By Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World. Originally published at TomDispatch
Consider this paragraph a holding action on the subject of getting blown away in America. While I write this dispatch, I’m waiting patiently for the next set of dispiriting killings in this country. And I have faith. Before I’m done, some angry — or simply mentally disturbed — and well-armed American “lone wolf” (or lone wolves) will gun down someone (or a number of people) somewhere and possibly himself (or themselves) as well. Count on that. It’ll be my last paragraph. Think of it as, in a grim way, something to look forward to as you read this piece on American armed mayhem.
National security officials and politicians have been pounding home the message that the “greatest threat” to Americans is an extreme and brutal jihadist movement thousands of miles away and the videos and social media messages its followers produce that make it seem close at hand. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few of the dangers of armed life in these United States, a quick survey of national insecurity in a country armed to the teeth.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that, in the first half of 2015, there’s been a plethora of incidents to draw on. There’s the killer still on the loose in northern Colorado who shot at people in cars or out biking or walking late at night. There’s the suspected serial killer who dumped seven bodies behind a strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut, and may now be in jail on unrelated charges. There’s the ongoing trial of James Holmes who blew away 12 moviegoers and wounded 70 in a multiplex in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012. There was the mass killing of seven people in February in the tiny town of Tyrone, Missouri, by Joseph Aldridge, an armed recluse who then killed himself. And don’t forget Sudheer Khamitkar, who shot to death his wife and two young sons and then himself in Tulsa in April, or Christopher Carrillo, who murdered four of his family members and then turned his gun on himself in a Tucson home in May. And many others.
In such a list, there should be a special place for a phenomenon that, though largely untabulated, has been gaining attention in recent years as ever more Americans “carry” in ever more places. This means ever more loose guns lying around. I’m talking about the mayhem committed by toddlers (or perhaps they should be thought of as American lone wolf cubs). Toddler shootings range from the two year old who killed his mother in a Walmart in Idaho with the gun she was packing in her purse as 2014 ended to the three year old who discovered a gun in a purse in an Albuquerque motel room in February and wounded his father and pregnant mother with a single shot. Such a list for this year would have to include the Florida two year old who found his father’s gun in the family car and killed himself with it in January, the three year old who picked up an unattended gun and killed a one year old in a Cleveland home in April, the Virginia two year old who found a gun on top of a dresser and killed himself in late May, and the four year old who, at about the same time in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, picked up a shotgun at a target shooting range and killed his 22-year-old uncle. Toddler killings have been commonplace enough in these pistol-packin’ years that they now significantly outpace terror killings in the U.S.
The Big Leagues of Violence
While we’re at it (before we get to the really big stuff), there is the crew I think of as American-style suicide killers. They lack a political or religious ideology like the suicide bombers of the Middle East, but they are on missions for which killing yourself as well as others is the imagined end. Think of them as informal American jihadis, in touch with no ISIS social media types, watching no inflammatory terror videos, but all riled up anyway, often deeply disturbed, armed, and on suicide missions in the American homeland.
I’m referring to a remarkably commonplace kind of killing that, as far as I know, no one has taken the time to record or count up: men who kill their girlfriends or wives (and sometimes others in the vicinity) and then take their own lives. Here’s an almost random list of just some of the reported cases I stumbled across for 2015: In January, in the appropriately named Nutley, New Jersey, a 38-year-old man shot his 37-year-old girlfriend and then killed himself; in January, in Lincoln, Nebraska, a 49-year-old man shot his 44-year-old girlfriend, called the police to report the killing, and then killed himself; also in January, a 29-year-old man shot his 27-year-old pregnant girlfriend six or seven times in a hotel for the homeless in New York City’s Times Square before taking his own life; in February, in Wading River, New York, a 44-year-old man shot and killed his 43-year-old girlfriend and her 17-year-old daughter before taking his own life; in March, in Chicago, a 23-year-old man shot and killed his 24-year-old girlfriend, then himself in the mouth, committing suicide; in April, a 48-year-old Fort Worth man, who had a winning $500 lottery ticket and refused to share the spoils with his 46-year-old girlfriend, shot her and then himself after they argued, then called the police to report the crime before dying; in April, in Cleveland, a 48-year-old man shot and killed his 19-year-old girlfriend and then repeated the act two doors down, murdering his 47-year-old ex-wife, before turning his gun on himself; also in April in Montgomery, Alabama, a man shot and killed his girlfriend, subsequently killing himself; similarly in April, a 35-year-old doctor shot and killed his 39-year-old girlfriend in Fayetteville, North Carolina, followed by a 32-year-old doctor in New Jersey, and then, when police approached him, committed suicide; in May, in San Diego, a 52-year-old man shot his 28-year-old girlfriend and her 63-year-old mother to death before committing suicide. As June began, in Cleveland, a 30-year-old man shot and killed his 24-year-old ex-girlfriend and her grandfather, badly injuring her grandmother, then killed himself. And so it goes, and mind you, this is just a starter list for such acts, which seem remarkably commonplace.
