Obama promises ‘meaningful action’ but can we expect change from a politician who sheds tears for American children whilst killing their counterparts in Afghanistan?

Obama weeps

Before 14 December 2012, US society had become almost blasé about so-called ‘spree shootings’, treating them as almost the equivalent of traffic accidents and a phenomenon that should be regarded as horrific but inevitable.

The horror of the Sandy Hook School massacre in Newtown, however, has changed the dynamic of the debate on gun control. The photographs of the 20 young children gunned down by Adam Lanza has even shaken the pro-gun convictions of some members of the National Rifle Association, the notoriously powerful pressure group that lobbies for ‘the right to bear arms’.

NRA supporter Senator Joe Scarborough responded to Newtown by saying:

“From this day forward, nothing can ever be the same again… Let this be our true landmark… politicians can no longer be allowed to defend the status quo.”

The heroism of the six teachers who died trying to protect the children has also forced right-wing pundits in the US to quietly drop their usual contempt for the profession – albeit temporarily no doubt.

‘Shock Jock’ Jay Severin is typical of this breed. In 2010 he described American teachers as:

“These little Napoleons – think about these teachers and how they act, a lot of them. This is their little, tiny kingdom. A lot of them are losers, and they’re little, tiny Napoleons, and you go into the school and this is their only chance in life, is to boss around parents.”

It is safe to assume the parents whose children were taught by Victoria Soto take a different view. She managed to direct some of the Sandy Hook children to safety before being killed by Lanza. Other teachers at the school also sacrificed themselves trying to save their pupils.

An absence of debate

The saturation coverage awarded to this incident, however, is in stark contrast to the virtual absence of recent debate on gun control both in the US media and in Congress. The issue was conspicuously low on the agenda in the Presidential debates before the November election but has suddenly been catapulted to the top of the national agenda.

Barack Obama has failed utterly to address the topic in his first term, but felt compelled in the wake of Newtown to make a characteristically vague commitment to ‘meaningful action‘. His comment about attending too many similar vigils for other shootings in the recent past only serves to highlight his political paralysis on gun ownership. The Brady Center, a gun control pressure group, has previously given Obama an F (for Fail) for his voting record on the issue.

“As a country we have been through this too many times. Whether it is an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago – these neighbourhoods are our neighbourhoods, and these children are our children.”

The Newtown massacre is the fourth spree-shooting of Obama’s presidency. Last year, six people were killed by Jared Loughner at a shopping centre in Tucson, Arizona. Earlier this year James Holmes opened fire at a premiere of the new Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado, killing twelve.

A few weeks later, six people were killed at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. After each of these incidents, Obama has been presented as ‘mourner-in-chief’, delivered a few soundbites, and then done nothing.

Even if the Newtown incident has persuaded Obama to move on the issue he will face numerous obstacles from America’s gridlocked and venal political system. The pro-gun Republicans have control of the House of Representatives in Washington and enough seats in the Senate to filibuster (talk into oblivion) any gun control legislation coming from the White House.

National Rifle Association

Even many Democrats have felt beholden to the ubiquitous power of the National Rifle Association. Harry Reid, Democrat leader in the Senate, has already blocked one attempt to discuss the issue since Newtown. Senators from both parties were responsible for the expiration of a restriction on assault weapons in 2004.

Their collective failure to act was partly due to the nefarious influence of the National Rifle Association.

As Gary Younge has noted, its power over Washington politicians is formidable:

“It claims more than 4 million members, has a budget of more than $300m and spent almost $3m last year – when there were no nationwide elections – on lobbying.”

The organisation also has close ties to corporate interests and has identified a market in selling guns that is ‘recession-proof’, making about $3.5 billion every year.

In the unlikely event a bill survived the bruising congressional process, it could still be struck down by the Supreme Court. This institution is currently dominated by conservative judges and has acted in the recent past to protect the interests of the pro-gun lobby. In the 2008 case of DC v Heller, the Court overturned an attempt to restrict the purchase and possession of hand guns.

The Second Amendment

This verdict was based on a narrow interpretation of the infamous 2nd amendment to the Constitution:

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

For supporters of the gun lobby, this 1791 statute enshrines the right of modern Americans to possess and use firearms. The nuances of this amendment are crucially neglected, however, by the NRA and its supporters. The Founding Fathers – creators of the Constitution – were conscious of the real threat of British invasion at the time and understandably felt the need for a possible rapid deployment of a guerrilla-type force to repel an aggressor.

The ‘right to bear arms’ was within the context of a citizens militia similar to the one that was responsible for securing the American Revolution of the 1770s. The irony is that today’s US political right has appropriated and twisted the language of a revolutionary movement of the past that was committed to resisting the most powerful empire of the day. As Robert Parry puts it, the writers of the Second Amendment “were not envisioning people with modern weapons mowing down children in a movie theater or a shopping mall or now a kindergarten.”

Even if the NRA tries to legitimise itself as the inheritor of the Founding Fathers, there is no rational justification for why Americans in the 21st Century should feel themselves bound by the thinking of eighteenth century politicians who were seeking to establish a slave-owning plutocracy that explicitly excluded Native Americans, blacks, women and the poor.

The Founding Fathers were engaged in the project of consolidating a bourgeois revolution and constructing an embryonic capitalist state in North America. The revolution they were defending was a contradictory phenomenon. The guns they were eager to retain were partly for resisting a British counter-revolution but also for exterminating the native population. Making a shibboleth of a constitutional relic like the Second Amendment is absurd. The ‘rainbow’ nation that re-elected Obama in November would be unrecognisable to slave-owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

What kind of ‘rights’?

Apart from its self-serving misinterpretation of the Constitution, the pro-gun lobby is highly selective in its passion for ‘rights’. Like the rest of the political right, its version of the concept is based on the idea of negative freedom espoused by free-market fundamentalists like Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand. This focuses on ‘freedom from’ state interference and the preservation of a supposed right to private property.

An alternative reading of rights – favoured by the left – is founded on constructing social and economic provision in health, education and welfare. This notion of positive freedom has been the inspiration for improvements in the condition of millions of workers around the world.

It is no coincidence that the Tea Party fringe that sought to derail ‘Obamacare’ is likewise one of the sources of resistance to gun control. As Thom Hartman puts it:

“we should be looking at things that the rest of the developed world long ago determined are basic human rights – even the UN has enshrined them as such – and move toward making physical and mental healthcare free and fully accessible to all our citizens, along with a high-quality and free education from kindergarten through a PhD.”

As Hartman states, a legislative focus on positive freedom would include robust support for mental health provision. The radical ‘Mother Jones’ website has drawn attention to the preponderance of failed mental health support in a significant number of spree-shooting cases:

“No less than 80 percent of the perpetrators in these 61 cases obtained their weapons legally. Acute paranoia, delusions, and depression were rampant among them, with at least 35 of the killers committing suicide on or near the scene. And according to additional research we completed recently, at least 38 of them displayed signs of mental health problems prior to the killings.”

Obama’s former chief of staff and current Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, has recently shut down half of Chicago’s mental health centres as a cost-cutting measure. He symbolises the typical attitude of America’s politicians to the status of this provision.

It is too early to speculate on the mental condition of Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, but there is no lack of evidence that America’s threadbare healthcare system is failing to provide adequate mental health provision for vulnerable individuals. The Tucson killer, Jared Loughner, had reported hearing voices in his high school classes on numerous occasions but was not picked up by the system.

Alienation and a society built on violence

The US prides itself on being the embodiment of capitalism but as such it citizens are acutely vulnerable to the condition of alienation that Karl Marx identified in the nineteenth century as one of the defining features of the system:

“A direct consequence of the alienation of man from the product of his labour, from his life activity and from his species-life, is that man is alienated from other men. … man is alienated from his species-life means that each man is alienated from others, and that each of the others is likewise alienated from human life.”

A society in which there are 90 guns for every 100 people and 85 people every day are killed by guns is clearly suffused with alienation.

Obviously, it would be totally reductionist to argue that Adam Lanza’s action is directly attributable to the impact of the global recession on US society but only the most rabid libertarian would deny that human personality is significantly shaped by wider social and economic dynamics.

Ten years ago filmmaker Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine drew attention to the link between the violence perpetrated by two high school killers in Colorado and that which is routinely deployed by the US state in its pursuit of global hegemony. Other commentators on the left have made the connection between the gun control debate and a the wider question of American capitalism’s reliance on violence around the world. Jerry Kroth sees gun control as the beginning of a grassroots campaign to curtail the power of the 1% capitalist ruling class:

“we might even take it one step further and retreat from our aspirations of empire and global hegemony, close down our military operations, and bring our vast armies and armadas home – over 400,000 Americans at last count stationed in almost 1,000 overseas military bases. Russia has ten overseas military bases. China none.”

By their own admission, politicians like Obama have failed to protect their most vulnerable citizens – children. Nor should we expect ‘meaningful action’ from a politician who publicly sheds tears for American children while simultaneously raining down death on their counterparts in Afghanistan without a second thought.

168 Afghan children were killed by Obama’s drones last year. There were no heart-rending close-ups of their faces on American TV. Only a social and economic transformation greater than he can contemplate can truly end the type of trauma that has been inflicted on Newtown.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters