Guns, Trains, Prevention

Last night I learned that the woman (Erika Menendez) who pushed a man (Sunando Sen) in front of a New York City train, causing his death, has been caught. She is set to undergo a psychiatric exam, in part because she was heard talking to herself before the murder and ‘laughing maniacally’ when being charged for her act. This got me thinking about the Newtown shooting and wondering about the agency involved in both events, considering that Adam Lanza too raises the question of mental health and, by consequence, his culpability. What doesn’t get talked about as much as the intention, motive, or psychological condition behind the murders is the objects involved as agents of killing. In both events an object was used as the instrument of murder. In one case a gun; in the other, a train. What happens if we focus less on the humans involved and more on the objects?

The Newtown massacre brought back the old pro-gun slogan, ‘Guns don’t kill people. People kill people’. In reply, the anti-gunners were heard asserting that, no, in fact, guns do kill people. I think it’s most accurate to say that people kill people…with guns. Or better: people kill people with bullets fired from guns. Except when they don’t. Recently a boy was shot and killed by his father outside a firearms store in Mercer, PA, just down the road from where I live. The story is not framed like this in the mainstream news, however, because the shooting was accidental. This means that we don’t heap the responsibility completely on the father, but distribute it amongst several factors and imagine how awful the father might feel for what has happened to his family, and how his carelessness led to this awfulness. It’s true that we judge the father as careless for not realizing that his gun was loaded, and therefore hold him partly responsible. But we also hold something else responsible, although it’s difficult to say what. The gun? The gun manufacturer? The government? Chance? I think we need to acknowledge that all of these agents, and more, are implicated in the death of that boy. More than that, however, I think it’s important to see that we as a culture (even the conservatives) are already accustomed to acknowledging the existence and effect of nonhuman agencies. It’s right there in the way that we displace responsibility from the father, onto the unnamed forces that conspired to kill his son.

One response to the Mercer boy’s death is to call for stricter mechanisms of prevention, but not in the form of laws or gun safety courses. Yes, many will say that this death could have been prevented if the father was better instructed in gun safety. I’m inclined to say that he was most likely well-aware of what it takes to safely handle a gun, but that he was fatally careless on that day. People will wonder if there are ways to make the guns themselves safer, although I can’t imagine what technological feat would accomplish this. Whenever something like this happens we immediately assume that it could have been prevented. Or rather, that humans could have prevented it. In the case of the father in Mercer, we ask how this could have happened. We do not concentrate just on the father’s agency, however, but on the gun itself, its safety mechanism, and the tragic contingency of the situation. We imagine some future gun that can tell whether or not it’s supposed the kill the person it’s aimed at. We already have cars that put on the brakes for us, so why not a gun that does the same?

With the subway train murder and the Newtown massacre our concern for prevention is different, but also, I think, misplaced. After the Newtown shooting some conservatives very close to me identified the root of the problem: not enough security in our elementary schools. That’s how we prevent tragedy. This sentiment formed the essence of the NRA response to the massacre: we need to arm our teachers and better secure our schools because we never know when another murderous human might walk through the door. We need to make sure that the ‘good guys’ have as many guns as the ‘bad guys’. The problem with this way of thinking is that it was a good guy’s gun (Lanza’s mother’s) that did the killing, and if that poor father in Mercer is a lesson to us, then we can easily imagine the kind of ‘friendly fire’ that would ensue if we began to arm our teachers.

When CNN was first covering the train murder (the second in a month) the reporter had a response similar to the one I just described. The only question CNN reporter Poppy Harlow (arguably the most ridiculous name in news, after Wolf Blitzer) could ask was: couldn’t we put some kind of barricade up on the subway platforms to prevent people from pushing others onto the tracks? The problem with this kind of thinking is that it not only disregards the troubled agency of the murderer, the fact that it was likely (as with Adam Lanza) the mental health of Menendez that generated the killing (which troubles the ‘hate crime’ label that’s being attached to the event), it also fails to take into account the complex network of objects, regulations, motives, drives, fantasies, materials, ideas and thoughts that lead someone to commit murder. Poppy Harlow’s nearsighted response was so shallow it sounded as absurd as her name, which is why Bloomberg seemed to be holding back a smirk in response to the suggestion that better security could have prevented Sen’s death. Subway platform barricades are no more of a solution than armed elementary school guards. Those are band-aids. We need to think BIGGER. What led up the killings? What are the material conditions of killing?

