Pomme Duterte.

The Philippines were plagued by problems under Spanish rule; those problems didn’t go away under American rule; and they continued to plague the archipelago after independence.  Most eye-catching for Americans was a Muslim insurgency in the southern islands: the Moro Rebellion.  (Purportedly, this led to the adoption of the Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol.)  Since 9/11, American Special Forces have been supporting operations against Islamists (Abu Sayaf) in the southern islands of the archipelago.

A second problem, much ignored by Americans, is that the Philippines are ruled by a corrupt oligarchy.[1] In the 1980s and 1990s, after the end of the Vietnam War and the Cold War in Asia, those leaders (and perhaps ordinary Filipinos as well) decided that they would prefer that the American military left its naval and air bases in the Philippines.  By 1992 this hope came true.

A third problem, more recent in appearance, is drugs and drug-dealers.  Methamphetamines, usually associated with rural America, appeared as a major problem for the Philippines.  Poor neighborhoods in Filipino cities showed all sorts of “disfunction.”  Moreover, evidence appeared that the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel had invaded the Philippines.

Americans often talk about a “war on drugs,” without reaching the logical conclusion that a “war” is a war.[2]  Not so with Rodrigo Duterte (1945- ).  Duterte first came to public notice as the mayor of Davao, a city on the southern island of Mindanao.  He ran the city for better than 20 years.  Here, too, drugs and drug-dealers were a grave problem.  Filipino drug dealers, like those elsewhere, have flipped-off the law.  “Fine,” said Duterte.  During his tenure as mayor, “death squads” massacred drug dealers in Davao.  Curiously, the local police failed to solve most of the homicides.  All the same, the crime rate plummeted, what with there being fewer and fewer criminals still up and walking around.

Then Duterte and three other candidates then ran for president against Manuel Roxas, the pet candidate of oligarch Benigno Aquino.  In a five-way race, Dutere pulled 40 percent of the vote; Roxas pulled 23 percent of the vote, and the three other candidates pulled 37 percent of the vote between them.  Duterte became president.  Also, according to the displaced ruling elites in the Philippines, Duterte has shown “tyrannical” qualities by firing several thousand government employees.  He has replaced their clients with his own followers.

What happened in Davao is now happening elsewhere in the Philippines. Since Duterte’s election, 1,900 drug-dealers or “suspected” drug-dealers have been killed.  Some were killed by the police, some by vigilantes.  Half a million drug-users have surrendered to the police.  The massacres of meth dealers and users have been hard to swallow for humanitarians abroad.

Moreover, Duterte is anti-American at a moment when the United States is trying to shore up its position against a self-confident China.  The United States had hoped to patch up relations with the Philippines to help contain China and the Philippines had hoped to patch up relations with the United States to help contain China.  The United States has a defense agreement with the Philippines that is clearly directed against China.  As in the Middle East, the “client states” have their own agendas.  Hence, Duterte’s anti-Americanism has been even harder for American diplomats to swallow.  Duterte has brushed aside all American criticism by pointing out some of the many flaws in America society.  He has pursued contact with China.  Now the security relationship is endangered.   You can smell the coup coming.

[1] “The Philippines’ populist strongman,” The Week, 16 September 2016, p. 11.

[2] But see: Tom Clancy, Clear and Present Danger (1989 ).

Guns Again.

Americans buy a bunch of firearms.[1]  In 1994, 25 percent of American households owned at least one firearm; and 44 million people owned 192 million firearms.  That is an average of 4.36 firearms per firearm-owning household.  In 2015, 22 percent of households owned at least one firearm; and 55 million people owned 265 million firearms.  That is an average of 4.81 firearms per firearm-owning household.  However, this apparent increase in firearms per owner may be deceptive.  About half of all firearms are in the hands—well the extensive gun-safes—of only 3 percent of owners.  That means—I think that 19 percent of the population owns the other 50 percent.  Roughly—watch my math, never my best thing—3/22 of Americans own 50 percent of 262 million guns.  So, 3 percent own 131 million firearms.  On the other hand, 19/22 own 50 percent of the firearms.  So, 19 percent own 131 million guns.  So, of 55 million owners, 1/7 or 7.8 million owned 131 million firearms for an average of about 16 weapons each.  Therefore, of 55 million owners, 6/7 or 46.8 million, owned 131 million firearms, for an average of about 2.8 weapons each.  If, 42 percent of these are hand-guns, 33 percent are rifles, and 20 percent are shot guns, then that suggests that the typical forearm-owner has a rifle, and either a couple of hand-guns or a hand-gun and a shot gun.

Americans started buying guns in increasing numbers during the 1960s, with the numbers rising from about 75 million total firearms in private hands in 1965 to almost 200 million by 1995.  Soaring rates of violent crime and civil disorder appear to have driven the boom in firearms sales.  Violent crime and homicide rates have been dropping for almost a quarter century.  All the same, some Americans felt safer in 1994 than they do today.  In 1994, 46 percent of gun-owners who responded to a national survey cited self-defense as a major reason for owning a firearm; in 2015 63 percent cited self-defense.  While total homicides are down, highly-publicized mass shootings are up.  The expansive definition of mass shootings used by the EffaBeeEye and gun control groups have helped overstate the danger to ordinary citizens.[2]

This shift in motivation is reflected in the composition of the stock of firearms in private hands.  In 1994, 34 percent of firearms were hand-guns (revolvers and semi-automatic pistols); in 2015 42 percent of firearms are hand-guns.

The composition of ownership also is interesting.  Women firearms owners are almost twice (42 percent) as likely as men (22 percent) to own a hand-gun.  African-American firearms owners are almost three times as likely (57 percent) to own a hand-gun as are white firearms owners (20 percent).

Media coverage adds more heat than light.  While the New York Times article cited above conjectured that a “24-hour news cycle has made the world feel more dangerous,” the only human being in their article is a woman who bought her first pistol after a man with a gun invaded her daughter’s middle school and took five girls hostage.  Recently, some members of the media reported the discovery of a previously unsuspected “gun culture” of people who like shooting, know something about it, and talk about target shooting and hunting the way golfers talk about golf.  Now their attention has shifted to a “concealed carry culture.”

These numbers suggest that the contentious debate over firearms and gun-control is likely to continue for some time.  Worse, Americans are talking past one another on this issue.

[1] Julie Turkewitz and Troy Griggs, “Looking for Security, More in U.S. Pick Up a Handgun,” NYT, 15 October 2016.

[2] As best I recall, the current standard has become four or more people shot in a single event.  However, this allows many crime-related gang shootings to be assimilated to events like Newtown and Orlando.

“It Must Be a Peach of a Hand.”

In spite of the confident assertions on the right and the left, violence in America is full of puzzles and contradictions.  First, murder rates have fluctuated.  In 1980, America had a murder rate of 10.2 per 100,000 people.  The rate drifted downward for the next ten years, then began to fall sharply from about 1990.  By 2014 it had fallen to 4.5 murders per 100,000 people.[1]  Then, in 2015, the national murder rate increased to 10.8 percent.  However, the sharp increase can be attributed to selected cities (Baltimore, Houston, and especially Chicago).  There murder rates jumped to highs not seen in half a decade.  For example, by about 22 November 2015, Baltimore’s homicide tally hit 300 deaths.  This is 42 percent higher than the total for 2014 and we still had the holidays to go.  Most of the rise seems to have come since the rioting that followed the arresting-to-death of Freddy Gray.[2]  That’s scary because the last time the US had an increase like this came in 1971, at the dawn of several violent decades.[3]

One question to ask is if these changes reflected government action or some other influences.  A second question to ask is, if it did reflect government action, then did it reflect federal, state, or local action?  A third question to ask is, if it reflected some other influences, what were those influences?

