This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable

Jeff Greenfield on the lessons of tragedy

The tone and the message that came from the White House in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary was understated but clear: now is not the time to talk politics. That time will come later. However, that time may be here now, as policy and politics have begun to make their way into the conversation. Need to Know’s Jeff Greenfield notes that politicizing tragic events may actually be a good thing.

JEFF GREENFIELD: It comes without warning–an event that stops us in our tracks, halts the normal conversation, rivets our attention. In its wake, a debate begins–why did it happen, what can be done–and with it, a debate about the debate: is this the right time for a plan of action, or is the shocking event being exploited by those seeking to advance an agenda.

Here are some lessons from history:

On March 25, 1911, fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in lower Manhattan. Because the owners had locked the doors to the stairwells and exist, to keep prevent theft and unauthorized work breaks, the garment workers were trapped in the fire. 146 of them, almost all young women immigrants, died.

In the wake of the disaster, New York politicians–including future Governor Al Smith and future Senator Robert Wagner– pushed through a series of reforms that made New York state a model of workplace safety. Without the shock of that fire, those reforms would likely never have passed.

Consider a more recent example. On March 7, 1965, voting rights demonstrators on a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery were met by a phalanx of state troopers at the Edmund Pettus bridge, who met the marchers with fists and billy clubs–what became known as “Bloody Sunday”. A week later, president Johnson spoke to a joint session of congress. He made no apologies for “exploiting” the violence. Instead, he said:

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: “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, Alabama.”

JEFF GREENFIELD: The speech–that ended with his famous assertion that “we shall overcome”–propelled the voting rights act into reality. The fallout from such events are not confined to one political outlook. Or to politics at all. In 1980, the mother of a 13-year-old girl killed by a drunken driver co-founded a group–Mothers Against Drunk Driving–that toughened laws across the country. ”Megan’s Llaw” in New Jersey, requiring public information about registered sex offenders, followed the rape and murder of a seven-year old child. Other shocking crimes have led to limits on parole, longer prison sentences.

And the attacks of September 11th provided the backdrop for a major expansion of government surveillance and detention powers–as well as the climate for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The argument over that war reminds us that sometimes, a shocking event can lead to a spasm of over-reaction. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the us government interned some 110,000 Japanese-Americans living along the pacific coast–in what is now widely regarded as one of the most notorious civil liberties violations in American history.

In the case of Newtown, there is plenty of disagreement about what new rules and regulations will actually make a difference; about whether the focus belongs more on guns or on mental illness or media violence; but what is clear is that what happened in Newtown, as with all such cases, is that it forces us to ask: Is this how we want things to be, and if not what do we do about it?