By Patrice Greanville
Note: This is by way of commentary on Diane Gee’s prior piece on the private ownership of guns, an issue which seems to cause enormous division and acrimony in the ranks of the left and those who think themselves as leftists. The position laid out below does not represent the views of the Greanville Post’s editorial board, only my own, although most editors subscribe in one fashion or another to the arguments expressed herein.
The issue of guns and violence in America usually go together, provoking huge debates and divisions within the liberal camp. Rightwingers, chiefly thanks to temperament, massive ignorance (a lot of it willfully ingested), and a simplistic understanding of reality, usually avoid such basic ideological clashes. They’re lucky in that regard because, not too prone to handwringing as liberals, over time it helps them preserve tactical and strategic unity.
The question of under what circumstances guns in private hands are useful and necessary, and whether social violence manifested in crime and psychotic killings is aided or not by the ready supply of all types of weapons, is difficult to sort out without examining the fabric of society.
The Swiss reportedly have about half the American rate of guns in private hands, yet their overall rate of violence and mayhem is practically nil. Canadians, with one-third the American rate, a significant stat in any country, are not besieged by fear of their fellow citizens (or government) the way Americans are, and still in 2012, even in the larger towns and cities, they refuse to lock their doors. (A surprising fact presented in bold relief by Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine). The rate of violent crime, and especially serial killings, as in Switzerland, is negligible. And even Serbia, a nation convulsed by war, civil war, and foreign meddling (that has yet to cease); a society that should have more than its share of sociopaths and psychopaths, traumatized ex-soldiers, and which occupies the #2 spot in gun ownership in the world, with 58 guns per 100 people as opposed to 89 per 100 in the US, has a pallid rate of violent crime, insignificant by American standards. This is recognized by the usually over-protective if not paranoid US State Department which notes in its advisory for Serbia, “Belgrade does not have high levels of street crime, but pick-pocketing and purse snatchings do occasionally occur…” Wow. Start trembling, folks.
So what does it all mean? In my view, that as is common knowledge, the US is a sick society, sicker than just about any other nation on the planet, a situation directly related to a putrid value system rooted in selfishness and hyper individualism, a culture in perpetual frenzy (due to the bombardment of imbecilic and invidious commercial images and plots), and a profound inequality and economic insecurity that has been eroding public morale and morality for well over a century.
In this toxic atmosphere, the number of unhinged people, isolated ticking bombs roaming around in America’s streets and public spaces, people like James Holmes, is probably growing due to the rapidly accelerating breakdown of society and its supporting mechanisms. Given such conditions of life, can anyone lay down absolute rules of conduct in connection with guns, in the household, of example? Can anyone tell a woman that keeping a gun nearby is wrong when home invasions are on the rise across the country? (The term “home invasion” is elusive, and statistics on it as a separate category of crime not reliable, but “burglar striking an occupied residence,” or “home invasion with intent to rape, murder or kidnap” are congruent categories covering the same terrain and easily extrapolated.)
So, going back to the question, is it a good idea to keep a gun at home for personal defense (assuming you know how to use a gun and how to use it responsibly), or to take a gun in the car when traveling at night or to unknown places, especially in the case of women, the answer can’t be a categorical “No” in the United States. In some situations a gun is indeed the only element that tips the scales toward safety and survival. As one of the most famous gun manufacturers once advertised, “God made man but Samuel Colt made them equal”. So I respect those who choose to have a weapon for self-defense. In fact, though I never kept weapons of any kind to hunt non-human animals, an activity I regard as brutal, and anachronistic in modern society, where a trip to the nearest supermarket is almost always a lot cheaper than a foray into the woods, I’ve always had guns myself and am fairly familiar with their use under a variety of circumstances.
Now for the caveats. Psychotic violence —and even common crime— occur with little or no warning, so guns can rarely protect in an absolute manner. Once “they got the drop on you” —as they say—the game is pretty much over. And guns in general are also as likely to hit a friendly target (beginning with their owner) as a real or imagined threat. So the gun as a protective device is only of relative merit. Its presence may actually serve far more to steady the nerves and act lucidly on a tight spot than actually decide confrontations by regular shoot-em-ups. That may be a desirable benefit. Fact is, many people on the left, like people in general, quietly keep guns in their homes or place of work. As well, small business owners, especially those in direct service to the public, like gas stations, bodegas, or “package goods” are often armed. Such choice does not make them—or me—pals of the hideous Anne Coulter or Wayne LaPierre, nor hidden fans of the equally detestable Glenn Beck. It’s a personal question.
