December 16, 2012 - 8:15 am
I am not about to go into wonk mode and start spouting off glib policy prescriptions about how to “solve” our nation’s obvious problems regarding mass violence. This does not mean that there is nothing that can be done; it does mean, however, that social problems are complex problems, with millions of different variables, tradeoffs, and problems of law and rights to consider. To even begin to be realistic or reasonable about such issues, one must be widely read in law, history, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and dozens of other fields. And even then, you will have amassed perhaps .0001% of the knowledge required to “do something.”
So, what can be done in light of the latest massacre? Before we ask that question, these others (and more) must be asked:
1) What is the source of the problem? We’ve had guns in the United States since before the revolution; we’ve had anti-social mass shootings for much, much less time. Even if you advocate gun control, you’re still obliged to consider that fact. What are the conditions under which these anti-social tendencies have been fostered? The Left will say its the alienating effects of capitalism; the Right will say it’s lack of religion and good morality; the libertarians will say that too much government has turned people into zombies without personal responsibility.
The libertarians and conservatives speak a common language, which is why they seldom go to war with one another the way each camp goes to war with the Left, which speaks a vastly different language. The libertarians and conservatives see politics as a tragic game of trade-offs in which the raw material is Kant’s crooked timber of humanity. The Left sees politics as a way of straightening that crooked timber, an endeavor the other two camps see as inherently absurd. We must therefore create a kind of political Esperanto: which common language can make a conversation possible? Is there such a language? I am skeptical about this.
2) Assuming, arguendo, that we can identify the source of the problem, what practical (and practicable) measures are possible? The Left wants gun control. This latest shooter stole the guns he used. This means that the only gun control that *might* have prevented the massacre would have to target not only the mentally ill, but the parents of the mentally ill. What if the shooter had stolen the guns from his cousin? A friend? Gun control would then have to cover extended family and close friends of the mentally ill. Even the category “mentally ill” is nebulous and riddled with all sorts of potential rights violations. Only a small percentage of people with diagnosed mental disorders are violent. How do we preserve their rights, not just when it comes to guns but with other things? How do we prevent “mentally ill” from becoming the starting point from which all authoritarian measures become justified and initiated? How do we preserve medical privacy? How do we keep the United States from becoming a pure surveillance state in which all economic and social transactions are linked and monitored by bureaucrats?
3) What has led to the rise of anti-social attitudes in this country? This is related to question (1) above, but is different because it asks not only to identify the problem but to identify the variables. Is it violent movies and video games? Is it mass consumerism? Is it lack of religion? Is it bad parenting? Capitalism? Socialism? Overmedication? All or none or some of the above? This is an extraordinarily complex question. The United States is a nation of over 300 million people. Which leads me to…
4) In what ways is the United States different from other nations? This is the ultimate question, because many politicians would have you believe that what works in, say, Sweden would work in the U.S. Not true. The population of New York City, for instance, is almost bigger than the entire population of Austria. Austria! One American city almost has more people than an entire European state. What’s more, European countries tend to be more culturally and ethnically homogenous than the U.S. So, small nations with small, homogenous populations have a bigger chance of getting away with gun control and welfare statism than a nation of 300+ million people all with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and different values. I once heard someone say, in jest, that a nation like Sweden could get away with all sorts of crazy regulations that a nation like the U.S. could never get away with–mandating, for instance, that only left-handed people could be teachers and only right-handed people could be cardiologists. And they would get away with it, this person said, because of certain tendencies in Swedish culture, demographics, and history.
What about the United States? What if we banned all guns tomorrow? Would we turn into Germany overnight? No, we would not, and the sooner we realize that the whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts, the quicker we might be able to deal with complex social problems.
5) Has the United States evolved into a society in which the above questions are not only unable to be answered but unable to be asked? Our political culture nowadays is one in which disagreement is not a sign of simply disagreement, but grievous moral idiocy. Merely saying you believe that taxes should be lower, for instance, brings with it labels as far-reaching as “racist,” “heartless,” and so on. Even within political camps, one step outside orthodoxy is enough to ignite an almost Jacobin response. In other words, we live in a (forgive this phrase) hair-trigger political culture. People are sent flying into rage by the slightest disagreement. This means that certain things are off limits to discussion; thus, a certain degree of stagnation will remain inherent in American politics until that political culture changes.
Therefore, I must draw the sad conclusion that all of the above questions are, at this point, incapable of being asked.