Tuesday, July 7, 2015


After the Charleston Murders


After the murders the only thing most people want to talk about is flying the Confederate flag. We have heard of the decisions of eBay and other large Internet merchandisers to take Confederate flags off their list of articles for sale.
After nine highly respected African-American Christians are murdered in their church, talk is focusing on the Confederate flag, a symbol of racism. Surely our question should be: will removing the symbol, reduce the intensity of racism?
Even more important is this question: what can be done to put an end to these, by now quite common, murder sprees that kill innocent citizens? One time the victims are moviegoers, then they are schoolchildren and their teachers. Now the victims are black worshipers at a prayer meeting.
Taking down the Confederate flag does not address the question of how to reduce the incidence of these mass murders.
A frequent prescription is additional legislation regulating the sale and ownership of handguns. But that seems unlikely to have any effect in the next 50 or 100 years. Our country is awash in guns. The numbers themselves are controversial but even the people who claim that gun ownership is receding believe that one in four households of Democrats or Independents owns one or more guns, while among Republicans the number is one in two households owning lethal weapons. Other surveys claim that for every hundred residents in the US there are 88 guns—that's more than one gun for every adult.
Both high and low numbers make it very clear that there are so many guns in circulation that anyone planning mass murder will have no difficulty procuring the weapons needed. Gun control will not make ordinary citizens safer.
A number of commentators, including a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton, have pointed out that our government is narrowly focused on terrorists connected to the parties fighting in the Mideast and seems completely unconcerned about addressing the problem of domestic terrorism. The killer in Charleston claimed to have wanted to touch off a "race war." He surely is a textbook example of a terrorist.
In the 14 years since the September 11, 2001 attacks, nearly twice as many Americans have been killed by white supremacists, right-wing extremists, and other non-Muslim domestic terrorists than by people motivated by "jihadist ideology," a report by the New America research group published Wednesday has found.
Using a database that catalogs information on U.S. citizens and permanent residents engaged in "violent extremist activity," the report, Homegrown Extremism 2001-2015, found that 48 people were killed by non-Muslim terrorists during that time frame, as opposed to 26 who were killed by self-described jihadis.” (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2015/ 06/24/domestic-terrorists-more-deadly-jihadis-report)
The FBI and other government agencies are constantly arresting young men who are planning to fight with ISIL in Syria, or who are accused of planning terrorist attacks in the United States. Sometimes these plans are discovered because one of the participants decides to betray the plot to the government. Sometimes potential pro-Muslim terrorists are discovered by following peoples' wandering through the Internet and social media.
It seems quite clear that similar efforts should be made to discover potential mass murderers before they execute their plans.
But that is not a comfortable conclusion. The discovery of potential jihadists terrorists requires many people following the Internet and email activities of a significant number of American citizens. Potential terrorists are found only because all of us are not only potential but actual subjects of government surveillance.
Government surveillance of citizens is not new. Think of the decades of anti-Communist persecutions. The techniques of surveillance are different in the current technological climate. But the long history of government spying on ordinary citizens should make us very reluctant to recommend an extension of government surveillance.
Now we face just that suggestion of seriously extending surveillance in order to discover not only potential terrorists connected to the Mideast and religious conflicts but the much larger number of actual and potential terrorists plotting mass killings and, specifically, plotting attacks on citizens of color. This is clearly a difficult choice.
But as the victims of the Charleston church massacre are being laid to rest, and we mourn the death of a group of outstanding American citizens, it is very difficult not to support a significant extension of government surveillance in the hope of preventing future mass shootings.