Hitching Your Hobby Horse to the Latest Tragedy

Last evening’s I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis (a bridge I used to cross with some regularity) has brought me fresh evidence of a truly disturbing phenomenon. One that is increasingly predictable in American public discourse.

I first took notice of it in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing back in 1994. And again after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. In fact, I notice it almost every day now. What is this insidious practice that is poisoning the air in the public square?

It is the knee-jerk tendency of ideologues to glom onto the latest tragedy as an ax-grinding opportunity. Here’s all you have to do to join the exploitation parade.

  1. Take one shocking tragedy that the public can be counted on to universally consider “a horrible thing.”
  2. Take your pet issue—the one you’re angry and bitter that the American (pick one: public, government, president) hasn’t fully embraced.
  3. Find a way to point at the tragedy and shout, “See there! If we weren’t stupidly  _________ (insert failure to embrace pet cause here), then this wouldn’t have happened!”
  4. No matter how tenuous the link, no matter how preposterous the correlation, continue to try to hang blame for the tragedy around the neck of your ideological enemy.

 Humans of all political persuasions, left and right, are often seduced by this cheap shot logic. But the left has elevated it to an art form.

Remember how the Murrah Building in OKC was still smoldering when then President Bill Clinton tried to suggest that Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk radio hosts were responsible for inciting the anarchist Timothy McVeigh?

Remember how Robert Kennedy Jr. used a Huffington Post entry to assert that Hurricane Katrina was the Mother Earth’s karmic retribution on Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour because he used to be Republican National Committee Chairman for George W. Bush. The logic was if Barbour/Bush had been more supportive of the Kyoto Treaty, the Earth’s troposphere wouldn’t have taken aim at Mississippi and missed slightly to the left.

Remember Kanye’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”?

To be fair, Christians are prone to this as well. (You’ll recall Jerry Falwell’s suggestion that 9/11 was a result of God’s removal of his hedge of protection because of homosexuality and abortion.)

However, no one deploys this maneuver better than ex-conservative Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan’s hobby horse is the U.S. government’s use of tough interrogation techniques, (which he, in a form of semantic bullying, insists on calling “torture.”)

That brings us to yesterday’s horror in Minneapolis.

As divers braved the currents in search of victims, commenters at the Daily Kos were posting many pearls like this:

“Unfortunately, more of these kinds of things will continue to happen as all our monies have gone to the war effort; leaving nothing to take care of infrastructure, and other issues at home. It will take years to catch up. “ 

You expect that kind of thing in the fever swamps of the Daily Kos comment threads. But before the day was over, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was saying precisely the same thing as he tried to score a few political points over the bodies of the dead and missing—in the process proving once and for all that he us utterly incapable of shame.

There’s a new tragedy in town. Better hurry and hitch up that favorite hobby horse and take it for a ride.