It pains me to say this, but there are too many armed John Waynes going after bad guys in the streets.
We watch TV news about a kid taking an assault rifle to a protest and leaving two humans dead in the street in what was deemed self-defense. Then a long trial of three Georgia men who chased a Black man, trapped him on a quiet street and blasted him with a shotgun claiming they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest.
Of course, those three men — Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan — were convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery on Wednesday. But the gun-carrying vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty of murder on Nov. 19.
In human history, two narratives run a parallel line. One is the story of the need for justice. The other is the predilection for Man’s inhumanity to Man. Being human, people choose one story to inspire — or justify — their actions in the other. This enables them to craft fairy tales that make heroes of monsters and monsters of ordinary folks.
All you have to do to expand the plot line is throw in some idealistic words about traditions and family values and patriotism and you have the stuff of legend. It can become historic fact in the minds of true believers, and lies to those who lived through the realities of war, racism, poverty, injustice and chaos. All the same words, the same entries in official records and memories of old men and women, but with different interpretations.
History is not a factual record; it’s what remains when the story line is handed over to the survivors, as the old saying goes.
People like to blame the news media for blowing things out of proportion, and I will acknowledge that we could do with more emphasis on the traditional approach of delivering the news — What, when, where, who and why, and perhaps how. But lately, with the huge rosters of expert commentators waiting in the wings of the 24/7 news cycles on countless networks, the first question on learning that something bad happened is, “Who should get the blame? Who is accountable?” The other morning over breakfast, coffee shop shamans wondered how we got to a place where a 17-year-old is allowed to take an assault weapon to an already explosive situation. Driven there by his mother? Testifying that he was just there to offer first aid, and the gun was just in case he needed if for self-defense?
I wondered what teens were doing with war weapons when students were slaughtered in their classrooms at Columbine 22 years ago.
The almighty gun is the icon to which the already bent bow to deadly tasks. The gun, symbol of power, self-determination, vindication of undefined purposes, vengeance against imagined transgressions. And identity. Even the killers do not fully understand the sources of their darkness, but they bask in the light of infamy for a moment in their lives.
America has sacrificed worshippers, shoppers in stores, dancers in nightclubs, and families riding along the interstate in the family car being targeted by teen snipers?
John Wayne was my hero — when I was 12. America was simple: good guys and bad guys. Good guys could do no wrong. Back it up with a gun.
Then I grew up, and some of the swagger wore thin. What I had learned was that knowing good guys from bad guys was not as simple as the stories played on the screens at the Saturday afternoon movies.
Part of my learning experience was a couple of months as a Navy “cop” — patrolling bar town to preserve the peace and arrest those who broke it. I had a taste of the grim satisfaction of putting a man down in the dirt and cuffing him until he could regain control of his behavior — especially if he had challenged you. I felt the thrum of adrenalin when your own safety was in danger. And I believed I was the good guy.
There was a reason why the Navy gave me a pistol, but no ammo. More reason than we see today in the streets of America.
Dean Minnich volunteered for shore patrol duty in Japan while assigned to the fleet as a Navy photojournalist. He writes from Westminster.