Monday, February 11, 2013
Good Guys, Bad Guys, and Loss of American Mission
I have been very busy this last couple of weeks at my new job as an American hero. Last night, in the midst of a desperate firefight involving violent jihadists attempting to take over an abandoned Soviet missile site that was, CIA informed the SEAL commander, still weaponized, I carried a wounded medic on my shoulders, fording an icy stream while my colleagues provided cover with AR-15s and an RPG-launcher. It was nighttime and my night-vision goggles turned the scene an eerie pixilated monochromatic green. Earlier, I had been heli-dropped into a Middle Eastern desert city—I was just a soldier: they didn’t tell me what city, or even what country it was, just that we were going in after some bad guys. With my radio picking up the chatter of my fellow grunts, I went house-to-house trying not to engage innocent civilians, though it seemed there weren’t any—even the young women hid machine pistols under their flowing robes.
When the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school shooting occurred a few weeks ago, there was a brief silence from the shill-organization for the major weapons industry. Most Americans have heard, though far fewer believe it, that the National Rifle Association is actually a wholly-owned subsidiary of the major American arms manufacturers. That interruption in shrill declarations of a constitutional apocalypse soon to come from jackbooted federal gun-confiscators was a dead give-away to the power behind the organization. No genuine American sodality could have remained quiet in the face of such horror; corporations, however, are not human and so they operate under the rules of efficiency found in algorithms and statistics about the depth and longevity of citizen response to actionable tragedy, and unrecorded phone conversations with the congressmen and senators they have bought and paid for.
For nearly twenty years, I directed and served as a principal faculty member for an international institute on American culture and life. It was a vocation I happened upon, and it took a little time for me to realize just what was entailed. Every summer, 30 or so teachers, teacher-trainers, university faculty members and education-ministry specialists would arrive for six weeks of intensive training on the current state of the study of the United States. Early on, I and my colleagues thought it was our mission to provide high-order scholarly briefs on new trends in scholarship here in America. What we learned was that this was not even remotely the job that needed to be done. As my friend and fellow faculty member Christian Messenger (great name for an Americanist!) declared, it was “our privilege to explain America to the world.” But even that wasn’t right. We learned that the subject, the verb and the predicate of that statement were all laughably imprecise. We didn’t know America, at least not the America that came to be the subject of the Institute. And so “explaining” was not a responsible activity. Moreover, the world that sat around us in the blandly efficient classroom wasn’t a monolith, and it certainly wasn’t going to sit still and drink in our wisdom.
Our constituency arrived, over the life of the Institute, from almost every country on the globe. We despaired of ever getting a Cuban, till one day Frank arrived; not only that, but his cousin ran an excellent Cuban restaurant in Chicago, and Frank had already mapped out an itinerary for himself with the help of the surreptitious extended network of Cuban-Americans in the area. Was it Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan or Turkmenistan from which tiny Yana arrived, with only a pair of high-heeled slippers (despite our instructions to all to pack “sturdy walking and hiking shoes”) with which she hiked the Petroglyph Trail at Mesa Verde National Monument and managed to get herself left behind accidentally-on-purpose in a truck stop outside Gallup, New Mexico, where she was surrounded by handsome, cowboy-booted truck drivers with whom she demurely flirted while showing them pictures of her home country?
There were America-loving Provencal teachers and America-hating Egyptian school principals, and we quickly found ourselves baffled by the Americas of both. They didn’t resemble in any way the worlds within which we lived—and we were a pretty motley crew of Americans: a guitar-playing country boy with a Ph.D. from Austin, Texas, and a Peace Corps alumnus from New England via Ethiopia, and a political scientist who’d grown up in the high-rise projects in Chicago and was, with his wife and his mother and a few sisters, still fostering an average of ten kids at a time. There was a lesbian economist and a neoconservative historian and a libertarian specialist on architecture and the city. Why the Department of State kept funding us, year after year, seemed a strange miracle to us. We thrived under the first George H.W. Bush administration, and we thrived in the Clinton years and we thrived under George W. Bush and we thrived in the first Obama administration. The Great Recession finally killed us off—we couldn’t build a program in Chicago that could compete with isolated state-college campuses in places we didn’t even consider for our road trips. We had a good run of it. We put the documents in front of our participants-- Dred Scott and The Declaration of Independence and The Plow that Broke The Plains and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and The Great Gatsby and The Statistical Atlas of the United States. We took them to black gospel churches and 4th of July picnics and corporate law offices. They listened to Navajo hat'aali and James Brown and Los Lobos and Dwight Yoakam, whose Guitars, Cadillacs and Hillbilly Music was a favorite of the woman from Senegal who won our "how many languages do you speak" that year-- 1987, with a still-unmatched record of 27-- not counting a few dialects here and there. She was the first person to click Xhosa to me-- a language my daughter now speaks with some imprecision.
