Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cultures of Death

Death once came as a thief in the night
But now it may come all year
If the purpose is to create a fright
Or grip your soul with fear
We look to weapons as a right
While death itself is the purpose
For the thrill or maybe God’s will
And excuses rise to the surface
As killing becomes less a mystery
Looking backward at history

As I thought more about Larry DiStasi’s last two essays, I realized that we have been wringing our hands about our American “culture” of death, but that much more is involved.  Several cultures influence our views on killing and we have developed a unique set of beliefs to support killing.  I will outline a few and leave the sociological studies to smarter writers.  In the 1600s, our early European immigrants brought an extreme European religion to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The name Puritan is ironic, at best, for they were only ideologically pure and death was high on their list of social and religious sanctions.  While claiming to be Christian, they also believed in predestination and that only the Elect would be saved.  Only God chose the Elect.  Mere mortals were not party to the process…except to help it along where they saw violations.  They hanged some nineteen witches.  They authorized the killing of Jesuit priests who were sent by the French to evangelize the natives, but they also killed the natives who dared to be evangelized or dared to breath Puritan air.  They sometimes killed their own for engaging in “wrongful” sex, but not always.  Remember, they were only helping their God select the Elect.

Now lest you think that it was solely the strict Puritans, a retrospective would indicate that the Spanish influence was well formed about a hundred fifty years earlier during the Inquisition.  When the Spanish came to America, the aim was conquest.  Subjugation, slavery and death were the tools of conquest.  When they witnessed the Inca human sacrifice (another American culture embracing death), they were scandalized by the removal of a beating heart from the living body of the person sacrificed, but they used Spanish steel and musketry to dispatch the natives without remorse.  Note that except for the religious human sacrifice that the rationale for killing was usually a widely held belief that the life forms being snuffed out were sub-human.  The Puritans and Spaniards both felt that they were far superior to the “savages” they killed.  The underlying fabrics of religion were flexible enough to exempt killing “savages” from the 6th Commandment.  Invaders claimed superiority in religion or ethnicity and then used that as a basis for killing others.  Even in the late nineteenth century we slaughtered Native Americans and, on one occasion, blamed Indians for the Mountain Meadows Massacre (1857) that was later determined to be the work of Mormans.  In that incident, Mormans in southern Utah killed about 120 emigrees bound for the far west and they used Indian war paint and even the white flag of truce to kill the hapless travelers.  The Mormans were themselves sometimes earlier subjected to harassment and death in their travels usually due to their religion and polygamist practices, but turnabout was no motive here.

At this point, I need to remind the reader that much of the killing in our chronicles of humanity is tied to the ugly practice of using words that indicate a sub-human aspect to our targets.  I will deal with this again when dealing with wars, but it has always been convenient and effective to view the enemy as a lower form of life.  We spoke of savages and evil Indians, or perhaps, “red devils.”  We took on the white man’s burden of taming their evil inclinations and failing that we killed them as we looked down upon them because they did not have our superior religion, ethnicity or language or:  name your favorite cultural item.  The American way of death carved trails west as those hostile Indians did not move fast enough to get out of our way.  Then we imported inferior beings to lay our rails and build our cities.  They were German, Chinese, Irish and Italian and sociologists wrote scientific-like treatises to prove that southern Europeans and Blacks and Poles were inferior as were Jews and Chinese and Mexicans.  The cry, still heard, was “They are not like us!”  It is time to make a note:  Using names and slurs helps provide distance, both psychological and physical, between “superiors” and “inferiors.”  As we recall, this comes in handy in case of bus seats, drinking fountains or restaurants as well as wars.  While fences may make good neighbors, distance and the fences we build in our minds and hearts allow us to avoid the guilt that we might otherwise feel for violating the 6th commandment.  Distance removes us from responsibility and changes us from murderers to victims and protectors.  If not a license, it is a learner’s permit to kill so we can learn how to do it without hurting ourselves or our religious sensitivity.

