Back in the 1950s, the far right-wing John Birch Society worried that Communists were secretly behind the fluoridation of the American drinking water. This particular conspiracy theory probably would have vanished into collective amnesia if it hadn’t been so pointedly satirized—and thus immortalized—in the film Dr. Strangelove.
I have to say, however, that I am tempted by such crackpot notions when confronted by the heart-breaking headlines these days. The violence that is escalating all around us seems to defy explanation. All I can think is that someone has dumped a different substance, testosterone, into our drinking water. How else to explain all the recent shootings, including ones by a frustrated virgin at UC Santa Barbara, an extremist couple in Las Vegas, and an ultra-religious teenager outside of Portland, Oregon?
According to the FBI, the United States experienced five mass killings a year between 2000 and 2008. Since 2009, however, we’ve gone up to 16 such killings a year. The FBI defines a “mass killing” as an incident in which more than four people are killed. The Las Vegas and Portland killings don’t even qualify.
Since the shooters all seem to act from different motives, it’s hard to come up with a single explanation for this rising tide of violence. Perhaps it’s just the convergence of massive amounts of weaponry, loose gun laws, a broken mental health system, ultraviolent video games and TV shows, and rising anti-government sentiment. Perhaps by some law of conservation of violence, the United States draws down its large-scale military engagements overseas and the aggression rises on the home front. Perhaps it’s just the copycat element.
But there’s considerable appeal in a crackpot theory that allows you to believe that everything is fine with society, except for one evil group of people (the Koch brothers), one malign institution (the NRA), or one dastardly act (pumping a male sex hormone associated with uncontrollable anger into the drinking supply).
Of course, it’s not just the United States. Someone has obviously been putting something into the water in eastern Ukraine as well. There was a striking photo in The Washington Post a few weeks ago. It showed a group of pro-Russian sympathizers at a rally in eastern Ukraine. There wasn’t a woman in sight. And nearly all the men had the same male-pattern baldness—characteristic of high levels of testosterone.
Perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, who seems to have a private stash of the stuff, ordered the male sex hormone to be dumped into the drinking water of eastern Ukraine (along with dispatching mercenaries, materiel, and money to help the separatists). What started out as an almost comical uprising of the disgruntled has turned into a bloody civil war.
With the death toll rising into the hundreds, the new Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko has vowed to pursue peace negotiations with the rebels. But first he wants to secure the borders. Russia has offered its own ceasefire plan at the UN. And on the ground, fighting has damaged a pumping station in Donestsk, threatening the water supply to 4 million people. Whatever’s in the water, there might be a whole lot less of it very soon, precipitating a humanitarian crisis.
All along the Russian-leaning separatists in Ukraine have called into question the legitimacy of the government in Kiev. When they occupied buildings in eastern Ukraine, they compared their actions to what the protestors in Kiev had done to oust the corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych.
This is a false equivalence. Among the many differences between what is taking place now in eastern Ukraine and what took place back in February in the capital city, the biggest has to do with gender and guns. The Euromaidan protestors included a large number of women—older women holding signs that read simply “Mama,” younger women who took to Twitter and YouTube to build support, even a women’s self-defense unit—and it was predominantly (though not exclusively) non-violent. The separatists in the east are armed, and they are predominantly men.
The imbalance is only growing. Women and children are fleeing the fighting in eastern Ukraine. It’s not so easy for the men to go, however. “It’s hard for the men to get out,” one of the escaping women told The Washington Post. “The Donetsk People’s Republic say women and children can go. But they pull men off the buses and say they should stay to protect Slovyansk.”
Meanwhile in Iraq, the guys with guns are really going at it. The extremist group ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant—elsewhere rendered ISIS, for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has taken over a large swath of northern Iraq and begun to merge it with the sections of Syria that it controls. These particular militants are purists on the issue of gender and violence. The Sunni gunmen of ISIL are exclusively male and committed to using violence to secure as much territory as possible for their mini-caliphate. According to the rules ISIL has disseminated, women must stay at home, unless absolutely necessary. Shia militias have quickly mobilized volunteers to defend Baghdad and other Shia-dominated areas as Iraq finally fractures along sectarian lines. Expect a stalemate as one set of guys with guns squares off against another set of guys with guns.
