17 September 2013

Amoklauf in Washington

The Navy Yard shooter now seems to have acted alone, and as yet there is no indication of political motives behind his fatal rampage. According to the latest and presumably final count, he killed twelve people before the cops got him. A history of "anger management" issues and apparent paranoia has emerged, as well as gun incidents, despite all of which he received security clearance not once but twice to work in the Navy Yard as a contractor. Rather than being some aggrieved Muslim, the shooter had apparently turned to Buddhism in a vain search for calm or self-control -- though there are plenty of people in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and no doubt elsewhere who can testify to Buddhist violence and even Buddhist terrorism. None of the shooter's gun incidents resulted in prosecution, and it would seem that his right to own guns was never in danger. While the background-check process at his workplace is clearly open to scrutiny, the ease with which he was able to bear and keep arms must also be questioned. If anything, however, the recent controversies over government surveillance have put preventative approaches to crime back into disrepute. For many, the Fourth Amendment has taken on fresh significance as a palladium of liberty, as long as preventative surveillance is viewed unconditionally as an "unreasonable search." Our whole idea of criminal justice is based on addressing events that have already happened, while an approach based upon suspicion (reasonable or not) of future activity is considered characteristic of tyranny. Surveillance violates people's presumption of their own innocence and their expectation that the state share that presumption until someone actually commits a crime. Few can imagine a system that detects and isolates dangerous people prior to crime that can't be abused for political purposes. Despite the opinion of the country's majority faith that all people are sinners, the presumption of innocence (perhaps more insistent in a self-consciously "free" society) forces us into a reactionary approach to mass murder when a preventative approach is self-evidently more desirable. Preventative measures are contemplated only at the cultural level, as if a new stream of moral exhortation, adopted however early, will counter all the forces behind amoklaufs. Into the resulting void the NRA steps in with its appeal to the "good guy with a gun" as our only effective defense against the amoklaufer. That's how a "free society" defends itself from internal enemies, apparently, but who watches the watchmen in that case, especially when they act at their own discretion, with no authorization necessary? Political scientists may question whether such a state is sustainable; political philosophers may wonder whether our refusal, out of fear of tyranny, to reform won't result in some kind of tyranny anyway. But if we can't think of a society where no one can pull an amoklauf as anything but a tyranny, that suggests that our vocabulary of shibboleths is inadequate to the challenges we face.

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