Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Getting Away With Murder

The ongoing firestorm over the killing of a black teenager in Florida has once again brightly if briefly (if the past is any indication) illuminated how much this country has regressed as a civilized society.  Begin with the omnipresence of guns--and the legal omnipresence of guns.  The political fact that gun control can no longer even be whispered about, that it seems a settled matter that "Second Amendment rights" state unequivocally that anybody not legally certified as insane can carry as many guns as he or she can physically carry, out of an arsenal that can be built up by buying hundreds of guns a year, with few limitations on how lethal those guns are.  Nearly every state in the union now permits concealed guns to virtually any resident, at minimum (in this map, all the states in shades of blue.)  There is only one state in the union that does not permit concealed weapons.

There are laws proposed and enacted that allow people to carry their guns into malls, office buildings and bars.  We've seen rifles carried to political events.  There are serious proposals to allow people to carry concealed guns on college campuses and into high schools.  Guns are legally allowed in places and circumstances that have no precedent in my lifetime.  I would guess that guns are legally more a part of ordinary so-called civilized life than at any time since the 19th century or very early 20th.  But the guns of today are far more lethal.  Their ability to kill people is greater.  They can kill more people quicker, and kill and maim people farther from the point of origin--so far that you can be killed by a bullet fired a block away.

Then you add to this ease of acquiring and carrying lethal weapons, easy to fire and to fire repeatedly, to the declining legal jeopardy that might restrain their use.  For a cooler head to prevail, or even for a momentary hesitation that leads to a second thought before entering upon a violent nightmare of consequences, there needs to be the thought of a penalty because killing somebody in a bar fight (and possibly any number of other people, near and far) or a political dispute, or at a parking space, or a sporting event (at a school perhaps) will likely lead to arrest for a felony and many years in prison,  and all that this implies.

But the expectation of such penalties are disappearing, especially in (but not limited to) the states that have enacted some form of "stand-your-ground" law, which basically says that anyone who feels themselves threatened can justifiably shoot the person they believe is threatening them, dead.  They have no "duty to retreat" before using deadly force.  In fact, it is much better for the shooter if the person shot dies, because if there are no witnesses, the stand-your-ground defense could well mean they aren't even arrested, let alone charged.  This is the case in Florida (where it is also legal to shoot somebody who you think may be trying to rob you), where justifiable homicide rates have tripled.  (This map of stand-your-ground states is from Lawrence O'Donnell at MSNBC.  I've seen another such map with a few different states.)

Add to these two elements the very potent source of ongoing rage called racism, whether it is in the form of direct racial hatred or racial profiling--either official or just the expectation that a black person is threatening.  A subjective racist judgment becomes an objective new crime: living while black.  That's at the center of the controversy over the deadly shooting of  17 year old Trayvon Martin, walking home from a convenience store and apparently pursued by a suspicious self-appointed neighborhood watchman, with a gun.  It involves not just the murder itself, since murder it most likely was, but the response of the police in refusing to arrest the shooter.

This is where we are in the 21st century.  Official racism has never gone away--the prisons are full of that evidence.  Racism as a clear byproduct of Washington policymaking, of congressional calls for more tax breaks for the obscenely wealthy over providing just opportunity for people trapped in what we decorously no longer call ghettos,  let alone official and semi-official racial profiling, and in some places the license to kill that some elements of police are happy to let citizens take care of--they are all out in the open again. Overt and violent racism that is bound to accelerate as this presidential election draws nearer, inflamed by the Rabid Right, including the GOPer presidential candidates who deride President Obama in terms that no Democratic candidate ever has, and quite probably, no white candidate has used against another white candidate in living memory.

And we have an entire political culture that bows to the power of the National Rifle Association, so that there is no longer any effective political limit on the spread of ever greater numbers of ever more deadly guns throughout this society, not so far away from shredding its hard-won civilization, and falling apart in violence, ruled by the gun, one way or another.  And if and when that happens, people will lie to themselves and say it happened suddenly.   

Update 3/23: Rachel Maddow fleshes out some of the horrifying changes in gun laws of the past few years in this video segment.

1 comment:

Dave Stancliff said...

As you may be aware hate/militia groups have been on the rise since President Obama was elected.
There's groups and wackos talking about a civil way if Obama is re-elected.
There are over 1,200 today, an increase of 755 percent, according to SPLC, a nonprofit civil rights organization.
These groups, and wacked out individuals, have an irrational fear the government will take away their guns.
The irony: Obama hasn't passed one anti-gun law since he's been in office.