During the last day of class in my course on American exceptionalism, we got news of a gun on campus. We turned off the lights, barricaded the door, and tied its hinge with a belt. Some students seemed nervous; others laughed. We tried to talk about American exceptionalism, but it didn’t go well. A gun on campus makes it hard to think.
American exceptionalism, broadly conceived, is the idea that America has been set apart to pursue a higher purpose and bring a greater good to the world. That higher purpose can shift depending on the era, but whatever the end might be, it will always come from the beginning—from the Founders and their ideals. As President George W. Bush explained in his 2005 inaugural, “Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation.” In the next inaugural, Obama agreed: America has “carried on,” he said, because “We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.” In America, policies become law only when they are framed as fulfilling, not flouting, those ideals.
The argument I hear most often for better gun control is that tighter restrictions will make society safer: just look at Europe, or Australia, or some other country. All such arguments are worth making, but a history of American exceptionalism suggests that this line of reasoning, in America, will always lose. It flouts the basic premise of exceptionalism. Three months after proclaiming that the Founders’ ideals “still light the world,” Obama was criticized for saying that he believed in American exceptionalism “as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Critics of this statement explained that, contrary to Obama’s assertion, America is not like other countries.
Students had read Obama’s news conference in which he had described his beliefs in exceptionalism to prime them for our discussion of the concept. But in class that last day, in a room with belted door and darkened lights, another passage suddenly stood out to all of us: before making his statement, President Obama announced news of “an extraordinary tragedy back in the United States, where a lone gunman killed and injured multiple people;” thirteen people taking a class on citizenship at an immigration services center in Binghamton, NY had been murdered. It would be one of many tragedies during his tenure.
This sudden juxtaposition made clear that the killing of teachers and students is permanently imprinted on the syllabus of American exceptionalism. But it also made clear that it will take ideas of American exceptionalism to mobilize a response. As has been recently pointed out, for example, the Founders themselves stood explicitly against campus carry. How might their ideals of freedom rise up today against school shootings?
Answering that question requires understanding how the rhetoric of freedom works. 2016 marks the 75th anniversary of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech, hoping for a world where all would have freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. I applaud America whenever it advances these freedoms. Yet “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want” have never made their way into the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is marked exclusively by the phrases “freedom of” and “freedom to.”
Proponents of reasonable gun control measures have too often left this rhetoric to their opponents. We hear a great deal about the freedom of gun owners to own guns, but nothing about the freedom of everyone else. Those who advocate for gun control must use the language of freedom embedded in American exceptionalism: they must do more to explain that without reasonable gun control, essential freedoms are inevitably lost. Because one gun was fired on our campus, my students were forced into lockdown, huddled against a wall in a darkened room.
As campus carry laws continue to be pursued, this lesson must be made clear: on a college campus, guns limit freedom. We know that a single shot shuts down a campus, but any gun has the powerful effect of silencing free speech, one of our great founding ideals. College is supposed to be a place for open and frank conversation, but students cannot engage in such dialogue when someone—anyone—is holstered and might become hostile. A robust defense of freedom will always denounce campus carry, protecting the freedom of expression guaranteed by our Founders.
Thankfully, our gun incident was “minor”—no tragedy, no lives lost, just our own experience of what has become all too routine across the country. And for as long it lasted, all our students lost their freedom—hundreds locked in classrooms all across the campus because of just one gun.
When the “all clear” finally came, buildings opened up and students poured out, free to leave, free to move, free to learn—free, once again, because the guns had been removed.
And that’s how my course on American exceptionalism came to an end.
—Abram Van Engen, the discipline of joy