The Tucson Shooting and the End of the Frontier Myth

Hello darkness my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again,
– Paul Simon, 1964

Jared Loughner with GlockJared Loughner with Glock

The same year the Tet Offensive in Vietnam made it clear that war was a quagmire, there was a spate of domestic political assassinations in America. It was a highly polarized and volatile time when people struggled with issues of race and class. Civility suffered.

Forty-three years later, the similarities are stark. The economy is distressed to the point poor and working class Americans are fearful and uncertain about the future. Meanwhile, the world of high finance has rebounded and is again thriving; and the military budget consumes more than half of US tax resources.

The National Security State keeps Americans in the dark about exactly what it is doing around the world. Citizens are told US troops will be removed from Iraq next year — maybe — if everything is stable and leaving is in our interest. Meanwhile, our leaders are escalating the war in Afghanistan and expanding it into Pakistan.

The fact is US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is not really a “war,” as much as it is an expensive, and virtually permanent, imperial occupation that began under Bush and is continuing with little change under Obama.

Most Americans have no personal stake in either occupation, and a majority of them consistently tell pollsters they’re opposed to the occupations. Yet, our military presence continues.

Americans have become cynically acclimatized to this state of affairs, which amounts to a passive moral accommodation to their government’s use of lethal violence in the far reaches of the globe.

The top-down message of these wars that seeps into the pores of all Americans is that violence is an acceptable, even honorable, means to solve problems. We are Americans, and no one pushes us around, and if they do, they will face “shock and awe.” Violence makes things happen. That message inevitably filters down and nestles in the minds of even the most crackpot citizen. Violence clarifies like nothing else.

The rhetorical violence and, now, the actual violence we see today is not coming from left elements frustrated over being unable to stop our military occupations or the excesses of the rich. This violence is coming from the right and seems driven by a need to hold onto or regenerate some past golden age perceived as being stolen by the forces of the left.

Are guns and madness beyond social control?

Two days after the shooting in Tucson, I suggested to a friend that Iraq and Afghanistan might have something to do with the bitter climate in America that produced the shooting in Tucson.

A ridiculous idea, he said. I was a naïve, anti-war leftist who did not understand that, as he kept saying, “There’s nothing we can do about it” – it being the possibility of someone obtaining a gun and shooting a public figure. There were just too many guns in America. Change was futile.

“Security is the only way to deal with the problem,” he said with finality.

My friend is a very smart guy, which made his bull-headedness that much more bull-headed. The only solution was more security, which meant creating more obstacles between the public and public servants like Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. It was pointless to analyze the problem; we just needed more firepower surrounding our leaders and celebrities and, for that matter, everyone – you and me included.

Taken to its logical extreme, this meant taking comfort in our predilection to respond militarily to problems; the solution was simply more metal detectors, more weaponry, more surveillance and more secrecy.

As far as he would go, of course my friend is right; Congress members and others probably should strengthen their security. But that’s not a solution; that’s just ratcheting up the craziness we’re already suffering under. The solution involves what President Obama said Wednesday night in Tucson:

“We need to use this moment to expand our moral imagination.” We need to challenge old assumptions and “constantly widen the circle of our concern.”

It is unlikely that the suddenly Republican-rich US Congress is going to take on the National Rifle Association and right-wing radio and suddenly enact sane gun laws. Loughner’s use of a 30-round magazine makes this clear, since such magazines were briefly made illegal before the legislation was quietly allowed to lapse.

Not that sane gun laws are beyond the realm of possibility. By vast majorities, the US Congress outlawed armor-piercing, “cop-killer” bullets and the manufacture of metal-detector-proof plastic guns. It’s clearly a matter of finding the will. It’s also a matter of backbone and courage, which seem in short supply these days in Washington.

Personally, I have nothing against gun ownership. I own a 9-mm H&K automatic with a standard 15-round magazine. I shoot at a range periodically so I’ll know what to do with it if I ever have to use it. I also own it out of principle, since I feel the political right should not have a monopoly on gun ownership.

I would give my gun up in a minute if I detected a rational, socially-responsible strain of governance in Washington. So far, fear of the NRA rules in the halls of government.

