Every day Americans face the fear of death and violence from firearms. African-Americans fear being killed by the police, and Black parents especially worry about their children. We all worry about crazed gunmen entering our workplace, place of worship, clinic, or child's school and shooting everyone in sight. And, after the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, the attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, the Islamic State group attacks in Paris, and the Charleston Church massacre, there is also a looming fear of fundamentalist violence. But fixating on only one subset of these violent acts leaves us no safer.
There is one major common denominator through all the aforementioned types of incidents: freely available guns.
In the hours following the most recent such attack, in San Bernardino, California, media and law enforcement officials agonized over whether to call the attack "terrorist." On the day of the attack, FBI Assistant Director David Bowdich was quoted in the media saying, "I will tell you right now, we do not know if this is a terrorist incident."
While Bowdich did not explain what he meant by that, the implication was clear. The FBI did not know if the shooters were Islamic fundamentalists related to, or inspired by, groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State group. If they weren't, the attack would be seen as an isolated incident, likely by mentally disturbed individuals.
Within 24 hours it was determined that the suspected shooters were a young Pakistani man and his wife who had been married for 2 years and who left behind a 6-month old daughter. The wife, according to law enforcement, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, after which it was immediately announced that the FBI was treating the incident as a "terrorism case."
But the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs that took place only days earlier, and that resulted in three deaths was given different treatment. In that case the perpetrator, a white man named Robert L. Dear, was apparently motivated by conservative propaganda about the sale of fetal tissue. With radical religious beliefs and a history of violence, Dear's actions should have also prompted an FBI terrorism investigation. Instead, the U.S. attorney's office will decide on whether to file terrorism charges against him at a later date - a far more measured approach.
To the victims of both incidents, it makes little difference what motivated the attacks - their deaths were enabled by legally bought firearms. But to politicians and the mainstream media, who wields the gun makes a difference to how the incident is reported and treated within the legal system.In attempting to distinguish between mass shootings by fundamentalist terrorists of Muslim origin and everyone else, we as a society are saying that those are the only ones that matter and that can prompt federal investigation or political action. Sadly political actions that follow such incidents usually have the opposite effect of public safety and security and involve stripping people living here of their rights, and/or dropping bombs on people on the other side of the globe.
A cursory look at the numbers shows just how meaningless it is to single out only those shootings inspired by jihadi violence as "terrorist." This analysis uses data from a number of sources including the Justice Department and the Centers for Disease Control, and concludes that over the past 10 years there have been 29 US deaths attributed to Islamic fundamentalism, and 132,349 deaths from gun homicides. Shown on a pie chart, the former number is so small it barely shows up as a sliver. And yet, those tiny numbers of deaths are the only ones we are supposed to devote federal resources to. All the rest of the deaths are meant to be the heavy price we must pay for the liberty to buy any gun, any time, anywhere.
Only a day after the deadly incident in San Bernardino, the Republican-dominated Senate voted to block a bill that would have banned suspected terrorists from purchasing guns. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who introduced the bill, echoed what most of us might think - that it was a "no-brainer." But to Republican Senators, even terror suspects have the right to bear arms.
The unfathomable number of 132,349 deaths from gun homicides does not even include the number of suicides or accidents by guns. And it certainly does not include the police killings of Americans by guns.
Dpto.de Justicia: Víctimas de yidahista desde 2005 son 29 en EEUU y 132.349 los muertos por violencia armada interna pic.twitter.com/FVuLcvNVwX— SalvadorSchwartzmann (@S_Schwartzmann) diciembre 2, 2015
On the same day, and roughly the same time as the San Bernardino mass shooting, five police officers surrounded a 26-year-old Black man named Mario Woods, and fired a huge number of bullets at him in broad daylight in San Francisco, instantly killing him. Woods' killing comes on the heels of two other reports of police killings - Jamar Clark's death in Minneapolis, and the release of the video of Laquan McDonald's death in Chicago. This year alone, police officers have killed 1,048 people as per an ongoing project of the Guardian newspaper.
No other country in the world suffers from as many gun deaths at the hands of civilians or police.
A recent study by Think Progress revealed just how systematically the National Rifle Association, or NRA, and the gun lobby in general have avoided the same regulatory fate as the tobacco industry. So well organized is the NRA that it has successfully prevented even government-funded research into gun violence. Hardly have the victims of the San Bernardino massacre been laid to rest when NRA President Wayne La Pierre narrated a new ad for continued gun proliferation, citing the threat of fundamentalist terrorism as more justification for Americans to be armed.
This warped logic is what has gotten us to where we are today - a country where bullet proof blankets for school children are seen as a solution to gun violence rather than simply getting rids of guns. My own children attend a school whose principal sent out an email to parents this week assuring us of the rigorous training the school staff have received "in case of an active shooter scenario."
How have we let it get to this? History will judge this dark period as steeped in the culture of death, glorifying violence as a solution to most problems. Each time there is a horrific incident, the public clamors for gun control, the NRA and GOP kill any efforts at passing legislation, and life continues - until it is gunned down violently and for no good reason.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio. She is also the Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based nonprofit that supports women's rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence."