If you look at the public debates over the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, one thing leaps out, something that is more broadly relevant, something that distinguishes the mental modality of the right from the left in one very precise way. This is an issue of cognitive framing, with the narrower frame permitting a conclusion of justifiable self-defense (assuming the facts most favorable to the defense), and the broader frame precluding it.
For instance, if you ask, “does one have the right to defend himself, with a firearm, against someone about to clobber him over the head with a heavy object,” most people would answer, “of course.” But what if the “defender” were a mugger who had attacked the guy with the heavy object, the heavy object were his cane that he needed due to an infirmity, and the moment being referred to were the mugging victim’s response to being mugged by an armed assailant? Does the mugger then have the right to claim self-defense, for shooting his victim as his victim tried to defend himself? Of course not.
Let’s come up with an analogy that more closely parallels the Zimmerman case, emphasizing and playing on the stereotypes involved (and other stereotypes as well). Consider this scenario: A young, white middle class woman is walking through a residential neighborhood at night to return home from the nearby convenience store. She notices a big, black guy following her. She continues to walk, and confirms that he is definitely following her. Terrified, she slips off the path and finds an object to arm herself with, a plywood board. As her stalker approaches, she comes out behind him, swings the board, screaming. Her stalker, who, as it turns out, was an armed stalker, pulls out his gun and shoots her to death. (I am using the word “stalker” to refer to any stranger following around another person with some kind of unfriendly intent, including thinking that the other person is a “punk” who you don’t want to let “get away with” some imaginary infraction that their race induced you to believe they must be committing.)
Tell me, right-wing apologists, is your big black stalker innocent, because he was just defending himself? Are you as indifferent to this innocent white woman’s violent death at the hands of an armed stalker as you are of an unarmed black teen’s violent death at the hands of an armed stalker?
Here is the complete list of differences between this scenario and the Zimmerman-Martin scenario: 1) the races of the stalker and the person stalked; 2) the gender of the person stalked; 3) right-wing ASSUMPTION of the intentions of the stalker in each scenario and the different degrees to which they (right-wingers) identify with the stalker and the person stalked in each scenario; 4) the woman having armed herself (to make her at least as threatening as unarmed Martin was); and 4) the generous assumption for my alternative scenario that all of the facts best favoring the Zimmerman defense are true.
So, why, exactly, is that white-woman-stalking-victim an innocent victim of the criminal-black-stalker, while the unarmed black victim of our real stalker (Hispanic, white, I don’t care) is just the unlucky person who was killed by an innocent person’s discharged bullet? The answer is very simple: The combination of the right-wing need to defend the absurd belief that we are a safer society if people go out with guns looking for trouble and their (right-wingers’) racism. a combination that is as horrifying and offensive to rational and humane people today as all similar past chapters of our national history have been.
Right-wing arguments (and particularly gun culture arguments) frequently rely on this narrowing of the frame, filtering out the contextual information which completely changes the analysis. Those who see in this case no guilt on Zimmerman’s part have chosen a very narrow frame, which excludes much relevant information; those who see guilt on Zimmerman’s part choose a broader and more inclusive one.
There are many other issues in which this difference in framing is central to the ideological differences found in regard to them. The right relies on a reduced frame, hyper-individualistic rather than social systemic, static and instantaneous rather than dynamical and over time. And that is not just a difference in personal taste, but a reduction in cogency.
The Zimmerman trial is over, the verdict is in, but the public issue over what kind of a people we want to choose to be continues. The right insists that it is good for society for people to have the right to arm themselves and stalk people they are suspicious of, for whatever reason they are suspicious of them, incite a violent encounter by doing so, and shoot to death the person they chose to stalk in the process of that violent encounter. I want to believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t agree.
We’ve had Columbine. We’ve had Virginia Tech. We’ve had the Gabby Giffords shooting. We’ve had the Aurora Theater shooting. We’ve had Sandy Hook Elementary School. We have, on average, ten times the homicide rate of any other developed nation on Earth. We have half the privately owned firearms on Earth. And we have people who are so blithely indifferent to the death and suffering that their idolatry of instruments of deadly violence cause that they won’t let us, as a people, even implement universal background checks or limit the magazine capacity of their military grade weapons. The degree of insanity –vicious, destructive insanity– involved in this right-wing ideology is simply mindboggling.
At the same time, they want voter suppression laws (and have been assisted in being able to pass and implement them in a recent Court decision that disabled the Voting Rights Act), they want to dismantle Affirmative Action, they want to disregard the injustices and inequities of our society, they want to blame the poor for being poor, they want to disregard our responsibilities to one another as members of a society, they want to erase our humanity and promote only selfish disregard for the rights and welfare of anyone who doesn’t look just like them. And they are uncompromising in their commitment to these “ideals.”
(The examples mentioned here, of course, only scratch the surface. See Why The Far-Right Is On The Wrong Side Of Reason, Morality, Humanity and History for a more in-depth treatment.)
This is not a country divided by two opposing reasonable views, that we need to find some reasonable ground between. This is a country divided by, on the one hand, reason in service to humanity and, on the other, irrationality in service to inhumanity. It is time, America, to reduce the latter to a sad footnote of our history, and promote the former to the status of the shared foundation on which we all build. It’s time to allow our disagreements to be defined by the limits of our wisdom and decency rather than by the extent of our bigotries.
(See also Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture for a cogent discussion of the competing narratives informing the right and the left, and how they fit into this struggle between reason in service to humanity and irrationality in service to inhumanity, a perennial struggle of human history, and one from which we are not, as it turns out, at all exempt.)
Here is my most recent comment on the conservative gun-idolater thread that has inspired many of my recent posts, in response to the somewhat correct allegation that it has devolved into nothing more than a shouting match:
A shouting match between fact and reason, clearly stated, on the one hand, and blind fanatical dogma, repeated endlessly despite being debunked (e.g., the constant insistence that any and all gun regulation is by definition an infringement of your Second Amendment rights, despite a universal rejection of that notion by Constitutional scholars, including uber-conservaitve Justice Scalia, as quoted above), on the other. You live in a world of fabrication in service to crude prejudices and bigotries and belligerence toward the world, and abhor those who stand for reason and for humanity. You invent your own caricature of the law and of the Constitution, your own caricature of history, your own reality, and then laugh like jackals when confronted by the reality you have simply defined out of existence.
You can persist, pretend, and posture to your heart’s content; it will only serve to convince those who are already as lost as you in your own shared arbitrary ideological delusions that the idols of your tribe are undisputable absolute truths, and to convince those who are not that you are yet another dangerous, violent cult posing as a political ideology. The fact that you are a large and well-established cult does not make you a benign one, or even one of mixed value. You are organized ignorance and brutality, a familiar perennial of human history, always popping up anew, with one shared constant: Rabid anti-intellectualism. You share that with the Inquisition, the Nazis, the Soviets, the Khmer Rouge, and Islamic terrorists, to name a few. You are on the side of ignorance and tribalistic ideological brutality, in opposition to reason and humanity.
The most telling distinction is that, by your own account, precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze and contemplate information are the ones you dismiss as bastions of liberal bias, without ever addressing why that would be so. Why would there be a positive correlation between the professional processing of fact and logic, on the one hand, and liberalism, on the other? The answer, while complex, is rooted in the fact that active and curious minds, immersed in observation and thought and the use of disciplined reason, tend to arrive at conclusions diametrically opposed to your dogma, because your dogma stands for the opposite of such modes of thought.
You stand in opposition to fact and reason and a commitment to humanity, which is why you simply ignore and dismiss the avalanche of statistics debunking the obviously absurd notion that there is no connection between our overabundance and overly easy access to instruments of deadly violence in comparison to other developed nations, and our extraordinarily high rates of deadly violence in comparison to other developed nations.
And the fact that there is a statistical correlation between laxity of gun laws internationally and homicide rates? The fact that the overwhelming majority of guns used in the commission of crimes in the US are put into circulation by being bought in those states with the laxest regulations? The fact that for every use of a gun in self-defense, one is used multiple times in a suicide, multiple times in a crime of passion, multiple times in an accidental shooting; the fact that a gun in the home INCREASES the likelihood of a member of that householder dying of a gun-inflicted wound; the fact that a gun-owner is more likely to be shot than a non-gun-owner, are all, to you, “spurious statistics” that you dismiss with the casual misuse of the word, thus never having to consider or acknowledge inconvenient realities. That’s not rational. It’s the intentional preservation of ignorance.
No, the problem is not just, or even primarily, a function of our gun culture; it is, more broadly, a function of extreme individualism, of the reactive rather than proactive orientation to our shared existence that you impose on us, of the social disintegration that you confuse for “liberty.” Our Founding Fathers were committed to the construction of a wise and just society; you are committed to its destruction.
The fact that you are certain that the Constitution verifies every last ideological conviction you happen to hold, and that therefore the thousands of legal and constitutional scholars over the last two hundred years who would and have argued subtle and complex points about that Constitution and how to interpret it are all wrong, are all irrelevant, because you know the one absolute truth, is the voice of ignorance, the voice of fanaticism, the voice of irrationality. You argue legal positions that are dismissed or challenged by almost all legal scholars, economic positions that are dismissed or challenged by almost all professional economists, historical positions that are dismissed or challenged by almost all professional historians, and not only commit the intellectual error of clinging to those positions as favored by reason, but insist that they are incontrovertible absolute truths. That is not the voice of reason, but rather of irrationality.
Of course you couldn’t stop engaging me, because you can’t stand to leave fact and reason disinterred and visible to all any more than I can stand to let you shovel unchallenged the dirt of your ignorance and barbarism over it once again. You have to bury the facts; you have to bury the rational arguments; you have to bury any authentic understanding of human history or economics or sociology; you have to bury any humane orientation to the world, because none of those supports your blind ideological fanaticisms.
The following is an (edited) exchange that occurred on a thread following a Facebook wall post of a video of a woman whose parents were shot to death by an attacker, supposedly as a direct result of her inability to carry a handgun herself, testifying to Congress against gun regulations years ago. The original poster and most participants on the thread were congratulatory of the oration and convinced that it was a compelling argument against gun regulation. (I will give Jim -whose last name I deleted out of respect for privacy- kudos for his civility in the discussion, something I should have done in the course of that discussion.)
Steve Harvey: This is the perennial problem with your entire ideology, and not just as it relates to this issue: You don’t understand the effects of different levels of analysis (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), or the different applications and relative weights of anecdotal versus statistical evidence. Let’s take the latter issue first.
Using anecdotal evidence similar to that presented in this video, I can argue against public service messages encouraging the use of seatbelts because I can relate an incident in which it was the wearing of a seatbelt rather than the failure to which led to a passenger’s death in a crash. It has happened, and the story can be told, hundreds of times in fact.
But the statistical fact is that it is far, far more likely that not wearing a seatbelt will lead to a death that would not have occurred had the seatbelt been worn. Just as, statistically, legally obtained, privately owned firearms are many, many times more likely to be used in EACH of the following: suicide, accidental or mistaken shooting, felony, crime of passion, escalation of an altercation resulting in the death or injury of an innocent person, provocation of an armed assailant who would not otherwise have fired on and injured or killed the victim.
In cross-national comparisons, there is a clear correlation between rates of deadly violence and laxity of gun regulations. Your ideology is based on the belief that the height of human civilization is a state of mutual universal threat of deadly violence, an approach which has defined many historical milieus, and has always resulted in higher rates of deadly violence than centralized pacification of force. Examples are international relations (endemic warfare), 19th century Appalachia (endemic feuding), and Somalia today. You argue the virtues of a primitive and violent approach to civilization that all history and all reason militate against.
And then you’re smug when you abuse anecdotal evidence, as it is so often and so easily abused, in the pretense that it is an actual argument supporting your position. Either get a clue, or learn how to defer to those who have one. Most Americans are sick and tired of being burdened with the insistence of irrational, fact-allergic fanatics that we live in an insanely violent nation, far more violent than any other developed nation. Most Americans believe that it is unnecessary, that we can do better, and that we owe it to the innocent victims and their survivors of our off-the-charts rates of deadly violence to address the problem in all of its dimensions, becoming a rational and humane people at last, like the rest of the developed world.
Those who insist that we must not include gun regulations in the mix of how to address this problem have the blood of innocent victims on their hands, including the blood of those 20 small children in Newtown. And if that is where your priorities lie, then shame on you. Shame on you.
Jim: Hello, Steve. You make a very good argument. Having said that, I ask you. Picture this, you, your wife and your children have just walked out of a very nice restaurant, headed towards your car, when you see this thug headed straight for you at a fast pace. He flashes a pistol as he approaches, in a moment you realize he means to cause harm to you and your family. Now I ask you: Would you rather have the opportunity to defend yourself and family with that .380 auto you have tucked in your waistband or would you rather defend yourself by spouting off the more “civilized” approach of explaining to him why you don’t carry a gun? I personally, lead a very peaceful life, but I am not naive enough to not realize that when I am met with force, that I must be prepared to answer it with force. Particularly when it comes to defending what’s dear to my heart. I wish you well. -Jim
Steve Harvey: Again, Jim, you want to reduce an issue of social policy to a carefully selected scenario that scrubs out most of the relevant contextual information. If we can implement policies that reduce the likelihood of my family being placed in such danger, that is preferable to a policy which increases the likelihood but arms me to deal with it, the latter resulting in a far higher rate of violent death than the former.
It’s like asking, “But Steve, if there were a nuclear missile heading toward Denver, wouldn’t you want to have your finger on the trigger of a ballistic missile that might be able to detonate it before it reaches any population center? So, therefore, don’t you think that everyone should have personal access to nuclear armed warheads?” No, I don’t.
Jim: Well, you make a very good point. Except. In the real world. The world that is today’s world, I believe that my scenario is very realistic. I don’t think that it in any way promotes violence when law abiding people choose to carry a weapon for protection. The pacifistic approach that I am getting from you is sad. Stand up for your rights. Think on this, when an atheist is faced with certain death…he’ll pray to God. When some thug kicks in the door to your home, you’re going to call the police…someone who has a gun. Then of course you too will be praying that they get there in time to protect you! Now that, Steve, is what today’s world is about. -Jim
Steve Harvey: What you think isn’t as important as what the evidence indicates. In a comparison of developed nations, we have both by far more lax gun regulations than almost all others (Switzerland and Canada provide more complex possible exceptions, though it depends on how you look at the nature of the regulations), and by far higher rates of deadly violence (2 to 11 times the homicide rate of every other developed nation on Earth, with the average tending toward the higher end of that range). Your policy increases the threat to all of us and increases the rate of accidental and mistaken shootings (as well criminal uses of firearms) far more than it increases the rate at which people successfully defend themselves against such attacks. Facts are an inconvenient thing for ideologues, but our public policies should be based on facts, not arbitrary fabrications that serve a blind ideology. I have no interest in your caricature of reality; I’m interested in rational and humane self-governance.
