The London Bridge Attack

reader alert: I am going to quote and discuss Trump tweets

“Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!”

My immediate reaction was to tweet this this is why we should have a gun debate right now. The fact that 3 terrorists killed 7 victims not 70 shows the benefits of UK gun control. In the USA a single terrorist killed 49 people . My reactions to the horrible news from London included the thought that UK gun control is a very good thing as shown by the fact that the depraved killers were armed only with a truck and knives.

As is often the case, I think we learn something from Trump about the defects in human cognition. When something horrible happens, it is not at all natural to think that it could have been even worse. However, it is often useful.

I worry about writing this post. It seems (even to me) that I am heartless — that if I could grasp the suffering of people who loved the 7 victims — I couldn’t think that things could have been worse. I think that this reaction of distaste for my post (or disgust) which I feel myself is a problem. Reducing the number of deaths due to terrorism requires pragmatic thinking which involves moral arithmetic.

On the other hand, at least Trump is simple. In addition to a refusal to consider how the number of deaths was reduced by gun control, Trump also immediately connected the attack to the policy debate with

“We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!”

This tweet was very widely denounced as an effort to exploit a tragedy for political advantage (which it was) and a sign that, for Trump, it is always all about Trump. Fewer people (including @mattyglesias) noted that the tweet makes no sense. Trump doesn’t know if the terrorists are refugees, immmigrants or travellers from the banned countries. The argument is a Sir Humphrey syllogism: we must do something, the travel ban is something, we must do the travel ban.

Notably, the tweet shows that the travel ban is an expression of islamaphobia. The London terrorists said “Allah”. To Trump that means that the attack is evidence in favor of a ban designed to keep moslems out of the USA. He didn’t think that he is supposed to deny that the ban is about religion not nationality (he also didn’t remember that he isn’t supposed to call the ban a “ban”). The reaction (which I am sure is sincere) is that we have to do more to protect ourselves from them when they are an undifferentiated alien threat including UK born citizens of the UK and “ourselves” include other UK born citizens of the UK.

One immediate fear is that this instinctive reaction is universal and the absense of any filter between Trump’s lizard brain and his twitter feed strengthens him. He certainly didn’t act like a normal politician. In this case, I prefer the normal politicians reaction, but I think I understand why many voters prefer the irrational impulsive Trump response, which was sincere. I think this is how people can know he lies all the time and also say that he is not afraid to speak the truth.

But somehow Trump manages to unite two defects. The emotional reaction in which the horror of 7 deaths prevents one from considering that 70 would have been ten times as horrible (an observation which is, I think, both accurate and appalling) and also the appalling instant effort to use a tragedy to win a debate.