Gun massacres and the freedom to tyrannize
“This is the price of freedom,” said former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in reference to Stephen Craig Paddock’s mass shooting in Las Vegas last month. “Violent nuts are allowed to roam free until they do damage, no matter how threatening they are. The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection. Even the loons.”
Every time a gun massacre occurs in this country, opponents of gun control (like Bill O’Reilly) ask us to look beyond the carnage and see instead the very meaning and measure of American freedom. In particular, they insist that we decipher from the bodies not our failure to secure – for all of us – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; but instead our triumph over the tyranny of government and despots, as well as security from the threats we face from one another (or, more precisely, threats from the “Other,” usually coded as black and brown).
Thus, after the recent mass shooting by Devin Patrick Kelley in Sutherland, Texas, we were asked again to look beyond the dead and see our liberty. “Lawmakers and pundits on the left,” wrote Justin Haskins of the conservative Heartland Institute, for instance, “have already started to call for increased gun control laws that would strip law-abiding citizens of their Second Amendment rights in the name of protecting innocent Americans. But, as Benjamin Franklin once rightfully observed, ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’”
If the carnage of “innocent Americans” signifies freedom and the “price” we pay for it – or, to put this differently, if we’re supposed to understand Devin Patrick Kelley’s and Stephen Craig Paddock’s purchase, control, and use of firearms as epitomizing American freedom, then it is abundantly clear that what some opponents of gun control want to secure – even at the expense of elementary school children and babies attending church – is neither freedom from tyranny nor protection from others. No, what they want to safeguard, more than anything else, is the freedom to tyrannize or exercise power over, the freedom to be the threat and terror, rather than the ones threatened and terrorized. For what Kelley and Paddock did, after all, was the essence of tyranny.
Perched high above his victims and armed with over forty weapons, Paddock shot at and terrorized vulnerable and defenseless children, women and men who were, of all things, enjoying a country music concert. Paddock killed fifty-eight people and injured hundreds more.
Armed with two handguns and an AR-15 (an assault-style rifle) – as well as outfitted in tactical gear and a ballistic vest – Kelley first shot into Sutherland’s First Baptist Church, where his victims were perhaps singing hymns or praying or reciting Bible verses. And then he went inside the church to continue his assault, killing twenty-six people and injuring twenty.
I think it is safe to say that none of the victims posed a threat to Paddock or Kelley.
All of them, in fact, were defenseless, sitting ducks. To the victims, it must have seemed that Paddock and Kelley were damn near invincible. And by taking their own lives (though the jury is still out about whether Kelley killed himself), both gunmen guaranteed – as tyrants often do – that none of the victims and victims’ families would ever be able to hold them accountable for their crimes.
So when we hear some opponents of gun control condemn gun massacres, ask us to pray, and then talk about freedom, we should be clear that their sentiments are, in reality, celebrations of tyranny and terror, couched in terms of our “essential Liberty.” We should understand that the Paddocks and Kelleys are necessarily, in these gun control opponents’ world view, freedom fighters because they own and use (no matter how horrifically) firearms; and that the dead, maimed and traumatized children, women and men are, for all intents and purposes, fallen soldiers for a just cause (rather than the victims of gun-toting despots) because the person who shot them was exercising his Second Amendment rights. Opponents of gun control would have us believe, in fact, that the dead and injured took a bullet so that we might enjoy living as a free people.
This is all bullshit, of course. And it should come as no surprise that, for gun control opponents like O’Reilly, tyranny is freedom because, for them, tyranny is policy, both foreign and domestic. Tyranny over women, over LGBT communities, over the poor, over black and brown people, over other nations, over the environment, over other species, over people of other faiths – such tyranny constitutes the substance of their health care proposals, tax plans, trade regimes, local bathroom ordinances, court nominations, budget priorities. Tyranny is the point of their greater America.
Consequently, the tyranny exercised by the Paddocks and Kelleys is “not [a] spontaneous” outburst “of raw brutal energy that breaks the chains of civilized customs,” as Slajob Žižek observed (Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors) with regard to the “brutal reaction in males” that “social dislocation” often “provokes.” It is instead “something learned, externally imposed, ritualized: part of the collective symbolic substance of a community.”
