Homeland Insecurity and American Terrorism

Let’s stop talking about guns and gun control.

Guns and gun control in America function as an intensifying signifier of cultural division. They amplify the idea that this historical moment is a division of rural white ‘traditional’ communities vs. urban diverse educated communities. For every responsible rural gun owner who has a rifle as a tool, for every home owner who keeps a gun out of a belief in self-protection, for every collector who is just interested in guns, using the gun itself as the totemic object that we believe is causing these shootings is a confirmation of an antagonism, of a sociocultural distance, of an us and them. The more we understand, accurately, the cultural depth of America’s attraction to guns, the more helpless we feel–because deep cultural formations are exceptionally hard to instrumentally change from above.

Yes, gun ownership in this country is a fetish; yes, strictly controlling the availability of weapons that are intended to kill many people as fast as possible would be transformative. Yes, guns in the home lead to many tragedies, from toddlers shooting family members by accident to depressed men committing suicide because of the availability of a convenient means for doing it. Yes, we need sane gun laws–licensing and permits, mandatory training, restrictions on manufacture, sale and ownership, and so on.
But guns are a distraction from what’s really going on.

What’s really going on is a slow-motion uprising by white men who feel lost, enraged and confused by the gradual ebbing of their unchallenged social, political and economic power. Most of the men who’ve joined this uprising and committed terrorist acts in its name don’t even quite know or reflexively understand their deeper sources of their rage and alienation. They’ve nearly invariably beaten or hurt women in their lives, they’ve felt confused or wounded by the world around them. They’ve sometimes understood themselves to be mentally unhealthy or lost. They’ve cut themselves off from social ties or never been able to make them in the first place.

But most of them are not mentally ill as we commonly understand it, any more than an alienated young man from London or Berlin or Detroit or Istanbul or Kano who goes to join ISIS or Boko Haram. Those insurgents are leaving because they feel there is nothing for them where they are, because they feel powerless or lost, because they want to make a new world that is also somehow an old and sanctified world where they are the powerful ones. They often know almost nothing about the Qu’ran or Islam.

So it is with America’s mass shooters: virtually all of them white and male, sensing that the safety of a world where mediocre, ordinary white men could still count on being bosses, on being in charge, is fading away.

This goes all the way back to James Huberty in San Ysidro in 1984. We are not in a fight with guns, any more than other societies trying to cope with insurgencies are in a fight with guns. The guns are a necessary but not sufficient condition of those insurgencies, but ordinary people don’t get blown up by an IED while travelling by bus because there are IEDs. They get blown up because insurgents and terrorists are mining the roadways. The IEDs are what allow buses to be blown up and many people to die: if insurgents just had butter knives, they’d kill very few people. But here, in some sense, the mantra of the gun owner is almost right: without the terrorist, the gun sits on the shelf, the IED never gets made.

Ordinary Americans don’t get shot because there are guns, and they don’t get shot because somehow we have the world’s worst mental health crisis. They get shot because there is a decentralized, distributed movement of white men who want their supremacy back. It’s always been visible to us but it is more apparent than ever now because there are open terrorist sympathizers in the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, in governors’ mansions and state legislatures. It is time to call them what they are and to understand truthfully that we the people are under attack.

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8 Responses to Homeland Insecurity and American Terrorism

  1. Frederic Bush says:

    I strongly disagree with your premise. Mass shooters are awful and drive a lot of media coverage, but the overwhelming number of people who are killed by guns in the US are not killed by mass shooters; they kill themselves, or are killed by intimate partners, or as a result of a botched crime, or a fight, etc.

    As an analogy, leftist radicals in the 1960s and 1970s involved themselves in lots of high-profile bombings and shootouts with the police, and that seemed like a big problem at the time with a lot of media commentary. By the 80s this was no longer happening, but violent crime and murder and suicide rates stayed high. Same issue here — appalling as mass shooters are, gun control for everyone is still a much more important issue in terms of lives saved.

    That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to deal with the problem of right-wing militants, but this framing is not accurate.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think what I am saying is: distinguish the problem of mass shooting (that it is being produced by an insurgency, in effect) from the problem of guns (which is a problem of suicide, of death by accidents, and of the use of guns in the commission of crimes other than mass shootings).

    Hence, be concerned about guns–but not in the aftermath of a mass shooting, where the solution to those events is not primarily about guns. Be concerned about guns in the other contexts where they produce mortality many times that of most nations that the US thinks of as peers.

