The challenge of the Second Amendment: revisited

I jotted this piece down in 2012 after the Aurora, Colorado massacre. It is sadly just as relevant today as it was then and is eerily similar to what I wrote last week regarding the Orlando, Florida LGBT massacre. Notice that between then and now, the only thing that has changed is the volume of guns purchased by certain Americans. We have long passed the point of absurdity on our collective inaction. We need to move our political representatives to act. And if they don’t act, they must be voted out.

secondamendmentA week ago, some deranged lunatic in Colorado decided to take an arsenal in to a crowded theater and shoot a bunch of innocent people who were doing nothing other than trying to enjoy an evening at the movies.  It was a horrible tragedy and now that the collective national shock has subsided, as sure as the sun rises, the tried and true “gun control” debate has begun popping back up.  And as with any gun control debate in the United States, the Second Amendment gets bandied about by gun fanatics and gun control proponents alike.

By way of reference, here’s the Second Amendment to the US Constitution as a brief refresher to us all:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Fast forward from 1791 to today, 2012 and let’s take a scan around the world to see how well the intention of the Second Amendment would fit in to a city needing to protect itself.

The Syrian city of Aleppo is under attack by the Syrian government; specifically, the Assad regime. The city [read its people] has been bombarded by artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships.  While the rebels in Aleppo seem to have held strong, the Assad regime’s bloodthirsty and indiscriminate shelling of cities and neighborhoods over the past several months have proven that the regime has no regard for civilian lives and safety.  So the only real recourse for the people of Aleppo has been to flee, en masse.

Here’s where we start to draw some distinctions. The Assad regime possesses a mere fraction of the sophisticated military firepower of the United States. Given that, what if the men, women, and children of Aleppo had a well regulated militia courtesy of their own Second Amendment? How well regulated and armed would this militia need to be if it were to withstand the government’s constant and ruthless bombardment?

In the United States, it’s ridiculously easy to go out and buy a handgun or maybe even a semi-automatic assault weapon, but how does a civilian populace needing to protect itself from a modern military force, go about buying a Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopter or an F/A-22 Raptor fighter jet or even a run of the mill FIM-92 Stinger surface to air missile?  Of course it’s meant to be a ludicrous question, but it is also meant to illustrate the painfully obvious point that the tools of warfare have far outpaced the ability of a well regulated militia of minutemen to guarantee the security of a free State.

As a student of history, I totally understand where the founders were given the age in which they lived, but in the modern age, the best defense against tyranny is no longer a “well regulated militia” armed with even the scariest looking AR-15s, but a well-educated populace (both men and women) armed with a vote.

Terror-Go-Round: Breaking the Cycle of Xenophobia

Syrian refugeesAs the German and French national football teams entertained a crowd of 80,000 supporters inside Paris’s Stade de France on Friday, November 13, three cowardly men—hellbent on the destruction of modernity and peace—tried unsuccessfully to get inside. Rather than wreaking havoc among the fans, the terrorists were forced by a vigilant security staff to accept what must have felt like a cheap consolation prize; they blew themselves up on the outside of the stadium and claimed an innocent life in the process. The match continued unabated.

As we now know, however, the terror didn’t end with the self-annihilation of those three. Elsewhere in Paris, men armed with automatic rifles mowed down over one-hundred unarmed concert goers and restaurant patrons before blowing themselves to smithereens in a crescendo of stolen and wasted life. The terror attacks by Islamist jihadists on unsuspecting Parisians was chilling in its callousness and nauseating in its depravity. Anger and fear were sure to follow. Indeed, the detonations in Paris set off a tsunami of xenophobia that sped across the Atlantic and washed over the American psyche in a surge of dangerous anti-refugee and anti-Muslim hysteria.

Politicians are nothing if not reactive. In the days following the Paris attacks, when asked about the possibility of accepting Syrian refugees, state after state turned red with a resounding “hell no.” Governors and congressmen—mostly Republicans, but a few Democrats too—rushed to slam their doors shut. Some GOP presidential candidates (see below) even went so far as to suggest that the best method for resolving the quandary between compassion and security would be to apply a “religious” test. The verified Christian refugees would be welcomed; the Muslims would be turned away. One can only imagine what such a test might resemble in practice: “What is your favorite holy book? Do you have any cross-shaped jewelry on your person?” (And while we’re verifying religious convictions, can the politicians suggesting this absurd test please recite the parable of the goats and the sheep from Matthew 25?) The idea is as absurd as it is decidedly un-American.

While random acts of violence are certainly terrifying, how did so many end up linking the terror attacks in Paris to the Syrian refugee crisis?

Simply put, a false narrative developed—a narrative that said the violent ISIL jihadists of the Paris attacks snuck across borders by posing as Syrian refugees. The facts say otherwise; all of the identified terrorists were actually European nationals, not refugees. But as we know too well, many choose to believe what fits their own internal narrative rather than what the facts actually indicate. And as we also know, for many those internal narratives were screaming anti-Muslim invectives long before the Paris attacks. Paris was simply another opportunity to draw a tribal boundary between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”

This is where the meanings of words really start to matter. While it’s true that all Islamist extremists are Muslims, it’s also true that the vast majority of Muslims are not Islamist extremists. The inability or unwillingness of some to make that distinction has created an atmosphere of anti-Muslim xenophobia in the United States that not only brings out the very worst in us—as evidenced by bigots shouting at Muslims at city council meetings, by groups of heavily armed “protestors” surrounding Muslim families at mosques, and by a ranting taxi passenger shooting his Muslim cab driver in the back—it also means terrorism is winning this round.

By vilifying all Muslims, including those refugees in the direst need, and including our friends, neighbors, and colleagues simply trying to live peacefully in America, we are priming the violent jihadist pump. Factions like ISIL, Al Qaeda, and other Islamist groups hungry for another “holy” war simply wait for the disaffected, angry, antagonized, and hypnotized to find them. They want us to retreat into tribes. In fact, they need us to retreat into tribes. To paraphrase political commentator Maajid Nawaz: terrorist groups don’t radicalize. Radicalization occurs elsewhere. Only after convincing oneself of the “righteous cause” do individuals seek out terrorist groups. Violence perpetuates fear and fear precipitates violence.

So what to do? Obviously, terror attacks happen. Obviously, Islam has something to do with attacks performed in the name of Islam. Religious freedom, which is essentially freedom of speech, is a fundamental right guaranteed to all Americans. So where does that leave us?

First, our politicians must quit fanning the flames of hysteria. They must cease the incessant xenophobic drumbeat. Because the battle against Islamism is, at its core, ideological, and retreating into competing ideological tribes is a strategy that ensures perpetual conflict. In order to extinguish the Islamist ideology, as distinct from the religion of Islam, we have to be both precise and honest in how we talk about the challenge ahead.

Second, we should lead with compassion and with the liberal, secular values that bring peace and prosperity to pluralistic societies everywhere. Rather than cower in fear from the Muslims in need, and rather than castigate our own neighbors, we should be a shining example of enlightenment values at work—not only because it’s morally right, but because, pragmatically, we need majority Muslim countries to demand the same rule of law for themselves. They must see it working. We need to have open and peaceful conversations with the 1.5 billion Muslims who are not going to suddenly jettison their religion. And if we hope to have open and peaceful conversations, we need to recognize that claiming moral authority while turning away the neediest is an indefensible position.

Helping others in need extends compassion and celebrates our shared humanity. Compassion removes cultural barriers. Removing cultural barriers encourages people to listen to new ideas. Listening to new ideas helps people learn. Learning helps people determine what’s true. Understanding what’s true helps people abandon irrational beliefs. Getting rid of irrational beliefs removes the justification for harmful behaviors inspired by those beliefs. Eliminating harmful behaviors that cause others to suffer means people no longer need to seek refuge. Thus, through compassion, the cycle is broken.

Syrian refugees and a time for compassion, not cowardice

Why we should assist refugees, irrespective of their origin:

– Helping others shows compassion
– Compassion removes cultural barriers
– Removing barriers encourages people to listen to new ideas
– Listening to new ideas helps people learn
– Learning helps people determine what’s true
– Understanding what’s true helps people jettison irrational beliefs
– Getting rid of irrational beliefs removes the justification for harmful behaviors inspired by those beliefs
– Eliminating harmful behaviors that cause others to suffer means people no longer need to seek refuge