The details of the massacre in Las Vegas are stunning in the original sense of the word. One is so shocked upon hearing of the gore and annihilation that they cannot think, they cannot comprehend. One is quite literally stunned. The scores of dead and hundreds injured by a single armed man would struggle to fit in a large room if they weren't all headed six feet underground. This is a tragedy of truly historical proportion.
That is, for now. This newest deadliest shooting spree in American history replaced the previous holder of that gruesome title, the Orlando nightclub shooting, after only fifteen months. Before that, the next two deadliest shootings, at Virginia Tech University and Sandy Hook Elementary School, also both happened within my short lifetime. Somewhere in the near future, another shooting will top the list once more. Mass shootings have been steadily getting deadlier and deadlier. This will happen again.
America has a problem. This absurdly common gun violence only happens here. It is not because Americans are inherently more murderous than people anywhere else in the world. It is not because America is simply unlucky. This is an institutional problem. Hundreds of people were hurt today, and in the average of one mass shooting everyday, because America has too many guns and failing gun control. This must change. This tragedy must not just pass by.
But inevitably, every time we have one of these atrocious events, there is a chorus from the merchants of death, and their benignly intentioned fellow travelers, that we ought not "politicize" these tragedies. They make this plea for one of two reasons. In the case of the former, they do not want these tragedies to stop. In the case of the latter, they misunderstand how to stop them. Here, I choose to address the latter.
It is crucial to understand what it means to "politicize" something. Politics is the mobilization of people towards institutional change. It is the necessary first step in any real societal improvement. In this case, that means pressuring law makers to act towards an abolition of America's firearm cancer. We must act now. Inevitably, every time we have failed to "politicize" a tragedy, the haze of ambivalence returns and nothing is done. The sting of tragedy is lost, and we forget how much this matters. We get up and move on.
This is not to say that we should only respond to a mass shooting by making a parliamentary motion on the House floor. It is important to remember the lives of the victims. If it so suits you, pray for families and survivors. But unless you can think and pray America out of this terrible malcondition, "thoughts and prayers" are insufficient.
As far as I can tell, gun deaths are the only tragedies we don't politicize. Immediately after Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas, we were told of the dangers of poor city planning and the necessity of good evacuation policy. In the mere six weeks after 9/11, the Patriot Act was introduced, processed, and ratified. We politicized 9/11, and rightfully so. Societal problems need political solutions.
So mourn the victims. Comfort the afflicted. But don't forget also to afflict the comfortable. If we can't successfully pressure law makers to fix this institutional problem, it will only keep happening.
Photo credit Elvert Barnes, Creative Commons