Guns don’t kill people – people kill people, with guns

Houston Chronicle - Nick Anderson
Houston Chronicle – Nick Anderson

The cartoon above has made the rounds on the Internet in the last few days, alongside the argument that massacres such as the murder of 20 children in Newtown are not an issue of gun control, but an issue of access to mental health services. While I agree that mental health care should be more readily available for people suffering from mental illness, to me this issue IS about access to guns. Look at the cartoon again. What would happen if the gun store didn’t exist, or if it was up a steeper set of stairs than mental health care? Across the world, there are plenty of deranged people with serious mental health conditions, but they don’t all have access to semi-automatic or automatic weapons that make it possible to kill 20 people in a matter of moments.

One of my father’s friends suffered a terrible tragedy earlier this year when his brother was murdered in cold blood by a lunatic with an assault weapon in a cafe in Seattle.My family friend’s brother, a musician, was playing a gig with friends when the murderer walked into the cafe and started killing people. Why did this person have access to assault weapons and military-strength ammo? In the wake of the unspeakable acts in Newtown, my father’s friend took to Facebook to say that anyone who is getting his hands on military equipment – kevlar vests, massive amounts of ammo, etc – does not have good intentions. While this may be something of a generalization, there is some truth to the fact that nobody – no civilian – needs access to this type of equipment. It is simply unnecessary, and it is clearly dangerous.

How many more children need to accidentally discharge their families’ weapons? How many more times are we going to allow such disturbing, life-shattering events of violence to take place before we look deep into ourselves and acknowledge the problem: access to guns – and most especially deadly, military-strength, automatic and assault weapons, what Sen. Dianne Feinstein calls “weapons of war” – is creating opportunities for unstable people to commit insane acts of violence.

The statistics also speak for themselves. Compare the amount of people who die from gun violence in the States to similar statistics for any other industrialized nation. According to statistics from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the US ranks 28th in the world in terms of percentage of homicides by firearm (per 100K people). Ahead of the United States? Countries such as Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala…. The United States beats any other country in terms of firearm ownership (270,000,000 guns in the US; second highest is India, with 46,000,000). According to the CDC, in 2009, there were 16,799 homicides in the United States. Of those, 11,493 were firearm-related. Look at the graph below, which charts deaths due to assault (firearms and other weapons included( in OECD countries. The US is an outlier, no matter which way you want to look at this information.

OECD countries: Deaths due to assault per 100,000 population from 1960 to the present

The issue is clearly not just one of access to guns, but also a culture that glorifies gun ownership. Gun advocates tout their 2nd amendment rights – sure, when the founding fathers sat down to write the constitution, clearly, gun ownership to protect Americans from the British was a necessity. But we no longer live in those times. And gun ownership these days has absolutely nothing to do with the “well-regulated” militia cited in the 2nd amendment. There are of course plenty of people who own guns responsibly, but their hobby is not reason enough to continue to sell instruments of death widely across the country. A lot of the sick, crazy monsters who shot up crowds of people in the US in recent years obtained their weapons legally. In some cases, there is no history of mental health problems, nothing detectable at all – only their purchase of hundreds of rounds of ammo may have raised red flags.

Seriously, who *needs* a gun? The answer is no one. I don’t care if it’s your favorite weekend past time, I don’t care if your family spends its quality time shooting stuff up – it’s time to put them down and seriously reflect: is your selfish desire to own an assault weapon more important than the lives of 20 innocent children in a school? More important than the lives of countless innocents that are murdered in cold blood and for no reason whatsoever in malls, movie theaters, universities, high schools?

I get that guns don’t kill people – yes, people kill people. But the presence of dangerous assault weapons sure makes it a whole lot easier for lunatics to wreak havoc on communities. Yes, we need better access to mental health services, but it’s not because these services exist that a) they will be used; b) they will be effective. For me, it’s obvious that better mental health care services are needed, but that actually has very little to do with preventing mass murder. It has a lot more to do with being a civilized society where we care for one another, where the government is able to demonstrate that it is – at least! – attempting to prevent people from falling through the cracks, whether they are a potential murderer or simply living a difficult, lonely life because of a condition that isolates them from their family and community.

Look at other countries: there are plenty of mentally unstable people everywhere, but when they don’t have access to weapons of war, they don’t go – cannot go! – on shooting rampages.

I’ll conclude by quoting Barack Obama, who, I hope will live up to the promise of his words:

We can’t tolerate this anymore.  These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.  We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true.  No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.  Surely, we can do better than this.  If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.  Because what choice do we have?  We can’t accept events like this as routine.  Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?  Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

New Yorker Tid Bits

In the past week, two New Yorker features have caught my eye, and I thought I’d share them here. The first is about Bill Clinton’s epic speech at the Democratic National Convention, and how WJC doesn’t just read the teleprompter, he converses with it. The article is replete with quotes comparing the official speech to what was actually delivered, and it’s awesome (the speech ended up being twice as long as originally intended).

On a bit about Obama’s health-care law, the Teleprompter gives Clinton: “The Republicans call it ‘Obamacare’ and say it’s a government takeover of health care that they’ll repeal.” Clinton spits back:

The Republicans call it, derisively, “Obamacare.” They say it’s a government takeover of health care, a disaster, and that if we’ll just elect them they’ll repeal it.

That “derisively,” which underscores the point and clarifies it for anyone unfamiliar, is a good idea. The insertion of “a disaster” as the rhythmic fulcrum of the second sentence is an even better one. But the caustic irony of that “if we’ll just elect them”—that’s the kind of nuance that you could expect from a master speechwriter who has had days or weeks, not split seconds, to consider the best way of putting things.

Brilliant.

The second article is about Facebook and the “Nipplegate.” It’s so incredibly silly, but I love the New Yorker’s treatment of the issue. Here’s a great out-of-context quote:

While female nipple bulging, or F.N.B. for short, is a potentially serious problem, with as yet no known cure, it also has no known victims. That is, unless you count freedom of expression, common sense, and humor.

The limits of freedom of expression

As a Franco-American with strong ties to both cultures, I’ve always struggled a bit to reconcile what “freedom of expression” means in my two countries. While I’m – of course – a firm believer in freedom of expression (part and parcel of being a liberal/progressive), I did not grow up in a country where politicians and opinion leaders could lash out terrible racist or homophobic epithets with no consequences. In the United States, however, I am consistently shocked and angered by some of the stories I come across. Like this:

A South Carolina lawmaker on Thursday called a Republican gubernatorial candidate of Indian descent a “raghead,” saying we have one in the White House, we don’t need one in the governor’s mansion.

Or, this, which is down right infuriating:

An Arizona elementary school mural featuring the faces of kids who attend the school has been the subject of constant daytime drive-by racist screaming, from adults, as well as a radio talk-show campaign (by an actual city councilman, who has an AM talk-radio show) to remove the black student’s face from the mural, and now the school principal has ordered the faces of the Latino and Black students pictured on the school wall to be repainted as light-skinned children.
(emphasis in the original article)

Neither of these stories are particularly different from the hundreds of other stories of racism and intolerance. I think, as Americans, we’ve become numb to this, in spite of the fact that it’s completely outrageous and unacceptable that in 2010, in a supposedly modern and free America, people are still being vilified for their race, creed or sexual orientation – without any consequences.

Freedom of expression is a thorny issue, with deep philosophical implications, and I won’t take attempt to take on this subject in this blog – partly because I have not really made up my mind about my own views as to what freedom of expression should look like.

What I do know, though, is that I tend to prefer the French approach. In France, a 1990 law was passed to criminalize the denial of crimes against humanity. Publications or public expressions of support for these crimes are punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. This meant that Holocaust deniers could no longer publicize their views, and, if they did, would be charged under this law. I’m sure many Americans recoil at the notion that people’s opinions cannot all be shared with the public – regardless of how offensive, outrageous and wrong they are. Another law, passed in 2004, “makes sexist or homophobic comments illegal and forbids job discrimination against homosexuals.”

