As I made clear last week, I am skeptical toward Dr. Ben Carson’s now-infamous suggestion that the Holocaust might have been “greatly diminished” had the Jews of Europe not been stripped of their firearms. Depressing as it might be to acknowledge, Carson’s critics are almost certainly correct when they argue that a German army powerful enough to take over the better part of a continent was unlikely to have been stopped by a small collection of rebels — however well armed that collection might feasibly have been. Moreover, they have a point when they record that the vast majority of those who would have been required to fight were unaware that they were facing an existential struggle. In his History of the Jews, Paul Johnson observed that few among the victims were geared up for a fight at all:
The Jews had been persecuted for a millennium and a half and had learned from long experience that resistance cost lives rather than saved them. Their history, their theology, their folklore, their social structure, even their vocabulary trained them to negotiate, to pay, to plead, to protest, not to fight.
Lest I be misunderstood — or lest I misconvey Johnson’s meaning — to acknowledge this is in no way to suggest that, once they eventually realized the scale of the threat, Europe’s Jews went quietly into the night. Nor, I would stress, is it to suggest that any among their number were “cowards.” It is merely to acknowledge that the Nazis were reasonably successful in hiding the scale of their ambitions, and that this matters a great deal when examining Carson’s hypothesis — which, you will note, was specific not general. Had Carson argued that each individual has a right to self-defense whether or not his attempt will ultimately be successful, I would defend him wholeheartedly. Had he argued that it would have been better overall if the Nazis’ victims had been armed, I would agree without caveat. But he didn’t. Instead, he contended that if circumstances had been different the travesty would have been “greatly diminished.” Like Carson, I stand with John Locke and Tenche Coxe in asserting my unalienable right to try and defend my own life, whatever the odds. This, though, does not necessitate wishful thinking as to my chances. Could some targeted individuals have escaped, or at least taken some Nazis with them? Sure. Was it a disgrace that Hitler deliberately weakened his prey? Absolutely. Could that prey have “greatly diminished” the Holocaust had it been furnished with weapons? I think not, no.
That being said, I imagine that I will differ with Carson’s critics as to what this tells us about public policy — and, for that matter, as to what it suggests is the most prudent course for free people to take in the future. As far as I can see, the strongest arguments against Carson’s conceit are: a) that the German state was so incredibly powerful and all-pervasive that no resistance — even that of an army — could have possibly overcome it; and b) that Europe’s Jews had pretty much no idea what was coming, and could therefore not be expected to imagine that an ostensibly civilized country would indulge in such extraordinary and well-organized evil.
I am happy to accept these two propositions. In doing so, though, I would suggest that they represent an argument for, not against, private gun ownership, and for, not against, hard limits on the power of the state. If it is the case that governments can achieve such incredible power over some or all of their citizens that organized resistance is futile — and if it is also the case that the victims of such power will not realize until the last minute what is happening — I rather think that I would be better off buying another gun, not giving up my existing collection. When arguing about the Second Amendment, it customary to hear cynics like to scoff that “it couldn’t happen here,” and then to describe anybody who is not convinced by this as “paranoid.” If, in the very next breath, they are to acknowledge openly that this is also what the victims of the most famous mass murder in human history believed, the case for precaution must stand for itself.