Columns » Hal Crowther

One nation under guns

How America has gone mad

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n the London Times, under the headline "The United States of America has gone mad," the British novelist John le Carré began his modest polemic, "America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember."

Accepting the Wilfred Owen Prize for antiwar poetry, the Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter inveighed against "the nightmare of American hysteria, ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and belligerence." New Yorker film critic David Denby, enervated by the idiot violence of a pair of A-budget B-films, Shooter and 300, called them "the products of a culture slowly and painfully going mad." According to New York Times critic Stephen Holden, "the rotting United States" portrayed in Eric Bogosian's 1987 play Talk Radio "looks almost wholesome 20 years later."

As a nation we have our critics, increasingly harsh, and our psychoanalysts, increasingly pessimistic. Diagnosticians dissect the American psyche from a variety of perspectives, cultural, moral and geopolitical. But there's a disturbing consensus, gathered around that strong noun "madness," that something has gone terribly wrong. The psychological deterioration of the world's most powerful political entity, one that harbors 300 million souls, is a subject for groaning shelves of thick books, learned and literary. The challenge for the lesser observer with the looming deadline is to locate a key symptom, a point of entry, a telltale lesion that ties all this grim psychopathology together.

Perhaps I've found it. On this first anniversary of the massacre at Virginia Tech (April 16), I'd like to quote part of a recent Letter to the Editor from a man who identifies himself as "a gun owner, a shooting sports enthusiast and a National Rifle Association member." He actually signs his name, though I'm not reckless enough to pass it along and engage him directly. The occasion of his letter was the mindless murder of Eve Carson, president of the University of North Carolina student body, by a pair of habitual criminals with handguns.

"Don't blame me or the NRA," the sports enthusiast begins. "When a person drives a car through a group of people to do them harm, do people automatically call for the banning of the manufacturer's autos? When a person uses any other kind of tool to do harm to fellow humans, is there a call to banish these tools?

"A firearm is a tool whose purpose is to place a small amount of metal accurately at a point in space. (my italics)

"I use this tool," he continues, "to break small pieces of clay in the air or to punch a hole in a piece of paper or cardboard. My children use these tools under my supervision to do the same things, and they learn responsibility."

Long ago I survived a "debate" with an NRA representative; nothing in the gun worshiper's fantastic arsenal of logic-torturing devices should still surprise me. And yet ... if a firearm is merely a tool for moving metal from one place to another (a shame if your body is situated between point A and point B), then a gas chamber is merely a tool for releasing and confining an unfortunate compound of cyanide (a pity if someone's lungs should happen to encounter the lethal gas). A hydrogen bomb is merely a tool for incinerating large areas of the earth's surface ... never mind. Arguing with the NRA has roughly the same effect on a healthy brain as a slug from a .38-caliber pistol. If you don't think they're capable of responding with harmless recreational alternatives for gas chambers and H-bombs, you don't know these characters as well as I do. When the gun lobby's confident answer to the mass murders at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois was to arm college students and faculty members to defend themselves—chemistry labs and squash courts become the OK Corral—I thought for a moment that some of their client politicians might turn against them, or perhaps even public opinion. The only protection against freelance armed terrorism, the only solution to the problem of too many guns is—more guns? I dared to hope that the proverbial men in the white coats might finally be coming for gun lord Wayne LaPierre and the NRA priesthood.

As usual I was naïve. A few months after the carnage at Virginia Tech, the Virginia House of Delegates passed an NRA-sponsored bill allowing concealed weapons in bars and restaurants, a bill fortunately vetoed by a rare sane governor, Tim Kaine. As of March 5, 15 state legislatures had initiated bills to make it easier for students to arm themselves. State Sen. Karen Johnson of Arizona sponsored a bill to legalize concealed weapons in all public schoolrooms. "I feel like our kindergartners are sitting there like sitting ducks," said Johnson.

