Question: There are a bunch of dudes with guns in your back yard. What do you do?
For most people, the first reaction will probably be to ask, or at least wonder, why there are a bunch of dudes with guns in one’s backyard. But, to make my point, let’s assume that you don’t wonder why they’re there. In that case, perhaps the most reasonable answer to the question I posed would be something along the lines of: Call the cops.
So, you call the cops, and within minutes a police car with flashing blue and red lights pulls up in front of your house. An officer, or two, perhaps with their pistols drawn, step out to confront the armed strangers. If said armed strangers are of the particularly belligerent or dangerous types, maybe more cars with more flashing lights will show up on your front lawn, inevitably knocking over a garden gnome or two in the process. They may even be reinforced by a black van full of heavily armed SWAT agents. Helicopters buzz over head. The sprinkler turns on inexplicably. All while you’re sitting comfortably in a neighbor’s living room, sipping a cup of hot chocolate, and watching the whole ordeal on live local TV.
But, let’s suppose a bunch of dudes with guns show up on my property. They’re illegal hunters. Or illegal marijuana growers. Perhaps they’re harmless. But maybe they’re drunk, or stupid, or both. In any case, there are a bunch of dudes with loaded guns on my property. What do I do?
The answer is less simple. In theory, they are on my property, illegally. I may have signs saying “no trespassing” and “no hunting” or even “trespassers may be shot”. But they’re there, and I’m out gunned. I’d call the sheriff, except, I have no land line and no cell reception. Even if I could call them, it might be an hour before they show up. So I’m on my own. The law is on my side, but I am outside the reach of law enforcement, which renders the law, at least for the moment, unhelpful. I am on my own to confront the intruders. If they decide to just shoot me, it might be days before anybody finds me. The intruders will be long gone. There will be no witnesses. So maybe I’d better bring my biggest gun with me.
Living in the city, we tend to take the law for granted. The law seems absolute. Of course you can’t do something illegal, at least not something very illegal. And if someone tries to do you wrong, you’re protected. You call the cops. They show up. But out here, it’s practically lawless. Or at least, there are different rules at work. It’s not the rules as written in the books.
Where there is no law enforcement, it becomes more apparent that the rules which dictate human behavior, are often not the same as the rules encoded as laws. Enforcement is essentially the translator between laws and “human rules”. If we are motivated by fear of violence, by financial gain, by desire for freedom, then laws are enforced by threat of violence, financial penalty, and loss of freedom. Lacking enforcement, and the threats extended thereby, we are left with something much fuzzier, subjective and unreliable. We are left with ethics and morality, and lacking even that, something more primal and violent.
So, when I am confronting a bunch of dudes with guns on my property, that will ultimately be the question going through my mind. Out here, out of reach of law enforcement, can I count on these people to act morally? Or will they only respond to threat of violence? Will they just shoot me, burry my body and leave, free as can be? Ironically, maybe my best hope is that they will be motivated by fear of God. I may hope, even pray, that they genuinely believe that God exists, is omnipresent and fearsome, even when the sheriffs aren’t. I wonder if that’s why people in rural areas tend to be more religious than city folk. Maybe it’s true that guns and god are all there is out here to maintain order.