Yesterday President Obama held a press conference in Warsaw, where he’s attending the NATO summit. I saw a bit of it on the news last night, and listened to a lot more of it this morning on YouTube, where the hour-long conference has been posted (full video below). I want to mention and react to three issues that Obama brought up about the shootings in Dallas and Minnesota, the reactions of Americans, and what we should do about the issue of terrorism and gun violence.
But first let me state that Obama was measured, thoughtful, and, well, Presidential. This is the kind of demeanor and mentality that I want in a president, and can’t imagine Donald Trump giving a press conference that comes close to this one, as opposed to his usual unhinged brain-dump.
That said, I want to take issue with two things that Obama said, and to praise another. The part I’m discussing is Obama’s statement about Dallas from 0:28-7:57, and his response to reporter Kathleen Hennessey of the AP when she asked about the shootings (16:00-25:26).
Is America divided? Obama went to great pains to argue that the unrest we’ve seen in the last week does not denote some fundamental division in our country. That, of course, is pretty much what he has to do to preserve the peace and pretend to the rest of the world that everything is okay. Here’s what he said:
“As painful as this week has been, I firmly believe America is not as divided as [some people claim]… There is sorrow. There is anger. There is confusion about next steps. But there is unity in recognizing this is not how we want our communities to operate. This is not who we want to be as Americans.”
But of course, this is not true. First, America is divided—profoundly so—in at least three ways. First, along racial lines. Many blacks don’t trust whites, or white police officers, and this fear is not unjustified. At a recent meeting (video here) a woman asked a seated crowd of white people this question: “I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our black citizens—if you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society—please stand.”
Nobody stood up. Would you? I wouldn’t. And until everyone would stand, things won’t be right in our country. I haven’t seen so much racial division in the U.S. since the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four police officers for beating Rodney King, or since the bimodal reaction—divided among racial lines—to O. J. Simpson’s acquittal for murder three years later. Yes, that division is far from superficial.
We’re horribly divided along political lines as well. Never in my life have I seen such a stalemate between Republicans and Democrats—to the point that Congress has been frozen into inactivity. Republicans hate liberals and they hate Obama, while Democrats (more rightly, I think) see Republicans as regressive and selfish, with policies determined to keep minorities and women as second-class citizens. Neither side has a spirit of bipartisanship. Unless Congress becomes Democratic this fall, this is going to continue. So after Hillary Clinton is elected, as I think she will be, we’ll see the same lack of progress that we’re used to.
Finally, we’re divided on the issue of gun control. Many Americans cling to their weapons, while many more—a majority—want stricter gun control. Few Americans go as far as I do, asking for seriously stringent gun control along the lines of Australia and the UK. I see no rational reason—and screw the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment—to allow people virtually unlimited access to guns. Many of the same Americans who love their guns also refuse to blame guns as a factor in American mass shootings and gun violence, mouthing the old and ridiculous trope of “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” (To which an appropriate response is “Guns don’t die from gun violence, people do.”)
Those who want no change in the gun laws aren’t offering meaningful solutions to the problem of gun violence, save the ineffectual claim that we need better treatment for mental illness. In their hearts, I think, they want things to remain the same as they have been in America. By that I don’t mean that gun lovers want these mass killings to continue, nor that they don’t care about the victims, but simply that they’re willing to tolerate those killings as the necessary price we pay to keep our beloved guns.
But more on that in a minute.
Was the Dallas shooter mentally ill? Micah Xavier Johnson killed five police officers and wounded nine other people before an explosive-laden robot killed him. Immediately after the massacre, as with other shootings, people began characterizing Johnson as mentally ill. President Obama agreed: in the video above you’ll see him say that Johnson was “demented,” had a “troubled mind,” was a “troubled individual”, and he calls other similar killers “madmen.”
This is confusing and unproductive, in several ways. First, it’s simply tautological to characterize every mass shooter as mentally ill simply because of his actions. Many of them would not have been judged “demented” or “mentally ill” before they committed their acts. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed 70 people, was first exculpated by a team of forensic psychiatrists because they deemed him mentally ill. The public reaction was so strong against this that the court convened yet another team of psychiatrists, who duly found him sane and in the grip of an extremist ideology. He was found guilty and sentenced to 21 years in jail.
The “insanity” clause thus causes repeated problems for our legal system, because of course there’s no objective line between “sane” and “mentally ill.” My own solution to this is simply to have a judge or jury determine if the accused did the crime, and then have a panel of experts decide what kind of treatment/incarceration would be best for the individual and for society. In such a case we can dispense with the “insanity” defense.
