PAUL HELMKE DIDN'T miss a beat. The bodies of the Virginia Tech shooting victims weren't yet cold when the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence was out with a press release.
"Details are still forthcoming about what motivated the shooter in this case to act," Helmke's statement said. "It is well known, however, how easy it is for an individual to get powerful weapons in our country. . . . It is long overdue for us to take some common-sense actions to prevent tragedies like this from continuing to occur."
April 17th, 2007: A candlelight vigil is held on Virginia Tech's drillfield following the deadly shootings of the day before.
Helmke was far from the only belligerent in the gun control wars who couldn't wait to exploit the awful news from Virginia Tech for political purposes.
The Million Mom March put out a statement calling the massacre by Seung-Hui Cho "a heartbreaking commentary on American values." A New York Times editorial insisted, "What is needed, urgently, is stronger controls over the lethal weapons that cause such wasteful carnage and such unbearable loss." In the Daily News, columnist Michael Daly sneered: "Still love those guns, Virginia? . . . Feel different now that the blood is the blood of so many of your most promising young people?"
On the other side of the gun debate, the Second Amendment Foundation piously lamented that rather than respond to the deaths in Virginia with "deep reflection," its opponents were "shamelessly dancing in the blood of crime victims to advance their agenda" -- something the Second Amendment Foundation, which made sure to put the words "Dancing In Blood" in the headline of its statement, would surely never stoop to. Within hours of the slaughter, meanwhile, ABC News had an interactive poll up on its website, the better to turn a horrific atrocity into instant political fodder: "Do you think this incident is a reason to pass stricter gun control legislation?"
It wasn't only pro- and anti gun partisans who rushed to make political hay of the bloodshed at Virginia Tech.
Within an hour of the second round of shootings, Daily Kos blogger L C Johnson was noting smugly that "this gives us an idea of what it is like to live just one day in Iraq." An anti-American diatribe on the World Socialist Web Site blamed the killings on a culture in which "the lesson taught by the ruling elite is clear: in achieving one's aims, any sort of ruthlessness is legitimate." Republican blogger Mary Katharine Ham was alarmed that the leading GOP presidential candidates didn't have messages of sympathy prominently emblazoned on their Web pages, while those of the Democrats did.
Ugh. There is a time for everything, and the immediate aftermath of a ghastly mass murder is a time for tears and silence and prayer -- not for exploiting the dead to advance a political agenda.
Of course, political agendas matter; democratic self-government would be impossible without them. The Supreme Court's abortion ruling last week was a reminder that when a highly contentious issue is forced outside the political realm, the results can be unsettling and inflammatory. In 1973, Roe v. Wade deprived voters and legislators of the right to make abortion policy for themselves, announcing instead an all-but-impermeable constitutional "right to choose." Yet far from settling the matter, Roe turned abortion into one of the most divisive subjects in American life. It is a classic illustration of the folly of suppressing political energy.
But that is no justification for allowing politics to ride roughshod over human tragedy. Every death should be a reminder that our time on this earth is limited, and that the passions of the moment will not occupy us forever. Your first reaction to a horror like Virginia Tech shouldn't be to milk it for partisan advantage, but to remember that every day may be your last, and to adjust your priorities accordingly.
On April 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was on his way to a campaign rally in Indianapolis when he learned that Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis. Breaking the news to the largely black audience, the normally hyperpartisan Kennedy had the grace and good judgment to rise above politics.
"You can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge," he told his listeners. But "what we need in the United States is not hatred . . . but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another." From memory, he quoted Aeschylus, who wrote 25 centuries ago of the wisdom that pain and despair can reveal. And Kennedy ended with a plea as poignant and relevant today as it was in 1968:
"Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country, and for our people."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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