And so began one of the stranger conversations I've ever had at a party at around 2:00 AM. My questioner was a fellow grad student, known for being a little weird, and built like a scarecrow, but otherwise a pretty normal guy. For all of those reasons, the hour, the party, and so on, I was a little surprised to be asked about firearm ownership. Since I do, in fact, own a rifle (Specifically a Springfield M1 Garand .30-caliber semi-automatic rifle. If you don't know anything about firearms, that's the standard U.S. infantry rifle from World War II. Mine is Korean War vintage and is semi-automatic in name more than in fact, since the Garands tend to jam up pretty frequently unless they have been very recently cleaned.) I answered my companion that, yes, I was the proud owner of a rifle. I did not, however, call it a gun. As some of my shooting training was given to me by a marine, I have been infected by the Marine Corps standard that a rifle is always referred to as either a "rifle" or a "weapon." Don't ask me why, and yes it seems a bit arbitrary, but let's see you argue with the Drill Sergeant, aiight?
On hearing this, my companion asked me if I knew anything about pistols (I don't. I enjoy the mental discipline involved in target shooting with a rifle. Pistols, as clumsy and random as they are, don't really interest me) and if I would be willing to teach him to shoot. Now, I'm not opposed to teaching anyone to shoot, but my companion isn't exactly what you'd call conservative. In fact, I'm significantly to the right of him, and I'm a left-leaning moderate. So, given the American Left's bizarre fixation on the idea that guns are bad things (While I disagree with the NRA's policies, I do think they have a point in saying that the guns themselves aren't the problem. The comparison Michael Moore makes between the U.S. and Canada in Bowling for Columbine would seem to indicate that he is similarly inclined) I was a little curious about why my friend wanted to learn to shoot. His answer was frightening.
He wanted to learn to shoot because the election was coming up and, if things went against John Kerry, and it appeared that significant fraud had been perpetrated by the current administration, he wanted to be "prepared."
Granted, my friend hadn't thought matters out very well. He had couched part of his interest in terms of, "If something happens and a gun comes spinning towards me, I want to be able to use it." I'm sure that sort of thing happens all the time in Bruce Willis movies, but the real world is a bit more complicated. Despite the action movie cliches, however, he was entirely serious. He wanted to learn to shoot in case it was necessary to, in essence, overthrow an illegitimate government.
To me, this experience serves to highlight just how out of control this election has gotten. More importantly, it illustrates just how high the stakes are. We aren't actually electing a new president tomorrow. Well, we are, but that isn't the core of what we're doing. Tomorrow we're deciding the fate of the democratic experiment in this country.
A democracy works so long as the participants believe in it. If those out of power believe that an election can be won, and that the sitting party will relinquish its hold, then the democratic structures can work, even if there is substantial graft. On the other hand, if participants doubt the willingness of the sitting administration to surrender power, then the structures of democracy cannot work, no matter how little graft there is. A certain amount of trust and even faith is necessary or the system cannot work. My friend's question to me suggests that right now our faith is weak, and that people are doubting the overall validity of the democratic system. What's worse is that many people will probably take evidence that their candidate lost as a sign that cheating has taken place. The problem, of course, is that one of the candidates has to lose. So, if we begin to take the attitude that a loss for our candidate signals the corruption of the system, we are merely locking ourselves into a future of political strife unlike any we have seen since the Civil War. As much as I hate Bush, four more years of his inept, delusional leadership is preferrable to a delegitimation of democracy in America, which can serve no purpose but to kill far more people than the Iraq war has.
In Vietnam the Army and Marine Corps found that their soldiers, despite being highly trained, were missing the enemy an unusually large amount of the time. On investigating they discovered that the reason was not any reluctance to kill among the soldiers, or any particular skill among the Viet Cong or NVA, but was due to a training issue. You see, when U.S. soldiers were trained to shoot, they were trained with the standard circular "bull's-eye" targets. These look different from a human silhouette, and thus when the soldiers were deployed to Vietnam they had to adjust to shooting at a different shape. It turns out that this causes just a little bit of hesitation. For a moment, when the soldier has an enemy in his sights, there's a pause as he confirms for himself that this is his target. As anyone who shoots will tell you, timing is key. Shoot too soon and you miss, shoot too late, and you miss. Even if you're firing at a stationary target, the rifle shifts slightly as you breathe, and even tiny changes in a rifle's aim can mean significant inaccuracy at range. So, this tiny hesitation was enough to reduce the accuracy of our infantry. To combat this, American military planners replaced circular targets with human silhouette targets in training. The hesitation went away, and accuracy came back up to normal levels.
When I shoot, I always use circular targets. This is because I hope never to have to discharge a firearm at another human being. As a result, I want to keep that natural hesitation alive. If I'm aiming at another human, I want to pause for a moment and ask myself if I really want to do this thing before I pull that trigger. I see this as an aspect of responsible gun ownership, just like keeping my rifle and ammunition locked up separately. Hesitation is a good thing.
The same is true in this election, however. There are going to be accusations of fraud from both sides. So much is guaranteed since the race is so close, tensions are so high, and there are so many lawyers involved. With luck, the challenges won't be strong, and matters will be resolved quickly (And, you know, hopefully John Kerry will win) but we may not be lucky. As we're watching this process, however, just take a moment or two to think before plunging into the fray. Consider what consequence your actions might have for the system as a whole. Ponder what damage you might unwittingly do by taking shots at the very soul of democracy. In other words, before you pull that trigger, do just one thing: