By Shivaji Sengupta
During the last two weeks, up to Thanksgiving, America was distracted out of her holiday spirit with two separate court cases involving three murders. Both involved white men with firearms claiming the right to self-defense; to have used guns lethally because of “reasonable fear.” In other words, both defenses argued similarly that their clients were acting “in fear for their lives.” Kyle Rittenhouse, the seventeen-year old resident of Illinois, crossed borders with his rifle to “take care of someone else’s neighborhood, and shot dead two protesters. Gregory and Travis McMichael, father and son, chased and shot dead an African American jogger in their neighborhood whom they wrongly suspected of being a burglar. In the later case a neighbor of the McMichaels also aided and abetted in the murder. Rittenhouse was acquitted, but father and son McMichael, and their accomplice, were all found guilty.
For the next few days the country was awash with controversy. Should Rittenhouse have been acquitted? The McMichaels convicted? Didn’t the cases seem very similar – three lives ended unprovoked?
Self-defense, however, a recurrent “excuse” for self-defense cases nationally, usually when a white male with a gun claims to “stand his ground” against what he perceives as a lethal threat.
However, to do that lawyers had to prove to the judge and jury that the targets of their violence are seen as a reasonable threat. In the cases discussed here, the defense had to show that Ahmaud Arbery posed a lethal threat to the McMichaels, and similarly, that those people shot by Rittenhouse posed a lethal threat to him. A successful legal defense hinging on the perception of threat to the killer, reverses the order of victim and perpetrator. In both cases the judges in attendance agreed that the word “victim” should not be used to refer to the target of the shooting. In the Rittenhouse case, the judge allowed the targeted individuals, including the deceased, to be referred to as rioters or looters.
To a lay person like me, this seems unbalanced. In the Arbery case, the defense did not succeed in forbidding the term victim for the deceased. However, the defense was able to characterize Ahmaud Arbery as “monstrous and terrifying.” They tried to portray Arbery to the jury, and therefore, to the whole country that the man shot dead was to be essentially put on trial, as someone deserving of lethal violence. The lawyers failed.
So, the controversy created by the two sets of lawyers was around what may be legally considered self-defense. My position, however, albeit a lay person’s position, is that both sets of lawyers perhaps subconsciously but deliberately (does that sound like a contradiction?) took our focus away from the real problem.
This is not a “self-defense” issue although both cases won and lost on it. “Justifiable homicide” is a legal term bandied about in cases like these, of which, unfortunately, there are more than plenty in our country. But as long as we distract ourselves with the legal mumbo jumbo as the numerous articles published on the subject seem to do, we will avoid the real issue: how do Americans see the purpose of guns in their lives? Unless we grapple with this highly sensitive ethical issue, we will not even understand – never mind, appreciate America’s preoccupation with guns.
A concurrent controversy that has come about as a consequence of these cases, is vigilantism. A vigilante is someone who takes the law into his or her hands and proceeds to “punish” the perceived perpetrator, “takes the law into his own hands,” if you will. Rittenhouse’s acquittal may have encouraged all those – usually white people – to follow his example and kill some more, plead self-defense and hope for acquittal. Remember, precedence is a favorite with lawyers.
The vigilante notion, though, is closer to my concern with guns because it points toward the larger issue of the purpose of guns as we, the people, see it.
To us in life each article made by humans has a purpose. A tap is made to get water and control its flow. A pitchfork is made to dig out mud in a garden. These may be called “intended purpose.” But, from time to time, someone may use these things for another purpose: the tap to hang clothes from; a pitchfork to hurt another human being, thus giving these objects an “avowed purpose,” if you like.
Let’s apply this logic to a gun. Without doubt, the purpose of a gun is to kill; or, at least, to scare. But, unlike a tap or a pitch-fork, a gun is also made to be used with more responsibility than a tap or the pitchfork. In other words, the moment a person has a gun in his hand, the awareness of what he has, what he might do with it, what she is about to do, should become activated.
If it doesn’t, if the person holding the gun is distracted into other less rational behaviors, like a false sense of bravado, or misplaced power, then chances are that he/she will misuse the gun.
Something like what I have described in the above scenario probably happened to Kyle Rittenhouse and the two Mc Michaels. To the former, the gun may represent a symbol of power and, most probably, a false sense of responsibility. A 17-year old is not supposed to handle a gun to kill or threaten. If he has to use it at all, it should be for sport. Because he is 17, he could perhaps be forgiven for falsely conceiving his purpose for the gun. For the McMichaels, it was different. Both father and son had the right purpose of the gun in their minds: to kill Ahmaud Albery – for the wrong reasons, They assumed he was a burglar; wrong. They assumed he was in their neighborhood to survey the area, so that he could return to steal. Arbery was simply jogging. Their assumptions were racially biased, and, therefore, hatefully motivated. As the elder McMichaels shouted out his intentions in a call to 911, they were going to blow Arbery’s brains off. A citizens’ arrest became license to kill.
So what’s the meaning of all this? Why did it happen in the cases of Rittenhouse and McMichaels? It could be argued-not by a lawyer but by a journalist-that both of them were misguided by the way they saw their purpose. Rittenhouse travels all the way from the neighboring state to “take care of the hoodlums protesting in Kenshoa, Wisconsin, to keep the neighborhood clean. A gun for him was the most potent symbol of maintaining law and order. So he crosses over to the neighboring state, armed. The defense lawyers argued that during the process of Rittenhouse’s belligerent arguments with two or three of the protesters Rittenhouse suddenly felt endangered, and feared for himself. The rifle, always in his hand, always reminding him of its purpose to kill, makes him act in self-defense- according to his lawyers. The fact that Rittenhouse got the entire purpose of the gun wrong, in the context of himself, his age, never came up during the trial. The lawyers and the presiding judge had already decided that the case would be decided on whether or not Rittenhouse killed in self-defense.
I submit that the guns in both cases are the main exhibits, not the assassins, nor the assassinated. From a journalist’s point of view, of the two sets of defendants, one misunderstood its purpose (that is why he was acquitted while the other deliberately misused the purpose of the weapon in bravado, and in open defiance of the law. They understood the purpose of the gun all right, and deliberately misapplied its use to commit a racist murder. That is why they were pronounced guilty.
Even as I am about to finish writing this piece, CNN flashes the news that in a high school in Oxford, Michigan, a fifteen year old student shot dead four other students, fourteen, sixteen and seventeen year old, with an automatic hand-gun. There is no word yet as to why and the wherefore of the situation, but I am sure that by the time this article is in print, we will have answers to some of the questions. Others, we will not know. But once again, I submit, it is a question of purpose, misunderstanding it, leading to senseless violence.
We live in a country from where guns will never be outlawed. They are a principal icon, a cultural symbol. Rather than trying without success to ban them, we need to open up a dialogue with all middle and high school students, discussions on what they-and we the adults – perceive to be the purpose of a gun in our society. Teachers, the clergy, psychologists, writers and philosophers should all participate in this dialogue with our children. Ask them the question: What is the purpose of a gun? Cut through the initial expected answers, and in a non-judgmental
non-threatening way, try to differentiate between a gun’s intended purpose and its “avowed purpose”, as I have done in the paragraphs above. Let’s not come to any conclusions. If there are realizations, let us just acknowledge them as things to continue to think about and continue the discussion.
The road to a conclusion is still too far.
By Shivaji Sengupta