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A Yankee Notebook

January 14, 2013


MONTPELIER, VT – “Freedom is the liberty to discipline yourself, so as not to be disciplined by others.” I didn’t make that up. I heard it first almost 50 years ago at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School off the coast of Maine. In those days of the Great Society, when federal funds for improving the lot of disadvantaged minorities flowed like the Mississippi in spring, we got a lot of students from around Boston, through a program called ABC (A Better Chance).

They were quite justifiably fearful of nearly everything in that unfamiliar environment – the ropes course, the leap at dawn from a high pier into ice water, drownproofing, dark forests at night, white men in authority – and often expressed their fear in recalcitrance and truculence. It was my first direct experience with one of my wife’s favorite axioms: Anger is the child of fear.

To help them cope with challenges that often reduced them to balking immobility, ABC sent a mentor: John Thomas, the African-American former world record holder in the high jump. John was pretty good with the kids – at least they could talk openly with him – and often reminded them of the sentences awaiting them at home unless they finished the course. They could avoid that outside discipline, he said, if they’d just suck it up and exercise some self-discipline at Hurricane. He wasn’t universally successful, but he helped a lot of young men get through it. It was a great learning experience for us instructors, too.

The United States is currently in a state of apparent crisis. This is nothing new; we’ve been in one or another ever since we were British colonies. We tend to view our problems as apocalyptic and our individual opinions, solutions, and values as derived from a higher power. The media seem to foster this misapprehension by describing disagreements as “battles” and the results of votes as “victories” and “defeats.” But under the never-ending hyperventilation about immigration law, fiscal cliffs, unemployment, and the federal deficit and debt, I sense a strong current of fear and distrust. Hundreds of thousands of us profess to fear their fellow men and their government. The committee currently meeting in Washington to discuss the limits of Second Amendment rights and recommend remedies to our all-too-frequent slaughters of each other is described, by both fearful gun owners and self-interested executives who ought to know better, as justification for a tyrannical suppression of our presumed God-given rights lethally to protect our persons and property. Yet it seems clear, if polls of public opinion can be trusted, that some change is needed and imminent.

The situation calls to mind the fairly recent preamble to the invasion of Iraq. After the calamity at the World Trade Center, a miasma of fear infused our national consciousness. No longer protected by our twin oceans, and hated by people we still don’t understand, we were ripe for the rhetoric of scapegoating talk-show hosts and the chest-beating of neo-conservative ideologues. We were told that, among our enemies, Iraq was the most fearful: that it possessed “weapons of mass destruction” and that its autocrat was dedicated to our destruction. In spite of an utter lack of evidence of any of that, most Americans were inclined to go along – and this is the crux of it – because to object was to be bullied as “unpatriotic.” I remember thinking at the time: Since when is it unpatriotic to use your head to make decisions? Fear is clearly making ours for us. It took a couple of years, at least, for a majority of Americans, as well as the press, to conclude that there was no mushroom-cloud smoking gun (Condoleezza Rice), or chemical weapons in tiny glass vials (the hapless good soldier Colin Powell) – just a megalomaniac dictator and seething tribal tensions.

The recent calamity in Newtown, Connecticut, has seemed to coalesce public opinion around the idea that some changes in the regulation of personal arms are necessary. It’s also fanned to a white heat the fears of people who subscribe to the doomsday predictions of, for example, the National Rifle Association and refer to themselves as “law-abiding gun owners.” The focus of the paranoia is the probable restriction of high-capacity magazines and the military-style “assault weapons” that have become the tools of choice for deranged mass murderers and, in a burst of incredible NRA euphemistic exuberance, are now called “modern sporting rifles.” If any of my pals were to show up in hunting camp with one of them, he’d be laughed out of camp; if any of us were to “protect his home” with one, the house, if not the intruder, would look like Swiss cheese.

We all have our fantasies. As kids we indulged a lot of them. As we get older, they change, and we no longer indulge them as carelessly. Remember Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? Not to mention James Bond. Most are unrealized and harmless – unless you lend a middle-aged man a Porsche and turn him loose in the French Alps.

But there are ugly ones, too, cultivated under a rock in a fertilizer of fear, mistrust, and half-truths. The NRA is probably the biggest offender. Purporting to represent its members, which include thousands of hunters and competitive shooters, it actually represents the interests of the gun manufacturers who support it. Its intransigence in the matter of assault weapons will inevitably lead to popular push-back by the rest of us against its fantasies of self-protection and personal safety. My current favorite is from a recent letter to the editor of the Valley News in West Lebanon, NH: “If some insane person comes into my school with the intent to commit mass murder, my response would be so simple. I’d get out my Glock 17 handgun and apply a 52 on him — that is, five shots to his chest and two to his head to account for possible body armor. The problem would then be over: no national news coverage, no gun control debates and no mass obituaries. Problem solved, shooter is dead and no one else is. Just call the police to come and process the single dead body.” Folks, this guy is out there, exercising his freedom. Do we all feel safer?

Photo by Willem lange