Can the State's Monopoly on Violence Endure in a Gun-Crazed Culture?
My belated New year's resolution: I absolutely refuse to read, talk about or use my brain to consider social theories based on Batman movies. Said. Done. There we have it.
But. This morning's romp through the newspapers does provoke certain musings about the erosion of a social consensus around the question of state monopoly of violence, alleged to be the theme, although you'll never hear it from me because I won't even go see the damned things, of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy" movies, which, I am told, are about Batman. It's more than one movie, right, if it's a trilogy? Can't tell by me.
This morning's New York Times fleshes out a story that has been in the news a bit in the last week about the hail of death threats against the staff of the newspaper in a suburb of New York City that published names, addresses and a map to the homes of legally listed gun-keepers.
The list was published after the Newtown slaughter. The editors of the newspaper have said they published it on the premise that holding a gun is a public legal act, regulated by government and therefore knowable and conceivably of interest to citizens at large. Yeah, well, a lot of people wanted to read the story, which is probably closer to the reason for publishing it, but that's not my lookout. Let's leave debates about journalistic ethics until after we've settled the one on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
What intrigues me is the tone of the blow-back, People seem to be saying, "We hold our guns. We hold them dearly. It's our little secret. If you tell anybody, we'll shoot you." What does that really mean? We read their words, but what voice do we hear speaking from their souls?
On October 16, 1991, George Hennard drove his pickup through the window of a Luby's cafeteria in Killeen and methodically executed 24 people with two handguns. Hennard stalked through the cafeteria, reached under tables where people were crouching, put his guns to their heads and squeezed the triggers.
I was out of a job at the time because I had made the mistake of working for a newspaper that didn't publish enough stories people wanted to read. Because my paper had died, I was freelancing, the journalistic term for unemployment. I was searching desperately for a way to replace the wealth of information from wire services and brilliant library research assistants that for years had allowed me to pose as someone who knew a little more than the average Joe about what was going on. I think I was looking at Killeen as a story I could pitch for a true-crime book.
In my desperate flailing for information I came across this thing called "the Internet." I might point out this was fully three years before the Worldwide Web Consortium was founded at MIT -- in other words, before there even was a web, if you can imagine. The Internet then was in some ways a snoop's dream: a place that was public and publicly accessible where people nevertheless believed mistakenly that they were speaking in private -- the ultimate fly-on-the-wall listening post.
What I found after Killeen was a gun-owners "chat room," a crude bulletin-board Internet site where people who loved guns were trading messages about the massacre. I can no longer quote what I read there, of course, but I have never forgotten the tone. There was a sort of pornographic fascination with the particular models of gun that Hennard had used and much debate about how fast and accurately those guns could fire and whether his kill rate was anything to brag about in the short time he was actively shooting, about 15 minutes total.
So what does any of that have to do with the people threatening the lives of part-time society columnists and cop-shop reporters at the paper in White Plains that published the gun-owners list? Well, you may see something else or nothing at all here, but this is what intrigues me: What I hear in the response to all of these events is a break-down or reordering of our belief in the principle of state monopoly of violence.
Pretty much from the beginning of time, we humans have submitted to the law of the strongest cave-man so we could all close both eyes when we went to bed in our caves at night. The rule of law, on which the modern state was founded, was always only a truce. We agreed to allow Man-with-Huge-Forehead to be our chieftain, because Man-with-Huge-Forehead had the biggest club and somebody had to do it.
But gun technology, not unlike the Internet or phone cameras, gives us all big clubs. Why do we need the state -- why in scary times when mass killers prowl the multiplexes would we rely on the state to protect us? And once we have gone over psychologically and morally to the other side where we hoard and prepare and arm ourselves for our own little personal Armageddons, then isn't every publishing of a state-sponsored list of gun-owners a mortal threat to our little one-off kingdoms?
As I say, I just refuse to go watch a bunch of Batman movies in order to sort this out, but I do believe the central dilemma before us is way beyond and deeper than gun control or Internet copy right law, and maybe The Caped One is on to something with this issue of the monopoly of violence. The new technologies are relentlessly whispering in our ears: "To hell with Man-with-Huge Forehead. Get a Glock."
And here's what makes the problem really interesting. Most of us might agree that good video cameras in our phones and access to Twitter have fueled successful campaigns for personal liberty in our time. So, this: What if somebody says, "Yeah, well the advance of the same kind of cheap hugely efficient technology in guns is fueling my own personal campaign to be independent of a state I do not trust." Do we have a quick good shoot-down of that idea on the tips of our tongues, and pardon me, of course, for poor word choice.