Reacted to the Gun: Yemen and the US; National Security and the Illusion of Exceptionalism

 

Pictured: Lunatics

Pictured: Patriots

 

Back when I was writing more or less exclusively about Yemen, the same conversation would always come up: “I’ve heard that there are so many guns in Yemen, and like, people just carry them around.” And that’s true! Yemen is a country completely awash in guns, and it was not uncommon to see people carrying rifles in the streets of San’a. Old rifles, generally, and rarely loaded, but yes. It’s something you got used to. The point of the question was generally not curiosity, but a way to explain how violent and dangerous and maybe even primitive a land it was, one ruled by savage bloodlust.

You clearly see where this is going. The person who asked was nearly always American, and my followup would be “yeah, by a lot of estimations Yemen has the second most guns per capita in the world!”, the first, of course, being America. But that’s where there was always a disconnect. Regardless of how the person I was talking to felt about gun control, there was never an idea that it was a similar thing. They had too many guns and that’s why it was so violent. We just have a lot of guns, is all.

Global Gun Policy Comparisons

A few notes on this graph from CFR. The last Small Arms Survey was in 2007. Some more recent estimates have US guns per capita at an incredible 112.6 guns per person, though the actual amount of gun owners has decreased. Just more people with an absurd amount of guns. Yemen has a wide variance, with some estimates putting it at 2nd (54.8 guns per capita) and others considerably lower.

I feel that people may be realizing just how insane this is getting, which the last terrible week may have shown. When Philando Castille was shot by a police officer, he was (reportedly) carrying a weapon he was legally allowed to. The officer, by way of exoneration, said through his lawyer that he was reacting to the “gun, not to race.” You can quibble about the role race played in how that gun was reacted to (spoiler: probably a lot!), but the key is the gun.

“Reacting to the presence of that gun” could be our national motto. We saw it again in Dallas, where protestors, enacting their legal right to armed carry, added to the confusion of an active shooter situation. This makes the incredibly difficult job of a police officer even tougher. How are you supposed to determine, in the moment, whether a person is a “good guy with a gun”?

For that matter, how are we? A couple of years ago, a man in Georgia went to a park with a Little League game, waving around a gun and bragging about how it was legal, and there was nothing anyone could do.

“Anyone who was just walking by – you had parents and children coming in for the game – and he’s just standing here, walking around [saying] ‘You want to see my gun? Look, I got a gun and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ He knew he was frightening people. He knew exactly what he was doing,” said parent Karen Rabb.

Rabb said that the man’s intimidating behavior panicked parents causing them to hustle children who were there to play baseball to safety after the man refused to leave.

After deputies arrived, they questioned the man who produced a permit for the handgun. According to authorities, since the man made no verbal threats or gestures, they couldn’t arrest him or ask him to leave.

(Again, if the man was black, he’d be dead, but move on). This is insane. Unless and until he started shooting, there was nothing anyone could do except hope this man wasn’t a murderer. That’s where we all live now. We are all on the front lines. We’re all at the mercy of chance, hoping we don’t get shot. We’re all just reacting to the presence of a gun.

But what does it all mean?  We’ve talked a lot about how our devotion to guns is a reflection of a violent national character — we’re a country whose national symbol of freedom, for many, isn’t the founding documents or the broken chains of even the Statue of Liberty, but a tool designed by man to kill other men. More than that, I think, the mere presence of so many guns has a distorting and fearful impact on who we are. It’s hard to go out to dinner without thinking, in the back of your head, that this is a great spot for a mass shooter, whether they are pledging allegiance to the Caliphate or just the voices in their head. I think it makes us more savage.

It makes us less safe, and makes us feel less safe. There are people who carry, and feel a little more secure, but really: if you actually felt secure you wouldn’t need to. And yes, in an era of global terrorism, nowhere is safe, but getting shot is far more likely to happen here, for no reason, not even a sick and twisted justification. Just because someone falls asleep angry every day and wakes up exhausted and has access to guns.

This refusal to look at the impact being flooded with guns has on our national character is the dangerous side of American exceptionalism. It’s easy to look at Yemen and assign a national characteristic based on loosely-understood ideas about gun culture. I think taking any one thing and making it as synecdoche is foolhardy, but there is something there. It is there a little in Yemen (tribal culture is inherently more a negotiating one than a violent one, but revenge always has to be in the toolbelt). And it is here in the US.

We aren’t immune from history. It shows in our borders (having migration issues a mere 100+ years after mass annexation is not unusual!), and it shows in the way we react to the physical presence of guns. But we refuse to have an actual national examination. It’s easy to say “Yemen has guns and so it is violent”; but we have a lot of trouble doing it here, a country that is way more gun-heavy and death-ridden. It’s the same mentality that says torture is OK if the US does it, because our inherent goodness alchemizes war crimes into justice. It’s this inability to look nward, this blithe shattering of every national mirror, that I think more than anything is responsible for our decline.

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A Quick Follow-Up To Deliberately Missing The Point

Times

John Jay LaValle, the chairman of the Republican Party in Suffolk County, N.Y., said Mr. Trump had been “on message and extremely focused” in the Saturday gathering.

“Mr. Trump has decided to deal with it head-on, like he does with all issues,” Mr. LaValle said.