According to The New York Times, "lone crazed gunman" drills are replacing fire drills—remember fire drills?—in America's schools.
It gets wilder and wilder. Regularly scheduled classroom shootings, at every educational level, appear to enhance the gun lobby's sex appeal. In the ballistic republic we've created, schoolchildren cower at their desks listening for the distant gunshot and watching for a shadow in the doorway. According to The New York Times, "lone crazed gunman" drills are replacing fire drills—remember fire drills?—in America's schools. Reporter Tina Kelley visited a high school in New Jersey where the principal roamed the campus impersonating an "active shooter," part of a program of "lockdown" drills to see how rapidly the school could respond when armed psychopaths come calling. Our "sports enthusiast's" children, trained marksmen, will become key players in the sixth-grade Wild West of an unimaginable future. If anything crazier lurks anywhere, I lack the training to recognize it. If the society that allowed this to happen isn't mentally ill, what and who is?

American guns now outnumber Americans, and increase the gap by killing 30,000 of us every year. In an editorial headed "Gun Crazy," the Times reported that the Northern Illinois bloodbath was the sixth multiple murder in the first two weeks of February alone. As gun violence escalates, horrible ironies abound. Liviu Librescu, one of the professors killed at Virginia Tech, survived the Nazi Holocaust in Romania only to succumb to the hair-trigger holocaust in quiet Blacksburg, Va. He was murdered on Yom Hashoah, the international day of mourning for Hitler's victims. The physician and Academy Award-winning actor Haing S. Ngor, who played photojournalist Dith Pran in The Killing Fields, survived the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia only to be shot to death by a gang punk in Los Angeles in 1996. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"—we promise them all a decent burial.

Your handgun is a tool, all right. It's the perfect tool—the only easily acquired, easily transported, easily concealed tool—for turning sick minds into killing machines, domestic disputes into rows of tombstones, petty larceny into homicide, neglected teenagers into executioners. This is of course the only country with any claim to civilization where every certified madman and violent felon is welcome to all the firepower he can afford, where in fact it's almost guaranteed that he will acquire it.

But you don't have to be crazy, or up to any mischief, to own a handgun. All you have to be is afraid, whether or not your fear is justified. I know some very smart, very sane people who carry handguns. They include an arts administrator I met last week in New Orleans, who in the lawless aftermath of Hurricane Katrina also acquired a "streetsweeper"—a sawed-off shotgun—in order to retrieve materials from his office in a dangerous neighborhood.

Wayne LaPierre would applaud this man's "High Noon" initiative; he does not applaud it himself. Fifteen years ago, after another young woman was murdered in the street near the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, I wrote that we were facing a narrowing window of opportunity. Without urgent attention to gun control, many or most of us would soon be living in the paranoid paradise of the gunslinger's imagination, a world so dangerous that an unarmed citizen is taking an irrational risk. At that point—already a reality for many—the NRA has not only won the legislative battle they've fought so fanatically and at such great expense, they've also, infuriatingly, won the argument. They've won it by creating an upside-down social order where only anti-social behavior will keep you alive. An order where cringing politicians reject the idea that your tax money ought to purchase official protection from violence. In other words, armed anarchy.

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n North Carolina, the murder of an attractive, white, high-profile student leader like Eve Carson particularly embarrasses legislators who always cave in to the gun lobby; it embarrasses them for a moment, and is highly unlikely to change any laws. But gun-control advocates noted that similar homicides, with less visible victims, are a prominent daily feature in our newspapers. On April 1—no fooling—a single page in the City and State section of Raleigh's News & Observer carried news of four notable handgun murders, pretty much running the gamut of the local homicide scene: a 17-year-old Durham boy killed in a drive-by shooting; a 19-year-old charged with murdering the mother of his 10-month-old son; a pair of 20-year-olds in Chapel Hill who broke into a woman's home and shot her in both legs; and most pitiful of all, somehow, an 85-year-old man who gunned down his 84-year-old wife last New Year's Eve.

