Sometimes things turn on a dime. Thursday, December 13, Susan Rice was the big story of the day. She withdrew her name for consideration to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, as Hillary Clinton will be moving on soon, presumably to bedevil the Republicans as the probable Democratic nominee in 2016, and, they all admit, unbeatable, given that the only ones likely to vote Republican from here on out are old white men in the South and in entirely rural districts. The polling on that is clear, but the Republicans, notably John McCain and Lindsey Graham, had their victory in sandbagging Susan Rice. After that attack in Benghazi, where our ambassador was killed, she had gone on all those Sunday talk shows and given the CIA and NSA approved talking-points in what had happened, saying at the time this looked like a spontaneous attack that had been hijacked by some very bad actors who had been planning something all along, not al-Qaeda, or so it seemed at the time. And this was the scandal that did her in – as our United Nations ambassador she had nothing to do with any specific events in North Africa, making no decisions about anything and just getting the briefings like anyone else, and she had simply drawn the short straw to be the one to visit all the Sunday shows and present the carefully-worded action report, carefully worded because our spooks and spies were still following leads and didn’t want any bad guys to know we were onto them – but McCain led the charge to excoriate her. Everyone knew it was al-Qaeda that did this, and she was either lying or too stupid to see that, and the Republicans would block the nomination of anyone who was a craven liar or so very stupid. Yes, it was all nonsense and posturing, and too stupid for words, so Susan Rice decided it was best to throw in the towel. Some fights aren’t worth fighting, and the administration really didn’t need to waste its time with the farce this had become. Obama reluctantly agreed with her and the Republicans smiled at their victory – but they had actually cornered themselves into lauding the guy Obama was going to nominate anyway, John Kerry. There was a real possibility that had been the plan all along – give those guys their little victory so they’ll be easier to deal with on taxing the rich a bit more while not decimating Medicare and Social Security in the fiscal cliff haggling. They’ll be easier to deal with now. Give them something, at no real cost at all, that they can use to mollify their rabid base. They may have been cleverly outmaneuvered once again.
The whole thing was complex and a bit absurd but this was the talk of Washington for a day. Hey, the down-on-their-luck hopelessly-unpopular Republicans did win one. They stopped the nomination of Susan Rice – except that she wasn’t nominated in the first place and there’s also that deadly question Republican voters may ask in a year or two. Susan Rice? Who? Republicans do have to keep that name alive. As they lose every other battle, they do have to remind their base of this one singular triumph.
There’s just one problem with that. The world doesn’t work that way. The amazing Susan Rice Saga didn’t slowly fade from view – something which the Republicans had probably anticipated and for which they had plans, to somehow keep the story alive. It completely disappeared, absolutely obliterated by one of the most horrible events in modern American history:
A 20-year-old man wearing combat gear and armed with semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle killed 26 people – 20 of them children – in an attack in an elementary school in central Connecticut on Friday. Witnesses and officials described a horrific scene as the gunman, with brutal efficiency, chose his victims in two classrooms while other students dove under desks and hid in closets.
Hundreds of terrified parents arrived as their sobbing children were led out of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in a wooded corner of Newtown, Conn. By then, all of the victims had been shot and most were dead, and the gunman, identified as Adam Lanza, had committed suicide. The children who were killed were said to be between 5 and 10 years old.
A 28th person, found dead in a house in the town, was also believed to have been shot by Mr. Lanza. That victim, one law enforcement official said, was Mr. Lanza’s mother, Nancy Lanza, a teacher at the school. She apparently owned the guns he used.
Forget the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, where that unhinged gunman killed thirty-two people and then himself. These were little kids. This was two weeks before Christmas. The amazing Susan Rice Saga was petty nonsense – nasty old men playing meaningless political games.
This New York Times account of this horror then goes on to offer what everyone expects by now:
Law enforcement officials said Mr. Lanza had grown up in Newtown, and he was remembered by high school classmates as smart, introverted and nervous. They said he had gone out of his way to not attract attention when he was younger.
He kept to himself. He was quiet. No one really knew him. You know the drill. He was one of those spooky people, but this guy was also systematic:
The gunman was chillingly accurate. A spokesman for the State Police said he left only one wounded survivor at the school. All the others hit by the barrage of bullets from the guns Mr. Lanza carried – the rifle was similar to a weapon used widely by troops in Afghanistan and Iraq – died, suggesting that they were shot at point-blank range.
There’s not much more to say, and the nation then dropped all other topics:
The shootings set off a tide of anguish nationwide. In Illinois and Georgia, flags were lowered to half-staff in memory of the victims. And at the White House, President Obama struggled to read a statement in the White House briefing room. More than once, he dabbed his eyes.
“Our hearts are broken,” Mr. Obama said, adding that his first reaction was not as a president, but as a parent. “I know there is not a parent in America who does not feel the same overwhelming grief that I do,” he said.
He called the victims “beautiful little kids.”
“They had their entire lives ahead of them: birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own,” he said. Then the president reached up to the corner of one eye.
