The political uses of mass murder

There was a time, I seem to recall, when no one attempted to tie mass murder by random sickos to politics. For example, I don’t remember anyone wondering about the politics of Richard Speck, the killer of Chicago student nurses, or Charles Whitman, the University of Texas shooter.

I don’t know when the turning point occurred. Perhaps it was the Oklahoma City bombing. In any event, the bounce Bill Clinton received following that event meant that, from then on, random killing sprees would always be viewed as candidates for political use.

Today, we saw this sad trend reach new heights when Brian Ross of ABC News attempted to tie the killings in Colorado to the Tea Party, incorrectly suggesting that the killer is a Tea Party activist. It’s difficult to believe that Ross did this in good faith, considering his apparent unwillingness, and that of his network, to recognize that the name of the killer, James Holmes, is quite common. In any case, the error would not have occurred had Ross not correctly perceived that there exists a mass audience hoping to be informed that the murderer was connected to the Tea Party. Absent such an audience, the story would have been duly fact checked.

Killing sprees are sometimes political acts. The shooting of military personnel at Fort Hood by a Muslim extremist is a good example. But murder doesn’t become political just because the murderer belongs to a political party or movement, or a particular religious group. Thus, without more, it shouldn’t even matter if today’s gunman belonged to the Tea Party or any other large organization or movement.

As David Gelernter — himself the victim of the Unabomber — says, the fitting response to a terrible crime like today’s is silence or prayer. The appropriate response is not mindless politically-based speculation that only reinforces the fear that our culture and politics both have taken a grievously wrong turn.

UPDATE: I have modified this post slightly to more accurately state the nature of ABC’s error.

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