Friday, August 30, 2013

What really threatens our country

There appears to be a huge and growing hatred among the Republicans towards the poor (considered to be lazy), the sick (they must have done something to cause it), anything science related (science is not of God), anyone who is not a “real” American (not white or Christian), and a hatred for any kind of compromise with the other half of America (as if democracy could exist without compromise). There is an abiding love of money; and worship of wealth is the running theme throughout American society. Last, too many Americans treat their “love of country” the same as they love a football team: us against them. USA! USA! USA!

Yet we have an even greater problem – a national sickness a fetish for guns and a propensity for spectacular violence.

James Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 59 others in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.  In one of the worst mass shootings in American history, Adam Lanza, 20, fatally shot twenty children and six adult staff members in a mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the village of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. Before driving to the school, Lanza had shot and killed his mother Nancy at their Newtown home. As first responders arrived, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

This is a depressingly familiar tale of modern American life – the massacre of innocent people with guns and ammunition legally acquired with relative ease. Unfortunately, while such mass killings are all too prevalent, so too is the muted response of policymakers.

The Sandy Hook shooting bleakly follows this pattern: liberals call for more gun control measures while conservatives argue that we need more not less armed Americans to keep us safe. And even if a great majority of Americans want stronger background check rules, Republicans would rather more Americans die than to give Obama a "victory."

The result is that the United States has the weakest gun control laws in the developed world.

Look to the Trayvon Martin murder.  Zimmerman is a vigilante carrying a special gun that has no safety so the gun would fire faster. He stalked Trayvon with the intent to kill if Trayvon made any move against him.  He did not think Trayvon had the right to stand his ground that being a law for white (or in Zimmerman's case, half-white, half Hispanic) men only to use as they please. The all-white jury (with one Hispanic) felt the same way.

Now imagine these scenarios with a different protagonist. Imagine if the killer was a young jihadist, trained in the wilds of Pakistan's FATA region, or Yemen. Imagine if the atrocity was replicated in other theaters or schools around the country as a coordinated mass killing. How would the reaction to this crime differ? It is not hard to imagine at all. For example, after the so-called underwear bomber failed to blow up an American plane in December 2009, the US ramped up its drone operations against Al Qaeda in Yemen. Or go further back to September 11 when 3,000 Americans were killed in the worst terrorist attack in American history. In response, the US spent more than $3 trillion in direct and indirect costs. In addition, subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq led to more Americans being killed or maimed than died on 11 September itself.

But the larger point here is that the country's political leaders activated resources to deal with the perceived threat that came from terrorism – military and intelligence budgets were significantly increased; foreign wars were started; homeland security was tightened up. Twelve years after 9/11, the US is still waging wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia to defeat terrorists who were, last year, responsible for the deaths of 17 Americans. And now we will possibly "surgically" strike Syria even though our country is not threatened by that civil war. We are looking to "punish" the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, although we did not do so when Saddam used these weapons against the Kurds or when the Egyptian government used them. Efforts to lower defense spending simply to the unjustifiably high levels of a mere five years ago have been met with criticisms from both Republicans and Democrats. In short, even as the obvious threat from terrorism against our country has decreased, the U.S. continues to squander blood and treasure in fighting it.

Contrast this mobilization against terrorism with efforts to save the lives of those Americans who die from lack of healthcare coverage. From 2000 to 2006 – a time when the war on terrorism was operating at full speed – 137,000 Americans died prematurely because they did not have health insurance. The vast majority of Americans die from one of four ailments: cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease. Each of these is primarily caused by risk factors that are quite preventable: smoking, diet, lack of physical activity and alcohol.

Then there is the creeping reality of global warming, denied by too many on the right, which has the potential to threaten the homes and livelihoods of millions. And then of course, there is America's high rate of gun-related deaths.

The cynical might argue that the lack of a major response to the Aurora shooting is a result of the powerful influence of the gun lobby in Washington, and the reluctance of politicians to risk their wrath – and that is certainly part of it. But the lack of action on minimizing gun-related violence in the US is actually very much consistent with how Americans deal with the many domestic threats in our midst.

Though all of the issues mentioned above qualify as genuine national emergencies, little has been done to confront them. Instead, in just the past few weeks, Republicans in the House, for the 40th time, passed a repeal of the healthcare law that provides 30 million Americans with access to health insurance and have even sought to eliminate preventative healthcare initiatives.

There are many reasons for this odd situation in which Americans overreact to foreign challenges and barely react to real and growing domestic threats. Some of it is psychological: the unknown can seem scarier than the known. There is the often knee-jerk anti-federal-government reaction of many Americans – an iron-clad belief that expansion of government to deal with serious national challenges will inevitably lead to a loss of freedom (except when fighting foreign enemies of course). There are the failures of not just the country's political leaders, but also its political system. Or perhaps it is simply a refusal by Americans to realize our own limitations and faults as a nation. (Oh, you are saying we have faults? How dare you deny American exceptionalism!)

Whatever the reason, the result is the same – a nation that sees itself as the greatest force for good in the world but is rotting from the inside because it has yet to come to grips with its own domestic sicknesses. The response (or lack thereof) to each American tragedy speaks to a national denial about that which really threatens us from within our borders (and I do not mean the illegal immigrants).

We will be our own undoing.