My 9/11 story isn’t very interesting. I was awakened, like most mornings at the time, by the clock-radio turning on to the local NPR station.
It turned on one minute after the first tower collapsed, because while that happened at 9:59am in New York, it was only 6:59am on the west coast. I hurried out of bed and headed downstairs to turn on the TV.
After watching that news for a bit and waking up my husband to tell him what was going on, I had to get ready for work, catch my bus, and try to get through a work day. It was obviously not a productive work day for virtually anyone in the country.
In the years since, I have always like to re-read this account:
I am slightly heartened that a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, has joined the ever growing chorus calling for a ban on certain categories of guns: The Post urges Trump to take action on assault weapons.
We’re used to all of the usual suspects trotting out their logically fallacious arguments (most of them commit a variation of the Nirvana Fallacy, also known as the Perfect-solution Fallacy: if whatever changes proposed can’t guarantee there will never be a gun death again, well, then we can’t do anything at all! Bull.
This weekend, thanks to Neil deGrasse Tyson being his usual smug self, we got one of the other fallacious arguments, and not for one of the typical rightwing types at all! Tyson had one of the most vapid and tone-deaf hot takes ever, in a tweet where he made the claim that in a typical 48 hours there are far more deaths in the U.S. due to medical errors, and due to the flu, and due to suicide, and due to car accidents, and due to homicide by handgun then these too mass shootings. Therefore, we should, you know, not get upset. Hit the link to see the tweet in question.
In one tweet he managed to pack several logical fallacies, which—if we weren’t talking about people being murdered—would be funny coming from a smug wanker who has made a career out of pretending to be the smartest guy in the room.
The first logical fallacy he is committing is the Appeal to Worse Problems (more formally known as the Fallacy of Relative Privation). All of these other things, he argues, cause more deaths, so we shouldn’t waste any time worrying about mass shootings until we eliminate all of those other causes of death. It’s a specialized kind of false dichotomy or dilemma: implying that we can only choose to worry work on a solution to one of the things in front of us.
Another problem is that several of the things in the list have no relationship whatsoever to the problem at hand. That the couple that could be argued to have a relationship, it’s a very weak one.
Medical errors, by definition, are not intentional acts. One has to be licensed as a medical professional and in most jurisdictions receive regular training and sometimes re-certification in order to practice medicine. Another way they differ from mass shootings is that we have systems in place designed to study such errors in order to find ways to make them less likely to happen. We have systems in place to apply those lessons. We have nothing like this for mass shootings.
Flu is not an intentional act by a human, it is caused by a virus. We have vaccines to reduce the incidence of flu. We have medications to reduce the severity of flu when it happens. We have entire teams of experts constantly studying flu and looking for ways to improve the vaccines and educate people in other ways to reduce their odds of catching flu. We have nothing like this for mass shootings.
Suicide is an act of self-destruction. We have suicide prevention hotlines. We have other forms of medical and psychiatric help available. We have groups of medical experts studying suicide (and proving again and again that there are ways to reduce the incidence of the act—that’s a topic for another day). But, those studies do relate slightly to the mass shootings discussion, as it has been shown that, for instance, banning guns in the residential parts of U.S. military bases (a program first undertaken at bases with a high incidents of service members committing murder-suicide of their families) doesn’t just cut down on the instance of gun deaths, but also reduces the rate of all categories domestic violence.
The vast majority of car crashes are not intentional acts. And again, we have experts in both the private and public sector who study car crashes and car design and relevant laws to find ways to reduce the rate of car fatalities. And we’ve significantly reduced them! Again, nothing like that exists for mass shootings. Also, you are required to have a driver’s license and regularly renew it to be drive. Cars are required to be registered and have their plates renewed periodically. Most jurisdictions require that you carry auto insurance for each car you own. Many jurisdictions require periodic inspection of the car to retain its registration. None of this applies to gun ownership.
The only one of his claimed worse problems to have more than a slight connection to mass shooting is homicide by handgun. And those findings about domestic violence on military bases give us at least some reason to suspect that the easy availability of guns contributes to the incidence of violent crimes in general. There seems to be something about the way that we perceive guns as opposed to knives and other weapons that has far-reaching effects. But, again, we don’t have large systemic ways of studying gun violence in this country.
