There is, it cannot be denied, a tendency on the part of many Americans to grab for their guns, if not actually, then figuratively.
And let’s face it, we also have an awful lot of guns to reach for. The FBI estimates that it’s 200 million, not counting the guns owned by the military, and the National Rifle Assn. says that’s a number that rises by close to five million a year.
And we sure do use ‘em. NY Times columnist Bob Herbert reports that 150,000 people have been killed by guns in the US just in the first decade of this new century. Clearly it’s not just Tucson, a city in the state that's also famous for the gunslinger town of Tombstone, that is, the Wild West. This whole country is gun-crazy.
Back in the 1970s, when I was a journalist in Los Angeles, I witnessed police officers there drawing their guns on people being arrested for jaywalking. One poor guy was shot dead by accident because a cop who had made a traffic stop had his gun out and tripped as he approached the driver’s window. Honest. I reported on a case where a young man, Ron Burkholder, apparently burned badly while making some PCP in his basement so that he had torn off his clothes and run out onto the street naked, was shot dead by a cop. The thing was, Burkholder was a small skinny guy, and he was naked and clearly in pain. The cop, an experienced sergeant, well over six feet tall and powerfully built, blew Burkholder away with, if I remember right, five shots from his service revolver. Not one. Five.
His excuse: He “felt threatened” by the naked, and clearly unarmed, Burkholder.
No charges were filed.
When Julian Assange’s Wikileaks, in conjunction with several large media organizations including the New York Times, the UK Guardian and the German magazine Der Spiegel, released leaked cables that embarrassingly exposed both the pettiness and the bullying of the US State Department, there were immediate howls from members of Congress and from the right-wing talk radio and TV crowd for his summary execution. The more sedate called for his arrest, trial and then his execution. Now his lawyer in the UK has quite properly made the argument, at a hearing on a Swedish government extradition request on possible sex offense charges, that Assange faces the very real possibility of execution if extradited to Sweden because he could end up being snatched from that country by the US, and brought back to face a death penalty for his exposés, which the US would like to call “espionage.”
None of this bothers a lot of Americans, who seem to think summary execution without even a trial for just about anything is quite okay. Many Americans even say they think the death penalty is not only a good thing, but that we should be executing more people, and doing it faster. This despite recent solid evidence from Texas that innocent people have been executed, and despite fact that some 140 people have, thanks to DNA tests, been absolved of capital crimes for which they spent years on death row, sometimes coming within hours of execution.
That may explain why so many politicians these days, and self-proclaimed pundits like the corpulent druggie Rush Limbaugh and the Vicks addict Glenn Beck, call for the killing of those whose politics they don’t agree with.
It also, sadly, explains why so many young people respond positively to the lures of military recruiters, like the young friend I wrote about in this space just recently.
It was simply shocking for me to hear a 17-year-old kid from a family of two professionals, neither of whom has any military background, talking excitedly about wanting to be a machine gunner in a Marine helicopter, and anxious to be sent to fight in Afghanistan. What kind of attraction can there be to firing waves of 30mm rounds at people down on the ground who have never done anything to you, who pose no threat to your family or your country, and who may not even be fighters at all?
It’s as bizarre and alien to me as the people who thrill at the idea of shooting wild wolves from the air--a popular sport in Alaska fondly characterized as wholesome entertainment by America’s rabid sweetheart, Sarah Palin.
I brought my son and a friend last year to the notorious Army Experience Center, a multi-million state-of-the-art virtual war recruiting wonderland located in a mall in working-class Northeast Philadelphia. Filled with an array of very fast computers and video screens on which kids as young as 14 could blast away in realistic war scenarios, and featuring two darkened rooms that had the real bodies of an armored Humvee and a Blackhawk helicopter where kids could man the guns and operate in a 3-D video environment with surround sound so that you felt like you were moving through hostile territory and had to “take out” the “bad guys” while quickly identifying innocent civilians and avoiding shooting them. My son, his friend and I tried the Humvee out, and at the end of our “mission,” the recruiter, an Iraq vet, congratulated us, saying we were “the best gunners all day!” and that our error rate had been “only 30%.”
I asked him what “error rate” meant, and he said, “Collateral damage--civilians killed.”
“Thirty percent of the peope we just killed were civilians?” I asked, aghast.
“Oh yeah,” he said matter-of-factly. “Don’t feel bad. That’s not a bad percentage.” Indeed, in real war American style these days, it’s a lot higher. Depending on whom you ask, the US in Iraq killed between 150,000 and 1.1 million Iraqis, and according the the Pentagon only 20,000 of them at most were enemy fighters. That means our “heroes” in Iraq killed civilians at a ratio of between 13 % and 98% of the time! That explains the latest news that American troops have over the last 10 years been expending 250,000 to 300,000 rounds of ammunition to kill each enemy fighter in Iraq and Afghanistan--a rate so prodigious that the domestic armaments industry can’t supply enough shells, forcing the US to buy half its bullets from an Israeli manufacturer. Just imagine where most of those missed shots went. A lot clearly hit the wrong people, including many very little ones.
And yet at every indignity, every international disagreement, every terror act by some foreign nutcase or angry jihadi, Americans are quick to call for massive military retaliation. “Bomb them back into the stone age!” is a common refrain, even when nobody knows who “them” is (or, given the general geographic illiteracy of most Americans, even where "them" is). “Kill them all and let God sort them out!” is a popular line, too. In other words, many Americans don't care at all that their favored military response will kill countless innocent civilians. "Collateral damage" is as irrelevant to them as it ws to Jarod Lee Loughner.
No wonder a certifiable whackjob like Loughner, when his twisted and fevered mind got angry at whatever demons were tormenting him, turned to a gun and headed out to kill him a congresswoman, and then just blast away emptying his magazine at old people, women and even a nine-year-old girl, shot square in the chest. He may have been nuts, but he was acting out a very popular American fantasy, at the very least: Kill the bastards and let God sort 'em out!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not for banning guns. I had a gun when I was 12, and I loved shooting it. If I hadn’t sold it when we were low on money shortly after I got married, I’d still have the thing.
But nobody needs an assault weapon. And nobody should be able to carry a concealed weapon around town, crazy or not.
More importantly, though, this obsession with killing and war has to stop.
We need to recognize that the people who call for ever higher military budgets, who justify blasting the shit out of a poor country like Afghanistan, the people who argue for bombing Iran, and the police departments that send cops to demonstrations armed with assault weapons, as well as the politicians and the fascist radio and TV pundits who call for killing political opponents, are all every bit as sick and twisted as a lone gunman who goes to a Safeway parking lot and shoots a Congresswoman in the head.