Monday, 7 May 2007


It is depressing to read the demented ramblings of those American commentators, both amateur and professional, who seek to justify the worship of guns. A journal for academics, The Chronicle of Higher Education (Washington D.C.) has published a number of cool and sane attempts to explain why this attitude is so widespread. In one of them, American psychiatrist Robert L Lifton writes:

The combination of mental disease and access to guns leaps out at almost everyone in connection with the Virginia Tech shootings. ...There is consensus that something should be done to intervene earlier in threatening forms of psychological disturbance, and as a psychiatrist I agree and also recognize some of the social obstacles to doing so. But while there will always be mentally ill people, a few of whom are violent, it is our gun-centered cultural disease that converts mental illness into massacre.

Indeed, I would claim that a gun is not just a lethal device but a psychological actor in this terrible drama. Guns and ammunition were at the heart of Seung-Hui Cho's elaborate orchestration of the event and of his Rambo-like self-presentation to the world. When you look at those pictures, you understand how a gun can merge so fully with a person that a man who makes regular use of it could (in the historical West and in Hollywood) become known as a "gun".

Emotions of extreme attachment to and even sacralization of the gun pervade American society, and commercial interests shamelessly manipulate those emotions to produce wildly self-destructive policies. Much has been said, with considerable truth, about the role of the frontier in bringing about this psychological condition. I would go further and suggest that American society, in the absence of an encompassing and stable traditional culture, has embraced the gun as a substitute for that absence, and created a vast cultural ideology we can call "gunism."

Paradoxically, this highly destabilizing object became viewed as a baseline and an icon that could somehow sustain us in a new form of nontraditional society. That new society was to be democratic and egalitarian, so that the gun could be both an "equalizer," as it is sometimes known, and also a solution to various social problems. That idea of the gun as ultimate solution reached a kind of mad absurdity in Newt Gingrich's recent suggestion that university killings be prevented by having students carry hidden guns into classrooms. The gun as ultimate solution has also played a significant role in American military misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq, and in our attitudes toward nuclear weapons (as gigantic "guns").

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