The Oklahoma Tornadoes And ‘Politicizing’ Tragedy
Bob Cesca has a typically smart piece up this morning about the possible connection between climate change and the devastating tornadoes that killed dozens of people in Oklahoma on Monday:
I’m not supposed to write this yet but as I connect the scenes of horror in Oklahoma with so many other worsening weather-related disasters, I wonder if our American community will actually band together to cast aside ignorance and political intransigence to actually mitigate the disease, the climate crisis, instead of simply reacting to the aftermath of its symptoms.
Ah, yes. “I’m not supposed to write this yet … .” The age-old dilemma. A tragedy occurs. It clearly implicates certain policy choices we’ve made, or failed to make. But if you mention those policy choices in the aftermath of the tragedy, you’re the bad guy.
After Newtown, we were told it was too soon to talk about gun control. It was the same after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, after Hurricane Sandy destroyed New Jersey, and now after tornadoes destroyed suburban Oklahoma City. We’re not supposed to talk about climate change. Or, more specifically, we’re not supposed to talk about what to do about it.
Because that would be making political hay out of the suffering of our fellow Americans.
In a word: Bullshit.
You can call it “politicizing” a tragedy if you like. I call it looking for solutions. And very often, the only real solutions are ones that come through the political process. Sometimes, government, as imperfect as it is, is the only instrumentality we have to address huge problems that require collective action.
An example from the past comes to mind: Hurricane Andrew, which tore through southern Florida in 1992. From ABC-TV affiliate WFTS in Tampa:
The massive hurricane … left a 25-mile-wide arc of battered homes, flooded streets and felled trees and power lines across the southern tip of Florida when it struck on Aug. 24, 1992, ripping away the state’s pretenses of safety along with much of Miami-Dade’s infrastructure.
In its aftermath, South Floridians cleared debris from roads, covered damaged roofs with tarps and sweltered in homes with no power waiting for help that was often slow to arrive.
That storm, officials said, changed everything: from how homes are designed to how meteorologists track hurricanes and how the government manages emergencies.
“Hurricane Andrew was a big wake-up call,” said Bob Keating, community development director for Indian River County. “The changes over the past 20 years have been enormous.”
After the category five storm gutted Homestead and Florida City, the Florida Legislature brought together a panel chaired by former Florida Senate President Philip D. Lewis to study how the state could prepare for another hurricane.
Among the Lewis Committee’s recommendations, said Keating, were a statewide building code and tougher inspections to prevent the kind of shoddy construction that came to pieces in Andrew’s winds.
“The drive-by inspections that came to light after Hurricane Andrew were an indication that it’s not just the code that’s important, it’s making sure the code is enforced,” he said.
According to the National Hurricane Center, Andrew caused 15 immediate deaths and 25 subsequent deaths in Dade County, Florida, alone; and it caused about $25 billion in property damage, which made it the most expensive natural disaster in the United States to that point.
Imagine if, after all that, politicians in Florida had done nothing. Imagine if no one bothered to ask whether the state’s building codes could be improved, or if its system of building code inspections should be ramped up. Then, imagine if another hurricane came along and wreaked the same level of damage. It would have been inexcusable.
So, even in a fairly conservative state like Florida, people demanded solutions, and the government responded. That’s exactly what should have happened.
Obviously, politicians being politicians, some of them are going to take advantage of human tragedies for personal gain. Think of George W. Bush with that bullhorn standing on the rubble at Ground Zero. He used the appearance of empathy to garner support for horribly bad policies like the USA PATRIOT Act, and, eventually, to gin up reasons to go to war with the wrong country. That’s “politicizing” a tragedy in the worst sense.
But not every politician who stands on a pile of rubble is doing it for that reason. Sometimes, they actually care. Sometimes, the cause of the tragedy happens to dovetail with that individual’s political agenda. And sometimes, yes, they’re doing it to make themselves look good. In reality, it’s usually a combination of all three. But who really cares, so long as something constructive comes out of it?
Politics is about trying to solve problems collectively, through the policy choices government makes. That individual politicians often act like jackasses – often are jackasses – doesn’t mean the rest of us should stop looking for solutions to real problems for fear we’ll look like them.
[Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune]