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Ideas | The Atlantic
Ideas | The Atlantic
How Criminal-Justice Reform Fell Apart
A typical way to think about history is as a series of turning points. Sometimes it’s just as useful to think about the moments that looked like turning points and then turned out not to be.For a brief period, culminating two summers ago, the United States seemed to be on the verge of a serious rethinking of its approach to criminal justice. Years of falling crime had made citizens open to new policies. Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that too many people were in American prisons for too long, and the GOP-led Congress passed the First Step Act, a major reform package that aimed to reduce federal prison sentences, in 2018. A series of police killings of Black people, starting with Michael Brown in 2014, had already brought new attention to the excesses of policing, use of force, and racism.Then in March 2020, Breonna Taylor died in a police raid gone wrong in Louisville, Kentucky, and in May 2020, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. These deaths galvanized already shifting public sentiment, and inspired the largest protests in American history. Support for Black Lives Matter, disapproval of police, and belief that Black Americans suffer regular discrimination surged, especially among white Americans.[Adam Serwer: The new Reconstruction]Two years later, those demonstrations look like a high-water mark in the push for reform, not a breakthrough moment. Rising violent-crime rates and changing political circumstances have sapped the demand for change. Many of the most ambitious overhauls considered after Floyd’s murder have been abandoned or reversed. Republicans have soured on the ideas behind the First Step Act. A May poll from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst finds diminished support for BLM and a range of police reforms. Voters even in the most liberal cities have signaled that they want tougher policies on crime. What’s now clear is that the support for criminal-justice reform was a mile wide and an inch deep.The biggest change is the rise in crime, especially violent crime. For reasons that are still not fully understood, several major categories of crime (but not all) began spiking during the summer of 2020. The jump was correlated with the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns, as well as with the protests. In a Pew Research Center poll in June 2020, just four in 10 Americans viewed violent crime as a very big problem. Today, 54 percent do—and nine in 10 say it’s at least a moderately big problem. (The increase reflects greater concern among white, Black, and Hispanic Americans alike.) Americans were ready to take a chance on reforms as long as they felt safe, but rising crime rates rattled confidence, even though crime nearly everywhere remains far below historical highs.One of the many victims of this crime wave was the fledgling bipartisan consensus on criminal justice. In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned for president while making false claims about rising crime, but early in his term, he embraced the First Step Act, under the influence of his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose father had been incarcerated. But Trump’s heart never seemed to be in it. After Floyd’s death, he initially condemned police violence, but quickly grasped that unreservedly backing police and warning about crime could be a useful wedge issue in his reelection campaign.Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent, was unusually well positioned to absorb these political blows. Although his role in passing the 1994 crime bill was a liability in the 2020 Democratic primary, his skepticism of calls to defund the police and long ties with law enforcement helped neutralize Trump’s attacks. They also probably neutralized the reform push once he took office. The White House adopted a hands-off approach as Congress tried and ultimately failed to reach a bipartisan deal on a police-reform bill. Later, when a draft executive order including new national standards and guidelines for policing leaked in January 2022, the White House moved to make nice with law-enforcement groups.Biden finally signed an executive order yesterday that establishes a database of fired officers, bans chokeholds, and includes some other provisions, but it’s only binding on federal law-enforcement agencies—not the overwhelming majority of the roughly 18,000 police departments in the country. Meanwhile, the issue has become the subject of the normal partisan bickering. “Last fall, Senate Republicans rejected the George Floyd Justice in Policing act,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at a ceremony unveiling the order. “They walked away from their moral obligation to address what caused millions of Americans to walk in the street, the critical need that a coalition of Americans were demanding, were pleading for, in terms of reform and accountability.”One of the most notable moments in Biden’s first State of the Union address, in March, came when the president said, “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them.” Earlier this month, he called on states to spend stimulus money, passed as pandemic relief, on law enforcement. Funding police is not necessarily antithetical to new approaches—Democrats have noted that extra cash can help fund mental-health response programs as an alternative to sworn officers, for example—but Biden’s comments underscore how policy makers have switched their focus from reform to crime-fighting.