January 12, 2011

John Kilgore


So this is what "Second Amendment remedies" look like. Six dead, among them a federal judge and a nine-year-old child. Fourteen wounded, among them Gabby Giffords, by all accounts one of the brightest, most idealistic, hardest working and most compassionate members of Congress, and surely the prettiest. The wife of an astronaut, kin to the movie star Gwynneth Paltrow, a "blue dog Democrat" who believes in cooperation and coalition building. She was the real target it seems, and no one is even asking why the gunman should add eighteen bystanders to his hit-list, with a wantonness that would have outraged the moral conscience of John Wilkes Booth. This is America, and when we do something, we do it big.

Four days ago, as it happens, I was doing sit-ups in front of CNN and got to hear Giffords give a cogent, tough, funny account of her hopes and plans for the upcoming session of Congress. Today we are all reduced to watching as the commentators report, with grotesque cheeriness, the grand good news that she has managed to make a thumbs-up gesture. In the evening the same weirdly upbeat mood characterizes a memorial service for the victims, which takes place in a gym, is attended by twenty-eight-thousand people, and boasts no less a keynote speaker than Barack Obama himself. When the president reveals that Giffords has just managed to open her eyes for the first time, wild cheering breaks out, and for a moment it feels as if the crowd might start doing the wave. Afterwards commentators widely note the incongruity, but do not seem greatly troubled by it. Good speech, is the consensus. Fine speech. Rose to the occasion, might set a new tone for the country.

Christina Taylor-Green, the little girl, died of chest wounds. John Roll, the judge, was shot in the head like Giffords. But in the pictures beaming all around the planet, they are immaculately groomed and skillfully posed and terrifically smiling. They, too, look happy, happy, happy. If there are rain puddles in Heaven, the president says, Christina is splashing through them now. It is a line that would shame the third assistant sub-writer for Hallmark Cards, but it, too, wins a big round of applause.

Fifty percent of Gabby Gifford's skull has been removed, it seems, and is being kept in storage while the doctors wait for her swelling brain to recede. Medical science performing its miracles, promising a "recovery" that, if the networks go on showing it (dollars to doughnuts, they won't), promises to be a dismal spectacle, not for the squeamish or the easily bored or depressed.

So this is what we have talked about so long, the Second Amendment at work, the pudding that proves at last what the Founders never suspected, their own infallibility. Direct action against the government, the ultimate check to balance everything else. The results are perhaps not quite as inspiring as in costume dramas of the Revolution, but impressive nonetheless. Hey, we took down a congresswoman AND a judge! Plus some interesting and photogenic collateral damage, grist for the media mill.

And the talking heads go on exclaiming how "tragic" it all is, how unforeseen, how unavoidable.

Blame the right, blame the left if you like, but please, do not pretend that any of this was an accident. This is democracy, American style. This is who we are and what we do. The next Gabby Giffords, the next Jared Loughner, the next Christina Taylor-Green are in the pipeline somewhere, briskly en route to the next explosion of ten-day headlining megaviolence. We don't know when, we don't know where, but no one can pretend that we don't know it will happen.

It's a kind of cult, you see. Here in America, every so often, we make a point of sacrificing the very best among us to the very worst. Really: sacrificing. In some mysterious fashion, impossible to explain, discomforting to think about, it makes us feel better about ourselves: more democratic, more American, more equal. "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon." That kind of thing.

So the Oswalds, the James Earl Rays, the Sirhan Sirhans, the John Hinckleys, the Seung-Hui Chos, the Charles Whitmans, the Timothy McVeighs, the Harris-and-Klebolds, the Mark David Chapmans, the Nidal Malik Hassans — and now, ladies and gentlemen, Jared Lee Loughner, stepping along smartly in the grand procession - are first created and nurtured and duly marinated in whatever a la carte ideology best seasons their native blood-lust. Then they are given full access to their targets and — the crucial step, not to be neglected lest the show end in a disappointing fizzle - supplied state-of-the-art weaponry. The rest unfolds as it must. Boom boom boom. Isn't it great to be a survivor, here in the land of the free?

By Thursday the national mood of odd, bittersweet euphoria was such that a few of the old arguments for gun control were dug up and briefly indulged, like a band of World War I veterans tottering down Main Street on the Fourth, charming the crowd with their durable irrelevance. Is it really a good thing, certain spirited freethinkers dared to wonder, for semiautomatic weapons to be readily available to lunatics? For ammo clips unhesitatingly, even proudly issued to aspiring killers at the local Wal-Mart to contain 31 rounds? Commentators nodded thoughtfully, struck by the novelty of the questions. This after all is what makes us America: the way we will listen respectfully to any damn-fool nonsense. And for a moment it was as if the NRA had not settled all that long ago, as if it were not marching unresisted, arm in arm with the bought Congress, for many years now, toward a promised utopia where toddlers carry grenades and fall asleep to the music of automatic fire from the practice ranges.

Deep down, of course, we knew that any man who questions the size of his neighbor's magazine is a sissy and not to be trusted. And if the ammo or shooting irons were to run out, what future would there be for edifying spectacles like the present one? What chance to fall into one another's arms in the aftermath, sobbing sweetly, assuring each other that it is horrible and no one's fault and could not have been prevented, but by gum, we are all fine people and just that little bit better for the horrors endured. "God, guns, and guts gave us this country," as the saying is, "Let's keep all three." And if that is not in the Bible, exactly, it still makes a damn fine bumper sticker.

Midnight in America, and all is well. Again.


© John Kilgore
This article originally appeared in The Vocabula Review.
Used with permission of the author.
For more of his work, see the Talent Index.