I've audited many history classes over the course of the past few years, and most of them have begun with at least a nod to the question of why studying history might be valuable. To me, one of the most interesting things is seeing the same themes crop up over and over again in different guises. For instance, it's hard to spend any time studying U.S. history without repeatedly running into runaway conspiracy theories. In the 1830s hysteria about the Freemasons secretly taking over the country led to the founding of a political party with enough support to win multiple governorships. Not long thereafter it happened all over again with the Roman Catholic Church in place of the Freemasons. In my lifetime I've seen the same rhetoric applied to the United Nations and its supposed fleet of black helicopters. In a PPP poll a couple of weeks ago, 49% of Republican voters answered that last month's election was stolen for Barack Obama by ACORN, an organization that does not exist. There is something in the American psyche, or maybe just the human psyche, that seems to have trouble coming to grips with events that stem from hundreds of millions of loci of psychological and socioeconomic processes playing themselves out. If something we don't like happens, it must be because a bunch of bad guys plotted it.
Another theme that crops up a lot in U.S. history is apocalyptic thinking. The first class I audited after returning to California was Christine Palmer's course on the atomic age. From the description, I expected a wide-ranging course covering Cold War history, the science behind nuclear weapons, brinksmanship strategy, and cultural manifestations of the anxiety inherent in a world where global annihilation requires little more than the push of a button. And it was, but it contextualized all that in the history of American apocalypticism, and for that matter, apocalypticism in general — we started by jumping back 1900 years or so and reading an ancient Greek book called Apokalypsis, better known these days as Revelation. For that is what "apocalypse" means — not the end of the world, but, literally, an "uncovering" — and for all its horrors, Revelation ends with the New Jerusalem descending from Heaven to inaugurate a world without suffering. And this proved to be a recurring theme. I read a big heap of nuclear war books, a few of them on the syllabus but most of them ones I picked up on my own, and I was astonished by how upbeat they tended to be. Look at Alas, Babylon. Look at Tomorrow!. The premise of these books is that, yes, nuclear war means a gruesome death for 99.9% of the population… but for the survivors — and surely we would be among the survivors — the experience builds needed character! Then, once the worst has blown over, we'll be able to rebuild from scratch and create a paradise we could never have achieved if we'd started with the fallen modern world and tried to make things better through incremental change.
I've heard the argument made that apocalypticism, the impulse to just tear everything down and start over, is a big part of what defines this country — what distinguishes us from Canada, for instance. Canada broke with Britain incompletely and in an evolutionary manner that unfolded over the course of centuries. Americans didn't show that kind of patience. When Britain proved insufficiently responsive to American grievances, the colonies went to war, tore down British institutions, and founded a republic. And insofar as I'm glad to be a citizen of a republic rather than a subject of what is still technically a hereditary monarchy, and insofar as I'm glad that it didn't take my country until 1965 to get its own flag and 1982 to get its own constitution, I've long been all for apocalypticism. But lately I've begun to wonder how much the trappings of a nation matter compared to the fundamentals of life within it. We don't have to get our laws approved by a governor general, but we also don't have a single-payer health care system or decent parental leave. I may cringe when a Canadian ATM starts spitting pictures of the fucking queen of England at me, but I have to concede that she's been pretty harmless and that the same cannot be said for Andrew Jackson. And then there's one more legacy of living in a country that began with the apocalyptic decision to launch a bloody war of independence: compared to Canada, in the U.S. you're six times more likely to get shot to death.
Last week, twenty little children and six adults at an elementary school in Connecticut were shot dead by a lone attacker. He had taken possession of a shotgun and three rifles — a .45 Henry, a .30 Enfield, and a .22 Marlin — but chose not to bring these into the school. He did carry two handguns in with him, a 10mm Glock 20 SF and a 9mm SIG Sauer, but these were not the weapons he used in his killing spree. The gun with which he murdered two classrooms full of six-year-olds was a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle. I've been reading a lot about this massacre, and one of the most interesting articles I've come across is a missive from an avid hunter who writes:
I can't remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting
range until the mid-1980s. Even through the early 1990s, I don't remember
the idea of "personal defense" being a decisive factor in gun ownership.
The reverse is true today: I have college-educated friends […] for
whom gun ownership is unquestionably (and irreducibly) an issue of personal
defense. For whom the semi-automatic rifle or pistol — with
its matte-black finish, laser sight, flashlight mount, and other "tactical"
accoutrements — effectively circumscribe what's meant by the
word "gun." […]
The "tactical" turn is what I want to flag here. It has what I take to be a very specific use-case, but it's used — liberally — by gun owners outside of the military, outside of law enforcement, outside (if you'll indulge me) of any conceivable reality-based community: these folks talk in terms of "tactical" weapons, "tactical" scenarios, "tactical applications," and so on. […] Which [raises] my question: in precisely which "tactical" scenarios do all of these lunatics imagine that they're going to use their matte-black, suppressor-fitted, flashlight-ready tactical weapons? They tend to speak of the "tactical" as if it were a fait accompli; as a kind of apodeictic fact: as something that everyone […] experiences on a regular basis, in everyday life. They tend to speak of the tactical as reality.
