April 22, 2007

Survival in the modern world


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Tom Plate, in an anti-gun editorial at CNN.com, said this:

"Far fewer guns in America would logically result in far fewer deaths from people pulling the trigger."

In a pro-gun editorial (also at CNN.com), Ted Nugent said this:

"Pray for the families of victims everywhere, America. Study the methodology of evil. It has a profile, a system, a preferred environment where victims cannot fight back."

And, in an interesting twist on the entire debate, a former Miss America drove off two would-be metal thieves (one of whom she held at gun point until police arrived) with her very own snub-nosed .38!

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In addition to tolerance and peacemaking, I have spent my entire life advocating vigilance and self-reliance. A desire for peace and an individual willingness to take life in order to defend oneself are not mutually exclusive, although many people will try to convince you they are. America is one of the most well-armed societies in the world. It is also one of the safest. Yes, there is a lot of violent crime, and yes, guns are used in those crimes on a daily basis. I would still rather walk through New York City's Central Park at midnight than Taksim Park in Istanbul or Gorky Park in Moscow. Green Park in London is a wonderful, relaxing place on a sunny day, and a virtual war zone on a warm night.

The human animal has evolved in a way that makes violence part and parcel of what we are. I don't like this aspect of being human, but it is foolish to deny the reality of it. At the moment, I don't own a gun. Of course, I live in Tokyo where gun ownership is virtually impossible to begin with, but even if I lived in Denver or San Francisco I probably would not own a gun. My father owns many. I grew up around guns. In a tight spot, I'd rather have a gun in my hand than any other weapon known to the modern world. But then again, in a tight spot, unless my attacker is carrying a gun, almost anything that falls to hand I can use for a weapon and am very willing to do so.

My father was not prone to spouting platitudes and wise sayings, but there were a couple of ideas he implanted firmly into my mind. One of those is, "If you can run, don't fight! If you can't run, don't lose!"

Not that every person in the world should have access to any kind of gun they like. I would never support such a position. Assault weapons, automatic weapons, and high-capacity handguns (carrying 10 rounds or more) are completely unnecessary for normal self-defense and should be tightly restricted to military and law enforcement use only. Although we have not yet seen any ill-effects, allowing the ban on assault weapons in the United States to expire was a very dangerous step. Fortunately, in modern America high-capacity handguns are far more prevalent. And no, that is not a mistake. I do mean "fortunately!" Armed with two high-capacity handguns, Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 people at Virgina Tech on April 16th, 2007. Can you imagine the death toll if he'd been carrying an AK-47? I can't, and I don't want to. News coming from Somalia, Al-Anbar province, and other regions in turmoil is proof enough for me that easy access to assault weapons is a very bad idea.

It is important for each of us individually to be prepared for the possibility that someone, somewhere, for reasons of their own, will one day attempt to do us harm. No matter how effective our law enforcement agencies are, they cannot be everywhere all the time. Even here in Japan, where police boxes manned by pairs and trios of officers sometimes seem to be on every street corner, people are murdered, children are kidnapped, and young women are raped every single day of the week. Crime is not quite as widespread as it is in the United States or Europe, but it is still a daily occurrence and law enforcement agencies are doing a brisk business.

Far fewer guns does not equal less violent crime. I live in Japan where handguns are extremely rare and rifles are not allowed inside city limits. Despite its global reputation as a "safe" country, this is also the place where over the past few years two European women were drugged, imprisoned in private homes, raped, murdered, dismembered and discarded. Not so very long ago poison gas attacks by a religious cult claimed the lives of hundreds and left thousands permanently impaired. Just last week, someone shot the mayor of Nagasaki and someone else stabbed a young college student to death on her way home from a night out with her friends. "Safe", it seems, is only true by comparison.

You, and you alone, are the only person who can act to preserve your personal survival in a moment of crisis. Police cannot respond instantly when you call them, even though they wish they could. Like the former Miss America mentioned above, more often than not the only difference between a victim and crime prevention is a weapon in hand and the willingness to use it.

Lots of well-meaning, highly intelligent people will spend the next few months using the Virginia Tech massacre to rally support for and against gun control. Their arguments will range from the flawed logic of Tom Plate's CNN editorial to the vitriol and paranoia of many people in The Brady Campaign. The pro-gun people will range from the wild rantings of Ted Nugent's CNN editorial to the sometimes bizare and paranoid proclamations of The National Rifle Association. In the end, there are two salient facts that stand out every time something like this happens: guns wielded by people intent on murder are deadly beyond belief and the only thing capable of stopping someone armed with a gun is someone else equally well-armed.