Again, I refer you to the essay I linked to above (Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture). It addresses all of your points, and does so very decisively. I am standing up for my rights: My right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, of which I can be deprived not just by a government, but also by a government’s failure to exercise its Constitutionally defined police powers. Your policy increases rather than decreases the threat to my, and my daughter’s, life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Therefore I stand up against it, with great passion and conviction, not as a pacifist, but as a rational and humane person who looks at the evidence and bases his positions on it.
In making arguments, there are three dimensions to be attended to: Logos, pathos, and ethos. What is the most logical position? What position appeals to the emotions? And what position is most humane and right? When you can align all three of those, you have a good argument. When you use one to obfuscate failure on the other two (and especially when you use any to undermine logos), you have a very bad and very counterproductive argument.
Logos: Cross-national statistical evidence strongly demonstrates that more stringent gun regulation leads to reductions in deadly violence. (Intranational evidence has to take into account an unobstructed internal market, and the ease with which arms bought in one location are transported to another within a country, looking at where arms are bought as well as where they are used.)
Pathos: 20 dead first graders; major mass shootings occurring with increasing, troubling frequency; the horror of violent death and the loss of loved ones.
Ethos: We should not strive to achieve some sort of balance of violent supposedly “good guys” (like the one who shot an unarmed black teen walking home from the store) and violent “bad guys,” but rather a reduction in deadly violence, in the notion that deadly violence is the answer, and the accessibility of the means of deadly violence.
It’s time for more “real Americans” to be rational and humane people, because that’s the “real America” that most of us want to live in.
Jim: Let me ask you, do you think that more stringent gun control will take guns out of the hands of criminals? That’s a very naive thought. Secondly, it seems that you have already decided the case with Treyvon Martin. Witnesses have already stated that he was on top of George Zimmerman beating the hell out of him. Self-defense? The courts will decide. Basically, you are a pacifist. Although you do make a good argument, I can find just as many well written and articulate arguments that would negate your statements. Basically, what it comes down to is that as an individual you make a conscience decision to either exercise your right to protect yourself or depend on others to do that for you. AKA. Government. I, and many others like me don’t want to depend on our government to take care of our needs. Personally, history shows, they do a lousy job of it! Obviously, Steve, you have made your decision, and I have certainly made mine. -Jim
Steve Harvey: Jim, let’s start with Trayvon Martin. Actually, all I did was state an undisputed fact, which you find inconvenient enough to confuse with anything under contention. There is no dispute over the fact that Zimmerman shot Martin, an unarmed teen walking home from the store. That simple fact makes the incident sound as bad as it is, whether self-defense was involved or not, because the fact is that there would never have been any need for Zimmerman to defend himself had he not instigated the encounter in his quest to assertively find people to “defend” himself against.
The courts will decide if it was self-defense at the moment it occurred, not if the need for self-defense was created by the orientation and philosophy you are now advocating, which is clearly the case. If Zimmerman had never pursued that unarmed kid walking home from the store, creating an altercation that would not otherwise have occurred, Zimmerman would never have needed to defend himself from that kid.
it’s a bizarre and horrifying ideology that says it’s okay to go out with a gun and pursue an unarmed kid who you assume might be a threat (possibly affected by racial prejudice), and then defend yourself with deadly force when that unarmed kid defends himself against you, the armed pursuer, but that the kid had no right to be concerned about being pursued in the first place! The bottom line is, the shooting death of that unarmed teen walking home from the store never would have occurred had Zimmerman not been out assertively seeking people to defend himself against. The fact that the shooting death of an unarmed black teen walking home from the store does not trouble you is part of the horror many of us feel at the resurgence of your disgusting ideology.
And that is exactly the point. Your ideology increases the rate of violence, by being committed to violence in such a deep and pathological way. People eager to go out and defend themselves against threats end up being intentional or unintentional instigators of violence, as Zimmerman was, without a doubt, in that case. Your ideology creates or increases the violence it purports to defend against.
The mass shootings are frequently committed by mentally unstable people who otherwise are not “criminals.” They acquire their weapons legally, or from someone they know who acquired them legally, and would not have been well equipped to acquire them illegally, which is a function of having the connections and criminal knowledge necessary.
Furthermore, weapons aren’t dangerous to innocent people only in the hands of “criminals.” Accidental shootings, mistaken shootings, suicides, crimes of passion (by otherwise law abiding people), escalations of violence in an altercation or home invasion (a home owner confronting an intruder with a weapon is four times more likely to be shot and killed than other home owners in a home invasion scenario), are all far, far more common than the successful use of a firearm in defense of person or property. The price the rest of us pay for your illusion of increased safety is the reality of increased danger to ourselves and our children.
The Zimmerman-Martin incident demonstrates that innocent people have as much to fear from the so-called “good guys” as from the “bad guys.” That’s because we all have much to fear from violent people who are primitive enough to believe that violence is the best and highest possible solution to violence. Most of us know that that’s absurd, and most of us don’t want to live in that kind of a primitive, archaic world.
Furthermore, no one is arguing for a gun ban. We are only arguing for reasonable regulations on military grade arms and accessories, whose sole purpose is to maximize the carnage done to human beings in mass slaughters. And you folks are so insane that you try to prevent that discussion from happening by skipping straight to the straw man argument that you have a right to guns no one is taking away from you.
As for my supposed “naiveté”: Since every single other developed nation on Earth has managed to accomplish what you claim we can’t, and since there are in fact ways of doing it (control the manufacture and distribution of bullets, for instance, without which the weapons are just very awkward and unwieldy clubs), the answer to your question is: Of course we can reduce the ease of accessibility of arms and accessories. There’s no doubt about it.
You address my arguments by claiming that there are just as good ones supporting your view, though you can’t provide them. That’s a backdoor attempt to raise irrationality to a par with reason, by refuting reason through the claim that reason is no better than its absence, since any position, in your view, can be argued rationally. In the real world, that’s not the case; some arguments are better than others, and that’s why people who use fact and reason professionally overwhelmingly reject your ideology, which generally runs counter to fact and reason. (It’s one incarnation of a right-wing two-step I’ve often seen: Rely on the relativistic claim that all opinions are equal to insulate yours from fact and reason, and then in another context claim that yours is irrefutable truth, because to think otherwise would be to commit the error of relativism!)
In fact, your ideology has identified and dismissed precisely those professions that use disciplined methodologies to gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information as bastions of liberalism, never pausing to ask why it might be so that precisely those professions that systematically gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information would be bastions of liberalism, and what lesson that fact might hold for you.
Again, I’ve addressed all of your points in the essay I linked to (Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture). Every single one of them. And just repeating debunked arguments doesn’t make them any stronger, or any less debunked. You make very clear which of the two narratives I describe you are committed to, and I make very clear why and how it imposes tragic costs on all of us.
Jim: Now that was a mouthful! Steve, while you command a mastery over the English language, all I can hear is, blah, blah, Liberal, blah, blah, BS. It’s not for lack of intelligence. You just simply believe you’re right-I believe I am. I think our President is hell bent on making people dependent of Government. You believe he is the anointed one. I see him hell bent on destroying America and systematically taking away our rights. You think “it’s all good”. I hope the evil lurking in the shadows never makes itself known to you…you will not be prepared to meet it. -Jim
Steve Harvey: All you hear is “blah blah blah blah” because I’m making actual arguments, citing actual statistics, and applying actual reason to them, and that, to you, is anathema. Your response is devoid of fact, devoid of any reasoned argument of any kind, filled with irrelevant noise (we weren’t discussing, and I made no comment about, our respective opinions of the current president, for instance), and regresses to a mere series of sounds signifying your blind ideological conviction. And THAT is both the difference between us, and the defining distinction in the political divide in America today: Irrationality in service to primitive, tribalistic impulses, v. reason in service to humanity. (See Un-Jamming the Signal.)
