It’s often said that our leaders lack a moral compass, that they value power over compromise and prefer back-room horse-trading to transparency and principle. Some of this criticism is valid but underneath the conniving parliamentary games that our elected officials play is an important lesson about politics: those dealings that are famously done in smoke-filled rooms aren’t always bad.
Another truth is that professional politicians can become almost totally desensitized to human consequences. That’s not always a fault of character. It can be a natural progression for anyone who is constantly exposed to the underside of democracy, as they are, where things like poverty, violence, corruption, and war are on display as often as the lofty idealism we teach our children about. This desensitization to tragedy isn’t different from what young doctors experience in emergency rooms. In both cases, there’s just too much ugly happening at once to allow the human condition to cloud your professional judgment.
Which brings us to Orlando, Florida, where 49 innocent people are now dead. This is a Hollywood tragedy. It’s a tragedy because so many have lost their lives. It’s Hollywood because you couldn’t write a script with more convoluted stakes.
In one act of violence, a single killer has activated six of America’s “Third Rail” political issues, i.e., topics that divide our electorate as passionately and effectively as abortion or Social Security reform.
From Right to Left, these six issues are:
Immigration: Though Omar Mateen was a U.S. national, his parents were not. Regardless, this distinction won’t matter in most households, where dinner table conversation will again pivot to whether immigrants from ISIS-affiliated nations should be allowed into the United States. That conversation is already lively among the pols and the media.
Global Terrorism: Shooter Omar Mateen was ideologically aligned with ISIS, just like the perpetrators of the December 2015 San Bernardino attack. Despite this, our government seems to lack a coherent plan to deal with the ongoing threat posed by this armed and organized terrorist state. This issue relates to:
PC Culture: Millions of Americans believe that their president won’t address the threat caused by Islamic Extremism because it is ideologically inconvenient for him to acknowledge that specific races, ethnicities, and nationalities want to do us harm.
Gun Control: Omar Mateen conducted his killings with weapons easily attained in most American communities. That he purchased them legally and passed a background check is jarring, as is the fact that neither of the weapons he used (an AR-15 assault rifle and a Glock 17 handgun) has any conceivable use other than killing people.
Gay Rights: Homosexuals have had a year of seminal legal, political, and cultural victories, but the fact that they were targeted – and on the Gay Pride holiday – is a reminder that the world still hasn’t accepted them into public life.
Religion: Religious beliefs are playing a role in several of these issues, and neither the Left nor the Right is happy about where that reality leads.
Most Americans will choose to see what they want in this tragedy. If they’re liberals, they’re going to talk about gun control and prejudice. And if they’re conservatives, they’ll tell you we don’t have a gun problem in this country, we have an Islamic Extremist problem. But the reality is, they’re both right. It’s all true.
What’s different is that when Omar Mateen opened fire inside of a gay nightclub, he did something no murderer has ever done before: he managed to marry all of the things that divide us into a single event that unites us – a tragedy – and in so doing, created an opening for our leaders to take action to stop future extremists.
How then do you get Hawkish, Pro-Gun Evangelicals and PC, Anti-Gun Hipsters to agree on anything? It’s actually pretty simple. You don’t. That’s the essence of an old Beltway technique for compromise, one that presumes disagreement and is a favorite among the slick operators in Congress who we love to hate. It’s called logrolling.
Yes, logrolling. You might call it crooked. You might call it pork barrel. You may even say it’s proof that politics are morally bankrupt; but the proposition of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is the most effective tool Congress has at its disposal for dealing with big problems that have unpopular solutions.
Here’s one example of how logrolling is used:
Fighting Hunger. Rural voters have long suspected that food stamps are a handout to do-nothing city bums. On the flip side, urban voters question the value of farm subsidies for the rural states that actually produce our food. Both sides are right and wrong, but to keep these two programs alive, Congress always packages them together. So if rural voters want their crop insurance, they have to vote for food stamps; and if urban voters want food stamps, they need to support farm subsidies in return.
From this example we can extrapolate the best legislative vehicle to disarm domestic terrorists while disrupting foreign safe havens in places like Iraq and Syria. I’m not sure what they call this type of bill in the Senate cloakroom, but in the staff offices across the street we always just referred to them as shit sandwiches; and a shit sandwich, as it turns out, is the best way to get something unpopular done. Maybe it’s our human instinct towards risk avoidance or maybe it’s institutional cynicism, but Congress is much more likely to cooperate if you can guarantee that everyone will walk away with an equally dirty shirt than if you promise the whole team gold stars.
And that’s what I’m advocating for here. I’m proposing that everyone who is serious about ending ISIS killings and preventable gun violence join together. Stop making empty gestures on your Facebook page and start telling your elected officials that you no longer care whether or not they can find common ground or “stick to their principles,” and that you’d rather see them butter up a giant shit sandwich and pass it across the aisle for a bite. There’s actually a lot to be won in that exchange, just as long as you’re also willing to lose some too.
So here’s a draft shit sandwich. I call it the Extremist Murders Prevention Act. Have a look – don’t look closely enough to smell – and ask yourself if you’re willing to take the good with the bad, since that’s the only way any of this stuff will ever happen:
The Extremist Murders Prevention Act of 2016
To make a shit sandwich that will end preventable murder, and for other purposes.
Title I – Withholding funds from Department of State and Foreign Operations accounts until the President of the United States presents any policy at all with regard to ISIS-affiliated extremists. BLECH!!!
Title II –Allowing for a study of immigration policies associated with refugees from ISIS-affiliated conflict zones. VOMS!!!!!
Title III – Prohibiting the purchase or ownership of certain military weapons now commonly available at Walmart. YUMMY!!!!
Title IV – Gay Rights. BARF!!!! (It’s already a federal hate crime to kill someone for their sexual or gender identity, so this one’s covered. But if it helps to get a bill passed, go ahead and setup a commission to study global violence against LGBT communities.)
So I leave it up to you, America. You can live in your ideological safe zones and complain about things that are never changing, or you can swallow your pride and tell your political representatives that you’re okay with giving a little to get a little. If it were me, I’d buy a loaf of bread, a box of fiber, and flip-on CSPAN to watch some bald guys talk about themselves on the House and Senate Floor. That’s the beginning of a shit sandwich party and it might just save some lives.