Barbarians in the Gates

We left New York harbor on the Norwegian Gem cruise ship on November 23. It was a clear crisp evening and the view of the NYC skyline and points of interest was riveting. We were escorted down the Hudson, past the Statue of Liberty, and beyond the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge by two gunboats and two armed helicopters. I don’t know if there was a particular threat to which the authorities were responding or whether this has become standard procedure for large passenger ships traversing the port of New York City. But it stood out to us as evidence that our world is not as it was just a short time ago. For me it underscored the importance of defeating terrorism.

The week before we left, Paris had been shot up by Islamic jihadists. The day before we were to arrive back home, a jihadist couple killed 14 people and injured many more in San Bernardino, California. Jihadist violence is and will continue to be on the march. Radical Islamists around the world rejoice as the rest of the world mourns the deaths, injuries, and suffering of the innocent. Our leaders, along with many media commentators, show their myopia about the nature of the challenge – none more starkly than President Obama and presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

Critics of Obama claim that he fundamentally underestimates and/or misunderstands the threat and persists with policy that helps the jihadist cause. This is evidenced by:

  1. His refusal to name the threat as Islamist
  2. His premature removal of American forces in Iraq, which led directly to the creation of ISIL and the establishment of a new caliphate (territory controlled by Islamists)
  3. The release of hundreds of dangerous jihadists from our military prison in Guantanamo, Cuba, many of whom have returned to their cause and have killed and injured American soldiers
  4. His challenge and subsequent backing down to the Assad government in Syria which harmed our credibility, aided in jihadist recruitment, and opened the door for the expansion of Russian and Iranian aggression in the region
  5. His generous stance toward Iran, especially in freeing personal assets for known bad actors and clearing a path for their development of nuclear weaponry
  6. His antipathy towards Israel, the only true ally America has in the region
  7. A half-hearted prosecution of air attacks against ISIS targets, wherein American sorties run a meager 12-30 missions per day and release munitions fewer than 25% of the time
  8. His insistence upon bringing Syrian refugees to the United States despite CIA warnings that they cannot be properly vetted
  9. His refusal to tighten security along the Mexican border despite its use by jihadists to enter the U.S.
  10. His rhetorical response to terrorist actions whereby he constantly: a) downplays the scope of the threat, b) admonishes against discrimination toward moderate Muslims, c) uses the opportunity to push the politics of gun control , and perhaps most significantly, d) refuses to admit that policy changes may be prudent.

Those who see things the same way as does Obama look upon Donald Trump’s recent remarks, along with his overall political approach, with a mix of revulsion, incredulity, and amusement. Just this week Trump issued a statement calling for a moratorium on all Muslims entering America. In the resulting hailstorm of criticism from Democrat and Republican political rivals, he clarified that this only applied to non-citizen Muslims who do not currently live in the U.S. But he hedged that stance, citing a Real Clear Politics poll suggesting that as many as 25% of Muslims in America are sympathetic to jihadist goals.

Those familiar with Trump’s methods see what he’s doing here. He uses inflammatory statements such as this to: a) control the media cycle (he’s received more than double the coverage of his nearest competitor for airtime – Hillary Clinton), b) establish an extreme initial position as a negotiation tactic, and c) distance himself from rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, in this case claiming the ground that he is the candidate most serious about protecting American lives.

Critics of Trump (and others in the Republican presidential race) claim that their approach is inflammatory, would lead toward widespread war, promotes racial and religious discord, and violates the constitutional rights of many Americans. This is evidenced by:

  1. Their calls for screening and/or profiling American and non-American Muslims
  2. Costly, both in blood and treasure, policy proposals that would ramp up military efforts in ISIL- controlled Syria and Iraq
  3. Their alienating non-radical Muslims with harsh rhetoric
  4. Aiding jihadist recruiting efforts by increasing the profile of America as a natural enemy
  5. Their willingness to turn our backs to Muslims who are suffering the ravages of war in Syria by denying refugees sanctuary in America
  6. Their blind backing of Israel despite its aggression towards Palestinians
  7. Their seeming not to care about the plight of illegal immigrants in America and their U.S. –born citizen children
  8. Their vilification of natural rivals such as Russia and China which increases the risks of conflict

The space between these two polarities is quite an ideological gulf. Both have some rationale. But both omit important considerations. If we are to elect leaders with better developed worldviews and policies, we need to think things through ourselves. Among the things we all must consider are:

