Monthly Archives: May 2014

Why Didn’t Elliot Rodger Pay for Sex?

In the wake of the multiple murders committed by 22 year-old Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California, there has been a brilliant response on the part of numerous writers across the web tackling both Rodger’s motivations and their relationship to the broader cultural backdrop against which his rampage unfolded (see for example this piece by Laurie Penny, this one by Jessica Valenti, and this piece by Chauncey DeVega).

There’s also been a largely predictable backlash from figures on the right, from stigmatizing the mentally ill, to blaming Hollywood media, to cravenly attacking the families of victims in a pre-emptive effort to fend off (highly unlikely) new gun control legislation. Somewhat new to the landscape, though, is the special pleading from so-called “Men’s Rights” advocates, who have taken the trenchant analyses linking their own retrogressive ideology and Rodger’s misogyny as a reason to double-down on blaming women for their own victimization at the hands of men. In particular, one of the more wretched purveyors of this argument has announced that “more people will die unless you give men sexual options.”

Before anything else, let’s flag this vileness for what it is – a proclamation, in so many words, that unless women make themselves sexually available to men who desire them, they deserve to die. Having acknowledged that, and recognizing the fact that Rodger’s crimes were indisputably acts of misogynistic violence, I want to state something obvious – but which I haven’t seen brought up elsewhere – and then dwell on it for a bit. This is a tremendously difficult thing to talk about, and I hope to try to do so with some degree of delicacy, welcoming whatever responses I can get in the process.

Here’s the thing. Rodger did have “sexual options.” Sex workers in San Diego, not far from where Rodger lived, participate in a market that generated some $97 million dollars in 2007 alone. Had he been willing to make a day trip to Nevada, only a five-to-six-hour drive from Santa Barbara, Rodger could have paid for sex quite legally. Bracketing the immensely complicated question of how sex work should be considered as a legal matter (for a compendium of excellent articles on sex workers and the sex trade, try this Slate Long Form Collection), and stressing that I believe that sex workers, like all other workers and human beings, deserve respect and legal protection, the question arises: if Rodger, a self-professed virgin who had “never even kissed a girl,” was so incredibly driven by the need to have sex, and if our society, for better and for worse, makes it possible for men to purchase sexual encounters, then why didn’t he pay for it?

It’s not that he couldn’t afford it. We know that Rodger came from a background of considerable wealth and privilege. We know that he ultimately spent some three thousand dollars on the handguns, ammunition, and magazines he used in his rampage. We also know that, for years before, he appears to have been an avid purchaser of body-building paraphernalia, and was a member of an online forum for men united by the common experience of being “duped” into spending money on expensive courses, videos, and books supposedly guaranteed to improve their “game” at picking up women. Rodger’s memoir-manifesto is preoccupied with issues of money, and documents numerous expenditures, particularly on clothing, that were intended to improve his attractiveness and self-image: “Buying new clothes would always give me a temporary boost of confidence, and I practiced it as if it was a drug.” Given such willingness to shell out for what he understood to be the accoutrements of sexual attractiveness – the body-building, the clothes, etcetera – and his single-minded obsession with doing so for the purpose of having sex, why didn’t he just pay for sex itself?

Answering this question requires diving into Rodger’s grandiose memoir-manifesto, “My Twisted World.” That document reveals that, for all the money Rodger spent, he was also convinced not just that he needed more, but that he was mystically destined to receive it. In particular, Rodger was obsessed with winning the lottery. “I believed that it was destiny for me to win the Megamillions Lottery…People win the lottery every single month, so why not me? I was meant to live a life of significance and extravagance. I was meant to win this jackpot. It was destiny.” The money Rodger would win in the lottery would have one function above all: to make him sexually desirable. “As I sat meditating in my room, I imagined the ecstasy I would feel as scores of beautiful girls look at me with admiration as I drive up to college in a Lamborghini. Such an experience would make up for everything.”

Of course, winning the lottery is easier said than done, but Rodger was not easily dissuaded. After spending some $900 on lottery tickets to no avail, when he learned that the jackpot would hit $656 million, Rodger grew convinced that this win would be his.

“I was astounded and filled with a feverish enthusiasm of hope and desire. This was the highest lottery jackpot in history. I knew I was always destined for great things. This must be it! I was destined to be the winner of the highest lottery jackpot in existence. I knew right then and there that this jackpot was meant for me. Who else deserved such a victory? I had been through so much rejection, suffering, and injustice in my life, and this was to be my salvation. With my whole body filled with feverish hope, I spent $700 dollars on lottery tickets for this drawing. As I spent this money, I imagined all the amazing sex I would have with a beautiful model girlfriend I would have once I become a man of wealth.”

Needless to say, Rodger didn’t win, and he describes this disappointment – like practically every other negative experience he recounts – as an overwhelming loss.

