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A Yankee Notebook

April 2, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – Several weeks ago, a pistol-packing and apparently self-appointed neighborhood watchman in Florida called 911 to inform the dispatcher that he was following a suspicious person. Advised to break off his pursuit, he instead continued it, until there was some sort of ruckus, in which the suspicious person – an unarmed teen-ager returning home from a convenience store – was shot and killed. Details of the confrontation have not yet been released; but whatever they reveal, the shooter will claim the right of self-defense under one of the most boneheaded laws passed in recent years: the so-called Stand-Your-Ground law, which permits ordinary citizens who claim they “feel threatened” to use deadly force against the alleged threat.

Kyle Tasker (Rep., Northwood), a freshman Republican representative in the New Hampshire House who apparently feels threatened, was embarrassed recently when one of the two .45-caliber handguns he carries for (it is presumed) protection in the State House dropped to the floor just before the start of a meeting of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. In a statement to New Hampshire Public Radio, Tasker said, “I just gave blood and I might not have latched it quite properly. All I could think of was, it was bound to happen one of these days, I come here too often for that not to have happened.” With an estimated 45 amateur gunslingers, at last count, packing heat in the New Hampshire House, it must rank as one of the most dangerous places in the state. It may soon be demoted to second place if proposed legislation should pass that forbids New Hampshire state university officials from banning handguns on their campuses.

This past week we were stunned and revolted by the news that Melissa Jenkins, a St. Johnsbury Academy teacher, had been abducted and, after a search, had been found strangled and sunk in the Connecticut River. The alleged murderers, a local couple straight out of a James Dickey novel, are facing a preponderance of damning evidence, and are being held without bail. The swift identification, apprehension, and arraignment of the suspects have helped put a lid on the anxiety of the victim’s community, but contributions to Internet blogs nevertheless express the fear that any of our neighbors – who knows? – may secretly be murderous perverts.

These three incidents share one thread: fear. We’ve become a fearful, security-minded people. Many of us, though, recall a day in the United States when we feared nothing. We’d just fought a brutal, deadly war, on two fronts and on opposite sides of the globe, and emerged bloody, but unconditionally victorious. There was nothing we couldn’t tackle and overcome; we’d just proved it. But then the Soviet Union retreated behind its Iron Curtain, and opportunistic politicians seeking power began to plant the seeds of fear in our minds about what the godless Communists were doing behind their wall of secrecy. That campaign of doubt evoked our very worst instincts; we even began feeding upon each other, courtesy of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the McCarthy Senate hearings. In a new age, in which at first two, and eventually several, nations possessed the power to destroy each other in a first strike, security became all-important. Our nation now spends billions each year to detect and thwart perceived threats to our security; and yet I’d bet that few of us feel more secure than we once did when we feared almost nothing.

A couple of cases in point: According to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center, attempts at illegal entry into the United States have dropped by nearly two-thirds since 2005; yet border-state politicians are making hay from the fears of the credulous, of miscegenation or “taking American jobs” – even though no citizens can be found who want those jobs. Second, although the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that current trends show a decline in serious abduction cases, the spectacular media coverage some of them receive has many people believing there’s a candy man with a van on almost every corner. It’s not true. The largest percentage of abductions by far are carried out by family members in custody battles. But the statistics have done little to ease the fears of anxious parents. Rare is the child, I’d venture, who enjoys the freedom we once did, back in the good old days when abductions were more frequent.

As I was typing these thoughts this evening, the telephone rang, almost as if on cue. Caller ID indicated it was probably a sales call. And it was, in a way: a National Rifle Association robo-call from President Wayne LaPierre, warning me there were powerful and nefarious movements newly afoot to take away my guns and leave me defenseless in the face of international threats. The call was frightening, but not because a word of it was credible. It was scary because I know that thousands of those contacted believe that hogwash implicitly; and that sales of semiautomatic weapons designed primarily to maim or kill human beings are at an all-time high. One prominent manufacturer has had to suspend taking new orders in order to catch up with demand. The thought of ever more citizens like the nervous Representative Tasker (in his other life a driller’s assistant on a water well rig; you wouldn’t think much would threaten him) running around with two cannons liable to fall to the floor when, as he said, he gets “loopy,” is more than a little chilling.

Mr. LaPierre, warming to the task, then described in graphic detail the imagined threats to the Second Amendment. I kept waiting for a place to get a word in edgewise. No soap; he wound up with the news that the United Nations, pretending to promote peace, was really after our weapons. He ended with a choice: If you believe the United Nations should not be allowed to come into our country and take away our weapons, press One. If you believe that the United Nations should be allowed... What a no-brainer! Not the answer; the question. But it works. It appears we’re to be more and more in the company of misinformed, fearful citizens armed with deadly weapons they have the right to use if they feel threatened. Now, that’s fear! But it’s a rational fear.

Photo by Willem lange