Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sucks to be you, pilgrim

Wholly consonant with the theme of responsibility in the Batman trilogy, comes, as a result of the Batman film, yet another national non-discussion about gun control.  Whenever a heinous crime fixes the national attention, responsibility is always the first cry.  The criminal is responsible.  The state is responsible for not containing the criminal, especially if the criminal has a record.  Politicians are responsible for not passing severe enough laws, police are responsible for not catching criminals soon enough, courts are responsible for letting criminals get away on "technicalities."  The criminal's family is responsible for not recognizing the warning signs of the heinous crime.  Even the victims may be responsible.

The air is thick with responsibility.  But what is never responsible is the weapon; if that weapon is a gun.

Guns don't kill people.  People kill people. Evil kills people.  But guns never kill people.

Part of the corollary of Reinhold Niebuhr's thesis in Moral Man and Immoral Society is that societies, large groups, nation-states, ultimately cannot be held responsible for their actions (set aside the troubled application of "war crimes," noting that such crimes are only applied to the vanquished, never the conquerors).  They cannot be held responsible, under Niebuhr's theory, because they cannot be moral.  Societies, Niebuhr argues, cannot choose the self-sacrifice of morality.  They can only act to preserve the members of their order (perhaps at the sacrifice of some, but never at a risk to all).  A society which does act to sacrifice all its members is no longer a society; and so its act is never moral, even if the sacrifice is the "right thing to do."  Bruce Wayne/Batman flies away with the nuclear bomb at the end of "The Dark Knight Rises," because it is a moral act.   But he is an individual.  There is nothing moral in leaving the bomb in the city.  One act is moral; the other is simply evil.  But the society can even expect the individual to sacrifice on its behalf, could demand it, if necessary.  Societies cannot be moral; only individuals can.

Neither, then, can they societies be morally responsible.  Societies can be responsible for justice, especially to the members of the society.  But societies cannot be held responsible for being immoral; people can be immoral, individuals can be immoral; societies cannot.  They can, however, be just.  They can do justice to their members, and it is justice a society must uphold.  Justice is not morality, but it is as close as a society can come, and it is where any society must go:  towards justice.  American society is a just society, with one glaring exception.  For one reason or another, American society feels it would be held responsible if it ever acted to control access to guns, if it ever enacted truly meaningful gun control.  It feels as if gun control were a moral issue, rather than a justice issue.  Unable as a society to accept the burdens of morality, unwilling on this issue to pursue the proper ends of justice, unable to recognize that gun control is not an issue of societal morality but rather of societal justice, we put the blame on abstractions; and our first choice for blame is "evil," because only evil is powerful enough to undo justice and so release us from any societal obligation to protect our citizens that we might have.

When do you ever hear "evil" used as an excuse to learn to accommodate crime in America?   A serial killer is evil.  A pedophile is evil.  A rapist, an arsonist, especially if they strike again and again, is evil.  The Unabomber was evil.  But no one ever says because the pedophile is evil, there is nothing we can do about them.  No one ever says that because the rapist is evil, we are helpless to prevent them raping again.  No one says we must accept arson as the cost of being a free society, because we cannot stop the arsonist, that arson is evil and nothing can be done about it.  And we can't, in one sense.  One more arrest for rape doesn't dissuade the next rapist.  One more sex offender put on the public lists, doesn't stop another one from lurking near school yards or following children down sidewalks.

But when the crime is a mass shooting, evil renders us powerless.  Evil has struck again, and who can stop it, any more than they can stop the rain, a flood, a tornado?  Worse, we can prepare for natural disasters, but the only preparation for another shooter is to become shooters ourselves.  But to prevent it, to limit it, to control it by controlling access to the weapons, to the ammunition, to the ability to commit the crime?  No, we can't do that.  We can do it for floods, for hurricanes, even for tornados.  But not for guns; because we can't prevent evil.

