Yelling “Fire!” In A Crowded Bill of Rights
Rusty Nelson on Peace and War
Cassandra, in ancient Greek stories, has become a more and more compelling character to me as I’ve observed the politics of institutional violence. What curse could frustrate you more than being able to see the future clearly while every other mind is completely closed to any warning or constructive comment you might offer? Watching epic, human-driven disasters unfold was much less painful before I realized two essential facts: The violence residing within me is part of the problem, and there is always an alternative to violence.
Our national conversation is full of presumptions that immutable conflicts emerge from the blue, with no way to anticipate or prevent them. What a waste of talk. If we can’t see poverty, inequality for women and minorities, the firearms plague, wage theft, funding cuts for education and social safety nets, codified vengeance, and the consolidation of corporate wealth and power as symptoms of a culture of violence, we’ll never fathom the magnetism of war.
Yes, I’m saying these maladies, and more, thrive in our society because we have embraced violence. Not tolerated. Not ignored. Embraced.
As desensitized as I am, I flinch every day from events, commentary, rhetoric and self-righteousness that stubbornly resist acknowledgment of the power of nonviolence. Rare is the group or individual who maintains no shrines to gods of violence. The U.S. Constitution and Judeo-Christian theology both set out to limit acceptable violence, and they’re both cherry-picked to construct handbooks for fear-driven denominations in our civil religion.
Thousands of Americans have, for four years, been expecting President Obama to storm their homes, demanding they surrender their flintlock muskets and pistols, their sacred heritage from an amendment crafted to convince Virginians and Georgians they could ratify the constitution without losing their cherished, slavery-enforcing militias. Having converted their arsenals to assault rifles and automatic pistols, these bold patriots hear the dreaded knock, don kevlar vests and NRA badges and fling their doors open to face the jack-booted thugs sent to infringe their most precious rights. Imagine the surprise when their worst nightmare turns out to be, not flag-burning, homosexual communists, but a former congresswoman surviving a bullet to the head and the spirits of 20 beatific children, forever 6 or 7 years old.
Of course, those doors have yet to be unlocked, and the gun industry is providing barricade material and doubling down to maintain the NRA’s investment in members of Congress and other influential hair triggers.
Meanwhile, my long-held, personal position on firearms seems inadequate. I’ve told gun worshipers that I have nothing against gun ownership or responsible shooting, but I detest and fear the strongly-held belief that any individual or family is somehow safer with the presence of a firearm, regardless of training or environment. Now, I would say, “If you can’t live with an interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that allows universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and restrictions on WMD, then I’m for repeal of your holy 2nd Amendment because I hear you yelling ’fire!’ under the protection of my 1st Amendment.”
I’m impatient with decisions about what is or is not constitutional, and I think very few of us wish to revisit an amendment experiment like prohibition. On the other hand, I will argue with anyone that capital punishment is forbidden by the 8th Amendment, and I’m disgusted that so few Supreme Court justices have ever expressed any concern about it. Justices cling to their own excuses for cruel and unusual punishment, just as a gun worshiper might justify the fantasy of blowing the head off a perverted and heavily-armed intruder. In reality, of course, executions propel the cycle of violence, granting permission for a few (unusual) selected (cruel) homicides , and dearly innocent lives are usually the ones lost when firearms are discharged in the home.
Another factor in our national attitude about violence brings out even more of my Cassandra complex. It is the myth of good guys and bad guys.
After a brief military career, I realized I had been manipulated to be comfortable discerning between enemies and allies, good and bad people, good and bad violence. I had accepted a license to kill with no more sophistication than the childhood games of cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians, but I inferred that military and government leaders actually knew what they were doing.
Even after childhood turns as good guys and bad guys, we retain the notion that we are good guys, and people with different values-often translated as different economic status, religion or ethnicity- are bad guys, especially if accused or suspected of offensive thoughts or behaviors. With this myth perpetuated by every level of media and government, most of us grow up ready to justify any violence we perceive as necessary. Worse, the good-guy-bad-guy reference is used locally to undermine the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” and globally to subvert efforts toward peacemaking and diplomacy.
Our gun violence epidemic is far from over, even if we get legislation for universal firearms registration and permission to refrain from arming the mentally ill and known criminals. Our society is not ready to consider human powder kegs as criminal and/or insane just because they may harbor extreme death wishes. Conventional wisdom demands a sprinkling of sociopaths and psychopaths in our military, intelligence and law enforcement organizations, and we honor many of them as heroes for actual or perceived service to our country. They are we. They are good guys…until the moment they are overwhelmed by that element of violence that most of us feel we’ll always be able to control.
I often agree with those who claim violent popular media are factors in our epidemic of real-life-and-death violence, but I’m troubled that no media favorite has stepped up to point out that the promoters of war-at-any-price have always glorified killing and destruction with impunity. That is how a nation can be horrified that Americans brutalized and humiliated prisoners at Abu Graib, vaguely disturbed that we ruined the lives of uncharged suspects at Guantanamo, and totally unconcerned about the killing of thousands of noncombatants in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s how release of a filmed massacre of civilians by U.S. helicopter gunships results in no penalties for the heroic butchers and abusive, pre-charges detention for Bradley Manning who was declared guilty long before any proof was submitted. That’s how repressed and desperate youth, especially in depressed sections of our largest cities, decide their lives will be meaningless without firearms and the willingness to use them, while the Pentagon, nervous about funding for its customary extravagance, conjures a medal for remote operators of death-dealing drones.
We who strive for justice get as angry as anyone. Even when we believe our personal demons of violence are minimized, we can scream at our loved ones, wish for harm to befall persons more prominent and more violent than we, or sling pitiful epithets toward people whose minds we think we cannot change. This is our self-imposed curse of Cassandra, a curse we can still elude by making an effort to find common ground with our adversaries and admitting our own weaknesses. Although I believe I have reasonable answers for many of the big questions of our time, I’ve learned it is not for me to claim more than a small portion of the Truth. It is, however, for me and for us to challenge the misperceptions, distorted history, and outright lies which make our country ignore the triumphs of King and Gandhi in favor of the spiral of violence which has failed us, every time.