Let us examine some of the common language benefits that epithets provide.  Listing even a few may seem offensive, but it makes the point of the visceral jarring they provide.  They are listed in no special order and are far from complete but they have been insoluble lumps in our melting pot:

Nigger, rag-head, krout, jap, wop, dago, slope, cracker, slant eyes, wetback, camel jockey, hebe, kike, chink, coon, coolie, frog, gringo, kafir, paddy, squinty, spade, redneck, polock, paki, haji, goy.

As you perhaps wretched reading the abbreviated list, you may also have been touched with a little guilt for using these terms and falling into the trap of marginalizing and labeling others.  It is nasty and yet common and often effective.  When distance is critical, this practice provides psychological distance.  In war, we also build up a hate reflex so that killing the enemy is motivated by emotions stronger than disgust or psychological distance.  We train soldiers under the universal anthem:  Kill or be killed.  We do not want our soldiers seriously thinking about taking a life, but we want them to act viscerally from our ingrained fight or flight reactions and to force them into “fight” rather than “flight.”  In war, we use targets that simulate the enemy visually and in their tactics.  We use unusual means to insert distance into our actions.  Dresden and Hiroshima were possible, not only because of the available technology, but because we were distant from the inherent horror of the attacks.  Julius Caesar’s army killed 500,000 men, women and children in a single day in Gaul when the broadsword was the weapon of the day. That may have been exaggeration.  It is documented, but by chroniclers who perhaps wanted to praise the exploits of Caesar (before killing him).  Our more recent documentation is photographic.  Another aspect of killing during war is that it is practiced and repeated until the extraordinary becomes routine.  This too, removes the person from the long built in controls that restrain and control killing.  We are taught from birth that killing as an individual is wrong and we condemn people for it.  We are taught that killing as a member of an army is right and we praise people for it.  Sanctions are critical in killing.  This derives from our spiritual or religious beliefs.  It also helps explain why some who feel that their religion is under attack can kill in defense of religion.  Facts do not count.  We recently have been reminded that personal religious harm is not needed as in Boston.  Syria may have violated the international sanction of using chemical weapons.  We are upset that they did not follow our rules for killing their own people.  Are not the people killed from conventional artillery attacks just as dead as those killed by Sarin?  Side note: War is a game marked by rule-books and umpires.  We sometimes stretch the rules but, by definition, we do not break rules.  Perhaps this is a prelude to justifying our killing…maybe even by remote controlled aircraft that give us the distance for “clean” killings.  Those are killings when our hands don’t get dirty and we can be thousands of miles distant from our targets (not people).

In reality, we draw from many cultures in our use of death as a tool for control and power. We know violence begets violence and violence is used to kill.  We need to face our culpability in promoting violence as a cultural highlight and then change the process. “Immunizing” our people with hate brings violence.  Stop killing at home and school and street and lower the number of guns.  Teach ways of solving problems without violence and change our cultures or our melting pot will become a pressure cooker always ready to explode in the heat of hate and always question extremism whether in religion or ourselves.

George Giacoppe
30 April 2013

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why Would Anyone Hurt Innocents?

I have refrained from commenting on the Boston Marathon bombings or bombers until now. Too much gets said and speculated about too quickly in such cases. But one question, the same one that emerged after 9/11 (Why Do They Hate Us?), has continued in the days after the bombings, and today, something else was added in response. Richard Falk, the Special Rapporteur in the UN Human Rights Council, with special responsibility for the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine, wrote a piece in Foreign Policy Journal that has elicited howls of protest—lambasting Falk for allegedly justifying the bombings, blaming Israel, and calling for him to be sacked (and drawn and quartered) for his words. I have tried several times to access Foreign Policy Journal today, but the site seems to be blocked (I wonder who might have done such a thing?). From reports, though, it appears that Falk said several things: first, that “the American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world.” And second, that “The United States has been fortunate not to experience worse blowbacks, and these may yet happen, especially if there is no disposition to rethink U.S. relations to others in the world, starting with the Middle East.” He also seems to have cited a PBS call-in program shortly after the bombing in which some callers said the United States was responsible for “officially-sanctioned torture,” while others implied that the attack was “retribution for torture inflicted by American security forces.” Falk quoted another caller as linking the Boston bombing to our drone attacks that have killed “women and children attending weddings and funerals in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Falk himself then allegedly noted that American politicians lack “the courage to connect some of these dots,” and urged that all of us should be meditating on W.H. Auden’s line from his poem, “September 1, 1939”: “Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.” He then made reference to “our geopolitical fantasy of global domination,” and predicted that more such attacks would follow from our policies:

            “The war drums are beating at this moment in relation to both North Korea and Iran, and as long as Tel Aviv has the compliant ear of the American political establishment, those who wish for peace and justice in the world should not rest easy.”

            Predictably, Susan Rice, America’s rather belligerent UN Ambassador, tweeted her outrage about Falk’s “highly offensive Boston comments,” saying it was time for him to go. Israeli publications and groups lit up the internet demanding Falk’s termination—not surprising since he’s been one of the few officials willing and able to call attention to Israel’s illegal policies and actions against the Palestinians.

            The question is: What exactly has Falk said that is objectionable or untrue? Is it not the case that the United States has attacked both Iraq and Afghanistan (and, by proxy, Libya) in the past decade, and assassinated by drone countless Pakistanis, Yemenis, and others in Muslim countries without even a declaration of hostilities?  Does it not continue to beat the drums of war against Iran, North Korea, and now Syria? And when it comes to Israel, was Falk not being exceedingly muted, even kind in his criticism by saying only that “Tel Aviv has the compliant ear of the American political establishment?” For the truth is that U.S. presidents and the U.S. Congress might almost be mistaken for members of the Israeli Knesset themselves, usually out-shouting Israeli politicians in their defense of Israel’s violations of international law and common decency—not to mention sending billions of dollars in aid and weapons each year to Israel, one of the world’s advanced economies, and blocking with its veto in the UN sanctions against Israeli violations voted by almost all other nations.

            But even beyond that, Americans and American officials have expressed outrage over the Boston bombers’ vicious use of “pressure cooker bombs” that sent nails and ball bearings blasting into the bodies of innocent bystanders. And it is true: these were vicious little bombs designed to wound and maim the flesh of innocents. But has anyone thought to wonder where the bombers might have got the idea for what, in war, are called “cluster bombs?” Weren’t there reports testifying to Israel’s use of vicious little “dime” (dense, inert, metal explosives) bombs in its 2008 invasion of Gaza against a defenseless population?   And what about the United States and its use of cluster bombs? Its refusal, even today, to outlaw the use of land mines?

            As it happens, I’m even now reading Nick Turse’s detailed account of war crimes during the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves (Holt: 2013). And what he says about America’s murderous policy against civilians in Vietnam (leaving out the horror of napalm and white phosphorus and the constant artillery and naval bombardments) is horrifying. It was, in fact, the American military that concluded, in the early 1950s, that it had to find weapons that, without alarming too much the conscience of the world (if the U.S. had used nuclear weapons, that is), would prove effective in guerilla war by maiming, not killing, the population in which guerilla warriors “swam.” So our war geniuses came up with cluster bombs—devilish little anti-personnel weapons that spread steel pellets far and wide, and that entered flesh in various parts of the body, thus causing doctors devilish amounts of time and trouble trying to locate and remove them. According to Turse, the the BLU-3 bomblet (the military gave these fiendish toys lovely little names like the “pineapple” or the “guava”) had 250 steel pellets spring-loaded into a small container. Dropped 1000 at a time from B-52 bombers flying high above the countryside, the pineapples burst open to blast 250,000 lethal ball bearings into heavily populated areas so that they could tear through the flesh of women and children and old people (the young men routinely fled from their villages because any man found in a village was automatically assumed to be a Vietcong.) Another type, the CBU-24, was packed with 640 to 670 separate BLU-26 bomblets, each one of those loaded with 300 steel pellets. This meant that just one guava could send 200,000 steel fragments shooting in all directions; while a single B-52 bomber could saturate an area of about a square mile with more than 7.5 million deadly pellets. From 1964 through 1971, according to Turse, the U.S. military ordered over 300 million pineapples and guavas—“nearly seven for each man, woman and child in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.”