The long shadow of the (miscontrued) 2nd Amendment
But, let’s say it for the record: I’m firmly against the “gun culture” mob, the 2nd Amendment baloney (about that more below), and the NRA, and its baleful influence on American politics, society, the treatment of animals, and the wackadoodlery it generally encourages. It’s obvious that the unrestricted hoarding and easy access to guns and all sorts of weapons in America, to the degree that more than a few individuals have been able to accumulate minor arsenals, has become a monstrous deformation and a clear danger to civil society, as so many instances of serial killers and random gun violence attest.
But what about guns as protection against government tyranny or as revolutionary weapon of last resort? This comment is not intended as a wide-ranging discussion of these issues so I will make only passing reference to some points that deserve attention.
First, I doubt very much that an armed citizenry can successfully contain or neutralize the armed might of the American state—if the latter decides to go for broke. Barring an outright civil war from the beginning—with the US armed forces split down the line—I can only envision —at best—some form of sporadic partisan-type resistance as existed in the German-occupied territories during WW2 or today’s Iraq and Afghanistan, increasingly successful over time if the tyranny becomes obvious to most, which again may take a long time, as the stubborn obtuseness of at least half of the American population in the face of enormous abuse and fraud by the reigning plutocracy sorrily demonstrates. In sum, the romantic idea of a “rebel army” with no connection to formal units of the US military, and created by an accretion of armed citizens, is far more fantasy than reality. Isolated individuals, no matter how heavily armed, would be easily surrounded and blotted out one by one. In that sense, the 2nd Amendment loyalists and would-be militiamen are only deluding themselves. Far more likely, the nation may descend gradually from chaos into some type of civil war, where the proliferation of guns will surely play a role. Which role is not easy to say at this point.
Some voices have suggested that the case of Syria presents an interesting (and to many liberals, discomfiting) example of what small-caliber weapons can do to shake a government. Here small arms in the hands of irregulars have apparently made a difference in wearing down and even occasionally defeating heavily armed forces.
The lesson may not be so clear or so exportable to the home ground as it appears at fist blush. Syria is caught in a rapidly shifting and very fluid civil war by now, with ample supplies of weapons of all types flowing into the country courtesy of the rebels’ foreign sponsors, improbable in the case of an American conflict, at least during its inception. And the cultural, historical, and tribalistic fissures that apply to Syria do not apply to the same degree or at all in the US. If anything, Syria today is the inverse of what might eventually obtain in the US, where a largely static, urban and semi-rural population might be receiving an all-out assault of heavily armed police and military, not “rebel” forces of some indeterminate stripe. We’re assuming, of course, that the vast majority of the people in this case would be opposing the government (assuming again for good reasons, not wacko reasons as propounded by the right), an unlikely event given the atrocious and deeply entrenched political confusion obtaining in America at this juncture. In short, the actual value of small-caliber weapons to resist a state attack remains unclear and at best circumstantial.
The above brings up the question of so-called “revolutionary violence.” As is the case with owning a private handgun I’m afraid this can’t be resolved in the abstract, nor with anything approaching absolutistic certainty. Only confronted with specific and concrete situations can we approach a reasonable position. Historically it has been the state, representing the forces and interests of a corrupt minority, that has made the first moves toward a liberal use of violence, both to intimidate and later on decapitate and smash the insurgency. In such cases I think revolutionary self-defense is inevitable and just. Those who preach nonviolence at all times and under all circumstances are leading the people to the abattoirs. And they’re not being historical but idealistic in the worst possible sense of that term.
My position on pacifism is well set forth in my critique of Ward Churchill’s book, Pacifism as Pathology
And you can read it here.
But for those who will not travel the distance, here it is in a nutshell: I’m not a pacifist, am not an absolutist about the idea the left, the revolutionists, should always refuse to defend themselves, and so on. Even the great modern “apostles” of tactical nonviolence (yes, nonviolence in contemporary conflicts is much more a tactic than a philosophical position), Martin Luther King and Gandhi, especially the latter, are clear about the role of violence: it has a legitimate place at the table. Some passages from my review may help to clarify my position further:
Seeking to drive a stake through the heart of middle-class pacifism, Churchill goes on to detail (and rebuke) some of the main claims made by the peaceful legions, particularly the almost universally accepted notion that it was the protests and demonstrations in the US that finally forced US policymakers to order a withdrawal from Vietnam. Churchill refutes this conceit by noting that the war was lost in the field, which is undeniable, as the humiliating images of Americans escaping Saigon from the rooftop of the US embassy amply demonstrated, and that, therefore it was first and above all a military defeat inflicted on the imperial armies (and their puppets) by the Vietnamese people that created the necessary conditions for a “pragmatic rethinking of the war” by its architects back in the imperial capital. Haven’t we seen this terrible movie before?
