In the immediate aftermath of the massacre in Las Vegas on Sunday night, social media commentators and the mainstream press immediately took up their dreary task of politicizing the tragedy. A headline at The New Yorker declared, “There can be no truce with the Second Amendment.” Hillary Clinton, among others, wasted no time blaming the National Rifle Association, even as she called for Americans to “put politics aside.”
The problem is that many Americans are now incapable of putting politics aside. Political tribalism has become so engrained in our civic life, so routine as a way of processing events, that even a tragedy on this scale won’t unite us. Natural disasters like the recent hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico do indeed bring individual communities together. And the lines of people volunteering to donate blood, which stretched for blocks outside Las Vegas blood banks on Monday, certainly testify to the compassion many Americans feel for the victims.
But on a national level, and especially among the pundit class, we simply can’t bring ourselves to put politics aside. Hence the repugnant declaration from one CBS executive that she had no sympathy for the victims, since the shooting took place at a country music concert and the dead and wounded were most likely Republicans.
Even initial reports of the death of Tom Petty, who suffered a massive heart attack on Monday and as of this writing was clinging to life in Los Angeles, were almost immediately politicized: a staff writer at Mic noted on Twitter that Petty had sent cease and desist letters to Republican campaigns for using his music—as if that’s somehow important to his life and work.
My colleague Rob Tracinski wisely suggested it’s time to invoke the 72-hour rule for shootings and terrorist attacks: don’t try to score political points for at least 72 hours after the attack, and in the meantime be content to offer sympathy and condolences to the victims and their families. But it should not surprise anyone that many Americans can’t seem to do this anymore. Politicizing tragedy is part of our national life now, a dismal result of eroding social cohesion and the disappearance of shared principles.
It wasn’t always this way. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush had the highest approval rating of any president in Gallup history. Weeks later, 9 in 10 Democrats and independents still approved of Bush. Those days are gone now, and it’s hard to see how they will return.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis and recession, and the slow economic recovery under Obama all fed into the creeping polarization of American civic life since 9/11. Indeed, these are the very same events that did so much to undermine trust in our institutions and the political establishment, and which last year contributed so much to the election of Donald Trump. If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that everything is political now because we’re actually coming apart, and warring factions on the left and right believe they are in a zero-sum contest for survival.
Political Tribalism Is Undermining Social Cohesion
There’s something else to note about the calls for gun control in the wake of Las Vegas. The shooter, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock of Mesquite, Nevada, seems to have used a fully automatic rifle to fire on unsuspecting concertgoers from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel. He reportedly had more than 19 other rifles in his hotel room. Automatic rifles (the kind that fire multiple rounds with one pull of the trigger) are extremely difficult for private citizens to purchase legally, and among the many unanswered questions about the shooting is how Paddock managed to get his hands on such a weapon.
Many in the media are uninterested in the answer. They have other concerns. “The question that needs addressing is why we allow such weapons in the hands of civilians in the first place,” declared the editors of The Los Angeles Times, apparently unaware that, for the most part, we don’t allow such weapons in the hands of civilians. No matter, they say, because “we’ve asked ourselves that question time and again, and the answer is that we lack the political will to stop it.” James Fallows said much the same at The Atlantic: “America will not stop these shootings. They will go on. We all know that, which makes the immediate wave of grief even worse.”
Set aside the unreasonable assumption that some new policy or gun control legislation could prevent mass shootings like this. Short of repealing the Second Amendment and confiscating firearms from American citizens, disturbed and wicked men in America will be able to find weapons capable of inflicting mass casualties.
What Fallows and the others do not seem to grasp is that in a society as divided and fragmented as ours, with trust in our institutions at a nadir, Americans are not going to voluntarily disarm. Opposing elements of American civic life are increasingly convinced that the other is set on their elimination, or at least their marginalization, which means the preconditions for laying down arms are simply not present. A similar dynamic is at work on reforming health care, immigration, taxes, and much else.
This paralyzation, perhaps even more than the shameless way Las Vegas is being politicized, is a stark indictment of American society. Common sense suggests that tragic events like a mass shooting should prompt a people to set aside their differences and come together. But common sense requires that we have something in common to begin with, or that we at least have enough in common to persevere through dangerous times.
It’s a shame that so many of us do not, but it’s even worse than that. Our divisions are deep enough now that they not only imperil the common good, but also, in time, could imperil the survival of the nation.