Newtown and Daillon: Do Events Matter?


After the Newtown shootings, several cities in the United States offered rewards for citizens to turn in their firearms. Many people did. But the fundamental laws on purchasing weapons have not changed and probably will not change. Since December 14, there have been 400 gun related deaths in the U.S. The more recent shootings in Daillon also raise the question of access to weapons. Although the situation in Switzerland is far from the situation in the United States – 2.3 million weapons among a population of less than 8 million compared to almost one weapon for 300 million citizens with shooting rampages very rare -, one could reasonably ask whether Newtown and Daillon will affect gun legislation in Switzerland. The answer is probably not. In 2011, Swiss citizens rejected a proposal to tighten gun laws.


Can one event change history? The recent rape and eventual death of a student in India has caused an outburst of rage against the lax enforcement of rules protecting women. India, we are being told, is to recruit more female officers to staff police stations as the country re-examines attitudes to sexual violence. The event has crystallized a national frustration; it could be a tipping point, much like Rosa Parks’ refusal to accept bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 was a watershed moment for the civil rights movement.

The individual events in India and Alabama reflected long-standing injustices. They were symbolic of much deeper social problems. But the question remains if the events themselves will lead to fundamental change. Neta Crawford has written a wonderful book on how slavery became outlawed. It did not happen overnight, nor was it the result of one event. Much like the geopolitical theory of long cycles, Crawford traces the evolution of a building norm against slavery. There is no question that the American Civil War followed by the Emancipation Proclamation concretized the formal end of slavery. But they were not isolated events.

Not all events which reflect long-standing injustices lead to fundamental change. The Occupy Wall Street Movement has not changed the fundamental imbalance in income distribution in the United States. And the recent tax revisions passed to avoid the fiscal cliff will certainly not alter the relationship between the top 1% and the rest.

What is important to see, to come inevitably back to the gun situation in Newtown and Daillon, the horrendous rape in India and Rosa Parks, is how an isolated incident can mobilize an ongoing movement. Momentum is important. It is not the event itself, but the follow-up that is crucial. After President Reagan was shot, there was movement for gun control because James Brady, his assistant, was seriously wounded and paralyzed and became a symbol of what uncontrolled weapons can do. Rosa Parks’ refusal became a symbol of all that was unjust in racial segregation. There was an event followed by movement; there was momentum, although the gun control movement has not had a significant legal influence.

How much has the student’s death mobilized the Indian population? How much has Dallion mobilized the Swiss? We hear less and less about Occupy Wall Street. It has not mobilized the population. What made Rosa Parks’ refusal in the bus such a game changing event compared to the assassinations of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney? In short, while the news focuses on one event as a potential game changer, much more needs to happen before fundamental changes occur.


January 7, 2013

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