A few thoughts in the wake of the horrendous white-supremacist terrorist attack in El Paso:
- We should never forget that the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. To the degree that we succumb to fear, that we alter our lives, or that we give up our freedoms, the terrorists win. It is not to diminish the horror of such events to recognize that we remain remarkably safe in this country. Your chances of being murdered by a terrorist of any kind remain smaller than your chances of drowning in a bathtub. We should not stop going to stores, eating at restaurants, having a drink in bars, or otherwise living our lives.
- In the wake of 9/11, we allowed fear to lead us into a host of measures that threatened our civil liberties. Muslims and Muslim Americans were obviously the most likely to be targeted, but all Americans were caught up in increased surveillance and other law-enforcement measures. Recall that the Patriot Act passed by a margin of 91–1. Now we see similar knee-jerk calls for the government to “do something.” Already there have been calls to regulate the Internet, ban video games, curtail free speech, and generally increase police powers. Gun-control advocates ratchet up their proposals with little regard for practicality or empirical evidence. And that doesn’t even include bizarre proposals like Sean Hannity’s call for transforming America into a virtual armed camp, with paramilitary forces surrounding schools, stores, and other locations. But as Benjamin Franklin once warned, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
- None of this is to diminish the threat from nor the noxiousness of white supremacy. Nor is it a call for inaction. Certainly, there are things that the government can and should do. It is long past time to take violence from white supremacists as seriously as we do the threat from Islamic extremists. There may even be gun-control measures that can make us safer without infringing on our rights to self-defense or legitimate gun ownership. But whatever we do should be thoughtful and with full consideration of possible unintended consequences. Among other things, that means acting through the regular legislative process. Executive actions or hastily convened legislative sessions are invitations to abuse.
- A thoughtful decision needs to be based on data, not emotion. But that data is hard to come by, often biased, and subject to varying interpretations. To cite one example, President Trump stated that the rate of mass shootings has remained constant throughout the years. This is true if your definition of a mass shooting is just all homicides with more than four people. However, a stricter definition of mass shooting will show a sharp rise. Similarly, there is no agreement on the definition of terrorism or assault rifle. One thing that all sides should agree on is the need for better information.
- Perhaps the most important things we can do don’t involve the government. For instance, we can police our own speech and behavior. We can all be more civil with one another. Political disagreements are not “treason.” It is not political correctness to avoid personal insults or to show sensitivity, especially when discussing difficult issues such as race. And when we encounter racism or other forms of bigotry, it is incumbent on us to speak out, denounce it, and shun those who perpetuate it.
- And, yes, this is particularly important for our political leaders. President Trump is not responsible for the actions of the El Paso gunman, but it is clear the president’s rhetoric has contributed to the toxic stew in which the gunman’s sick beliefs festered.
We have experienced a terrible tragedy. We must be careful not to let fear (and grief and anger) drive us to rashness. That would be too much the victory for the terrorists.