Further, the easy resort to calling someone like Johnson a “madman” allows people to neglect the possibility that ideological factors and not insanity motivated murders, whether those factors be white supremacy, a hatred of whites, or an anti-Western Islamist theology. If we’re to prevent these acts, or at least treat those who commit them, we need a fuller understanding of what makes people act as they do. I’m convinced, for instance (though others are not), that radical Islamism plays a large role in many acts of terrorism. Obama said this:
“I think the danger is that we somehow suggest that the act of a troubled individual speaks to some larger political statement across the country. It doesn’t… The demented individual who carried out the attacks in Dallas is no more representative of African Americans than the shooter in Charleston was representative of white Americans or the shooters in Orlando or San Bernardino were representative of muslims. They don’t speak for us.”
He’s right that these shooters aren’t representative of the racial, religious, or national groups to which they belong. But they may be representative of strains of Islam, or strains of racism and bigotry, that promote violence. While Obama meant well when he made that statement, it serves to efface (deliberately) any political, racial, or religious motivations for mass murder.
As the Washington Post has pointed out, most mass shooters don’t meet the normal definition of mental illness (read the article):
The oversimplification [imputing mass shootings to severe mental illness], experts say, is perpetuated by the gun industry and a society that assumes that the mentally ill are the only ones capable of deadly rampages. Now, with the White House and Congress prioritizing an overhaul of the mental-health system to try to curtail mass shootings and gun violence, critics say the country is chasing an expensive and potentially counterproductive cure on the basis of the wrong diagnosis.
“It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental-health system will stop these mass murders,” said Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and author of “The Anatomy of Evil,” which examines the personalities of brutal killers. “It’s really folly.”
The rehabilitation of these people, once arrested, could of course use psychiatric techniques or treatment, but that doesn’t presume that the killers are mentally ill. (How many readers have had therapy? Are all of you as mentally ill as shooters are said to be? I didn’t think so.)
Will stopping the proliferation of guns reduce gun violence? This seems self-evident to me: if weapons are easy to get, they’ll be used more often in homicides, suicides, or accidental shootings. But of course gun lovers can’t bring themselves to admit this. “Guns keep us safe,” they say, despite the fact that the U.S. is the First World nation in which you’re most likely to die from gun violence.
So kudos to Obama for saying that guns are a big factor in killings like those in Dallas (and on the part of the police, too, who wouldn’t need to be armed if the citizenry wasn’t). As he said in his response to Kathleen Hennessey:
“With respect to the issue of guns, I am going to keep on talking about the fact that we cannot eliminate all racial tension overnight. We are not going to be able to identify… every madman or troubled individual who might want to do harm against innocent people. But we can make it harder for them to do so.”
. . . We are unique among advanced countries in the scale of violence we experience. I’m not just talking about mass shootings, I’m talking about the hundreds of people already shot this year in my hometown of Chicago — the ones we just consider routine. We may not see that issue as connected to Dallas but part of what’s creating tensions… [is] that police have a really difficult time in communities where they know guns are everywhere. If you care about the safety of our police officers, you can’t set aside the gun issue and pretend that’s irrelevant.”
Only a lame-duck president can get away with saying something like this. Otherwise the NRA will fight hard to defeat you at re-election time.
I was pleased to see Adam Gopnik forthrightly addressing the problem of guns in a new New Yorker piece, “The horrific, predictable result of a widely armed citizenry.” “Predictable” is right, and why I argue above that the gun lovers are willing to tolerate the violence of American society as the price of owning guns. It’s a reprehensible attitude, and one that Gopnik deplores. I’ll finish with an excerpt from his excellent short piece:
A black man with a concealed weapon should be no more liable to be killed than a white man with one. But having a nation of men carrying concealed lethal weapons pretty much guarantees that there will be lethal results, an outcome only made worse by our toxic racial history. Last night’s tragedy was also the grotesque reductio ad absurdum of the claim that it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun. There were nothing but good guys and they had nothing but guns, and five died anyway, as helpless as the rest of us.
Once again, the difference in policy views is clear, and can be coolly stated: those who insist on the right to concealed weapons, to the open carrying of firearms, to the availability of military weapons—to the essentially unlimited dissemination of guns—guarantee that the murders will continue. They have no plan to end them, except to return fire, with results we know. The people who don’t want the regulations that we know will help curb (not end) violent acts and help make them rare (not non-existent) have reconciled themselves to the mass murder of police officers, as well as of innocent men and women during traffic stops and of long, ghostly rows of harmless civilians and helpless children. The country is now clearly divided among those who want the killings and violence to stop and those who don’t. In the words of the old activist song, which side are you on?
I’m on the “let’s get rid of guns” side. And I’m always horrified when some readers argue that we must have our weapons. Seriously?