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.