[David A. Graham: America is having a violence wave, not a crime wave]One promise of the 2010s reform movement, with strong evidence in some instances, is that citizens could have fairer policing without sacrificing any safety. New York City provided the most celebrated example. Some officials had credited the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policing tactics with turning the once-edgy city into a remarkably safe one. But when the city ended stop-and-frisk under judicial and political pressure, crime continued to drop.As soon as crime began rising, however, citizens’ appetite for experimentation evaporated. In New York, voters elected a mayor whose major selling point was his experience as a police officer, and who promised a tougher tack on crime—notwithstanding the enigmas around the city’s safety wave. Voters in San Francisco and Los Angeles, who had elected avatars of the “progressive prosecutor” movement in 2019 and 2020, have now launched campaigns to recall them. In San Francisco, the recall vote is June 7, and polling suggests that District Attorney Chesa Boudin will lose. As my colleague Annie Lowrey writes, there is a persuasive argument that Boudin “simply isn’t good at the job,” but the dominant case against him—that he has made the city more dangerous—is questionable; in fact, there’s evidence that his policies might improve safety in the long term, but voters are antsy now. (In another sign of the national mood, Republicans placed demagogic attacks on Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson’s sentencing record at the heart of her confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court this spring.)Voters have rejected or reversed changes to police departments too. Although Los Angeles and Portland embarked on high-profile reductions in police budgets in 2020, both cities restored and increased funding in the face of rising murder rates. In Minneapolis, voters not only rejected a poorly thought-out proposal to replace the existing department with a new Department of Public Safety, but also ejected two incumbent city-council members who backed it. In Atlanta, city leaders who were quick to fire a reform-minded chief of police also forged ahead on a plan to build a massive police-training facility derided by activists as “Cop City.”Reformists have not been stopped everywhere. Austin embarked on a full overhaul of its department and police academy that has attracted national attention (and escaped punishment from state lawmakers, so far). Many cities, such as Durham, North Carolina, are experimenting with new alternative-response programs. Larry Krasner, the progressive prosecutor in Philadelphia, survived a reelection campaign against a rival backed by police unions. Overall, however, there is no question that reform momentum has ebbed.[Annie Lowrey: The people vs. Chesa Boudin]A continued retreat from reform is not certain. If crime levels off or drops, perhaps Americans will be ready to consider reform again. Maybe another horrific case like Floyd’s will reawaken anger, though the successful prosecution of officers involved in his death might give the impression that sufficient accountability exists. But as I warned when Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in April 2021, individual prosecutions remain too rare and too narrow to produce serious shifts in the American system. Another danger is that a return of brutal policing tactics will drive down crime. The Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey has argued that now-abandoned methods can be effective at reducing crime, but unsustainably and at a great cost in justice. That means tough-on-crime tactics now might “work,” as measured in numbers, but wound the nation.Beyond policing, major overhauls to the justice system, such as reducing the world’s highest incarceration rate, would require citizens to accept less punitive approaches, such as allowing even people guilty of heinous crimes to eventually leave prison, as the journalist Adam Gopnik has written. The speed with which the national mood shifted from more incremental reforms back toward increased security doesn’t suggest that the American people are anywhere near prepared to take those steps.
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We Have to Fix America’s Broken Culture of Guns
The most important thing you need to know about yesterday’s tragic school shooting in Texas is that absolutely no laws are going to change as a result of it.In the 14 years since the Supreme Court found an individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment in the landmark case of D.C. v. Heller, the federal judiciary has only grown more conservative. The courts will likely bar any meaningful restrictions on the possession of firearms for at least another generation.Your fellow Americans, meanwhile, who collectively bought 40 million firearms in 2020 and 2021, have grown even less enamored with the various gun-control measures typically floated by politicians after such tragedies. In Texas, the same Republican lawmakers cruising to reelection this fall made relaxing the state’s already permissive gun laws a priority in the last legislative session. And the simple commercial problem facing firearms manufacturers has not changed: They make highly durable goods. Firearms can be passed down through generations. To meet growth targets, then, firearms manufacturers must figure out ways to scare or otherwise motivate people who already own firearms to buy more firearms.