One of my jobs as Director was to serve as the teaching faculty member during the two-plus week tours of the U.S.A. that culminated each program. Though there was a running joke that a lecture by me on the subject of the changing vertical ecosystems of the Rocky Mountain Plateau after a big Southwestern tamale lunch at a diner on the Res was the best way to guarantee a long nap, I grew to love the work of close observation as we passed through small towns and big cities, ranchlands and industrial parks, weaving together the fabric that was this country to which I had devoted my intellectual and creative life. After it was over, the alumni of those Institutes that had developed close-knit and continuing virtual Institutes via Facebook and websites extracted from me a promise to continue my tourbus lectures.
That was what began this series of essays. I warned those alumni that I wasn’t going to go political on them. That I would remain what I had always sought to be—a quizzical observer, pointing out the hidden significance of the details of everyday American life.
When the National Rifle Association’s shill, a man named Wayne LaPierre, gave his stump-speech after the Newtown murders of small schoolchildren by an automatic-weapon-toting young man, I struggled to keep my promise.
I am going to skirt as close as I can to the edge; I’m going to use a deeply personal voice to keep from seeming to throw some academic weight to what follows.
I was raised in the woods and farmlands of Connecticut. My father came from Mormon rancher stock, from the foothill communities outside of Salt Lake City. My mother’s family came from Mille Lac, Minnesota. Every one of them owned guns, hunted deer and turkey with them, shot snakes and coyotes when necessary. My grandfather’s World War I service revolver was in a canvas bag in the attic of my house. My father’s service weapon turned out to be up there too—we found it when going through his boxes after he died. I had a bb gun, then a pellet gun, then a .22 rifle. My Boy Scout troop master taught me to target shoot, and I once won a turkey in a turkey shoot in North Guilford, Connecticut. I was probably 13. The Bushes, Wayne and Wayne Jr., hunt deer on our farm, and we get a portion of the venison in return. We are glad to see the overpopulation of deer, who infect the dogs and the people with Lyme Disease and wander into the road to cause bad crashes and who die of starvation or parasites: we are glad to see it diminished, though not enough, by the New York State hunting season.
Some years ago, a dear friend who is a bit of a gun nut took me to a range to shoot, after an interval of two or more decades of increasing rustiness at the task. We were shooting at targets with pistols, and it was fun—a sport requiring precision and strength and intense concentration and an affinity between self and machine that’s not dissimilar to road cycling, though less demanding and less thrilling, by my lights.
But what struck me that day, and the days after that at the range, was that there seemed an inordinate number of fellow range-users who had what can most charitably be called paranoid ideation. They were convinced the economic apocalypse was upon us and only a hoard of heavy weaponry would protect them. They believed that jackbooted federal officials were conspiring to take not just their weaponry but their houses, their trucks, their children. They believed that crazy-haired black teen thugs were at any moment going to drive out of the city to rape their daughters.
All of them had very specific accounts of people very close to them who had been attacked in some way and saved from death or worse only by brandishing or actually shooting their weapons at shadowy marauders. None of them could tell me just who it was this had happened to. If they claimed it had happened to them, they couldn’t tell me when, or where, and when I asked, in what I thought was a tone that mixed curiosity and naivete, they became increasingly agitated and threatening.
There are many documented cases where this scenario either took place, or was alleged to have taken place. One site, gunssavelives.net has recorded over a thousand reports involving homeowners, residents, shopkeepers, carjack victims and vigilant citizens whose weapons killed, wounded, caused to surrender, or scared away bad guys.
But the count reaches back more than a year and a half. In 19 months, across the entire U.S. guns have purportedly beaten back the bad guys just over a thousand times. Around fifty a month.
There are two glaring problems with this statistic. There are close to 115 million households in the U.S. Just in sheer numbers, guns have saved .00096% of households over an 18 month period. As important, the number of households saved is just about 20% fewer than the number of households in which a member was accidentally killed by a gun in the house.
There’s more to this. If you read the stories in gunssavelives.net, you notice pretty quickly that the notion of salvation by guns is pretty flexible. One homeowner shot a man whom he reported was attempting to break into his house; he killed him after, he reported, the man refused to leave despite repeated warnings. But an onlooker who had noticed the man earlier looking into parked cars and come out with a baseball bat to scare him away decided it wasn’t an issue-- the man was talking to his hand and yelling incoherently. The onlooker then watched as the man approached and began banging on doors; the last one he banged on was the one with the armed family protector on the other side.
In report after report, home protectors provided the reports, often with no corroborating evidence. Many of the cases read disconcertingly like that of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was talking to his girlfriend on the cell phone inside the gated community where he was living, and was shot in what a community-protector called self-defense.
This is the issue of disproportionality: most of the cases I’ve read in a random sampling of those on gunssavelives.net involved unarmed “home invaders”—read, burglars, breakin-thieves, or smash-and-grabbers—shot and often killed by multiple gunshots.
