Will a society that has long turned its back on armed self-defense ever be able to find its way back?
This feature appears in the August ’17 issue of NRA America’s 1st Freedom, one of the official journals of the National Rifle Association.
For a while after Sept. 11, 2001, a hideous question would flit uninvited across the back of my mind. “If they can do that,” I would wonder, “what can’t they do?”
If I allowed it to, another inquiry would swiftly join the first: “If the Twin Towers were rendered as easy a target as they were, then what institution can truly be deemed to be safe?”
Or, put another way: If they could hit that, what couldn’t they hit?
America, to its immense credit, is a remarkably open society. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed all those years ago, this is a place in which civil society flourishes without the leaden hand of authority to guide or to constrain it. It is a place, too, in which individuals are secure in their rights. In the United States, we travel, we assemble, we debate, we protest—and we do so while reserving the title deeds to our elemental liberties. The risks notwithstanding, we expect to retain our privacy, to own our consciences and to maintain our right to bear arms. More than any other people in the history of this world, Americans have proven resistant toward those who would coddle them. Here, “But you have to,” has rarely been a persuasive argument.
As we have seen lately in the great cities of the free and democratic West, no event is now safe from barbarism; no location cordoned off from threat; no victim deemed innocent of perverted infidelity.This model does make us more vulnerable than most. For a long while, the answer to my implied opening question—“Why doesn’t al-Qaida just walk into a mall?”—was that al-Qaida simply didn’t want to walk into a mall. As it turned out, Bin Laden and Co. had a penchant for the spectacular and the grotesque, and, in consequence, they hoped that each successful attack would prove more egregious than the last. The downside to this approach was that it considerably raised the stakes—there was no body count, it seemed, that would have been deemed too high. But there was an upside, too, if one can call it that: The sort of routine, attritional guerilla warfare that can grind a people down was off the table. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco—these were all targets. That nursing home in the Poconos? Probably not on the list.
This, alarmingly, is no longer the case, for as al-Qaida has faded and ISIS and its acolytes have risen, the modus operandi of distributed Islamist terror has been dramatically reversed. As we have seen lately in the great cities of the free and democratic West, no event is now safe from barbarism; no location cordoned off from threat; no victim deemed innocent of perverted infidelity. In Paris, a rock concert, a soccer match and a Bastille Day party have been targeted. In England, terrorists have hit a pre-teen pop show, a much-used bridge and a pub. Here in America, we have seen attacks at a gay nightclub, on a Christmas party at a rural disability center, in a mall in St. Cloud, Minn. (stopped, mercifully, by a concealed carrier), at a military recruiting station, on a college campus in Ohio and at an art exhibition in Texas. In 2017, the answer to the question, “Why don’t they just walk into a mall?” is, “They do.”
What are we going to do about it? Well, that depends. As former Interpol chief Ronald Noble has proposed, one answer is to ensure that private citizens are sufficiently well armed both to fight back in the moment and to guarantee that ostensibly “soft” targets are, in reality, somewhat hard. “Societies,” Noble has suggested, “have to think about how they are going to approach the problem. One way is to say we want an armed citizenry; you can see the reason for that.”
Can we? Americans can, certainly. Over the past 30 years, the right to bear arms has enjoyed a renaissance in the United States, to the extent that the latest trend is for states to abolish permit requirements completely. Moreover, despite constant attempts to convince them to do so, Americans do not seem to see terrorism as a reason to disarm. On the contrary: When a soft target is hit, the numbers of gun sales and carry permit applications soar. This is a country in which self-reliance is still cherished.
Is it cherished in Britain, a nation that has been on the front lines of late? In this area, no, it is not. I traveled back to my home country just after the latest terror attack to cover the recent elections. While there, I put Noble’s idea to my family and friends, and was met with the sort of incredulous, mouth-agape reaction that I’d expect if I had suggested invading Norway with just a pocket square for protection. “If these attacks become quotidian,” I asked, “do you think that the British will need to rethink guns?” The answers: No, no, no, no and no. Indeed, my interlocutors could scarcely have been more emphatic if I’d advised them to buy a fighter jet.
