This afternoon, the Manchin-Toomey amendment—a proposal to expand background checks to gun purchases that occur at gun shows and online—failed to be adopted, despite the fact that a majority of senators favored it. That's because today's vote wasn't a vote on the bill, it was a vote to have a vote on the bill. It was a vote to end a filibuster. The people who voted "no" were saying that they were so violently opposed to this modest expansion of background checks that they refused to even allow the Senate to vote on the bill. The overwhelming majority of the filibuster supporters were Republicans, but a few Democrats joined them as well. Remember these names: Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Max Baucus (MT), Mark Begich (AK), and Mark Pryor (AR).
We've heard many inspiring and heartwarming stories from Boston about how people acted in the aftermath of Tuesday's bombing—rushing to aid the injured, opening up their homes to strangers, being kinder and more considerate than they would have been a week ago, in ways small and large. Many people elsewhere have expressed solidarity with the city of Boston, and I think that's great. But amidst it all there are some strange expressions about how all that admirable response is somehow uniquely Bostonian. I'm not trying to condemn anyone, but it's something we always seem to fall into when there's a shocking and tragic event like this one. It certainly happened after September 11, when stories of heroism and generosity were so often followed with the sentiment that "Nowhere else in the world" would people have acted in such praiseworthy ways, as though had a similar tragedy happened in Tokyo or Copenhagen or Johannesburg, people would have just left each other to die on the sidewalk. I'm not the only one who thinks this way; at Slate, Luke O'Neill is a little discomfited by the way people are talking about his city:
Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brokered a “gentlemen’s agreement” on the filibuster with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats wouldn’t try to seriously reform the filibuster if Republicans would limit use of the procedure on “motions to proceed” to legislation or nominations.
Over the last year or so, I've written at more length than most readers can probably tolerate about the myth of the gun lobby's power. But there's one part of that myth that I haven't addressed too much, and it comes up today as the Manchin Toomey background check proposal is being voted on in the Senate (as of this writing it looks like it will be unable to overcome a Republican filibuster). This part of the myth isn't completely false, it's just dramatically overstated. As you've probably heard, one of the reasons the gun lobby is successful is that gun owners are "single-issue" voters who not only won't consider voting for anyone who isn't right on guns, they're highly energized, writing and calling their representatives all the time, while the other side is passive and disengaged, not bothering to get involved on the gun issue. That means that representatives feel intense pressure from the right and no pressure from the left, making it all the more likely that any measure to stem the proliferation of guns will fail.
Tucked in the hipster haven of Jamaica Plain on the southern side of this brash yet neighborly city, my apartment is just a few miles from the heart of Boston. As a beat reporter who covers local politics and mayhem, it's a convenient place to live. A typical morning commute to report at City Hall or the State House takes about 15 minutes on the Orange Line, or a bit longer by bus. But even though the trains are running on time today, it takes me longer than usual to get downtown. I just can't help but stop every couple of feet to note how drastically the Hub changed since two bombs went off near Copley Square, killing three people and injuring nearly 200 others. I'm accustomed to covering craziness—from police brutality to Occupy, I've been front-and-center, if not fully embedded—but today, this landscape is a wholly unfamiliar beast.
Since the invention of dynamite in 1867, ideological radicals on both the left and right have used the awful spectacle of explosives to draw attention to political causes, to protest policy, and to inspire fear.
Just after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Dick Cheney said with a gleam in his eye that in order to be safe, America would "have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we're going to be successful." As a bipartisan panel organized by the Constitution Project has concluded in a 600-page report released today, we did indeed go to the dark side, to our lasting shame.
President Obama speaking about the bombing in Boston.
Conservatives sometimes complain about the "language police" on the left who keep them from using the colorful words and phrases they learned at their pappys' knees, when those words and phrases turn out to be offensive to people. But the truth is that nobody pays the kind of careful attention to language the right does. They're forever telling us that the truth of President Obama's radicalism can be found not in his actions but in a thing he said one time, or on the other hand, criticizing him for something he failed to say. (For some reason, Rudy Giuliani was particularly obsessed with this. He loved to say about a speech an opponent made, "He never said the words 'islamo-fascist terror killers!' How can we trust that he understands the world's dangers if he won't say that???") It's a faith in the power of words to change the world and reveal the truth that I'm sure linguists find touching.
From what I can tell, conservatives were getting only mildly pre-angry at Obama for not calling the bombing in Boston "terrorism" (see here, for instance). Needless to say, this is a kabuki of feigned outrage we've been through before, and not that long ago. You'll recall that there was a big to-do over whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack "terrorism," with Republicans insisting that if he had used the word earlier and more often...well, something would have been different. They're not sure what, but it would have involved us standing tall and not taking any guff.
At the moment, President Obama is juggling three different legislative priorities—a gun control bill, a budget agreement, and comprehensive immigration reform. Of the three, only the latter has any chance at passing Congress, and that depends on whether Republicans see themselves as winning any advantage from agreeing to the legislation. At Bloomberg View, Ramesh Ponnuru looks at the situation, and—based on the scant odds for success in each case—concludes that Obama’s second term has already failed.
Herman Cain, the Georgia-based talk show host who used the Republican presidential primaries to propel himself to national fame, has returned to the public stage with a new organization of black conservatives—the appropriately named American Black Conservatives.
It seems that every time there's a dramatic breaking story like yesterday's bombing in Boston, media organizations end up passing on unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. This happens, of course, because in a chaotic situation where many people are involved in some way and the causes and results of some event are not initially clear, it can be hard to separate actual facts from what somebody thought or heard or believed. News organizations trying to cover it have an incredibly difficult job to do, and we should acknowledge the ones who do it well, even heroically, in the face of those challenges. For instance, the Boston Globe will deserve all the accolades and awards they get for their coverage of this event. And yet, the news media seem to get so much wrong when something like this happens. Why?
I'd argue that the reason is that in the frenzy of this kind of happening, they fail to realize something important: Scoops are beside the point. When Americans are looking to learn about and understand this kind of horrible event, they really don't care whether you got a scoop. They want to understand what actually happened. I don't think the news organizations, particularly the TV networks, understand this at all.
We can stop a plot. Get a group of would-be terrorists meeting with each other and our agents can infiltrate it. Get them meeting in Yemen and we can send in the drones. Let North Korea threaten the South and we can threaten them, completely plausibly, with obliteration. Scale is our friend—we know how to detect enemies who go to scale, and we detect so well in these post-9-11 years that it doesn’t take much to go to scale.
Much of what we hear in the immediate aftermath of events like today's tragedy in Boston turns out to be wrong. You may remember, for instance, that just after the Oklahoma City bombing 18 years ago, initial media reports included copious baseless speculation that the culprits might be Arab terrorists. The press obviously has a difficult job to do when something like this happens, attempting to gather information quickly in a chaotic situation and, particularly on television and radio, explain events in real time when so little can be confirmed. So one can have some understanding when they get some things wrong, as they certainly will.