21 Jul 2012

A day for politics?

Did your heart sink a little to hear Barack Obama say “There will be other days for politics” as he and Mitt Romney suspended their election campaigns after the Batman movie massacre?

Did your heart sink a little to hear Barack Obama say “There will be other days for politics” as he and Mitt Romney suspended their election campaigns after the Batman movie massacre? “Doesn’t it make politics seem a bit useless and cheap?”,  I wondered out loud in the newsroom. A colleague reminded me how cheap the campaign ads can seem at a time of national shock and local mourning. There is no denying that. But if politics has no place on a day when people are bewildered, traumatised and searching for answers what is it for?

The argument is familiar – now is not the time for political attack ads on TV about Barack Obama’s understanding of the private sector or Mitt Romney’s tax returns. And maybe that’s true. But the attack ads are merely what democracy has been crystallised into by the combination of media, money, messaging and manipulation that constitutes much of modern politics. If the campaigning feels inappropriate on the day of a massacre there may be a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.

Neither Obama nor Romney want to get into a fight with the gun lobby three months before the election. Americans will not have a candidate who believes that gun controls would stop massacres in high schools, movie theatres and shopping malls. That’s despite the bewildering number of shootings and killings across the country every day. Americans, it seems, do not want to question whether they are inherently more violent, unstable and liable to murder than people in other Western democratic societies. Perhaps that’s because the answer must be that they are not and that the key difference between them and other comparable societies is the availability of guns. To any outsider it seems obvious. 

Interviewing the rapper Ice-T on friday as news was coming in of the massacre was instructive, and it made for uncomfortable viewing that night. “I’ll give up my gun when everyone else does” he said casually, insisting there was no real relationship between gun ownership and the frequency of shootings. It is a logic that is almost impossible to argue with because it is not a logic at all, but an article of faith. And it is widely held.

How could a politician who swears to uphold and defend the constitution seek to challenge such a fundamental part of it? In many parts of America taking on the constitutional right to keep and bear arms is like taking on a religious belief. It would be a politically superhuman feat. But in the real world, without superheroes, without Batman to uphold order by breaking the law, the only ones who can act after a disaster like the Denver massacre are politicians. Wise heads always warn against knee jerk reactions. Laws passed in haste are bad laws, we are warned. That is probably true as well – but after yet another massacre of young people by a troubled young man who found it incredibly easy to buy weapons and ammunition perfectly legally it does seem a little odd that nobody is discussing a political response. If this wasn’t a day for politics I don’t know what is.