Government Ineptitude Score: Florida 17, Iraq 110,000

Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Americans are understandably sickened by the massacre of 17 people in Florida and want something done to prevent such school massacres from recurring.

Less understandably, they don’t seem as concerned about the 110,000 people who have been killed as a result of the second Iraq war, including Iraqi women and children and 4,497 American soldiers who died in combat and otherwise.

Some estimates put the death toll at 250,000 Iraqis.  Other estimates say that children account for 30 percent of the deaths from air strikes.  The numbers are squishy, but the deaths are certainly far greater than 17.  And they don’t include the deaths in Afghanistan.

Of course, there isn’t a moral equivalence between a madman killing 17 people for no reason and the USA going to war to ostensibly overthrow a dictator or find imagined nuclear material that could be used to kill even more people—or whatever the objective was.  On the other hand, good intentions might mean something in just-war theory, but good intentions don’t compensate for the horrible consequences of invading a country without first understanding its history, culture, politics, and religious and tribal hatreds.

Not only were there massive casualties from the Iraq war, but the war also spawned ISIS and its associated brutality, emboldened Iran, exacerbated the tensions between Turkey and the Kurds and between Shiites and Sunnis, and brought Russian troops into Syria to protect Russia’s longstanding interests in the country, resulting in a potential flashpoint between Russia and America.

Even going with the conservative numbers, the death count in Iraq is at least 6,470 times greater than the death count in Florida.  But in spite of considerable media coverage and political fights before, during and after the war, it doesn’t seem as if there has been as many calls for such wars to stop as there has been calls for school shootings to stop.   Where are the staged townhalls about war, the distraught teens setting foreign policy, the calls for limits on assault weapons sold to Middle Eastern countries, the clamor to fire the responsible decision makers, and the parade of non-expert experts explaining why the war happened and how to stop making similar mistakes in the future?

One outcome from the school shooting is certain:  that more money will be thrown into the maw of public education and law enforcement.  That’s what government does when it fails at something like protecting students:  It gives itself more money.

Almost as certain is that whatever is done about the school shooting will not be thoroughly researched and thought through.  Already, Florida Governor Rick Scott wants the state legislature to pass a bill to install bullet-proof glass in public schools, although this wouldn’t have stopped any of the school shootings to date.  This is a different twist on the broken window fallacy of Frederic Bastiat 168 years ago.  So much for human learning.

Likewise, although the military campaign in Iraq was carefully planned, the social, economic, religious, political, and geopolitical consequences of the war were not thought through.

Such knowledge was easy to obtain before the war.  I don’t have an Ivy League degree or State Department and CIA resources available to me, but even a middling mind like mine could see with almost 20/20 foresight the consequences of overthrowing Saddam and his Sunni government.  There was nothing brilliant about this insight.  It simply came from reading five or so scholarly, nonpartisan books on the Middle East.

My friend and former talk-radio host Charles Goyette saw the same thing and said so on his show on KFYI in Phoenix.  He lost his job as a result.

Apparently, it’s too much to ask policy makers and public-opinion makers to read a few books before embarking on a war that would kill 110,000 people and destabilize an entire region.

Some Americans are saying that the NRA has blood on its hands from the 17 deaths in Florida.  If so, then don’t those who went off half-cocked in Iraq have blood on their hands from the 110,000 deaths there?

Since the leaders of both political parties and the media on the left and right went off half-cocked, don’t expect the question to be asked in Congress or the media.

The mistake of Iraq is being repeated in Florida.  Judging by the inane comments of politicians, pundits, and reporters, few of them have read the book, Columbine, although the chilling book is the best primer on the difficulties in stopping school shootings.

The book was published in 2009, and the Columbine High School massacre took place ten years earlier, in 1999.  That means that nine years and 19 years, respectively, had elapsed before the Florida massacre took place this year.  What was learned over the intervening years?  Did the sheriff of Broward County ever read the book?  Did any reporters ask him if he did?

The book affirms some myths about school shooters and destroys others.  The planner and instigator of the shootings, Eric Harris, was not the stereotypical loner or dropout.  He was popular, especially with girls, and got mostly A’s in spite of working at Domino’s Pizza and partying and drinking (which says something about the academic standards at American public schools).  His sidekick in mass murder, Dylan Klebold, was not as popular but was not a stereotypical loner, either.

Both killers came from stable, professional families, and Harris’ dad was a career military officer.  On the surface, the parents of both kids did all the right things, such as getting the kids involved in sports, Scouts, and other extracurricular activities.  At the same time, though, there was a high degree of permissiveness in both households, and both pairs of parents were so out of touch with what the kids were doing that they didn’t notice that they were building bombs in the house and sneaking out at night to explode them.  Neighbors and police warned the parents, to no avail.

There is something in the story of Columbine for both gun-rights and gun-control activists to cherry pick to make their respective cases.  Neither killer had a so-called assault weapon.  Klebold carried a 9mm semiautomatic handgun and a sawed-off, pump-action shotgun.  Harris also carried a sawed-off shotgun, as well as a 9mm carbine rifle.  They had practiced beforehand with the shotguns, learning to load and fire them in rapid succession.  They also had planted seven homemade bombs in the school, including ones made from propane tanks that, if they had worked properly, would have blown up much of the school.  Instructions for building the bombs came from “The Anarchist Cookbook,” on the Web.

In hindsight, Harris showed all the signs of a psychopath.  He also was on psychotropic drugs prescribed by a psychiatrist, starting with Zoloft and later switching to Luvox.

Both killers hated the jocks at the school and wanted to put them in their place.  (It’s an underreported story in the sports-crazed USA and world in general, just how arrogant and bullying some high school jocks can be, especially football players.)

Harris and Klebold were avid players of the violent video game Doom.  They also had boozefests with friends, consuming liquor bought for them by a friend’s mom, who, amazingly, would take orders for vodka, Baileys Irish Cream, beer, whiskey, and Scotch.  Who was the adult and who was the child?

Finally, the police response during and immediately after the shootings was excruciatingly slow.  Students bled to death in the school and in the parking lot while the police decided how to respond.

This former Army officer (and firing range officer) finds it difficult to see how a few teachers with handguns would have stopped killers armed with a carbine, two shotguns, a handgun, and multiple bombs.  It’s also unlikely that all American parents will ever keep their kids away from violent video games, or deny their kids psychotropic drugs, or be close enough to their kids to know what they are doing in their bedrooms and the neighborhood.

What’s the answer, then?  How do we reduce the one-in-a-million chance of students being shot at school to zero?  It seems that the only fail-safe measure is to turn schools into secure campuses, with metal detectors and armed guards at entrances, and with the grounds surrounded by concertina wire.  But even that raises the possibility that killers will simply switch to some other location where students gather.

Whatever the answer might be to stopping school massacres and the much larger number of deaths in foolish wars, the starting point is to learn as much as possible from history, as George Santayana suggested.  Sadly, in the era of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and 24/7 nitwits on radio and TV, there is probably even less introspection, contemplation, and study of history today than in Santayana’s day.  As such, you can expect more government ineptitude and more needless deaths in wars and school shootings.

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan