On Friday there was much argument about the appropriateness of immediately “politicizing” the abomination at Sandy Hook Elementary. Most of it missed the mark. The truth is that the horror of Newtown, Conn, is neither “political” nor “apolitical,” but pre-political. How else to conceptualize the instinctual wrenching of the gut, at such great remove, by so many Americans? What human imperative is more basic than the imperative to protect our families? What need is more prerequisite to the very advent of civilization than the need to vouchsafe the future for our children?
What happened in Newtown is not an occasion for a national political “conversation.” It is an occasion to reflect on why we have political conversations at all.
Four-hundred-plus years of political theory in the Western tradition relies on the premise that citizens are at some basic level rational beings — differently endowed in virtues, and all capable, to be sure, of great foolishness and mischief and even evil — but in fundamental ways predictably human, and by extension answerable to reason and morality. The murder of 27 innocents by a moral monster reminds us that the great challenges to the practicability of this theory are the young and the mad — those who cannot yet fully answer to reason and morality, and those who never will. By consensus, we agree that children and madmen lack certain liberties the rest of us enjoy, and that we have toward them correlate paternalistic duties that we don’t toward each other. As ever, the devil — the politics — lies in the details.