I want to talk today about the horrific human tragedy of Orlando. But first I want to talk about Hiroshima – or, more precisely, the profound speech that President Barack Obama gave there May 27 that got lost in all the campaign noise here.
Hiroshima, Obama suggested, represents a world in which for the first time ever a country possessed the power to kill all of us – and if it had to be any country, I am glad it was America. But today, he said, we’re entering a world where small groups – maybe even soon a single super-empowered person – will be able to kill all of us; therefore we’d better start thinking about the moral implications of where technology is taking us.
“Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines,” the president noted. “The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”
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What the president was describing is the central strategic issue of our time: the growing mismatch between the combined rapid evolution of our technological prowess and the power this gives to a single individual or group to destroy at scale (you can make your own gun now with a 3-D-printer), and the pace of our moral and social evolution to govern and use these powers responsibly.
And that brings me to the Orlando massacre – to what happens when, on a smaller scale, we refuse to re-imagine the social and legal changes we need to manage a world where one loser can now kill so many innocent people. The notion that such a person – any person – should be able to buy a military-style assault rifle is insane. That the Republican Party cannot see the wisdom of common-sense guns laws is just begging for bigger massacres.
At the same time, year after year, we keep seeing young Muslim men drawing inspiration and permission from Islam to kill large numbers of civilians in the West and, even more so, killing other Muslims in Muslim lands.
I’ve lived too long in the Muslim world, and experienced the decency of Muslim communities, to believe that this is the essence of Islam. But I have seen too much of this suicidal violence for too long to believe that it has nothing to do with the puritanical, anti-gay, anti-transgender, anti-female, anti-religious-pluralism versions of Islam that are too often promoted by sources in the Arab world, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The websites, social networks and mosques that promote these intolerant ideas can “light up” lost souls anywhere in the world. Until that stops, we’re just waiting around for the next Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino or Orlando.
And the only thing that can stop them is from the inside: a meaningful mass movement by Muslim governments, clergymen and citizens to delegitimize this behavior. It takes a village and stops only when the village clearly says, “No more!” And that has not happened at the scale and consistency it needs to happen.
Finally, in an age when individuals can become super-empowered, we need to ensure our government has all the surveillance powers it needs – under appropriate judicial review – to monitor and arrest violent extremists of all stripes. The bad guys now have too many tools to elude detection.
Obama closed his speech at Hiroshima with words that could easily have been said of Orlando: “Those who died, they are like us. … They do not want more war. They would rather that the wonders of science be focused on improving life and not eliminating it. When the choices made by nations, when the choices made by leaders, reflect this simple wisdom, then the lesson of Hiroshima is done.”
We need to make choices appropriate for our age when technology can so amplify the power of one. We need common-sense gun laws, common-sense gender equality and religious pluralism and common-sense privacy laws.
But that takes common-sense leaders, not ones who think the complexities of this age can be bombed away, walled away, willed away or insulted away. Stop for a moment and reflect on what this week would have been like had Donald Trump been president – the carpet-bombing he’d have ordered in the Middle East, the fear and isolation his Muslim ban would have engendered in every Muslim-American, the joy that ISIS would have taken from being at war with all of America, the license this would have given to crazies in our own society to firebomb a mosque. And the backlash that would engender among Muslims around the world, the most radical of whom would be firebombing our embassies. When America goes nuts, the world goes nuts.
I don’t agree with Obama on all aspects of this issue, but the guy is thinking deeply and acting responsibly. Trump is shooting from the hip, spraying insults 360 degrees, telling lies, stoking fears and making threats that many in our military and the FBI would refuse to implement. If you Republican senators and congressmen support Trump for president, he will own you – and you will own everything he does.