You want to reduce public discourse to a competition of arbitrary opinions, treating evidence and reason as irrelevant. (In this case, in fact, both reason and the majority of Americans are up against an inhumane and irrational position backed by a powerful, predatory industry and its organizational lobbyist: The gun industry and the NRA). I want us to govern ourselves as rational and humane people doing the best we can in a complex and subtle world.
I’m not unaware of the world’s dangers: I was an enlisted soldier in the Army infantry, have traveled all over the world and lived in some hot spots, did urban outreach work with heroin addicts, have taught in tough inner-city high schools, have done nonprofit work inside detention centers, and taught, among other things, college criminology classes. I know about the world, but that knowledge simply doesn’t lead to your conclusion that the ubiquitous mutual threat and availability of deadly violence is good for society. In fact, it strongly militates against that conclusion, which is why law enforcement officials overwhelmingly disagree with you.
The most dangerous and ubiquitous of evils in America is not lurking in the shadows, and it has once again just made itself known to me. I will continue to meet it, prepared, as I am, with knowledge, comprehension, and a commitment to humanity.
Part I: The Battle Of Narratives
There are two competing narratives at work in the gun control debate (narratives that, in general form, define many of the debates dividing the political “left” and the political “right”). One narrative views the world as a dangerous place, with bad people who do bad things, and that therefore an armed populace needs to be ready to stop those bad people before they can do bad things. Another narrative views the world as not just a dangerous place, but also a promising place and a complex and challenging place, a place where the number of bad people, and the degree to which they are equipped to do bad things, can vary according to the arrangements by which we coexist. In the latter narrative, the former narrative is seen as a facilitator of violence more than as a bulwark against it, a set of memes which increase rather than decrease both the reliance on and recourse to violence as a fundamental defining characteristic of our society.
The first narrative seeks a static equilibrium in which bad people are counterbalanced by good people equally well armed. The second narrative seeks an evolving condition through which both the inclination toward and means to commit acts of violence are gradually reduced through policies which address both the causes of those inclinations and the instruments through which they are realized.
More fundamentally, the first narrative is locked into a status quo rooted in mutual fear and antagonism, whereas the second narrative is reaching for paradigm shifts based on addressing underlying causes and reducing violence by proactively addressing the human physical and socio-emotional needs of our populace to a greater extent.
We are, in fact, by far the most violent developed nation on Earth, as measured by homicide rates. We are also by far the most violent developed nation on Earth according to several other measures, such as gun laws which are based on a paradigm of readiness for violence, capital punishment and in general a very retributive penal system, violent video games and movies, and a too frequently militaristic orientation toward the world.
The adherents to the first narrative want to deny any causal relationship between our lax gun regulations and our high murder rates. I want to emphasize that regardless of whether such direct causal relationships exist, a subtler and more systemic relationship certainly exists: We are a violent culture because we are a violent culture. In other words, our dramatically higher rates of acts of deadly violence in comparison to other developed nations are rooted in our dramatically more pervasive attitudes favoring violence in comparison to other developed nations. And, arguably, the rise in (generally non-lethal) violence that those other developed nations have experienced in recent decades is attributable to the export of some of the products and modalities of our globally hegemonic violent culture.
There is much we need to do to address our culture of violence in America. I have frequently said, throughout all of the discussions in the wake of repeated mass public murders, that the most fundamental factors and challenges do not involve guns: It is more about becoming a society that is more able to lift one another up and less eager to knock one another down, a society that looks for ways to take care of one another rather than for rationalizations not to, a society that addresses problems more by preventing their growth than be reacting to their presence.
What concerns me most about the very strongly positive attitudes toward firearms expressed on many blogs and message boards are the attitudes themselves, a belief that instruments of violence are the defining tool of civilization, and a belief that the best we can do is to impose on one another the constant, ubiquitous threat of mutually available deadly force.
The social order based on mutual threat is not an optimal social order, because it leads to more violence than a social order based on centralized pacification of mutual threat. In 19th century Appalachia, there was little formal government or police, so the inhabitants forged a social order based on mutual threat of retaliation for doing one another wrong. It worked when it worked, but gave way to spiraling descent into generational violence whenever it broke down. The feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys is one example.
International relations is another. It is an order based on mutual threat rather than centralized government, and it is a more violent order, with more breakdowns in the peace, than that of a political unit with a functioning government. That’s the purpose of government; that’s what it can be used for: To remove the need to create a precarious order based on the threat of mutual violence, and replace it with the knowledge that mutual violence isn’t acceptable.
Yes, those laws have to be enforced. But using the degree to which any government inevitably fails to (because there is always a failure rate) as a justification for giving up on government as the pacifying agency of a society, and returning instead to the more precarious and less effective paradigm of mutually threatened deadly violence, is a regress away from being a functioning society.
We can’t solve our problems or grow as a society into something ever-better simply by pitting the “good guys” against the “bad guys” in a societal wide gunfight. We have to pit ourselves as individuals and as a society against our own demons as human beings, our own foibles. And that requires thinking in different ways, on different levels of analysis, with greater aspirations and more commitment to the possibilities.
Part II: The Abuse of the Second Amendment
1) Discussion of the meaning of the term at the time of the drafting and ratification of the Constitution (such as in Federalist Papers #29 by Alexander Hamilton) clearly defined “a well-regulated militia” as a state militia rather than as any gathering of individual gun owners. The Constitution itself, in Article II, Sec. 2, Clause 1, states that “The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States when called into the actual service of the United States.” In other words, militia are seen as organized at the state level rather than as being any group of citizens who choose to bear arms together. Also, in Article I, Section 8, Clause 15, the Constitution states, “The Congress shall have Power To …provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions….” In other words, the Constitution expresses in plain language that it envisions the purpose of an armed militia to be the suppression of insurrections, not the equipping of them. The notion that the Second Amendment is intended as providing a right to rebel is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous; the foundational law of a nation cannot and does not, ever, include the provision “but feel free to ignore the law, or arrogate to yourself final judgment on the meaning of the law in deference to your own manias, if you disagree.”
2) By one historical analysis, the “well-regulated militia” language referred to, in part, the state and local militias southern states relied on to suppress slave uprisings. Since the south feared that the growing abolitionist sentiments of the northern states would lead to the use of the federal government to deny the southern states this indispensable recourse to violent preservation of their inverted understanding of what “liberty” means, they made the inclusion of the second amendment a requisite to their ratification of the Constitution.
3) Even disregarding that particular historical analysis and accepting the conventional mythology instead, at no time previously in our history has the Second Amendment been interpreted to provide the absolute individual right to own and carry any firearms any time anywhere that our current gun idolaters insist it grants them.
4) The language of the Second Amendment is clearly ambiguous, and the emphasis on a “well-regulated militia” clearly leaves room to regulate gun ownership. While there is a great deal of right-wing sophistry dedicated to redefining the word “regulated” in the Second Amendment so that it no longer means “regulated,” the fact is that the plain language of the Second Amendment endorses the concept of regulation.