            Did we hear the howls of all the millions of Vietnamese children whose flesh was torn apart by these diabolical devices? Do we hear them today?

            Ah no. The howls we hear are howls of outrage attacking a UN official named Falk who dared to draw attention to the savagery that we have unleashed, and that our proxy Israel has unleashed throughout the Middle East.

            And the howls of those who keep asking: “Why? Why do they hate us?”

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Central Park Five

A few nights ago, I watched the recent two-hour documentary attributed to Ken Burns (it was actually mainly the work of his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon), The Central Park Five. The story will be familiar to many: in April 1989, New York City was aflame with outrage over the spate of what newspapers called “wilding” on the part of alleged Black thugs from the Harlem ghetto, who were said to have run amok in Central Park’s northern area, attacking white joggers and others without provocation. A woman jogger named Trisha Meili was not only attacked but brutally raped and left almost dead. New York officials like then-Mayor Ed Koch issued inflammatory statements about a city “out of control” with lawlessness, with tabloid newspapers like the Daily News and the New York Post blaring huge headlines and outraged columns about the “beasts” and “animals” responsible. Very quickly, police apprehended five teenagers and charged them with the crime of rape, and perhaps murder if Trisha Meili died from her wounds.

As it turned out, Meili did not die from her wounds, but it didn’t matter. Five teenagers—Antron McCray, Yusuf Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Kevin Richardson—were said to have confessed to the crime after interrogation, were charged, and released pending trial. Those confessions, videotaped by one of the prosecutors, Elizabeth Lederer, played a key part, indeed, the only part, in the evidence at the trial. Though they did not match each other (each defendant gave a different version of events, basically accusing the others of the rape but not himself), and though each defendant, when he learned he was being charged with the crime, withdrew his confession, the confessions were nevertheless played at the trial and persuaded the jury to convict all five defendants. The jurors convicted the teens despite the lack of any other evidence, physical or otherwise, and despite the fact that the DNA evidence found at the scene did not match any of the defendants. The confessions, with each defendant supplying details of the crime (again, the details did not match each other), overrode all other evidence or lack of it. One juror, recounting how he held out for hours because of the contradictions in the evidence, emphasized repeatedly how fully persuasive the confessions were to most jurors. The idea was, ‘Why would someone confess and supply small details of the crime, if he was innocent?’

This becomes the key question in the documentary. For it turns out that someone else, not the five teenagers who spent five to ten years in prison for it, actually committed the crime on April 19, 1989 in Central Park. Matias Reyes, who had raped several other women, was in prison when he met one of the defendants, Raymond Santana, years later. Struck by uncharacteristic remorse that someone else was paying for his crime, Reyes confessed that he was actually the Central Park rapist, and supplied conclusive details of the rape that no one else had. His DNA was found to be a match to evidence at the scene. New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau convened a review panel, and on the basis of their examination of the case, four of the Central Park Five were exonerated and released. The fifth, Raymond Santana, had been convicted of a drug charge and was only released somewhat later.

The point, though, remained: five teenagers had confessed to a crime they did not commit, and served years in prison because of those confessions. How could this happen?

I wrote about a similar trial-by-confession in a blog titled “And Justice for All” on July 13, 2011. This one involved the “Norfolk 4”, a group of US sailors convicted of the rape and murder of Michelle Bosko in 1997. One sailor, Danial Williams, “confessed” to the crime after a grueling interrogation, but since his DNA didn’t match the semen taken from the crime scene, he was induced to implicate his roommate, Joe Dick—whose semen also didn’t match, and who then implicated several others (seven men were eventually implicated in turn). Four were eventually convicted of the crime, along with Omar Ballard, whose DNA did match, and who had actually committed the rape and murder.

And why were the other four convicted? Again, because of those persistent confessions.

