The Scourge of Our Time

Have you normalized it yet?  Have you gotten used to it?  I have.

Not yesterday morning when I woke up to breaking news on my Twitter feed.  Or to messages of prayer and outrage on Facebook.  Or to another running live feed on CNN.  I normalized it long before that.  Someplace far away from here.  Sometime after some kid blew himself up at a funeral in a crowd of women and children before we could stop him.  Perhaps before a different group across town blew themselves up outside the city operations center and then  blew themselves up again when the first responders arrived.  Or maybe it was a few months later when our corpsmen, a mother away from her family on deployment, took a round to the head from a sniper while she was handing out medical supplies to locals in need. That’s about the time that I started to settle in on the idea of it all. That’s when I started to understand what it was that we’re in for.

Now, I don’t blame you if you’re not there yet. After all, this is all new to you.  And fresh in the headlines. Except that it’s really not.  The real live feeling of danger and even fear may be.  But the terrorist attacks, they’re kind of an old story by now.

It’s been 18 years since our embassies were blown up in Kenya and Tanzania. I’ve been to those sites. Talked to people who were there.  They remember it clearly.  We don’t.  It’s been 16 since the USS Cole had a hole the size of a minivan blown in the side of her.  I had a classmate on that boat. He wasn’t one of the 17 who died.  I saw him the other day.  It didn’t even come up.

The same amount of time has passed between 9/11 and today as had passed between the end of the Vietnam War and the election of George H.W. Bush.  We’ve been at this for a long time.   Perhaps we should feel frustrated that it’s not ending.  Or perhaps we might look at it a different way.

Radical Islamic terrorism is the scourge of our time.  Like global wars were the scourge of the first half 20th century and the fear of nuclear annihilation was the scourge of the second half.  It’s purposely sensational and inherently frightening to everyday Americans.  But it’s not going anywhere. I’m sorry to be the bearer of that bad news.  It’s not going away if you somehow make all guns illegal.  It’s not going away if you ban Muslims from coming into our country. It’s not going away if you go and destroy ISIS.  When I left Iraq six years ago, every bad guy that we’d been chasing for most of the previous ten years was dead or captured.  They’ve all been replaced.   And the ones we kill or capture now will be replaced.  We’re on about our fourth generation of extremists by now.   That’s how this thing works. It’s being fed by an endless well of destitution and instability.  Turning off that flow is a generation away, minimum.

And one other thing.  It’s not going away if you call it radical Islamic terrorism.  And it’s  not going away if you refuse to.  So ignore that noise.  That’s politics.  And the only thing politics can do here, is hurt. There are good Muslims and bad ones.  Just like there are good and bad people of every religion.  But the bad ones are using their religion for evil right now. This one is more complicated than our urges to generalize allow.  So put your energy elsewhere.

So should we care at all?  Of course.  Because it can actually get a lot worse than it is now.  And it might.  And if you made me guess, I’d say it will.  So we should care.  And make smart decisions and investments that we need to in order to keep our people safe.  If you are frustrated with law enforcement, then let’s put the political pressure there.  Not on hate and misguided blame games.  I’ll caution you though, this work is immensely difficult.  It’s not finding a needle in a hay stack.  It’s finding a needle in a stack of needles. And you miss sometimes. And looking at it in retrospect always makes it seem clear as day.  But it never is.   That’s how it works.  Like I said, it’s not going anywhere. So invest wisely and pay attention.

But that’s not all we should do.  There’s something else critically important that we have to remember that great societies before us have done under much, much worse circumstances.

Like our friends across the pond, the Brits.  Over a period of 267 days from the summer of 1940 to the Spring of 1941, London was bombed 71 times by the Luftwaffe.  32,000 civilians were killed. Another 87,000 injured.  That’s two and a half Orlando attacks a day, for most of a year. Not off in a far away land.  In their home town, where they worked.  Where their children went to school.  And their most potent defense against such unimaginable horror was simple.  Stay British.  They took precautions. They moved nonessential people to other parts of the country.  They ceased certain activities, but above all, they stayed calm, and carried on.  And there’s a lesson there for us.  It’s this.

