Who did I vote for? Why did the United States do this or that? Is it true that all Americans own/believe/drive/ – a gun/in Jesus/a Hummer? Have I ever met <actor name here>? And so on and so forth.
The setting was a one hectare nursery and home outside La Garde, on a glass enclosed terrace. A Sunday morning swim on a beautiful sunny day was followed by an invitation to coffee, followed by some mid-day beers, and then turned into a meal, with baguette and mergez sandwiches, washed down with some local rosé.
As an American living abroad, I am asked questions about the United States, our people, culture, actions, and beliefs. Most Europeans I’ve met have not traveled to the United States, and readily admit that their images and impressions are based upon popular media, namely television shows and movies.
Minor detail: in our home the phone, data, and entertainment come from a company called SFR, a sort of French Comcast. In English we can watch the BBC, CNN International, France24, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM). There are other shows from the United States, but these are usually dubbed. In the movie theaters there are the usual blockbusters, in both English and dubbed – Skyfall, the latest Batman movie, to name two recent movies.
How to explain the United States? Explaining was hard, so I took the easier route and first described the country:
- It’s a big country.
- Everyone speaks English. Our northern neighbor speaks English, even that one province that claims not to like English. Our southern neighbor speaks Spanish and English.
- In most of the country you can drive for ten hours with little or no change in landscape, culture, or language (see above).
- Except for the attempt by the conservatives to make post-Baathist Iraq under Viceroy Bremmer a libertarian, free-market utopia, the United States is arguably the closest thing to a clean slate, tabula rasa, a nation building experiment. There are similar countries – New Zealand, Canada, and Australia – yet these took a different path, and did quite well.
I poured another glass of wine and threw in a little history. Noteworthy is how long the U.S. has enjoyed a relatively stable national government. A selective history of the other world powers:
- France: five or six major government changes since 1789, some violent; the last in 1958
- Germany: not united until the Franco Prussian War (1870); several regimes since then
- Russia: monarchy until 1917, communist until 1990’s, appears to be a plutocracy now
- Italy: not united until the 1860’s; several regimes since then
- India: out from under the British in 1947
- Spain: under a fascist rule until Franco’s death in 1975
- China: from empire to fragmented republic to communist, all since 1912
- Japan: from feudal isolation (until 1854) to empire to constitutional monarchy (1947)
The political continuity (like that of England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) has been a wonderful thing, but perhaps skewed our perspective. Except for the Civil War and the treatment of Native Americans, there’s been no systematic, large scale violence and destruction.
So this, among other things, has caused us to see ourselves as different, and right fully so. Of course we are different. And we aren’t.
After going through this preamble, I was ready to take a European’s detailed question about the U.S. Some questions were easy to answer: what are cheerleaders? Something to look at between plays. Other questions were harder. How and why did a young American kill twenty children and six adults, many shot multiple times, in Newtown, Connecticut? This was impossible to answer. Adam Lanza was insane, but the world’s full of the insane, most of whom don’t go on a killing spree.
What about all those guns, I’m asked.
I explain a little about our constitution, and add a bit of faded information from that one U.S. military history class I took sophomore year: the origins of the second amendment may have stemmed from a fear, which perhaps the founders derived from earlier English history, of there being no check on a standing army; and that back in those days the differences between the firearm(s) a citizen carried and the firearms(s) the army carried were not so great. But no one is satisfied with this answer, not me, anyway.
To me the second amendment has always been quite easy. One need only have a firm grasp of English to understand it. If you’re in a militia, you have the right to keep and bear arms, and it must be well regulated. Regulated is not defined, but it seems something reasonable people should be able to agree on. Nor could the definition of arms anticipate flame-throwers and hand grenades, never mind tanks, anit-tank weapons, and all the wonders of NBC1nuclear, biological, chemical warfare.
What if you’re not associated with a militia? Permitted or not? The constitution doesn’t say. Given that, the ‘n0t in the militia’ gun question becomes a perfect law for each state to implement as it sees fit. State A could pass laws allowing non-militia citizens of a certain age to keep and bear arms; State B could pass more restrictive laws. But it’s not so simple, there are a variety of factors, mostly economic and emotional.
The late lunch is over, and the setting sun is turning the chalky peak at Fort Coudon pink.
So why all the shootings in the U.S.? Perhaps Americans are simply very violent. Perhaps having all those guns around contributes to the problem. Perhaps there’s been enough precedence, given all the real shootings and all the fictional ones portrayed on the screen, that now, to some shattered minds and souls, instead of jumping off a bridge or running a hose from the exhaust pipe into the car, a shooting followed by a suicide is now so common as to be acceptable.
After the Aurora, Colorado shootings, Dan Baum wrote this in Harper’s. I don’t necessarily agree with what he wrote, but it’s worth a look (as is his longer piece about concealed carry, which you can find at Harper’s archives).
I sometimes see what Jeffrey Toobin has to say about things.
At The New Yorker Jill Lepore wrote this.
Firmin Debrabander examines some NRA thinking.
For me the best piece after Newtown was this by Gary Walls post at The New York Review of Books.
The Peace of God That Passeth Understanding
The featured image for this post is a photo I took at the home of Augustus Saint-Gaudens in New Hampshire. The full title is The Mystery of The Hereafter and the Peace of God That Passeth Understanding. The casting is a copy of the Adams Memorial in Washington, D.C.
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