Should We Really Be Treating San Bernardino Shootings Like They're the End of Civilization?

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Who can’t feel that something’s in the air?  Some mood of fear, panic, and pure meanness ratcheting up in the planet’s “exceptional” nation.  Or at least exceptionally jumpy nation.  In the wake of the San Bernardino slaughter and news of an online pledge of loyalty to the Islamic State (IS) by one of the killers, the talk of “war” and even “world war” is rising to a fever pitch on the campaign trail.  With the death of 14 and the wounding of 21 in a California center dedicated to helping disabled people -- evidently a case of ISIS-inspired, yet all-American workplace terrorism -- the president was forced to address the nation from the Oval Office for the first time since August 2010.  The Republicans on the campaign trail having put his feet to the fire, he wanted to reassure the country about how ably his administration was keeping us safe from terrorists, while ratcheting up what he now calls a “war” to defeat the forces of the Islamic State.

In the meantime, another wave of Americans have just rushed to local gun shops to arm themselves, further enriching domestic weapons makers (just as the heightening set of conflicts in the Middle East are enriching upbeat national defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon).  More than a year before Americans head into voting booths, presidential campaign 2016 has already been transformed into a national security election.  And here’s a guarantee: no matter who wins, Washington’s national security state will emerge stronger than ever with yet more enhanced powers in an increasingly locked-down, up-armed, draconian country.  Yet none of the events involved, either here or in the Middle East, merit the alarms being raised.

After all, when James Holmes slaughtered 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012, and that December Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, no one talked about World War IV and the president did not address us from the Oval Office.  Nor were Americans speaking obsessively and anxiously about their fear of being ambushed anywhere in their lives (though they were no less subject to that possibility than they are now).  The more than 1,000 “mass shootings” and 1,300 dead since Sandy Hook, and the 355 such incidents in which at least four people were injured or killed so far this year alone, almost none connected to Islamic terrorism and many minor indeed, weren’t considered firefights in World War IV and, despite the obvious dangers, the national security state wasn’t put on high alert to protect us.

San Bernardino was indeed a grim and grotesque event, but it was not the end of civilization as we know it.  It wasn’t even the most horrendous shooting incident in twenty-first-century America. It does not represent an overwhelming danger to the American people as a whole.  If you want to be fearful of anything, don’t get into your vehicle, since that’s where 32,000 Americans die every year.  Above all, don’t arm yourself to fight off the Islamic State in your local restaurant, supermarket, or workplace, since the figures clearly indicate that it’s so much more likely you’ll pick up that weapon in a depressed or angry mood and kill yourself (or someone else), or that your toddler will find it unlocked and shoot you.

In the same way, in the crumbling Middle East, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is indeed an organization with tens of thousands of fighters, more than a genuine toehold in the region, a striking ability to brand itself and see that brand spread to other unsettled and fragmenting areas (Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, etc.), and an obvious skill when it comes to stirring up trouble elsewhere. But it is nothing like “world war” material. It is a real but modest threat.

Put another way, this country, especially in the increasingly demagogic atmosphere of election 2016, is in danger of losing its bearings completely, as well as its collective sense of what’s truly threatening, what’s actually a danger, and what should matter most to us. Similarly, as State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren suggests today in “Washington to Whomever: Please Fight the Islamic State for Us,” American policymakers seem to have lost their bearings in the Middle East, imagining a war and a set of “allies” that functionally don’t exist.  Think of it as a double whammy of delusion, at home and abroad.


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