Saturday, January 15, 2011

Guns and Moral Choice

Once I was a Foreign Service Officer, a political officer trained to look at a host society and try to understand what makes it tick.  Over the years and many absences, I've become accustomed to looking at my own country in much the same an objective outside observor, seeking to make sense of an often jumbled mosaic.  One thing I've always stumbled over - that makes no sense to me - is America's obsession with guns and our inability reasonably to regulate their possession and use in the face of an arguably evil lobby. 
How can one make sense of such inaction in a country where there are 90 guns for every 100 people – our nearest competitor being Yemen with 61 per 100 – or where gun deaths each year are twenty times those in any other industrialized democracy?   How can one reason with those who might deny the least among us the right to adequate health care, while insisting that the unfettered right to a gun comes from God?  What does one say to Erich Pratt of the Gun Owners of America when he insists that our rights to a gun are "God-given rights" that "can't be infringed or limited in any way?"
It's as if we're trapped in a dark nightmare, powerless to escape.
Reporters and pundits tell us that there's "little chance the attack [will] produce new legislation."  "Forget about it," they tell us, "there's nothing you can do."  But there is!  Listen to the Polish Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman:
"Evil needs neither enthusiastic followers nor an applauding audience - the instinct of self-preservation will do, encouraged by the comforting thought that it is not my turn yet, thank God: by lying low I can still escape."
But, Bauman adds:
"...putting self-preservation above moral duty is in no way predetermined, inevitable, inescapable.  One can be pressed to do [evil], but cannot be forced to do it, and thus one cannot really shift the responsibility for doing it onto those who exerted the pressure.  It does not matter how many people chose moral duty over the rationality of self-preservation - what does matter is that some did.  Evil is not all-powerful.  It can be resisted.  The testimony of the few who did resist shatters the logic of self-preservation.  it shows it for what it is in the end - a choice.  One wonders how many people must defy that logic for evil to be incapacitated.  Is there a magic threshold of defiance beyond which the technology of evil grinds to a halt?"
Isn't it time that we test that thesis, seek that magic threshold with regard to the gun lobby.  It is not all-powerful.  It can be resisted.  And, I would argue it is our moral duty - our choice - to resist.  All it takes is one person to stand up and say "Enough!"  And another.  And yet another.  All it takes is for one congressman or one senator to stop lying low, followed by another, and yet another.  All it takes is for our congressmen and senators to see their "self-preservation" not in terms of just another electoral victory, but rather of the existential struggle Gabrielle Giffords is now facing.
Aren't Americans intelligent?  Free?  Good?  Aren't we masters of our own fate?  Can't we shake ourselves from the nightmare?  Awakened, can't we stand upright…and stand up to a lobby that cynics have described variously as "amoral," "effective," and "all-powerful?"  Can't we call the NRA for what it really is – evil!  And can't we muster the moral courage to resist?  The choice is ours. 

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