America will continue to pay terrible price for guns

By: Paul Thomas

His message to the world via Facebook: “There is no redemption, no forgiveness. I will stare into your eyes as I pull the trigger, and laugh as you hit the ground with your last, pathetic breath.”

These words, a chilling echo of the toxic screeds posted by the mass murderers of Columbine and Virginia Tech, weren’t written by Jared Loughner, accused of killing six people and wounding 14 in Arizona last weekend.

They emerged from the dark obsessions of 18-year-old James d’Cruz of Lubbock, Texas, who is taking legal action to overturn a law banning the sale of guns to teenagers.

A snowball’s chance in hell, you might think. Think again: D’Cruz has the backing of the National Rifle Association, the spearhead of America’s powerful and relentless gun lobby, which insists that teenagers have a constitutional right to buy guns.

To the detached observer, the most pressing question arising from the slaughter in Tucson is how could a clearly disturbed 22-year-old with a history of drug and alcohol abuse be able to walk into a shop and buy a Glock 9mm semi-automatic with a 33-round magazine, a weapon clearly designed with human beings – as opposed to, say, quail or deer or inanimate targets – in mind?

But this is America. Much of the soul-searching has instead focused on whether the inflammatory rhetoric generated by the increasingly bitter political and cultural divide somehow contributed to the tragedy.

Exhibit A is Sarah Palin’s infamous electoral “hit-list” in which gun sights were superimposed on the districts of Democrats she was particularly keen to see voted out of office. Awkwardly for Palin, one of her targets was Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head. Even more awkwardly, Giffords had criticised the crosshairs graphic, warning that such actions had consequences.

Palin is entitled to feel aggrieved at the linking of her list to the shootings, since there’s nothing to indicate that the suspect paid any heed to her rhetoric. One’s sympathy is tempered by her clumsy attempt to portray herself as a victim – accusing her critics of “blood libel” – when the real victims are being laid to rest or are fighting for their lives.

Rancorous political discourse is as American as apple pie. During the Cold War those who argued that enough was enough when it came to having the capacity to obliterate all human life several times over were routinely accused of being soft on Communism and jeopardising the nation’s security.

And it was almost an article of faith on the left that George W. Bush went to war in the Middle East on behalf of the oil industry, that he knowingly squandered American lives and destabilised the nation’s economy and its relations with the rest of the world for no other reason but to enrich a handful of already vastly rich individuals and corporations.

Some things have changed. Given that quite a few Americans believe Barack Obama is a secret Muslim and/or ineligible to be president, the charge that he’s “hell-bent on weakening America” – Palin, last week – is likely to harden the conviction in some feeble minds that he’s a Manchurian Candidate, an agent of hostile foreign interests sent to sabotage the US from the inside.

Secondly, the loudest thunder on the right is coming not from elected representatives but from broadcasters such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and out-of-office celebrity politicians including Palin and Newt Gingrich (who recently declared that “the secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union”). They are unrestrained by the conventions and compromises of the parliamentary system and need to keep upping the ante to maintain their profiles and bolster their brands.

The more civil discourse urged by Obama in Tucson on Thursday would be a welcome development. Loughner may have been oblivious to the war of words, but it’s hard to believe that if people of influence continue to portray their ideological foes as traitors, a self-styled patriot won’t sooner or later take them at their word.

But a quieter, more respectful political environment won’t stop or even reduce these random acts of butchery as long as a simple transaction can transform misfits into the terrifying figures of their fantasies – cruel gods with the power of life and death over the common herd.

The likelihood is that America will continue to pay a terrible price for its fascination with firearms and devotion to the doctrine of self-reliance.

This week a Republican member of the House of Representatives announced he’s drafting a measure to allow members of Congress to bear arms on Capitol Hill. And in Arizona, sales of Glock semi-automatics went through the roof.

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