Live your American life.  Nothing short circuits the grand plan of the Caliphate like us not giving a rip about them or what they do. That doesn’t mean we tempt fate and take no action.  We will do what we must.  Go to war, pour money into security and police and intelligence activities.  Do all of it in the name of safety.  If it keeps Americans safe, and if we still get to behave, at our core, like Americans, then I’m all for it.  But if you think that electing a “strong man” or trampling on personal liberties is going to turn off this switch, then I would challenge your thinking.

This problem has no one cause and no one solution.  That’s a lesson others aren’t heeding though.   Places like Poland are passing sweeping legislation that give broad and unchecked power to the government in the event of vaguely described terrorist activities, something that hasn’t happened in their country since 1939.  All in the name of fear and the illusion of safety.  It’s political.  And we know better.  We’re America.  Not Poland.  Land of the free is more than just a song.  But it carries a price.

We lost 50 people yesterday.  And for their friends and family, it probably doesn’t feel like a price worth paying.  It never is for those that pay it.  That’s the thing that will never normalize for me. I can normalize the activity.  The dark, empty sadness of the loss of human life though, I pray that never goes away for me.  But I’m past the outrage.  And horror and fear.  And on to another emotion.  A burning will to stay America-who we are.  Stay free and protect our liberties.  Just live life.  One foot in front of the other.  One breath at a time.  Amidst a horrible see of danger and destruction that’s been with us since we were us, in some form.  An unbroken line of human tragedy.  It’s part of the human condition.  My faith taught me that.  As well as to love and accept everyone, including my enemies.  Hard to do I know.  But it’s commanded.

I’ve been done with the fear game for a long time.   There’s darkness in this world.  There always has been.  Always will be.  But I’m over it.  And the sooner you are, the sooner you’ll be free from this fools game of panic and blame-free to move on to the next scourge.   Whatever that one is, I pray that it impacts as few of us as Radical Islamic terrorism has.   For now though, my thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those impacted by this iteration of our nation’s struggle.  My energy goes there.  Sadness and love-the only thing I feel any more when I see this.  Because all the rest doesn’t matter.  Just the sadness of loss.  And the hope and healing that comes with love.

Like I said.  I’ve been at this a long time.



Binary Republic


Everything you see on this screen is a manifestation of billions of 1’s and 0’s.  It is truly one of the great discoveries of mankind.  If you create a large enough pool of binary inputs, and push those inputs down far enough into the most minute detailed elements of an environment, you can create complex computer programs that can do things. They can store massive amounts of information. They can talk. They can control airplanes and operate nuclear power plants.  They can monitor our health.  They can connect us to other humans.  We can make programs so complex, they actually start to mimic human intelligence.  But at their basic forms, they are still, 1’s and o’s.  Entirely at the mercy of our design.  Because we, as humans, have consciousness and the capacity for original thought. Unlike the programs we create, we are not binary by nature.  We are not forced into a variable of 1 or 0 by our designer.  We are unlimited in our capacity to explore and wonder. Our thoughts are limitless.  If you looked at my social media stream right now though, you wouldn’t know it.

More binary..

Within minutes of the San Bernardino shootings two weeks ago, threads started to appear on my Twitter feed advocating for stricter gun control laws.  As soon as Syed Farook’s name was released as the shooter, the Muslim-o-phobia thread took over.  Within 48 hours we had a burning debate about what was to blame. Was it guns?  Or was it Muslims?  When you really think about it, it’s kind of an odd point-counterpoint.  It’s like choosing between walking to school or taking your lunch.  It’s not really a choice. But it’s how the dialogue went, and still is going weeks later.  Like we have with so many other complex issues,  we’ve boiled it down to a binary debate.   Pick a side: Minorities or cops.  Health  care or liberty. Regulation or economic growth. Abortion or privacy….you get the point. It’s a thing that we do.   But why do we do it, when clearly we are capable of so much more?

Why so binary?

There’s a lot that goes into why we do this.  It’s actually not because most of us really feel this way.  There are forces at work here.  Let’s start with what it’s actually not though; our politicians.  Our politicians aren’t causing the problem.  They’re not helping.  But they’re not why it’s happening.  For the most part, they’re stuck in a somewhat binary loop themselves that they can’t escape from as a function of who they are and what they are charged with doing. They can either be for something, or against it.  They can’t be both.  We may desire to try to squeeze moderation into the mix.  But moderation doesn’t work right now.   Again, it’s not their fault.  There’s massive headwinds to being reasonable in politics.  And it’s not the political machine.  It starts somewhere else.

