Exploiting Newtown -- Unchecked, Unseemly, Unhelpful

Exploiting Newtown -- Unchecked, Unseemly, Unhelpful

By Carl M. Cannon - December 21, 2012

Tragedy can often evoke the best response in Americans -- and the basest.

“Keep a light, hopeful heart,” Carol Joyce Oates once advised budding writers. “But expect the worst.”

In the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn., the nation has gotten the best and the worst. The president of the United States, the speaker of the House, and even the National Rifle Association instantly rose to the occasion. Others, including Oates herself, did not.

John Boehner quickly ordered flags flown at half-staff over the Capitol and cancelled the Republican weekly address to allow the president “to speak for the entire nation at this time of mourning.” Despite being widely demonized, the NRA maintained radio silence for a full week out of respect for the families.

Four times in four years Barack Obama has been given the task of consoling a nation trying to make sense of mass murder; on each occasion he has been up to the job. This time, he also broached public policy changes, even on the fraught issue of gun control, but did so in an inclusive and measured manner.

But at a press conference to announce his gun-violence task force, the president made a minor slip. “If there’s one thing we should have after this week,” he said, “it should be a sense of perspective about what’s important.” No one would argue with that, but the president seemed to be citing the school shooting as a rationale for Republican acceptance of his fiscal and budget policies.

And so it went. The liberal magazine Mother Jones rolled up its sleeves and did old-fashioned reporting that revealed how much more frequent mass shootings have become in recent years -- evidence that the United States does face a growing problem -- but many liberal cable television anchors eschewed reporting facts in favor of emotive hysterics.

In an interview on CNN that consisted mainly of Piers Morgan berating his guest, the anchorman told Gun Owners of America Executive Director Larry Pratt, “You’re an unbelievably stupid man, aren’t you?”

Pratt, who had previously undermined his own position by proclaiming that gun-control advocates “have the blood of little children on their hands,” responded in kind. “It seems to me that you are morally obtuse,” he told Morgan. “I don’t know why you want to be the criminal’s friend.”

On the other end of the spectrum, conservative cable guy and onetime presidential candidate Mike Huckabee asserted that the true culprit in Newtown was secularization.

“We ask why there is violence in our schools,” Huckabee said, “but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

For an ordained Baptist pastor to hold this view represented a curiously unsophisticated understanding of free will, not to mention mental illness. Fellow conservative Pete Wehner, for one, minced no words, calling Huckabee’s explanation “painfully ignorant” and “confused theologically.”

As liberal writer Jeff Fecke pointed out, “Huckabee posits a very small God” -- one who essentially says: “If you don’t want me, I won’t come. You’ll be sorry when I don’t stop someone from killing 20 first-graders, though.”

But exploiting the tragedy to invoke their pet issues wasn’t a tactic limited to ratings-obsessed cable television hosts. Huckabee’s hobby horse is pushing school prayer. Diane Ravitch’s is bashing charter schools.

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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