Regardless of how they felt about firearms before this tragedy, if either Liviu Librescu or Zach Petkewicz had been armed, trained, and willing to take Cho's life, his rampage would have stopped far earlier than it did. Why do I signal out these two from all the other victims and witnesses? Because these two, one professor and one student, each in different classrooms, each from different backgrounds and far different in age, both had the presence of mind to take immediate action when Cho showed up at the classroom door intent on killing everyone within his zone of fire. One sacrificed his life by using his body as a shield, the other risked his life by shoving a table against the door and then holding it in place when Cho fired through the door. I don't know how these two men felt about firearms before this tragedy took place, but they clearly demonstrated the presence of mind to take precise, effective action in response to an immediate threat. If Prof. Librescu had been armed, perhaps he would still be alive and Cho's rampage would have ended before it had a chance to begin. If Zach Petkewicz had been armed, Cho would have had a much larger impediment to deal with than a simple wooden door held closed by a table.

Peace is a difficult thing to find in today's world, and it will be even harder to find in the future. There are many challenges ahead of us this century, and there will be great stresses placed upon each of us individually. Some individuals will not have the mental and emotional capacity to deal with the changes and the resultant violence their tortured souls ravage upon our world will add to the fear and suffering. Unless, of course, you, or I, or someone else, is prepared to stop them the moment their rampage begins.

Our first and greatest priority must be locating these rage-filled people and helping them find constructive outlets for their pain. No system is ever perfect, however, and no matter how hard we try, some of them will find or create an opportunity to act with extreme violence. When that happens, we must be equally prepared to stop them, even if it means shooting them down in cold blood.

I don't like this reality any more than anyone else does. Denying it, however, will only insure that the next school shooting, terrorist attack, or violent crime spree will be even more devastating then those we have seen up to now.

When someone near you resorts to violence you are the one person in the best position to stop them. You can become the victim or you can prevent the crime from ever taking place to begin with. Will you be the one who makes the choice or will you leave it in the hands of your attacker?


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Reflections from the future: December 17, 2012

Five years after Cho Seung-Hui's attack on Virginia Tech things are just as bad, and some people claim they are even worse. Fueled in no small part by an eschatological fever driven by conspiracy theories and fears the closing of the Mayan calendar on December 21, 2012 will bring the end of our world, there have been several rampages in gun-free zones this year. The worst of them all happening on December 14 when a young man named Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and slaughtered twenty-six people, twenty of those were children ages six and seven.

In the five and a half years since I wrote this post I've moved to America, bought a house, and purchased several firearms including a Colt Match Target Rifle that looks like the M16A1/A2 I carried in the Army. A dreaded "assault rifle". I don't own any AK47 style rifles and I never will, but I no longer think they should be banned. Nowadays I am convinced that any attempt to ban weapons because they are scary, or deadly, or whatever can only make our society even more dangerous than it already is. I have a few 30-round magazines for a couple of my rifles, but none for my pistols. In my rifles the larger capacity magazines simplify my practice sessions greatly. I can load four magazines and practice for a couple of hours rather than reloading a single magazine over and over again every few minutes. In my pistols I don't use high capacity magazines because they feel awkward and bulky, but I no longer think they should be banned.

I have learned a lot about firearms, self-defense shooting, and how not to respond in a crisis situation. The one truth that remains immovable is that if someone had been armed, trained, and prepared to kill their attacker none of the massacres that have taken place during the past ten years would have happened. All of them except one (the Gabrielle Giffords shooting) took place in gun-free zones where a person licensed to carry a concealed weapon is prevented from doing so. The Giffords' shooting was a terrible tragedy, but even there, the real problem is neither the handgun nor the high capacity magazine the shooter used. Just like at Virginia Tech, just like in Aurora, just like in Connecticut a few days ago, the real problem is a young man with a severe mental illness who did not have access to proper care, treatment, support, and if necessary, confinement.

Perhaps the biggest change of all is I have joined the National Rifle Association and upgraded my membership all the way to Patron status. Some of their proclamations still leave me shaking my head in exasperation, but they are always well-meant and strictly focused on preserving the natural right of every law-abiding citizen to own and use the firearm (or firearms) of their choice.

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April 17, 2007

Peace movements past and present

The pacifist movement is a distinctly modern phenomena. Before the American Revolution gave birth to the modern age of democracy versus hierarchy, only religious leaders had the freedom to express their opposition to the military adventurism of local political leadership. Sadly, more often than not the local religious leader was in full agreement with the local political leadership, granting spiritual legitimacy to violence done for little or no reason both locally and half a world away. The only pre-modern evidences of a pacifist movement are a handful of plays written in Ancient Greece (such as Lysistrata or The Trojan Women) and the occasional odd parchment from here and there.

Ghandi is often credited with giving birth to modern concepts of non-violent confrontation and a pacifist resolve to changing the world without resorting to armed struggle. Although Ghandi deserves enormous credit for bringing pacifism into the mainstream, he was not even close to being the first modern pacifist. Listing up and attempting to describe the nearly infinite number of pacifist movements of the past century would take far more work than I'm willing to do, not to mention the widespread popularity of pacifism among both European and American neighborhood parlor clubs in the 19th Century. Almost from the day the French Revolution followed up the earlier American success, democracy has given rise to grass roots peacemakers and peaceseekers every time their elected governments have chosen to go to war.

I would, however, like to highlight one of the more unusual pacifist movements of the 20th Century: Henry Ford's Peace Ship.

There are thousands of webpages dedicated to Henry Ford's failed attempt to bring World War One to an early close. Some are kind, some are cruel, and it is a bit ironic that even now, almost a century later, no one seems quite certain just what to make of this quirky attempt by an eccentric billionaire to bring peace to a war-torn world. A quick Google search reveals some of the depth of material available. I know I only have half a dozen regular readers, if that, but please, do take the time to read up on Henry Ford's voyage.

From the moment I first learned of the Peace Ship, I regretted having been born half a century too late to participate. All my life I have tried to be a peacemaker. Tolerance is the one theme I stress over and over again in this blog, and my youthful efforts to help the unfortunate kept me even more penniless than the people I was struggling to help. I cannot count the number of homeless men and women I have fed, sheltered for a night or two, directed to the local Salvation Army, bought new clothes at Goodwill for, and in one instance, given the coat off my back.

I spent the latter half of 1980 living two blocks from an intersection in Denver frequented by half a dozen prostitutes. Once they learned I was not interested in purchasing their trade but I was sympathetic to their problems, they were at my door pounding away all hours of the day and night asking for help. I drove them to hospitals when their "customers" were too rough, fed them when they spent their night's earnings on drugs or lost everything to an opportunistic pimp or mugger, and one night saved the life of one when she was stabbed.

In raising my two sons the one iron-clad, unchanging rule I have always enforced is "no hitting". They can yell at each other all they like and I will try to mediate, but never intervene. When blows start landing, I bring everything to a screeching halt and force them into their rooms until tempers cool and they're ready to talk it out. Kids being kids, by the time they'd settled down they'd usually forgotten what it was they were fighting about to begin with, so the "talk it out" portion almost never materialized. Nowadays they are 18 and 19, and I haven't had to step between them in years.

Not that I'm a peacenik! Far from it! Although I did not approve of the invasion of Iraq, I fully supported the invasion of Afghanistan. I have always contended that America did not need to invade Iraq at all. Rather, they needed to spend that money and utilize those resources to rebuild Afghanistan in the same way we helped rebuild Europe and Japan following World War Two. We should have focused our energy on Afghanistan until the job was done. WoMD or no WoMD, resources are always finite and prioritization is a must. There was no need to invade Iraq, and as everyone can see, the result has been disastrous.

Our world is beset with conflicts large and small. Not a day goes by when one conflict ends only to have two more spring up. There are more people affected by armed conflict in today's world than there were at the peak of fighting in World War Two. I don't know if this massive global inferno is the real-world impact of George W. Bush's "war on terror", or merely the fiery "cool down" as the last convulsions of the Cold War work themselves out. I do know that the global trade in small arms is fueling this conflagration, and I also know that the real causes of these many conflicts are far more closely related to the ultimate control of our rapidly vanishing resources than they are to the political aspirations of the participants.

Farmers, fishers, students and teachers are dying in the crossfire as multiple groups fight to the death to determine who gets to profit from the local mineral wealth, regardless of whether it is oil, uranium, gold, diamonds, or ordinary tin and copper. The people who need the mineral wealth are dying while their more violent cousins waste the local resources on guns and bullets. Something needs to change, and change quickly, or the only people left will be the militias and terrorists sitting on stockpiles of inedible minerals while the rest of us slowly starve to death in refugee camps.