[Read: What critics don’t understand about gun culture]For decades, these firearms manufacturers have—in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways—convinced white people that they need to buy arsenals to protect themselves from people of color. More recently, thanks in part to various shootings perpetrated by those heavily armed white people, people of color have responded by arming themselves in greater numbers, which must delight the firearms manufacturers. So we should all stop saying that something is going to change. Nothing is going to change. Democratic lawmakers—for whom overpromising and underdelivering is an incurable habit—propose measures after these shootings that they know will never pass through a highly divided Congress, or be sustained by federal judges hand-selected to stymie progressive legislation for the next three or four decades.We all need to adjust to the idea that unfathomable levels of gun violence, including school shootings, are going to get worse, not better, in the decades to come. In the past month alone, my two sons had a baseball game canceled because of a shooting at the park where they were meant to play and, two weeks later, soccer practice cut short because a nearby gunman had opened fire on a school down the road. In that latter incident, no innocent lives were lost thanks only to the gunman’s inability to effectively use any of the three assault rifles—I’m sorry, “modern sporting rifles”—he had stockpiled in his apartment overlooking the school.This is America, folks. This is who we are.So what should we do?First, we need to make firearms education a national priority. Once upon a time, when I was a young boy, a friendly organization called the National Rifle Association did great work teaching Americans about the safe use of firearms in hunting and other shooting sports. They still do some of that, but it’s a smaller and smaller portion of what that now extremely troubled organization is about.The government, then, should step up. If we’re going to allow everyone in America to own as many firearms as they want, our children need to understand what to do if they see a firearm, which they inevitably will. Don’t touch it. Go find an adult. Older children, meanwhile, should also understand how to unload a firearm and render it safe. Families might not have any interest in firearms, but firearms are going to be ever-present in the lives of their children.[Read: When was the last time children were so afraid?]The Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937 funds various conservation and wildlife-habitat-restoration initiatives through taxes on firearms and ammunition. We should raise those taxes and use the additional funds to help state wildlife and natural-resources departments teach firearm and hunter safety in our schools. I knew how to safely operate a rifle by the age of 10, and I don’t think it’s ever too early to teach young children the golden rules of firearm safety: Treat every firearm as if it is loaded. Never point the muzzle at anything you are not willing to destroy. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire. Always be sure of your target and what’s beyond. I still hunt and shoot sporting clays on a regular basis, and whenever I return from the range or from hunting, I clean my shotguns on newspapers spread out over the dining-room table. I use the opportunity to reinforce the rules for the proper handling of firearms to my three young children. I want my children to treat firearms as objects of respect, not of lust. I do not want them to fetishize these tools.Because the second and much harder thing we need to do is to shift the gun culture in America. I have written before about how the gun culture I have observed develop since the September 11 attacks—the emphasis on tactical weaponry, the marketing of ceramic plate carriers and kevlar helmets to civilians—is so very different than the gun culture I grew up with in East Tennessee in the 1980s, when the seemingly ever-present firearms were mostly shotguns for hunting and bolt-action rifles. I bought a used rifle not too long ago, and the federal firearms license-holder to whom I had to temporarily transfer the rifle—I now live in the District of Columbia, where all firearms must first be registered with the police—told me her other customers were fascinated by it. Indeed, on a rack mostly filled with semiautomatic 9-mm pistols people were waiting to pick up, my rifle stood out: a single-shot, break-action rifle chambered for big game. About as far away, in other words, from a Glock or AR-15 as you can get.My wife, who grew up in the suburbs of New York without any firearms in her home, tells me that I am fighting a losing battle. She tells me it’s impossible to recapture a more responsible approach to firearms.But we have to try. Because the firearms are just not going away. The shootings are not going to stop. Our children are going to be exposed to a level of everyday gun violence that children in literally no other developed nation experience.I wish it were not this way. But this is the country we’ve chosen for ourselves, and it is not changing anytime soon.
A Decade After Sandy Hook, This Is What it Takes to Concealed-Carry in Connecticut
