Oh, Andrew Napolitano, you rat-faced enemy of understanding. I am accustomed to hearing a steady stream of paranoid Limbaughian bullshit from the fine folks at Fox News and, for the most part, I’ve learned to treat it the same way you would a petulant child in the checkout line at Target. No matter how deafening their screams or melodramatic their tantrums, I just keep my eyes faced forward and thank god that it’s not mine. This usually works with the garden variety libel and reprobaty that goes on at Fox News on a daily basis, but occasionally a member of their staff distinguishes him or herself with a display of willful ignorance too ridiculous or injurious to ignore. The most recent example of this type of showstopping imbecility was an article written by Fox News’ Senior Judicial Analyst Andrew Napolitano entitled, Guns and Freedom.1 The circuitous and misinformed arguments that Mr. Napolitano uses in his editorial are as predictable as they are irrational, but they are cloaked in an air scholarship and certitude that is so disingenuous as to force me to go over the essay point by untenable point to show the gravity of this man’s ignorance.
After firing off an opening salvo against the “progressives of both parties” who are conspiring to take away this most essential of rights, Napolitano invokes Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that all men, “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” in support of the rights of American gun enthusiasts, only he calls them “inalienable rights” because he’s the only self-proclaimed Constitutional scholar in America who doesn’t know the exact wording to the most famous line of text in our nation’s history. That snafu aside, Napolitano uses Jefferson’s words to prove that our most rhetorically gifted founding father was inextricably linking our nation’s creation with the natural law that characterizes Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s a lovely bit of justification except for the part where it’s not true.
Thomas Jefferson was more skeptical of organized religion and Christianity than any contemporary Republican politician and his life was lived as a testament not to an almighty Father who art in heaven, but one who resided in the enlightened corners of the material world. Jefferson, like George Washington and many of our nation’s founders, was a Deist, which was about as close to being an atheist or agnostic as you could be in the 18th century without getting stoned to death. Jefferson admired Christ in much the same way we might admire Martin Luther King or Gandhi. For Jefferson, Jesus was a paragon of human kindness and a sage moral philosopher, but he wasn’t exactly the Son of God. The man quite literally cut up The Bible with a razor blade, removing all of the miracles and supernatural occurrences in the gospels to create The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. To imply that this scion of secular thought would write the Declaration of Independence with a view to marrying his fledgling nation with the Judeo-Christian concept of natural law is revisionist horseshit. The rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness don’t come out of any piece of scripture or clerical scholarship, but from the political treatises of John Locke, the man who practically birthed the enlightenment. Not to mention the fact that, if we’re basing 2nd Amendment rights on Judeo-Christian interpretation of natural law, then I’m pretty damn sure that guns hadn’t quite come down the technological pike yet.
Napolitano follows up his Jeffersonian delusions with a nice mini-sermon on “pre-political” rights, that goes as follows: 1) We the people were created in God’s image. 2) We are just as free as God is. 3) Since we are as free as God, government can’t take away our natural rights. 4) A natural right is any type of individual human behavior. So, the logic would go, we all have a right to own as many implements of death and destruction as we like so long as we don’t use them on other people…unless it’s in self-defense, because that’s another natural right (ask Trayvon Martin). That’s all well and good Mr. Napolitano, but using that logic, I should be able to do anything to myself that I want provided the act isn’t directed at another human being. This means I should be able to legally shoot up heroin and set fire to US flags while burning Bibles, destroying US currency and conducting gay marriages in the mosque I just created down the block from where the Twin Towers used to stand. You say that, “the essence of humanity is freedom” so…what about those freedoms. They’re not causing harm to anyone and they’re confined to myself and other consenting adults around me. If you’re willing to admit that all of those actions should be perfectly legal then I will be the first one to admit that you are being ideologically consistent in your support of all freedoms and natural rights, as opposed to the ones that you just happen to like.
After the conclusion of the natural law business, Napolitano puts on his professorial tweed to once again drop some historical knowledge. He tells us that government is “the negation of freedom,” and then proceeds to provide us with a litany of examples in which that personal freedom was only pried from the hands of despotic rule by the demands and rebellion of a (presumably armed) populous. However, since we are America and clearly don’t operate within the same geopolitical spheres as the rest of humanity, our government was uniquely formed when the colonists, “permitted the government to have limited power in order to safeguard the liberties we retained.” Never mind that the American people had just fought a bloody war against their former colonial masters in Britain in order to obtain those liberties or that those same liberties were voted on and applied predominantly to the white, propertied male portion of the country. I’m fairly certain that what’s left of the American Indian population in this country has a slightly different take on the sovereignty of the individual in relation to the US government. To paraphrase Orwell, all Americans possess the same personal freedoms, but some American’s personal freedoms are more free than others.
