SIGMUND FREUD was rarely accused of being too timid. Religious ideas are illusions, he wrote. God and the notion of an afterlife are mere products of our wishes. They are no less real for being illusory. Call them necessary fictions.
But Freud was cautious, even coy, about government and justice.
After writing about religious illusions, he had this to say about justice: “Must not the assumptions that determine our political regulations be called illusions as well? ... The author does not dispose of the means for undertaking so comprehensive a task.”
Let me help Freud along. Consider the recently released Justice Department memorandum asserting that the executive branch has the right to kill Americans without judicial review.
Released this month, it was written prior to the 2011 drone attacks that killed Anwar al-Alaki, his 16-year-old son and two other American citizens in Yemen. There was no judicial determination of guilt, not even judicial review. Senior officials decided these victims were members of al-Qaida and they were killed by remote control.
They were killed to keep you feeling safe and secure from terrorists. Many Americans are outraged. Where does the administration draw the line? If it can kill those it decides are a threat, how can a decision like that be appealed? Isn’t summary execution anathema to transparency and democratic virtues?
Such killings are a direct assault on our values. Yet most of us are prepared to tolerate the affront, even to embrace it, so long as we are not required to learn too much about it. Government killing is sort of like sex in the parental bedroom. If we don’t look or listen, we can pretend it doesn’t happen — we just want mom and dad to be happy.
I am with the American Civil Liberties Union in feeling disgust over these drone attacks. There ought to be lines beyond which government cannot go. Summarily killing us is one such line.
But to most Americans, the killings are no big deal. Why is that?
Political ideas and ideals reflect what philosophers might call instrumental values. In other words, our commitments to due process of law, to liberty or to equality are all means to other ends.
We say we cherish these ideals and that we are prepared to fight and to die for them. But rhetorical flourishes don’t pay the rent. Most folks, most of the time, are far more attuned to their interests than their ideals.
How else to explain the juxtaposition of the Declaration of Independence’s bold claim that all men are created equal with the practice of slavery? This paradox was resolved at the time by a rhetorical trick: All men are created equal, by golly; but who said blacks are men — aren’t they something less?
There will be no mass outrage about killings of Americans alleged to be affiliated with terrorists. They have declared war on us. We can distance ourselves from them, and cluck our tongues, pretending that they brought death upon themselves, and that our ideals remain sacrosanct. This is the same sort of Freudian illusion that calls death but the gateway to eternal life.
Only tyrants kill on command. Letting the administration define who it can kill without review is much like resolving the anomaly of slavery at the time of the founding by merely deciding that blacks aren’t human.
Such word games and deceit are inevitable because there is no explaining the whys and wherefores of how we come to live in groups. Always, the imperatives of the herd confront the demands of individual conscience. What makes the policemen’s wielding of a gun in the name of the law so different from the gang-bangers use of the same weapon? Only ideas and ideals.
Truth, justice, the American way? Illusions all — no less necessary and real, but illusions. We are prepared to trade our ideals for security.
But baring our teeth and snarling too loudly is frightening. We are trapped between the dark nature of our desires and the daylight need to justify ourselves in rhetoric that hides the beast within.
We cannot abide an unrestrained killing machine and call it good. Security from our enemies today becomes tomorrow’s murder of the inconvenient or merely unpopular.
A new court to review executive branch decisions to kill is necessary. The separation of powers doctrine demands no less.
It is the only idea we have to prevent our government from killing us because we pose a threat to someone’s idea of what the country requires to feel safe and secure.
A good friend of mine can’t needle me enough about my outspoken support of gun control. He’s a criminal defense lawyer, so he likes to stand tall for the defense of the rights of ordinary people. The very idea that someone could take his guns enrages him. He marshals all sorts of arguments in support of the right to bear arms. All are foolish.
Does the press report a bus accident in which children are killed? He sends a note: When will I call for the banning of school buses? The reasoning is so stupid, I am dumbstruck. Just what do you say to a person who can’t distinguish between a bus and gun? I fully expect him to taunt with a call to ban steak knives and forks, too: after all, these things can be used as weapons.
Let me break it down for the gun lobby: Anything can be used for good or ill. But some items serve uses independent of their destructive capacity. Indeed, most things are created not for the purpose of killing, but to serve the mundane, non-lethal purpose: you can, I suppose, kill someone with a toothbrush, but you can’t brush your teeth with a gun.
Objects have intended and unintended uses. So much for the argument that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Guns are designed to kill.
So when the press reports that a person uses a gun in self-defense, my friend is quick to point out that a gun saved a life. It’s best if the story highlights a single mother home alone with her children killing an intruder. See, my friend all but screams, this is good.
I can’t dispute the narrow point, but it’s really not an argument; it’s a sleight of hand. We are awash in guns. There are 80 guns for every 100 people in the nation -- that’s some 300 million firearms in this the land of the free. We’re are the best armed nation on earth. Gun violence exacts an enormous social and economic cost on the country.
Query: How many young black men are gun downed in inner cities for every isolated act of heroism? I’m not prepared to accept anecdotal evidence as a justification for transforming the nation into a shooting range.
But guns serve other, symbolic, purposes. The Second Amendment guarantees we the people the right to possess them, my friend insists. How can I pick and choose which amendments to defend and which to scorn? Am I prepared to abandon the First Amendment and freedom of expression? Am I ready to repeal the Fourth Amendment?
How dare I walk away from any part of the Constitution.
That is necromantic nonsense, mere worship of the past for the past’s sake. The Constitution is not a contract binding the living and the dead. I care not a whit for the framers’ intent. We once enshrined slavery; now it is prohibited. Women could not vote; now the right is guaranteed. We’ve banned alcohol, and now permit it. The Constitution is the terrain on which we fight for fundamental values. My friend thinks the document must be swallowed whole.; That is his right, but love of the dead isn’t argument; its hagiography.
What about protecting us from tyranny? Isn’t that important? He moves in for the kill now. I am no friend of government.
But gun owners do nothing for liberty. They transform civil society into the state of nature, placing us all in fear of one another. No one turns their guns on government. Indeed, corporations make a bundle selling guns to government and individuals. We’ve a full-time army, and a nation of gun owners, and still no one feels safe. What have you done to stand up to the tyrant? I ask. Patsy-cake patriotism is silly, I tell him. Your gun is a lollipop.
He thinks he has me now: Why I got my office manager a gun and took her to a shooting range, he says. He is in triumph. But I can’t tell why. What political statement does teaching another person to shoot to kill make?
The bonds of friendship strain. There’s a desperate need to own a lethal weapon that I cannot fathom. I ask smokers no to smoke in my home -- the smell nauseates me. So, frankly, do the gun lobby’s arguments. Fire away, if you must. But, friend or not, I’ll fight to limit your right to kill with a gun.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.