Monday, December 31, 2012

The Vileness of Guns and "Just Wars"

The Newtown school massacre has already begun to fade from North American news, as the NRA had anticipated. There’s probably a satanic magic number of child shootings in a single massacre that would galvanize Americans to ride the NRA out of town, but apparently twenty doesn’t rise to that level. As it stands, though, American gun enthusiasts are more passionate than American gun control advocates, and so there likely won’t be meaningful restriction of gun ownership in that country. One reason for the asymmetry is that guns work so well whereas laws alone don’t. If you pick up a gun, you have the power of God to take a life in the blink of an eye. Only if the gun jams or is very old and it no longer works may you miss that frisson from holding godlike power in the palm of your hand. By contrast, outlawing some practice on paper may or may not succeed, depending on the strength of the demand for that practice. Thus, prohibition of alcohol failed in the US and gun control would surely fare no better, because alcohol and guns are so potent; if outlawed, they flourish underground. Like guns, alcohol works immediately and universally: anyone can get drunk from just a few shots or several beers, and anyone can kill or maim with nearly any gun. The demand for those products can’t be curtailed just with legislation.

The deep question, then, is why Americans love guns more than do, say, Canadians, Europeans, or the Japanese. Gun control works in those other countries because the demand there isn’t off the chart; nevertheless, guns obviously work just as well there as they do in the US. One well-known reason for the differences in demand is historical, and it’s just the one I give elsewhere, that the US has a bloody anarchical history, which bred Americans to value individualism and self-reliance. Americans love guns for the same reason they love cars, because these technologies empower the individual.

But that reason is insufficient, because lots of other countries have violent pasts, and individualism also has a genetic and thus a universal basis. I think a more complete reason emerges when we consider the dubious but oft heard platitude that guns are morally neutral instruments, that guns by themselves don’t kill people and can be used for good or for ill depending on the user’s intention. On the contrary, Marshal McLuhan was right: technologies have unexpected background effects rather than just the obvious foreground ones. Of course guns don’t pick themselves up, walk around, and shoot people; guns aren’t artificially intelligent (yet). But to contrast this wild scenario with the moral neutrality of guns is to set up a false dichotomy.

Why Guns are for Sissies

To see the background effect of guns on users and nonusers alike, compare projectile weapons with nonprojectile ones like the sword, club, or axe. These latter weapons are armaments in the strict sense that they’re extensions of the arm; they’re limited by the human arm’s strength and length. As a consequence, to kill with a sword, for example, you have to put yourself in danger since you have to get close to your enemy. Of course, if that enemy is unarmed, the person with the sword has the advantage, but even such a fight is more equal than that between a shooter and an unarmed person. A bow can kill from a greater distance than the sword, ensuring the killer’s safety even when the bow threatens the targeted person. The point is that you can’t kill with a sword without putting yourself at some risk, whereas there’s at least a possibility of killing with a projectile weapon from a position of complete safety.

Granted, this distinction between projectile and nonprojectile weapons isn’t absolute; a spear, for example, greatly extends the arm and so puts the spear user in something closer to the safe position enjoyed by a shooter. (Plus, a spear can be thrown.) Even so, the difference in degree is highly significant. I’m hardly a weapons expert, but I’d assume that, historically speaking, projectile weapons began with the bow and arrow and the dagger and then evolved into the canon and the crossbow, and finally these led to the gun and the bomb. With a bow and arrow, you can kill from perhaps forty yards away from the target. Daggers have less range and ability to penetrate. Canons have a much greater range, and the crossbow requires less skill and strength to use than the regular bow and arrow. The gun has even more advantages, since it’s much more mobile than a canon (it’s a miniaturized canon), and can still kill from a distance of two hundred or more yards. A sniper rifle can kill from over two thousands yards (see this Wikipedia article). And then there’s the drone “predator,” much beloved by the postmodern liberal, President Obama, which can slaughter from miles away with the operators perfectly safe in an underground bunker. You can bat away a spear or block a sword with a shield and throw sand in the swordsman’s eyes, but if a shooter gets the drop on you, you have no defense at all. You can be killed without even seeing your foe or knowing what hit you.

What’s my point, then? Well, although evil people can pick up a nonprojectile weapon and kill with it, doing so is more often correlated with certain virtues which are absent in the use of projectile weapons. You put yourself in danger when you menace someone with a sword or a club, and so you’ve got to firmly believe you’re in the right so that the risk becomes worthwhile. You can kill with a gun at much less risk to you and this lowers the threshold for reasons to kill. In a world without projectile weapons, life is held to be more precious because killing is a riskier endeavor. With projectile weapons, killing becomes a more trivial act. You needn’t even look your victim in the eye when you shoot or bomb him, and so your conscience is challenged only by the abstract thought that you’ve taken a life, not by the flesh-and-blood, man-to-man struggle involved in strangling someone or running him through with a sword. With a gun you merely pull a trigger! A child can do that, but a child can’t strangle anyone or club someone to death.

