Seemingly unending coverage in the establishment news media. Flags at half-mast. Crocodile tears from the hypocrite-in-chief. Millions of dollars in charitable donations to the families and friends of the victims. It is as if the killing of a group of children and their keepers in a Connecticut school is a uniquely tragic event—one that not only is presumed to touch us all on a visceral level but also justifies a re-examination of how the government regulates guns. The question for me, however, is: what is it about this massacre that makes it more heinous than so many other instances of the murder of innocents?
The main reason appears to be that these were americans. When a united states soldier murdered 16 non-combatants in afghanistan earlier this year, the president shed no tears and people in this country were largely untroubled, even though nine of those victims were children. Nor was there more than a passing mention in the american press when NATO forces killed nine afghan kids collecting firewood last year. When american bombs and bullets supposedly directed at “terrorists” kill peaceable afghan civilians of all ages, as they so frequently do, not only is there no public mourning in america, but the government tries to cover up their crimes and deny their role in these murders for as long as they can get away with. The powers-that-be in the military and the government, as well as the average american, clearly believe that the slaughter of non-combatants is an acceptable cost of doing business when making war in a foreign land to “defend our freedom.” The double-standard applied here is obvious.
The Blame Game
However one feels about the disparate reactions, genuine or staged, to these very similar events, what is most troubling to me is the political hay that is being made out of the school shootings. Those who believe that regular, non-coercive people should be deprived of weapons are using the killings as a justification for further regulation—if not the outright elimination—of non-government gun ownership. The NRA, while defending gun ownership, blames violent video games and movies, as well as inadequate surveillance of “mentally ill” people. Obama talks cryptically of using “whatever power” he has to prevent another school shooting in the united states.
All the laying of blame on privately-owned guns or violent images in entertainment or crazy people is simply laying the foundation for an increase in government control over peaceful individuals and new limits on our freedom of action. Millions of people watch action movies, play shoot-em-up video games and/or own guns—and vanishingly few of them go on shooting sprees. Most people burdened with the label of mental illness or madness are not violent and seldom think of doing harm to anyone but themselves. Looking for easy targets to make the citizenry feel that their overseers in government are genuinely interested in protecting them and their children will not make people safer. More restrictive laws enacted in response to these misperceived threats, however, will surely have a negative impact on personal liberty.
People are open to such scapegoating because they are unwilling to hold individuals responsible for their actions. We hear that the causes of violence are complex. Really? In this case one person decided for some reason unknown to anyone else to attack the students and staff in an elementary school. He did it. He is responsible. He is the cause. Labeling him mentally ill may appear to provide some insight into his actions, but really explains nothing. While the common perception may be that crazy people are not responsible for their actions due to some mysterious “illness,” this begs the question of who or what then is. Violent imagery or firearms did not seize control of his mind—he made a choice and acted on it. And the american military personnel who massacre people in afghanistan, or pakistan, or iraq, or wherever else they feels like going, are just as much individually responsible for the mayhem they cause. According to the president and military officials, it’s always either an accident, or bad “intelligence,” or an individual nutcase controlled by a “mental illness” that is to blame. The perps are never considered responsible for their actions.
Even if one were to believe that societal glamorization of violence plays a role in provoking some people to actually kill others, the focus should not be on fantasy violence in games and movies. Let’s look critically instead at the very real violence carried out routinely by agents of the state. The president has nothing but praise for the military whose everyday violence is largely supported and applauded by people in this country. In fact he watched live coverage of the killing of an unarmed Osama bin Laden and cheered on the killers in real time. Obama has no need for the tawdry violent images available to the masses in the theaters and on iBox—he can get off watching the real thing. He called the killings in Connecticut “senseless.” Apparently the killings he orders or excuses are “sensible” in his eyes. Individual killers are demented and crazed, while organized military killers are heroic and patriotic.
Violence by police and federal agents like the FBI and DEA is also routinely defended and justified by politicians, the news media, and popular entertainment. Television is dominated by shows depicting law enforcement thugs bullying and beating people, and the reason these shows are popular is because people generally accept and even approve of such behavior on the part of real cops. Violent images would not be so popular with so many if they were not already enamored of the actual violence carried out by their idols in the military and police agencies.
Swords into Ploughshares?
So, if the president really wants to do everything in his power to stop violence and murder, perhaps he should start in his own backyard. He can stop the war in afghanistan immediately. He can stop the DEA from continuing its lethal “war on drugs” tomorrow. He can stop funding the war machine, which is the real stimulus for the weapons industry—international arms trading engaged in by governments and their contractors has flooded the world with weapons and death; gun shows in american cities are a minor distraction.
But this ain’t gonna happen. Instead, he and the other politicians are going to go after the low-hanging fruit like violent images, private gun ownership, or folks labeled mentally ill. Needless to say, while this approach will reduce individuals’ freedom of choice and action, it will not prevent future acts of violence by people who have made the decision to kill. Even an outright ban on private gun ownership will not stop murder. It is absurd to believe that someone planning to kill people (which is also against the law) will be deterred from obtaining a gun because it is illegal to possess one. More restrictive gun laws would simply make it even harder for individuals unwilling to break the law to protect themselves from violent others—just as the ban on guns in schools denied the teachers and other school workers in Connecticut the only means by which they could have defended themselves and their charges. Government officials seek political gain by cranking out feel-good, but ultimately unhelpful, propaganda and legislation, while they refuse to make the substantive changes in the government agencies they control that would immediately reduce the burden of violence against innocent people here and around the world.
Means and Ends
If we accept the view that people are the mindless receptacles of outside influences and are driven to violence by images, illness, and access to weapons, then our efforts to preserve our already severely restricted personal liberties, as well as the prospect of moving towards a more libertarian society, are doomed to failure. If those of us who choose not to join the military or police cannot be trusted with guns and need to be protected from stylized violence in games and movies, how can we possibly be trusted to live our lives on our own terms, unmolested by politicians, cops, and soldiers.
The basic anarchist goal of a voluntary, cooperative society is based on the premise that each individual is capable of making choices and acting on them, and should be free to do so, without being directed or supervised by the state. We also recognize that some individuals will make bad choices and violence will never disappear. Different individuals and voluntary groupings will need to figure out ways to protect themselves and their associates without creating authoritarian structures of control. What that would look like would vary from place to place and person to person, but there is no place in a free society for preventing non-coercive individuals from owning guns or producing and viewing any sort of image they wish to. Nor would free people find it acceptable to discriminate against and scapegoat people whose thought processes are different or odd. And if these practices would be unacceptable in a libertarian society, they are just as indefensible in our current authoritarian world.