Both Eyes Blind

In the wake of the deadliest mass killing in U.S. history in which more than 50 innocent people died, in the aftermath of the terrible carnage at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, you would think, or at least hope, that the country could come together.  But you would be wrong.  If anything, the slaughter exposes a country more fractured than ever.

At one point on the political spectrum, the attack is presented as all about guns and gun control.  At another point, it’s all about radical Islam.  But the two sides don’t connect.

pulse-orlando-shooting-001_custom-afcf8cd831a4547d9b4465462bcea412bd660ffd-s1100-c15The people who blame the NRA and gun manufacturers are seemingly unwilling to even acknowledge that there is a radical strain of Islam that not only has fomented the hate-filled, misogynistic world of ISIS, but also violently opposes the western world and the tolerant values we embody and is looking to bring the fight to our shores.  The people who focus solely on radical Islam, on the other hand, won’t concede that something is wrong when one man whose behavior has become increasingly troubling, and who was targeted in several terrorist investigations, can somehow acquire a gun that allows him, with a few squeezes of a trigger, to send out a fusillade of bullets that can kill and injure few more than 100 people in a few bloody minutes.

There’s a middle ground here, but no one seems interested in finding it.

On one side, people need to acknowledge that certain strains of radical Islam present a real problem that needs to be addressed.  If we allow concerns about political correctness to prevent us from even talking directly about the issue, if we couch our discussions in oblique terms about what “we” need to do as a society rather than focusing on the specific problem, how can we ever hope to develop a solution?  Emoticons and lighting candles aren’t going to change the paradigm.  And we need to recognize that the shackles imposed by our zeal to achieve maximal inoffensiveness come at a cost — in the form of Donald Trump, whose appeal for many is due in part to his willingness to break through the PC barriers.  Trump’s unseemly and ignorant self-congratulation in the wake of the Pulse massacre was a vintage example of his colossal ego and intrinsic bad taste, but his followers undoubtedly are nodding at the fact that their candidate at least is talking about the issue, whereas other leaders seem to be living in a kind of PC fantasy world.

On the other side, the gun ownership advocates need to acknowledge that we’ve moved beyond the self-protection and sportsman’s paradise rationales for American gun ownership, and technology has pushed the envelope even farther.  With guns available that allow a lone killer to shoot down dozens of innocent people in an incredibly short period of time — before even the speediest law enforcement agency could possibly hope to respond and intervene — the stakes for some kind of meaningful and rational approach to gun ownership are higher than ever.  No family looking to defend their home against an intruder, and no hunter out looking to take down a deer, needs to acquire a weapon that allows them to fire off dozens of shots in the space of a few blinks of an eye.

The Pulse massacre teaches us that we need to work on both of these issues — but first the two sides need to recognize that the two issues actually exist.  Don’t hold your breath.

Searching For The Elusive Middle Ground

The battle against terrorism, and the question of how to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, illustrate once again how hard it is to find the common, middle ground in modern America.

A devastating event like the Paris attacks or the San Bernardino shootings occurs, and the respective sides retreat to their corners — which seem to be getting farther away from each other.  The group on one side insists that we should trust the government to deal with the issue, that the real problem isn’t ideology but the availability of guns, and that in any case we should be more focused on homegrown nuts and their violent antics.  In the corner we’ve got — well, people like Donald Trump, who argued yesterday that we should ban all Muslims from entering the United States until the government can “figure out what is going on.”

the-economist-no-middle-ground-small-65430It seems like there is a lot of middle ground between those positions, yet sometimes it is hard to find it and stake it out.  Social media, the demands of political fundraising and a 24-hour news cycle, and the full-time spin machines of the political parties all contribute to that reality.  Politicians who take hard-line views on either side find it easier to raise money and stay in the news, and politicians who voice more nuanced positions get relentlessly attacked by the hard-liners as soft or unprincipled.  Internet memes talk past each other without fairly characterizing, or engaging, the merits of differing viewpoints.  And the spinners distort opposing views and try to push them as far away as possible from that elusive middle ground.

Of course, all of those tactics and tropes don’t eliminate the middle ground, they just obscure it.  The fair-minded skeptic focused on practical realities can still find it in the murk.

So where is the middle ground here?  I think the middle ground flatly rejects Trump’s call for banning Muslims as appalling demagoguery that is anti-American down to its dark, rotten core, and inconsistent with the foundational principles of tolerance and religious freedom on which our country was built.  I think the middle ground recognizes that radical Islamic terrorism is a dangerous threat to our peace and security that needs to be addressed, that people who worry about it aren’t inevitably nutty racist xenophobes, and that we can’t hug it away or reasonably characterize it as less important than, say, global warming.  I think the middle ground thinks we don’t have to choose whether foreign terrorists are more dangerous than crazed Americans who shoot up schools or theaters or Planned Parenthood clinics, but that a country with our resources should actually be able to deal with both of those problems.  And I think the middle ground understands that reflexively depicting the person who doesn’t agree with you as an idiot, a wuss, or a knuckle-dragging throwback isn’t going to help us tackle these problems and that harsh language and caricatures usually just harden opposing views rather than persuade.

In some way, Donald Trump’s bombastic buffoonery might actually help us to find the middle ground; it’s encouraging that other Republican presidential candidates condemned his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.  But we can’t rely on Trump’s appeal to the lowest common denominator to define the national discourse.  We’ve got to find that middle ground, somewhere, and then move forward.