Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Roll Over, Richard M. Weaver — Ideas May Have Consequences, But So Do Our Beliefs

Adam Gopnik understands the irony of "Only in America" (1963) by Jay and the Americans in our troubled year of 2015. Only — indeed — in the Land O'The Free & The Home O'The Brave do we now have a rolling thunder of mass killings from sea to shining sea. When will it end? The number of bullets seems to rival the number of stars in our skies. If this is a (fair & balanced) cry of despair, so be it.

[x New Yorker]
Our Shared Blame For The Shooting In San Bernardino
By Adam Gopnik

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Only in America, as the song says—only in America are there enough mass shootings in a single week to allow pundits and philosophers to make complicated points about the nature of responsibility and guilt that elsewhere might exist only in the realm of gruesome thought experiments. Having instructed us that the first of this week’s mass shootings was free from any ideological taint at all—that the Planned Parenthood killings were the work of a lone nut, completely uninfluenced by their rhetoric—the Republican candidates then ordered us to understand that the next mass shooting was nothing but ideology, that the horrific killings in San Bernardino were, as Ted Cruz instantly insisted, an act of Islamic terrorism that should place us in a “time of war.” (That phrase either means nothing at all, since in some sense we have been in “a time of war” since at least 9/11, or else means something so doomed and horrific—full-scale permanent warfare in the Middle East—that, as the historian Andrew Bacevich has explained, it could be achieved only by changing everything once admirable about American life.)

So God bless an American tabloid for doing the work that their headlines have long done (“Ford To City: Drop Dead” comes to mind from the past)—putting a complicated point into simple language. In this case, the headline is on the cover of this morning’s New York Daily News, announcing that Syed Farook, one of the two San Bernardino killers, and a Muslim-American, is a terrorist—and that all the other mass murderers of recent memory are terrorists, too, and (many bonus points for courage here) that Wayne LaPierre, of the NRA, ought to be thought as one as well.

Ceding the punch-point to the Daily News headline—though whether it should be considered an expression of populist sentiment, or, as tabloid headlines so often are these days (cf. the New York Post), an expression of its owners’ idea of populist sentiment—there is still some room left to others for punctilio in the shadings. Indeed, moral logic compels one, unimaginable thought, to come (almost) to the defense of LaPierre.

One thing easily confused in the finger-pointing about these two latest attacks is the difference between guilt and responsibility. Guilt is specific and personal; responsibility often generalized and shared. We did not, at Nuremberg, find the German people guilty of war crimes; we found their generals and the SS apparatus guilty. (Although, even there, we probably did not do as good a job as we later might have in distinguishing crimes of aggressive war, arguably widespread among war-makers, from the unique, horrific crimes of civilian massacre on an unimagined scale.) But to talk of German responsibility for the crimes was legitimate and, indeed, essential. The Germans themselves started that conversation, and have, to their credit, carried it on ever since.

To draw closer to home, no one thinks that all Americans are guilty of the crimes of My Lai or of the abuses of Abu Ghraib. (Insisting that all Americans are guilty of everything America has done, indeed, was part of the hideous rationale of the 9/11 terrorists.) But, as American citizens, we are, in a broader sense, responsible for those abuses—which is a large part of why so many Americans became determined to end the wars that had brought them about. Vigilant reflection on even one’s remote responsibility for evil acts is the essence of morality. It is why Abraham Lincoln, who certainly did not shy from the mass killing that modern war required, was still haunted by the young men who had died directly and indirectly as a result of his acts; why Harry Truman underlined, in a book about Hiroshima, lines from "Hamlet" about how unintentional horrors are produced unknowingly by good men, about “accidental judgments, casual slaughters / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause; and, in this upshot, purposes mistook fallen on their inventor’s heads.” And it is why one of President Obama’s finest hours and best speeches was at the National Defense University in 2013, when he laboriously and intricately and responsibly laid out the rationale for drone attacks but also recognized the potentially insidious nature of the reasoning, saying that “America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion.* To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power—or risk abusing it.”

The collective responsibility that all Americans share is the responsibility of allowing too many people to have too many guns; guns of a kind that no civilian ever needs can be bought in this country by almost anyone who wants one. We have been running an experiment of a kind that no sane ethicist would allow: what happens when, in a country large enough to contain every imaginable kind of crazy, from the inward-turning, maniac sort to the outward-turning, politicized kind, you make sure that almost anyone can readily buy any kind of gun? And now we know the answer: you get more gun massacres than there are days in the year.

No sane person thinks that Carly Fiorina is “guilty” of the shooting at Planned Parenthood, or that Wayne LaPierre is guilty of the one in San Bernardino—but those who put weapons into the hands of anyone who wants them are complicit in what happens when they do. (And those who encourage hate speech directed at health clinics share responsibility for what happens when people take them seriously.) They are responsible in the same way that we are all responsible for the bad consequences of our beliefs, in exactly the same way that Wahhabi imams who preach intolerance are responsible for the consequences of their words. Sometimes you can avoid such horrible consequences with a minimal effort at thinking and acting responsibly. And when you can, you should.

To search for an ideological sorter for these killings—this one is a terrorist, but this one is merely a nut, and this one is sort of a nut and sort of a terrorist—while refusing to do obvious and simple things to prevent them is to be responsible for their perpetuation. (The murders in Paris demanded a complicated cell network, which passed over borders and was coördinated by ISIS in Syria, exactly because getting assault rifles in France is hard work, demanding coördinated efforts.)

If the gun lobby ever spoke honestly, what they would say is that of course we are broadly responsible for these killings, but regular mass killings of innocent people is the price we pay for the liberty to own whatever guns we want, in order to be protected from a phantom threat we cannot name. That is their actual belief, although one sees, on examining it, why they never want to state it quite so clearly. So there will be ever more mass gun murders, some to be accepted blankly as the cost of liberty, others to become the occasion for surrendering liberty to a militarized state. Like the song says, only in America. Ω

[In 1986, Adam Gopnik began his long professional association with The New Yorker with a piece that would show his future range, a consideration of connections among baseball, childhood, and Renaissance art. He has written for four editors at the magazine: William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Gopnik, born in Philadelphia, lived his early life in Montreal and received a BA (art history) from McGill University. Later, he received an MA (art history) from New York University. In 2011, Adam Gopnik was chosen as the noted speaker for the 50th anniversary of the Canadian Massey Lectures where he delivered five lectures across five Canadian cities that make up his book Winter: Five Windows on the Season (2011). More recently, Gopnik has written The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food (2012). In 2013, McGill University awarded a DLItt ( honoris causa) to Adam Gopnik.]

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