  3. Yes, yes, but…. What is to be done? What is the tangible, material action to be taken in response? Banning guns may seem impossible, but it’s a specific and material change. When people blame white male rage, I guess I don’t disagree. But what can you actually do about that?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    It becomes a different class of difficult question at that point. It’s not as abstract as white male rage: this is a movement and an ideology. There are a few obvious things to do about it: vote every son of a bitch who provides support for that movement out of office, without exception. Show zero tolerance towards anyone who is an agent of the government who demonstrates any connection to or sympathy for this movement, particularly officials associated with the justice system. Both of those are responses that nations that are fighting insurgencies and terrorist movements readily turn to, and they would help. Calling these incidents what they in fact are helps get to that point as well.

    Beyond that, we’re dealing with the same problem that many other countries grapple with. But at least we won’t be hampered by a category error while we grapple.

  5. Brutus says:

    Wish there were a handy, simple analysis and course of action to which I could refer here. Don’t think it exists, hence ongoing debate. Attempts to tease the cause-and-effect out of events, actions, human psychology, and responsible recourse in a civil society awash in fetishized gun ownership result in plenty of loose talk. With each new tragedy comes renewed urgency to do something, if only it were clear what to do. Although I understand the arguments for gun ownership, sourced as they are in an agrarian society and economy from hundreds of years ago, substantially increased potential for mayhem with modern weapons suggests to me that much tighter restriction might need to be tried. However, it’s also unlikely that many gun owners won’t relinquish their weapons without a fight, so at present it’s an intellectual standoff.

    With respect to your remark “unchallenged social, political and economic power,” I wouldn’t say that such power relationships have been unchallenged, only that such challenges have enjoyed only limited success. Exceptions include suffrage, the civil rights movement, and feminism. What accounts for recent, observable increases in desperation, rage, and inchoate longing for a clear social order rooted in the past is hard to pin down succinctly. However, from even a cursory view, the demographic wave washing over us and accompanying unraveling of civil society are pretty clear. Take your pick from among the one, two, or a few causes.

  6. Peter Erwin says:

    So it is with America’s mass shooters: virtually all of them white and male, sensing that the safety of a world where mediocre, ordinary white men could still count on being bosses, on being in charge, is fading away.

    Virtually all of them male, yes; virtually all of them white — actually, no.

    Mother Jones Magazine has been keeping an updated database of mass shootings (which they define as 3 or more people killed by gunfire outside private residences), which is up to 115 since 1982. Among the many things they try to identify for each incident are gender and race. The overwhelming majority of the shooters are indeed men. But only 60% were white — which is less than you would expect just from demographics (a crude weighted average taking into account when the shootings took place would predict about 67% of the shooters to be white, if race were irrelevant). Latino men were even less likely to be mass shooters (9% of the shooters versus 14% of the population); black men somewhat more likely (17% of the shooters versus 12% of the population) and Asian men were the most likely (10% of the shooters, versus 4% of the population over the time period).

    None of those deviations are really at a statistically significant level (the Asian male rate is twice what you’d expect, but that’s a grand total of 10 men and 1 woman) — but the idea that it’s “virtually all” one race, or that it’s fundamentally due to a single motivation affecting one race, simply doesn’t work.

  7. Walter Stromquist says:

    “So it is with America’s mass shooters: virtually all of them white and male…”

    I know what you mean—you have identified a pattern, and the pattern involves white males, and you comment intelligently about that pattern. But there are other patterns among mass shooters as well, and the quoted sentence is pretty broad. Did you mean to make that claim?

  8. Why do some people do what they do? How can we identify in advance those who will, may, might, murder someone? On a percentage basis are certain humans more likely to murder than others? If the answer is yes, how can we identify them in time to stop them from carrying out those murders? Are mass murders more murderous than husband murdering wife? Where should we concentrate our resources?

    Do the unhappy white males who murder reveal something else wrong in our society beyond the availability of guns? If so, what? If so, how does it contribute to the murders?

