Jamesown

A display at Jamestown

A few years ago, I reviewed a book called “An End to Murder: A Criminologist’s View of Violence Throughout History,” by Colin and Damon Wilson. It was Colin’s last book and was completed by his son, Damon. Damon noted that life is actually getting safer these days. You are much less likely to be killed by your fellow man than you were centuries ago or even just a few decades ago. He cited theories for that. Among them were the removal of lead from gasoline and other products and a “good apple” theory. He was much more optimistic than our pundits and politicians. He did address terrorism and mass murder as well as our treatment of the environment and the short- and long-term consequences of that treatment.

Here in Virginia we have had mass murders in recent years from Virginia Tech to Virginia Beach. It seems that perhaps the Wilsons might be wrong. But I read an article in the Washington Post today about nearby Jamestown, and Europeans were committing mass murder in what would become the US even then. So what is the answer?

We proclaim that rights are god given or are natural rights. Maybe so, but how does that play out in the world. Rights end up being what those in power proclaim for themselves and for whomever and whatever they deem worthy. In the beginning, those who set up the US government deemed white males with property who were older than 21 were worthy. People of color were deemed savages and worthy of slavery or removal and genocide. The definition of white was also narrow and didn’t include southern and eastern Europeans. They would get white status much later when folks like Walter Plecker were worried that those of color were out reproducing whites, since they incorrectly saw race as biological rather than the social construct that it is, their logic is faulty on their own terms.

A right that is heatedly debated today is the second amendment. There have been restrictions over the years – machine guns during the days of Al Capone and mail order guns after the assassination of John F. Kennedy for instance. There was even a restriction on semi-automatic weapons for a time, but that was allowed to lapse during the administration of G. W. Bush, and any attempt to revive it is met with emotions that one would expect if the earth were about to end. What was okay 20 years ago is now a sign of the apocalypse. The fear of change is so great that the CDC is banned from studying gun violence and MDs cannot ask about guns at home. Having a gun is a sacrosanct right. Well, except in the 1960s when the Black Panther Party in California started to open carry for self-defense. Gun rights Republicans quickly made amends to sacred rights to change that situation. So, change can happen.

When the second amendment was written, guns were black powder muzzle loaders. To commit mass murder with those weapons you needed a mass of people firing, like at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee. There was also the militia part of the constitution. Colonists were not happy with their treatment by the British Army, and there was a mistrust of the military. The original intention, despite what Scalia spun, was for those with rights and those they deemed worthy, to have guns and to train so that they would not need a big military industrial complex. It worked well for killing Native Americans and keeping Africans enslaved, but when it came to the War of 1812, we found we needed a standing army. Even then, it was kept small. It wasn’t until modern times that we give over half of our budget to the military – a time when the “big wars” are over.

Some argue that guns are necessary to protect you from the government. At some point along the way, “we the people” became the “you the enemy.” We became entrenched in tribes and if our tribe wasn’t in power, it was bad. The Wilsons could argue that tribalism is less than what it once was. People of different races, religions, creeds, sizes, colors, abilities, genders, sexual orientations, political parties, and all the other labels we put on ourselves and others, actually do get along these days, or at least co-exist nonviolently, and do not go to war on the whim of a monarch.

But it does all come down to power and culture. Pundits and politicians feed on if it bleeds it leads. We are emotional beings and fear might just be the most powerful emotion. In this culture you increase your power and your wealth at the expense of others. We express violence in culturally prescribed ways. I remember that the same day Sandy Hook happened, there was an attack in a school in China on the same number of people. The difference was that in China, the weapon was a knife. No one died. The culturally prescribed way in this culture is with a gun. Colin Wilson wrote many years ago about the evolution of violence in the US and traced it to a particular part of England. It especially took hold in the slave holding south (slavery is inherently violent) and became our honor culture. If you dishonor me, I get back at you, and it only matters if I feel slighted, for that gives me just cause to act. He even traced violence in northern cities to neighborhoods with large populations of southerners who had migrated there.

Yes, we need to do something about guns. We also need to look at ourselves and our culture. What kind of country do we want for ourselves and those who come after us? There is a universal maxim that has been around for a very long time and has been taught by everyone from Confucius to Kant to Jesus. Treat others as you would want to be treated, and don’t do to others that which you would not want done to yourself and to those you love. Remember that we are all in this together. That includes all people including people from other countries and people with less wealth and different religions and all the rest. It includes the world we live in and are a part of. To fall back on “It’s my right” is to sound as a spoiled child. As Samuel Johnson said about patriotism, it may be the last refuge of a scoundrel. With rights come responsibility. Does this right you cling to dogmatically include treating others with compassion, kindness, and respect? Does it include responsibility? What do you do for these, the least of my brothers and sisters? I always have liked the approach of solution focused therapy. As soon as you label something a problem, it gets worse. Instead, seek what you would like to happen. Suppose you go to sleep tonight and while you are asleep, a miracle happens and the problem you have is somehow remedied, but you don’t know that happened because you were asleep. How would the world be different? What would this culture look like? How would people treat each other and the world around them? What would our cultural rules, values, and norms be? Then you would ask yourself to rate on a scale of one to ten where we are now with one being nowhere near where we want to be and ten is we are there. Then we ask what we would need to do to move up even just half a point and get lots of detail. Just how will we change? What will be in that process? How will we do it? How do we adapt? How do we treat each other regardless of where they are from and where they live and what they believe? How do we treat all living things and the planet and the universe? And then you ask, again on a scale of one to ten, how much effort are you willing to put into making that change. One is to hope and pray it happens, and ten is to do whatever you need to. You need to rate yourself at least about a seven for change to have a chance of coming about. I have also found over the years that those who give a ten rating tend not to follow through.

Unfortunately, it is that need (sometimes demand) to feel respected as right, that honor culture, that supreme need to save face coupled with exceptionalism, constructed tribalism, and lack of humility and grace that makes coming to a consensus almost impossible. We are holding out hopes for the young to bring the solutions. But whatever happened to that peace and love generation that was going to save the world? The powerful have a vested interest in keeping things as they are. There is money to be made in the world of pundits and their media platforms of ratings and clicks. Money to be made in moving wealth in an upward direction and only declaring there is a class war when someone attempts to mitigate that flow. Odd that a country that so many call Christian forget that the apostles in Acts sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to others according to need. Negotiation will be difficult and a never-ending process, but that has always been so. Those with power and wealth tend to want to keep that and blind themselves and try to blind others as to the long-term consequences of a culture of greed and lacking in kindness. Native people encouraged looking out to seven generations considering the consequences of our actions. How foresighted are we these days? What effort are we willing to make? What do we need to start doing to make positive changes, what do we need to stop doing, and what do we need to continue doing? What kind of world do we want for ourselves now and for those who come after us?

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