03 March 2011

Tucson: Long ago and far away

When the latest issue of Reason magazine arrived in my mailbox bearing the mugshot of the Tucson assassin in all its unnerving Uncle-Fester's-class-photo splendor it suddenly struck me how long ago the Arizona amoklauf seems to have taken place, though it was less than two months ago. Before all heck broke loose in North Africa and Madison Wisconsin became the figurative American battleground, Tucson seemed like the preemptive story of the year. Now, however, the libertarian monthly seems behind the curve for devoting so much space in its April issue to "The Loughner Panic." Deadlines being what they are, of course, Reason could comment no earlier in print on the post-amoklauf hysteria, and since a lot of easy targets for libertarians emerged in the aftermath, the editors can be excused, I suppose, for insisting on their cheap shots.

I can sum up the seven articles for you quite quickly. The common theme is that the Tucson amoklauf justifies no new preventative measures on the part of law enforcement or the medical establishment. Some of the pieces make good fun at the idiots who appeared in January with definitive explanations of the shootings, which were caused by talk radio, violent video games, "money crank" propaganda or marijuana, depending on whom you listened to. The knee-jerk liberal impulse to blame conservative Republicans for the shooter's mindset, and the Republicans' reactionary impulse to blame liberals in turn, come in for their due share of abuse. These chapters are amusing episodes of debunking, but some parts of series are less funny.

Jacob Sullum, for instance, applies slippery-slope reasoning to argue that there's no system that could have compelled the shooter to undergo psychiatric treatment that wouldn't also strip other presumably harmless people of their freedom. Noting that the shooter's behavior and opinions only marked him as dangerous in retrospect, Sullum warns that preventative measures would oppress people who are merely "wacky" or "off-putting," while obliging the rest of us to "monitor their odd relatives, friends, neighbors, students, and employees, reporting them to the authorities when their strange ideas escalate into 'a delusional loss of contact with reality.'" It's not clear whether Sullum believes that it's impossible to detect genuinely dangerous people or whether he thinks it's not worth trying, given the risks to an innocent majority of "odd" people.

Brian Doherty's message is much less ambiguous. "Crimes such as Loughner's are so bizarre and rare that there is no sense in trying to craft laws aimed at preventing them," he writes. His article refers specifically to gun laws, and his position is absolutist. Responding to a representative of the Brady Center who decried the ease with which "someone who couldn't get into the military, who was kicked out of school, and who used drugs" bought a semiautomatic weapon, Doherty is uncompromising.

But why shouldn't someone not allowed in the miliary, kicked out of school, and known to use drugs -- characteristics shared by millions of Americans -- be able to own and use tools of self-defense and sport if he has not been adjudicated as dangerous? Such a person should be able to own a weapon for all the same reasons anyone might want to own any tool, especially one connected to the vital human imperative of self-defense. Snide declarations from people who would never want to own large-capacity magazines that they are good for nothing but killing innocent people ignore the fact that they are almost never used for that purpose and that law enforcement agencies regularly use them for self-defense.

If I may be "snide" for a moment, Doherty confuses the "vital human imperative of self-defense" with the right to kill, while the point made by other "snide" critics is not that large-capacity magazines are designed only for killing innocents, but that they are designed only for killing multitudes. The fact that law enforcement uses such magazines for defense doesn't entitle anyone else to own them any more than cops' use of clubs entitles the rest of us to compel respect for our authori-tah with blows to the head. Rather than err against liberty, Doherty would throw common sense under the bus. Like Sullum, he implicitly minimizes any individual's potential for danger, since even to consider the alternative might require a compromise of absolute libertarianism. "Even strange people should be able to own weapons, and for the same reasons other free Americans own them," Doherty writes, as if there can never be a way to distinguish dangerous people from the merely "strange," or "wacky" or "odd." Perhaps it can never be done, but that hasn't been proven yet. For some reason, libertarians apparently would rather not test the premise. That may be because preventative public-safety measures are incompatible with their ideal of individual liberty. To put it another way, libertarianism may only recognize punitive justice; it can only punish, not prevent. Doherty is at least brazen enough to say that it's not worth our time or trouble to try to prevent another Tucson. Freedom is messy, after all, and shit happens. But if you are "snide" enough to believe that civilization should include some sort of preventative principle, and that the potential benefit to public peace outweighs the potential cost in individual liberty to the dangerously "strange," than libertarianism, despite its occasional virtues, must ultimately prove a historical dead end.

No comments: