Of guns, crime and terror

The recent terrorist attack in Orlando has prompted some people to call for Americans to surrender their right to bear arms. It’s understandable that they would try to exploit the tragedy. But it is not a rational response.

We see that particularly by comparing the Pulse nightclub massacre to the November 15 terrorist attack in Paris, where firearms and explosives were used to kill over 100 people including 89 at the Bataclan theatre. France has strict gun control laws. They didn’t keep the bad guys from getting guns. But they did keep the victims from fighting back. And at the Pulse nightclub, for whatever reason, no patrons seem to have been armed.

Then there’s the June 28 attack at Istanbul airport, using explosives and, again, firearms that Turkish citizens and residents are emphatically not allowed to own. And a correspondent has also noted that the murder, apparently an act of insanity rather than terrorism, of British MP Jo Cox, involved a firearm in a nation that in recent years has brought in very strict gun control.

Cox was shot using a weapon that was by various reports either an antique or improvised. But she was also stabbed. And the knife wounds alone would very probably have proved fatal; London has seen a gruesome jihadi killing using a car, knives and a cleaver. In any case there are also millions of illegal guns in Britain readily available to criminals and maniacs. But no law-abiding citizen present when she was attacked was armed and able to shoot the attacker before he could stab Cox repeatedly and fatally.

The notion that stricter gun control will prevent or reduce terrorist incidents, or acts of insane murder, simply doesn’t fit the facts. Terrorists can use explosives, as in the 7/7 attacks in London. And both they and thugs can easily get firearms even when ordinary citizens cannot, because of the by now familiar point, at least it should be familiar, that criminals don’t obey the law.

When trying to explain similar events, it is important to focus on the elements they have in common especially if we are the sort who boasts of “evidence-based decision-making”. And what we find in these attacks is jihadist motivations and the ability of bad guys to get weapons including firearms regardless of local laws. Yet people were also quick to attribute the Pulse nightclub shooting to Western homophobia, very curious given that the assailants were adherents of an austere, nihilistic and ferociously anti-Western brand of Islam. Oddly, there was little attempt to link the Bataclan attack to dislike of cosmopolitan or hedonistic lifestyles, even though that was an important aspect of the Paris terrorists’ choice of target. And it’s hard to see how homophobia could have motivated the Istanbul attack.

To exploit such incidents to push arguments against gun control or social conservatism is understandable, even predictable. But it’s not rational. And it’s not very nice either.

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It happened today – July 1, 2016

July 1 is, among many other things including Canada Day, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The First World War enjoys an evil reputation, but I think no battle is as widely condemned as this one, the apparent epitome of the entire war as a grotesquely massive exercise in mindless slaughter by callous generals at the behest of weak and unimaginative politicians. I think this interpretation is entirely wrong.

As I explain in the relevant sections of The Great War Remembered, the First World War was fought under very difficult circumstances. The technology of the late 19th century, of the “Second Industrial Revolution,” conferred an enormous advantage on the defence in war generally and the conditions of trench warfare on the Western Front in particular. But to say the war was hard to fight is not the same as saying giving up would have been appropriate.

For Allied commanders in particular, that was the stark choice. Germany had started the war, both by its prewar maneuverings and by its deliberate escalation of the crisis in the summer of 1914 to justify mobilization and an effort to crush France before Russia could mobilize. Even after that effort failed, the Kaiser’s armies occupied most of Belgium, much of France and a considerable portion of Russia. Should they have been allowed to remain there?

If not, what should have been done? In early 1916 the Germans sought to break the stalemate on the Western Front by bleeding the French white at Verdun. It was a cruel and cold strategy. But it might well have worked without a bold strike somewhere else. So should the British have occupied defensive positions, and the Russians, and waited for France to collapse and lose them the war after all the sacrifices already undergone? If not, they had to do something to relieve the pressure.

