Guns in Hesston, Guns in Saudia Arabia

A memorial to one of the victims of the Feb. 25 shootings in Hesson, Kansas.

A memorial to one of the victims of the Feb. 25 shootings in Hesson, Kansas.

The recent mass shootings in Hesston, Kansas, hit close to home. I have a very dear friend who lives near the factory where four people, including the gunman, were killed. When I visited there several weeks ago we walked by the factory where the carnage later took place. Thank God my friend is alright, but in addition to the four people who died and the 14 others who were injured and hospitalized, my friend and thousands of Kansans are traumatized by the event.

The story is by now heartbreakingly familiar: a deeply troubled person loses his spiritual and psychological moorings, somehow gains access to military-style weapons, and the result is yet another tragedy. We know what we have to do: reduce the number of guns in our society and keep them out of the hands of troubled people. The arithmetic is simple: the more guns that are available, the more troubled people will put them to use.

We need to take this simple truth and apply it to the Middle East. In a provocatively entitled article “The Most Dangerous Man in the World?” (Jan. 8, ’16) the U.K. Independent offers an in-depth look at the world’s youngest defense minister, the 29-year-old Mohammed bin Salman who recently began work as chief of the Saudi Arabian military. The young prince is described in the article as “impetuous,” “arrogant,” “brilliant and brash” and one Western observer called him “belligerent.” Among his first actions “he plunged his country into a brutal war in Yemen with no end in sight.” As we saw in our last blog, it is a war with horrific bombings of Yemeni civilians by the Saudi air force. These bombings have been widely condemned by the international community.

What makes the young defense minister potentially especially dangerous is the concern that he may be moving to build a coalition of Sunni nations and then pick a fight with Shia Iran — the result of which would be a truly horrific bloodbath. He recently began building an “antiterrorism coalition” but the Independent notes concern that the young, inexperienced prince “may be thinking of a military strike against Shia Iran — a frightening thought in a region already riven by sectarian war.” The New York Times Editorial Board (Dec. 18, ’15) also has “doubts about Saudi Arabia’s antiterrorism coalition,” speculating that for the prince “it could be a license to find enemies everywhere.”

Four tee shirts in Hesston remember the shooter along with his three victims.

Four tee shirts in Hesston remember the shooter along with his three victims.

If bin Salman choses to pick a larger fight beyond the attacks he has already made on the citizens of Yemen he would have for his arsenal “the Saudi military … bristling with new weapons — billions of dollars’ worth” as the Independent puts it.

Many of these weapons, of course, are American weapons. We need to ask some very hard questions about why and to whom the U.S. — with our tax dollars — is busy handing out billions of dollars worth of guns to the Saudis, the Israelis, the Egyptians and others. Why? We must ask these fundamental questions and no longer deferentially allow “the experts” who are on “the news” to make these decisions for us.

Think back again to the 4 killed and 14 injured and untold numbers traumatized in the otherwise peaceful little town of Hesston right in the heart of America. Now, with that in your mind, multiply those numbers by about a million. That’s roughly the magnitude of the catastrophe in the Middle East which might very well be unfolding. We should be doing everything we can to heal the festering Sunni/Shia split which could easily be provoked into a full-scale conflict.

We Americans indeed have something very special to contribute to the sectarian-riven Middle East — our heritage of multiculturalism which allows people of different faiths and backgrounds to more or less live in peace. It is imperfect and, to borrow from Shakespeare, often more honored in the breach than in the observance. But it is part of the “better angels” of our heritage and we should be sharing that to the world.

Instead, with our profit-driven arms sales and reckless, confused Middle East policy, we’re selling our guns. At this point the U.S. is part of the problem rather than part of the solution in the Middle East. We could do better. We need to stop the proliferation of guns in Hesston and also in the Middle East.

Mel Lehman
March 5, 2016

Photo Credits: Susan Miller

Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman is the director of of Common Humanity. He has worked in international humanitarian issues for several decades, inducing two decades at the National Council of Churches. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has published a number of articles about his experience.