Gunned Down, Gunned Up, Again
As news broke last night of the horrific mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, where at least 18 people have been killed, I happened to be talking about guns with an old friend from Israel.
As the Israel-Hamas war rages on, my friend has joined a local security detail where he and other volunteers patrol their local streets at night. Hundreds of these new security units – they are essentially militias – are springing up as Israelis of all ages (my friend is in his early 60s) rush to protect their country. You might think this civic volunteerism is a positive sign, but my friend, a former politician, had a strikingly different view.
“I’m not sure if this is a sign of strength or a sign of weakness in our country,” he said. “After all, it should be the job of police and the government to keep people safe, but no one trusts the government to do that anymore, so they are doing it themselves.” It is an interesting question: Is gun ownership a metric of trust in government?
A recent poll from the Israel Democracy Institute shows that only 20% of Israelis and 7.5% of Arab Israelis trust the Netanyahu government. That lack of trust, intensified by the colossal Oct. 7 security failure, has led to a spike in militias and in Israelis buying guns.
You might think Israel has lax gun laws given that it has mandatory military service for most people, but actually, there are rigorous protections. There is no US-style Second Amendment right, and permits and checks are required. Still, it’s not hard to get a gun permit, and even before the Oct. 7 attack, the Netanyahu government was seeking to loosen the rules. Now that looks to be accelerating.
The instinctive rush to bear arms in the wake of an attack is understandable, but it can have long-term consequences, as the US knows all too well. The idea after the American Revolution was that armed citizens could save the country from tyranny. Yet, gun-toting Americans pose other grave dangers: The Maine tragedy was the 565th mass shooting in the US this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive. The renewed debate over gun control will likely, as ever, stall. Why? Lack of trust in government is a key factor.
A recent Pew Research study showed that less than 20% of Americans trust the US government, among the lowest numbers seen since polling began in 1958.
The same lack of trust is true in the UK and increasingly so in Canada as well, which makes combatting big issues, like gun violence or, say, a pandemic, harder to coordinate.
Just this week in Canada, the official opposition, which is polling way ahead of Trudeau’s government, put forward an anti-vaccine mandate bill to stop future governments from forcing federal workers and travelers to take a vaccine. Even though the measure was defeated, it is a sign that a huge part of the country does not trust the government to protect it from disease. What will it mean for a future pandemic?
Trust is something any government needs to build. That requires transparency, effective policies, and, at a bare minimum, doing its job to protect citizens’ rights and their security. If you lose those, garnering support for any other policy – health, climate, education – becomes a helluva lot harder. An armed-up, amped-up, distrustful population doesn’t make for social cohesion.
It’s also a sign of the dangers of short-term, impulsive political thinking, the hallmark of so many crises. One result, as my friend wisely pointed out, is not realizing that sometimes overt signs of strength – an armed citizenry, for example – can actually be signs of weakness. It is the very point facing Israel’s entire strategy in Gaza.
Understandably stung by the Oct. 7 terror attack, Benjamin Netanyahu has launched a massive counterattack to wipe out Hamas, but that has come with the collective punishing of the people of Gaza and, soon, a ground offensive. What is his long-term strategic goal for a post-Hamas Gaza? Who will govern it? How can the hostages be rescued? All of these questions remain dangerously unclear.
Israel’s prime minister is clearly trying to reestablish the doctrine of deterrence – showing the region that attacking the Jewish state will lead to massive consequences – but then what? Where does that lead in terms of a two-state solution and some kind of peace? No one in Israel, let alone outside of it, trusts Netanyahu to get there anymore.
Over-indexing on deterrence today can mean under-indexing on security tomorrow.
That is one lesson from Israel for the US and Canada. Distrust in government makes societies most vulnerable not only to potential threats but to the urgent need to respond effectively to them. We all just saw this over the past few weeks in the US, where distrust among Republicans led to chaos in electing a House Speaker, jeopardizing everything from the functioning of the government to aid to Ukraine.The hunt for solutions to dangerous threats keeps getting harder, especially when you don’t trust the hunter.