(Written 10 December 2015)
Robert Paul Wolff writes,
Fourteen people were murdered in San Bernardino, and almost two dozen were injured, several critically. That is perfectly awful. Since September 11, 2001, I believe almost three score people have been killed in the United States in similar terrorist attacks, or so one television commentator asserted. The number sounds about right. During those same fourteen years, 120,000 Americans have been killed by guns (including those who killed themselves, just to be clear .) I cannot imagine any rational mode of discourse that treats the former number as somehow more important than the latter number. And yet, people who would pass most tests for sanity, if not intelligence, are eager to take dramatic steps to prevent another San Bernardino although they would not even consider equally vigorous steps to diminish, say by half, the number of deaths from firearms in the next fourteen years. [Emphasis added.]
Let us first note that Wolff conveniently begins his count after 9/11. The Islamic terrorism of that day resulted in the deaths of 2,996 people and the injuries of 6,000 + others. That adds up to around 9,000 casualties. As for the numbers Wolff cites, I will assume that they are correct.
Let us also note the phrase "killed by guns." But of course no gun has ever killed anyone. The plain truth is that people kill people and other animals often with guns, but also with box cutters, jumbo jets, and so on. Surely the good professor will grant the distinction between weapon and wielder. Weapons are morally neutral; wielders are typically not.
The question is whether it is rational to take dramatic steps to prevent another terrorist attack while taking no steps (beyond the many steps that already have been taken) to prevent further non-terrorist gun deaths, given that since 9/11 the number of gun-related non-terrorist deaths is much smaller than the number of gun-related terrorist deaths.
Wolff is maintaining that it is not rational. I say it is rational, and that Wolff's approach to the issue is not rational.
Wolff considers only the numbers of gun-related deaths while abstracting entirely from the motives of the gun-wielders and the effects that the deaths due to terror have on other people and the society at large. But this is a vicious abstraction. Terrorists aim to spread terror and disrupt civil society by slaughtering as many noncombatants as possible in unpredictable ways. They have a political agenda. Terrorism, unlike crime, is essentially political and essentially public. But the sorts of crimes that drive up the gun death numbers often occur in private and the disruption they cause is miniscule compared to that caused by terrorists.
For example, non-terrorist suicides, as opposed to suicide bombers, directly affect only themselves and almost never act from political considerations. And the same goes for mafiosi and other organized crime figures who 'whack' competitors and potential witnesses and 'rats.' The last thing they want is publicity. They are not motivated by political ideals or goals. The Lufthansa heist was about making a big score and nothing more. This holds too for ordinary criminals who kill each other and potential witnesses. And similarly for gang-bangers and drug dealers and gun-related crimes of passion. And there are the so-called 'accidental' shootings as when a careless gun owner leaves a loaded pistol where a child can find it or proceeds to clean a loaded gun.
So while the number of non-terrorist gun-related deaths of Americans is much higher over the time-frame Wolff arbitrarily chose than the number of terrorist gun-related deaths, that fact plays a minor role in any rational assessment of the threat of terrorism. Part of being rational is thinking synoptically, taking in the whole of a situation in its many aspects, and not seizing upon one aspect.
One cannot reasonably abstract from the political agenda of terrorists and the effects even a few terrorist events have on an entire society. Ask yourself: has your life changed at all since 9/11? It most certainly has if you travel by air whether domestically or internationally. Terrorists don't have to kill large numbers to attain their political goal and wreak large-scale disruption. The Tsarnaev attack on the Boston Marathon shut down the city for a few days. Same with Paris, San Bernardino, Madrid, London, etc.
There is also the obvious point that jihadis would kill millions if they could. Would they use nukes against the West if they could? Of course they would.
Why are leftists so insensitive to clear and present dangers? Why are they so eager to deflect attention from them by bringing up gun control and dubious dangers such as 'climate change'?
Here is a theory. Leftists favor losers and underdogs. Terrorists are losers and underdogs both as terrorists and as Muslims. (Not all Muslims are terrorists but almost all terrorists at the present time are Muslims.) So leftists downplay the terrorist threat. They downplay it because losers and underdogs are their clients. To them, the terrorist 'frontlash' is as nothing compared to the 'Islamophobic' backlash of the bigots, rubes, and racists of fly-over country. This helps account for why leftists downplay the terrorist threat.
But why do they try to steer the debate away from terrorism to gun control? Part of it has to be that guns and private gun ownership represent everything leftists hate such as self-reliance, individual responsibility, patriotism which they dismiss as 'jingoism,' limited government, rural people and small-town folk, and conservative attitudes which leftists perceive as racist, bigoted, xenophobic, nativist, nationalist, fascist, etc. Private gun ownership stands in the way of their totalitarian agenda. This is why they continually call for gun control when we have plenty of it already. They talk as if there is no gun control. This is because what they mean by 'gun control' is confiscation of all or almost all firearms including all semi-automatic pistols and long guns.
Of course there is much more to it than this. Leftists are anti-religion unless the religion is Islam, "the saddest and poorest form of theism," (Schopenhauer) the religion of losers and underdogs, the gang religion. As anti-religion, leftists are against God, the soul, and the freedom of the will. Not believing in freedom of the will, they don't believe in moral evil -- which is perhaps their deepest error. People are nothing but deterministic systems and products of their environment. Part of the environment is guns. Hence the repeated call to "get guns off the street"as if guns are just laying around on our highways and byways. Not believing in free agency, leftists displace agency onto inanimate non-agents such as guns. And so they think the solution is to get rid of them.
And of course this only scratches the surface. But the sun is setting and battling the Wolff Man and his bullshit has conjured up a powerful thirst in this philosopher. Time for a beer!