Woody Allen – when he was just a comic and not an important director and thus some sort of big thinker – had his array of everyman jokes, throwaway quips that, once they sunk in, got the big laughs. One of them was about his mother’s pot roast – the more you chewed the bigger it got. That’s a good line. We’ve all been there, as it sums up a bit of the pain of family life. What do you say? What do you do? She meant well. All there is to do is be polite and respectful, and keep chewing – but it never gets better. Sooner or later you’ll choke on the gristle, unless you find a sneaky way to spit it out without her noticing. Yeah, but if she catches you doing that she’ll ask you what’s wrong and eventually things will end in bitter tears – she’s not a good mother or you just don’t love her or both. Hey, it’s not just Jewish mothers. Good jokes tap into the universal, into the uncomfortable absurdity of life.
Good jokes are metaphoric too. It’s not just pot roast. The more you chew on anything – some difficult problem you must solve or some hard decision you must make – the bigger it seems to get. The more you think things through the worse they seem – there’s always something else to consider. You can spit it out, so to speak – just do the first thing that comes to mind, whatever it is, to solve the increasingly complex problem, or just marry that neurotic but kind of cute woman – but that’s almost always disastrous. Most people just keep chewing on things, confusing themselves in more and more convoluted ways. Then they end up doing nothing. At least that doesn’t end in bitter tears.
That’s where America finds itself the week after that strange young man forced his way into that elementary school in Connecticut and killed twenty little children, shooting them multiple times with one of his mother’s perfectly legal high-powered assault rifles. He had shot and killed his mother an hour earlier, at her home, and at the school he also managed to shoot and kill six teachers and administrators that had got in his way. That was the last straw at the end of a long year of these sorts of events. What happened at the movie theater in Aurora was bad enough, and there was the same sort of thing a few weeks later at that Sikh temple in Michigan, and just a few days earlier than Newtown, the same sort of thing at a mall near Portland. Enough is enough, and at the Sunday evening Connecticut memorial service President Obama said just that – quite eloquently. We can’t tolerate this anymore. We are not doing enough and we will have to change, so we will – “I’ll use whatever power this office holds… in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”
That’s easier said than done. There’s a lot to chew on here. Do we go after all the guns floating around, or just the high-powered assault weapons, which were illegal for decades until the ban on them expired and few in Congress even thought of renewing it. Or do we go after the drum-magazines that hold a hundred rounds or more and the snap-in clips that hold thirty rounds? Or do we ban hollow-tip bullets that explode inside who you decide to shoot, or the Teflon-coated armor-piercing ones, the cop-killers that police forces everywhere want banned? Or do we go after guns at all. Everyone has a right to defend themselves and there’s that Second Amendment, and anyway, the real problem was, in each instance, a totally unhinged madman. Maybe we should see this as a mental health problem, or a social problem – or maybe it’s all the damned video war games. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, says the problem is that we’ve turned our backs on God – and at Tea Party Nation you’ll be told the problem is teachers, unions, bureaucracy, and far too much sex in popular culture too, and also, had George Zimmerman been at the front door instead of some mechanical card reader those children would still be alive, for what that’s worth. Unfortunately the Connecticut shooter was a white kid. George Zimmerman wouldn’t have noticed him – no hoodie in this case.
There’s also the thought of arming all teachers everywhere:
Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas, says he wishes Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of the Sandy Hook Elementary School, was armed with an M-4 assault rifle when she confronted Adam Lanza, the shooter who killed 20 children.
“I wish to God she had an M-4 in her office locked up so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands but she takes him out, takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids,” Gohmert said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
We can be absolutely sure that within a few years more people would be killed by teachers who fired their weapons accidentally or in misplaced anger or fear, or by students who stole their teachers’ guns, than have ever been killed in school massacres like those in Newtown and Columbine.
But what troubles me most about this suggestion – and the general More Guns approach to social ills - is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents. It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now - but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly.
Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction.
Perhaps many see the world just that way. After all, life is nasty, mean, brutish and short, and the first impulse of any normal person, when someone disagrees with them, even family, is to slit their throat and watch them bleed out in agony, or blow their brains out with a well-placed dum-dum round, rather than discuss matters with them, which is always a tedious last resort, demanded by the law. That is what Thomas Hobbes was getting at in the seventeenth century – life is hard and people are nasty, because they have to be, and only firm rules keep us from chaos – or now, guns do. If you think Hobbes was right, everyone should have a gun, or many guns. Teachers should be included in that.