The reason for the book thus lies in the utterly deformed political landscape presented by contemporary America, where the left, unlike any other in the developed capitalist world (except for the anglo-cultural zone nations that resemble it) has apparently adopted pacifism as the one and only method of “opposing” the empire. Consistent with the pervasiveness of this view, and to justify such narrow policy, many US progressives have embraced a literal idolatry of nonviolence, elevating the tactics and accomplishments of figures such as Ghandi and Dr. King to near infallibility, and believing (wrongly in the eyes of the author and this writer) that moral suasion alone is capable of liquidating well-entrenched institutionalized violence and inequality…
Indeed, one of the things that make this volume especially provocative (and valuable) is that the question of violence vs. nonviolence is not only debated by Churchill, an academic, but also by Ed Mead, who wrote the book’s introduction, and who was himself a participant in what was at the time an attempt at armed struggle.
Edward Allen Mead was one of the young political activists of the 1960s and 1970s whose frustration and rage drove them to resort to violence. He joined the George Jackson Brigade, a guerrilla group that blew up supermarkets, car dealerships, a power station, and other symbols of the system it was bent on destroying. To finance its operations, the Brigade robbed banks. A 1976 bank robbery in Tukwila, Washington, culminated in a shootout in which Mead and another Brigade member were captured. A third member was killed, and a fourth escaped but was later apprehended. Mead received a thirty-year Federal sentence for bank robbery and a forty-year state sentence for first-degree assault on a police officer, though neither of the officers in the shootout was hit.
Mead never abandoned his radical politics, but he did decide that violence was not the way to bring about change at that particular juncture. With the benefit of hindsight he told a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “I really know how wrong it was to do what I did. Not because it’s legally wrong, but because it was just a great political mistake. You want things to happen so bad that you throw yourself into it. Today, I do it with a pen and a computer. . . .It’s about what works.” While time may have mellowed Mead a bit, he remains quite lucid (and some would say adamant) about the options facing the younger generations of would-be world-changers.
“I think that we can agree that the exploited are everywhere and that they are angry. The question of violence and our own direct experience of it is something we will not be able to avoid when the righteous rage of the oppressed manifests itself in increasingly focused and violent forms [this was said in 1997]. When this time comes, it is likely that white pacifists will be the ruling class’ first line of defense.”
Later, zeroing in on his main contention, that the use or non-use of violence is a tactic, not a rigid article of faith good for all seasons, Mead declares:
“I have talked about violence in connection with political struggle for a long time and I’ve engaged in it. I see myself as one who incorrectly applied the tool of revolutionary violence during a period when its use was not appropriate. In doing so, my associates and I paid a terrible price…I served nearly two decades behind bars as a result of armed actions conducted by the George Jackson Brigade. During those years I studied and restudied the mechanics and applicability of both violence and noviolence to political struggle. I’ve had plenty of time to learn how to step back and take a look at the larger picture. And, however badly I may represent that picture today, I still find one conclusion inescapable: Pacifism as a strategy of achieving social, political and economic change can only lead to the dead end of liberalism.”
One last point. The struggle against an unjust social order is always bound to be complicated and morally blurry. Still, I believe that if the Chilean, Argentinean and Uruguayan people had been privately armed to the level Americans are, the imposition of fascistic military rule in those nations would have been a lot more difficult. With weapons in almost every home, the death toll probably would have been much higher, but it would have been an all-out civil war, not a massacre of the innocents. Take your pick.
When it comes to the use of force, there are no absolutes and no easy answers. Only “situational” answers. The existence of guns —not to mention sophisticated weaponry—represents in all spheres and latitudes the failure of human civilization. Guns and weapons in general have never existed in a historical vacuum. The violence of guns issues from social sickness, rooted in profound and widely institutionalized ignorance, poverty and injustice, and above all, the fracture of the human family into two classes, one bent on exploiting the other. Till we deal with these root causes, and stamp them out decisively, these scourges will remain with us.
In America, gun-control activists have advanced a variety of proposals. Some are eminently sensible and quite moderate in their demands: simply that weapons designed for the battlefield should not be licensed for “sport” or home protection. Wherever one may stand on this issue, it’s clear that an honest national debate is long overdue, but such debate is not likely to happen as long as a corrupt Congress in the pocket of the NRA, the gun lobby, and a paranoid right preclude a rational examination of what it means to have guns freely circulating throughout a nation as sick and explosively divided as the United States in the first decades of the 21st century.
Patrice Greanville is The Greanville Post‘s editor in chief.
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