Location: Vienna, Virginia, United States

A graduate of Dartmouth College (2005) and Washington and Lee University School of Law (2010). These are my personal blogs, and the musings expressed on them do not reflect the positions of my employer. They do reflect my readings, thoughts, and aspirations, which I figure is good enough.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

On Milton and gun regulation

The reference to Milton's Moloch is a fascinating one that the author of this blog post seems to have missed.  While in his article, which was written post-Newtown and in reaction to those events, the author discusses Moloch as he is referenced in the Bible and in Book 1 of Paradise Lost, a demon that demands child sacrifice, a much better metaphor is found in Milton's Moloch from Book 2 of Paradise Lost. In failing to discuss Milton's Moloch at any length, the author of the article misses out on a much more apt metaphor.   

Milton's Moloch is a fallen angel, who, as a result of the fall, is given to despair and speaks of suicidal charges against the heavenly host after the rebel angels awake in hell.

no, let us rather choose
Arm'd with Hell flames and fury all at once
O're Heav'ns high Towrs to force resistless way,
Turning our Tortures into horrid Arms
Against the Torturer; when to meet the noise
Of his Almighty Engin he shall hear
Infernal Thunder, and for Lightning see
Black fire and horror shot with equal rage
Among his Angels; and his Throne it self
Mixt with Tartarean Sulphur, and strange fire,
His own invented Torments.

Paradise Lost, 2:60-70.
Moloch threatens to take the instruments of God's justice, or infernal versions thereof (versions of the heavenly thunder and lightning that defeated the rebel angels, and the fire that punishes them in Hell), and turn them upon the heavenly host, shooting among the host "black fire and horror" and alighting God's throne with "Tartarean Sulphur, and strange fire." 

The article's attribution of guns as a form of worshipping Moloch is thus very apt from the Miltonic perspective.  The instruments used to control and punish wrongdoers are also the same instruments that can be used to wreak horror and havoc for an infernal cause.  Yet, guns as instruments of law enforcement are only as effective and for lack of a better word, righteous, as the laws that are being enforced are just and reasonable.  Moloch's amorality, when discussing the instruments of violence, thus provides insights into the current argument regarding regulation of firearms. 

The anti-gun control argument is that to fight bad guys with guns, the good guys should have guns too.  But that argument is more or less a restatement of Moloch's amoral position - that violence should be met with violence, with no consideration of justice, and that immediate vengeance is its own virtue.

One way to re-state the author's argument then (and he acknowledges this in saying "Molochism is the one religion that can never be separate from the state") might be to say that our society does not so much as worship Moloch as we suffuse our social structure with instrumentalities of control.  And when we forget reason and refuse to enact just and reasonable laws, cleaving to extreme notions of how these instruments should be used, our instrumentalities of control turn infernal.  Moloch, after all was a warrior angel before the fall.  After the fall, his weapons no longer are enlightened - rather, he talks about twisted versions of those weapons and twisted uses for them.  Justice then, is not created by a populace wielding guns in self-defense.  Justice, for better or for worse, is created by the state.  And the abdication of that duty by the state invites disaster.   

We do not worship Moloch.  We summon him.  We let him into our very beings and let him dictate our acts.  The issue is not one of worship as the author of the article suggests, but of possession and the need for exorcism.   We are possessed by Moloch, who stands for immediate violence, biblical vengeance, and thoughtless retaliation.  And through inaction on the part of the State, we let fear of tyranny interfere with reasonable regulation, the exercise of which (and this is a naive statement, perhaps) lends legitimacy to the instrumentalities of control.  Through inaction, we undermine the legitimacy of our self-governance.  

To carry the possession metaphor to its logical conclusion, one might argue that we need to exorcise the infernal influence, while acknowledging that these instruments are deeply ingrained in our society and our concepts of justice and security.  But a lack of State action, and an adherence to the extreme and selfish view about the appropriate uses of weapons, only perpetuates the perspective of Moloch, that weapons are instruments to use one sees fit.

Perhaps even more compelling is a comparison between Moloch's argument and that of contemporary extremists.  Moloch exhorts the fallen angels to, without knowing whether or not they might succeed in their effort, mount a possibly suicidal charge:

Or if our substance be indeed Divine,
And cannot cease to be, we are at worst
On this side nothing; and by proof we feel
Our power sufficient to disturb his Heav'n,
And with perpetual inrodes to Allarme,
Though inaccessible, his fatal Throne:
Which if not Victory is yet Revenge.

Paradise Lost, 2:99-105.

Moloch does not know if his angelic body is still immortal, and he does not know if God can consign him to any worse fate than Hell.  But as shown in his rhetoric, he does not care.  Rather, his fight is merely for the sake of inflicting pain and horror, for proving a point:  "which if not Victory is yet Revenge" he exults, consumed by his words of self-indulgent, noble self-sacrifice.  As a result, Moloch echoes and personifies the hopeless and pointless violence of terrorism, and the flawed idealism of all extremists who resort to violence to prove a point, or do it just to get some attention.

Again, we see Milton's Moloch become a better metaphor for the violence that plagues our society, and a better lesson for its reasonable regulation by a just government.  

Moloch's argument is not a rational one.  His argument is one of insanity and self-destruction, an argument of one who has literally descended into hell, and confronted by its madness, only wishes to lash out at those who do not suffer as he does.  The gun lobby tries to legitimize its points through arguments that are facially logical and rational.  "The regulations won't stop criminals from getting guns, they will only restrict law abiding citizens," they argue.  "The regulations won't stop shooting spees," they say. 

But faced with the threat of one as deperate and irrational as Moloch, the duty of a responsible and rational government are twofold - to try to disarm the irrational and desperate, and to stop them from carrying out their infernal plans.  The latter duty is left to law enforcement and our investigative agencies.  The former, at least in some part, is the province of the legislature, state and federal.  When the legislature abdicates that duty, what remains?  That vacuum can never be adequately filled by law-abiding citizens who own guns, no matter how many guns they own or how many bullets they buy.  Even if their gun ownership represents some measure of order, that vacuum left by reasonable regulation by the government will inevitably be filled from time to time with the irrational and chaotic acts like the ones in Newtown and Aurora.  And Boston.

Naturally, another argument is one that Milton's Satan would be familar with, regarding tyrants and responses to threats of tyranny, but that is a separate argument that should not even be reached in a discussion of reasonable regulation, supported by a vast majority of the populace.  I won't discuss that here, but Milton's Satan teaches us lessons about that as well.

This week has seen several instances now of this Moloch-ian presence in our society - some of it is institutional (the power of the gun lobby) while some of it is individual (whoever perpetrated the acts at the Boston Marathon).  While the two do not bear any causal connection, at least for the purposes of this metaphor, it all comes from the same source.  And it wears on the rest of us, who don't believe in living in fear, who believe that our justice system and our political system can be fair and representative, and who are sick and tired of the sacrifice of innocents at the altar of self-righteous anger and violence.   


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