  • How prevalent is the jihadist view amongst the worldwide Muslim population?
  • What is the likelihood and scope of future attacks if we continue our current course?
  • What are the ramifications of a reduction of American influence and power in the Middle East?
  • What steps can we take to reduce the allure of the jihadist viewpoint?
  • Left as a viable entity, what threat does ISIL present to America over the long term?
  • Is there a way for Muslims, Arabs, and other non-American powers to address the jihadist threat without a major American commitment? If so, why isn’t it happening and what must be done to make it happen?
  • How much expense, in terms of resources and sacrifices in freedom and lifestyle, is appropriate to nullify the jihadist threat? If we decide to tolerate a small amount of threat, how much?
  • Can we afford a nuclear-armed Iran? If not, what are we willing to do to stop it?

These are not simple questions and there are no simple answers. As we established, smart people arrive at very different conclusions. In order to come to a more cohesive and effective policy stance, we must openly and honestly examine our values. Fortunately, elections are a perfect way to do this. Unfortunately, the Machine (the Democrat and Republican parties, media, and vested interests) are not interested in the discussion. It’s up to you and me.

In order to do so productively, we must understand the history and dynamics at play. Sadly, most Americans are not well equipped for this task, not because they are unable, but because they are unwilling or do not have the level of education needed to wrestle with the issue. This is okay. It’s why we’re a Republic, not a Democracy. But it does not relieve us of our responsibility as citizens is to know enough to choose our leaders wisely.

So we must familiarize ourselves with the basics. Here’s a quick rundown.

First, jihadist aggression is nothing new. Fundamentalist belief in the teachings of Mohammad means the intolerance of opposition and the call to bring sharia law to every corner of the globe. This worldview requires submission and is the near polar opposite of the values upon which America was founded. What is new is the means by which this goal may be accomplished.

We also must grasp the power dynamics in the Middle East. The nations that exist today were imposed upon the area in the wake of the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France in the wake of World War I. The Arabs longed for self-rule, and largely achieved it within the new nations. Complicating the picture is the enmity between the three major sects of Islam – Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd. These populations are not contained within the nations but are spread throughout the region. They represent the major factions that are fighting in Syria today.

Another irritant is the existence of the Jewish state of Israel. The area that Israel occupies was for centuries only important for religious reasons. The few Palestinians who lived there were nomadic and sparse and lived a hard-scrabble existence. Fleeing persecution in Europe, Jews began settling the region en masse throughout the late 1800’s and early 20th century. They lived a different lifestyle and held different values. Those values led to rapid economic development of the area, and the population exploded.

In the wake of the Holocaust, to protect the Jewish people from further aggression, the nations of the world recognized Israel as a legitimate nation of its own. This has never been tolerable to the Arab world, and has been a source of conflict over the past 70 years.

Another seminal event in the rise of modern jihadism was the 1979 fall of the Shah of Iran under the feckless foreign policy of Jimmy Carter. Iran, despite inevitable abuse of power by the Shah, was well on its way to becoming a modern state ready to join the civilized world. Instead it became a terror-supporting Shi’a theocracy under Ayatollah Khomeini. That legacy plagues the western world to this day.

President Obama sees jihadists as a relatively minor threat. He believes that they are few in number and are not likely to amass significant destructive capability. Approximately 25% of Americans basically agree.

Donald Trump sees jihadists as a growing and significant threat. He believes that if they are not thwarted sooner rather than later, great harm will befall our country. Approximately 75% of Americans agree.

9/11 proved our vulnerability. It is much easier to destroy than create. If a perpetrator is willing to sacrifice him- or her-self, there is little a free society can do to completely prevent attacks. Some of these attacks are likely to be devastating, especially as chemical, biological, or radioactive weaponry becomes available. The reality is that a handful of people could possibly wipe out a city.

Whatever path we choose, we will not prevent all attacks. But it is the primary responsibility of the federal government to keep us as safe as possible.

There is no right for a non-American to enter America. They do so at our pleasure. Our values are such that we prefer to limit no one. We of course prefer peace to war. It’s unfathomable to us that there are people, both abroad and amongst us, who would like to cut off our heads, kill our children in front of our eyes, rape and torture – shoot, maim, and destroy – simply because we do not accept their worldview. But it is the truth.

The barbarians are in the gates. The question for all of is – what are we willing to do to stop them?

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Guns are Good

Are cars good or bad? If you say good, what of the more than 35,000 annual domestic deaths due to motor vehicle crashes? If in consideration of these losses, hundreds of thousands of injuries, and their polluting exhaust you conclude that cars are indeed bad and therefore their use should be further limited, you may be discounting the higher lifestyle and freedoms that the automobile affords millions.

