In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine , left-wing activist Naomi Klein writes that free market policies have snuck into implementation in various countries as their citizens were reacting to disasters.
By way of example she invoked Chile, which in 1973 bore witness to a CIA-backed coup that put the dictator Augusto Pinochet in power. The coup also ushered in a rash of laissez-faire economic policies, privatizing state-controlled industries and rolling back welfare contributions while the people were too shocked to pay attention.
Klein also invoked the example of New Orleans after the havoc of Hurricane Katrina. In this example, she argued that capitalists took advantage of the shock the storm wrought by closing the city's public housing projects; building casinos and tourist lodgings while most residential homes were still destroyed; and providing families with vouchers for private school instead of renewing and upgrading existing public facilities.
Though simplistic, the argument is difficult to refute. The book provides countless examples of disasters being used to shrink government and open the door to private interests that care only for their shareholders.
But the "Shock Doctrine," as Klein describes it, hasn't just been used to sneak free market policies into governments while no one was watching. As we saw just in the past week, politicians have also used shock to make government, introducing more stringent regulations to extend the reach of the state into various aspects of public life.
You've heard by now of the tragedy in Tucson last week. Six people were killed and 14 others wounded in a shooting rampage by Jared Lee Loughner, a mentally ill community college student with the reductive capabilities of Travis Bickle. United States District Court Judge John Roll was killed at the scene, as was a nine-year-old girl who'd just been elected to her student council.
U.S. Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords was also fatally wounded.
In the wake of the tragedy, the media sphere lit up with opinion claiming that Sarah Palin and the Tea Party were somehow responsible for the shootings.
Paul Krugman at the New York Times said America's violent, vitriolic political climate was at least partially responsible: "The vast majority of those who listen to that toxic rhetoric stop short of actual violence but some, inevitably, cross that line."
Brian Topp at the Globe and Mail said much the same thing: "...some piece of that electrical pulse of hatred found its way into the shriveled soul of a madman in Arizona."
Many others posted online a map with scope targets on it, created by Sarah Palin to indicate states on target for defeat in the next election - including that of Gabrielle Giffords.
This, despite not a single fact to link the two together.
In the midst of this climate, Mother Jones reported that Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina called for the return of the Fairness Doctrine, a defunct regulation that would require broadcasters to air opposing views in a move directly targeting Fox News.
Democrat Bob Brady, meanwhile, announced plans to curb the use of threatening imagery against public officials. The move took direct aim at Sarah Palin despite the Democrats using similar campaign literature themselves.
This is by no means disaster opportunism on the scale that Naomi Klein talks about in her book. The examples merely demonstrate that politicians can just as easily use shock to make government bigger as to shrink it.
A couple of other examples come to mind. 9/11, for one - again, a disaster of a magnitude far greater than the Tucson shootings. In the midst of mourning, the U.S. government passed the PATRIOT Act, which increased law enforcement authorities' access to phones, e-mails and personal records.
9/11 also justified the creation of a top-secret security industry with over 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies carrying out actions related to counterterrorism.
There's yet another example - this one noted last week by Jonathan Kay at the National Post . In the wake of the John F. Kennedy assassination, the New York Times tried to link the purported assailant, Lee Harvey Oswald, with racists advocating violent action against minorities at the time. This was also around the time that President Kennedy was promoting the Civil Rights Act.
Two days after the funeral, his successor Lyndon Baines Johnson stood in Congress and said, "no memorial or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill." The Act was passed in 1964, without a link ever being convincingly drawn between Oswald and America's racists.
The link, I suppose, is irrelevant. In every case here except 9/11 I am unconvinced that the assailants were in any way products of the political climates in which they lived. But they nevertheless illustrate that when there's a shocking event like the Tucson shootings, your elected representatives will never let an opportunity for political gain pass them by.