Do We Really Care?

In September of 2001 the band P.O.D. released their song “Youth of the Nation” which begins with the lyrics:

Last day of the rest of my life
I wish I would’ve known
‘Cause I would’ve kissed my mama goodbye

I didn’t tell her that I loved her and how much I care
Or thank my pops for all the talks
And all the wisdom he shared

Unaware, I just did what I always do
Everyday, the same routine
Before I skate off to school

But who knew that this day wasn’t like the rest
Instead of taking a test
I took two to the chest

Call me blind, but I didn’t see it coming
Everybody was running
But I couldn’t hear nothing

Except gun blasts, it happened so fast
I didn’t really know this kid
He wasn’t part of the class

Maybe this kid was reaching out for love
Or maybe for a moment
He forgot who he was
Or maybe this kid just wanted to be hugged

Towards the end of the song is this stanza

Who’s to blame for the lives that tragedies claim
No matter what you say
It don’t take away the pain

When this song came out I was in high school.  I could still remember the reaction to Columbine which occurred when I was in middle school.  How could I have envisioned then that 16 years later we, as a nation, would have paid lip service over hundreds of bodies of adults and children about “never again” and then done precisely nothing to actually change the course of our society?

Honestly, I’m getting tired of trying to be nuanced about which gun owners are responsible and which aren’t, it’s about people not guns, it’s a mental-health issue, did the Founding Fathers intend for an armed population as a hedge against tyranny, blah, blah, blah, blah.  The endless blathering only seems to amount to yet another dead child, yet another dead mother, yet another dead father.

What we’re doing now, which is nothing, is not making the situation any better.

People who want to have continued access to firearms as part of their lifestyle need to stop hiding behind rhetoric and start proposing and implementing solutions.  I’m getting tired of holding a nuanced view on the matter while more people senselessly die.  I imagine there are more like me who, as time goes on, think that a “repeal and replace” of the 2nd Amendment might be the only way anything actually changes.

Research available options, pick a potential solution, plan and fund an implementation, study the outcome.  It really isn’t that hard.

Do we really care?

The answer seems to be, “No.”

Stop the Escalation of Stupidity

New reports over the weekend discussed that the U.S. Air Force is making preparations to return the global strike force of nuclear-weapon bombers to a 24-hour alert deployment schedule (which hasn’t been done since 1991).  This follows weeks of inane bluster from the U.S. President about raining down “fire and fury like the world has never seen” upon North Korea.

Can we please stop with this escalation of stupidity already?

Even a cursory analysis of the situation between North Korea and the United States reveals that North Korea literally has nothing to gain by launching a first strike of nuclear weapons against the United States.  Not only would doing so guarantee their own annihilation, no other country in the world would feel particularly bad about it happening–and many would help carry it out.

For a country in North Korea’s position, nuclear weapons can only serve as an insurance policy to encourage other countries (namely, the U.S.) to leave them alone.  If we briefly look at all the nations that have been invaded or bombed by the U.S. in the last 50 years (a disturbingly large number), you’ll notice a pretty clear trend that we haven’t touched any nation with a nuclear arsenal.  North Korea developing a nuclear arsenal, especially one that can threaten mainland U.S. cities, is an eminently rational move.

I am not remotely concerned about a first-strike nuclear attack from North Korea.

Unfortunately, I am concerned the U.S. President will create a situation where he feels compelled to do something stupid in order to save face.  Or will create a situation where North Korea feels like they are being existentially threatened and decide to take a few million people with them as punishment.

Acting irrationally and unpredictably can be a rational strategy.  North Korea has a good reason for appearing to be irrational and unpredictable because it can keep countries like the U.S. from engaging in overly threatening actions (like say, flying a squadron of nuclear-armed B-52s toward North Korea).  Such an aggressive act could be misinterpreted as an attack and a seemingly irrational and unpredictable leader in North Korea may order a retaliation rather than waiting to see where the planes are going.

Acting irrationally and unpredictably as the leader of the a country like the United States is foolish.  You have nothing to gain.  Instead, you stand to lose credibility on the international stage.  Allies will become reluctant to support your cause if they believe your big mouth is what got you there in the first place.  No one feels particularly bad when the bully is waving his finger in someone’s face, yelling, screaming, and threatening and the victim decides to punch them in the nose first.

