I should take notes about such things, but I don’t. I do recall, however, having read in various reports about substantial evidence revealing that a remarkable percentage of soldiers in battle during World War II were loath to aim their weapons at other human beings, a.k.a. enemy soldiers, with the intent to kill them; and indeed failed to do so. They would aim above or to the side when firing, rather than at the enemy. I have read also that subsequent research resulted in different military training techniques that would ensure more reliable results. The normal human being, it seems, lacks the required killer instinct; and the most effective way to instill the necessary discipline was, ironically perhaps, to draw upon such feelings as a natural empathy and compassion, appealing to the trainee’s instinct to protect and save—whether his brothers at arms or endangered civilians who would otherwise become innocent victims to violence.
My thoughts returned to these surprising facts as I read “A Veteran’s Death, the Nation’s Shame,” Nicholas D. Kristof’s disturbing column about veteran suicides in today’s op-ed section of the New York Times. It’s a huge problem, and one that draws attention to the psychic damage inflicted by the traumatic experience of war on the human mind. Is it possible, I wondered, that those soldiers in World War II were spared the worst of the after-effects suffered by our veterans today precisely because they had not been so effectively trained to kill, and because so many of them had by their actions declined to do so? I was particularly struck, in Kristof’s article, by the story of the young man who, on his return home, was impelled to purchase a gun identical to his military weapon to lay beside him in his bed at night in order to be able to sleep—a powerful image of the deluded sense of security provided by a deadly technological device.
And then I found myself thinking about George Zimmerman, the man who killed the black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida a few weeks ago. It’s my conjecture that Zimmerman was as horrified as the rest of us by his action. Another article in today’s op-ed section, “Young, Black, Male, and Stalked by Bias,” by Brent Staples, refers us to the history of Zimmerman’s 911 calls, documenting the man’s increasing propensity to profile people with the outward appearance and skin color of his eventual victim. Without the gun tucked into his waistband, the probably unconscious racial bias that led to his suspicion and his call to the police would have resulted in nothing worse than the needless dispatch of yet another patrol car to investigate his complaint; the gun, however, gave him a sense of power and entitlement to exercise his own authority that led to the taking of an innocent life. It was, I suspect, the arrogance and empowerment promoted by the possession of the weapon that led to the unintended and profoundly tragic consequence we all know about today.
From there my thoughts turned to television news reports about the NRA convention in St. Louis and the “7 acres” of weapons on display at the associated gun show; to the shamefully pandering remarks of Republican candidate Mitt Romney and the boastful public claim of the NRA president that Obama would have that organization to thank for his ouster from the White House, come November; to the multiple recent reports of death by gunfire and the mayhem that has taken the lives of police officers in the line of duty as well as innocent civilians minding their own business; and to the NRA sponsored laws passed in two dozen and more state legislatures, enabling untrained citizens to purchase weapons, frequently without background checks, to carry them without let or hindrance, and to use them with virtual impunity. And we are talking here not simply about hand guns, nor even simply about rifles and shotguns used for “sport.” We are also talking about the kind of weapons and ammunition that are designed exclusively for the taking of human life, if necessary in large numbers.
Why do people take it into their heads to buy such things? The only two explanations that come to my mind are these: paranoia, on the one hand—an inordinate and misplaced fear of other human beings; and on the other, a delusional obsession with holding the power of other people’s life and death in one’s own hands. Perhaps, too, this weaponry is the ultimate plaything, the toy to end all toys for the minds of boys who have never quite grown to men.
It is appalling that we allow ourselves, as a nation, to be bullied by a minority into accepting their irrational interpretation of a principle given expression in very different circumstances more than two hundred years ago. The founding fathers, to whom they make their appeal, would have been as astounded and appalled as the majority—yes, the sane majority—of Americans today by how their words have been twisted to support an ideology so clearly misguided in intention and disastrous in outcome on our city streets. They would have been equally astounded and appalled, I think, by cowardice and venality of those who surrender so easily to the power and money wielded by what is essentially, in the national context, merely a small interest group.
Is it not time for us to make clear to our politicians that we do not wish for them to be governed by the NRA? The Mayors Against Illegal Guns are setting a good example for other politicians to follow. How many more have to die at the hands of the angry, the resentful, or the merely insane before we as a country decide that something must be done? At the very least, given almost daily news reports of gun misuse and an ever-growing death count, such initiatives as requirements for background checks and restrictions on the sale of guns designed exclusively for battleground use should be of the highest priority. And at the very least, too, let’s not vote for a man who panders to the threats and paranoiac fantasies of the gun lobby.