5) The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, not any and all arms in any and all times, places and circumstances. Just as the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but not anywhere, any time, and for any purpose (it depends on the forum, on whether unfettered speech can impede the purpose of that forum, and whether the speech is malicious and harmful), so to it is well within the discretion of local, state and federal governments to limit what kinds of arms can be borne, where and when they can be borne, and for what purpose they can be borne (recent incidents of gun idolaters brandishing their arms in restaurants and at kids’ ball games, causing patrons to flee and the game to be cancelled, is an example of how the unfettered right can be used for malicious purpose without necessarily firing a shot or explicitly threatening anyone).
6) Such ambiguities in Constitutional provisions are made functional through a process of legal interpretation and the institution of judicial review, by which the courts (and ultimately The Supreme Court) has the final word on legal interpretation. In the absence of judicial review, the Constitution would be reduced to a meaningless Rorschach Test on which each ideological faction superimposes its own ideological preferences and, through lack of any system for resolving such disputes, destroy the Constitution as a functioning legal document.
7) Even the current ultra-conservative Supreme Court, in holding for the first time in American history that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right, emphasized that the Second Amendment does not confer an absolute right, and that it does not prohibit reasonable regulations of firearm ownership and possession.
8) By no reading of the Constitution, past or present, at any time in our history or by the current ultra-conservative Supreme Court, are such marginal restrictions as universal background checks or bans on high capacity clips (laws which got three Democratic state senators recalled, in an abuse of the recall by our fanatical gun idolaters) a violation of the Second Amendment or in any way unconstitutional. Declaring them so is akin to declaring “unconstitutional” a teacher’s request of a student to stop disrupting a high school class with constant loud yelling of obscenities and other verbal misbehaviors, since it is a governmental action limiting a person’s speech. None of our rights are unlimited in that way, and no rational person believes they are.
9) In any case, when discussing these issues, we should always discuss legality, reality, and morality, not just one to the exclusion of the others. The ideal we are challenged to approach is the perfect alignment of the three. The quasi-sacred status of the Constitution means that when people cite it, and particularly the Bill of Rights, they do so as if that answers all three questions automatically. In truth, it only answers the question about current legality, not about morality (what really best serves our shared humanity) or reality (what a pragmatic recognition of the current social institutional landscape recommends). Citing The Second Amendment, regardless of its interpretation, does not prove either the morality or the practicality of our gun culture and the laws which help to perpetuate it; it is only a discussion of legality, and, as popular sovereigns, it is always our responsibility to question whether current legality aligns well with reality and morality or not.
Part III: Why the “Defense Against Tyranny” Argument Has It Backwards
1) Neither violence nor the general threat of tyranny are likely ever to cease. But we can affect the RATE at which violence occurs, and the DEGREE of the threat of the imposition of dictatorship, and, in fact, in the modern context, BOTH are reduced by a less rather than more heavily armed population.
2) The right-wing belief that an armed population reduces the chance of dictatorship is questionable, since armed factions can as easily band together for the purpose of overthrowing the rule of law and imposing their own dictatorship as for the purpose of preventing a government that has no need to use such force from doing so.
3) The political economy of developed nations has developed in such a way that the means of exercising power, and the benefits of that power, are much less dependent on the overt use of force against one’s own population, and much more dependent on the continued peaceful rule of law, than in any previous era.
4) In other words, it’s really not in “the government’s” interests to fundamentally change the current status quo, and the current institutionalized rule of law.
5) The very notion of “the government” is a bit of a fiction, especially in a modern democracy; it’s really a large, complex institution comprised of numerous people and branches with frequently conflicting interests, held increasingly in check by a combination of size, non-monolithic interests, and a complex web of civil restraints. The notion that these millions of people, or even hundreds of very centralized and influential actors will at any time in the foreseeable future have either the desire or ability to conspire to overthrow the system from which they already enormously benefit, in a political culture in which it would only serve to bring infamy and resistance down upon them and would almost under no circumstances succeed in actually improving any aspect of their lives by any measure, is a very large stretch of the imagination.
6) The notion that a heavily armed faction of grease-painted citizen-fanatics, not so steeped in the reality of our political economic landscape, not so socialized into the pragmatic demands of the governance of a modern nation, might engage in activities which harm people and threaten our rule of law, is not at all a stretch of the imagination (in fact, there are numerous examples of it occurring in relatively recent history).
7) Of the two threats to the rule of law in America, to our continued liberty and prosperity and security, it is beyond apparent that the by-far larger threat comes from the armed ideological fanatics, steeped in fictionalized nationalistic narratives, vicariously reliving the overly-sanctified centuries old birth of our nation due to a lifetime of political indoctrination that gradually detached them from any strong tether to modern reality.
8) I would much rather take my chances with the population of current and future political office-holders who have no need or benefit from recourse to violent suppression of the American people, than with any number of potential armed citizen factions whose ideological zealotry and fanaticism could at any time get the better of them and lead to unnecessary and counterproductive armed insurrection, destroying the nation they claim to wish to defend.
Part IV: Why the “Can’t Keep Guns Out Of The Hands Of Criminals” Argument Is both Defeatist and Empirically Refuted
1) I don’t accept the notion that, when confronted with a social problem, we should ever start off with the assumption that there is something physically possible that we are not able to accomplish. When Apollo 13 was stranded in space, the NASA engineers poured everything onto the table, and figured out how to get the job done, and, against overwhelming odds, did get the job done. Starting any policy debate with “it can’t be done” is not who and what we have ever been, nor who and what we should be now. We might, after very careful and thorough analysis, decide that the costs outweigh the benefits, but that should come at the end of a process rather than be mobilized upfront to preempt that process entirely.
2) Almost every other developed nation on Earth has succeeded in doing what these nay-sayers insist we are incapable of. If they can do it, we can too. And they did it without undermining the protection of basic liberties like freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and the right to privacy and due process.
3) While we try to tackle this challenge, we can fairly effectively regulate the production and distribution of rounds for specific types of firearms that we decide are not in our public interest to be easily available to anyone at any time. Without those rounds, the firearms become just unwieldy clubs.
4) In Australia, a rugged individualist, frontier society somewhat similar to the US, when strict gun regulations were enacted several years ago in response to a mass public shooting there, the arguments against it were identical to the ones we hear in America today. Even so, Australia has seen a marked and sustained drop in their homicide rates every year since enacting these strict regulations, and even many of the former naysayers now admit that they were wrong.
5) The real measure of comparative homicide rates shows that the assumption that guns can’t be kept out of the hands of criminals, or that the balance of gun ownership when regulations are imposed favors criminals, is erroneous, since, those countries with stricter regulations have lower homicide rates while those with laxer regulations have higher homicide rates.
6) Anecdotal evidence about high murder rates in cities with strict regulations is often mobilized as “proof” that regulations don’t work. There are several fallacies to this argument:
- It relies on cherry-picked evidence, ignoring, for instance, cities with strict regulations and low murder rates;
- anecdotal evidence never trumps contradictory statistical evidence; for instance, citing all of the cases in which wearing a seatbelt caused rather than prevented a death in an automobile accident does not change the fact that it is statistically far safer to wear a seatbelt than not to wear one;
- in a country with no internal barriers to the movement of goods across state and municipal lines, local regulations are undermined by laxer regulations elsewhere, an observation underscored by the fact that the overwhelming majority of firearms used in the commission of a crime anywhere in the United States are originally put into circulation by being legally purchased in those jurisdictions with the laxest regulations; and
- this anecdotal argument confuses the causal relationship, neglecting to note that the stricter regulations are generally caused by the problem of comparatively high homicide rates, thus requiring a comparison of homicide rates in that locale prior and subsequent to the passage of the restrictions in order to make any meaningful argument, rather than a generic reference to “high murder rates” in a vacuum.
