Your Rights and Mine

Each day I feel a creeping certainty that I will spend my entire life speaking without ever being heard. That I will spend my words as a fool spends coin, and that the world will be no better for it. I have watched these past few days as people howl in anguish and in outrage at the atrocities visited upon us by that maniac in Las Vegas. I understand their pain. I share it.

But I have seen madness met with madness, and my poor power to subtract from it seems less and less useful and effective. But since I cannot bring back the dead, and since the perpetrator has gone beyond the power of earthly justice to punish–since I cannot stop the madness of criminals and monsters–I shall speak only to that other, more pernicious madness. Ours.

I have seen men and women trumpet that now is the time to pursue new legislation regulating guns. Indeed, the vaunted New York Times proposes that we should repeal the Second Amendment entirely. Surely now, they say, it is time to march into the homes of every gun owner in this country and seize their property–to steal from them–by force if need be, without recompense if necessary. I have seen people stumping atop the graves of these poor victims, the blood soaking the soles of their shoes, to say that now is the time for action. It is not. The dead deserve justice, but their killer is dead, and anyone on whom the law must fall next is innocent of this crime. We have no way to know who the next such monster will be. We are not God, and cannot read the hearts of men and know which ones are rotten.

I do not suggest that we do nothing. I suggest only that it is wrong to punish the innocent because the guilty is dead. I do not own a gun. I do not wish to. But several of my friends are gun collectors, even enthusiasts. Several served in the military. In law enforcement. They have committed no crimes, would commit no crimes. They are good men, good women. Good citizens and neighbors. To stand–tears in your eyes–upon the shoulders of those dead men and women and discuss the seizure of your neighbors’ goods is not morality. It is not justice. It is cowardice. We have a duty, incumbent on each of us as citizens of our republic, to protect the rights of our fellow citizens. The right to vote, to speak, to due process, to the practice of religion. These rights are not up for debate (whatever totalitarians left and right may say). Neither is the right to bear arms up for debate. It is precisely the seizure of such arms that those Second Amendment activists speak of when they say the Second Amendment is there to protect them from tyranny. Those who would repeal the amendment are tyrants, as surely as those who would deny a Muslim his right to prayer, or hers to wear hijab. They are tyrants as surely as those who insist on their traditional definition of marriage with the force of law–or as those who would force a baker to make a cake in violation of her faith. They are tyrants as certainly as those who cheer the inquisitions visited against students in university, sans due process and abjuring the rule of law.

What should we do? Surely it is unthinkable that the actions of men such as Stephen Paddock be allowed to continue. But how can we stop crimes before they occur? I do not know. I am only one citizen. But I am a citizen, and being a citizen know it is unthinkable that the rights of our fellow citizens should be curtailed by the state in the name of our security or particular beliefs. We must hold to principles. To Justice, chiefly, and Truth. Truth because there are facts, and those facts matter, and Justice because we can punish no man until his is proven guilty, and should punish no innocent number in the hopes of catching the guilty before they can act. Let me be clear: it is an injustice to rob the innocent (of their possessions and their civil rights) by repealing this (or any) amendment. It is fascist to try. You would corrode the rights of yourself and your fellow citizens out of cowardice, out of contempt. Disgust. You are no different than those who would place restrictions on marriage, on religion, on speech. Were this any other right, your position would be different. By your actions here you betray that you are no true liberal. You expose your hypocrisy and the hidden tyranny in your hearts. You shame the memory of Locke, of Jefferson, of Washington and Hamilton. You invite tyranny by your cowardice, and you name it virtue. I will have none of it.

Worse, I have seen men and women cry out that the press has been too easy on the man who did this. “But he is a terrorist!” they cry. “Were he not a white man, you would have cried ‘terrorism’ from day one!” White privilege, you say. White privilege… There are words for people who ascribe moral character and quality to an individual for the color of their skin. They are not kind words, and I pray they do not apply to you.

The reality is this: we do not yet know if the man is a terrorist or only a madman. If in the past I have been quick to label someone a terrorist, it is because when a man throws acid in the faces of young women and falls upon them with a knife crying that “This is for Allah!” he leaves no doubt that he is a terrorist. We know–in that moment–what he is. If the actions of such a monster cause our republic to turn against our Muslim brothers and sisters, I will be the first to stand between them and the mob. In the past, the actions of Islamic extremists have prompted the illiberal to say that our Muslim citizens should be regulated. Monitored. Controlled. Many of you spoke up–I spoke up–and defended our Muslim brothers and sisters. The actions of an individual extremist, you said, do not defame or define the character of those innocent Muslims. You were right. So too in this moment are gun owners innocent of the deaths in Las Vegas. White people are innocent of the deaths in Las Vegas. Only Paddock is guilty. But he is dead, gone beyond the power of the law to punish and destroy. I say again: he is guilty alone. Not gun-owners, not white Americans. Not men. Him. I say again: there are words for people who ascribe moral quality and character to individuals for the color of their skin, for their religion, or sex. None of those words may be applied to me without slander. Do not let them apply to you.

Some time ago, when the Charleston shooter performed his act of inhumanity, he did so with the clear declaration that his actions were racially motivated and politically aimed. He aimed to start a war. A new civil war. He failed. White as he was, we denounced him for a terrorist, for terrorist he was. He failed because it is not in the heart of this republic or her citizenry to go to war for race. We did once, and when we did so it was in the name of freedom. Of equality. It was to end prejudice. Whatever our failings, whatever our pains, we are not the monsters the Charleston shooter hoped we would be. We are not what he was.

But in this case, we do not know the killer’s motivations. Unlike the jihadi, unlike the Charleston terrorist, Paddock has not shouted from the rooftops why it is he has done these things. If his crime was politically or ethnically or religiously motivated, then by law he is a terrorist–and were he living would suffer the fate of a terrorist. If, on the other hand, his actions are the actions of sick man, made monstrous by illness or resentment, then he is a murderer. A mass murderer, to be sure, but a murderer all the same. Were he living, were it mine to decide, he would hang publicly, and hang until the message were plain: we do not tolerate monsters.

But even monsters deserve justice, and his victims surely do. To which end we must know why it is he did these things–these unspeakable things–we must know, so that we may know how to direct our response once heads have cooled and eyes have dried. The truth matters. It must matter. And we must not–in the wake of this or any tragedy–compromise our commitment to truth. Or to justice. To do that, we must not compromise who we are. We must not sacrifice our principles, or sell our souls.

I do not privilege the killer in doing this. I am holding him to the highest scrutiny of which I am capable, and at present can conclude only that we do not know. I will not upgrade him from mass murderer to terrorist out of fear. We should do so only if the truth corroborates these accusations of terrorism. That his crime is terrifying I do not contest. But it is not enough that one should be terrifying to become a terrorist, lest all killers be terrorists. There is no justice without clarity. Without clarity, there is only revenge.

We must not countenance revenge. We will not countenance tyranny.

We are better than that.

We have to be.

But I am only one man. And if I cannot persuade you or even give you pause then perhaps my fears are correct. Perhaps–as in Babel–we are past that point where words have meaning. Perhaps we have usurped truth for feeling. I hope not. Without words, without truth, we have only violence. Violence is not justice. It is only revenge.

I hope that you have listened, if only a little.

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