The Terror from the Gun

On the campaign trail and the cable networks, it’s all ISIS all the time as Americans react with fear and fury over the San Bernardino massacre. But the U.S. crisis of gun violence goes way beyond the few cases of Islamic terrorism, says Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

I was waiting for a doctor’s appointment with only the magazine rack for company. I usually don’t pay much attention to news magazines, seeing as how the range of politically acceptable points of view are pretty narrow in such sources. However, with time on my hands, I picked up Time magazine (Nov. 30-Dec. 7 issue), the cover of which announced, “World War on ISIS.”

I focused on a particularly interesting (and mercifully short) piece on this topic entitled, “ISIS Will Strike America.” No doubt millions of readers will focus on this bit of prognostication. It is written by Michael Morell, former Deputy Director of the CIA.

Billionaire businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Billionaire businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Morrell begins by telling us he has been an intelligence officer for 33 years and in that capacity his job is to “describe for a President threats we face as a nation” and then “look the President in the eye when his policies are not working and say so.” Given that Morrell managed the staff that produced George W. Bush’s briefings, one wonders if he ever practiced what he preached.

In any case, Morrell now figuratively looks his readers in the eyes and tells them that “ISIS poses a threat to the homeland” through “its ability to radicalize young Americans [why just the young?] to conduct attacks here.”

In truth, this potentiality has been known for years and various police agencies and the FBI have even been involved in setting up various entrapment schemes to prove the point. One might assume that they had to do this to counter the fact that an American’s chance of being harmed by Muslim terrorists is less than his or her chance of being struck by lightning.

Nonetheless, the probability of Morrell’s prediction coming true is certainly not zero, as the massacre in San Bernardino demonstrates. Yet, comparing attacks which have possible radical Islamic connections to the almost weekly gun-related attacks in schools, health clinics, court houses, movie theaters, domestic scenes and various street corner venues, we still have a very long way to go before ISIS becomes our number one source of violence in the homeland.

But Morrell does not put his “threat assessment” in this context – either to his reading audience or, one can assume, to the presidents with whom he has made eye contact.

Republican Presidential Candidates 

I have the uncomfortable feeling that every Republican presidential candidate has also read this edition of Time magazine, because suddenly they are all aping the cover page’s battle cry of “World War on ISIS.” The trigger here is the recent tragedy in San Bernardino, California.

According to the New York Times of Dec. 5, the San Bernardino attack has taken a “diffused and chaotic” Republican campaign and “reordered” it around the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Thus, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pronounced that “Our nation is under siege: What I believe is we’re facing the next world war.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said, “This nation needs a wartime president.” Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, sounding a lot like his brother (whose foreign policy incompetence started this epoch with the U.S. invasion of Iraq), described “Islamic terrorism” as “having declared war on us” and being “out to destroy our way of life” while “attacking our freedom.”

In the same Dec. 5 issue of the Times, FBI Director James Comey said the San Bernardino massacre “investigation so far has developed indications of radicalization [of] the killers and of potential inspiration by foreign terrorist organizations.”

Actually, it sounds as if something is missing here. Certainly, the husband-and-wife team who carried out the attack was seriously agitated and had built for themselves a small arsenal of firearms and bombs. However, according to the FBI there is “no evidence that the killers were part of a larger group or terrorist cell.”

Only late in this game, on the day of the attack, did one of the killers “pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in a Facebook post.” So it might be useful to ask if there were personal grievances that disaffected and then, later, a “radicalization” process supplied additional justification for their acts? None of these fine points will mean much on the national stage. The Republicans are in full apocalyptic exaggeration mode and no doubt the Democrats will soon be swept along.

Gun Culture

In truth there is a dual nature to the present “threat against the homeland.” The first and major aspect of the threat is the utterly insane nature of the country’s gun laws (or lack thereof), which allows practically every adult to arm him or herself to the teeth.

The claim that it is access to all manner of assault weapons that keeps us all safe in our homes defies common sense and really constitutes an example of Orwellian doublespeak. In my estimation, there is no organization in the world, including ISIS, more dangerous to American society than the National Rifle Association which insists that we all still live in some variant of Tombstone, Arizona, in the Nineteenth Century. (But Tombstone of the Wild West actually had much tougher gun control laws than exist today.)

Of course, the Republicans dismiss the gun issue out of hand. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio commented, “As if somehow terrorists care about what our gun laws are. France has some of the strictest gun laws in the world and they have no problem acquiring an arsenal to kill people.”

Actually, Rubio is wrong about France. If you want to see strict gun control you have to go to the UK, Canada, Japan or Australia (none of which, incidentally, prohibit hunting weapons). Of course, he is correct that terrorists don’t care about gun laws. But his definition of who is a terrorist is woefully inadequate.

Rubio and his fellow Republicans think that terrorism is only the violence associated with Islamic radicals, but that is just nonsense. Try to put yourself in the minds of those being attacked. If you are a child in a classroom or student on a college campus, a doctor or nurse in a health clinic, a judge and other official in a courtroom, a patron in a movie theater, or someone in any of a hundred other public and private American venues being shot up in ever more frequent episodes, does the religion or ideology of the attacker matter, in any way, to the terror you feel? No. And it wouldn’t matter to Mr. Rubio either if he found himself a victim.

So here is the truth of the matter: the ubiquitous presence of guns suffuses our society with the constant potential for terrorist violence (and the U.S. being one of the largest gun merchants to dubious governments abroad does much to transfer the potential throughout the world).

The motivation of the one who triggers this violence is irrelevant to the terror it releases. The result is indeed an epidemic of terrorism in the United States that needs to be addressed, but that cannot be done by singling out ISIS. All that can do is make things worse by directing public concern against the least of the factors endangering them.

Nonetheless, that is what the politicians will do. They will take up the cry of Islamic terrorism because it frees them from any immediate need to take on the real – and politically dangerous – problem of gun control. Most of them are cowards when it comes to hard truths and the difficult need to lay them convincingly before the public. It is always more expedient to rile the masses than educate them.

Much of the present breast-beating over Islamic terrorism is politically motivated exaggeration. Yet even here the U.S. government will not do much other than spy on its own citizens with ever greater intensity.

To really make the U.S. safe from Middle East terrorism, Washington will have to dump Israel, play hardball with Saudi Arabia, and swear off the regime-change policy that has so disastrously driven its actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Even if by some political magic we are able to get rid of ISIS and its propaganda, we would still face domestically bred terrorism. And this, of course, is the nature of the vast majority of our mass violence and mayhem. The fault is in ourselves, be it with economic inequality, recurring racism, xenophobia, or just a pervasive culture of callousness ameliorated by nothing better than scattered volunteerism and a constant demand for charity.

And behind it all are is what the New York Times now calls “the gun epidemic” — an epidemic that weaponizes a society that seems incapable of dealing with its own failures.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism

5 comments for “The Terror from the Gun

  1. Christene
    December 9, 2015 at 09:10

    No offense, but the gun control crowd has so thoroughly succeeded in demonizing law abiding citizens who own guns that any possibility of this nation having a mature, respectful, sane conversation about gun control has been “shot dead”, pardon the terrible pun. Give it a rest for awhile. This dead horse has been beaten beyond recognition.

  2. Peter Loeb
    December 9, 2015 at 08:38


    Lawrence Davidson eloquently examines the rhetoric now current
    in the US. While it is much more abrasive among Republican
    candidates, it subtly underlines the Democratic party as well.
    It can thus be considered the favored slogans of our era.
    America has had many versions of this adoration of violence
    and killing in its short (only a few hundred years) of existence.

    Many years ago, one historian wrote:

    “The United States from its inception has been a nation blind
    to itself—its past, its present, and its future…No industrialized
    people confronts reality so ill-prepared in terms of ideas and
    insights to cope with the problems before it. In a critical sense,
    this myopia is the consequence of the pervasive self-satisfied
    chauvinism which characterized the United States in its first
    modern century after the Civil War, and optimism is virtually
    the national ideology…America yet marches into a future with
    its eyes turned toward the past, remaining astonishingly
    indulgent of of its own tragedies and foibles, and as
    menacing to itself and the world as ever…”

    Although written in 1976, these words of Gabriel Kolko
    Preface, p.vii —paperback) could just as easily be
    applied to society today and may well be equally
    applicable in years to come.

    A personal reflection: It used to be said in my
    family that “foreign policy never decides [national]
    elections.” It seems clear that this once quintisential
    “rule” of American national politicking no longerapplies.
    Other nations become “the other”, a place
    once dominated exclusively by blacks, native Americans,
    “aliens” etc. A careful examination of this
    context including racism, supremacy and the various
    colonial periods would be of assistance.

    It should be noted that a single firing of a missile
    by Iran is noted with feigned “horror” as a violation
    of the agreement (I am unsure as to whether it technically
    is a violation according to the words of the agreement).

    Rather, I would await the decision of Washington to lift
    sanctions on Iran or be in violation of the agreement.
    Put in other terms, I quite expect Washington to
    violate the agreement it has just signed.

    Were Washington truly supportive of its agreement with
    Iran, a similar agreement with the State of Israel should
    be immediately forthcoming. This would require a
    total and thorough investigation of ALL Israeli nuclear sites
    as well as other sites developing WMD’s, the removal of
    all such places or the instigation of sanctions against
    Israel for defying international law. As it is, Israel ,
    the Middle Eastern nation with the greatest capacity
    for nuclear attack and profits on sales of armaments of
    other nations in the world, continues to operate
    with complete impunity. No one is shocked by Israeli airstrikes.

    —–Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. Ratherdrive
    December 9, 2015 at 01:35

    Both of the shooters practiced often at a gun range. Sudden interest in a new hobby, do you maintain?

  4. Helge
    December 8, 2015 at 19:29

    Besides the partly ridicolous and appalling reactions of the republican candidates and the total failure of the American gun culture I cannot believe that Tashfeen Malik was one of the two shooters. A dedicated muslim women shooting people with a gun? I have never seen a woman fighting for Al-Qaeda or IS, woman are simply not allowed to be warriors in radical islam apart from suicide bombers. But that was not a suicide bombing, that was a professional cold blooded shooting incident and there is no record that this woman ever new how to shoot a gun. I think the couple was framed and it was a set up and the police was brought onto the wrong track in their panic. It fits all too well for some extremist groups to make us believe that any peacefully practising muslim can turn over night into a fanatic terrorist and mass-murderer. This is what islam fanatics would like us to beieve and also anti-islam fanatics (Breivik). Trump is now trying to exploit the situation although I don’t think he has anything to do with it. One extremist group or the other did it but not the couple with little baby at their grandparents, they were sacrificed just like the other 14 death to create fear and an increasing anti-islamic sentiment in the Western world. This people are trying to provoke a “holy islam-christian” war. They are nuts.

    • December 13, 2015 at 11:34

      So you’re one of those guys that say” are you gonna believe me or you lying eyes” which is a great quote from a movie many years ago. We may not know why these people did this but to deny that they did it is insane

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