Part V: Why The “Increases Personal Safety” Argument Has It Backwards
The statistical evidence very compellingly suggests that owning firearms makes people less rather than more safe. For every successful use of a firearm by a civilian to defend person or property, EACH of the following uses occurs numerous times: accidental shooting, suicide, crime of passion, use in escalation of a fight or in “mistaken” self-defense, commission of a felony, and, most ironically of all, the person trying to defend self or property getting shot him or herself.
An armed homeowner who confronts the intruder is four times more likely to get shot in a home invasion incident than an unarmed homeowner. A gun owner is more likely to be killed by gun violence than a non-gun-owner. A gun in the home is more likely to be the instrument of death of a member of the household, of or a friend of a member of the household, than to be used in self-defense.
And what was the outcome in the most recent notorious case of an armed “good guy” trying to protect his neighbors’ property from the “bad guys”? He ended up shooting to death an unarmed teen walking home from the store. That kind of “safety” we can all live without, because far too many end up not living as a result.
Again, the fact is that we have the highest private gun ownership rate in the world and the laxest gun regulations of any developed nation, and have the second highest homicide rate of 33 OECD countries, 2 to 25 times higher than that of all but two. Both intranationally (across US jurisdictions) and internationally (among developed nations), gun ownership rates are positively correlated with homicide rates.
The proliferation and lack of regulation of guns increases homicide rates. A gun in the home increases the danger to the people living in it and visiting it. Ownership of a gun increases one’s odds of being shot to death. The gun-idolaters are not increasing our safety with their mania, but rather decreasing it, dramatically.
Part VI: Possibly the Two Dumbest Slogans in Political Discourse
1) “Guns don’t kill; people do.” By this logic, it shouldn’t matter whether terrorists or rogue nations gain access to nuclear weapons, because, after all, “nuclear weapons don’t kill; people do.” Of course, we all recognize that tools and technologies do, in fact, matter. The modern world would look no different from the premodern one if that were not the case, and there would be no reason not to sell nukes at corner stores to whoever wanted one.
Tools and technologies, by increasing the convenience of accomplishing an act, and increasing the effects of the act being accomplished, amplify both the frequency and intensity of acts committed by people. We travel farther and faster, communicate farther and faster, calculate more and faster, build more and higher, and kill more and faster, as a result of having tools and technologies which facilitate these actions.
If the tool is irrelevant, if only the intention of the people wielding it counts, then why do those who make this argument feel such a need to protect their own access to this tool? If a knife or club kills as well as a gun, why not use a knife or a club yourselves and stop making such an issue out of your right to own guns? The reason is simple: Those who are adamant about their right to own guns know that guns are more efficient tools of deadly violence than the alternatives available in their absence, and they want to have tools of deadly violence as efficient as anyone who might confront them has.
When you inject an overabundance of particularly efficient, convenient and easily misused instruments of deadly violence into the mix of human fallibilities –aggression, anger, rage, fear, panic, carelessness, bad judgment, stupidity, jealousy, greed, depression, despair, mental illness, militant fanaticism, vengefulness, bigotry, overconfidence, insecurity, pettiness, false certainty, immaturity, machismo, vigilantism, hero complex, petulance, and numerous other very normal defects abundantly distributed throughout the human population– you get exactly what we have gotten: A far higher rate of deadly violence than we otherwise would have. Empirical evidence confirms what common sense suggests, and anyone who squints really hard not to see it shares in the responsibility for US intentional homicide rates 2 to 25 times higher than those of other developed countries (not to mention our far higher rates of accidental shootings, frequently involving children).
Yes, guns don’t generally kill without some form of human involvement. But since we can’t eliminate all of the human defects listed above, and since their presence ensures a continuing significant rate at which humans are inclined to inflict, intentionally and unintentionally, deadly violence on other human beings, reducing the convenience and efficiency with which it can be done is a rational policy choice, one which has well-served the rest of the developed world.
Can we please put to rest this incredibly stupid slogan, already?
2) “Gun regulations are useless, because criminals won’t obey them.” Right. Criminals are criminals because they disobey laws. So, does that mean that our laws are useless, since criminals just disobey them anyway? Why have laws against murder, theft, rape, extortion, kidnapping, or anything else for that matter, since criminals just disobey them anyway?
Because we pass laws to make it harder for criminals to commit certain acts, and easier for agents of the public to prevent them from committing certain acts. And ease of access to firearms increases the ease of committing certain criminal (or accidental) acts, including acts of violence, many of which are committed by people who weren’t criminals until the moment they were committed, often because the ease of access of firearms increased the likelihood that a spontaneous act of deadly violence would be committed. The question, when passing a law, isn’t “will the people who are inclined to break this law obey it?” but rather “is this a law that is useful to the general welfare, all things considered?”
The argument that could be made (though I think it is still a bad one), is that gun regulations are particularly hard to enforce. in reality, they’re not. Universal background check law is virtually self-enforcing, the ones who must obey or violate not being “the criminals” who would buy guns despite being prohibited from doing so, but the sellers who are obligated to run a background check before selling to them. Bans on certain kinds of firearms and accessories, similarly, are either violated or complied with by venders, who are not “the criminals” who can be assumed to disobey laws.
Yes, there will be a black market, but one characterized by less ease of access, far higher prices, and diminished supply. That’s how laws work. Those who argue that outlawing anything for which there is any significant demand doesn’t work must, by logical extension, oppose the outlawing of child pornography, but we all know that the outlawing of child pornography is both necessary and useful. Just as is the outlawing of certain military grade weapons and accessories.
Conclusion: The War of All Against All or the Establishment of a Civil Society
There is a battle of narratives in America, with one narrative championing an irrational, counterfactual, and violent ideology, and the other opposing it in service to humanity. The former is rooted in fear and loathing; the latter in hope and aspiration. The former views the height of civilization and human consciousness as something defined by hostility and a mutual readiness for violence; the latter defines it as an articulation of realism and idealism that does not ignore the reality of violence but does not surrender to it as the apex of what we should aspire to. The former contributes to cycles of violence by inviting overreaction and error by the ostensibly well-intended, as well as by increasing the ease of access to instruments of deadly violence for those who misuse them. The latter seeks to reduce the ease of access to instruments of violence, and to promote a focus on the reduction in the underlying causes of an overzealous recourse to violence.
Embedded in this conflict of narratives is the awareness of, versus non-awareness of, a basic element of our shared existence: our fundamental interdependence. Yes, we value individual liberty, but individual liberty is something that emanates from, and has meaning only in the context of, a recognition of interdependence. Our Founding Fathers well understood that, drafting a Constitution inspired by such awareness, and dedicating much of The Federalist Papers to proto-game-theoretic arguments about the need to create a viable agency of collective action. See Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems for a more detailed discussion of this dimension of the issue.
There is something almost surreal about being in a developed modern nation still trapped in such a primitive and underdeveloped political division. That there are many in this country who aggressively insist that we must be a nation based on and committed to mutual violence, thus unsurprisingly resulting in our having a homicide rate seven times higher than the developed country average, two to twenty five times that of any other developed nation except Mexico (which “benefits” from a constant flood of our arms across their northern border), is simply mind-boggling. And yet that is the situation that we are in. May the sane among us prevail.