Indeed, the tyranny exercised by the Paddocks and Kelleys is precisely what celebrations of freedom as tyranny inevitably produce.
Originally published in Counterpunch.
The House Democrats’ sit-in (or, when nonviolence is violence)
When Georgia Representative and civil rights movement veteran John Lewis likened the extraordinary sit-in staged last week by House Democrats (a sit-in he lead) to the historic 1965 civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama – “We crossed one bridge,” Lewis stated, “but we have other bridges to cross” — he invited us all to see the Democrats’ sit-in as nonviolent direct action in the tradition of the civil rights movement and as an expression of the movement’s highest ideals.
Just as Selma protesters, for example, were champions of nonviolence against the violent and unjust system of racial segregation, the Democrats (Lewis suggested) were champions of nonviolence (i.e., gun control) against a violent system of gun ownership and accessibility, a system that the Republican leadership – through its refusal to allow a House vote on gun control legislation – both upholds and reproduces. And just as Selma protesters persisted in spite of the violent defiance of Selma’s power structure – “it took [Selma protesters] three times,” Lewis reminded us, “to make it from Selma all the way to Montgomery” – so, too, would Democrats persist in the face of House Republicans’ defiance.
The two proposals over which Lewis and his Democratic colleagues staged the sit-in, however, cannot be reconciled with either the Selma movement or with nonviolence. In fact, both proposals – a ban on gun sales to women and men on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, and the expansion of background checks on prospective gun buyers – are so steeped in violence that they effectively render the Democrats’ sit-in, a sit-in for violence.
Consider this: the first proposal rationalizes a system that, as the American Civil Liberties Union points out, is “error prone and unreliable because it uses vague and overbroad criteria and secret evidence to place individuals on blacklists without a meaningful process to correct government error and clear their names.” Indeed, the system is applied in an “arbitrary and discriminatory manner,” such that it functions by and large to target, criminalize, and harass (and thus do violence to) Arab and Muslim communities (ironically enough, Representative Lewis himself was watch-listed, an experience through which he found that the system “provides no effective means of redress for unfair or incorrect designations”).
Furthermore, because the first proposal is justified as a matter of “national security” (as California Senator Feinstein asserted during the course of the sit-in), its function, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, is ultimately to “strengthen the country’s security state and to further justify the ‘war on terror.’” That war, according to a joint report issued by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, has so far cost at least 1.3 million human lives (the cost to the lives of other sentient beings, we must presume, is equally astronomical).
Although seemingly benign in the context of gun control, background checks – the subject of the second proposal – also reinforce a security state framework and, like the first proposal, do nothing to “address the underlying causes of violence in America.” In fact, the proposal – and by extension, the House Democrats’ sit-in – presupposes that the legitimate ownership of guns is the absence of violence. And yet gun ownership is violence, just as the stockpiling of nuclear weapons is violence.
Nonviolent direct action that is not grounded in a transformative commitment to nonviolence, that “neither contests nor seeks alternatives to the dominant imperial mentality of the day” (to borrow the phrasing of Sean Chabot and Majid Sharifi in “The Violence of Nonviolence”), is action that can be easily deployed to champion policies that are, in fact, inherently violent.
Such is how we must view the House Democrats’ sit-in. Not only did the Democrats legitimize legislation that reinforces systemic violence; they also failed to offer anything remotely transformative (such as, for example, legislation that bans guns altogether and commits the United States to international gun control). And they certainly didn’t offer any critique that tied gun violence to “relatively invisible forms of structural, epistemic, and everyday violence” or to our culture of violence.
Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. had organized a sit-in on Vietnam in which he called not for the end of the war, “racism, militarism, and materialism” – and not for a “revolution of values” – but merely for the cessation or limited use of Agent Orange.
Given who John Lewis is and the fearlessness with which he confronted the violence of segregationists in Selma and elsewhere, I don’t offer this critique lightly. But as a state actor, he has – along with his colleagues – turned nonviolence on its head. On the floor of the House, the Democrats’ nonviolent sit-in was state violence dressed in nonviolent clothing, and in so being it left unquestioned and undisturbed the structural and spiritual underpinnings that not only shaped the Orlando massacre that triggered the Democrats’ sit-in, but that also continue to drive the everyday visible and invisible violence that continues to roil communities the world over.