After the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado on Friday left three dead and nine wounded, there was an immediate rush to politicize the event. Sadly, this came not just from the usual suspects on the web and on social media, but from public officials who should know better than to leap to immediate conclusions about a suspect’s motives before an official investigation is concluded.
President Barack Obama, speaking the day after the deadly attack, immediately sought to link the rampage to gun control, saying that “… we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them.” He said this despite the fact that Colorado is one of the few states to have already implemented a universal background check law. The Colorado law, which has been in effect for more than two years (and which activists are trying to get on the ballot here) failed to stop this man from obtaining weapons. While details on the weapons aren’t yet clear, either the perpetrator passed a background check or he owned the weapons before the law was passed.
Others, too, sought to assign blame shortly after the event — mainly to anti-abortion activists all over the country. To them, the recent rhetoric surrounding the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood employees was to blame for the shooting. They assumed that the perpetrator was motivated by his political views, just as in the moments after the Boston Marathon bombing, some assumed that right-wing extremists were responsible because the attack occurred on April 15, Tax Day.
It is natural that, in the immediate aftermath of a shocking crime we all look for an explanation. That’s completely natural, and we all engage in this sort of speculation; trying to identify a cause makes us feel safe, and stabilizes our worlds again. However, those of us who hold public office or who work in the media should be very careful about making that speculation public. Words do, indeed, have consequences, and assigning blame too early can inspire others to act just as readily as irresponsible rhetoric.
However, what we must not do is seek to exploit these crimes for political gain. We saw this not only coming from the left after the shooting in Colorado, but coming from many on the right after the terror attacks in Paris. Almost immediately, politicians used the Paris attacks to justify their support for intervention in Syria, closing the borders, and expanding the surveillance state. In a moment of confusion and fear, there are many on the left and the right who will rush to use events to their advantage. We must beware of this.
One of the key ways to tell whether a politician or a commentator is truly trying to prevent a tragedy from recurring is whether they propose any new solutions or just reiterate positions they already hold. If they don’t have any fresh proposals, then they may just be using the tragedy to promote their policy for political reasons — as Obama does whenever he uses another shooting to justify gun control. It’s not about finding a bipartisan solution to violent crime, it’s about finding an issue he can use against Republicans.
All legislation needs to be considered deliberatively, with an eye on whether it can actually solve any problems without causing more, not pushed through blindly so politicians can feel like they’re doing something in a moment of panic. It’s not easy, but when tragedies occur we all need to take a step back and a deep breath, not rush en masse towards a feel-good non-solution.