Andrew Pilsch Blog

The Right Not To

30 Jul 2014

Yesterday, a story making the rounds on my social media detailed the arrest of Dr. Peter Nathan Steinmetz, head of neurosurgery at The Barrow Neurological Institute, after he brought a loaded AR-15 to the non-secure portion of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. Here’s the thing, unlike what you’d expect, his merely having a loaded assault rifle in an airport wasn’t why he was arrested. That’s legal in Arizona. Instead,

“It was him being negligent in how he was manipulating the weapon,” says Phoenix Police Sgt. Steve Martos. “(He) pointed it toward a couple individuals, two females, and made them nervous; made them feel threatened by them.”

So, while sitting down to enjoy his coffee but really savor his white privilege, he took his AR-15 off of his shoulder and, in the process pointed it at someone who, as any rational being would, became scared and called the police. The act of having a deadly weapon—used in such mass shooting as this one—in a highly secure and sensitive place is not a crime in America but at least pointing one at someone still is (in certain cases).

Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun

The doctor who gave two people the above view while they all waited to pick up loved ones is, of course, an open carry activist, as the news article makes clear:

police believe Steinmetz was trying to prove a point on gun rights.

He has reportedly done it before… Last year, he picked someone up at Sky Harbor carrying an assault weapon. In that instance, police were called, but no arrest was made.

You can find pictures of these people all over the Internet. This one, of a gentleman in a jaunty hat buying groceries with his trusty AK-47, is my favorite. They continue to assert their rights to carry these instruments of death in public, claiming coverage under the 2nd amendment.

I don’t really want to have that argument here, today, though. What I want to think after is the rights of the two women Dr. Peter Nathan Steinmetz’s activism threatened.

Living in a gun crazy and open carry state as I do, I’m continually asking myself how I would react to seeing someone carrying an assault rifle like this, casually as one might carry a baby in a Snugli, in a public place. Because, to be completely frank, I have nightmares about these people and their culture of fear. I’d obviously leave and probably complain to a manager, but how far, really, are you going to push someone carrying a weapon capable of reducing a human body to a pile of red mist and bone fragments?

The further question this has me thinking about is do I not, in America, have a right to feel safe in a public space?

As this comic strip from Robot Hugs makes clear, women have been dealing with these questions a lot longer than I have. It’s one of the best explanations of casual sexism I’ve read, so take a minute on the whole thing.

Ok, pretty good right? I think the smart take-away from this strip is the point about the unconscious perception that men own public space and that women in those public spaces are somehow beholden to them while in these spaces by themselves. The idea that women have a right not to be bothered1 is alien to most men, it seems.

Looping this back to my concerns about dealing with open carry “activists” in Arizona, I asserted that I feel I have a right to feel safe in public, but do I? Is not the right to feel safe the right to not feel threatened? They’re both rights not to, they’re subtractive rights rather than additive rights. The right to carry a gun in public is an additive right: it’s like letting a child stay an extra hour to watch a special TV program. The right not is more diaphanous.

That these rights to are such a battleground (open carry, abortion, marijuana legalization) is curious. I’m starting to build a case in my head for something we might call a vocabulary of the posthuman, because we’re entering (or have entered) an era where posthumanism, to be flip, stops being funny. Long a shocking pose—“you know you’re actually a thin tissue of juridical, biological, and narratological texts sutured together by access to technology and capital”—posthumanism is becoming the actual world in which we all live: personhood is more mutable than it once was and appeals to basic, fundamental, or ineffable humanity are not even gestured toward anymore.

At the same time, we all act as-if-human, as though concepts and arguments and even words inherited from the Enlightenment and its vision of a stable essence still apply to our subtractive and ad-hoc posthuman existence. This as-if-ness is where I think something like viewing the transition from a rights language of “to” to “not” comes into play: we conceptualize rights as add-ons, upgrades we add to the Amazon order of our humanity.

But, perhaps we need to start thinking about them as subtractive: I have the right not to worry about being shot in an airport terminal. The right of all of us who don’t choose to bring a gun to a public place should outweigh the right of the one idiot who did, but our language of rights (granting, gaining, giving, etc.) doesn’t convey this noöspheric understanding of rights.

I think the stuff I was posting last week about banal dystopias here and here was also connected to this idea of a posthuman grammar. Where posthumanism was something that a previous generation of scholars did for fun or to shock, I think this is now our reality and at a basic, linguistic level we don’t have the rhetoric to articulate this condition, we can’t even argue about our new and horrifying posthumanism.

[Photo, AR-15 Profile by Internet Persona licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

  1. I’m using this term instead of a more loaded term like “harassed” because as the strip makes clear, the point is about a whole range of behavior. Being told to smile by some stranger is the same basic idea as groping: it’s all about asserting external control over the body and behavior of a stranger in a public space. I can’t stress how insanely angry this type of behavior makes me. 


Andrew Pilsch

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