“Don’t blame the gun lobby, blame the gun man,” “liberals blame Republicans, the NRA, and White Supremacy,” “don’t blame mental illness,” “media, you are to blame,” “blame gun violence on a sick world,” “don’t blame the Second Amendment,” “gun control blame game,” “professor suggests Trump deserves blame,” “Conway blames Obama for failing to regulate,” and the list goes on...
In the wake of mass shootings, language of “blame” can be found everywhere. Pundits, bloggers, and politicians, whatever their disagreements, all rush to answer the same question: Who’s to blame for this? Is toxic masculinity to blame? Lax gun laws? Poorly enforced laws? Innate human evil? The gun lobby? A culture that glorifies violence?
This seemingly straightforward question hides a lot of confusion. What are we really asking when we ask who’s to blame?
To answer this question, let’s distinguish four things--blame (determining who perpetrated the action), responsibility (determining who needs to respond constructively to this action), response (what needs to be done now), and fault (determining who mishandled prior responsibilities, thereby making this action possible).
To get clear on the difference, here’s a trivial example. Imagine you live with seven housemates, and your parents are coming to visit for the weekend. The day before their trip, you clean the whole house and tell all your housemates that you want the house to stay spotless for their visit. You go to the airport to pick up your parents, then come home to find the kitchen is trashed and there’s flour everywhere. You’re upset, and so you ask around to find out who’s to blame. It turns out Dave tried to make carrot cake, failed miserably, and hasn’t cleaned up. You’re mad at Dave, of course, but you’re also irked that nobody else in the house did anything about it. So the situation looks like this: blame (Dave, who made the mess and didn’t clean it up immediately), responsibility (Dave, who now needs to clean up the mess), response (apologizing, cleaning up the mess), and fault (other housemates for not reminding Dave).
In this story, blame, responsibility, and response are all closely tied together. The person who makes the mess is the one who should clean it up. But not every case is this simple.
Moving from a trivial example to a tragic one, let’s apply the same analysis to a mass shooting. The blame rests squarely and solely on the man who pulled the trigger. No one else is to blame, unless a fellow conspirator knowingly aided and abetted the crime. The responsibility rests on all Americans. As Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” We are all faced—not all to the same degree, of course, but all of us—with the task of responding to shootings in a way that brings justice, healing, clarity, and change. On these two things, who is to blame and who is responsible, we can all agree.
People disagree, however, over what the proper response looks like and who is at fault. When people “blame” Congress, for example, they are not saying that Congress caused the shooting, but that Congress is at fault. Congress, these critics argue, has shirked its responsibility to protect the American people by passing reasonable legislation. For years Congress has resisted legal restrictions on gun purchasing that would have made crimes like this more difficult to perpetrate. This is not to say that if the laws had been different, the shooting would not have happened. Laws don’t work that way. The best a law can do is to hinder and disincentivize destructive activity, to make actions of a certain sort less likely. No law can ever make it impossible for one person to kill dozens of other people. Put differently, American legislators are not to blame for mass shootings, but they are at fault for not taking responsible actions in the past, and tragic events like this should summon us to reconsider those past actions as we deliberate about a proper response in the present.
This gets obscured when we resort simply to the language of blame, language which can ironically get in the way of working toward a proper response. When play the “blame game,” we can become so preoccupied with accusing others and defending our own group that we neglect our collective responsibility. This is, I take it, the real danger of “politicizing” a tragedy—when it becomes a talking point each party uses to score political points off the other party while distracting everyone from substantive policy discussions. When hollow disputes over who is at fault obscure the real needs of vulnerable people and the real actions that can be taken by democratic societies, the only result will be cynicism. If by “politicized,” however, we mean that the tragedy serves as a clarion call to reevaluate present policies, re-awakening us to our responsibility, then tragedies should be politicized.
I will end with the quotation from Heschel, this time in full: “The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the Prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
By Russell Johnson
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity
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