The Limits of Vigilantism: Guns, Oscar Pistorius, and the NRA

The murder trial of South Africa’s accomplished Olympian, Oscar Pistorius, is bringing many key issues into the spotlight. We are once again reminded how much the mass media loves covering celebrities. The case also provides an opportunity for international news outlets to explore the widespread culture of violence that still grips South Africa. The timing of the Pistorius affair is also interesting, given renewed attention to gun violence in the United States.

Oscar Pistorius has not had a full hearing in court, but his defense seems to rest on the foundation of self-defense. The star runner says that he fired because he suspected that an intruder had entered his well-fortified house. If his account is true, Pistorius’ actions reveal a clear bias toward vigilantism and a distrust in the ability of the state to protect citizens from criminals. After having spent significant time in South Africa  in recent years, I can say that there is a strong basis for this lack of confidence in the South African government. Even so, it is worth remembering that the month-long football (soccer) World Cup tournament (2010) occurred in South Africa with almost no serious crime perpetrated against foreign visitors. Violent crime remains a serious problem in the country, but the primary foundation for that violence is the long period of apartheid that preceded the present era. The white minority government of the National Party oversaw a police state, and the African National Congress (ANC) and other resistance groups fought back with targeted violence.

In the United States, a country that shares a “wild frontier” culture of European settlement with South Africa, a gun culture of vigilantism also persists. Sadly, too many Americans are ill-informed about the costs of our gun culture. For starters, three out of five victims of gun violence in America are suicides. With more limited access to firearms – either through personal choice or tighter gun laws – many of these suicides would not occur. As well, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun rights groups have stifled open discussion of the risks associated with gun ownership. As the MSNBC commentator Touré notes, the NRA is quick to point to the self-defense benefits of gun ownership, while downplaying the true facts about gun violence. Research indicates that a person living in a home with a gun is more than 20 times more likely to be injured or killed by that weapon than by the weapon of an armed intruder.

The following quote from Dr. Art Kellermann, a health policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, accords with the society-wide statistics on gun violence in the United States:

… as a young ER doc, I wasn’t seeing too many bad guys shot by homeowners . . . I was seeing kids shot by another child while they played with a gun they had found. I saw spouses who had shot one or the other in a family dispute. And I saw older individuals and sometimes teenage kids who used a gun to either take their life or attempt to take their life.

The NRA is right to point to the political importance of gun ownership in resisting tyranny (see a previous post from this blog). That fact should not obscure a more balanced discussion of vigilantism and the true dynamics of gun violence.

Helping Failed States in an Age of Austerity

Anti-austerity Protestors in Ireland

Protestors of austerity budgets in Dublin, Ireland, November 2012. Photo credit: informatique (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

According to traditional wisdom, helping failed states is expensive. Right now, Europe, Japan, and the United States are loaded down by a massive debt burden. Emerging powers – including China, India, Brazil, Russia, and South Africa – don’t seem too interested in bankrolling expensive new state-building missions. So, it looks as though we are at an impasse. Except, that we’re not.

The first premise – on the financial costs of helping failed states – is not necessarily true. Successful state-building / reconstruction can involve long deployments of foreign militaries and billions of dollars in international aid. Foreign engagement in Afghanistan, for example, has been anything but cheap. Yet, this costly “big footprint” approach is not the only available option in assisting fragile states. And that is a good thing, given the unavoidable reality of this age of austerity.

Europe, Japan, and America are clearly in the midst of an age of austerity. “Austerity” simply refers to a massive and sustained program of public spending cuts (and tax increases). Even without the massive deficit spending associated with the Great Recession (2007-), these established industrial states were facing structural imbalances. In all of these areas – but especially in Japan and most of Europe – rapidly aging populations are severely straining prior social welfare commitments. In the U.S., a pervasive anti-tax culture has also starved the state, and therefore led to more dramatic tradeoffs between domestic spending and foreign assistance. On current trends, the present decade is likely to remembered by much of the world as a “lost decade” economically, due to the circumstances of austerity.

No matter. The onset of austerity could actually be a helpful stimulus to creative thinking about responses to state failure. Because we must come up with low-cost solutions to state decay, it is more likely that we will do so. Two key options are the following: 1) provide diplomatic flexibility to redraw the territories of existing states and 2) in rare cases, allow “stateless zones,” rather than push the development of modern states where they are not wanted. You can read more about these and other low-cost solutions to state failure in my new book, State Failure: Realities, Risks, and Responses ($4.99, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo).

South Africa’s Slide

This week’s Economist magazine highlights mounting troubles in Africa’s largest economy. Though South Africa is far from state failure, the heady optimism of early post-apartheid days is long gone. Even as many African countries are surging ahead, politically and economically, the “rainbow nation” is stalling out.

Mandela’s land is dear to me, since I have traveled there three times in the last few years, leading groups on two occasions. It is a land of tremendous beauty and potential, but the current political climate and nagging legacies of the white supremacist era are holding South Africa back.

The main obstacle to South Africa’s progress is an uncompetitive electoral landscape, which breeds corruption and bad governance. There is no way around it: the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has lost its way. Though South African elections are basically free and fair, a serious opposition party is yet to emerge as the country nears two decades since the end of apartheid. The ANC’s dominance must be broken, if only for a short time, if the country is to move forward.

Lack of electoral competition is hardly the only challenge that South Africa faces. As the Economist’s special report highlights, South Africa’s schools are in pitiful shape. Many of the country’s southern African neighbors produce better outcomes, and that with less spending per student. To be fair, these neighboring states do not have to deal with the fallout of the struggle against apartheid. During the last 15 years of white minority rule, widespread protests and civil unrest led to a “lost generation” with respect to education. And, despite some recent gains, HIV/AIDS persists as a major burden for the country. And we could go on.

Let’s hope that South Africa’s current travails are simply a rough patch in an otherwise promising post-apartheid narrative. Africa and the world need a stable, free, and prosperous South Africa. And, after the nightmare of apartheid, it would be tragic if South Africa goes the way of Zimbabwe.