The NRA On The Dallas Shooting

The National Rifle Association has issued the following statement in response to the shootings in Dallas:

Today is a great day for the Second Amendment, that everlasting guarantee of our right to bear arms and take them up against a tyrannical government. For months and years now, we at the National Rifle Association have watched with increasing dismay as law-enforcement officers have used their firearms to shoot innocent citizens for a variety of offences–sometimes playing in a playground, sometimes shopping, sometimes running away from police. These were all bothersome, but then we learned of the death of Brother Philando Castile, who was legally carrying a gun, and was then shot dead by a police officer as he reached for his license.  Enough is enough.

And that’s not a thought that just we at the NRA had. Clearly some peace-and-justice loving fellow citizens had the same thought and decided to act on it: by using their firearms, their constitutionally protected guns, against the agents of this oppressive police state, ruled by that socialist autocrat, Barack Obama, who would like nothing better than to take away our guns. So they fired on the police; that the police succumbed to their shooting is an indictment of the police’s training, their inability to defend themselves with their guns. No more protection can be afforded to our citizens than to arm them with guns, as many, and as heavy a caliber, as possible. These the police had; they simply did not use them well enough.

The shooters did nothing wrong; they were merely ‘speaking up’ as citizens, heavily armed ones. They knew their guns were there to protect them and their communities and families from danger–just like the founding fathers intended–and so they did.

Let us not respond to these shootings with alarmist rhetoric about protests endangering lives; protests do not endanger people’s lives, people do.

Have Gun, Will Settle Dispute: The Dangerous, Alluring Temptation

I’ve seen fights, disputes, grow, fester, erupt into bouts of violence: disagreements become irrevocable, boundaries are crossed, and then, tempers flare. Punches and slaps are thrown, sometimes half-heartedly, sometimes in a desperate flurry, sometimes shirt collars are grabbed as the ‘fight’ turns into an ungainly grappling session with headholds and chokeholds that aim to incapacitate. When the smoke clears, the protagonists emerge bruised and battered with a bleeding nose or lip–the former is more visually striking, liable to cause alarm, as red stains make their way down jaws and shirt fronts. On rare occasions, the fights have turned especially ugly: once, a young man picked up a rock and hit another on the face with it, splitting open a gash that instantly turned crimson, on yet another, a small piece of wood was pressed into service for the same purpose with the same effect. Drunken fights–like those I have witnessed on umpteen occasions at baseball games–are always infected with a touch of the comic; the fighters fight to stay on their feet even as their impaired co-ordination prevents them from landing a meaningful punch or avoiding the blows that come their way (the infamous ‘why don’t you step on outside’ brawl at bars often showcases such encounters.)

I’ve never seen a fight, yet, turn deadly. No one got stabbed with a screwdriver or a knife and bled to death. The folks I saw fighting didn’t own or carry guns. But if they had, they might have pressed them into service, seeing in them a speedy resolution of a nagging irritation that had turned unbearable. Which is what a lot of folks all over the US seem to do–as the Parents Against Gun Violence page on Facebook reports, the following are some of the reasons Americans pressed guns into service in the month of May this year:

 

As you can see, the formula is pretty simple, and can be boiled down to a few essentials: see fellow citizen, enter into dispute with fellow citizen, reach point of irresolvable difference, settle dispute with gun. Sometimes alcohol, that most popular of all legal drugs, is also implicated, but it needn’t be; sometimes it is men doing the shooting, but not every single time; sometimes children get into the act. Traffic conflicts, workplace hirings and firings, prickly neighbors, property wrangling, domestic arguments–these can all be expeditiously settled with a firearm. (Road rage in the city and on highways has a long and dishonorable history of featuring guns in its eruptions.) Perhaps a handgun is used, perhaps a shotgun, perhaps an assault rifle. It does not matter; they all shoot bullets, they all shut a yapping mouth, they still a flailing body. They make the irritating person who won’t shut up go away.

Homicidal rage, the kind that results in violence, is always dangerous. It is made especially so when it can be coupled with a firearm. A gun promises a dramatic and satisfying denouement, a fantasy of forceful resolution, an imposition of our will on a stubborn and difficult world. It will always provide a dangerous and alluring temptation.

ISIS, America, ‘Failed States,’ And Gun Control

In the Orlando massacre, ISIS met, once again, the enemy it wanted: a society riven by a culture of violence, hyper-masculinity (and its inevitable attendant, homophobia), awash in guns, susceptible to fascist demagoguery, infected by a paranoid, self-destructive Islamophobia. That society’s lawmakers have passed over two hundred anti-LGBT bills in recent times; they also refuse to limit access to assault rifles that allow a lone gunman to shoot over hundred people in an enclosed space. Its political candidates exploit the socio-economic decline and corrosive anger resulting from rampant economic inequality to stoke fears of immigrants and foreigners and people of color; as if on cue, a fascist has become one of its presidential candidates this election season. ISIS could not have asked for anything more. It stands on distant heights, looking at the scenes arrayed before it, and it sees a polity ripe for exploitation. It wonders when this divided house will fall.

The power of ISIS in material terms is insignificant, for its rule is confined to a few pockets of territory in the Middle East; its progress in gaining square miles is merely fitful. Its soldiers and weaponry are as susceptible to munitions as anyone else’s. But ISIS rules America’s imagination, and that might be its most important conquest yet. ISIS would like nothing more than to see American saber-rattling and war mongering, coupled with a fierce desire to track down and persecute imaginary Fifth Columns; these are all are part of an explicit ISIS prescription for success in America.

It is the day after the Orlando massacre, and there is little to do in America other than sign petitions, make note of outrageous hot takes–like Donald Trump’s suggestion that Obama had something to do with the massacre–curse the NRA, and quibble about who or what should be blamed. America is at a loss. Such confusion–over political strategy and tactics, in response to a phenomenon that occurs with metronomic regularity–indicates a state ripe for the kind of infection the ISIS aims to spread; it is entirely opportunistic–for it first took root in post-war Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

A comparison of the world’s greatest superpower with the world’s ‘failed states’ might seem risible; but it is not so when it comes to the matter of mass shootings and gun control. For failed states are characterized by broken political discourse, by vacuums of power; such is arguably the state of affairs when it comes to these massacres in America. Political parties know not what to do; the populace is convinced of its helplessness. Guns and those who use them and sell them rule the roost–just like they do in ‘badlands’ the world over.  The culture of violence they enable, the disputes they help settle, the temper tantrums and inchoate prejudices they transform into homicidal rage, these continue to corrode the fabric of America’s polity.

Homophobia, guns, the violent resolution of disputes; these are part of the American cultural and political fabric. They enable ISIS too, just like its beheading videos do.

 

India’s IIT Graduates Go Mainstream: Via Campus Shooting, The American Way

Graduates of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are part of American life: professors, technology officers, and scientists at Ivy League universities, Silicon Valley start-ups, and industrial research and development laboratories.  But these are rarefied environs, exclusive precincts for the technocratic elite; the IIT graduate’s presence here places his cultural achievements in a fringe zone visible only to a select minority. But now with news of a participation in a campus shooting IIT graduates might have finally gone mainstream in the most American of ways: by using a firearm to settle a dispute.

The man who fatally shot a UCLA professor in his office before turning the gun on himself Wednesday has been identified as Mainak Sarkar. He was a former doctoral student who had once called his victim William Klug a “mentor” but in recent months he had written angry screeds accusing him of stealing his computer code.

Police have identified Sarkar as the gunman in yesterday’s murder-suicide that locked down the UCLA campus…Sarkar submitted his doctoral dissertation in 2013, and in the 2014 doctoral commencement booklet, Klug, a mechanical engineering professor, is listed as his advisor…Sarkar had previously earned a master’s degree at Stanford University and an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur. Until August of last year, he had worked as an engineering analyst for a rubber company called Endurica LLC.

The academic CV follows a standard template: an IIT, a top flight American institution, some technical professional experience. And then, things go wrong: a personal relationship deteriorates:

In his acknowledgements, he wrote to Klug, “Thank you for being my mentor.” A source told the Times that Klug bent over backwards to help Sarkar on his dissertation and to graduate, even though Sarkar’s work wasn’t always high-quality. This source is appalled that Sarkar would later accuse Klug of stealing his code to give to another student: “The idea that somebody took his ideas is absolutely psychotic.”

On March 10, Sarkar wrote on a blog now archived:

William Klug, UCLA professor is not the kind of person when you think of a professor. He is a very sick person. I urge every new student coming to UCLA to stay away from this guy. […] My name is Mainak Sarkar. I was this guy’s PhD student. We had personal differences. He cleverly stole all my code and gave it another student. He made me really sick. Your enemy is your enemy. But your friend can do a lot more harm. Be careful about whom you trust. Stay away from this sick guy.

Sarkar resolved his personal crisis with his former mentor and adviser with a gun. Admittedly, only an unglamorous 9mm semi-pistol (perhaps even legally owned and registered), not one of those devastating ‘assault rifles’ that normally gets everyone ire up after the latest mass shooting. And Sarkar didn’t go for the full-fledged massacre; he settled for a ‘one and done’ deal. But in his cleaving to the Way of the Gun, he made his pledge of allegiance, his desire to be All-American, his assimilation strategy of choice, all too clear.

San Bernardino, Selective Surveillance, And The Paralyzed Gun ‘Debate’

Here are two related thoughts running around in my head since the San Bernardino massacre.

On past occasions, whenever one of these quintessentially American mass shootings would be carried out, I would wonder about what could happen to jolt the gun-control ‘debate’ in this country out of its well-worn grooves. (The scare quotes are necessary because there really isn’t a debate: some anguished wails and a stony silence don’t amount to one.) After some casting about, I thought perhaps a mass shooting carried out by ‘Islamic terrorists’ would do so. Surely, even the NRA and its Republican minions would agree then that guns had gotten into the wrong hands, and agree for stronger forms of gun control and regulation. After all, guns for Americans is all very fine, but surely not guns for Muslims?

But even as I thought this, it would seem to me that there was no way that a Muslim (or ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’) person would be able to buy the kinds of weapons and munitions needed to carry out such a deadly assault. Given the heightened surveillance of Muslims in America by its law enforcement agencies, and the paranoid response to even innocent activities like schoolboys building electronic devices, it seemed inconceivable a ‘brown Middle-Eastern looking foreigner’ would be able to walk into a store and buy armaments like the ones described below:

two .223-caliber semi-automatic rifles, two 9mm semi-automatic handguns, and an explosive device…The rifles used were variants of the AR-15: one was a DPMS Panther Arms A15, the other was a Smith & Wesson M&P15. One of the handguns was manufactured by Llama and the other is a Springfield HS2000. All four of the guns were purchased legally in California four years before the attack….the DPMS weapon used a high-capacity magazine, which is not legal in California. The couple had 1,400 rounds for the rifles and 200 for the handguns with them at the time of the shootout. 2,000 9-millimeter handgun rounds, 2,500 .223 caliber rounds, and twelve pipe bombs, along with a cache of tools that could be used to make improvised explosive devices. [From Wikipedia entry on the shootings]

Surely, even if such a sale was made, a phone call to the FBI or local law-enforcement agencies would follow? “Hello, FBI? I just want to let you know that an Ay-rab just boughta whole lotta guns and ammo. Something’s fishy, know what I mean?” I considered the possibility of electronic, online purchases and ruled those out as well. That would be even easier to track and investigate with the fancy profiling algorithms used to slot Americans into No-Fly lists. “Our program indicates a non-trivial probability that this purchase warrants investigation by G-men“. Right?

I was wrong on all counts. ‘Suspicious’ people can buy guns and ammo and materials for making explosives easily. It’s only when they try to live their lives as normal people that they are flagged as such. Moreover, when an ‘Islamist’ or ‘jihadist’ mass shooting will take place in America, it will provide the perfect cover for gun fans: guns don’t kill people, Muslims do. Even worse, it would spark the kinds of fascist fantasies passing for normal thought these days.

This American nightmare isn’t going away anytime soon.

Mass Shootings, Gun Control, And Masculinity

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. There is a great deal of truth in this, er, truism. But having acknowledged that, one can then move on to ask: why do so many people kill people in the US? What are the factors at play in the network of actors and causes and effects that produce, as a grim unblinking result, an epidemic of shootings–two campus shootings so far on this Friday–and a steadily growing heap of corpses?

Gun control advocates–and I am one of them–think that the answer must include the ready availability of guns of all kinds in the US. The NRA and its allies would have us look everywhere but the regulation of guns. I’m going to join them today. What else could it be then?

