November 16, 2018

Pulse and Pride

OK, I’ll start with the good news. 

While the extent of the Orlando tragedy was being revealed back East, in Los Angeles, tragedy was averted.

Acting on a tip from a suspicious resident, Santa Monica police stopped a man, James Wesley Howell, who said he was on his way to the gay pride parade in West Hollywood on the morning of Sunday, June 12.  When police searched Howell’s trunk, they found three assault rifles, high-capacity magazines and chemicals to make explosives.  Howell, who is from Indiana, is in custody.

If the resident, the FBI and the Santa Monica Police had not acted with such vigilance and professionalism, Sunday would have been even worse than it was.  Just as at the Pulse nightclub, where the Orlando shooting took place, West Hollywood could have the site of multiple innocent victims, pools of blood, chaos and unimaginable grief.  Pride could easily have been as bad as Pulse.  

So there are some blessings to count, but also lessons to learn:

We are winning. One of the lessons is that America is not losing its war on terror.   We are not weak, or under siege or being overrun by hoards of Islamic terrorists.  Self-proclaimed Islamic terrorists have perpetrated eight attacks on American soil since 2009. Including the Orlando tragedy, and the total number of their victims is 95.  These are shocking incidents, with horrific consequences.  But the numbers do not warrant anything close to panic.  

If anything, the arrest that happened Sunday morning in Santa Monica is the norm, not the exception.  It’s not that America isn’t full of freedom and soft targets – it is.  But law enforcement and intelligence services have gotten much better at thwarting planned attacks.  President Barack Obama’s decision to take the fight overseas to target those inspiring or, in same cases, abetting our homegrown  jihadis has also crippled their ability to plan and execute attacks here.

Victims are victims. It’s deceptive and unhelpful to make our reaction to these attacks all about Islamic terror.  Since 2009, there have been 17 far-right-wing terror attacks inside the United States, more than double the number of Islamists’ attacks.  These include the murder of three people outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and the shooting of a security guard outside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. in 2009.  All told, these far-right extremist attacks, which have disproportionately targeted gays, Jews, blacks and Muslims, have claimed 45 lives.  

Tough talk is for losers.  Literally, if all our leaders, or our wannabe leader, can offer is tough talk untethered to experience and sound policies, we will eventually lose.  In the wake of Orlando, Donald Trump tweeted that he was being congratulated for pointing out Islamic terror and calling for a ban on Muslims.  I kept thinking:  Hillary Clinton urged President Obama to smoke Osama Bin Laden, then watched it happen.   This while Trump, I’m guessing, was wrapping another episode of “The Apprentice.”

From left: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Photos by Reuters

Better gun laws would help.  Where in the Second Amendment does it say people investigated twice for terrorism have the right to bear arms? Where does it say a person on the Federal “No Fly List” should still be able to buy a gun?  In the immediate aftermath of every massacre, the pro- and anti-gun forces immediately take to Twitter, finding plenty of fuel for the next round of debate.  And the result: A lot of yelling, no change.

The truth is, banning assault rifles in the wake of a massacre committed with an assault rifle may sound good, but the evidence shows such bans do very little to reduce gun violence.  Assault weapons account for 4 percent of the 32,000 (yes, 32,000, including suicides) gun deaths in the U.S. each year. 

Public health officials might keep guns out of the hands of potential terrorists through much tougher background checks, and it would help for the government to go after gray-market gun dealers; it would also reduce accidents and suicides to require fingerprint-controlled triggers.  Where there is a will, there are solutions. Consider this: 10 years after Connecticut passed a law requiring gun buyers to pass a background check and a safety course with a certified instructor, gun homicides in the state fell 40 percent.

These steps might not have kept a gun out of the hands of the Orlando shooter. But it will be a shame if we spend all our time arguing about assault rifles when there are other, likely more effective, common-sense laws that could reduce the obscene number of gun deaths in this country

Vigilance, not panic. The day after the June 8 terror attack at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv, patrons made a point of flooding back and ordering coffee and cake at the restaurant where two Palestinian cousins had gunned down four Israelis in cold blood.  That Friday night, Israelis of all backgrounds came for Shabbat services at the market.  We can learn a lot from a country that has been dealing with wanton, nihilistic terror for decades.  Vigilance works. Too many of us assume it takes a Carrie Mathison to penetrate terrorist sleeper cells. But we all need to be aware of the warning signs of a super-empowered fanatic, willing and able to act on his or her own.  After Orlando, our job remains the same:  to keep our guard up — and our values too.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.