Monday, December 24, 2012

Acceptable Lethal Power

I was out eating dinner with friends the other night and the subject of gun control came up.  Clearly a necessary topic of conversation due to the recent shooting in Newtown Connecticut.  It wasn't too long into the discussion that it occurred to me I  was going to have to keep my mouth shut.  Of the four of us at the table I was the sole diner who was of a different opinion.  Immediately I knew that the topic of gun control had just joined the ranks of those topics off the casual dinner conversation list.  It’s no longer appropriate to discuss religion, politics, and now gun control if you want to enjoy your dinner and maintain friendships.  Some may also put abortion on this list however, the rights of an unborn fetus has always been a somewhat self-censoring topic and therefore rarely comes up in casual dinner conversation.

Until the Newtown shooting spree, I would have said gun control was one of the few politically charged topics that could be discussed at dinner.  But something has now changed.  Something permanent and something that will forever divide those who believe it takes a good man with a gun to stop a bad man with a gun and those who believe the right to keep and bear arms is only about hunting for your dinner.

With the taking of those 20 young innocent lives it has become personal.   Each of us now feel threatened and more vulnerable than ever as the attack came straight at our soft underbelly...our children.  Those of us who have a gun within reach will only feel safe if yet another gun is within reach.   Those of us who hate guns will only feel safe if that gun is pushed further away.  

Take the fear of crossing the street as an example.  A fear of crossing the street abates once the street is crossed.  It doesn't linger until the next street is approached.  However simple fear of tangible threats, such as a busy street, is being replaced by it’s big brother dread.  Dread is a constant nagging anxiety that  makes you never want to cross the street again, it’s just not safe, even at an intersection with a crossing guard. The fear of the unknown, the intangible, becomes manifest in all our actions.  After someone goes on a shooting spree  the sale of guns always increases.  That comes from dread not fear...since day to day there would be no tangible threat, like a busy street.  At precisely the same moment that dread sets in is exactly the wrong time to take a gun out of somebody's hand.  That is precisely the time when everyone is feeling most threatened and vulnerable.  The time to give up guns is after a long period of relative safety and security.  Yet, those without guns, also have to deal with dread.  However, their dread is harder to deal with because reaching for the comfort of a handgun is not a realistic option for them.  They feel powerless since they don’t see cold steel as a comfort since  they only see a gun a mechanism of yet more destruction.  They also have children in school and the last thing these people want is more guns placed closer to their soft underbelly...their options for action are limited since presumably the schools already lock their doors.  So they strike at the mechanism not the actor and arrive at the conclusion that guns kill people and more guns will kill more people.  Less guns therefore  is clearly the solution to the problem.

Yet, these same people (most of them anyway) would feel secure if they were told the local SWAT team was on duty guarding their house tonight.  In fact if we told them, that everyday at school this year the team from Flash Point, led by Enrio Colantoni himself, was going to protect the high school they would probably be OK with that, particularly if the Department of Homeland Security moved us to a higher Threat Level and there was credible evidence that a terrorist organization had targeted the city they live in.  However, if they were told day to day, a trained member of the Marine Corps (Charles Whitman) or coordinator of the neighborhood watch program (George Zimmerman) was going to guard the school, that might invoke a different reaction.

Yet we are at an impasse.  Clearly, something must change, to do nothing doesn't address anyone's dread.  And it is dread that must be addressed.  Winston Churchill was addressing dread when he said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  We cannot lock-up and do nothing.  If the dread causes paralysis we might as well unlock the doors to our schools, opening them to not only gunman but other disturbed predators and those who wish ill upon our kids...and there are far more of those in our society than deranged gunman.  The good news is that predators typically don’t have a death wish and locked doors with on scene security personnel do a good job keeping our kids safe, predators tend to look for less visible opportunities. 

Gunman, however, typically are looking to end their own life as well as the lives of their victims. And just like suicide bombers, all the military forces in the world can’t stop a terrorist bent on sacrificing himself.  One or two guns in school, even arming all the teachers, would haven’t have an effect if the gunman steps onto a school bus (Dirty Harry 1971).  Frederick the Great said, “if you try to defend everything you defend nothing”.  The only way to be sure is to have armed guards with armored cars pick our kids up from within our walled family compounds and deliver them to the fortress High School on the hill surround with moat and drawbridge.  And even then, when the defense becomes strong, the threat will come from inside as in 1927 when the school treasurer,  Andrew Kehoe, blew up his school with dynamite killing 38  most of which were children, the worst school massacre in US History.

To address dread, both sides must sit in one another’s shoes.  Those who feel safety holding a gun must recognize how uncomfortable that makes someone who chooses not to hold a gun.  And the one without the gun must recognize how calming carrying lethal power can be to the other person.  The truth is somewhere in between and the side that is unwilling to look at all the potential options is of the greatest danger in this dialogue.   Many high schools, for instance, already have an armed presence through arrangements with local police departments, etc.  Elementary schools are different and should be therefore considered differently.  It is possible to understand and quantify the threat to our schools, our businesses, our public meeting places.  The threat to our Homeland is being handled at the national level.  The threat to us in our homes we handle ourselves, and choose to keep and bear arms per our second amendment rights.

But just like the 1st amendment right to freedom of speech doesn't give everyone the right to yell fire in a crowded movie theater, if the 2nd amendment becomes a threat to everyone, it also must be addressed for the public good.  However as quickly as I mention the 2nd amendment those opposed to any additional gun laws, will just as quickly tune out.   Therefore question really shouldn't be addressed at the 2nd amendment...the question we need to ask is related to lethality, or the question of lethal power.  How much lethal power should anyone member of society be in possession of at any one time?  Anytime lethal power is in the hands of an individual it must be controlled.  A car is a lethal instrument.  You cannot drive a car until you are responsible, have been trained, and have a license.  If you are drive drunk, you have the power to kill, and we the people have the power to take your license and place you in jail.  That has also been extended to the responsible parties who provided the alcohol to begin with.  We are not permitted to keep quantities of lethal substances such as explosives, chemical agents, or biological materials.  Already, as we look to the future, the cyber domain poses the possibility of many lethal events to occur.  Hack into the traffic system and turn all traffic light’s green, for instance.  Or hank into the power grid and shut down a hospital or nuclear power plant.  Specific tools are available to enable such activity which are threats to us all of us.  These are threats that must be controlled in the future...not all malicious code  will be criminal to have in your possession....the Stuxnet virus on the other hand, should be.
It is worth restating the question.  How much lethal power should anyone member of society be in possession of at any one time? And it doesn't matter if the individual intents to use the power, or that power can fall into the wrong hands, the lethality remains the same.  Clearly we don’t let blind people drive cars.  We also have to find ways to keep these analogous handicaps from owning or gaining possession of great lethal power.    Lethality, therefore, is what we need to define as a society.  Without that definition, what is the acceptable limit? we can’t get started.  We will never be able to eliminate violence.  We can, however,  reduce it’s impact on our society and that is where we should begin the dialogue.