Monday, Feb. 19, 2018

Monday, Feb. 19, 2018

The Briefing

February 19, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, February 19, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Today we’ll ask how come the FBI have missed the obvious? How do we assign moral blame? What exactly is commonsense on gun control? We’ll see Russia attempt to subvert democracy, and Congress fail both the American people and the Dreamers.

Part I

How did the FBI miss obvious warning signs before Florida school shooting?

There were very clear warning signs, there were no warning signs. This is the responsibility of one deranged individual, this the responsibility of an entire society. The FBI should have acted, the FBI gets far too much information on which you can responsibly act. We are looking at the flurry of issues, arguments, even headlines in recent days in the aftermath of the horrifying massacre of 17 people, including 14 students in a South Florida a high school last week. We are looking at the kind of moral confusion that represents the second stage of this kind of social trauma. The first stage is an automatic response of empathy. An automatic response of alarm, and an almost immediate effort to try to point the finger.

The big question in the immediate aftermath is who? Who did this? Is there a constant current threat? What about my family? What about my children? What about those who right now are grieving? The second stage is the stage of trying to piece together an understandable plot line, a narrative, an explanation, once all kinds of information comes in. Some of it quite clear, some of it far less than clear. And that’s the stage we are in right now. Subsequent stages will involve a link the comprehensive criminal investigation, the outcome of the criminal law process. And after that will come stages related to possible changes in legislation or regulation or answers concerning policy, such as security in the schools. But right now we are in that second stage.

And one of the things that intelligent Christians need to watch in this second stage is the fact that the information that appears to be so definitive is often virtually contradictory. On the front page of last Friday’s edition of the New York Times the headline was this, “Florida shooting suspect displayed flashes of rage and other warning signs.” That was Friday. And yet yesterday’s edition of Fox News included a headline story saying that the young man “showed no warning signs before the Florida school shooting.” Well which is it? Clear warning signs or no warning signs? Well it turns out it’s all in how you frame the issue. The no warning signs story turns out to be based in information that came through the press, particularly to the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel by the couple who had taken the young man into their home.

This is the couple whose son was a friend of the young man. And they said that they knew he was deeply troubled, they knew that he had the guns, which they thought were safely locked away in a safe, but they did not know that he was plotting anything like mass murder. The couple told the newspaper in Fort Lauderdale that they now understand that they had a monster in the house, but they said the truly frightening thing is that they did not recognize that he was indeed a monster, or would turn into one on that awful afternoon last Wednesday.

On the other hand, almost immediately after the shootings, it turned out that a number of authorities in the school, in law enforcement, in the community understood that this was a very troubled young man. A young man who had been the cause of police answering complaints no less than 39 documented times during the years he’s been a teenager. Furthermore, the school was worried. He had been expelled from the very school where he conducted the massacre. And then we found out just as we went into the weekend, and as events unfolded, that the FBI had received a credible tip about the young man back in January of this year. And it was a credible threat, that the FBI did not follow up on.

And furthermore, yesterday was disclosed that social service authorities there in Broward County Florida had also received word of a very troubled young man, and yet they had not detected anything that would have precluded what took place last Wednesday. The front page of Saturday’s edition of the New York Times included a story by multiple reporters that told us that the FBI had received a tip last month from someone close to the young man, that he owned a gun and had talked of committing a school shooting. This was acknowledged by the FBI on Friday. It also acknowledged that it had failed to investigate.

The reporters then tell us “the tipster, who had called an FBI hotline on January 5th, told the bureau that the young man had a “desire to kill people, erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts.” The Times report stated the obvious, the information should have been assessed, and forwarded to the Miami FBI field office, that also acknowledged by the FBI itself. We also know that a tip was given to the FBI last September by a bail bondsman in Louisiana who had noticed that someone who identified himself by the young man’s name had indicated that he intended to become a school shooter.

In retrospect it turns out that there are multiple persons in the United States with that name, but it also turns out that only one of those profiles included a very troubled young man in South Florida who had already had multiple, and that is over three dozen, contacts with the police. The same quandary, the same confusion often appears in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the international stage. European law authorities are now customarily in the position of saying, “Yes there were warning signs, but there weren’t enough warning signs, or that warning signs were not clear enough for us to be able to prevent someone who was already on our screen. Already a suspect or a person of interest, we didn’t have enough information to foil their plot before they carried it out.”

