Monday, January 10, 2011

The Tucson Killings: "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" Meet the 1st and 2nd Amendments to the Constitution

--"Tucson Rampage" by Brian Gable for The Globe and Mail, Canada

I have long thought that the 3 unalienable rights of the US Declaration of Independence--life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--make a bad combination with the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution--the right to bear arms. Contemporary interpretations of that Amendment go far beyond the right to have a musket and form a militia to protect the newly formed country from a British attempt to re-take its former colonies. Though I hadn't formulated it earlier as such, I now wonder if the 1st Amendment to the Constitution isn't the catalyst for enacting the dangerousness of linking the other 2.

Previously I had understood the catalyst as being the mythologies that form the American ethos: the lone lawman, the lone pioneer, the lone gunman; the rights of the individual transcending the rights of the collective; the right to the pursuit of life, liberty, and justice "by any means necessary". The way Americans have conducted themselves historically, and recounted their history, has much that is admirable, but much that glorifies individual revolt against the status quo, and violence. In many instances, as in the actions of Rosa Parks and the implications for the history of the civil rights movement, the aspect of individualism is exaggerated, and the collaboration and collectivity of the action is backgrounded.

I now think of these mythologies as part of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution--the right to freedom of religion, speech, and the press, as well as the right to assemble and petition the government. In some instances they are an exaggeration, an extreme case, or even a mockery of that Amendment. Compared to other Western democracies, the United States has very lax hate speech laws. While other jurisdictions have more stringent rules about the related speech phenomena of slander, libel, and hate, in the USA hate speech laws require an immediate and direct threat for a discourse to be legally considered hate speech, and thus prohibited and sanctioned.

This leaves a much greater latitude for the vitriolic political discourse that Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik condemned in his remarks about the shooting:
"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry,"
This aspect of the shooting is now being much debated in the US, including whether it is a fair assessment, whether the Sheriff should have said it, whether the discourse about it is being hateful towards certain political figures like Sarah Palin. No one seems to be saying "Fox News" out loud, though the Sheriff specifically mentioned radio talk shows, and "certain television stations". The media seems to carefully blame the politicians, which the political pundits blame others in the media.

Jared Lee Loughner in a photo from his cached Myspace page

One area in which the exaggerations and anger are flying freely is in the "diagnosis" of the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. His writings and personality are being described as inchoate, unbalanced, nutty, deranged, etc. His life is described as showing signs of mental deterioration, and distruptive, scary, and threatening behaviours. It seems people are careful to make sure not to make a "diagnosis" of psychosis, but at worst of a "unbalanced personality". No one wants to hand him an insanity plea, and many are hoping for capital punishment--as the US is one of the few countries, along with China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia among others which actively applies the death penalty.

Unsurprisingly, in Loughner's first court appearance he is being described as very coherent, clear, succinct, firm, strong-voiced, determined, focused, and rigid. He is being described as aware of the consequences of his deliberate acts, his rights to counsel and due process--in short fully competent to stand trial and serve the sentence pronounced. The attempt to blame this shooting on "the lone nutcase"   is falling apart--or at least he isn't proving sufficiently crazy to have been prohibited from buying a gun any where in the US, and he is proving sufficiently sane to stand trial and to receive the death penalty (in the US a prisoner must be found competent to receive the death penalty before it is enacted; the assessment falls to mental health professionals, usually forensic psychiatrists).

All of this is rather standard fare for the dissection of such events by the US media.

Remarkably, what is only beginning to be addressed in the US rapid news cycle is the role of the Second Amendment in this shooting and others in the US--the role of guns, a gun culture, the easy access to guns of even the "mentally unstable", the legality of semi-automatic and assault weapons, gun metaphors in political discourse, the bearing of arms to political rallies, and a new law upholding that not only do university faculty, staff, and students have the right to bear arms on campus, but the right to bear concealed weapons.

I say remarkably, because Canadian reporting on the shooting in Tuscon included that discourse from the very beginning, notably by CBC Special Correspondent Neil MacDonald. Canada has much more stringent gun buying and gun registry laws than does the United States, and correspondingly less gun violence-the least being in the provinces with the tightest laws for the greatest numbers of years. Despite all international, national, and state statistics to the contrary, Americans seem to believe individually and collectively that the more arms everyone has the less likely there is to be gun violence--something like a local non-nuclear mutual deterrence theory.