Thus, when compared to killing with a nonprojectile weapon, shooting a person is for sissies. Oh, I know that gun cultures are full of macho bravado, but shooters protest too much (in the Shakespearian sense). There’s comparatively little honour or even skill in killing with a gun. Granted, in a fight in which both sides are armed, both shooters are greatly at risk and so courage is needed to stick your head out to get off a shot. This is why the Wild West shootout has such mythical status, because it approaches the level of virtue needed to kill with a nonprojectile weapon. In place of the equality when the weapons are limited by the human arm, the stereotypical shootout features the equalities of position (both shooters stand facing each other and out in the open with nothing to hide behind) and even of the time of day (the shootout occurs at “high noon” so that everything is visible and there’s no refuge in shadow). You have to believe in your cause to face someone squarely in a gun duel, since your advantage with the gun is negated by the fact that your enemy is likewise armed. Still, this sort of perfect equality in a gun fight is relatively rare; it’s the exception that proves the rule since again what’s noble about the shootout or the duel is that it approximates the more typical equality in fights between those who have only nonprojectile weapons. Of course, modern wars are highly dangerous for the soldiers who fight in them because so many people shoot from all sides in such combat. For just that reason, though, killing in war is taken out of human hands and left up to chance. No one can see all the bullets whizzing by, let alone dodge any of them, and so fighting in a modern war is like putting yourself through a meat grinder. Even if you come out unscathed, you’ll likely suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, because of the chaotic and inhuman aspects of such pervasive gun use.

Science fiction predicts that humans will one day fight against machines, but that already happens whenever someone kills with a gun. As in most shootings in the US, the victim is usually killed without standing a chance, without having the ability to defend herself or to fight for what she believes is right, and even the shooter is dehumanized by the ease of killing in that way. In a sense, the gun’s inhumanity transfers to the shooter. With the advent of projectile weapons, people are set at war not just with each other but with those relatively independent tools. A gun isn’t wholly independent of the shooter, but the fact that all you have to do to kill with it is point it and pull the trigger means that the gun does most of the work by itself. We must now live in a world in which machines make killing easy. Guns don’t yet kill people all by themselves, but they do create an environment in which we’re all dehumanized because we see for ourselves the cheapness of human life; guns thus dishonor all of us. When you can be shot on a whim, by a stray bullet, by a child who accidentally gets hold of a gun, or when your back is turned and you have no idea you’re even in someone’s crosshairs, you learn that machines are much more powerful than the human body and that mindless chance reigns in nature.

Guns make killing so easy that they open up a niche for the soulless functionary and anti-warrior who becomes the robotic extension of a military or a gang, who just follows orders without understanding or believing in the cause. In the Crusades, soldiers with swords had to believe fervently in their religion, because they had to look their enemy in the face as they attempted to kill him. Of course, those soldiers ran amok in their bloodlust, raping and pillaging, but this was because the brainwashing had to advance to demonization to inspire so many people to such heroic death defiance. Modern soldiers are likewise taught to love their country and to hate their foes, but these soldiers are professional in a way that more primitive (and thus honourable) warriors never were: modern soldiers serve the manifest machine--not just the state bureaucracy, but the godlike power of projectile weapons which are capable of taking life at the drop of a hat. Modern soldiers are functionaries in that they’re extensions of guns rather than the other way around. Primitive weapons serve the human user, whereas the modern weapon overwhelms human users and nonusers alike.

(Lewis Mumford argued that there was an ancient equivalent of the modern machine, which he called the megamachine, the system of conventions which I think of as the power hierarchy, the system of natural and social laws that divide people and distribute power, wealth, and status. Because we’re hosts for genes rather than being central to the cosmos, the default state of our social systems is one of corrupt oligarchy (kleptocracy). But while the ancient megamachine, such as the rigid society that built the Egyptian pyramids, does enslave the average person to the regime and to its oligarchic avatars, the system of myths that kept the ancient oligarchs in power wasn’t as opposed to human interests as is the literal, modern machine such as the gun. This is because the ancient megamachine ran largely on convention and thus on consent which lives in the minds of that society’s members. By contrast, while a gun must still be picked up to be fired, the gun literally exists outside of our mind as an independent entity with its own causal power. Indeed, modern machines can already be set to kill automatically, as in the case of an electrified fence. The point is that the direction we’re headed in leads to the artificially intelligent robot, and the modern machine is closer to that end than is the social one which existed even in ancient times.)

At any rate, with regard to the gun, you don’t have to fire a gun for your heart to sink as the gun’s cold indifference to humanity seeps into you and you lose your honour as a potential human hero who faces off against our existential predicament. No, just knowing that guns are out there is bad enough; just knowing how they work and seeing them in the news and in movies has made us all existentially worse off in this sense: we’ve come to think much less of ourselves, to submit to machines as their effective servants rather than their masters. We adapt to suit the environment we make for us, and an environment in which projectile weapons abound may require us to change for the worse, both from biological and existential perspectives. Just holding a gun, too, fills you with some of the dread you feel when you’ve got a gun pointed at you. You may think you feel superhuman, with that rush of power, but that’s actually a process of dehumanization, a depletion of the feelings that we all should struggle with together in our same existential boat. Holding a gun, you may instead fear you lack the willpower to avoid thinking like an inhuman machine or even to avoid killing for no good reason. You’ll feel giddy from the thought that you can now kill with just a flick of your finger, and you’ll forget the cost of that power which is that you come to respect machines more than people; thus, you’ll willingly dehumanize yourself to live in a world dominated by machines and by the sociopathic oligarchs who rule that world.

Likewise, when you’ve got a gun pointed at you and you’re unarmed, you’re appalled by your fragility and by the godlessness of nature, since your life which you value most of all is left to the mercy of the shooter’s finger-flick which can happen by accident if the gun has a hair-trigger. Suddenly, whether you live or die is left so obviously up to chance that you wonder what extravagant credulity is needed to share the theist’s anthropocentrism. You’re disgusted that such a diabolical instrument as a gun exists in the first place, since the gun illustrates the undeadness of all natural processes. Guns are machines that work according to cause and effect, and at some level so are we and there is no supernatural spirit that overpowers the mechanisms that carry out nature’s undead evolutions. Only rarely do movies show this natural reaction to having a gun trained on you. Often that person goes about business as usual except that her hands are raised in surrender. More realistically, I imagine, the person who’s put at the mercies of chance, the machine, and the shooter’s whim will be terrified but also enraged; she’ll feel opposed not just to the shooter but to the existence of guns and to the nature of reality which guns make apparent--to the detriment of our fantasies of the supernatural.

By the way, this subliminal impact of guns on our morale is likely a main reason for the growing popularity of mixed martial arts in the US. Here’s a sport that allows men to be masculine again, to forget for a while that we live at the beck and call of machines (of mobile devices, television, the internet, the supercomputers that dominate the stock market, and so on); here’s a return to our savage ways, to our animal nature which trains its practitioners to be honourable or at least to survive in desperate poverty, as in Brazil or places in the US. Even as the UFC exalts the US military, the ethics of MMA are opposed to the presuppositions of the gun culture. Guns cheapen human life, whereas fist-fighting quickens your will to live, as the novel Fight Club dramatizes. See also the popularity of the movie 300.

More evidence is found in the comic book superhero. Rarely do the most popular and thus archetypal heroes shoot people. For all their superhuman advantages in strength and speed, fictional heroes like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, the Hulk, and Thor typically dispatch the bad guy with their bare hands. Indeed, shooting with guns is reserved for the evil henchmen who are often depicted as brainless and incompetent, like dumb robots. Again, compared to fighting or killing with a nonprojectile weapon, shooting is for sissies not for genuine heroes.

So what’s my bottom-line response to the gun enthusiast’s meme that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”? This meme is a pitiful rationalization that looks like it was concocted by the mindless guns themselves. Certainly, the meme serves the machines at our expense, as it pretends that we’re not animals forced to adapt to whatever environment we inhabit. Projectile weapons affect us even if we’re not shooting or being shot; they do so by denigrating and belittling us, by teaching us not just that life isn’t precious but that it can’t even be made so. Guns teach us that life is cheap, that you can be killed in the blink of an eye thanks entirely to chance. As it happens, existentially inauthentic life is repulsive rather than precious, and gun enthusiasts shouldn’t be entrusted with that godlike power, because they’re only clever mammals who reveal their animal nature in the bedroom. Animals are not gods, and it takes superhuman effort to be more than an animal. Guns make us less than human even as they give us the power of gods, and if anything will destroy us utterly in the near future it’s that imbalance.

Why Most Americans Love Guns

To return to the initial mystery, then, the reason Americans love guns more than most other modern societies is that the US is still the most powerful, privileged, and thus decadent of those countries, and decadent folks who’ve grown accustomed to their privileges are like spoiled children; they want immediate, pain-free results or they’ll throw a temper tantrum. Their expectations are high but they don’t appreciate the struggles of their forebears who had to suffer to so empower the US. Decadent folks, then, will appreciate guns without giving a second thought to the ethical consequences I’ve laid out here, because their dominant global position has infantilized them. A child wants his toys and doesn’t care if immediate gratification tends to spoil the personality. In short, guns are toys for the corrupted, childlike gods at the peak of the global pecking order. Nonprojectile weapons are for socialists who stress our equality, whereas those who take for granted their being “the leaders of the free world” prefer weapons that allow more easily for grotesque inequalities.

I should clarify that I’m not calling American gun lovers sissies. In many ways, Canadians and Europeans have weaker wills than those Americans, due to the formers’ postmodern liberalism. My point stands, though: killing with a gun takes fewer martial virtues than killing with a sword. After all, who would you rather be, the Jedi with the light saber or the clone or droid with the laser that never hits anything? But Americans love their guns, which is to say that their gun-filled environment has dehumanized them. What follows from my argument, then, is that the modern American military has fewer martial virtues than, say, the ancient Roman one. The US is far more powerful, and the ancient Romans were hardly altruists, but I’m not talking about that kind of morality. I’m talking about heroism, the sort that’s akin to the strength of will needed to face our existential predicament, the flash of sublime posthumanity in mere clever mammals.

American soldiers are highly trained and professional, but their machines do most of the fighting for them, which doesn’t provide much incentive for the cultivation of what authors like Ralph Peters and Michael Scheuer call the bloody-minded will to kill. American soldiers may be as patriotic as the Roman ones were, but Americans don’t have to test that patriotism by fighting on a more equal footing with their enemies. Take away the US advantage in weaponry, which allows the US to kill with impunity, and the question is whether the American youth who fill their military’s ranks would be as eager to risk death for the American kleptocracy. The last time the US fought a prolonged war with an equally well-armed and disciplined foe was in the Vietnam War, and we all know the toll that struggle took on American morale.

The war on militant Muslim fundamentalists throws into sharp relief the imbalance between the American military might and its decadence. Americans have all the military power in the world, but questionable interest in true heroism, while the terrorists have virtually no weapons but insane faith and determination. The terrorists are not existential heroes, because their worldview is preposterous and the jihadists are often duped into sacrificing themselves. But I’d expect an impoverished population that can’t rely on the latest in weapons technology, to build up a tolerance for pain that’s absent in wealthier militaries that have an overreliance on projectile weapons. That tolerance, that being inured to harsh reality seems necessary to the authentic warrior--whether this be on the military or on the existential battlefield. And while many American soldiers do come from poor neighbourhoods, they too become extensions of their high-tech military machine.

Just War Theory

While I’m on the unpleasant subjects of guns and warfare, I’d like to share my personal Just War Theory. It’s inspired by the Octospiders in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series of novels. In that series, the Octospiders are aliens that have mastered genetic engineering. They go to war only as the absolute last resort when their species faces an existential threat, and then they wage total war with no interest in what Just War Theory calls jus in bello (right conduct in war); that is, they exterminate the threat to their existence using biological weapons of mass destruction. Far from glorifying war, these aliens regard war as repulsive; indeed, the military commanders who take part in the needed genocide are not offered promotion, but they kill themselves so as not to taint the peaceful Octospider society with their presence.

Here’s a Just War Theory, then: a war is just if the side entering into it does all it can to settle the issue peacefully, and if those efforts fail this can only be due to one of the side’s subhumanity, in which case that side--and it could be either one--has no human rights and the other side is justified in exterminating them. Take, for example, the war against Muslim terrorists. Have Westerners done all they can to settle the dispute peacefully? Is there a reasonable expectation that the terrorists would stop their suicide bombings if certain negotiations were made? Osama bin Ladin once wrote a letter to Americans, detailing his grievances (bin Ladin wanted the US to remove its troops from Saudi Arabia, stop supporting dictatorships in the Muslim world, stop oppressing the Palestinians through Israel, and so on). American neoconservatives responded by saying that those demands were phony and that the terrorists want to rule the world and force everyone to convert to their religion or be killed. I suspect the latter is closer to the truth.

However, this doesn’t begin to exhaust the potential for peaceful resolutions. How about a public debate between George W. Bush and bin Ladin? Could that have worked? Better yet, how about a debate between the philosophical champions of Western secularism and the theological champions of militant Islamic fundamentalism? I see an enormous stage with dozens of representatives from each side, with all their arguments and evidence at their fingertips, and I see the clash of civilizations playing out as a formal debate for the ages. I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that the Western secularists could so successfully defend the capitalistic and democratic way of life. Were that debate allowed to play out, I think both sides would lose, which is to say that the weaknesses of each of those societies would outweigh their advantages. Then the task would be to synthesize the strengths to create a way of life that would then be shared by both sides.

I know this is impractical, pie-in-the-sky idealism. Nevertheless, I doubt that war is ever actually waged as the very last resort, which is to say that all wars are unjust. But the point of this condition should be to test whether both sides deserve human rights. If one side is so truculent and bellicose that they wouldn’t settle the conflict peacefully even under ideal circumstances, such as those of the grand debate, that side may be irretrievably and dangerously ill, in which case they should be just as quickly exterminated as a viral strain or a zombie horde. (If their illness is curable, there you have your peaceful solution.) On the contrary, assuming no population of people is ever so deranged, there should always be a peaceful remedy, in which case the horror of war is unnecessary. The test of whether a conflict could ever be peacefully resolved works at least, then, as a thought experiment.

What actually happens, instead of either extreme effort towards establishing peace or towards exterminating the enemy, is a piecemeal approach to both peace and war. No side goes all-out for either end. Thus, there tends to be a global state of permanent, low-scale war, with all militaries occupied to some degree, somewhere. War is waged with a view both to winning and to respecting the human dignity of the foe, but this is untenable. If a people are bad enough to justify a military assault on them, they’re bad enough to be exterminated in their entirety using weapons of mass destruction, including biological and nuclear ones. The notion that there should be rules in war is absurd in the Kafkaesque sense. Rules and rights are forfeited in the decision that some nation is so evil that its members’ will to fight should be eliminated which necessitates destroying them. (A warmongering people might surrender after being beaten militarily, but that would only be temporary since they’d seek revenge and so eventually they would have to be exterminated.) War is the end of morality, when the moral order proves an irrelevant mirage and overwhelming power is needed to prune the world tree. As with the Octospiders, moral rights are thrown to the wind by both sides in a war, by those who deserve to be destroyed because they would never live in peace and by those who must sacrifice their dignity to put down the threat with such force. Thus, the end of a truly just war is the extinction of all parties involved. But again, I doubt that any war has ever been perfectly just, because there’s likely always some peaceful arrangement that could have been made instead of military action, which is to say that no population is so evil that a war against its members can be justified.


As of mid-February, 2013, the US military is honouring drone pilots with the Distinguished Warfare Medal, for their “extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but do not involve acts of valor or physical risks that combat entails.” As this article points out, the new medal is more prestigious than the Bronze Medal or the Purple Heart, meaning that someone who sits in an air conditioned basement playing the equivalent of a video game can receive a higher honour than someone who risks his life as a soldier in the field, getting shot at by the enemy.

A spokesman for a US veterans group called the decision to honour drone pilots in this way “boneheaded.” I think this adjective is unintentionally revealing. What’s boneheaded about Leon Panetta’s decision to award the medal is that it indicates the extent to which a leader of a decadent military, whose fighting is done for the soldiers more and more by machines, comes to think himself more like a machine. 
My explanation of why the US military would praise drone warfare follows from the above sections. In a decadent society, actual courage and other martial virtues mean less, because human life itself is trivialized by the population’s high-tech environment. People lose in their competition with machines. For example, many manufacturing jobs are currently being lost. And guns and drones kill more efficiently than swords. Assuming efficiency is your greatest concern, because you’re a postmodern liberal who’s lost faith in your Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom and rationalist utopia, and so you’ve been reduced to a nihilistic, pragmatic systems manager, you’ll be in favour of winning wars regardless of the moral cost to your society. You’ll think less of old school martial virtues and you’ll scientistically assume that heroism can be measured. Because drone strikes are more precise, because they kill the enemy without endangering friendly soldiers, because drones are relatively cheap to produce--for those utilitarian, Philistine reasons, you’ll really think that drone pilots are heroic. Your notion of heroism will have thus been warped by the environment you’ve been stewing in. You’ll mistake decadence and mere usefulness for heroism. The cowardly act of killing with impunity, with a projectile weapon from a position of complete safety, will be honoured with a medal as though the act were an “extraordinary achievement.” This is Orwellian and our first task should be to appreciate the dark humour in it. 


  1. Sounds like the very trigger to simply keep waring? War is the end of morality?

    The very inability to take morality over to war is what essentially drives its mass murderings.

    It seems a 'wash your hands of the whole business, because this killing lark cannot be right, not even one bit!' and so retract any sense of right and wrong from war. The thing it needs the least, once it boils over the lip of the pot.

    Perhaps war needs to be leashed, to be turned around from the parade of victory and glory into the lament of failure, by folk who consider the morality of it gravely, even if it gets their hands dirty by some level of advocation - rather than wash hands of it, and remain in the safety, yet not dealing with the world, of non advocation?

    Also in regard to comics, I found the responce in another blog to the Batman video games (arkham city) interesting, in how the blogger thinks 'what weird code of honor do you need to have to decide that it wouldn't be justified to shoot back if your enemies are shooting at you?', even though in the game Batman, with a modicum of skill, can non lethal take down every opponent. In other words, to that blogger the only thing that matters is if they shoot at you - never mind if you can KO the lot of them and keep them alive. Once your shot at, no matter how strong you are, kill them all. It's perfectly justified and so doesn't need thinking about, to his mind, it's 'weird' to not shoot back.

    1. I think I know what you're saying abut war. This is the criticism of pacifism, that the pacifist takes the high road of nonparticipation which will only lead to more wars and even let the bad guys win. But the problem is that if we were serious about morality, we wouldn't have wars in the first place because we'd be more creative in finding peaceful resolutions. So the rules for "civilized" warfare are bogus. Thus we discovered that even the US, which is supposed to be a beacon to the world, tortured people. The reasons the US or any other modern nation doesn't torture in the medieval sense, pulling out body parts and so on, are that this wouldn't help in the war effort nor would it be publicly tolerated in a Western society and so it would have no entertainment value. And the reason it wouldn't be tolerated is that we're squeamish, feminized, and decadent. Morality has nothing to do with it, you see. The facts that we're preoccupied with sex and that we go to war show that we're animals, that we're not as rational, free, or noble as we'd like to believe.

    2. I suspect that the widespread adherence of Americans to a perverted form of Christianity is more responsible for this country's love of guns than any machine-caused dehumanization.

      Having talked to many Americans, both in real life and on teh Interwebz about religion and politics, it's very clear to me that a significant portion of us in this country, whether consciously or not, view the world in terms of a cosmic struggle between good and evil, filtered through the lens of American Christianity, where everything is judged to be supportive of one side or the other of this conflict. For these people, then, every aspect of society is thus assigned a role in this drama, and reality is made subordinate to it. Where you or I, then, would see institutions and systems, made up of many components, and animated by a variety of forces, these people see only the hand of God or Satan at work.

