The Pentagon and the National Rifle Association have a lot in common these days. They're in love with guns. They maintain powerful lobbies. They refuse to acknowledge the dangerous consequences of their policies.
And they're both on the defensive.
After yet another gun massacre over the weekend in Tucson, the NRA in particular has a lot to answer for. The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), and the killing of six others, has again focused attention on how easy it is to buy guns and use them in this country.
The NRA has managed to survive attempted and successful assassinations of presidents, the horrifying school shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, and killing sprees in Omaha (2007), Binghamton (2009), and Appomattox (2010). So many rampages have taken place in shopping malls that trade groups held a conference a couple years ago on how to deal with them. So many workplace rampages have occurred -- eight dead this summer at a Manchester, Connecticut warehouse -- that the Labor Department has issued a fact sheet that cites, for instance, 421 workplace shooting deaths in 2008. Every year, nearly 100,000 Americans are shot and guns kill nearly 10,000 people, according to gun control advocates.
It's practically a war. Yet gun control is still a dirty word for many Americans. Despite a spate of shootings over the last two decades, support for stricter gun laws has declined from 78 percent in 1990 to only 44 percent in 2010. To be sure, the NRA will dig in its heels this time around as well to make sure that "the guys with the guns make the rules," as NRA head Wayne LaPierre phrased it in 2009.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, faces a similar public relations disaster. It's fighting two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and failing to achieve the stated objectives. The Taliban still controls large sections of Afghanistan. Iraq is a mess. Drone attacks in Pakistan have simply disturbed the hornet's nest.
It would be fitting if the president, Congress, and the American people demanded major cuts in military spending because of the Pentagon's failed policies. Instead, the Pentagon currently faces the ax because of the overall budget deficit. However, either way the generals and majors are digging in their heels. Like the NRA, they won't give up their guns without a fight.
President Obama recently ordered the Pentagon to cut $78 billion over the next five years. This comes on top of about $100 billion that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in an attempt to keep the shears at bay, identified as savings that could be reinvested in "boots on the ground." The Pentagon is still doing all it can to prevent slipping down the slippery slope. For now, Gates won't actually have to shrink his overall budget. According to the plan, the military budget will continue rising until 2015.
The Pentagon will be forced to give up some of its toys, such as an amphibious landing craft and a surface-launched missile system. But, believe it or not, military contractors are in relief mode for having dodged a bullet. In exchange for giving up a few token systems, the $100 billion of redirected savings will mean more money for other big-ticket items. Raytheon will receive funds to build missile defense systems in Europe; Northrop Grumman is looking at a new long-range strike bomber; Boeing will likely get more orders for launch vehicles. To ensure that the spigot remains open, Gates has been playing up the China threat even as he heads over to Beijing for talks with Chinese generals.
Like the NRA, the Pentagon refuses to connect the dots between policies and consequences. The United States is responsible for nearly half of all global military expenditures -- and yet we're bewildered at the lack of funds for dealing with climate change or global health issues (check out this video that compares the respective outlays). As the world's number one arms peddler, responsible for fully one-third of the trade, Washington continues to push exports to Europe, India, Japan, and the developing world -- and then we're surprised at all the conflicts that continue to burn. Our foreign policy labors under the persistent delusion that war is the answer to the problems affecting a great swath of territory from the Horn of Africa through Central Asia - and then we're aghast that our adversaries seize on violence in return.
Through it all, the Pentagon continues to claim that it's in the business of "defense" and that demilitarization would make us all less safe. The NRA likewise argues that gun control would only take weapons away from people who need to defend themselves.
The blogosphere is currently aflame with debate over whether the Arizona shooter was a madman listening to voices in his head or a madman listening to the voices of the Tea Party. To a certain extent, this debate misses the point. There will always be crazy people who believe that somehow their violent actions are in defense of self, nation, or humanity. The real problem lies with the institutions that embrace such fictions and then, through repetition and money, transmute such madness into conventional wisdom.
The NRA and the Pentagon, with their unqualified support for Glock semiautomatics and Predator drones, are clinically psychotic: they're detached from reality. That detachment is a mechanism that enables them to ignore the consequences of their craziness. It's not "our" guns that kill people, say the Pentagon and the NRA, but "crazy" people (and terrorists) who kill people.
The very faint good news is that both the NRA and the Pentagon are digging in their heels because they realize they're standing on slippery slopes. It's our job to seize this moment -- of tragedies at home and abroad -- to push both organizations down their respective slopes. It's really quite simple. We have to stop the guys with the guns from making their deranged rules -- and fast.