The second Democratic presidential debate opened with a moment of silence for the attacks in Paris that killed at least 129 people and injured hundreds of others, and the first 30 minutes of questions were about ISIS, the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and the ongoing global fallout from the Iraq war.
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley each offered support for the people of Paris, but they were cautious about how the United States should respond to the kind of violence that devastated the city on Friday night. “We will support those who take the fight to ISIS,” Clinton said at the outset, adding: “This cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential.”
O'Malley struck a similar note when he said that "America is best when we work in collaboration," while Sanders focused his remarks on the role he believed should be played by other nations and his vote against going to war with Iraq.
If viewers tuned in expecting to hear the candidates beat the drums of war, they were surely disappointed. (Mike Huckabee sure was.)
In fact, when Clinton said “this is an emergency,” she wasn't talking about ISIS, which claimed responsibility for the six coordinated attacks across Paris. She was talking about gun violence in the United States.
And it wasn't just Clinton. All the candidates saved some of their strongest words for our country's predictable cycle of gun violence.
“We’re the only nation on the planet that buries as many people as we do from gun violence,” O’Malley said.
Clinton's declaration of a state of emergency and the general shift in tone—cautious and reflective about national security, fiery about the lack of action on gun safety–echoed remarks President Obama made in October, after nine people were killed in a shooting at a community college in Oregon:
Have news organizations tally up the number of Americans who've been killed through terrorist attacks in the last decade and the number of Americans who've been killed by gun violence, and post those side by side on your news reports. We spend over a trillion dollars, and pass countless laws, and devote entire agencies to preventing terrorist attacks on our soil, and rightfully so. And yet, we have a Congress that explicitly blocks us from even collecting data on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?
Those numbers check out. As Vox's Zach Beauchamp pointed out after taking up the president's challenge: "More than 10,000 Americans are killed every year by gun violence. By contrast, so few Americans have been killed by terrorist attacks since 9/11 that when you chart the two together, the terrorism death count approximates zero for every year except 2001."
The debate had each of the candidates grappling with Islamist violence and questions about the size and scope of America's military without losing sight of the other major issues confronting the country.
Sanders reiterated that he believed climate change posed the greatest threat to the United States, while Clinton was incredulous at Congress' failure to advance gun safety reforms that a majority of Americans—including a majority of gun owners—support.
As O'Malley remarked at one point in the evening, the world is a dangerous place. What you saw from each of the candidates on Saturday night was a recognition that that danger has many faces.