Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Crime of the Nation

You know the symptoms, anyone who's grieved: the sob surges that you fight to contain; tears sting the eyes. It's a paroxysm. We have them in rage and in grief.  Sometimes in both.

I remember having particularly mixed-up ones after 9/11: so much sorrow for the dead, and so much fury at the attack. Anger, I think, had the edge, at least for me. That's not the case now, after last Friday's massacre of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. All I feel now is grief.

Everybody finds a way to cope, and to hope. Music and elevated words in foreign languages help me. It feels as if Brahms Requiem saved my life at one point--not only its music but its German words: Selig sind die Toten. I don't know why those strange words feel better to me than "Blessed are the dead." Maybe in some sense it's an attempt to approach the absolute foreignness of eternity. Music seems to work that way, as we were reminded last week with the death of Ravi Shankar, who believed that music gives us a joyful link to the universe.

Or a sorrowful one, even during the Christmas season. Nothing could be more sorrowful than the Coventry Carol. But how poignant it feels now; how stabbing! It's a lullaby, for crying out loud, a lullaby about King Herod's slaughter of the innocents. "Lullay, thou little tiny child." More unbearably, in the traditional mummer's play about the event, the singer is a mother singing to her doomed child. I used to play it on recorder in a trio with my parents. Back then I thought it never really belonged to Christmas. In my childish literalness I didn't think there could be a chronological connection to the Nativity. Accurate as that may be, I don't feel that today. I can't look at anything, from seasonal decoration to mundane commonplace, and not think of the disappearance of these children ripped from life. Nor can I say anything that feels appropriate to the grief. All I can do is place my feelings on some raft of a foreign language and say lacrimae rerum.

Literally, "tears of things." These are the words that Virgil attributes to Aeneas when the escaped Trojan prince, cast ashore in Carthage, wanders into a temple where he sees a frieze of the battles for Troy. The memory of his slaughtered family overwhelms him, and, Virgil writes, Aeneas cries a river, saying "Is there anywhere in the world that does not have miseries to cause such tears, that does not share such sorrow?"

But, importantly, the weeping Aeneas also says to the marble image of slain King Priam, "lose your fears, for your fame will bring some benefit."

I wonder: Can we say that when we are shown the pictures of those killed in Newtown? Or is it as if they were doomed, as surely as the victims of Herod, and for nothing?

Considering this question, let's keep Virgil a little longer as our guide to our national purgatory. It is from him, also in the Aeneid, that we get the expression "beware of Greeks bearing gifts." The perspective is a Trojan one--beware them because the "gift" the Greeks brought to them was the hollow wooden horse that brought about the city's destruction. But Virgil has an even more telling line only a little later: Crimine ab uno disce omnes. "From a single crime know the nation." The crime of the Greek nation, in the Trojan view, was treachery: the wooden horse was presented as a peace offering, when in fact it was the opposite.

What is the crime by which our nation is to be known?

I had never heard of Newtown, Connecticut. But the night before the shooting I was reading 1775: A Good Year for Revolution by Kevin Phillips, an important and well-received account of the events that gave the American rebels a strong enough headstart to see them through the ensuing war with Great Britain.

In a section of the book that discusses the colonial militias there is mention of Newtown as being at the time "suspect" for its Tory sympathies. As I read, the name flashed by and melted into the other names-Fairfield, Litchfield, Ridgefield--until the next day, when the news broke. I thought, "Didn't I just see that name?" It wasn't in the index--the mention was too inconsequential--but I hadn't read very far past the mention and was able to find it at the top of p. 155.

Coincidentally, Newtown is mentioned in the part of the book that discusses the role and importance of colonial militias. Phillips, citing military historians as "the literary equivalent of expert witnesses," says that the militia functioned as an "internal security force" that made and kept the hinterlands safe for the patriot cause and enabled the Continental Army to confront the British on the battlefield. To elucidate the nature of this internal security duty, he quotes historian John Shy (A People Numerous and Armed) at length (p. 162):
Once established, the militia became the infrastructure of revolutionary government. It controlled its community, whether through indoctrination or intimidation; it provided on short notice large numbers of armed men for brief periods of emergency service; and it found and persuaded, drafted, or bribed, the smaller number of men needed each year to keep the Continental army alive. After the first months of the war, popular enthusiasm and spontaneity could not have sustained the struggle; only a pervasive armed organization, in which almost every took some part, kept people constantly, year after year, at the hard task of revolution.
Of course we know why this is important: because we, in our ignorance or weakness, have settled into an accepted understanding of the Second Amendment that is wrong, even though its meaning should be as plain as day.

The "well-regulated militia" understood in the amendment, by the testimony of history, means a militia that is an organized, statutory creature of state government. They were military organizations with a hierarchical structure. They were not every man or woman for him/herself, packing heat in a handbag or a bedside table or a man-cave gun rack. While they might presumably draw on those resources, as the Second Amendment clearly intends, equally important is organization and preparedness so as to bring to bear those resources for some public purpose.

We cannot understand or interpret the Second Amendment without reference to a well-regulated militia. To do so is to accept the kind of anarchy that is to blame for the disaster that we have just experienced in Connecticut. Even if we insist that "Congress shall make no law," nothing prevents the states from acting on their own constitutional subordinations of the military function to the civil authority by obligating those citizens who choose to be armed to perform some civil duty. It should be a requirement: own a weapon, be enrolled in the militia; do militia duty just as you would jury duty.

Like what? After all, there are no more Tories to tar and feather. What about being assigned--with regular training--to be a school security guard and being given civil leave a few days a year to perform the assignment? Even if assault rifle ownership is restricted after Newtown, there will still be ample opportunity for mayhem, and our schools are woefully under-protected. If our ancestors on the frontier, in all their Founding Fatherly wisdom, formed civil militias to respond to the threat of violence, why should we not do the same?

What is the crime of the nation? What hollow, wooden horse beckons, appearing as a gift, but posing a treacherous threat? It is, quite simply, our confusion of private rights with the public good on the subject of gun ownership. This is a criminal misconstruction of the Second Amendment. Individual concealed- or open-carry vigilantes are not and cannot be the "Militia of this Country," upon which George Washington conferred the title "Palladium of our security." Palladium? The Founding Fathers, conversant with the classics, knew this to mean "safeguard." (Troy again: the Palladium was the wooden statue of the goddess Athena that was believed to protect the city and that, according to Roman legend, was brought to Rome by Aeneas.)

Our security is not safeguarded by private individuals with guns. They might be able to defend themselves, but they do not defend us. To riff on another Virgilian phrase, there ain't no unum e that pluribus.

Such a nation, such a crime. Lully, lullay, our little tiny us.

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