Mr. Obama called for “meaningful action” to stop such shootings, but he did not spell out details. In his nearly four years in office, he has not pressed for expanded gun control. But he did allude on Friday to a desire to have politicians put aside their differences to deal with ways to prevent future shootings.
In short, Obama avoided politics for a day, which Slate’s John Dickerson says was entirely appropriate:
Maybe I spend too much time listening to politicians. Maybe I can’t get past seeing my children in that line of kids holding hands as they’re being led through the Sandy Hook school parking lot. But I don’t want to hear President Obama talk about gun control six hours after the shooting. When he spoke this afternoon, he said there will be time to take action and then he returned the focus to where it should be, on the parents grieving over the loss of those 20 children.
We’re all trying to come to terms with today’s tragedy and for a lot of people that means talking about gun control or fighting against it. For others it’s about mental health. It’s probably about both. Have at it. Light up Twitter. But the president’s job today is not to get into that debate. His job is to lend some comfort to those parents who thought they were going to have family movie night tonight or whose biggest worry today was supposed to be how to beat the weekend traffic on their annual holiday trip. (You can argue that a president shouldn’t play this role, but this is the one we have come to cast him in.)
Dickerson asks for perspective:
I’m betting more people see this as a human tragedy than a moment for political debate. If that’s so, I’m guessing those people could also use a little guidance, comfort, or fellow-feeling from their president. Better that a president makes some stab at giving them that solace than cheapen the moment by making a political point. Politics cheapens almost everything, why should we imagine an emergency dose right now is a good idea?
Even if the president fails in all this, even if those of us in the blast radius find no comfort in connecting with his tears at the podium, he at least can keep from stirring up the big public roar. The media already skips over the families of the victims to obsess over the shooter. When Obama visited the families of the victims in Aurora, Col., they asked him to do what he could to get the media to focus on the victims, not the shooter. Why should the president help kick up a gun debate today that will give the media another topic to obsess over at the expense of the families?
In short, give it a rest, except that Dickerson’s colleague at Slate now, Elliot Spitzer, comes down on the other side:
The sad truth is the White House has ducked this debate over and over again, despite a litany of tragedies. We must discuss the ease of access to guns, right now. After the Aurora shooting, not a single question was asked about it at a debate mere miles from the scene. Delay now would be to shamefully disregard a pressing public issue.
In June, President Obama finally appealed to his base by taking important steps on immigration and same-sex marriage – but only when he needed to activate those voters for the election. This is not a White House that has shown a great desire to take up the tough issues.
Now is the time to push them. Now is the time for the president to realize he has the largest and loudest megaphone in the world. If he doesn’t use it now, when will he?
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein also tries to find a way to think about this:
Mother Jones has tracked and mapped every shooting spree in the last three decades. “Since 1982, there have been at least 61 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii,” they found. And in most cases, the killers had obtained their weapons legally….
The Harvard Injury Control Research Center assessed the literature on guns and homicide and found that there’s substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders. This holds true whether you’re looking at different countries or different states….
Last year, economist Richard Florida dove deep into the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. Some of what he found was, perhaps, unexpected: Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence. But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. The disclaimer here is that correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive.
Klein says the point here may be this:
When we first collected much of this data, it was after the Aurora, Colo. shootings, and the air was thick with calls to avoid “politicizing” the tragedy. That is code, essentially, for “don’t talk about reforming our gun control laws.”
Let’s be clear: That is a form of politicization. When political actors construct a political argument that threatens political consequences if other political actors pursue a certain political outcome that is, almost by definition, a politicization of the issue. It’s just a form of politicization favoring those who prefer the status quo to stricter gun control laws.
Saying let’s not talk about this is then a sneaky was of talking about this, and William Saletan tries to clear up a few things here:
This morning, a madman attacked more than 20 children at an elementary school in China. As of this writing, there are no reported fatalities.
A few hours later, a madman attacked an elementary school in Connecticut. As of this writing, 20 of those kids are dead.
The difference? The weapon. The madman in China had a knife. The madman in Connecticut had three semi-automatic guns.
His point is that speed kills:
Look up the worst school massacres in history, and you’ll see the pattern. Madmen are everywhere. They strike without regard to gun laws, mental health care, or the national rate of churchgoing. They’ve slaughtered children in every country you’d think might have been spared: Scotland, Germany, Canada, Brazil, Finland, and Japan. They’ve falsified every pet political theory about what kind of culture or medical system or firearms legislation prevents mass murder.
But one pattern holds true: The faster the weapon, the higher the body count. It’s not politics. It’s logistics. If you stick a knife in your first victim, it takes time to move on to your second. You might need two stabs or more to finish off the first kid. By then, the other kids have begun to flee. Soon, the cops will be here. How much time do you have? At some point, it’s time to off yourself. And all you managed to kill were two lousy kids because the only weapon you had was a kitchen knife.
Guns work better, and some guns work even better than others:
I’ve gone through the 25 worst massacres on the chart, and nearly every shooter had a semi-automatic weapon. The one exception was a guy who had speedloaders and a bandolier so he could keep firing. High-capacity magazines are another common factor. All these patterns converge on a common lesson: Speed kills. Madness pulls the trigger, but the rate of fire drives the body count.