Second, superficially at least, declining murder rates were tracked by declining support for the death penalty.  In 1994, fully 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty for murder, while 16 percent opposed it and 4 percent were unsure.  By March 2015, 56 percent supported it.  By October 2016, 49 percent supported the death penalty.[4]  Similarly, the use of capital punishment continues to decline in the United States.  It fell from 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014 to 20 in the first two-thirds of 2015.  Extrapolating from that latter figure, there would be 30 in all of 2015.  Even in Texas, the state most prone to impose the death sentence, no one has been sentenced to death so far in 2015.[5]

Third, just over half (55 percent) of Americans think that gun ownership can be restricted without violating the constitution (and the Second Amendment be Damned!) and slightly more (57 percent) want a ban on assault weapons.  Conversely, 43 percent of Americans believe that gun ownership cannot be restricted without violating the constitution and 25 percent oppose banning even assault weapons.  All the same, almost three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans support universal background checks.[6]

Fourth gun control is bad for gun control.  After the liberal characterization of the San Bernardino terrorist attack as a “mass shooting,” gun sales zoomed upward.  In December 2015, Americans bought 3.3 million guns.  All of these sales have been from licensed gun-dealers because the government background check system has been swamped.  Attorney General Loretta Lynch has asked for the hiring of 430 additional people just to process the background checks of Americans complying with the existing gun laws.[7]

In spite of the obvious violation of individual civil rights, most (80 percent) of Americans favor banning people on terrorist watch-lists from buying guns.  A small minority (17 percent) suspect that the ban would not be very effective.[8]  There are 25,000 to 40,000 Americans on terror watch-lists.  Of these people, 244 of them tried to buy firearms in 2015.[9]  That is, about one tenth of one percent sought to buy weapons.  People on terrorist watch lists buy guns at lower rates than do “ordinary” Americans.

Fifth, what is a “mass shooting?”  Orlando or Newtown, right?  Actually, the EffaBeeEye’s definition is a little more expansive: a single event in which four or more people get shot.[10]  So, criminals probably commit the bulk of the mass-shootings as a by-product of their business or personal lives.  By the EffaBeeEye’s standard, there have been 133 mass shootings in 2016.  Florida has suffered 15 (or 11.2 percent) of them.

Americans are sharply divided over how to interpret Omar Mateen’s massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL.  Most (60 percent) Democrats see it as an example of “domestic gun violence,” while most (79 percent) Republicans see it as an example of “Islamic terrorism.”[11]  The trouble is that the partisan filter on the vision of observers inhibits both understanding and civil discourse.  The further trouble is that both are right.

America is becoming a less violent place in comparison to the past, if not in comparison to Denmark.  Murder rates are generally trending downward; support for the death penalty is trending downward; and support for gun-control seems to be rising.  However, the politics of gun-control may well be hampering further progress.  It is common to blame the National Rifle Association for this problem.  It is common to use “terrorism” and “mass shootings” as labels that justify pushing ahead rapidly with strict gun-controls.  All that this does is to put the backs up on gun-owners.

Instead of shaming campaigns (satisfying though they are to many liberals), perhaps the best answer to a violent America is education campaigns.  Between 1964 and 2004, the number of Americans who smoked fell every year.  But in 2004, the decline bottomed out at 20.8 percent.  It stayed there through the end of 2007.[12]

Still, in these regards, America is a better, safer place to live than when I was a child.  Unless, of course, you are living in one of the broken cities where the War on Drugs spawns the “war for corners”; and where the “war for corners” spawns a confrontational style among young men with no better future.

This doesn’t end up exactly where I wanted to go when I began writing.  It just ends up where some random facts led me.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 29 July 2016, p. 16.

[2] “Noted,” The Week, 27 November 2015, p. 16.

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 7 October 2016, p. 16.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 October 2016, p. 17.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 25 September 2015, p. 16.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 5 August 2016, p. 17.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 5 February 2016, p.8.

