Monday, February 8, 2016

Don't Feed the Trolls

Unlike some of my more internet-active friends and colleagues, I don't have a very high profile in cyberspace. Yes, I write this blog, and occasionally contribute to another one; in neither case do I usually get much more than 100 readers. I'm not on Twitter, much less do I join things like Twitter Fight Club. I left my penchant for internet argumentation behind a long time ago, back when arguments were conducted on Usenet.

Because of this, I don't encounter internet trolls very often. I am especially unlikely to be the target of one. This blog does have a comments section, which I keep moderated (mostly to keep the spambots from filling the comments with links). But it rarely gets used, especially by people inclined to disagree with me in an unpleasant fashion.

So when I do get trolled, it's something of a novelty to me. This past week, somebody with a very different opinion apparently stumbled across one of my old posts (you can see the original post here) and decided to take umbrage with this retort (presented in its entirety and unedited):
"sticks" and "running away"? Are you kidding me? I'll keep my guns so anyone breaking into my house will have holes in them instead of me running away while my 6 year old tries to fight them off with sticks since she can't run as fast as an adult, thank you. You are clearly a moron.
Since I regularly encourage people to consider the ideas of others, I feel bound to do the same here. So setting aside the tone and the obligatory epithet, let me engage this particular bit of debate to see what we might learn from it.

There are two things that strike me as interesting about this response:

1) The poster assumes a specific threat scenario in isolation and insists on having a gun to deal with that scenario. In this case, that scenario is home invasion with intent to harm. If this person were more familiar with my work, they would know that I have acknowledged that guns are, in fact, a useful tool for self-defense in that setting. But I can't expect people to have read everything (or even anything) I've written before.

What's interesting about this particular threat assumption is that it is one of the most widely cited justifications for owning a gun - defending the home against someone breaking in with intent to harm. While such things do happen, they are exceedingly rare. Most burglars break in with intent to steal, and would rather not encounter anybody, because encountering people is always dangerous - that's why most home robberies occur while the occupants are away. You can see the relevant statistics, compiled by the US Department of Justice, here. Out of all home break-ins, the number of incidents of violence where the criminal was armed with a gun is a small fraction of a small fraction.

Even given such long odds, it might be reasonable to keep a gun at home to deal with those rare cases - if the presence of the gun did not also make other dangers more likely. But we know that having a gun in the house increases the odds of all sorts of other events, including suicides and accidental shootings. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about a father who thought apparently very much as this commenter did. The child he presumably wanted to protect is now dead by his own hand. Alternatively, what happens to the life of this mother or father if that 6 year old gets ahold of the gun? (Or if there's a younger sibling?)

If medical science offered a vaccine that was 99% effective against a very rare disease, but which increased your likelihood of dying from many other things, how many of us would take it? In medicine we weigh risks and benefits. This particular response suggests an unwillingness to do so, and an assumption that one particular kind of threat (home invasion) can be dealt with in isolation from all of the other potential side effects of having guns available in the home.

2) In addition to the rational and tactical calculations at play here, there is a moral calculation that I continue to find deeply troubling. It's contained in this fragment:
I'll keep my guns so anyone breaking into my house will have holes in them instead of me running away
The subsequent clause about leaving the 6 year old behind to fend for herself is classic troll-bait. Clearly no parent is going to abandon a child, but will stand and defend that child with whatever is available. Let's leave that aside for a moment.

The moral calculation here is this: if you break into my home, I am justified in killing you. I'm not interested in whether this is a legal defense or not, but whether it constitutes an effective moral justification.

My unease with this calculation starts with a point both unassailable and very difficult to acknowledge: the person breaking into my house is a human being. Yes, that person is transgressing some very fundamental rules. And yes, that person may have intent to do me harm - or he (or she) may not. But none of this takes away the person's basic humanity.

For those who share the Christian faith, this is a particularly difficult test of the Gospel's clear injunction:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew)
I do not know if the person who offered the comment above claims to be a Christian or not. I know that there are plenty of Christians who go to church on a regular basis, and who hold these same scriptures to be the Word of God, who would nevertheless agree with the commenter that it's appropriate to put  (lethal) holes in the home invader. These views, to me, simply aren't compatible.

Moreover, the Old Testament reference made here by Jesus is often itself misunderstood. The original language in Exodus 21 ("eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot") was intended not as a statement of vengeance but as a limitation on humanity's tendency to mete out disproportionate vengeance. A modern American version goes something like this quote from the movie The Untouchables:
You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. *That's* the *Chicago* way!
Limiting retribution in proportion to the harm suffered was, for the ancient Hebrew culture, a moral advance. It insured that no one would, in anger and fear, cause greater harm than had already been caused.

In this light, killing in response to a home invasion is (pun intended) moral overkill. It fails the moral test of proportionality which exists, in some form or another, in nearly all major world religions and philosophical systems. It is, as I have argued elsewhere, barbaric.

So while I can see to some degree where this particular troll is coming from, I cannot agree with any of the ideas he or she presents. They are, as I have said so many times before, rooted simply in fear - fear of a vividly imaginable (if highly unlikely) threat which leads to anger, hatred, and dehumanization. Others who share that fear will likely find the commenter's ideas laudable. I hope many of us can escape the same fate.

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