The worst of us…

Where do you start on a day like this? We’ll debate on what to call events in Las Vegas. I’ve settled on calling it an act of domestic terrorism but the media is still working out the language. The left will use it to scream for “gun control” legislation and in fundraising ads for the next six months. The right will use it as evidence that the average citizen needs to be increasingly armed against an increasingly dangerous world and in fundraising activities for the next six months. That’s the simple politics of the thing. As much as everyone will say they don’t want to make a terrorist event like this an issue of politics, it’s what it will ultimately boil down to even as the Las Vegas Police and FBI continue to collect evidence at the scene.

The issues surrounding firearms and public safety are so charged and entrenched that we seem to be incapable of having even a conversation about them. Both sides live in dread that giving so much of an inch will cost them mightily during the next election. It’s one of those issues that’s so fraught that objectivity simply doesn’t exist – and that’s why I haven’t spent much time considering either side today.

What I have been considering is the other issue that we so rarely talk about it – that is, what’s going on in the head of someone who decides one day to drive to Las Vegas, rent a hotel room, and build a sniper nest? I’ve spent a lifetime around firearms, using them for both food and recreation and learning how to apply them in self defense. The idea of using one to lay siege to a public event simply would never occur to me. I don’t think it would occur to all but the smallest percentage of people. I find myself now particularly focused on those people – and what switch flips in their head that drives them to become the very worst of us.

Ten plus six…

Before writing tonight’s post I went back and read over the the ones I wrote before. Some of them are pretty good. Some of them are angry. Some are sad. Most are a little bit of both. Honestly I always get a little choked up looking at these posts about an all important date that with each turning of the calendar recedes just a little further in our national collective memory. At best, September 11th is always a date I find filled with melancholy.

Ten years ago, I happened to be in DC in a work trip. I was busy and not really paying attention to the calendar when the day started. By the end of it, though, I’d spent the day dwelling on heroes who fought against and subdued the worst impulses of their own generation.

While thinking of Sir Winston, I wrote:

I went to see Lincoln tonight. It just seemed fitting somehow. But the words that stuck in my head weren’t those written to bind up our nation’s wounds. They’re still too fresh for that. All along my long walk tonight, I was recalling Churchill’s words from the frosted depths of the Cold War… “We have surmounted all the perils and endured all the agonies of the past. We shall provide against and thus prevail over the dangers and problems of the future, withhold no sacrifice, grudge no toil, seek no sordid gain, fear no foe. All will be well. We have, I believe, within us the life-strength and guiding light by which the tormented world around us may find the harbour of safety, after a storm-beaten voyage.”

Winston would have understood the 21st Century. Sure, we have different clothes and different music, but it’s the same old world. He’d tell us to never give in and to stay the course. He knew that the only way to defeat evil was to pummel it into unquestioned submission. Winston would have understood.

Churchill, of course, is best known for his leadership during World War II, but the charming thing about him is that he seems to have a quote for all purposes. Some are inspirational. Others are dry with humor. The very best are usually both at the same time. The ones I find myself thinking about most often, though, are the ones that call us to persevere in the face of adversity, against the longest of odds.

It’s September 11th again. So much has changed and so much is still exactly the same. I still think Winston would understand our modern world, perhaps even better than do those of us who are living in it. Sometimes I get the distinct impression that we don’t understand a damned thing.

You can read the full post from September 11, 2007 here: https://jeffreytharp.com/2007/09/11/requiem/

On a swivel…

Back on the 4th I asked someone, if they were intent on spending the holiday among the throng, to do me a personal favor and keep their head on a swivel. They seemed surprised at the request and asked if there was a particular reason they should. As the assassination of five police officers in Dallas has shown, I hope none of my friends are any longer in doubt of why I ask them to be aware of their surroundings as they walk into a crowded environment – like a protest or fireworks display or shopping mall.

Our police officers are incredibly dedicated. They’re over worked, under paid, and utterly under respected by their elected leadership and so often by the very citizens they serve. If they can be drawn into an ambush like this you’d damned well better believe the average civilian can too. So yeah, if you ever wonder why I do my level best to avoid large groups of people and why I encourage those I love to do the same, sadly now you know. None of us can have perfect situational awareness, but we owe it to ourselves when we’re part of the crowd to be as aware as possible – of entrances, exits, avenues of advance and retreat, locations for cover or concealment, and of what’s occupying the high ground. Your life – and the life of those to your left and right – could very well depend on it.

Terrorism doesn’t come in just Muslim or Christian flavors. It also comes in the form of political extremists who blow up federal buildings with truck bombs or who shoot up peaceful protests with rifles. Terrorism has been with us far longer than most want to believe – ask an Englishman about “the troubles” or do a little research into the events that triggered the First World War. We can’t eradicate the impulse in some sick bastards to inflict grave harm on society, but we should damned well prepare ourselves to take action when those inevitable bad days come.

Soft underbelly…

America is full of soft targets – Mall of America is an obvious choice simply by virtue of it’s size – but really any place where people congregate and are focused shopping, socializing, or anything other than paying attention to what’s going on around them fall into this category. For most of our lifetimes we’ve been safely sheltered from the world’s troubles by our dual moats, the Pacific and Atlantic, and by the simple fact of how unimaginably large a land mass we occupy. High speed travel and the internet are making those distances seem less significant – the unintended consequence being that it also makes us less secure.