      Furthermore, among some people, there is a very real desire (probably fueled by feelings of inadequacy due to our decadent lifestyle) to "prove" one's manhood through combat, and so Americans invent all these threats that they need to protect themselves against, as a result of their subconscious desire to involve themselves in combat. Notice how this would also play into the above metanarrative: the prospect of indulging one's desire to prove his manhood or toughness while at the same time fighting the forces of darkness (and thus gratifying base animal instinct while also pursuing the "higher," "noble" objective) is simply too potent a combination for these people to resist.

      I should also note that this view is far more common among middle-aged and older Americans. Younger Americans, raised in less religious households, and in the absence of (visible) war, don't seem to be as inclined toward this worldview.

    3. I think you're right that the US's warped brand of Christianity has made Americans more violent, but this only raises the prior question of why Americans chose or actively distorted that religion. After all, Jesus was a pacifist. I believe, then, my explanation of gun violence, in terms of the country's position in the global power hierarchy is the deeper one here, since only such a cynical country would entertain what Marx would call the superstructure of such a laughable religious ideology, an ideology that obviously rationalizes the country's secular, anti-Jesus activities.

      Mind you, I don't blame all of this on the guns themselves. What I say is that objects like guns are not morally neutral and that some people will be attracted to certain objects because of their prior virtues or vices. Put quite provocatively, guns attract decadent sissies, but guns don't make people sissies in the first place (although our environment can reinforce certain tendencies). What makes a population decadent is its corrupting concentration of power.

    4. But the problem is that if we were serious about morality, we wouldn't have wars in the first place because we'd be more creative in finding peaceful resolutions.

      Two key points, I think.

      1. Failure happens. It does not matter how 'serous' you are about morality. In fact it's frightening if you are serious about morality, but then fail in regard to it - either you will utterly torment yourself because you leave no space for failure at it, or worse, you become a monster as you, in the face and threat of mind warping potential guilt and self condemnation, 'realise' you didn't fail at all - and the failure becomes a new twisted belief system (ANY sort of twist to avoid utter self condemnation! No one can stand such a thing (or those who do self inflict it then suicide)).

      2. Failure has spewed out into the world already - if you take it peace is what we really want under all the other urgings (and let's ignore the existance of sociopaths for the moment). What do we do with this failure - with these fires? Just wait for them to go out? What if a moral warefare code drops the body count by a few (ie, we don't just kill prisoners, for example) and this in turn slows the number of enraged people who are prepared to kill? Fire retardant?

      The rules for 'civilised warfare' are semi bogus - I'd imagine most of them come from someone with a gut feeling about atrocity in war, but an inability to analyse that gut feeling - thus the true purpose of that gut feeling isn't put into the rules of war and then other people simply take it as an advocation of war, if you just 'do it right'.

      As I say, failure occurs. Shit will spill. You need a policy not just on avoiding spilling it to begin with, but what happens when you fail to avoid spilling it. A policy on mopping it up.

      No ones so perfectly serious about morality as to be invulnerable to failure.

      For those pacifists who think they are that serious, I think the critique you mention is a valid one.

      That any particular code of 'civilised warfare' that is written up might be twisted by some for their own personal glory and personal gain through war, twisted to advocate for the existance of war, this has happened and this could happen again and saying this is a risk is an entirely valid critique.

      Also that some rules for 'civilised warfare' aren't at all about putting out the fire but rather about getting on with business in an efficient and profitable manner, that's an entirely valid critique as well.

      But I don't think all are, or have to be. Some could be written to simply be clean up protocols. Protocols for failure, not glory.

    5. Thanks for your thoughts on the article, Callan. I agree that moral people can make mistakes, but do we really want to say that wars are caused mainly by mistakes? This word "mistake" can be amusingly overused, as I say in my Dictionary of Micro Rants entry. Maybe WWI is the best example of a war caused by a mistaken idea of the benefits of international treaties. But surely most wars are caused by greed, hubris, desperation, fear, and other such primitive motives. We're much too primitive to be preoccupied with morality unless our life happens to be relatively uneventful, which is the case for most of us.

    6. Well I don't want to say wars are caused mainly by good things? So yes, they are caused by mistakes, in what I'm saying.

      But surely most wars are caused by greed, hubris, desperation, fear, and other such primitive motives.

      I don't understand - are you refering to some built in incapactiy to avoid falling to these primitive motives?

      Otherwise, isn't falling to these primitive motives a mistake?

      Or are you gunning to somehow expunge greed, hubris, desperation and fear somehow? It's not that we attempt to resist falling to them (and fail at times), but that they are to be expunged entirely somehow?

    7. You might want to check out my little article on mistakes, at:

      A Just War Theory isn't so much about how to practically avoid war; rather, it's about whether a war is theoretically just or not. Whether war can actually be ended is a separate question from the moral status of war.

    8. Well, I think whether one pulls back (ie, the end of morality) from, say, pushing for laws on the rights of prisoners (or that prisoners are taken at all) is also seperate from the question of the moral status of war.