I have no idea whether Trump really is a petulant child with a short temper and over-inflated sense of self-importance or not.  But acting like it is not making our country or the world a better place to live in.

Is This the Country We Live in?

I’ll be honest.  I thought that the United States had made a lot of progress in the last 5o years.  Apparently I was misinterpreting improving public dialog for genuine improvement of society.  Instead, for some large swath of the country, it was just a mask they felt obliged to wear while they privately stewed in a fantasy world of fear of people different from themselves.

I honestly didn’t realize how mainstream the peddling of ignorance and fear had become.  I guess that probably mostly comes from not consuming news programs supported by ad revenue.

This American Life ran two episodes in October that were rather eye-opening.  The first was “Seriously?” in which they explore how people have become convinced that interpretation is the same as fact.  And in “Will I Know Anyone at This Party?” they explore the anti-Islamic movement that seems to have taken over the Republican Party.

In the latter episode a reporter looks into the anti-Islamic movement specifically in Minnesota.  I was honestly dumbfounded by the fever-pitched fear-of-others being fueled by ignorance.  I also learned about and gained a respect for Congressman Tom Emmer.  I greatly disagree with him on a good many topics, but I was impressed by his push-back during a town-hall meeting he hosted with his constituents:

Sue: You’re our only chance.
Tom Emmer: For what, Sue? What is it that you want?
Sue: OK,
Tom Emmer: What is it that want from me?
Sue: I think I speak for a lot of people. I think the city of St. Cloud needs a breather. And we need to assimilate with the people that are–
Tom Emmer: What does that mean? What does that mean?
Sue: It’s a break on the influx for a period of time, so we could take a little breather.
Tom Emmer: Here’s the thing, your last statement, though, “take a little breather.”
[SCATTERED APPLAUSE]
Tom Emmer: You guys, could you just hold on. Say it out loud. Are you suggesting that no more immigrants should be allowed to come to St. Cloud?
Sue: A moratorium for a short time.
Woman: For the whole United States!
Man: The whole United States, yes.
Tom Emmer: All right. All right, here’s the thing. All I can do is respond as open and honest as I can, Sue. That’s not something that I can do. That’s not something that our constitution says that we do with people who are–

Earlier he said this in response to the same sentiment:

I’m going to say it out loud– when you move to a community, as long as you are here legally, I am very sorry but you don’t get to slam the gate behind you and tell nobody else that they’re welcome. That’s not the way this country works.

His constituents are telling him they want him to stop immigrants from moving to their city (and the whole country).  And he flat out tells them that’s not an option.  And they were not happy about it.  I think that must take real guts as a politician who, presumably, wants to get reelected by these same people.  Good for him.

Later on in the program the reporter, Zoe Chase, goes to South Dakota to witness a meeting by, essentially, an anti-Islamic evangelist.  He’s not a preacher of religion, but he has a donation basket and spends his time traveling around telling people how Islam is destroying America.

After the meeting Chase spoke to a state representative who attended:

In this hotel ballroom in Aberdeen, South Dakota, people aren’t interested in a debate over the economics of immigration. This is a conversation about fear. The most memorable conversation I had was with this state rep Al Novstrup. He’s been in state government for 14 years, and he came to this meeting to get more information on Sharia law potentially taking over his city. Like it has other places, he says.

Zoe Chase: Like where?
Al Novstrup: Dearborn, Michigan?
Zoe Chace: Have you seen that happen there?
Al Novstrup: I haven’t been to Dearborn, Michigan.
Zoe Chace: From my perspective, as a national reporter, there’s still the Constitution. There’s no Sharia anywhere.
Al Novstrup: You don’t think there’s Sharia anywhere in the United States?
Zoe Chace: Correct.
Al Novstrup: I think you need to read more.
Zoe Chace: I do read.
Al Novstrup: You don’t think there’s Sharia any place in the United States? You don’t think– wow. OK. You don’t think there’s Sharia? I’m just blown away. We’re living on two different planets.

And clearly Representative Novstrup has one thing right: we’re living on two different planets.  The planet he lives on is a fantasy world of fear fueled by confirmation bias and willful ignorance.

When I hear people freaking out about Sharia Law being practiced in the United States I used to assume they meant something like how orthodox Jews live by Jewish Law or Mormons might subject themselves to disciplinary action from their church because they want to.  Which, by that measure, I’d be surprised if Sharia law isn’t being practiced within the United States.  That’s sort of a foundational principle of freedom of religion.  People can choose to voluntarily live by a stricter code of conduct than the legal code prescribes.  Not really something worth freaking out about, but people choose to be afraid of things they don’t understand.