In my mind, while these laws represent restrictions to freedom of expression, they are also the sign of a society that has the moral courage to distinguish between right and wrong. I also believe these laws – while they do curb people’s individual freedom of expression – actually promote another type of freedom: that of the individual not to be discriminated against, belittled or victimized by bigots. I’ve always marveled at the stories out of the United States where neo-Nazis are prancing around denying the Holocaust, or talk-show radio hosts spewing their racist, intolerant venom. I don’t see what is so “free” about that.

In fact, just yesterday, French immigration minister Brice Hortefeux – well-known for his dislike of immigrants – was fined $900 “private insults of a racial nature.” While many in France are calling for his resignation, Hortefeux says he will appeal the decision. The New York Times recaps the incident which led to the fine:

The verdict comes nine months after Mr. Hortefeux was recorded on camera at an event in southwestern France on Sept. 5 making what to many sounded like anti-Arab remarks. The video, which was first posted on the Web site of Le Monde, shows the minister posing for a photo with a young party member of Arab origin when a woman in the crowd can be heard saying:

“Amine is a Catholic. He eats pork and drinks beer.”

“Ah, but that doesn’t work at all, then he does not fit the prototype at all,” Mr. Hortefeux is heard replying to general laughter.

Another female voice shouts: “He’s our little Arab.”

Mr. Hortefeux answers: “All the better. There always has to be one. When there’s one, it’s O.K. It’s when there are a lot of them that there are problems.”

Seriously? Remember, this man is the Minister of Immigration. For French speakers, you can watch the video here.

I think it’s a real stretch to say freedom of expression is endangered in France, even though some members of the press who have clashed with Sarkozy and his administration might beg to differ. I see these laws, which protect individuals and groups from libel and discrimination, as necessary tools to fight against intolerance. When I read stories like the one about the Arizona school mural, I find it hard to believe that Americans continue to defend unbridled “freedom” of expression…

Do good, do nothing?

In a recent article in The New Republic entitled “We Can’t Just Do Nothing“, Richard Just criticizes Mahmood Mamdani’s attacks on what he calls “human rights fundamentalists” in his book “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror.” Just writes:

For Mamdani, the Save Darfur movement is more or less indistinguishable from the great imperialist enterprise of our time, which is the war on terror. “The harsh truth,” he argues, “is that the War on Terror has provided the coordinates, the language, the images, and the sentiment for interpreting Darfur.”

In his piece, Just contrasts Mamdani’s perspective with contending views, as  expressed by Gareth Evans in his recent book, “The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All.” Essentially, it comes down to whether preventing, reacting and punishing gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity in a given country are not just the responsibility of that nation and its citizens, but also a common, shared responsibility for all.

This debate is not – by any means – new. Since the end of colonial times, thinkers, practitioners, politicians have brandished the moral and ethical argument on both sides of the debate. It is one of the most potent battle of ideas: is it more or less moral to intervene (broadly speaking)  in another sovereign country’s affairs? Some argue that national sovereignty is essentially sacred, and when it is breached, we are not only weakening the entire international system, but also creating space for misguided, neo-imperalist  interventions and intrusions. Others (like Just and Evans) believe that we have a shared, common responsibility to intervene, especially when sovereign regimes are committing crimes against their own population.

It have yet to fully figure out my own beliefs when it comes to this debate, because in some sense, I can see how “interventionists” can be labeled neoimperialists (although I think that term is contentious – at best). There is a part of me that understands how people like Mamdani construe “Western” (or other) intervention in the affairs of another country as neoimperialist, and the parallels drawn between the justifications for the war in Iraq and those for an intervention in Sudan are thought provoking.  Amanda, over at the excellent blog Wronging Rights, asks the tough questions about when or how foreign intervention is appropriate. Alex de Waal, a pre-eminent specialist on Sudan, recently wrote:

[I]f there is to be a solution, it will come from inside Sudan, and must be political, addressed at the structural political challenges of Sudan. A campaign focused on a genocide that isn’t happening, for the U.S. to step up its pressure to stop killing that has already ended, is just making Save Darfur look poorly-informed, and America look silly. Intermittently, “Save Darfur” has tried to rebrand itself as a peace movement—but its origins as an intervention campaign make it virtually impossible to make the transformation. Peace cannot be forced or dictated. If “Save Darfur” is interested in peace, the best it can do in the cause of peace is to fall silent.