Moving on to bigger things, one kind of killing has been much in the news of late: police shootings. The figures the FBI has traditionally compiled on them have proven to be way too low, so others have entered the fray. The Washington Post, for instance, recently began compiling a database of “every fatal shooting by police” in the U.S. in 2015 (deaths by Taser not included). Their figure so far: at least 385 for the first five months of 2015 or approximately one of every 13 non-suicide gun deaths so far this year.
“About half the victims,” the Post reports, “were white, half minority. But the demographics shifted sharply among the unarmed victims, two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. Overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting by the population of the census tracts where the shootings occurred.” A Guardian study adds this detail: “Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.”
According to the Guardian, a recent Bureau of Justice report found that over the last eight years an average of 928 Americans have died annually at the hands of the police. (FBI figures: only 383.) In other words in those years, there were 7,427 police homicides, the equivalent of more than two 9/11s. Compared to other developed countries, these figures are staggering. There were, for instance, more fatal police shootings in the United States in the month of March 2015 (97) than Australia had between 1992 and 2011 (94). Similarly, there have been almost three times as many police shootings in California alone in 2015 (72) as Canada experiences annually (25).
And when it comes to armed dangers in a country in which there are estimated to be between 270 and 310 million guns or, on average, nearly one firearm for every man, woman, and child, we haven’t even made it to the major leagues of death yet. Take, for instance, suicide by gun. In the last year for which we have figures, 2013, there were 21,175 such deaths and they seem to be rising. Deaths by firearm in this country totaled 33,636 in that year and seem to be rising as well.
And just for the heck of it, maybe we should throw in one other kind of weapon (even if it generally lacks the intentionality of firearms): cars, trucks, and other vehicles. Many traffic deaths could certainly qualify as assaults, however unintentional, with a deadly weapon. In 2013, there were 32,719 such deaths, essentially equaling death by gun in America.
In all, then, we’re talking about approximately 66,000 death-dealing assaults with weapons or vehicles in this country yearly.
Armed Dangers and Meal Tickets
Now, let’s leave those annual fields of carnage behind and turn to the “greatest threat” of our moment — or so the officials of the national security state would have you believe. You know what that is, of course: the Islamic State with its sophisticated propaganda skills that, according to official Washington, regularly run circles around whatever this country and its allies can muster in response. Despite the nearly trillion dollars a year that goes into national security and the elaborate surveillance and monitoring systems that have been put in place, we remain strangely defenseless against its wiles. Using social media, its facilitators threaten to obliterate distance, reach across oceans, and rile up displaced, marginalized, and often slightly unhinged young American Muslims, and — at least so the story goes — prepare the groundwork for unparalleled mayhem in “the homeland.”
With that dire scenario in mind, here is 2015 in Islamic State terrorism in the U.S. in terms of death and destruction: In May, evidently affected by ISIS’s social media presence, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, two young American Muslims from Phoenix who were roommates, set out to attack a cartoon exhibit and contest in Garland, Texas, devoted to the Prophet Muhammad and organized by Islamophobe Pam Geller. Armed with assault rifles and wearing body armor, they managed to wound an unarmed security guard in the ankle before they were killed by an off-duty traffic officer, also working security at the event.
Similarly, this month a 26-year-old black Muslim, Usaamah Rahim, was reportedly involved in an ISIS-inspired plot in Boston to somehow behead Geller. He then supposedly abandoned that plan, deciding instead to behead some local “boys in blue.” Approached on the street for questioning by Boston police and FBI agents in plain clothes, he pulled out a “military-style knife,” they claimed, threatened them, and was shot to death. (Some aspects of their account have been questioned.) And that’s it, folks. The greatest threat on the planet has, so far this year, managed to inspire three marginal young men to get themselves killed. When it comes to the dangers in American life, put that in the context of tens of thousands of annual deaths by firearm, or even of the toddler killings.
