Monday, 19 July 2010

Unintended Consequences (John Ross)

Unintended Consequences
-John Ross

“The unspoken and unchallenged assumption is that anyone who kills employees of the U.S. Government is at best an irrational, paranoid, right-wing fanatic and at worst certifiably insane. The idea that the killers might be logical people acting in a reasoned manner is too horrible for guardians of the status quo to contemplate. Unfortunately, dismissing a growing movement as irrational and ignoring the basis for its existence will not make it go away.”

One general rule of social engineering is that there will always be unintended consequences to anything you do. History is rife with such examples, some predicable (in hindsight, probably) and some utterly unexpected. Some have been beneficial, others have been negative.
The basic plot of Unintended Consequences is fairly simple. The Federal Government has been engaged in a series of attacks on gun-owners and their rights, including the use of forged evidence, drummed up charges, violence, intimidation and other such methods, spearheaded by the ATF. Eventually, they pick on the wrong person – Henry Bowman and his friends – and raid his house with the intention of planting false evidence, or having an ‘accidental’ mishap that will leave him dead and unable to defend himself. Unluckily for them, Henry is at home and fights back, destroying the ATF team.

Realising that there is nothing left to lose, Henry and his friends launch a grassroots resistance movement against the Feds, targeting ATF officials and government members who have supported anti-gun laws, while mounting a propaganda campaign. (This part of the book reads rather dated – the internet is barely visualised.) As the numbers of dead or resigned ATF officials mount, and the campaign spreads to other overbearing Feds, the President finally throws in the towel and surrenders.

But that isn’t all. Unintended Consequences is as much a history book as an adventure story. Ross takes us through the earliest years of guns and gun control, asking pointed questions that few people dare to ask or consider. Would the Holocaust have gone differently if the Jews had been armed? It’s beyond dispute that the Nazis were quick to disarm their enemies. Would racism and segregation have been so bad if racists were resisted with violence? (The South’s gun laws, Ross notes, were written specifically to disarm the blacks.) He considers the famous occasion when a bunch of GIs, home from the war, stood up to a corrupt local government and threw the rascals out. All in all, the level of research included in the book is impressive.
The problem is that the book drags in the wrong places. If I had wanted a history lesson, I would have bought a history book. Some incidents are of minor importance – Henry writes a paper on the evils of gun legislation as a young child, apparently – and others are of significant importance and are barely covered. The book is loaded with details about guns, safaris and more details – few, if any, of which are important to the overall story. I could have purchased a gun manual and gained the same information without reading this book. Two-thirds of the book consists of setting up the scene – again, this is important, but not particularly grabbing.

If there is one service which Ross has unashamedly performed for the Gun Community, it is that the book is – generally – reasonable in tone, a far cry from some of the more irritating screeds written by other writers. (Mentioning no names here!) Henry Bowman and his friends come across as reasonable people pushed into a corner, not the kind of people who should be denied access to guns, knives, and locked up for the sake of everyone else. Their grievances against a government gone mad and stupid are clearly outlined; Ross’s world may not be ours, but it holds together reasonably well. Or, as he puts it:

“A large number of people in America believe that honest adults have a fundamental right, which they possess by merely drawing breath, to buy, sell, borrow, own, transport, carry, lend, or give away whatever small arms they want without any restrictions whatsoever. It does not matter to them how long the buttstock is, whether there are threads on the barrel, how many shots the gun holds, or what date the gun was made.

“To these people, murder, robbery, and assault are made no more or less despicable by dint of the instrument used. A knife-wielding murderer should receive no less punishment nor less speedy trial than one who uses a gun. These people believe government has no more authority to restrict their gun rights than it has the right to ban the sale of automated printing presses. For years, these people have grudgingly submitted to ever more ludicrous measures, and then been vilified as fanatics any time they tried to say "enough!" Most importantly, when these people disobey these laws they so detest, they do not believe they are doing anything wrong.”

The underlying theme of the book, however, can be counted upon to raise hackles, for Bowman and his allies are undeniably committing acts of terrorism. Now, all terrorists believe their actions to be justified; their victims generally think otherwise, if they have time to think at all. Was Bowman right to take up arms against an insane government and a crushing bureaucracy? One could argue that seeing Bowman only targeted active agents of an evil agency and the politicians who supported them, he was justified. One could also argue that Gun Owners could have used the political process instead and therefore he wasn't justified. Where does one draw the line?

It seems to me that the core of the issue lies in responsible gun ownership – responsible, as in not using guns to commit criminal acts. To use a limited analogy, we penalise drivers who are careless or drunk, and eventually we put them off the road. The same could be said for gun owners…except this opens up a whole new can of worms. Exactly where does one draw the line? I’d draw it, personally, at actions that threaten the lives of others – if someone wants to kill himself, he’s probably going to succeed with or without a gun.

But going back to the underlying theme, what about the expansion of government power? The problem with power is that it will be abused. The problem with expanding the scope of government power is that it offers far more opportunities for abuse, with less opportunity for redress. The scope of abuse over the past twenty years in both Britain and the US is increasingly shocking, the more so because we haven’t got anything back in exchange. At what point, again, do you draw the line?

These are not comfortable questions, yet they have to be asked.

One point that struck me when I first heard about this book was that it was vilified by some right-wing segments of the population for its steamy sex scenes. (Although some complained that they merely detracted from an otherwise top-notch novel.) The best I can say about that is that…well, I’ve seen worse. Sure, there are some sex scenes, but they’re not particularly bad. The homosexual rape scene isn’t pleasant, but I don’t hold that against him. Some things have to be made unpleasant to ram the point home.

Some other people (from the left, this time) have complained that the book glorified the Oklahoma City bombing. (According to Ross himself, the book was nearly completed when the bomb was detonated.) This is simply not true. Ross does question the official version of the story and the many inconsistencies in the blur surrounding the event, but at no point does he glorify it. He also recounts a story about a black student unit leader who, at the point when the union was about to lose its funding, planted a burning cross outside the union to scare up more funds and wonders if an ATF agent had the same thing in mind. McVeigh himself is portrayed as a moron.
So, in conclusion, what can I say?

An issue I do have with the book is that the ending made it seem far too easy. Governments tend to show a much smarter side of themselves when their power is blatantly threatened. I’d expect much more of an attempt to fight back, to out-shout and crush the enemy, rather than a surrender.

Unintended Consequences deserves a second read, definitely – the important parts certainly deserve a third read. But it drags in places.


  1. UC does for the second amendment what Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged does for property rights- there is no possibility of being confused about who the bad guys are or exactly why they are WRONG.
    Neither author submits a realistic solution, but the journey is certainly worthwhile!

  2. "At what point, again, do you draw the line? These are not comfortable questions, yet they have to be asked."

    They are asked near the middle of the book, in the "May 7, 1973" section. The implied answer is: draw the line when the people are being forced/asked to forfeit the capability to resist in the future. The connection to firearms restrictions (but not just that) is obvious.