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What happens in Vegas…

There’s really not much to say about the evil that took place in Las Vegas the other night, except that evil men will perpetrate evil, regardless of what you or I think about it, or what laws happen to be in place which purport to prevent it.

There’s been evil in the world for a long, long time, going clear back to the elder son of the first and second humans (if you accept the Biblical account).  You can attribute it to whatever you want, but really, it all boils down to human nature and mental illness.

Human nature is to be violent and take things — including lives — from other humans by force.  That’s not just the story we read so often in the Bible, it’s the story we read in the fossil record and in written history.  Someone always wants what someone else has.  The grass is always greener.  Laws had to be set down and punishments for their violation enacted in order to shame men into behaving — if not well, then at least acceptably.

And yet, evil continued to flourish, no matter how many admonitions and regulations and punishments were decreed and issued.  It continues to this day, often wrapped up in a quasi-religious wrapper* and delivered almost as a gift to the ever-hungry 24/7 news cycle.

Civilization is a thin veneer of good behavior for most human beings.  It is a set of rules and behaviors that make it possible for us to live and work together in communities.  These rules and behaviors are not innate to us.  They must be learned.**  And they can be thrown off at a moment’s notice, as was amply demonstrated during the 20th Century, and continues to be demonstrated today.  My father, who was a civilized man by any common or normal measure, taught me that armies are made up of civilized men who are able to throw off the veneer long enough to fight wars, committing acts that would be considered atrocities if they took place outside the framework of war (and sometimes are considered atrocities regardless, by the “civilized” rules of war).  He would have known; he fought in Europe in the Second World War, and toured Dachau after it was over, when US policy was to create as many witnesses as possible to the horror created by Nazi monsters — who in turn thought themselves civilized, even as they presided over the genocide of millions.***

Today, an entire region of the world protests that it is part of an old and respectable civilization, when in fact that “civilization” they tout is nothing of the sort, at least not by modern standards.  And that “civilization” has, by and large, declared war on the rest of the world, whether we like it or not, and whether or not the vast majority of its adherents go along with the loudmouthed, militant minority.  The veneer is quite thin in places in that region, and in other places it is essentially non-existent.  The mask slips a lot, particularly in Europe, where terrorist attacks seem to be the order of the day (and due to Europeans’ own fault, that will likely continue), but it is also beginning to slip here in our own country.

It is too early to speculate on just why a man transported an arsenal into a Las Vegas hotel room and started shooting, the other night.  We just don’t know enough.  The claims that he was doing the bidding of a terrorist organization seem off.  It’s easier to believe that mental illness of some sort was to blame, or some long-held grudge that couldn’t be satisfied any other way (which in its own way is a form of mental illness).

But what we do know is that the veneer slipped.  The man who killed more than 50 people and injured scores more dropped any pretense of belonging to Civilization (as Doc Smith used to put it) and gave himself over to base human nature, for some reason so far knowable only to himself.

And thus we come to the conundrum of civilization that has dogged it from the start.

You can make all the laws you want, including laws that go back to the beginning of history and probably before, that condemn murder as one of the most heinous crimes known to man.  You can make laws regarding who may own firearms and other weapons.  You can make laws stating that certain places are weapons-free zones.  You can make laws regarding the transport of weapons and whether or not you can purchase them across state lines, and what the procedures are for that.  You can flatly outlaw the sale of certain types of weapons and ammunition to the public.  You can infiltrate the schools and universities and teach that guns are bad and shape the minds of callow youths into thinking that if we just outlaw guns, all this bad stuff will go away.

But you can’t keep guns out of the hands of people who are determined to have them, if they are willing to break the law.****

And you can’t stop someone from settling into a hotel room way up in the air and opening fire on innocent people attending a country-western concert in the courtyard far below, if he is really damn well determined to do so.

The genius of civilization, though, is that it has convinced the vast, vast majority of us that it’s a Good Idea to wear that veneer.  It helps us get through life without mayhem.  It informs us that we need to help other people get out of the way of a madman raining bullets down on them, and try to help the ones who didn’t make it before they got hit.  It’s why people push other people out of the way of an oncoming bus, or otherwise risk their own lives to save others.  When it kicks in like it did in Las Vegas, it minimizes casualties that could have been a lot worse — and yes, some of our best die trying to help others who survive only because of that help.

Yet, because it’s a veneer, we can throw it off when we need to kill some son of a bitch who’s trying to kill us when he breaks down our door in the middle of the night.

The difference between a civilized man and a terrorist or a madman is that the civilized man knows when to throw the veneer off, and more importantly, when to put it back on.

Writing more gun control laws isn’t going to change that.  Murder is already illegal, and has been since the beginning of time.

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* If you think ISIS or al-Qaeda or Hezbollah (or, hell, the Iranian mullahs) are actually “religious” in the sense that Americans generally attribute to the word, you’re a fucking idiot.

** If you don’t believe that, watch any group of toddlers for awhile.

*** And they were not alone in this; nearly any “civilized” people has done the same throughout history.  The Turks; the Russian Communists; the Red Chinese; the Imperial Japanese; even we Americans, fighting our Indian wars in the 19th Century that any truly unbiased historian would have to agree constituted genocide by modern standards, even if it would not have been so considered at the time.

**** Just ask them in Chicago.

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