Recently, at our family dinner, we expressed our shock about the latest mass shooting at a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. The surprise owed to the events taking place at a Madden tournament, not a Fortnite tournament. Our blasé reaction — our lack of horror — in the face of the attack was in its own way as horrifying as the shooting itself.
It stems from the routine nature of gun violence in this country, as well as a failure to fully grasp the most profound implications of the gun violence epidemic: We are failed parents living in a failed state.
Whether we live in an urban, rural, or suburban area, whether our children attend a well-funded or struggling public school, we have accepted the fact that our children may be gunned down at their desks or huddling in a janitorial closet.
Our lawmakers have accepted it, as well as those in charge of our national security. Lisa Monaco, former Homeland Security advisor to President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama says US 'desperately needs' Biden legislation ahead of key votes Obamas to break ground Tuesday on presidential center in Chicago A simple fix can bring revolutionary change to health spending MORE, gave a talk at Dartmouth College and recalled how in the early days of ISIS, American children had expressed their concern that ISIS militants might come for them, like some bogeyman. Homeland Security exists, she assured us, to calm our children’s fears and to secure them from massacre by the likes of ISIS.
Well, here’s news: Our children are being massacred, and not by ISIS. As Monaco relayed, only 92 fatalities on American soil have been attributed to Islamist terrorists since 9/11, as a testimony to our successes on the international counterterrorism front. By contrast, mass shootings claimed the lives of 100 victims in the months from October 2017 (the Las Vegas Shooting) to February 2018 (the Parkland, Fla. school shooting) alone.
That begs two questions that are at the forefront of my research as a scholar of Russian studies: what is “national security”? And, what is “terrorism?” To dispel any misconceptions, national security does not refer to the personal security and well being of the citizens of nation, but the security of the state as a sovereign political entity. And that ultimately contentious word “terrorism” refers to violence or threat of violence that poses a political threat to the state.
It might be worthwhile to recall where this concept of “terrorism” as a threat posed to the state, rather than to the people who make up the state, originated. In Russia, in the late nineteenth century social revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the autocratic government systematically targeted officials of the state and called themselves “terrorists.”
After the revolutionaries succeeded in assassinating Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the Russian government tried to convince Western powers to join a counterterrorist coalition that would specifically combat politically-motivated violence against the state and heads of state. Ordinary people never entered into the equation, although dynamite attacks on high officials in fact inflicted significant collateral damage.
“Terrorism” has retained this sense of a “politically motivated threat to the state” even though ordinary people increasingly became its victims. School and mass shootings are not empirically different from attacks that are labelled “terrorist,” such as Omar Mateen’s attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Fla.
However, they are framed differently by the news media, politicians, and law enforcement — as politically motivated and therefore existential threats to our polity, even when the motivation for the act is ambiguous. The full force and resources of Homeland Security, as well as our country’s laws on terrorism, are brought to bear in such cases.
Individual state legislatures should be commended for moving ahead with finger-in-the-dike legal measures, like bans on bump stocks, universal background checks, restraining orders. But from New Hampshire to Florida, California to Maryland, this is a national crisis that claims more victims on U.S. soil than so-called “terrorist” attacks.
It’s time to reframe mass shootings as a national security issue, and not a “mental health” issue, which makes it an anomalous act of a disturbed individual, or a “public health” issue, which obscures the defining attributes of the attack. It’s mass violence and it has an impact on the security of every one of our citizens. What we need is a more robust federal solution that takes cognizance of gun violence as an existential threat to our society akin to terrorism.
With a seemingly NRA-funded Trump presidency and a Republican majority in congress, we can forget reconceptualizing gun violence as a threat to our national security for now.
But imagine if under revamped Homeland Security laws, all military grade weapons were sold legally only to and for use by the branches of our nation’s military, while recreational guns and handguns for personal security could be purchased by citizens undergoing an extensive background check and a licensing course?
Then we could deal with the more complex social and mental health issues that contribute to gun violence but do not “cause” it. The easy availability of powerful firearms does.
The foundation of a state’s legitimacy is its ability to secure its population, which is based ultimately on its monopoly on violence and the means of violence. The fact that it finds itself in the company of countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Venezuela in terms of gun deaths indicates that the United States government has effectively ceded its monopoly on violence under pressure of a powerful lobby for gun manufacturers.
No government could afford to cede its monopoly on violence to such a degree to foreign hostiles and claim legitimacy as a government, hence the “threat to our national security” that terrorism poses. Where has my children’s — and my homeland — security gone? For me, the two are inseparable.
Lynn Ellen Patyk is associate professor at Dartmouth College and author of Written in Blood: Revolutionary Terrorism and Russian Literary Culture. She is a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.