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  A Different Kind of War

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A foreign tourist holds her hand to her face in shock after leaving the U.S. Capitol Friday. (TWP)

By Jonathan Alter
Newsweek 8/3/98

The gun was an old-fashioned .38, and the venue the same as when Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire inside Congress in 1954. But make no mistake: Officer Chestnut and Agent Gibson died fighting in the kind of struggle that will no doubt terrorize us throughout the new century.

A handgun today, a vial of anthrax tomorrow. Our security will forever be at the mercy of anyone anywhere with mayhem on his mind. Whether he's a terrorist with an agenda or a delusional loner, this is the twisted face of the future, a one-man army in a different kind of war. It's a conflict without end, which upsets all the power equations we thought we understood. The strong and secure look weak, and the weak and paranoid get famous.

Our foes used to be armies; today they're the ideologues and the drifters in our midst.

Of course we don't usually see it that way; war is not the frame we put on these events. Beyond shock and sympathy for the families, our first reaction is a sense of resignation: this is America, land of the free and home of the wacko. With close to 100 million guns in circulation, our weary logic goes, we will never be able to prevent someone from shooting up a school, or even the Congress.

We tend to view random gunmen the way complacent Bible readers sometimes view the poor – they shall always be with us. From Ford's Theater through Sarajevo, Dallas, Memphis and beyond, lone assassins nursing grievances have always been capable of changing history.

What's new is the frequency with which the violent now violate our sanctums, and how that has come to dominate our experience with armed conflict. Except for the short gulf war, fought with a tiny handful of casualties, we are now approaching 25 years without an American war, a longer stretch of peace than any in this century.

The biggest American death tolls in this period have come not in combat but in bombings – Beirut barracks in 1983, Oklahoma City in 1995. The enemy used to be a standing army; now it's some unhinged individual in our midst, sometimes backed by groups or governments, more often not. The combatants used to be soldiers; now they are police – and children.

This has changed our attitude toward violence. Metal detectors, once rare, are everywhere, and some of the baggage we compliantly check through them is psychological. Fear and relief coexist uneasily. Each time we escape a shooting or bombing with few casualties, we press our luck a little further. The next time – or the time after that – two casualties may be 200, 2,000 or 200,000. We are helpless to know. We cannot stop people bent on violence, so we harden ourselves and try to forget.

It's good to avoid overreaction. A fence around the Capitol would mean the terrorists had won. But our inability to "fix" gun violence has made us reluctant to address it at all. The perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Instead of doing what we can, we figure nothing will solve the problem completely. Then, when the problem persists, some even feel a bit vindicated: "See, gun control doesn't work." "A kook with a gun can always. . ." The patter is familiar – and a familiar dead end.

This cynical logic extends to nearly all security issues in the post-cold-war world. Liberal opponents of the ballistic-missile-defense program say we can't possibly intercept hundreds of incoming missiles, so why try playing defense at all? Conservative opponents of more aid to Russia to help dismantle nuclear weapons and buy off starving scientists say the money won't completely stem the flow of technology out of the country, so why try?

Here's why: better odds. Security in the new world environment isn't about impermeable shields or faultless technology-transfer policy. It's about reducing risk, by making it harder for rogue states – or just plain rogues – to get their hands on weapons and use them. Smart policymakers play the laws of probability. (Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin says prudent assessment of risk has been the key to managing the economy.)

In that sense, gun control is merely another risk-reduction strategy. It should be viewed as part of a larger policy of nonproliferation aimed at improving long-term odds for saving lives. Law-abiding nations have the right to possess weapons to defend themselves, and so do law-abiding citizens. But neither nations nor individuals should be able to endlessly stockpile weapons, be they nukes or Saturday-night specials. In any realm, at any caliber or throw weight, more weapons mean more risk.

The suspect in the Capitol shootings, Russell Eugene Weston Jr., apparently stole his gun from his father's house in Illinois. You can hear the sighs of relief at the NRA as they gear up to argue that gun control would not have stopped this shooting. But gun laws may well have kept someone else from trying the same thing.

The Brady law, which is up for renewal this year, has prevented felons, fugitives and drug addicts from buying 242,000 handguns since it took effect in 1994. How many of those guns would have been used in crimes? How much does the reduction in crime owe to the hassles of a waiting period? Impossible to say. But it's hard to argue with the better odds it offers.

The idea that war can be left to the professionals has always been a myth. In the film "Saving Private Ryan," we're reminded once again that it was ordinary Americans who saved the world at its moment of greatest peril. More recently, the psychology of the cold war centered on the fear of civilian populations in a nuclear age.

And last week, as tourists described ducking and covering in the Capitol, we all became refugees from yet more skirmishing in our ongoing war at home.

© 1998 by Newsweek, Inc.

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