Here in the Carolinas, when we say "You'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands," we aren't just whistling "Dixie." Lisa Price, wife of Democratic congressman, U.S. Rep. David Price, has been a tireless champion of handgun control in North Carolina. She founded North Carolinians Against Gun Violence as a reaction to the Kristin Lodge Miller slaying in 1993; her retirement as its executive director unhappily coincided with the death of Eve Carson in March. Price claims to be undiscouraged, but concedes that the NRA exerts a paralyzing effect on legislators, here as everywhere—in spite of polls indicating that two-thirds of the Tar Heel electorate favor stricter gun laws.

As the liberal Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battle furiously for North Carolina's primary delegates, listen carefully for their attacks on the National Rifle Association. You will listen in vain. In Montana, scene of another late-season primary, the Democratic governor Brian Schweitzer offered Clinton and Obama a blunt warning, almost a threat: "In Montana we like our guns. We like big guns. We like little guns. We like shotguns. We like pistols. Most of us own two or three guns. Gun control is hitting what you shoot at. So, I'd be a little careful about blowing smoke up our skirts." Imagine what the Republicans are saying.

Call anyone crazy and your glass house will attract a hail of stones, in this case perhaps a hail of bullets. But somewhere we're forced to draw a line. If you carry a gun because you're scared witless, you and I can talk. If you think your personal pistol is a thing of beauty, a blessing and a precious right, I prescribe psychotherapy, if not thorazine. The sports enthusiast's dry, practical defense of his tool of choice attempts to mask the core pathology of the gun cult, a religion so saturated with paranoia, fetishism, castration fear, curdled testosterone and blood sacrifice that the ancient Aztecs would have found it congenial. The difference between a gun nut and a justly scared citizen isn't hardware, but rhetoric.

North Carolina's Walter Dellinger, a constitutional lawyer and former solicitor general, has been in Washington trying to convince a conservative Supreme Court to uphold the District of Columbia's handgun ban. The smart money says he will lose this case. But NRA arguments based on the Second Amendment compound fanaticism with conscious fraud. They play to the right's insistence that every constitutional comma vetted by James Madison in the 18th century will still be holy writ in the 23rd century, when what's left of the United States is orbiting Jupiter in space capsules. The Second Amendment was drafted when the woods were still full of bears, cougars and resentful Native Americans, when the British were expected to re-invade any minute. As every sane person understands, it's about as relevant, in 2008, as a medieval law empowering European peasants to carry spears because Viking raids were still a problem.

As I write this, Americans are mourning the death of film actor Charlton Heston, from 1998 to 2003 the president and poster celebrity of the NRA. Once a committed activist for civil rights, Heston decided in his 70s that gun rights were more important. He died of Alzheimer's disease, which very gradually erodes the patient's reason and offers us a good excuse to forgive him for all of that. I'm in no way making light of Alzheimer's, and as a matter of record I thought Heston was underrated as an actor—it wasn't his fault that he looked like a warrior left over from the Bronze Age. Nor do I look down on the insane and impaired from a safe lofty perch of perfect mental health. I'm compelled to obey a personal ban on firearms drafted and ratified by my wife. A few years ago one of the local idiots made me so angry she was afraid I'd kill him, so she decreed that I was too unstable to own a gun. I salve my security paranoia by sharing my house and my life with very large dogs.

High school "lockdowns" and "psycho gunman" drills, unique I'm sure among the world's educational protocols, ought to be enough to convince any skeptic that the USA is off its rocker. Not that the patient's file isn't bulging with alarming material. We are the most over-medicated and over-incarcerated nation in the world—the prison population has more than tripled in the past 20 years, and 2008 began with one of every 100 Americans behind bars—and by far its most overdrawn, with personal and federal debts no other economy could even contemplate.

