33. Deweaponisation

Ch 33

Deweaponisation (to redistribute coercive power)

Even if we used real democracy, even if we redistributed income and wealth to increase equality, we would still be open to the most direct use of coercive power – the power of the gun.

From either outside or inside our communities.

In chapter 22, I discussed the question of the morality of weapons which kill at a distance, and concluded that “a world dedicated to minimising violence would need to get very serious about deweaponisation”.

A word about language here – “disarmament” is a much more familiar word to most than “deweaponisation”.  But, for my generation at least, “disarmament” has been mainly associated with the control and reduction of nuclear arsenals.  So, I use “deweaponisation” instead, to emphasis the fact that we are talking about all weaponry that can kill beyond our personal reach – ie which we can use to avoid facing the immediate consequences of our actions.

To recap that section of chapter 22 briefly, humanity’s invention, sophistication, and manufacture of long-range weaponry has got us to the point where we have the capacity to destroy ourselves not only with nuclear weapons, but also with small arms (ie including automatic weapons such as AK47s).  And the manufacture and sale of all but nuclear weapons is largely unregulated (those who claim it is regulated don’t watch the news).

This free availability of weaponry, combined with a dominant narrative of social Darwinism and the ongoing theft of resources from the poor countries, has created a world where deadly violence is too much accepted.  Opinions vary on whether there is more or less violence per capita now than there has been in the past, but there is little doubt that violence is currently on the increase[i].  And I am certain that most people would prefer to live in peace.

The United Nations and, in its formation at least, the European Union, have attempted to be leaders in the pursuit of peace.  But the pursuit of profit and power is in the ascendancy at the moment, and the manufacture and sale of long-range weapons is just another part of this ascendant machine.  The pursuit of power creates the markets for weaponry, and the availability and sale of weaponry creates the opportunity to pursue power.

I have no doubt that, like other profit-seeking corporations trying to create demand, arms manufacturers are in the business of encouraging conflict so they can sell weaponry into it.  And governments are complicit in this type of activity as well.

Weapons which kill beyond arms-length were almost certainly originally invented to help with hunting large animals for food.  While the image of “man the mighty hunter” is rather testosterone-fuelled (and ignores the high probability that “woman the mighty gatherer” was the main feeder of early human communities), it is still an image of man as providing sustenance for the community.

As communities grew larger, and power moved upward, the use of weaponry was extended, to threaten other humans and to seize or defend territory.  The image of “man the mighty hunter” has now been subverted by the image of “man the mighty “defender” of self and property”, where the turning of weaponry against other humans is seen as acceptable.

In the United States, it is acceptable to the point that American homicide rates compare with those in unstable and war-torn countries rather than other affluent countries[ii].  Since the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001, the United States has suffered about 300 casualties as a result of external “terrorist” attacks.  But more than 10,000 Americans are killed a year by their fellow-citizens using firearms, some of these in multiple killings which amount to domestic terrorism.

While the apparent causes of many of these shootings are poverty and crime (ie the lack of personal power in the mainstream), the free availability of handguns and semi-automatic weapons makes some places in urban America look more like war zones than parts of the wealthiest country in the world.  And the underlying narrative of “the right to bear arms and use them in self-defence” both excuses and supports this.

We are told that there are affluent countries such as Canada which have similar levels of weapon ownership to the United States, with far lower levels of gun violence[iii].  And it is true that different cultures tolerate different levels of violence – a Canadian saying is, “In Canada, the law went west and the people followed; in the US, the people went west and the law followed”.

Perhaps the gun nuts have it right, that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”?  But I don’t think so.  While there is no doubt that cultural norms have an influence on levels of violence in their societies, my core argument is that long-range weapons should not be available to service those who seek power over their fellow citizens, either at an individual or a community level.

I am arguing that we need the opposite of the US Constitution’s “well-armed militia”.  Social violence should be close-up and personal, where we are directly confronted with the consequences of our own violence.  And would-be despots should not have ready access to weaponry that gives them coercive power.

Long range weapons are no longer needed for hunting.  Their use for killing the few remaining large animals these days is for sport or for profit.  So we no longer have any need for them as a social species.

Wikipedia currently lists 45 conflicts across 42 countries involving a hundred or more casualties in this or the last year, 13 of these with 1,000-10,000 casualties, and 4 with 10,000 or more[iv].  That’s more than 1 in 5 countries in the world currently suffering casualties from armed conflict.   The comparable figures for 2015 are 38 conflicts across 36 countries, 12 with 1,000-10,000 casualties, and 4 with 10,000 or more.

None of the North American or European Union (or Australasian) countries is included – we in the affluent countries prefer to fight our wars by remote control.

But this may all be about to change.  As the pressures on land, air, water, and people increase, there will be more social dislocation and more forced migration.  The coercive use of firepower – the law of the gun – to deter this will become more acceptable unless we build a stronger anti-violence culture, combined with vastly reduced levels of availability of long range weapons.  Heaven help us all when we feel justified in the use of a “well-armed militia” to keep out the dislocated, the brutalised and the starving.

Countries need to sign up to non-violent resolution of all conflicts, the arms manufacturers need to be put out of business, and the armouries, as far as possible, destroyed.  It’s unlikely we could completely eliminate long-range weapons, but we could certainly severely reduce them and restrict their use.

Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and one-time President of Costa Rica (the only country in the world to have voluntarily disarmed itself), said:

‘When a country decides to invest in arms, rather than in education, housing, the environment, and health services for its people, it is depriving a whole generation of its right to prosperity and happiness. We have produced one firearm for every ten inhabitants of this planet, and yet we have not bothered to end hunger when such a feat is well within our reach…Our regulations do not hold countries accountable for what is done with the weapons they sell, even when the probable use of such weapons is obvious.’”

The new place where we have to stand is a less violent society, which values the peaceful resolution of conflict, and regulates the availability of long-range weaponry so that its use to exert power over other humans is minimised.

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[i] See for example http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/big-question-kcl/11711266/Mapped-How-the-world-became-more-violent.html

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_firearm-related_death_rate

[iii] For a highly spiced take on this, see Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine”

[iv] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ongoing_armed_conflicts