“What I saw crushed all of my hope completely. My whole body shivered with horrific agony. I didn’t win. Three people won that jackpot, and it was split between them. But none of those three people were me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was certain I would be the winner. It was destiny… fate. But no, the world continued to give me no justice or salvation whatsoever.”

The Lamborghini and model girlfriend were not to be his. Meanwhile, the people who cared about Rodger were attempting more realistic measures to get him to socialize and engage with other people. Specifically, Rodger’s psychiatrist and parents arranged for him to see a series of “social skills counselors.” These counselors were also in their early twenties, and were intended to help Rodger improve in his abilities to relate to others and otherwise boost his confidence (as was the purpose of his mother’s gift of a BMW). But it didn’t work. The first counselor, a young man, displeased Rodger at their very first meeting, activating both his racial prejudices and sexual insecurities all at once:

“I asked him if he had ever had sex with girls in Isla Vista, and he told me he had sex with four girls! I was very jealous. Karlin was half Hawaiian and half Mexican, and he wasn’t that good looking. How on earth could he have managed to sleep with four girls in Isla Vista, while I had been there for two years and had none? It seemed absolutely preposterous. I didn’t want to see him at all after I found this out.”

The second counselor, though, appeared more promising, at least at first – because she was a woman.

“She was the first young girl I had interacted with in the entire time I stayed in Santa Barbara, and she was only hired to talk to me. How pathetic is that? At first, I didn’t want to have a female counsellor, but when I was introduced to her, I saw that she was quite a pretty looking blonde. I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to hang out with a blonde girl, despite the fact that she was a hired friend. It was the only time in my life that I had the experience of spending time with a girl my age, and even though it was all fake, I really enjoyed it. I felt so much better about life after each time we met. But then, I thought about how unfair it was that I could only get a fake little taste of such an experience, while other men get to do such a thing every single day with their girlfriends.”

But eventually this young woman moved away from Santa Barbara, leaving Rodger feeling even further alienated. “I decided not to have any more female counsellors. It has the same effect as hiring a prostitute, I imagine. It temporarily feels good for the moment, but afterward it makes one feel like a pathetic loser for having to hire a girl when other men could get the experience for free.”

It makes one feel like a pathetic loser for having to hire a girl when other men could get the experience for free. There’s a huge blind spot here. The young man who sees a Megamillions lotto jackpot as his ticket to a Lamborghini and sex with a supermodel is contemptuous of the idea of paying an actual woman for sex. Rodger disdains the idea of paying for sex, yet simultaneously conceives of wealth as his entrée into a world of sexual pleasure. What bridges the gap is the theme that both wealth and sex ought to be his by virtue of simple entitlement – they are prerogatives of privilege, rightfully his without effort or responsibility. His “destiny” is to accumulate and enjoy objects and experiences, not to form relationships with actual people.

The overarching sense that emerges from reading Rodger’s “My Twisted World” is that his “world” is only “twisted” to the extent that it isn’t entirely and unqualifiedly his, to the extent that it recedes or escapes his grasp. The child destined for greatness discovers that life is not simply a succession of rewards, sexual and monetary, but instead something more disappointing. But rather than understanding that monetary success and sexual fulfillment are objects and experiences to be encountered and shared through life in a world populated by other living subjects, all of whom struggle and suffer in their own ways, Rodger elevates his own grievance into a cosmic injustice. It is an injustice that, in one final act of entitlement, he in his “magnificence” is empowered to rectify through violent judgment: if the world cannot be his, he will destroy it, and himself.

And that’s the thing, the ultimate reason why I don’t think Rodger was ever willing to pay for sex. Not just because it presumably would have gone against the grain of his belief in his own entitlement, his conviction that it should have been his for “free,” or because it would have offended his delicate class sensibilities, or even because it would, in a sense, have been real – an actual encounter with another human body, however alienated, however tawdry. He couldn’t do it, didn’t do it, and wouldn’t do it, because actually having sex with another human being would have obviated his fundamental self-understanding as wounded and wronged. You can’t be aggrieved if you don’t have a grievance to nurse. In other words, I think that Rodger was aggrieved first, primarily and fundamentally – and the rhetoric of sexual frustration is a channel for that, an expression of it.

Here we come back, full circle, to the kernel of Rodger’s misogyny. Saying that a misogynist “objectifies” women is absolutely true, in that he views them as something other than equally human, that he makes them the mere objects of his will – playthings to win, abuse, display, and dispose of. They are the expendable corollaries to his desires. This is the logic that underwrites the vile demand that men “be given more sexual options.” Women are to be marshaled and made available to men, object-like, as resources for the fulfillment of their desires. And from this logic also flows the obvious threat: If women are not placed at men’s disposal, like objects, well, then, like displeasing objects, they deserve to be disposed of, men’s fervent desire transmuting into equally destructive rage the moment it is thwarted. If you can’t play with your toys the way you want, you break them and go home.

Rodger himself expresses this transition, writing about the development of his attitudes towards a family friend whom he knew as a child and with whom he later re-connected in Santa Barbara. Prior to meeting her again, he “stalked” her on Facebook, looking at pictures of her and her friends, and growing enraged as he did.

 “She was a popular, spoiled girl who partied with her hot, beautiful blonde-haired clique of friends. All of them looked like absolute cunts, and my hatred for them all grew from each picture I saw on her profile. They were the kind of beautiful, popular people who lived pleasurable lives and would look down on me as inferior scum, never accepting me as one of them. They were my enemies. They represented everything that was wrong with this world. [She] was my first friend in America. As a child, I played with her as an equal. Now she was my enemy. I would take great delight in torturing and flaying her and every single one of her spoiled, obnoxious evil friends.”

“My Twisted World” is a deeply disturbing read, but this section is, for me at least, the most horrifying. I can’t imagine what happens inside a person to change him from a young boy who can play with a young girl into a man who sees her as nothing but a cunt to fuck and kill and consume – a man who can slip between all those verbs so freely. I don’t know where individual pathology ends and where cultural pathology begins, how social and personal sicknesses form and reinforce one another. A chasm yawns between the fantasy in which Rodger wanted to live and the “twisted” world he made for himself – a gap between the fantasy of willing women, fast cars, and outrageous luxury that he felt he was owed and the snuff film he came obsessively to imagine and ultimately to enact, at least in part. What he did last Friday irrupted from that gap, and we are left to pick up the pieces, bury the bodies, and untwist the world as best we can.

 

 

The Velocity of Rage

“I decided to purchase the Glock 34 semiautomatic pistol, an efficient and highly accurate weapon. I signed all of the papers and was told that my pickup day was in mid-December. That fell in nicely, because that was when I was planning on staying in Santa Barbara till. After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who’ve looked down on me in the past.”

– from Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto,” My Twisted World

Early Saturday morning, the headlines were dominated by news of gun violence in the West – a “drive-by” in Southern California. Doubtless the first impression of many readers upon seeing those headlines was that they referred to some horrific episode of gangland violence – maybe a LA drug deal gone bad, with a body count high enough to make national news.

Within hours, though, the coverage morphed. The six dead victims weren’t gangbangers, they were “normal” people, including several students at the University of Santa Barbara. The crime scene wasn’t some bombed-out lot in South Central, it was in the prosperous beachside community of Isla Vista. And the perpetrator, who was also dead, wasn’t some drug-dealing Blood – he was 22 year-old Elliott Rodger, the son of a Hollywood filmmaker. Suddenly, the “drive-by” had become a “mass murder.”

As with the coverage of all mass murders, an immediate propensity to label Rodger a mentally ill “spree killer,” was on display, particularly within the pro-gun community.  But the question of Rodger’s psychiatric diagnosis is not just thorny but also fundamentally irrelevant. Determining whether, as his family claims, Rodger suffered from an Asperger’s-spectrum disorder, or, as seems more plausible to me, he was a malignant narcissist, is a red herring. This is not only because such speculation plays into a documented media tendency to over-emphasize mental illness as a factor in gun violence, nor because it ignores the fact those with mental illness are some five-to-six times more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. The real problem is that focusing on Rodger’s individual pathology sidesteps the fact that his actions are symptomatic of sicknesses that are social, on the upswing, and far-too-often ignored.

Writing in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny powerfully identifies Rodger’s actions as acts of terroristic violence part-and-parcel of an existing ideology of misogynist extremism. Penny writes:

The ideology behind these attacks – and there is ideology – is simple. Women owe men. Women, as a class, as a sex, owe men sex, love, attention, “adoration”, in Rodger’s words. We owe them respect and obedience, and our refusal to give it to them is to blame for their anger, their violence – stupid sluts get what they deserve. Most of all, there is an overpowering sense of rage and entitlement: the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power.

This analysis is brilliant, and, I think, absolutely right. Echoing Penny’s argument, I would also add that Rodger’s sense of frustrated masculine entitlement very much resonates with the misogyny that seethes just beneath the surface of some of most militant pro-gun extremism, and with issues of racial and financial privilege as well. Like Adam Lanza, the twenty year- old shooter at Sandy Hook, Rodger came from a background of incredible wealth and opportunity. Much as Nancy Lanza purchased numerous guns that she gave Adam as gifts, Rodger’s mother bought him a BMW 328i – the vehicle he used in his rampage – “to give him confidence.”

Just as it is hard to imagine an African-American mother spending thousands of dollars on guns to give her teenage son, it seems equally hard to imagine that a young black boy who had experienced numerous previous encounters with police and who had posted disturbing messages on the internet, as Rodger had, would be free to drive a luxury car around the California boardwalk instead of languishing in Juvenile Detention or worse. By the same token, it seems hard to imagine that, were Rodger black, largely white Men’s Rights advocates would sympathize with his experience of “loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires” for “blonde sluts.” In fact, Rodger himself found it “rage-inducing” to see a “black guy chilling with 4 hot white girls.”