But apparently that’s not what is meant by many of the people freaking out.  They seem to be of the opinion that the legal code in some parts of the country is now literally Sharia Law.  That whether you’re a follower of Islam or not you’ll be arrested and charged based on Islamic legal codes.  If so, that would be completely inappropriate, but also really, really easy to prove.  But they can’t prove it, because it isn’t happening.  But that fact is irrelevant.  They apparently want to live in fear and so facts can’t permeate their barrier of intentional ignorance.

Perhaps people of this mindset are simply unaware of concepts like confirmation bias, frequency illusion (sometimes called the Baader-Meinhof effect), declinism, framing effect, illusory truth effect, or a dozen other well studied cognitive biases that cause our perception of the world to be out of sync with reality.  Everyone is susceptible to these problems.  The best we can do is recognize they happen and attempt to acquire actual data through well-examined methodologies to get past our own psychology.

Perhaps our greatest challenge as a society right now is that technology has perpetuated and encouraged all of these cognitive biases rather than fought against them.  Confirmation bias lets us only see what we expect to see, frequency illusion allows us to feel like we’re discovering something novel about the world, the framing effect makes us feel like our in-group thinking is right so long as all new information is framed to fit, the illusory truth effect describes why we’ll begin to believe anything so long as we see/hear it enough times, declinism encourages us to see things as getting worse despite all evidence to the contrary.  And cognitive dissonance ensures we’ll stop seeking out contradictory information because it makes us feel weird/bad.

Now go on to Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever and realize that the algorithms deciding what you see are exploiting these cognitive biases to drive ad revenue.  Playing to these biases gets you to stay longer, come back more frequently, and engage more often; which means they get to show you more ads and make more money.  Truth be damned.

If you get fired up about the stupid thing Trump did today and start reading about it and posting about it then Facebook will make sure to show you more and more things like that whether they’re based in reality or not.

If you “know” refugee immigrants are destroying the country and make sure everyone on Facebook knows, then guess what “news” articles are going to show up in your feed.  It will be articles about immigrants destroying the country regardless of veracity and you won’t even question the validity before frothing at the mouth about it because your cognitive biases are firing on all cylinders.

Let’s try an example.

Find me the quote where Trump says he’d like to put all Muslims in the United States into a registration database.  Many people are sure he said it, but I couldn’t find it.  The Washington Post (certainly not a pro-Trump publication) did the best they could to nail this down.  Yes, he talked out the side of his mouth a bit and let people draw their own conclusions, but he never actually said, “I want to put them in a database,” or anything comparable.  Also, yes, it would have been easy enough for him to denounce the idea entirely and he should have done so.  But the discussion isn’t about what he didn’t denounce, it’s about what he said.  And he didn’t say it.

If your reaction to reading the above is, “I didn’t know Kyle was a Trump supporter” then you’ve both proved what I’m talking about while completely missing the point yourself.  I’m not.  You’ve jumped from facts to interpretation.  Pointing out that something did or did not happen does not make you for or against that thing.  Back up a few paragraphs and try again.

I don’t know what the solution is as a society.

We need to learn to take a breath and step away for a while before responding to things that make us emotional.  We need to reward news organizations that don’t focus their reporting on making us emotional.  We need to learn to critically evaluate what we’re reading and hearing before responding.  We need to accept that we will disagree with each other on topics we feel are really important.  We need to understand that the person we disagree with is still a person.  The other person may seem smug, arrogant, condescending, and infuriating, but we not only get nowhere by responding in kind we can also galvanize the “other side” in their position (see Backfire Effect).

Possibly the most important thing we all can do is be willing to accept the possibility (no matter how remote it may seem) that we may be wrong about something.  When we become dogmatic in our beliefs we guarantee nothing will change.

Rational Dialog? Nah. Religion Edition

I’ve spent the last few months watching the BBC’s 1973 mini-series titled, “The World at War” about World War II.  It’s a fantastic study of the war.  It doesn’t demonize the Axis; it doesn’t revere the Allies.  It recognizes that the vast majority of participants were just everyday people trying to live their lives as best they could in unbearable circumstances.  It would be great to have a production of this quality done today with all of the information we know from after the fall of the Soviet Union and the declassification of many documents.

