The terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris have resurrected the national debate about how to deal with acts of mass violence. As usual, two extreme views have surfaced. One side argues that we must give more authority to governments by creating new agencies, expanding existing agencies, or curtailing the freedoms of law-abiding citizens. Another side says we should ignore casualties of mass violence the way we overlook fatalities from car accidents or heart disease. But there is a middle ground that avoids the surrender of liberty advocated by the former and the cold apathy advocated by the latter. Now more than ever we must foster civically minded citizens who can defend themselves, their neighbors, and their country when a crisis emerges.
A visitor to ancient Sparta once asked why they had no walls to defend their people. A Spartan replied: “Our citizens are our walls and their spears our defense.” Defense was the responsibility of every citizen. The American Constitution embraced this tradition by prioritizing arms-bearing citizens over standing armies of professionals. Free countries throughout history have certainly fielded small professional forces, built walls, and deployed spies and diplomats, but they have also known they are only safe if their citizens are tough. Therefore, we should keep three things in mind.
Second, we should roll back security agencies with proven records of failure, like the TSA. Not only do these agencies drain resources, inhibit freedoms, and crowd out citizens’ responsibilities, they also create the illusion of security. Defensive firearms should not be concentrated in government law enforcement agencies at the expense of law-abiding citizens. Normal citizens stopped the hijackers of Flight 93 and the shoe-bomber in 2001, the underwear bomber in 2009, and the Thalys train attacker this year. These examples illustrate that more citizens should be partners in defending their communities, not merely passive bystanders.
Third, and most important, we must prepare citizens for this partnership by fostering civic virtue, which is simply citizens caring about their neighbors and their communities. Whether motivated by a church, a mosque, the Little League, the Rotary, or the National Guard, citizens who know and care about their immediate community are better than federal bureaucrats at identifying homegrown terrorists. The FBI missed the San Bernardino attackers, but their neighbors knew better. These neighbors didn’t take the initiative because they wrongly assumed government authorities would.
Whether its through survival training courses, volunteer police and fire departments, or gun-training courses, we must inspire all citizens to seek the welfare of their society. This is America’s proud tradition — uplifting its citizens as its walls. This tradition withstood Britain’s standing armies in the 18th and 19th centuries. It defeated Germany’s fascist troops and Japan’s imperialist forces in the 20th century. It can defeat terrorism in the 21st century.
Mueller is an assistant professor of economics and Brand is an assistant professor of history at The King's College in New York City.