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Armed Insecurity


“… no real security, just powers of retaliation.”

This was Norman Mailer, four-plus decades ago, writing in “Miami and the Siege of Chicago” about the obsessive security measures – “helicopters riding overhead like roller coasters, state troopers with magnums on their hip and crash helmets, squad cars, motorcycles” – at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, which … uh, didn’t actually provide security, but sure allowed us to get even afterwards.

This is still the unnoticed insanity haunting the American news cycle, whether the story being reported is domestic or international. As a society, we’re armed and dangerous – and always at war, both collectively and individually. We’re endlessly declaring bad guys (officially and unofficially) and endlessly protecting ourselves from them, in the process guaranteeing that the violence continues. And the parallels between “them” and “us” are unnerving.

Mohammad Abdulazeez opened fire at a naval reserve training facility in Chattanooga and killed five people. He was suffering from depression and possibly radicalized by ISIS. Fox News headlined the story: “Tennessee gunman was armed to the teeth and ready for war with America.” The story pointed out that he was a naturalized American citizen born in Kuwait.

A few days later, a gun shop owner in Florida posted a video on YouTube declaring, with the Confederate flag in the background as he spoke – summoning the spirit of Dylann Roof’s murder last month of nine African-Americans in Charleston, S.C. – that his store, Florida Gun Supply in Inverness, was now a “Muslim-free zone.”

“I will not arm and train those who wish to harm my fellow patriots,” he said, paradoxically espousing a weird, racist form of gun control.

He also said: “We are in battle, patriots, but not only with Islamic extremism. We’re also in battle against extreme political correctness that threatens our lives because if we can’t call evil ‘evil’ for fear of offending people, then we can’t really defeat our enemies.”

Ray Mabus, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, spoke of the shootings with less clarity about the nature of the enemy: “While we expect our sailors and Marines to go into harm’s way, and they do so without hesitation, an attack at home, in our community, is insidious and unfathomable.”

Yet a few days later at least 10 Afghan soldiers – American allies – died “at home, in their community” when the checkpoint they were manning in eastern Afghanistan was taken out in a U.S. helicopter strike, which the Afghan regional commander described as “a very big mistake.” He pointed out to the Washington Post that the strikers should have known they weren’t attacking the enemy because it happened in daylight and “the Afghanistan flag was waving on our post, when we came under attack.”

Well, you know, collateral damage and all. These things happen. But somehow the deaths of these soldiers didn’t cause the same stir the Chattanooga killings did, though the victims’ lives were equally precious and were cut short in an attack that probably seemed, to them, equally unfathomable.

But, whereas the Chattanooga shootings were a “horrific attack,” the friendly fire killings were an “incident” – just like all the other bomb and missile killings, accidental, intentional or whatever, of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere over the last decade and a half. The Wall Street Journal added that the incident “threatens to strain relations” between the U.S. and its allies in the war that has no prospect of ending, but added that “the airstrike is under investigation,” which is the epitaph of choice for news stories about to be buried for eternity.

All of which leads me back to the Norman Mailer quote, that we have no real security, just a massive power to retaliate. This is the nature of armed self-defense. In order to feel like they have some control over an unfathomably complex world, many, many people – inspired by the governments they either revere or despise – categorize large swaths of the human race as bad guys, who therefore need not be regarded, or treated, as fully human.

As I wrote several years ago, speaking of the “moral injury” that so many vets bring home from their war service: “Killing is not a simple matter. It’s not a joke. The argument can be made that on occasion it’s necessary, but military killing is not about self-defense. Soldiers are trained to kill on command, and this is done not simply through physical preparedness exercises but through dehumanization of the enemy: a cult of dehumanization, you might say. Turns out we can’t dehumanize someone else without dehumanizing ourselves.”

And the more that people lose touch with their own humanity, the more, I fear, they will feel the need to be armed – desperately imagining it’s the same thing as being secure. And the news cycle will continue, endlessly bringing us more of the same.

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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