Reaping what we sow in the Middle East

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The claim to be a civilized society, the claim to be rational, advanced, even superior, is utterly bankrupt of any truth if, at those very moments when civility and rationality are needed most, we choose instead to behave like barbarians.

Over many millennia, tribes and nations have devoted themselves to crushing the enemy without mercy, always indifferent to the fact that inhumanity sows the seeds of more war, the lust for more revenge. Injustice breeds injustice.  In spite what we like to tell ourselves, modern warfare is not “surgical”, war is never benevolent, and “collateral damage” is still the death of innocents.

The barbarism of ISIS must be stopped, but the US has filled for itself a large cup of contempt in the Arab world. We have intervened over and over again, mostly out of greed for precious oil.  We Americans suffer astounding degrees of arrogance and indifference in believing that our repeated interference in the region will not be remembered.

We have an affliction in our minds that we are somehow the gods of other nations, that we can and should execute “regime change”. In 1953 the US and Britain executed a coup in Iran that overthrew its first democratically elected leader and retained the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, simply because we Americans wanted to keep control over Iran’s oil reserves.  The Shah was the maniacal ruler of a brutal police state for 60 years, a dictator we supported and protected until his popular overthrow in 1979. In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration helped Saddam Hussein acquire chemical weapons that Iraq then used to kill tens of thousands of Iranians during the brutal Iraq-Iran war. And at the same time, Reagan illegally sold American Hawk surface-to-air missiles and TOW anti-tank missiles to Iranians. We played Iran and Iraq against each other, all for our own agenda.  I find this despicable.

The Republicans believed that in Iraq we could demolish a nation’s infrastructure and civil order, its army, its police, and render absolute upheaval, and that somehow, as Cheney predicted, we would be greeted by all as liberators. The entire war would be over in 60 days. Liberals warned that this was absurdly naïve and illegal, and they were right.  We installed a leader who rejected any notions of power-sharing and plurality, and who set the stage for civil war and regional upheaval.  Again, we did this for oil.

We defend Israel unconditionally, yet have no influence over their behavior toward Palestinians or their endless confiscation of the only territories that could ever be the basis for a Palestinian state, and peace between them.

Our ignorance and indifference to the consequences of invading Iraq spawned ISIS, but the history of America’s interference in the Middle East is much longer than this. And we wonder why we are hated. Our friends in Europe must look now at that lunacy of American policy in the region, especially the Bush invasion of Iraq, with revulsion.   Except for Britain, none of our western European allies joined us in invading Iraq, but they are now paying a dear price for the upheaval we created.  I offer my sincere apologies to the people of Paris. It is difficult to follow the plight of the refugees fleeing ISIS and as an American, not feel a sense of responsibility.  We caused this.  More precisely, the Bush Administration caused this.

ISIS is now a curse on the Western World and even on Muslim nations. In answer to ISIS, the leading Republican candidates stand before the cameras, beat their chests like tribal upstarts smeared in war paint, and declare the ever-more barbaric acts they will order if elected, some of which would be war crimes. Frenzied mobs cheer them on and physically attack anyone brave enough to challenge their ignorance.

Trump claims that he will ban all Muslims from entering the US. Reality check: There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and many are executives, teachers, scientists, doctors, and students who travel regularly to the US from all parts of the globe. Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson stated, “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?”  Carson, the pediatric brain surgeon, claims he would be uniquely qualified to kill innocent Arab civilians, including children, as commander-in-chief.  And Cruz, a self-proclaimed devout Christian, declares that he will kill thousands of innocents by “carpet bombing” and will permanently poison the region by making the “sand glow” – a clear reference to nuclear weapons.

These obscene proclamations by leading Republican presidential candidates are the best recruiting tools ISIS can get. I stare at the television, just a little distraught. The professed ability to commit mass killings, to commit war crimes, is apparently now a job requirement for Republican candidates.  And yet we wonder, how can ISIS recruit so many fighters when the West is so very civilized?  It may be unlikely that one of these fools will be elected, but the world witnesses this frenzy of American insanity and must wonder if we are the barbarians, driven by lust for revenge.  And so it goes.