The mass shooter in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 children and two adults. That means at some point he probably paused to reload. The mind goes to dark places when it imagines the seconds spent fumbling for fresh ammo, amid the sounds of death, and the click of a new magazine as a murderer’s hand smacks its baseplate home into the mag-well. That click is, for someone who enjoys guns—as I do—a familiar, small pleasure, a tactile indication that the ingenious machine in your hand is working exactly as designed. It is a little mechanical marvel, and to think of that satisfying click in the context of a dozen dead children, with a few more to come, is enough to make even a dedicated gun enthusiast puke.After most mass shootings, the desperate questions begin: When are we going to do something about our gun laws? How many dead children is too many dead children? Of course you know the answer already: Somewhat more than the current number.[David Frum: America’s hands are full of blood]I speak from recent and direct experience. I live in the state of Connecticut, which even after Uvalde owns the title as the site of America’s most deadly slaughter of tots in their school. (Twenty-seven victims died at Sandy Hook in 2012, including 20 children under the age of 8.) Last weekend, I shelled out about $75 to see how hard it would be, in my state and in my city, to be certified to own and carry a gun, concealed or open. The fee covered a day-long class on guns and gun safety—much of which was devoted not to guns or safety but to explaining the locations and hours of the government offices to which one could go after class to get a five-year pistol permit.Anyone with an IQ higher than a mango could pass this class. Indeed most mangoes would not, as my fellow classmates did, violate multiple rules of firearm safety immediately upon being handed a plastic replica of a handgun for practice. Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. Don’t point the muzzle at your foot. We went to the range afterward, and a patient and vigilant instructor made sure we hit the target and not our toes. As long as we weren’t registered with the government as criminals or psychiatric inpatients, and were not “illegal” residents, the permits would be ours upon paying a fee and getting fingerprinted.I asked the instructor, who had spent decades working in fire and law enforcement, whether the officers at my local police station might refuse to issue me a carry permit, just because they thought I looked squirrelly and mentally unstable. “If they rejected people on that basis, do you think I’d have a permit?” he joked. “But seriously. You could go in wearing your underpants on the outside, and it wouldn’t matter.” Then he taught us all how to load magazines, put a round in the chamber, and start sending lead down range.He also spent hours describing his regimen of responsible gun ownership, which involves sturdy locked cases littered about his home and in his Escalade, and rules that forbid even legal carriers from bringing guns onto school grounds, say, or into government buildings. (That includes the post office, he noted, “because they don’t like the competition.”) Don’t drink and carry. Teach your children about guns when they’re old enough, but install vaults to ensure that they can never reach them unsupervised.So a decade after Sandy Hook, that is how hard it is to get a permit to carry a Glock pretty much anywhere in Connecticut: Take a class, then present yourself and your fingertips to the police, who in recognizing the right to carry deadly weapons will not discriminate even against gibbering madmen, let alone the much-harder-to-detect silent loners who perpetrate so many of the atrocities like yesterday’s.[Caroline Mimbs Nyce: A guide to The Atlantic’s coverage of guns in America]You can probably tell that I think my state should apply more scrutiny in its permit process. But a day among aspirants for these pistol permits confirmed my belief that tightening this process would only modestly affect the amount of gun carnage in America. Tens of millions of Americans already have these permits. I will put on my undies later this week and get one too. If you are in the United States, guns are all around you already, in the hands of decent people and well-adjusted people, and also of demons and sickos.Some fetishize their guns. In a way, these gun owners are among the safest and most responsible. The attention they lavish on these objects reminds me of devoted pet owners, constantly brushing the hair of their Shih Tzus, sharing a bubble bath with them every night, never letting the little darlings out of their sight. But plenty of Americans treat their guns the way I treat my laptop, as part of the structure of their everyday life, and often as a tool for work as well as fun. They carry their guns and shoot them responsibly. Why should they give them up because of others who do not? I cannot kill anyone with my laptop, but I can certainly do harm with it—and if someone suggested that it should be taken away because the social negatives outweigh the positives, I would be outraged. From my cold, dead hands. You may object to this comparison, on any number of reasonable grounds. But if it baffles you completely, you probably have no clue how deeply guns and gun-culture are embedded in America. And to change a culture is infinitely harder than to change laws. I am not sure where that leaves us. Or rather, I am all too sure.
No Parent Should Have to Live Like This
Four days ago, I filled out the paperwork to register my son for kindergarten. After I sent the email—filled with attachments of IDs, birth certificates, proofs of residence, and immunization records—I turned to my wife and said in the ultimate parent cliché, “They really grow up so fast.”I picked up my phone and began scrolling through photos of my son from the day he was born, almost five years ago, his pink-brown body awash with wrinkles and wonder. I kept scrolling and saw photographs of him in the crib where he slept (and too often did not sleep); photographs of him chasing a flock of birds in the park, his arms raised as he toddled toward them with breathtaking inelegance; photographs of him after he had applesauce for the first time, his eyes gleaming, his smile as wide as the sky, his lips covered in a chaos of golden mush.The school where my son will attend kindergarten is just a few minutes’ walk away from our house. The other day (when his preschool class was closed because of a COVID case) we walked there during lunchtime so that he could see the students at “the big-kid school” he would be attending come fall.