Our programmers…

Look no further than our $285 Billion media market.  You will hear over and over again that the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court in 2010 is ruining our democratic process by opening up campaign fundraising to corporations and other donors that are eliminating the voice of the people.  It’s become a “boogie man” for all things that are wrong with our political process.  Don’t bite that hook.  It’s a red herring.  I’m not saying we don’t need campaign finance reform.  I’m simply saying that campaign finance processes aren’t doing what we tend to say that they are doing.  Campaign finance money tends to exist in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.  Which sounds like a lot to you and me.  In a vacuum it is. When it comes to moving the needle of national consciousness though, it’s nothing.

Here’s something to consider.  The National Rifle Association, that massive evil empire and ultimate antagonist to democracy, spent $28.2M on campaign contributions in 2014.  It sounds like a ton of money.  In media land though, it’s nothing.  It’s $1.8M less than the cast of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory made during the same time frame.  It’s a million dollars less than the Washington Nationals paid their bullpen in 2015.  Which means that more money gets spent on relief pitching in Washington then gets spent on the gun lobby.  And the Nationals didn’t even make the playoffs.  If you’re going to get the attention of the media market, you don’t do it by throwing $28M at it.  You do it by doing things that American people can’t stop paying attention to.  You do it by driving clicks and ratings.  Because that’s what makes the media work.  And it’s not new.  But it is bigger than any other force in our political system and producing content at a scale never seen before.  And it’s sucking the oxygen out of every reasonable political thought we may have.  So they die.  And we’re left with what’s left.  Point and counter-point.  A 1 and a 0.  We’re being programmed.

The Human Binary…

We are addicted to outrage and conflict.  That part isn’t new.  Just like computer programs, outrage and conflict work best when you can focus them on the least amount of variables.  Clearly, you can’t have outrage and conflict with one perspective.  You need at least two.  And more than two is really hard to package.  It’s why team sports work so well. It’s why we have “pairings” for pro golf tournaments on the final day.    It’s why the main good guy has to kill the main bad guy in the end.  It doesn’t work if the villain dies in an unfortunate cycling accident en route to the gun fight. There’s no drama in that.   Conflict is delivered and consumed easiest in twos.  One against the other.  Good and evil…right and wrong.  Conservative and liberal…It’s what we’ll watch.  It’s what we’ll click on.

Here’s the problem with that.  These issues we’re debating aren’t sports and entertainment.  The media serves them up like they are, but they’re not. People’s lives are impacted by them.  These things matter but we’re not entirely sure how to differentiate them from entertainment.  We don’t have to settle for it though.  In fact, this stuff is too important to settle for it. We need to demand more of ourselves.

We’ve evolved past our basic nature in many ways.  When our urge for conflict was harder to feed, before the information age, when you had to go find someone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about in order to engage in debate, we did this better. As a result, our political machine was less polarized and more effective.  There’s good news here though.  We did this once. And we can do it again.  Because doing it is actually  pretty easy.  All you have to do is break the binary code. Break the programming.

What we have to be willing to do better to be better at what we need to be better at?

You can do that with the most powerful thing that we have, that computers don’t; good old fashioned human curiosity.  The greatest force the world has ever seen is our ability to wonder about something.  Wondering leads to questions.  Questions are most useful when we ask them to inform what we want to know instead of consume answers to other questions that are fed to us before we ask them.  When it comes to critical societal issues, there’s one great question you can ask to break the binary code.  One basic infinitely powerful question.

What outcome do you seek for this issue?

If you can try to refrain from jumping to what you believe is right and what is wrong, what you identify with and what you can’t, who is agreeing with you and who isn’t and answer that first magical question to identify the outcome you want for an issue, you’re on your way.   If we paused and did this in aftermath of San Bernardino, we would be two weeks into a much more productive debate.  Here’s what it might look like.

What do we want out of a resolution to the issue of radical Islamic terrorism?  I believe that the answer is that we want Americans to be safe.  Not just from Islamic terrorists. We want Americans to be safe…period.  Which means we have to spend a little time on defining safe.  One question leads to the next important one here.  Are we safe?  Relatively?

