“Chris, I wish to God she had had an M4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out … and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids”
These are the words of Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), one of the least articulate defenders of an indefensible position, appearing on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. The inexcusable stance that Gohmert hints at is that which proposes that a further profusion of assault weapons is the answer to our nation’s gory woes.
We know now that Adam Lanza, who slaughtered 27 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, was armed not only with two semiautomatic handguns but also with a .223 Bushmaster rifle, an AR-15 variant capable, in its fully automatic mode, of firing 800 rounds per minute with a muzzle velocity of 3,200 feet per second and a range of more than 500 yards. The M16, the AR-15 model’s most ubiquitous version, is the service weapon of the United States Marine Corps. Its value in this capacity is clear: in the hands of a well-trained infantryman, the rifle can mow down a wave of advancing troops with prodigious and devastating force.
What Rep. Gohmert is likely unable to explain is why such a weapon might be necessary in facing down a lone, crazed gunman, even one armed with his own automatic rifle. It is not at all clear, and indeed fairly nonsensical to suggest, that an assault rifle would be any more effective in confronting a single maniac than a common handgun.
In any case, the argument for the continued proliferation of assault weapons falls flat on a number of counts. The belief that the 2nd Amendment allows for the private ownership of absolutely any type of weapon is obvious twaddle: the government broadly forbids private individuals from owning nerve gas, nuclear warheads, and landmines, to name just a few arms-not-to-be-borne.
The two most common arguments against the proscription of assault weapons are these: first, that Americans need such weapons to protect themselves from one another, and second, that Americans need such weapons to protect themselves from the government. The first objection is inane; impromptu vigilantism, as we have seen, has no need for the contrivances of modern mass warfare. As for the second objection, we must sadly acknowledge that the ship has already sailed. The U.S. government possesses a monopoly on the most destructive weapons known to mankind, and would be free to use them on its populace if it so desired. An AK-47 in the hands of some rural revolutionary is little match for an armored division or a laser-guided bomb.
To top the issue off, consider what the advocates of assault weapon plenitude are really suggesting. They are evidently more threatened by the miniscule possibility that our government will one day turn on us than by the simple fact that assault weapons allow the owner to commit mass murder with a minimum of effort. They are evidently quite certain that the cost of the proliferation of this weaponry is outweighed by its benefit to enthusiastic vigilantes everywhere. The cost is clear. As for the benefit— we must leave it to Rep. Gohmert to indicate even one instance when a privately-owned AR-15 has been necessary to stop crime.
A map of the world circa 2012, adjusted so that the size of a country correlates with the news coverage it receives, will feature some notable distortions. The U.S. will occupy something like half the globe, Israel at least a quarter of the remaining half. The Central Asian republics will be well nigh nonexistent, as will Australia and much of South America and Africa. Almost thoroughly evaporated from this unnavigable projection will be Southeast Asia, although its largest mainland country will be pulsing and throbbing, ever larger by the day.
This latter nation is Burma, known as Myanmar since its renaming by the military junta in 1989. Over the past two years, Myanmar has undergone a steady process of liberalization: Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, and the military junta was dissolved in March 2011. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 40 of 45 open seats in the April 2012 parliamentary elections, despite dozens of reported irregularities.
But there is something else going on in Burma. Since May 2012, vicious ethnic riots have seethed in northern Rakhine state, pitting Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims and resulting in the displacement of a hundred thousand people and nearly a hundred deaths.
The Rohingya are a stateless people, shunned for centuries and denied Burmese citizenship by the 1982 Citizenship Law. There are 800,000 Rohingya in Burma, the vast majority of them in Rakhine State. The Rohingya, who are Muslim, are the descendants both of Arab traders who settled in the area during the 8th century and of Bengali migrants, most of whom moved to Rakhine (then known as Arakan) during the British colonial era.
The end of the Second World War saw the beginning of a Rohingya insurgency in Western Burma. These fighters identified as mujahideen: theirs was a Muslim jihadist movement aimed at an autonomous Muslim state in Arakan. Nevertheless, the Burmese government’s campaign of repression against the Rohingya has not been thus far limited to the pacification of these jihadist elements. From the forced deportation of those deemed illegal immigrants to official discrimination against Muslims in Rakhine, it has long been clear that Muslims are unwelcome in Burma.