      I think one is going to have to say that pushing for rights of prisoners is a moral thing, even under the shadow of the black cloud that is war. Even, indeed as one doesn't believe there should be prisoners to begin with. Which is rather like pushing for the rights of slaves, when one doesn't believe in slave status to begin with but will afirm the status simply as a means to the end of mitigating harm for the time being.

      Black clouds don't make for the end of morality. They do make for compromises (so as to reduce harm) which, granted, risk becoming ritualised as 'good' without any qualifier.

      I might seem off topic, but I do argue that war (the world events regarded as such, not some platonic idea of it) is not the end of morality.

      Not sure about the mistake micro rant. After all, if you are in charge whether these rich bastards have the capacity to make such large companies and stockpiles of resources and transactions, or you are in charge of whether satan has any power, isn't it a bit of a handball to blame them for using the powers you gave them? Oh, they 'exploited' those powers? Or did you design those powers badly and they just used what you gave them? What...that was just a mistake though? Okay, a little cutting edge there - I presume I can be a little cutting edge because this is rant territory. If not, I will withdraw on the matter as its a bit forward of me.

      Otherwise it seems god or senators only have a 'grill' function, because if they dig too deep the buck comes right back to them and they would be boiling themselves over the matter. Or worse, they'd grill even further and it'd come back to us, as citizens, that we'd boil ourselves for letting these guys continue the modern version of an old robber baron system. Oh wait, were powerless, it could only be a mistake on our part? Though I live in Australia so one could argue I'm not in exactly the same boat.

      Hey, if it's engaging - just pitching an interestingly complicated scenario :) You'd think I'd do it on my own blog, but I find I can't think of these things until I engage someone elses position - and then I do it in their comments! :o Hope it entertains! :)

    9. Of course respecting a POW's human rights is the moral thing to do. My point is that the reasoning behind doing so in the middle of a war, when you're killing people with cluster bombs, tanks, and automatic weapons is perfectly absurd. The logic behind the Geneva Conventions is about reciprocity: we should treat foreign prisoners well so they'll do the same with ours. Meanwhile, the two sides are killing each other left and right! Killing each other intentionally! With billion-dollar war machines! Sometimes we don't see the absurdity of our thoughts or actions until we take a step back and get a little less familiar with what we're doing. That's objectivity. And objectively speaking, I don't think morality has any place in war. As soon as you say morality is relevant in war, you're contradicting yourself. Those who genuinely care about morality would be doing much more to avoid war in the first place. If it's down to war, all hope of civilized values is lost, we've betrayed our principles and now we've got to fight like animals, in which case no holds are barred.

      Regarding mistakes, I think you're right that many middle class people are partly responsible for propping up the wealthy CEOs and politicians, whether by buying their products or voting for them. But remember the crucial difference: a middle class voter wouldn't get in front of a camera and reduce her blunder by calling it a mere mistake. Alternatively, that vote might actually be a mistake because the voter typically knows nothing at all about any of the candidates and may even have ticked off the wrong name on the ballot.

      What annoys me is when a palpably vicious individual belittles the extent of her vices, when he gets caught, by calling the outcome of those vices a mere mistake. This is a misuse of language, but because of the magic of political correctness, people hardly think the matter over and tend to forgive any such evildoer. It's the magic word that opens the drawbridge.

      I agree that senators may not ask deep questions in their hearings, to protect those who are most responsible (unless they're looking for a scapegoat). My point was just the shallow one, about the word "grill" which has become a genuine meme. I didn't mean to imply that "grill" is less harsh than "boil" or "roast," although now that I think of it that may be part of the meme's usefulness: to excuse the senators for the mildness of their questions. After all, grilling only cooks the outside of the food, so maybe that's how the meme got started.

    10. Those who genuinely care about morality would be doing much more to avoid war in the first place.

      And your measure for whether they genuinely cared about morality is...whether a war occurs, isn't it?

      As I said above, there's no room for error there. If a war occurs, your measure is that it was desired. The person deliberately betrayed their principles. That's what I understand of your writing: - if they really cared, they'd have put more effort in. Effort enough to stop the war from starting. Because if you really care about something, you can do that thing. Just like all the commercials tell us. So likewise, if someone doesn't do something, if they don't stop war, it's because they desired it. That's the shadow of 'if they really cared about morality, they'd be doing much more to avoid war in the first place.'

      And as I said above, this measure leads to the frightening occurance where if the person who measures this way accidentally starts a war or conflict themselves, since they granted themselves no way of redemption and face only condemnation, they start making excuses for what they did and how it was 'right'. Particularly the 'no holds bared' elements.

      It actually seems like war speach to me.

      On mistakes, it depends on what emperical method you use to determine what is a mistake. In the haze of no particular method, it hardly raises a definate flag to action.

    11. I think the responsibility for wars is usually pretty diffuse, so it's hard to blame specific individuals. Likewise, it would be hard for individuals to stop a war. Bush Jr.'s war against Iraq was protested by almost the whole world and it still went ahead. Then again, I think the majority of the protestors were motivated more by anti-Americanism and jealousy of the US's global top-dog status than by moral principles.

      As I say in "Oligarchy," the problem with the moral principles that make war evil is that postmodern secularists have little reason to take them seriously. If God is dead, traditional morality should be thrown into the grave with him, as Nietzsche said. The moral principles I'm more interested in are matters of aesthetic taste. So the ethical problem with war which can still interest a postmodern secularist is that war is cliched.

    12. Well, there's the downside of attaching morality to god. Short term gain in that some big dude enforces it all. Downside of attaching morality to a god, is when the god gets shelved, what's attached to it gets shelved as well. Shame it had to get attached to begin with, but I guess we had quite a few rough millenia to get through.

      I think contradictions in persons (of power) own values, where they conflict with their own values but are unaware of them contradicting their own values, is pivotal. Also desesitisation by distance - I wonder if the atomic bomb worked by teleporting people to a chamber, bound, where the american president had to shoot them personally one at a time after looking in the person in the eye, whether they would have managed to kill even a fraction of the population of Hiroshima or Nagasaki (particularly in terms of shooting crying children). Odd example, I know, but it certainly highlights how distance desensitises.

    13. Exactly, desensitization! That's part of the problem I'm getting at. Guns tend to keep the targets too far from the shooters. Likewise, even though TV informs more people about the results of gun violence, it does so by making that violence seem remote, like it's happening on another planet. High technology in general seems to enhance the decadence of its users, because we become more attached to it as our extended body.

    14. I always like with the news reports of so many shot dead in another country - how the presenter gives the practiced graven intoning, before slipping effortlessly into introducing the sports segment.

      I mean, I myself would probably use that as part of a definition of madness! Yet it's shown each night, country wide, without reaction.

  2. "To return to the initial mystery, then, the reason Americans love guns more than most other modern societies is that the US is still the most powerful, privileged, and thus decadent of those countries, and decadent folks who’ve grown accustomed to their privileges are like spoiled children; they want immediate, pain-free results or they’ll throw a temper tantrum."

    Let me ask you what exactly you mean by "decadence," then. If you mean the general standard of living, then the US is actually less decadent than some European nations, especially once you remove the outlying top 5-10% of income earners. With all due respect, I don't exactly understand how you're going from decadence to love of guns. It seems to me it has much more to do with our martial history and emphasis on individual power and liberty, which you gesture at in the beginning of the article, than with our current position in the global power structure. After all, gun ownership in America has been falling fairly steadily since at least the early 1970s, even as we have (I assume) become more decadent over time.

    1. Well, I don't think my theory here explains everything about the American love of guns. It's just an overlooked factor. "Decadence" means "moral degeneration, decline; the act or process of falling into an inferior condition or state; deterioration; unrestrained or excessive self-indulgence."

      Now, the poorest Americans surely don't participate *directly* in the monetary benefits of the country's great wealth: as we all know that wealth has gone disproportionately to the top 1% since the 1970s. However, we also know that the US is a so-called melting pot, meaning that all Americans share in the American Dream and thus aren't easily attracted to the idea of a progressive backlash against their plutocrats. The American Dream is the mechanism by which even poor Americans are *indirectly* corrupted by their country's hyperpower.

      So here's how I'd speak of decadence among the poor masses: the country has (or at least had) too much power for its own good, and that differentially corrupts the rich and the poor (following the implications of the Iron Law of Oligarchy). The rich are corrupt and decadent in the old European way, as you say, while the poor suffer from a moral corruption, thanks to their sharing in the American Dream. Even the poor think they're entitled to some form of indulgence, and guns fulfill that need; even a pauper can feel like a nobleman when he holds a gun. And as Thomas Frank explains, the poor are especially blind to the source of their woes, to the fact that their country is a stealth oligarchy whose rulers exploit the values of the poor to maintain economic inequality through both political parties, but especially through the Republican leaders.

      I'd compare the poor Americans' frustration with that of the majority in the Muslim world who don't share in their nations' oil wealth and have to suffer the indignity of being ruled so openly by corrupt dictators or oligarchs. The Muslims seem to express that frustration by supporting religious extremism as an alternative to the secular form of corruption with which they're also familiar.

      But notice a key difference. The US is much more powerful than all of the Muslim countries combined. That seems to translate to different forms of manliness: the end of Muslim corruption takes the form of the terrorist's suicide bombing (martyrdom). Granted, this derives from an interpretation of their religion, but again this interpretation is favoured over other possible cherry-pickings, because of the current state of Muslim societies. So the weaker nations have a more egalitarian ideal of manliness (the terrorist as a sort of David against Goliath, the heroic everyman proving his worth by toppling the giant), although they're forced to distort this ideal because of their economic and political problems.

      That is, the Muslim world is humiliated and so corrupted by its poverty, whereas the US is corrupted by its hyperpower. Poor countries don't celebrate the inequality of their social structures, whereas wealthy ones might (thanks to the shared American Dream, for example). And one way of celebrating severe economic inequality is with the love of guns, as my article explains.

  3. Your "Intruder" poster should be credited to its creator, I think it is Oleg Volk of
    just so your readers know.


    1. Maybe, but can you prove it with some specific objections to this article?