As politically minded Americans still debate the meaning of, and proper response to, the Sandy Hooks massacre — and as politicians trot out old gun control programs utterly orthogonal to both public-space shootings and the normal violence that has been waning, not waxing, for years — violence around the world still presents a challenge.
In Baquba, Iraq, for instance, a suicide bomb and grenade attack killed over a score of people, and injured about 50 more. This was at a political rally. Very public. And very pointed, no matter how scattershot a bomb might seem.
You know, in terms of shrapnel.
But political unrest in Iraq explodes in even more pointed violence, in a rash of candidate assassinations. Eleven candidates dead in recent weeks.
The resort to violence to get ones way is the chief sign of the breakdown of civilization. The genius of the American constitutional system has been to forgo violence, to allow peaceful exit from, and entry to, a limited set of publicly authorized powers.
But here we get to the problem with the gun control debate: The standard political responses are not constitutional responses.
They are in essence assaults themselves.
These laws and proposed legislation do not recognize the right of people to defend themselves. Whether they enforce ammunition limitations, gun accessory bans (no one needs a 30-bullet magazine), background checks and reporting requirements and trade restrictions, or outright weapons bans (the preferred position of many), the basic idea is not to discriminate on the basis of acts of violence, but forcefully require all to conform, peaceful and violent alike.
But, since those of criminal bent disobey laws as a basic modus operandi, gun control laws tend to serve as a concerted attack on the innocent, not the guilty.
This perversity is the result of wishing problems away with the most obvious instruments at hand, of taking law as automatically self-fulfilling, rather than something that requires threat of violence in and of itself: Police, courts, jails, no-knock raids, and the terrorizing of civilian populations.
What is required for peace is a whole ethos devoted to self-protection as well as mutual protection and self-restraint. At the moment of many rights violation, deadly force may be appropriate and sometimes necessary, by the targeted victim or by those defending the victim. But after a lag, then the slower, more methodical rule of law must kick in, and people must find the advantage in not killing those who have hurt them, or might hurt them. And respecting the rights of the accused. And going through proper procedures.
This is the basic idea behind the social contract.
And it could be breaking down.
Take Chicago. While most of the country continues a startling trend towards less violence, gangland warfare in the Windy City has evolved to a new and weird level. The gangs no longer fight over drugs. They fight over turf and turf alone. And all kids in the infected neighborhoods find themselves gang members, whether they like it or not. This is surely one of the most astounding developments of recent times, with gangs now behaving like governments. The territory does not apply just to members of ones club, but all within the territory.
How this new form of gang activity developed should be the subject of careful study and national (and informed) debate. And we should try to avoid simplistic explanations or solutions. Wishing guns away will certainly do nothing, just as enacting a few laws will do little. The breakdown of the family, the educational and disciplinary drift in public schools, the dependence of vast sectors of American society on aid, and the never-ending war on drugs almost certainly all contributed to the current war of gang against gang. But ending old welfare state programs and instituting new, pro-family policies, improving government schools, ending the drug war — all difficult and some probably necessary policy moves — might not solve the problem.
Some paths, once started upon, are mighty hard to get off.
Chicago is one of the most violent cities in the nation, with well over two thousand shooting incidents last year, and about 500 murders. And, like in Iraq, something very basic has broken down. Everything Ive heard from Illinois politicians, and nationally (Senate and House — and, for that matter, the Executive Branch), seems to miss the intimate nature of what makes for a civilized, non-violent society.
And what is that intimate principle?
Respect for rights.
As American society has become more and more wantonly bellicose and high-hatted, as the federal, local and state governments exert more and more unprincipled power, to see the lack of respect for basic rights turn into a war zone on the streets of a major city can hardly be a shock. For Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and similar metropolitan centers in America, the degradation of inner-city life serves as more than a warning sign of further degradation.
It presents a problem to be dealt with now.
Its time for a revolution in thought about these problems. Not stale old statist notions utterly tangential to the basic deal of civilization. For remember, while others forget: civilization offers great rewards.
But we can reap those benefits only at the cost of putting gang violence, political violence, state violence, behind us. [further reading]