September 2003 #1

Death by Gun

I was reading the paper the other morning when I came across another death by gunshot story. It started me thinking about a comment that was made in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre in 1999. That was the one where two high school students went on a rampage and killed 15 of their classmates and teachers. The comment I recalled was a description of the event as "a nation at war with itself".

Given the current 'be alert but not alarmed" campaign I thought the description apt for our own country. But before I continue, here's a few figures to ponder about the current rates of death by gun in the US.

Last year there were almost 32,000 American citizens killed by gunshot. 13,000 of these deaths were murder. About 160 people a day were treated (officially) for gunshot wounds. Four young Americans aged between 16 and 19 killed themselves with guns every day. With an estimated 250 million guns circulating in the US (not including police and armed forces light weapons) its no wonder that about 88% of the shootings involve family, close relations or friends.

Of course, as we are constantly reminded, here in little old Oz we don't have the same gun "problem". Sure we have had our Milperra "Father's Day" massacre 1984, 7 dead, 20 wounded), our Hoddle Street (1987, 7 dead, 19 wounded), the Strathfield shootings (1991, 7 dead) and our Port Arthur rampage (1996, 35 dead). On top of these there are the murder-suicides, police shootings, suicide by gun and gang land 'hits' that seem to fill our news services each day. I guess you can see as easily as me that we don't have the same gun "problem" as they do in the US. And I guess we don't have the same level of monthly mass shootings like they do either.

We don't have the same gun problem, but we do have the problem of reconciling the propaganda that tells us we are a fun loving, peaceful nation that opens it' s arms to those who are in need with the culture of violence and fear being created here. This is The same propaganda that tells us we should be "relaxed and comfortable".

However, can it be argued that we too are a "nation at war with itself"? If we take the recent campaign to reawaken us to the reality of 'perpetual war' as an example, the key to answering this question lies in the previously mentioned "be alert, but not alarmed" campaign.

Those whose expertise is in what is described in the military vernacular as "psych-ops" describe the situation whereby a group is kept in a state of alertness for an extended period. No real threat has to be demonstrated, just the hint of a threat can be enough. After a while this perceived need to stay alert disrupts the normal routines of group life. The constant vigilance creates discord as people's patience wears thin as they attempt to adjust to the perceived threat. Small, insignificant and usually non-irritating acts can become major disruptions as people try and maintain some form of equilibrium. After a period of time, the group begins to abandon their previous norms and some will radically change their mode of operation. Internal conflict rises and some choose to leave or defect while others just try and get on with whatever it is they usually do.

The "psycho-ops" people tell us that after decades of refinement and application of these types of 'soft" techniques the results speak for themselves. That is, the internal social structures can be broken down with little need to resort to lethal force. the breakdown in social norms leads to disorder as  the 'rules' that group usually abide by are ignored. In the final stages of social disintegration, the vanquisher imposes some form of martial law under which even the most liberal, open societies fall to pieces.

Mandatory detentions, 'disappearances', racial and religious persecutions and so on mark a decline in the social order. All the while those who run the 'repressive state apparatus' line their pockets with the spoils of maintaining "law and order". Lets look at the hype that has been spun in the wake of the Port Arthur shootings.

Martin Bryant was portrayed as a loner. Someone who had few friends and who was remembered by "everyone" as "different". In other words, the portrayal of this man was such to re-create him as "not one of us". Something less that human. I'm not defending his actions which touched a number of people I know well. However, what I am trying to say is that a small number of deaths by gunshot are a good thing for the vanquishers because they reinforce the randomness of death and create the opportunity to feed our latent fear of becoming a victim. After all, they say, its "them" that do things like that to "us".

I would argue that we are a nation at war with itself. This war is fought out on our streets each night as the homeless do battle for scarce shelter. Its fought out in squats as junkies feed their habit. And its waged within our indigenous brother's and sister's communities as they die at rates rivalling third world numbers and its fought out in our detention centres and prisons as basic human rights are over-ridden by money hungry, multinational corporations who do the state's bidding. Lets not forget that many of these multinational corporations assist in the creation and maintenance of the culture of fear.

The few gun deaths, relatively speaking, allow the media to focus on the 'spectacle', the 'grandness' of death and the randomness of becoming a victim. We are told to "be alert but not alarmed" at the same time that random acts of death by gun were occurring in over 60 nations who are experiencing some form of conflict.

The current social climate that is being created mirrors very well the previous experience in many nations. Many nations that have been presented to us as "unstable", led by "despots" and populated by, you guessed it, "terrorists". In many of these states bother turned against brother and made deadly accusations. Daughter turned against father in order to save her own life. Christian turned against Jew in order to settle a grudge while the state turned on the philosophers, the teachers and the artists.

Am I saying these things are happening already? In some instances, yes they are. Am I saying that Australia has become a fascist state? No. Am I saying that we may be heading that way? Perhaps. One of the core tenets of fascism is a denial of guilt. Another is the rewriting of history while a third is the creation of propaganda that on the one hand praises the accomplishments of "the people" while on the other warns us that danger lurks within our midst. All the while the propagandists hold activities and events staged to hide the greedy intentions of the vanquishers. They allow us no time to enjoy the fruits of our labours, much less the opportunity to prosper.

Are we a nation at war with itself? I think so. But the danger lies not with our neighbour per se. Rather it lurks in the potential for us to become so inwardly focused on our own little worlds that we forget those basic human traits such as compassion, empathy and courage. 

As our newspapers reinforce the notion of a culture of violence and the 'spectacle' of death by gun, lets not forget that we have allowed our nation to enter into and support numerous campaigns of terror in many places. In many of those nations their citizens there never used to have a gun problem. However, many of them do now. While the focus of the media turns our attention away from the social decay surrounding us and while we remain sated on a diet of spin, hype and serious tones, we can loose sight of the battle raging around us. The battle already taking place within our own communities.

The question facing us all is whether we are really willing to overthrow the campaign of 'perpetual war' being waged against us and attempt to recapture the potential for us to make our society a less fearful, more courageous place for future generations.