This is something I have been mulling over for... jeez, more than a year! (I guess I have fallen off the LJ wagon.) Since I heard about themurder of Trayvon Martin, and especially since Zimmerman's acquital. It's been on my mind especially because of the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and the subsequent spectacularly unjustified armed response by that city's police department, and also since I had dinner with an old friend I haven't seen in a while, down in Atlanta, who is passionately committed to permissive gun laws.*
One of the great insights that has stayed with me since my undergraduate days was a passage from Aristotle's Politics, that runs something like this: "Just as a human hand is no longer a human hand once severed from the body, so too a person on their own is either a beast or a god." In a society that prizes individualism as much as ours, 18 year old me found it mind-blowing to consider that the full human experience demands living with other people. No matter how minimal or informal a society's legal customs, no matter how small the population with which one lives, we NEED other people.
(Mind you, I'm still a firm believer in the great American insight, that we are all unique individuals and that we all matter.)
Living with other people means living with the needs, opinions and concerns of one's contemporaries, and also with those of one's ancestors (which have probably become distilled into customs, rituals, folkways, songs, vocabulary, and so on and on). Also, because humans take so long to mature, and because our brains are so plastic, we depend on the context created by our societies to fully develop. I believe that those two truths together mean that there are many ways for us all to live together, and many ways to strike a balance between our need to be part of a group, and our need to be ourselves.
The tension between individual liberty and group needs must be a very old one for our species, but it's definitely been around since our societies became more complex, and became civilizations. The oldest story I know, the Epic of Gilgamesh, starts with low status citizens protesting oppression by their king--i.e. with people in Uruk struggling to balance their individual rights against the need to fit in with their society.
Here's where the guns part comes in: as thinkers like Hobbes and Locke have pointed out, one basic reason to put up with a society is that it helps protect its members from violence--from strangers and from the people one lives with. In a civilization, (i.e. in a more complex society with lots of strangers close by) the laws that restrict one's actions should also keep one safe. This is true in my case. I have walked the streets at night in every place I have ever lived, and never feared for my safety, and nothing bad has yet happened to me. (Obviously, that could change tomorrow, but I think 44 years is still a pretty good track record, even so.)
Let me emphasize this: I don't carry a gun or other dedicated weapon, nor do I even own one, though I easily could do. In all my life, I have never faced danger in my home, or outside it. I have had very few interactions with the police, and in none of them have I had any problems, or faced any danger that I could detect. On the two occasions that I have called them to my home (for false alarms), they were polite and helpful and prompt. I thus conclude that the civilization in which I live does a satisfactory job of protecting me.
In contrast, this same civilization clearly failed to protect Trayvon and James. Both were unarmed teenagers, shot by armed adults who confronted them. That's horrible enough, but it gets worse, because how we collectively respond to crimes when they happen matters just as much as what we do to prevent them. Misunderstandings and mistakes (whether good- or ill-intentioned) can happen in any human interaction, so I think that the mere fact of these two killings does not, ipso facto, mean that our society has a problem. The true depths of our disfunction emerge in what happened after the shootings: Neither George Zimmerman nor Darren Wilson apologized for making a horrible blunder. The police did not respond with a speedy investigation. A month afterwards, neither man had been arrested. It took at least a week for most news to cover the killings, or for many people outside the black community, to take up the subject of either killing.
Altogether, I believe that makes it clear that, as a nation, we don't take these crimes as seriously as we should, and that we aren't affording dark-skinned citizens the same protections that I enjoy. Which is another way of saying that black Americans don't live in a civilization. I don't need to tote a gun around to protect myself, but clearly Trayvon and James did. The expectations of safety and protection that I have are a privilege that I enjoy, in part because of my pale skin. People of color in the USA live in conditions more akin to pre-modern Europe, where Vikings might suddenly show up for kidnapping and murder. This is why a large chunk of white America doesn't appreciate the problems facing non-white America, because judging people who don't live in safety by the same standards as people who do is foolish, and morally backwards.
I don't think this double standard can last, so I'd really like for us to create safety for everyone else before my racially privileged upper class winds up losing this really great benefit. (I will leave it to smarter people to figure out whether white and non-white Americans live in the same society, as distinct from the same civilization. In my mind, all civilizations are societies, but not all societies are civilizations.)
*That particular issue is tangential to this post, but FWIW, I am sympathetic to the arguments that gun ownership helps preserve our liberties, and can indeed be life-saving tools of self-defense, but I get very nervous when people who carry convenient murders in their pockets are belligerent and irrational. It's something I hope to think and discuss in more depth on my in-the-works political chat show on Valley Free Radio, planned for mid-October.