It turns out that this business of false confessions is not all that unusual in our justice system. Especially since the Innocence Project began its investigations a few years ago, literally hundreds of wrongful convictions have been attributed to the nefarious effects of false confessions (now considered one of the leading causes of error in the U.S. justice system). Among the researchers who have written about this, Richard Leo and Saul Kassin (interviewed in the Central Park Five documentary) are most prominent. And what they have found is that, contrary to most people’s convictions about this (Why would anyone confess if he/she is innocent? On TV, only the guilty confess, and we’re always relieved when they do.), it’s rather easy for police to get confessions out of certain types of people—especially adolescents like the Central Park Five—and they do it routinely. First, they isolate the suspect, sometimes keeping him awake for long hours. Second, they emphasize how powerless he is in custody, and how convincing is the evidence they have (police routinely lie, even on TV, about the alleged evidence). Kassin, Leo et. al. note a case from Florida in this same year of 1989, State v. Cayward, where “the defendant’s confession was suppressed because police had typed up a phony crime laboratory report that placed Cayward’s DNA on the victim.” One would think such lying would be illegal, but the court vacated the confession not because the lie had led to a false confession, but because “it might find its way into court as evidence.” In fact, it is actually legal for U.S. police to lie in interrogations (though Britain has laws prohibiting this). The same is true of the leniency implication that the police routinely convey to suspects. Though police can’t overtly promise leniency in exchange for a confession, they can and do imply that a confession will favorably affect the case, allow the suspect to end the interrogation, and minimize whatever punishment might eventuate. This was apparently a major factor for the Central Park Five. Alternately threatening and befriending the young men, police convinced them that the only way they could get out of the unbearable stress they were under was to confess. Exhausted and scared, the teens, like most of their peers, were particularly susceptible to this kind of pressure. They fit the profile of those most likely to succumb to police pressure: highly suggestible, tending to have poor memories (the police often supply them with the information that shows up in confessions), highly anxious, and possessed of low self-esteem.

But what about Miranda rights, you may ask? Weren’t these kids read their rights? Why did they talk at all; why not ask for a lawyer? The stats are amazing: according to Richard Leo, “fully four out of five suspects waive their rights under Miranda.” Especially teenagers seem to have difficulty even understanding what Miranda means: one group that was tested, though they seem to have understood the words, had no idea of the implications of Miranda, with one interpreting Miranda as follows: “That means I can’t talk until they tell me to.”  In the Central Park Five case, all five suspects submitted to questioning without ever asking for a lawyer, though one or two had parents present—who seemed not to know about their rights either, or, more likely, figured that it would cost more than they could afford to hire a lawyer. None seemed to understand that the law requires that a lawyer, a public defender, be supplied.

One other major factor operated in the Central Park Five case, and in many others. Innocence. While most of us would consider being innocent a major plus in our favor, in many cases, Kassin notes, innocence may actually put people at risk. This is because people tend to believe that “truth and justice will prevail and that their innocence will become transparent to investigators, juries, and others,” and so they fully cooperate and waive their rights. In one famous case, 18-year-old Peter Reilly falsely confessed to murdering his mother, later saying:

 ‘‘My state of mind was that I hadn’t done anything wrong and I felt that only a criminal really needed an attorney, and this was all going to come out in the wash’’ (Connery, 1996, p. 93).

Something like this seems to have operated in the case of the Central Park Five. All seem to have thought that they were witnesses rather than suspects, and that their confessions blaming others but not themselves for the actual rape would show how innocent they were, and eventually absolve them. They did not. Instead, their confessions persuaded the jury that they were guilty, even absent any other corroborating evidence, even in the face of conflicting evidence. The confessions persuaded the judge and the prosecutors, too, who have been found to be particularly aggressive and punitive when a confession is involved. As to the police, Kassin points out several studies showing that the interrogation procedure itself, contrary to what we might like to think, is deeply compromised by a prior belief in guilt:

The purpose of interrogation is therefore not to discern the truth, determine if the suspect committed the crime, or evaluate his or her denials. Rather, police are trained to interrogate only those suspects whose culpability they ‘‘establish’’ on the basis of their initial investigation (Gordon & Fleisher, 2006; Inbau, Reid, Buckley, & Jayne, 2001).
What is astonishing in the Central Park case is that even after Matias Reyes confessed, and even after the DNA evidence confirmed that he was indeed the perpetrator of the rape, and even after the convictions of the five were vacated, neither the police nor the Chief Prosecutor would admit to having made a mistake. Chief Prosecutor Linda Fairstein, in fact, who made her reputation on the fame of her convictions of the Central Park Five, maintained even afterwards that all five of the teenagers had been part of the rape and Matias had only “completed the assault.” The police who had elicited the false confessions slammed District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and his review panel for allegedly defaming police who had “done nothing wrong.” As to the press, they minimized the coverage of the miscarriage of justice they’d once cheered for so mightily, indicating once again their concern to sensationalize what sells rather than testify to the bland reality of truth.

I would strongly recommend the PBS video to anyone interested in how the Justice System in these United States of America really works. You can easily watch it online at I would also recommend the website <> . There you can find statistics on false confessions and copies of the essay from which I have quoted liberally by Kassin, Leo et. al. You’ll be sobered and perhaps shocked to fully realize that the linchpin of what passes for conclusive proof in our legal system is really fraught with pitfalls for defendants, especially the young, vulnerable people of color who are so often targeted by our allegedly impartial system of justice.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, April 15, 2013

Right to Kill

Despite all the rhetoric from pro-gun legislators and the propagandists of the National Rifle Association, rhetoric that insists that we can’t allow gun-control laws in America because the Second Amendment gives every American the right to own as many guns and as much ammunition as he can gobble up, the truth is something other. What these quintessentially American gun-lovers and gun-manufacturers really prize is THE RIGHT TO KILL (and, pun intended, that it’s right to kill). That’s right. Americans of the stripe who scream about gun control really refuse to have their right to kill abrogated in any way. It is the primary right, in their minds, of every human being, especially of the white male persuasion.

At one time, of course, this right to kill was hidden behind the rationale of hunting: the alleged reason Americans insisted on the right to have guns was that they were clean, sport-loving hunters who lived for the time of year when they could go out into nature and stalk and kill deer or ducks or whatever game happened to be in season. Sarah Palin proudly proclaimed her membership in this fraternity, regaling audiences with her adventures shooting wolves from an airplane, and they responded by making her the darling of the loony right in America. More recently however, especially since the Roberts Court ruled, unequivocally and idiotically, that the second amendment confers an inalienable right not to members of a militia but to every single individual American to own guns, that right has been justified as conferring the right to self-defense. In other words, gun ownership is now promoted as a right primarily of protection: a man has a right to protect himself and his family and his castle in the most lethal way he can—with a gun. ‘Stand your ground’ laws passed by many states extend even this, for no longer is a person required to retreat into his castle before shooting at someone he finds threatening; in ‘stand your ground’ states, a person can shoot a perceived threat anywhere, at any time, emphasis on “perceived.” The Trayvon Martin case in Florida, a ‘stand-your-ground’ state, clarified this for all to see, because George Zimmerman was not in his house or anywhere near it when he shot Trayvon Martin, whom he saw as threatening (i.e. black and male).