[Vedika Jawa: I’m not afraid of COVID-19. I’m afraid of school shootings.]The scenes were as you would imagine at an elementary school during recess. Soccer balls bounced against legs and grass and gates as a group of children chased the balls around with little regard for who was on whose team. Kids slid down the slide in every fashion—backwards, forward, headfirst on their backs, headfirst on their stomachs—before tumbling to the mulch waiting at the bottom and then running back up to do it all over again. Some chased one another with sticks, pretending to be wizards or superheroes or wizards who were superheroes. My son was thrilled by all of this. I mean, who wouldn’t be? Elementary school is a place where innocence abounds, where laughter ricochets off the walls in constant, endless cascades.It is this innocence, this hope for laughter and levity in the halls that hold some of our smallest humans, that makes the news of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, yesterday so devastating. At least 19 children and two adults were murdered by an 18-year-old gunman. It is the deadliest mass shooting this year, the second-deadliest school shooting of the past decade, and it comes just 10 days after what had previously been this year’s deadliest mass shooting, when a white-supremacist gunman murdered 10 people in a Buffalo grocery store, in an attempt to kill as many Black people as he could.I spent last week thinking about what it means to be Black in a country where people hunt you and hope to livestream your murder. I will now spend this week thinking about what it means to be a parent in a country where your child may not come home one day because a teenager was able to so easily buy a gun. These statements are not hyperbole; they are empirical. There have been more than 200 mass shootings in America in 2022; 27 of those have been in schools. Texas recently lowered the minimum age for purchasing a gun. Hate crimes are at their highest level in more than a decade. White-nationalist language has been mainstreamed and amplified.In Uvalde, children woke up yesterday morning. They may have had their favorite cereal for breakfast. They may have tied their shoes in double knots. They may have kissed their parents, who were hurrying off to work never once considering that they wouldn’t see their children when they got home. They may have laughed with their friends on the bus, telling the sort of jokes that make elementary-age bellies rumble with delight.Now 19 of them will not come home. They never will.I am a writer, but I feel as if language fails me in moments such as this. What vocabulary can describe the heartbeat of a parent pacing for hours outside a school, waiting to hear if their child survived? What sort of sentences can capture a fear that no family should have to hold? What words could ever be commensurate with the lost lives of so many little ones?I want to live in a country where my presence is not seen by some as an existential threat. But this feels like a fantasy. I want to walk past the school where my son will attend kindergarten next year and see a place that will keep him safe. But this is impossible. We live in a country that has failed us. Where legislation is written—and erased—by the gun lobby. Where manipulations and distortions of Second Amendment rights prevent politicians from enacting any semblance of sensible laws that would at least attempt to prevent this. Where claims about what our founders wanted supersede the slaughter we see right in front of us. Where the cocktail of easily accessible guns and the normalizing of extremist views makes nowhere feel safe. There is no other country in the world where this happens. And the fact that it does happen, and happens with such frequency, is reflective of a choice that has been made. But just because a choice has been made doesn’t mean that different choices aren’t possible. Different choices are possible.[Read: Seven autumns of mourning in Newtown]Ten-year-old Amerie Jo Garza was in fourth grade, and had, only hours before the shooting, received her honor-roll certificate at the school awards ceremony. There is a photo of her father, Alfred Garza, holding a photograph of his daughter on his phone, which shows her moments after receiving the award. Her eyes are bright, her smile brimming with pride. She was one of the 21 people killed.There are parents today scrolling through photographs of their children, realizing that there will be no more photographs of them to take. We cannot continue to live like this, but I fear we will.
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A Guide to The Atlantic’s Coverage of Guns in America
“Like everyone, and I’d say especially like every parent, I am of course saddened and horrified by the latest mass shooting-murder. My sympathies to all,” James Fallows, a longtime correspondent for this magazine, wrote nearly a decade ago on July 20, 2012. That day, a gunman had opened fire on theater-goers in Aurora, Colorado. A dozen people were dead.He continued: “And of course the additional sad, horrifying, and appalling point is the shared American knowledge that, beyond any doubt, this will happen again, and that it will happen in America many, many times before it occurs anywhere else.”In the years since, Americans have watched Fallows’s words become relevant time and time again. And they are relevant again today, as the country attempts to process the news that a gunman has killed 18 children and a teacher at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.We are covering and will continue to cover