Politicize This Tragedy

In the wake of terrorist attacks, mass shootings, structure fires, and natural disasters, there will always be this person:

“Now is not the time for politics.”

or

“Don’t politicize this tragedy.”

or

“There are no Republicans or Democrats today.”

These thoughts are comforting. They allow us to consider the “what” and the “who” without considering the more difficult “why?” “Why” is the scourge of all eighth-grade essayists, and also, it seems, members of Congress. “Why?” forces us to leave the warm fuzzy comfort of self-righteous pity and look inward, asking what it is we could have done differently individually and collectively to stop whatever tragedy has occurred from happening. “Why?” is inconvenient.

On June 14th, two seemingly unrelated tragedies took place, one in London, one outside of Washington, D.C. In London, the 24-story Grenfell Tower public housing building caught fire. The magnitude of this event has not been realized, but we know that dozens of people, largely low-income, non-white immigrants, were killed. In D.C., a gunman opened fire on Republican lawmakers practicing for a baseball game, wounding several people. In both instances, the people of the United States and United Kingdom have been admonished to hold up the victims in their thoughts without considering the political decisions that lead to tragedies like these.

The fact is, rampant deregulation in the United Kingdom, coupled with the political marginalization of low-income and non-white people, created an atmosphere for the Grenfell tragedy to occur. I was in a room earlier this week discussing development here in Atlanta, and was told that a specific local developer is very open about the way he does business – if he is not legally required to do something better, he won’t. This is the case in all Western capitalist economies. You are rewarded for doing the bare minimum. Setting the bar low creates an environment for catastrophe. By all accounts, the Grenfell Tower was a death trap, designed and built with minimum compliance in order to maximize profit. I will be bold and speculate that there was probably nothing illegal about the building – it was simply built with profit margin in mind, rather than the safety of it’s residents. Wealthy people are the ones with the means to demand more accountability, and so the environmental and economic disasters are generally passed on to marginalized communities.

The shooter in Virginia was a domestic abuser. A decade ago he stormed into a neighbor’s home, physically removed his teenage daughter, and threatened another neighbor with a gun. We know statistically that men (and the vast majority of gun violence is committed by men) who have a history of domestic abuse are more likely to be the perpetrators of gun violence. And yet, we have found it politically inconvenient to do something as logical and obvious as preventing domestic abusers from owning firearms. Our elected officials’ inability to stand up for any semblance of common-sense gun legislation is directly responsible for gun deaths in this country, and now it has nearly killed one of their colleagues.

Not politicizing tragedy does not protect the victims. It does not make prayers more powerful or thoughts more pure. Failing to address the causes of death and destruction does nothing but preserve the distant pity of the opinionated observer, and insults those affected by ignoring their plight. We owe it to victims to look at ourselves and do better, striving to ensure that the tragedies visited upon them are not repeated over and over. We owe it to them to politicize tragedy.