I bring this up because one of the important threads from WWII was the persecution of minority groups and how the general population was led from (often) having some underlying negative feelings towards these groups in general to willingly rounding them up and shipping them off to their slaughter.

With these lessons fresh in my mind some of the rhetoric I’m seeing in the news as it relates to Muslims is concerning.  Do I think the U.S. is on the verge of rounding up Muslims in to concentrations camps like we did U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during WWII?  Not today.  I hope not ever.

Nevertheless, rhetoric that riles up emotions of anger, mistrust, and fear will inevitably escalate to calls-to-action.  Fearful members of the public will lash out in their own simple-minded ways.  Activities like these people attempting to intimidate Muslims by standing outside their mosque with firearms and following around people who come and go will increase.  Without some calming influence I fear it’s only a matter of time before one of these people murders a Muslim and believes they are “protecting America.”

I am heartened, however, by the counter-protesters who are calling out this dangerous activity.  So long as counter-protesters keep showing up and are willing to defend those targeted by anger then I believe we can avoid national disgrace–and unmitigated bloodshed.

Last year, as part of obtaining a graduate certificate in national security affairs, I took a graduate course on the history of terrorism and counter-terrorism.  One thing Americans seem to be playing directly in to is one of the recruiting tactics used by Islam-based terrorist organizations.  The recruiting message is that the West is at war with Islam and that God (Allah) is calling them to fight.  Anything we do as a country and as a people that provides evidence that this is true amplifies their message.

We need to be the calming influence that prevents these events from spiraling out of control.  We need to show that we understand the difference between religion and violence that uses religion as an excuse.

Terrorism is a parasite that, throughout history, has infected one ideology after another.  The current ideology that it infects is extremist Islam.  It will eventually move on to find another host.  When it does, how are we going to view ourselves and how we handled it?

Rational Dialog? Nah. Guns Edition

It seems that about 40% of the country is convinced that the best possible response to gun violence is for more untrained people to carry around firearms on a regular basis.  Another 40% of the country wants “stronger gun control laws” but what that means depends on who you ask.  And probably about 20% of the country either isn’t sure what the best response is or doesn’t care.

I don’t claim to know what the appropriate response is, but I have some relevant observations.

I’ve known about the ban on using federal research money to study gun violence for a long time.  It’s always been stupid.  If we want to make policy decisions based on anything but emotion then we need data.  Banning federal research money from being used to study one of today’s most prominent policy debates it’s absurd.  This is something everyone should support.  If you think more people having guns will reduce gun deaths then the data gathered in legitimate research should support you.  Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, currently we have very little data from which to draw any conclusions.

One accusation from we-need-more-guns advocates is that anyone who wants to modify the process of obtaining firearms is a “Constitution shredder” as if the Constitution is a holy document handed down by God himself.  Here’s a clue for that group: if the Constitution hadn’t been “shredded” in the first place there wouldn’t be a 2nd Amendment to worship.  If the Constitution hadn’t been “shredded” slavery would still be legal and women wouldn’t be allowed to vote.

The Constitution is what “the people” want it to be.  Personally, I’m surprised that given the absolute refusal from the we-need-more-guns groups to enter into rational dialog on how to reduce gun deaths there isn’t more call for simply repealing the 2nd Amendment and ending the “Constitution shredder” argument entirely.

The discussion should be focused on concepts like:

  • What does society gain by allowing easy access to firearms?
  • What does society lose by allowing easy access to firearms?
  • Is that trade-off worth it?
    • Other countries seem to get along just fine without widespread gun ownership.
  • Why does the U.S. seem to uniquely, among industrialized nations, have this problem of gun violence?
  • What might be reasonable restrictions on firearm access?
    • Many, maybe even most or all, Constitutional rights are tempered with reasonable restrictions for the public good.  Saying no restrictions should be applied just makes you look ignorant.
  • Does requiring secure storage of firearms help reduce deaths?
  • Should firearm owners undergo mental health assessments?
  • How about anger management classes?
  • Should safe-handling courses be required for firearm ownership?
  • Would any of these changes substantively alter what society loses by allowing easy access to firearms?
    • Does it change whether the trade-off is worth it?

Is anyone with a loud mouth actually trying to discuss and consider these questions?  Or has the public dialog been entirely reduced to “guns are the problem” — “Nuh-uh, guns are the solution!”?