Letters to the Ethical Spectacle

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Jefferson used the notion of natural rights because he knew that his audience understood a number of things we do not understand today. One of those was the consequences of believing otherwise. American colonists suffered from random searches and seizures of property because they were dodging tariffs they believed to be unjust: hence the prohibition of illegal searches and seizures. This was a more tangible issue, but there were less tangible ones. One is the fundamental right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This is purposefully vague. It suggests that government can only take life with due process. And that liberty ought to go untouched except where it infringes on others' liberties. Pursuit of happiness is sometimes taken to mean the inalienable right to own property. And that seems to be part of it. But another part is for the government to play some role in guaranteeing some level of security that allows for the exercise of the liberties it grants.

But you know all that already.

When it comes to the right to bear arms, I am of two minds. I am a pacifist by nature and by training. So I could not shoot another person. I long for a society in which the same is true of every person. But I understand we are not there yet. I also understand that there are solid arguments for the use of force. A world absent the proper use of force can degenerate into the world that we see in Baghdad today. So it is natural, almost inevitable, that a government should be able to form an army or have police who use force.

It seems to me that most governments - over the long haul - behave like other natural organisms: they grow and consume more resources. They tend to become more burdensome and more intrusive, and less responsive. So long as democratic structures suffice to check this tendency, there is no reason to resort to the use of force. But the founding fathers believed that democracy may not always be enough. They, themselves, took up arms against an unjust government, and they anticipated the need for their descendants to do so as well. This, I believe, is one of the central reasons for the existence of the right to bear arms, though it is never stated. The founders wished to give people of their new nation all the tools they themselves found difficult to obtain in the quest to overthrow tyranny.

I am curiously ambivalent about the American Revolution. I greatly admire the philosophical underpinnings and the writings produced. I find the separation of powers to be quite ingenious and effective - so long as it actually is not undermined by political ambition. But I am not confident that the resulting society was, in all ways, better than what might have resulted in the absence of some shooting war.

Jefferson and his contemporaries were well educated men. They had studied history - as far back as Greek history. And that is more than most of us can say for ourselves today. They understood the consequences of denying the rights they were granting. In other words the rights they granted were not arbitrary. They were granted because the consequence of doing the opposite or of doing nothing was clearly more dangerous.

Gun rights advocates point to Canada and Switzerland as places where guns are ubiquitous but gun violence is rare. If America is to end gun violence we must do it by changing the Soul of the American. A person with skill can kill with a tool not much different from a shoe lace; yet I believe in an absolute right to bear shoe laces. Gun violence is a symptom of a much deeper problem. Removal of guns will do absolutely nothing to repair that problem.

You are correct that when Americans claim rights it is normally in the first person rather than in the second or third person. And that we need to be more thoughtful and generous in defending the liberties of others; that is the only way we might guarantee our own. You are also correct that the notion of rights that transcend law is a matter of convention rather than a matter of fact. And that this confusion has done much to corrode our ability as Americans to make good judgments about rights and privileges either under the law or beyond its current bounds.

We need, as Americans, to discuss civics. We need to agree on the basis of rights that transcend law. I happen to believe that this is essential lest we all be consumed by Leviathan.

Steve Brubaker

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I too am a middle aged Jewish man living in relative comfort in northern California. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. I knew little of the Holocaust until I was 10 and saw Eichmann on trial in Jerusalem. He looked like a watchmaker or bookkeeper..certainly not one of the SS architects of the Final Solution. When I was a bit older I saw the films of the liberation of the Bergen Belsen camp in Germany and the 1000's of unburied corpses bulldozed into pits by the liberating British. It was surreal and quite macabre. I realized but for geographical fate my family would have most likely perished in Nazi occupied Europe and I never would have been born.

With the advent of computers it's easier to find information instantaneously. How the Germans could so diligently eradicate whole populations of people with such zeal in the middle of the 20th century still amazes me. An educated, cultured nation in the middle of Europe gets transfixed by a neurotic demagogue and his henchmen and unleashes a reign of terror unmatched in human annals. Incredible.

I became an agnostic long ago, most likely from reading about the Holocaust. Where was the God of the Hebrews? Where was God to protect the children and the pious? Nowhere. Hard questions to answer.

I visited Germany as a youth... a bad mistake. I have vowed never to set foot on German soil again. I know the people there today aren't responsible for the sins of their fathers, but I still feel an obligation to the millions of murdered to stay away.

I also wished that the atomic bomb could have been used on Germany and that most of it be laid waste. I know that's vengeful thinking...but it's a form what ye sow ye shall reap mentality.

In any case, the vibrant Jewish communities of Europe are gone never to return. There is a pitiful remnant of Jewry in Poland, Lithuania, Germany and other countries that were centers of Jewish life for centuries.

Thanks for your "primer" and good luck in the future....