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Ignoring the real while fighting the imaginary

It should've been the shot heard around the world. Chances are, you didn't hear it.

An ominous sort of history was made last week near Austin, Texas, but it seems to have largely escaped notice. There was some media coverage, yes, but less than, say, Lindsay Lohan's latest stint in rehab, certainly less than you'd think for something whose ramifications will likely shadow us for years.

On May 2, you see, a group called Defense Distributed, led by law student and self-described anarchist Cody Wilson, accomplished what was apparently the first successful firing of a gun "printed" entirely by a 3-D printer. According to Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg, who witnessed the test, the gun is made almost entirely of plastic, the only metal in it being the nail that served as a firing pin and the bullet it fired.

A 3-D printer, for the benefit of those who remember when the mimeograph machine was the cutting edge of duplication technology, is a device that can download computer blueprints and use them to manufacture complex physical objects right on your desktop.

The one Defense Distributed used is said to have cost $8,000. Amazon has one listed for $1,299.

So we now have technology, largely unregulated, with the potential to turn every desktop into an armory. Forbes reports that, in just two days, 100,000 blueprints were downloaded.

Hold that thought as you ponder another recent headline. It seems one Adam Kokesh, an Iraq War veteran and activist, is organizing an armed march on Washington for Independence Day. Participants -- he claims 2,500 so far -- with loaded rifles slung across their backs plan to march into the nation's capital to protest the "tyranny" of the federal government.

While D.C. residents are allowed to have registered firearms on their property, they are not allowed to carry them in public. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has said marchers will be met at the border, and if they break that law, "we'll take action."

Mr. Kokesh, apparently delusional, promises to turn back peacefully if confronted, but says it is his hope the city will suspend the law for him and even provide his group a police escort.

You will not be surprised to learn that, by "tyranny," Mr. Kokesh means the duly elected (not a hanging chad in sight) president of the United States going about his job. Thing is, if you don't like the way he does his job, you get a chance every four years to make a change. People in North Korea would doubtless love to live under that kind of "tyranny."

Because it isn't. Mr. Kokesh's march is just the latest product of the great American panic machine, the mechanism by which the extreme right works itself into spasms of apoplectic terror over threats that don't exist.

"We're going to be under sharia law!"

Except, we're not.

"We've become a socialist country!"

Except we haven't.

"There's a War on Christmas!"

Except there isn't.

"They're trying to take our guns away!"

Except that it is now theoretically possible for a mental patient to manufacture his own gun in the comfort of his aluminum foil-lined basement. That's a sobering development with far-reaching implications barely considered, much less addressed, by lawmakers though this technology has existed for over a decade. Since Mr. Wilson's test, there's been a flurry of calls for legislation. On Friday, the federal government ordered Mr. Wilson to remove the blueprints from his website. All of which is the very epitome of locking the garage after the Hyundai has been hot-wired.

It's a pity some of the energy that has gone into fighting imaginary tyranny did not go into pondering this real and eminently predictable threat. But, then, we are unserious people in a very serious age.

And therein lies the danger of the panic machine. We spend so much time fighting threats that do not exist, we are left ill-prepared for the ones that do.

Leonard Pitts, a Maryland resident, is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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