Those who live in the shadow of people’s love eventually live in the shadow of grief. Understanding this basic fact of life doesn’t make it any easier to endure. Bereavement can fracture even the sturdiest foundations of our lives.

But I want to say a word, too, about something Jonathan touched on in his post, which is the effort by some – in this case, by ABC’s Brian Ross — to attempt to politicize this tragedy almost as soon as the bullets from the killer’s gun had found their targets. (Ross mistakenly speculated, based on the flimsiest evidence, that the killer was a member of the Tea Party. ABC has since issued a retraction and an apology.)

This kind of politicization occurs in part because reporters on the air feel they have to comment on an event when they in fact have very little to say. It is also the result, I think, of an effort to draw some larger meaning from acts that often turn out to have no larger meaning. Sometimes they are what they are: the malevolent actions of poisoned minds. But part of it, too, is a reflex by some to fit a massacre like this into a preexisting political narrative. We saw it happen in the aftermath of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School; the 2011 shooting spree near Tucson; and we will undoubtedly see it after today’s slaughter.

To be clear: there is such a thing as political violence. But what is troubling is the immediate assumption by some people, usually those who are part of the political class, that every massacre can be ascribed to political motivations. Acting on this assumption, they contort things in order to make them fit a convenient political template.

This effort to interpret everything through a political and partisan lens – to reduce everything to a political and partisan interpretation – is itself a disfigurement of reality. Life is a complicated and endlessly variegated thing. Politics has a role in all our lives; but for it to play such a dominant role in people’s imagination is surely not a healthy thing. And for people to immediately and instinctively take every human event – no matter how tragic and how painful — and place it in the maw of our politics is wrong and even repulsive. It exploits people’s sorrow and grief in order to score cheap political points and frame stupid political argument.

A modest and civilized society would give room to the families and friends of the dead to begin to process their shattering losses. It would give room to the police to do their work and gather evidence. It would leave room for citizens of this nation to reflect with soberness and seriousness on what has happened; to participate, if only for a brief time, in a national mourning of sorts. And it might even resist the impulse to leverage a massacre into a political culture war. It would be helpful if members of the press and politicians understood this, and acted in a way that showed some measure of decency and compassion.

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