They did. Russia mounted the “Brusilov Offensive” beginning in June 1916 that enjoyed spectacular early success thanks in part to innovative tactics later adopted and refined by both sides on the Western front notably including the Canadians at Vimy. Then on July 1 the Somme offensive struck the Germans so hard their attack at Verdun did peter out without breaking French will or ability to fight.

The cost was horrendous. July 1st alone, the worst day in the history of the British army, saw some 19,000 killed and 38,000 wounded, including virtually the entire Newfoundland Regiment. And before the battle was done, Allied forces including Canadians had suffered a mind-boggling 620,000 killed or wounded, with a shocking proportion there as at Verdun simply “missing,” swallowed by the mud and the gunfire. But the battle was nevertheless a success.

First, German casualties were even higher, perhaps 680,000. That alone would be remarkable given the advantages defence enjoyed in general and the superior positions on high ground the Germans had mostly occupied since late 1914. Second, Verdun did not fall and France did not collapse. Third, the German army was so weakened that German leaders decided to withdraw into the Hindenburg line and resort to unrestricted submarine warfare, bringing the United States in and sealing their doom. Fourth, and it is worth pointing out, the Allies did win the war.

Well, not Russia. Overextended by the effort generally and the efforts of 1916 in particular, the feeble tsarist regime collapsed into chaos and then the horrors of Bolshevism. But Western leaders cannot be blamed for having gone to war with the ally they had not the ally they wished they had, any more than they can be blamed because too many Germans reacted to defeat and depression by embracing radical politics that ended with Hitler coming out on top.

The Versailles settlement did collapse and another dreadful war erupted a generation later. But the politicians of 1918 cannot be blamed for the actions of those in the 1930s, and certainly the generals cannot. And while the rows of crosses, and endless names of those with no known grave, remind us that war is a terrible thing, it is not the worst of things. As John Stuart Mill said, a worse thing is those who think nothing worth fighting for, and let others better than them fight and die in their place.

The fact is that in World War I the Western Allies found a series of plans, strategies and tactics that at terrible cost under terrible circumstances enabled them to withstand Germany’s aggressive onslaught, reject a negotiated peace that granted Germany the fruits of aggression, and win the war. And the Battle of the Somme, forced on them by unfavourable circumstances and fought under horrible ones, was a necessary part of the approach that resulted in victory.

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The Seven Immortals

My latest for The Rebel:

On June 30, in 1688, William of Orange received a letter from the “Seven Immortals” inviting him to bring an army to England, oust James II and assume the throne along with his wife, James’s Protestant daughter Mary.

The “Immortals” were aristocratic toffs, Earls, Viscounts and Bishops, not the sort we’d expect to champion the rights of ordinary people. Indeed not people whose names we can recall today without Googling.

But they were statesman who crossed party lines and risked reputation, estate and life to defend the liberty of citizens. Whereas today the studiously common-touch politicians we elect by mass voting are partisan hacks who continually expand the powers of the state.

Perhaps we should recall the Seven Immortals after after all.

The audio-only version is available here:

Rebel, June 30 - Download This Episode

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The Battle of the Somme

July 1, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the notorious World War I Somme offensive. But this battle deserves a second look. Long a byword for futile slaughter, for callous unimaginative generals sending a generation to their pointless deaths, it was in fact a necessary operation to relieve pressure on the desperate French at Verdun. And it succeeded.

It did not merely prevent the Germans from breaking through on the Western Front and winning the war in the fall of 1916. It so battered the Kaiser’s army that the Germans withdrew into the Hindenburg Line and launched the unrestricted submarine warfare that brought the United States into the conflict and assured Allied victory.

The conditions were appalling and the cost horrific. But neither the generals nor the politicians had a choice, other than surrender to an aggressive regime that had begun the war by attacking its neighbours and occupying much of their territory.

So yes, we must recall the cost. But also the victory it bought, tactically in 1916 and strategically in 1918.

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It happened today – June 30, 2016

 

William III

He’s got mail. Specifically William of Orange. On June 30 of 1688 he received a possibly not unexpected letter from the “Seven Immortals” asking him to, you know, sort of invade England, boot out its wretched king and take the throne himself. That was an envelope worth opening.

