Right-wing extremism received heavy scrutiny for a few days following the Planned Parenthood attacks. Commentators and left-wing politicians criticized the venomous rhetoric the right uses to denounce its opponents, one of which – the red herring cry of “baby parts” – was used by the Planned Parenthood shooter himself. Since the San Bernardino shooting, committed by Muslims a few days later, white terror has largely fallen off the radar. It shouldn’t.
What hasn’t fallen off the radar is the gun debate. It’s being waged as aggressively now as it’s been in years, with President Obama calling for restricted access to assault weapons and other mild reforms. Conservatives, as expected, reacted with total apoplexy. There has been a strange development, though, as the gun debate has become part of the discussion on Islamic terror.
After a terrorist rampage in Paris left 130 people dead, Republican standard-bearer Donald Trump said, in relation to France’s gun control laws, “Nobody had guns… if our people had guns, if they were allowed to carry, it would have been a much, much different situation.” Similarly, the need for Americans to be armed so they can deal with terrorists is being emphasized by right-wing politicians, pundits and even law enforcement officials.
At the same time Republicans oppose restricting access to firearms even for suspected terrorists. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s point about the arbitrary way names are added to terror lists is well-taken. But if the country is even going to pretend to be serious about keeping guns out of the hands of bad guys, banning their sale to suspected terrorists is a pretty obvious first step.
There’s a close parallel to what’s going on in the Middle East. World powers, including the United States, are picking sides in a nearly continent-spanning war in which no allegiance is permanent. American arms dealers now funnel weapons through the CIA to supposedly “moderate” rebels allied with Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, both of which are offshoots of the last decade’s great enemy, al-Qaeda.
Much of the carnage can be linked directly to the 2002 invasion of Iraq which completely destabilized the country, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, displaced millions of others, divided the country into a sectarian civil war, and in the resulting power vacuum enabled the emergence of groups like ISIS which must now themselves be taken out. It’s a system of perpetual violence, which is just how war profiteers like it. As long as it’s concentrated overseas, they can operate without scrutiny from the establishment press or politicians.
One gets the prickly sensation that the same kind of endless war is what policymakers are after in the United States. The rhetoric that drives the right-wing base is extremely hostile and closely aligned with what they regard as Christian values, inviting parallels to other religious extremists. Deeply divorced from the truth and convinced of the value of using violence to resolve conflict, there is a potentially dangerous political cult forming in America.
Imagine that these are the extreme ends of the gun debate: The left wants to ban the manufacture and sale of all guns, even for home defense and hunting, and do a round-up of all guns that are currently privately owned; the right wants zero restrictions on gun ownership, allowing a single private citizen to amass thousands of firearms, automatic weapons, grenades, etc.
In actuality, the spectrum is far narrower than this and concentrated overwhelmingly on the right. But assuming these are the two positions, which is compromising more: The side that pushes modest reforms like banning assault weapons, expanding background checks, and limiting magazine capacity or the side that doesn’t even want to ban the sale of weapons to suspected terrorists?
No one is trying to pry anything from anybody’s cold, dead hands, but that’s the way the right frames the gun debate. Even mild reform is viewed as the start of a slippery slope toward eventual surrender of all firearms to the federal government. If a law is passed by democratically elected officials with popular support which restricts in some small way the possession of firearms, the NRA has made no bones about what its reaction will be.
The right-wing base is not merely disagreeing on policy; it’s being prepared for war. Examples abound, but one representative video was posted recently by a Texas police chief, Randy Kennedy. Kennedy encourages citizens to arm themselves so they are equipped to deal with radical religious extremists, then proceeds to say that an American is only answerable to God and Jesus Christ and warns that any attempt to confiscate guns will be met with a revolution.
Like Kennedy, much of the right is convinced they’re at war already. Bernie Sanders has talked of revolution, but his is a revolution of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. For the right, it’s a revolution against the other half of the country – especially the 50 percent who are pro-choice and the 55 percent who support stricter gun laws. And politicians and the NRA are all-too-happy to feed their paranoia and equip them to wage that war.
Tensions between whites and other ethnic groups, particularly Muslims, are being exploited by xenophobic GOP leaders like Trump. Even as thousands of Americans are slaughtered by legally purchased firearms, the right wants zero restriction on gun sales. In terms of death toll, there is no serious comparison between the Middle East and the US. But with firearm proliferation, daily mass shootings, and deep, uncompromising divisions being reinforced along racial, religious and party lines, we’re moving uncomfortably close to creating at home the conditions that lead to violence overseas.