The Banality of Evil Arguments

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 11, 2012

In April 17, 1775, Boswell recorded one of Samuel Johnson’s most famous lines, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” If he were alive today, I believe that Johnson might well say, “Evil arguments are the first and last refuge of scoundrels.”

On the April 9, 2013 edition of the PBS NewsHour, there was a mild debate of sorts between Jim Johnson, Police Chief of Baltimore County, and Lawrence Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The topic was of course background checks for gun owners. Predictably, Johnson was for checks and Keane was against them.

Although I’ve heard it many times before, I was particularly shocked by Keane’s use of a particularly insidious argument against background checks. Given that painful interviews with some of the family members who lost loved ones in the tragic Newtown shootings had aired recently on the CBS program 60 Minutes and were thus still fresh, the more I listened to Keane, the more that the phrase “the banality of evil arguments” flashed through my mind.

Time and again, Keane argued that if background checks were required before someone could purchase a gun, then it would place an inordinate burden on “small mom and pop gun dealers.” The particular word that Keane used repeatedly to signify the burden that small dealers would face was “inconvenience.” That is, they would be “greatly inconvenienced” by having to fill out all the forms that background checks would require. After all, why should they be required to do the work of the government?

If this is not a prime example of an argument that is both evil and banal, then I don’t know what is!

As a parent, spouse, relative, or friend of someone that has lost their life in a senseless shooting, how does one weigh the “inconvenience” of a gun dealer versus the inconsolable pain that one will experience throughout all of one’s life? One can’t! This is precisely what makes Keane’s argument banal and evil.

If I wanted to insult those who had lost loved ones and cause further pain, I couldn’t think of a more inappropriate word than “inconvenience.”

By the repeated use of such utterly wicked arguments and words, gun proponents don’t know it, but they have already lost the argument with regard to greater gun controls. Whether this Congress finally votes for background checks or not, gun proponents are in their last throes. To be sure, greater restrictions on the manufacturing, sale, and ownership of guns are still a long ways off, but they will happen.

One shouldn’t even have to say it, but given the hysteria surrounding the issue, this doesn’t mean that honest, law-abiding citizens won’t be allowed to have any guns at all. They will. It does mean that eventually there will be a ban on military assault type weapons in the hands of civilians.

Originally published on Nation of Change, April 11, 2012

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Investigator with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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