Despite all the talk of possible jihadist plots, this is the evidence we have of the threat to the “homeland” which the Islamic State represents at the moment and into which so much money and preventive activity flows (to the exclusion of so much else). It is, we are told, a “new threat,” utterly unlike the normal dangers of our American world. In fact, such violence, rare as it may be, shouldn’t seem aberrational at all. It really should strike us as more of the same — even if the names of the perpetrators sometimes have a different ring to them: men, often young, with access to weapons, in some cases mentally unstable, and with a grudge, intent on striking out. They should remind us of those American men who so regularly kill their girlfriends and then themselves or of many of the mass killers of recent years.
Yet this is the lone danger that is constantly played up as the one worthy of both fear and investment. Of course, jihadist terror is perfectly real and if Americans lived in Syria or Iraq or Libya it would be a horrifying problem. But whatever the present skills of ISIS’s propagandists, such violence has, since 9/11, proven more dangerous than shark attacks, but not much else in American life. And when law enforcement agencies are surveyed, according to Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, they, too, see the dangers of Islamist terrorism as modest indeed in this country, particularly in comparison to the homegrown far right-wing version of the same.
It matters that we are still protected by two oceans and that the Islamic jihadist heartlands are distant indeed. But let’s be honest: the threat of Islamic terrorism here is also a meal ticket for the national security state. (Hence all those plots that turn out to be essentially instigated, funded, often essentially organized by FBI informers and then “cracked” by the FBI.) It’s one major way that the officials of that state-within-a-state ensure support and funding, endow themselves with special privileges, including never having to appear in court for potential criminal acts, and entrench their anti-democratic methods and the blanket of secrecy that goes with them ever more deeply in American life.
As for the real armed dangers in our world, nobody’s likely to put much money into protecting you from them and, despite those 66,000 deaths a year, somehow the world continues to spin and the end is not nigh.
By the way, you do have one thing coming to you, don’t you? I promised you a last paragraph. So here goes.
In the week-plus since I first began writing this piece, there was indeed one Islamic State-“inspired” attack in the United States. A twenty-one year old man lunged at an FBI agent searching his home in Staten Island, New York, with “a large kitchen knife.” He was reputed to be part of another of those ISIS-inspired terror “plots” that seem unlikely to ever be successfully carried out. There was also a mass killing. A twenty-one-year-old white racist walked into a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and opened fire in what, if he had been Muslim, would have been called a terror attack, killing nine, including the church’s pastor who was also a state senator. As Reuters reported, the massacre “recalled the 1963 bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls and galvanized the civil rights movement of the 1960s.” There was as well at least one more grim toddler shooting. A Cincinnati three year old found his mother’s gun in her purse, shot himself in the chest, and died. There was also at least one more fellow on a suicide mission: a Vermont man sought by the police in the killing of his ex-girlfriend engaged in a high-speed car chase before crashing and committing suicide by gun. There were a number of police homicides, including: a man on probation in a Hacienda Inn in South Lake Tahoe; a 28-year-old man in a high-speed car chase in Stockton, California; a 28-year-old man, unarmed but “behaving erratically,” in Des Moines, Iowa; a man who stabbed a policeman trying to arrest him in Brighton Beach, New York; and a man tentatively identified as African in Louisville, Kentucky, accused of violently threatening the police with a flag pole (with the usual conflicting stories from police and eyewitnesses about what actually happened). And in the smorgasbord that is America’s cavalcade of violence, we shouldn’t leave out the off-duty Neptune, New Jersey, police sergeant who chased his ex-wife in his car, caught up with her, and shot her to death in front of their seven-year-old daughter before threatening to kill himself and being arrested by the police; or the Iowa City mall security guard, evidently fired from his job earlier that day, who went home, got a weapon, returned, and killed a 20-year-old female employee of the mall’s children’s museum whom he had previously been harassing. He fled, but was arrested by the police soon after. Meanwhile, a mentally disturbed young man with a grudge against the police bought an armored van on eBay (“touted as a ‘Zombie apocalypse assault vehicle’ with ‘gun ports’ capable of ‘drive-by mow-downs’ and full armor and bulletproof windows ‘just in case someone might try to take this bad boy from you'”). He then built pipe bombs, armed himself with an assault rifle and shotgun, drove to Police Headquarters in Dallas, and launched a full-scale attack on the place. Miraculously, he managed to kill no one, despite also crashing his van into several police cars, and was finally killed by a police sniper. And last but hardly least, some gunfire hit closer to home. Three young men in Brooklyn, New York, were shot and wounded in a housing-project playground complex (named after a neighborhood 13 year old who had been killed by a policeman in 1994). Someone I know gives classes in that complex. The shooter remains on the loose.