It was also an envelope worth sealing. The specific trigger was that King James II, the most reckless and openly obnoxious of the four Stuart kings to reign in England, had just gone and produced a male Catholic heir. And so he had to go.

In ways hard to recapture today, the question of James’s Catholicism and his penchant for absolutism were inextricably entwined. There were many things the Stuarts wanted to do that were contrary to the ancient English constitution, from taxing without consent to keeping standing armies in peacetime and disarming the populace. But Catholicism was often the sharp end of the stick, especially with James, because he was determined to foist not just toleration of Catholicism but its presence high in official circles on England and the English didn’t want it.

Hence, for instance, he issued a Declaration of Indulgence in 1688 whose contents we would mostly approve of today, removing legal penalties for dissenting from the Church of England. But when seven Anglican bishops denied James’ right to dispense with laws by proclamation, we would surely side with them that the king cannot simply make law by saying “Let it be so.” Furthermore, the king reacted to their petition against the Declaration by having them tried for seditious libel. To the king’s furious horror, they were acquitted in a grotesquely inept and vitriolic proceeding.

The extent to which James would have sought to govern without the consent of the people even if he hadn’t been openly Catholic is unclear. But his predecessors, his brother Charles, his father Charles and his grandfather James, had all sought to do so in varying degree, and none of them were as ardently Catholic as James II. Indeed, James I seems not to have been at all, though he was certainly high church.

However that may be, for the most part people were content to wait James out, figuring that one of his two Protestant daughters would inherit the throne and it would all quiet down. And then came baby James Francis Edward Stuart, a.k.a. “The Old Pretender,” born June 10 1688, and the letter by the Immortal Seven.

Oh. You were wondering when they would make an appearance? You thought perhaps they were the Seven Bishops, whose picture still hangs in the House of Lords or at least did when I had tea there in 2008 (true story). No. They were in fact The Earl of Danby, The Earl of Shrewsbury, The Earl of Devonshire, The Viscount Lumley, The Bishop of London (Henry Compton, who was not one of the Seven Bishops primarily because he was already suspended for defying the king in another matter, but was very close to them), Edward Russell (later First Earl of Orford) and Henry Sydney who actually wrote the invitation and was later First Earl of Romney and also, um, a drunk.

Now that sounds like the sort of hoity-toity crowd with whom one would have tea in the House of Lords. But when they wrote to William, they staked a great deal, because they said if he brought a small force to England they and their friends would rise up in force to back him, even giving some logistical advice. And it worked.

Thus assured of the backing of important English leaders and, be it noted, their armed citizen followers, William came over and with his wife Mary, 2nd last reigning Stuart (I did say kings above – there were two queens, Mary and Anne, definitely the best of the Stuart lot) accepted the Bill of Rights and made the Glorious Revolution a reality.

As for the Immortals, I do not think their names have lived on forever. Even I couldn’t name them without Googling. But for all their wigs and pretensions, they were statesmen. It was a trans-partisan group, some Tory, mostly Whig, ready to stake fortune, reputation and even life on defending good government. And at least some of them were quite liberal in their religious views when it came to low-church Protestants. They were just very uneasy about the association of Catholicism with tyranny, both in the persons of various Stuart kings and in their unsavory and in the case of Charles II secret links with Catholic foreign powers bitterly hostile to England and its liberty.

It is therefore worth asking whether in our wonderfully democratic age, in which we would not follow an earl nor bend our knee to a bishop, why we generally seem to have much seedier and more spineless leadership than back when there were rotten boroughs, Lords with real power, and limited government defended to the hilt by citizens with principles and actual hilts as well.

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Wish I’d said that – June 30, 2016

“The belief that contemporaries are aware of what history records as significant is not well-founded, which is why history has on the whole a more balanced view of the past than the past had of itself.”

Jacques Barzun From Dawn to Decadence

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