The Arms Industry: Mass Shootings — When the ‘War on Terror’ Comes Home
(Novermber 14, 2018) — Even as gun control advocates celebrated  election gains, the country was in the grip of terror following mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Thousand Oaks. This terrorism is not purely a domestic phenomenon, but a product of America’s relationship with the world: Terrorism in American life is inseparable from American violence in the world.
Easy access to firearms makes trauma and bigotry related to the “war on terror” lethal at home as much as abroad. Even for mass shooters seemingly uninvested in that conflict, the attraction of assault-style weapons lies in the image of combat-style American masculinity associated with it.
The Pittsburgh shooter harbored venomous hatred for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which offers aid to refugees, including, recently, Muslims from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East — what the shooter saw as “filthy evil jews Bringing the Filthy evil Muslims into the Country!!” These refugees emerge from conflicts unleashed by the American “war on terror” that began in 2001, accompanied by widespread Islamophobia. The Afghanistan war is American’s longest war, without end in sight. The Thousand Oaks shooter had served there.
Whatever the emotional motivations behind mass shootings — loneliness, trauma, hatred — at a deeper level they are coldly impersonal. They are not about personal enmity but random slaughter, mimicking the violence of the war zone with weapons designed for impersonal mass violence.
The same weapons are on all sides of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria. The Islamic State has American arms. Two days before the Thousand Oaks shooting, Taliban soldiers attacked security bases across Afghanistan to seize their firearms and other weapons, killing dozens. We hear little of these affairs, thanks to a discreet drone-based strategy, until a traumatized veteran reminds us of the war’s toll.
These shootings, here and there, are shaped by the business of arms. While many struggle to curtail the firearms industry’s access to American civilians, arms makers push to keep markets everywhere open: The war on terror helped destabilize Yemen, making it a site of civil war and Saudi aggression with American arms. President Trump is committed to those arms sales, despite news of famine in Yemen.
Historically, war often shapes civilian violence. After World War I, which ended 100 years ago last weekend, traumatized British soldiers engaged in new kinds of gun violence until tight gun legislation stopped it in 1920.
Our culture of mass shootings is also historically specific — and it need not go on. To be sure, the National Rifle Association peddles the myth that gun culture is American culture. But Americans have always had gun control. Kentucky and Louisiana passed bans on carrying concealed weapons in 1813. The idea of America as a place of unregulated gun ownership is recent, actively produced by a gun industry desperate for markets.
As the rest of the world strives to regulate global firearms sales, the Trump administration plans to ease firearms exports by moving their oversight from the State Department to the looser jurisdiction of the Commerce Department, where some sales may not even require licensing.
Meanwhile, tight gun laws in other countries make American civilians the single most important market for firearms manufacturers. American civilians own nearly half the firearms in the world. The American government, and governments around the world, have an interest in keeping this market open to support the health of an industry essential to national security. A revolving door between defense agencies and arms firms facilitates this military-industrial complex.
With such support, the NRA holds the nation in a death grip. The Thousand Oaks shooter modified his handgun with an extended magazine that would have been illegal to possess by California law, but a lawsuit by California’s NRA affiliate has blocked that law in federal court.
Witnessing the destruction wreaked by his arms in Afghanistan, the Marvel comic book arms maker Tony Stark forswears arms manufacturing but winds up weaponizing himself as Iron Man, launching a new arms race as his embittered partner makes a bigger, more monstrous suit. The 19th century firearms maker Sarah Winchester was haunted by the ghosts of those killed by the Winchester rifle, but bad conscience only drove her into building a crazy mansion in the heart of today’s Silicon Valley. She still went on with arms manufacturing.
We must do better than Iron Man and Sarah Winchester and reckon with a military industrial system in which we are collectively complicit. The gun control movement is pressuring companies to disengage from the firearms industry, and sustained activism can produce cultural change, just as NRA activism did.
Disgust at Saudi arms deals is also forcing moral assessment to economic decisions. Executives in Silicon Valley, where Saudi money provides crucial liquidity, are expressing scruples about accepting it going forward. Google employees have stymied renewal of a Pentagon contract to provide artificial intelligence technology for drones. Taxpaying power can be leveraged in decisions about local, state and federal contracts for arms.
We might imagine more peaceable ways in which government contracts can drive economic prosperity. We may reconsider industrial life itself, as did Mahatma Gandhi, William Morris, and others with mass following. Instead of Tony Stark, might we take inspiration from Black Panther’s Wakanda, where technology’s power is restrained by deeply human commitments to culture?
The ties between violence and industrial capitalism are deep and systemic, dating from the 18th century. Until recently, we actively explored alternative modes of social organization rather than accepting industrial capitalism, with all its human and environmental wreckage, as an inescapable default. It is time to invent new ways forward.
On the night of the Thousand Oaks shooting, more than a billion people were celebrating Diwali, which teaches us that a single oil lamp can vanquish the blackest night. Let us confront the place of arms-making in our global economy and its production of mass shootings in America and devastation in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. The NRA is our Frankenstein’s monster. To stop it, we must insist that our manufacturers turn swords into ploughshares, at last.
Priya Satia is a professor of history at Stanford University. She is the author of Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution (Penguin, 2018).
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