Many believe guns are bad. It’s a reasonable position, as their effects upon the human body are horrific. It’s especially easy to vilify guns in the wake of senseless mass shootings as recently happened at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. We can all imagine ourselves or our loved ones innocently attending classes or going out for an enjoyable night at the movies and suddenly subject to an unthinkable attack.  It is reasonable to take action to prevent that from happening.

Homicide by firearms number around 11,000 annually (and falling – the murder rate is down 50% from its historic highs in the early 1990’s, but it is spiking as much as 73% this year in some cities.) Suicide gun deaths are double that. A few thousand fewer people die each year by the bullet as do in motor vehicle accidents. Our reactions to these unpalatable incidents are very different, though.

Perhaps it’s because traffic deaths are overwhelmingly accidents. Only about 500 or so gun deaths are accidental. The others are all intentional. As mentioned, two thirds of these deaths are suicides. Of the homicides, historically around 75% are committed by people with a criminal history. Crimes of passion and first-offender murderous gun-wielding madmen are relatively rare.

But this doesn’t stop left-leaning politicians from calling for more gun control each and every time a lunatic strikes. Their argument is that it is innately wrong that guns should be so common and easy to obtain. I suppose they also believe that it follows that if we enforced even more gun restrictions than are currently on the books, there would be a reduction in these events. Though this may be sensible on the surface, fewer guns = less opportunity = fewer murders, the evidence does not support the claim.

We won’t be able to fully prosecute the gun control argument here. I do wonder why these same politicians never point out that every mass shooting (defined as more than four deaths aside from the perpetrator and numbering over the past century at around 170 or so) with two exceptions since 1950 occurred in places where it was illegal for citizens to carry guns. Gun free zones in fact act as advertisements where perpetrators can be relatively assured that there won’t be people there to prematurely thwart their efforts. Advocates for more gun control also don’t discuss the profiles of mass shooters  – almost always young, white, and male with a 60% likelihood of having been previously diagnosed with mental disorder. Some suspect that the behavior of some recent mass murderers may be linked to harmful side effects of powerful psychotropic drugs used to treat their behaviors.

Pundits and politicians also seem reluctant to discuss deeper social realities that may relate to these tragic incidents – the breakdown of the nuclear family, the lack of a clear demarcation between boyhood and manhood, the onset of violent video games, the worship of celebrity, and laws that make it nearly impossible to commit a person to a mental institution without their consent.

One might reasonably doubt that those politicians are really trying to solve the problem. It seems at least possible that they have ulterior motives. What might those be? You might consult the literature of their ideology and study history for answers. I’ll leave that up to you.

President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many others blame the gun for the crime. Hillary said in a recent speech that it is wrong not to hold the gun manufacturers accountable for these deaths. (I wonder how GM and Ford feel about that one.) I think it’s safe to say that they and their supporters fall into the “guns are bad” camp.

History makes a counter argument. How did society function before widespread firearm ownership? In Europe and non-industrial parts of the world, power was held by the strong. The big man called the shots. The lord, baron, governor, duke, or king ran, what were in essence, protection rackets. There was no such thing as a middle class. There was little freedom or personal ambition and therefore progress was slow.  It was a world that lacked justice and Thomas Hobbes famously described in Leviathan where life was “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” In too many places, this describes life to this day.

Women were particularly vulnerable. They were nearly universally considered second class citizens, somewhere between men and children. This was not because women lacked strength of character and of mind, but strength of arm. The gun has served as an equalizer in society and indeed is a factor in ushering in the modern age.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is amazingly powerful. It was written short and sweet so as to be difficult to subvert. That hasn’t stopped the efforts of the left, as its spirit would forbid the existence of a gun free zone. Often, those who favor the restriction of firearms refer to the Second Amendment as out of date and not suited for modern life. To hold this view, you must ignore the rationale that the authors themselves gave for its prominence in the Bill of Rights.

The reason that the Second Amendment is in our Constitution is this – to protect personal power. James Madison explained the role of the militia (private armed citizens.) It was necessary as a check against any governing force, foreign or domestic.

Madison and his contemporaries understood human nature better than our current crop of leaders. In an ideal world, guns would be unnecessary. Everyone would be enlightened so as to eschew violence and warfare. They would not seek dominion over others. But as the men of America’s founding knew, this is not human nature.

