A gun story

An  encounter with criminals in Turkey in which I  found myself – quite unprepared – confronted with the decision to use a gun. Thoughts about non-violence.

– The risk of getting harmed versus the risk of causing harm –

 * * *

I had bought the gun only a week or so ago. We had found it in a Turkish bazaar half hidden between brooms and shovels, halvah and rice.

I could barely believe that I was able to buy it just like that, and it was even cheap. I couldn’t resist. Where I came from – at home in Germany– to buy and own a real gun is a pretty unusual thing. It takes a great deal of red tape and a very hard to get license. And there is the general view that guns are something for criminals, for weird hunters, and for the police; normal people simply don’t have guns.

I had carried it home like a forbidden treasure, spent hours touching it, feeling it, playing with it, and – what a strange excitement of a completely new dimension – imagining situations using it. Would I be cool enough, in a situation of despair, to grab this gun and use it with resolve? Would I be able to really pull the trigger and kill someone? And right there, at the beginning, in these first hours of half playfully, half seriously contemplating this problem of ultimate violence, there was the question: does the gun solve a problem or create a problem?

I had thought about the concept of carrying a gun on our travels and never liked the idea. When you come with a gun you bring your self, and you bring an advanced tool of self-protection. But I think the real secret of traveling is to keep the self in the background as much as possible. Self is the aspect of us that is typically much more interested in security than in truth. If you really want to see, to find out, if you want to know the truth, traveling is the only way – traveling in the sense of moving away from what you know and seeking the unknown without condition. But when you come with a gun it’s as if you come with a condition, with an opinion, and you don’t want to change, you are not ready to change your opinion, you come with a tool to protect your opinion, and you don’t really want the truth.

For many people traveling to foreign places is seen as an act of intrusion, close to aggression. The unknown is perceived chiefly as dangerous and most likely hostile, and therefore the need for protection and defense overshadows all interest in the unknown.

When you travel you need to understand the new place. You cannot expect the people there to understand you. When you come without a gun you are certainly more vulnerable and you need more caution and care; but you are also more likely to learn and understand.

But playing with a gun is very different to thinking about a gun. I couldn’t resist. And maybe I really needed some drastic instructions in this matter.

It was a single barrel shotgun. I had practiced handling it and quickly reloading it. And I had fired it – one time – and missed. The pine cone I had aimed at, barely 30 feet away, hadn’t even moved, and I had a blue bruise on my shoulder for days.

Now, about a week later, I was standing on the bed of our camper, peering through the sliding roof and holding this gun, loaded and with three more shells pinched between the fingers of my left hand, ready to shoot, eject, reload, and shoot again in seconds – theoretically. It was night, I was scared like hell, and all philosophical reflections seemed ridiculous.

It was in southern Turkey, close to a little village named Silifke. We were camped a few miles away under the walls of the ruins of an ancient fortress – a place where Cleopatra was said to have lived for some time, and where the Crusaders had fought their battles, where the noises of war, the clattering of sword fighting still seemed to ring from the battlements. We were not alone. There was a little village of tents spread out on a field. It was a group of young Australian and European travelers waiting for the bus they were traveling with that had broken down and was under repair in town. We had a great time together. We played inside the castle that was freely accessible, looking for treasures and reenacting our favorite movie scenes with knights and princesses and all the rest of it.

Our fire was out for the night, and we were all just settling down to go to sleep when we heard a car drive by, not too far away, and then shots and bullets hitting the ground right between us. Everybody ran for cover, shrieking and screaming, and we ran to our camper that was parked under some trees a little distance away from the tents. The people had told us about some weird gun-toting guys they had seen the day before. Without thinking I grabbed my new gun and was ready to defend us. Who would have known that I would actually run into a situation so soon where a gun seemed suddenly utterly necessary?

There was a thin moon out, and we could see the attackers in the distance. We were hidden under the trees and had good reasons to believe they didn’t see us. They shot a few more times at the tents – we later found the bullet holes.

The whole scene seemed bizarre in the way that it so much looked like a bad movie. Something about the situation was like a cheap cliché, a tasteless joke: Someone was shooting at us, I had a gun, and wanted to shoot back. For a moment it appeared as if things were really that simple, but this was not a stupid movie, it was real.

I heard a muffled voice behind us, and one of the Australian guys tried to open our door. “Give me your gun, quick!” he hissed. He knew about our gun, and I knew that he was a former soldier, just released from the army and back from Vietnam, and I knew also how totally green I was with guns. But I said no and motioned him to get lost. I could see how he briefly scanned the outside of our camper, probably pondering how to get up to me, overpower me, and snatch the gun. He disappeared in the dark, and I was sweating with fear.

Then the car, an open jeep, came slowly moving toward us. It drove directly to the other side of the group of trees where we were. Not more than 30 feet away, it stopped, and I could clearly see the three men and their arsenal of weapons gleaming in the moonlight. They looked toward the tents and obviously didn’t have a clue of our presence.

