26 April 2013

Amoklauf and terror; guns and bombs

John Cassidy, a New Yorker columnist, asks a theoretical question: how would the American people and government have reacted if two guys had opened fire with guns rather than setting off bombs at the Boston Marathon finish line? His guess is that gun-toting amoklaufers probably would have killed more people -- though Cassidy doesn't speculate on whether shooters could top the Tsarnaevs' grisly score of nearly 300 wounded. He's more interested in what would have happened afterward. He works from the assumption that "there’s something askew with the way we think about and react to various types of extreme violence, and the weapons used in such episodes." He suggests that the government's reticence regarding gun proliferation reduces the casualties of amoklaufs to second-class victimhood compared to the victims of terrorism. Consider what happened in Boston last week:

Set off in a public space a couple of crude, homemade bombs that you appear to have made using a recipe on the Web, and the state will make you Public Enemy Number One. To ensure you are caught and punished, there are virtually no lengths to which the authorities won’t go. They’ll assemble a multi-agency task force overnight, calling on some of the enormous investments in hardware, intelligence, and manpower that have been made since 9/11. They’ll haul in anybody who might be remotely connected to the crime scene, and, if necessary, shut down an entire city. Once you’re caught, they’ll interview you in your hospital bed without reading you your legal rights and then charge you with using W.M.D.s. If you weren’t born in this country, there will even be talk about changing the immigration laws. 

Cassidy concludes that nothing comparable would happen should an amoklaufer flee his crime scene rather than killing himself, despite a shortage of examples to support the assumption. Had the recent California cop-killer holed up in a metropolitan area rather than the wilderness, we might have seem similar operations there. In the long term, however, Cassidy claims that "because of the association of guns and liberty in the minds of many Americans—an association assiduously promoted by the gun lobby—the political system no longer responds to gun deaths." That mistakes a part for a whole, of course, since the government responds to an extent but legislative rules enable a minority to thwart any response Cassidy might consider effective or appropriate.  He toys with the idea that a mass shooting, rather than a bombing, at the Marathon may have created a critical mass in favor of the legislation that was actually defeated last week. But how many minds in this country remain open to change one way or the other, for any reason, on the gun issue?  Our differences seem too fundamental for any episode to have that effect. One side believes that society can always be made safer; the other, convinced that society can't be made absolutely safe, worries that efforts toward that goal do more harm than good.

Cassidy includes a peculiar disclaimer in his article: "Let me make clear that I am not trying to equate, in any moral or legal sense, mass shootings that result from personal vendettas or psychological pathologies with acts of terrorism carried out for political purposes." But would it be wrong if he was? If he complains that amoklauf victims seem to count for less than terrorism victims, isn't he arguing for seeing these categories of crime as equal? The line separating the personal from the political isn't so solid as the disclaimer implies. The political is personal, or else no one would feel a need to kill over politics; the personal becomes political when someone abuses his perceived constitutional right and commits mass murder in public. The terrorist and the amoklaufer have in common an assumed entitlement to kill, for whatever reason. Not to equate them is to leave open the possibility that one or the other option is or might be more legitimate or permissible. I don't think Cassidy means to suggest that, but I'm not really sure what this disclaimer means, except that his article may not have been thought through thoroughly. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The government's reticence is quite easy to explain. The manufacturers of the chemicals and physical parts to make bombs don't contribute tens of millions of dollars to political campaigns. The manufacturers of guns do.

We, the people, are to blame for continuing to elect people who's every endeavour is to keep that political "status quo" going, with the two parties that control getting all the lucrative bribes, perks, gifts and lifestyle their political prostitution affords them.