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.

Black Lives Don’t Matter In Charleston

Gore Vidal once said that it was mighty convenient John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King had all been killed by loners, by curiously isolated killers, who just happened to not be part of a broader conspiracy.

Same as it ever was.

A lone gunman shot nine people in Charleston, South Carolina last night. The victims were black; the gunman white. The predictable, boring, American conversation about gun control will now take place and fizzle out; calls to have a ‘conversation about race’ will be made; many folks will point out the double standards employed by the media when reporting on attacks by Muslims and African-Americans (or any other threatening minority). This is all depressingly familiar. So desperate has the business of gun control become that I suspect some folks might actually wish for a mass shooting to be conducted by a Muslim or African-American person just so that the NRA and its right-wing allies could be galvanized into accepting some form of firearm regulation.

How could this come to be? What could possibly have motivated the gunman? South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, who as Chase Madar pointed out, likes to fly the Confederate flag in the state capital, claims that  “‘we’ll never understand what motivates’ the massacre in Charleston.” Au contraire. We know or can surmise with reasonable certainty the following about this latest installment in America’s long, dark, double-barreled, automatic loading nightmare: The gunman was a racist, one infected by paranoia and prejudice, who had easy access to guns. He was possessed by rage, he had the means with which to give expression to the rage.

There is, of course, another dimension to the white rage on display. Over the past year or so, white ragers could not have failed to notice that black folks have gotten awfully uppity. They relentlessly document police shootings and make those videos go viral; they march and protest; they block traffic; they lie down on the street and play dead, all the while chanting stuff like “I can’t breathe“; they level one damning accusation after another of systemic racism at this country’s political, economic and social institutions; heck, they’ve even come up with a hashtag about how their ‘lives matter.’ This constant blaming, this futile dredging through past ills like slavery and the denial of the vote and lynching and red-lining is deeply counterproductive; it prevents us from moving onwards to a consideration of which bankers’ pet will be on television most for the next sixteen months, all the while filling our airwaves with vapid promises and extravagant claims to keep this country safe from overseas threats.

The man who stepped into the church yesterday and let fly might have had enough; perhaps the anger on display in the marches and protests was unsettling; perhaps the constant calls to police the police, those folks who guard him against the advancing forces of blackness, had made him fearful.

He wasn’t alone in his feelings, and he won’t be the last one to act out his fear by exercising his Second Amendment rights.

Guns and Speech, Gunslingers and Writers

Patrick Blanchfield examines some of the troubling constitutional questions raised by the gun-toting folks who showed up to protect Cliven Bundy in Nevada:

According to open carry advocates, their presence in public space represents more than just an expression of their Second Amendment rights, it’s a statement, an “educational,” communicative act  — in short, an exercise of their First Amendment freedom of speech. (See this, from the group Ohio Carry, and this Michigan lawsuit.)

This claim bears serious consideration.  The First Amendment has historically been much harder to limit than the Second, and so extending the freedom of speech to the open display of weapons raises several urgent questions about how we understand the relationship between expressing ideas and making threats, between what furthers dialogue and what ends it.

But are guns speech?  Is carrying a weapon as an act of public protest constitutionally protected under the First Amendment? And if so, what do guns say?

These are very important questions and they deserve a serious answer. Much to the relief of gun advocates everywhere, I will argue the analogy holds quite well.

Guns are pens, pencils, styluses, word processors, take your pick; bullets are their words; gun users are writers. Those who use guns are rightly distinguished by their manner of employing them. For instance, your garden-variety, pistol-packin’ gunslinger is akin to a popular tabloid writer, perhaps emptying a few magazines–see what I did there?–in the direction of the target of his polemics; the sharpshooter armed with a high-powered rifle is a much more accomplished wordsmith, able to use expensive precision equipment with style and delicacy alike to bring down his quarry. (Remember how we used to speak of the ‘cut, thrust, and parry’ of verbal jousters? Swords, foils, and rapiers then, guns now.)

Many words of wisdom, dispensed to writers and sharpshooters, are analogous to each other. For instance, the sage advice that you should wait till you can ‘see the whites of their eyes’ is like telling a writer to wait for the right moment to publish his book or essay or blog post, or share it on Facebook or Twitter (the wise ones always share links during work hours, when you can be sure the salaried worker is busy killing time with social media.) Sometimes, just like in writing, you should show, not tell; let folks know you are carrying heat; there is no need to say any more.

Brevity in gunfire, as in writing, is always appreciated: don’t be profligate in your consumption of ammunition; never use two words to do what you can do with one. After all, a well-placed bullet between the eyes is always better than spraying a whole clip of ammo at the target; you are more likely to go home with a kill that day.

Who are the readers? The targets, of course. A good writer needs good readers. And good shooters need good targets, a fact we are always reminded of whenever we see those wonderful photographs of hunters standing over their dead prey–such noble, brave, beautiful, splendid animals, their brains blown out and splattered all over the ground.

Drop The Whistle; Shoot A Black Kid Instead (or Torture Prisoners)

Chelsea Manning has been sentenced to jail for thirty-five years for committing the heinous crime of whistleblowing. Manning knows that she didn’t just commit a crime, she committed the wrong sort of crime:

Manning spoke to reporters after the hearing, to admit his disappointment at the sentence, telling those gathered, “I look back to that fateful day and wish I’d just left those files on my computer and gone out and shot a black kid instead….my life would be a lot less complicated if I’d only taken the life of a young person from a different ethnic background, instead of sending some documents to a website.”

Legal experts have expressed support for the 35 year sentence given to Manning, by explaining that members of the public don’t actually understand how the law works. Former lawyer Simon Williams explained, “Illegally taking information you don’t have the right to access, and using it for your own purposes is only ‘properly’ illegal if you’re not a government agency. Governments can do what they like with information they’re not allowed to have – if nothing else, Prism has taught us that.  Whereas absolutely anyone can shoot a black teenager to death, obviously.”

Manning has learnt these simple facts the hard way but that doesn’t mean that those young folks who have been following her trial have to as well.  They will, in particular, have hopefully internalized the following facts about the system of justice prevalent in this great nation of ours.

First, a career in high finance can ensure the penalty-free satisfaction of desires, even if their fulfillment runs afoul of ethical and legal consideration. If unbridled earning with no regard for the immiseration of others is your thing, then young folks will do well to pay attention to the so-called financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath.  Giddy, reckless speculation, irresponsible and unregulated banking will never, ever get you sent to jail. This career option is best for those seeking to maximize income, while not being unduly worried about penalties. Indeed, this might earn you the admiring sobriquet of ‘indispensable’ by government officials.

Second, if finance seems dull, and big bucks seem passé, and your taste in pleasures are influenced by Sade, then consider a career in law-enforcement or counter-intelligence instead. Brutal interrogations, torture, and unchecked surveillance can induce sufficient frisson to satisfy even the most jaded. As before, there will be little fear of moral disapproval or legal penalty. This career choice, while not as lucrative as banking, does provide admiration from those who will regard you as a defender of their liberties and a fighter for freedom everywhere.

Lastly, if your career options are settled and you are looking for easy entertainment, then as Manning indicates, consider shooting black teenagers instead, especially those that wear clothes which, despite being worn by countless white teenagers, will always be regarded as symbols of black criminality. This course of action might even net you a book deal, or a moonlighting gig as spokesperson for the National Rifle Association.

Parents would do well to inculcate these principles early in their children.

Note: I have edited this post to use Manning’s name and pronouns of choice. Good luck to her.

The All Too Inevitable Denouement of the Trayvon Martin Story

In commenting on the murder of Trayvon Martin last year, I wrote:

The killing of Trayvon Martin is a classically American nightmare: a suburb somewhere, a dark night, a young black man on the streets, guns in the hands of people who imagine it will make them safer, calls to 911 that provide grim, brief, staccato evidence of a deadly, preventable encounter. And at the end of it all, a dead man, grieving parents, a police force and a city administration making mealy-mouthed responses. When we reach that stage, a sickening sense of deja vu strikes, for we have memorized the rest of the script: a little outrage that soon blows itself out, some protest marches, featuring as usual, some ‘leaders’ of the black community, bland, banal responses from the police force, and a meandering march toward ‘justice,’ which, more often than not, ends in miscarriage.

Well, that familiar script has played out as predicted and the anticipated miscarriage of ‘justice’ is here: George Zimmerman has been acquitted of second-degree murder and of manslaughter; Trayvon Martin‘s parents are left grieving and inconsolate, resigned to spending the rest of their lives mourning a young life cut short. And the rest of us reduced to raging impotently, if eloquently at times, on social media timelines and playing parlor games in which thought experiments involving a white Trayvon Martin and a black Zimmerman are devised, with the same outcome every time: Zimmerman going to the gallows or heading for a life sentence in prison.

A few weeks, months or years from now, Trayvon Martin’s name will acquire some obscurity, and blend in with Yusuf Hawkins, Amadou Diallo, and oh, take your pick: a grim roll of black men who get shot on the streets, and whose killers always, somehow, manage to walk; his portrait will join those flashed at the rallies that will soon, again, be held for some other victim of the over-hasty, over-eager policeman or home-brewed vigilante.  Zimmerman will go back to his life, still armed and dangerous. If the perversity of our culture will play out in some of its most gruesome manifestations, we might see him again, perhaps on a talk show, or a book release event, justifying his unhinged reactions on that fatal night.

In the post from which I’ve quoted above, I also wrote:

[T]he final pull of the trigger, as in this case, was merely the spearpoint of a weapon that had been aimed at Trayvon Martin’s head for a very long time. Zimmerman lives in a society infected by racism; when he finally shot Trayvon, he wasn’t acting alone; he was accompanied by anything and everything that has conspired to make it the case that young black men in this country are taking substantial risks when they venture out alone into a dark street.

The ‘anything and everything’ includes legal statutes like Florida’s stand-your-ground law, but even more importantly, it includes the structural racism which made it possible for those thought experiments I allude to above to be run so easily.

That structure needs, and will take, some tearing down.

Gun Control, Propaganda, and the Susceptibility of Man to ‘Unreason’

In An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), William Godwin wrote:

Show me in the clearest and most unambiguous manner that a certain mode of proceeding is most reasonable in itself, or most conducive to my interest, and I shall infallibly pursue that mode, so long as the views you suggested to me, continue present to my mind….Render the plain dictates of justice level to every capacity…and the whole species will become reasonable and virtuous. It will then be sufficient for juries to recommend a certain mode for adjusting controversies…It will then be sufficient for them to invite offenders to forsake their errors….Where the empire of reason was so universally acknowledged the offender would either readily yield to the expostulations of authority, or if he resisted through suffering no personal molestation he would feel so weary under the unequivocal disapprobation and the observant eye of public judgment as willingly to remove to a society more congenial to his errors.

As noted by C. A. Mace in his introduction to J. A. C. Brown’s Techniques of Persuasion: From Propaganda to Brainwashing (Penguin, London; 1963), these lines by Godwin are a ‘charming, if pathetic expression’ of ‘the belief that man is not only a rational animal but also a reasonable animal.’ They are charming because they are so optimistic and trusting, pathetic because the evidence of history seems to crush them stillborn. 

I write these words on the day that Barack Obama has announced ‘plans to introduce legislation by next week that includes a ban on new assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines, expanded background checks for gun purchases and tougher gun trafficking laws’ and signed executive orders ‘designed to increase the enforcement of existing gun laws and improve the flow of information among federal agencies in order to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and others who shouldn’t have them.’ (‘Obama Unveils Proposals For Toughening Laws on Guns‘, New York Times, 16 January 2012).

The relevance of Godwin’s quote to our current situation should be quite clear. As should the subject matter of Brown’s book. For we are now entering a phase of political discourse where the political subjects of this nation of ours will note just how bizarre the beliefs of political opponents can seem, how their susceptibility to the dark forces of unreason and irrationality can provide such plentiful cause for wonder and befuddlement. And we will be reminded, again and again, of the etymology of propaganda–which was defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘an association or scheme for propagating a doctrine or practice’–in the Latin propagare, meaning ‘the gardener’s practice of pinning the fresh shoots of a plant into the earth in order to reproduce new plants which will take on a life of their own.’ (TOP, p. 10)

PS: A rather facetious aside. As I read Godwin’s quote, I was reminded of my ‘charming and pathetic’ attempts, every semester, to regulate and render more orderly my conduct of the classes I teach by presenting a detailed syllabus–which articulates the course requirements clearly–and by talking at great length about how every student can maximize their chances of getting a good grade in the class.