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Consider the following mass shooting scenarios: 1.) The Overland Park Jewish Community Center in Kansas, 2.) The Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado, 3.) The Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina, 4.) The Inland Community Center in California and 5.)The Umpqua Community College in Oregon. In each of the 5 cases, multiple shots were fired with multiple fatalities. The identity of each shooter was not immediately known but authorities quickly made a determination and in some cases the perpetrator was captured and their backgrounds well established shortly afterward. The motive was not immediately clear in any of the cases but seemed obvious to most observers, especially to those who opine on television for a living.
Now let’s look a little closer. We will refer to the shooters as a singular “gunman” for argument’s sake and each shooting to be an “incident” or “engagement”.
A gunman at any Jewish center, regardless of ethnic background or religion, is going to be assumed to have anti-Semitic views. If the gunman is white, those views will be presumed to be neo-Nazi. The same is true with the incident at a Planned Parenthood. Any gunman will be presumed to have strong anti-abortion rights views and probably an evangelical or other Pentecostal Christian; possibly Roman Catholic. A white gunman opened fire at a predominately black church in the South. The logical conclusion is the motive is neo-Confederate, white-supremacist in nature. The incident at the Inland Community Center is presumed to be international terrorism because the gunman is Middle-Eastern in heritage and had made a trip to Saudi Arabia. The gunman in Oregon is reported to have had anti-religious or anti-government views in general but was also reported to have had long-term mental health issues. This makes it the only case where the justice system actually seemed to have a mass shooter with no discernible political, religious or ethnic axe to grind. Perhaps this was the only one of the 5 incidents listed above whom observers on the right quickly classify the perpetrator as “mentally ill”.
Setting aside incidents that are obviously criminal, such as a bank robbery or a narcotics related firefight, most Americans feel the inclination to see any mass shooting as “terrorism”. The FBI defines “mass shooting” as one where 4 or more people have been shot in one incident. Terrorism by definition is the use of violence to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, and as such, try and effect changes in government policy. This presents us with an unsettling dilemma. Which, if any, of the incidents noted above, are “terrorism”, “hate crimes” or just “crime”? The answer is obvious. Who do you perceive the gunman to be? Your own ideology and worldview will shape how you view such incidents. You will be certain you know what really happened long before any hard facts arrive, long before the press conferences stop and the cable news talking heads fall silent.
Again, consider your perceptions if the following occurred:
What if the Overland Park Center incident was committed by an anti-religious gunman?
What if a Middle-Eastern man had engaged the Planned Parenthood in Colorado?
What if the gunman at the Emmanuel AME Church was black?
What if the Inland Community Center had been engaged by one gunman? Or multiple gunmen but all white?
What if the Community College in Oregon gunman had been devoutly and fervently religious but Jewish?
Suddenly, the line between what we define as “crime” and “terrorism” becomes blurred. Who is a completely sane yet dedicated fanatic and who is just “mentally ill” changes, does it not? What we want to see in huge red print on our online news feed or used as material for our particular political candidate is generally shaped not by facts, but by perceptions, which may turn out to be false and often do. We as Americans often like to say that someone is innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law. But we all know that is never the case in mass shootings. Definitions of who the gunman (or gunmen) are will always advance our pre-determined agenda. Events will be perceived in a way that suits our purposes for television and social media and will tend to prop up what we already know is going on.
Even if we actually have no idea.
“There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering Ka-boom!”
The lament of Marvin the Martian as his attempt to blow up the Earth is foiled by the accidental astrorabbit Bugs Bunny stealing the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator is a witty reminder of something that is, shall we say, less apocalyptic than an alien destroying the world to clear his view of Venus. It is nevertheless curiously and somewhat disturbingly also the story of something of immense power stolen by the most unlikely of protagonists with the ability, ostensibly anyway, to blow up the world. There have lately been some important questions that have gone completely missing from the collective American political consciousness:
Where is Edward Snowden? What happened to his reported treasure trove of U.S. government secrets that was supposed to have caused so much hand wringing in the halls of power from Washington to Warsaw to Wellington? More importantly, where is this great national discussion that we were supposed to be having about government surveillance and the questions regarding individual privacy versus public safety?
Since the Zimmerman verdict, the birth of Royal Baby, and the continuing scandals of Anthony Weiner (aka The Man Who Would Be Mayor), we have completely lost sight of Mr. Snowden, now holed up for a month inside the international transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. We can only assume that he still has possession of his four laptop computers containing not only specific information about NSA surveillance of American citizens and foreign governments but also reportedly a “blueprint” outlining NSA infrastructure and operations. But that’s only an assumption.
We can also assume that there have been no great efforts on the part of any of the countries that have offered him asylum to actually get him out of Russia. Little news or commentary has come from the governments in Bolivia, Nicaragua or Venezuela regarding their desire to give succor to Mr. Snowden. Nor has there been any confirmation that he will be allowed to emigrate to Russia, as has been widely reported. Vladimir Putin’s stated requirements that if Mr. Snowden wished to remain in Russia that he no longer release any more classified information that might damage the United States or its intelligence networks may prove too stringent for him to abide by, leaving Mr. Snowden still marooned at Sheremetyevo. But that’s also only an assumption.
Save for the occasional brief statement by an intelligence official, there has been strangely little in the news at all lately about the man who once had the attention of the world riveted to his every move. Ironically, another domestic issue of great importance has taken the place of the discussions we as a nation were supposed to have about the implications of Snowden’s revelations and eclipsed once again our view of what’s going on inside Fort Meade. In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, race relations and gun violence in America have once again rushed to capture center stage. I do not wish to imply even for a moment that this is not a debate we should be having. Indeed, this is an issue that we as a nation must tackle head on. But I think something important to America got lost in the din of angry voices, somewhere between Sanford, Washington, New York, London and Moscow.
It has been said that the American news media, particularly on the left, missed a golden opportunity to initiate a truly vigorous debate about the NSA and its activities at home and abroad. Instead, they dropped the ball with an obsession to cover the man and not the message. Mr. Snowden’s flight across the world became our dirty little national pastime. It was a soap opera better than any on daytime television ever could hope to be. The somewhat ridiculous and banal national polling of the “hero or traitor” question also clouded what Mr. Snowden was trying to achieve. We focused on the person of Edward Snowden and his endless search for a place to hang his hat and failed to stop and think about what our intelligence services are up to in our own backyards. I should think that would qualify as a major intelligence scoop all by itself.
It may be too late. We as Americans have the attention span of a school of halibut and get distracted so easily by the agony and the ecstasy that hits our headlines every morning. We may not even care if he ever gets asylum, or is captured by U.S. authorities or just simply disappears one day from our memory. Tragic death occurs and protesters fill the streets. A baby is born and we can all share in a little joy, pomp and circumstance. Tomorrow will have new things to worry and wonder at. In the meantime, a young man stays trapped inside an airport terminal far from home. However carefully calculated or misguided his original intentions may have been, I for one have no doubt he was trying to change the world for the better. Who mourns for Marvin with his view of Venus still obstructed by that annoying planet filling his telescope?