Tragic Government

Strengthening the state to avoid the unavoidable


Sometimes a tragedy can be the state's best friend. People don't like to believe in unavoidable atrocities, don't like to accept that deeply regrettable events can and will happen because the universe–or someone in it–is unpredictable, imperfect, and unmanageable. We crave control. Vain attempts to manage the unmanageable at any cost are the strongest impetus turning citizens into supplicants, begging for a government solution to every potential problem.

The Empire State Building shooting spree of Palestinian immigrant Ali Abu Kamal is almost too good to be true for two coalitions set on restricting freedoms: anti-gun and anti- immigration forces. An immigrant killing people with a gun draws forth the predictable suggestion that if people weren't free to take the perfectly innocent actions that contributed to the tragedy's occurrence–in this case, immigrate and own a gun–then we could ensure such tragedies never happen again.

Any sinister deed by an immigrant becomes a weapon in the hands of anti-immigration warriors. Arch foe of immigration Peter Brimelow, who writes for National Review and Forbes, made much hay from our last well-publicized shooting spree by an immigrant, former Jamaican Colin Ferguson. For every Albert Einstein, Brimelow implied in his anti- immigrant book Alien Nation, immigration gives us both a Sacco and a Vanzetti.

Republican members of Congress–coincidentally?–used the day after Kamal's crime to excoriate the Clinton administration for allowing 180,000 immigrants to become citizens without adequate criminal record checks. On the front page of The New York Times, the story of this assault on Clinton's Immigration and Naturalization Service ran next to the story about Kamal's background. Of course, even the most stringent background check would have done no good in the case of high-profile immigrant criminal Kamal: His previous life in Gaza was by all accounts a quiet one of teaching English and translating.

Others, meanwhile, led by New York's Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani, were quick to blame not lax immigration policies but the lax gun laws of Florida, where Kamal bought the gun he used to commit his mayhem. Kamal did go through the Brady Act shuffle of waiting five days, showing a Florida ID, and undergoing a criminal background check (which he passed).

But Florida didn't have access to any national database that could show another way in which Kamal was forbidden to own a gun–a 1994 law barring foreigners with fewer than 90 days' residency from buying a firearm. That failure provides more rhetorical firepower for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents and their ideological allies to argue for more, and more efficient, national systems to track every detail of everyone's lives–to prevent, of course, such tragedies as Kamal's murderous rampage.

As an unnamed "senior official"with the BATF told The New York Times, "The whole system broke down"in allowing Kamal access to a weapon. We are fortunate, in a way, that Kamal had violated a law. Now all that gun law mavens can call for is more efficient enforcement of existing laws, instead of even more sweeping gun prohibitions. After all, previously law-abiding people who were born here could be equally prone to fatal outbursts of violence–and often are.

It's never more important to move slowly and carefully before granting the state new powers than in the wake of tragedies. As they show their papers to airline check-in counter employees, how many people remember that the "terrorist attack"that supposedly justified these new, extra-stringent–and still secret–security measures seems most likely to have been just mechanical failure? (See "Gonna Fly Now?," Citings,March.) After new government encroachments claim their ground, the alleged reason for them is quickly forgotten. But the encroachments remain.

Any attempt to ensure that Kamal's heinous act can never be repeated will haunt us long after the memory of Kamal is gone. More stringent laws to keep out the likes of Kamal because of what he might do violate both human freedom of movement and our traditional national character; like many things in life, immigrants bring dynamic and unpredictable benefits along with the occasional risk.

A better national database to make sure newcomers like Kamal can't buy guns means an end to privacy for all of us. It also means a convenient federal record of who does and doesn't have guns. Such a list would be very useful if further, more stringent, restrictions on gun ownership–or gun owners–are contemplated the next time someone misuses a gun in a flamboyant and tragic way.

More laws can't make us safe from the tragedies that are the inevitable result of freedom, and of living around other people. Life is real, life is uncertain, life is inevitably unsafe. Measures to make it safe at all costs come with dangers of their own.