American citizens are justifiably concerned about the threat of terrorist violence in the United States.  From 2001 to 2013, over 3000 people have been killed in the United States by terrorists.  The recitation, and the memories, are gruesome, from the twin towers to San Bernardino.  Those monstrous crimes have pushed American voters to list terrorism among their greatest concerns, and it is clearly affecting their choice of candidate for the presidency.  Likely Republican voters have listed terrorism as America’s number one problem.


We are all deeply concerned, as we should be, because innocent people are being killed by terrorists.  In 2004 alone, 74 people were killed by terrorists in the U.S., and in 2013, 20 people were killed by terrorists.


So we should be deeply concerned about deaths in such numbers.  Here, then, are some other numbers.  In the same period, 2001 to 2013, over 400,000 people were killed by guns in the United States, and in 2013 alone, over 13,000 people were murdered in the United States.  Yet crime is not a major issue for the voters, and gun control is actually denounced by a large part of the population.  Why is that?


I am going to hazard a guess.  Think about the instances of terrorism.  The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The attack at the Boston Marathon.  The attack at Fort Hood.  The attack at a center to help the disabled in San Bernardino.  There is a common thread here.  All of these attacks happened at places where we would least expect to see violence of any kind.


So, if we shudder at the 3000 deaths that happened in these places, why do we pay so little attention to the more than 400,000 people who died from guns in the same period?  If we face this honestly, do we have to admit that, to put it bluntly, we don’t care?  Are we saying that those violent deaths don’t matter because they don’t really affect us?  Are we assuming that those deaths are in “bad areas”, and, since we don’t live there, it is not our problem?  13,000 people are murdered, and we hardly spare a sigh, and in the same period 20 people are killed by terrorists and we are ready to throw away our most precious civil rights in our effort to avoid further terrorism?


Terrorism is a real and undeniable threat.  So are crimes like murder, rape, and the various financial crimes that strip our citizens of billions of dollars a year.  There is, however, a far greater threat, a threat that could destroy the very fiber of this nation.  The real threat is our growing commitment to the ideology of self-interest.


America was founded on an idea of responsibility for others.  We hold the indubitable truth that every human being — every human being — is born equal and born with inalienable rights.  That is a clear announcement of, and a clear commitment to, the fundamental view that our value comes, not from pursuing our own selfish interests, but from honoring and protecting the rights of all around us.  It is why we honor those who have dedicated, and in many cases surrendered, their lives to protect and defend others.  We don’t honor anyone just for amassing great wealth or seizing great power.  Think of your list of true heroes.  Think of those to whom we give the medal of honor or the medal of freedom.  You will not find Donald Trump or Carl Icahn there.  You will, however, find Rosa Parks and Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Gandhi.  These are not great because of what they gained for themselves but precisely for what they have done and what they have given for others.


We do have problems in America.  We should worry about the economy and the crime rate and terrorism.  Before we can even begin to solve these problems, however, we need to look to ourselves.  If we do, we might just run into the inconvenient truth so neatly put by Al Capp:  we have met the enemy, and he is us.





A long time ago, someone gave me what I think was the best advice I have ever received regarding teaching. It was as follows. If one student doesn’t understand you, it is that student’s fault, but if several students don’t understand you, it is your fault. Looking at that bit of wisdom always makes me hark back to my first day of teaching, when, after lecturing for fifteen minutes with my back to the class, I turned around to see pretty much every student in the class staring at me with his or her mouth open. Thanks to this principle, I was able to send the class home and promise to do much, much better next time.
Over the years, I have come to realize that there is a far wider application for this brilliant observation than just teaching. In particular, it has a very specific application to governance. If you are truly a citizen of the United States, then you operate on the principle that government is meant to serve the people by maintaining equality and protecting the inalienable rights of every human being. By “government”, we in the United States mean “we the people”, served by representatives. Thus the term “representative democracy.” So a government fails, and, by implication, we all fail, because, as members of this nation, we are each responsible for maintaining that equality and those rights.
We cannot, of course, eradicate inequality and the violation of rights. There will always be those who will game the system or ignore or trample on the rights of others. What we can do, however, is be vigilant to see where major and continuing violations of those rights occur and address the issues that are creating or allowing those violations. To put that in terms of the above aphorism, if one, or a very few, people, suffer a violation of their rights, it is the fault of the offenders. If, on the other hand, there is a widespread injustice, we as citizens of the United States are failing and need to do whatever we can to reduce or eliminate that injustice.
So, let us apply the principle. There is always crime in America, as in any population. There is always drug and alcohol abuse. There are always murders. If, however, drug abuse and murder escalates, then we need to look to ourselves to see if we are somehow failing as a community. Likewise, if there is some fringe group of non-Americans who do not like us, that is their problem. If, however, large segments of the world population express profound hatred of our governmental or business activities, then we need to see if we are in fact violating the rights of those populations.
Unfortunately, a great deal of this is true today. Crime in general, and murder in particular, is rising drastically across the nation. Drug abuse has skyrocketed, particularly with heroin. And in large populations in the world, America is looked upon as a country that routinely violates people’s rights and uses devious business practices purely for profit.
What do we do about it? Well, I can certainly hear the voice of those who say that we should do nothing, that whatever America does is okay, that it is in fact disloyal or even treasonous to suggest that we are to blame or that we have done anything illegal or immoral as a nation. Such talk is at best naive and at worst disingenuous. We are draining the American population of its wealth and opportunity and handing it over to superwealthy few. We are in desperate need of funds to adequately — and justifiably — run this country. Our roads are a mess, our schools are being drained of money, our health system is sucking us dry. People are despairing, and, when they despair, they do things that add to the damage.
We have, for far too many years now, reduced our tax income and then paid for the deficit by eliminating the basic benefits that our government was created to supply. The myth that reducing taxes would somehow be of benefit to us all has been exploded in a sea of violence and misery. We have, in sum, substituted private gain for public rights, and either we will end that failed policy or it will end by itself, violently.