And the biggest guy with a gun of them all, the U.S. government, is contemplating air strikes against ISIL. An aircraft carrier is in position, and the Pentagon can draw on air power at bases in Qatar, Kuwait, and elsewhere. Although ISIL is a horrifying group of guys with guns, air strikes will likely be ineffective. It’s very difficult to attack a group of irregulars who can blend in with the population. So, air strikes will likely result in large numbers of civilian casualties, which would only swell the number of potential recruits for ISIL.
It’s always tempting to drink whatever they’re drinking—but the Obama administration should just politely refuse. Defining ISIL not as terrorists bent on attacking the United States but, rather, a “sectarian militia waging a civil war, puts the emphasis on where it needs to be: finding an integrated political-military solution to the internal Iraqi problems that sparked the civil war,” writes Kenneth Pollack at Brookings. “And that is a set of problems that is unlikely to be solved by immediate, direct American attacks on the Sunni militants.”
Sending more guys with guns into a situation dominated by guys with guns is a recipe for failure, as the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have amply demonstrated. The Obama administration seems to have learned that lesson to some extent. No U.S. ground troops are slated for Iraq or Ukraine (though Washington is sending a contingent to protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and has promised more military presence in Europe as a deterrent). But the administration must endure the pleadings from both right and center to “do something.” Diplomacy is never seen as doing something. Doing something almost always seems to involve guys with guns.
As with gun violence on the home front, the United States should be pursuing an obvious policy: reduce the number of guns going into the hands of guys. But the obvious policy is not so obvious to those in power (or, in the case of the arms lobby, those with power). The best we’ve managed are some regulations that affect the flow of arms in marginal ways. At home, you have to go through a background check—though people who would obviously fail such a check can just go to a gun show in most states and buy a weapon there.
Abroad, we have the Leahy Law, a 1997 initiative to stop the flow of U.S. arms to known human rights violators. The law is an admirable effort to apply a kind of background check to all the many would-be purchasers of U.S. weapons. It has only been successfully applied to a minority of cases—less than 1 percent of all candidates for assistance.
As with domestic gun control legislation, even the modest Leahy Law has generated pushback from the suppliers. The latest case involves the Nigerian army, which the Pentagon wants to help go after that other group of guys with guns, Boko Haram, the extremist organization that continues to hold on to a couple hundred schoolgirls it abducted more than two months ago. Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce recently called for a waiver of the Leahy Law so that the United States could provide more assistance to the Nigerian military. He cited the U.S. military’s complains of the law’s restrictions. The Pentagon replied that it was actually criticizing the Nigerian military’s human rights violations. But the uncomfortable fact is that the Pentagon has indeed publicly complained over having its hands tied.
Another effort to rein in guys with guns has been to reduce the prevalence of wartime rape. A number of world leaders, including Secretary of State John Kerry, convened last week in London to talk about how to prevent rape in conflict. Organizers want, among other things, to establish an international protocol for documenting and investigating sexual violence in conflict zones.
But Musimbi Kanyoro and Serra Sippel, writing in Foreign Policy In Focus this week, point out that the U.S. government can address the problem right away by changing or repealing the Helms amendment, which has been used to prohibit any U.S. funding for abortions overseas. “As a result, most organizations that rely on U.S. aid too often turn their backs when pregnant rape survivors ask for help,” they write. “Those health providers are afraid to lose their funding and therefore avoid abortion services and referrals altogether.”
Aside from the relatively modest fixes—strengthen the Leahy Law and deep-six the Helms amendment—what can the United States do to address all this violence?
We’ve had wars on drugs, on poverty, on cancer. We’ve had so many such wars that even our metaphors are now locked and loaded. Meanwhile, the guys with guns continue to wage their very real wars at home and abroad. Before we retire “war as metaphor,” however, we should wage one last conflict: a war on guns.
If we can have zero tolerance for poverty, surely we can mobilize the public behind zero tolerance for assault weapons. We won’t be able to eliminate murder—Cain didn’t need a semi-automatic to kill his brother—but we’ll surely reduce mass murder. Even if someone does manage to slip steroids into the water supply, male rage will not result in large-scale, indiscriminate killing. The same should apply to our arms export policy. The government should be making it more difficult to sell weapons overseas—not facilitating those exports, as the Obama administration has done.
Our bodily fluids are indeed precious, as General Jack D. Ripper says in Dr. Strangelove. It’s just too bad we’ve made it so easy to acquire the guns that can be used to spill those fluids.