[8] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 1 July 2016, p.7

[9] “Noted,” The Week, 1 July 2016, p. 16.

[10] “Noted,” The Week, 24 June 2016, p. 20.  By this standard, the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” was a mass-shooting.  Especially if you were one of the Earp brothers.  If you were a Clanton or a McLaury, then it was a mass getting-shot.

[11] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 1 July 2016, p.7.

[12] “Noted,” The Week, 23 November 2007, p. 16.  Why did the decline stop?  What has it done since then?  Who are the remaining smokers?    I don’t know.  Perhaps they constitute a libertarian revolt against the intrusive nanny-state of liberal fascism.  Perhaps the people who rush to buy guns and ammo (as opposed to buying Guns and Ammo) are operating under the same star.

Peace Negotiations.

Except for a lot of killing, the civil war in western Syria is over.[1]  Backed by Russia, the Assad regime has defeated the rebel forces in the western part of the country.[2]  The siege of the eastern third of the city of Aleppo will grind on.  Horror stories will continue to turn the stomachs of readers of the New York Times.  Still, the die is cast.  Some of the states which have used Syria as a battlefield in larger struggles have now turned to settling the peace terms in this conflict while preparing for the next conflict.

Religion-based alliances have been the common basis of coalitions in the Middle East for a long time now.  During the Syrian civil war, Iran, the majority Shi’a government of Iraq, the minority Alawite government of Syria, and Shi’ite Hezbollah in Lebanon all joined forces to fight the Sunni insurgency.  Conversely, Sunni Turkey and Sunni Saudi Arabia long co-operated against the Assad regime.  Russia gained influence in the region by choosing the Shi’ite side.  The United States may have lost some influence by its unwillingness to choose sides.

However, it appears that identities other than religion offer the basis for alignment.  The Saudis seem to have taken Turkish support as a given in the continuing struggle against Iran.  Iran and Turkey have been backing opposing sides in the civil war, so they should be at daggers drawn for years to come.  In practice, this is not so.  Iran and Turkey both are non-Arab states.  During the 20th Century, both did a better job at fending off direct Western domination than did any of the Arab states.  Beyond this “usable past” (if they care to invoke it for practical reasons of state) the two countries have a problem with the Kurds.

Iran and Turkey (and the soon-to-be-victorious Assad regime) all fear the next problem on the horizon, Kurdish nationalism.   First came the protected zone for Iraqi Kurds created by the US after the First Gulf War.  Then came the near-autonomous region created after the 2003 invasion which gave birth to a proto-Kurdistan in northern Iraq.  Over the last several years, Kurdish militias from Iraq and Syria have done much of the heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS.  Along the way, Syrian Kurds have carved out an enclave along Syria’s border with Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism is burning in Turkey.

Saudi Arabia fears its neighbor across the Persian Gulf, but Turkey feels no real danger from Iran.  Erdogan’s allegations of U.S. involvement in the recent attempt to overthrow him might be taken as window-dressing meant to justify his shift toward reconciliation with Iran.

All this is speculation, not prophecy.  Yet one speculation leads to other speculations.  If the Syrian civil war is winding down and the Kurdish issue is winding up, will all the major players take a moment to concentrate on destroying ISIS?  If the Assad regime and its patrons have won the civil war, then will Turkey close the border to both the inflow of aid to the rebels and any flight by anti-Assad refugees?  If Turkey, Syria, and Iran are about to turn on the Kurds, will Saudi Arabia shift its support to the Kurds as a way of pressuring Iraq, Iran, and Turkey?  If the Kurds see the coalition gathering against them, will they shorten their reach in an effort to hold onto the core of what they have already obtained?  Having been so continually frustrated of late by developments in the Middle East, will American diplomacy profit from the experience and seek new means to achieve American goals?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Turkey, Iran Get Friendly, Despite War,” WSJ, 7 October 2016.

[2] Whether it will now turn to defeating the Islamic State in the eastern part of the country remains an open question.