The violence this year started, many claim, with the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman in late May. A reprisal attack that killed ten Muslims ignited the fury that has continued for months. President Thein Sein, a relic of the dying junta, declared a state of emergency in Rakhine in early June and Rohingya fled en masse to squalid refugee camps—a non-solution that President Sein nevertheless touted as the “only solution”, short of complete deportation. Reports from Burma evidence this same striking degree of prejudice on the part of soldiers, policemen and government officials.
The predominant trope in the Burmese narrative of the Rohingya is that they are “foreigners”, “illegals”, that they are not Burmese but Bangladeshi—even though many families have lived in Rakhine for generations. This is perhaps unsurprising, an antiquated tribal model of citizenship not particularly uncommon in the developing world. It is nevertheless not to be tolerated, and even were it granted some credence, the uncomfortable fact would remain that the violence in northern Burma has spread indiscriminately to Muslims who are neither Bengali or Rohingya.
The inciting rhetorical use of citizenship recalls another, quite analogous situation twenty years past and a continent away, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The Banyamulenge are an exceedingly small ethnic group in DRC’s South Kivu province. They belong to the Tutsi ethnic group, but unlike the Tutsis of Rwanda, unlike the Tutsis of neighboring North Kivu, and unlike the Tutsis who arrived in South Kivu during the Rwandan revolution of the late 1950s, they do not speak Kinyarwanda. The ancestors of those who came to be known as the Banyamulenge arrived in what is now DRC beginning in the seventeenth century, with huge influxes occurring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Zaire, as DRC was then known, passed the 1981 Citizenship Bill, restricting Zairean citizenship to only those descended from pre-1885 residents of Congo. The Banyarwanda—peoples with ethnic origins in Rwanda—were restricted from running for office, and tensions between the Tutsi of eastern Zaire and the rest of the country rose steadily. The autocratic government of Mobutu Sese Soko initiated a campaign to differentiate “non-Zairean” Banyarwanda from the rest of the population.
With the victory of a Tutsi insurgency over Rwanda’s Hutu government, a million Hutu came streaming over the border, bringing with them many of the perpetrators of 1994’s Rwandan genocide. The Banyamulenge of South Kivu felt perhaps quite justifiably threatened by the presence of anti-Tutsi genocidaires close to their homes and villages. Laws passed by Zaire’s government in the wake of the Great Lakes refugee crisis declared all Banyamulenge refugees on Zairean soil, effectively stripping them of citizenship.
The Banyamulenge sought arms and comfort from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), now in control of neighboring Rwanda. Ultimately, Banyamulenge militias joined the Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFL), which advanced on Kinshasa and overthrew Mobutu Sese Soko.
There are few good lessons here. The overthrow of Mobutu’s senile and corrupt autocracy was as bloody as it was inevitable, as dangerous as it was productive. The participation of the Banyamulenge in this endeavor may or may not have been ordained from the start; nevertheless, the Zairean authorities might have postponed their gory fates had they not so capriciously deprived the Banyamulenge of their rights—indeed, these repressed and dispossessed Tutsi constituted much of the ADFL’s fighting force.
It is too late to reverse the Burmese government’s institutionalized suppression of the Rohingya, and far too late to repair the yawning cultural abyss between them and their Buddhist neighbors. It is worth noting, however, the data to be found in Wikileaks cables and elsewhere about the worrying maturation of the Rohingya mujahideen: young Rohingya men journeying to fight in Afghanistan, visits by Rohingya representatives to Al Qaeda training camps in Bangladesh, the arrival of Taliban envoys to meet with Rohingya jihadists.
Jihadism flourishes among the oppressed, and any list of the world’s most oppressed peoples must surely include the Rohingya. It is evident that what the Rohingya are suffering in Burma is a campaign that threatens to approach genocide, and their continued marginalization at the hands of the state and state-sponsored forces will only escalate in the absence of convincing outside pressure. The world, and Burma’s reformers, have a responsibility to end this bloodshed and guard the Rohingya against future atrocity. They also have a responsibility to understand the lesson of the Banyamulenge—indeed, of all peoples whose victimhood finds solace in revanchism—and to be thoroughly aware that what goes around comes around.