You Can’t Have it Both Ways

Worker in Papyrus Store in Cairo

Let me make sure this is correct.

You are IN FAVOR of banning 23% of the world’s population from entering the United States because they happen to practice a religion that has been wildly distorted by a group of whack job extremists (a measure that would not have stopped the massacres in Orlando or San Bernardino, since the two men who planned and carried out these attacks were US-born American citizens)…

…but you are AGAINST adding a provision to gun control legislation that blocks the sale of firearms to people who have been under investigation for ties to terrorist organizations, because it’s possible someone who is on the “watch list” shouldn’t be?

I’m sorry, but you just can’t have this both ways.  You cannot purport to be tough on terrorism and maintain a legal environment for firearm sales that is a domestic terrorist’s playground.

I can concede the point that it would suck for some hypothetical group of harmless folks that could have a to time or even be restricted from buying a gun because of wrongful suspicion on the part of National Security agencies. But I’ll go ahead and admit that I am very adamant in my belief that it sucks a lot more that a couple of Americans, who pose credible enough of a terrorism threat that they are on the FBI’s radar, can saunter into a gun shop and leave with a small arsenal.

The cynic in me belies that, crazy is going to be crazy, hateful is going to be hateful, and the reality is that religious extremists, no matter what religion they choose to distort (remember Robert Lewis Dear?), will probably find a way to do harm no matter what. But it seems like leaving the way clear for folks who pose a credible threat to quickly and legally acquire enough firepower to challenge a small army is just plain stupid.

And I fully understand that the so called “Muslim ban” is ostensibly an attempt to keep “dangerous ideologies” out of the country. I can sympathize with this desire. But spending more than 5-10 seconds in thought on this should reveal such a ban to be a proposition with comparable effectiveness to collecting water with a sieve.  It has been well-established that ISIS recruitment, particularly in the West, is often carried out from afar using a sophisticated media apparatus that includes multimedia content, websites, forums, email, text messaging, and a vast social media empire (Read this NY Times Feature for an intimate portrait of this phenomenon ISIS and the Lonely Young American). Which is to say that if we are going to entertain the possibility of hugely reactionary, questionably effective responses to terrorism, it would probably make more sense to ban the Internet.

I happen to share the conviction of many that we, as a nation, have to do something to end violence born of extremism of all kinds (religious, racist, misogynist, state-supported, etc.)–to take serious steps. But personally, I would prefer we, as a nation, do something that actually makes sense–that we not settle for a measure that will accomplish little more than bolstering ethnocentric isolationism.

Jena 6

There is something insidious in the air, but this isn’t new. For 3 or 4 years now, I’ve been steadily prickling, like the hairs on my forearm after a shower has left me starkly naked and cold. I’ve watched myself grow angrier in general and more desperate in response to the specificities of the current administration, the war in Iraq, the everyday atrocities of the local news and all the things that never make it that far. It feels like things are coming to a head. It feels as if the era of political correctness with respect to race/ethnicity is coming to an end… all sorts are showing their true colors.

I’m feeling isolated to tell you the truth (whoever you may be). Feeling as if the country is smoldering, right on the verge of exploding into flame, but that no one notices, or notices and doesn’t think it matters, or thinks it matters and don’t think anyone anywhere can do anything about it. I want scream, quite frankly, “We are all going to burn for fuck’s sake! What the shit is wrong with you?”

I don’t.

I have always believed that we are a racist country, that we are firmly entangled in our history as a slave nation, that the color of your skin matters more than anything else in determining your experience as an American today. This is not to say that there is no tolerance to be seen in the American public. I am saying that quietly, silently, perhaps even unaware to ourselves, we hold onto the ideologies that kept people like me in shackles for hundreds of years. It isn’t the Klan members or Neo-Nazi groups that are of concern to me. These folks, while dangerous, are at least honest. They are at least identifiable and, in that sense, capable of being quelled.

It is the “average” citizen that scares me. The ones who can whole-heartedly and very sincerely declare they are not capable of racism, because they have “lots of black friends” and that they “don’t even notice they are black.” The ones who openly and ignorantly fear anyone they to perceive to be from the middle east or northern Africa, using the word “terrorist” as if it were and ethnic category and not a description of behaviors that could be just as easily applied to fundamentalist Christians who bomb abortion clinics and picket the funerals of fellow Americans with signs that say “God Hates Fags”. The ones who support equality for everyone, but don’t want their sons and daughters dating a black man or woman. The ones who never notice that injustice is a part of everyday US life and when they are forced to take notice because a story makes the national news, they are quick to blame it on a few errant communities or individuals, like those in Jena, LA.

What I want is the right to be openly pissed off without being indited as or written off for being a scary, angry black person. I want to talk to any and everyone about what is going on without being accused of “pulling the race card”. I think I will start calling such actions “pulling the truth card”; that’ll surely cause some eyes to roll. I want to be able to say out loud that questioning why “we all can’t just get along” is useless without being accused of being a separatist. We can get along; the problem is that it wont be easy. At a minimum we need to realize that:

  1. Government sanctioned racism, sexism, and homophobia, whether it be explicit (for example it is still federally legal to fire someone, deny them housing, and deny them the right to make a legal union with a loved one because they happen not to be heterosexual) or implicit (government officials using the terms terrorist, Muslim, and middle easterner interchangeably so that Americans begin to fear and despise a people rather than an act), serves to condone racism on a cultural level.
  2. One does not have to “intend” to be hateful or harmful to be racist. Racism is in fact more dangerous in it’s innocuous social forms (i.e. jokes, assumptions, fears, etc). Acknowledging specifically what we mean when we use phrases like “bad neighborhood” or “those people” is a start.
  3. It cannot solely be the responsibility of marginalized people to “win” the acceptance of dominant groups. For every fight for justice and equality on the part of the marginalized, there should be an equal effort in extending an invitation on the part of the dominant.
  4. Problems like that now playing out in Jena, LA are EVERYONE’S PROBLEM not simply that of some “misguided” folks in the south. Each one of us has some stake in creating the cultural climate we live in and it is telling that we as a nation currently maintain a climate in which these kinds if subcultures can continue to flourish, not isolated from, but completely integrated into the national economy and judicial system.
  5. Making a difference can happen in an infinite number of ways. Political involvement or traditional forms of activism are not for everyone. I am a believer that almost any effort in any almost form is positive. Write a song, have a conversation over pints, draw a picture, change your vocabulary, say hello to someone you normally wouldn’t talk to, memorize the names and locations of 5 major cities in the middle east on a map.

Please. Do something.