Frankfurter Rundschau, Germany
Good, Evil and the Question of Violence
By Arno Widmann
Is the best answer to a bad guy with a gun a good guy with a gun? Watching John Ford's classic Western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” can be instructive.
Translated By Ron Argentati
30 December 2012
Edited by Gillian Palmer
Germany - Frankfurter Rundschau - Original Article (German)
The usually quick-to-react National Rifle Association waited a whole week to comment publicly on the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in idyllic Newtown, Connecticut. Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the NRA, said it was high time for Congress to provide sufficient resources to put armed guards in every school in the nation:
“Politicians pass laws for Gun-Free School Zones. They issue press releases bragging about them. They post signs advertising them. And in so doing, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk. How have our nation's priorities gotten so far out of order? Think about it. We care about our money, so we protect our banks with armed guards. American airports, office buildings, power plants, courthouses — even sports stadiums — are all protected by armed security... Yet when it comes to the most beloved, innocent and vulnerable members of the American family — our children — we as a society leave them utterly defenseless, and the monsters and predators of this world know it and exploit it. That must change now! The truth is that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters — people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anybody really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn't planning his attack on a school he's already identified at this very moment? How many more copycats are waiting in the wings for their moment of fame — from a national media machine that rewards them with the wall-to-wall attention and sense of identity that they crave — while provoking others to try to make their mark?
“A dozen more killers? A hundred? More? How can we possibly even guess how many, given our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill?”
LaPierre continued his speech, saying that the media glorified murder and rape in film, song and video games. “A child growing up in America witnesses 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18... Rather than face their own moral failings, the media demonize lawful gun owners.”
Then came the sentence of sentences, the main point of his message: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
LaPierre's Fantasy World
Wayne LaPierre lives in a fantasy world — not because he sees everything the wrong way but because he believes he lives apart from it. He sees himself surrounded by a faceless horde of insane monsters where every person is nothing but a ticking bomb that could explode at any minute. I happen to think that's a very realistic view — and that's why it's totally wrong to want to scatter guns around everywhere among the lunatics. It's only appropriate if one can be completely certain that there are no current or potential monsters in the crowd.
People should listen to LaPierre's speech with its pauses and interruptions by hecklers accusing the NRA of having blood on its hands. One notices then how a man, while describing how lunatics are possessed by evil spirits, himself becomes a possessed lunatic who offers no other solution than to shoot back at whoever is shooting at you.
Lashing Out in Fear
If you just read LaPierre's words, you might think there was an argument in there somewhere, but if you listen to him carefully when he speaks you sense the fear — a nearly uncontrollable, verbally pulsating fear. He is right about many things: Much of what's written or filmed these days glorifies violence, but that's nothing new since the writings of Homer. His tales were also an incitement to violence. It would be good if we left our imaginations at home and recognized the difference between mowing down our enemies in a video game and killing our friends and enemies on the school playground.
One has to admit that as depictions of violence go, the abundance and types available via the Internet set one new record after another. But whoever agrees with that must also recognize that relatively little of that transfers over to real life. The mass slaughters in which our parents and grandparents participated during the first half of the 20th century occurred in the complete absence of Wayne LaPierre's media violence propaganda.
Let's momentarily forget about 20-year-old Adam Lanza and LaPierre's demons and concentrate on LaPierre's assertion that only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun. Anyone who has ever seen a Western movie is familiar with that concept. It's the message of most Western movies: A bad guy shooting the place up has to be beaten by a good guy who is a better shot, for once and for all and in each and every film.
John Wayne was the bearer of that message in more than 150 movies, including John Ford's 1962 movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” In it, Wayne explains to a young new law school graduate (played by Jimmy Stewart) who wants to settle down in Shinbone and open his new law practice that the only way to go up against the gangster Liberty Valence's Colt is with another Colt, not a law book. There's eventually a showdown between Stewart and Liberty Valence, played by Lee Marvin. Stewart prevails and shoots Marvin dead.
