Guns, Violence and Entitlement

The national focus on the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida has pointed to an ever-increasing agreement on the best policy action: Take away guns. Now. Indeed, 20 years after Columbine, there have been 122 murders of children and school employees, and the number of school shootings has mounted to 208. The outrage surrounding this massacre is completely warranted, as is the response to ban assault rifles and to regulate weapons in the United States. The reasons have been well-rehearsed and are plentiful: we can’t control who uses them; they are used irresponsibly; they are not necessary for a well-functioning society—in fact they are antithetical to a well-functioning society, etc.

The unceasing shock can be heard in a Broward county commissioner’s remarks about the Parkland shooting: “This is not a community where you would expect…not that you would expect it anywhere.” He was quick to point out that Parkland was a close-knit community, that the Douglas High School was an “A” school (presumably that is a very good thing), and that it was “safe,” etc. In other words, horrific events like that are not supposed to happen “here.” I’m left with the question: where are they supposed to happen?

Are they supposed to happen in poor communities with sub-standard schools? Are they supposed to happen in Black or Latino communities? Is that why we don’t see the same level of concern and horror? Are the deaths of civilians and children at the hands of U.S. firepower supposed to happen in Yemen and Pakistan and Somalia? Is that why we don’t see the same level of concern and horror?

Taking away guns is an effective measure. I agree absolutely. It is also a provisional measure that will not get to the heart of a more deep-seated, burning issue: the anger, the violence, the entitled rage behind many of these events. I want us to consider how much we take violence for granted as a part of our daily psyche—but as something to be deployed against those we don’t value, or fear, or despise. Such violence might be effectively seen as emerging from a culture of entitlement: to hurt, injure, damage those who we see either as a) threats or b) less deserving of life or c) both.

I don’t know why Cruz did what he did. Some argue that it was because he was mentally ill. Perhaps. Violence is not restricted to likes of young men like Nikolas Cruz. Whereas Cruz is depicted as ill, when Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. soldier and psychiatrist who shot other soldiers at Ft. Hood Army Base, he was seen as a terrorist. In both instances, they felt entitled to do shoot in order to kill people: there were no threats upon their lives, or at least no discernible ‘cause,” if that is even a relevant concept.

It is a violence that is taken up vigorously by our police forces, our Army, our Navy, our Marine Corps, and is deployed against so many different segments of the world’s population. “Legitimate” injury is always connected to a “just dessert.”

He got shot in the back by a police officer? “Why didn’t he just stop running”?

The police hauled her into custody and she died: “Why didn’t she put out that cigarette?”

He’s been detained in a military prison without charges and tortured for 17 years? “He got what was coming.”

Some trace this violence to the entitled anger of white men. Certainly, that is part of the issue. But it is not just the anger of white men that we need to worry about; we need to worry about the collective, entitled violence embraced by a population that has mostly dealt with its fears, desires, greed, and conflicts through war, incarceration, torture, bombings against populations around the globe. These are collectively, institutionally, socially approved formulations and enactments of violence.

“Good” philosophers are supposed to make distinctions, to insist on comparing like kinds, to refuse to compare “oranges” with “apples.” And yet, by attending to precise distinctions that are based on some skewed sense of the lowest common denominator (“gun violence” is not sexual violence”), by framing events in isolation, then we depoliticize the features that these events have in common: violence, the sense of entitlement to impose violence on certain groups, while decrying similar forms of violence on other groups.

I am a bad philosopher.

War, whether fought on the ground, or remotely: through drones and missiles, seems to be taken as a routine inevitability. “Sure…we have wars. We need to protect ourselves from the enemy, from terrorists, from the people of other nations who breed those terrorists.” [1] We hardly question these [unless we mark ourselves as pacifist, hippy, peacenik types] since, after all, we need a military and police force—don’t we? To protect ourselves? “Our” property? “Our (whose?) children and women?”

Still, we refuse to grapple with that larger issue of violence: the one that is met with muted cries of outrage at best when the U.S. invades Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds of dubious charges of WMD’s. We have refused to grapple with the larger issue of injustice and violence when the US drones children and civilians who are part of wedding celebrations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia ad elsewhere.

We’re only now beginning to confront the issue of sexual violence when it affects beautiful wealthy white women on the screen—but many—white women AND white men– were blissfully oblivious to the sexual and physical violence imposed on Black women under slavery, and post-slavery. In contemporary times, UN peacekeepers are only now being called out for raping and violating children and women around the world: Haiti, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere. And yet, when such actions take place in organizational/institutional contexts, some of those who should know better find ways to justify the barbarism of the “civilizers” as being difficult to maintain primitive locations.

It’s not just the violence enacted through weaponry and warfare and rape that we need to worry about. We condone violence against rapists, sexual offenders, murderers. And even though this attitude is now attributed to Trump and his white supremacist/nationalist bedfellows (since we have forgotten that this policy position has been decades old), many of us approved violence against those who refused to stay away from U.S. borders.

By insisting that school shootings are about freely accessible guns, without connecting the issue of gun violence to the larger acceptance of violence deployed around the world, we are shortchanging our ability to find other effective solutions. We need to understand violence in its systematicity. —The violence of the lone shooter is not unconnected to the remorseless droning, shooting, or rape of civilians. The violence deployed against beautiful, wealthy white women is not unconnected to the rapes and sexual exploitation of Black and brown human beings—under slavery, under Jim Crow, under the post-Civil Rights era, under the guise of UN Peacekeeping or NGO’s like Oxfam trying to civilize “barbaric” regions.

Many folks on social media point to Australia’s reduction of the gun violence problem to zero after having decided in 1992 to confiscate all guns. Other nations have done the same. But most of them aren’t nations that have lead the world into global wars time and time again. The U.S has been one of those nations. Does this mean that I think that eliminating guns won’t have a productive effect on the reducing some part of the violence in this country? No. I emphatically agree with the predictions that extreme gun regulation will have an impact in reducing deaths. As Emma Gonzalez also pointed out: Nikolas Cruz would not have been able to kill so many people with just a knife.

It is absolutely important to end easy access to most guns, and all assault weapons. But ending access won’t eliminate the underlying, systemic problem. It may just make it easier to ignore.


[1] It irritates me to no end to have the term ‘terrorist’ appropriated casually in order to redeploy it towards anyone else. The term needs to be questioned and deleted, not incorporated casually into household use—even if it is for the purpose of highlighting the evils of white shooters, or our president, or the NRA. The more casually the term is deployed, the more we normalize it as a term to be deployed against anyone we want to vilify, without having to argue for it.