For that reason, guns are necessary. Like it or not. I believe the world is best served when moral and peace-loving people are better armed than those who are not. In the hands of the just, guns stop evil dead in its tracks. Therefore guns are a great good.

Must Violence Be Everywhere?

On Labor Day I took my family to Mt. Gretna. The plan was to hike the beautiful trails and treat ourselves to ice cream at The Jigger Shop. We did in fact hike, and we did get ice cream. But not at The Jigger Shop.

Not ten minutes before we arrived, it had become a crime scene. We knew something was amiss when police sped past us as we approached. We saw ambulances and speculated that somebody must have had a heart attack. The truth turned out to be worse.

A woman was murdered by an abusive man from whom she had been trying to escape for at least a year. He chased her out of her gift shop and shot her dead in the parking lot of The Jigger Shop. Shortly thereafter he turned the gun on himself. We arrived to see employees and patrons huddled in the nearby places to which they had fled. We learned of the details from bystanders as Life Lion helicoptered the perpetrator out. At this writing he is in critical condition.

The experience had a surreal quality. Maybe it was the contrast between the charming hillside, wooded streets, and storybook cottages, some of which were elaborately decorated with blooming flowers and imaginative sculpture, and the flashing lights, police tape, covered prone body, and the knowledge that no place, no matter how serene, is free from violence. In the aftermath of this experience, it’s clear that violence happens any time in any place.

Since we have lived in our current house there have been at least four separate homes on our street where police have arrived in response to domestic violence. Right now, within the circle of people I personally know, there is a person in hiding from a potentially violent spouse. The experience my family had on Labor Day is sadly not uncommon. Every day it seems that there is a similar story – today it is a beautiful Texas dentist who was murdered. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, someone is physically victimized by their intimate partners once every three seconds.

That’s why I’m surprised to learn that the trend is not towards more domestic violence, but away. This Bureau of Justice Statistics report  cites a 64% decline in the years between 1994 and 2010. This makes sense, as the rate of violent crime is shrinking with the aging of the population. It just doesn’t seem like it. I suppose that’s why we must be careful about conclusions we draw from anecdotal evidence.

Domestic violence has always been a feature of society. Statistics for domestic abuse pose challenges for accuracy, but it is accepted that roughly one third of women and one quarter of men worldwide suffer at least one instance of domestic abuse during their lifetimes. By any measure, the problem is pervasive.

What, if anything, can we do as individuals and a society about this?

There are those who argue for increased gun control, as fewer guns mean less gun violence. The argument may hold water if one can successfully show that it would fall more than the suppressive effect that armed victims have upon perpetrators (individuals, gangs, and governments.) One would also have to show that the policy would indeed keep guns from the hands of criminals and that the net effect would be worth the cost of freedoms and the changing of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

This would also leave unaddressed the fact that the rate of domestic violence is as high or higher among unarmed populations. The issue is not one that will be remedied through legislation – it is already illegal to physically assault another person (at least in our country – in countries that abide by Sharia Law husbands are free to beat their wives.) This problem is like most of our other problems – it is a problem that stems from sickness of the soul.

People who abuse others have likely themselves been abused. It is through their experience that this behavior is normalized or somehow deemed appropriate. They clearly suffer from emotional problems, and these have myriad causes, from the side effects of medicine to genetic disposition. But there is also a clear cycle of violent behavior.

All human beings, like all creatures, can be violent. This includes everyone, emotionally damaged or not. What leads to peace and domestic tranquility is a sense of well-being and safety, an appreciation for the connectedness between people, and a well-developed sense of morality.

Where these things are lacking, violence ensues. An unmarried mother is ten times more likely to suffer domestic abuse than a married one. Welfare recipients are four times as likely, with some studies indicating that as much as 82% of welfare mothers experience abuse. Education and wealth do not inoculate against domestic violence, but they sure do reduce its likelihood.

Yet more school and more money do not provide satisfactory answers to this problem to me – how about you? I suspect we would benefit by something a little more powerful and pervasive. Something more radical.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Jesus Christ was a radical. In a world at least as violent (granted, without guns) than our own, he taught love and peace. In the gospel of Mark 9:50, he described how this works: “You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.” What he meant was that just as salt seasons and preserves food, moral people influence, inspire and elevate those around them.

We can take from this a strategy to deal with the issue of domestic violence (or any other moral issue.) We must start with ourselves. We need to tend to our spiritual health so that we might “flavor” the spiritual health of those around us.

You know what I like best about this strategy? It focuses us on that which we can exert some power – ourselves.