Musings from Far Away

By Halina Schiffman-Shilo

Hello from Africa! This semester I’m reporting from Arusha, Tanzania, where I am interning at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

I had my first post all mapped out when I sat down last week to write.  It had a great opener, complete with a nice little anecdote and a neat, tidy ending. But it was not the time for fluffy travel stories. As my internet connection flickered in and out, I saw a Facebook post about a shooting at the Empire State Building. Then I completely lost service.

Not knowing what else to do, I started this entry. At the time, I had no details on the shooting. I didn’t know what happened, I didn’t know if anyone was injured, I didn’t know if anyone was dead. All I knew was that there was a shooting.

And that the organization I interned with this past summer in New York is in that very building.

I wanted to call someone, a former colleague, a friend in the States, anyone who could tell me what happened, but I couldn’t. My pay-as-you-go phone didn’t have enough money on it for an international call. I would have bought more minutes but it was nighttime, and as a mzungu woman, it’s not safe to walk around after dark. I texted a few friends here (people I had known for barely 24 hours) to see if they knew anything, but they did not. So I was stuck in the dark, alone with my thoughts.

As you probably know, the Second Amendment of the Constitution safeguards our right to bear arms. And that we do—bearing them from our homes to schools, movie theaters, museums, community watches, and now to the Empire State Building. In all these places, innocent people have been shot and killed.

For the proponents of minimizing gun regulation out there, I would like to know if any have witnessed gun violence, have ever seen a shooting or a murder. Do they understand the havoc that gun violence wreaks every year on people living in our cities? Have they talked to the parents of a child who was shot at school?

After the series of shootings that have received national media attention this year, perhaps it is time for our elected officials to reflect on our gun laws. Are concealed handguns, which you don’t even need a permit to buy in some states, or semi-automatic weapons, the type of arms that the framers of the constitution envisioned? By allowing these types of weapons, what are we accomplishing and who are we helping?

Regulating gun possession is not unconstitutional; many rights protected by the Constitution are regulated (looking at you, voter ID law states). And as Justice Scalia pointed out in District of Columbia v. Heller, a 2008 gun regulation case which overturned the longstanding gun ban in Washington DC, states can try to combat gun violence by “regulating handguns.”

As I sat in my apartment last week, I wondered what kind of gun the Empire State Building shooter used, and if he had a permit. I wondered how many people he’d shot (after the Aurora killings, I assumed he’d shot many—the Empire State Building is teeming with tourists year round), and how many would still be alive when my internet connection was restored.

I thought about why I’d come to Tanzania.  In a mere four months in 1994, from April to June, over 800,000 Rwandans were murdered by their countrymen; countless more were raped or mutilated. Most were Tutsis, targeted by the Hutu majority, who had gained more political and economic power since the end of colonialism.

The ICTR was established by the United Nations in November 1994 to prosecute high-level war criminals and genocidaires. I have always thought that establishing the ICTR was the least the international community could do.

You see, as the Rwandan genocide unfolded before the world’s eyes, it chose to do — nothing. Once it was over, all the international community could do was to help Rwanda pick up the pieces. There is, of course, no way of knowing if international intervention would have made a difference, but no one even tried.

In the US, with lax gun regulation and poor enforcement of existing gun laws, the only thing law enforcement officials, and victims’ families, can do in the wake of  the recent shootings is pick up the pieces.  But is there something more citizens and legislators can do to stop gun violence before it starts?

Some studies have suggested that stricter gun regulations may not reduce violence, and could even increase it. Others have argued that regulation curbs gun violence. I don’t know which is right, but I think it’s safe to say that what we’re doing now isn’t working. Maybe it’s time to test these constitutional boundaries.

Part of my responsibilities for this internship is to wade through narratives detailing countless acts of devastating violence, and to try to make sense of them. I haven’t so far, and I probably won’t improve on that score. But what I have taken away so far is that senseless violence is universal. I think the question to ask now is how can we, as individuals and as part of an international community, prevent such atrocities.

I suspect the solutions won’t be easy, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.



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