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When is a Terrorist Attack Not a Terrorist Attack?

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Aaron Alexis by Star Telegram

Oh the humanity. 

Once again, a deranged citizen has gone on a killing spree, this time targeting civilian employees at the Washington Navy Yard.  Armed with a sawed-off shotgun, a handgun and an AR-15 (as of this morning, officials believe he took the latter two from people he shot), 34-year old Aaron Alexis went on a two-hour shooting rampage, killing a dozen people before being shot and killed by authorities.  If past experience teaches us anything, the nation's on-again-off-again debate over gun control will heat up, only to cool down.  T he name Aaron Alexis will be broadcast so many times over the next week or two that virtually everyone in the country will know who he was, where he lived, how he spent the last several days before going on his deadly spree, and perhaps even something of the demons that residing inside his head. 

And then, Aaron Alexis will be conjoined to a growing list of mass-murderers whose ranks include such infamous creatures as:

  • Adam Lanza, who gunned down 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012.
  • Wade Michael Page, who murdered 6 Sikh temple members in Oak Creek, Wisconsin on August 5, 2012.
  • James Holmes, the Aurora gunman who killed 12 and wounded 58 during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" on July 20, 2012
  • Jared Loughner who opened fire at a Safeway market in Tucsan, killing 6 and wounding many, including then-U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords on January 8, 2011.
  •   Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 and wounded 29 others at the Fort Hood army base in Texas on November 5, 2009.
  • Seung-Hui Choi who gunned down 56 students -- 32 of whom died -- at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007.
  • Eric Harris and Dylan Kiebold, who shot up Columbine High School in Colorado, killing 13 and wounding 21 others on April 20, 1999.

From what little has yet to emerge about the late Mr. Alexis, it would appear that he was mentally unstable, had a prior arrest record, suffered from "anger management issues," and was being treated by doctors at the Veterans' Administration.  This information was obviously not difficult to ascertain, it being made public within hours of the massacre.  It seems to me that had there been even the most basic background check on the books, he likely would not have been able to purchase the shotgun with which he began his deadly spree.  Yes, I know: a "mere" background check might not have stopped him . . . and then there are obviously many unanswered questions at this early juncture, such as how he onto the grounds of the Washington Navy Yard with a shotgun in the first place.  Nonetheless, faced with yet another bout of horrific gun violence, how can one sit still and do nothing but mourn?

As of this morning, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has, unsurprisingly, been rather mute.  One can fully expect their public face, Wayne Lapierre to issue a statement sharing in the sorrow, and calling for a period of mournful silence.  Within a week, he will likely issue another statement informing the public that background checks would never have stopped Mr. Alexis, and that the only way to deter gun violence is for citizens to be more fully armed.

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The chilling irony of this latest massacre is that it comes within the same week that Colorado voters ousted two state legislators who were instrumental in passing legislation which stiffened state gun laws.  The two, Colorado Senate President John Morse and Pueblo-area Representative Angela Giron, were responsible for enacting a law -- signed by Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper -- which limited gun magazines to 15 rounds and required universal background checks, to be paid for by the gun purchaser, among other restrictions.  As mild as these measures might seem, the two were handily replaced by Republicans who opposed the new restrictions.  (It should be noted that the original legislation passed without a single Republican vote). The recall vote -- the first one to succeed in Colorado state history -- was well funded by both the NRA on the Republican side and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his "Mayors Against Illegal Guns" organization on the Democratic side of the aisle.  Opponents of the legislation are hoping to qualify a ballot initiative in 2014 that would repeal some of the provisions.  A group of sheriffs has also filed suit to overturn the legislation.

And so, these Colorado voters were convinced that something as benign as background checks or limiting gun magazines to 15 rounds was an infringement on their Constitutional right to bear arms.  One wonders if they are equally as vigilant when it comes to the various and sundry measures enacted in what has come to be known as the "War Against Terror."  Ever since 9/11 Congress and the president have "done whatever it takes" to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks.  Some of these measures -- warrantless wiretaps, secret renditions and data mining -- are of questionable legality.  Nonetheless, the measures are ongoing; anything to save the country from a repeat of September 11, 2001.  But isn't yesterday's massacre an act of terror as well?  Is there anything on the books -- or in the dictionary -- which defines or limits a terrorist attack only to those actions taken by foreigners fueled by apocalyptic ideologies? By definition, a "terrorist" is "a person who terrorizes or frightens others."  By definition then, Aaron Alexis -- like Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bomber) and Richard Reid (the so-called "Shoe Bomber") is a terrorist who perpetrated a terrorist attack on American citizens living on American soil.  It seems to me only consistent that those who support the "whatever it takes" approach to foreign acts of terror should be equally vigilant when the terrorists are home-grown and home-sown.  For regardless of what the nationality, ideology of pathology of a terrorist may be, the outcome is the same: death and destruction. 

When is a terrorist attack not a terrorist attack . . .?

-2013 Kurt F. Stone

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Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)

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