Month: January 2013

Of freedom, guns and war

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” — Nelson Mandela

Guns are freedom. 

It’s an idea I’ve seen — and probably you’ve seen, as well — bandied about in some quarters, as our nation contemplates an individual’s right to own a particular object used, essentially, to kill. Granted, you can use a gun to shoot at a target, but the device is a weapon — to quote the Online Etymology Dictionary, “an instrument of fighting and defense.” Weapon is a Germanic word, with no links to works outside that language tree, and has apparently always meant what it does now.

“Gun,” too, is Germanic — specifically Scandinavian in origin. While gunnr means war, its derivation comes from a woman’s name. It’s a derivation I find ironic. While women in modern times can train with weapons and serve alongside male soldiers, in many times and places they were most often victims of said weapons, whether they were held to their throat during a rape by an enemy soldier, or by one’s own men to “defend their honor,” as the euphemism usually goes. To quote the shield-maiden Eowyn from Tolkein‘s Lord of the Rings, “those who have not swords can still die upon them.”

Interestingly, the concept of soldier is essentially tied to that of capitalism. It derives from Latin, meaning “one who is paid,” i.e., an employee — distinguishing a soldier from a warrior who, in some senses, fights for honor or pride. Warriors are, at the root of it, people who engage in war. And what does war mean? According to the handy online etymological dictionary, there was no common Germanic root for the word, and thus no Proto-Indo-European one. “Cognates suggest the original sense was ‘to bring into confusion,'” Douglas Harper writes.

Ah. In the root, we find the truth. War is a mass of confusion. It rips the sense out of the world. Just as a gun does when turned on a classroom of first-graders, or an English language class in a local immigrant center, or any other episode of casual or organized violence you care to cite.

And why, then, is having a weapon freedom? And what is freedom, anyway?

We seem to view freedom as a lack of constraints: “Ain’t no one telling me what to do.” At its root, to be free is not to be a slave. You have the rights accorded to citizens, the lawful dwellers of a place.

Its etymological roots aren’t quite what you think, though. It ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European word prijos, for “dear” or “beloved.” In English, it’s linked to the word “friend.” Freedom isn’t the chaos of war, then, or an anarchic lack of boundaries. Freedom is linked intrinsically with love, with connection. If you are completely and utterly alone — atomistic, self-reliant, dependent on nothing and no one — you are not free. You aren’t even a social animal; you’re something more akin to a tiger or a polar bear. A predator — one who feeds on other life, and gives nothing back.

It’s not enough to slip the chain; you must instead forge them, willing and silken, tying to you to the larger community — and not only to your rights in said community, but your obligations. Freedom is not force; it is not the ability to take the choices of others away so you can exercise your whim and will. Freedom is joyful, willing obligation and responsibility.

Those who are free are not the soldiers or the warriors. I am reminded of Gandhi on his hunger strikes, the many women and men who were beaten for the right to sit at the lunch counter, or the front of the bus, or to vote. I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr. at the end of a gun-barrel. Those who give their lives to extend the community of care to all involved are the truly free, because you cannot chain them with force. You can beat, threaten, shoot, kill, but they remain essentially free. 

They understand what freedom is, and why happiness isn’t a warm gun. It’s the warmth of human community, and the silken ties that bind you to it.