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Opinion: When Silence Says Everything

Elected officials are not about to take a stand

Americans are becoming used to abhorrent events, such as the Las Vegas shooting, and wonder if anything can be done to make things better, Curtis writes. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Americans are becoming used to abhorrent events, such as the Las Vegas shooting, and wonder if anything can be done to make things better, Curtis writes. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The parable of the frog being boiled alive — with the poor creature jumping out immediately if the water is red hot, but, if the heat is cranked up slowly, not realizing its plight until it’s too late — may not be based on science (so don’t try this on little Croaky). But in politics, sweating officials are still doing the backstroke.

Americans are becoming used to abhorrent events, shocked, and wondering if anything can be done to make things better. After every man-made or natural disaster, or every statement from a leader that crosses the line, we wonder if the water will ever be hot enough to get a rise out of those in charge. So we do the best we can.

Many look to small victories, while despairing of the big picture.

In Las Vegas this week, President Donald Trump is praising the first responders, doctors and law enforcement, as he should. And every heart breaks over testimonials from survivors, alive due only to the sacrifice of friends and strangers.

Part of the reaction, of course, is because Americans’ default is optimism. Part of the country’s character is to look for the positive in the worst circumstances.

And so we saw, again, the search for heroes in the chaos.  There were plenty, often ordinary citizens who risked their lives, acting as we hope we would.

Silence not golden

But is that instinct becoming a sort of desperation, a realization that elected representatives are not about to take a stand on a host of issues, so we take solace in these poignant vignettes.

When our leaders seem to frame every event with an eye toward politics, is it any wonder that cynicism is the primary emotion their reactions evoke, and Americans act to protect themselves either by buying another firearm — though what could that have done to bring down a killer from above — or finding comfort in the fact that there are more good guys than bad ones?

The talking point after the Las Vegas shooting is that now is not the time to even whisper the words “background check,” “banning high-capacity magazines” or anything else that might hint of gun control, because it would be disrespectful. Though at a White House briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders managed to slip in a political reference to gun violence in Chicago and the city’s gun restrictions, a claim that has been disputed.

Despite all the protestations that this is not America, it actually is the country we know all too well, acts of kindness and bravery that are lovely but no protection against the next horror.

As Roll Call’s Patricia Murphy wrote Tuesday, whether it’s “to suit their constituents, to win their next elections or because they really believe restricting guns has no effect on gun violence,” don’t expect action, except perhaps moves to loosen gun laws. From the usual suspects, you heard the kind of argument you never do after other tragedies, a plane crash or terrorist bombing, when there are detailed dissections of what happened and policy prescriptions on how to prevent the next similar tragedy.

Instead the reaction was a throwback to a stated moratorium on hot-button issues such as climate change and zoning restrictions when flood waters and hurricanes whip through cities in Texas and Florida. Somehow we never get around to those conversations, either.

America will move on from Las Vegas as they did after Sandy Hook, though parents, sisters, brothers and friends of the children and teachers murdered there cannot. A friend, relative of one of the exemplary Americans gunned down in a Charleston church in 2015, reminds me without saying a word that a loss like that is everlasting.

Las Vegas now will be known for gambling and tragedy, the same way that the Tucson I once lived in and loved will always mean sadness as well as desert beauty. The city will become shorthand, on a long list from Aurora and Columbine to Newtown and Orlando.

South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune had a puzzling solution. “I think people are going to have to take steps in their own lives to take precautions,” he said. “To protect themselves. And in situations like that, you know, try to stay safe. As somebody said — get small.”

Appropriate words for the incredible shrinking leadership from Washington.

Real-life questions remain, such as how much financial and counseling help the survivors will get for medical treatment and the uncertain health care future many will live with.

Water hazards

In Puerto Rico, many U.S. citizens have gotten used to doing things for themselves, especially after they were chided by a tweeting Trump at his New Jersey golf club that “they want everything to be done for them,” though they did get a trophy. The president did visit the island, and reminded them again of their debt and that residents should be “proud” the still rising death toll had not reached Katrina levels.

Where are the senators and representatives, so eloquent in pleas for their own states after a disaster? Are we truly one nation, empathetic to the needs of all its citizens, willing at least to listen, or is every state, every person, to take the lead of Thune’s “get small” directive?

Ironically enough, it is the celebrities and sports figures, categories of Americans derided by the political pros for taking a stand and straying out of their lane, who are stepping up. Pitbull sends a plane to transport cancer patients from Puerto Rico and Yankee great Jorge Posada and his wife, Laura, raise money for island relief and visit. Country music stars begin a difficult dialogue reconsidering long-held positions on gun control, knowing some fans will get angry. Too soon or the right time?

Late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel is dropping well-researched and sometimes emotional talk into his monologues and, love it or hate it, people are talking. Even if you disagree, he comes across as human, as authentic in his views.

On the other hand, elected leaders, talking points at the ready, are not yet feeling the heat.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.  

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