Our president endorses tortures rejected by Napoleon. We are the lethal-weapons supermarket for the world.
Flying saucers claim the same percentage of American believers as evolution. If we can judge by TV commercials, erectile dysfunction is pandemic among American males. Among educated countries we are the most conspicuously over-religious, yet at the same time the only one that regularly invades other countries. Our president endorses tortures rejected by Napoleon. We are the lethal-weapons supermarket for the world. Violent crime is on the rise again in America, and pathologists note a dramatic increase in mid-life suicides: the suicide rate for women between 45 and 54 has jumped 31 percent in just five years (and 20 percent for all mid-life Americans). Police officers, the only Americans with a legitimate case for owning handguns, commit suicide at nearly twice the rate of civilians. For every cop killed in the perilous line of duty, two or three kill themselves.

As a people, much of our behavior is so irrational and extreme that scientists suggest toxic side effects from the pharmacopoeia of prescription drugs now contaminating our drinking water. It would be a welcome excuse. But it's the children—and those dead college students were still children—who most painfully mirror our madness and our failure. Begin with schools where the shadow of an imminent head wound looms somewhat larger than a poor report card or a trip to the principal's office, where an outpatient army threatens and the authorities' only answer is to arm the teachers and custodians. What do we expect in return? We read depressing stories about teenagers: violent, sometimes homicidal gang initiations and attacks on the homeless; communities with teenage suicide "clusters"; brutal hazing and bullying; a mini-epidemic of deaths (82 so far) from what they call "the choking game," an attempt to achieve euphoria by strangling themselves with dog leashes and bungee cords. Some of the choking victims were as young as 6.

The lurid, violent nature of what would once have been aberrant behavior exactly reflects the gruesome popular culture where these poor children were marinated. It's scary. But just as scary is the fact that they're not learning anything. Only 29 percent of North Carolina's eighth graders could score "proficient"—able to convey meaning—on a national writing test. That's barely below the national average. A survey of 17-year-olds found one of four unable to identify Hitler or date Columbus' discovery of America within 250 years. Fewer than half could place an approximate date on the Civil War. Another study found students at high-prestige colleges more ignorant at graduation than when they arrived as freshmen.

And 75 percent of them admit that they cheat. There's no single reason for the unacceptable failure of American education. But I have an awful hunch about a country where the sites of classroom shootings, from Columbine to Blacksburg, have begun to dot the map like the battlefields of that forgotten war. Up to a certain age most children, even those doomed to be sub-literate, have a keen nose for obsession and hypocrisy among adults. When they see so many adults committed passionately to something so fundamentally insane—the gun cult and the Salem witch trials seem logically comparable—is it possible that some kids stop trying to make sense of anything?

Maybe it's the smart ones, the ones who never wanted to be Donald Trump's apprentice, who are freaking out and giving up. How smart would they have to be, to conclude that many adults care more about their guns than their schools—or their children? At that point, perhaps they respond by ditching homework for drugs and video games. Or the choking game.

"If we can't protect our children, what good are we?" asked Richard L. Canas, the Homeland Security official in charge of school lockdowns in New Jersey. Not much, is my reply. As long as we indulge a minority of armed bullies whose model for America is Dodge City, we're all as crazy as they are. Reversing T.S. Eliot, this is the way our world ends, not with a whimper but a bang.


Fire power

Protest Easy Guns, a national lie-in on the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre, will be held Wednesday, April 16, at noon at Duke Chapel on West Campus and at UNC-Chapel Hill at Polk Place, near Gardner Hall. Info: www.protesteasyguns.com

A few days later, a group of N.C. State University students plans to participate in a national protest April 21-25, sponsored by Students for Concealed Carry On Campus. Protesters will wear empty holsters to class to demonstrate against state laws prohibiting students from carrying weapons on campus.

The practice is illegal in North Carolina, except for police and security personnel, and under certain circumstances, on hunting property owned by schools. Nine public colleges in Utah, Colorado State University and Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia allow qualified students to carry guns on campus. —Lisa Sorg

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