The reason we don’t have systems in place to study gun violence is because Congress, under the influence of the gun lobby (usually in the guise of the NRA) has made it illegal to do so. And if there were no relationship between the availability of guns and the incidence of gun violence, why else would gun manufacturers be willing to spend millions each election cycle to prevent anyone from studying it?
Humans are social animals. Working together and the ability to divide labor is one of our species’ survival traits. We can work (as we already are), on other problems and the scourge of gun violence at the same time. Putting effort into universal background checks, and voluntary gun buy back programs, and studying other ways to reduce the incidents of these crimes. Red flag laws, which at least some Republican Senators have signaled they are willing to pass, would be a nice start.
Figuring out how to unpack toxic masculinity, racism, and how the mega-rich use our prejudices to blame economic uncertainty on marginalized groups instead of the hoarding and exploitation by corporations and billionaires, isn’t going to be easy. But if organizations like the National Institutes for Health could start studying gun violence systematically, we will find at least some ways to combat those contributing factors.
But it isn’t going to happen unless we ignore the excuses and demand action.
We’ve spent trillions of dollars (let alone the thousands of military personnel killed or maimed in the process) an accomplished nothing more than radicalizing who knows how many people who would otherwise might have been allies.
Meanwhile, we have ignored and inadequately responded to other disasters closer to home: Hurricane Maria Killed More People Than Katrina and 9/11 Combined: Harvard Study “4,645 people probably died after Hurricane Maria struck the island last September.” We continue to act as if 9/11 was the worst disaster ever to hit this country, while we ignore the pain and suffering of the American citizens in Puerto Rico. We should be ashamed.
If we are going to talk about 9/11, we should talk about some of the heroes: Remembering 9/11 Hero Mark Bingham Mark Bingham, a 6’4″ tall gay man who had the nickname “Bear Trap” was one of the passengers of United Flight 93 who stormed the cockpit of their pilot, preventing the hijackers from crashing the plane into the intended fourth target that day. Mark and the other passengers died as the plane crashed into a field, instead.
Read about the other, often erased, queer heroes here: The Stories of 9/11’s LGBTQ Heroes.
Mat Staver is the head of the anti-gay Liberty Counsel, featured speaker at several Values Voter Summits over the years, a man who has gone to court many times defending laws that discriminate against gay people, and someone who as recently as June has testified to congress about why gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered people shouldn’t be included in anti-discrimination law, and has many times on his radio show praised laws in places like Russia and Uganda that criminalize gay people and even talking about gay people. For example, last year he was on another radio show, ranting about those Christians who have said that gay rights and marriage equality are losing battles. “To assume that you can go against the created order is hubris, it’s arrogance, it’s dangerous and it is not something in which we can simply say, ‘the battle’s over, we need to figure out how to coexist.’ There is no coexistence.”
“There is no coexistence.” If he insists that his side can’t co-exist with us, that’s another way of saying either we have to cease to exist or he does, right? And I’m pretty sure he isn’t suggesting that all true believers (his side) should commit mass suicide.
When Staver says “there is no coexistence” that means he’s ultimately willing to kill. The reason Staver’s organization encourages things like Uganda’s kill-the-gays laws, and talks up the rhetoric of how dangerous we are to society is because he believes we should not be allowed to exist. Which means killing us. Or at least, scaring us with a credible enough threat of death that we all go back into the closet.
Just like the people who regularly go to Seattle’s old gayborhood (Police investigating weekend hate crimes on Capitol Hill) every weekend (‘Not one more’ — March strikes back at anti-queer violence on Capitol Hill), the aim isn’t to kill each and every queer person, it’s to scare the rest of us back into the closet. When rightwing Texas preacher Rick Scarborough announces that he’s willing to be burned to death to oppose gay marriage, he doesn’t mean that he’s going to set himself on fire; he wants to whip up fear and anger so that people who agree with him will do horrible things to some of us to frighten us into silence.
