Monday, June 09, 2008

Eliminating the Impossible

The lead-up to the tragic knife attack in Tokyo will seem very familiar to Americans. So will the government's response, in some ways (though, I hasten to add, not in others).

Government officials scrambled to respond to Sunday's attack. In an emergency meeting, the ruling coalition considered limiting access to knives like the one used in the stabbing, which had a five-inch blade.

"Obviously, the suspect possessed the knife without a legitimate reason," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said. "I think we have to seriously consider what we can do to step up the restrictions."
Of course, someone might buy a knife for a legitimate reason before deciding to kill people with it. And in this case, the knife seems to have been something of an afterthought, since the murderer began his attack by driving a rental truck into a crowd of pedestrians. It's also fair to say that large knives (and axes, and hatchets, and meat cleavers) will continue to be widely available to any murderer who wants them, government rulings notwithstanding. Indeed, the chances are pretty good that the next person who's destined to go on a knife-wielding rampage already owns a large knife, and has for years.

But let's put all that aside, and reflect for a moment on what a knife actually is: generally speaking, it's a piece of sharpened metal attached to, or equipped with, a handle. How on earth are you going to "step up the restrictions" on a low-tech object that people have been making by hand since the Bronze Age?

It's likely that the goal here is simply to make rattled citizens feel better, by giving them the impression that the People in Charge are seeing to things. But many of us, far from being comforted by gestures like these, are more alarmed by them. How comforting is it to live under a government that not only finds it plausible to limit access to knives, but also believes that successful restrictions would somehow thwart bloodthirsty maniacs, instead of obliging them to stroll down to the hardware store and buy an axe or a chainsaw? More to the point, how comforting is it to live under a government that's cynical enough -- or experienced enough -- to think that people will actually be soothed by talk like this?

I understand that this sort of spectacular freelance violence, in particular, constitutes a challenge that has to be formally addressed by the authorities, and that the Japanese government deserves credit for not pointing out how much better the massacre would've turned out if everyone in the vicinity had been armed with a five-inch blade. Secretary Machimura's quote is interesting mainly as an example of what constitutes an official "solution" in a given society. I don't know much about Japan, but I know that like any other country it has its own pathologies. And I suspect that this eagerness to discuss restricting the availability of knives is based on a reluctance to discuss something a bit more fundamental. When solutions are being debated by the powers that be, it's often what doesn't seem possible that's really worthy of attention.

Which reminds me, in an odd way, of what Sherlock Holmes used to say: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

(Photo: "Canaanite sword with ebony and ivory inlaid hilt (top: KW 275, length: 45.4 cm), Canaanite dagger (middle: KW 296, preserved length: 33.5 cm), and a Mycenaean sword (bottom: KW 301, preserved length:45.5 cm)." Via the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.)


rorschach said...

Next thing you know, they'll be coming for our clubs...

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