One year ago, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti killed hundreds of thousands of people. A month later, a much larger quake in Chile killed only a fraction of that number. As far as I can tell, what made the difference between the two was not geography or geology. Instead, it was Haiti’s particularly harsh history of foreign intervention, dysfunctional government, and persistent poverty reinforced by unfair international economic policies. In short, the difference was politics.
I’m fairly sure that every country in the world has some number of paranoid, violent schizophrenics. Like earthquakes, crazy people are probably unavoidable. But not every country’s paranoid, violent schizophrenics manage to shoot elected officials in the head and kill six others. The difference rests, in large part, on whether their state and national legislators think that everyone—regardless of race, creed, or mental competence—have a constitutional right to buy a semi-automatic military-style weapon at their local sporting goods store. The difference, once again, is politics.
This seems incredibly obvious to me, and yet as I have watched the debate on the Tucson shooting morph, I feel increasingly isolated in this position. Friends and acquantainces have tweeted and messaged and posted all sorts of things about how important it is not to “politicize” the tragedy. “Don’t try to use this to advance a political agenda! Don’t change policy just because of one madman!” Suddenly, I find myself on the defensive because I think that acts like this demand some sort of a response other than prayer, a few sad speeches, and a one-week pause in the House calendar. That is to say, someone should legislate something related to this. The speed with which our collective consciousness has moved on—and accepted that such things are sad, but inevitable—suggests that I am relatively lonely in this belief.
C. Wright Mills—familiar to anyone who has ever taken Sociology 101—clasically distinguished between private “troubles” and public “issues.” Private troubles are idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and not something society can control. Labeling something a personal trouble, then, is a powerful tool, because it simply takes it off the table as an object of public action and control. This is what has happened with Jared Loughner; he has become sui generis, as if he has nothing in common with Seung-Hui Cho or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold or god-knows-how-many future assassins.
The argument is always that we have no way of knowing if stricter gun laws, or better mental health services, or more sane political rhetoric would have stopped this. They very may well not have. But the point of politics is not to make guesses about how to put an end to individual troubles; it’s to manage public issues. Public action means playing the odds and managing risks. I don’t know if what happened in Tucson would have been any better had the assault weapons ban still been in place; I would still like to know that from now on shooters will be limited to 10-bullet clips. Some deranged people in England still manage to get their hands on guns and shoot people; given that they have around 1/700th the gun deaths we do, though, I’d still take my chances with their approach to gun control.
The anti-politics machine, though, seems to have won again. Somehow women’s bodies and sexual orientation are public issues, but guns—that’s between the schizophrenics and their local Sporting Goods dealer.