24 December 2012

The Problem of Evil, continued

As today's news brings a report of somebody apparently setting a fire to lure firemen into a fatal ambush in Webster NY -- two died and two more were wounded -- I'm catching up with Charles Krauthammer's commentary on the possible consequences of the Newtown amoklauf. Gun control is an issue that opens a little distance between a neocon like Krauthammer and the Republican base. "I have no problem in principle with gun control," he writes. However, managing to sound both conservative and radical at once, he contends that nothing short of repealing the Second Amendment and confiscating all personal firearms would accomplish what gun-control advocates hope for. There are simply too many loopholes and grandfather clauses in both existing and proposed regulations, and too great a stockpile of arms and ammo in the country already. In any event, he rejects any monocausal explanation of Newtown, insisting that "everything ... has to be on the table," not just gun rights. Perhaps predictably, he thinks the media should consider sacrificing some of their sacred rights as well.

We live in an entertainment culture soaked in graphic, often sadistic, violence. Older folks find themselves stunned by what a desensitized youth finds routine, often amusing. It’s not just movies. Young men sit for hours pulling video-game triggers, mowing down human beings en masse without pain or consequence. And we profess shock when a small cadre of unstable, deeply deranged, dangerously isolated young men go out and enact the overlearned narrative.

People have been blaming the media for crime for at least a century, but it's not as if the media invented crime, or that kids would have no crime to imitate without the media. Still, whether or not the media influence an especially suggestible "small cadre" should not be a forbidden question. As for that "cadre," Krauthammer writes from personal experience as a psychiatrist to suggest that many amoklaufers would have been committed to mental care long before they turned violent under the rules he worked under in the 1970s, without "the crushing bureaucratic and legal constraints that make involuntary commitment infinitely more difficult today" A misguided application of civil-rights principles, he argues, has left too many insane people on the streets or simmering in their homes. But strengthening "civil commitment" laws, he suggests, may be more effective than censorship or gun control in reducing the number of mass shootings.

Krauthammer's overall point is that gun owners need not be the only ones expected to sacrifice perceived rights in the name of public safety. Quite sensibly, he reminds readers that public safety always comes at a cost to individual freedom: "Gun control impinges upon the Second Amendment; involuntary commitment impinges upon the liberty clause of the Fifth Amendment; curbing “entertainment” violence impinges upon First Amendment free speech. That’s a lot of impingement, a lot of amendments. But there’s no free lunch. Increasing public safety almost always means restricting liberties." The security measures taken after September 2011 may not be the  most inspiring examples, but they do drive home his point about cost, and his closing question about what we're willing to pay.

Give Krauthammer credit for recognizing the necessity of trade-offs for the public good, even if he remains less ready to recognize any necessity for them in the economic realm. You might still criticize him slightly for exaggerating the starkness of the choice between public safety and liberties. Republicans often have a hard time recognizing or acknowledging that public safety often is the prerequisite for meaningful liberty in a civilized society. Some surrender of supposedly pre-existing individual liberties can result in the sort of freedoms idealized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, "freedom from fear" especially. Unfortunately, the formula isn't automatic because governments and politicians do make mistakes and succumb to temptations. But civilization depends on our dedicated belief that the formula can work. Too many Americans today don't seem to get the idea that good citizenship rather than defensive individualism can make you more free, dismissing the idea (if it occurs to them at all) as some Orwellian absurdity. When you reject such ideas, however, what keeps the amoklaufer from looking like the freest man on earth? Since I assume that no one actually believes that, we already have the beginning of compromise. The question then is how much further we have to go.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the 17th through the 19th centuries in this country, public executions were considered (more or less) a form of entertainment. Violence on television and movies is a reflection of our society, not the other way around.

We are a violent society which has always accepted violence as a justifiable means to an end. Violence against indigenous peoples whose land we desired. Violence against labor organizers who sought some control over labor conditions. Violence against minorities who sought equal human rights. Violence against foreign nations with different political ideals.

Until we change our very basis, our culture will continue to slide into ever more violence. Turning our back on the very idea of gun ownership won't stop violence, but it is a beginning towards changing our attitudes towards violence and THAT is key in ending the violence.