BROOKE GLADSTONE: So far, we've spent the show awash in the issues raised by Orlando – the competing narratives, the calls to action, the policy solutions proposed to ensure that this never happens again. But, in the New Republic this week, Jacob Bacharach urged us to take a cool, actuarial position on the attacks, quote, “that they will be relatively rare but that they cannot be stopped entirely by more police, metal detectors, intelligence sharing, vague strength, gun registries, invasions, drone strikes or, God forbid, internment camps and deportations.” He compared mass shootings to natural disasters and suggests that it might serve us better to treat them that way.
JACOB BACHARACH: Accepting the fact that hurricanes are inevitable doesn't mean that we shouldn't build the levees higher and doesn't mean that we shouldn't have a political conversation about policies that may mitigate climate change. So inevitability can coexist with political action. I think that one of our problems is that we seek these ultimate and universal solutions, whereby if only we banned assault weapons, if only we ceased aggressive wars in the Middle East, if only we fully accepted LGBT people, then we would no longer suffer these sorts of massacres.
Well, in any of those cases we could see a mitigating effect, but do I believe that we can so change ourselves and our culture that we will not ever face that type of violence, no, no, I don't. I don't think that it's healthy for us as a society to see that as the goal of this political conversation. We need to have a more holistic and humane conversation about who perpetrates these acts and what they mean.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I mean, how does that get us any further than political discussions? How do you have these discussions?
JACOB BACHARACH: There is a place of politics which exists outside of the sort of ever-present left-right, Democrat- Republican tussle in large part within our communities. I think that you see something much more productive when you look at the conversations that are taking place between municipal leaders in a city like Orlando, if you look at the political activism that overtook the post-Orlando vigil in New York City, where you had elected officials, in effect, being shouted down by people who were saying, you know, this is not the conversation we want, that is an actual real locus of political action that exists outside of electoral politics. And I think that we do ourselves a disservice to say, well, that doesn't really accomplish anything though because it doesn't result in legislation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Politicians often offer thoughts and prayers on Twitter after a mass shooting happens. There's one Twitter gadfly named Igor Volsky who comes after each one of these politicians and says, all you get are his thoughts and prayers because he got $50,000 from the NRA or something like that. You make a case for thoughts and prayers.
JACOB BACHARACH: I may be the only self-described atheist in America who’s making an affirmative case [LAUGHS] for thoughts and prayers. I actually believe that there is a real value in the ritual affirmation of togetherness.
My younger brother died in his ‘20s after a long struggle with drug addiction, and after that happened a lot of people who I barely knew expressed their thoughts and feelings on Facebook or by sending cards or by sending flowers, and some people who I didn't know at all. Did that take away the loss? No. Did it make me feel better? No, not really. But did I, in a way, appreciate it and ultimately come to believe that it had great value and that it demonstrated something important about those people, about their willingness to empathize? Yes. And I think that empathy is the root of political progress and social reconciliation, so in that regard I do believe that there is a value to the sorts of ritual affirmations of, of feeling.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Even if they’re sent by people who are say stridently anti-gay-rights, like, you know, Ted Cruz. Do you want his thoughts and prayers?
JACOB BACHARACH: Do I want his thoughts and prayers? No. But do I feel this intense need to reject them simply because they are undergirded by a kind of hypocrisy? No, I don't feel that either. Nor do I think that the hypocrisy underlying it necessarily negates its value, even to a person like that. I mean, I think that the broad expression thereof is more valuable than each of those individual instances.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that as a culture our duty is to decide if, at each new incident, we again crank the ratchet towards more surveillance, more jails, more police, more war and more fear or, if instead, we’ll do the killers the great disservice of forgetting their faces and forgetting their names, if we decide not to ratchet towards more surveillance, war, fear, etc., and we do the killers the dishonor of forgetting their faces and names. What do we accomplish?
JACOB BACHARACH: If the only thing that were to come out of this event were that America were to reevaluate the FDA's ban on sexually-active gay men giving blood, then I would consider us as a society to have made a tremendous step towards being a better people. On the flipside of that, you know, you see Hillary Clinton and the Democrats immediately rushing and saying, well, you know what we’re going to do, we’re going to take the FBI's no-fly watch list and terror watch list and we’re going to prevent those people from buying guns. I mean, I am a person who believes that some greater degree of control on guns would be good for our society. But these FBI watch lists are arbitrary, extrajudicial, deeply flawed, impossible to get off of, with no transparency, so using that as the basis for what is proposed as this sort of progressive political solution is just a terrible thing.
There is a way that we can use limited politics to become a much better people and a better country, without constantly moving in this direction of a more militarized and more police-prone society where the reaction to every violent and terrible incident is to appeal to this sort of theater of security.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if you urge us toward a kind of acceptance, a dwelling in grief, even a conscious inaction, which I think you do, then where does that leave us?
JACOB BACHARACH: These events are so immensely complicated and the, the perpetrators and their motives are so immensely complicated, and I think to seek that sort of – I, I like to call it the prosecutorial impulse, the desire to put something into a singular narrative for the purpose of arriving at a kind of prescription for how to punish, how to prevent and how to move forward, that may be appropriate for certain politicians but for a sort of national conversation, such as it exists, it's, it's not enough. We need to think harder and longer about the array of questions that we should be asking.
I think we have to allow ourselves to continue to be confused, to struggle towards the notion of betterment. I think that there can be betterment but I think that we do not find it and we cannot find it by evoking a false sense of certainty or a false sureness of belief.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what's the risk if we do?
JACOB BACHARACH: The risk if we do is we [LAUGHS] invade another country. The risk if we do is that we round people up and put them into camps. There are terrible risks if we do.
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We have a real social predisposition to think that inaction is the worst possible outcome. Well, a thoughtful inaction, as frustrating or horrible as it can be after something as terrible as 100 people being shot, there are much more terrible things that we could do if we permit ourselves to be lashed to the belief that we must, in the most draconian way possible, prevent such things from ever occurring again. There are cures that are worse than this particularly American disease.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jacob, thank you very much.
JACOB BACHARACH: Thank you so much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jacob Bacharach is a writer based in Pittsburgh and author of the novel, The Bend of the World. His commentary in the New Republic is called, “When Forgetting is the Proper Response to Terrorism.”
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, Brexit in the minds and the media of the British people.