In the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, and again after yesterday’s slaughter in Orlando, American gun control activists have made much of the fact that Al-Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn once reminded his followers that “America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms,” and urged them to use the opportunity to massacre civilians in a hail of bullets. “What are you waiting for?” he asked.
Many on the Left seem persuaded that the most productive response to Islamist rampages is to agitate for more gun control measures, and statements like Gadahn’s apparently confirm this conviction. Even if it’s far from clear that new gun laws would have an impact—the 1990s assault weapons ban had no discernible effect on violent crime rates, and the Paris attacks should make clear that draconian gun control doesn’t exactly prevent terrorist mass murder—the impulse is understandable. “Thoughts and prayers” won’t stop the violence, as they say. Now is a time for action, and action means a scorched-earth-campaign against America’s tradition of expansive gun rights.
Watching the grimly predictable response to the Orlando tragedy, however, almost makes one wonder whether there was more to Gadahn’s evil exhortation than meets the eye. The purpose of terrorist attacks is not, first and foremost, to kill and maim people, but to sow fear and distrust, to undermine the public spirit—to undermine the very fabric of a society. Depending on the circumstances, guns may or may not be more effective instruments of murder than any other tools terrorists have used in the past. But there is no question that they are superior when it comes to one thing: Pitting Americans against each other.
After 9/11 and the Boston Bombings, Americans grieved together and comforted each other. They resolved to fight their attackers as one nation. Insofar as there was partisan dissension, it was mostly contained to cranks on either side. But the attacks at San Bernardino and Orlando have yielded an altogether different response, dominated by hostility, mistrust, and outrageous partisan attacks. Part of this is because the latter two attacks took place during a hotly-contested election season that has brought fevered populism to the fore on both sides of the aisle. But perhaps the most important reason Americans have been divided, rather than united, in the face of terror over the last year is simply because the terrorists elected to kill their victims with bullets. If Omar Mateen had planted Tsarnaev-style pressure-cooker bombs in the crowded Pulse nightclub on Saturday night, he may well have claimed just as many casualties. But the attack would not have immediately set off a political firestorm over gun control.
Guns occupy a critical space in America’s increasingly acerbic culture wars, a manifestation of the broader social convection currents taking place below the surface. For Jacksonians who are losing faith in the ability of established institutions to preserve order, the Second Amendment is a bulwark against totalitarian movements, like Islamism, that would undermine American liberty. Under this deeply held view, attacks by ISIS-enthusiasts strengthen, rather than weaken, the case for gun rights. But for cosmopolitan liberals, gun rights are an anachronism—a symbol of all the wrong-headed views espoused by working class whites. Set these two warring camps against each other in the context of an ongoing terror threat, and you push an already divided society even further down the path of tribalism and fracture.
The attackers in Orlando and San Bernardino accomplished something the attackers in Boston and New York didn’t: They drove a wedge between patriotic Americans, and managed to ensure that our grieving over the dead was polluted from the outset by a din of vicious political assaults. By any measure, they and their fellow travelers must consider this a great success. Perhaps terrorists who choose to carry out their massacres with guns are actually “taking advantage” of American society in a rather different way than many liberals think.