Turning away from one conservative rhetorical muse to another, Napolitano decides to bring Hitler & Stalin into the discussion because, clearly, when you have the opportunity to juxtapose the two most brutal and tyrannical despots in the history of the planet with a national discussion on limiting magazine capacity or banning automatic weapons, then you have to take it. Napolitano lists a who’s who of history’s biggest sociopathic douchebags who he says disarmed their people, even though, for example, firearms we actually banned in Germany in 1918 as a provision of the Treaty of Versailles after WWI and Hitler actually loosened some gun laws. Ignoring these minor factual quibbles, Napolitano goes on to say that it was only because these brave citizenries didn’t let their governments take away their guns that they were able to fight for their freedom. That his next statement, “Sometimes they lost. Sometimes they won,” invalidates everything immediately preceding it is apparently immaterial. The little talked about aspect of this brand of yeoman vigilantism is that it’s only a good idea if the people are actually able to overthrow their oppressors. I don’t need a arsenal in my backyard to fail in fighting off an oppressive government. Shit, all an unsuccessful armed citizenry does against a tyrannical oppressor is create more dead armed citizens. If all you want to do is start an uprising that isn’t going to succeed you might as well arm your fellow citizen soldiers with large rocks and the odd Molotov cocktail. Actually, scratch that. That’s pretty much all the Egyptian people had during the protests in Tehrir Square and I’m pretty sure they won that one.
Inevitably, the, “if George Washington had a bow and arrow instead of a rifle we’d still be singing God Save The Queen” argument is raised and, as a historical analysis it is absolutely correct. Without firearms the Continental Army would have stood little chance of repelling the British Invasion, but that was 1776 when heavy artillery meant an 8 lbs cannon. Now, the enemy that the American people would presumably be fighting against, the American government, has enough destructive firepower to obliterate every living creature on this planet save the odd exoskeletal animal and those crazy deep sea fish with the flashlights attached to their foreheads. There is no amount of firepower on earth that could allow even the most well regulated of militias to survive an attack by the US military. Ask the Iraqis. They had an entire state-sponsored military and we ripped through that damn thing like a brick through wet cheesecloth. After 9 years of war and sectarian violence the final body count was Iraqis – 120,000, Americans – 4,400; that’s about 27 Iraqi fatalities for every American fatality. Our government can’t occupy countries worth a damn, but we sure as shit can turn entire cities into burning piles of rubble and pestilential carnage.
So, how exactly does Judge Napolitano think the American people would go about repelling a tyrannical government? Well, if the successes of the Revolutionary War are any guide, he believes that the ability of a free people to defend themselves lies in the key element of surprise. Napolitano says that the reason why the colonists were able to beat the British during the American Revolution was that, “there was no requirement of a permission slip from the government” necessary for the right of self-defense. Now, as much as that sounds like a line from a late-nineties straight-to-VHS Steven Segal movie, the Judge has a point. A large part of our nation’s successes in the Revolutionary War came from the hybrid nature of our army and the colonists’ willingness to employ early guerilla warfare tactics to disorient and strike fear into the hearts of their transatlantic oppressors. But let’s play the tape forward a bit…
By the time World War II was over America had become an even larger global power than Britain had been in the 18th century. Instead of protecting our own shores from foreign invasion, US presidents began a nasty habit of deciding to spread our peculiar brand of freedom to other parts of globe, with or without the consent of the people we were setting free. Fast forward to the mid-1960s and America is suddenly the colonizing overlord coming to restore order and justice to a region in political turmoil who had just formed a new revolutionary government. Sound familiar? The Vietcong are now playing the role of the freedom-loving colonists with Paul Revere’s famous ride taking place 20 feet underground in a Cu Chi tunnel and Old Glory has turned into a bunch of 20th century Redcoats, napalming the hell out of the countryside and butchering entire villages with impunity. A variation on the same story was played out in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the efficacy of our soldiers’ military tactics and occupation being thwarted in large measure because they have no idea who is a combatant and who is a civilian.
NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg was on Nightline shortly after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary when he attacked the idea that all guns had a legitimate purpose, ridiculing the idea that an assault rifle would be used by deer hunters. In his words, “If you haven’t hit the deer with three shots, you’re a pretty lousy shot. The deer deserves to get away.” Napolitano must have taken exception with this remark as he says that, the 2nd Amendment, “protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively.” One has to wonder who exactly Napolitano is referring to when he calls out these alleged “tyrants” because, going back through US history after the Revolutionary War, I’m having a hard time coming up with instances of citizens successfully defending themselves from tyranny with firearms. What I am coming up with is Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater; James Garfield in a Washington train depot; William McKinley at the World’s Fair; John F. Kennedy outside of the Dallas Book Depository; Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel; Martin Luther King Jr. outside on a hotel balcony in Memphis; John Lennon on 72nd Street and Central Park West. Are these the tyrants of whom you speak? Their deaths were not some sort of delusional Orwellian revenge fantasy, they were real and the tyranny you rail against to fervently was emboldened by them.
Finally, after about 1,500 words of historical revisionism and misinformation, Napolitano circles back to Nazi Germany, the mecca of hyperbolic and hypothetical historical scenarios. You can probably guess what is coming next, but I’m going to quote him anyway. Napolitano writes that, “If the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto had had the firepower and ammunition that the Nazis did, some of Poland might have stayed free and more persons would have survived the Holocaust.”
I want to tell you a little story. There was this behavioral researcher in sixties named Martin Seligman who wanted to see if our conditioning and environment made any difference in how we react to various stimuli. In order to test his theory, he placed two dogs in harnesses and began administering a series of electric shocks to them (this was pre-PETA). In front of the first dog was a lever that would stop the shocking if it was pulled down and in front of the second dog there was a lever that did absolutely nothing. The first dog quickly learned that pulling the lever would end the pain he was experiencing and would yank down on it whenever the shocks were initiated. The second dog saw that pulling on the lever didn’t do anything to alleviate his suffering, so he eventually just gave up and whimpered through the pain. The dogs were then released from their harnesses and placed in boxes with small partitions in the middle of them. Seligman proceeded once again to administer the shocks to the dogs, but only on one side of the partition. The first dog quickly realized what was going on and jumped over the partition to the opposite and shock-free side of the box whenever Seligman began to shock him. The second dog did nothing. Even though he could have easily jumped over the partition to safety, he simply lied down and waited for the shocks to pass.
This phenomenon is something psychologists call “learned helplessness,” and it is just as evident in man as it is in his best friend. At a certain point the fatigue in our minds is greater than the ache in our bodies and we accept our misery because it is too much work to hope. First, your German customers stop coming to your store. Then, you’re forced to wear an armband to broadcast your isolation and inferiority to your neighbors. Later, those same neighbors shatter your storefront windows with rocks and set fire to your synagogues. Before long armed guards show up at your door and tell you that your family must move to a ghetto across town. As you stand in line holding all your worldly possession, these same armed guards search you up and down with their hands and their eyes, brimming with contempt and self-satisfaction. Eventually, you watch as your family and friends are taken from their homes and packed into boxcars so tight the air loses all its oxygen.
At what point, Mr. Napolitano, would you have liked our armed Jewish revolutionaries to have risen up and slain their Nazi oppressors? The French had guns and a standing army. They had tanks and artillery and an air force and Hitler made it from the German border to Paris in a month. Along the way the Nazis rolled over Belgium and the Netherlands with an ease bordering on the ridiculous and dispatched with Czech opposition with similar aplomb. What would you have had a bunch of Jewish civilians do that would have kept Poland from succumbing to Nazi rule? To suggest that more thoroughly arming these people would have helped them retain their freedom when standing armies of tens of millions had failed to do so elsewhere in Europe is beyond ignorant. All arming the Jews of Poland would have meant is that thousands of them would have died on the streets of Warsaw as opposed to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
There is a portion of the National Holocaust Museum in Washington that is nothing but shoes. You walk into a room on a walkway and are suddenly surrounded on both sides by thick layer of blackened, fossilized shoes. There are flats and heels, children’s shoes and work boots; All of them taken from those who wore them by SS soldiers before they were led into the gas chambers. It’s impossible not to try and envision the feet that once wore the shoes that lie naked before you, to feel the awesome reality of man’s capacity to injure and endure. Mr. Napolitano, the people who once wore these shoes are not pawns in some theoretical argument to bolster your interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. George Santayana famously said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It is equally true that those who misremember the past to suit their needs cannot but fail to desecrate the memory of those who lived it.
1You can find a full text of Napolitano’s article here: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/01/10/guns-and-freedom/