Guns: Cause or Cure?
Adam and I did a series of four articles following the Newtown massacre in December. Our focus was on the culture of violence in which we live, breathe and have our being. We wrote that the logic of violence is woven through the fabric of our culture. In entertainment, religion, politics and war we act as if it’s true that there are two kinds of violence: our violence which is always good, and our enemy’s, which is always bad. This logic gives us tacit permission to use violence to achieve our ends, and in the third article in the series, I wrote about how the mentally ill who randomly kill others are acting out our own faith in good violence with a relentless, devastating logic.
The national response to Newtown is now crystallizing around political solutions. Vice-President Biden, Governor Cuomo of New York, and Governor Malloy of Connecticut where the massacre occurred, are all leading task forces or calling for a response that involves gun control measures. Arguing over guns is nothing new in America. We have a long, rich tradition of demonizing each other over the shape and limits of gun ownership. Passions run high on both sides because each side believes with an almost religious zeal in the rightness of their cause and the evil intentions of their adversaries. With apocalyptic fervor, each side claims that our freedom depends on their side winning control over guns in America. The mimetic insight of René Girard alerts us to what is really going on: When adversaries are most passionately proclaiming their differences in a contest over an object they both desire, that is when the object is most meaningless and the differences between the adversaries virtually disappear. If that is true of most conflicts, is it becoming true in this case? If it becomes true, what does it mean for our national political debate?
Girard explains that the end result of an ongoing conflict over some object of contention is rivalry for its own sake. What that looks like in the gun debate is that while both sides insist they want to find a way to protect innocent victims from random violence, the rivalry has escalated to such an extreme that they are no longer interested in what that solution might look like… unless, of course, it is their solution. The search for a sensible response may be the content of their rhetoric, but the reality is that what each side truly wants is to win. Winning is all that’s left and each side wants it so badly that the goodness they both claim to seek and to represent, is emptied of all meaning.
This is the risk we run now in our debate about guns. Guns are not the problem, as those who defend gun ownership are fond of saying. Nor are less guns the solution, as those who advocate for gun control contend. The problem is that both sides believe in the power of guns, believe in it so completely that they run the risk of becoming mirror images of each other, enemy twins as Girard calls them. The differences each side insists exist are superficial and irrelevant. The thing that matters, the truth at the heart of the conflict, is that what they share in common has become a bigger problem than guns. When each side shares the same faith in the power of guns and the same desire to defeat their rival, it’s not the “madness of violence” that consumes us, as Gov. Cuomo said in his state of the state address. It is the madness of our own escalating rivalry and self-deluded sense of goodness.
What would it look like if we actually cared more about ending violence than our own victory? One suggestion came from the Connecticut House minority leader, Lawrence F. Cafero, Jr., as reported in the New York Times: “But he, like others, said one response to the Newtown shootings should be a commitment to civility and bipartisanship in the Legislature.” Civility would require dropping the false accusations of wicked intent against our opponents and bipartisanship would shift the focus from claims of differences to see more clearly what we have in common. Hopefully, once we were able to see just how much our faith in the power of gun violence unites us, we would be able to see that it is that faith which has generated the culture of violence of which gun violence is but a symptom. When we drop the pretense of sole possession of being right on the issue, we may discover that we share a mutual responsibility for the violence and have all become obstacles to meaningful change.
New York State Senator Timothy M. Kennedy expressed our nation’s deepest hope when he said, “When you hear about these issues all across the nation, whether it’s in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., or Columbine, something needs to happen – something transformative.” The only truly transformative thing would be for both sides of the gun debate to find the moral courage to drop their pretense of difference and to face the underlying problem obscured by the smokescreen of rivalry: America believes in the power of violence more than we believe in anything else, more than we believe in freedom or democracy or love or community or God or peace. Nothing short of a culture-wide shift in our fundamental belief will end the scourge of gun violence. Culture-wide shifts begin one person at a time. Are you willing to go first?