My mind was racing in agony. What to do? I could see people still darting around between the tents, looking desperately for cover. Were these men about to kill somebody? Did I have to shoot? My position seemed ideal for trying to “take out” one or two of them before they could do it. There was no time to sufficiently think this over. Was I close enough to not miss? I started seriously aiming at the driver. My mouth was dry like paper. Did I know what I was doing? I tried to control my breath, and aim well, and mentally prepare myself for the urgent actions needed instantly after firing the first shot: reloading and firing again, this time surely on a moving target.

Suddenly I heard them talk. At first I just heard their voices, but then I was amazed to notice that I actually understood what they were saying. For heaven’s sake, they spoke German!

I signaled to Parvin, who stood next to me with more shells in her hand, ready to give them to me when I started firing. We held our breath and listened. There were only fragments of sentences and single words we could decipher, but it was soon quite clear that these bastards were just having a great time, scaring the shit out of us, and that they were not seriously trying to kill anybody.

I lowered the gun when they shot a few more times, clearly into the air now, and drove away. Seconds after they left, I saw my Australian friend with a big knife in his hand only a few feet away from where they had parked. And he told me later that he was just about ready to jump on them when they decided to leave.

We never found out who they were. I only can speculate that they were some mysterious German criminals hiding out in this remote part of the world. Discovering the tents and itching for some action, they must have enjoyed their power over our fear.

I felt an unforgettable relief when it was all over, a relief of having been spared a terrible decision and having been given the opportunity to sort these things out a lot more.

There is conflict in life wherever we look, conflict is clearly unavoidable. One option to solve conflict is violence; but it is only one option, there are other, better ways.

Life is full of violence; it’s a fact. Most of us think that some violence is ultimately unavoidable. And there may indeed be cases when it can seem necessary to use violence in order to prevent more violence, but this is extremely rare; I think it is simply not true that violence is a normal behavior. It is not true that people have always resorted to violence in order to solve conflicts; this is a misconception, simply an incorrect interpretation of history. Somehow we got used to violence, but it is a choice. Violence is a habitual reaction, so much, so collectively that it is hard to believe that we actually have a choice to use it or not. We think we improve our chances to successfully respond to violence by preparing to act violently ourselves. We invented the brilliant term defense for this: ‘the ability to strike back‘. But how often, when you look only closely enough, is a so-called defensive strike really nothing but an aggression out of fear, a strike before the other can strike?

There are situations when we feel so entitled, even forced, to use violence. But this feeling can be an unexamined reaction. This feeling may by all means seem normal, understandable, justified, even reasonable, but it is still a conditioned reaction.

It is a gruesome two-edged sword and has profound consequences not only for the receiver of violence but also for those who apply it and benefit from it. There are always others (our own kids are only one example) who get conditioned – inspired – by our violent reaction. Violence has always produced more violence. This is a well-known but rarely believed conclusion that can only be reached by an extremely personal, patient, and often painful investigation. This investigation is a difficult and lonely work, to rely on collective cultural consensus can be terribly misleading.

We feel entitled to violence because it appears to be the only thing that “makes sense”. And when we insist on sense, when we listen to the blaring voice of our mind and not to the so entirely different gentle wordless urges of the heart, when we are lost in our insatiable desire for sense, we exclude the mere possibility that we might actually not even be capable of seeing the sense. We meet the world with a precondition, with a “justified” preference, with an unrealistic condition that inevitably blocks the view on how things really are.

At times we may feel personally forced to violence, but there is really nothing separate, nothing individual, nothing personal in the world. Life, even our very own life, is in its essence impersonal, and the liberating challenge is to not identify with it in such a way that we can be forced to reaction by others and therefore be imprisoned by actions of others. We need to wake up from the illusion that we are just individual selves struggling for personal survival.

We are not entitled to violence, we are capable of violence. Part of the great mystery of life is that we can use our capabilities in a reactive way – as mere slaves to our conditioning, as slaves to our programming we all received in times of innocence and ignorance without ever being consulted – or in a free, proactive, conscious and skillful way.

I looked at the gun with different eyes. I sold it later in Pakistan to some crackpots who thought they made a great deal; I put it away not so much in disgust and not in fear, but rather with some feeling of having understood its strange magic that only worked when I was in fear to begin with. Wouldn’t it actually be more interesting to go unarmed, playing by self-made rules, so to speak? Isn’t violence just a lack of imagination? I don’t know if I will always be better off without a gun, but, if risk is unavoidable, and when I really listen to my heart, I feel a powerful urge to prefer the risk of getting harmed to the risk of causing harm. This sounds untrustworthy, too idealistic and over the top noble-minded, at least awfully academic; and it’s very clear that I rarely lived up to this standard in my life. However, in the course of my life, I never came up with a better conclusion than Gandhi did: ‘I object to violence because, even when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary, the evil it does is permanent.‘ Things are not as they appear. What may seem truly good at the moment can change into bad later.

            Klaus  written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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