And it is the reason, I think, that Wayne Lapierre, mouthpiece of the gun industry, broke the silence of the N.R.A. with a statement crafted entirely around the concept of “bad guys” and “good guys.” The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, Lapierre declared. The disproportionality of gun use—unarmed, nonviolent criminals or even noncriminals mistaken for criminals and shot—cannot be allowed to stand. The moral argument evens the score: one bad guy/one good guy.
In fact, many of the stories on gunssavelives.net concern lone individuals heroically holding off more than one bad guy. This is also very useful as arguments go. It sets the shooter as the victim of disproportionality. It defines the gun as the great equalizer, as it’s often called by gun advocates. And it links often-sordid, trivial confrontations of today within the context of America’s long mythos of the Western. Each one of these home protectors carries the mantle of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper.
Wayne Lapierre’s diatribe about the Newtown shootings focused on violent video games and movies that, he said, emboldened and incited bad guys to action. I’m ready to grant that premise, on one condition—that Wayne Lapierre concede the corollary—that the shootings of unarmed people in the names of home-defense, that the accidental deaths and injuries of gun-household children, that the numerous self-inflicted injuries by incompetent or inexperienced gun users, and the violent deaths of partners, spouses, friends and houseguests by gunowners: all be placed at the feet of the American mythos of the Western.
Let’s return to that other, brushed-aside circumstance: killings of family members by family members. I don’t have good statistics on this at the moment. What I do have dates back to 1995, when just around 1,500 households saw one adult member kill another. As far as I can tell, about ¼ of these deaths were by firearm. I don’t have statistics on the number of children killed by adults in their household. I don’t have statistics on the number of forcible rapes by gun-owning family members occurred, either. Or the number of children killed by other children in the house by a gun left there conveniently close in case of home invaders-- loaded and ready, in the bedside table drawer, or under the mattress or pillow, or on top of the dresser.
What has emerged from my recent obsession with gun-violence data in the United States, is this. There seem to be three broad categories of gun owner in America. By far the largest consists of people like me, and like my neighbors: gun owners whose guns are used for the purposes of hunting or, in some cases, recreational shooting—from target practice to skeet to the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot. At the opposite extreme is a smaller but much noisier group of people who see the world as a place out to get them or theirs, and who view guns—big guns—as their only recourse. This group believes itself to comprise the good guys. What’s disturbing is that increasingly they are pushing those who don't embrace their vision into that other role: bad guys. In their eyes, I'm a bad guy. I threaten them. I need to be protected against. Maybe, soon, I and mine need to be taken out.
But I'm not worried. After all, there is my own recent change of identity, from bad guy to good guy. I’ve achieved this magical conversion by shooting down dangerous foreigners, murderous children (Arabs, so it’s ok), bomb-wielding women (Muslim), and, most recently (in Call of Duty: Black Ops) buffoonishly incompetent African Negro rebels and marauders whose faces seem drawn from Amos and Andy as much as from Muammar Gaddafi or Idi Amin Dada. Playing those games, I appear to be embracing their strange, paranoid vision, in which Americans are always good guys and everyone else... well...
I do not see in these digital bad guy faces any resemblance to my friends the world over—to Assam, to Yana, or Hiram, or Mohammed or Mamadou—men and women who teach small children and sullen teenagers and overly-materialistic university students and overly-obtuse graduate students, men and women who look at America as a place of failing promise, and who worry about us.
Consider that, Wayne Lapierre. All over the world, good-hearted people who love this nation and its heritage and promise are worrying about us. They aren’t worried that we’re not fighting enough wars, or that our drones aren’t killing enough bad guys or that we aren’t going to enter a small, insecure nation and attempt to eradicate its questionable nuclear capability, or threaten and bully another much like it until it starves its people to death and decides to nuke Japan. They aren't worried that we're losing our masculinity as a nation. They don't think that, without our rocket propelled grenades in their nation's capital all will fail.
They're worried we've lost our way. They are worried that we’re caricaturing our own Constitution and trivializing its humanity-uplifting propositions while celebrating its long-outmoded trivial features. They’re worried that American toleration of rage and intolerance and paranoia inside our border is undercutting the very doctrine of skeptical tolerance at the heart of the American Experiment.
They're worried that it's not just a small marginal minority that has abandoned evidence-based thinking or critical thinking in the name of bizarre, Judeo-Christian-seeming jihadist fundamentalisms, whether in Kiryas Joel, New York or Waco, Texas. They fear our increasingly paranoid behavior at home and abroad has already destroyed our ability to set an example in the world for fairness, kindness, generosity, hope, opportunity, tolerance and welcome. They worry we have lost our way and they wonder how any other nation or civilization can take our place.
For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world… We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till be be consumed out of the good land…
Therefore let us choose life
That we and our seed may live…
John Winthrop, aboard the Massachusetts Bay Colony ship Arbella, on the way to America, 1630