Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Call him Ishmael

That national dialogue on racism and sexism hardly got started before being shoved aside for the national dialogue on mental illness and gun ownership (with perhaps a footnote on the Barney Fife policing of small Virginia towns). The emotional response was easy: Yesterday I wanted to round up every gun dealer, every NRA member and every politician who does their bidding, and make them dig the graves, much as Eisenhower forced German civilians to witness at last the results of the policies they supported by burying a few of the dead. As long as they were in Blacksburg with their easy pieties, George Bush should have scrubbed blood off classroom floors, while Laura sewed up the corpses after the autopsies were done. Dick Cheney and Mitt Romney, the mighty hunters, could have carried the bodies to the hearses, and lest we forget our bi-partisan guilt, Jim Webb and Harry Reid could notify the families in person.

The problem is, I'm a pragmatist. I know that prohibition does not work, whether of alcohol, drugs, Cuban cigars, weapons or pornography (which at various times has included pamphlets by Margaret Sanger, Tijuana bibles and Ulysses). Whatever people want, other people will get for them. The "dry" experiment of the 1920s -- perhaps the first division of this country in red and blue states -- led to the growth of organized crime, a spike in violence which encompassed many innocent bystanders, corruption, contempt for law, the creation of a new class of criminals and the sale of an unregulated product which killed, blinded and crippled thousands of mainly poor people. It also made drinking attractive and sexy, something for young people to try. And, surprise, we learned nothing from its coming and it passing. We still think you can solve a social problem by passing another law.

I am not in favor of more gun laws. There are plenty of fine reasons to own a gun. Maybe you like to hunt. OK, I guess, go ahead. Then there's target shooting, a recognized sport, an Olympic sport. Perhaps you are attracted to the history of the gun; many of the old ones are quite beautiful. It could be the technology that interests you. Maybe you just have a small penis. It's a cliche, but it must be true sometimes. It seems obvious that the Second Amendment was intended only to create the National Guard, but generations of judges have found otherwise, so who am I to complain?

Just do me a favor. Don't insult my intelligence by mouthing the slogans of the gun industry and the gun lobby. Don't tell me guns will make you either safe or free. It's crap.

Go anywhere in the US, turn on the local news, and chances are the lead story will be about crime. How often do you hear, "But then Mr. Bloggs pulled out his Glock and foiled the home invader/carjacker/mugger"? Mr. Bloggs couldn't get to his gun, or he got excited and shot himself, or the bad guy took it away. About once a week, Junior Bloggs finds the gun in Daddy's dresser drawer, with catastrophic consequences. Guns made us safer two hundred years ago, when American cities were unpoliced and most people lived in isolated places, menaced by cattle rustlers, angry natives and wild animals. That country is gone now, as are the muskets the authors of the Second Amendment had in mind.

"If they take away my guns, they can take away my freedom." It's the cry of the libertarian and the militia type. And my response is, "Do what Congress didn't bother to do before they rubber-stamped it: Read the USA PATRIOT Act. They have already taken away your freedom. The only freedom they left you is the freedom to own a gun, because they know it doesn't matter. No matter how many guns you get, they have more and theirs are bigger. This is why nobody every wins a shootout with the federal government."

Freedom, unfortunately, is a political process. It's slow, uncertain and impermanent. It involves writing letters, collecting signatures, registering to vote, going to meetings. Worse, it involves compromise with people who are just too dull-witted to grasp the brilliance of your ideas. Freedoms we thought we had secured, like voting rights and -- well, read the latest outrage from the Roberts-Scalia-Alito court -- have a way of evaporating overnight. Battles are fought and re-fought, and guns can't play any part in them. If freedom means living in isolation and communicating by manifesto, there are still places you can build your cabin. For those of us who choose to live in communities, freedom is a lot less obvious. Your cigarette smoke, my lungs. Your dog, my flowerbed. Your gun, my life. It sucks, doesn't it?

Soon it will be Sunday morning, and the punditocracy will be puckering their brows over how easy it was for an untreated psychotic to buy two handguns in Jefferson's home state. We should put this discussion on video and play it after every massacre. It's the same one we had after Columbine, after Charles Whitman, probably after the OK Corral. Nothing will happen. We are a nation in love with violence and death, preferably visited upon others. As Keith Olbermann pointed out, we grieve these campus dead to the point of obsession and we try not to think about other Americans of their generation dying every day in Afghanistan and Iraq. The dead are dead, forever, whether from the cynical schemes and lies of powerful men or the simmering rage of a sick boy. As with the war, politicians will stake out positions about Cho Seung-Hui, and millions of words will fly, and the killing will go on.


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