The British, to put it lightly, do not like guns. They don’t want guns. And, in all likelihood, they’re not going to change their minds on that point. Americans who are wondering if the Brits are on the verge of a sea change here should understand this: They’re not. Not even close. Culture matters, and the United Kingdom has shifted on this. In 1688, the right to bear arms was cherished; today, it is seen as a relic. Were a politician to run on the promise of liberalizing the gun laws, he would lose—badly. This is, to borrow a line from Monty Python, a dead parrot.
The British, to put it lightly, do not like guns. They don’t want guns. And, in all likelihood, they’re not going to change their minds on that point.And yet the skepticism is by no means absolute. When asked a differently put follow-up question, my friends and family softened a touch. “What if,” I inquired, “God forbid, the attacks we’ve seen lately become routine? What do you do?” Then ... shrugging shoulders and furrowed brows.
The query is an important one, because it raises the possibility that Brits will ultimately find themselves in the worst of both worlds—in a country, that is, in which the government is both unable to protect them from attack and hell-bent on preventing them from protecting themselves. That’s no overstatement. Forget firearms for a moment and consider that the British are at present prohibited from concealing or possessing pretty much any defensive weaponry. In the U.K., it is illegal to carry pepper spray, knives, baseball bats, stun guns, Tasers, air pistols, truncheons and even knuckledusters. Much was made of the improvisational ingenuity of pub-goers who used pint glasses to fight back against the killers on London Bridge. Less was made of the fact that, since Parliament has effectively outlawed self-defense, that was their only option.
For now, voters in Britain are fine with this. But if they come to believe that the authorities, through no fault of their own, are impotent in the face of spontaneous assault, what will be the response? In such a circumstance, something will have to give, for it seems highly unlikely that any developed society will merely throw up its hands and say, “Well, I suppose this is how things are now.”
In the aforementioned interview, Interpol’s Noble adumbrated another option for those societies that do not wish to loosen restrictions on the private ownership of arms: The imposition of “extraordinary security” at places of everyday congregation. Perhaps that will be considered preferable to liberalizing the self-defense rules. But if it is, for how long and to what extent will it be so? At the best of times, a reduction in liberty combined with the inability of the police to keep safe the innocent would be a recipe for public dissatisfaction. But when the enemy is deliberately trying to horrify and to scare—and that, make no mistake, is what the close-combat vehicle and knife attacks are explicitly designed to do—the brew could be a toxic one. The Brits’ distaste of firearms runs deep. But is it deep enough for them to deprive themselves of even pepper spray in perpetuity?
Although we discuss it in the aggregate, self-defense is ultimately an individual question. There is little comfort—and there ought to be little comfort—in being told that your own death is worth the benefits that accrue to other people. In the sixth century, the Emperor Justinian presided over the compilation of the Digest of Roman Law, a core precept of which was, “that which someone does for the safety of his body, let it be regarded as having been done legally.” This notion was echoed by a host of British philosophers and legal scholars of the 17th and 18th centuries. In his Treatise, John Locke cast self-defense as a “part of the law of nature,” and insisted that it must not be “denied the community, even against the king himself.” William Blackstone concurred, holding that the right to protect one’s life and person was “justly called the primary law of nature” and cannot be “taken away by the law of society.” In most cases, Blackstone submitted, the courts were sufficient to resolve disputes between citizens. In the case of physical violence, however, he argued that it was tyrannical to deprive a man of the means “immediately to oppose one violence with another.”
Justinian, Locke and Blackstone are long dead. But human nature is not, and neither are the inalienable rights that underpin all free societies. If, as seems possible, we are now entering a period in which people going merrily about their business are to be targeted for injury and for death, the principles that the British have abandoned for too long will be more necessary than ever.
The road back from disarmament and infantilization will be a long and winding one, to be sure. But it may be the road we’re all on, whether we like it or not.
Charles C.W. Cooke is the editor of National Review Online.