Details are still emerging about the San Bernardino shootings, but evidence mounts that this was terrorism. Public reaction appears to be much more disturbed and fearful than it was a few days earlier when a lone domestic gunman shot people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood office. The extent of the San Bernardino reaction is understandable because it reveals once more a network of organized forces hostile to Americans, impersonally seeking victims in a variety of public settings. The danger seems far greater. But evidence from recent years reveals we are much more at risk from ordinary gun violence than terrorism. Note that the San Bernardino terrorists’ guns were purchased legally just like those of other shooters. If a terrorist or non-terrorist American wants to shoot people, weapons are abundant and easily acquired.
Various news media outfits keep trying to get Americans to realize what’s happening. For example:
In October, Linda Qiu, for Politifact, did a “fact-check,” comparing data from various sources on US gun deaths and terrorism deaths for the past decade. She found that the total gun deaths were in the range of 300,000 while the number killed in all extremist attacks had been 71. Extending the number to Americans killed throughout the world over a ten-year period, “From 2004 to 2014, 303 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks worldwide, according to State Department reports. During that same time frame, 320,523 Americans were killed because of gun violence.”
It’s unlikely that New Jersey Governor and Presidential hopeful Chris Christie was thinking of the number of 3- to 6-year-old American children with lethal guns when he pledged to ban Syrian orphans. But Opposing Views has reported that, in the first half of 2013, eleven children in that age group killed themselves or a playmate with a gun they thought was a toy. During that same period, domestic terrorists killed four people with homemade explosives at the Boston Marathon.
“U.S. Leads World in Mass Shootings” the Wall Street Journal reminded us in October. The article cited Adam Lankford, an associate professor at the University of Alabama Department of Criminal Justice, He found that countries with higher rates of gun ownership recorded more mass shooters per capita. The U.S. ranks first in gun ownership per capita, with roughly 270 million firearms, or 89 firearms per 100 residents. Yemen ranks second, with an estimated 55 firearms per 100 residents.
The U.S. represents less than 5% of the 7.3 billion global population but accounted for 31% of global mass shooters during the period from 1966 to 2012, more than any other country, Mr. Lankford told the Journal, noting that the technical definition of a mass shooter is a person who has killed at least four victims at a go. The 90 killers who carried out mass shootings in the U.S. amount to five times as many as the next highest country, the Philippines.
If only stories in newspapers and online—or, say, mass shootings—had any effect on US policies.
In Salon, Heather Digby Parton reminded readers: “Recall that in December of 2001, as Attorney General John Ashcroft was rounding up American and foreign Muslims by the hundreds, he refused to allow the FBI to check records to see if any of them had bought guns.”
The New York Daily News on November 18, 2015 splashed the headline “NRA’S SICK JIHAD” on its front page, blaming the organization for blocking a bill in Congress that would deny those on the government’s no-fly suspected terrorist list the right to buy weapons.
Right on the heels of this came stories about how Texas Representative Tony Dale, who serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, had sent a letter to his state’s Governor and Texas state leaders warning them that Texas laws would allow newly arrived Syrians to arm themselves almost immediately.
San Bernardino is far from an isolated situation. Since the beginning of 2015, there have been at least 354 reported cases of mass shootings. According to shootingtracker.com these took place in about 220 cities in 47 states.
The term “terrorist” would seem to have (long ago) outlived its usefulness. A quick peek at today’s New York Times and at Wikipedia suggests that the term has become extremely broad in its application. The newspaper, in a front-page editorial, “The Gun Epidemic,” proposes, as I will in this comment, that we are being distracted by the word terrorism. Then it is proposed that the “spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.”
The website’s history of terrorism runs from the 1st-century AD Sicarii Zealots, who assassinated collaborators with Roman rule in Judea; through the Jacobins of the French Revolution, who used the guillotine and other means to compel obedience to the new, anti-monarchal government; through, in the nineteenth century, the abolitionist John Brown and the Irish republican Fenian Brotherhood.
It is often said that the great model for modern-day terrorism was Народная Воля (The People’s Will)—the anarchists of pre-revolutionary Russia who used violent attacks to try to destabilize the government and call attention to its weakness, and this with the goal of revolution (and against an oppressive regime).
With this in mind, I will say, or repeat, that it is hard to imagine that either the Paris gunmen or the San Bernardino gunmen, however enflamed they may have been, thought they had any chance of destabilizing or overthrowing the governments of either France or the United States. And while both of these governments could be characterized as being involved in various oppressive activities, and both at home and abroad, I hear nothing of any positive program—not even a plan to replace the current forms of oppression with post-revolutionary or traditional Islamic ones.
It is also the case that the term “terrorist” is now often used to refer to most any violent “non-state actors” (or anti-state actors). (Cf. Weber’s famous definition of a successful state as an administration that maintains a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.”) But, as I am hardly the first to point out, such a violent-non-state-actor definition of terrorism would make the U.S. revolutionaries of 1776 terrorist, as would be any other group that has used violence to try to gain independence or overthrow an oppressive regime.
It might be said that modern-day terrorist groups often seek to kill civilians, and it is in this that their terrorism lies. But then, of course, near the top of the list of the most terrorist acts in world history would come the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As you, Walter, suggest in “Guns, Death, Terrorism, the United States,” the epidemic of mass shootings of civilians—particularly in the US, but also in various other places—can certainly be terrifying. But are we not closer to the truth when we also identify these as the acts of crazy, abnormally angry and alienated people?
No doubt these people have become enraged in part on account of their social circumstances, forms of oppression likely included. And these killers’ rage may have been further provoked by various elite groups that are seeking greater power in the Middle East and attempting to recruit foot soldiers by invoking this or that religious commandment or tradition. (This in itself is a venerable “religious” tradition: using religion to try to win over and control great masses of people and to funnel these people’s energies, their destructive instincts, and indeed their lives into attacks on external enemies. Attacks that also turn these people’s attention away from the dangers to their well-being that are posed by their elite leaders themselves.)
Enough! Misleading terminology, along with other forms of propaganda and the dissemination of false information and half truths, is keeping people from understanding what they—what we—are up against. It may also be the case that we are afraid of the truth. It and that fear may both be yet more terrifying than crazed individuals with automatic weapons.