Two more mass shootings last week in South Carolina and Texas, before we even had time to forget the recent shootings in Georgia and Colorado, continue to keep deadly gun violence in America in the forefront of our national consciousness.
But that doesn’t mean, as a nation, we’re seriously thinking about how to address, much less end, this violence.
We need to weave a cultural narrative that addresses the fact of the world we are making and helps us tell a story that ends differently from the murderous ways our national narratives have been concluding recently.
When you stop to think about the enormous number of guns produced, bought, and sold in America, it should really be no surprise to anyone that gun violence is a deadly epidemic in our nation.
The National Rifle Association, its supporters, and second amendment fanatics (who typically don’t carefully read the second amendment) will, of course, continue to peddle the mantra, “Guns don’t kill people; people do.”
Maybe. But wouldn’t it be hard to shoot people, particularly in mass fashion, without guns?
Indeed, in addition to seeing a record surge in gun sales in 2020, the nation also saw a drastic increase in gun violence and gun crimes, with over 19,000 deaths from shootings and gun-related incidents. It would be hard not see a relationship between these two facts.
Even those politicians favoring gun control and seeking to reform gun laws, however, in hopes of curtailing the gun violence, the mass murder, that we’ve witnessed the past month, do not seem to address the fact of the mass production of guns in our political economy, the fact that as a nation we devote prodigious resources to making guns.
Maybe we really need to shift the focus of scrutiny, when it comes to guns, to the point of production itself and to think about the world we are making more consciously and carefully.
Famed Argentinian storyteller Jorge Luis Borges, in his 1970 story “The Encounter,” weaves a tale that does exactly that. In providing a new angle of entry from which to view a world that has become commonplace to us, as all good fiction does, Borges shifts our vision from focusing on how we use objects in our world to instead focusing on how the objects we make use us, asking us to think with great deliberation about how we make our world and the objects in them.
The world we make, Borges’ tale suggests, ends up making us in return.
Let’s take a look at this story, “The Encounter,” which opens with the narrator recalling an episode when he was a young boy and his older cousin took him along to a barbecue of sorts, a gathering of older men. Bored as the men drank, smoked, and played cards, the narrator recalls exploring the large country home, only to find himself lost at one moment. The owner of the house finds him and invites him to observe a museum case that contains “knives of every shape and kind, knives made famous by the circumstances of their use.” The owner “recounted the knives’ histories, which were always more or less the same, with differences of place and date.”
Before the owner was able to finish relating the story of each knife, he is interrupted by one of the guests, Uriarte, shouting than one of the other men, Duncan, had been cheating him at cards.
The hot-headed Uriarte insists that Duncan fight him; and with the knives so close at hand, he insists on the knife fight. Uriarte ends up stabbing Duncan to death.
Or so we think. Duncan is dead, but Borges ends the story complicating how we understand the murder, asking to question our vision—and version—of what happened.
The narrator tells us that, “Nine or ten men, all of them now dead, saw what my eyes saw—the long thrust at the body and the body sprawled beneath the sky—but what they saw was the end of another, older story.”
What is this other, older story that our eyes, trained in their ways, cannot immediately see?
Well, the narrator corrects us that it was not Uriarte that fought with and killed Duncan. Rather, he abjures,
[I]t was the weapons, not the men, that fought. They had lain sleeping, side by side, in a cabinet, until the hands awoke them. Perhaps they stirred when they awoke; perhaps that’s why Uriarte’s hand shook, and Duncan’s as well. The two knew how to fight—the knives, I mean, not the men, who were merely their instruments—and they fought well that night. They had sought each other for a long time, down the long roads of the province. And at last they found each other; by that time their gauchos were dust. In the blades of those knives there slept, and lurked, a human grudge.
Things last long than men. Who can say whether the story ends here; who can say they will never meet again.
For Borges, finally, in this story, people don’t kill people; the knives do. He pushes us in this story to re-think that traditional NRA adage that “guns don’t kill people; people do.”
In asking us to entertain that the knives themselves, not the people, are the real actors, Borges is turning our vision to generate a fresh perspective, inviting us to reflect on the world we choose to make, on the objects we decide to produce.
If we create a world full of deadly objects that inflict violence, in the course of inhabiting this world and using these objects, we will likely engage in violent and deadly behavior.
The objects we make in the end make us; they take on a life of their own. Like active landmines still buried in the battlefield of a war ended long ago. They live on to kill.
If we make violent objects, we will live in a violent world and be violent people.
Instead of creating a violent world and then seeking to control it with “gun control” laws, maybe we need to reflect first and foremost on what we are devoting our precious resources to producing.
The biblical prophet Isaiah offered a similar perspective when he wrote that once God rebukes the people, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
If we make objects, such as plowshares, to begin with that promote peaceful interaction and serve human life productively, we won’t have the chance to learn to use swords in war.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.