To borrow a metaphor from psychiatrist Daniel Schechter the causes of violence, like extreme weather events, are multifactorial and, to some extent, impossible to predict. The interaction of wind shear and pressure differentials and atmospheric humidity can transform balmy skies into a tornado in a matter of minutes. With societies and individuals, the dynamic systems that produce violence are even harder to track, and acts of violence even more difficult to anticipate. To take but one example: insecure white men can be dominated by fears of black male sexuality, and not infrequently buy guns to defend “their” women against it – although of course the harsh statistical reality is that those guns are much more likely to be used by those men against their wives or partners than defending them against home invaders. Such acts of violence are not directly predictable, nor reducible to any single causative factor, but the bodies are very real all the same.

In the case of Rodger, where details are still being disclosed, things also seem particularly murky. But some of the interlocking, precipitating forces are visible even now, and they are both individual and collective: scorned white privilege and class entitlement in a feedback loop with festering misogynistic rage, for starters. And at the center of this particular storm, the inevitable, precipitating ingredient: guns.

There are few more brutal and irrevocable ways to subject others to your fantasies of power, to make them suffer your rage, than with a gun. Elliot Rodger may not have been as swift or smooth as he might have wished when it came to meeting women – and even his BMW’s top speed of 140 mph apparently didn’t make up for that lack of confidence – but none of that ultimately mattered, because had three handguns and thirty-odd ten-round magazines of bullets that could go 1,500 feet per second into the bodies of people he had never met.

We live in a country where public space can become the stage for some demented person’s acting out their rage, their brokenness, their hate. Although born of impotence, the velocity of their fury is deadly – it can collide with us at any time, in any place. On Friday, that place was Isla Vista.

 

 

Guntrolling, Chipotle Edition

This weekend, a bunch of folks affiliated with Open Carry Texas went into a Dallas Chipotle carrying loaded assault rifles. On the heels of a recent incident in which Open Carry activists brought weapons into a Fort Worth Jack in the Box – reportedly prompting some terrified staff to lock themselves in the restaurant freezer – this weekend’s scene in that Dallas Chipotle prompted substantial pushback, and ultimately resulted in the chain requesting customers not open carry long guns in its franchises.

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Naturally, Open Carry Texas is shocked, shocked at the response. As OC Texas founder CJ Grisham told Forbes “We don’t go there just to carry guns into a restaurant,” he said. “We always let the manager know we’re coming. We try very hard to make people feel comfortable.”

Of course they didn’t go to Chipotle just to carry their guns there. They went for the barbacoa bowls and watery margaritas, and like all good foodies, they had to take a few selfies of their meal and post them online. Of course, they just happened to have their assault rifles with them at the time. But that’s not the point. Stop getting so sensitive and stuff, people. Open Carry Texas is trying very hard to make you feel comfortable.

Let’s call this what it is: trolling, pure and simple. It’s doing something outrageous that clearly codes one way – threatening and aggressive – and then throwing hands up in the air, protesting-too-much, disowning all responsibility, and claiming victim status. We’re not threatening you, say the gun trolls. In fact, it’s you who is threatening them by questioning the appropriateness and prudence of their walking around the local strip mall locked and loaded for World War III. And if you do feel threatened, well, it’s your problem, not theirs.

But of course it’s objectively threatening, and they know it. As a veteran friend who now works in law enforcement pointed out, carrying a long gun slung across your chest is called “at the ready” for a reason – and it’s not because you’re ready to eat tacos. I’ve been in plenty of places where people do openly carry weapons – Switzerland, for starters, and those rifles were fully automatic, in point of fact – but whenever I’ve seen it it’s always been done with extreme caution, responsibility, and restraint, and never at the ready. Open Carry Texas’s trollishness is obvious and reasonable pro-gun folks aren’t happy about it either.

Some people troll Internet comments sections with lame gifs and snark; others troll Twitter with sock puppets and vitriol; and still others troll fast food joints with assault rifles. As a rule, you shouldn’t feed the trolls. But it’s crucial to assess Open Carry Texas’s veneer of good faith, recognize the insane troll logic that underwrites it, and then stop feeding them — denying them attention and, if needs be, burritos, too.

Playing the Man Card

Update 5/25: In light of Friday night’s mass shooting in Isla Vista, confronting the relationship between gun violence, misogyny, and pro-gun extremism is more crucial than ever.

There’s a piece in Mother Jones by Mark Follman that’s worth a read, now more than ever. It’s about the experiences of numerous women affiliated with the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America movement. These women have been the targets of repeated acts of intimidation, including threats of rape and sexual violence, stalking, and more. In one particularly memorable episode, activist Jennifer Longdon, who was left paralyzed after a 2004 shooting by unknown attackers, claims to have been ambushed in her driveway by a man carrying a rifle and dressed in black “like something out of a commando movie.” Follman writes: “He took aim at her and pulled the trigger. Longdon was hit with a stream of water. ‘Don’t you wish you had a gun now, bitch?’ he scoffed before taking off.” Although several of Follman’s sources provided him with copies of the threats made against them – including emails and voicemails – there’s been an inevitable backlash of gun enthusiasts accusing them of fabrication.

