I have invoked the image of Grendel several times when commenting on our discouragingly frequent spree killings. (For instances, here and here.) Today I write about how we need our politicians—including our president—to be more Beowulf-like in standing up to the National Rifle Association, which is directly responsible for the ease with which James Holmes was able to acquire the automatic assault weapons he used in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater killings. There used to be a ban against such weapons, but the NRA successfully lobbied Congress so that it allowed the ban to lapse.
The image I have of practically every politician, from Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on down, is of them cowering before the NRA the way the Danes cower before Grendel’s attacks. The normally mild-mannered E. J. Dionne talks about their “gutlessness” in a Washington Post column today.
I somewhat understand why Obama hasn’t taken on the NRA before now. He feels it’s a battle he can’t win and he wants to choose his battles carefully. He is not interested in being a self-righteous but ineffective Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter.
Beowulf teaches us that there’s a problem with this approach, however. If you concede the hall to the monster, he is not placated but keeps on coming back for more. He seems 10 feet tall and impervious to threats. When he goes unopposed, the body count keeps rising.
That is what has happened with Obama and the Democrats. They haven’t pushed anti-gun legislation and have even acceded to provisions allowing guns in national parks. but the NRA keeps on attacking them anyway. In one of its wild conspiracy theories (and it has many), the gun organization even contends that the botched Fast and Furious Operation, through which some federally-tracked guns ended up in the hands of drug dealers, was an Obama plot to (are you ready?) create gun havoc so that the administration would have an excuse to start promoting anti-gun legislation. Cowed GOP House members have bought into this conspiracy and are holding the Attorney General Eric Holder in criminal contempt (!!) for failing to release documents which they claim would validate this conspiracy.
I guess, after Aurora, the NRA can sleep peacefully, since if there were an event that would justify anti-gun legislation, it is this one. But Obama, like Romney, has been careful not to mention the word “guns” in his public statements about the incident.
So what would Beowulf do? Well, he doesn’t strike out hysterically. His men do and their swords just bounce off the monster. Beowulf, on the other hand, looks for his opportune moment and then exerts a firm grip. Because he is strong and confident, the monster loses confidence, panics, and tears itself apart trying to flee. This is how one should deal with bullies.
In other words, Obama and Romney have to stand up to the NRA in a calculated but decisive way. They could start by calling for a renewal of the lapsed ban on machine guns, which play no role in hunting or home protection but are effective in spree killings.
In truth, I’ve given up expecting any courage from Romney. But I’ll be sorely disappointed in Obama if he doesn’t take steps.
Perhaps Obama is biding his time, as Beowulf does when Grendel first enters the hall. Beowulf wants to see how the giant troll operates before he makes his move, which allows him to find his area of vulnerability. I’m willing to believe that Obama is waiting for a decent amount of time following Aurora before he makes a strong stand. But if he continues to be passive, then he’s no Beowulf. Rather, he is the Danish King Hrothgar, who can’t stop the monster from attacking his people.
A president’s job is to lead. It’s time to stand up to the NRA.