Is More Required?


I wanted to share with you TPM Reader BF’s take on my weekend post (“The Condundrum“) and the President’s speech. I want to do so not only because I think he makes good points that are worth considering but also because he captures a viewpoint I have heard from a number of people in recent days. In so many words, they agree with President Obama on the policy merits. But they do not believe his rhetoric and his policies are connecting with the public in a visceral way or reassuring them that he takes the threat seriously, appreciates their fears or has a plan on a scale to address the threat.

I’d like to propose that there is another conundrum to consider. That is, in short, whether it may make sense to “over-react” in order to prevent something even worse down the line.

The president’s speech was just what I expected. Serious, reasonable, thoughtful. But will it do anything to cut into support for someone like Trump? Will it actually reassure anyone who is genuinely frightened of Muslims becoming radicalized and launching attacks in their backyard? I don’t think so. Obama’s speech, as sound as it was on policy grounds, won’t do any of the things he hopes in terms of convincing the skeptical public that he is doing enough or all that is possible.

So this gets me to the conundrum. Is it really responsible to be so responsible that it does nothing to check demagogic and Islamophobic responses?

It is one thing to note that the biggest threat posed by ISIS is that we’ll react stupidly and play into their strategy. It is another to take steps that might actually prevent us from reacting stupidly. I would propose that at this point, it may be necessary to act a little stupid to prevent, hopefully, a worse response down the line.

I don’t really know that this possible, but I do think that the public now wants something more than a call for calm and some weak sauce gun control measures, and if Obama isn’t willing to give it to them, the risk is that they will vote for someone like Trump or Cruz who will.

What might a response that reassures the public look like? I don’t know. A six month moratorium on Syrian refugees, maybe. Perhaps, an increase in surveillance of Muslims in the U.S. through some sort of increased community engagement program. A new public initiative to combat “Islamist Terror” — yes, using that language, despite its costs, to signal commitment.

None of these make a lot of sense as policy. But I worry that if Obama doesn’t do something like this, then when the next attack occurs (not if, but when), the political consequences and ultimate response might be a lot worse.

Truman had to oversell the communist menace in order to head off truly reactionary responses. This led to all sort of pathologies in Cold War strategy. And yet, if you look at the strategic debates from the late 1940s and early 1950s, it is clear that our response could have been much more extreme and dangerous — preventive nuclear war wasn’t off the table until the mid-1950s, for instance. Now part of that was also to rouse the quasi-isolationists into action, but part of it was to vent at least some of the steam, lest the pressure built uncontrollably.

For me, the jury is still out on this question. I’m still thinking about it because there are a lot of interweaving factors I don’t think we or I have enough of a handle on yet. But I do think talking about gun control in this context is silly and risks making a mockery of the person making the argument. Here I would say that I do agree with the above – the interplay between policy and credibility.

As I’ve written in the past, I think we should have dramatically tighter regulation of firearms in this country. Since we now seem to be dealing mainly with ‘lone wolf’ type terrorists, all the more reason not to have it be easy to buy military style rifles at the local Walmart.

But people intuitively grasp that a hardened extremist is not going to be deterred or stopped by the kinds of limited restrictions we are at all realistically talking about when it comes to gun control. Closing the gun show loophole ain’t gonna do it. And we have the example of Paris, where terrorists managed to get AK-47s and rocket launchers in a country which severely restricts the private ownership of firearms. None of this is to say we just throw up our hands. Most counter-terrorism work is about placing lots of obstacles – most probably surmountable in and of themselves – to make attacks as difficult as possible, to create as many possible points of failure as possible.

The problem is that as those of us who’ve all but given up on the direction of firearms policy know, the ‘gun control’ debate has become perhaps the deadest and most ineffectual of them all. The President now comes out after every mass shooting and, with (understandably) building frustration, says the country will eventually have to get serious and tackle this problem, knowing full well that it doesn’t seem likely that’s going to happen any time in the remotely near future – certainly not during his presidency. A big part of the outrage to this constant string of mass shootings is not just the carnage itself but the near certainty that no matter how frequent these massacres become, no matter how young the victims, no matter how high the body count, absolutely nothing is going to happen to make it harder to get a gun to go kill people. That means that when we talk about ‘gun control’ the first thing almost everybody thinks is about something that is never going to happen, because our polarized politics won’t letter it happen.

So coming into the debate about terrorism, a topic which grips the national psyche like almost no other issue, talking about gun control is not only iffy on the policy merits but sends a very bad signal that what you’re proposing to get a handle on the problem is something we all know to a damn certainty isn’t even going to happen. That is reassuring to people.

Horrifyingly enough, it won’t be long before we have another mass shooting by someone without a Muslim sounding name. We can talk about gun control then.