“People are starting to see we have very serious threats around the world, and even some social unrest in America that, quite frankly, this administration is not keeping a handle on.”

Trump! 

Look what is happening to our country under the WEAK leadership of Obama and people like Crooked Hillary Clinton. We are a divided nation!

“This un-American Kenyan anti-colonialist terrorist-loving fist-jabbing Jay-Z-liking Mexican coddling real racist isn’t leading his cop-killing, thuggish, also real racists into unity and harmony with us. Divisive! Sad!”

Missing The Point on Race Isn’t A Bug; It’s A Feature

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Breaking: this man has stupid things to say about race.

There may be no bigger example of deliberate and pernicious point-missery than the fake controversy around Black Lives Matter. At this point, anyone who says, “well, actually, I think all lives matter” is purposefully ignoring that “all lives matter” is the very point of BLM, in which the “matter” is doing the real heavy lifting. Indeed, the pseudo-ecumenical sophist is doing nothing more than maintaining a brutal status quo, in which black lives, especially black male lives, matter very little.

The thing is, that’s exactly the point. We saw this over the weekend, where many of the usual suspects followed the lead of Joe Walsh, only a little more toned down. (except, sort-of-interestingly, Newt Gingrich, though Pierce puts to rest the idea of Newt, man of reason.) There is perhaps no more surprising headline than the one in the Times this morning: “Rudolph Giuliani Lashes Out At Black Lives Matter.”

Giuliani has spent an entire career playing fast and loose with race and with white backlash. Anti-homeless and anti-squeegee campaigns were signifiers: you can take New York back (and make it great again). His police force saw many instances of shocking violence, and most of the steps that made the city safer were the result of positive action taken by his predecessors. That isn’t to say he didn’t do anything well, but his form of local authoritarianism was always more than slightly-tinged with race. Now that he is clearly never running for anything again, since America made it clear in 2008 that simply having been mayor on September 11th doesn’t qualify you for the big job, he’s free to unfurl his proudest banners.

“When you say black lives matter, that’s inherently racist,” Mr. Giuliani said in an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Black lives matter. White lives matter. Asian lives matter. Hispanic lives matter. That’s anti-American, and it’s racist.”

“They sing rap songs about killing police officers, and they talk about killing police officers, and they yell it out at their rallies and the police officers hear it,” he said.

Right, the raps! The rap singers with their rap songs!

Actually, you know what? While it’s always fun to make fun of people who say things like “they sing rap songs”, it’s actually sort of important, and not just because Giuliani is out of touch (as, to be clear am I). This is also deliberately missing the point, and doing so in a way that shifts responsibility. The anger inherent in some music is a reaction, not a cause, but it serves the purposes of race-baiters and reactionaries like Rudy to pretend otherwise.

It’s part and parcel of the execrable and odious charge that BLM is “inherently racist.” Saying that they shouldn’t stand up and say “our lives matter too” puts the onus back on the black people to accept what is happening to them, to accept a country that for hundreds of years has enslaved, hanged, oppressed, segmented off, red-lined, unjustly incarcerated for cheap labor, and murdered black lives. And well yes, as Giuliani and others point out, more black lives are taken by other black people, that’s also the point. We treat that as something terrible happening in some blighted community, and not as a national fucking tragedy. Not as something inherently wrong with America, but just with black people, who usually don’t live near the rest of us. We take a tongue-clucking anthropological remove, and then get offended when a movement demands of us not to.

This demand to get back in line is seen in other examples of point missing, like when Dan Patrick, Texas’s lunatic Lt. Governor (which seems to be the breeding ground of horrible people), said this:

“All those protesters last night, they ran the other way, expecting the men and women in blue to turn around and protect them. What hypocrites,” Patrick said on Fox News. “I understand the First Amendment. I understand freedom of speech, and I defend it. It is in our Constitution and is in our soul, but you can’t go out on social media and mainstream media and everywhere else and say that the police are racist or police are hateful or the police are killers.”

That’s perfect: the BLM protesters are hypocrites because they expect the police to do their jobs at all times. They expect to be protected by the police when there is danger, but also expect not to be unfairly harassed or arrested or beaten or murdered. Pick one or the other, hypocrites!

It’s easy to make fun of Patrick. But he’s not wrong, per se: he’s articulating a very clear worldview. If you are black, you should always listen to the police. The responsibility for your safety is in your hands, and that is unquestioning obedience. That’s the code. Police have power over all of us, but especially if you are poor or a minority. Then they have life and death power, always, and you have to respect that, and fear it, and don’t expect to change anything. When they say shut up, you better not think they said stand up, because then you’re dead. If you want even the barest modicum of protection — if you want police to do their jobs — then the price is unquestioning subservience, no matter what.

Again, these aren’t bugs in the thinking. It’s the whole point. For a lot of right wingers, the point of the police is to keep Them from Us, using whatever means needed. Reaction to that injustice is a deliberate provocation, and should be quashed. (This attitude is not the case, I should say, for the huge majority of the police, as you can see in the reaction in the Giuliani story).  That’s their story, and it is an American story. I won’t return the favor and say that’s just a right-wing problem. It’s part of our eternal and inescapable tragedy.