Just before Christmas I sat on a bench in a crowded mall, next to a man who was reading a book. He was older and slightly frail, with gray hair. The writing was Arabic and I interrupted him to ask what he was reading. With difficult English and a thick accent, he replied, “Koran”.   He handed it to me. I carefully thumbed through the pages and noticed the elegant grace of the script, and was disappointed that I could read none of it.  We struggled with conversation, both wanting to connect. We were waiting for our wives. He and his family had recently emigrated from Iran.  I’ve never been to Iran, but I had spent years in the region serving on the Navy’s 6th fleet flag ship and have many good, fond memories of the various nations and cultures.  He talked of how democracy had been stolen from his Iran more than once, by the Americans (a detail he carefully avoided mentioning) and later by Iran’s religious theocracy. He talked about the profound agony of the failed Arab Spring in Iran, which he witnessed, his hopes for a decent life here for his family, and his fears of American politicians, especially Donald Trump. Then his phone rang, his wife.  We stood and shook hands. I told him I was sure he would always be welcome in the US.  His eyes glistened just a bit, and then he hugged me, smiled, and with his thick accent, said, “Merry Christmas.”

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We Must End the Tyranny of the NRA

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Today, US federal law allows any adult to buy guns of all kinds, including AR15-style assault weapons, magazines, and ammunition, without any ID or background checks of any kind. These weapons can be purchased on-line, at gun shows, and from private parties as easily as buying candy. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have their own minimum-age laws, ranging from 14 in Montana to 21 in Illinois, but in the remaining 30 states, it’s legal for a child to possess long guns, including assault rifles. There is no federal limit on the number of guns or amount of ammunition a person may buy or sell. Non-US citizens who are legal residents are free to buy firearms, however because ID is not required for private sales and at most gun shows, even the legal-residence this requirement may not be relevant.

Federal law requires that buyers purchasing from licensed gun stores pass a background check that, among other reasons, rejects anyone who has ever been convicted of, or is under indictment for, a crime punishable by one year or more in prison. But that law doesn’t apply to gun shows and private party sales. To close this “gun show loophole”, eighteen states have passed laws requiring background checks for some or all gun shows and private sales. For the remaining 32 states, the gun market is wide open, and the American gun market is huge.

Think about it: The absence of regulation and the wide variety of lethal, modern weapons available in the US makes this market more dangerous than Pakistan’s, which offers far fewer of the most advanced weapons. In fact, America is the world’s gun bazaar. Gun runners buy volumes of weapons here for illegal export to criminals in Latin America and elsewhere, where regulations are much tighter.

Statistically, mass killers use a variety of advanced semiautomatic weapons, which are weapons that fire a bullet every time the trigger is pulled until the magazine is empty.  The capacity of the magazine is paramount. Many handguns can rapidly fire up to 30 bullets without reloading. For example, a Glock .40 caliber pistol can fire up to 31 bullets when equipped with an extended magazine. And a .40 caliber bullet is nearly half-an-inch wide, making these pistols more lethal at close range than even an AR15.  Worse, extended magazines are available for all common, semi-automatic pistols.

So what is an “assault weapon”?

Most assault weapons sold in the US are semiautomatic rifles that fire .223 caliber or .308 caliber bullets. This number is the bullet width in inches.  Military versions are indicated in millimeters, so the .223 caliber civilian bullet is essentially the 5.56 mm military round, the only difference being bullet velocity at the barrel’s end, or muzzle. Colt Manufacturing, began selling the AR15 to the US military in 1963, as the M16. Colt evolved several military models from that original weapon, including fully-automatic machine guns. These weapons are favored by militaries worldwide because they are light-weight and incredibly destructive.

Colt began selling the civilian version of the AR15 in the early 1960s. By law, this version fires only in semiautomatic mode.  For the civilian AR15, the bullet velocity at the muzzle is up to a stunning 3,300 feet per second, nearly 3 times the velocity of most pistols. These weapons have an effective range of up to 2,000 feet. Military versions have higher velocities, but otherwise, automatic mode versus semiautomatic mode is the only significant difference between the military and civilian versions of this weapon. A shooter can easily fire 30 bullets in eight-to-ten seconds with a semiautomatic gun.  Worse still, civilian AR15s can easily be modified to become fully-automatic. This is illegal, but is commonly done, and this conversion is not readily apparent until the weapon is fired.

After the original AR15 was introduced to the civilian market, other manufacturers began making competitors to the gun, and the term “AR15” today refers to this style of weapon, made by many companies.  Similar assault weapons sold in the US include the AK-47 and its clones and variants, however the classic AK-47 is a larger caliber weapon.

Recruits joining the military and most police agencies undergo psychological screening and extensive safety training before being issued a weapon, but civilians buying these weapons undergo no psychological screening, and no training is required.

Gun enthusiasts point to the Second Amendment as proof of their right to own guns. Assuming this was the founders’ intention, which guns?  All guns?  At the time of the amendment’s adoption 224 years ago, the most powerful gun was a single-shot musket that was manually loaded with black powder and an iron ball, thus consuming 15-30 seconds between shots. Accuracy was terrible and the gun often misfired. In 1791, the United States consisted essentially of 13 colonies. West of that were the Ohio territories, the Mississippi River, and the vast remainder of the continent, which at that time belonged mostly to Spain. Americans regularly hunted for their food; we had no Army or National Guard; the “frontier” was still lawless, and Indians still attacked. Then, owning a musket was essential.

Today, owning a modern gun is a liability. Many of today’s semiautomatic pistols can fire a barrage of high-caliber, hollow-point rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger, and such a weapon or and an assault rifle with a 60-round magazine or a 100-round drum can easily be used to murder up to 50 people or more in a couple minutes.

These firearms are in fact, personal weapons of mass destruction.  It is simply not sane or reasonable to believe that the authors of the Second Amendment intended that anyone could walk into a store or gun show, and in a few minutes, buy a cache of weapons and ammunition capable of killing many dozens of people.

In the 1950s, the NRA’s advertising was all about family and hunting. Their images were of a dad, his son, and their golden retriever out hunting ducks. Popular guns were bird guns and single-shot, bolt-action hunting rifles. Over the decades, the NRA’s tone has turned very dark. By the 1970s their message had changed from hunting to self-defense. Killers and muggers lurked everywhere and every man had a duty to buy guns to protect his family from the pervasive criminal element. Today, the NRA is pushing terrorism of course, and incredibly, insurrection. The NRA website drenches the viewer in fear, claiming that there are “demons at the door”, that “the godless Left is conspiring to tear America apart”, and that a Republican congress (which is highly compensated by the NRA) is “the only check on Obama’s madness”. According to the NRA, President Obama is insane.

The NRA and the group Gun Owners of America broadcast increasingly strident warnings that government tyranny is coming, that Democrats will soon try to confiscate all their guns, that any gun regulation is an assault on their basic rights, and that gun owners have the “patriotic duty” to respond with violence. Charlton Heston’s “cold dead hands” speech was unambiguous and is still wildly popular with this crowd. Wayne LaPierre, NRA’s CEO, equates any attempt to regulate guns to Nazi atrocities, that gun owners may one day be burned in ovens just as the Nazis burned the Jews.  Yes, this is a glimpse of today’s NRA.  And their membership is at an all-time-high, with over 5 million members. Manufactured fear sells very well in America.

America’s obsession with guns is no longer about deer hunting and target practice. This is not even about self-defense from an intruder. According to the extremist gun lobby, American gun owners are the “last line of defense” − not against outside aggressors or foreign troops, but against America’s own civil authorities, the police and the National Guard. These gun owners are, according to them, preparing for the apparently inevitable day when they will willingly fire their weapons on other Americans.

Just a heads-up, here: This is called “insurrection”. The US Constitution does not guarantee the right to bear arms in order to encourage insurrection or form private militias to flout American laws.

Republican politicians have for years nurtured the growth of the extremist gun movement, and the NRA rewards them lavishly. In just the 2014 election cycle, the NRA spent $3.4 million lobbying Republican politicians and spent a whopping $28.2 million on advertising.  Of this $28 million, they spent $11 million supporting Republican candidates and $15 million attacking Democratic candidates. Yes, the political dividing line is that stark, and that was just one year.  Even after repeated, heinous mass killings, including Sandy Hook, Roseburg, Oregon, and San Bernardino, Republicans continue to stonewall any notion of tighter gun laws. Instead they offer “prayers and thoughts” and claim lamely that the solution is to take care of the mentally ill. How pathetic. As if taking care of the mentally ill has ever been a Republican priority. Regardless, this argument ignores the fact that we don’t know who is going to commit a mass murder until they do. Indeed, if a person assembles an arsenal of weapons and ammo for their coming war on the kids at the local grade school, that could be a flag, but we will never know ─ because we don’t regulate all gun purchases.

Lately, Republicans are attacking President Obama for not working hard enough to stop terrorism on US soil.  This would be laughable if it were not so tragic. The only serious tool available to reduce mass killings is to regulate the weapons used to commit those killings, but the Republicans, directed by the NRA, will not allow it. The NRA and the gun lobby have themselves, become a tyranny.

How many more people will be massacred before we find our senses?

It is time. It is well past time. We must pass laws requiring a national, stringent, uniform background check for all gun purchases, in stores, at gun shows, and in all private sales, that examine not only the buyer, but household and family members as well. Every owned gun needs a registered owner. For semiautomatic weapons, magazines containing more than ten rounds must be banned. Existing higher-capacity magazines must be purchased by the federal government and destroyed. These new laws would not infringe on anyone’s rights to own guns, but would reduce the frequency and severity of mass killings in the US.  If certain politicians lack the moral conviction to do what is needed, citizens must replace them with representatives who will act on behalf of the entire nation, rather than a clearly dangerous gun lobby.