Statistics on greater likelihood of privately owned firearm injuring or killing an innocent person than being used in self-defense: http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/TUTORIAL/GUNS/GUNSTAT.html
Correlation between easier access to arms and higher homicide rates, both internationally and domestically: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/
More on correlation: https://www.ncjrs.gov/txtfiles/fireviol.txt
Controlled statistical research showing the positive net effects of the DC gun regulations: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199112053252305
Study showing efficacy of certain gun regulations: http://www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2016/03/most_gun_restrictions_dont_wor.html
OECD Homicide Rates: https://www.quandl.com/collections/society/oecd-murder-rates
Two classic statements of the above thesis: http://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/ and http://www.americanheritage.com/content/america-gun-culture
A recent article on the compatibility of gun regulations with the Second Amendment: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/17/the-second-amendment-is-all-for-gun-control.html
Evidence refuting the claim that armed citizens reduce the risk of gun violence to innocent people: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gun-science-proves-arming-untrained-citizens-bad-idea/
(For more on this topic, see A Gun Control Debate)
For those who are ready for the debate on how to become a kinder, gentler, and less tragic nation (including but not limited to a discussion of the role of our current paradigm regarding firearms), please visit the robust discussion taking place on the Colorado Confluence Facebook page under the post of the gun wrapped in an American flag. http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence
Here’s the story: http://www.denverpost.com/breakingnews/ci_21118201/unknown-number-people-shot-at-aurora-movie-theater
The first priority now, of course, is taking care of all the people affected by this, showing support, being there for those who need it. Everyone able to offer that moral or material support should do so.
Our second priority is making sure that it never happens again, or happens with far less frequency. We shouldn’t fall into the habit of thinking of this as “an isolated incident,” and treat it the way we might treat a natural disaster, as if it just happens from time to time, and merits mourning but no changes in how we frame our shared existence. Rep. Rhonda Fields, who of course lost her own son to violence, was just on 9-News reminding us that we have to work to ensure that this DOESN’T happen, that we are not a society in the grip of random violence.
And the obvious way for us to stop being such a violent society is for us to stop being such a violent society, in thoughts, in beliefs, in ideology, in how some of us fetishize instruments of destruction, and in actions.
There will be those who insist that it is “wrong” to use this as a catalyst for discussing the underlying social problems involved, but if we don’t draw attention to them in the moments when their consequences explode upon us, then they are more easily minimized by those so inclined in times when their consequences are more remote from our thoughts.
Kyle Clark on 9-News just suggested that we all say or do something nice for someone today so that that ripples out and creates a more caring and mutually supportive society, and Kyle Dyer added that we should do so every day. They’re right; we make our culture and our society through our thoughts and actions. But we shouldn’t live dual lives, one defined by trying to be nice to those around us, and another defined by callousness and a lack of compassion in how we arrange our shared existence.
We need to work to become a different kind of society, a society that believes it’s important to reduce the levels of violence that we suffer, a society that is defined more by how much we care about and support one another than by how much we fear and loathe one another, a society that believes in BEING a society more than it believes in some moral imperative of mutual indifference. We all, as members of a society that participates in the creation of the culture in which we live, share some portion of responsibility for every event of this nature that occurs, either for what we’ve done to cultivate such a violent culture, or for what we’ve failed to do to cultivate something more rational and humane.
There is a “liberals are hypocrites” post that is going viral among right-wing zealots on facebook, with thousands of shares and hundreds of comments on some of them, in which a news story about two African Americans who committed a violent crime against a white is, once again, proffered as proof that 1) George Zimmerman was right to pursue and shoot Trayvon Martin, 2) “Stand Your Ground” laws are good and necessary, 3) those who oppose them are trying to turn good, law-abiding (i.e., “white”) folks into unarmed innocent victims of bad, law-breaking (i.e., “black”) folks, and 4) Liberals are hypocrites because we aren’t concerned enough about black-on-white violence.
My following response, which is an expression of sheer disgust at continuing to see this ugly bigotry repeated over and over again, apparently resonating with far too many people, only addresses the first three of these issues. (The fourth can be summed up as follows: There is virtually no one defending black-on-white violence, and no laws bringing into question whether some incidents of it –or, more precisely, acts of violence by those you DON’T identify with against those you DO identify with– can be prosecuted or not. The reason the white-on-black violence of the Trayvon Martin shooting is a larger issue is because there are people defending it as a non-issue and advocating laws that make it more likely to occur more often.)
The news story (about an incident of black-on-white violence), used in this way, highlights the fundamental difference between almost all variations of right-wing ideology and almost all variations of left-wing ideology: The former is firmly rooted in fear and hatred, while the latter aspires to hope and humanity. Those on the right scoff that those on the left would be so naive, though, in reality, hope and humanity is not only a more positive orientation, but, when leavened with reason and information, is also more pragmatic, better serves one’s own self-interest, than the fear and hatred that informs those on the right. (See, for instance, Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems, for one reason why this is so.)
Those on the far-right are blithely indifferent to the death of an unarmed black teen at the hands of an armed white vigilante, because the armed white vigilante, in their mind, had every right to defend himself against any and all potential or perceived dangers, while the unarmed black teen lacked even the right to life, as long as it is one of them rather than the government that deprives him of it. One rationalization that is used is the presumption of guilt laid on the teen due to the possibility that he reacted violently to being pursued, something that these ideologues should respect rather than condemn, if we each have a right to protect ourselves against perceived threats! Ironically, however, they only defend the armed pursuer’s right to “defend” himself, and not the unarmed pursued’s right to do so!
If these right-wing ideologues had any integrity, any consistency, were anything other than implicitly racist hypocrits, they would not point to the possibility that Martin was beating Zimmerman before he (Martin) was shot as justification for the shooting, but rather with approval that Martin was defending himself against the armed individual pursuing him! Why aren’t they chanting that it’s a shame Martin didn’t kill Zimmerman before Zimmerman killed Martin, since it was Zimmerman who was the armed pursuer, and Martin who was the unarmed pursued?
But, of course, that’s not the way their little minds work, because it’s all about who they identify with, and who they identify as their implicit enemy. The armed vigilante is LIKE THEM, and that’s all that counts. The unarmed victim is THE OTHER that they fear and hate, and so his innocence, the fact that he had his life taken away unjustly, is just no big deal. They excuse the armed pursuer, because they identify with him (racially, and ideologically as an armed pursuer of someone he thought was a criminal); they implicitly condemn the unarmed teen to a death sentence without a trial because they don’t identify with him (racially, and as someone who someone like them was inclined to suspect of being up to no good). It’s the very nature of their way of thinking, and the reason why it should be odious to all rational people of goodwill.
What an amazingly convoluted ideology it is that does such contortions to be indignant that anyone would raise any objections to an armed pursuer shooting to death an unarmed teen apparently doing absolutely nothing illegal at the time the pursuit began, but spares no indignation whatsoever on behalf of the unarmed teen who was shot to death! The imagined threat to Zimmerman, who was both the pursuer and the wielder of deadly force in this instance, is more salient to them than the real danger to Martin, who was the pursued and unarmed victim of a shooting death!
What gets me most about this is what it indicates about how far we’ve sunk as a nation. This isn’t just a fringe ideology that a few grease-painted jack-asses adhere to. This has become a mainstream ideology, a cult of implicit violence and hatred justified by fear and generalized enmity.