It’s the same tactics used by the hate leaders who radicalized Dylann Roof into shooting nine innocent people in a church in Charleston: making members of the majority believe that a historically oppressed minority somehow has all the power. Roof told the lone adult survivor of his shooting, “I have to do it. You’re raping our women and overrunning our country.” In a country where white police officers gun down unarmed black children in the street without facing murder charges, he believes that black people are the ones threatening the existence of white people.
Similarly, in a country where:
- 1500 queer children are bullied into committing suicide every year,
- where thousands of queer children are thrown out onto the streets by so-called Christian parents whose religious leaders have told them they have to show tough love,
- where the authorities don’t investigate those parents for child neglect,
- where the numbers of homicides of LGBT people have climbed to record highs,
- where more than half of hate-motivated murder victims are trans people of color,
- where state legislators are rushing to enact religious-belief based “right to discriminate” laws,
- where in most states it is perfectly legal for employers to fire someone simply because they think the person might be gay (and where landlords can evict gay tenants or refuse to rent to them, et cetera),
- where queer people are 2.4 times more likely to be victims of hate crimes than jews, and 2.6 times more likely to be victims of hate crimes than muslims,
- where the number of hate crimes against all groups except lesbian, gays, trans, and bi people is going down while all categories of anti-queer hate crimes remain the some or are rising,
- where the overwhelming majority of elected officials at the federal, state, and local level are Christian (far out of proportion to their percentage of the population),
- where state and federal tax dollars are funneled into “faith-based” charity organizations that are often allowed to discriminate in how they administer those tax-funded activities,
- where religious schools are often supported by tax dollars diverted from public schools,
- where high school kids are threatened with expulsion for wearing “Gay OK” t-shirts to school after a bunch of Christian bullies beat a gay classmate (but the bullies weren’t punished),
- where a public school teacher responding to an incident of anti-gay bullying read a book about acceptance to his class, then was forced to resign for “promoting homosexuality,”
- where Christian organizations rally and raise money to combat anti-bullying policies unless said policies include exemptions that allow their kids to bully gay kids in the name of their faith,
…Christians are claiming that queers are persecuting them.
Seriously? Not being able to bully, discriminate against, and torment their gay neighbors is oppression?
In response to the gunmen shooting up the offices of a Paris satirical magazine and killing twelve people, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has come forward with an editorial saying that the terrorists have a right to be angry. It’s a brilliant example of the religious right’s usual tactic of claiming that they don’t condone violence once or twice, and then spewing out several hundred words explains just how much the victims deserved what they got.
Meanwhile, Erick Erickson over on RedState radio is using the deaths in Paris as a cheap ploy to talk about an Atlanta fire department chief who was terminated recently for forcing his subordinates to read an anti-gay book that the fire chief wrote. According to Erickson, us gays have done just as heinous a crime as the Paris terrorists, because this guy was fired simply for publishing his beliefs. Um, no. He was fired for requiring other public employees under his command to read his book and for making numerous public statements about the suitability of queers to serve. Thus fostering a hostile work environment for any gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans employees, or any employee who didn’t share his views. That is not the same thing as merely publishing something. Particularly when, after he was suspended while an investigation when on, the fire chief went on a speaking tour of Atlanta churches, where he declared again and again when he got back to work he would keep proselytizing at work.
Then there’s the radical muslim cleric USAToday found to write Opposing view: People know the consequences.
But the most insidious and dangerous of these is definitely people like Donohue who argue that what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did was so offensive, that it is immoral or unethical for us to defend them (and by implication, immoral to harshly punish the terrorists if caught). Neil Gaiman wrote the answer to this some time back on his journal (in answer to a rather long letter from a fan), Why defend the freedom of icky speech?
You ask, What makes it worth defending? and the only answer I can give is this: Freedom to write, freedom to read, freedom to own material that you believe is worth defending means you’re going to have to stand up for stuff you don’t believe is worth defending, even stuff you find actively distasteful, because laws are big blunt instruments that do not differentiate between what you like and what you don’t, because prosecutors are humans and bear grudges and fight for re-election, because one person’s obscenity is another person’s art.
Because if you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.
(I’ve excerpted only a small part. Neil’s answer includes the story of how a piece Neil co-created, consisted of a long passage from the Bible with accurate illustrations, almost got a publisher thrown in jail in Sweden. The full journal entry is worth the read.)