the specifics of the Texas shooting in the coming days. But we also are reflecting on the longer history of guns in this country. Below, you’ll find a collection of this magazine’s previous coverage of the topic, written by our staff, as well as by a doctor, a high-school student, and others who have been hurt by gun violence. This list is nonexhaustive and offered in no particular order. It will certainly be relevant again.1. “What I Saw Treating the Victims From Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns” by Heather Sher (2018) A radiologist who was on shift during the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School describes what it’s like to examine the CT scan of a victim wounded by an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.2. “I’m Not Afraid of COVID-19. I’m Afraid of School Shootings.” by Vedika Jawa (2021) A high-school senior from Fremont California shares her fear: “I worry that one day the school experiencing a mass shooting won’t be in Parkland, Florida, or Newtown, Connecticut, but in my city.”3. “What Critics Don’t Understand About Gun Culture” by David French (2018) The Atlantic contributing writer and author of the Third Rail newsletter explains why he chooses to carry a gun and what he appreciates about America’s gun culture.4. “The Story of a Gun” by Erik Larson (1993) Gunmakers are able to market their products for their killing power, while dodging responsibility for how they might be used, Larson wrote in our January 1993 cover story.5. “How to Persuade Americans to Give Up Their Guns” by David Frum (2021) The pandemic led to a surge in gun ownership, our staff writer reports. Can Americans be convinced to change course? 6. “When Was the Last Time American Children Were So Afraid?” by Joe Pinsker (2019) In the Family section, our reporter looks at the effects of mass-shooting drills on American children: “These lockdowns can be scarring, causing some kids to cry and wet themselves.”7. “Seven Autumns of Mourning in Newtown” by Carol Ann Davis (2019)A resident of Newtown, Connecticut, describes what it’s like to mourn each fall: “In those weeks between Halloween and the anniversary of the tragedy, even from my own distance from the events of that day, I find it hard to stand up, hard to go on.”8. “The False Promise of Gun Control” by Daniel D. Polsby (1994) “Guns don’t increase national rates of crime and violence—but the continued proliferation of gun-control laws almost certainly does,” Polsby argued in the mid-’90s.9. “A Lynch Mob of One” by Ibram X. Kendi (2019) “Preventing today’s lynch mob involves removing the assault rifle from his hands and the rifle of racist ideas from his mind,” our contributing writer argued after the 2019 shooting in El Paso, Texas.10. “Why Can’t the U.S. Treat Gun Violence as a Public-Health Problem?” by Sarah Zhang (2018) An amendment to a 1996 bill limits what the CDC can study, and has “had a chilling effect on the entire field for decades,” our science reporter notes.11. “The Secret History of Guns” by Adam Winkler (2011) “The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them,” Winkler reports in his article on how the gun-control debate has distorted history.12. “The Bullet in My Arm” by Elaina Plott (2018)Our then–staff writer describes her own brush with gun violence: being hit by a bullet while driving near her home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.13. “The Children of the Children of Columbine” by Ashley Fetters (2019)Survivors of the 1999 mass shooting at the Colorado high school are now “old enough to have children of their own,” and that means they have to talk to their kids about things like lockdown drills, a then–staff writer Fetters reports.14. “The ‘Unfortunate Family’ of American Shooting Survivors” by Julie Beck (2017) “Survivor-to-survivor connections can become a refuge for those affected by gun violence,” one Atlantic senior editor wrote following the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas.15. “Why Can’t Democrats Pass Gun Control?” by Stephen Gutowski (2021) “The deadlock isn’t the result of the NRA paying off politicians to vote against the wishes of their constituents,” the founder of The Reload, a publication that covers firearm policy, reports. “It’s much simpler than that.”16. “The Certainty of More Shootings” by James Fallows (2012) “I am an optimist about most things, but not about this,” the longtime Atlantic contributor writes.
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Why Biden Is Right to End Ambiguity on Taiwan
“White House Walks Back Biden Taiwan Defense Claim for Third Time in Nine Months” was the patronizing headline the New York Post applied to its report on President Joe Biden’s Taiwan comments at a regional summit in Tokyo. The story line was preset: semi-senile president blurts unscripted comment, is corrected by his staff minders.But if you reread Biden’s repeated comments on Taiwan, you see a policy that is clear, considered, and consistent.In August 2021, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Biden whether withdrawal from Afghanistan might embolden China against Taiwan. Biden replied: There’s a fundamental difference between—between Taiwan, South Korea, NATO. We are in a situation where they are in—entities we’ve made agreements with based on not a civil war they’re having on that island or in South Korea, but on an agreement where they have a unity government that, in fact, is trying to keep bad guys from doin’ bad things to them. We have made—kept every commitment. We made a sacred commitment to Article Five that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with—Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that. In October, Biden restated his