Everyone around the world has read the news of the Connecticut shootings and we all share in America’s grief. This piece is not intended to be insensitive to that grief, it is only an expression of my bewildered thoughts, as a non-American, at the culture of the United States. I don’t understand it, I disagree with it, and I can’t help reaching the upsetting conclusion that the Connecticut shooting is not a one-off catastrophe, but only an even more tragic expression of a general theme in American political culture, that decades of politicians, media and electorates have failed to address.
What is the point of politics and the state? Fundamentally, way before questions of individual or civil rights, of taxation and redistribution, of the attainment of national values and dreams, politics has a very simple goal which is to protect human life. Humans will always argue and fight with one another: politics and the state’s most fundamental aim is to settle these inevitable disputes without one side killing the other. The Talmudic Sages, whose lives revolved around the attainment of sublime religious goals, recognised this basic irreducible fact:
Just like the fish in the sea, the bigger one swallows the smaller one, so too is man, for were it not for the fear of the political authority, the strongest would swallow his fellow (Avodah Zara 4a)
In this context Max Weber defined political sovereignty as the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. This means that the state, and only the state, has the right and the ability to kill –whether through the judicial system, the army or the police. Fundamental to what it means to be a citizen is that we do not have the right to use violence, that we give up that right to the state in return for the protection of being able to sleep safe in our beds at night.
One very basic element of this approach is that citizens must not be allowed to possess the means to kill their fellow citizens. This point is not left wing, or statist, or quintessentially European. It is a basic point about politics – the extent to which the potential for violence is allowed to be possessed by non-state actors, the less that state can be said to possess sovereignty. The United States is supposedly the world’s most advanced democracy, the strongest economy, the centre of world academia etc. etc. – but it is also a country where 300 million firearms are held in private possession, a fact which must inevitably lead to the deaths of many thousands of people every year. As such, the US can only be seen as more similar to Afghanistan or Lebanon when it comes to fulfilling Weber’s definition of sovereignty than it is to Britain, France or Australia – and those of us overseas who for the most part admire the American model, can only shake our heads in bafflement.
Humans have an amazing capacity for ignoring the suffering of others and every so often a terrible news story such as the Connecticut shooting wakes us up. But we miss the point entirely if we think that the story itself is the tragedy – the context is the tragedy. While the world prayed for the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground in 2010 and celebrated their miraculous survival, few news outlets reported that in China the previous year 2600 miners had died.
So too here: the story is not that twenty innocent children were killed in Connecticut. The story is that 84 people die every day in the United States due to guns, that more people were killed by guns in Chicago last year than the number of American soldiers killed in Kabul during the same period. The Connecticut shooting is one of the most tragic instances of them all but if we isolate it and say ‘let us mourn today and talk politics tomorrow’, history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce.
Politicians speak of national mourning. The New York Times website has the names of the victims as the centre of its page. How can we not mourn at this time? But absolute focus on mourning, to the exclusion of furious anger at the country’s politics and media, is the surest way for those responsible for maintaining the current state of affairs to escape blame. In the summer of 1994 shortly after a million people had been murdered in the Rwandan genocide, Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan, two of the only people in the West who could have done something to have stopped the slaughter, intoned that we must all look inside of ourselves to ask how this could have happened. By democratising guilt and shifting the focus to mourning, attention was distracted from the true fault which lay at the heart of the political system, and those who did nothing when they should have done something were not held accountable.
So too here. Grief and mourning have their place, but they are also a dangerous distraction from the most fundamental point that 20 children died because American political culture prioritises the right to bear arms over the safety of its citizens. In a month’s time, once the mourning period for the Connecticut school children is over, new issues will be taking over the headlines and the political will to actually change gun control laws will have dissipated.
Politics is the cause and only politics is the solution. As long as this is denied then shootings at schools, religious temples and cinemas will continue to be annual events in American life and the rest of the world will continue to shake its head in baffled incomprehension