“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”
NRA Executive Vice President, Wayne LaPierre
When I clicked on the New York Times web site to read the National Rifle Association’s media conference response to the Sandyhook tragedy, I expected to find a right wing rant and a thinly veiled agenda to promote arms sales. And yes, in part that is what I found.
Yet there were other parts of LaPierre’s speech that took me by surprise. On top of the expected gun promotion rhetoric, there were several insights that need to be taken seriously. LaPierre’s savage assault on the media industry who peddle violence as entertainment through TV, film and video-games was spot on. His description of violent video games as the ‘filthiest form of pornography’ was unerringly accurate. His condemnation of the executives and stockholders who profit from this industry was a welcome act of truth-telling.
But for all the well thought out arguments in LaPierre’s speech, there were chilling blind spots as well. While attacking the profit motive of those who peddle violence-as-porn in the entertainment industry, he remained silent about the vast profits of the armaments industry, for whom the NRA so often act as spokemen. In calling for schools to be patrolled by armed guards, and proposing that the NRA be the ones to provide the training and expertise, LaPierre showed no embarrassment at the obviously self-serving – and profit driven – motivation he was betraying.
LaPierre’s speech was a fascinating mix of the good, the bad and the blind – just like most speeches from groups with an extreme agenda – and like the nature of the human heart itself. If there was one sentence that really captured the naivety and the fundamentalism of the NRA’s position, it was this one: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” This it seems to me is a quintessentially American response. It is the ideology and plot line behind nearly every popular Hollywood film and TV series ever made: indeed, LaPierre is blind to the fact that the NRA and Hollywood have bought into the very same story line that LaPierre condemns. It’s also the ideology that has justified the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, of Panama and Vietnam, and of every other military mis-adventure in between.
After I read LaPierre’s reflection on the nature of good men and bad, and what he believed it took to stop the cancer of violence spreading, I was reminded of another man’s meditation on the nature of good and evil. That man was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the famous Russian dissident who learnt so much about the nature of men and their violence both from his time as a soldier in WWII, and then from eight years of brutal imprisonment in a Soviet gulag that followed. Solzhenitsyn had been imprisoned for questioning the conduct of the Soviet army in its struggle to repel the Germans. Here’s what he wrote of his greatest insight found in the gulag:
“It has granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of my youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first strivings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and then all human hearts… And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil…. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (from ‘The Gulag Archipelago’).
During his time in the prison camps, Solzhenitsyn had become a Christian, and came to question the value of violence in overcoming evil. He had come to see that violence taints the heart of the good man (or woman) as much as the heart of the ‘bad man’. In articulating this, Solzhenitsyn echoed something Jesus had spoken two thousand years earlier, in advising us not to be too quick to dish out just deserts to ‘the good and the evil’ – for the chances of doing damage and perpetuating even greater violence – are dangerously high (see Mathew 13:24-30).
[Kristin Jack served as part of the Servants Cambodia team for 18 years, before recently returning to New Zealand. Kristin is the Interim International Coordinator of Servants.]