Tucson Exposes Our Fears


An old teaching bud says he’s counting the days until he can hang up his spikes. The guy’s a lifer — 30 years come June. Thirty years of lunch duty, faculty meetings, practicing football in the rain and way too many parents who haven’t a clue or don’t give a damn. Better yet, the cat’s done it with uncommon patience, grace and results: his students’ aggregate standardized test scores are always above average; his teams are competitive; and his administrators think he’s John Dewey with a gray ponytail.

Mister-I’m-Almost-Done started gearing down his government classes after the first of the year. Said he’d earned a little slack time before his life devolves into a dronish cycle of Lipitor, Viagra and early-bird dinner specials.

And then came Tucson. Twenty shot, six dead and a public servant with two holes in her head: entry and exit.

My teacher friend called the day of the shootings. So much for the slacker life of a pending retiree. By the Monday-after he had the outline of an assignment on the history of civilian gun violence in America.

In a 2009 book, American Homicide, Randolph Roth traces the rise of noncombatant killing in our increasingly murderous society. He reminds us that we didn’t always lead the world’s affluent nations in per capita murders; but we’ve more than made up for it.

Roth calls the roll of the usual correlative, if not causal reasons we kill: political vitriol; lax gun control; lapses in law enforcement; chronic poverty; substance abuse and addiction. But then he goes off-script with a hypothesis that, although hard to empirically substantiate, has the ring of real-life truth: We kill, in no small part, because we’re scared. Scared of our government. Scared of one another.

This is not a kooky thesis. First, it sure as hell meets the gut-check test here in this corner of the South. If you think that rebel flag is just about race, you don’t get it. Five minutes with some of these folks and you’ll understand that the Stars and Bars are about two things: tribalism (fear of the Other) and defiance (fear of Big Government). And if you think this is just another Southern thing, you really don’t get it.

Second, how farfetched is it to suggest that in times of sharp political, cultural and religious polarization, the more phobic segments of a society would stock lethal weapons in what they genuinely believe is a Second Amendment, zero sum cold war against outsiders and Big Government? Honestly, if this is your worldview, why wouldn’t you score a gun?

Roth may have American homicide all wrong, but so do the talking heads. The Right, by framing Tucson as a simple case of mental illness meets automatic weapon, is playing with fire. If the shootings tell us anything, it’s that we need to do some simple math: The more weapons there are out there, the more likely we’ll be watching another cable news horror show sometime soon.

And the Left? We’re too busy trying to pin this on Palin and the AM band, neo-Nazi pundits to be bothered with the grim possibility that we’ve once again underestimated the suspicion and angst of the great, unwashed millions. Did we learn nothing about the nation’s collective anxiety after November’s electoral trip to the woodshed?

I can’t prove Randolph Roth’s thesis on homicide in America any more than some wrongheaded Republicans can prove we need more, not fewer guns. But I know that a nation afraid of itself is given to reaction, not reflection. And I know that that rarest of leaders, the American philosopher-politician, is sorely missing from the discussion.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2011


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