Ouch.

Idiots?
Idiots?

While I agree that “misguided, though still well-intentioned” activism (celebrity or otherwise) is not the solution to ensuring a peaceful future for Sudan and its people, I worry that this type of argument is being used to justify inaction. And, in my mind, inaction – not just when it comes to Sudan, but also for a whole host of issues – is not acceptable.

We still live in a world where national sovereignty is elevated above individual rights – and in a very real way, this contributes to the peace and stability of the international system, as the violation of a country’s borders and sovereign prerogatives are still considered the ultimate act of aggression. But I get really frustrated when this line of argument is used to justify South Africa’s inability to take a real stand on Zimbabwe, or the support of clearly corrupt, ineffective and frankly plain crappy governments in places like Chad or Gabon.

When attempts at finding solutions or courses of action for the “international community” (you beautiful, ethereal term that signifies everything from advocacy NGOs to national armies) are devised, they are often fraught with political conflict (eg. the Security Council’s paralysis and ineffectiveness at being the guarantors of peace and security – ha!). As a result, we see many international “interventions” (again, in the broad sense of the term) that are underfunded and half-assed. Of course, the best (and worst) example of this is the disaster of the international response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

The end of apartheid in South Africa was the result of massive, long term, committed efforts from South African political activists. While Nelson Mandela and others fought for decades to bring justice to their country, at some point, the “international community” did step in, in the form of divestments and boycotts. And while these were not necessarily watershed moments or key turning points, these efforts did in part contribute to bringing down the regime in South Africa (a white regime oppressing a black majority – uncomfortable for a lot of Western nations).

While human rights activists’ efforts are not always effective, I don’t think we (or the causes they represent) would be better off without them. Pressuring governments, international bodies, corporations and other “heavy weight” stakeholders to deal with matters of crimes against humanity and serious, chronic human rights violations is a good thing – what’s the alternative? If easy answers or solutions were available to dealing with violence and injustice in places like Sudan, the DRC or Burma, surely someone would have thought of them by now. Critics of “human rights fundamentalists” and who see the “responsibility to protect” as a neo-imperalist concept also come from the same well-intentioned place as those they decry – I find it interesting that some of the harshest critics of “intervention” are people who have spent their lives working in the aid or development, or as diplomats posted in foreign, war-torn nations. At the very least, they share an ethic of responsibility with those they criticize.

Obama and Africa

Following a G8 meeting where leaders announced a $20 billion commitment to help alleviate hunger and improve food security in the developing world, and a short stop-over in the Vatican to exchange pleasantries with the Pope, Barack Obama traveled to Ghana for his first presidential trip to the African continent.

Obama’s visit generated a wave of enthusiasm across the region, and he was welcomed in Ghana by a huge government delegation, as well as throngs of electrified Ghanaians. Needless to say, the president’s choice of Ghana elicited feelings of national pride for its people and its government – as noted by Cadman Atta Mills, the Ghanaian president’s brother and chairman of the National Economic Advisory board, “Ghanaians have extremely high expectations for this visit. A lot of it is sentimental and personal.” Knowing Accra, I’m sure the vibe there must have been incredible.

In spite of the historical nature of the visit, the speech delivered by Obama didn’t represent any dramatic shifts in the American position toward Africa. Some critics were disappointed that it didn’t represent more of a “shakeup of U.S.-Africa policy”; others lamented that it did not address the tougher issues such as the protection of human rights or how to deal with the continuing tragedies in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Still, l believe that Obama’s speech sent the crucial message-in no uncertain terms-that good governance is key to solving the continent’s chronic underdevelopment issues.

While this position does not represent a departure from previous administrations, who also touted democracy and good governance as fundamental elements of peace and prosperity, I think it’s important to take note of the concrete implications of Obama’s speech and visit.

Obama sends a powerful message by choosing Ghana over Kenya (his father’s homeland), Namibia, Botswana (both stable, democratic countries), South Africa (arguably the continent’s most successful nation), or, most significantly, Nigeria, Ghana’s resource-rich neighbor and the world’s fourth largest nation (and, by the way, also America’s biggest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa; the U.S. imports about 20 percent of its oil from Nigeria…)

Obama explained that he chose Ghana, a nation of 23 million that has had two peaceful democratic transitions, to “highlight” its adherence to democratic principles and institutions, ensuring the kind of stability that brings prosperity. Nigeria, in contrast, is notorious for its entrenched corruption and chronic lack of effective governance – indeed, in spite of tremendous oil wealth, poverty rates are still alarmingly high (70% of the population fell under the poverty line in 2007.)

His words were quite stern:

“This isn’t just some abstract notion that we’re trying to impose on Africa […] The African continent is a place of extraordinary promise as well as challenges. We’re not going to be able to fulfill those promises unless we see better governance”

“No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers […] No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.”

By “snubbing” Nigeria and pointing to Ghana as an example of good governance in the region, Obama is probably also hoping to signal to the Ghanaian government that he is expecting them not to mismanage the profits from the country’s new-found offshore oil. A well-timed message, as large oil deposits were recently discovered off the coast of Ghana, with production slated to come online in the next couple of years – and along with it, a steep increase in government revenues. There is reason to hope that the country will be stepping up to its responsibilities. Ghana’s energy minister,Joe Oteng-Adjei, recently declared: “We are committed to doing the right thing for investors and for the country … our concern is that we bring in a third party to deliver the synergies that we expect.”

Human Rights Watch recently released a grim report on Equatorial Guinea, reminding us that the “resource curse” is still very much a reality to contend with in Africa:

“Since oil was discovered there in the early 1990s, Equatorial Guinea’s GDP has increased more than 5,000 percent, and the country has become the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, living standards for the country’s 500,000 people have not substantially improved. Here is a country where people should have the per capita wealth of Spain or Italy, but instead they live in poverty worse than in Afghanistan or Chad.”

Additionally, many countries in Africa face a common challenge of having to address the creation or strengthening of institutions that guarantee the rule of law and enforce respect for the constitutional rights of citizens. Ghana has done well on that front, especially relative to most other countries in the region, and it’s clear to all of Ghana’s neighbors (particularly Nigeria) that to win the favor of the U.S. and its charismatic president, a proactive stance on good governance is necessary.

In spite of Obama’s strong and meaningful message, I don’t think this is a watershed moment in the U.S.-Africa relationship. First off, for all the verbal commitments to being “a friend and a partner every step of the way,” let’s get real about what the current recession implies: a bit of turning inwards for rich countries who will again not deliver the necessary policy changes to really make a difference; the lowering of tariffs for African products; a complete overhaul of agricultural subsidies – these are among some of the critical areas for policy intervention. In this climate of fiscal constraint and tightening credit across the globe, access to finance is also a key issue for African development. Despite their significance for the continent, Obama failed to speak about the aforementioned issues.

Probably because he knows that in one brief (albeit historical) visit, and one speech, one can only deliver so much.

Bono’s assessment is that “presidential attention would be a shot in the arm for these [anti-corruption, rule of law improvement] efforts — an infusion of moral and political amino acids that, by the way, will make aid dollars go further.”

I’d like to believe that a one-day visit to West Africa and a speech before the Ghanaian parliament could truly galvanize country-level efforts in promoting effective democracy. But, at the risk of stretching Bill Easterly’s Man in Charge argument, I think we need to have a humbler understanding of what this speech means for America’s relationship with Africa. Efficiently dealing with issues as varied as corruption, nonexistent infrastructure, protracted conflicts or subpar education, will require significant – if not dramatic – shifts in policy and attitudes. While Bono seems to believe that Obama’s words inevitably produce change, African commentators are (surprisingly?) far more sober in their assessments. An editorial in the South African Daily News notes that “even the most devoted Obama fans are aware of the fact that the first black American president – whom they love to call a ‘son of Africa’ – cannot solve the continent’s many problems.”

I agree with David Rothkopf, who discusses the natural limitations of presidential influence and power: “It’s time recognize that it really does take a big team of empowered leaders to make the complex foreign policy of the U.S. work and evolve in the right directions. It’s time to recognize that it does not reflect badly on the president if we all agree he cannot transform the world single handedly, that however different he may be from his predecessors, that alone is not enough.”