Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Have we reached a “tipping point” in terms of a general social acquiescence in sexual harassment? That is the question raised, and seemingly answered in the affirmative, by a lengthy article in yesterday’s newspaper. I hope so, but I pretty well exhausted such meager opinions as I have on the subject last week, and I was hoping to move on to something more uplifting, engaging, or erudite. Uplift, however, is in somewhat short supply these days. I know that I am not the only American patriot who finds himself more or less permanently down in the dumps as I survey the many tipping points we seem never to be able to reach.
The really big story in yesterday’s paper was about one of these unreached tipping points. A “crazed veteran” shot up a Sunday worship service in a Texas church, killing twenty-six people. Given its setting and circumstances one might call it a contemporary Slaughter of the Innocents. Among the many victims were young children and an unborn baby. In terms of the language of the President’s Inaugural Address, the apt political term might be “American carnage”. My appellation “crazed veteran” is intentional and allusive. I remember it from a headline in a 1949 article about the murder spree of Howard Unruh in Camden, N. J. This atrocity made a huge impression on the country at the time, and now seems to be regarded by criminologists as the initial episode of a new genre of American mass murder, of which there are too many recent examples to require further comment, in which mentally disturbed people trained in military combat, or simply using guns manufactured to pursue or simulate warfare, have committed mass murders. Unruh’s weaponry, which will now seem quaintly modest, consisted of a single German Luger pistol and thirty-three rounds of ammunition. The Texas gunman had a rapid-firing “military style” killing machine. Had he also had Unruh’s impressive kill ratio, he would easily have wiped out the entire congregation. The unjust and unhelpful stereotype of the “crazed veteran” returned in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The preferred term of art among journalists now seems to be “ticking time-bomb”.
I suspected this would be no turning point, but knew so for certain when our President opined from an Asian press conference that “We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation. I mean, we could go into it, but it’s a little bit soon to go into it. But, fortunately, somebody else had a gun that was shooting in the opposite direction, otherwise it would have been — as bad it was, it would have been much worse.” Like too many of our President’s pronouncements this one marshaled faulty syntax and factual error in the service of a hollow argument. If killing twenty-six people with a rapid-firing rifle isn’t a “guns situation” what does a “guns situation” look like? It is precisely our American “guns situation” that so often renders our American “mental health problems situation” grotesquely homicidal.
There is no way to eradicate gun violence in our country, but there are many ways in which it might be constrained. I offered my own suggestion on this blog some years ago. I suggested that the second amendment to the Constitution be repealed, conceding the near political impossibility of what I was suggesting. This would mean that gun legislation would have to be crafted by our duly established legislative bodies in the light of actual twenty-first century social realities. I think there would be absolutely no chance of prohibition, let alone of “confiscation”; but it might be impossible, too, to return to the maximalist status quo that has been allowed by fetish anachronism and an uncertain reading of an obscure gobbet of eighteenth-century prose.
But lacking any national consensus, or even the will to seek one sincerely, that is neither here nor there. We are left with the conventional thoughts and prayers of our political leaders. As it happens I am in favor both of thinking and of praying, but I find in my own life that both are rather hard work if taken seriously. I doubt that politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” have much linguistic precision. But the desire for linguistic precision may simply be pedantic here. Or is it? In the final act of this Texas massacre there appeared a “good guy with a gun”, Stephen Williford, who lived near the church and who wounded and pursued the bad guy with a gun, Devin Kelley, after Kelley had completed his slaughter. Williford’s actions demonstrate extraordinary bravery and initiative. The term “hero” is used so generously in contemporary journalism that I was surprised not to see it used of him in the first press reports I saw. What I saw instead was “Good Samaritan”. Out of respect to the slaughtered members of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, many of whom were probably Bible readers, I recommend going with “hero”. If you check out Luke 10 you will find a good guy with pity, a first-aid kit, and two pieces of silver—but no good guy with a gun.