Arizona Shooting Echoes in Moscow

The assassination attempt against US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was a lead story in the Russian press on Sunday January 9. There was little comment, but some effort was made to explain the incident. The suspected attacker, Jared Loughner was described as a loner and mentally disturbed with the state-owned Rossiya 1 channel pointing out that Hitler's Mein Kampf was his favorite book. Gazprom-owned NTV added that the suspect was also fond of Marx's Communist Manifesto. Giffords was portrayed as angering Arizona's conservatives because of her stances on immigration and health care reform, with special criticism reserved for Sarah Palin, "already a fading star on the American political Olympus." NTV­indulging in the kind of anti-American innuendo that often mars Russian media coverage of the US, blamed the tragedy in part on the vitriolic political atmosphere in Washington, especially those individuals "who make a living" out of inflaming the American public.

Russia has far fewer firearms than does the United States, where there are nearly 90 guns per 100 people, according to the 2007 Small Arms survey (There are, however, millions of illegal guns traded on the black market in Russia, including weapons that have been stolen or "lost" by military personnel or law enforcement officers). The high rate of gun ownership in the United States is coupled with permissive laws and an often glorified gun culture. Yet a country need not have a lot of guns for its citizens to carry out violent acts. (Yemen, Iraq, and Serbia, among many other countries, are widely considered more dangerous than the United States even though their level of gun ownership is much lower). Despite their comparatively low level of firearms ownership Russians in recent weeks have been shocked by news of the brutal crimes carried out by the Tsapok crime group in the Krasnodar village of Kushchevskaya. Russia is also one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. The pistol that killed Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 was from the same batch that killed a Duma deputy Yushenkov in 2003, according to a defense lawyer. In Moscow some 400,000 people legally keep 470,000 weapons, but the rate of gun ownership is growing at about 5% per year, according to one Russian newspaper, apparently due to lack of trust in the police.

Gun possession, in any case, is an inaccurate measure of a society's health. Since early December, a series of unsanctioned, violent marches and demonstrations by groups of sports fans and far right extremists in the center of Moscow resulted from the death of a Spartak supporter and sparked a massive public debate about racism, internal immigrations, migrant workers and the Kremlin's approach to manipulating civil society. The rate of violence-related deaths from all causes among people aged 10-29 in Russia is 15.85 per 100,000 citizens ­ 34 times higher than in Germany, according to the World Health Organization.

When reading about the tragedy in Arizona, one Russian colleague here in Washington this week wondered why, when hearing about such news in the US, did she automatically assume it was the work of a deranged lone gunman; and why, she continued, when these things happened in Russia, did she always assume it was the work of criminal organizations or corrupt law enforcement officials? The answer lies in part that in the United States, for all its violent history, the government does not have a constitutional monopoly on guns or other coercive power. The political implications of guns in Russia are different, because the government claims, though often cannot effectuate, a legal monopoly over violence. It is thus often impotent, or complicit in the face of corruption, the illegal arms trade, and a host of illegal or quasi-legal organized crime groups, corporate armies, and extremist groups. Despite a "vitriolic" political atmosphere and the widespread ownership of firearms, almost no one in the United States considers political violence to be justified, Tufts Professor Daniel W. Drezner reminded us earlier this week. In Russia, by unfortunate contrast, as Constitutional Court Chairman Valeriy Zorkin warned in a provocative article in Rossiskaya Gazeta on December 10, a state which can neither defend its citizens not extricate itself from pervasive corruption is threatened with "degradation."

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