It’s hard to get one’s mind around the horror of the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history. There seems to have been a perfect storm, with multiple factors coming together to carry out this unspeakable tragedy. How many more before elected officials take action?
The shooter, an American citizen born to Afghani parents, had a history of rage and wife beating. (His first wife, whose marriage to him lasted but four months, said he was bipolar.) His rants were known to co-workers and social media contacts. His 911 calls the day he killed 49 people and wounded 53 others declared a bond with the Boston Marathon bombers and revealed him as a home-grown radical jihadist. It doesn’t matter if he was animated by direct contact with ISIS or inspired by the callings of ISIS to attack Americans in soft targets on home soil. He was also known to find homosexuality repugnant and embrace the fundamentalist letter of Muslim law condemning same sex relationships. (Ayaan Hirsi Ali explores the roots of homophobia in Islamic doctrine and the severe punishment by prison or death in many Muslim nations, while some American Muslims call for a reconciliation of differences and a new spirit of tolerance.)
In the violence-saturated environment of our country, any one of those issues could be a recipe for murder. But the undeniable fact is that easy access to one of the most powerful tools for acting on those twisted motivations – a military style AR-15 assault weapon – took the carnage to a whole other order of magnitude. This vicious, demented, ideologically blind animal was able to slaughter dozens of individuals in a matter of minutes. He had the tool to do it.
He bought the gun legally! (In Florida, assault weapons are easier to get than handguns.) Radicals abroad, seeking to animate terrorism on American soil, advertise the laxity of American gun laws as creating opportunity for would-be U.S.-based terrorists. In 2004, Congress had allowed to lapse a 1994 federal law barring civilians from buying military-style assault weapons along with certain large magazines. Imagine if the Orlando shooter had been forced to stop killing to reload his weapon. A few seconds might have made the difference between life and death for some of the victims.
When Congress observed a moment of silence for those who died in Orlando, MA Representatives Seth Moulton and Katherine Clark refused to participate, citing the hypocrisy of a legislative body that steadfastly refuses actions that could prevent or mitigate events such as Orlando or San Bernadino. “Our hearts go out to the victims and their families” is an utterly meaningless phrase coming from most in Congress.
It goes without saying that our NRA-intimidated Congress should pass a meaningful universal background check, which a significant majority of the American public favors. Congress should also bar someone on the FBI’s watch list (or someone, like the Orlando shooter, who had been on the list but removed from it) or the no-fly list from purchasing deadly weapons.
And what about the FBI? It dropped the Orlando shooter, which it had scrutinized in 2013 and 2014, from its watch list, just as it had allowed Tamerlan Tsarnaev to disappear from view. Who will hold this agency accountable? FBI Director Jamey Comey was singularly unimpressive during his Monday presser. Yes, I know that law enforcement officials have to be right all the time, while would-be terrorists must be right only once.
I acknowledge that this nation doesn’t penalize people for speech, however hateful and threatening. However, I can’t believe there are not ways in between dismissing terrorist leanings and preventive punishment that would both preserve civil liberties and enhance security. Congress hasn’t even been willing to debate how to balance those sometimes conflicting values. What better time to do so than in the context of this presidential campaign? Presumably we could learn how Hillary Clinton might follow or differ from President Obama’s approach and see what Donald Trump would offer beyond insults, fear-mongering and ignorant sloganeering.
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