Another American tragedy

Paul Demarty takes a look at the confused issue of arms in the USA

At present, very little is known about James Holmes, who is accused of the murder of 12 people at a midnight showing of the latest Batman film, The dark knight rises, in Aurora, Colorado. Unlike Anders Behring Breivik, the killer of scores of Norwegian youth last year, he does not appear to have left behind a 1,500-page ‘manifesto’ - or, indeed, anything much except a lethally booby-trapped apartment. We know only that, as with many such people, he seemed perfectly normal to his friends and neighbours.

The crime has, understandably, shaken people up - not just in Colorado (the massacre took place only 15 miles from Columbine high school, where two students infamously killed a number of their peers in 1999), but in wider American society and, indeed, around the world. What is particularly disturbing about the shootings - apart, obviously, from the horrifying loss of life - is precisely that nothing is known about their motivation: James Holmes does not fit into any neat category of mass-murderer, like the Islamist fanatics of September 11 or the far-right-leaning Anders Breivik and Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Gun control

And so commentary focuses, unfortunately, on the ultimately peripheral matter of weaponry. Holmes’s crime, like the Columbine massacre before it, is a gift to the American gun control lobby (though one expects that these people, whose hearts are in the right place at least, have had more than enough of such ‘gifts’), and yet another PR disaster for the more powerful and admittedly unsavoury pro-gun lobby.

After all, there is no more powerful argument against the easy availability of arms to the general citizenry than their employment in nihilistic outrages such as the Aurora shootings. Many commentators have noted that the death toll was as low as it was only because the prize of Holmes’s arms collection, an AR-15 assault rifle, fortunately jammed at the beginning of his onslaught, forcing him to use small arms with a more merciful rate of fire. The National Rifle Association’s jeremiads about the Second Amendment appear, inevitably, as inhuman pedantry on the part of arms manufacturers and gun-nuts.

It is thus pretty difficult to oppose bans on assault rifles in the face of such horrors. However, it is still necessary. Perhaps the worst consequence of the American left’s historical weakness - barring its umbilical ties to the Democratic Party - is the fact that it has entirely given up the Second Amendment to the right. This has resulted in its defence being conducted on utterly inadequate, counterproductive grounds; and, of course, it further disarms (politically and literally) the left against the American state.

That Second Amendment in full: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” It is simple, clear and concise, which makes all the more extraordinary the amount of distortions and misrepresentations - as much by its ‘defenders’ as its detractors - it has suffered since 1791.

It encapsulates one of the most basic democratic principles of them all. For a state genuinely to be subject to democratic control from below, the masses need some means of coercion. The militia provides the form in which the people can be armed, as against the bureaucratic apparatuses of a regular army. The radical left supported the popular militia until relatively recently in its history; even Eduard Bernstein was not so much a statist-reformist that he did not.

In the hands of the American right, the Second Amendment has been gutted of all its democratic content. The militia disappears in NRA propaganda, replaced with facile veneration of the traditional American hobby of hunting, and scare stories about the need for good American families to protect themselves from burglars and other shady types. ‘If guns are outlawed,’ runs the slogan, ‘only outlaws will have guns.’

Friends like these

This, as noted, is a counterproductive line. Demonstrating why this should be so requires us to dip into rather muddier waters: why do these things happen, and why do they happen so often in America?

The liberal activist film-maker, Michael Moore, attempted to tackle this problem in his breakthrough feature, Bowling for Columbine. As is that talented polemicist and provocateur’s habit, he is a little economical with the actualité, but his approach is nonetheless interesting: America’s enormous gun crime problems are placed in the context, variously, of the immense power of the military-industrial complex (a Lockheed Martin plant supports the local economy in both Columbine and Aurora), tragic tales of grinding poverty in Moore’s home state of Michigan, and even a scare about swarms of killer ‘Africanised’ bees appearing in America (implicit here, of course, is the deformed racial consciousness of white America).

He visits towns in Canada - where such problems are not so acute - to find more guns per capita, with a fraction of the shootings. The conclusion he reaches is impeccably liberal - while there is nothing necessarily good about gun control, America is simply too mad a nation to be trusted with firearms.

Considering its current status as the boss of the capitalist state system, America’s economic and political history is an odd one. It is born from a revolution, which - unusually - was able to establish itself without any serious setbacks (a process sealed by the north’s victory in the civil war); its early economy saw a ‘slavocracy’ consolidated in the south, a bourgeoisie in the north, and a vigorous colonial project in the west.

Its reigning ideology is thus a much sharper version of the contradiction at the heart of capitalist ideology more generally - people self-conceive as ‘rugged individuals’ in the context of an objectively socialised form of production, and equally socialised forms of political life. In America (not only America, it must be said) the imagery is particularly seductive - of the frontiersman, the cowboy, Thoreau and Lincoln in their log cabins.

The frontier is hardwired into the American psyche, just as the sea is hardwired into ours. It is no accident that Moby-Dick, a story of the mutual interdependence of all hands on a whaling ship, was ignored by the American population for decades and found popularity first among the working class of England. Even radical counter-culture tends to have this character - it was the Sartre of Nausea that enraptured the beat poets, not the Sartre of the Critique of dialectical reason. Batman, for that matter, is another iteration - the strong individual fighting against the ‘bad’ collectivity (in his case, the criminal gang).

Now, however, the American constitution’s most explicit link to the collective dimension of democracy - the republican demand for the right of the people to bear arms, and to form militias - is defended by those most enraptured by the frontier fiction. The American right’s obsession with defending one’s home from burglars and other interlopers is a sublimated form of the homesteader’s defence against marauding native Americans (and, in fact, is just as laced with racial fear). The relationship of the great American hunter to all this is pretty obvious.

Where the ‘militia’ part is accorded as much significance as the ‘right to bear arms’ part, the results are if anything even worse - the so-called ‘militia movement’ expressed an utterly paranoid rightwing fear of government, and its most famous son is McVeigh, who killed 168 people by bombing a government building in Oklahoma City.

Obama can ban all the guns he likes - outrages such as this will not cease. Far more significantly, the ‘gun crime’ problem as a whole - which mostly takes the form of a continuous background hum of street crime, not all as abysmally nihilistic as the Aurora shootings but, on aggregate, far more destructive - will hardly be resolved.

Here, we must return to the problem of the American left - because the only effective counterweight to the atomisation that produces these problems is a strong and well organised workers’ movement, which has never existed in America. In Europe, such movements produced - for a time - a collective life which cut against the atomising logic of capital. Today, for the most part, we are left with the battered rumps of these movements, and the cultural memory of their former strength - but that is still more than exists in America.

Constructing such a movement is impossible without the rigorous defence of what democratic gains have already been made, and the pursuit of their radical extension. The unwillingness of today’s left’s to defend the right to bear arms points in the opposite direction.