Checkpoint: Constitutional Hunger Games

In July 2016, Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez pulled over Philando Castile. Castile politely and straightforwardly followed the officer’s instructions, and even calmly informed the officer that he had a firearm in the car. A firearm he was permitted to carry. For his troubles, Philando Castile was shot multiple times from point blank range, and it was all streamed live on Facebook. The recently released police dash-cam footage is just as difficult to stomach, not just because it is to witness a murder, but because it displayed how something supposedly routine, like an interaction between an officer of the law and a citizen, is in America, always verging on catastrophe. Last Friday, Officer Yanez was acquitted of all charges; a jury finding that his actions were reasonable considering he was ‘afraid’.

For those who had not yet seen the footage, take caution. It is of the quality that brings tears to one’s eyes, lungs to one’s throat, and rage to one’s countenance. Philando Castile was licensed to carry a firearm, and yet an officer of the state took his life. If ever there was a case for the NRA to get behind, it would be this. Alas, the NRA remains silent, making the assurance doubly sure that the NRA is not interested in the individual rights of citizens, unless they’re white Republicans. This story buoys many topics to the surface, and they will receive their due deliberation; but as someone who is not black, and (may Captain Jesus have mercy on my soul) not American, it is a particular aspect of the Philando Castile murder that paints so starkly, for me, a systematic fault in the American system. That inherent fault is the 2nd Amendment.

The monotonous police shootings that disproportionately target black citizens are as senseless as they are indefensible. When the discussion should be focusing on how to raise the bottom line in violent cities like Chicago, we can’t even get past the ineptitude of the country’s police force. It is shameful to think that the outcry in response to murders such as those of Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others are due largely to the modern availability of technology, and that incidents like this have been occurring in the nation’s blind spot throughout its history.

Now that we are all witnesses to these horrendous crimes, the words of another self-described ‘witness,’ James Baldwin, find new weight. In a speech to the National Press Club in 1986, Baldwin identified himself as “someone who represents a very complex country which insists on being simple-minded. And simplicity, it occurs to me… is taken to be a great American virtue, along with sincerity.” This leads to the point at which “immaturity is taken to be a virtue today, so that someone like John Wayne who spent most of his time on screen admonishing Indians, was in no necessity to grow up.”

That “immaturity,” I think, is a central point. It is because of systemic hindrances to the American experiment that maturity is unattainable. The Constitution and its amendments are rightly celebrated. They are celebrated because of their disregard for many of the fallacious ‘traditional’ ideas of the day, such as hereditary monarchy, the class system, and anti-individualism. But, what is often omitted from the admittedly overzealous glorification of the Constitution is its real statement, what the American Constitution bravely declared to the world – that a free society could be a civilized society.

Thomas Hobbes, like many others, saw the first law of nature as self-preservation. Under that law Hobbes supposed man’s original savage state. Thus the concept of a civilization is the assumption of responsibility for that law from the individual to the polity itself. The 2nd Amendment - supposing America to be a dog-eat-dog savannah, uncultivated, savage, and brutish – seeks to provide individual citizenry with the ability to preserve itself against threat. That is still the argument of 2nd Amendment advocates, and yet the point is never raised that the Constitution sought to create a civilization in which that very threat was void. The Constitution supposes a free and civilized society; the 2nd Amendment supposes the society to be unfree and uncivilized. The two are mutually exclusive.

The 2nd Amendment is a law that, if it should exist anywhere, it could only be in the Hunger Games. The uncivilized Hobbesian state the 2nd Amendment supposes is antithetical to the Constitution and the American experiment itself. It is antithetical to the American dream. In fact, it is masochistic and even nihilistic; it wishes the American experiment to fail. It keeps death - the eradication of an individual, much closer than other civilized nations would ever allow.

2nd Amendment advocates have always argued, indeed from the origination of the amendment, that it is a precautionary protection of the citizenry in case the government should become tyrannical. Interestingly, many who continue to make this argument, also support the already world-dominating military budget, and yet never make the connection that their right to a pitiful handgun will do nothing in the face of a drone, but everything in the face of a fellow citizen. There are more than enough checks and balances on the government before it could reach a citizen’s door in the capacity that their 2nd Amendment rights would aid them, and as Philando Castile’s case acutely demonstrates, his 2nd Amendment right did little to stop the state from killing him.

Needless to say, society, despite the hindering agents like the 2nd Amendment, has progressed, but it has not matured. There is no wild west anymore. There are protections, and gunslingers are, for the most part, viewed as madmen. Civilization has become the overarching map of reality; there are sidewalks and shopping malls - cinemas and metropolises. But still, the 2nd Amendment treats the country as being in a state of nature, and because of that allowance, the nation is subjected to routine systematic faults. The death of Philando Castile, was the fault of the 2nd Amendment as much as it was of race.

Civilization is not a state of being: it is a state of mind. It means I can go about my individual business and it should not affect yours. The 2nd Amendment conflicts with that idea. It exists to whisper in our ears that violence is an option, that power can be attained by brawn and not by brains, or beauty, or busting your ass. Until the 2nd Amendment is done away with, it cannot be said the United States is a civilized country. Indeed, the 2nd amendment conflicts with the very idea of political order.

Of course, civilization doesn’t mean everybody has to live together in a Utopian togetherness. You can live alone in a log cabin you built yourself and still be civilized, as I said it is a state of mind. The idea of being sociable does not have to be conflated with being civilized. The Aristotelian idea that humans are political animals and therefore naturally inclined to be sociable and desire to live in harmony is no sure thing. Indeed Bertrand Russell suggested that “by self-interest, man has become gregarious…” and he was probably right.

The strain of anarchy in the American project ensures that it can never mature to the age of reason. It is a darkness, that like all darkness, threatens to consume the light. The 2nd Amendment dilutes our civilization with a Hobbesian vein of dog-eat-dog, nasty, brutish and short existence. At this point it may sound facetious to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Star Wars, as the great soap opera it is, has always been a timely and poignant American story. It is Master Kenobi in Episode III, who, having been relinquished of his lightsaber and having to resort to a blaster, makes my point in far, far fewer words as he tosses the blaster aside and quips – “So uncivilised.”