That leaves Saletan with this:
I wish we could pass a magic law that would stop madmen from killing our children. We can’t. There will always be angry lunatics. There will always be knives and shotguns and gasoline. I don’t think banning guns will make the problem go away. We don’t need another all-or-nothing war between pro-gun and anti-gun ideologues. What we need is a frank, precise, constructive conversation about the problem of high-speed weapons.
You don’t need rapid-fire weapons to hunt or defend your home. Cops don’t need them to shoot down bad guys. And while it’s true that passing a law against them won’t eliminate them, that’s not an argument against legislation. It’s an argument for going beyond legislation. The community of gun sellers and enthusiasts must act collectively to track and control the technology of mass murder.
Why not? This didn’t have to be twenty kids. Something can be done, even if we will always have angry lunatics – but maybe this isn’t the time to talk about this – or maybe it is.
James Fallows simply wonders when America will learn its lesson:
Guns don’t attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again – and again and again.
Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. But that’s unacceptable. As others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t “too soon.” It’s much too late.
David Frum, however, says it’s not the guns at all:
A permissive gun regime is not the only reason that the United States suffers so many atrocities like the one in Connecticut. An inadequate mental health system is surely at least as important a part of the answer, as are half a dozen other factors arising from some of the deepest wellsprings of American culture. Nor can anybody promise that more rational gun laws would prevent each and every mass murder in this country. Gun killings do occur even in countries that restrict guns with maximum severity. But we can say that if the United States worked harder to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, there would be many, many fewer atrocities like the one in Connecticut.
Yep, everyone keeps their guns. None of us are really crazy dangerous people after all. Those are rare. Deal with that problem. Deal with them. But who are they – quiet people who live alone?
The New York Times’ Gail Collins disagrees with Frum:
Every country has a sizable contingent of mentally ill citizens. We’re the one that gives them the technological power to play god.
This is all about guns – access to guns and the ever-increasing firepower of guns. Over the past few years we’ve seen one shooting after another in which the killer was wielding weapons holding 30, 50, 100 bullets. I’m tired of hearing fellow citizens argue that you need that kind of firepower because it’s a pain to reload when you’re shooting clay pigeons. Or that the founding fathers specifically wanted to make sure Americans retained their right to carry rifles capable of mowing down dozens of people in a couple of minutes.
This is a matter, really, of who we are:
We will undoubtedly have arguments about whether tougher regulation on gun sales or extra bullet capacity would have made a difference in Connecticut. In a way it doesn’t matter. America needs to tackle gun violence because we need to redefine who we are. We have come to regard ourselves – and the world has come to regard us – as a country that’s so gun happy that the right to traffic freely in the most obscene quantities of weapons is regarded as far more precious than an American’s right to health care or a good education.
We have to make ourselves better. Otherwise, the story from Connecticut is too unspeakable to bear.
Yep, and Alyssa Rosenberg has had just about enough of the guys on Frum’s side:
I really want someone who advocates against gun control to balance the scales for me, to go ahead and try to explain to me why the inconvenience suffered by gun owners and prospective gun owners under much tighter restrictions on the purchase of guns and ammunition outweighs the death of children in their classrooms, a place where they’re not just supposed to be safe, but to thrive. Explain to me why their suffering is worse than that of the people who died, and lost family members, in the rampage at Aurora, Colorado, where they were drawn to a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises out of enthusiasm, because it’s a time when parents with infants can see a movie and trust that they’ll sleep through the screening. Please, balance out for me, the loss of Gabby Giffords’ potential with impatience at a waiting period, or frustration at not being able to fire a certain number of bullets per minute. Because this is the choice we make, every time. And I’m terrified to watch us make it again.
We will make that choice again, as Alex Koppelman explains the political reality of all this:
We are, all of us, angry now. Bewildered. And those of us who support gun control are perhaps maddest of all – right now. When it comes to Election Day, though, it’s the pro-gun people whose vote is most likely to be determined by this one issue. Those who want tighter restrictions, well, they typically have higher priorities to consider first. Put simply, supporting gun control is unlikely to help your typical politician much, but it’s very likely to hurt them. And Democrats know the numbers: they can’t lose any more white voters than they already have, especially not white voters in union families. And a lot of union households are gun-owning households, too.
We’ll also get stuff like this – “Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee attributed the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in part to restrictions on school prayer and religious materials in the classroom” and so on. There’s also the Gun Owners of America saying this whole thing happened because of stupid gun-control laws we have already – those laws meant that the teachers and administrators at the Connecticut school were unarmed and unable to take care of that bad guy before anything happened.
Maybe Collins is right – maybe now we really do have to redefine who we are – but it seems we won’t. There’ll be another massacre of children, and then another, and the Republicans will tell us to remember how they took care of the Susan Rice problem, and we’ll try to remember what that was about, if anything at all. We’ll pay attention to that. Call it American exceptionalism. We are a strange people.