Perhaps the single most prevalent wound in our culture--not the most dramatic, not the most immediately deadly, but the one that may be fatal long term, like a universal heat loss--is the failure to take responsibility. Nattering endlessly about our rights while we disregard our responsibilities, we have stopped taking care of our children, our cities, our neighbors and our nation.
Just as credit cards encourage us to spend money regardless of consequences, our culture of immediate self-gratification seems to present each of us with a moral credit card, allowing us to charge up a storm with the payments to be made by other people, including people we never see (except on television news) and our own descendants. In large part, it is our philosophy of capitalism which feeds the trend; we want to own nice things and do exciting things; businessmen want to sell us the nice things and exciting opportunities; knowledge of the consequences gets in the way of the sale. I want to buy the garment without being bothered by the fact that it is manufactured in sweatshops full of children being paid pennies a day; drive the car without thinking about the effect of its exhaust on my or anyone's lungs.
The Hobbesian world view that people are bad, life is a war, and that we must fight to survive, promotes the profound selfishness of our culture. Wait a moment, some of you will say: The NRA archetype of the assailant is overtly about self-defense, not selfishness; can it ever be selfish to defend yourself?
The answer is, that the NRA meme of the assailant disguises a good deal of information about the structure of our world. The assailant figure who invades our house or approaches us in the dark recesses of the parking garage justifies our possession of a concealed weapon; we restore the universe's balance by shooting the shooter, killing the killer. Our only responsibility is to ourselves and our loved ones; we have the right to defend ourselves.
If you wish to look behind the meme, however, you must begin by posing the question: are we ever responsible for the existence of the assailant? To many of my readers, this will seem a classic liberal hand-wringing question. It is not my intention, in accusing you of carrying the "moral credit card" I described above, to take it away from you but hand it to criminals instead. I am saying, instead, that if we all accept the premise that actions have consequences, that the assailant's action exposes him to punishment, then we must accept that the same rules apply to us. In the endless sea of cause and effect, there is some possibility that we have contributed to the existence of the assailant. This does not excuse his actions; but if we wish to live our lives in some other way than facing a constant stream of assailants, there must be some way to think about cutting off the supply. There are, of course, two choices: the way of life and of death.
Since it is always easier and less controversial to begin by examining other cultures before finding fault with our own, let's start with the Israelis and Palestinians. An article on the front page of the New York Times for October 4, 1996, "A Shadow Over the Mideast: Arab Youths on a Short Fuse", describes a group of teenagers throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli troops on the West Bank:
The young men who carried out this assault have little schooling, no jobs, no hope of getting any jobs and a future so bleak that confrontation has become a vocation.
In another recent interview reported in the Times, a Palestinian police official commented that the most intractable problem the Palestinians returning from abroad face is this selfish, empty, violent generation.
Who made them? Did they grow in a vacuum? We can hold these young people responsible for themselves, we can blame their parents and the inflammatory Yasir Arafat, but we must not absolve the Israelis for their creation. Responsibility is a pie which can be divided up one thousand or one million percent. I first realized this when I saw a memo my first boss had written to a subordinate about something that had gone wrong: "I take 100% of the blame. How much do you take?" In any circumstance where you govern a country, a population within it with no jobs, no education and no self-respect is, or becomes your responsibility. In Israel, it begins with the massacre of Arab villagers at Deir Yassin, continues with the bulldozing of Palestinian houses, culminates in present day real and symbolic violence against them. If you tell a group of people long enough that they are dogs, they will eventually prove you right by acting like mad dogs. It is human nature.
This is not to disregard the fact that there have been crimes on both sides--that Arabs, for example, massacred Jews before Deir Yassin. Whoever began it, it is the government of a country within which the violence occurs that has the most authority, and the most responsibility, to end it. It is terribly wrong and irresponsible behavior to tolerate a situation in which people living within your borders are treated as the "other", constantly and repetitively assaulted and humiliated for decades on end. Every time the Israelis bulldoze a house to punish terrorism, five more terrorists are created. There is always some middle ground that must be sought, so that we may live together.
Not to a Hobbesian. If you share the NRA view of the world that it is the beginning and end of our responsibility to shoot the shooters, while insistently ignoring the forces that gave rise to them, then you must answer the question regarding this lost generation of young Palestinians: How many of them must we shoot before we may feel secure? The only answer is: All of them. This was the "truth" known to the Israeli gunman who took his Uzi into a mosque last year to shoot the worshippers. But if we know them to be bad, comprising a category of people whom it is desirable to shoot, then the further question arises: why wait for them to commit acts of violence against us, and why deal with them one by one? Now we have arrived at the pre-emptive philosophy of John von Neumann, who said: "If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?"
Naturally, reply the Israelis, we cannot bomb them with nuclear weapons; they live within the borders of our own country. Then, of course, the next best solution for rousting them out is to round them all up in the night, and kill them. But, as the Nazis discovered with the ordinary, retired German men who they attempted to use as executioners in the early implementation of the Final Solution, its awfully stressful to kill unarmed people at close range, even when you believe you are doing it for a good cause. Well, in that case, why not put them in camps, and then appoint a bureaucracy to process them like pigs?
If you start from the Hobbesian view, then you will be logically unable to demarcate any stopping point on the path short of this. Because, if life is a war of all against all, and these young people are our ancient and inexorable enemies whom we have done nothing to provoke (or rather, whom it is just to provoke and even kill), why not agree with von Neumann that we must kill them all? What is the logic in half measures?
In our own country, a good deal of the violence we encounter is also attributable to hopeless people, with no jobs or prospects, living in bombed out communities, and who receive from us a daily message that they should loathe themselves as we loathe them. If you read NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre's book, Guns, Crime and Freedom, you will find several anecdotes about situations in which strict gun control laws kept citizens from defending themselves in times of unrest: the riots in Borough Park, Brooklyn and in Los Angeles. These were both race riots, caused in one case by arrogant white behavior after the killing of two black children in a hit and run accident, and in the other by the racist acquittal by an all-white jury in Simi Valley, California of the policemen who beat Rodney King. LaPierre's message is clear: life is a war, and if there were guns available, threatened whites would have been able to shoot and kill more black people. There is no consideration in LaPierre's book of the circumstances that triggered the riots. LaPierre doesn't know, or doesn't say, that an orthodox Jew in Borough Park might profitably have asked the question whether an expression of sorrow by the Grand Rebbe for the deaths accidentally caused by his motorcade might have averted a riot; or that a white resident of Los Angeles might realize that tacit support and encouragement of a grotesquely racist and violent L.A.P.D. is not a good long term strategy.
Not every sociopath, let alone every teenager picking up a rock, springs from social causes. Some are the result of exclusively private problems, like an abusive upbringing, while others are bringing the consequences of foreign social problems here, like the Russian mafia in New York City. Realistically, there will always be a subset of people we must put away from us. A compassionate viewpoint allows us to distinguish this class from the others for whom we must take responsibility. A Hobbesian viewpoint sets us on a spiral of destruction that can only end in the immolation of all our values, and probably in the immolation of all of us.
Copyright Leon Walls 1996