By Jeff Greenfield
Two events, each more than a century old, instruct us about how we should act in the face of what happened Friday in Newtown, Conn.
On March 25, 1911, fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan. Because the owners had locked the doors and stairwells, in an effort to prevent theft and unauthorized work breaks, the garment workers were trapped in the fire; 146 of them, almost all young female immigrants, died.
In the wake of the disaster, New York politicians–including future Gov. Al Smith and future Sen. Robert Wagner–“exploited the tragedy.” How? By helping push through a series of reforms that made New York state a model of workplace safety.
Little more than a year later, on April 15, 1912, the unsinkable ocean liner Titanic struck an iceberg and sank, taking 1,522 passengers and crew members to their deaths. After the disaster, regulators and public officials “exploited the tragedy.” How? By insisting that ships carry enough lifeboats for all passengers (the Titanic, operating under then-current rules, had barely enough for half); by insisting that ships man their radios 24 hours a day; by better designs of hulls and bulkheads.
A shocking event is exactly the right time to start, or restart, an argument about public policy. A story like the Newtown killings rivets our attention, forces it to the front of our consciousness, insists that we sweep aside the thousand and one distractions that compete for our brain space, and demands that we ask: Is this how we want things to be, and, if not, what do we do about it?
Consider a more recent example. On March 7, 1965, voting rights demonstrators on a march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery were met by a phalanx of state troopers at the Edmund Pettis Bridge. They met the marchers with fists and billy clubs. A week later, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress. He made no apologies for “politicizing the tragedy.” Instead, he said:
“At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Ala.”
The speech—which borrowed the famous assertion that “we shall overcome”—propelled the Voting Rights Act into reality and effectively ended 100 years of state-sanctioned repression.
What those images from Selma did—as the images of police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham had done in May of 1963—was to make real what for most of us had been an abstraction. The images said, This is what it means to be black in Alabama and seek the most elemental of civil rights.
What happened in Newtown, I think, was very much the same story. The day after the shooting, I was with my grandson at his elementary school’s book fair; I would wager that every parent, every teacher, every school staff member there looked at the kids, with their painted faces and their fists filled with cookies, and thought: This could happen to them. Those same thoughts were going through the minds of every parent dropping a child off at school on Monday, I imagine.
This is why the words of President Barack Obama on Sunday struck such a responsive chord. But it must not be forgotten that in the days, months and years before Newtown, the president has been something less than a profile in courage on the gun question. His response to a question on assault weapons during October’s town hall debate with Mitt Romney is best described as craven: “What I’m trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally,” Obama said in part. “Part of it is seeing if we can get an assault weapons ban reintroduced. But part of it is also looking at other sources of the violence.”
You can understand the thinking: I can’t get a bill through Congress, it’s a waste of political capital, there are lots of Democrats who hunt and shoot in Ohio. But it does not change the fact that the triumph of the gun lobby has been a bipartisan affair. To be fair, Republicans have been at the forefront of a never-ending effort at the state and federal level to permit guns of all sorts at all sort of venues, from schools to national parks. Before Newtown, it was only a matter of time before some zealot proposed letting citizens purchase Predator drones with Hellfire missiles.
The culture of hunting, and the legitimate case for self-protection, have too often been brushed aside by advocates of restricting gun ownership. But when a Second Amendment stalwart like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia endorses a national commission on gun violence and tweets, "This awful massacre has changed where we go from here. Our conversation should move beyond dialogue," you know the Newtown murders can act as a hinge moment.
Newtown forces us to look at the consequences of decisions–or indecision–squarely, unflinchingly. It forces us to ask ourselves, “What do we do in the face of this new evidence?” That is as far from exploitation as you can get.