    The earliest memory of my paternal grandfather is of him trying to murder my father. It took place on a crowded main street on Saturday night in small town Texas. My grandfather had a very large screwdriver in his hand and he was trying very hard to stab my father or slash him thereby disabling him so he, my grandfather, could close with him. My father, who had faced similar attacks knew what to do and in no time my grandfather lay unconscious on the pavement. But there were no police to take my grandfather into custody and jail him, instead my father loaded his father into our car and we went back to our farm where my father and mother treated the old man, bathed him, clothed, and sent him back by bus to east Texas where his eighth wife might be willing to take him in. Because of a lifetime of violence directed toward him and his younger siblings my father would not permit any firearms in our home. My grandfather was killed in a knife fight in Louisiana within a few months of his attack on my father. I was glad to see him go. In fact, I rejoiced.

    My uncle, who lived on a farm with three generations who raised almost everything they ate, kept weapons. They were very careful. My father sent me to my uncle to receive gun safety training even though my father would not let us keep a firearm. The two oldest generations of the three passed away and the youngest generation married and moved away. The old farm was kept in good repair but no one lived there. Children emerged from the third generation and they would visit the old home place to hunt and pick pecans and fruit from the orchard.

    One day, one of the fourth generation visited the farm and brought along his best buddy, and the buddy’s girlfriend. They were young and looked for something fun to do. They took a couple of the firearms which were kept on the farm and went to the orchard to shoot targets. There the visiting young man murdered his girlfriend because she was pregnant and wanted to get married. Her murderer wanted to have nothing to do with her or their child-to-be. Long prison sentences ensued. Two lives were lost. Guns.

    I live in the country in a group of about a dozen homes. The very first week I lived here my immediate neighbor began shooting into my yard. I could hear the bullets strike the side of my house. He was shooting at an armadillo that he spotted in my yard. I did not know what to do, so, I did nothing. Others fire shotguns in the night. I never know why. On the ninth hole of the golf course where I play frequently there is a shooting range. The shooters fire away from the golf course but there is no barrier to prevent them from turning and killing someone. As I play, if I hear gunfire on the range I immediately go back to the clubhouse.

    It may well be that the current level of gun violence is the price we must pay to be Americans, but I think that full price is yet to be exacted. I grew up not far from here. My ancestors for five generations have lived here. My politics and my religion are not welcome here so I keep them hidden from view. Because people know about my ancestors they more or less ignore me, an old man who is hard of hearing, who stays in doors except to buy groceries or play golf. But old people sometimes are targets and I fear I will become one. My house sits thirty yards from the road that leads through our little neighborhood and my office windows look out on that road. I have no protection. High school boys have begun to ring my doorbell during the night. The county sheriff has become tired of my phone calls.

    So, what should I do? Why should I have to do anything? If your answer is that I must get a gun to protect myself then you will be proving that guns are out of control.

    Now, for something completely different.

    Your essay seems to be searching for a way to identify, in advance, the killers in our midst. Who is to do that? What discipline? One of the social sciences? Some say that one day we will be able to identify the dangerous men among us, but I doubt it. The best thing to do, and which can be done now, is to license guns. It may take a generation or two, until the old timers die away, but it has to be done. Removing guns from society, or at least keeping them locked away in a system that notifies the neighbors, all law enforcement entities, commercial enterprises, and conveyances so we will know who has an unlocked weapon and we will know where he and it are located. The answer is that such a system is too cumbersome and treads on our rights. What happened to my rights?

    And why don’t our teachers and professors teach that a great deal of irrationality has been triggered by the Second Amendment:

    “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.”

    This amendment is part of the Bill of Rights. It is unique among those amendments in that it begins with a justifying clause. The Framers clearly felt a need to explain why the people should have the right to keep and bear arms. If such a justification was not needed, the Framers would have simply written this:

    “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

    But, the Framers understood that because America did not have a standing army, and because public safety must be secured, then individual citizens, of necessity, would be called upon to serve in the militia, and they would be obliged to keep suitable weapons ready for duty. So, it is crystal clear that the Framers gave the people the right to keep and bear arms so that they would be ready to serve in the militia in case of danger. Another benefit of this approach is that the citizen would pay for the cost of purchasing and maintaining the weapon.

    America already punishes seven hated groups: not-white, not-Christian, not-heterosexual, not-male, not-well-to-do, not-native-born, and the disabled. Unfortunately, in recent times we seem to be adding an eighth hated group: schoolchildren.

    Any government that enables the mass murder of its children while they sit at their desks in school studying for that hoped for day when they will finally be old enough to live their own lives in pursuit of their own happiness, is a failed government and has forfeited forever its right to govern. Nobody teaches that. But somebody should. It seems that every university in America should be preaching that sermon every day all day.

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