I understand that when it comes to debates over gun rights and gun control there’s always an impulse – on both sides – to discount or otherwise question personal stories. Several of the episodes Follman reports do indeed have a sensational character to them, and in some cases the victims may not have filed police reports. I admit, I’m still inclined to believe most of these stories anyway, for two reasons. First, at least in my own experience, violent threats from pro-gun extremists are quite real. Second, it is morally reprehensible to dismiss claims of threatened sexual assault in a nation in which nearly one in five women is likely to be raped in her lifetime.

But whatever you may think about its more headline-grabbing episodes, Follman’s piece offers some evidence that’s indisputable and deeply troubling. It’s hard to see video of a group of men gleefully riddling a topless female mannequin with bullets and then photographing it with its pants down around its ankles, or to watch a Florida firearms instructor shoot up a Moms Demand Action poster as a way of saying “Happy Mothers’ Day,” and fail to recognize that there’s a deeply twisted, violent misogyny at work in certain extremist segments of the gun rights movement.

Let’s be clear about something. I believe that the majority of firearms owners, and even of ardent Second Amendment supporters, don’t actively hate women – they’re decent people, and a not-inconsiderable number of them are in fact women. Saying otherwise paints too many good people with too broad a brush, much like claiming that all gun owners and Second Amendment supporters are racists. But it would also be naive to think that debates about gun control – like practically every other contentious debate in contemporary America – aren’t also shaped by deep-seated cultural problems of sexism and racism, or that gun violence isn’t also an inextricable part of the landscape of gendered and racialized violence. Sociological data, for example, indicates that professed racism correlates with increased odds of gun ownership among whites (although opposition to gun control and racism aren’t as linked). Likewise, 44% of all women killed by guns die at the hands of former or current domestic partners, while men are more likely to die in shootings by strangers, and having a gun in a home where there’s domestic violence increases a woman’s odds of dying by some 500%. Given the extent to which guns are involved in acts of violence, and the fact that American violence all-too-often involves sexual assault, domestic abuse, and racialized fears, the presence of guns on the scene shouldn’t be too surprising.

But what Follman’s article reveals, I think, is something more – a superadded, symbolic dimension to the vehemence of pro-gun extremism that is thoroughly gendered and deeply disturbing. The men shooting that mannequin are having a blast – no pun intend – and it’s hard to ignore the relish in that Florida gun instructor’s voice. Whether or not it bleeds into outright assault (in the legal sense), the symbolic violence they are inflicting on the women who oppose them carries overtones of male sadism at its worst. They’re putting those uppity women in their place – and they’re getting off on doing it.

Frankly, it is unsurprising that female gun control activists receive threats of rape. Women who take public, controversial stances on any issue regularly receive such abuse, and worse. But I think what makes the thinly-veiled imagery of misogynistic violence emanating from the darkest corners of the pro-gun movement particularly inevitable is that it targets women who are ostensibly threatening to take men’s guns away from them. Much as rapists seek to dominate their victims – frequently as a proof of their own virility, or in response to a perceived affront to their masculinity – these men are responding to women who threaten to emasculate them by “grabbing” their guns. In other words, they fear a kind of symbolic castration, and respond by threatening symbolic – and real – sexual violence.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not jumping off the often-caricatured Freudian deep end here. For most sane folks, a cigar is just a cigar, and a gun is just a gun – although NRA Board Member Ted Nugent’s invitation to Barack Obama to “suck on my machine gun” and talk radio host Pete Santilli’s call for Hillary Clinton to be “shot in the vagina” may be the exceptions that prove that rule. Those cases aside, we do live in a nation that associates the ability to wield a gun with sexually successful masculinity, particularly in our popular media. In his excellent book On Killing, former paratrooper and West Point psychologist David Grossman observes that:

Much has been made of the relationship between male sexuality and the power of motorcycles (1,200 cc of power throbbing between your legs) and muscle cars. The continuing popularity of magazines in which motorcycles and cars are displayed along with scantily clad women in provocative positions make this relationship clear. This kind of sex-power linkage also exists in the gun world. A video advertised in gun magazines, Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns, taps this same vein. “You’ve got to see this tape to believe it,” says the ad. “14 outrageous sexy girls in string bikinis and high heels blasting away with the sexiest full auto machine guns ever produced.” The psychological state that is satisfied by Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns is not widely shared among gun aficionados and is often viewed with considerable scorn…Yet, in reality, our Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns video is only a little removed from the not-so-subliminal message of virility implied in the familiar image of a barely clad woman clinging to James Bond as he coolly brandishes a pistol.

I’d argue that the same is true for a great deal of gun advertising – hell, buying a Bushmaster is literally marketed as getting “your man card” back. Of course, in the real world, dropping a grand or two on a tacticool AR makes you an action movie star about as much as spending eight bucks on a pack of Marlboro Reds makes you a cowboy. But when it comes to the theatrical performance of American masculinity – and the marketing bottom line – projecting virility and general badassness is all that counts.

ManCard

But just because that image is a fantasy doesn’t make threatening it any less dangerous – in fact, the tenuousness of that fantasy translates directly into the ferocity with which it is protected. Shattering someone’s fantasies is a dangerous prospect, because people kill for fantasies all the time. And while I’d argue that, at the end of the day, the threat of nationwide gun confiscation is also pretty much a fantasy – one that also has a lot to do with marketing and unrealistic perceptions of personal power on both sides of the debate – I do think it’s incumbent on all of us, and in this case particularly on gun owners and Second Amendment advocates, to look this particular flavor of ugliness in the face and repudiate it.

Living with Fear

Two things. First, this piece is longer and more personal than what I normally post. There isn’t any Constitutional reasoning here, no policy positions, no advocacy. Second, while I don’t normally go in for “trigger warnings,” I think in this case that I should flag that what follows is going to be intense, and involve some very real, very violent, and very troubling things.

I.

Over the course of the past year and a half, I’ve gotten a lot of mail, from all sorts of people – civilians, both gun owners and non-, law enforcement officers, veterans. Some of the letters have been supportive, others have been critical; some have been uplifting, others, terrifying. An Op-Ed of mine that ran in the New York Daily News generated the most of the last category, including a series of emails from someone I believe is associated with a specific extremist group. This individual wanted to let me know that America was on an inevitable path towards a second Civil War and that, when it finally broke out, I would be a prime target for liquidation.

Understanding my NYDN piece as a call for a renewed Assault Weapon Ban (which in fact I don’t support), he told me that such a measure would represent “the complete and total rape” of his “human rights.” Claiming that my position, as he understood it, made me a “slave-owning scumbag” – a term which he insisted had nothing to do with race, not least because he despised what he termed America’s “large, perpetual race-grievance based dependent class” – this person went on to write that that “background checks are a gross violation of my human rights…ALL existing firearms laws are.” “Get this through your dumb fucking head,” he wrote, in his last, most agitated letter. “This isn’t “absolutist,” this isn’t “rhetoric.”  I will defend my rights with my life, and if you don’t understand what that implies, then I will state it plainly: I am willing to kill for my rights.”

He didn’t have to put that last bit in bold to make his point, although he did anyway. For my part, I got the message loud and clear: however idiosyncratic his understanding of what constituted rape or slavery, this man was not afraid to kill people.

II.

His militancy, and the response to the NYDN piece in general, rattled me. But while all that left me afraid – scared to go out, at least for a while, skittish leaving the library late at night, jumpy on the decks of dark parking lots – nothing hit me quite like another letter I received, in response to another piece, this time in The Daily Beast. My friend Jason and I had gone to an Atlanta-area gun show to take portrait pictures and interview the attendees. We were there with the permission of the organizers, and entirely open about what we were doing. For the most part, the folks we met were welcoming, chatty, and even warm, but the private sellers – people who were there looking to sell guns for cash and handshake, no questions asked – didn’t appreciate the exposure. One in particular got agitated by our presence, threw a fit, and forced us to leave. Paradoxically, it seemed that my notebook and Jason’s camera frightened him – even though he was the one walking around with a Colt AR slung across his back. “We leave,” that article concluded, “without ever getting a chance to ask everybody what they’re so afraid of.”

The letter I got about that piece wasn’t typed. It had been painstakingly handwritten on a few pages of looseleaf and then mailed to the coordinator of a prison outreach organization that had reprinted the piece in its newsletter; the coordinator had then scanned the letter and sent it on to Jason and me. I won’t share the author’s name, or the names of his victims – I have no desire to give him an extended platform, or to magnify the suffering of their relatives – but suffice it to say that he’s currently serving a life sentence in prison somewhere in the South for his role in a multi-day, multi-state crime spree that he undertook with his two brothers over a decade ago. He was eighteen at the time; his older brother was twenty-one; the youngest accomplice, fifteen. Their meth-fueled rampage culminated when, just a few days before Christmas, they arrived at the home of a woman in her mid-twenties whom they later told authorities they had intended to rape and rob. Her three-year old daughter answered the door. Hours later, the girl’s naked body was found on the house floor – she had been sexually assaulted, her throat slit multiple times. Her mother’s corpse was found handcuffed to a bed, covered with a cushion, shot once in the head.

This man did not write to apologize. By his own admission, his actions were beyond atonement. Nor still did he write to place the blame for his crime on guns – although he did note that despite the fact that his older brother had been previously institutionalized for behavioral problems and a suicide attempt, he had encountered no problems acquiring “a sizeable little arsenal.” Those weapons included “a Colt AR-15, 12ga Mossberg, 9mm S&W SA, 9mm Ruger P95, .38 Charter Arms, .44 Colt Anaconda, .380 Bryco and a .22 Lorcin. I distinctly recall [being at one gun store],” this prisoner wrote, “[where] the cashier eyed us nervously and said ‘Y’all don’t kill nothing that don’t need killin.’” But the primary purpose of his letter wasn’t to talk about guns. Instead, he wrote to Jason and me about the last line of our article, which had “gotten” him.

This leaves me with the last line – “What are they so afraid of?” In a word, “Society.” I sincerely hope that what I am about to say isn’t misconstrued. I have no defense in what I was a part of and I got exactly what was coming to me. But it is of vital importance (I believe) that it be said that victims generally learn to fear, and that fear very easily translates into hatred. Such was my case in all this. I was an 18 year-old carrying guns, knives, tasers, you name it. All those things were my shield. I only felt secure when I could see myself being able to lash out. To a greater or lesser degree I think that’s precisely the fascination with guns today. The relationship between fear and hate I feel is closely mirrored in the difference between the responsible use of guns and the explosive violence they have gained notoriety for.

This man, who claimed to have re-converted to Catholicism in prison, concluded his letter with something that brought me up short. “There is no atonement for what I [was] part of. I will forever recall [the victims] as the greatest tragedy of my existence. But out of all of this I have learned something I never thought of. It is impossible to love with fear in your heart.”

Right after I got this man’s letter, I Googled his name, and clicked on the first link that came up. The first thing that flashed across the screen was a photo of that little girl, her eyes big and blue, her grin, toothy and wide. For weeks after getting her killer’s letter, I couldn’t stop seeing her face in my dreams. A doorbell rings, and she bounds to answer it, bright-eyed and smiling. She opens the door, and the brothers are there, standing on the porch.

The letter from that militia sympathizer may have given me panic during the day, and occasionally it still does if I think about it too much, but he doesn’t invade my sleep. The three year-old girl opening that door, though, is a nightmare I still can’t shake.

III.

Just last week, Byron Smith of Little Falls, Minnesota, received a sentence of life in prison for the premeditated murder of 17-year-old Nick Brady and 18-year-old Haile Kifer, a pair of cousins. Smith had grown exasperated with previous unsolved burglaries, and so, on Thanksgiving Day of 2012, he decided to set a trap for anyone foolish enough to enter his home. Smith moved his car to make it appear that he was not at home, and then waited in his basement in a chair he called his “deer stand,” equipped with energy bars, bottled water, and two guns. He also took an audio recording of the entire affair – you can listen to it here, if you want to.

On the tape, we hear glass breaking as Brady enters the basement, and then we hear Smith shoot Brady twice. Brady collapses and moans, and then Smith shoots him again, saying, with evident relish, “You’re dead!” after he fires the last round. Smith drags Brady’s corpse away on a tarp he’s laid out specifically for the purpose of not getting blood on his basement carpet, and then he adjusts his weapons while waiting for Kifer, who enters moments afterwards. He shoots her, and she falls down and gasps.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” he says to her, sweetly. Kifer begins to weep, “Oh my God!” Standing above her, Smith then fires twice more. “You’re dying!” he exults. And then one more round, followed by Smith sneering: “Bitch.”

After cleaning up the bodies, Smith delivers a breathy tirade into the still-running audio recorder. Among the other things he says, he offers the following:

“I refuse to live in fear. I am not a bleeding heart liberal. I felt like I was cleaning up a mess. Not like spilled food. Not like vomit. Not even like diarrhea, the worst mess possible. They weren’t human. I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin. This bitch was going to go through her life spoiling things for other people. Stealing, robbing, drug abuse. It’s all fun, cool, exciting, and highly profitable, until someone kills you. Like I give a damn who she is? “Oh, sorry!” …. I try to be a good person. I try to do what I should, be friendly to other people, help them when I can, try to be a good citizen, not cheat people, be fair. And because I’m a good person, they think I’m a patsy, I’m a sucker. They think I’m there for them to take advantage of. Is that the reward for being a good person? And if I gather enough evidence, they might be prosecuted. If they’re prosecuted, it might go to court. If it goes to court, they might be found guilty. And if they’re found guilty, they might spend six months, two years in jail, and then they’re out, and they need money worse than ever, and they’re filled with revenge. I cannot live a life like that. I cannot have that chewing on me for the rest of life. I cannot, I refuse to live with that level of fear in my life.”

No one disputes that Kifer and Brady were attempting to burglarize Smith’s home. No one also disputes that, all told, Smith fired nine shots from two different weapons, most after the two teenagers lay wounded at his feet, and that both Kifer and Brady were unarmed.

IV.

"Information Desk" - by Jessica C. White

“Information Desk” – by Jessica C. White

Not too long ago I was visiting Asheville, North Carolina. In a gallery near French Broad, I found myself transfixed by a piece of art in a way that’s never happened before. The piece was by Jessica C. White, a brilliant artist who does woodcuts on a variety of themes, including a series of images that appear to be taken from surreal, faintly macabre children’s books. The one that caught my eye was called “Information Desk.”

The scene is somewhere in a thick, ominous forest. A girl in a cute little dress with an orange bow stands in front of a large office desk behind which sits a large brown bear, his paws stretched out neatly in front of him. She seems diffident and fragile, vulnerable, but also graceful and present and strong. Silhouettes of wolves lurk among the trees behind her, no less foreboding for being shadowy and spectral. The girl looks over her shoulder in their direction, at once seemingly worried but also somehow untroubled, as she asks the bear, “Can you tell me how to live without fear?”

Looking at the girl, reading her question, I stood transfixed, and then I started sobbing, crying in a way I hadn’t since I was a child. I thought about that girl in the photo, about the men at her door, about fear, about how there are wolves and bears, some imagined, some dreamed, and some so very, very real. I thought about all the letters, about the calls, about the threats, about the nightmares, and about how nothing made me want to go out and buy another gun and keep it under my pillow more than people telling me that they would relish watching me die for the outrage of using my First Amendment rights to ask them to reflect on how they understood our Second Amendment ones. I thought about how it’s impossible to love with fear in your heart, and I thought about how being unafraid to kill people doesn’t mean that you are actually free from fear – that in fact it can mean just the opposite. And I realized then and there that I was OK with being scared, that I was OK with being frightened, but that I wouldn’t ever, ever live dominated by fear.

Because there’s fear and then there’s fear. There’s a way to “refuse” fear by doubling down on living in it, and then there’s a way to live with it that’s not a disavowal, but a recognition. I think living in a democracy means accepting that we are ultimately fundamentally vulnerable to each other, like it or not. Of course, some days, I’m terrified by this fact, and I feel like I don’t have firm answers about anything; other days, I feel like I understand myself and my fellow Americans only less and less. But for all that, what I remain certain of is that we can’t afford to keep living in fear.

 

 

Some Thoughts on Policy

Site traffic has gone up, and so I want to take a moment to spell some things out explicitly. This blog and my writing on guns and American culture more broadly are about reflection rather than policy advocacy. I want to explore the place firearms occupy in our cultural and political landscape, and to evaluate critically how they are involved in distinctively American experiences of historical violence and ongoing social conflict. This is a daunting enough task without wading into policy prescriptions. That said, today’s debates about guns and gun control are so polarizing and so frequently lacking in nuance that it’s almost impossible to talk about these things without being pigeonholed – and so I want to make my positions, such as they are, very clear.

(1) I believe the State legally cannot and practically will not take any law-abiding citizens’ guns away from them, full stop. The Second Amendment guarantees a right to bear arms, and the Supreme Court’s decisions in DC versus Heller and McDonald versus Chicago enshrine that as an individual right more securely than ever before in American history. I suspect that this interpretation will only be cemented further if the Court decides to hear Drake versus Jerejian. The original intent and context of the “well regulated militia” clause are, at this point, entirely moot.

(2) I do not support a renewed or revamped Assault Weapons Ban (AWB). I have a variety of reasons for this, which I’ll outline at some other point, but suffice it to say that I feel that many AWB proponents are operating under a mistaken set of assumptions, that numerous politicians who advocate an AWB are misguided, and that the entire issue is a red herring. The more fundamental problem in America today is that life in general is cheap, with some folks’ lives valued even less than others. Fixing that – to the extent to which it is even possible – demands changing consciousness and deepening our capacity for compassion, not regulating barrel length or stock configuration. The issue of mass shootings, which at this point I think have become a fixture of life in contemporary America, complicates things (since you can kill a lot more folks a lot more quickly with a drum magazine as opposed to a ten-round clip) but that’s a topic for another time and there, too, I still don’t think a new AWB is the answer.

(3) Like 91% of Americans, I think we need a Universal Background check system. I’m glad to talk more about this, and about the potential complications and pitfalls (particularly when issues of mental health privacy are involved) but I firmly believe that this is one issue where we have to do better, and where we can.

(4) I find extremism – both pro- and anti-gun – repugnant. A defining feature of America is our Constitutionally protected right to engage in meaningful conversation with one another. At its best, this means dialogue – talking with one another, not at or over each other. Being made uncomfortable by an opinion different than one’s own is not the same as suffering a literal assault, and encountering people who live and understand the world differently is not an affront to one’s way of life. Confronting these challenges with tolerance and openness is a basic part of what it means to live together in a democracy, and here, again, we have to do better.

OK, that’s it. Thanks for visiting – I hope you’ll stick around.