Arme virumque cano
The Roman poet Virgil begins the Aeneid, his epic poem about the post-Trojan War adventures of his eponymous protagonist, Aeneas, with a memorable declaration of intent, “Of arms and a man, I sing” (Arme virumque cano). A few lines further, Virgil invokes the poet’s tutelary spirit, Musa, mihi causus memora…, or as one translation puts it, “O muse, tell me about the causes and the crimes…”
In our diminished and less heroic times, it might go, “Of guns and gunmen, we mutter and murmur…” Whether singing dirges or confusedly muttering, U.S. citizens in the wake of the latest American mass murder are momentarily engaged in a “conversation” about guns and homocidal motives. They’re responding to the massacre of 27 people, mostly 6 and 7-year-old children, slaughtered in a small-town elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in mid-December, 2012 by a deranged shooter who then committed suicide.
(A small linguistic note might be appropriate before we go further: just as almost anyone who performs the slightest citizenly duty is now routinely referred to in the American media as a “hero,” it has been decided that all debates, disputations and heated verbal differences are to be designated “conversations,” as in the phrase, “America needs to have a conversation about…” everything from violence and gun control, to the “fiscal cliff,” to military “surges” in far-away places. Instead of contacting, say, the dictator of Syria, reporters are now inclined to “reach out” to Bashar al-Assad. Instead of a “gun control debate,” there’s now a “conversation.” The writer George Orwell once wrote something about “Politics and the English Language,” but it is now mostly forgotten.)
Proponents of revivified gun control measures, sensitive to their nation’s historic proclivity to possess weapons, invariably begin their proposals for reform by apologetically assuring their armed-to-the-teeth compatriots that their intention is not to take away the populace’s right “to bear arms,” or their 300-million-gun armory (!), or to intrude on the lives of hunters, target-shooters and sundry self-defenders.
Rather, the reformers simply want to ban the future possession of automatic and semi-automatic weapons of mass destruction, reduce the numbers of bullets in bullet clips from the present thirty-to-a-hundred-or-so to about ten, and to ensure that there are background checks of all gun purchasers in order to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. (Currently, guns sold and traded at various “gun shows” are not subject to much scrutiny of their prospective owners.) There’s no intention to apply the reform measures retroactively, but appended to the modest gun control proposals are a few mutterings and murmurings about the plight of the mentally ill, and a tut-tut or two about America’s “culture of violence,” which produces a per capita murder rate in the U.S. that’s many times higher than in any comparable industrial society and results in 10,000 or more gun-murder fatalities annually (if you add in gun-death accidents and suicides, the number more than doubles). By comparison, firearm murders in Canada run at about 200 a year, even though the U.S.’s northern neighbour has a lot of guns (used mostly for hunting). The disparity in gun-murders between countries hints at the depth and complexity of the American dilemma.
Inevitably, and in pious tones, the reformers patriotically affirm their respect for the sacrosanct Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (1791) which declares that “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.”
If you’ve been other than comatose during the last “news cycle,” you may or may not have noted that in the “rolling coverage” — all mass murder, all the time — a couple of things have seldom been heard in the present debate, or “conversation,” or outbreak of logorrhea.
Almost no one of the many pundits permitted to mutter, murmur, and more frequently, shout in the Internet-TV amalgam that currently passes for a public forum has bothered to observe that the Second Amendment doesn’t make much sense. The history of the constitutional framers’ now inviolable “intentions” have been utterly distorted and its contemporary orthodox interpretations are downright nutty. Instead of fervent expressions of fealty to the constitutionally-mandated right “to keep and bear Arms,” there ought to be some common-sense criticism of what has turned out to be a dangerously wrong-headed notion. (By the way, when I say “almost no one” has said anything, the exception I’m thinking of is Bowling for Columbine filmmaker Michael Moore. You can find the most recent cogent statement of his views by googling his commentary for the Huffington Post in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado in July 2012.)
When the 18th century post-American-revolutionary-war constitutional framers penned the keeping and bearing arms clause, they were not imagining millions of people armed to the gunnels in alleged self defence of their homes against criminals and the U.S. government. Rather, the framers’ intention was to provide for local militias just in case their former British overseers ever returned to American shores with a notion of restoring the country’s former colonial status. So much for framers and their intentions. Indeed, the whole notion of the inviolability of original intent is to assign the constitutional founders a degree of omniscience and foresight normally reserved for divinities.
The modern, and largely right-wing, interpretation of the constitutional “right” is even worse than the blatantly distorted historical reading of its meaning. The present state and federal laws result in millions of Americans carrying concealed (mostly handgun) weapons, not only to self-defend their “castles” (even those that are on the verge of “foreclosure”), but to “bear arms” in almost every venue imaginable from saloons to churches. I mention the Second Amendment not because there’s the slightest possibility of it being altered, but because it is so frequently and thoughtlessly invoked as the intellectual foundation for a trigger-(un)happy populace.
Most of the mayhem is the result of people using handguns, but in the “conversation” about gun control, there isn’t so much as a whisper about such weapons. While the idea of keeping military weapons out of the hands of civilians seems like a minimum standard of sanity to establish, it only touches on a small part of the firearms homicide issue, since rapid-fire, semi-assault rifles are used comparatively rarely, mostly in the spectacular mass murders that are the only gun murders brought to public attention. Even so, organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their Republican Party representatives in the American Congress are resistant to even these modest restrictive measures. The reason for such reluctance? It doesn’t take much verbal provocation for these slightly paranoid ideologues to confess (or boast) that the real need for military weapons in private hands is in case the citizenry is ever compelled to go to war against a traitorous U.S. government (such as that embodied by — I’m not making this up — the “Obama conspiracy”). At which point, we are talking to crazies mentally not far removed from the shooters who perpetrate mass murder.
That brings us to the opaque figures who commit these crimes. More than almost anything, I’m struck by their silence. Not even the muses invoked by Virgil are able to explain their motives. The killers are not only frightening, but frustrating. Because the media seeks to fill all the air space available, there’s endless speculation about the shooters’ possible intentions. Psychologists, police “profilers,” parents and high school acquaintances are regularly hauled out to offer informed and not-so-informed guesses. Usually the shooters, even when they survive their rampage, have little or nothing to say. Even when we know the motive, as in the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, where Major Nadal Hasan, an American military psychiatrist blew away a dozen fellow soldiers in an avowal of his support for global jihad, we were left no closer to understanding. In the case of the 2011 attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gaby Giffords and the murder of a half-dozen bystanders in Tucson, Arizona, the court decision that the obviously insane killer was fit to stand trial and plead guilty forestalled any public discussion of motive in a courtroom and merely left us baffled. In most cases, the killer commits suicide.
In the most recent Newtown massacre, the shooter, a young near-adult of 20, suffering from a form of autism, systematically attempted to avoid discovery of his motives. Before killing himself, he not only left no note or message or public diatribe about his demons, he also intentionally destroyed his computer motherboard (and his mother) in order to eliminate a trail of even virtual clues. Maybe we’ll eventually find out something in answer to the ubiquitous “why?”, but it’s unlikely to be illuminating. The silence of the authors of the atrocities only adds to the shared grief, a grief that is slowly benumbed by the repetition of these mundane horrors. In the end, what often stands out is the silence of the killer. Maybe we should take him at his wordlessness. We should realize that he has, literally, nothing to say to us.
Vancouver, Dec. 23, 2012