People are always saying things like, ‘there are so many factors that went into this so there’s no simple explanation’. This is exactly right; we need to take this notion more seriously. It’s easy to blame a killer whose motives are clear and whose mental health is apparently stable. But even in situations like that, there’s rarely a simple explanation for the killing, although we like to pretend there is because we love to assign responsibility, punish, and move on as quickly as possible. That’s one of the emotionally frustrating things about the Newtown shooting: Lanza is no longer alive, so we have no one to punish and that is just unacceptable for many people. The cathartic moment must be sought in a web of unclear factors that cannot have Lanza at their center because, first, he is now literally nonexistent and, second, his agency (and responsibility) are radically in question. We will blame guns, laws, a failed mental health system, video games, the American culture of violence, etc. so that our anger and sadness have some object, but none of these factors can take full responsibility for Lanza’s act. Perhaps least of all can Lanza take responsibility.

No one is going to say that Lanza’s gun was the agent of murder or that a train killed a man on its own. I’m not going to say that exactly. What I will say is that both of these objects are just as much responsible for killing as the humans who enlisted them. What disturbs us most is that we cannot hold either object responsible for the killing, or rather, we cannot punish them for killing. Guns don’t kill people. That’s right. We need to be precise though: bullets kill people when fired from guns. Materially speaking, they are what tear through flesh. Sometimes they are propelled intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. In every instance it is a bullet, not a motive or mental disturbance that makes contact with a body. These bullets don’t find their way into guns unless someone puts them there, fine. But as the accidental shooting in Mercer shows, as does the Newtown massacre and the NYC train death, we can’t just blame humans for the deaths that occurred. We know this. Even the hardcore individualist must see the contradiction in assigning full responsibility to Lanza or the unstable Menendez who pushed a man in front of a train. If the individualist resists acknowledging this contradiction, are they equally going to resist the fact that the father who accidentally shot his son in Mercer is a full-blown murderer? Not likely, because they know that something else (besides the father) killed that boy. They’ll want to pin it on the father, but only because they are convinced that it must always be some human behind a tragedy.

People kill people. Bullets kill people. Trains kill people. Sometimes people kill with no help from objects, say, with their bare hands. Sometimes objects–bullets, trains, missiles–are enlisted to kill people. This is what happened in New York, Newtown, and Mercer. But in each of these cases it makes little sense to place more responsibility on the humans involved than on the objects (and other factors) involved. To understand the events we have to look at the objects involved. Not just the objects, for I’m not saying that a train is capable on its own of killing someone, like a railed version of Stephen King’s Christine. Although I’m sure a thought experiment could be imagined that would prove otherwise. Some objects are more deadly than others. Some have the explicit purpose of killing (like bullets), while others end up killing (trains) even though their purpose is not to kill. To prevent future killing we might ban objects whose primary purpose is to kill. Or we might do a better job of preventing these objects from getting in the hands of humans who cannot handle them with care. Whatever prevention looks like, it’s in part a question of keeping objects from forming alliances with murderers, the mentally unwell, the irresponsible, the careless. Objects are fully capable of doing things without the consent of a rational agent, including killing innocent people. When we ignore this we misattribute responsibility, causality, and blame. More than that, we misrepresent the order of things.

I’m trying to suggest the value of an object-oriented analysis of a few recent American tragedies. I’m also suggesting that we are already, whether we realize it or not, primed to think of these events in terms of objects, rather than human actors. But we resist object-oriented analyses because they leave us without someone to blame for our tragedies. That NYC train is not a murderer, but it forms part of the agency of a killer (which is not to say Menendez, but whatever alliance killed Sen). If Menendez turns out to be mentally unstable, then she is not a murderer in the usual sense of that term. She just happened to inhabit a body that ended up killing someone with the help of a train, a platform, train tracks, and the subtle cultural forces that drove her to instability and ‘hatred’ toward Hindus and Muslims. Someone or something else is responsible for the killing, but not her. Poppy Harlow believes it’s the city of New York or, perhaps, some subway platform barriers that weren’t doing their job. Her questions to transit officials–can’t we put barriers on the platform to prevent these things from happening?–implicitly shifts our focus to the objects involved in killings, even if Poppy took herself to be shifting the blame to the humans in charge of policing and securing the transit system. Poppy knows that objects kill people as readily as they prevent the harm of people. It’s just not satisfying to lay the blame on an object that cannot suffer for its effects. We need to punish people when someone is killed, but this desire only exists alongside our mistaken belief that humans are in control of things, that only humans have agency, and that behind every ‘unnatural’ death there must be a human failure.


About plasticbodies

Contemporary philosopher.
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