We can't prevent arson or rape or child sexual abuse, either.  We can't lock up all combustible materials, all matches, all sources of flame.  We can't prevent rape by castrating all suspicious males.   That doesn't mean we can't try to control it.  And if we can try to control that, we can try to control gun crimes.  Does anyone seriously believe a mass murderer would walk into a theater and begin stabbing people, or throwing knives?  If we can't take away the guns, we can take away ammunition, rendering guns expensive paperweights.  There may be some limited right to bear arms; there is no right to fire them.  We can tax ammunition as a means of controlling guns.  We can do that much.

But, apparently, we can't; because mass shooters are evil.  And there is nothing you can do to stop evil.

[Bill] O'Reilly mocked [Bill] Moyers for his criticism, saying the PBS host "has no clue, no clue at all."

"He apparently believes that federal and state governments can actually control gun crimes," O'Reilly said with disbelief. "That's so dumb it hurts."

O'Reilly listed off gun violence statistics in various cities, highlighting that Chicago has seen 1136 shootings this year, even with a ban on hand guns in public.

"How about your state, Bill, New York?" O'Reilly taunted. "It has the fourth toughest gun law in the country. Sounds good, doesn't it? Ready? 2011 - nearly 4000 guns confiscated by New York City cops."

Unfortunately for O'Reilly, I was listening to Diane Rehm's show.  The guns that enter New York state come from Virginia, and other states nearby with virtually no gun control laws.  The laws in New York state work very well at controlling guns. What they can't do, is control guns in Virginia.  What the New York state laws can't do, is prevent guns from crossing the state border.  Most of those 4000 guns O'Reilly mentioned can be traced to out of state purchases.

O'Reilly might just as reasonably mock US drug laws.  Drugs are illegal here, but they cross our borders anyway.  Are drug control laws, then, worthless?  (I might say "yes," but for reasons different from why guns should be controlled).  O'Reilly, of course, would reject the comparison out of hand.  And as for the question of any attempt at control at all:  we deal with river banks better than this.

So pay attention to the arguments, because they all come back to the same thing:  we can't do anything about guns, because we don't want to.  Gun crimes is a special kind of crime:  it's the kind we put up with, because we choose to.  All the victims in Aurora, or in the next shooting, or in any shooting before last Friday morning, are sacrifices this society makes to the principal of freedom to have access to guns.  We paper over it with talk of "evil" or of everyone else being armed or with any distraction we can come up with.  But that's really what it comes down to.

No matter who you are, your life is not nearly as important to us, as our idea of freedom to possess and use guns is.

That is immoral.  That is unjust.  But in America, right now; that is the way it is.  Whether we can face that honestly or not, is another matter.

ADDENDUM:  lest you think I exaggerate, take a walk on the truly weird side, where a discussion of the shooter in Aurora and the possibility he was possessed by demons ends with this:
This is why evil feels so bad. We wouldn't mind so much if bad people got gunned down by a vengeful killer. But Evil doesn't work that way. Evil seeks innocent victims. That's why it's evil. We wouldn't feel so bad if vile, genocidal dictators get their just reward and hang, but evil seeks out the helpless old person, the vulnerable woman, the child yet unborn.

All we can do when faced with mindless evil is recognize that it is mindless. The only answer is that there is no answer. The murders in Aurora and the crazed face of James Holmes remind us that real evil is random and meaningless. It is deadly and ruthless and cruel simply to be deadly, ruthless and cruel. All we can do is gaze on in fascinated horror at the senseless suffering.

I don't even want to touch the topic of feeling good when "bad people" get gunned down by a "vengeful killer."  But as a lawyer and a pastor, I cannot countenance the idea that we are helpless in the face of "mindless evil."  It is "deadly and ruthless and cruel simply to be deadly, ruthless and cruel."  But we can certainly do more than "gaze on in fascinated horror at the senseless suffering."  As a society, and as moral individuals, we can do so much more.

And honestly, I would expect a Roman Catholic priest to understand that.


