Newtown Reflections, II: An American God

Part I here.

When I wrote a story for Eric J. Guignard’s Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations anthology, I selected the ancient city of Hatra as my subject, specifically one of the goddesses they worshipped, named Atargatis (aka Atar’atha). As I researched, I followed the stories of Atar’atha across cultures, from Ishtar of the Babylonians, to Astarte of the Phoenicians, to Aphrodite of the Greeks and Venus of the Romans, perhaps even the Egyptian goddess Isis. Not all of these are explicitly the same deity, but even when they aren’t, it seems clear that their legends and stories influenced each other. In a sense, the goddess changed forms, adapting to new cultures across the centuries and millennia.

If Eric J. Guignard ever compiles a sequel to Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, I will write a story of the god Moloch.

Here’s what the Bible has to say about Moloch (rendered here as Molek), in Leviticus Chapter 20:

The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molek is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him. 3 I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molek, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. 4 If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molek and if they fail to put him to death, 5 I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molek.

Okay, now Leviticus is not exactly the most up-to-date of Biblical texts, as anyone who’s been involved in the fight for gay rights knows quite well. But in this case it would seem Leviticus has a point. Child sacrifice? That, if anything, is surely worthy of such punishment.

The sacrifice of living children, particularly through fire, as depicted above, was Moloch’s calling card. It was practiced in many ancient cultures, from Canaan to Carthage. In fact, when the Romans destroyed Carthage, one of their justifications was the brutal child sacrifice that happened there, sometimes, according to history, dozens or even hundreds of children at a time.

But has Moloch stayed with us over the centuries? Like Atar’atha, has he adapted forms, changed guise and name as civilizations rise and fall?

Today, a friend sent me this article from the New York Review, which points out some fairly obvious parallels between Moloch and gun culture in modern-day America. I won’t recap the entire article; it argues its point better than I could, so please go read it for yourself. But its gist is this: the deaths in Sandy Hook; the deaths in Aurora; in Clackamas; at Cafe Racer in Seattle; at Virginia Tech and Fort Hood and Columbine; on the streets of Chicago and New York and D.C. and every other city where gun-fueled urban violence proliferates; they are our sacrifices to this modern-day Moloch. The Second Amendment, originally meant to allow for the maintenance of a militia, has been warped and twisted, used much like fundamentalists use the Bible: as a way to shut down any discussion or debate of their religion. Do not question the Word, for it is infallible.

Here in America, we desperately need to have a conversation on stemming gun violence. For a moment, in the wake of Newtown, it seemed that such a moment might have finally arrived. Over the past few days, I’ve engaged both friends and strangers across social media, trying to discuss some of the ways we could combat gun control. But in the course of things, I’ve found myself arguing points that are so distanced from the problem, or points that are so utterly, blatantly self-obvious, that I begin to realize: even in the wake of twenty dead children and six dead teachers, rational discussion is impossible. I am arguing with zealots, who will not cede the slightest bit of ground, for fear that someone will knock on the door and take away their godsguns. For example:

  • A couple days ago, someone on Twitter refused to concede that a soldier with an M-16 is more deadly than a soldier with a wooden spear.
  • Today, I was mocked for stating that people should not have to carry concealed lethal weapons everywhere they go in order to feel safe.
  • When I suggested technological innovations (better non-lethal self-defense weapons, for example), the discussion degenerated into a debate on minutiae about Tasers.
  • When I suggested more focus on trigger locks and secured storage of assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns (offering revolvers as a concession for emergency defense), the discussion degenerated into a debate on revolver speedloaders. Again, thoughts of saving lives? Lost in minutiae.

Over and over again, across multiple people, I’ve seen this pattern. A refusal to acknowledge the obvious, and to pick fights over details for the sake of picking fights. A determination that if they can poke a single hole in your argument, find a single loophole that might exist, then it’s useless. It’s so maddeningly similar to the pattern I see with religious fundamentalists: if science can’t explain everything, then clearly God is a better answer! Except for gun fundamentalists, the argument is that if gun control isn’t perfect, or if there’s one conceivable way that a bad guy could still get a gun, then the only potential fix is more guns.

Guns are the new American religion.

Seriously, go read that New York Review article. Tell me they don’t have a point. Reassure me that despite my own experience, a rational discussion focused on plausible solutions and improvements is possible.

Because when I read, for example, this article by Megan McArdle, which ends with her suggesting as an actual fix that we train kids to rush shooters in the hopes that they can overwhelm him, I kind of lose hope. If we have to debate why training kids to bum rush school shooters is a bad idea, how are we ever going to have a serious discussion on effective gun control?

Okay, so you want a starting point for actual solutions, rather than just whining?

  • A strengthened version of the assault weapons ban, one that focuses more on purpose, ammo caliber, and potential rate of fire than cosmetics– in other words, an improved version of the 1994 law. (Gun advocates will often point to the failure of a particular gun control law and cite that as a failure of all gun control laws. We can, and must do better.)
  • Strengthened laws governing the storage of guns, particularly semiautomatic weapons of all kinds.
  • Banning of high-capacity magazines.
  • Closing of the federal gun show loophole.
  • Require registration and background checks for all firearms, and mandatory safety/training courses, much like we do for issuing drivers’ licenses today.
  • Take a page from Australia’s extremely effective gun control, and do background checks on folks who reside with the potential gun owner.
  • Government grants for technology research: for example, if we can put biometric locks and electronic codes on cell phones, we should be able to put them on guns.
  • In the same vein, come up with improved non-lethal defense weapons to reduce the need for guns. Don’t tell me it’s impossible because current technology sucks; we could totally come up with better technologies.
  • Restrictions on gun advertisements. Gun culture needs to change, and the first step is regulating how the gun industry markets itself, much like we already do with the cigarette industry. The screenshot below is from a campaign run by Bushmaster, manufacturer of the Newtown shooter’s AR-15. I wonder if he saw it.

That’s just a few starting points, most of them fairly independent of each other, which I’ve seen discussed (to very little positive reception) over the past several days. Now, do I really think that discussions on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs will be the catalyst for long-term change in American gun policy? Not really, but maybe. Maybe if enough people chime in, things will start to shift, and we’ll be able to save lives.

As I mentioned in my first Newtown blog post, there’s other fixes that need to be made, too. Our nation’s mental health care system is shattered, and it needs to be rebuilt. But the political willpower for that sort of spending seems even more unlikely. Health care, spending, and taxes are governed by their own sort of religion in America.

The last few days have made me pretty discouraged. It’s been less than a week since the shooting, but already the old lines are hardening. Names like Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, and Grace McDonnell, having been mourned by the country for an appropriate period of time, are already being less mentioned as the status quo reasserts with a vengeance, and the debate gets lost in hypotheticals and little details. School shootings are tragic, but make changes? Even if we could save thousands of lives, or just make some noticeable dent in the 30,000+ Americans killed by firearms every year? Impossible! Unthinkable!

All hail Moloch.