Thursday, June 15, 2017

"When weapons rule, they kill the law"

Once again, a savage act of cruel and detestable gun violence has polluted our society, striking this time at the very center of our representative institutions. Apart from the January 2011 shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, I am unaware of any other recent gun assaults against members of Congress - since the still shocking March 1954 incident in which four Puerto Rican "nationalists" fired into the chamber of the House of Representatives. 

Paradoxically yesterday's tragic attack on the House Republicans' baseball team during their early morning practice was an assault not just on Congress but on one of the remaining vestiges of a less polarized, separate-silo style of congressional life. The annual congressional baseball game may be one of the few relics remaining of a time when members of congress lived in Washington with their families and socialized with each other across party lines.

Whatever the attacker's malignant motives, his attack was possible and so potentially deadly because, as so often happens in our society, the assailant was wielding a gun.

One is reminded of the ancient axiom, When weapons rule, they kill the law.

In the very first chapter of his History of the Peloponnesian War, the Greek historian Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) famously reported how the Athenians were the first to abandon going about armed within their city. He recalled how all Greeks used to carry arms: "to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians." But this, for Thucydides, was but a holdover from a less civilized era and way of life. When the Athenians stopped carrying weapons at home, they were able to develop the more refined style of life and vibrant political culture which we all still so distinctly associate with Athens. (So impressed with this feature of Athenian history was my undergraduate Ancient Political Theory professor, the late Marshall Berman, that the Athenians' abandonment of bearing arms in the city was one of the very first things he mentioned about Athens in our class.)

Of course, it was inherently required of citizens that they serve in the military to defend their city. For that, those citizen-soldiers obviously had to provide weapons and carry them into battle. But, when not soldiering, citizens went about without their arms and engaged in their civic culture free from their weapons' intimidating presence. 

Like ancient citizen-soldiers, the "militia" envisioned by the constitution also provided their own weapons and used them in the service of the common defense. Unfortunately, the constitution has since been unwisely interpreted to mean that, when not serving in the militia, citizens should individually continue to keep and bear arms unrestrictedly - with the obviously destructive consequences that the ancient Greeks had the wisdom to foresee and act against.

Meanwhile, with our barbarous acceptance of the private possession of guns, we continue to live with, as if it were inevitable, this brutal violence and the social breakdown it portends.

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