It goes beyond the rationalization of offensive deadly violence by an armed pursuer against an unarmed victim, justified only by the pursuers “reasonable” fear of crime in general (!), essentially legalizing paranoid racist violence. It goes beyond conveniently targeting those “scary blacks” (as the news story used to stoke the right-wing indignation so poignantly illustrates) whose crimes justify Zimmerman acting as police, judge, jury, and executioner at the sight of a black kid in his neighborhood. It even goes beyond their assertion that there is no racism in America, that their now oft-invoked fear and hatred of those blacks who have not proven that they are not a threat isn’t racism at all, but rather merely the rational response to the “racism” of those who think that laws that facilitate killing unarmed black teens due to a generalized fear of crime are a bad idea.
It includes and goes beyond all of this. It extends to and is fed by the delusion that there is no social injustice in America, that people fare well or poorly primarily by virtue of their own merit, a notion that is not only absurd on the face of it, but is also thoroughly disproved by statistical evidence (see The Presence of the Past). It combines a blithe indifference to the legacies of history that relegate people to sharply unequal opportunity structures at birth, with the equally blithe willingness to subtly loathe the entire categories of people who, born into such opportunity structures, are overrepresented among the poor. But irrational bigots are not swayed by such things as fact and reason and human decency.
The fact that such a belligerent, inhumane, and just generally dysfunctional ideology can survive as a major ideological strain in American culture is scary beyond belief. This cultural virus has always been with us, but never before in my memory so virulent and widespread as it is today. Anyone who has any desire for us to remain or become a rational and humane people needs to take stock of this, to repudiate it, and to oppose it, passionately and constantly, because it is truly ugly and destructive insanity.
Our nation is embroiled in the fall-out from a tragedy brewed from familiar ingredients. Once again, an innocent child is dead, a victim of some undetermined blend of cowboy conservativism, racism, and laws which weaken the state’s crucial monopoly on the legitimate use of deadly force.
There is no shortage of lessons to be learned from the murder of Trayvon Martin, an innocent and unarmed black teen walking home from the store, the culprit protected by a Florida law that effectively legalizes murder, as long as the perpetrator thought the person he was murdering might be a criminal (letting each be the police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, all on their own. So much for “due process…”). To those who insist that they are not racists because racism is dead, it isn’t, and some of you are. To those who insist that liberty and justice require decentralizing the legal right to –and discretionary judgment as to when to– use deadly violence, you are liberating only human folly, and doing so at the cost of innocent others’ most fundamental of rights, the right to life.
The far right insists that if we, as a polity, try to take care of one another through our agent, the state, it is the most antagonistic thing imaginable to individual liberty, but that being able to kill an innocent teen, because he has dark skin and wears a hoodie, in response to some racist impulse, is the most necessary thing imaginable to that same liberty. If that were what the word “liberty” really meant, then it would be an odious thing. But it isn’t, neither what it means nor what it is.
“Liberty” is the freedom to speak your mind, believe and express those beliefs, organize, assemble, aspire, innovate, prosper, and thrive. It is not the freedom to harm others, to hurl our nation into a Hobbesian paradise of a “war of all against all,” in which life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” It is not the freedom to kill an unarmed teen because he’s black and wears a hoodie. It’s not even the freedom to be left to make that choice, each using his or her own judgment whether this or that individual deserves to be killed, in any circumstance other than truly imminent necessity of the defense of self or others.
That we have an ideology reverberating through large swathes of our collective consciousness that ever was foolish enough to blurr that bright line is proof enough that something is horribly amiss, and we are in urgent need of correcting it.
Few issues, few demands to balance legitimate competing concerns, better illustrate both the subtlety of the challenges we face, and the dysfunctionality of displacing careful and thorough analyses with ideological scripts. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, on Meet the Press, just repeated the familiar right-wing refrain, “why are they more worried about the terrorists rights than about the rights of innocent travelers?” Some on the left (in an echo of Tea Party Liberty Idolatry) like to repeat the refrain, “those who trade liberty for security deserve neither.” Jindal also suggested that searching grandmothers and children at airport security is unnecessary, because they’re not the terrorists. Some on the left, in one of those all-too-common inter-ideological agreements on an oversimplification, insist that such measures are not about security at all, but rather about the exercise of government control and subjugation. (Vincent Carroll echoed that sentiment as applied to what he considers the government assault on Free Speech, as illustrated by, for instance, the opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which protects corporate political speech from legislative restraints: see Freedom & Coherence).
It’s all Bullshit. Really.
Jindal’s refrain about Democrats’ overzealous defense of terrorists’ rights has been repeated in various contexts throughout American history, and has repeatedly been discredited. The very foundation of our system of justice is that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The constant allusion to the presumption of guilt that vests at the moment of being suspected (it is terrorists‘ rights that are being protected, rather than people suspected of terrorism) is as un-American as it gets. It was used to justify Gitmo, which every person I know of who actually visited Gitmo and talked with detainees there recognized held many, many completely innocent people.
The fact is, that despite our procedural bias in favor of protecting the rights of the innocent, we put thousands or tens of thousands of innocent people in jail every year, and some unknown number on Death Row. Violations of civil rights, including excessive violence by police against people who have committed the most minor of infractions, is a constant and real concern. Those on the right who are implicit advocates of decreasing our vigilance against those natural social forces that tend toward a police-state are doing this country an enormous disservice. As Sinclair Lewis said, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross” (there is some debate about the attribution: http://zalandria.wordpress.com/2007/01/13/sinclair-lewis-how-fascism-will-come-to-america-1935/).
On the other hand, the notion that we don’t have to compromise any of what we consider to be the full extent of our liberties and rights to the concerns of mutual security is equally absurd (sorry, folks). The very existence of any system of law enforcement is an intrusion on personal liberty. That’s what laws are: An intrusion on personal liberty. And enforcing them is, inherently, an invasion of privacy, including, to some extent, of the innocent. The vast majority of Americans prefer the slight invasion of privacy associated with airport security measures (at least prior to the implementation of the new, more intrusive measures) than the increased risk of violent death associated with their absence. I do, especially when my seven-year-old daughter is traveling with me.
The issue is not settled by some broad-brushstroke platitude on one side or the other, but rather by understanding: 1) the competing values; 2) the dangers of overemphasis of one or the other of those values; and 3) the cognitive and emotional biases that may play into exaggerating one or the other of those values (e.g., fear of criminal violence playing into an exaggerated predisposition to trade rights for security, or fear of government oppression playing into an exaggerated predisposition to trade security for rights). As in all matters, we are challenged to mobilize the best analyses, with all relevant information in play, and make the best decisions we can on that basis, in service to our values and to human welfare, all things considered.
Both Jindall, and some on the left who are indignant over TSA intrusiveness (in a Facebook thread on a post of the video of the little girl screaming “don’t touch me!” while being physically searched), invoke the refrain that small children and old ladies aren’t the terrorists. The fact is, that the terrorists are adaptable, and that there are those in all demographic categories who can be recruited, knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, to carry explosives or other instruments of terrorism across airport security. Without a doubt, the TSA procedures can be better designed, and their treatment of children can be more sensitive to the particular needs involved (i.e., have TSA employees trained in working with children, using techniques that put them at ease). But those current imperfections are not some kind of major scandal. They’re just current imperfections, that we should insist upon refining.
The message is the same message that permeates all of my posts: Don’t reduce the challenges of self-governance to ideological refrains and broad-brushstroke platitudes. Avoid precipitous conclusions driven by political-emotional predispositions. Do the analysis, and recognize that we live in a complex and subtle world, that demands more of us than ideological purity and self-righteous indignation when the presumptions of that purity are violated. The challenge of self-governance is not a trivial one. Let’s stop trivializing it.