By Shivaji Sengupta

I could begin with yet another cry of outrage at the two mass murders over the last week, but I won’t, although I am quite sure I’ll end up doing that anyway. How can one not! What is it in our national DNA that we have to witness – and suffer through – this type of insanity periodically every so many months? Every time this happens, innocent lives are lost, the whole country mourns for a few days, politicians posture, journalists pontificate. Then everything returns to the old normal.

Nothing changes.

But then, really, what can we do? We are an a-historical civilization which learns very little from the past. And we are a nation that, compared to other advanced civilizations, still revere guns – even in the 21st century. These two factors – lack of awareness of history and gun worship – need to be understood if we are ever to change one of our fundamental national characteristics: violence.

Already, I hear demurs. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater (another violent aphorism), I hear my readers say. Most Americans don’t kill (although statistically each American owns more than one gun). It’s only a few crazies who do this repeatedly, plunging us all in death and darkness.

Yes, true. But how is it that the craziness ends up as gun violence? Doesn’t it mean that there is something beyond guns? After all, guns are an extension of the human instinct to strike. Why strike as the first option, sometimes the only option? Other advanced nations in Western Europe do not seem to have this characteristic. No, it’s not just about guns. The U.S.A. is the only technologically advanced nation that has been continually involved in wars with other nations since World War II that ended over three-quarters of a century ago. Count them if you don’t believe me. History is justice.

Ahistorical we might be, but the knowledge of history is essential for those of us who want to understand America’s preoccupation with guns.

America’s history, like most other countries, is geopolitical; i.e., its geographical structure determines polity, the way people behave in public. When industrialized civilizations from Europe first stepped on America they were faced with something that was at once an adventure and a daring: a vast, open land with peaceful, harmonious people living in it. In it, Europeans needed to hunt animals for food, beat back the natives who at first had not resisted them. Accustomed to the high-density populations of Italy and Spain, they decided they wanted this land. Even though the natives were more than willing to share, the Europeans used brutal force. Used to the wars from the so-called “Christian Crusades” against Muslims in the eleventh century, they behaved the same way here, looting, raping, killing, all in the name of Christ.

Perhaps readers are becoming impatient. What has all this got to do with Ahmed Al Aliwi Alissa or Robert Long who committed the latest mass murders, targeting Asians and killing white Americans indiscreetly? I could play cute and point to historical threads: the indigenous people whom the European settlers killed were mongoloids; Muslims have been persecuted from the times of the Crusades in the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries.

But no, that is not what I mean to discuss. What may be of significance here is that when a civilization like America, who, from the time of its earliest settlers till now, have always believed in the might of the sword, by settling issues using force (the American Revolution, the Civil War), by ignoring the central government in Washington D.C. and glorifying vigilantes (the “cowboys” of the midwest like the Lone Ranger), and ending the Second World War with the most devastating bomb to date, prostrating Japan; America’s reliance and glorification of force is beyond question.

The individual American – such as a Long and an Aliwi Alissa – becomes a metonym, a part symbolizing the whole. He inherits violence which is still everywhere in the culture. Just look around. I don’t want to tire you with what you already know. The bottom line is: Americans want guns, and use them. We prefer force. Guns are its symbol and signature.

Origins of Second Amendment

An interesting question is, how did guns become integrated into law via the Second Amendment? Remember, it was not originally in the Constitution. It was put in.

In the years following 1776, the British (or for that matter, other Europeans like the French) did not go quietly. Sporadic battles erupted, mostly because British red-coats invaded American communities they considered vulnerable. Because of the vastness of the country it was not always possible for a centralized military to come to the rescue of these innocent communities. Hence, the amendment that permits local people to have guns for self-defense and even create “a militia.” Even after the British were permanently defeated, lawlessness persisted in the south, midwest and the west. Again, Washington was thousands of miles away and the railroad was a not-yet. Hence, the rise of vigilante cowboys, guns, a necessity.

Technological advancement, and the absence of a foreign enemy threatening to take our land away, have not changed our nature as far as clinging to guns is concerned. What is our reason now? Now that police security is ubiquitous, why do we still need to have our own guns?  What would happen if Donald Trump’s ahistorical warning that the Democrats will “take away your guns,” became a reality? According to a majority of Americans, they would lose their freedom. Just as they protected their freedom from the British almost two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, they have to do so now.

But freedom against whom? Here, I think that many Americans do not have a clear notion of what freedom or liberty is. Abraham Lincoln was aware of this in 1860 when he became president. It is still true. An important aspect of freedom is that it is environmental, a state of being for a community or a country. It is not individual. For individuals, it is liberty; for a nation, it is freedom. What Lincoln, and sages like Gandhi understood, is that in order to have freedom as a whole, we need to give up some of our individual liberties. The problem here is that Americans have a knee-jerk reaction to coercion which is the chief culprit responsible for the loss of liberty. When I try to deprive you of one of your rights using superior logic, I am coercing you to do my will. Substituting “gun” here for “rights” we will understand why many Americans will not give it up. They won’t be coerced out of what the Second Amendment has given to them. We will use guns, and mourn the dead with flowers.

Guns and Roses. The reference is to a hard rock music group when I was a yuppy – young urban professional. I remember its first album was called “Appetite for Destruction.” The album jacket had a smoking pistol, a bright red rose with a teardrop.

Somehow, it befits America.

Shivaji Sengupta s a retired Professor of English at Boricua College, New York City. He has a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and has been a regular contributor to The South Asian Times. He is a member of the Brookhaven Town Democratic Committee.


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