He had mental and emotional issues that were important enough to require occasional help from a psychiatrist.
He owned guns, but friends and neighbors said he would never shoot another human being.
He often carried a Thompson .45-caliber submachine gun which, even when viewed close-up, could not readily be recognized as a replica unequipped to use ammunition.
He served on active duty in the armed forces, later worked as a government civilian, and had identity cards that enabled him to enter government facilities.
Aaron Alexis, who allegedly murdered 12 people at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard September 10, isn’t the person I’m referring to.
I’m writing about me.
I’m a U.S. Air Force veteran (1957-60) and a retired Foreign Service officer, the government’s term for a career diplomat (1964-89). In both of those jobs, I had assignments in intelligence work. I held security clearances. None was ever lower than top secret, and some were far beyond that, so esoteric that only a few people know about them.
The government has every right to be interested in me after I commit a crime – although I may claim it was somebody else’s dog – but it is not the government’s business to snoop on people who have medical issues, own guns, or own a replica of a gun, all for the purpose of guessing whether they’ll commit a crime in the future.
The biggest crime I’ve committed recently is allowing my Labrador retriever, Autumn, to leave a DNA sample on a neighbor’s lawn.
What’s my point? The government has every right to be interested in me after I commit a crime – although I may claim it was somebody else’s dog – but it is not the government’s business to snoop on people who have medical issues, own guns, or own a replica of a gun, all for the purpose of guessing whether they’ll commit a crime in the future. And, no, the canine reference doesn’t mean that this isn’t a grave and sobering subject.
The government should make certain that only the right people get security clearances. Oddly, although polygraph (“lie detector”) tests are usually a part of this process, I completed my entire career without ever undergoing one.
In the wake of the terrible Navy Yard shootings, the government and our society are, as usual, seeking to solve a problem with the exact opposite of the real solution.
The 9/11 attack by 19 airliner hijackers – who used identity documents issued in their real names – proved that airport screening doesn’t work. So did we scrap airport screening, as we should have done? No, we increased it and created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
The 9/11 attackers may have done to us what we did to the Soviet Union – forced us to spend ourselves into oblivion. We’re nearly there. We created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), led recently by a respected official described as “indispensable.” But was she? After she stepped down, she wasn’t immediately replaced. That’s the meaning of “indispensable”? Maybe we should dispense with DHS, including its best-known component the TSA, move some of its components like the Coast Guard back where they belong, and reduce our nineteen intelligence agencies to a manageable number. (In 1947, Congress wanted one intelligence agency that would be central).
The Navy Yard attack proved that checking IDs and conducting searches at the main gate doesn’t work. So did we scrap these practices, as we should have done? No, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review that appears certain to increase the number of gate guards and ID checks. Oh, and you can count on those guards being contractors.
To be sure, some of what you’ve just read is exaggerated. Although I’ve never had a serious run-in with the law, alleged shooter Alexis apparently did – and his troubled history apparently didn’t show up in his personnel file or come to the attention of supervisors.
Although I’ve never been a government contractor, Alexis was.
Although many Americans favor gun control, we need to live in the real world. In the real America in which we live, there’s no prospect that Americans will ever have difficulty acquiring and using guns. In my opinion, we’ll never see an end to the occasional, tragic mass shooting.
But the Navy Yard slaughter raises questions and may teach us some lessons.
Why do we have so many government contractors? Their numbers skyrocketed after 9/11. At a time when there has been a slight decrease in direct government employees, we’ve vastly increased the size of government by puffing up contractor rolls.
My buddy Joe Fives used to walk aboard an airliner with a .45 automatic pistol tucked in his waistband, back in the days when we still had most of the civil liberties that have been taken from us, and 9/11 might have turned out differently if Joe had been aboard one of the hijacked planes.
Does any form of photo ID make us safer? Most states now issue driver’s licenses to a federal standard, ninth and tenth amendments be damned, because it’s the only way to get federal grant money. But when you look at my driver’s license, or Alexis’s common access card, what do you learn? Not much.
Does any form of screening, whether at a civilian airport or a military main gate, make us more secure? I believe with all my heart that we would be safer without these measures. We lived for decades without them. Any citizen should be able to walk into any government building. I should be able to board a jetliner to visit my aunt in Peoria without having to identify myself to my government. This is a civil liberties issue with me, but it’s also simple common sense.
If we shrink government, reduce the number of contractors, get rid of the “photo ID” concept and eliminate screening, will we see fewer mass shootings? Of course not. My argument, and it’s an important one, is that we won’t see more. Other measures, including proper checks by employers, may help. Checking IDs won’t. My buddy Joe Fives used to walk aboard an airliner with a .45 automatic pistol tucked in his waistband, back in the days when we still had most of the civil liberties that have been taken from us, and 9/11 might have turned out differently if Joe had been aboard one of the hijacked planes.
Eliminating useless screening is one way to do something we must do – avoid investigating or judging people who haven’t committed a crime even if we think they might commit one in the future. Exceptions can continue to be made for applications for employment or for a security clearance – although we need to reduce the number of the latter.
Being a veteran, having a medical issue, carrying a gun, or even walking your dog do not make you more likely to violate the law. I don’t want to live in a country where the government studies you not to learn what you did yesterday, but to guess what you might do tomorrow. I don’t want to be accountable to my government. I want it accountable to me. And I want it smaller.
I feel terrible sorrow over the loss of life at the Navy Yard, which I think of as part of my neighborhood. I wish, in no way, to appear anything but dead serious about this tragedy. We lost wonderful Americans who had bright futures to look ahead to. But tampering with our civil liberties and instituting false security measures won’t assuage the terrible loss we’ve suffered and they’re not solutions.