All of the firearms mentioned above belonged to the gunman's mother and first victim, Nancy Lanza. Why did Nancy Lanza own an arsenal including a tactical assault rifle designed for the military? Her sister-in-law had an answer, but before I get to that, let's consider the question of why any of these gun fetishists feel the need to collect these stockpiles, to arm themselves before going out in public, to press for laws allowing them to carry guns in parks and bars and day care centers. Larry Pratt, head of the Gun Owners of America, gave a revealing answer during his CNN appearance a couple of days ago: carrying a gun everywhere, he proclaimed, is what makes one "able to prevail over the criminal element." Now, it's worth noting that this isn't true; on the contrary, possessing a gun not only dramatically increases the rate of impulsive homicide, successful suicide, and lethal accidents, but people carrying guns are 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault than those who are unarmed when they're assaulted. But right now I'm less interested in the truth of Pratt's argument than in the way he worded it. Pratt referred not to "criminals," but to "the criminal element." People who commit crimes are criminals. But the criminal element, well, that's a stratum of society. The implication here is that there is some demographic group prone to criminality. Let's not kid ourselves here. This is a dog whistle. He meant black people. I guess you can throw in Latinos, too — Pratt is also the president of a group called "English First." But, yeah, when Pratt was pressed to name a situation in which self-defense could possibly require a military-grade assault rifle, he went straight to race riots. This kind of talk is not rare. A very good friend of mine has an elderly relative who is also stocking up on guns and ammo in order to protect himself from "the uprising." And Nancy Lanza, her sister-in-law told reporters, assembled a personal armory because she wanted to be "ready for what can happen down the line when the economy collapses." That was the "tactical scenario" for which she was preparing.
Note: Lanza bought her weapons from 2010 to 2012, when the economy was actually strengthening. Similarly, as the gun fetishists' professed concern about violent crime has grown louder, violent crime has actually dropped, massively. What has increased over that same period is the power and visibility of minority groups. The last two presidential elections have seen a black man win the White House, voted in by a coalition that looks very different from the membership of the National Rifle Association. And if you think my interpretation of Larry Pratt's rhetoric on CNN was a stretch, you should have heard him on MSNBC. Why do we need so many guns again, including assault rifles? "In order to control the government," he asserted. "The government has been overboard." And when should the .223-caliber Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle owners of America start exercising this control? "When they steal elections," Pratt replied. He didn't spell out whom he meant by "they," but I don't think it takes too much detective work.
Again, study enough history, and you'll find that the surfaces of things change more than the fundamentals. I've spent a fair amount of time over the past few years reading about the antebellum South, and what I've read paints a vivid picture of a population living very well off the stolen labor of a subjugated race, but at the price of living in constant terror of slave revolt. It is hard not to become paranoid when you live surrounded by people who you know have every reason to want to kill you. And while slavery is no longer a sanctioned institution, racial injustice has cast a long enough shadow that the poor and particularly the urban poor are still disproportionately black and Latino. I can't help but suspect that the capital-G, capital-O Gun Owners of America are motivated at least in part by an echo of that old antebellum paranoia: I've been the beneficiary of injustice, and for that there's going to be blowback.
But the main echo I see is with all those nuclear war books I read. Like the authors of those books, the people amassing these arsenals are indulging in a fantasy. They don't like modern society. Why not? Maybe recent changes have left them feeling like the world they identify with is slipping away. Or maybe it goes even deeper. One glimpse into the survivalist mindset was offered by the Unabomber, who argued that our modern, "oversocialized" way of life left people hopelessly neurotic because it's too "remote from the natural pattern of human behavior." That pattern involved gathering into small tribes, chasing down animals to eat, and frequently fighting with other tribes. And what do gun enthusiasts do with their guns? They hunt — pretending that killing animals is necessary to stay fed despite living in an era of commercial agriculture — and they carry them around for "self-defense" — pretending that they're surrounded by enemies. In any case, like Pat Frank, like Philip Wylie, they dream of a time when civilization is swept away. It will be a time of fierce tribulations, but nevertheless, they look forward to it with great anticipation. After all, everyone and everything they don't like will die horribly, and from the ashes will rise a better, purer, more natural society that just so happens to conform to their personal ideal.
There is one key difference, though. During the Cold War, everyone understood that nuclear war would be so devastating that the survivalists of the time knew they could do little other than hide in a bunker and pick up the pieces once it was safe to come out. The "economic collapse" scenario, on the other hand, gives today's survivalists a more active part to play, battling it out with "the criminal element" in an anarchic free-for-all requiring "tactical" armament. They therefore fight for laws that make that armament available to everyone. And "everyone" includes monsters who take the "tactical reality" so devoutly desired by the gun fetishists and bring it into being in malls, and movie theaters, and first-grade classrooms.