January 12, 2013
In immediate response to the Newtown massacre, every pundit began pointing fingers and giving their answers. The problem was gun culture. No, the problem was feminism. Violent video games. Insufficient funding for programs for the mentally ill. Hollywood. Rightwing paranoia. And so on.
Now, I have my own views about the cultural conditions in America that coincide with our high levels of violence. I think both liberal and conservative commentators probably make some good points along the way. I think the most conspicuous problem is the glorification not of guns or fictional violence, but of actual violence. America is a militarized society, seat of the world’s empire. The U.S. government is always at war with a handful of countries. We glorify killing and dying in our patriotic parades. Our Nobel Peace Prize winning president has bombed Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya. The fact that Tim McVeigh was a Gulf War veteran who saw his mass killing in military terms was lost on those who attempted to blame the Oklahoma City bombing on talk radio.
I think there are many cultural phenomena that have contributed to mass shootings and American violence, from militarism to public schools and the welfare state. And of course, most such shootings occur in “gun-free” zones where security has been socialized and has failed.
But there is no panacea, and I wish this was something acknowledged before people began pointing fingers. It might very well be that in a society culturally and politically oriented in the way I’d want, there’d still be the occasional atrocity. No perfect solution exists. And although there have been more school shootings in the last couple decades than before, the data set is still far too small to draw solid conclusions.
At least as alarming as the finger pointing have been the particular solutions most commentators have immediately gravitated toward. Progressives immediately began accusing conservatives of cutting mental health funding, and conservatives immediately fired back that civil libertarians have eroded the capacity of government to involuntarily commit those suspected of mental illness. This is, I think, perhaps the most disturbing reaction in the long run. Great strides have been made in the last half century to roll back the totalitarianism of mandatory psychiatric commitment. For much of modern history, hundreds of thousands were denied basic human rights due to their unusual behavior, most of it peaceful in itself. Lobotomies and sterilization were common, as were locking people into hellish psychiatric gulags where they were repeatedly medicated against their will, stripped of any sanity they previously had. The most heroic libertarian in recent years may have been the recently departed Thomas Szasz, who stood against mainstream psychiatry’s unholy alliance with the state, correctly pointing out that the system of mandatory treatment was as evil and authoritarian as anything we might find in the prison system or welfare state.
In particular, those with Asperger’s were immediately singled out as potential threats in the wake of Newtown. This was especially disgusting scapegoating to behold. Such people, along with the vast majority of those deemed “mentally ill,” are no more a threat to society or other people than anyone else is. There is simply no way—no way—for a free society to weed out the dangerous based on “mental illness” and force them into treatment, and there is no reason to think this will stop the next mass killing. Every single high school in America has an eccentric who, if he ended up killing a bunch of people, everyone would say, “Yes, we knew he was dangerous.” Yet 99.9999% of these people will never harm anyone. More coercive psychiatric treatment is a recipe to destroy what liberty there is left in this country.
Meanwhile, statists on both the left and right called for the national security state to put armed guards in every school in America. More militarized policing is not the answer. Barbara Boxer, California’s hyper-statist Democrat, called for National Guard troops in the schools. Yet the spokesman of the NRA, instead of doing what it could to diffuse the hysteria and defend the right to bear arms, added his voice to this completely terrible idea, demanding utopian solutions and scapegoating when he should have been a voice of reason. The main difference between his proposal and Boxer’s would be the uniforms worn by the armed guards.
Government armed guards will not necessarily make the schools safer, though. Central planning doesn’t work. The Fort Hood shooter managed to kill twelve people in 2009, despite the military base epitomizing the very pinnacle of government security. And now we see President Obama toying with the exact proposal aggressively pushed by the NRA—more surveillance and police, funded by the federal government, to turn America’s schools into Orwellian nightmares.
Although both conservatives and progressives have responded to this tragedy in generally bad ways, and there seems to be wide agreement on a host of downright terrifying police state proposals, I don’t want to imply that both sides have been equally bad. As awful as the law-and-order conservatives have been, the progressives have been far worse, agreeing with most of the bad conservative proposals but then adding their own pet issue to the agenda: disarming the general population.
The right to bear arms is a human rights issue, a property rights issue, a personal safety issue. The way that one mass murderer has been turned into a poster boy for the agenda of depriving millions of Americans of the right to own weapons that virtually none of them will ever use to commit a crime is disgusting, and seems to be rooted in some sort of cultural bigotry. Nothing else would easily explain the invincible resistance to logical arguments such as: rifles are rarely used in crimes, gun control empowers the police state over the weak, and such laws simply do not work against criminals, full stop. Rifles are easier to manufacture than methamphetamine, and we know how well the drug war has stopped its proliferation, and 3D printing will soon make it impossible to stop people from getting the weapons they want.