During one pleasant dinner aboard the Nation cruise, one of my tablemates told an amusing story about Einstein giving a lecture in which he stated that he expected the solar system to implode in 10 million years. At the end of his talk, a worried-looking woman asked: “Did you say 10,000 or 10 million?” Ten million, he responded.
“Phew, what a relief,” sighed the woman.
It is odd what the mind seizes upon for comfort in the face of forces beyond our control. This anecdote made me think of how similarly people responded to the news that John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo had been arrested and charged with the sniper attacks that paralyzed suburban Washington. People breathed with relief, children came out to play, gas station attendants relaxed and stood tall again. The response is entirely understandable if not exactly rational, since in fact the overall risks of dying by gunfire were not significantly reduced by the arrests. Add in dangers like car accidents or sexual predators and it’s not clear why we shouldn’t keep children indoors all the time. But the mind rationalizes dangers grown normative, and so we press on through anthrax scares, bioterrorism threats and fear of flying.
Nevertheless, some dangers are experienced as more frightening than others regardless of likelihood; and I am intrigued by how this psychic relationship to statistical probability or improbability is directed, even manipulated, as a political force. We trade civil liberties for amorphous promises of “homeland security,” for example, yet we do nothing to enact comprehensive and effective gun control–gun violence being the single greatest threat to American lives and liberty. But the hard evidence showing the devastating impact guns have on public health is routinely ignored or trumped–foremost by the extraordinary lobbying power of the NRA, but also by marketed images of the romantic outlaw, the noble vigilante. Products from cigarettes to pickup trucks have all exploited the Hemingway-esque appeal of the rational individualist patrolling the bounds of his property against rampaging savages, his trusty sidearm at the ready. Remember how things began to turn against tobacco companies when the Marlboro man, by then haggard and hacking, testified before the Massachusetts legislature that he was dying of lung cancer? We need similarly to rewrite our ubiquitous national narrative of guns and power.
One thing that struck me as I listened to CNN’s breathless, all-sniper-all-the-time commentary was the prevalence of precisely such romanticized cowboy vocabulary. Before the arrests, most experts assumed there was a single sniper, most probably “a lone Caucasian man” in his 20s or 30s, someone very “smart,” very “calculating,” very “cool,” “precise” and “controlled.” We heard hypotheses about the “pleasure” he was getting from the shootings, the “game” he was playing, the “mysterious,” even “superhuman” dimension of his escape artistry and the probability that he had done time with some “elite” branch of the military. It was chilling, all right, but it was also romantic. One could almost envision Bruce Willis in the role.
This script was disrupted right after the arrests, however, when “one Caucasian man” was transmogrified into “a pair of African-American males.” CNN devoted long hours to revisionist discussions of how “dumb” the suspects had been, about how many clues they’d left, about how “stupid” they were for phoning police, how “idiotic” for demanding money. It was a very polite version of the rampaging-savage narrative, one that doesn’t glorify dark culprits, but one that was still undergirded by the perceived social necessity of “good” lone rangers and their well-stocked gun racks as the last bastion of decency, home and hearth.
In any event, the question of Muhammad and Malvo’s intelligence really seems beside the point: Searching for the perpetrator of any unwitnessed shooting is always going to be like finding a needle in a haystack unless and until we as a nation have the smarts to keep records of gun ownership in a more systematic way.
I remember having very similar thoughts during the fall of 1993, when at least five different men went into public places and shot and killed random strangers because they had “lost it.” They were angry at their wives, their employers, their health clubs, other races, the voices in their heads. All of these men fit the so-called “suspect profile” of spree killers: middle-aged, depressed, living alone or estranged from family, white. Then a deranged black man named Colin Ferguson got on a train in Long Island and shot at all the categories of people he most hated: white people, Asians, conservative blacks.
But in contrast to the five other cases, people talked about Ferguson as though he were part of a plot throbbing in the dark inner cities. It did not help, of course, that one of Ferguson’s initial lawyers, renowned attorney William Kunstler, had suggested that Ferguson acted irrationally but was pushed over the edge by the experience of “black rage.” Given that the Black Power movement had used the term since at least the 1960s as a virtual cliché for “a rational response to irrational circumstances,” Kunstler’s intervention served on the one hand to pathologize the politics of “black rage” and, on the other, to politicize a deeply pathological individual. Even after Ferguson dismissed Kunstler in favor of what can only be described as a pro se defense from outer space, the public image of Ferguson as the poster boy for some kind of black cultural pathology stuck and even grew, setting the stage for O.J. Simpson’s trial a short time later.
As I write this, a CNN commentator is reporting that Virginia, Maryland and Alabama are competing to see which state gets to try Muhammad and Malvo first. Each state’s prosecutor is supposedly seeking “political visibility” from the “O.J.-like” publicity. But we should be dreading such “gain.” The last thing we need in this time of 10 million terrors is the false comfort of yet another frenzied, racially divisive media circus to divert us from the more rational paths to self-preservation.