Even before all the victims of last weeks movie theatre shooting had been identified, two competing bodies of commentary began to proliferate.
Many people were eager to assign blame. Blame the gun culture, the absence of armed moviegoers, youth culture, violent movies, various political parties, poor funding of mental health care, out-of-state students, secular society, permissive parents, the isolating properties of the Internet. Blame someone, anyone, because if such tragedies are truly random, they could happen to anyone, and everyone is at risk.
At the same time, others were saying, Dont politicize tragedy. What they meant, most of them, was, Dont punish people like me for the actions of people like him.
This truly was random, they insisted, and in many ways, that seems true. The gunman cannot have known who would be in Theatre 9 that night. Being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time seems a very banal explanation for such horrific deaths, especially the death of a child, but assigning blame to anyone but the gunman would be, at best, premature.
Although information gathered by Friday morning suggested that James Holmes behavior should have raised some red flags, no one had assembled the pieces ahead of time. A common trait of people who commit such crimes is that theyre loners. No one gets close enough to perceive patterns in their behavior.
The United States of America affords its citizens a great deal of freedom to do what they will, without surveillance or interference by the government. Chuck Murphy, writing in the Denver Post, makes a thoughtful point in a story with the web tag, What if his name were Mohammed?, about an Afghan-American terrorism suspect who was identified and arrested, in Denver, on the basis of preparations somewhat similar to those attributed to Holmes. Our government has agencies and technology to accomplish that, operating in tension with, and sometimes in violation of, constitutional rights and privacy concerns.
Such conflicts are matters for politics to resolve, preferably in a manner more productive than finger-pointing and defensive maneuvers. Politics, at its best, is a way in which Americans can work together to find solutions for the proliferation of such crimes. Talking about the common characteristics of such attacks must not be taboo. Working together through the democratic process cannot be considered disrespectful.
Thats not to say that the Aurora victims should be used as political fodder. They should not, not by activists of any persuasion. Nor should opportunists leap in with their own agendas and campaign propaganda. Theres a time to express shock and sorrow and wait for facts to emerge.
But when those facts are available, they should be analyzed carefully and thoughtfully. They should not be ignored, and the political mechanisms for using them wisely should not be disparaged.
One definition of politics is this: the total complex of relations between people living in society. Conducting those relations, civilly and productively, as they relate to the Aurora shooting and to every other matter of common concern, is a way for civilized people to make progress. That shouldnt be a bad word.