Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Thoroughly a creature of cities, and a child of polite middle-class intellectuals, I was not raised around guns. The only time I saw them in real life was in the holsters of cops. I didn't grow up around hunters, in a military family, around criminals, or around people excessively paranoid around criminals. I was raised by pacifists, and was taught that there was something profoundly unnecessary about having a relationship with guns. And I grew up in the years of the Vietnam War, of police massacres of Black Panthers, of Kent and Jackson State, of assassins: The people with the guns were the bad guys.
I've had three personal encounters with guns.
When I was a young leftist, a number of left-wing activists and members of a rival left-wing sect were shot down -- murdered -- at a rally in cold blood by armed Klansmen in Greensboro, North Carolina. The group I was with made a point of protesting KKK and Neo-nazi rallies in the Chicago area and around the midwest, and at the time there were a lot of these. So we were a bit terrified: it could have been us. It was decided not that we should arm ourselves, or start carrying weapons around with us, but that we should at least know how to shoot a gun. We all went to a shooting range to get a lesson in how to do it. I guess we thought this was some kind of protection, some kind of power. A couple of my comrades were familiar with guns and they showed us what to do. I will never forget how all of a sudden what had been abstract to me felt in my hand: surprisingly heavy, much more substantial than a staple gun. And jesus if you pointed it the wrong way you could kill somebody or yourself. I don't remember if I was a good shot -- I doubt it -- but I remember feeling like I had my hand around a powerful writhing serpent struggling to get away from me. And it was loud. It wasn't very much fun, and I didn't want to do it again.
Flash forward a few years and I had moved to New York City. I was riding an empty subway late at night with a friend when a guy came up to us with what appeared to be a gun draped in a handtowel. He pointed it at us and mumbled something. We were, for a flash, terrified, until the "gun" started to droop beneath its cloth. It wasn't a gun at all but a length of rubber tubing. The three of us watching this happen were silent for a moment when me and my friend laughed disdainfully and our would-be assailant slunk sheepishly away. He had no power and we had no fear.
In the late 1980s I lived in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that went from being quietly residential to being violently stricken by crack. One night I went to my local Chinese takeout place to get a late dinner. I placed my order through a roughly-cut hole in a thick plastic partitition and sat in the untidy waiting area. There was this complex little arrangement where the food would be placed on a turntable with an inner door closed and an outer one opened. It was creepy; but the owner of the place had been badly beaten up in a robbery a couple years before. Two teenage kids were also waiting for their order. They were playing around with each other loudly, but like buddies do, and certainly without anger. One was waving around a 5-dollar bill. His friend jokingly snatched the bill out of his hand. At which point the other guy reached into his coat and pulled out a pistol and pointed it at his friend. No longer joking. He was going to kill his best friend for playing a little joke. While I was watching. While the Chinese family behind the partition was watching. I didn't wait for my food. And I left that neighborhood within a couple months.
Which brings us to the "Tucson Massacre" and the shooting of Rep. Giffords by Jared Loughner.
There's a really creepy video that went up this morning in which Sarah Palin calls herself a victim of "liberal blood libel" for the insinuation that teabagger rhetoric -- her rhetoric -- was in some way to blame for the shooting. Hilariously she suggests that people should be held to their words: "Each individual is accountable for his actions." Her narcissism and denial and manipulative opportunism is in full display. It's extraordinary. And frankly, frightening.
It's true that we don't (yet?) really know exactly what was going on this latest political murderer's probably deranged head. We know that he owned and used a handgun and thought it would be okay to go out and kill a bunch of people. We also know the culture around him: the culture of the state of Arizona, of much of white America, of people who love conspiracy theories, of people who want to own guns, of people who grow up loving guns.
I have acquaintances -- not apparently crazy nor rightwingers -- who claim to love and enjoy guns. But I don't love guns. I don't want to own one, for hunting, for supposed protection, or for anything else. And frankly I don't entirely trust people who do love guns. I certainly don't like or trust Sarah Palin. And if her crosshairs campaign poster was in such good taste, so far removed from the actual shooting that came to take place, why was it so completely scrubbed from her website?
Everything about Sarah Palin's world of patriotic posing, of fake reverence, of faux down-home just folksiness disgusts me. As her relationship to guns disgusts me. As her offensive posture in the wake of the Tucson shootings disgusts me.
But if only it stayed that simple. The world, whether we like it or not, is indeed at times a violent and terrible place. For all the guns in the hands of the wrong people, it must be said that sometimes the good guys having guns has ended very very well. The heroic people of Vietnam whose propaganda art I have featured here for much of the past year learned to love guns. Those guns gave them liberation.
For all the moral beauty of the teachings and commitments of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Mahatma Gandhi and Tich Nhat Hanh, we seem as a species to lack the necessary patience for the doctrine of nonviolence to win out over the armies of evil men armed to the teeth. And how sad that the attempts by King and Gandhi to write nonviolence on a large canvas were cut short not by the forces of evil empire but by small men alone with their guns.
And as we ponder guns, it's hard, ultimately, knowing about the terrible war machines slumbering in bunkers and silos and occasionally unleashed upon sleeping innocents to think that the biggest problem in the world today are laws allowing an occasional crazy person to buy a handgun and start killing people. I don't want to be the innocent bystander visiting a shopping mall in Arizona -- or a Chinese takeout joint in Brooklyn -- to pay the price for somebody's combined antisocial behavior and gun ownership. I don't want to pay the price for Sarah Palin's irresponsibility, for the rhetoric of the teabaggers. But I'm not sure where the small actions of living our lives and trying to escape being shot for whatever reason fits into that large canvas.
And here's the ugliest reality: President Obama who gave a moving speech in Tucson this evening touching on cosmic themes like love and innocence; this thoughtful intelligent man preaching respect has his finger on the button and has ordered his armies to steal the lives of many more innocent people on the other side of the world than the six who lost their lives last weekend. It's cold comfort that his intelligence and professed compassion is a blessing compared to what Sarah Palin might do with her fingers on that same button, her orders going out to the brute force of gun lovers that is the U.S. war machine. It makes me sad that Obama, who I often like, especially when he gives a speech like tonight's, is in some scary way closer to the world that Sarah Palin lives in than the one I want to live in. I don't want to be the innocent victim -- or not-so-innocent enabler -- of a rain of missiles or predatory drones or attack helicopters sent by President Obama, who I voted for, or by Sarah Palin who I dread.
I can't condemn the people in this world who have used weapons, violence, to free themselves from oppression and tyranny. But I can't help feeling that we are deluding ourselves to focus on the weapons of deranged individuals and not on our failure to notice something systemic and foundational about our allegedly free society. Hint: America is not the innocent bystander.