Insanity

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 are 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 a 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.

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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* No, I do not believe in demons as in “Satan’s minions” or spawn or what have you.  But some folks do believe in them and act accordingly.