Hobbes may have been a special case – he was upset at the beheading of Charles I in 1642 and his own exile to France for decades, with the other royalists. He had a lot to chew on in Paris, while back at home Oliver Cromwell and those insufferable Puritans ran things without any king at all. He thought long and hard about why England really did need a king. Perhaps he had too much time on his hands, or he had been traumatized. A previously unthinkable death can do that to you, and that’s what seems to be going on here now. What happened in Connecticut is generating a lot of Hobbesian thinking. It too was a trauma. It makes people chew on things – maybe we need guns in a brutal war of every man against every man. Hobbes called it Bellum omnium contra omnes – the war of all against all.
Things can, however, go the other way. Australia’s sweeping 1996 gun control law, which banned semi-automatic and automatic firearms after a mass shooting in Tasmania that resulted in thirty-five deaths, provoked an opposite reaction. They decided not to arm everyone, and Slate’s Will Oremus explains:
At the heart of the push was a massive buyback of more than 600,000 semi-automatic shotguns and rifles, or about one-fifth of all firearms in circulation in Australia. The country’s new gun laws prohibited private sales, required that all weapons be individually registered to their owners, and required that gun buyers present a “genuine reason” for needing each weapon at the time of the purchase. (Self-defense did not count.) In the wake of the tragedy, polls showed public support for these measures at upwards of 90 percent.
No one down under reads Hobbes, but in the Washington Post, Dylan Mathews considers things here:
It seems reasonably clear that the gun buyback led to a large decline in suicides, and weaker but real evidence that it reduced homicides as well. Such a buyback isn’t in the cards in the US anytime soon - an equivalent buyback here would entail the destruction of 40 million guns.
That’s far too bold. No one is going to take away our guns, and, in fact, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, said last year that Barack Obama saying nothing about gun control in his first campaign and in his first four years in office was just a sneaky trick:
Obama himself is no fool. So when he got elected, they concocted a scheme to stay away from the gun issue, lull gun owners to sleep, and play us for fools in 2012. Well, gun owners are not fools and we are not fooled.
Sotomayor, Kagan, Fast & Furious, the United Nations, executive orders. Those are the facts we face today… President Obama and his cohorts, yeah, they’re going to deny their conspiracy to fool gun owners. Some in the liberal media, they are already probably blogging about it. But we don’t care because the lying, conniving Obama crowd can kiss our Constitution!
Thomas Hobbes would smile, but Kevin Drum doesn’t smile:
I guess LaPierre was right. Obama has apparently been waiting his entire term for a series of horrific massacres that would give him an excuse to make a speech suggesting vaguely that he might be willing to do something. Maybe.
But what? Quite aside from the political resistance of the NRA, the Supreme Court’s Heller decision in 2008 ruled that the Second Amendment did indeed protect a personal right to bear arms. This puts a significant limit on what Congress could do even if it wanted to.
The more you think about something the harder it seems to do anything. Obama did say, in his fine speech, that because something is hard, or complicated, you don’t say there’s nothing that can be done. That’s just making excuses, but Drum outlines where we stand now, in the real world:
Automatic weapons, the kind you see on TV spraying a hail of bullets as the bad guy sweeps a crowd, have been tightly regulated since the ’30s.
Semiautomatic weapons, which require you to squeeze the trigger for each shot, can’t be banned. Virtually every handgun on the market is semiautomatic, and the Supreme Court wouldn’t allow a broad class of guns like this to be banned or even strongly regulated.
“Assault weapons” are a tricky category to define, but they’ve been banned in the past and could probably be banned again – though a new ban would almost certainly be litigated in light of Heller.
So what’s left? Possibly a limit on magazine size, which could probably pass constitutional muster. What else?
He just doesn’t know. Obama wants to do something. Many want to do something. What should be done? There are few options here, and the more you chew the bigger it gets, and maybe guns aren’t the real problem anyway. New polling shows it is about guns, and about more:
More than half of Americans say the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, reflect broader problems in society rather than an isolated act of a troubled person – more than after other recent shooting incidents, suggesting the possibility of a new national dialogue on violent crime.
This ABC News/Washington Post poll also finds that 54 percent of Americans favor stricter gun control laws in general, numerically a five-year high, albeit not significantly different than in recent years. Fifty-nine percent support a ban specifically on high-capacity ammunition clips, a step on which partisan and ideological gaps narrow substantially and “strong” support peaks.
It’s just that folks now see something more:
The public by 52-43 percent sees the atrocity in Connecticut as indicating “broader problems in American society” rather than just the isolated act of a troubled individual. Many fewer saw the shootings last July in Aurora, Colorado, or last year in Tucson, Arizona, as signs of a broader societal problem, 24 and 31 percent, respectively, in polls by the Pew Research Center.
Views were more similar to today’s after the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, when the public divided, 46-47 percent in a Pew poll, on whether broader societal problems were at play. But the Connecticut shootings mark the first of these incidents that’s been seen by more than half the public as indicating a broader problem.
