"Good morning, Shooters! Happy Friday! Weekend plans?" America's National Rifle Association hastily erased this tweet from their website moments after learning that a crazed gunman had killed 12 people and wounded 58.
The shooting took place during a midnight showing of "Batman: the Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colorado. No one has accused the NRA of direct responsibility for the senseless massacre, but we can thank the NRA for the fact that a deranged lunatic can buy an assault rifle and then anonymously purchase six thousand of rounds of ammunition over the internet.
If the United States decides to quietly drop its support for the global treaty on conventional weapons currently being negotiated at the UN headquarters in New York, or more likely, if the US agrees to the treaty's emasculation, we can also thank the NRA.
The NRA has effectively made gun control too risky a venture for any American politician to tackle. Its astonishing power stems from the millions of dollars in lobbying efforts that it uses to sink the career of any politician who dares suggest that owning a firearm is anything less than a sacrosanct gift from God. Thanks to this ferocious political intimidation, gun control in the USA has become a political third rail. Touch it, and your career in politics instantly goes up in smoke. To get a real feel for the venom that the NRA expresses on these matters, take a quick look at NRA's website at http://nra.com (or alternatively, http://nra.org).
To get a grasp of the logic, or lack thereof, that powers this organization read some of NRA executive vice-president and CEO Wayne LaPierre's red neck rantings. It should come as no surprise that the United Nations itself and in fact any organization that strives for world peace, ranks high on the NRA's hit list. The real damage however, is not just that the NRA has sought to paralyze efforts at controlling the murderous global traffic in lethal weapons, it is that the NRA has effectively stifled the rational discourse that might actually find a solution to what are by their nature complex problems. The result is that we search for answers while deciding in advance not to find the ones that are most obvious.
Enter the latest Colorado massacre. The US is not unique in experiencing mindless violence of this sort. The shooting spree by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, which killed 69 people and wounded more than a hundred in Norway last year is a case in point, or the recent psychotic murders of three school children in France by a French-Algerian al-Qaeda wannabe.
It will take police and psychiatrists some time to understand exactly what was going on in the mind of the perpetrator of the senseless rampage in Colorado. The tragedy is that the polarization of the gun control issue leads to the false conclusion that nothing can be done to stop them. The obvious fact is that controlling firearms and ammunition can do a great deal to prevent random lunatics from using the latest in weapons technology to spread random mayhem. As one pundit put it: these people are hardly rocket scientists. Another obvious fact is that most people are better off and safer not owning a firearm, especially if they have little or no experience with the consequences of actually using one.
A deeper cultural issue is American mythology which identifies masculinity with the use of force, and even more with the expectation of justice through revenge. Former president George W. Bush epitomized this latent instinct in his reaction to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Bush quite openly promoted himself as the lone Western cowboy striking back at a group of outlaw gunslingers. All of us have this kind of fantasy at one time or another. Unfortunately Bush had the power to act. The result was war in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands more dead and a worldwide economic catastrophe. The world, it turned out, was more complex than the make-believe cowboy hero had suspected.
James Egan Holmes admitted to the shooting, but denies guilt.
The psychiatrist and philosopher Eric Fromm pointed out that Americans are taught to value courage and independence--the myth of the old West-- at precisely that moment in time when economic survival means conforming to the dictates of large corporate structures that punish those traits. The lone hero who stands against the crowd is quickly hammered into dust in a world that is infinitely more complex than the one that existed in the 19th century. The result is national schizophrenia. The way out of the psychological tension induced by this dichotomy is for most people a breif excursion into escapism: James Bond movies, comic book super heroes and, increasingly, action-packed video games. You may need to be a wimp in confrontations with your boss at the office, but you can be a hero playing "Call of Duty: World at War." Even better, you can kill all those evil, demonic figures that are trying to kill you. For a few brief moments it is possible to feel at ease with the corrosive social forces that are eating away at your sense of personal identity.
After the massacre of students at Colorado's Columbine high school, I did a quick survey of internet chat groups and was surprised to find that a significant number of students online actually approved of the teen-agers who had carried out the murders at Columbine. The kids in the anonymous chat groups referred to themselves as insignificant "piss ants," who were ignored by society at large. The headline grabbing mass murders, they felt, had finally forced society to pay attention to them. At the time, I interviewed dozens of high school students. "What do you do when you see a class mate psychologically sinking below the waves? Do you feel that you need to help him pull himself together? " I asked. "Not our problem," they said. "It might well become your problem," I countered. Their reaction: "whatever!" Columbine, and now Aurora, are in a sense the "whatever."
The NRA, and in Europe, groups like the Front National or the neo-nazis, are also victims of a global cultural schizophrenia that is a result of the effort to civilize societies that were previously based on a code that demanded an eye for an eye and consequently endless vendettas. It is an attempt to set international standards for human rights, and underlying that, human behavior, by imposing standards and cultural changes that are to be honest counter intuitive.
American writer and futurist, Alvin Toffler, pointed in his 1990 book, "Power Shift," that over the course of the 19th century and the early 20th century, the use of force to resolve disputes was gradually centralized and turned over to governments. Instead of individuals resolving their differences through duels, murder or vigilante lynchings, the exercise of force gradually became the responsibility of the police or the military. In place of revenge, the rule of law began to take over.
In this context, what organizations like the NRA really want is to turn back the clock. Focusing on inefficiencies in an evolving social system that they risk not being able to control, they want to return to a world in which individuals can still express themselves with lethal force if needs be, or at least they can imagine that they still have the option to do that. The line between fantasy and reality is
becoming harder to see.
Few of these people have actually witnessed any real violence. Few have actually used a gun in self defense. The kind of people who join the NRA are usually not the kind that have served in the army or the military. That would be too risky and ultimately too demanding. They live instead in a fantasy world in which they imagine themselves to be heroic huntsmen or vigilantes, or even Batman, unfettered by the demands and restrictions of modern society.
The NRA is not alone in this. Any parent knows that it is nearly impossible to raise children and to keep them from playing with toy guns. I remember sitting in a cafe in Paris and watching a 5-year old girl take a piece of bread and mould it into a toy pistol and then playing at shooting her brother. Like it or not, in children's minds, guns represent power, and knowing how to manipulate power is essential in any society. The NRA's problem is that most of its members, and the audience it appeals to, never really grew up. By mobilizing themselves into a political force, they have helped to block international efforts to stop the flow of assault rifles to thuggish militias in Africa, while at home, they have made access to the weapons necessary for mass murder much easier and difficult to control than it needs to be. Until their influence can be overcome, civilization is likely to take a back seat to retrograde violence in which the thugs of the world arm themselves and run rampant and in which the mentally ill of the world can remind us of our failure to act by engaging in occasional masscres like the one in Colorado.