During three weeks in October of 2002, Army veteran John Allen Muhammad and seventeen-year old Jamaican immigrant Lee Boyd Malvo shot 13 random people in random parking lots in the Washington D.C. area from the trunk of their car. Ten of them died. For 23 days, the nation’s capital and the nation at large was in the grips of fear. It would have lasted longer had Malvo not dropped a rifle magazine with his finger prints on it at the scene of one of the shootings. He did though. And they were caught, tried and convicted. In 2009, Muhammad was executed. Malvo is presently serving six consecutive life sentences in Red Onion State Prison in Virginia.
At the time, my parents lived in the D.C. area. Those events impacted their lives daily. They talked about parking their cars differently in parking lots. They thought about using gas stations that had limited access. And in talking to them about it, something occurred to me. We were a year past 9/11. And we were still recovering from those spectacularly horrific attacks. We were unified though, all focused on preventing the next big sucker punch. As a result we had sweeping authorities for surveillance and travel security in place already. All were aimed at combating international terrorist organizations. I quietly wondered though, what if the real threat were different than the one we knew? What if it wasn’t a massive plot that involved years of planning, flight school and an international network of support? What if it just took a gun? And some people willing to do it. Maybe even American citizens. If that happened, we might be in trouble.
That’s a really hard problem to fix.
But it didn’t happen. And I forgot about it. Until a handful of gunmen walked into a few places in Paris and killed over a hundred people with guns 13 years later. They tried to kill some with bombs. But that’s hard to do. There’s a lot that can go wrong with a bomb and even when you don’t get caught, or blow yourself up, bombs are sloppy, inefficient weapons. It was the guns that did the trick. And then I remembered that sinking feeling from the past. Perhaps, they’d finally figured it out. And then San Bernardino three months later. And then Orlando. Without question, we’ve entered a new phase of the threat.
The hard problem is here.
There’s a sobering truth to countering domestic terrorist activities in America. And yes, someone born and raised in Queens shooting people in the name of their religion is the definition of domestic terrorism. Even if the religion isn’t Christianity. Because the important characteristic that separates domestic terrorism from other types are the liberties that the offenders are born with. Which results in the following troubling circumstance: Currently, there is no legal preventative measures that would stop an American citizen, with no criminal record, who has not been observed to be committing a crime, from practicing his religion, purchasing a fire arm and walking into a nightclub and shooting people. And though we might like to think that there is, there isn’t.
It’s a hard problem. One that currently has no solution. And though the issue of the moment is Orlando and the fiery debates that it has brought about, it’s simply one of many hard issues that we Americans face in the 21st century world that currently have no solution. Like a lack of funding for entitlements, a changing economy that has eroded the middle class quality of life and crippling urban societal decay. These issues need a solution. But right now we can’t get one. Because solutions require us to go a few steps past blame. And we just can’t right now.
That’s a really bad problem. Not a hard one. But a bad one.
Blame is the standard you are satisfied with when the outcome doesn’t matter to you. Blame is really not where you want to put your energy in circumstances where the current situation has no existing solution when one is needed. Blame doesn’t stop the bleeding. Action can. Blame won’t. Even intentional appropriate inaction can. But we can’t do either right now. Because as a nation, we’re walking hand and hand down the path that was the intent of our enemies 15 years ago when this war started. It’s been a slow boil. But it’s hit a fever pitch and the result isn’t good.
Let’s try this thought experiment. What was the first thing that popped into your mind when you heard about the shooting in Orlando? If you told me it wasn’t, “Was the shooter a Muslim?” then you are in the minority. There’s actually nothing wrong with that question, in as much as there can be something wrong with any group of words. But the reason for asking it is really the problem. Were you hoping for an outcome? Were you hoping it was? So that you could be “right”. Were you hoping it wasn’t? So they could be wrong. Honest answers to that question highlight a deep problem that we have. It was a question we cared less about the answer to 14 years ago. And it tells us something about where we are now relative to then.
Fourteen years ago, the prospective presidential nominee for our strong conservative conscience would not have gloated about its answer by the way.
Why not? Because we are a weaker nation today then we were in the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when John Muhammad and Lee Malvo did basically the same thing that Omar Mateen did. It’s not because of our military or the economy or even the government. Though they’re weaker too, but only because they are a reflection of us. We’re weaker because we are a house horribly divided.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, in a speech given in the Illinois State capital upon his acceptance of the Republican nomination for his state’s upcoming Senate race, delivered the famous phrase, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”
Lincoln spoke of the scourge of slavery. And he was right, though he lost the election. In doing so, he developed the national voice that would win him the presidency two years later. The nation would split over our perspectives on slavery and suffer through a gauntlet of death and economic catastrophe not since duplicated. But we saved the union. And as painful as it was, it was possible because we were split over a tangible issue. One that had a clear point and counterpoint, a solution and an outcome. Very little time was spent on who was to blame for the bondage. Today, though, division is actually the point. It’s independent of issue. So the debate stops with blame.
