Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

07 October 2017

America the Afraid

    “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time.” — Albert Einstein
The America of my youth is gone. Half a century ago, I lived in an upper-middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. It had wide, open lawns on which neighborhood kids played impromptu games of football. You could look through the kitchen or dining-room window of any home, across the wide lawns and street, and see the windows of the houses opposite.

That openness marked a proud, free and fearless society. The only things my parents had to fear for me were natural diseases and injuries. Vaccines had not yet completely conquered polio. And my parents—smart people who could see cause and effect—were ahead of the curve on CTE. They let me play football with other kids on our front lawn, but only on condition I wear a helmet.

Today, my old neighborhood has become a fortress. The open lawns are utterly gone. The entire street on which I lived, a mile or two in length, is an endless canyon of high walls, fences and impenetrable hedges.

Even the elegant circular driveways are hidden behind high walls. Almost every house sports the sign of a security firm, saying “Armed Response” or something similar. The fear of crime is self-evident in the very look of people’s homes.

Now we have a new fear. Whenever you go to a joyous pubic celebration, you must be afraid. You must consider. Will I, my spouse or my child be murdered, for absolutely no reason, by a person who has deadly military-style weapons but lacks reason or humanity?

As of October 5, there were 275 incidents of mass shooting in the United States in 2017 alone. (To qualify, an “event” has to involve four or more independent victims killed or injured by gunshots.)

So let’s do the math. Multiply 275 by four, to get 1,100. Then extrapolate linearly to the end of the year, from October 5. That’s at least 1,100 x (1 + 87/365) = 1,362 shooting victims.

If this rate of carnage continues, we Americans will have more than the equivalent of a 9/11 every three years. And the vast majority of the carnage will have come from us ourselves, not from foreigners or the much-feared and maligned “Islamic terrorists.”

Drip, drip, drip. The blood of our people is draining away not in arterial torrents, but in single droplets, through punctures made by other Americans. The number 275 of mass shootings so far this year, is, on the average, very close to one a day. (The year 2016 had 463 mass shootings, or at least 1,852 victims.)

What effect will this constant carnage have? Do you have to ask? Over time, the fear of being shot down at random on our city streets, or in a “joyous” concert of something as innocent as country music, will suffuse our collective psyche.

We will become a fearful people, reluctant to leave the relative safety of our homes, and cautious in doing so.

Our cities will close up within themselves like my old neighborhood. Our people will cower behind behind walls and hedges of security.

Our legendary openness and self-confidence as Americans will dry up and blow away like the cast-away bandages from our people’s wounds. “Helicopter” parents will become “Humvee” parents, refusing to let their children walk or bicycle their streets, or take public transportation, until they are old enough to drive. Meanwhile, the Japanese have hiragana and katakana signs in their subways, so that kids not old enough to read kanji can roam the subways of Tokyo—one of the world’s biggest cities—in complete freedom and confidence.

This is our inexorable future as Americans, unless we change. Why is this so? The primary culprit is a simple failure to recognize cause and effect.

We humans are fragile creatures. Our bodies are fragile, as the Las Vegas shooter so dramatically demonstrated. But so are our minds. Our ability to design and make small, portable deadly weapons—and to make them cheap and available—has far outstripped our ability to keep them out of demented, criminal and dangerous hands.

But the cause is much deeper than that. Our small-arms industry, which now controls the NRA, has fostered in our people a dangerous fantasy. It has inculcated the notion that “weekend warriors,” who go to closed shooting ranges once or twice a week, and who shoot at mostly stationary targets, can be as skilled as career police or soldiers in defeating the bad guys and keeping everyone safe. Every man or woman, they have taught us, can become his own hero, his own John Wayne or Wyatt Earp.

The saddest thing about the Las Vegas massacre was not the number of people shot, or the irony of their listening to country music while being shot down. It was Steve Scalise, the GOP Congressman who had been maimed by gunshot while playing a bipartisan baseball game, saying, in effect, that his own maiming only made him more determined to put more guns onto our streets.

What a perfect illustration of Einstein’s definition of insanity!

Meanwhile, the small nation of Australia has taken common-sense measures to get firearms out of ordinary people’s hands and off its streets. It just completed a successful “amnesty” program, allowing gun owners to turn their guns in without penalties before strict new laws go into effect.

In our own country, makers of guns for civilians are a small industry. Relative to banks, cars, airlines, or our “Internet Big Five” (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft), they are minuscule. You could erase them completely from our national economy, and no one but their own industry analysts would notice. But through their powerful and constant propaganda, which inspire mostly male fantasies of omnipotence, they have turned our once safe and carefree society into a nightmare of carnage and well-justified fear.

Male fantasies of omnipotence are not their only pressure point. They have caused us to forget common sense and balance in politics. “Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins,” the old saw goes. Doesn’t your right to bear military-style arms end where dozens of people are shot down, for no reason whatsoever, while attending a music concert? where six-year-olds are murdered in their classrooms, as in Newtown?

You can argue all day about cause and effect. “Guns don’t kill people,” the NRA says, “people do.” But the psychologists tell us that it’s devilishly hard to tell, in advance, which people are murderous and which are not. Even the vast majority of the mentally ill is nonviolent.

Yet take away the guns—or at least the ones designed to kill many quickly—and the level of carnage will subside. You simple can’t kill as many people as quickly with a knife or a single-shot firearm as you can with weapons that can discharge up to 1,200 rounds a minute, or as fast as you can pull the trigger. That’s just common-sense cause and effect.

So we have lost the sense of safety, security and invulnerability that used to be every American’s birthright. After a few more decades of this carnage, our lives and our mentality will close up like the fenced and hedged houses of my old neighborhood. The rich will cower in fortresses and armored cars while the homeless, who have nothing to lose, will prowl the streets.

Fear will pervade us. It will be fear of ourselves. And all because we allowed freedom to become license and forgot the balance between “freedom” and security that inheres in our very human condition. We forgot how to see cause and effect because we allowed a tiny, economically unimportant industry to delude us with fantasies of personal omnipotence.

If this trend continues, our society will become increasingly sick. With good justification, we will be afraid in our own homes, on our streets, and in our places of entertainment, assembly and even worship. The insecurity will penetrate our very souls. We will become a fearful and cautious society, and we ourselves—not some imagined pan-Muslim conspiracy—will have made ourselves so.

Somewhere, Einstein’s soul is watching, to see what we do next. Will it be the same thing, over and over again, that has brought us to this point? Or will we do something new and daring?

The signs are not auspicious, as the NRA prepares to make a small concession on bump stocks, which are a tiny cottage industry unsupported by its rich backers, and nothing more. For the profit of a few, the many tremble. What could be sicker and less American than that?

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