Saturday, 15 December 2012

Newtown: the long view

A people fighting for its freedom: what could be more inspiring? Even we know that even in victory, they are only swapping one set of problems for another, that what they conquer may be new liberties but it won’t be Liberty, that the process won’t be complete but simply reach a stage from which the next can be contemplated. 

Along the way, as the process extends, there are many diversions, as early principles are deformed and misapplied by those who follow behind. Still, the original leaders remain impressive and, to me, among the most striking are those craftsmen, lawyers and farmers who mounted the campaign to free the North American colonies of British domination back in the eighteenth century.

At the time there was only one standing army in the colonies, a foreign one, Britain’s. The insurgents could only call on the militias of the individual colonies, and arm them only with whatever weapons they had in their homes. Britain, of course, banned the colonists from holding arms, making acquiring and keeping weaponry a key issue.

In 1791, with the British expelled, the newly formed United States decided to add to their Constitution ten amendments that would form a Bill of Rights. There was nothing new about this demand. It had been raised by Englishmen since the reign of Charles I in the early seventeenth century, and we tend to forget that it was above all Englishmen who set up the United States.

Curiously, the English back in England had to wait for a written Bill of Rights until 2000, when the Human Rights Act came into force. Ironically, there’s now an intensifying campaign in Britain to repeal it as ‘too European’, i.e. foreign. The notion of guaranteed rights has never really fully taken root in Britain.

When the American founding fathers came to draw up their Bill of Rights, their views were naturally influenced by the circumstances in which they lived and the experiences of their political careers. And a matter that concerned them, though by then the United States had its own standing army, was the difficulty of forming an effective, well-armed militia.

So they included a second amendment among the ten adopted in 1791:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

It’s always difficult to try to work out exactly what was intended by men long since dead. But surely both the wording of the amendment and the personal histories of the men who drafted it, suggest it was designed to ensure that the people could defend the state against anyone attempting to use violence against it.

Possibly, as the US Supreme Court argued in 2008 and 2010, this could be extended to include defending one’s own home and family.

What it was clearly not designed to do was to create circumstances in which it is easy for deeply unfortunate, unhappy or ill individuals to walk into a high school, a college campus, a temple, a cinema or – for Pete’s sake – a primary school and deal out arbitrary death.

Surely the framers of the amendment would be the first to cry in horror at the idea that they intended to allow citizens to hold lethal weapons for any purpose they chose, independent of the defence of the state?
James Madison, father of the Constitution.
He would be shocked by the travesty made
of the Second Amendment

It’s my suspicion that if James Madison, the father of the Constitution and fourth President of the United States, were to return to Earth today and see what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, yesterday he might say, ‘what? And they turn our second amendment into a defence of a situation in which this can happen? It’s time to revise it.’

But we don’t need the resurrection of James Madison for Americans to understand the need for revision. An American friend, talking about what pushes anyone to acts of mindless violence, wrote yesterday ‘sometimes it is mental illness, sometimes it is being fired, sometimes it is heartbreak, sometimes it is hate...but the common denominator is always access to a gun, and without the gun there would be no killing.’

One of those attending the vigil in Washington pointed out a stark truth: ‘assault weapons are designed to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. They have no place in our society, they have no place in our communities.’

I’d love to think that the cumulative effect of the repeated massacres would lead to an unstoppable momentum for change. Perhaps it will at last. But the forces against are powerful and well-organised. 

Among the many statements of sorrow yesterday, there were also eloquent silences. John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, offered condolences but said nothing about gun control. And the great pro-gun lobby, the NRA, followed its usual tactic of saying little while the wounds are fresh, saving its powder for any proposals that emerge, which it will use its financial strength to derail.

There’s a long way to go to achieve gun control in the US. But the Founding Fathers didn’t give up because the forces against them were apparently overwhelming or the battle was likely to be long. And, as I said at the beginning, no revolution is ever complete, it’s always a work in progress.

What better tribute could there be to the drafters of the Constitution than to take that process forward, campaigning for as long as it takes, to modify one of the provisions they added to it? To review a second amendment perverted by misinterpretation and bring it back in line with the spirit that they embodied?

Then perhaps we can turn the Auroras, the Columbines, the Newtowns into what they should be: ghastly reminders of a past long buried.

Why not put a stop to this terror?

No comments: