IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
— The Declaration of Independence
The United States was formed from rebellion, ostensibly, against an oppressive government. One way occupying forces, including governments, maintain control over the population is to divest people of power. Preventing the subjugated from fighting back requires taking away any weapons, whether they be physical weapons of similar lethality to those possessed by the government, or the power of words and freedom of thought to speak out and organize against a malicious or incompetent government. There is an inherent mistrust of government, along with the recognition that the people and the government are mutually dependent on one another.
Hence, the First Amendment, protecting freedom of speech, the press, and for people to get together and brainstorm, states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
And similarly, the Second Amendment protects the right to have weapons, in case the government again forgets its mandate to serve the people, and attempts to use force to control the populace by imposing martial law, or something similar:
“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.”
Following the index case of Columbine, when on April 20th, 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 15 schoolmates in a video-game style paramilitary assault, there has been run of school shootings, and other related active-shooter mass casualty events. There are many proposed explanations given for these school shootings: mental illness, inadequate gun control, video game and media violence, the decrepitude of an empire in decline, various other cultural problems, family issues for the shooters, the failure of law enforcement agencies to prevent, government abuses in accepting funds in return for turning a blind eye to the public good over private interests, and other hypotheses. The truth is, no one knows for sure and these shootings are likely the result of several interacting factors as is the case for practically everything else in the world.
For instance, there are individual factors (e.g. aggression and other issues) and contextual factors (e.g. easy access to weapons), and factors specific to the type of event, such as contagion effects. Similar to medical misadventures, there have to be multiple failures, and a system which does not adequately check for such failures along the way. It isn’t ever just one person’s mistake, or one failure of operations.
Issues like this, similar to suicide clusters, are very complex and difficulty to study scientifically. There is a contagion effect, as well as a permissive effect where the first case, the index case, opens the door for behavior which beforehand was off-limits. This permissive effect is common in many areas, due to modeling and social learning. Developmentally, we learn about what is OK and what is not OK from our parents, peers, and culture. Like a crystal forming from a supersatured solution, a snowflake forming around a speck of dust, the index case serves as a nidus around which future events structure themselves.
Now, the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on February 14th, 2018 has become a tipping point, where the students themselves are taking a stand and saying, “Never Again”, echoing the Holocaust mandate to “Never Forget”. Experience is the best teacher, often however the harshest. Why is this less acceptable than prior shootings? Is it just the repetition overcoming denial and partisan political forces? Is it the brazen depravity of this event? The failure of authorities to act on the scene, the open stance Florida has to guns, the influence of the gun lobby on politicians there, ambivalence and conflict about assault rifles, ambivalence and conflict about mental illness? Contextually, I think we can make a strong case that the election of Trump as brought out latent fracture lines in our society, and encouraged everyone to become more vocal and unilateral in asserting their point of view. Unlike Obama, who tended to take a more measured, multi-lateral approach, Trump states things in simplistic, aggressive and one-sided terms, even when he is contradicting himself at some future time. False singularity based on self-deception has replaced self-aware multiplicity. Over-simplification has replaced nuance.
What I think we are seeing now is a clash among our most basic rights. The Declaration of Independence directs our government to ensure equality (still working on that one), “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and the right of the people to “alter or abolish” government which fails to protect these basic rights, though not for “light or transient causes”. The Founders were psychologically astute, noting “accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” They knew that people were inclined to be complacent and complicity, standing by while evil is perpetrated, and failing to act in order to maintain the status quo.
The First and Second Amendments to the Constitution echo the rights in the Declaration of Independence, the right to free speech, free press, and assembly of the people, faced by a failing government, to discuss and foster change; and the right of the people to remain armed and ready to confront and defeat a government which fails to preserve the rights of the basic rights of the people.
Many people believe we are now seeing this failure of government. Yet it is a different from from what our Founding Fathers foresaw. Rather than directly aggressing against the people, arguably the government is protecting one right, the right to bear arms, over a more basic right, the right to life.
With Stoneman Douglas, there are undeniable failures on multiple levels, horrifying to everyone in different ways. For gun control advocates, having access to high-lethality weapons is unacceptable and confusing. But for many gun advocates, restricting access is equally unacceptable and dangerous as well, a way for the government to get the upper hand. The people need to have militia able to defend against the government, which is well-armed (though does this mean people should be allowed to have nuclear weapons and military assault vehicles?).
With Stoneman Douglas, the perpetrator is disturbed, and turned to violence, with a clear path for school shootings now in place in our culture. We can’t blame mental illness, but aggression is a factor. Law enforcement was warned, but did not respond appropriately. Red flags were in the home, but weren’t recognized or were dismissed. Weapons were acquired without restricted access. Designated, armed officials on the scene stood by and did nothing. Politicians set the stage. And so on.
What we’re seeing is a “glitch” in the “programming” of our country. Different guaranteed basic rights are in direct opposition, and there is no efficient mechanism in place to resolve the paradox. Our governmental proceedings are in question due to potential effects of both foreign influences (i.e. Russian “hacking” the election) as well as from internal influences (i.e. politicians being funded by gun lobbies for private gain). This casts doubt on the ability of our government to credibly act in the best interests of the people.
The debate now is whether to arm teachers. This seems like a bad idea, given that trained law enforcement officials, often with a military background, may be unable to act appropriately. We see police violence as well, with preventable, often racially-driven killing. We see teachers who do have firearms forgetting them in the bathroom, or injuring themselves by accidental discharge. Is there any reasonable expectation that arming teachers would safe, appropriate or effective? They have enough difficulty actually teaching kids, let alone having to serve as a mini-militia.
In Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to their Parents, or the Country, and for Making them Beneficial to the Public, the over-abundant children of the poor were to be fattened up to feed the rich. Likewise, extending the argument that teachers should be armed to protect children, which is itself deeply problematic on many levels but simplistically appealing, my view is more radical.
I modestly propose we take it one step further. The only course of action which is consistent is to have local communities become fully armed militias, to protect us against ourselves, as the government has failed in its mandate to ensure basic safety, and is attacking free speech. The issue isn’t whether guns are the cause, but that the Second Amendment has preempted the Declaration of Independence and the First Amendment is under attack. Let’s not only arm teachers, therefore, but all citizens. Like a Neighborhood Watch group, armed citizens should be trained and organized into militias which stand guard at schools, in shifts. It would be a bit like the Old West of American lore, but more organized. Similar to other countries with mandatory military service, we would enjoy the added benefit of having a large trained military force built into the system, in the event of foreign invaders as well as more active government repression.
This solution would be in line with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and solves the conflict among different rights. Because the government, while not being an active aggressor against the people, has failed in its mandate to protect, the people are empowered to step in, and the epidemic of shoot shootings, mass casualty events, and violence in general is neither a light nor transient cause. A more radical but possibly unrealistic option, on the other hand, is for everyone, including governments, to disarm.
I’m absolutely horrified by the senseless death and violence, and terrified about my own and other’s children. Although I’m writing in a Swiftian mode out of a sense of powerlessness, confusion and disbelief, I support effective action and hope that this reductio ad absurbum, taking the logic to its absurd and illogical conclusion, will bring a moment of sanity. As a parent of school age children, although it is terrifying and unimaginably painful and I don’t want to, I empathize with parents who have lost children. Are my children safe? Will I get a call during the day? Will my life be senselessly changed overnight, because of neglect by an increasingly chaotic society? I’m particularly outraged by violence by people against innocents, and more so by the growing violence within our own great nation, far more damaging than any external threats have been. Never again.
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.