- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Everything has already been said. Debate consists mostly of preformatted conclusions, manipulated statistics, and hyperventilated rhetoric. Everybody knows their lines. Nothing, least of all minds, ever changes.

Still, from time to time, it is possible to reframe an issue or two, and perhaps thereby do some good. Today's exercise: gun control, ballistic missile defense, and an archaic understanding of the Constitution that America would do well to ponder.

Rights and responsibilities, we are occasionally reminded, go together. For every right there is a concomitant responsibility, usually defined as the requirement to exercise that right within limits. Free speech, yes; libel, no. This understanding applies to the rights Americans exercise as individuals. Yet there are three rights we can only exercise collectively: voting, jury duty, and providing for the common defense. Here our notion of responsibility consists largely of showing up and performing such (hopefully brief) tasks as may be required. This makes sense on Election Day or courts-in-session.

But not for the common defense.

The Second Amendment justifies the right of individual possession of firearms in terms of one type of responsibility for the common defense: maintaining a well-regulated militia. Forget the well-regulated it's an old shooting term, meaning proficient in marksmanship. What matters here is the collectivity known as militia.

The Founders recognized two types of militia. One was called organized or select, forces trained and called out for specific emergencies or expeditions. The other was the unorganized or universal militia, consisting of everybody. Back then, everybody meant adult white males. Today, were the concept to revive, it would mean every law-abiding adult, regardless of race or gender.

Point being: In the Founders' world, everybody was responsible for the common defense, which drew no tidy distinction between domestic unrest and foreign invasion, between civil disorder and war. Under this system, when a person defended himself against criminal attack, he was doing more than defending himself, more than exercising a purely private right. He was also exercising a public and collective right and responsibility.

The concept seems irrelevant today. Or is it? Courts have held time and again that police exist to maintain public safety. You as an individual have no right to personal protection. And that mugger coming after you (or that violent husband) … how many has he hurt already, how many more will he strike? In the Founders' scheme, your right to defend yourself was also part of your responsibility to provide for the common defense.

From the musket over the mantle to the cosmic zappers and gee-whiz gadgetry of ballistic missile defense: seemingly unrelated. But also part of the continuum of providing for the common defense, and maybe not so unrelated after all.

We are all familiar with the standard arguments against missile defense.

But missile defense is about more than shooting down missiles. It certainly was in the 1980s, when President Reagan made SDI the most effective weapons system never built. It was meant to pressure the bankrupt Soviets into either throwing material and human resources into building counters or giving up the arms race. Why did it work? Do a fer-instance. You're Gorby, circa 1986. You know that, if SDI were fully deployed, it might knock out 30 percent of your warheads. Pretty unimpressive by the one-nuke-can-ruin-your-whole-day standard. But which 30 percent? See how it complicates your planning and runs up your bills.

In like measure, post-Cold War missile defense is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It is meant to protect against limited strikes, yes. But it also provides a measure of deterrence, a certain hedge against blackmail. And, in the end, it is designed to counter global criminality and terror, not fight a war. It is, properly understood, the beginnings of a planetary law enforcement effort designed to make these weapons, as Mr. Reagan put it, impotent and obsolete.

It can be done. Skip the administration's jerkwater tests of a few preposterously inadequate gadgets. Concentrate on long-term technological developments. The Revolution in Military Affairs (Part I) provided the computer, sensing and communications tools to make missile defense possible. RMA Part II, now well under way, involves exotic new terrestrial and space-based systems: micro-electro mechanical devices, directed energy weapons, new explosives, and God, DARPA & Area 51 only knows what else. It is possible to envision a year 2040 (or sooner) in which nothing big aircraft, missiles, warheads can fly.

Now, what has missile defense to do with the pistol in the drawer? Two things. First, when we defend ourselves, inevitably, we defend others. And second, as members of an ancient militia whose responsibilities now encompass the planet, it is our right to do so.

Philip Gold is president of Aretea, a Seattle-based policy institute.



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