We would have to lose 15,000 people this year to radical Islamic terrorist attacks or gun violence to match the per-capita murder rate in 1992.  That’s how far violent crime has dropped in the last 25 years.   That’s about five more 9/11 attacks, this year.  Or, three San Bernardino attacks every day, for the whole year.  Just to get to 1992.  I remember 1992.  It wasn’t that horrible.  That’s not to say that this isn’t a problem. Or that we should be satisfied with backsliding to relatively more violent times.   Every single person who has lost someone will grieve forever at the individual tragedy they’ve suffered.  Nothing I can say can help that.  But if what we want is for Americans to be safe, it helps to understand how close we are to that goal.  The truth is, we’re kind of there already.  No matter what the media tells us.  The facts are clear. We’ve never been safer.

Now what?

We’ve broken the code. Our curious minds have taken us outside of the boundaries of the scripted debate.  Once you do it, you may never go back.  Because it becomes painfully clear that most of what we hear is just binary code programmed into our daily focus to drive a behavior that benefits those that provide it to us. It’s not designed for an outcome.  In fact, it’s designed to keep the debate alive.  It’s designed for clicks and ratings. You can choose to be a machine and follow it blindly.  Or be a human being and ask your own questions.  When you get to that point where you can decide what you want from something,  try to remember that there are a lot principles that we Americans hold dear as a part of our culture.  Not every one holds the same importance for every person.  When you are standing on a burning platform of outrage,  it’s important to understand if it’s actually on fire or not.  Otherwise you’re doing things like trampling on religious tolerance or threatening Constitutional rights because someone coded the debate for you ahead of time.  And we can be better than that.





Guns, People and Poverty: A Study in What Kills Who


Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.   It’s a logical statement and one that’s hard to argue against. It usually pops up in some form on your social media stream in the aftermath of a mass shooting. Clearly it’s unfortunate that mass shootings happen with enough regularity to be able to present a pattern. The patterned response exists nonetheless.  Since it does, we probably owe it to ourselves to do a little digging on its validity. So we did. We compiled data from three sources: the CIA Fact Book, The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the World Bank Group. In doing so we were able to establish a complete data set on 71 countries from all regions of the globe that could provide current data on socioeconomic status, homicide, gun violence and urban/rural population density. What the data shows was very telling. Here’s what we found:

If you are going to murder someone, you’re probably going to do it with a gun

Of all the homicides in the 71 countries that contributed to the analysis, two-thirds of them were committed with a firearm. By itself this data point alone says nothing specifically about whether or not guns actually contribute to the chance that someone is going to get murdered. It only shows that the method of choice in homicides is a gun. It leaves plenty of room for the argument that once a person decides to kill someone, they’re going to do it by any means available. The gun is simply the most available. It’s not an impossible argument, though its hard to imagine how people would figure out how to pick up the slack in the absence of such an efficient tool as the gun.

An interesting pattern appears when you include the overall homicide rate along with the percentage of homicides committed by firearm though. What we saw was that as homicide rates rise, so does the percentage of homicides committed by gun. Take Honduras for example, the murder capital of the world at almost twice the murder rate of the next most murderous country Venezuela. The percent of homicides by firearm in Honduras is 83%.   Venezuela’s is 80%. On the other end of the spectrum we have Denmark. Denmark has the lowest homicide rate of any country in the analysis. Less than a third of their homicides were committed by firearm. What the data tells us is pretty clear. If you want to contend for the title of murder capital of the world, you can’t do it without using guns. After all, if you’re in the volume business, efficiency is key. When it comes to killing, guns are as efficient as it gets.

Guns alone actually don’t kill people.

Does the presence of guns alone lead to gun violence? Chalk one up for the gun advocate lobby here. The amount of civilian owned firearms in any given country alone actually has no correlation to the homicide rate. According to the annual UN survey, there’s a lot more guns out there then you would think. Our love affair with the firearm in America is well publicized. With 88 guns for every 100 people, our reputation is warranted. We’re more than twice the next highest country. Not far behind us in the rankings is a country like France. France has about 31 firearms for every 100 people. Both the U.S. and France are nowhere near the top of the homicide list, despite being at the top of the list of the countries with most civilian owned firearms though. To answer the narrowly focused question, do guns kill people? The data is clear. Guns alone do not kill people. There’s a trend hiding in the data though. You just need to add one more ingredient to see it.

