10 January 2011

The Great Fear of 2011

The President has postponed a trip he had planned to take on Tuesday to Schenectady, one of the towns neighboring mine, while Congress is suspending normal business in the aftermath of the Tucson amoklauf/assassination attempt of last Saturday. It is apparently assumed that the suspected would-be assassin's near-success (the Representative isn't yet out of the woods medically) and the publicity given his "conscience dreaming" (including by me) may embolden other malcontents or inspire imitators across the country. For some observers, Tucson is the confirmation of fears held against the populace, or one segment of it, for the past two years. There is a strong gut-level impulse, or else a cynical instinct, to declare the suspect a product of the Tea Party movement or of reactionary conservatism in general. The Sheriff of Pima County has tried to link the suspect's mania to the "hate" and "intolerance" directed against immigrants, liberals, etc., while investigators are still trying to link him, on imperceptible evidence, to the anti-immigration American Renaissance organization. There have also been still more cynical, trollish efforts to portray the alleged shooter as a man of the left, as one person who knows him claims that he formerly was, presumably because Rep. Giffords is a "blue dog" Democrat and thus a traitor to progressivism from the perspective of Daily Kos. All of this is silly. To the extent that I can venture an interpretation of the suspect's YouTube texts, he seems to have been monomaniacally focused on the question of the currency, the "mind control" he accuses the government of practising being a matter of convincing people to accept what others call "fiat" money not backed by gold or silver. A belief in the gold standard, however fanatically or incoherently expressed, isn't necessarily a "right wing" or "anti-government" viewpoint. While his reservations about the "second constitution" and its "ratifications" remain contextually unclear (does he prefer the Articles of Confederation or does he believe that some usurping charter has supplanted the 1787 document?) he doesn't appear, at least on YouTube, to have echoed the typical reactionary talking points. In any event, the inquisitors trying to trace his madness to ideology probably have it bass ackwards. If anything, reactionary "anti-government" sentiment is probably in many cases a subset of the sort of paranoia or other mental disorder that seems to plague the alleged gunman.

As a colleague in my office reminds me, what really should outrage people is not whatever the suspect believes but the ease with which a person whose public writings prove him a madman was able to pass the background checks required by the state of Arizona before he could acquire his Glock. The Supreme Court of the United States says that the Constitution recognizes this person's individual right to self-defense, but I'm not sure it's made clear what exactly he has a right to defend himself against. I suspect, however, that the strict-construction justices would not endorse his deed of Saturday as an exercise of self-defense, though he most likely saw it as a necessary act. "Tyranny" exists exclusively in the eye of the beholder so long as it doesn't exist in fact, and the interpretation of the Second Amendment as both a safeguard against encroaching tyranny and a mandate for individual gun ownership is a recipe for recurring disaster. While I think that no justice has ever meant to make it so, Second Amendment jurisprudence can be inferred all too easily by laymen as an authorization for assassination. I doubt whether any of the Founders considered either the militia or the armed citizen as the first line of defense against encroaching tyranny, but it seems that some Americans today do feel that way. More than the shootings of Saturday, which are crimes, that is the tragedy of the moment.


Anonymous said...

To my knowledge, the second amendment does not establish a "right" to self defense. It establishes a right to bear arms in order to meet one's obligation to stand with the state militia in times of need.

I'm not saying that a person doesn't have a "right" to defend themselves, only that (specifically speaking) the second amendment does not address "self defense" as an issue, but rather "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Samuel Wilson said...

The current majority on the Supreme Court has ruled twice over that the amendment encompasses an individual right to self-defense based on the customary meaning of "keep and bear Arms" and, more dubiously, on supposed rights that pre-date the Constitution. Whether any judge would say it confers an individual right to self-defense against perceived encroaching tyranny is another story that hasn't been fully told yet.