Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Gun Control: Beware the Low-Hanging Fruit

Democrats! Liberals! Friends! You're so close to being right on this, don't screw it up now! I know as well as you do that a person has no more of a "constitutional right" to an AK-47 than he does to a tactical missile or a chemical weapon; I know that America's ghastly pattern of mass shootings cannot be accounted for by the N.R.A.'s division of the world into black hats and white hats (the so-called "bad guy with a gun," in Wayne LaPierre's world-picture, against whom must be matched, presumably, the man who shot Liberty Valence), but rather by our society's total failure to adopt any affordable mental health system, coupled with the ubiquitous access to guns and other deadly weapons that our society allows. And I too know what has to be done about it -- a ban on military-grade hardware, and further restrictions on the sale and possession of other kinds of guns as well.

We also know, however, that such categorical restrictions are notoriously difficult to get through Congress, given the power of the gun lobby. And in our despair and rage and grief, there will be a strong temptation to reach instead for the "low-hanging fruit" of less controversial gun restrictions -- in this case, they tend to involve denying access to guns to people on the "No Fly List" and the "Terrorism Watch List"-- just so we can feel we have done something, that things can change, that we are not condemned idly to witness one slaughter after another -- or to be slaughtered ourselves.

I beg you, though, please look carefully at that low-hanging fruit before biting into it. Check for bruises and parasites, and the outward coating of pesticide. Handle that mealy husk with care. Someone was willing to dangle it within our reach for a reason. But who? And why?

Start by asking yourself this -- why did Donald Trump himself endorse some of this low-hanging fruit today? Why did he pivot from his previous stance of wanting to arm America's schoolteachers, to suddenly announcing on Twitter that he was going to meet with the N.R.A. to try to convince them to accept gun restrictions on people who appear on federal terrorism watch lists? Why do you think it is that this is the one form of gun control Trump is willing to endorse? And if you don't yet follow the direction of those leading questions, as least ask yourself this: is this the sort of ideological company I want to keep?

As we speak, Democrats are engaged in a Congressional filibuster to force some kind of change in the federal gun laws, and I so wish that I could be unambiguously cheering them on. But I'm not, and it's because of this watch list issue. The truth is that it's a sad day for me when I hear the N.R.A. speaking up in press releases about the need for due process for terrorism suspects, while liberals are silent. It's a depressing thing when it is the American Right that is trying to remind people of the obvious truth that being suspected of terrorism means only that, that you are suspected, and that this is not the same thing as being proven guilty in a court of law -- whereas it is the Left that can be seen locking arms with Donald Trump -- however briefly-- and marching together to the tune of "If you can't get on board an airplane, then you shouldn't be able to purchase a gun!"

I'll say it plain: whatever gun restrictions we ultimately adopt -- and we should adopt a great many -- have to become the law of the land for all Americans, determining what kinds of legal access to firearms should be permitted to any given citizen of the United States. What they cannot be is a set of arbitrary privileges doled out to some and withheld from others by the fiat of the executive branch. Yet this is what those "watch lists" essentially amount to. There is no judicial process for determining a person's placement on such lists. We know that the process of who becomes a "terrorism suspect" and who does not is one freighted with potential for abuse, for racial and religious profiling, for blanket miscarriages of justice. Just look at the cases of the utterly innocent people (Shaker Aamer comes to mind) who have been detained without access to counsel or trial in Guantanamo for years -- even for more than a decade; only to be released with scarcely an apology from the U.S. government and no explanation for why their lives were handled for so long with such utter callousness.

You may argue that the legal right to own a gun has to do with far less fundamental interests than do the human rights to freedom of movement and of family life and freedom from cruel and degrading treatment that have been so ruthlessly violated at Guantanamo Bay. And you'd be correct, in my view. But whether gun ownership should be a legal right at all is not really the issue here, so long as we are talking about the low-hanging fruit, rather than any more comprehensive legislation. As Kevin Drum and others have pointed out, the fact remains that it is a legal right, in our current system, and for that reason cannot be stripped from a person capriciously, without a fair judicial proceeding -- at least not without it setting a dangerous precedent.

And this is what the N.R.A. has been saying all day today, apparently, in their discussions with Trump and in press releases. I guess I'm on their side, however fleetingly. Though I'm on anyone's side against Trump, and the N.R.A. is not the only unlikely ally to appear on that growing list.

You may also point out that the GOP has no right whatsoever to pose as champions of the constitutional rights of terrorism suspects. Where were they, you ask, when people were being waterboarded on the orders of the Bush administration?; where are they now, when over a hundred people still languish in Guantanamo without promise of a fair and expeditious trial or other due process? You're right, they're hypocrites, but that's pretty much all there is to be said on that score. Pointing it out doesn't do us any particular good. As Ernst Gellner once said, in a deft deployment of apophasis that appears after he has pointed out in great detail the contradictions inherent in an opponent's arguments: "Let us leave him with that problem: there is no way out of it."

Their hypocrisy does not excuse or privilege our own -- nor, by the way, will it in the least prevent the Republicans from making hay of our hypocrisy when the time comes. They'll decry this use of arbitrary executive power, and blithely forget their own. Do you want them to be right?

Come to think of it, the only really consistent person in this little scenario so far, it would appear, is Trump! He's opposed  to recognizing the constitutional rights of terrorism suspects on all scores, with his talk of torture and of watch lists alike. Bully for you, Trump, you've managed to become one of America's few truly thoroughgoing authoritarians.

