Few among us could make the President of the United States of America do something. Anything. Yet, a 27-year-old named Tashfeen Malik was able to do so, making President Barack Obama take to the tube to give a speech to “calm jittery Americans.” All it took to wield such awesome power was a gun, ignorance and fear. She brought the first thing. We gave her the second and third. This was a toxic mix that could compel a president to do her bidding.
The cynics will respond that this is wrong, that President Obama didn’t give a speech because Malik forced him to do so, but because she gave him the opportunity to use the fear and ignorance that pervade our fragile consciousness for an ulterior purpose. There is an agenda, and Malik was being used as a pawn in furtherance of the agenda, an excuse to do something that would otherwise not have had the impetus to move forward. Sometimes, the cynics are right, no matter what Oscar Wilde thinks of them.
Whether the New York Times was complicit in pushing this agenda forward with its front page editorial that gave rise to a national discussion isn’t clear. But it surely didn’t hurt.
Both the president and the Gray Lady have described the mass murder in San Bernardino as terrorism. Neither has given much consideration to the meaning of the word, since there has not as yet been a political objective suggested for Malik’s and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook’s, murders. As Jeff Gamso notes, we’re past such banal details now. It’s a given, meaning be damned.
But the president of the United States made a bold play for our hearts, if not our minds, by posing a question.
To begin with, Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun. What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semiautomatic weapon? This is a matter of national security.
Americans across the nation nodded when they heard these words. Few have given much thought to the significance of the no-fly list, how one gets on it, how one gets off it, even whether being on it sufficiently proves a person is a terrorist suspect. Even if it did, what does being a “suspect” mean anyway? Brian Tannebaum recounted that an AUSA friend of his was on the no-fly list. So too was an AUSA friend of Ken White’s.* There is something about an official list that makes it compelling when a sense of fear spreads.
So what if the list has some names on it that are mistakes? Isn’t our safety, our national security, more important than a few people who will be denied a right that we don’t value anyway? Take one for the team, guys.
The president used a rhetorical trick to push his point into the national consciousness. No, not Americans ignorance of a no-fly list that shouldn’t exist in the first place, that survives only because of the judicial trick of calling flying a privilege rather than a right. Not even because he used the word “semiautomatic,” knowing that people who aren’t inclined toward gun ownership don’t realize that it doesn’t mean machine guns spewing hundreds of bullets with the pull of a trigger.
The trick used is a rhetorical question.
What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semiautomatic weapon?
The answer, at first blush, is the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which (for better or worse, depending on your politics) protects the rights of people to do so. But for those who believe the Constitution’s Bill of Rights is merely precatory, and they’re only obliged to respect the rights with which they agree, this is no hurdle at all. It’s not that they deny the Supreme Court’s Heller ruling, but that it was wrong. So there.
The other line of answers is to replace the clause, “buy a semiautomatic weapon,” with any other constitutional right. Eugene Volokh suggests the right to preach and assemble, which are particularly apt choices given that they not only reflect separate constitutional rights, but rights likely to be exercised in furtherance of terrorism.
All of this comes back to America’s love/hate relationship with guns. They not only serve to project bullets, but to evoke the emotions needed to overcome reason. They serve as tools for many purposes, one of which is to kill innocent people effectively. To borrow from a different context, death is different.
Unbeknownst to many, Pew Research shows that gun homicide deaths are down 49% since 1993, though people believe that they’ve increased.
Despite the attention to gun violence in recent months, most Americans are unaware that gun crime is markedly lower than it was two decades ago. A new Pew Research Center survey (March 14-17) found that 56% of Americans believe the number of crimes involving a gun is higher than it was 20 years ago; only 12% say it is lower and 26% say it stayed the same. (An additional 6% did not know or did not answer.)
But the attitude toward guns in America has little to do with facts or details, but with the sense that there is just no good reason for people to have guns. They don’t “need” guns. And guns kill. Those who disagree have the better factual arguments. Those favoring gun control don’t care. It’s a truism that logical arguments cannot be used to overcome emotions.
When President Obama asked the question on the television, he knew this. He knew that Americans had little clue what the significance of the no-fly list was. He knew that those inclined to be open to his pitch would hear semiautomatic and picture machine guns spraying bullets into a room of helpless, innocent people. He knew that they don’t agree that the Second Amendment protects a fundamental individual right.
President Obama knew that the Americans inclined to support his proposal would nod their heads upon hearing his words. He knew that no amount of discussion, no facts, no reasoning, would alter their visceral agreement that there is no reason to allow terrorists on the no-fly list to have semiautomatic guns.
And all it took to get this back on the nation’s radar, to rally the troops, was Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook. Which proves the power of terrorism, regardless of definition, in a nation that is overcome with emotion. The president isn’t stupid. That he’s pulling heartstrings isn’t accidental. That he poses a silly rhetorical question as if it’s an argument shows that he knows how to appeal to his audience.
I now have a better appreciation of Jesse Wegman’s reaction to arguments based on reason: “oh good grief.” The battle may be with the terrorists, but the war is between thought and feeling.
*And as Wally Olson adds at Overlawyered:
“At least 72 employees at the Department of Homeland Security are listed on the U.S. terrorist watch list, according to a Democratic lawmaker.” [Adam Kredo, Free Beacon] Critics, including the ACLU, have complained that the list inadvertently sweeps in large numbers of innocent persons who are given no legal right to contest their inclusion.
More:”My Fellow Liberals, Don’t Support Obama’s Terror Watch List Gun Ban” [Cathy Gellis, The Daily Beast]
Terror Watch Lists Run Amok
After eight years of confounding litigation and coordinated intransigence, the Justice Department this week grudgingly informed Rahinah Ibrahim, a Malaysian architecture professor, that she was no longer on the federal government’s vastly overbroad no-fly list….
In a recently unredacted portion of his January ruling, Judge Alsup noted that in 2009 the government added Dr. Ibrahim back to its central terrorist-screening database under a “secret exception” to its own standard of proof. This would be laughable if it weren’t such a violation of basic rights. A democratic society premised on due process and open courts cannot tolerate such behavior.
But, but, but GUNS!!!