Even with the NRA veto on sanity, there are many things a society can agree to do to thwart nutcases like Mr. Loughner. The most important is to improve our health care system so it provides stigma-free mental health care on a par with a broken leg. We also need tough, compassionate laws and to realize broken minds can often be fixed.

There is no excuse for a society that allows such an evidently unhinged man as Mr. Loughner to purchase a super lethal weapon, then hone his skills with it in the desert to the point the weapon becomes an obsessive extension of his mad dream-world.

Here was a man whose chaotic inner world demanded tough intervention from society. Instead, the process worked the other way: His lunatic inner world was allowed to prevail and project his inner chaos outward into society at a tragic cost.

Someone like Mr. Loughner who runs afoul of a college or other institution should be flagged and court-directed to a mental diagnosis and oversight. Current laws are powerless in this realm unless there is an act of violence, at which point it’s usually too late. There are, of course, conflicting issues of first amendment rights and other rights that have to be considered.

The precedent of emergency room doctors flagging the police when they observe a child with signs of violent or sexual abuse is not a precisely equivalent situation, but it is a model of socially-responsible intervention.

Holding onto the frontier myth

Back in 1973, during the Vietnam War, Richard Slotkin published Regeneration Through Violence, a 600-page book on the mythology of the American frontier, which is rooted, as we all know, in Manifest Destiny and a righteous genocide against Native Americans. His thesis is important and says a lot about who we are as a people formed by our myths.

“The first colonists,” Slotkins writes, “saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience.”

This pattern of regeneration through violence, he suggests, is repeated over and over in many forms. As H. Rap Brown put it back in the 1970s, “Violence is as American as apple pie.”

In 1993, Slotkin published Gunfighter Nation, an 800-page book about how the Frontier Myth was alive and well in the 20th Century. He ends that broad survey of politics and popular culture with this conclusion:

“Myth is not only something given but something made, a product of human labor, one of the tools with which human beings do the work of making culture and society.

“If the corporate structure of mass culture excludes us,” he continues, “other bases and sites of action remain – the classroom, the congregation, the caucus, the movement, the street corner, the factory gate.”

He says we have the option to continue to “imagine the nation as a monstrously overgrown Disneyworld … or we can make mythic discourse one of the many ways we have of imagining and speaking truth … and thus initiate the processes by which our culture is steadily revised and transformed.”

It’s no wonder my friend was so ready to toss in the towel. Slotkin’s “mythic discourse” idea is a pretty tall order in the highly-regimented, comfort-oriented and market-researched age we live in.

Still, we should not forget Tombstone and the very uncivil shootout at the OK Corral in 1881. It has been great fodder for the frontier myth, and it was just down the road from the Loughner shooting. Like the mythic gunfighter, Loughner reportedly trained and was extremely “fast” with his gun. In 1881, the toll was three dead and three wounded. In 2011, it was six dead and 14 wounded.

But even the gunfighter myth is full of ironies. Oakley Hall’s 1958 novel Warlock is a thorough examination of the Wyatt Earp gunfighter myth. (In 1959, it was made into an entertaining film with Henry Fonda reprising his previous Earp performance from My Darling Clementine, this time in a much more mythic posture.) Here, the townspeople of the fictitious town of Warlock hire the famous gunfighter to civilize the town, and one thing he does is institute gun-control. No guns allowed in town — or else you have the marshal to deal with. This leads to the climactic gunfight.

Despite Charleton Heston and all the NRA propaganda about the frontier myth, gun-control is not inconsistent with the Frontier Myth. It’s an important component of the civilizing impulse.

Maybe it requires that those of us who seek change generate more backbone. Maybe it’s necessary that we engage the forces holding onto the frontier myth for dear life and, if necessary, absorb even more violence before we can get to where we want to be. That’s pretty much what the great Martin Luther King conceded in his last speech, before he was gunned down.

If Slotkin is correct, everything we do to pursue needed change helps forge a revised myth. Maybe guns are here to stay. The point is guns are ultimately not the issue – people are. And hard-working, ordinary people should not have to relinquish their lives to the control of armed lunatics in the service of a bygone age.

If the Loughner shooting spree has any power as a teachable moment, it should be that socially-responsible regulation of guns and socially-responsible mental health intervention are good things. Chances are they would have prevented the Tucson massacre.

The frontier is over, and we all have to live together. The sooner we realize this and move on the better off we’ll all be.