By the way, not to throw the Bernie people a bone so late in the game, but hearing Hillary Clinton on the subject of the terrorism watch list today, one was reminded of everything one never really liked about her -- and never pretended to like. There is somehow a lack of a center there. Yesterday, she was standing up for the rights of Muslim Americans and immigrants against Trump's hateful rhetoric. And today, she has become punitive and unforgiving again, glossing over the criticism that the terrorism watch lists might themselves reflect Islamophobic and xenophobic attitudes; that the executive branch does not necessarily make fair determinations as to who belongs on a list of terrorism suspects, because that is not its mandate; that people appearing on such lists are not granted  a presumption of innocence and due process and other judicial protections, and therefore ought not to be stripped of their legal privileges. The fact that Trump is now saying the same things as Clinton on this subject -- or hinting that he will -- just seals the indictment of her position.

Through her long, impressive, and mostly admirable career, Clinton has been many things to many people -- but most of all she has been a bellwether of just how conservative and quietist one can be in one's attitudes while still belonging to an identifiably liberal political cohort. You will not have forgotten, I am sure, Clinton the law enforcer. Clinton the opponent of same-sex marriage. Clinton the believer in capital punishment (that one's still with us, actually, unless she's released a statement I don't know about). Always she has drifted along with the winds of the rest of the just-barely -- and perfectly-safely -- left-of-center. And "we can argue about how [she] got that way," as Clinton once said of the so-called "super-predators." The sexism of American politics (and society) almost certainly had something to do with it -- the double standard that deemed her a "radical" no matter what she said or did, that insisted that because she was a feminist and a professional, she must be intent on locking away everyone's children in liberal re-education camps-- all of which had the result of forcing Clinton into an endless and futile quest for "likability" that she has not quit even today, and that ultimately only rendered her that much harder to like, because her real identity became so elusive.

This, however, is where the course of blowing with the winds, the hunt for "likability," always lands you. You end up being liked by no one, because in your various blowings and driftings hither and yon over the years, you have occupied enough mutually contradictory positions to give everyone reason to be mad at you. Whereas if you'd actually stood for something along the way, a few at least would have been willing to stand beside you. As D.H. Lawrence once wrote:
Those that go searching for love
only make manifest their own lovelessness,[…]
only the loving find love,
and they never have to seek for it.
Just look at what has happened to the Democratic party from so many years of searching for the love of its opponents. For most of the 1990s, Democrats were on a mission to prove to Republicans that they weren't really "soft on crime," that they had no more tolerance for "moochers" and "deadbeats" than anyone else. The result was that it was a Democratic president, not a Republican, who ultimately triggered perhaps the greatest expansion of the incarcerated population in recent memory and who slashed the welfare rolls to such an extent that it caused, by some estimates, a two-fold increase in rates of extreme poverty in the United States. And nowadays, even some Republicans are lambasting the Clintons for their criminal justice policies.

I sense that a very similar temptation lurks for us behind the low-hanging fruit of gun control. Out of a belief that more fair and consistent and thoroughgoing forms of gun control are beyond our reach -- that the Republicans and the NRA (always endowed in these analyses with terrible and superhuman power) will never allow it to happen -- we will settle for the inconsistent, capricious and, as the case may be, discriminatory forms of enforcement encapsulated in the "watch list" approach.

We will do it so as not to make waves; we will do it in the hopes that such a compromise will prove acceptable to the opposition. We're doing it for you, all for you! we plead. But Republicans have spurned many such peace offerings before. In fact, what they are most likely to do is to one day employ the morally discreditable things we've done in the pursuit of compromise against us. I would give it a decade or less before conservatives are claiming that the whole motive behind Democratic support for gun control was in fact the desire to discriminate and erode due process. And they will play dumb that they might ever have been guilty of a similar motive themselves, in regard to other issues.

That is why one is far better off being who one really is, and stating what one believes, and simply suffering oneself to be judged accordingly. And the really wonderful thing about this course of action -- this brave renunciation of the quest for "likability" -- is that it is actually a surer path to receiving the genuine affection and esteem of other people. It has the double virtue of being both the right thing to do, and ultimately the most propitious. As Max Havelaar advises his "moderate" assistant Verbrugge in Multatuli's great novel:
"For my part, I should not have the courage to lack that courage. Because, in addition to the dissatisfaction with oneself which arises from neglect of duty or lukewarmness... the search for easier detours, the desire to avoid conflict anywhere and everywhere, the penchant to 'fix' things, inevitably cause more anxiety, and actually more danger, than will be encountered on the straight and narrow path." (Edwards trans.)
One can hang a whole life's course on such excellent advice as that, not to mention the destiny of a political party.

So please wait just a little bit longer, my friends. Keep to the straight and narrow. It will be painful. But there is only one kind of gun control that can satisfy the conscience in the end, and that is the kind that controls guns -- not the kind that, however surreptitiously, is really about controlling people. You can be sure that the day that Donald Trump starts endorsing gun control (and that day has now arrived) we are dealing with the second of the two varieties.

1 comment:

  1. Liberals who are inclined to celebrate last night's apparent outcome, please read this statement from the ACLU -- no enemy of gun control generally -- from the last time we went round this question:

    "There is no constitutional bar to reasonable regulation of guns, and the No Fly List could serve as one tool for it, but only with major reform. As we will argue to a federal district court in Oregon this Wednesday, the standards for inclusion on the No Fly List are unconstitutionally vague, and innocent people are blacklisted without a fair process to correct government error. […]

    The government has emphasized that it is making predictive judgments that people like our clients — who have never been charged let alone convicted of a crime — might nevertheless pose a threat. That’s a perilous thing for it to do. As we’ve told the court based on evidence from experts, these kinds of predictions guarantee a high risk of error. If the government is going to predict that Americans pose a threat and blacklist them, that’s even more reason for the fundamental safeguards we seek.

    We disagree with Speaker Ryan about many things. But he’s right that people in this country have due process rights. We want to see them respected."