Paul Krugman: The Republican war on virtue

Those who shout the loudest about ‘freedom’ are pushing us toward living in an armed camp.

(Callaghan O'Hare | The New York Times) Mourners gather near crosses bearing the names of those killed in Tuesday's mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Thursday, May 26, 2022. Thursday was supposed to have been the last day of school in Uvalde; instead, grieving relatives are planning funerals after a mass shooting for which investigators were still seeking a motive.

It’s hard to say which of the Republican responses to the latest mass shooting was most reprehensible. The reliably awful Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas attracted considerable attention by insisting that the answer is to put armed guards in schools, never mind that Uvalde’s school system has its own police force and officers seem to have been on the scene soon after the shooter arrived.

And the Buffalo, New York, supermarket that was the location of a mass shooting just 10 days earlier also had an armed security guard, who was killed because his gun was no match for the shooter’s body armor.

But if you ask me, the worst and also most chilling response came from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas. What we need to do, declared Patrick, is “harden these targets so no one can get in, ever, except maybe through one entrance.”

That restriction would have interesting consequences in the event of a fire. But in any case, think about Patrick’s language: In a nation that’s supposedly at peace, we should treat schools as “targets” that need to be “hardened.” What would that do to public education, which has for many generations been one of the defining experiences of growing up in America? Don’t worry, says the Federalist Society: Families can keep their kids safe by resorting to home-schooling.

Actually, if you take the proposals by Cruz, Patrick and others literally, they amount to a call for turning the land of the free into a giant armed camp. There are around 130,000 K-12 schools in America; there are close to 40,000 supermarkets; there are many other venues that might offer prey for mass killers. So protecting all these public spaces Republican-style would require creating a heavily armed, effectively military domestic defense force — heavily armed because it would face attackers with body armor and semi-automatic weapons — that would be at least as big as the Marine Corps.

Why would such a thing be necessary? Mass shootings are very rare outside the United States. Why are they so common here? Not, according to the U.S. right, because we’re a nation where a disturbed 18-year-old can easily buy military-grade weapons and body armor. No, says Patrick, it’s because “We’re a coarse society.”

I know it’s a hopeless effort to say this, but imagine the reaction if a prominent liberal politician were to declare that the reason the United States has a severe social problem that doesn’t exist elsewhere is that Americans are bad people. We’d never hear the end of it. But when a Republican says it, it barely makes a ripple.

And I guess I should say for the record that I personally don’t believe that Americans, as individuals, are worse than anyone else. If anything, what has always struck me when returning from trips abroad is that Americans are (or were) on average exceptionally nice and pleasant to interact with.

What distinguishes us is that it’s so easy for people who aren’t nice to arm themselves to the teeth.

OK, I think everyone realizes that none of what Republicans are saying about how to respond to mass shootings will translate into actual policy proposals. They’re barely even trying to make sense. Instead, they’re just making noise to drown out rational discussion until the latest atrocity fades from the news cycle. The truth is that conservatives consider mass shootings, and for that matter America’s astonishingly high overall rate of gun deaths, as an acceptable price for pursuing their ideology.

But what is that ideology? I’d argue that while talk about America’s unique gun culture isn’t exactly wrong, it’s too narrow. What we’re really looking at here is a broad assault on the very idea of civic duty — on the idea that people should follow certain rules, accept some restrictions on their behavior, to protect the lives of their fellow citizens.

In other words, we should think of vehement opposition to gun regulations as a phenomenon closely linked to vehement (and highly partisan) opposition to mask mandates and vaccination in the face of a deadly pandemic, vehement opposition to environmental rules like the ban on phosphates in detergent, and more.

Where does this hatred of the idea of civic duty come from? No doubt some of it, like almost everything in U.S. politics, is related to race.

One thing it doesn’t reflect, however, is our national tradition. When you hear talk of home-schooling, remember that the United States basically invented universal public education. Environmental protection used to be a nonpartisan issue: The Clean Air Act of 1970 passed the Senate without a single nay. And Hollywood mythology aside, most towns in the Old West had stricter limits on the carrying of firearms than Gov. Greg Abbott’s Texas.

As I suggested, I don’t fully understand where this aversion to the basic rules of a civilized society is coming from. What’s clear, however, is that the very people who shout most about “freedom” are doing their best to turn America into a “Hunger Games”-type dystopian nightmare, with checkpoints everywhere, loomed over by men with guns.

Paul Krugman | The New York Times (CREDIT: Fred R. Conrad)

Paul Krugman is a columnist for The New York Times.