Americans think of their President as having extraordinary power. When he fails to achieve his goals, rather than acknowledging the constitutional limits of the Presidency, they blame the President for having failed to act or being weak in his determination,
The current voices demanding registration of Muslims and refugees from the Middle East do so to keep Americans safe. Or so goes the story, suggesting that the trade off in violating privacy and unreasonable search and seizure by the government is just what is necessary to prevent a terrorist attack on US soil. The same voices, ironically, happen to be vehemently against gun control legislation in this country, although a majority of Americans think a registry of gun owner ship is a reasonable way to make this country safer from mass shootings in our schools, churches and shopping malls. Opponents of gun control argue that the Second Amendment trumps Government intrusion into law abiding citizen’s life.
If registration of all refugees and Muslims makes us safer, it follows that a nation-wide registry of gun owners should also make us safer, since guns are the primary weapon of choice in mass killings. Who is doing the killings? By taking a look at the most notorious mass shooting in the last 30 years in the US (see LA Times), the killers are mostly men, mostly white, and mostly between 20 and 40 years old. So here is our target group, young white men, most likely to kill.
In arguing differently for different groups, I sense a tad of discrimination against ‘strangers’, the other ‘folks’ whose customs we barely understand, but which we target out of fear and who are made into scapegoats by our government, politicians and ‘law abiding’ citizens. It’s not an American problem, to be sure, it is a human problem to single out a whole group of people because a few individuals of such a group (e.g. Muslims) are committing heinous crimes. But alas, if Americans commit heinous crimes, we do not blame us all, but call the killers for what they are, criminals and psychopaths, mentally disturbed or brain washed, fanatics, radicals, and definitely not like us. We react shocked and claim ignorance about the killers’ motives and retreat into and find solace in categories of good and evil. And only evil people need registration.
As terrorism in Paris spreads fear and terror into the hearts and minds of Americans, some loudly demanding a stop to accepting refugees or even putting all immigration on hold, while some calmer voices are defending American values, ostensibly values of freedom, honor and compassion, and call for embracing immigrants as a ‘Nation of immigrants’. Conservatives and Liberals alike vow to protect American values of all sorts, including human rights, democracy and self-determination, referring to our country as the ‘free world’, a bastion against tyranny. Defending ‘our values’ has been a major argument in the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq. Bush 43 famously promised that bringing democracy to the oppressed will stop their need to become terrorists as they experience first hand the benefits of American freedom, education and a free market economy.
The call to upholding our values, then, is based on the claim that xenophobia, hate and oppression are un-American. But even a cursory look at our history shows that hate, xenophobia and oppression are very much part of the fabric of this country. Slavery, lynching, genocide of indigenous people, Japanese detention centers, forced sterilization of poor and ‘feeble minded’ women and men, McCarthyism, operation Wetback, Jim Crow, the Vietnam war, Iran-Contra, Guantanamo and the indefinite detention of enemy combatants, the use of torture (‘enhanced interrogation’ methods), using drones for the extrajudicial killing of American citizens, and last but not least a long list of supporting tyrant regimes and dictators for the expediency of business and our national security’s raison d’être of fighting the enemy of the day, be they the past’s communists or today’s Islamic terrorists.
Do not get me wrong. This country has brought mankind great things, among them liberty and prosperity, a Constitution that is admired among all people seeking freedom and self-determination. But this country is far from perfect and when populists rant against foreigners and demand that some religious groups need government monitoring and control (‘only Christian refugees are welcome’), then they are not out of line with history, and their bigotry and xenophobia is just a modern incarnation of previous dark periods in American history. Slowly we learn, but slow it is, the learning and accepting, and we always need to be protecting the innocent and vulnerable. When we succeed in the latter, we have achieved freedom for all, but only then.
Every mass shooting – unlike regular shootings that occur daily and by their sheer numbers are more substantial – triggers polarizing discussions about gun control v 2nd Amendment rights. The latter, although calling for a ‘well regulated militia’ is sacrosanct to conservative, mostly rural Americans and has become a litmus test for freedom loving citizens v Government diktat. On the liberal side, national gun registration and restrictions on assault weapons are called reasonable and necessary to curb mass killings. Conservatives dismiss these approaches with the argument that ‘bad guys’ get their hands on guns anyway. This is basically akin to admitting that laws are powerless to influence bad behavior.
Sadly, more gun laws seem unable to solve the problem, as most mass shooters got their guns through completely legal channels. In hindsight red flags of mental instability are found and seemingly explain the killings causing people to believe that change is needed in how we treat people with lingering mental health issues.
But the problems we face are neither about freedom nor mental instability. They are about a national psyche that has come to believe that guns can solve problems. The militarization of solutions to tough problems is an American exceptionalism. As a result, our country is at war with many things, from Islamic jihadists to cancer to drugs. We not only love military strength, but also being tough on crime, causing the highest incarceration rate in the world, employ life sentences without parole, occasionally handing down thousand-year sentences, regularly use solitary confinement, and last but not least seem to have an unshakable faith in the death penalty to eradicate evil, a ‘faith’ we seem to share with a handful of brutal dictatorships such as North Korea, China, and Iran that like us, put to death hundreds of people every year.
So what to do?
We need to challenge the metaphor of war to solve intractable problems. Until we decide that compassion is a better strategy in the long term than harsh punishment, until we decide that guns do not protect from crime, but are the major cause of it, Americans will keep suffering from these tragedies at the hands of young men who face little to no obstacles to amassing an arsenal of high powered weapons combined with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, an arsenal of guns that amounts to a weapon of mass destruction and which guarantees the ability to cause the most damage in the shortest time possible.
Today’s Democrats are the true Conservatives. They fight for pensions and social security rather than privatized savings account, protect nature and promote conservation of its resources and inhabitants, fight to keep the right to unionize, and, believe it or not, embrace good old fashioned public works programs to rebuild our bridges, railways and public utilities.
So 20th Century.
In contrast, Republicans want to ‘blow up’ Government (Schwarzenegger), embrace a new century (Marco Rubio) and calling Trump ‘avant-garde’ (Sarah Palin).