Each time a horrific shooting takes place, the nation pauses, politicians pay lip service and the country’s biggest gun lobby—the National Rifle Association—remains silent. After a suitable period has passed and public rage has receded, the NRA makes cynical pronouncements about activists abusing the memory of victims of the violence by calling for gun control. Americans, replete with lethal weaponry, move on without making any connections between the the cold metal in their holsters and the dead.
We tend to see gun violence not as a pattern that needs a strong and immediate response, but as a series of disconnected incidents that simply cannot be helped. But perhaps it is a matter of perspective.
Paul Ciancia, the 23-year-old accused of killing Gerardo Hernandez and wounding three others at the Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 1, was immediately described as a “lone shooter,” a category that enables us to dismiss such incidents as aberrations rather than part of a larger spectrum.
Political commentator Rose Aguilar, in an interview with me about the LAX shooting, lamented, “I fear we’re becoming so numb to these events which are now happening on a regular basis. In fact, I was telling friends, ‘Oh, there was a shooting at LAX,’ and hardly anyone responded because it’s happening so regularly.”
But what if the killer had been brown skinned or Muslim? What if he had used a small homemade bomb rather than an assault rifle, killing and wounding just as many people? Would he have been described as a “lone shooter” or as “terrorist”? Would his actions have resulted in near-silence from politicians, or warranted a deep examination and systemic response?
When I asked Fred Clarkson, senior fellow with Political Research Associates, about the hypocrisy with which we treat violence depending on the shooter’s skin color or the manner of killing, he replied, “It is certainly true—there are many double standards at play in terms of race and religion and national identity. I mean a terrorist act is a terrorist act by any reasonable definition.”
Almost no pronouncements have been made in the media or on Capitol Hill casting Ciancia’s alleged actions as “terrorist.” The FBI defines a domestic terrorist as a person involved in “acts dangerous to human life” that “appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
A “manifesto” allegedly written by Ciancia and left in his bag indicates that he may have targeted TSA agents to “instill fear into their traitorous minds.” Furthermore, according to authorities he identified himself in the letter as a “Patriot,” implying that he is influenced by the loose network of extremist right-wing Americans calling themselves part of the “Patriot Movement.”
Clarkson, who studies such movements, told me the Patriot Movement “really started out as an effort to form a coalition of a broad swath of the far right. The catalytic moment was when President George H. W. Bush used the phrase ‘New World Order’ in a speech rather inadvertently, talking about global cooperation. Well, this set off the conspiracy alarms in an awful lot of places and everybody from the neo-Nazi Aryan Nation, to various people who are “free men”—individualists who believe that they’re sovereign citizens—to Christian theocratic elements, and more, saw that they had common cause against the ‘creeping tyranny’ of government.”
But why target TSA agents? Clarkson speculated, it is “probably because it is part of the Department of Homeland Security primarily and a government security agency. The idea of the TSA as part of the ‘creeping government tyranny’ is widely perceived on the far right.” If the shooter indeed saw the TSA as representative of government overreach into the sovereign lives of Americans, his actions aimed at eliminating TSA agents could well be a message to the government and as such would qualify as a terrorist act as per the FBI’s definition.
In fact, there are many ideological similarities between Islamic fundamentalists—whom the U.S. government routinely designates as “international terrorists”—and the American extreme right. Muslim fundamentalists and the American far right are both motivated by extreme religious beliefs, tend to have antiquated ideas about the role of women, see themselves as “soldiers of God” (Ciancia wore military fatigues when he allegedly fired his weapon), and vigorously defend their way of life using violence if necessary. In addition, both groups tend to harbor strong homophobia—Ciancia reportedly used the derogatory term “bull dyke” in reference to former Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano in his “manifesto,” and Clarkson relayed that one reason he may have targeted the TSA is that “there is a belief on the far right that part of the TSA’s pat down process is really a bit of homosexual groping.”
It is in this context that the issue of gun violence becomes especially relevant. Ciancia allegedly used a Smith and Wesson M&P .223-caliber assault rifle, a weapon that can be easily and legally purchased precisely because of the efforts of the gun lobby and its primary base of support within the extreme right. The Patriot Movement, which strongly defends the Second Amendment, sees itself as a “militia necessary to the security of a free State.”
The American “Patriot Movement” is not insignificant. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking the movement over the years, has found a sharp increase in the number of groups that identify under the umbrella of “patriots” since the election of the country’s first African-American president, Barack Obama. In 2008 there were 149 Patriot groups in the nation, but by 2012 the number increased to more than 1,300. For this reason, the attack on LAX should be considered within the spectrum of Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, Scott Roeder’s 2009 murder of abortion doctor George Tiller and Joseph Stack’s 2010 attack on an IRS building in Texas. The FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism applies to all of these cases.
The ubiquitous presence of TSA officials is the result of a few terrorist actions and attempted actions at airports and in airplanes. In response to these crimes, we have given authorities the mandate to keep weapons out of the sky. Why then, when gun violence in the U.S. has claimed more than a million lives over the past 50 years, does our society not put in place a similar mandate on the ground?
The heavy proliferation of guns has made possible countless lethal incidents of gang-, domestic-, and drug- and alcohol-related violence. It has resulted in tragic accidents involving children, murder-suicides, and mass shootings by those suffering from mental illness. Sadly such fatalities, which form the majority of incidents involving gun violence, have not moved the needle closer toward regulating gun sales. But perhaps seeing gun violence as part of the pattern of domestic terrorism will.
Polls show that a majority of the public supports stricter gun laws, especially those restricting assault weapons. A whopping 87 percent of Americans favor stricter background checks on gun purchasers.
Aguilar reminisced to me about the one incident in the past year that most shocked the nation and held the greatest hope to curb gun proliferation. She said, “After the Sandy Hook shooting [in Connecticut] happened when 20 children and [six] adults were killed, I thought ‘if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now. We’re talking about children.’ Parents went to Capitol Hill begging for action. They got nothing. When we got nothing I thought, we’ve lost our way.”
Incredibly, the union that represents TSA workers has responded to the LAX shooting by calling for its agents to be armed. This echoes the NRA’s talking point in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting last year that the best way to prevent gun violence by a shooter entering a school is to arm teachers. The Los Angeles Times quoted Rand Corp. researcher Brian Jenkins who rightly pointed out that “Heaven forbid we end up in a situation where in the course of a gunfight [between a shooter and TSA agents] at a checkpoint, civilians were killed by friendly fire.”
Today it is harder to obtain a driver’s license than it is to obtain a gun. The NRA has undue influence on our laws and even the terms of debate on the issue. In a civilized country, the NRA would accept heavy regulation of guns just as the auto industry accepts rigorous driver’s license tests as a necessary safety precaution.
Bipasha Shom contributed research to this column.