Stewart believes, as does everyone else, that he is the man who brought law and order to Shinbone. The gangster's stranglehold has been broken. He establishes his reputation as the man who shot Liberty Valence. But the truth is, it was Wayne who shot Valence, and he shot him in ambush. When I first saw the film in the 1960s, I read into it a message that said: Law and order don't emerge from law and order; they're not products of a contract. They're established through violence. It was not a mistake to see the film in that light; that's the tale told by the film.
But it also tells another story. When Stewart came to Shinbone it was populated by farmers and shopkeepers living in a so-called “free territory,” i.e., not in a governed state. The film is thus about how a free territory was transformed into a governed state.
The Actual Hero
The film also lends incredulity to the idea that government arises out of anarchy, that the rule of law replaced an era when everybody just shot one another down. It soon becomes clear that the story isn't about Liberty Valence and his gang. The gangster and his mob are the military arm of the landowners trying to prevent the small farmers and shopkeepers from establishing a state ruled by law, one that would exist for everyone's benefit and not just for the benefit of their own small group.
The film doesn't subscribe to the idea that an individual can protect himself from another who only wants to serve his own interests. It shows that only when everyone is united in the belief that it's not acceptable for one person to impose his will on another is it possible to keep the ever-present lunatics and the power-hungry at bay. That's embodied in Stewart's character. He's the law-abiding man who shot Liberty Valence.
The truth is that, unbeknownst to him, he also had a military arm that enabled him to shoot his way to bringing in an era of law and order. The real hero here is Wayne because he is the man who shot Liberty Valence. But he's even more the hero because he then retired his Colt, withdrew from the stage and left the rest to the law man.
The situation was such that Wayne was right in saying that a bad guy with a gun can only be stopped by a good guy with a gun. But he knew this was an exceptional situation and not a law unto itself. He was saying that law and order was the right replacement for Liberty Valence.
The notion that everyone must have the right to defend himself and his family is not a solution but rather a dissolution of the existing order. It's an attempt — a reflexive response to try to create law and order as Charles Bronson in “Death Wish” or Michael Douglas in “An Ordinary Day” did. It's a reflex that all of us understand very well. To surrender ourselves to it, however, means abandoning civilized society.
When Wayne LaPierre was born in 1948, John Wayne already had made over 100 movies in which he had repeatedly demonstrated that laws and the interpretation of them weren't what counted most. Superior firepower was always the deciding factor if the goal was to turn a law abiding society back into a free territory. This film described the creation of statehood. It would be an illusion, however, to assume that the same scenario was universally valid. Every state is under threat — and not only because a red army or a brownshirt army faction declares war on it.
It's far more seriously threatened if some faction tries to hijack the state and take over its institutions. When some faction starts envisioning the police and the justice system as their very own and not belonging to everyone.
The Deutsche Bank
There was a time when we Germans liked to look across to Italy. We thought a sort of “Tuscany Faction” had formed. We were wrong. That was the time when the media mogul Silvio Berlusconi ascended to power, aided and abetted by the socialist party's Bettino Craxi.
But we need not look over the Alps; we only have to look at our own most important institution. Right: The Deutsche Bank. Its CEO Jürgen Fitschen didn't call on his gunslingers to protect him from another lawman, Germany's public attorney. He regarded the nation as his own private country and not every man's nation. That's why he felt justified in phoning up Hessen's Minister-president and asking him to whistle back the state's police and public attorney who were looking into his business.
Rights and laws have to be defended with rights and laws. Special conditions and exceptions for this or that individual only lead to others demanding the same special and exceptional treatment. For each of us — we're all possessed to some degree by some demon of insanity— the same rights have to apply. None of us is so good that he can be given the right to shoot down those he considers evil. Only the police — under prescribed conditions — are permitted to do so.
And not because they are the good guys, but because they work for all of us and we all have a say in controlling them.
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