commitment even more forcefully and clearly, this time at a CNN town hall moderated by Anderson Cooper. An audience member asked, “China just tested a hypersonic missile. What will you do to keep up with them militarily? And can you vow to protect Taiwan?”Biden answered: Yes and yes. We are—militarily, China, Russia, and the rest of the world knows we have the most powerful military in the history of the world. Don’t worry about whether we’re going to—they’re going to be more powerful. What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that will put them in a position where there—they may make a serious mistake. And so, I have had—I have spoken and spent more time with Xi Jinping than any other world leader has. That’s why you have—you know, you hear people saying, “Biden wants to start a new Cold War with China.” I don’t want a Cold War with China. I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back. We are not going to change any of our views. Anderson Cooper then intervened to clarify: “So, are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if—” Biden: Yes.Cooper: China attacked?Biden: Yes, we have a commitment to do that. Now, in May 2022, Biden has repeated the pledge. At a news conference Monday in Tokyo, Nancy Cordes, of CBS News, asked, “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” Biden answered, “Yes.”Cordes followed up: “You are?” Biden answered: “That’s the commitment we made.”Not only the Biden-skeptical New York Post but other media organizations, too, have treated these words as an unintended mess that he’d need to “untangle,” as the CBS anchor John Dickerson phrased it. But if there is a tangle, it’s not Biden’s fault.U.S. policy toward Taiwan is often described as “strategic ambiguity,” usually understood as “The U.S. will defend Taiwan but won’t say so.” But behind this U.S. ambiguity has stood a prior Chinese ambiguity. China’s version of strategic ambiguity simultaneously: proclaimed Beijing’s theoretical sovereignty over Taiwan, but refrained from overt actions to assert that sovereignty. In return for that ambiguous Chinese policy, Taiwan would refrain from challenging China’s sovereignty claims and the U.S. would refrain from any formal commitment to Taiwan’s security.[David Frum: This is no time for protectionism]Under the rule of Xi Jinping, China has progressively reneged on the second half of its strategic ambiguity. China has ordered bigger and bigger incursions into Taiwan’s air-defense zone. China has the means to mount a naval blockade of the island. It has mounted sustained and aggressive cyberattacks. Throughout, Chinese leaders have growled explicit threats of armed force. Taiwanese officials describe the present situation as the most dangerous of the past 40 years.So Biden is not leading this particular diplomatic two-step. Biden is not really initiating anything at all. As China jettisons its prior strategic ambiguity, so Biden has been pushed away from American strategic ambiguity. As Chinese threats of aggression have become more explicit, so, too, have U.S. promises of defense become more explicit.Biden was also pushed and pulled by two other factors. Donald Trump, in his presidency, also walked away from “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan—but, in his case, toward outright abandonment of Taiwan. “Taiwan is like two feet from China. We are eight thousand miles away. If they invade, there isn’t a fucking thing we can do about it.” Those words were uttered by Trump in private, according to a book by the Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin. But Biden had to worry that Trump communicated his feelings to Xi in their private conversations. If so, the credibility of the American commitment needed to be reaffirmed by Trump’s successor.In another theater, the Russian invasion of Ukraine raised fresh questions about U.S. intentions. Ukraine was not a formal U.S. ally before the Russian invasion. The U.S. accordingly provided Ukraine with weapons and supplies to defend itself, but did not intervene directly. That careful delineation—no U.S. forces for non-ally Ukraine—had to raise questions within the Chinese leadership about whether the U.S. might follow a similar policy toward Taiwan, also not formally a U.S. ally. Biden may have felt it urgent to dispel any doubts on that score.[Read: The lessons Taiwan is learning from Ukraine]“Strategic ambiguity” was a policy initiated by President Jimmy Carter to assure China of respect while protecting Taiwan from invasion. It worked for a long time. But there was no guarantee that it would work forever. President Biden had good reason to worry that the four-decades-old policy was losing its effectiveness in the face of rising Chinese assertiveness. New times may call for new measures to keep the old peace.For all portrayals of Biden as decrepit and doddering, it’s worth observing that he launched his new approach at an ingeniously propitious moment. For China, with its people restive under COVID lockdown, its economy slumping toward zero growth and possibly outright recession, its authoritarian partner in Moscow entrapped in a losing war, this is about as shaky a moment as any since Xi assumed power nearly a decade ago. Biden laid down his new rules at a moment of unusual vulnerability for China. By the time the Chinese have a better opportunity to act, the more explicit U.S. policy will have become a settled fact.Biden’s aides are right, in a way, that he has not changed anything. As Biden said, the commitment was there before him. Now it’s just more visible than it used to be. His words in Tokyo were not a gaffe, not a blurt. They were a restatement of a message that needed to be heard, delivered at an opportune time.
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Who Perseveres, Wins
I never attended Ranger School, the U.S. Army’s nine weeks of unadulterated misery in woodland, mountain, and swamp. But I know plenty of those who have, and they have all reported the same thing: The instruction they received in patrolling and minor tactics was insignificant compared with the lesson they learned in perseverance, to “complete the mission though I be the lone survivor,” in the words of the Ranger Creed.It is a lesson that has applications in the realm of higher policy, too, and now more than ever as politicians, academics, and pundits begin to talk—hesitantly, but their voices will grow louder—about pressuring Ukraine to accept further dismemberment at the hands of Russia. Speculating about motives is pointless. What matters is knowing why, despite these voices, the moment calls for intestinal fortitude, standing by the government and people of Ukraine, arming them to the teeth, and pressing for the defeat of the Russian invaders.[Charles A. Kupchan: Ukraine’s way out]From a purely geopolitical point of view, this war matters enormously. Should Vladimir Putin pull victory from his initial catastrophes, we can expect a riven Europe, which would disable the uneasy alliance that won the Cold War and gave the world more than half a century of prosperity after World War II. A Russian victory would encourage China to eye the possibility of conquering Taiwan and imposing its hegemony in East Asia. And it would lead countries around the world to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, because they would know that, in the final analysis, they are alone. And lonely, fearful countries with nuclear weapons may very well use them.Conversely, the benefits of victory for Ukraine—defined as at least its return to the borders it had on February 23, consolidation of its freedom and independence, and abundant reconstruction aid—combined with defeat of Russia, to include the destruction of most of its land power and the crippling of its economy, promises a great deal. A Europe whole and free, well-enough armed to relieve the United States of most of the burden of defending it, would be a strategic contribution to America’s security. China would find such a manifestation of the strength and resilience of the West sobering. A Ukrainian victory would encourage if not guarantee change in a Russia that has yet to accommodate itself to the loss of empire and still evidently aspires to its restoration.The moral stakes are equally high. In few wars has the balance of right and wrong ever been so completely lopsided. Ukraine is the victim of unwarranted and unprovoked aggression. Russian behavior—deportations, massacre, rape, and torture—has reached levels of abominable conduct seldom seen since the Second World War. The result is the most important test the Western democracies have faced since Munich in 1938.One of the greatest lessons of military history is that persistence matters. It often matters as much as strategy and skill, armament and technology. Many intellectuals and some politicians misunderstand this, overvaluing elegant ideas and the subtleties and conceits of diplomatic maneuvers. But when Winston Churchill said in 1940 that Great Britain was willing to fight “if necessary for years, if necessary alone,” he meant it. When Abraham Lincoln decided in 1860 that “the tug has to come, and better now than later,” he also meant it. In much of their domestic policy, both men were negotiators and compromisers. In their wars, with stakes they understood better than all others, they had a different view. They realized that there is a time to talk and a time simply to put your head down and fight as hard as you can. Churchill would not talk with Hitler in 1940, and Lincoln would not talk with Jefferson Davis, save to accept his surrender.Both Churchill and Lincoln faced critics who made sophisticated arguments about why compromise was necessary—why one should accommodate German domination of the continent in order to preserve the British Empire or why the reconstruction of the Union with a reversal of the Emancipation Proclamation would prevent further bloodshed. Both men persisted through setbacks and defeats, from Tobruk to Fredericksburg, from Singapore to Cold Harbor.Something of this spirit is required now. That Ukraine will suffer defeats is to be expected; that, after it has done a masterly job of concealing its losses, we will learn more of them is inevitable; that we will hear stories—assiduously spread by Russia and its sympathizers—of Ukrainian inefficiency or incompetence or corruption is certain. To some degree, these stories will all be true. But the key thing is, nonetheless, to persist.[Phillips Payson O’Brien and Edward Stringer: The overlooked reason Russia’s invasion is floundering]In war, we often brood on our own side’s weaknesses and are appalled at an enemy who is seemingly impervious to loss. When the historians peer through the records after a war, however, they invariably learn that both sides were subject to the same psychological and emotional pressures. War is thus a matter of comparative stress and breakdown.The great theorist of war Carl von Clausewitz once observed, “In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect.” Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance. With what assurance an architect watches the progress of his work and sees his plans gradually take shape! … By contrast a general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen. Today, all of us are like the generals of the early 19th century that Clausewitz described: bombarded by false impressions and fantastic fears generated from fragmentary information. We can see videos of exploding ammunition dumps and burning cities, and trace troop movements on maps updated daily on social media. The phenomenon, however, remains the same, and so does the remedy. “Perseverance in the chosen course is the essential counterweight, provided that no compelling reasons intervene to the contrary,” Clausewitz concluded. “It is steadfastness that will earn the admiration of the world and of posterity.”So it is now. With arms delivered at scale and with a sense of urgency by the wealthy liberal democracies, with assistance in managing logistics and training, with intelligence provided by a dozen highly competent Western agencies, Ukrainians fighting for their homeland will defeat Russia. Those who deny this possibility have to explain why Israel could defeat invading Arab armies in 1948, or why Vietnamese Communists could defeat first France and then the United States.There is abundant evidence of Russian weakness, including the physical frailty of its leader, the refusals of its soldiers to fight, the murder of its soldiers by officers and vice versa, and the courageous, if limited, bursts of internal dissent. Russia will feel in the coming months (indeed, years) the consequences of the flight abroad of hundreds of thousands of its best-educated and most productive citizens, the isolation from the Western technology and skill on which its economy depends, and the gradual shrinkage of currency from the sales of its most important resource, oil. The evidence is there if only one cares to see it.There is a time for clever policies, subtle diplomacy, considered overtures, and exquisite compromise. This is not it. Instead, it is up to the liberal democracies to support a country that is fighting for all who share its values, and to persist, trotz alledem und alledem, despite everything and everything, as an old German poem has it. Should the West do so, it will help bring a victory that is essential to its own security freedom, and not just Ukraine’s.
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