Times change, and so do the means of challenging those holding power. At the time of the founding in the United States, the individual right to bear arms was sacrosanct. If every able-bodied man, well, make than white man, were armed, then no tyrant could hold power. We the people would shoot them to smithereens.
No one really believes the overheated rhetoric of the founding era now. Yes, the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. Yes, we can own guns. Whoop-dee-doo. But guns are no longer used as a means of registering political protest. Governments at all levels have what would have caused the founders to shudder: we’ve a standing army in times of peace and war; we have armed professional police officers, armed sheriffs, and a host of armed law-enforcement wandering the continent vowing to keep us free. The state possesses overwhelming power in guns and bullets.
No one uses guns as part of appeal to heaven; no one uses guns to resist power. We’ve lost the taste for revolution. But we still rage at one another. So we arms ourselves to the teeth, and turn a blind eye to the distribution of guns to kids in the inner city. Guns, the great symbol of an armed populace dedicated to freedom, are now often tools of destruction, used impulsively to settle petty quarrels and as a means of letting the underclass pick one another off. Guns are antiquated symbols of liberty.
There was a time when guns were the ultimate in power. An armed people resisted Great Britain and threw off colonial bonds in favor of liberty. It worked. It really did. No one really believes we can shrug off the bonds of tyranny with guns today. People talk the talk, but rarely do you see armed men walking. And when they do carry their guns in public it is more a warning to other citizens than it is to government.
I for one would prefer to walk streets not teeming with folks armed in the name of the Second Amendment. And I frankly don’t care all that much about the founding fathers and their intentions. My forebears hadn’t heard of the United States until they starting turning up here in the twentieth century. I suspect they were looking for economic opportunity, not a continent of gun-toting, slap-happy Revolutionary War re-enactors.
[A confession: I would not exist but for handguns. My father shot a man in a dispute over the proceeds of an armed robbery they conducted in Detroit in the 1950s. He fled law enforcement taking with him the woman who would become my mother as they tried to start a new life in Chicago. I guess I owe my life to guns, glorious guns!]
All those prattling and preening about guns and liberty remind me of folks storming a Halloween Party. They believe the role they’re playing for the night. But come the morning, nothing has changed. Guns are the new opiate of the masses, offering the illusion of safety and salvation that religion once did.
In our time, the real fight against tyranny and power does not come from the barrel of a gun. Regimes rise and fall today by a source of power far more lethal than gunpowder. Look to the Arab spring. The tyrants had most of the guns. But the people had information. In our time, information is power, and the real revolutionaries are digital warriors. Want to topple a regime or discomfit the powerful? Tell their secrets to the world.
That’s why Julian Assange, one of the founders of Wikileaks, lives the life of a marked and wanted man. He’s living now in London in the embassy of a minor state, Ecuador, having been granted asylum so as to avoid his pursuit by Great Britain, Sweden and the United States. Assange fears, perhaps rightly, that if he leaves the Ecuadoran embassy, he will be whisked to Sweden to face flimsy sex assault charges. While in Sweden, there is reason to believe the United States will swoop in to take custody of the man, placing him in a cell next to Bradley Manning, and charging him with espionage. Perhaps we’ll seek to kill him in the name of liberty.
Assange’s crime? He leaked electronic secrets to the world. He bled the secret veins of a world power and let ordinary people see the sorts of ordinary lies and deceit that are the stuff of governance. Assange is regarded as a criminal because he showed us the emperor really is naked. He rattled a regime not by pulling a trigger, but by pressing something far more powerful in our time: the send button on a social media site.
Where are all the sometime gun-toting patriots now? Are they rallying to the support of a man who resisted power? Or are they sitting home, polishing their handguns and congratulating themselves on their right to bear arms? These pretend patriots would have hoarded tea in Revolutionary times. It would have been far too risky for them to dump what they love into Boston’s harbor.
Julian Assange looks more like a revolutionary than the gun lobby. He is striking at power with tools available to almost everyone. His keyboard is yesteryear’s gun. He’s on history’s front lines, not the necromantic nitwits carrying guns and pretending to be Sam Adams.
Julian Assange knows something Second Amendment backers pretend to know, but are too afraid to try: He knows how to strike at the very heart of power.