Right to bear arms, not commit murder

The "right of the people to keep and bear arms" is an essentially progressive concept, as far as communists are concerned, says Eddie Ford

Communists share the sense of horror at the killing of 33 people at Virginia Tech College - the largest ever school massacre in United States history. Such a grisly event instantly evokes memories of the Columbine High School murders of 1999, which saw two young men walk into the school, kill 12 fellow students and a teacher, and wound 24 others, before turning the guns on themselves.

This time the killer - and it now seems certain that there was only one gunman - was the 23-year-old Cho Seung-hui, a South Korean-born English student. The police now strongly suspect that he was behind the repeated bomb threats which had recently been received by the Virginia Tech authorities.

In what almost sounds these days like media clichés, Cho has been variously described as a "loner" and "troubled". Indeed, his creative writing teacher, professor Lucinda Roy, was so alarmed by one of his essays - it was "brimming with rage" - that she immediately emailed him with her concerns, suggesting emergency counselling. Not only that - and perhaps revealing more about the state of US education than Cho's mental state - Roy also promptly contacted the university's legal department and counselling services, not to mention the campus police (just about every US college/university has its own specially dedicated police force).

Cho is said to have responded with a long, ranting email - and declined the offer of counselling. As for the campus police, they "reviewed" his "troubled" essay, but decided not to intervene, as it did not contain any "specific" threats - plus the obvious free speech implications, or complications, that would arise from any such intervention. When asked, Roy offered the view that Cho "seemed like the loneliest man I've ever known".

By most accounts, Cho had made his way early on the morning of April 16 to the dormitory of a 19-year-old female student, Emily Hilscher - by whom, it is widely claimed, he seems to have been utterly infatuated. After some sort of confrontation, at 7.15am he shot her dead, along with a student mentor who came to her assistance. He then went, two hours later, on his killing spree some half a mile away at Norris Hall - leaving behind an angry 'suicide note' railing against the "rich kids", "deceitful charlatans" and "debauchery" on the campus, which asserted: "You caused me to do this."

Inevitably, the scramble to make sense of Cho's actions began immediately. For example, and whether in good taste or not, 'The Smoking Gun' website obtained and published a copy of a one-act play by Cho entitled Richard McBeef. This contains numerous references to paedophilia, violence with chainsaws, and concludes with the eponymous character delivering "a deadly blow" to his 13-year-old stepson (www.thesmokinggun.com). Additionally, AOL News got hold of another of his offerings, Mr Brownstone - named after a (quite typically dreary) Guns 'n' Roses song and containing dialogue/lyrics copied verbatim from it (http://newsbloggers.aol.com/2007/04/17/cho-seung-huis-plays). Make of these plays what you will - though, of course, you can guarantee that a whole load of nonsense will be generated about them. Just as you can be equally sure that some will try to whip up a moralistic panic about "immoral" or "satanic" heavy rock lyrics and "violent" video/computer games.

Clearly, we do not really know at this stage what motivated Cho's murderous rampage. But even though there are not any direct parallels with the Columbine massacre, you can see a certain overlap between the two gruesome incidents. Self-evidently, Cho had developed a self-destructive hatred for the morality he encountered in Virginia - just like the Columbine High killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, had for that of their home town of Littleton, Colorado, In particular, Cho, despite his respectable, middle class family background, seems to have been profoundly alienated from his fellow students, in a similar manner to the way Klebold and Harris hated the 'jocks' at their high school who excelled at sporting activities and got all the dates.

More to the point, when we look at Virginia Tech College itself, and the surrounding environs of Blacksburg, it is hard to avoid seeing the consumer-driven conformity which pervades American society - most notably in the (mis)education system. As with Columbine High School, and all its equivalents throughout the nation, Virginia Tech seems to have far more of the features of a gigantic warehousing-cum-policing operation than a self-empowering educational institution. All reflective of a country where, in the absence of the politics of working class solidarity, the vacuum has been filled with multitudinous churches, debt-fuelled consumerism and stars and stripes nationalism. And that means individual isolation and chronic despair.

