Sunday, November 18, 2007

Approach With Caution, Americans: Adam Smith Has a Gun

When hard rain falls on a tin-roofed house it sounds like a machine-gun assault. Unless you know the person you're talking to very well and can essentially read their lips, they have to bellow and you have to lean in ear-to-mouth to have a clue as to what they are saying.

But one of the blessings of the Suharto dictatorship -- and there weren't all that many -- was that though the Indonesian neighborhoods still have flimsy metal roofs, they largely do not have machine guns.

There are many semi-organized criminals -- "preman" -- , many with "beking" from the army/ police, but they do not usually carry firearms, only knives, short swords, machetes, or sticks. Suharto wanted to reserve the guns for only his most formal, disciplined agents.

Suharto's reasons for control were nefarious. But some kinds of social control are good, and today's poor Indonesians, in most places, still benefit from the absence of something bad, guns, an absence that -- like, say, the absence, in most countries, of plagues of locusts -- you don't normally even think of as being absent since you don't think about it at all

But Indonesians are notionally aware of what life might be like if poor neighborhoods were flooded with firearms since, via international TV syndication, they've heard a lot about the United States.

At least before Homeland Security kicked in, most everyone wanted to visit America, and poor Indonesians were no exception, except that many would say that though they imagined a land of regular-eating opportunity, they would be kind of afraid to go there. 'Lots of mafia there, ya?' they'd say after watching countless shows of Americans shooting. And many asked me: 'Is it really true that all Americans carry a gun?'

I'd have to answer, no, but you're not all that far off; things are different in America. "Ngeri," "horrifying," was a typical -- sympathetic -- response, and this from often-hungry people in a country where the government was famed for massacre, torture, and assassination.

Back in the US a few months ago I rode through Newark, New Jersey's West and South Wards with Lawrence Hamm/ Adhimu Changa, an old friend, and a brilliant community and national leader (he is chair of the People's Organization for Progress), and as we roamed the neighborhoods where he grew up and has continued to work ever since -- and where white, openly racially hostile police used to mete out unchecked abuse to black residents, like the POLRI (Indonesian national police) do to Indonesia's poor today -- there were police helicopters hovering overhead, and street-level gunshots in the distance.

A few years ago, the last time I had been there, it hadn't been that way. The guns and youth-crime were surging again, he said -- not that they ever went away. The same phenomenon is happening in a number of cities across the US, while others still have placid, privileged enclaves yet to feel the wave of propelled metal, still thinking that their cities have been "cleaned up," that their urban problem has been solved.

A few weeks later, when I was talking to Adhimu on the phone, he was interrupted by another call: A colleague of his -- a community anti-violence activist -- had been attending the funeral of a young gun victim, when that man, Anthony Hall, got a call that his own son had just been shot dead in another incident.

If a poor kampung resident came to Newark's western Wards they might say 'Look at all these rich people' (They have drinkable water, houses with solid worm-proof floors, regular electricity, access to cars), but if asked to exchange street situations with them, I doubt that many would take the deal (indeed one such resident who made a similar trip said just that, in emphatic terms).

Its complex to analyze different societies, but simple to note one key aspect: though it is arguably a technical difference, it makes a huge difference to the outcomes of lives whether a troubled society -- and, how many societies aren't? -- has or does not have large numbers of popularly available guns.

Its troubling to see an agitated teenager on the corner twirling an 18-inch curved sword. But its another story to see a similarly composed young man standing there twirling a MAC-10 machine pistol.

The differences are quite concrete. You can fight off a knife/sword wielder. The moves are well known. Little kampung boys leap around practicing them, jabbing the air, squealing with super-hero delight.

You can retreat, duck down, kick out his legs, or suddenly grab your assailant's arm from below or from the side. Or you can really retreat, shut a door, and wait for the hothead to cool down, go away, or just get bored and crouch down, having a smoke, like everybody else.

Even in the worst case, if he strikes flesh, a single slash might not be crippling, and if he inserts to stab, that takes some crucial micro-seconds, allowing friends or bystanders to jump him. (There are some women who are as good with a sharp weapon as men are -- on offense or defense; its not necessarily a skill greatly honored among women, but drunk spouses tend not to mess with them).

And even in the very worst case -- he succeeds -- a knife/sword wielder can usually only kill one at a time. And in a crowded kampung, if the death toll does rise to two, it is just as likely that that second decedent will be the assailant himself (finished off via kicking and beating by an outraged crowd), as opposed to another one of his targets or a mere coincidental bystander.

But with a fire-arm, as they say on those mafia shows that give foreigners key facts about America -- forget about it -- , its over with a trigger-twitch, maybe even an accidental one. There's no self-defense, unless you're also packing (and lucky enough to have an assailant with bad aim), and the numbers of mortal/crippled victims are easily multiple. Instant murderers and murderees. One little finger pull and its all over: marriages, futures, lives.

If poor Indonesians really knew what they were missing out on they'd be sending the evil Suharto prayers (even though he is still alive, and ill -- at least when the word "prosecution" is mentioned).

In the US, activists often pointedly observe that there are no gun factories in the poor, gun-shot neighborhoods, and ask how these social time-bombs keep getting smuggled into their communities. Sometimes people get too fancy in their analysis and suggest a genocidal plot. But such a big, motivated, complex thing isn't necessary: all it takes is a working free market -- a working free market and a state that feels no compulsion to keep the invisible hand from shooting people.