Even by American standards the murders in Addison, Illinois, were horrific. Even by Washington standards the response of Newt Gingrich was a classic of expediency and bad taste.
Prosecutors said yesterday they would seek the death penalty for two men and a woman arrested at the weekend in connection with the murder of a pregnant woman and two of her children, aged eight and 10. All three were stabbed and the eight-year-old boy was tortured. The killers slashed the woman's abdomen open and cut the foetus from her womb. Police found the infant, a healthy boy, in the arms of the woman they arrested.
"She said she wanted a baby," said Joe Birkett, one of the prosecutors in the case. "If a fiction writer was asked to write the most horrible crime he could think of, he wouldn't come up with this."
On Tuesday Mr Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, chose to see a moral in the story, a weapon in his battle with President Bill Clinton over Republican plans to slash welfare spending and ease taxes on the rich. "Let's talk about what the welfare state has created," he said, addressing Republican state governors in New Hampshire. "Let's talk about the moral decay of the world the left is defending." Then he talked about the murders. "This happened in America. It happened in America because for two generations we haven't had the guts to talk about right and wrong ...
"Now, a country which has this kind of thing going on - and this is not an isolated incident: there's barbarity after barbarity; there's brutality after brutality. And we shake our heads and say 'Well, what's going wrong?' What's going wrong is a welfare system which subsidised people for doing nothing; a criminal system which tolerated drug-dealers; an educational system which allows kids to not learn and which rewards tenured teachers who can't teach, while destroying poor children who it traps in the process with no hope. And then we end up with the final culmination of a drug- addicted underclass with no sense of humanity, no sense of civilisation, and no sense of the rules of life in which human beings respect each other."
Illinois Democrats were appalled. In a statement citing Mr Gingrich's "lack of moral compass", Barbara Guttman, executive director of the Illinois Democratic Party, said: "I am revolted that anyone would attempt to place blame on any segment of society for an act of such unspeakable brutality. To try to win political points at a time like this is repulsive."
Mr Gingrich, who struggles to understand why his poll ratings are so consistently negative, engaged in a similar exercise before last year's mid-term congressional elections.
He said that the case of Susan Smith, who drowned her two children in a lake, "vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things".
Then he declared: "The only way to get change is to vote Republican." It later emerged that Smith came from a staunchly Republican family.Reuse content