My neo-global landbase in Africa, the poinsettais bleeding into gravel, on the main road the ancient overloaded buses belching leaded blue exhaust, the fields wet and hail-smitten, a solitary baby horned owl scowling in a hollow knot of the oak tree down the road. Nature red, tawny and besmirched.
Last night at the library committee meeting, a retired psychologist wanted to talk about gun control. Not a good idea. I just sat and listened. My own feelings are that if you are reactive around issues to do with guns (and who isn’t?), you should keep your mouth shut. If you haven’t shot and killed somebody and seen what gunshot wounds do to a person, it would be better not to talk guns. If you think killing someone with a gun is going to keep you safe from the victim’s vengeful family or gang members, you have not been there for the ongoing repercussions. Don’t bother talking about policy if the other person is talking about culture, entitlement, identity. There is no point in talking about countries like Japan where there is strict gun control and very little violence because South Africa is not Japan. All talk about guns is essentially utopian, to do with a world that doesn’t and may never exist, in which only the disciplined and careful get to use guns, or there are no guns at all. In reality there will be more incidents of criminal serial shooting, more suicides by gunshot, more domestic violence featuring guns — and gun legislation is about as useless as legislation on the war against drugs. There is a spiral of violence that is unstoppable right now. And some of us will go on trying to bring about peace and some of us will go on arguing with other reactive and hostile gun-owners or gun-haters, pointlessly.
The cheerful gap-toothed street cleaner has a new Armsel Striker shotgun. he carries it around with him and shows it to everyone who asks. It looks stolen to me, but who knows? Almost everyone here is armed to the teeth and trigger-happy. There are Berettas in bedside cabinets, semi-assault rifles in the garages, shoppers wear holsters with revolvers and keep pistols in handbags. Rossi, Smith & Wesson, Winchesters. You can buy weapons under the counter almost anywhere, so school children have guns in their backpacks, homeless people keep guns in plastic bags, retired pensioners with failing eyesight own guns. A few of us don’t own guns because, well, because we don’t. But for many people, the right to own a gun is an objective and cherished freedom, until the day you are shot by somebody with a lawfully or unlawfully owned gun. Out here, lawful gun-owners commit crimes with guns, too. The country is a thicket of illegal and legal guns, a violent and increasingly lawless society. And the fatality statistics are appalling, as you might expect.
Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part II:
‘But I tell you my lord fool, out of this nettle danger, we pluck this flower, safety.’
Where do we find a safe-enough place if not within? What does it mean to think we deserve to feel safe, that we can only feel safe if there are locks on the doors, a gun under the pillow?
So perhaps guns don’t provide the illusion of safety any longer. The concept of safety is a luxury, something many of us gave up years ago. We live amidst risk and threat and we need to come to terms with that. This is how it is. If we want fullness of life, quality of life, we must learn to live with the readiness to lose our lives at any time, randomly, brutally unnecessarily, as so many others here have done. Nothing privileged or special about any single one of us. And all of us will die at some point, none of us will get to have much choice in how or when we die.
And one of these days we might even risk talking to one another about fear, danger and hatred of the Other, How we feel about murdering someone who might murder us. How we are ready to kill someone who steals fruit from the tree in the back garden or breaks into our house looking for food. How we feel when we see wild animals killed by hunters who are not hungry and for whom such murder is just recreation. The white deer grazing in a forest clearing. The awakened sleeper in a house full of whispers.
From the poet James Fenton:
A log settles in the grate
And what was that?
A cat? A rat?
I hate them both with all my heart.
What business have they being up so late?
And what about that man
On the dark side of the square?
What harm has he
In mind for me?
What dark malevolent plan?
What business has he standing watching there?
The night is on the tiles.
A mood settles on the moon.
It gives the faintest of all watery smiles.
It will be gone soon.
But when the smile is gone
And darkness has its day
The watcher at my window will watch on.
He will not slip away.
The lovers hurry by
The watcher in the square.
They seem so busy in their ecstasy.
Hatred has time to spare.
Hatred knows no land,
No hearth, no wife, no brood,
And time lies heavy on the hater’s hand
And cold as the moon’s mood.
Though I take the forest track
Or ride the mountain trail
I’ll never shake the watcher off my back,
The wizard off my tail.
In the stable lantern’s soot,
In the soft step on the stair,
I shall glimpse the eye, I shall waken to the foot
Of the watcher in the square.