Saturday, February 14, 2015

Men with Guns

They are in the news every day.  Cops, open-carry wingnuts, murderers, career criminals, gangs, military (around the world).  They are an entertainment staple.  You have to sift through television dramas and films and written popular fiction to find the stories that do not prominently feature a man or men with guns, who use the guns to move the story along, and more frequently than not, to redeem the story.  Men with guns are like the water and we are the fish.

There are a few women with guns, too . . . fewer in life than art, and in art they often represent a kind of vulgar feminism that sees "equality" as the opportunity to "kick some ass" . . . "feminism" equals idealized women being able to be more like ideal-normative men.  But this manufactured imagination has done nothing to change the reality that (1) guns are still primarily men's tools and (2) men are far, far more likely to actually use guns to injure and kill other human beings.

In the last two days, we in the United States have seen more cops shooting more unarmed people, and we have seen one man who openly-carried his sidearm use that sidearm to execute three university students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Men.  Guns.

In the last month, the biggest blockbuster film, and a film nominated for many awards, American Sniper, was about men with guns, focusing on one man and his gun in such a way that the gun was almost the best supporting actor.

In the last decade, we saw a country run - as all countries are - by men with guns - Iraq - invaded by men with guns, whereupon the situation was so dramatically destabilized that new men with guns (ISIL) managed to establish a new armed polity in the now-fragmented Iraq; and now we are sending men in airplanes with guns attack them, as more men with guns prepare to put "boots back on the ground."  (Yes, American troops are already in the process of preparing to return to Iraq.)

In 2012, a young man with guns killed twenty-six human beings, twenty of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School; and the automatic response to that shooting - when one watched the news - was a phalanx of more men with more guns, because that is all we know how to do now.  Men with guns breed the need for men with guns, et cetera.

We read a good deal about the guns.  There are controversies about guns.  Should they be better regulated?  Are they some kind of God-given entitlement enshrined in our God-dictated Constitution?  But we seldom make a point about the fact that people who do violence with guns - legal or illegal - are mostly men, or that men have a special relationship to guns that women, overwhelmingly, do not.  I'm not naturalizing it.  I'm not dipping into the pseudo-science of sociobiology.  We are creatures who are designed for enculturation; and the special relationship between men and guns is an outcome of intense socialization.  And in modern culture, men have a special relationship with guns.  How could we not?

I was born in 1951.  Before I saw my first day of school, we had a black-and-white television, where Disney was indoctrinating me with Davy Crockett.  American white boys in the 1960s cut their teeth on Daniel Boone, Combat, and Peter Gunn (yes, that was the name of popular private eye series).  Through the 70s, it was Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Hawaii Five-Oh.  By then, I had been to Vietnam and back; and by the time the US was kicked out in 1975, the American film industry was embracing a kind of vigilante splatter-flick as a way of recovering the national white masculinity - Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and Rambo.

The men-with-guns trope had great racial crossover appeal, and by the 1970s it underwrote the blaxploitation genre, which was more subtly dealt with in Richard Wright's Native Son, written in 1940, when Wright's protagonist, Bigger Thomas, and his pals, attend white movies at the cinema and find themselves attracted to the gangsters.

At least in Wright's novel, he deals with the double-conciousness of black men who find themselves attracted to violent white role models in a racist culture.  There is a parallel, I believe, in the double-consciousness of women who aspire, through the vulgar feminism aforementioned, to become more like powerful men in patriarchal culture.

When guns did become more ubiquitous in African America, in emulation of the men-with-guns masculinity of the dominant white culture, it resulted predictably in an explosion of gun violence.  So a certain "equality" was achieved.  Men with guns have been proven to be equally capable of violence across cultural boundaries.  And, of course, the gun is still predominantly associated with male violence.

Now we are in a period of profound racial and gender reaction, in which white people, particularly white men, and men more generally, have seen their masculinities destabilized by social change.  In this milieu, there is a prominent strain of white nationalist masculinity that identifies with guns so closely that this identification borders on a kind of mystical fetishism.

While I don't know enough about Craig Stephen Hicks, the Chapel Hill murderer of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, to unpack all his motives, we do know that he (1) had a dozen firearms in his home and (2) he was seen to openly carry a firearm on his belt.  And he is a man.

There is a kind of disingenuous apologetic for guns - based on supporting a policy of low to no regulation of firearms - that objectifies guns.  It makes them a "mere" tool, no different than a screwdriver or a blender.  I'm not arguing - here, at least - for or against various kinds of legal policies pertaining to firearms; but I am arguing against the dishonesty of this kind of abstraction.  It is designed to conceal that special relationship between men and guns behind a silly, two-dimensional metaphysic of "choice," as if all of us are making pristine, deracinated, calculating choices every minute of every day.  This assumption may be a presumption of law, but liberal law is inherently obtuse about these matters; and so law is neither an appropriate model nor a final authority upon which to base an honest and authentically-interested evaluation of this relationship between men and guns.

If you are like me, and you think first about how things fit with "love your neighbor," "love your enemy," and "bless peacemakers," then law is an even more deficient standard.

I carried guns for quite some time, so I want to describe this peculiar relationship.

First of all, as I suggested above, men are indoctrinated rather aggressively into associating maleness with an obligation to protect others and set things right that are wrong, even though the stories that transmit this message are set-up in such a way that violence becomes simultaneously a redemptive mechanism and the basis for validating one's masculinity.  This is a potent and dangerous combination, moreso when one lives in a highly pluralistic culture where there is no consensus about what constitutes basic goods and what merits these kinds of protection and redemption.

Secondly, a firearm puts the power of life and death into one's hand, a power that can be exercised in an instant with no more than four-pounds of pressure applied with one's index finger.  There is simply no way to exaggerate the import of this, or the fact that when one holds a loaded firearm in one's hand (or carries one on the body) this awareness of that power changes the person who holds it.  When I am armed, I am dangerous, and I know I am dangerous, and that danger I control makes me more powerful than I am without it.

Firearms training amplifies this sense of power immeasurably.  This is where gun culture enters the equation.  When I was assigned to 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment - Delta in the 1980s, we placed a special emphasis on firearms proficiency . . . far more than in regular military units who go to the range twice a year to update their basic qualifications.  There were weeks when I would fire 2,000 rounds of pistol ammunition, that much again from a submachinegun.  When I was on a sniper team, we trained as if we were going to national rifle matches (some of us did).  We loaded out own special ammunition.  We studied ballistics.  We practiced in dynamic scenarios.  I can still remember - in my body - what it feels like . . . even that satisfaction when I shoot well . . . fast, accurately.  We were, literally, gunfighters, among the best in the world.

Gun culture is a culture of gun practice, a kind of obsessive pursuit of this satisfaction in proficiency, because that proficiency is inseparable from the sense of power, its multiplier, its amplifier.  The better you get, the more powerful you are.  More than that, though, when you practice, when you carry, when you are in possession of that life-and-death power, you cannot help but imagine using it.  In your mind, you are always constructing, anticipating, fantasizing scenarios in which you use the gun, in which you protect, save, resolve, redeem, avenge . . . by shooting human beings.  In your mind, if you are a man, you are also demonstrating your masculinity in a way that cannot be trumped.  You are dangerous enough to be safe, yes, but also dangerous enough to get what Bigger Thomas dreamed of, what any gangster film will describe . . . "respect."  Okay, it's not real respect, it's fear, but nowadays, for many men, respect and fear are synonymous.  Anyone who says this is not gun culture is a liar or a fool.  I was immersed in it.  Go to any gun show and see for yourself.  I'm not talking about my neighbors who load a slug in the .410 shotgun to hunt deer in Lenawee County.  I'm talking about gun fetishism, that subculture of guns that has as one of its institutional expressions the white nationalist National Rifle Association.

Craig Stephen Hicks rehearsed those killings again and again in his mind before they happened.  That's why he was proficient.  Three head-shots.  Bang bang bang.  Efficient.  That wasn't a screwdriver or a blender on his hip.  It was a firearm . . . the power of life and death swimming through his consciousness, emanating from that weighty thing which he obsessively photographed before he killed three human beings in a college town parking lot.

This is the poisonous mix of men and guns, of masculinity and the power of life and death concentrated in a phallic tool that can be applied with your fingertip.  Bang, and you are the messenger of an angry God.

Fear and respect are not the same things, of course.  This is hard for men to understand, because our sense of ourselves - as males - is not developed by this culture to tolerate the difficult work of mutuality, the tension that must be maintained between acceptance of others and self-assertion if our relations are not going to degenerate into domination and submission.  Respect can only come from another subject, someone capable of granting recognition.  Perhaps all Hicks could see in the faces of his victims was his own degraded self.  That is a mirror, as Fanon once said, that a man might feel compelled to smash.  And the gun gave him the power.

God help us.  God help men.  God save us from men with guns.


NEW BOOK on masculinity and violence

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