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.

A Couple of Reflections Prompted by Sandy Hook

Yesterday, on Facebook, I reposted a link to a post I had written here in response to the Aurora shootings in July. You could change the title of the post slightly to reference ‘Sandy Hook’ rather than ‘Aurora’ and nothing else would need changing. This morning, still clearly unable to write anything coherent in response, I posted the following three messages on my Twitter feed and Facebook page:

Guns don’t come up with half-assed arguments against gun control. People do.

Guns aren’t scared of the NRA. People are.

Guns don’t say after every tragedy: “Lets mourn, no time to talk politics’. People do.

You get the picture; I’m still not capable of making a reasoned contribution to the ‘national debate’ on gun-related violence.

But I do want to make a couple of points about the nature of the ‘debate’, such as it is.

The first is prompted by the third quip above. For an outstanding feature of the political response to the sickeningly common and soon-to-be-mundane massacres is the loudly broadcasted call to immediately seek refuge in bromides and palliatives: the usual mix of mourning, counseling, holding hands, which is supposed to bridge political divides, apply ‘healing balms’ and bring peace to all us traumatized folks. There is never, ever, seemingly any desire evinced by our political classes to prevent the recurrence of the massacres, for they are, as noted before, inevitable. This call is then faithfully parroted by the media (always at its ghoulish worst in its coverage of these kinds of tragedies). This is what I’d much rather see the next time: ditch the candlelight vigil and tell your local politician, congressman, senator, or anyone else that matters that they don’t get your vote unless they start a ‘national conversation’ about guns. Or something else. (The broad similarity of this call to the calls that electoral disputes be settled quickly so that the nation’s citizens don’t get embroiled in something as messy as a politically tinged dispute, one that might produce a little heat and light, is unmistakable and not coincidental. As always, the most important thing is to keep citizens numb, not provoked. God forbid that a difficult issue be aired in all its complexity and that the inevitable disputes it provokes be allowed to get a decent hearing.)

The second is prompted by noticing how mental health is sought as an obfuscatory factor in this debate.  That is, a familiar slogan soon starts making the rounds in two variants: one, ‘this is a mental health issue, not a gun issue’ and second ‘people will find a way to kill people, so banning a particular weapon is unlikely to bring these massacres to a halt.’   These are particularly egregious; they amount, roughly, to saying that no actions need be taken that might make it more difficult for mentally deranged people to go on brutally effective and successful killing sprees. We can control the damage done by the insane by treating them and by making sure they cannot lay their hands on dangerous weapons. The two are not mutually exclusive.

It is truly amazing that a nation, so willing to put up with the evisceration of its civil liberties in order to guard against shadowy, poorly understood threats from elsewhere, is unwilling to countenance the most minor of inconveniences in order to guard against a clearly visible threat from within.