December 4th, 2015
Reading Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent anecdotal history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, one of the things that is falling into place for me has to do with gun violence and gun control in America. I want to avoid oversimplification and reductionism, but it seems to me that in order to understand the peculiar nature of gun violence in America you have to understand the history. And I think there is more to understand than what the Second Amendment meant to the Founding Fathers, or the role of hunting and home defense in colonial and frontier society.
One huge thing gets overlooked when we talk about American gun culture. For about a hundred years after the Civil War, an entire section of our country was ruled by terrorism. It was a peculiarly American form of public/private partnership. The entire American South was governed by private terrorism in league with government terrorism. This is not hyperbole. It is a plain statement of fact. Black people were oppressed through a public-private collaboration in terrorism. Whites were kept in line by the same means. Until you absorb the meaning of that, you can’t begin to understand the meaning of guns in our culture.
Let me pause on this a moment. President Obama recently memorably observed, with regard to the seemingly endless series of almost daily mass murders by firearm that occur in the United States, it doesn’t happen in other places. Well, in fact it does, but not in very many places. Not very many places share a similar, recent history of such severe repression of such a large proportion of the population over such a large extent of the nation’s territory by such a seamless partnership of governmental and private terrorism. One thinks of South Africa during apartheid. Nicaragua, in the death squad era. Usually government reserves for itself a monopoly of violence. In the Jim Crow South, that was not the case.
This means that such technical gun control measures as limits on magazine capacity, banning of private ownership of military style weaponry, and universal background checks – all of which seem like commonsensical, good ideas to me – are somewhat beside the point. It is a form of swimming against the current. The NRA, I am sad to say, is partly right. Guns only kill people when people use them for that. But the NRA’s take on this is a lie, because the NRA wants you to think that people act as isolated individuals. The lone crazed gunman or the vicious outlaw, what can you do about that? But that’s not the whole story. People are social beings. We live in a society in which, for broad swathes of its members, guns are an ancient and accepted tool of social control. There’s a reason many Americans tend to think you can solve a political or social problem by shooting at it. They’re not crazy. It’s a strategy that worked for them for a hundred years or more. And of course the poison spreads. You don’t have to be a lineal descendant of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest to be infected. I am fairly sure that the first-generation son of Pakistani immigrants who perpetrated today’s San Bernardino mass murders will be found to have well acculturated himself to this. The Southern model of terrorism will have found many students, even unwitting ones.
The Jim Crow terroristic state arose after the South was rid of Reconstruction and Southern whites once again seized exclusive control of the apparatus of government. The nongovernmental terrorists, such as the KKK, were ready and waiting for this. Since federal power had destroyed the ability of southern government to re-enslave blacks, and private actors did not have the power to accomplish re-enslavement without at least the acquiescence of the state, it was necessary to form a private/public partnership to exert totalitarian control over blacks and to suppress white dissent. For the period of Jim Crow, government terrorism and terrorism by private groups were mutually permeable phenomena, linked and in service to the same cause. This worked at least until the 1960s, when the machinery of government began to be pried loose once again from the hands of the white supremacists, and the private arm of the Southern terrorist machine was driven underground. But cultures do not change as quickly as laws.
The private actors in the public/private terrorist state had lost their investment in government. The government was no longer theirs. Through the experience of their own collaborative efforts, they knew what government can be turned to, and they had reason to fear that it would be turned on them. Since the line between official and non-official terrorism had been, in their experience, so indistinct, they had little or no conception of government as an entity apart and separate from the classes that controlled it. That is the root of the otherwise difficult to explain meme that “gun control means the feds are going to take our guns away; we are the bulwark against tyrrany.” It seems laughable when the gun interest claims that private gun ownership is a counterweight to overwheening government power. We rightly scoff and say tell that to the marines. No sane person thinks that an unorganized mob of gun owners is going to be able to combat the U.S. armed forces. It wasn’t even true in the age of Jefferson and Madison, as Daniel Shays learned to his chagrin, let alone today. But that is not the point. The point is that the terrorist state’s private partners, having lost control of the state, are thrown back upon their own devices. Their society, evolved in a pervasively terrorist regime, had little experience of a government of laws, a government relatively free of corruption, a government grounded in civil liberties. These are all meaningless abstractions to them. What has meaning to them is the knock on the door in the middle of the night, because that was their society’s reality for so long. Now the government is no longer theirs, who knows when that knock might come. All that remains to them is their guns; and if their government could be taken away, why not this other source of power? What will they be left with, then?
In sum, in order to reduce gun violence in America we must first directly confront and somehow heal the effects of our nation’s history of massive terrorist totalitarian control over large sections of its people and territory. We must rid our culture of the complex of notions that legitimate the use of firearms in private hands as a means of social control. Such an understanding in itself won’t do the trick, because American gun violence has many causes. It is necessary, but not sufficient. But it will go far. Unfortunately, this complex of notions is deeply ingrained, having ruled so large a part of our country for so long and having been renounced by the organs of power only fifty years or so ago, and that renunciation having been rather less than thorough and sincere, as so many police shootings of black men demonstrate. It’s a long road to go.
It occurs to me that one way to get at this would be to take seriously the call for reparations to black Americans for the oppression they suffered under slavery and continue to suffer in its aftermath. The point would not be to “make them whole” in the sense of legal damages – what could? – but to engage the entire society in an open and concrete debate about how we got to where we are. It would be a much more concrete, down to earth matter than a mere airy “discussion about race.” Even relatively token compensation is, after all, compensation. Such a discussion, aimed at the intersection of justice and history, would serve a function equivalent to that of the “truth and reconciliation” initiatives that often follow a transition out of dictatorship. We have had our unacknowledged transition out of a terrorist totalitarianism. I am afraid that until we make some real effort to acknowledge what that meant and what it now means, we will continue to murder each other because among its legacies is this: that murder is the way that much of our society learned to govern itself.