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American Shootings are Not a War. Here’s Why it Matters.

I saw it yesterday in the tweet of a famous Republican politician as he lobbed threats against our president and political activists:

Republican Former Congressman and Current Radio Talk Show Host Joe Walsh declaring that Barack Obama and black political activists should watch out because Real America is coming after them in a war. This is now war, declares Joe Walsh.

I’ve seen it today in the posts of conservative conspiracy theorists:

Conservative conspiracy theorist Alex Jones declares the beginning of a race war

I’ve seen it today in the online writings of someone I know:

Does the shooting of Dallas police officers equal war?

The killing of five police officers by a lone gunman in Dallas is horrible and wrong in so many ways. The shooting of unarmed black men by police officers is horrible and wrong in so many ways. But is it, as these people claim, war?

Despite what some are writing in public today, to me the current situation is “clearly a war.” It is only clear to me that some people are eager to define what’s going on as a war. Some people would like it to be a war. Why? Think about what happens in wartime:

  • Wars create sides, usually two sides, out of relationships that beforehand were much more complicated, subtle, and integrated.
  • Wars make it more difficult for those living in warring nations to simultaneously articulate multiple competing ideas.
  • Wars involve demands that people first choose sides and second either directly take up arms against the other side or support others who do so.
  • As a consequence of these developments, wars increase perception that each “side” is monolithically out to get the other “side,” lending legitimacy to hysteria.
  • Wars favor the rise of authoritarian leadership.
  • Wars lead to accusations of “treason” for nonconformity.
  • Wars diminish the tendency of media outlets to report information and increase the tendency of media outlets to produce propaganda.
  • Wars lead to the reduction of civil liberties and increase the coercive power of government.
  • Wars weaken checks against and constraints on the abuse of power.

It is not true that the current situation features only two sides. It is not true that the current situation is simple. It is not true that in the current situation a single person must both align with one group and oppose another. Overwhelmingly vast majorities of all people in the United States are engaged in peaceful and non-violent relations with one another. Rates of violence are actually down strikingly over the last two decades, and human violence is far more common between two members of the same group than between two members of different groups. We are not at war.

We are not at war, but very abruptly some people are insisting that we must think of it as a war.  We’ve seen an insistence on the usage of the language of war before, in the not-at-all-distant past.  Remember the “War On Terror?” There was no war declared. Terror is not a nation.  And yet, the use of the word “war” led to authoritarian government seizures of power over individual lives.  It led to violence.  It led to prejudice. It led to torture.  It led to propaganda by our media and conformity within our populace.  Convince people that “war” exists and all this can be achieved, making some people who benefit from this change very happy, making most of us miserable.

I believe we should actively resist that definition of the current situation as a “war.” What’s going on? Intergroup discrimination, at times with deadly consequences. Discrimination is different than war and calls for different solutions. It calls for increased contact, not decreased contact.  It calls for the lessening of power differences in those interactions, not the use of ultimate power to obliterate the other.  This sort of constructive remedy is what we should be focusing on — not another bloody so-called “war” with horrible uses that we will inevitably regret.

One thought on “American Shootings are Not a War. Here’s Why it Matters.”

  1. Charles Manning says:

    Thanks for putting the Dallas shootings in perspective. This was a mass murder resembling the July 16, 2015 shooting by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who shot five servicemen on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The most notable difference this time: a crowd of about 800 people had just ended a demonstration and ran for their lives as the shooting began.

    Every day, we lose 30 or so people to gun violence in this country. Yet no one talks about this constituting a war.

    Some people featured in media reports correctly questioned why no one noticed Micah Johnson’s preparations for the shooting. The lesson from this horrible event isn’t that we’re in a war (civil war?), but that we as a nation have to watch people with guns to be sure they’re not crossing the line into madness.

    Recently I read a recommendation that makes very good sense. Gun owners should be prohibited from possessing more than a small number of bullets, say 10. Just enough to allow self-defense if it’s actually called for — which very rarely happens. There should be a law that anyone who knows someone has more than 10 bullets in their personal possession (there could be exemptions for gun ranges, military on active duty, and law enforcement) must report that, the way the law requires reporting child abuse. Sure, Johnson could have built IED’s, or come up with other ways of killing, but why make it easy for him by allowing him legally to possess hundreds of bullets for his guns?

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