NOTE added 04/17: from the response I’ve seen, and from the all-out assault Chad directed at me and others, it’s clear to me that I made some mistakes in my original post, undermining what was my main by inadvertently pushing a hot button or two. I leave this post here in the interest of honesty, but please read the updated version of this post instead of this one!
It’s terrible and tragic news, what has happened at Virginia Tech. Given that, this entry is probably coming at an extremely insensitive time, given what I’m going to say– but on the other hand, I really believe that it is at times like this that we need to think about these things. Before I say any more, I just want to make it clear that I’m horrified by what has happened, and that my heart goes out to the family and friends of the victims.
I’m down in Chile observing at the moment. I woke up to get lunch. The TV is always running here, even if nobody is watching. (It kind of drives me nuts.) Well, today, the news is awful: at least 21 people killed in a shooting rampage in a college in Virginia.
Another astronomer, not an American, watching, says, “They need gun control.”
Isn’t that always the response? There’s a horrible tragedy with guns, and our first instinct is to further restrict the legality of guns. Now, I know that most of the science bloggers here are firmly in favor of gun control, and indeed that most of the world thinks America is nutty in terms of how legal guns are already. But I think that this “we need more gun control!” that is cried whenever there is a highly publicized gun tragedy is part of a larger, and dangerous, pattern.
Something bad happens. It horrifies us. It scares us. We want to feel protected, we want to feel that others are safe and protected. We go to what is practically a feudal response: put the government, put our feudal masters, in more control over us, so that people can’t go and do terrible things like that. When we think of feudalism, we generally think of the oppression of the serfs, and the fact that a very few (the lords) benefited from the labors of many (the serfs). But we must also remember that part of the theory behind feudalism was that fealty went both ways; the serfs worked for the lords, but then the lords had a responsibility to protect the serfs. As we turn more and more to government or large corporate entities to look out for our interests, to protect us, we are asking them more and more to act as feudal lords. And, in so doing, we must keep in mind the oppression that the serfs suffered.
I can tell already that I’ve lost 90% of the readers; “he’s talking about oppression because we think that dangerous weapons should be controlled!” Please, bear with me.
Let’s take this Virginia Tech incident, and look at two other incidents, one much less immediately severe and life threatening, and one much more so. The one that is less so: copyright infringement. How many people instinctively react to the news of vast copyright infringement with the thought that, well, computers should be able to control that? Many of us. Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) is a terrible thing that not only causes awful collateral damage for freedom of expression, but which also doesn’t even solve the problem it’s supposed to solve. And, yet, to many, it seems obvious that there really needs to be some sort of strict controls on copyrighted digital files to prevent people from copying them willy-nilly.
A similar thing: I was sitting around at lunch with a bunch of family and friends. We were mostly academics; college professors, high school teachers, graduate students, and the like. We were talking about standardized tests, how they take passages from various writings and literature, but how those passages are often “sanitized” to avoid having anything controversial or potentially offensive. While we’re all good forward-thinking people eager to show that we’re against any kind of offensive hate-speech and the like, we’re also academics acutely aware of the need for freedom of expression, and of the dangers inherent in changing and misrepresenting an author’s work. It’s a difficult balance– but by and large, we were the sort of people who are horrified at the thought of banning Huckleberry Finn from high school libraries because one of the main characters is usually referred to as “Nigger Jim.” We’re more horrified by the thought of replacing all of Twain’s work with a “sanitized” version.
So. We’re talking about these standardized tests where authors’ works have been sanitized. One person says, “that should be illegal. If I were to write something, I should be able to prevent anybody from doing that to my writing.” Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? But let’s bear in mind that freedom of expression includes other people being able to say things that we think that they ought not to be able to say. If we disallow people using our words in ways that we’d prefer they didn’t, then others could use the same laws to disallow us from using their words in ways that we consider essential. What happens when creationists use copyright to prevent their being quoted by people who would tear apart their arguments?
This is all part of the authoritarian response. We see somebody doing something we don’t like, something we don’t approve of, and our instinctive gut reaction is that we need more laws, more restrictions on freedom, to prevent that. I would argue that we need to fight that instinctive response, as understandable and natural as it is, and keep a broader view.
Now, for those of you insulted that I’ve compared the tragedy in Virginia to copyright violation, let me go in the other direction. Consider 9/11. Thousands of people are killed in one horrible morning, as terrorists wreak havoc in downtown New York. The country, the world, is shocked, dismayed, saddened, horrified. Just as with the Virginia shootings, just as with people’s life writings being misused, there is a call to Do Something.
So what do we do? We pass the PATRIOT act. Congress pushes through, very quickly, this massive piece of legislation, voted for by the majority of representatives even though most of them didn’t know everything that was in there, and even though in a time of calmer emotions and cooler heads a lot of the provisions of that act would have been the subject of a lot of controversy and debate . The PATRIOT act represents a huge increase in the power of the executive branch, law enforcement, and the authorities in general. Years later, we’re seeing a lot of the fallout from that. It’s constant scandal in the FBI and in the attorney general’s office because they are doing the things that the PATRIOT act allowed. For example, the whole thing with “national security letters.” They were abused? Surprise? If that provision of the PATRIOT act had been debated in congress at a time when debating such would not be considered anti-American and giving into the horror of the terrorists, there would have been a lot of noise about this. People would have predicted the abuse, because when there is no oversight, when the fear of being labeled a terrorist yourself prevents you from revealing that these national security letters are being used against you, you just give into the authorities.
Right after 9/11 was the worst time to pass that act. Everybody was scared. Everybody was horrified. Everybody wanted to Do Something, so that this would never happen again.
If we want to live in a free society, we need to fight the instinctive authoritarian response. When you see the Virginia shootings and think, “we need more gun control,” unless that’s confirming what you already thought, sit back and pause for a while. Wait until emotions and the horror of the moment has passed, and then consider the issue. If you already are in favor of more gun control, then this merely serves to help confirm your position, and you should feel free to use this as part of your arguments; for those who are on the fence, or who perhaps use this event as a reason to switch your position, please be more considerate. Ask yourself if you really are changing your thinking, or if this is just the instinctive authoritarian response, the response of anybody who wants a feudal lord, a government, to protect them.
Regarding gun control itself: I don’t know enough to argue in favor of or against gun control. If Chris Taylor is still reading this blog, you may see him make some arguments in the comments in favor of keeping gun ownership legal. I would just mention one thing however. First, according to CDC statistics, in 2004 the number of people who died in automobile accidents was about 44,000. The number of people who died from gun homicide was about 11,000. Four times as many people died from cars than from guns. If we’re talking about further restriction of private gun ownership because of the mayhem it causes, shouldn’t we also be talking about further restriction of private automobile ownership? But, to keep all of this in perspective, an order of magnitude more people died of heart disease. Perhaps it’s red meat that should be outlawed? Given those statistics, I think that that would be the proper authoritarian response. Of course, the hundreds of thousands of people who die of heart disease don’t die all at once, and don’t get the kind of media coverage that violent tragedies get, and as such our instinctive authoritarian response does not kick in. It would be best if we would take everything into account, rationally think about what laws are needed and are best, without any emotional and rapid response to a single tragedy.