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The Therapy Sessions
Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Arms: not just for hugging

In the LA Times (of all places), I read this comforting thought:

There has never been an age without war, not ever. Mass violence is a continual aspect of the human condition. Peace, like good weather, is always local and temporary and what is peace anyway but the result of past victories in war and the effective threat of future war against would-be aggressors?

We play with our children, read books, go to work and enjoy recreations only because people with guns stand ready, willing and able to kill other people with guns who would kill us if they could.

It is comforting not because I love war, but because it is both blunt and undeniably true.

But I would go one step further: civilization owes its very existence to the gun. Without the gun, we would scarcely be better off than we were in the 1300's.

Until the gun made its appearence, warfare was fought by professionals. Learning to throw a spear accurately or use a sword required years of training and conditioning.

And the strong were naturally better at it than the weak.

Being a warrior in the Dark Ages was a career, and it was often a lucrative one. In times of "peace," soldiers turned to crime to feed themselves. They lived outside villages in bands - blocking roads, taking tolls and robbing at will. People were foced to live in villages because there was safety in numbers. Travel between population centers was very dangerous.

But people in power had uses for these thugs: they were murderers for hire, and when a king needed soldiers for warfare, they were paid to ply their trade on enemy soil.

And so it had been for thousands of years.

Then came the gun.

For the first time in history, the weak had a weapon. With only a few minutes of instruction, a grandmother could learn to operate a weapon that could kill an attacker. Farmers could defend themselves and their stores of food, and they expanded into the fertile fields far from towns. Travel became safer.

The caloric intake of people increased as the amount of available farmland exploded. Food could be more easily transported and this lowered prices. Cheaper food meant that people could do other things besides farming. People made careers out of things like medicine, law, teaching and science. Horizons were widened as people were able to trade and travel freely.

Thus, the specialization of trades that allowed civilization to grow came into being, and it came into being because people who were physically weak became strong - with the gun.

Growth followed security.

Now, society is so specialized that we forget about the people that hold the guns. In fact, more often than not, they are demonized - especially if they are not from the army or the police (and many times when they are).

It is not that most of us need to have guns. Most of us still live close enough to help, should we need it. But we need to insure that good people have access to guns.

When only the army and police have guns, their power is unchecked. It can lead to corruption.

Or worse.

I've seen it. Firsthand.

In Sierra Leone in the eighties, the police and the army were the strong arms of a corrupt government. They stole and bullied the population, imprisoning anyone who spoke out against them or their political friends. They had the only guns and their power was unchallenged.

And those were the good days.

An unarmed populace is tempting target, and so it was in 1991 when Charles Taylor sent bands of drug-addled teenagers into Sierra Leone to steal diamonds and wreak hovoc. They went from village to defenseless village, raping, stealing, killing and hacking off limbs. Some called it a "civil war," but that it is not what it was. It was merely anarchy unleashed on the world.

What did the army do? They hid in Freetown, complaining that they didn't have the trucks to drive West to confront the attackers. When they got the trucks - from the US - they complained that they didn't have fuel for them. When they got fuel, they needed money to pay the soldiers...and so on.

The best lacked all conviction, and the worst were full of a passionate intensity.

Sierra Leone burned and bled.

How could it happen? How could a dozen kids take over a village after village, each filled with hundreds of people?

Regular citizens were not allowed to own guns. That's how.

During my time there, I often thought of Salone as the Wild West. Many things were similar. Dusty towns, rusty houses, poor communication, slow travel, evil men who were brash and proud, and good people who feared them....

But there was one thing that was not the same.

In the Wild West, the good people had guns just like the bad guys did, and the rule of law won in the end. In Sierra Leone, the bad guys took over the country and now help rule it.

There has never been an age without war, not ever. Mass violence is a continual aspect of the human condition.

The world is slowly relearning this painful lesson, as good people have - time and time again - throughout history.

Our enemies have never forgotten it.

That is why they are our enemies.

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