Another month, another mass shooting by an American citizen at a school. Another month, another murder of civilians by the American military in one of our endless wars overseas.
On October 1, a gunman murdered nine people and injured nine others at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. In response, President Obama spoke with passion about the pain that families and the community endure because of the horrific acts of shooters — and that the problem is too many guns in private hands. The editorial page editor of the Washington Post argued that it is time to consider how to enforce a gun-free society.
But at around the same time that the president was emoting about the Oregon deaths, the US military had turned its weapons on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan run by Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Scores were killed or injured, and patients burned in their beds as MSF staff frantically contacted US and coalition forces. MSF stated that “all parties [to the] conflict, including in Kabul & Washington, were clearly informed of precise GPS coordinates of MSF facilities in Kunduz.” Yet, shockingly, the shelling continued for more than thirty minutes after American and Afghan military officials knew they were bombing a hospital.
The idea that gun violence in our country is bad while violence from America’s failed war in the Middle East is somehow necessary is an abhorrent position that many anti-gun activists should reconsider. To paraphrase a recent tweet from the journalist Glenn Greenwald — Republicans say “whatever” when told of mass shootings in the United States and Democrats say “whatever” when told of the mounting death toll from American actions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Each claims the murders are simply “collateral damage.” In truth, neither side holds a humane or rational position.
Now a few disclaimers. Much of the right-wing pro-gun argument is really a political stance — much like Grover Norquist’s anti-tax movement. Both take an issue that is, right or wrong, important to many — burdensome taxes or gun ownership — and leverage it to support the conservative pro-business movement, enriching the leaders along the way. And, yes, the pro-gun advocates are often mean, nasty, and stupid. Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal called the distraught father of the shooter in Oregon a “complete failure as a father,” who, as the “real problem,” “should be ashamed of himself.” Ben Carson claimed that if the Jews had guns before the Holocaust, that evil event would have been “greatly diminished.” And Breitbart.com claimed that the campaign against private gun ownership was simply oppression of heterosexual men.
But, this loony hatefulness aside, there is some sense and a sensibility among gun owners that needs to be examined. The first is that people are scared. And no matter how stupid it may seem to anti-gun forces, holding a gun makes many people feel less fearful. Generally, we are talking about white men here, but remember that Oakland was the home of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Private gun ownership was important to the Panthers in safeguarding the communities in which they were active. And their decision to openly carry guns at the Capitol in Sacramento in 1968 was a lightning bolt for Black Americans everywhere who were chafing under the prevailing mantra at the time to stay quiet in the face of racist attacks. And, today, with constant surveillance of our email and the proliferation of eyes in the sky watching our every move, isn’t it a little sane to be scared of our government?
Also, the Bill of Rights does state, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” While brilliant legal minds parse the meaning of those words, it is hard to argue that they meant anything other than Americans have a right to own guns and the government should not mess with that right.
But the back and forth of the political debate aside, the inconsistent position held by many in the anti-gun movement is grievously underrecognized. Claims of pacifism by anti-gun activists, when talking about lives snuffed out by Americans with guns in this country, are incompatible with the silence that follows the news of lives snuffed out by Americans with bombs and planes in other countries. And this is not just a philosophical argument, it is a real-world one.
The actions of our military teach our young that we can kill with impunity throughout the world. We can kill with drones, planes, and bombs. Our Noble Peace Prize winner (Obama 2009) can bomb the hospital of another Noble Peace Prize winner (MSF 1999). There is also a glorification of alleged American superiority in war, and a narrative that “strong men don’t apologize.” Given this, it is not hard to see young men being seduced into settling perceived slights with guns here at home.
The mainstream media reinforces the kneejerk support for American violence — when it happens overseas. Greenwald has chronicled the shifting narrative of the hospital bombing by the same media that advocates stricter gun control laws. The Washington Post, for example, repeated one of the initial false justifications for the bombing, writing that Taliban fighters were hiding in hospitals and “using civilians as human shields.” Even the AP got in the cover-up game, claiming that it saw weapons in a video taken of the hospital. After “further review,” it deleted this claim, saying it might just have been “charred debris from the building.” Finally, and only after all the excuses could not be advanced with a straight face, President Obama apologized for the killings, though he ruled out any independent investigation.
Greenwald, whose Intercept website has kept a focus on US violence and hypocrisy oversees, retweeted the arguments of a Pittsburgh writer, Jacob Bacharach, that are worth repeating. “There is a kind of moral credulousness on the part of the Nice Liberal critics of our national gun culture, and there’s something intolerably amoral about a politician like Barack Obama assuming a pose of high moral dudgeon to snipe at conservative gun rights advocates while he presides over, among other atrocities, the bombing of a neutral hospital.” Bacharach acknowledges that “blaming domestic gun deaths on America’s violent, aggressive imperialism is a little like blaming it on mental illness; it identifies an approximate rather than a proximate cause and spins its wheels wildly away from a practical mechanism for mitigating the problem here and now.” But he added that if those who wish for stricter gun control can’t “evince a more convincing and universal pacifism, rather than crying out in passionate horror each time some nut shoots up an elementary school but merely regretting each time their president blows one up,” they will be rightly branded hypocrites.
A common East Bay bumper sticker reads, “If you want peace, work for justice.” For those who wish to decrease gun violence in our country, the bumper sticker should be: “If you want to stop gun deaths, stand against America’s unending wars.” And this means calling for prosecution of those responsible for the US bombing of the hospital, all the way up the chain of command.
Only a consistent stance on violence, and the political and cultural change that would bring, has the chance of leading to safety in our schools, churches, malls, and workplaces.