The biblical worldview helps us to understand the limitations of reading any other human mind, or any other human heart. Furthermore, those in society with a healthy disposition, that is to say within the zone of what we would call normalcy within society, actually have a very difficult time entering into the thought process of someone who is outside the norm. Someone who is pathologically determined to carry out this kind of murderous attack. It turns out that even the people trained and educated and experienced in the field of law enforcement and national security have a similar kind of failure. They to find it very difficult to know enough to read human heart. And so law enforcement officials and antiterrorism officials repeatedly are in the position after a horrifying headline to say, “Had we known which on our suspect list, had we known which individual on our watchlist would have carried this out, we would certainly have found some way to have prevented it.” The problem is those lists are rather frighteningly long.

Part II

Who is to blame for last week's massacre in a Florida school?

On top of that you have the fact that the already overstressed and overworked social service authorities in the state of Florida, particularly in Broward County, they failed to understand just how troubled this very troubled young man is. And of course, their list of very troubled young men is also very long. The unavoidable question of moral responsibility came up in the aftermath of the revelations of these missed cues by authorities, local and national. And in response, the sheriff of Broward County Florida, Scott Israel, said, “At the end of the day, make no mistake about it, America. The only one to blame for this killing is the killer himself.” This gets to the issue of moral responsibility and moral agency. Yes, the sheriff is absolutely right. There is only one person responsible for the fact that he walked into a school with murderous intent and carried out mass murder. There is one and only one person that bears responsibility for pulling the trigger.

But yet even as we say that, we also understand that the context of the events that took place in that school also were the result of what persons did by omission and commission that allowed it to take place. It’s a very different kind of moral responsibility. But as Christians you understand that moral responsibility is not so cleanly divided between an individual and the larger society in a case like this. It is clear that multiple factors and multiple individuals had to either do or not do what allowed for the horrifying events last Wednesday.

Part III

What exactly is common sense when it comes to gun control?

But in this second stage is also clear that the issue of guns, and the question of some kind of gun control is also gaining traction, not only in terms of politicians, and the national media, and national activist organizations on both sides, but also on the part of average Americans and conversations taking place over the dinner table, and in communities, and in churches. One of the signs that the conversation has changed, at least for now, and at least for some time, is the fact that persons who had not spoken to the issue before are speaking in some way.

This goes back to a pattern, a fundamental issue that I have talked about often on The Briefing. Common sense persons who operate with a commonsense mentality will affirm a commonsense solution to a clear problem. The problem of course is defining common sense. This is where we understand that common sense in a society is not so common as we might expect, and it also is a social construct and a moving target. That’s the issue here into one of the most contested debates in America, and in recent American history, that’s gun control. Enter some rather specific questions. What kind of sane society would allow a young man with this kind of troubled background the opportunity to gain ownership of a gun, and then to have access to this kind of weapon, and then the opportunity to use it, all apparently without any effective defense against young man and his intent?

But here’s the issue. There are those on both sides of this equation who will use it to their political benefit, or at least as fodder for their political argument. But we do need to note that what we are looking at here is the fact that virtually all Americans would agree that this young man should not have had access to or ownership of that gun. The question is what legally and constitutionally and practically could be done in order to prevent the very series of events that led to the massacre in Florida? That’s where the polarization on this issue is particularly unhelpful, because immediately America retreats into two different arguments, rather than having a conversation about what should be common concerns to all Americans.

Ross Douthat, the influential conservative columnists for the New York Times ran an article yesterday entitled “No Country For Young Men With AR 15s.” He points to a suggestion that there should be no availability of this kind of weapon in the ownership of teenage and young men. He makes the argument that they are particularly prone to the kind of instability and violence, and thus he says there should be a gradation of age. He presents that is common sense. I think that probably is commonsense, but the problem is that some of the most horrifying events of mass shootings in the United States also carried out by very troubled young men, such as was the case in Newtown Connecticut, it turns out that that young men had access to guns he did not own, but his mother legally owned.