Over the last twenty years, the boom in information and human connectivity has allowed people to exist, like they never have before, in the consciousness of other people. We have a constant stream of perspectives that gets beamed, literally, into our hands, every day. And what that’s resulted in is unprecedented exposure to information and opinion. And one thing that we humans don’t like to do is sit through an opinion that is counter to ours without the opportunity to weigh in. So we’ve chosen to put our consciousness in the spaces where we’re less likely to encounter those opinions. And we have limitless ways to pick and choose them. From the sites we like on Facebook, to the cable news channels we watch to the Twitter feed we construct through our choices, we are shaping the info we receive and the opinions we are forced to tolerate. Which means we’re dividing first, then exploring our issues second. We are foundationally divided. And like Lincoln said, it’s not good.
So when an issue like an American born, Muslim man, legally purchasing a weapon and shooting 100 or so people in a gay night club after pledging allegiance to a nonsensically misaligned bunch of Islamic extremist groups comes up, we can’t handle it. Instead of a unifying debate about how to solve that type of issue, you have people shouting back and forth at each other the importance of their favorite liberty-specifically, which Constitutional Amendment is more important and which one is only conditionally so.
We actually have a group of people who are responsible for doing that on our behalf though. It’s called our government. If you’re looking for a startlingly clear example of the fruits of our poisoned tree of division, start there-our three floundering branches of government.
We have a congress that votes only with their own party at a historically unprecedented level. Which means that nothing ever gets done because nothing ever gets agreed on. The result is a lack of ability to facilitate basic responsibilities like selecting Supreme Court justices. Or passing a budget without threat of shut down. Then engine is bogged down. And it spreads to the other branches.
We have eight Supreme Court justices ruling on important issues right now. There’s supposed to be nine. Because you can’t really have a vote with eight. It’s like having a best of six games World Series. It doesn’t work. Just today, as I wrote this, they came to a four-four tie in ruling on the President’s executive orders on immigration. And they had to defer their decision to a lesser court. That’s not the intent of our founders or our people.
And lastly, but by no means least, we have one of the most disheartening presidential elections in the history of our country, where for the first time, we couldn’t muster two suitable candidates to run. It’s bad.
Our government has actually stopped working. And not the way that we used to just joke about because sometimes they did things that we disagreed with. In a literal sense, it no longer facilitates even basic effective outcomes. And that’s where we are in trouble. Because when we get a real live hard problem, like what to do about the rise of domestic, religiously motivated, firearms perpetrated terrorism, we have no hope. The energy pulls all the thinking into the extreme fringes of the debate leaving the majority of us voiceless and defenseless. Again, this problem wasn’t there fourteen years ago, at least not the way it is now.
Which takes us to the truly sad outcome of our division. We’re losing this war. Our enemy is a faceless amorphous body with no resources and no state. We can kill them off. We have, just about all of them. And they come back in different forms. Because they have the one thing that we don’t-unity of purpose. It’s horrible. But simple. And they all agree. They want to hurt the western way of life. We, on the other hand, care more about our specific brands of outrage then anything else. Which is why fifteen years into this war, we are worse. They are the same. That’s the definition of losing.
The conflict that Lincoln led us through was resolved just as much through legal and legislative action as it was through blood on the battlefield. We simply can’t do those types of things any more. And it’s entirely our fault. The people of America-all of us.
So what do we do? Perhaps we should put our outrage in one spot. Outrage that we, as Americans, do not have the ability to do the things we used to, as a civic entity. Which should be in service to upholding and sustaining the American way of life. Which means relative safety, prosperity and preservation of liberties-all of them, in as much as they can be preserved and still maintain the other two mandates-life and the pursuit of happiness. Don’t be outraged at people. Don’t be outraged at opinions. Be outraged at a lack of solutions, not the solution.
If you think that eliminating guns are the answer to reducing domestic terrorism, and your congressmen wasn’t sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, then pick up the phone and complain, and vote differently in November. If you think that healthcare reform has gone horribly wrong and you’re not happy with the outcomes and your congressmen hasn’t been proactive at forwarding an acceptable alternative, then pick up the phone and complain. And vote differently in November. That’s what outcomes based civic responsibility looks like. It’s not pissing and moaning about how awful the humans involved in the process are. That doesn’t do anything. And doing is the point.
Democracy is a winning strategy when its participants are unified in their desired outcomes. It’s not, when they can’t be. We don’t have to agree on politics, but we do have to agree that good, sustainable outcomes for Americans, even the ones not like us, are the goal. It’s time to stop rooting for or against politicians and start rooting for outcomes. This problem is ours to solve. Because what we have right now, is what losing looks like. But being behind isn’t the same as losing. Staying that way is. Five months, until election day. And we’re all on the clock. You can it get wrong. And we will lose.