I raise these issues not to enter the gun-control debate again during this week when the Senate is scheduled to vote on new gun-registration laws. I raise them because my recent reading of Jared Diamond’s latest book, The World Until Yesterday (Viking: 2012) provides a different angle from which to view these issues. Contrary to what we might like to think, i.e. that small bands of humans in the traditional societies of our ancestors were peace-loving hunter-gatherers who resorted only occasionally to small-scale hostilities, the small bands Diamond himself has investigated engaged in war and killing almost constantly. Males in tribes like the Dani of New Guinea, according to Diamond, were always on the alert for any “stranger” from another tribe. This is because in such small, tight-knit communities living their lives almost exclusively in an isolated valley, an unknown stranger was considered to be hostile—perhaps an enemy scouting out one’s own territory for weaknesses preparatory to an attack, or perhaps seeking quick revenge for a prior one. With no inhibitions on killing face-to-face (children are trained early that killing an outsider is good), all members of these New Guinea tribes, not just a professional warrior class, are (or were until Australia imposed state law) constantly prepared to go to war to prevent a rival group from taking their women, their foods, or their territories, or to retaliate for prior takings. And the figures Diamond provides show that, as a percentage of population, the constant warfare in these traditional ‘edens’ took a greater toll of human lives than the stupendous slaughters that have riven modern nation states at war. This is because modern warfare tends to be intermittent: four or five years of savage killing in World Wars I or II, for example, were relieved with breaks of ten or twenty years even for the most warlike states like Germany or Russia or the United States. The figures Diamond provides thus show that, given the greater population of large states, the percentage of those killed in war is only a third or a sixth or even a tenth of the killed-vs.-population percentages in small societies like the Dani of New Guinea. Nor is this simply a bias of a modern-state resident like Diamond. Members of New Guinea tribes themselves indicated by their behavior in readily giving up tribal warfare as soon as Australia imposed state-authorized policing, that they much preferred the relative peace brought by the modern state. In other words, when the state arrogated to itself alone the right to kill those who violated its laws, these New Guinea tribesmen indicated to Diamond that, despite the “loss of freedom” to continue to kill their neighbors for whatever reasons, they preferred the ability of the state to guarantee peace. Though they lost their own “right” to settle disputes in the traditional way, they gained the much more valuable peace and security they had never been able to achieve on their own.

This points up, indeed, a prime function of any state. Rather than letting people settle grievances on their own, with a continuing round of killings to avenge prior killings, the state sets up courts and other elements of an adjudication procedure that outlaws taking justice into one’s own hands. Under this regime, only the state has the license to kill, and only after whatever procedures it sets up to judge guilt or innocence, liability or immunity.

This, in short, is why any state will also take great pains to control the means of violence its citizens have access to. When a few dozen citizens have only spears or bows and arrows, and are obliged to curtail warlike activities in order to go bring in a harvest or support their families by hunting, perhaps access to primitive weapons might be considered harmless or even necessary. But when masses of citizens can easily obtain lethal weapons capable of killing dozens or hundreds of their fellows in seconds, a state has an obligation to severely limit the extent to which average citizens (not soldiers) can have such weapons, and under what conditions they can use them. It may license its citizens to use weapons for sport, to hunt animals for sport, in a season designated for it. But a rational state would have to see that, given its charter to maintain peace and security for its citizens, it ought not to allow them to possess the most deadly weapons in its arsenal. Because it is not that long ago that humans were killing each other routinely in the way that Jared Diamond describes. A mere ten thousand years ago for most societies, and until yesterday for some, all humans, based on several varieties of evidence Diamond marshals, were engaged in tribal warfare with their neighbors almost constantly. The urge to kill those who have wronged you, or whom you perceive to have wronged you, thus lurks in the emotional DNA of every human being. For a state to allow masses of such humans—in the United States, there are estimated to be 300 million guns in the hands of private citizens—to have the means to kill dozens of their neighbors or hundreds of random strangers is simply insane. It is also an abrogation of the prime duty of the state to ensure the public safety; to provide its citizens with reasonable security (we will omit from this discussion the right of the state to periodically compel some of its citizens to don uniforms and slaughter people it has no quarrel with; or to impose often unbearable restrictions on its citizens, especially those without money or influence); and to assure its citizens that rational state laws and those who enforce them will do everything possible to keep most other citizens from killing them.

And that is why gun control is absolutely necessary in a modern state. Humans, all humans, have the recurrent urge, if pushed hard enough, to kill. To give such volatile and dangerous animals wholly unfettered access to weapons of mass destruction—and make no mistake, assault rifles and glock pistols with magazines capable of holding 30 or 100 rounds are weapons of mass destruction—is literally insane, and, in a social-compact sense, an abrogation of the state’s primary responsibility. It is a pretense of giving humans a constitutional right, a freedom, which is not freedom at all.

Rather, it is license—license to kill. And it must be, and eventually will be I hope, controlled. Even here in killer America.

Lawrence DiStasi