January 10, 2011
Clearly, it's impossible to make a precise connection between the acts of a given psychopath and public attitude and tone. Anyone who engages in that kind of speculation is on shaky ground. That does not mean, however, that we can't draw conclusions from the sad event that occurred in Tucson on Saturday.
Arizona is a gun culture. What do I mean by that? I mean it's a society in which guns are liked, coveted, and very nearly worshipped. In the light of that affection it's useful to remind ourselves of what guns are. They are instruments made for the purpose of sending metal projectiles crashing through flesh to destroy organs. Does an arm work? Shoot a bullet through it and it won't work. Does a heart work? Shoot a bullet through it and it'll stop. Does a brain work? Shoot a bullet through it and it's unlikely to keep on thinking. In short, guns are made for the purpose of killing living things. Obviously there are other instruments that can kill living things -- knives, axes, automobiles and so on. But they are not made for the purpose of killing. They have other uses. The gun, though, has no other use. It exists to kill. Sure, you can play with it, and shoot at inanimate targets, and so forth. But this is play ancillary to killing.
People who like guns like the idea of killing things. They may not recognize that about themselves, but it's true, nonetheless. Self-knowledge is not high on the list of American traits, and I would guess -- based on observation -- that it's lower in Arizona than it is in some other parts of the country. People who like guns think they are associated with heroic acts. They think that people who are familiar with guns and monkey around with them a lot are more vital than those who don't. They think that guns are essential for producing and maintaining a just society. These are the characteristics of a gun culture.
I don't want to be misread. I am not in favor of making gun ownership illegal. If persons who live in a gun culture wish to own guns, wish to display them in their homes, wish to carry them about on their persons, trying to stop these acts through legal means would push us closer to a police state. I think we're too far down that road already. Furthermore, I don't think that people who like guns, and treasure them, are bad or evil. Those are terms I try to avoid whenever I can. I do think they're pathetic -- in that respect at least. But, as we say, that's just my opinion. "Pathetic," by the way means to be pitied.
Arizona is also a culture of rage. It has two senators who are pretty close to being objective correlatives of rage, who sing happy little songs about bombing countries, who vote against treaties to reduce nuclear weapons (people, by the way, who love bombs are not exactly the same as people who love guns but there's considerable overlap). It has a governor who could be cast credibly as a harpy -- I mean of the mythological sort -- in a film about the religion of ancient Greece. It has the most famous sheriff in America, elected by the citizens of Maricopa Country, who is currently being investigated by the Justice Department for conducting vendettas and abusing his power. Over the past election season we heard more exclamations of rage from Arizona than from any other state, with the possible exception of South Carolina. When Clarence Dupnik says, "The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry" I can find no reason to distrust his judgment. After all, he has lived in Arizona for almost three quarters of a century. If he doesn't know the state, who does?
I suppose one could say there are some positive uses for rage. It can marshal people to kill other people, which is a prime virtue among those who believe in the efficacy of war. It is concentrating energies towards repealing the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution -- or at least some portions of it. It helps people get back at drivers who have "disrespected" them on the highways. It is fueling considerable criticism of persons who attended famous universities, and, in some cases, any university at all. These are all good things from a certain point of view.
The argument I'm making here is simple. If you mingle a gun culture with a culture of rage, certain sorts of things are likely to happen. There's no reason to be surprised by them, or shocked by them. They emerge naturally from their background. They can be viewed calmly as the product of underlying conditions. We do that easily in other situations. We know, for example, that building high-speed roads and extremely powerful vehicles will result in thousands of deaths every year. Few get excited about them, on the whole. They're just the price of being able to drive around in big cars.
A principal attribute of sensible societies is the ability to decide whether the unfortunate consequences of underlying conditions are more than offset by the pleasures and benefits they provide. In the United States we might do well to ask ourselves about the benefits of loving guns and loving rage. Maybe they're so important we shouldn't consider giving them up. But if that's our decision then it's silly to get all riled up about the consequences that go with those love affairs. We should just shrug them off. There's no need for big TV campaigns about them. They just get in the way of commercials.
On the other hand ... well ... you know what the other hand is.
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