Monday, July 23, 2012

Pondering Atrocity

The recent mass murder in Colorado stirred up the usual discussion at work. For two out of three people there the question was never whether to execute the killer, only what method would be the most appropriately brutal.

Atrocity can't be punished. The perpetrator has already claimed the reward by successfully committing it. Most of them commit suicide anyway, having experienced the best that life has to offer them. Whatever makes them want to achieve this particular hideous thing puts them completely out of reach of our retribution. You can exterminate them but that will not deter the next one. You can torture them, but that's like kicking a rabid dog. It won't change anything that has already happened or cure or prevent rabies. And nothing you do will compensate the ones who have lost their lives or someone important from their lives, and had their trust in humanity permanently injured.

Trust in humanity is misplaced if humanity is capable of producing monsters. Discarding that trust is probably a good survival strategy, at least regarding strangers. But when someone steps horrifically far outside the normal range of acceptable behavior it goes beyond even the average criminal breach of trust. In a crowd one might reasonably fear having a pocket picked, getting groped, or maybe just having to sit too close to someone who farts a lot. You don't want to go through every day wondering when the masked gunman is going to loom up and start mowing people down. Nor should you. First of all, it remains somewhat unlikely. Second, you can't be one hundred percent ready even if you arm yourself. You still have to be in the right place at the time to get a clear and timely shot. Perhaps the only thing worse than a crazed gunman shooting up a theater full of people is a bunch of armed citizens shooting around in the direction they think the attack is coming from.

A gun-rights amendment written in the era of single-shot muskets and pistols is hardly a good guide for society in the age of much more sophisticated killing machines at all levels of combat from interpersonal to international. A well-ordered militia worth a crap to defend community and country is going to need armored vehicles, artillery, air power and more. What kind of personal budget--not to mention what size garage--would you need to house your personal stash of weapons sufficiently powerful to keep your neighbors at bay and "the government off your back?"

Once the shooting starts, intelligence and reason have lost. The issue in the contest becomes simply life and death, not whatever difference of opinion was used as the excuse to become brutal and simple-minded. But who wants to be the only person in the room without a gun when everyone else is using theirs to support their point of view? It's like trying to be a real big-boy nation in the world when other nations are telling you you can't have nukes like they do. No fair! I want to be able to rain fiery destruction like everybody else!

As long as we retain the compulsion to express ourselves with hot lead, things are going to get out of control sometimes.

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