Something very interesting happens when you include poverty in the analysis. What we see is that though having a lot of guns does not make for a dangerous society, adding poor people and guns together does. Take a country like Liberia in West Africa. Liberia is the poorest country in the analysis with 80% of its population living below the poverty line. With that level of poverty, it’s pretty easy to assume that they also have a high homicide rate. That would be a poor assumption.   You’re actually more likely to get murdered walking the streets in America than in Liberia. In fact you’re almost 50% more likely. Why? Again, the data is pretty clear. Liberia has no guns. Liberia has one gun for every 100 Liberians. We have 88.

Liberia isn’t an outlier either. Chad, Niger, Senegal, India, Bangladesh and Cambodia are all countries with huge poverty rates from different regions of the globe that all have the types of low homicide rates that rival first world countries. They also all rank in the lower third of all countries in civilian owned guns. When you add guns to poverty you have places like Honduras, Colombia, Mexico and South Africa. These titans of murder find themselves in the top third in poverty and civilian firearm ownership. The data is clear and unambiguous. The secret sauce that leads to the highest murder rates in the world is one part poverty, one part fire arms. Guns don’t kill people. Poor people with guns kill poor people.

So what about America?

Using the Liberia example again we can actually do a pretty useful comparison. If you live in Liberia, you are five times more likely to live below the poverty line than in America. If you live in America you are 88 times more likely to own a firearm than if you live in Liberia.  If you live in America, you are 50% more likely to be murdered than if you live in Liberia.   There’s really only one theory to take away from that comparison. Either we Americans are just inherently more violent than Liberians, or it has something to do with the guns. When you add other countries into that same comparison and we see the same thing over and over again, we start to approach a pretty sound conclusion. Our propensity to own firearms appears to make us less safe than other first world countries and even some third world ones. But if guns alone don’t make us unsafe, which is what we clearly stated previously, then why are we less safe then other countries?

For one, we have so many more guns than everyone else, it’s almost impossible to think that there would be no consequences to that. Even if you were willing to make that leap though, there’s another interesting dynamic with America that you have to consider. Though we are undoubtedly one of the world’s most prosperous countries, we have a much higher poverty rate than our more socialist or communist counterparts. This is no commentary on the evils of capitalism. I’m a big fan. So let’s quickly get past that. What is important though is the fact that we do have concentrated pockets poverty that also have high civilian gun ownership. The result of this is that though our national homicide rate is low relative to the whole group, the consequences of the pattern of poverty and guns on our urban areas has an acutely destructive impact on them. Let’s use Chicago as an example. Chicago is the murder capital of the United States. Pockets of Chicago’s South and West Side have between 40-60% of their residents living below the poverty level. Now add the high civilian gun ownership rate that is experienced across America, you get a very rough outcome.

Numerically speaking, the Chicago Metropolitan area has a homicide rate that would put it in the top ten countries on the planet wedged between Nigeria and Panama. Chicago is not alone. Baltimore is actually worse percentage wise.  It’s on par with Rwanda. Yes, Rwanda, the place with the movies about genocide.  Even less prolific metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, from a homicide perspective, are on par with places like Angola or the Sudan. When you put it in perspective, it starts to feel like something that requires more than a bumper sticker for a solution.

So What?
The striking conclusion that we can take away from this broad analysis is that guns are just another one of many aspects of the human experience that make it much harder to be poor. Like drugs, disease, and recessions, adding guns into poor environments has a disproportionately negative effect when compared to more affluent areas.  In America, the gun control discussion is one of the most divisive and partisan ones that we encounter.  The debate involves special interest groups, culture, tradition and a standing Constitutional debate about what our founding father’s intended. What it rarely involves is fact, data and perspective.  When the loudest voice in a debate leads with rhetoric you get bumper stickers and memes instead of informed insights and decisions.

The data is clear. Without question, guns kill people. Not by themselves of course. No one ever claimed that a gun by itself killed anyone. We should find that particular challenge to gun control insufficient if not insulting.  When the conviction in a debate is on the side least impacted by the negative outcomes of an issue, it should signal a call for those objective few among us to look harder into reality to demand more of the discussion. The analysis is done. The conclusion is a hard one. Guns kill poor people. Whether or not you care about that is up to you.