Guns, bombs and social distrust

I don’t generally have much to say about the “mass shootings” which perhaps half of America regards as an ongoing First Order National Disaster while the other half has hardened its hearts and minds to the phenomenon completely. My view of it remains rather like my view of those other violent episodes, which (unlike domestic mass shootings) everyone agrees to call “terrorism.” They are lamentable, and a civilized society ought to do something about them, but neither one ranks nearly so high on a list of dangers to life and limb that the obsession which our culture chooses to experience is reasonable. As I pointed out a while ago, the “reality” that a handful of people killed by bullets is a tragedy while tens of thousands of people killed by errant automobiles is a statistic is a choice.

Still, I’m not indifferent to either of these phenomena, if separate phenomena they are. It simply frustrates me that we seem to do too much about one, and (in practical terms) not enough about the other. For a while, I have been toying with the notion that America’s embrace of organized armed violence (i.e. the military) as not only the universal answer to terrorism but as the premier guarantor of “our freedom” represents a kind of deeply lazy passivity. The ubiquity of this vague conviction that heavily armed men and women in uniform are “protecting our freedom,” in a society where most people frequently decline to exercise any part in self-government, suggests a kind of self-indulgent outsourcing. We claim to love freedom so much, yet apparently don’t believe that we have any direct personal responsibility for its maintenance, finding it much more satisfying to believe that someone else putting on a special uniform and blowing up some “bad guys” somewhere takes care of the job adequately.

This is tempting. But yesterday, it occurred to me that maybe abdication of personal effort isn’t really the key concept. There’s that strange dichotomy, after all, in America’s broad-based freak-out over terrorism and the determined resistance of maybe half the country to any significant policy response to mass shootings. It occurs to me that in the latter instance, abdication of personal effort is arguably the exact opposite of what’s at work, given that resistance to disarmament seems largely motivated by the idea (however unrealistic) that personal safety is best ensured by an individual wielding firearms in his or her own self-defense. Thinking about this, it further occurred to me that perhaps the key concept uniting these otherwise irreconcilable attitudes is deep societal distrust.

Obviously, there’s a strong and overt strain of distrust, indeed paranoia, in America’s gun culture. In flag-waving defiance of all argument and evidence to the contrary, the belief that armed citizenry is the most important check on government tyranny remains popular in this country. Therefore, the NRA, Republicans and other gun fanatics oppose any restriction on access to any sort of handheld weapon out of conviction that it would open the door to despotism.

This is ludicrous, of course, not only because plenty of other societies have disarmed and remain at least as democratic as America, but because most of these same gun advocates have no problem with being massively outgunned by the very government they expect to intimidate via the threat of force. The Atlantic really put it best a couple of years ago: “Have the Gun Fans Thought This Through? Neocons want citizens to fight tyranny with assault rifles. And they want the tyrants armed with F-35s.”

Still, I think now that there is a unifying phenomenon in Americans’ trust in bullets over ballots. Lots of Americans have negligible confidence that participation in representative democracy will contribute to their safety and well-being; lots of Americans have high confidence that a loaded firearm will do so; even more Americans have high confidence that various professional “national security” organizations will do so, as well. I’m certain that there is not-insignificant overlap between all of these groups, too. Trust in bullets is high, while trust is low in government but, significantly, that low trust is just reflective of generally low trust in society as a whole.

This is something that I concluded a few years ago, in fact, after a round of “record low trust in government” stories. We have democracy, and for all its faults the biggest weakness of American democracy is that so many people don’t attempt to make use of it; in this context I think it’s misleading to say that “government has lost people’s trust.” In America, we are the government and if so many Americans have lost belief in this concept I think the real explanation is that so many Americans distrust one another. When Americans report that they don’t trust government, I’m not sure how you can really avoid a root cause in Americans not trusting Americans.

I can offer all kinds of theories for why societal trust appears to be crumbling, but at all events this seems like a situation in which trust in implements of force is going to be highly resilient no matter what negative consequences it seems to produce.

As for the fact that branches of the military (and the NSA, and police, etc.) are agencies of American government, I think that once again “government” is an imprecise term that frequently misdirects thinking, including in this case. My guess is that for practical purposes, a lot of people compartmentalize security agencies as separate from “government.” The latter term probably connotes politicians arguing and nagging and passing bad laws and failing to pass good laws and always grabbing for more tax dollars; the former term presumably connotes “brave men and women who volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way to protect us from bad guys.” If these “volunteers” are nonetheless funded by the taxes imposed by those miserable low curs in “government,” well, I can only imagine that for a lot of people this does not serve to taint the former, because “they actually earn it” or something like that.

It still fascinates me that people can be so trusting in security forces, but I suppose that if you’re judging who is on “your side” using gut-level instinct, America’s military at least is not subject to a lot of causes for doubt. The master narrative attached to “the troops” is a simple one: our sons and daughters take up guns (and bombs and missiles and assassination drones) and forcefully deter scary foreign people who hate us and wish us harm. Meanwhile, there are also supporting features like the “job corps” role, and the mutually reinforcing culture of pride and gratitude. There’s also the fact that, in the 21st century, what were entirely abstract threats in e.g. the Vietnam war era have now been replaced by real assaults within “the homeland” and on societies whom Americans see as “people like us.”

Set against this, there isā€¦ not much, honestly. The last time that mainstream, people-who-count Americans experienced injury from America’s military was probably the Civil War, and since the end of the draft even the indirect pain for society has been pretty limited. For an internationalist liberal, of course, the continuing violence and death inflicted by American force is no less appalling because it happens to “them,” but for most Americans internationalism is basically not even a recognized concept. People suspicious that even their own society can be trusted, except to brutalize “enemy” societies, are not particularly ripe candidates for questioning why people much more culturally remote than their own neighbors should be readily deemed enemies deserving of brutality.

I suppose this is mostly just another pessimistic ramble about how American society seems to be turning on itself and nothing seems to present a ready check on this process. The best counter argument I can offer is that, if our democracy appears to be failing, I’m not sure from a historical perspective when it really did much better. The early decades, when everyone besides white men were overtly, formally excluded from even the opportunity to participate? The late 19th century, of gilded age corruption and machine politics? Was it the second half of the 20th century, including Jim Crow and McCarthyism and Nixon? Was that the point when we actually “got it right?”

Hard to say. But, whether it’s a new low or simply par for the course, the state of democratic society in 21st century America doesn’t seem like much to hold up as a model, either way.

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