I’ve often said that if I were going to plan an domestic attack on America all I’d need is a hundred really committed followers and the location of the busiest Starbucks in ten different states, the ten busiest banks in ten different cities, the ten best rated elementary schools in the ten most affluent zip codes in America. Are you seeing a theme yet? If my goal is to cause terror, why would I bother attacking military bases, government centers, or even utilities? Want to see society grind itself to a halt over a period of a month? Hit us where the people are – not at our grand events, but at the places we frequent day in and day out. Hit us where we collectively feel comfortable.

A reasonably well coordinated attack on our soft underbelly is one of the several nightmare scenarios that genuinely keeps me awake at night – and now ISIS has blatantly told us that they’ve been thinking about those kind of targets too.

We can’t harden every target. Even if we could, living in an even more intrusive surveillance state than we do now isn’t something I’d consider a worthy tradeoff. That means it’s basically up to us to mind our own little corner of the store. Pay attention to where you are and who’s around you. Do you know what to look for when something feels wrong? Can you pick a room apart for what or who looks out of place? Can you spot an average pickpocket working a crowded food court or spot the telltale “print” of a badly concealed handgun?

Yeah, neither can I… at least most of the time. That doesn’t mean I’m not looking every time I walk into a room. I might not live up to General Mattis’ rule for having a plan to kill everyone I meet, but you can be damned well sure I know where the closest exit is just in case I need to get away from them in a hurry. Trust me, you’d be surprised just how fast this fat man can move when he thinks his life depends on it. It might not be the stuff of heroes, but I have a very well developed sense of self preservation. I hope you do too.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Capitulation. I’m appalled that a corporation with the size and resources of Sony Pictures folded like a rag doll when faced with what basically scales up to nation-state level cyber bullying. Personally, I would have put The Interview on every screen possible, made it available for free online, and publicized the hell out of it at every step – a full page ad in the Sunday New York Times unequivocally stating that Sony will not be intimidated or extorted. I’m even more alarmed at the silence coming out of our political leaders in Washington. At first blush this was a cyber attack directed against a private company, but what it really was is an attack on intellectual property every bit as real as an attack on a US flagged ship on the high seas or a missile targeted at one of our cities. Hacking carried out at the behest of a foreign power should be treated as seriously and responded to with as much fury as a conventional attack on American soil. If cyber is going to be the new frontier, we’d damn well better start defending it instead of showing cowardice in the face of the enemy.

2. Story Time. I’m sure all your family traditions and legends of Christmases past are very important to you. The memories undoubtedly fill you with happiness and joy. As someone who’s only a step or two removed from being a complete stranger, however, your stories don’t do much for me besides make me wonder why the hell I’m sitting here listing to you tell me about mid-century Christmas in the American heartland. It’s not so much that I don’t care about Christmas as it is I don’t care about *your* version of Christmas in 1964. It’s a distinction that some people seem to have a much more difficult time making than they really should.

3. Cuba. The Cold War’s over. We won. The very best thing we can do for the hungry and oppressed people of Cuba in the 21st century is welcome their island country into the warm embrace of the Monroe Doctrine, normalize relations, open two or three Atlantis-style resorts, a few casinos, and turn the place into a tourist destination. Some day in the not too distant future the Brothers Castro are going to be dead and I’d rather our interests have a leg up then find themselves looking in from the outside.

The nightmare scenario…

Here in ‘Murica, we have a tendency to think in terms of big disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemic flu, and briefcase nukes. Those are the kind of events that get big attention and the corresponding big dollars poured into planning what to do when one of those things happens. For years, the nightmare scenario has been a hurricane slamming into the Big Easy (been there, done that), a mid-west earthquake that cripples transportation across swath of the country from Chicago to Memphis, or a non-descript dirty bomb left at Union Station our outside the Smithsonian. Those are still the official nightmare scenarios, but they’re not my personal nightmare.

Compared to radiological bombs and the weather, my personal nightmare is decidedly low tech. It’s ten suicide bombers in ten separate cities walking into ten coffee shops at 8:30 in the morning of a random Tuesday and blowing themselves to hell. It’s the kind of improvised devices we saw in Boston – easy enough that just about anyone can manufacture one with stuff they already have around the house. It’s not the kind of terror that’s going to bring down entire buildings, but let them start going off in shopping malls and restaurants across downtown America, and watch how fast the public clamors for something, anything that ratchets down the body count. How long would it be before we nationally agree to be searched at any time for any reason or to having our cars inspected before being allowed into a parking garage or to give up any number of our essential freedoms?

Suicide bombs and improvised explosives have become a way of life in places like Israel, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Adopting a bunker mentality when you spend every day under threat is a perfectly natural response to those outside forces acting on you, but I don’t want that for America. I don’t want to live in a garrison town where I’ve traded a lot of personal freedom for a nominal amount of safety. That’s my real nightmare scenario and one that we can only avoid through eternal vigilance. That’s the price we’re going to have to pay – the price we’ve always paid – for liberty.

On Boston…

Boston, the cradle of the American revolutionary spirit was attacked this afternoon by nameless, faceless cowards. Brave Bostonians did not cower under the cannon fire of the worlds most powerful empire and I have the greatest faith that they will not cower in the face of these craven assaults. My thoughts are with the good people of Boston tonight where the spirit of America is again tested by those who would do us harm.