Yeah, get rid of the assault rifles, but do something else too. There are too many odd folks out there. Adam Lankford, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama – whose new book is The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers – offers some thoughts on what is really going on here:
What do Mir Aimal Kansi, Ali Abu Kamal, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet and Nidal Malik Hasan have in common with Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Seung-Hui Cho and Adam Lanza? The first four claimed to be fighting the American government’s unholy oppression of Muslims; they struck the CIA headquarters, the Empire State Building, Los Angeles International Airport and the Army base at Fort Hood, Tex., respectively. The last four seemed to be driven by personal motives; they shot up a high school, a university and an elementary school.
They’re more alike than you think:
For years, the conventional wisdom has been that suicide terrorists are rational political actors, while suicidal rampage shooters are mentally disturbed loners. But the two groups have far more in common than has been recognized.
Over the last three years, I have examined interviews, case studies, suicide notes, martyrdom videos and witness statements and found that suicide terrorists are indeed suicidal in the clinical sense – which contradicts what many psychologists and political scientists have long asserted. Although suicide terrorists may share the same beliefs as the organizations whose propaganda they spout, they are primarily motivated by the desire to kill and be killed – just like most rampage shooters.
In fact, we should think of many rampage shooters as non-ideological suicide terrorists. In some cases, they claim to be fighting for a cause – neo-Nazism, eugenics, masculine supremacy or an antigovernment revolution – but, as with suicide terrorists, their actions usually stem from something much deeper and more personal.
Oh fine, we may not think we’re really dealing with terrorists here, but actually we are:
There appears to be a triad of factors that sets these killers apart. The first is that they are generally struggling with mental health problems that have produced their desire to die. The specific psychiatric diagnoses vary widely, and include everything from clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to schizophrenia and others forms of psychosis. The suicide rate was 12.4 per 100,000 people in the United States in 2010 (the highest in 15 years). Suicide is relatively rare, but it is rarer still in most Muslim countries. This is a very limited pool from which most suicide terrorists and rampage shooters come.
The second factor is a deep sense of victimization and belief that the killer’s life has been ruined by someone else, who has bullied, oppressed or persecuted him. Not surprisingly, the presence of mental illness can inflame these beliefs, leading perpetrators to have irrational and exaggerated perceptions of their own victimization. It makes little difference whether the perceived victimizer is an enemy government (in the case of suicide terrorists) or their boss, co-workers, fellow students or family members (in the case of rampage shooters).
The key is that the aggrieved individual feels that he has been terribly mistreated and that violent vengeance is justified. In many cases, the target for revenge becomes broader and more symbolic than a single person, so that an entire type or category of people is deemed responsible for the attacker’s pain and suffering. Then, the urge to commit suicide becomes a desire for murder-suicide, which is even rarer; a recent meta-analysis of 16 studies suggests that only two to three of every one million Americans commit murder-suicide each year.
The third factor is the desire to acquire fame and glory through killing. More than 70 percent of murder-suicides are between spouses or romantic or sexual partners, and these crimes usually take place at home. Attackers who commit murder-suicide in public are far more brazen and unusual. Most suicide terrorists believe they will be honored and celebrated as “martyrs” after their deaths and, sure enough, terrorist organizations produce martyrdom videos and memorabilia so that other desperate souls will volunteer to blow themselves up.
That’s the gist of it, and guns or no guns, we’re screwed:
Although we can only speculate, Adam Lanza’s decision to target elementary school children in Newtown, Conn., may have been a calculated attempt to get as much attention as possible. Despite misconceptions to the contrary, many mentally ill people are quite capable of staging their attacks for symbolic effect. In 2002, the Washington-area snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo shot a middle schooler, and then taunted the police with a note that said “Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.” Mr. Lanza may have realized that the only thing that generates more attention than killing random innocent adults is killing random innocent children.
It’s hard to fix that, and we simply have a domestic variant of an international problem:
Underneath the pain, the rage and the desire to die, rampage shooters like Mr. Lanza are remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers – including suicide terrorists – in other countries. The difference rests in how they are shaped by cultural forces and which destructive behaviors they seek to copy. The United States has had more than its share of rampage shootings, but only a few suicide attacks. Other countries are regularly plagued by suicidal explosions, but rarely experience a school shooting.
It’s one or the other. That’s something to chew on.
There’s far too much to chew on. The final unthinkable mass-murder happens, until the next one, and Obama says the obvious – that’s it – we have to do something now. And we chew on all the factors and conflicting views of what should be done or should never be done at all, and the more we chew the bigger it gets. Like in the Woody Allen joke we could choke on this, but we dare not just spit it out either. There’s nothing more uncomfortable.