Armed, fearful societies

I have been in a handful of drunken altercations in my life. Thankfully, I've lived to regret them all. That did not have to be the case, nor was my safe emergence from youthful stupidity a foregone conclusion.

Maybe my luck had something to do with growing up listening to Johnny Cash. Standing against the tide of a culture glorifying violence, Cash followed stories of impulsive violence to their inglorious conclusions. In Don't Take Your Guns to Town, an insecure young man drinking while armed meets a tragic end.

I'd like to think that having that song in the back of my mind kept me out of mortal trouble. After all, I own a pistol, and would likely own several more guns if I did not have access to my father's sizable arsenal. But, of course, most of my luck stemmed from growing up in a society where, for the most part, we've all agreed to leave our guns at home.

The National Rifle Association's maximalist position — its call for more guns in more public spaces in the aftermath of Newtown — is theoretically about freedom, but following its lead would result in less freedom, not more, and mark a step backward for the civil society that we Americans have labored so hard to build.

The world is full of societies where individuals arm themselves for safety, and the instability of such countries should serve as an object lesson of what happens when our mutual trust and our willingness to engage in conversation, unarmed, is driven away by fear of both our government and our fellow citizens. Just look at Afghanistan, where I and thousands of other Americans have confronted the realities of a population armed and on edge.

Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the Pashtuns, which emphasizes vengeance and honor, can be confusing for Westerners, and its outcomes can seem downright incoherent. An attempted murder can be reconciled with the sacrifice of a goat while a couple that elopes may be sentenced to years in prison, or simply killed. These outcomes have nothing to do with justice as we commonly understand it, but are part of a necessary dance among armed factions, each seeking stability in a desperate environment.

Honor and vengeance represent both sides of the coin of insecurity, and Pashtunwali is most easily understood not as a cultural code but as realpolitik for places where the threat of violence is ever-present and people cannot rely on their government to provide stability.

In such an environment, there is little room for individual freedom and justice. There is only the survival of the family and tribe. Everyone is armed. Everyone is defensive. And society is congealed into those elements that can best ensure stability. Eventually loyalty trumps justice, and survival trumps all.

Therefore our greatest challenge in getting Afghanistan to move beyond its violent past has been in building the kind of credible local and national institutions that can offer an alternative to brute force as the way to resolve disputes. That some Americans have so little faith in our own institutions that they would willingly retreat to the brutality of this kind of frontier justice is a travesty.

Such a view suggests that we are incapable of creating a secure society that also allows for individual freedom and limits the powers of a central government. Not only is this view both paranoid and self-limiting, it also ignores the core strength of American society. Our police and courts are not perfect, but we understand that collective efforts to ensure the peace will, in the long run, always be more effective than one man with a gun.

It is a mark of all we have accomplished in our two-and-a-half-century history that we do not settle our disagreements with weapons, nor do we avoid voicing those disagreements for fear of getting shot. Calls for more citizens to regularly carry guns should be viewed with great skepticism by both NRA members and gun-control advocates alike. We need to remember that we are not a state on the brink of failure. The overwhelming majority of us are not in mortal danger and we do not need to be packing heat to protect our honor. A greater public role for private guns would not add to our freedom; it would detract from it.

Jason Dempsey is the author of "Our Army: Soldiers, Politics and American Civil-Military Relations" and is currently serving in Afghanistan.

© 2013 Foreign Policy

Armed, fearful societies 01/19/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 7:36pm]

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