Insanity and Rights

| December 16, 2012 | 4 Replies

Doubtless whatever I say, someone will find fault, take offense, withdraw into positions, place guard dogs at the gates and lookouts in the towers.

We are a people enamored of the idea of violence.  We like the idea that when it gets down to the proverbial nitty gritty we can and will kick ass and take names.  Americans are tough, not to be messed with, ready to exact justice by knuckles or 9.mm.

Until something like this happens and then we recoil from our own defining myths with a collective “but that’s not what we meant!”

Adam Lanza murdered 26 people in a grade school, 20 of them 1st graders.  Children.  Reports indicate he shot some of them multiple times at close range.

Someone, somewhere, by now has made the argument that had any of those kids been armed, Lanza would have been stopped.  Maybe not in the media (but I could be wrong) but in living rooms and over dinner tables.

Because we almost as obsessed with Finding Reasons as we are of retaining an image of personal power born of a romanticized version of a Frontier that for the most part never existed.

Back in the metaphorically rich Sixties, at one of the last “above ground” meetings of the Underground, there was a session dedicated to the proposition that it was encumbent upon good revolutionaries to set about killing all newborn whites.  Because, the argument ran, through no fault of their own they were destined to grow up to be part of an oppressive ruling elite and it was necessary to nip this in the bud before the conditions of oppression found new blood to enforce the status quo.

Now, this was not acted upon.  I bring it up to make the point that people adopt narratives and take positions that in their extremity produce bizarre ideas.  The vast majority never come to fruition—they are ideas, discussions, bandied about by people who, in their own way, are trying to find explanations for and impose order upon a world that seems chaotic and malign.  To some extent, we all do this.  There is even an upside to it—fiction writers produce cathartic works that thrill and entertain.

And, in a sane world, go no farther.

But there are always those who internalize the narrative extremes and find cause to act.

We’ve had a string of these recently.  Just this morning there was another report of a shooting, in Newport RI I believe, some loon snapped off fifty shots in a mall or on a beach.  No one was injured this time.  All we have is the lone gunman shooting at the demons around him.

Demons?

Listen to some of the rhetoric of the past couple of decades, rhetoric that once had a limited audience, but since the age of Cable and the Internet has blossomed with in concomitant ease of isolating narrow bands of data, enabling people to create bubbles and live in them in ways never before possible, seems today more concentrated, vitriolic.

Back in the early days of the Moral Majority I heard Falwell preaching blood in the streets.  End Times Nonsense.  The Apolcalypse is upon us.  Final Days.

Insanity.

But that does not mean these people—preachers and preached—are themselves insane.

No doubt there will be an attempt to characterize this young man as mentally ill.  How else could he have done this?

I believe this misses a crucial point.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt made the case that Eichmann—and by extension most of his colleagues in the Third Reich—was not evil, not in any classical sense of being demon-possessed or mentally deformed.  He was a functionary, a bureaucrat, doing a job.  The most you could say is that he had bought into a paradigm that was at base evil, but it came from many factors.  Key among them was the narrative he had accepted that allowed him to think along certain lines that led to Holocaust.

It’s frightening because it tells us that any one of us could be just like him.

If you live inside a bubble, your view of the world is distorted, the solutions you may find will be at odds with the common, but you do not need to be clinically insane for this to take hold.

Which brings me to one of those gnawing, irritating factors in the second half of this issue.  The guns.

Lanza did not do this with an assault rifle, which has become the icon of mass killings.  He had a pair of pistols.  Automatics, to be sure, but that only makes what he was able to do faster, not any more terrible. And here is the frustrating point that so many of us of a certain generation wrestle with.

I grew up in a house full of guns.  My father was a gunsmith at one point.  We had the equivalent of a small armory in the house.  Several of them were antiques, but a number were quite modern.

It never occurred to me once to use one to settle a problem.  And trust me when I say that if anyone would have fit the profile of one of these killers, it would have been me.  Bullied, ignore, frustrated, introverted, socially inept, and very, very stressed from a feeling of injustice in the way I was treated.

It never crossed my mind to kill anyone.

In terms of the weapons themselves, I treated them with the utmost respect, fully aware of their power and potential (we hunted).

Now.  What the hell has changed?

I do not here side with the NRA.  They have taken it upon themselves to advocate a position which crosses the line into inanity, but which is based on the self-perceived rights of a constituency which for a very long time was perfectly mainstream.  But like other such issues, a worm of right-wing paranoia has crept in.  They do not come right out an say it, but they represent people who believe in their bones that the 2nd Amendment gives them their sole guarantee that the United States will not become a tyranny.  As to whether or not this is based on a Foundational reading of the Bill of Rights, I will not discuss here.

What I will say is that this position makes it very difficult to even discuss rational limits on firearm possession.

Something which once was entirely at the determination of local authorities.

(I find it ironic that people who reject “federalism” out of hand for any number of other matters—schools, healthcare, poverty relief, etc—depend more and more on a federal solution to even state attempts to control firearms.)

An insistence that people like Lanza are mentally ill in some way combined with this absurd stance on a presumed right to not only own but potentially use lethal force for political purposes and a marrow-deep suspicion of government has created an unconscionable situation.  We can all of us not only imagine but I suspect name people who should not own guns.  Neighbors, even.  They are not insane.  They may be irresponsible.  It’s likely some of them—many of them—side with the no-limits attitude of the NRA.  They may simply espouse a worldview born out of narrative completely at odds with reality.

The scary thing here is how close this issue brushes up against 1st Amendment rights.  If, as I seem to be suggesting, we need to look at the kinds of stories we’re telling ourselves about ourselves, doesn’t that border on advocating censorship of some kind?

No, I do not.  But it should be recognized how closely entwined the two things can become.

What I do advocate is some kind of program that punctures all these bubbles people have been living in.

When the Republic was founded, the fact of the matter is the “armed forces” was The People.  We didn’t have much of a regular army—in fact, rejected having one—and our various police forces were not very good.  The fact is, a substantial portion of the population lived in isolated, frontier regions where owning a firearm was not only desirable but essential.  We live upon that founding narrative, even though the frontier is long gone and the fact is that the police and the armed forces are so far and away better equipped than any citizen soldiers might be that the idea of resisting them is almost laughable.  But the fact is, we likely wouldn’t resist them.

But this nonsense over the intent of the 2nd Amendment is silly.  The phrase is “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” not “the right of persons (or the right of people)” to do so.  The Framers understood language, sometimes clearly far better than we do.  By not saying simply “persons” or “people” but instead “the people” they made it clear they intended a political entity, not individuals under any circumstances.  They meant that the militia was the local community, that used to muster to drill from time to time in the town square, and as things became more and more settled, fewer and fewer individuals owned firearms of their own.  They would get them from the local armory if need be (which is exactly what the British were on their way to seize at Lexington and Concord).  What they meant was the right to exercise military force belonged to the citizens.

Let me finish by pointing out that the one thing we seem reluctant to talk about, on either side, is precisely that lost element of responsibility I mentioned earlier.  What the hell happened to us?  We have gone from, presumably, a nation of responsible adults to a nation of emerging armed camps with no ability to teach the next generation anything of value.

I do not know why Adam Lanza did what he did.  I would very much like to know why he thought what he did was not only acceptable but his only option to redress whatever ingrown, isolated, paranoid wrong he thought needed redressing.  I want to know why he thought that was okay.

That is just as important, if not more so, than rationalizing this asinine debate over the proliferation and possession of firearms.

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Category: Aggression and Violence, American Culture, Censorship, Civil Rights, Communication, Community, Culture, Current Events, Education, First Amendment, Good and Evil, History, Language, Law, law and order, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Social justice

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (4)

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  1. Edgar Montrose says:

    Mark,

    I am a responsible gun owner, former NRA member (until they went completely insane), and advocate of the Bill of Rights. Yet I have no comments about what you wrote, save for the following:

    1. Plain and simple; it’s not just guns, and it’s not just the USA.

    On Dec 14, in China, a man attacked students at an elementary school, injuring 22 children and one adult. He used a knife. http://www2.wkrg.com/news/2012/dec/14/china-school-knife-attack-leaves-23-injured-ar-5171327/
    I actually saw someone on TV yesterday say that this KNIFE attack in CHINA was more evidence that GUN control is necessary in the USA.

    On Aug 2, in China, a man killed eight people and wounded five more. He used a knife. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/02/china-knife-attack_n_1731760.html

    On Nov 30, in Wyoming, a man killed three people, including himself, with a bow and arrow (how does one commit suicide by bow and arrow?). http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/11/30/15574250-bow-and-arrow-type-attack-leaves-3-dead-in-casper-wyo-including-2-in-college-classroom-officials-say?lite

    Nobody ever mentions that the Columbine perpetrators also built BOMBS (which are already highly illegal) and placed them in the school, with the intent of detonating them and killing even more people.

    While I agree that sane regulation of “military style” firearms MIGHT help prevent incidents of the magnitude of CT, there is ample evidence that people who do not have firearms will find other means. So eliminating one MEANS to do harm will not solve the problem — we really need to eliminate the MOTIVE.

    2. “Let me finish by pointing out that the one thing we seem reluctant to talk about, on either side, is precisely that lost element of responsibility I mentioned earlier. What the hell happened to us? We have gone from, presumably, a nation of responsible adults to a nation of emerging armed camps with no ability to teach the next generation anything of value.”

    I think that this is at the root of the problem. While I cannot tell whether television is a reflection of culture or culture is a reflection of television, I have noted in perhaps the last decade the extreme emphasis on cutthroat competition. Innumerable television shows are about nothing but vitriolic competition between factions — if the factions do not exist naturally, then they are created. Is is any wonder that Americans have such an insane “us vs. them” mentality? (Again, I may actually have cause and effect reversed here.) When was the last time that you saw a television show that encouraged unity, cooperation, and mutual benefit? And if you did see one, did it seem quaint to the point of being corny? Think about that.

    Our society is sick. We are only discussing treatment of the symptoms, at a time when we haven’t even identified the disease.

    • Edgar Montrose says:

      Apologies for replying to my own post, but I just found this on Democratic Underground: http://www.democraticunderground.com/10022013676

      This has to be the single most idiotic argument that I have ever seen. Basically, it says, “Let’s take away guns, so that the next time there is a mass attack, the perpetrator will have to use a knife, which is LESS LETHAL than a gun.”

      After that occurs, will the next step be: “Let’s take away knives, so that the next time there is a mass attack, the perpetrator will have to use a club, which is less lethal than a knife”?

      And on and on, until the only thing left that might be used as a weapon is a marshmallow?

      Are people incapable of understanding that the problem is not the choice of weapon; it is the fact that a weapon was chosen at all? That the objective is to prevent the ATTACKS, so that lethality is not even an issue?

      I mourn for us.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark: I can’t help but think of the many many movies and TV shows where most problems are presented in such a way that the solution, perhaps the only solution is to kill the “bad” guy. This has been pounded into our skulls forever. So much so that it’s automatic for people to divide each other into good and bad people rather than to look beneath the Hollywood veneer to see that those “bad” people are usually a lot like YOU. Even those people halfway around the world. But yes, those “insurgents” and “militants” and “terrorists” are quickly identified as the problem by our media, then murdered in a way that is reframed as legitimate, through war or through drones or secretly. When we identify others as “bad” we simultaneously define ourselves as “good” and we trust our own judgment to dispense with those “bad” people. The frame I would love to destroy is this Manichean frame. How can we begin to convince ourselves that we have far more in common, even with the “bad” people than the differences?

    One way is to learn to see that people are far more driven by the situations they encounter than by their “inner character,” which is far overrated (the fundamental attribution error).

    Perhaps, also, we need to recognize “morality” to be overrated as a means of creating a decent society. Maybe we ought to be focused on ecology rather than morality. We need to figure out how to get along, how to share resources, and how to safely communicate our needs. We need to better learn to do all these things without the judgmentalism and the scorn and the hate.

    I don’t mean to sound naive. There are people out there who should are so screwed up that they should never be allowed to walk the streets. But I do believe we far overestimate their numbers, and we far underestimate our ability to rethink and implement new ways of sharing resources and generally getting along.

  3. markwt says:

    For anyone interested, I wrote a follow-up to this piece on my own site, which you can find here: http://marktiedemann.com/wordpress/?p=1688

    Erich, agreed. I recall movies and television programming from the 50s and 60s which struggled for nuance and tried ardently to show that violence was a last, desperate resort. Isaac Asimov’s saying (from The Foundation) was “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.” While I find that too naive by half—I do believe there are instances where it is the only answer and I think many on the Left have opened themselves to both ridicule and disappointment by categorically refusing to see this—I think it is largely true. As I stated, we’re telling ourselves the wrong stories.

    A more recent trend, at least on television, has been the depiction of situations in which there are NO good guys—everyone is a different shade of rotten. (The Shield, The Wire, etc) In these, there is good and there are good people, but they are shown as some of the least effective.

    I think in a small way gun rights advocates have a point—we focus so much on the weapon that we tend to minimize the people. We regulate automobile use quite well without removing cars from the road by regulating the people who drive. We should be paying attention to that.

    As to whether or not anyone needs an “assault rifle”—which is in most respects an aesthetic distinction, difficult to concretely explicate in law, and even the proponents of the assault rifle ban of the 90s admit has little real effect—the paradox of such a position is that the very people who buy them become more convinced of the necessity to have them when you start targeting such weapons for a ban. People who think the government is evil and the UN kidnaps people are not clinical insane. They’ve simply internalized a bad narrative. Small comfort, I know, but it points up part of the problem.

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