One pat conservative answer–as typified in Bobby Jindal‘s verbal assault on the father of the Roseburg shooter and Wayne LaPierre‘s response to the Sandy Hook massacre–is the kind of moral degradation conservatives have been bemoaning for years: unwed mothers, children with missing fathers, teenage pregnancy, drug use, video games, the ‘gay lifestyle,’ atheism, premarital sex–the usual harbingers of the apocalypse. In this theoretical framework, the mass shooter is merely the end product of a social pathology which disdains individual responsibility, which is self-indulgent and narcissistic, and which finds ultimate violent expression in nihilistic assaults on the social order. Cure these social ills; bring back prayer in schools; strike the fear of God into all; and then watch these mass shooters fade away quietly, content to read a holy book and go for long walks with their large families.

I agree with this diagnosis in part. Social pathology is to blame for the itchy trigger finger. (The lack of gun control supplies the gun for the finger.) But the pathology I have in mind has other shades to it. There is here, a masculinity that is reared on violence, on an understanding of itself that is dangerously limiting and limited, and which is always fearful of failure in the sexual dimension. The kinds of men this masculinity produces are all too often, angry, lonely, misogynistic, resentful, and scared.  In the pathology I have in mind, these men see themselves as mere atoms in a sea of other human atoms; they are told, relentlessly, that they must be ‘heroic individuals’ and ‘self-made men’; they are instructed that to take help–or give it–is a sign of weakness; it is not in keeping with the ‘frontier spirit’ which made this nation. Militaristic images surround them; soldiers–men with guns–are heroes; war, just another contact sport, is a testing ground for manhood; combat still a rite of initiation;  violence is pornographic. Their imagination finds ample inspiration in this imagery.  They experience an acute dissonance; this world provides as much evidence for its most sympathetic understandings as it does for its cruelest. They still crave the gentlest of human sentiments, but they know that to manifest this need will be considered evidence of failure as a man.

They have failed; they are strangers in a strange land. They have no more need of it, and those who live in it. They won’t go quietly; they’ll let everyone know how this world failed them. Because it made them feel like failures. And kept guns handy for them.

Note: On re-reading some of my older posts on ‘gun control’ I realize I’m reiterating themes I have touched on before. So be it. These shootings repeat themselves too.

The ‘Lone Killer’ And The Mentally Ill World

The invocation of mental illness and lamentations over ‘the state of the American mental health system’ are an inevitable accompaniment to news stories about lone white gunmen who carry out massacres. (c.f. Charleston massacre.)  With that in mind, the following wise remarks by Helen De Cruz are worth pondering:

People are not just motivated by inner mental states, but also by context. That context is one where violence against a subpopulation of the US is condoned and actively perpetuated by police, and one in which it’s normal to have effective killing machines – things that are meant to kill people by functional design, so no analogies with cars please – lying around in your everyday environment. We are embodied, contextual creatures whose actions are influenced by those things at least as much as our internal mental states.

[N]isbett…demonstrated nicely in several experiments how westerners overemphasize personal, internal mental states to explain actions, at the expense of broader cultural context. That’s how westerners keep on seeing white male shooters as lone, unconnected individuals with mental problems (and all the stigmatizing of people with mental disabilities that follows from that), rather than people who live in a culture that normalizes having killing machines lying around and that accepts violence and racism against Black people on a daily basis. [link added]

One of the worst illusions generated by the language of mental states is that it suggests disembodied minds moving through an external landscape, with a full description of the state conveying enough information to predict and understand the behavior of the agent in question. But as De Cruz points out, we are much more; we are agents in tightly embedded, mutually co-determining relationships with our environments. A state  is a static thing but we are dynamic cognizers; we act upon, and are acted upon, by the world around us.

The world that acted upon Dylan Storm Roof has been adequately described above by De Cruz. A mind  at variance with our assessments of ‘normal’ might be particularly susceptible to the violence it enabled and facilitated. It is not too hard to imagine that a different world, a kinder world, a less racist world, one not overrun by deadly weapons and racist rhetoric and infected by a systemic prejudice against entire subclasses of Roof’s fellow humans might not have produced the same massacre as it did this week. The fragile, insecure sensibility that was Roof’s might not have been as easily pushed to breaking point in a world whose airwaves were not saturated with the messages of hate he had so clearly internalized.

The world that Dylan Storm Roof leaves behind is one in which nine families  have been devastated, their hearts and minds made susceptible to anger and despair; it is also one which lays out a template of action for other killers who might be similarly motivated; and lastly, most dangerously of all perhaps, it is one which could play host to a vengeful mind, determined to seek retribution. This is the new environment, this is the new context through which we–the ‘mentally ill’ included–must move now.

We cannot disown the mentally ill; they are of this world and in this world. They are ours.