Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Guns, Tribes, and Democracy

In her newly-released book, Lindsey Hilsum (whom I had the privilege of meeting in February in London) quotes a local from Tobruk, where the Libyan revolution was begun: "We don't respect the law in Tobruk.  We have thousands of guns for shooting birds.   The tribe controls everything else."

The elements of this statement might appear as the recipe for disaster: lawlessness, ubiquitous private gun ownership, and tribal control.  Indeed, we saw yesterday the brief seizure of the Tripoli airport by the Tarhouna tribe, incensed over the arrest of their commander, Abdul Elija.

But reading the reports yesterday (and hearing them first hand from a colleague there who had visited with tribal militia men at the airport before the army arrived) and this prescient quote captured by Hilsum caused me to recall another time in history when local militias were well armed and respect for authority ran low: the American Revolution.

In the glossy literature, fireworks, and flag-waving of holidays like Memorial Day, we Americans often forget a time of rampant lawlessness in our own history.  As pointed out by many historians of the Second Amendment, gun ownership was essentially required, as militias consisted of all able-bodied men in a town.  In addition to Shay's rebellion in Massachusetts, there were many uprisings by unruly has-been soldiers protesting new authority during the Confederate period, and we need only reference the Whiskey Rebellion to evoke examples of lawless unrest post-1789.

The analogy to Libya is not perfect. The tribal structure is unique to Libya, although there were competing rival power structures found in each state, and confusion particularly in regulating currency (issued by each state) and the economy as a whole.    

Yet there may yet be historical lessons that can instruct in this instance.  How were American Constitution-writers then able to unite a gun-owning, divided people who had long ceased to respect, in many regards, ruling powers?  One answer was to encourage, support, and respect existing divisions and to respect gun ownership.  State authority was recognized in that each was entitled to an equal vote in both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention.  This proved practically frustrating to many and eventually undermined the legitimacy of the ineffective, impotent Congress, but it did serve to signal to states and state governments that all were equal in new national structures and legitimize the process.   Later, gun ownership and militia organization were protected in the Second Amendment.

Even if not developed with the specific, intentional purpose of engendering acceptance and legitimacy of new power structures, these elements of government creation and incorporation into the fundamental document served to do just that.  These elements, along with a process which was careful to preserve all appearances of legitimacy in an extra-legal environment, facilitated the voluntary acceptance of the new fundamental text by the armed, divided, and disrespectful masses.

Perhaps, by considering similar structures of tribal and gun recognition and even incorporation into the process and fundamental text, Libyans will be enabled to encourage voluntary compliance with law after four decades of lawlessness under Gaddafi.  They are well on their way already by ensuring seats for tribes and localities in the new National Assembly, to be voted into power sometime later this (perhaps next if elections are delayed) month.

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