Thursday, 3 December 2015

Fear and Anger

     I sat down to try to write something about the terrorism at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. I wanted to talk about how "terrorism" isn't (or shouldn't be seen as) violence-by-Muslims, but that it's a specific kind of violence, strategically aimed more at provoking a terrified response than at inflicting decisive damage. Terrorism is about the emotional reaction to the violence more than the violence itself, and violence used to intimidate people to change their behaviour (such as deterring them from attending health care services) clearly fits the bill.
     But I also wanted to talk about how maybe the word "terrorism" is itself a bit misleading, because the emotional overreaction that it provokes isn't always purely a terrified one. A natural reaction to fear is anger, and displays of escalating rage are a very common defence: if I can make you more afraid of me than I am of you, maybe you'll leave me alone. I like to call this phenomenon "badass bravado", and you see it all over the place, from politicians boasting about how they're going to get "tough on" criminals or terrorists or foreigners, to Second Amendment crazies fantasizing about how would-be government despots quiver in fear from their mighty home arsenals of small arms. 
      What's especially dangerous about this bravado is that, in believing that one is driven by anger and not fear, one can think that one is immune to the strategy of terrorism. "They want us to be afraid, but I'm not afraid. I'm angry, and I'm gonna kick their asses, not cower in fear!" Yet the objective, at least in the case of DAESh's use of terrorism, is to provoke exactly this kind of response. To be fair, there certainly are uses of terrorism that are intended to intimidate, as well, as the Planned Parenthood example illustrates. But in all cases, terrorism is aimed at getting you to react emotionally instead of rationally.
     There are very good evolutionary reasons for why we have emotions that make us stupid. In a suddenly dangerous situation, being able to react quickly without stopping to ponder if maybe there's a better way to avoid the charging angry bear is important: fight or flight, but whichever you choose it's better if you don't linger over the decision.
     But anger in particular is meant to make us irrational, especially in the badass bravado scenario. We have a strong need not to appear weak before our rivals or enemies, to pose a credible deterrent to any slight or insult they might offer. It wouldn't be, in the immediate situation, rational to escalate to a costly retaliation when the cost of just turning the other cheek is so low, but little insults add up, and in the long run it can be costly to be seen as willing to tolerate little wrongs. And so, being seen as easily angered to irrationally costly vengeance is often worth it. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. made the rationally calculated choice to assure each other not just that they would be able to retaliate to any nuclear attack, but unable to stop themselves from retaliating. Thus was WWIII deterred: by the awareness on both sides that the other side would become irrationally dangerous if provoked.

     So this is what I was trying to organize into yet another blog post about violence, when yesterday I heard about the mass shooting in San Bernardino and threw up my hands in frustration. And anger. So much anger. And maybe a bit of fear, too, but I'll get to that.
     See, the thing that sends me into a seething ultraviolet-hot fury is not the shooters. I'm mad at them, a bit, of course, but they're dead and unworthy of further attention except as data points in trying to understand and prevent future incidents. No, what enrages me is when the Gun Lobby people start blaming the victims, saying that if only they'd been armed, they could have defended themselves and saved lives. 
     That is just plain offensive, but it's something the Gun Lobby does a lot, and if you apply the tiniest fraction of the paranoid creativity that goes into dreaming up false flag explanations for Sandy Hook or ... or... jeez, I can't even remember which of the many other shootings they've tried to claim was a hoax as a pretext to confiscate guns. If you consider the motives of the Gun Lobby with the slightest hint of the skepticism they have for Teh Gubmint and the "liberal" media, it might occur to you that an industry that makes all of its money from the sale of guns and ammo might not be completely free of ulterior motives in their enthusiastic promotion of guns as the solution to gun violence.
     I am reminded of the obscene hypocrisy of tobacco company executives asserting before Congress that they believed tobacco was not addictive, and spending vast sums to challenge the claim that maybe cigarettes weren't very good for you. No, it's not the mere fact that they were lying that was obscene. It's that the lie was so transparently a self-serving lie, because at the very same time they were claiming there was no health risk from smoking, they were also insisting that their advertising wasn't aimed at children or indeed at convincing anyone other than established smokers to switch to their brand. Really? If you believe tobacco is harmless and non-addictive, then what kind of an incompetent moron are you not to be trying to encourage everyone to try your wonderful product?
     The Gun Lobby argument is not quite as inherently self-refuting, but it's close. It's certainly more profoundly immoral, though, because at least with tobacco, dying of emphysema was at worst an unfortunate side-effect of tobacco use that had to be downplayed. With guns, mass-shootings and the fear they inspire actually create more profits for gun manufacturers, because terrified people rush out to buy guns to defend themselves against other terrified people with guns, or to stockpile them before a reactionary government bans them. In other words, it's actually in the Gun Lobby's interests for there to be fairly regular mass shootings.

     So if I'm angry, what's the fear behind it? Well, apart from just being morally outraged that people are dying unnecessarily to keep the money rolling in for the gun industry, there's another pretty terrifying aspect to their rhetoric. A common variation on their blaming-the-unarmed-victim argument is the claim that Hitler disarmed the Jews, as if they could have defended themselves effectively against the state if only they'd had guns. And this offends and frightens me, because the lesson of the Holocaust was not "Don't be like the Jews"; it was "Don't be like the Nazis". There is a guy running for President of the United States, a prime example of badass bravado, who has openly advocated making Muslims wear badges. 
     Sure, I'm not a Muslim. Heck, I don't even live in the U.S. Why should I be afraid?

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