Then there is Cho's home town itself - Centreville in Fairfax County. Centreville (population 48,661) - just like Littleton - is the epitome of Middle American values and lifestyle. Both seem to have been designed by an evil architectural genius for maximum alienation. The identical, scrubbed clean, houses - just take a look, if you can bear it, at Cho's neighbourhood. No public spaces or parks. No cafes. No pubs. No 'alternative' bookshops, record shops or clothes stores. Just large shopping malls and curfews which keeps young people off the streets come the evening.

Well, what do you expect?

Obviously, attention has once again focused on the question of gun controls. There has been no US legislation of any sort passed in this area since 1996 - when the Clinton administration banned specific models of semi-automatic assault rifles. However, by 2004 the law had expired and the Republicans - what a surprise - were not exactly falling over themselves to renew the ban, let alone introduce more gun controls or push for 'tougher' law enforcement on this front.

So, according to the New York Times, the Virginia Tech killings are yet "another horrifying reminder that some of the gravest dangers Americans face come from killers at home armed with guns that are frighteningly easy to obtain" (April 17). As for the Los Angeles Times, the "ghastly" death toll "becomes an obvious argument for enhanced gun control" (April 17) - and the Washington Post also asked: "Should metal detectors be ubiquitous in American classrooms and dormitories?" (April 17). And in the UK The Guardian pontificated about how, "once again", the "rest of the world will look on in amazement as America proves itself unable to defend its ordinary citizens from its armed maniacs .... Yet US leaders are held hostage by the power of the gun lobby and the electoral system" (April 18).

Yes, as alluded to above, many in the US - including many progressives - have long been worried by, and campaigned against, the considerable political power and influence of the 'pro-guns' lobby - especially the National Rifle Association, which was founded in 1871 as a body devoted to "improving marksmanship" and became an increasingly loud political voice in the 1960s, when the first calls for some sort of gun control were raised.

And the NRA's critics and opponents steadfastly maintain that it retains an unhealthy stranglehold over the debate because it bankrolls politicians, particularly in marginal mid-western seats - and this impression is most definitely reinforced when confronted by the unwelcome figure of Charlton Heston - the barking mad reactionary, and actor, who has been the NRA's president since 1998 (much to the discomfort of some former and present members of the NRA board, it has to be said).

'Pro-gun' organisations like the NRA draw heavily, and very successfully, upon the national mythology of the 'wild west' and the 'frontier culture', which, of course, is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Specifically, the likes of the NRA always point to the second amendment, which calls for a "well-regulated militia" and protects the "right of the people to keep and bear arms". In response, the advocates of gun control - "the liberals", to coin a phrase - nearly always argue that the framers of the American constitution never had any intention, when they wrote the second amendment, of dishing out a gun license to "every wacko with a beef" (as one US columnist recently put it).

But the unarguable, cold facts remain. Over four in 10 households in the US now have a gun - which amounts to some 31% of the adult population, or 59,100,000 people (see www.justfacts.com/gun_control.htm). Ironically enough - given that Virginia is a big hunting state and hence has higher than average figures of gun ownership - Virginia Tech is a 'gun-free zone', and only last year the Virginia legislature killed off a bill that would have allowed students to carry guns on campus. Naturally, the likes of the NRA have absolutely no hesitation in pointing out this fact - bitterly complaining that "the liberals" had left the Virginia Tech students defenceless before an armed "wacko" like Cho. And, in a certain sense, who is to say that they are wrong?

After all, we communists will not be joining the calls for greater gun control - either here or in the US. Indeed, we actively oppose it - which no doubt would shock "the liberals" in the US, not to mention the virulently anti-communist Charlton Heston. Rather the 'gun control' we favour is that by which the workers, organised as a universal political class, have access to and control over the most advanced weaponry available - with which it seeks to overthrow the bourgeois state and disarm the bourgeoisie. Without workers' militias - the people armed - the workers can never become the ruling class.

Here, of course, lies the root of the American tragedy - the real American tragedy, that is. Which is that the "right of the people to keep and bear arms" - an essentially progressive concept, as far as communists are concerned - has become instead the right of atomised and alienated egos to murder and maim each other. The war of all against all.

Yet the solution is not a ban on firearms, but for the organised workers to impose their own democratic control over their use and to do what working class politics requires - disarm their 'own' ruling class - not something Heston, George Bush or the ghost of John Wayne are exactly keen on.