This Wednesday, it was confirmed by the FBI that letters sent earlier in the week to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his gun control lobby group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, were laced with ricin, a deadly poison. Since then, the Secret Service has confirmed that a third laced letter, intended for President Obama, have been intercepted. All three have also been found with this statement:
“You will have to kill me and my family before you get my guns. Anyone wants to come to my house will get shot in the face. The right to bear arms is my constitutional God given right and I will exercise that right till the day I die…What’s in this letter is nothing compared to what I’ve got planned for you.”
While it would be foolish to presume to know much about the individual(s) behind this incident, at this early stage, we’ve gotten a glimpse of his (or her) intent and motive from the letters. While I’m sure the media and especially the right-wing will try to, as they usually do, paint the suspect as some lone wolf with a severe mental illness – I’ve just got to wonder how someone in such a mental state could acquire or extract ricin (not a simple process), if that really were the case.
That point aside, if we’re to examine the issue rationally, the man must clearly follow current events and politics. And no doubt, he has caught more than a glimpse of the strong, on-going rhetoric coming from hysterical right-wingers who decry any modest measure of gun control as an act of an encroaching tyrannical government. This assertion comes from a deeply flawed reading of the Second Amendment and a misunderstanding of Revolution-era politics and history paired with a modern-day paranoia and distrust of the US government, all of which culminates in a common public discourse which seems to encourage acts of violence – and some are taking it very seriously.
Not only is it illogical to believe that owning a firearm is somehow the final insurance on your personal liberties, but such an “understanding,” when taken to the next step, has evolved into a particularly concerning strain of thought. Here is where many so-called “libertarians” and such will proclaim that, in the event the US government becomes too tyrannical, the citizens can and will take up arms to overthrow it. For this to happen, firearms must be kept easily accessible. This “interpretation” of the Second Amendment bases its flawed reasoning on the example of the American Revolutionary War – isn’t that an instance of an oppressed citizenry throwing off their tyrannical, English overlords?
Though I don’t aim to make this the point of discussion in this piece – historically, what was accomplished in the US colonies was a very unique outcome that relied on several factors beyond mere access to firearms for the rebels. This included a British military that was already scattered with other colonial flare-ups and military skirmishes/posturing with regards to the other European powers. Besides that, the American colonials did not do it all on their own – if not for the oft-disparaged French and their military assistance during the uprising, there would likely be no United States. A very unique scenario – other colonial uprisings were unsuccessful and usually put down, whereas non-violent tactics successfully were seen to win South Africa and India, both English subjects, their independence without a reliance on firearms and violence.
Regardless, to many who oppose gun control measures, it was the guns that won the United States its independence from the oppressive English. And, for many Americans in general, they believe that not only do guns hold the key to overthrowing a similarly domineering and oppressive regime, but that the need to utilize them to such ends will come in the next several years – 29% of Americans, actually. That’s right, nearly one in three of the people around you (assuming you’re in the US as I am) believe the myth of guns and tyranny and simultaneously. One of them is Adam Kokesh, who garnered some media attention after creating a Facebook event that generated interest in an armed citizen march on Washington D.C. for the 4th of July. Though that has since been cancelled after attracting law enforcement attention, Kokesh has taken to calling for his followers to form insurrectionist armies and march on their state capitols.
This sort of widespread and disturbing belief that the political process requires violence to effect change is inherently problematic (beyond the implied requirement of bloodshed). To me, it is an obvious conundrum: How does one go about deciding that we’ve crossed the line into “tyranny”? What is tyranny anyway? Who draws that line and proclaims that it’s just a little too much tyranny? Is it possible one person’s tyranny is another’s privilege?
We can look to those who have, infamously, tried to answer those questions on their own: Are James Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, both presidential assassins, to be considered American patriots standing up against tyranny? Even after leaping to the Ford’s Theatre stage after slaying President Lincoln, Booth infamously cried, “Sic semper tyrannis,” translated from Latin as “Thus always to tyrants.” Was Booth merely an American patriot doing his duty to ensure the liberty and freedoms of the people? (Actually it’s arguable that Lincoln’s death was the worst thing that could have happened for the South after the war, because it left Johnson to bungle it all.) Did Lee Harvey Oswald free the American people on that dark day in November, 1963?
Were we to take this logic even further – why not? – it could be said that the oppressed people of today should be taking up arms. Is it possible that gun nuts would find the situation undesirable if homosexuals, denied civil rights in a variety of ways, were to take to storming the Hill and slaying every politician who supports things like the Defense of Marriage Act and opposes marriage equality? What if immigrants, routinely denied easy access to citizenship and the rights that go with it, were to do the same? Though I’m being facetious here – I don’t think many would believe those to be realistic or desirable scenarios – there are others who have said dumbfoundingly similar things, but as a serious idea. Larry Ward, gun “rights” advocate and chairman of “Gun Appreciation Day” (coinciding on the calendar with Martin Luther King Jr. Day) took to making this outrageous claim:
“I believe that Gun Appreciation Day honors the legacy of Dr. King. The truth is, I think Martin Luther King would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history. And I believe wholeheartedly that’s essential to liberty.”
The delusion is strong in this strain of American society. But it’s one thing to hold these ridiculous ideas, but another when rhetoric begins to have consequences. Remember Jared Loughner, the gunman who took to shooting 19 people in Tuscon, Arizona in 2011? Earlier this week records previously withheld from the public were released detailing Loughner’s erratic and troubling behavior in the months prior to the shooting. One detail, however, is especially worth pointing out here: Loughner was known to possess an unhealthy paranoia and distrust of the government and an obsession with the Giffords (the Democratic Congresswoman who was his primary target).
What you say matters. There’s the childhood axiom that “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me,” implying words are merely wind and only physical objects can be dangerous. I contend that this is not true – when a sector of American politics and society can continually chant nonsense about impending tyranny and oppression, in their echo chambers, with the one and only solution being violence, it’s hard not to see a problem. While certainly it is those who perpetrate these acts that hold responsibility for their actions, it is arguable that they are whipped up by a wind of words that urges them to commit their acts.
Words have great potential. They can catalyze a cultural revolution – or they can incite violence. Do individuals like Wayne LaPierre and Ted Nugent, who take to broadcasting and sharing their paranoid delusions frequently, have no shame? When all of your news comes from Alex Jones, and your world view is shaped and informed by someone who sees conspiracy and oppression in every headline and the gun becomes a tool to be used to change that world – you place your hands out, waiting to be washed in blood. And so they already have.