As I listen to the incipient debate in the US on gun laws in relation to the Tucson shooting, I am struck by how easily it is turned into a justification of those laws, a cautionary note that now is not the time to challenge them, the danger of interpreting the 2nd Amendment more narrowly, the futility of gun laws,  and ultimately a return to a discussion about the tone of current political discourse, and particularly that in Arizona.

Arizona does seem to increasingly embrace the Wild West ethos of American history, which includes "The Arizona War", "The Gunfight at the OK Corral", "Tombstone, Arizona"--all part of a personal vendetta by lawmen against outlaws following on the 1882 "Tucson Shooting"; and, the right to use deadly force against a perceived enemy--even if there were no imminent threat, even if you had to pursue and track him down, even if you could escape the situation, even if you could back down from the fight. In short, the British law of a "duty to retreat" before using deadly force, unless your back were literally to the wall, was transformed into the "Code of the West": the right to fight with deadly arms.

While in certain places and at specific times during a few decades, the West really was Wild, most of the mythology accepted as fact comes out of penny novels from the North East during the 19th and early 20th centuries, glamorizing and glorifying the life of the cowboy, the gunslinger, and the lone lawman. These fictions were expanded into a broad band of high and mostly low cultural representations in song, literature, film, and television. They were expanded to encompass an American ethos for all of the United States.

Not only the "mentally unbalanced" but the average citizenry is affected by a political discourse increasingly evocative of such caricatures of the USA.

All of them have the right to bear arms: muskets, rifles, pistols, semi-automatics, assault weaponry.

Those in other countries--including Saudi Arabia--who wish to emulate the US should separate the wheat from the chaff, and heed cautionary notes from the newest "Wild West" shoot out in Tuscon, Arizona.

Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

Jared Lee Loughner, accused shooter, in the 2011 "Tucson Shooting"


oby said...

"Contemporary interpretations of that Amendment go far beyond the right to have a musket and form a militia to protect the newly formed country from a British attempt to re-take its former colonies."

THANK YOU! Finally! someone who agrees with me! I'm a lone voice in a big country...

programmer craig said...

Wasn't aware this was a matter of concern to Canadians. What's up with that? Not enough problems of your own to deal with?

Chiara said...

Oby--glad to second your-and others'--interpretation.

Programmer Craig--what happens in and to the US affects us greatly in many ways: economic, politic, social, and militarily. When you sleep next to an elephant (as the saying goes) you monitor its breathing and movements, lest it roll over on you.
That said, thanks for your comment, and welcome to the blog. All respectfully stated dissenting opinions are welcome!

countrygirl said...

Gun doesn't kill people...people kill people with guns...guns are only a mean...if some psyco want to kjll can easly use a knife, make a home made bomb. Even though i'm not an american (i wish i were) i'm for the right to bear arms (maybe with more stringed examination to be able to have apermit)and so was Giffords.

I reckon you can easly get a gun in the black market, you can go and kill dozens by simply using a rifle used for hunting.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Your pretty well have it right. I have read and re-read the second amendment and think it is not interpreted correctly. The "right to bear arms" is a collective right to be exercised in the context of an organized militia. Unfortunately it is seen as a individual right to own and use any gun from a side arm to a weapon of war.

The American ethos affects us all. How many of their TV shows and movies involve violence and guns.
I think Canadians have to be on guard against adopting these values relying instead on our strong commitment to community and rule of law rather than individual direct action to solve problems.

I just shake my head in dismay when I hear Arizonians say the problem is not guns but the fact that more people are not armed and this killing should have been prevented by another citizen shooting the shooter. Will we see sides being taken some day and a shootout take place between protesting groups, or a citizen shooting a policeman when he judges him as crossing the line in subduing a person.

Wendy said...

It is interesting how some Republicans had certain politicians and areas pictured in the cross hair of a rifle scope. Ms. Palin made some ridiculous comments about certain politicians being "in the cross hair". That 'elephant to the north' and some of it's keepers are scary as are some of their laws and interpretations thereof.

Susanne said...

A NC Congressman said he was going to start carrying his gun to political events such as this Congresswoman was attending. I think he had a threat on his life in 2009 and with this recent violence decided to protect himself if he can by carrying his gun.


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