I find my trips to the US to be always refreshing, if for nothing else, at least for the high level of civic dialogue, the robust public debates over a variety of issues and the eloquent discussion always easy to find on matters of public life.
This time, the entire clash of opposites over gun control, took me by surprise. Although I have a gun at home, I just couldn’t be convinced on the merits of the arguments against gun control. Needless to say, the Bill of Rights is a living document. And, despite the fact that Americans do say that frequently, it strikes a foreigner as shocking that they really don’t understand it sometimes: Its very worth, its value as part of the constitution, is precisely that it never shows its age, allowing for solutions to current problems.
Those opposing (some) gun control don’t seem to see this, or at least they don’t seem to want it. More interestingly, I heard a shocking argument –made, to my bemusement, by intelligent people- that imposing controls on guns “treats law-abiding citizens as if they are potential criminals”. Well, kinda, but only if you really want to push it.
I find it hard to accept that people actually believe this. Do they also object to screening at airports? After all, you can’t even take a drink through security –that should certainly count as “not trusting law-abiding citizens”, surely; yet after 9-11 there’s been no debate even over some of the more silly and unnecessary of the procedures that TSA follows. Other examples of governmental control also fall in the same category. Police stopping cars with no taillights; demanding car registration; fingerprinting at airports…
Beyond the constant stream of news that comes from the US to the rest of the world about siblings shooting each other, fired workers going berserk and the school shootings that seem to have become a favorite American pastime, the basic question is much more fundamental: Given the existing threats, and given public interest in controlling the availability of weapons, which is the least restrictive means of achieving this?
The US Supreme Court has had a lot to say about levels of scrutiny and this is not the place for such a review. Perhaps there should be a way to determine how much firepower is for self-protection and how much is simply insane. And, perhaps the courts are the best place to decide this: After having heard some of the politicians talk about this, I would insist that even a randomly set of limits (like the trimester randomness in Roe v. Wade) would be better than letting politics decide.
But there is something quite sinister about a man who insists that they need a banana-magazine “for their own protection”. You know what? No, you don’t. You don’t live in the far West, you have a government around. And, if you think you need a chain-fed machine gun for your own protection, frankly you should get your head examined.
The real nightmare
The real issue, though, is not that. The real issue is that people don’t seem to feel threatened any more. After an initial shock in 2001 and after about a decade of fear, Americans have returned to a strange sense of complacency. They accept strict security as a necessary evil, but the discussion over security is gone alongside much else: the legacy of the war in Iraq; the ongoing struggle with terror (which many Americans feel is over); even Guantanamo, the “proof that Americans are lying when they talk about human rights”; all these have fallen off the radar. This is perhaps the fate of bad economic times, but while the cycle will turn in the economy, managing the “decline of the empire” still has a very long way to go. Especially if you hope to reverse it.
And this brings us back to the nightmare scenario. After 9-11, when “sleeper cells” became a household expression, we entered a period of lone strikers, foreshadowed by Tim McVeigh in Oklahoma and leading (so far) to the Tsarnaevs in Boston. Some of them were impulsive. Others, like the shoe bomber, were too challenged to be a real threat, even though they got really close.
But these are not the nightmare scenario. The nightmare scenario is a mix between sleeper cells and loan strikers.
Imagine five sleeper cells scattered across the country. On a Monday, one of them starts off by mowing down a store in North New Jersey then takes off, switching cars along the way. Gets to Pennsylvania, where he throws a grenade into a hairdressers’ in a strip mall, then mows down the Chinese food restaurant next door. He continues to do this across the North East, hitting random places and driving long distances, killing indiscriminately.
Such a scenario is bad enough; although Americans justifiably pride themselves in having top-notch law enforcement –even on a local level- it would take a couple of days to find this sleeper cell – especially if he has pre-arranged switch-cars. Lets assume he’s caught (probably committing suicide-by-cop) on Wednesday.
Imagine, then, that two things happen in the meantime: First, a long string of letters, mailed from across a large area in the Mid West, laden with Anthrax (or probably something much simpler, a toxin or a poison) starts slowing down mail deliveries and making people wonder if something organized in going on.
Then, say on Thursday or Friday, a string of copy-cat killings like the DC snipers’ starts hitting say Chicago, or Dallas, or Denver. He could use the widely sold Ruger rifle for 450 bucks, with solid results from about 100 yards.
By the time that sleeper cell is caught, household attacks –random home invasions with lots of firepower leading fast, in-and-out murders starts gripping say, San Diego, or San Francisco. Perhaps they could use a Mossberg for 300 bucks plus ammo.
By Monday, half the country is under the grip of terror. Real terror, random but deliberate, from which nobody is safe, could be flung into every Middletown in the country. No heavy bombs that might be tracked, no high-value targets that can be guarded. Just sniper rifles, grenades, submachine guns and fully automatic weapons. And a car.
This is way too easy; and probably just a matter of time.
And no airports, no bridges or trains or World Trade Centers; instead, the targets could be clinics hairdressers’, bars, strip malls, pharmacies, homes. I’m making this up as I go, but we’re still two sleeper cells into the nightmare scenario and it’s been a week into this low-grade but protracted terrorist strike. Imagine someone using the popular AR-15, standing in the middle of nowhere somewhere, striking at a passing train.
And if these guys are careful and well planned, with five or six sleepers, they could make sure this lasts a month. With each attacker caught or killed, another one could be activated.
Worst of all, you’d never know when it ended, especially if strikes came at intervals with a pause lasting anywhere between a few hours and a few days between each string of attacks.
I’ve thought about this scenario throughout my counter-terrorism classes in 2004. I’m sure the authorities –and probably al-Qaeda or others, as well- have pondered them. Although maintaining sleeper cells is much harder these days, it’s not impossible to keep perhaps as many as 8 or 10 or more.
This is the scenario you need to be talking about when you’re thinking about banana magazines, Heckler & Kochs, chain-fed machine guns, and –oh, yes- about background checks.
A new Columbine? School or campus shootings? That’s the least of your problems…