A couple of days ago, a man walked into an important Naval Base in Washington DC carrying a high power military weapon and started shooting. He killed 12 people and injured 8 more before being killed himself. Live by the sword; die by the sword. It would appear to be a viable lifestyle choice in our ‘free’ society. On investigation, it turned out the shooter was ex-military; eased out with an honorable discharge due to a manifest inability to live within the constraints of the military command; but somehow still working for the military in a a civilian capacity. A social misfit whose status did not reflect his behavior, he shifted to working as a military contractor.
The gunman had a history of psychiatric problems, and on inquiry it was found that he had recently been telling people that he was hearing voices and expressing what appear to be paranoid delusions. Apparently he didn’t express these concerns to anyone with the will and the authority to restrain his actions or even to provide compassionate assistance. Or, perhaps those who were aware of his instability just didn’t see the real life potential of his delusions and didn’t care about his personal welfare. In any case, if no red flags were raised in this case, one might wonder on what basis red flags are deployed.
The debate triggered by this event seems to be centered around gun control, and the process to acquire a weapon. However, there is no process to track the person once they have that weapon. Mental illness and other personal issues do not influence one’s status with regard to possession of firearms once you have the license.
By contrast, anyone convicted, or in many cases even accused of committing a sexual crime has their name put on public list which is not only checked by formal authorities and decision makers the person later encounters, but also available for perusal by the neighborhood watch vigilantes and any other person who might be attempting to reinforce his or her own personal security. But there is no way to know if your neighbor or coworker has a military weapon and is under psychiatric care for an illness with the potential to incite a person to violence.
The issue of this particular shooter having a security clearance go enter the base at all has not received as much scrutiny. This is understandable given that there have been frequent shooting massacres in this country over the last decade, in schools, places of work and worship. The phrase “Going Postal” was coined in the 80s after a disgruntled employee recently laid off from the amazingly efficient but ever more beleaguered Post Office. So this is neither new nor a phenomenon necessarily related to the military. An armed man expressing himself in a public explosion of deadly violence has become a cliche.
Even so, a man with a history of mental illness, apparently a paranoid psychosis, had a security clearance to walk into an important military center with high power weapon. By contrast, I and about 50 other people have been issued Restraining Orders that prohibit us from standing outside the gate of Hancock Air National Guard Base outside of Syracuse, New York. We were issued these Orders at the request of the Base Commanders who requested Orders o Protection from us after we, nonviolent protesters, stood outside the fence around the base, armed only with banners and posters asserting our concerns with, and our disapproval of U.S. policy regarding the use of the Reaper Drones flown from the base as weapons of war.
Catholic Worker and anti-violence activist Brian Terrell, who has no history of any kind of mental illness or violent behavior, was sentenced last year to 6 months in a Federal Prison for going to the gate at Whiting Airforce Base and presenting a letter of condemnation of the U.S. military use of Reaper and Predator Drones for targeted assassinations. He and his companions requested permission to deliver the letter to the Base Commander, but instead were arrested and tried on Misdemeanor charges for exercising their right of free speech at the gate of a military base.
We live in a society where the expression of free speech, however well reasoned and morally profound is criminalized while the open expression of violence, even by a person who is clearly not capable of reason or any form of social ethic, is a necessary and unchallengeable freedom. Personal behaviors, in many cases private behaviors are under continual social scrutiny and subject to endless debate, while the capacity to deal death at the press of a trigger is an immutable right. Heavily armed military installations fear the word, but not the sword.
Our government extends lines of social credit to warriors, even those who are clearly losing their ability to function in society while those who come forward to express the ethical and reasoned concerns of the community are deemed a visceral danger to a well armed encampment.
So, yes, ‘Live by the Sword and you will die by the sword.’ appears to be the law of the land. Can we call this civilization?