I wrote this post on a bus to Fussen, Germany…and then got busy. But lo and behold, we never run out of major gun incidents the beg discussion. This one is about class — and a discussion I had abroad about why the U.S. is so different from the rest of the world.
This is the story of a day I never thought would come. This is the story of the day I was told, by a Swiss banker, that America was too capitalist.
It started with gun control. Now, gun control is one of those issues that no matter how many times you (try to) explain to foreigners, it doesn’t translate. It’s like the lack of open containers and why suing everyone is a good thing.
I arrived on the shores of Lake Geneva in the afternoon not expecting to have this discussion at all. But somewhere on the train, there had been a shooting at a school in Oregon — where my daughter was attending school — and I had no SIM card. When I found wifi, I was Googling, trying to fill in the pieces. However, when I arrived at a birthday party and everyone was already talking about it. They assured me it was a college, not an elementary school, and gave me a city. Not mine. Roseburg. This time.
Though the Swiss bankers had heard about this latest shooting, they hadn’t heard about the other 200 mass shootings on U.S. soil in 2015. Yet even without a sense of the scope of gun violence in the U.S., they agreed the U.S. had a big, big problem. Being bankers, they immediately sought numbers. They didn’t differentiate between three or four victims, nor did they much care if husbands were killing wives, or gang members were shooting one another in the streets. That these might be demonstrably different than school shooters and workplace shooters didn’t make much sense to them. Did America only care if their own children were at risk? Well, yes. This is the part where our translation breaks down every time.
The U.S. is so big, they speculated, that it can’t possibly take care of all its people. 300 million. (This is a figure, along wit the height of Mt. Blanc in meters, that I learned abroad. It turns out Americans aren’t as concerned with accounting).
And this number is core to their understanding, because it’s not about taking away the guns effectively. Everyone agreed the U.S. could do that if it wanted to. It’s the part where the people are angry, bitter, scared, hurt, and alone that they felt the U.S. simply could not control.
You see, they are pretty pragmatic at this birthday party and they wonder how the middle class can extricate itself from these great, uncelpable masses. They wonder how the U.S. can provide health care and pensions for everyone and they even think it may be folly to try. These are not “liberal” bankers.
But this is where the conversation gets tricky. They do not have a sense of what it costs to go through cancer in the states, insured or not. They do not understand that people pay for children’s broken arms to the point of financial devastation. That people lose their homes over illness. Their brows furrow when they hear about it. But they aren’t ready to provide universal health care yet. After all, Switzerland is a country of 8 million people. That kind of affordable social safety net is, well, affordable.
So what do the middle and upper classes do, they ask, to make sure they and their loved ones are safe? Well, they pay for the cancer, I say, and they try to make it work. Many do lose homes and possessions and retirement. They can also protect themselves from gun violence when they pay for private school or live behind gates, I explain, but these things do not necessarily do any good. In fact, much evidence suggests they are useless. They tell their kids they are worthwhile, wonderful people. They tell them they’ll always be there for them. But not everyone has a support system.
Americans also talk about buying our own guns, I say. Because I feel I’ve got these bankers figured out, I use stats to back me up. There are 300 million guns in America. One for everyone! This strikes them, and I can almost see the wheels turning in their heads. That’s more than the populations of France and Germany put together. This is a lot of guns. And a lot of people feeling pretty stiffed. All in one space.
Many Americans believe that guns are the only thing that protects against guns, I say.
Ah! It is like the situation in Turkey, a Turkish Swiss banker says. It all clicks.
And then they explain to me how they believe this system works: the people do need to protect themselves. From an increasingly radical and religious government. From a government that won’t help them. This should be everyone’s job since it benefits everyone. After all, one man explains, we all have children they don’t want shot by those who are excluded from society. When people are squeezed, they say, and desperate, they react violently. And changing the system is the work of all Americans, as it is in the best interest of all Americans. And people who are squeezed will find belonging. They’ll find it in radical religious movements. Or in the annals of notoriety.
“The U.S. is getting too capitalistic,” says the Swiss banker who just sold his Maseratti.
According to this non-representative group of hedge fund operators, the U.S. losing its middle class is directly related to its violence problem. It foments distrust and violence. Add two nations worth of guns and you have a recipe.
For what? I ask.
He shrugs. For the American Spring, the banker says.