Once again, young Americans demand stricter gun laws in a mass protest this Saturday. That clashes with the national mythology of freedom-loving fighters, Ian Buruma notes.
It is difficult to defend, with a reasonable argument, the claim that normal citizens should be able to enter a restaurant or a school with semi-automatic weapons. The same goes for arguments that human behavior has nothing to do with climate change.
But this is not about reasonable arguments. It does not matter how many schoolchildren perish in armed attacks – 17 in a recent shooting at a school in Florida – or how convincing the evidence is about the influence of carbon monoxide on the climate.
Arguments simply have no grip on people for whom carrying a gun or denying human influence on the climate is an important part of their identity.
In the U.S., this means that the more "liberals" in New York, San Francisco, or even Dallas call for limitations on the sale of such weapons to citizens, the more those citizens will fight back. They do this with the fanaticism of believers who consider this an insult to their God.
This has a historical background. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which grants citizens the right to carry weapons, was adopted in 1791.* Americans had successfully risen up against the British Crown and believed that in case it was necessary, they had to be able to defend their freedom against a repressive state. The interpretation of the amendment is still debated, but the original goal was to arm civilian armies.
For many Americans, especially in the rural South, this is now taken as a God-given individual right. Demagogues have little difficulty in pitting these people against the urban elites who would want to take this right away from them. The fear that is exploited here goes much further than a shared love for hunting or the need for self-defense. It is about the way people see themselves. Take away their guns and they feel naked in the world, erased, powerless, seemingly without a face.
But the self-image of America is not only polarized; it also shows wondrous contradictions. The Second Amendment is, of course, a legal concept, just like, essentially, the United States. The solidarity of a land of immigrants cannot rest upon a shared culture, never mind common forefathers. The law is the only way to connect a citizenry that stems from so many different cultures.
It is, therefore, no wonder that so many lawyers roam the U.S., and that Americans turn to a judge much quicker than, for example, the Japanese, who rather take refuge in customs and traditions. For Americans, democracy is a civil religion and the Constitution a kind of holy scripture. This is how conservative lawyers take it, and thus, also the Second Amendment.
Many Americans simultaneously cherish a national mythology which is just as fundamental as the Constitution but is at odds with the idea of the constitutional state. The hero in classic western movies is the freedom-loving fighter who, revolver in hand, expels evil then moves on alone on his horse. As such, John Wayne defends the acquired freedoms of the Wild West.
But who are the black-clad villains whom he has to fight against in this day and age? They are the bankers, lawyers, businessmen and politicians who represent the interests of the big cities on the East Coast. They embody a world of contracts, treaties and bureaucracy.
The typical western is an idyll, in which the individual enjoys perfect freedom. That freedom is threatened by a federal state with its laws devised by people. The gunslinger respects only one law that is dictated by God and his own conscience. And he sorely needs his gun to protect that.
The Government Is the Problem
The problem with the American myth is that that rural idyll, that perfect state of natural freedom, cannot be reconciled with a society that is founded on banks, jurisdiction and politics. The Second Amendment is, in fact, a law that also serves to underline the widely cherished myth.
The president who was phenomenally able to represent the desire for the American myth was Ronald Reagan. After all, as an actor, he made many westerns. As he famously said, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem." He spoke these words as U.S. president, but he sounded like a typical gunslinger.
In a much cruder way, Donald Trump has followed Reagan's example. Not only is he an actor, he is a kind of desperado who has no patience for the civilized norms of a democracy. Trump cultivates the image of the lone fighter, and simultaneously represents the interests of the men in black suits, the businessmen, the bankers and their political henchmen in Washington.
Trump is an immoral hustler from New York who knows exactly how to appease highly religious, heavily armed Christians in the deepest province. A cultural battle is raging in the U.S., and Trump embodies the worst aspects of both sides: the lawlessness of the gunslinger and the shameless greed of the urban business world.
The United States has a desperate need for a president who can close the dangerous social gap between city and countryside, religious citizens and secular citizens. Unfortunately, voters have opted for the least suitable candidate to accomplish this task.
*Editor’s note: The Second Amendment provides: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”