In the wake of the horrific San Bernardino attack, it's understandable that we would see a national outcry, with leaders and citizens alike demanding that something be done. After all, 25 people were shot, 14 of them died on the scene. It was a terrifying act of violence. But this is America. We have frequent mass killings in workplaces, clinics, movie theatres, classrooms, churches, public events and even on military bases. Some of them are perpetrated by delusional people in the grip of a mental illness, some are done out of rage, some for political and ideological and religious reasons and often are some combination of those things.
When they happen, the country tends to divide along the familiar political fault lines. Since most of the carnage from these dramatic massacres is carried out with guns, the left always pushes for a restriction on the easy availability of firearms. And most of the time the right shrugs its collective shoulders and says that this sort of violence is the price we have to pay for freedom.
Bill O'Reilly best expressed this sentiment in the wake of October's Roseburg, Oregon, massacre:
"It is our freedom that allows insane individuals to kill so many people. Guns are legal in America under the Second Amendment...There is no rational explanation for all the carnage, none. And no public policy will stop it."
It's like a hurricane or an earthquake, just something we must live with and then try to put the pieces back together when it's over. Because we are free.
There is an unusual twist to this tiresome dynamic, however, when the perpetrators of this violence are motivated by Islamic extremism. Last week, the left reacted the same way as it does to all such events, with calls to restrict the easy access to guns like the ones the San Bernardino killers used. The right, on the other hand, rather than their usual blase acceptance of the unfortunate necessity of massacres in a free society, are hysterical demanding that the government step in and do something about it immediately.
Now, they are not in agreement with the left on the gun regulation issue, that goes without saying. Their standard response to anyone who suggests that ending the easy access to the guns that shot 35 people might be one common sense way to make such bloodletting less common is total resistance, and it makes no difference who perpetrates the killing. This was demonstrated in the last few days in living color as Democrats tried to make the case that Republicans are so rigid and doctrinaire (and in the pocket of the NRA) that they would not even allow the government to stop suspected terrorists on the secret "Watch List" from buying guns. It's a tricky argument since the Watch List is a civil liberties nightmare to begin with, but Republicans did manage to twist themselves into pretzels trying to explain why terrorist suspects have inviolable 2nd Amendment rights.
But that does not mean the right doesn't have a lot of ideas about what needs to be done. The fact that this has been designated a radical Islamic extremist terrorist attack (as opposed to the radical Christian extremist attack that happened the week before) has galvanized them into action. Led by their presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump, they have a lot of ideas about what needs to be done.
Trump has a colorful history of animus toward Muslims, having made quite a spectacle of himself four years ago as King of the Birthers, hiring detectives to prove that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S. and insinuating that he is a secret Muslim. In this campaign, Trump first turned his nativist aggression against undocumented workers from Mexico but his hostility toward Muslims -- and the previously barely suppressed hostility of his followers -- has recently been on more prominent display. Ever since September, long before the recent brouhaha, he's been saying that he would not only deny Syrian refugees entry, he would deport all the refugees who are already here.
After the Paris attacks, he blathered the usual rightwing bromide, that all this would have been prevented if the victims had been armed. He added that he would bomb the oil fields in Iraq. And he suggested that much more draconian measures were going to be necessary:
“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule… And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago…”
When asked if among those "things," he would consider having American Muslims register with the government, he said he thought it might be necessary.
“This morning they asked me a question. ‘Would you approve waterboarding” Would I approve waterboarding? Yeah. And let me ask you a question? I said, on the other side, they chop off our young people’s heads and they put ’em on a stick. On the other side they build these iron cages and they’ll put 20 people in them and they drop ’em in the ocean for 15 minutes and pull ’em up 15 minutes later. Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I’d approve it, you bet your ass — in a heartbeat.
"And I would approve more than that. Don’t kid yourself, folks. It works, okay? It works. Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work.They’ll say, ‘oh it has no value’, well I know people, very, very important people and they want to be politically correct and I see some people taking on television, ‘well I don’t know if it works’ and they tell me later on, ‘it works, it works, believe me, it works’.
"And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they’re doing to us.”
It was hard to imagine how he could top that for shocking pathological malevolence. But San Bernardino has changed the campaign and Trump is the field marshall leading the charge. He went on Fox News last Friday and said, "We're fighting a very politically correct war. And the other thing is with the terrorists, you have to take out their families.” He went on "The O'Reilly Factor" later that night and spelled out what he was talking about:
"Do you think the wives and the families knew exactly what was going to happen with September 11th? Well I do, and I think they did.
“We have to be much more vigilant, and we have to be much tougher. We can’t allow this to happen: They take the wives, they put ‘em on planes, they send ‘em home. ‘Let’s go home and let’s watch Daddy tonight on television knock down the World Trade Center’ — there has to be retribution. And if there’s not going to be retribution, you’re never going to stop terrorism."
O'Reilly asked what he meant by "take out" and Trump replied, “you have to wipe out their homes where they came from. You have to absolutely wipe ‘em out. It’s the only way you’re going to stop terrorism. You have all these cells all over the place.” He added:
“I want to tell you they would suffer. They know what was going on. If you look at what happened with these terrorists, they put their wives on the planes — those wives knew exactly what was happening, the children, everybody knew.”
Asked how he knows that Trump replied, “Because I know. Because that’s the way life is. Because I’m a realist. That’s the way life works. The wives knew what the husbands were going to do.”
That was Friday. On Saturday, at a rally in Iowa, he went further:
"They've got all sorts of bombs, pipe bombs all sorts of crap all over the apartment, the mother didn't know anything ... [rolls eyes]
"I watched the sister of the guy last night on television and I'm pretty good at this stuff and I watched her, she had the veil, the whole thing. And she's talkin' about the brother. First of all the brother was killed a couple of days ago, she's not at all, she's talking like, (looks at his watch) in fact "I think I have to go now my time's up", so matter of fact ...
"I thought she was lying so much. I'm good at this. I thought she was a total liar. (crowd cheers, some shouting "yeah!") She lied about him. Oh "she didn't know, oh she didn't know he felt this way...
"She knew. And a lot of other people knew too. A lot of other people."
Yesterday morning he repeated it to Sunday morning hosts who didn't seem to find what he said to be terribly unusual:
"I probably don't believe the sister," Trump declared in an interview with "Face the Nation."
"So you would go after her?" host John Dickerson asked Trump.
"I would go after a lot of people and find out whether or not they knew. I'd be able to find out. Cause I don't believe the sister...we have to stop terrorists," Trump explained. "And the only way we're going to stop them, in my opinion, is that way. You know, they say they don't mind dying. I think they do mind dying. But I can tell you this. They want their families left alone. We have to stop terrorism."
I would go after a lot of people and find out whether or not they knew. I'd be able to find out. Cause I don't believe the sister,
When he said, "I'd be able to find out," it doesn't take much to imagine what he plans to do. After all, he had just said a week ago that he would bring back waterboarding, adding "I would approve more than that."
Ok, fine. So it's Trump and "in your guts your know he's nuts". But he is not alone. His crowds lustily cheer these comments and the rest of the GOP field is following in his footsteps.
Ted Cruz, now looking as though he's about to overtake Ben Carson in second place and possibly Trump himself in Iowa, hasn't been talking about "taking out" family members of terrorist suspects. But he is talking about using nuclear weapons:
"We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out."
Apparently concerned that Trump is going to unman him, Cruz issued this cri de coeur:
“We see Loretta Lynch, the attorney general, promising in the wake of this terrorist attack — does she come out and say, ‘We’re going to track down the terrorists and kill them’?
"No, she says prosecute anyone that has the temerity to stand up and speak against radical Islamic terrorism.
"Well, let me tell you right now, radical Islamic terrorism is evil.
"Mr. President, there is not a moral equivalence between radical Islamic terrorists and Christians and Jews.
"One has a philosophy from day one of murdering those who they consider infidels; the other preach love and forgiveness and standing together as one humanity.
"And let me say beyond that in the United States, we will not enforce Sharia Law.
"And madam attorney general, if you wanna come prosecute me for executing my First Amendment rights, come and get me, I’m right here!”
The crowd roared with excitement at this bold show of incoherent rage and manly aggression.
According to Trump and Cruz, making it a little bit more difficult for killers to get their hands on deadly weapons is impossible. But registration of Muslims, closing mosques, torture, "taking out" wives and children, carpet bombing civilians into oblivion and even possible nuclear war are now on the menu.
Unfortunately, it's almost certain that we will have more mass killing before the election next year, motivated by a variety of homicidal and suicidal urges and enabled by a culture awash in firearms. But unless it's perpetrated by a Muslim extremist the Trump party will be too busy beating their chests and issuing bellicose threats to even notice. They have lots of lurid suggestions about how to exact retribution on our enemies but they have absolutely nothing to say about how to lower the body count in this country.