Los Angeles. -- It was just 50 years ago that a Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal, working for the Carnegie Corporation, a New York foundation, produced "An American Dilemma," his grand treatise on race relations in the United States. That dilemma we shall always have with us, but a new one has forcibly grabbed our attention and intentions: Control guns or get one -- the choice is yours.
The question of personal or family or home security has shifted or is shifting from being a problem of government to becoming an individual dilemma of how Americans protect themselves against each other. It seems to me that the national trauma of the Oklahoma City bombing will lead to more talk of control over tools of death -- and to more people buying more guns.
Part of that is concern and hysteria about the latest bombing, but part, too, is the thought of Timothy McVeigh, guilty or innocent, speeding along the highway with a Glock 9 pistol and Black Talon dum-dum bullets designed to disembowel anyone who got in his way. What if his old car broke down in front of your house? What do you think would happen?
In Sacramento, the capital of California, the other day, a bill allowing virtually any citizen to carry concealed weapons for self-protection, was narrowly defeated. But the group pushing the bill as its top state priority, the National Rifle Association, was not really discouraged. Speaking after the Oklahoma bombing and the arrest of Mr. McVeigh, the NRA's chief state lobbyist, Steve Helsey, said this:
"We believe that the moral authority is quickly moving to our side of the argument on this one. Whether that will translate quickly enough this legislative session, I don't know. But ultimately we are going to prevail."
So, carrying a gun is the "moral" position now, according to the NRA. I'll let that one go for the moment. But I think Mr. Helsey is right about which way the political debate is going. One man, one gun laws and proposals are moving forward all over the country and, frankly, all the talk of bombs and militias and extremists is going to accelerate, not brake, the arming of America. You can be a criminal or be threatened by one, be an extremist or threatened by one -- that may be the way the choice is being framed for and by millions of Americans.
I take as a given that people no longer believe that the police (the government) can protect them from violence. Razor wire, locks, alarms, guard dogs, guns -- all are symbols of lost authority, lost community, even lost civilization. And innocence? That was lost long before rescue workers carried dead children from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
I would not keep a gun in the house because I have been a reporter for a long time and have seen again and again what happens when guns are around in the heat of argument or the chilling fear of night intruders. Husbands kill wives, wives kill husbands, parents kill their children, the children kill their parents or themselves -- by accident more often than not.
But there is a sign outside my house advertising the local security service I pay each month and the highlighted words are: ARMED RESPONSE. So, I can afford to have someone to carry a gun for me. In a frightened society the idea of such signs is to get intruders to move on to an easier target, the people next XTC door who do not advertise armed response.
It is the law of the jungle. In an old joke two men are confronted by a bear in the woods. One begins to run and the other says, "You can't outrun a bear." The first guy says: "I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you." We are all on the run in the land of the free. This did not start with flabby right-wing extremists marching around in camouflage suits for television cameras -- although conservative politicians ranting government-hate do have something to answer for right now. The bombers and posers-with-guns came from the extreme left only 25 years ago.
And we are the problem. We live as if this country were an armed camp, because it is an armed camp. We have lost control not only over weapons and words, but over our own lives -- and this new dilemma, too, may be with us always.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.