01/24/2013 04:06 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Newtown, Gun Control and Democratic Virtue

We have now passed the period of mourning prescribed by all of the world's faith traditions and can start to ask ourselves hard questions about the massacre in Newtown.

And we should be clear that frenzied advocacy of gun control does not ask any hard questions at all. If we focus all of our energies on gun control then we succumb to a pernicious fantasy. The fantasy holds that we can remain a deeply violent society and yet keep that violence perfectly regulated. And let's be clear: we are a deeply violent society. We stand alone with Belarus as the only North American or European nation to employ the death penalty, and we do so with great zeal. We unquestioningly pour riches into a military machine that rains bombs wherever it pleases, and deem social welfare programs a moral affront. We incarcerate more of our fellow citizens than anyone else in the world and, for good measure, hide behind armed guards in gated communities. We would rather have our borders and our cities become war zones than treat drug abuse with a grain of good sense and humanity. We know that slaves are trafficked amongst us, hiding in plain sight, and we cannot be bothered to give a damn. The scars of our violence are everywhere, and we accept them as the furniture of everyday life. How can we possibly expect schools to be zones of Edenic innocence in a society chock-full of sanctioned violence?

Instead of taking aim at video games, we should take aim at the desires leading us to those video games. I don't find it alarming when this murderer or the next one played a first-person shooter with great enthusiasm. I find it alarming when thousands of people play such games with great enthusiasm, and have an insatiable appetite for ever-more realistic electronic simulations of the mutilation and dismemberment of their fellow human beings. Progress would not be outlawing the latest version of Call of Duty. Progress would be having it collect dust on the shelf because nobody cares to pick it up.

Does that sound pie in the sky? It is in fact the language of democracy. Every thinker in the republican tradition recognizes that if the people are to be handed sovereignty they must be trained in its exercise. Democracy descends into tyranny when it does not steer the desires of the citizenry toward pacific and public-spirited ends. And that is precisely the tyranny of the neoliberal state, which has no patience for cultivating civic-mindedness in its relentless expansion of market logic, a logic that regulates precisely those activities it tacitly encourages.

Cicero teaches us that citizens of a republic must train their children in simple virtue and in their obligations toward their fellow human beings. Milton teaches us that those who are internal slaves will take naturally to external slavery, and that none can love liberty but good men (to which we should hasten to add good women). The Founding Fathers knew these lessons, which is exactly why they adopted the long-running republican worry over a standing army. Not just because they thought that the government could turn its might against citizens, as the gun-toters tell us, but because of the dangers of an overly militarist society. As Hamilton puts it in Federalist 8, the "continual necessity" of the military's services "enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen." The mathematics of this inverse ratio could not be clearer: increase the dignity of soldiery in the public imagination, and you decrease the dignity of citizenship. A country in a state of fear equivalent to that of a theatre of war cannot cultivate the public spirit on which republican government must rest.

The very basic measures of gun control proposed by President Obama will strut and fret their hour upon the stage and, thanks to the howlers in Congress and the lobbyists they serve, signify nothing. Our legislators will inevitably disappoint us, but we should take their failure as a clarion call to reform ourselves top to bottom. When the gun advocates say that gun control will not solve the problem of gun violence, they are both right and wrong: they are right that it cannot be all that we do, but wrong that it is not a pretty good place to start. Or, perhaps more accurately, a good place to finish after first committing ourselves to disarming all of the weapons of dehumanization that we take as facts of life.

What we really need is a culture of peace at least as thick as our culture of violence. Of course I don't know exactly what that would look like; I am troubled that we are not having a very productive public conversation and suggesting an alternative. (Some might want Jesus, or Moses, or Mohammed or the Buddha to have a prominent place in their culture of peace. And so what if they do? Entirely salutary statements of harmonious community can be delivered in a religious idiom.) We should never forget that, in its own way democracy, is the most absolutist of political systems. Autocrats demand outward obedience. In its most robust form, democracy demands an arranging of our intellectual and emotional lives in service of the public good. And it holds that such inward training is infinitely superior to outward regulation, being the surest guarantee of peace and the one most consonant with human dignity. We can take that democratic demand seriously. Or we can pretend, as public debate thus far has pretended, that our violence need only be regulated rather than remedied.