Our national obsession with violence and complete liberty has claimed and disfigured 60 more lives this weekend in Aurora, Colorado. An angry and maliciously focused young man has once more found in legal and readily available firearms the best way to express his rage and frustration, just like Cho, Loughner, Klebold, Harris, Kazmierczak and countless hundreds before and after them. As a recent book on gun rights made clear, the Second Amendment is not, and never was meant to be, a national “suicide pact”: a license to horde and use unimaginably violent weapons and ammunition whenever one feels threatened. Gun violence is a disease that corrupts and rots as it kills and maims. The American body politic is infected with this horrible affliction, and our culture is already gangrenous and fetid to its core when it comes to issues of violence and weapons. We are a gun obsessed culture. We are a nation of people who see themselves as John Wayne and as the rest of the world as some squint-eyed desperado waiting to make us into a victim.
We look only to the most extreme “cures” to our society’s problems: crime is high? Do not address poverty and injustice, but do get a gun and protect yourself and property. Feel threatened and afraid? Do not seek therapeutic, medical, or community help, but do get a gun so that you feel like a powerful person again. Want to prevent gun violence in society? Arm more people so that one angry man with a gun can be stopped by another. This is madness. This is despicable. This is a disease. Some, including (amazingly) the Governor of Colorado want us to believe that banning or restricting some or all types of guns and ammunition will do little or nothing to stop violence. They say that “we cannot ban all violence so why bother”. But isn’t this like saying “we can’t stop all cases of the flu, so why create vaccines?” It is a cowardly red herring that should be called what it is. Organizations like the NRA and the Republican party (and many cowardly Democrats as well) stoke our national obsession with guns and redemptive American violence. We are told that it is our right to own any and every kind of violent tool. If we are denied that right then we are told this is a fate worse than death. Say this to the 6 year old shot on the South Side of Chicago. Say this to Trayvon Martin, or to Robert Kennedy. No other right leads to the death of 10000 people a year. No other right assumes that with great power comes no responsibility.
The fact remains that we view liberty as an excuse for our immaturity and our childish desires for power and complete security. The men who wrote the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution were men who grew up around fire arms that took some skill to handle, and that had an immediate and real potential to save and preserve life: hunting, fighting the British, holding ones’ own in a society that did not yet have a police force or an army. Today we take the right they enumerated as a free pass to create 300 million one man armies. We have grown so paranoid with fear that we think that we must arm ourselves against our own government, while it is actually we the people who kill, maim, and terrorize each other with guns each and every day. Thomas Jefferson did say that the tree of liberty must, on occasion, be watered with the blood of tyrants. But he was not foolish enough to think that tyranny was always eminent whenever one felt threatened, or that this blood meant to feed that tree of liberty must be spilt but 6000 rounds of high powered ammunition. We are not watering the tree of liberty: we are drenching it in the blood of our fellow citizens for no other reason than we are afraid.
But why are we afraid? Could it be that we are afraid of ourselves? What is more terrifying then a nervous, frustrated and driven person with a deadly weapon? And that is precisely what thousands and thousands if not millions of our fellow citizens have become. We are an unorganized and bloodthirsty private army searching desperately for an enemy. And when they inevitably cannot find that enemy worth the trouble they have put into arming themselves, they will turn on themselves, and upon a society and a government that has not supplied them with an alternative to the redemptive violence that they imagine is their only hope against…something? Someone? Whom? We live in a society that has given up on itself. If we cannot make our society perfect, then why bother? If we cannot make ourselves totally unafraid, then why not live in a state of self-justifying and self-gratifying fear? The government is no longer allowed to help us because that would mean we are “socialist” or “rewarding failure”, business cannot be bothered because that may impact their liberty to make as much money as they want however they want to, and religion is just a sickening and cynical parody of human love and decency.
We are constantly looking for a reason to explode against the apathy we force feed ourselves. We dare not actually examine the roots of our national psychosis because that might mean admitting that we cannot have it all, and that we as Americans are not god’s perfect people. So we cling to our guns and we wait for that dark, scary other to burst through the door. We dare the world to “make our day” and give us an excuse, any excuse, to do something that makes us feel powerful and important and in control, if only for one terrible moment. We lie to ourselves and say that young men like Aurora shooter James Holmes are the exception to the rule: they are “madmen”, “disturbed”, “anomalies”. Anything but “quintessentially American” and “inevitable”. I will not hazard to guess why Holmes and so many other shooters did what they did because we cannot ever know something that emerges from an individual human psyche. But I will say this: we are so afraid of the Holmes of the world because when we see them staring down the sight of that gun we can all too easily see our own finger on the trigger.