Saturday, June 18, 2016

Run, Walk or Crawl

A friend I have not seen in the flesh in perhaps twenty-five years, but with whom, nevertheless, I am a Facebook "friend," posted something this past week to the effect, "If you comment on the events in Orlando with your agenda on either side of the gun debate, you're kind of an asshole." I "liked" his post. But what I wanted to reply was "Spoken like a true American!" So, at the risk of being an asshole, let me dredge up my agenda.

Over the past few days, people have been quietly observing the first anniversary of the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in which a young man, his head filled with white supremacist hate, went on a shooting rampage inside a historic black church in the middle of a prayer meeting. Federal prosecutors recently announced that they are seeking the death penalty in the shooter's trial.

The Charleston anniversary was completely overshadowed by yet another mass shooting, this time in Orlando, Florida the weekend prior, in which an apparently conflicted gay Muslim man took out his own self-hate on a crowd of revelers inside a gay nightclub, killing forty-nine of them. Since he chose not to surrender to police and was shot to death by them, at least there won't be a trial or a prosecutor seeking the death penalty.

American progressives (like me, dear reader) always have to pinch themselves just to be reminded that they're living in the 21st century. When it comes to certain aspects of American life, the intransigence of some of its citizens makes the idea of progress seem like an illusion.

Two issues that have clung tenaciously to life in 21st century American life, issues that were settled in the 20th century by every other nation in the West, are capital punishment and a citizen's right to bear arms. Evidence that the first issue is gradually going away is piling up in state after state. The extremism and apparent paranoia, like a species of "siege mentality," of proponents of the Seconnd Amendment is an indication that they, too, are losing their nerve.

Because the issue has sometimes seemed unsolveable, some gun control advocates have begun to look for ways of "owning" that Americans are an especially violent people and that guns, which now number more than three hundred million in America, are never going to go away. But I think the debate now runs deeper among Americans.

As I recognized in a post on this blog some months ago, Americans are now grappling with the proposition that the right of gun ownership is more important than human life. I hope that this statement sounds outrageous to most people, but it makes perfect sense to others. If there were multiple mass killings every day, if the death toll were multiplied exponentially - which it is likely to do before something is at last done about it - there would still be this tacit agreement that a citizen's right to bear arms is more important than the thousands who have been slaughtered in its name.

Such an outrageous proposition is not at all unprecedented in America - and everywhere else in the world for that matter. Almost a hundred years ago modern civilization arrived at a similar agreement when automobile accidents started to take their toll on drivers, passengers and pedestrians. Speed was the culprit. Human errors behind the wheel could only be controlled when an automobile's speed could be controlled. But nobody really wanted automobiles to be made slower. So a conscious choice between speed and human life had to be made, and life lost. Every year, the staggering numbers of automobile fatalities are published, along with civic leaders demanding that something should be done about it. And every year nothing is done, and the argument is shelved. Perhaps driverless cars will be the solution?

Maybe I am kind of an asshole, but I believe in progress. It may always be a struggle of two steps up and one back, with reactionary forces always trying to pull us in the opposite direction. "It is quite possible," George Orwell, playing the devil's advocate, wrote, "that man's major problems will never be solved. But it is also unthinkable! Who is there who dares to look at the world of today and say to himself, 'It will always be like this: even in a million years it cannot get appreciably better?' So you get the quasi-mystical belief that for the present there is no remedy, all political action is useless, but that somehow, somewhere in space and time, human life will cease to be the miserable brutish thing it now is. . . There is nothing for it except to be a 'short-term pessimist,' ie. to keep out of politics, make a sort of oasis within which you and your friends can remain sane, and hope that somehow things will be better in a hundred years."

I cannot believe that it will take that long for the gun lovers to come around and see that the right that they celebrate has become oppressive to everyone else who does not want to own a gun. Is it constitutional for the majority of Americans who don't have any use for a gun to continue being threatened into submission by the minority that do? It may take another generation for our gun culture to see it this way, but I must believe it will happen. I believe it because, by now, progress is built into our social system. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote "If you cannot fly, run. If you cannot run, walk. If you cannot walk, crawl. But you must keep moving forward." It's forward, not backward.

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