Wednesday, January 16, 2013

To Coventry

kw: firearms, opinion, exile, sensibility

I intended to write this about eight hours ago. No matter. The President has announced his proposals for curbing gun violence, I don't yet know what they are, and I don't really care anyway. I wrote a few days ago of my beliefs regarding the ownership of guns. Larger issues are at stake here.

Let us first recall that Timothy McVeigh did not need a gun to destroy the Murrah Building in OKC, killing 168 people, including 19 small children, and injuring 800 or more, including 450 children. Thus, while we need to address problems with pathological gun ownership and use, we need even more to address human psychology in very practical ways. As I see it, there are three kinds of persons whose presence society cannot safely abide.

Firstly, consider why we do not permit 6-year-olds to carry pistols. There would be carnage aplenty, in schools and homes both. Six-year-olds have too little impulse control. A 20- or 30-year-old with the impulse control of a normal 6-year-old must be prevented from even handling a weapon. Period…at least in civil society.

But Tim McVeigh had, and Adam Lanza has, good impulse control. Neither one flew off the handle, nor fell prey to some instant rage. What they did required intelligence and planning. In another setting, either one would have been a good project manager. They both were under the influence of ideas we call deranged. For their sake, as for that of private assassins in general, the problem is the ideas. This is a second kind of person: patient and thoughtful, yet influenced by an intolerable idea—as intolerable to them as it is to us, but in different ways. They exemplify the proverb: Beware the wrath of a patient man.

The third kind is the most starkly evil, yet the hardest to deal with: People who unshakingly believe they have the right to decide for others. In particular, they believe they must decide for others, at the expense of the others' right to decide. This is my definition of a psychopath. It also happens to aptly define nearly all members of Congress (both houses and all parties) after a term or two in office, if not from the very start. This is the best reason there is for having term limits! It also describes many preachers, pastors, and church officials from Popes down to the lowliest priest. To my observation, the only Pope not afflicted with this deadly curse was John Paul II. It describes bullying classroom teachers. It describes a great many people in authority, those who exemplify "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely". Of American Presidents, only George Washington was clear on this principle and took steps to escape its influence. In the pre-Medieval church, no man could be confirmed as an Elder who was known to desire it. Church leaders in some places would go so far as to ask a talented brother if he wished to be an Elder. Only if he refused, three times on three successive occasions, would they practically force him into eldership (of course there were ways to game the system, but it was better then letting every ambitious bully run the churches). There is a caveat here. Restricting guns from these evil ones will have no effect. They do not need guns to destroy lives. Society in general would be better off without their presence. I call these the Controllers.

Even if we agree to deal with all three kinds of persons, what are we to do? None of them fits the moniker "mentally ill". No provision that the President or Congress is likely to propose touches any of them. Yet they are the clearest and most present dangers. Yet they are very hard to identify.

Lack of impulse control is the easiest to detect. Just watch how a person deals with frustration. Give someone just the tiniest bit of deadline pressure, and see what they do. Road rage is a classic symptom. My father tells of a fighter pilot he knew. He says the man was constantly on hair trigger. He could snatch flies from the air. No enemy fighter even got close to shooting him down. But if you surprised him, he'd snatch your hand so quickly you didn't see him move. Then, with an effort, he would usually quiet himself to ask what was going on. Usually. Sometimes he'd knock you out instead. Dad wonders what became of him after the war. He was totally unfit for civil society. But he was very, very useful in wartime! Such people need careful management and to be directed into vocations that need their particular talents.

The planners are tougher to detect, maybe impossible, at present. In the future, who knows? Our poorest science is psychology. Will it become better? Genuinely effective "profiling" may one day help. Even harder: determining a planner's obsession and then effectively replacing it with a more constructive one (Oh, they're still gonna be obsessed. That's what makes a good project manager).

Toughest of all: What do we do with Controllers? Do they have a use we can take advantage of? Can their energies be directed in less destructive directions? I firmly believe they must be kept from the reins of power. Yet, doesn't that make me a kind of Controller also? And Controllers require power to be happy. That is why so many work their way into positions of authority, over businesses, churches, schools, and governments. Do we have a right to deny their right to the pursuit of happiness?

I have an analogy. In the film Key Largo, starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauran Bacall, and Edward G. Robinson, the hero says to the villain Rocko, "I know what you want." Rocko replies, "Oh, yeah? What??" "More. You want more." Rocko exclaims, "Yeah! I want MORE." He is already rich, but he wants more. Our genuine needs may be rather modest, but our wants are infinite. Why is America a consumer culture? Because of the universal desire for more, More, MORE! Finite Nature conspires to deny us complete fulfillment of our infinite desires.

Controllers are those who want something, but in getting it they injure the rights of others. This want must be denied, but how? I suggest setting up a Coventry. To what does Coventry refer? In the English civil war, royalist prisoners of war were sent to the town of Coventry, which was rather remote, making the prisoners easy to hold with a small force. During a rather short period, the prisoners pretty much governed themselves. Over time, this idea led to the notion of exile as "being sent to Coventry". A short time later certain prisoners were "transported" to the American colonies (an ancestor of mine among them), and two centuries later Australia was used for a similar purpose. But the byword is not "sent to Australia" but "sent to Coventry".

We need a Coventry for Controllers. Let them strive to control one another. Use a few of them to control the borders! The hardest task will be keeping those on the outside who must interact with the "Coventry Border Authority" from becoming covert Controllers themselves. It will have to be a rotating job. If we ever develop really smart robots, and can ensure that the robots are incorruptible, they might be the best at this.

There is a danger, of course. It was explored in a few episodes of Star Trek, culminating in the film The Wrath of Khan. You can't run a Coventry on autopilot. It will be an endless burr under society's saddle. But I believe it must be done. Trouble, is, who will do it? Only the Controllers have the will and the ruthlessness. Society will be plagued by the depredations of Controllers for generations to come. We must ponder the implications of this, and consider how we can prepare our offspring, and their offspring, how to deal with it.

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