Douthat writes that technical issues and practical concerns are not the heart of the gun debate. He says, “The reason that mass shootings aren’t leading to legislative action is that we have a chasm between two sweeping moral visions. One pro-gun, and one anti-gun, that is not too wide to be easily bridged by incrementalism.” He goes on to say, “The anti-gun moral vision regards America’s relationship to gun ownership as a kind of collective moral madness. It’s a love affair with violence. A sickness unto death.” “Liberals,” he said, “increasingly write about gun ownership to the way social conservatives write about abortion and euthanasia. It’s a culture of death. A moloch devouring our children. A blood sacrifice to selfish individualism.

He continues, and I quote, “The pro-gun moral vision meanwhile, links arms and the citizen treating self-defense as an essential civic good, a means of maintaining Americans as free people, rather than as wards or prisoners of the state.” “The pro-gun vision,” he says, “is linked of course to practical concerns.” “Support for gun ownership,” he says, “is higher in rural areas, where the police are far away.” But he says, “It’s essentially a moral political picture in which the fullness of citizenship includes the capacity to protect and defend. To step in when the state fails, and resist when it imposes illegitimately.”

Now what stands out on the editorial page of the New York Times is that Ross Douthat says that if he has to choose one of those positions, it would be the pro-gun position. We have to hope that what Douthat sees here as politically impossible, is not morally impossible, and that there could be some way to address this issue in a way that does not violate the U.S. Constitution, nor the convictions of the vast majority of Americans, but at the same time does represent some kind of incrementalism that represents the kind of common sense that at least in cases such as this young man in South Florida. Virtually every American it would agree that someone should have taken the gun out of them young man’s hands. The question is on what basis, according to what law, and when?

One of the most important insights of Douthat’s article is that he points to the division of worldview. He talks about two different moral visions. And that is exactly what separates Americans. And that’s what we understand repeatedly on The Briefing represents why Americans are so predictably opposed to one another on an entire array of seemingly disconnected issues. And we see that over and over again in this kind of debate.

But even as Douthat very bravely identifies the two different moral visions in his column, on the very same page in the print edition of the very same newspaper, a columnist on the right, but on the left, also points to that basic clash of worldviews. Nicholas Kristof, writing the column just under Ross Douthat’s in yesterday’s edition of the paper, ran a column with the headline “You’re Wrong, I’m Right.” He begins by stating, “We live into America’s.” His words are rather bracing. He says this, “In one America, a mentally unstable president, selected partly by Russia, lies daily, and stirs up bigotry that tears our social fabric. In another America,” he says, “a can-do president tries to make America great again, as lying journalists stir up hatred that tears our social fabric.”

Now I used the word courage to describe Ross Douthat’s article, I will use the same word to describe Nicholas Kristof’s article. It takes courage remain of the left to state so obviously that he understands that the persons who disagree with American liberalism are doing so out of conviction and out of passion and out of their own view of the world. But even as he begins the column with that rather shocking language about the volatility of our current political division, he also points to something more fundamental, and that is the basic divide in America over worldview. He goes further to argue that one of the most dangerous patterns currently found amongst Americans is simply to retreat to our own group and within our own worldview in a way that makes us virtually incapable of hearing the other side, not merely agreeing with the other argument, but even understanding it. Or for that matter, even forcing ourselves to hear it.

Kristof goes on to say the one thing we all agree on in his words, “Our social fabric is torn. In each America, people who inhabit the other are often perceived of as not just obtuse, but also dangerous. Half of Democrats and Republicans alike, say in polls that they are literally afraid of the other political party.” Christophe goes on to make the candid observation, and I quote, “But what does seem clear is that rigid ideological beliefs impair our cognitive functions.”

That’s an observation that is actually deeply affirmed by the biblical worldview. A worldview that tells us that even our consciousness, our way of thinking, our rationality, all of this is affected by sin. And a part of that sin binds us even to the fact that there is such an impairment of our cognitive facilities. That’s one of the reasons, by the way, that Christians should not trust ourselves as thinking agents alone. This points to the necessity of the Christian church, where as the community of believers we learn to reason together, and to think together, to believe and to argue together. But as we think about this particular moment, it is rare to see the congruence of these kinds of political opinions and worldview analyses on the page of the New York Times, in a single edition, the Sunday after this kind of tragic week.

In this strange turn of events the New York Times offered one piece by their conservative columnist Ross Douthat, and another by their liberal columnist Nicholas Kristof, and the fact is just about every reasonable American should agree with almost every word of both. That’s worth noting.

Part IV

Indictments handed down by Special Counsel expose Russian attempts to subvert democracy

But next, also in huge news in recent days, just as we went into the weekend, special counsel Robert Mueller handed down 13 criminal indictments against Russian citizens, indicting, accusing every single one of them of criminal involvement in the American political and electoral system. The big news comes in one sense because those individuals are very closely linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. And it points to a larger pattern of documented criminal activity by Russia and by extension, by the Russian government in American elections. And we now know according to these indictments, that involvement goes back to at least 2014. But the stories also big because White House national security advisor General H. R. McMaster said that in light of the indictments, there is now incontrovertible evidence of direct Russian involvement in American elections.

The indictments were against Russian citizens. No American citizen was named in the indictments as someone involved in the criminal conspiracy. And yet we are looking at a story that is certain to continue to unfold, and especially as it unfolds in the context of a very dangerous and volatile international context. But given the fact that we were just talking about those two columns in the New York Times about political polarization in America, what is most sinister in the nature of this indictment is the fact that the Russians are charged with a very clear organized conspiracy, not just to involve themselves in the elections, but also to divide Americans in such a way as to weaken the American democratic process.

The indictments themselves read like something from a spy novel. At the center of the indictments in the story that the indictments reveal is a Russian man identified as Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin who is also identified as the chef to the Russian president. And it turns out that the chef to the Russian president is also oddly enough one of the richest men in the country, and a man now at the center of this criminal indictment.

Another dimension to the story that should have the attention of intelligent Christians is the specific targeting of social media and one platform in particular, Facebook, as where the conspirators in this case believed they could be most effective in sending out what might now be called fake news, but also polarizing arguments intended to divide Americans and we can the entire fabric of American democratic trust. Underlying all of that is the fact that so much of our cultural conversation has now moved on to social media, and away from more stable forms of discourse and the delivery of news. But this is a permanent change, it’s not as if this is some kind of direction that we can simply turn back. It’s not a course of history that can be reversed. And so one of the most chilling aspects of the indictment is our understanding of the continued vulnerability of America and every Democratic representative form of government to this kind of outside interference. And in a fallen world, here we have documented evidence that we do live in a world very dangerous to ideals of human liberty and even dignity.

Part V

In failing to take action on DACA legislation, Congress fails both the American people and the Dreamers

And finally in one of the saddest commentaries of the breakdown of our democratic system, the United States Congress and the current administration were unable to come to any agreement on a remedy for the Dreamers, the approximately 800,000 young people who are in the United States without legal status, and who are here because of the action of their parents. President Trump indicated that he would sign any legislation that Congress would approve, but that was one of those statements that was almost destined to be empty, since Congress itself has been unable not only in the last few days, but going back for decades now, to do anything significant on the question of immigration. It is a complete meltdown of our legislative process.

The bottom line political reality here is that it is unlikely in the extreme that the American government will take any action to deport those who are identified as the Dreamers, those who are covered by D ACA, as it is known. But it is also clear that the United States Congress doesn’t want to take responsibility to deal with the question. It doesn’t want to take responsibility for confronting the issue head on. And that is the very legislative disaster that put us in this position in the first place. We have only one Congress, and we have only one president, and unless they could find some way to work together on an issue that at least publicly they say they want to resolve, there is no way that we can resolve this before ourselves or before a watching world. And while we are talking about threats to democracy, we have to understand that one of the threats democratic freedom the seeming incompetence of democratic government.

We can’t blame Russian conspirators for the political meltdown over the question of immigration in the Dreamers and the United States Congress. The American government has messed this one up very well by itself.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m in Nashville, Tennessee, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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