  1. A terrific post, and one that dovetails in some ways with the post about the Batman trilogy.

    By fobbing off the responsibility for gun violence, society absolves itself of any culpability. Chuckleheads like Bill O'Reilly can wax snide about any solution, because they see no responsibility for ameliorating the effects of gun violence.

    I think you've hit the squirrel right on the nut when you say that our society values the idea of freedom embodied in the possession of firearms above the safety of our citizens. It's a long, uphill slog to get to anything approaching reasonable regulations on guns, and it's a rare public servant who will sacrifice his or her career to nudge us any closer to such a society.

    As it is, our society loves firearms and violence far more fiercely than we claim to love law, order, children, other people, or anything else. We trust and believe in the power of violence to redeem any situation far beyond any lip service paid to morality or Jesus or Judeo-Christian values.

  2. Not only does it seem we cannot do anything about gun violence because "the constitution, that's why" (or, some would argue, because guns are phallic symbols while others would point to a reaction against desegregation), but we cannot even have the debate according to some people: Gov. Christie, for example, recently said (in response to Bloomberg's frustration about our lack of gun control) that "now is not the time for a debate about gun control" Could you imagine after 9/11 a notable politician saying "now is not the time to discuss improving national security" without the media and every other politician coming down on said politician like a hammer?


    "Societies cannot be moral" ... do you (or would Niebuhr) think societies can be holy?


    We trust and believe in the power of violence to redeem any situation far beyond any lip service paid to morality or Jesus or Judeo-Christian values - gratiutous

    But going with the standard translation of "goel" as redeemer, isn't the whole Judeo-Christian tradition rooted, at some level, in the redemptive power of violence as understood by Bronze Age Semitic nomads? Certainly Rabbinic Judaism (and before that even the Torah itself) sublimates the idea by having the goel be the agent of the courts, forbidding vengeance and finally essentially doing away with the institution of the goel altogether (with the idea that the only Goel should be God); and similarly (correct me if I am wrong here) Christianity makes the redemptive act of violence Jesus' torture and subsequent death on the cross and makes that act of redemption the only such act that is necessary, but I am not sure if, at some level, there is that much of a disconnect between our trust in violence and Judeo-Christian values.

    Heck, even skipping Judeo-Christian values in particular, many cultures at least have some roots in the rough and tumble cultures of Semitic desert nomads or Indo-European or Turkic steppe nomads. Are we really ever as "civilized" as we claim to be? At the risk of causing Godwin's law to be invoked, twentieth century Germany was one of the most cultured nations in the world, heir to the culture of Goethe, etc, etc. ...

  3. "Societies cannot be moral" ... do you (or would Niebuhr) think societies can be holy?

    A group that chooses to do so, might do so. Or come close. And I'm not fudging on the definition of "holy," but on the definition of the group.

    Society as in a social order, a nation (even if they are all children of Abraham, as Israel was in time of Moses or even Davidl I use the example to distinguish notions of nationhood from that time and in modern times), cannot require all its members to adhere to the same tenets. Even Israel did not require the aliens among them to be subject to the covenant with Abraham. Was Israel less holy because of aliens among them? I think it would be extreme to say so (somebody surely did, at some point. But still....).

    The question first, then, is: what kind of society are you positing? Israel; or a Shaker community (for example), or the Amish of Pennsylvania? They are all, in a sense, voluntary communities: you stay with them by choice, and none require suicide as a measure of holiness or membership (Niebuhr's point being the society cannot act in a way that endangers its membership (or at least, to be practical, most of them) without abandoning any claim to social order it may have had. At which point the society dissolves, if that is what is forced.) I suppose then, under a Niebuhrian analysis, the question would be: can a society be holy if it requires suicide from members of that society, in order to be holy?

    Which gets us to the definition of "holy," doesn't it?

  4. I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for everything you've posted in the wake of Aurora. I feel like you're reading my mail, and it's made me feel a lot less alone. And it's made it rather easy to share my thoughts far more eloquently by simply linking to yours.