What we can, and should, say to a grieving America

The families of victims grieve near Sandy Hook Elementary School. Photo: Reuters
The families of victims grieve near Sandy Hook Elementary School. Photo: Reuters


"All the world is sad and weary everywhere I roam." American songwriter Stephen Foster wrote that line 160 years ago but it came to mind after the Connecticut primary school shooting. Not just because of the senseless and wanton destruction of young life, but the discussion that followed.

To speak passionately for real change to America's gun culture is to risk being described as ranting or blamed for "politicising" the issue. I am reminded that in the years before the American Civil War, those who were passionately opposed to slavery risked being described as "morbidly" anti-slavery. That is, to be passionately opposed to slavery was an obsessive, psychologically unhealthy state.

But slavery was evil. Nowadays, the question would be: if you're not passionately opposed to slavery, what sort of a human being are you?

Of course, freedom – a big word in the gun debate – also featured in the slavery debate. The freedom of the slave owners was seen as being under attack from the abolitionists. Those taking this line seemed oblivious to the contradiction in citing freedom as an absolute virtue while the slaves remained unfree.

William Smith O'Brien, the leader of the 1848 Irish uprising who was later exiled in Tasmania, opposed slavery during his parliamentary career. (He'd sat in the House of Commons for 20 years and took up arms only after he lost confidence in the British parliament's desire to deal with the misery of the Irish famine).

In 1859, he journeyed through the US and encountered another contradiction – some of those who had supported the cause of his liberty were slave owners. They were anxious for him to visit their slave plantations and endorse the institution, President Buchanan saying "no peasantry in Europe was better fed and better clothed than the slaves of the South".

O'Brien visited a slave plantation owned by an Irish immigrant. His response is not recorded but the pressure on him was to say that he saw no evil.

America was founded on a mythology of freedom by people who were puritan in matters of belief. They took up arms, fought for and won their independence from Britain. For this reason, their constitution, written in 1789, guarantees the right of militias to bear arms. But in 1789 arms meant muskets. Weaponry is constantly being technologically improved and now includes semi-automatic weapons.

Private citizens can arm themselves for war when perhaps their biggest war is the one going on in their heads between what is meaningful and what is not and who is to be trusted and who is not.

As always in America, bizarre notions of God are part of the debate. Here is Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee on the Connecticut school massacre: "We don't have a crime problem, a gun problem or even a violence problem.

"What we have is a sin problem. And since we've ordered God out of our schools, and communities, the military and public conversations, you know we really shouldn't act so surprised . . . when all hell breaks loose."

The most depressing part of what has occurred is the sense that the opportunity for a meaningful response has already been lost because if ordinary Americans, or a significant proportion thereof, believe Huckabee they'll believe anyone who codifies his language in the right politico-religious way.

What can Australians say to Americans? We can say there are other realities out there beside your own. How the world is for you is not how it has to be.

We live a different way and sincerely believe it is better. We respect you greatly as a nation but fear you are trapped in a mythology that devours its adherents and, inevitably, their children.



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