Friday, December 11, 2015

Government Isn't Fixing This

The front page of the New York Daily News following last Wednesday's shooting in San Bernardino, with the headline "God Isn't Fixing This," was tactless and distasteful.  I don't take much stock in what this particular paper is saying, but more troubling is that the same sentiment was expressed by other public figures in what has been dubbed "prayer shaming."

Prayer Shaming

One of the reasons I started this blog was to discourage cheap shots like this, not because politicians don't deserve the criticism, but because the tactic is ineffective and even counterproductive.  In most cases, the true point was not necessarily to shame those who are praying per se, but rather to shame those who have consistently not acted in response to previous incidents of gun violence (specifically, those who have blocked further gun control).

If this was the intent, it would have been more effective to simply say so.  Tactics like prayer shaming may attract attention and sell papers, but they don't change minds.  Thanks to this headline, for example, the stereotype that progressives are anti-religion  has been reinforced and therefore, polarization has increased and compromise legislation of any kind is even less likely than it was before.

In the strictest sense the underlying concept of the prayer shamers' argument is true.  Most religious people would agree with the admonition attributed to St. Augustine to "work as if everything depended upon our efforts, and pray as if everything depended upon God."

In other words, prayer and action are not mutually exclusive, but the devout consider both essential in good times and bad alike.  Even if you don't believe in God, there's no reason to denigrate those who use prayer as a way to seek compassion for those who are suffering, solace to bear what we can't change, and clarity of mind to know how to respond to dire circumstances.

On the flip side of the coin, these naysayers are not only contending that God can't fix the problem; they are implying that government can.  The fact that some people hold government in higher regard than deity perfectly encapsulates the conflict between conservatives and progressives.

The Government Solution

The recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino got me thinking - how can we stop mass shootings, particularly terrorism, from occurring?  If we were to rely on government alone, I suppose the answer would look something like this:

Step 1: Government requires a background check of all individuals obtaining a firearm. Felons, the mentally ill, and those on terror watch lists are barred from obtaining a weapon.  But that doesn't prevent those with no previous record from obtaining a weapon. So...

Step 2: Government bans the sale of any and all guns.  However, this doesn't stop criminals from getting one of the millions of guns currently in circulation (either by stealing them or by buying them on the black market).  So...

Step 3: Government confiscates all existing weapons and conducts raids to search homes systematically for stockpiles.  However, this doesn't prevent guns from being imported illegally from abroad.  So...

Step 4: Government seals the borders and scans all cargo and immigrants for firearms (the Tea Party rejoices that the border is finally secure).  But that doesn't stop criminals from creating home-made explosives.  So...

You get the picture.

A Balanced Approach

Some people have worked out the logic above and concluded that since government can't stop all violence, therefore, the government should do nothing.  As the "Sensible Conservative," I espouse a more balanced approach.  Despite my admittedly gimmicky headline, just because government cannot completely solve the problem, doesn't mean it can't be part of the solution.

The response to any threat to justice and security is always three-pronged (in no particular order): 1) governmental; 2) institutional; and 3) individual.

The first prong is actually where we are currently the strongest, though there is room for improvement.  All over the world, law enforcement, intelligence, and military personnel are hard at work protecting us from terrorism and preventing potential attacks.  In the event of an attack such as the one in San Bernardino, first responders rush into enemy fire to save lives.

There is more the government can do.  Requiring background checks for all weapon sales makes sense.  Restricting the types of weapons that can be owned makes sense.  It may not stop all violence but it should help at the margin.

We have seen through 9/11 and the Paris bombings that terrorists with state sponsors have far more resources to effectively execute an attack.  Lone wolf terrorists can still cause damage, but the scale is typically less severe.  So military actions against regimes that support terrorism are key, as long as we are careful not to alienate moderate Muslims in the process.

And if we truly are under attack by radical jihadists hiding in our midst, perhaps more Americans should be armed and trained to be a citizen army the way the Japanese were in anticipation for an American invasion in World War II.  I'm being a little facetious, but who knows?

The limitation on government is that it can only take action when someone has perpetrated a crime, or is actively planning to do so.  We don't prosecute or violate the rights of people based on their beliefs, even if those beliefs are extreme.  That is why the other two elements of the three-pronged approach are essential.

The Institutional Response

Violence is often the result of mental illness.  But when large groups of otherwise rational people find violence against civilians acceptable, it is often because a leader or organization they trust is advocating or condoning such behavior.  

This isn't about a specific ideology.  Violence can infect any ideology, and not just religion.  We all know that Christians are blamed for the crusades and Muslims for recent acts of terrorism.  But there is also the Holocaust, the genocides of Communism, the bombings by the Weather Underground, the the Pottawatomie massacre under abolitionist John Brown, and the French Reign of Terror, to name just a few disparate examples.  Imagine the unlikely scenario that such trusted figures (in their respective spheres) as Pope Francis, Jon Stewart, or Hillary Clinton started seriously advocating violence.  Can't you imagine that at least some fanatics would heed the call to arms?

That's why it's important for Muslim clerics to clearly and frequently denounce terrorism.  Most American Muslims oppose violence against civilians.  But large minorities of Muslims in some other countries are, alarmingly, more open to the idea.  Muslims leaders can and should do more to deligitimize those who advocate or perpetrate suicide bombings or other terrorist attacks.  The Muslim community could use a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi to lead the non-violent movement.

Our Role as Individuals

The only individuals who can stop 100% of terrorism are the terrorists themselves.  But there is something the rest of us can do.

Radicals of any variety thrive off of isolation and antagonism.  They must believe in their hearts that those they oppose are inhuman and unworthy of life, or that their lives are worth the exchange for furthering a cause.  The solution is to humanize the enemy.  Each of us is an enemy to someone, whether we know it or not.  We need to reach out to those who are different than us, assimilate them into our neighborhoods, befriend them, and ultimately convince them that we are not so different after all.

Some people will respond positively to these efforts.  Others will not.  But what certainly does not help is to alienate large swaths of the population, disparage people for their beliefs, blame someone for society's ails, or otherwise provide further proof to an already wary adversary that they can not be allowed to survive, boxing them into a corner and provoking them to take extreme actions.

If someone chooses to use violence in these circumstances, no one is to blame but the attackers themselves.  But that doesn't mean we can't help would-be attackers off the proverbial ledge.

As I wrote in my initial blog post, our society is too polarized, too political, and too adversarial.  At the end of the day, what makes us different will not change.  We're not seeking to be homogenized.  There's room for all of us - no ideology, no race, no minority needs to feel threatened with extinction.

If we need to abandon a belief that is holding our society back (whether that be racism, terrorism, bigotry, or even political correctness), the only way we will realize it is if we are persuaded by our friends, not forced by our enemies, to do so.

It isn't easy to "love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." (Matthew 5:44)  But that is exactly what we each need to do to stop hatred, violence, war, and terrorism worldwide.

And so maybe prayer is the answer after all.

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