A Yankee Notebook

June 13, 2016


MONTPELIER – To begin with: This past Sunday morning’s murders and maimings at the Orlando gay nightclub Pulse were hardly, – as news media and political leaders keep stressing – “the worst mass murders in American history.” A bucolic little national park on the former buffalo plains of Colorado commemorates the November 29, 1864, slaughter of about 150 Southern Cheyennes, mostly women and children, by a detachment of the Colorado Militia. Sand Creek National Park is the only one including “Massacre” in its name.

The commander of the militia at the time was Colonel John Milton Chivington, a Methodist preacher and Freemason. His motives are best expressed in his own words: “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians....Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.” Yet, unlike many of the hateful comments evoked by this Sunday morning’s shootings, nowhere is the Sand Creek Massacre called a “radical Christian” act.

Ever since Samuel de Champlain fired his arquebus in 1609 at a gathering of Iroquois on the shore of his eponymous lake – killing a couple and forever alienating them from the French, which most likely dictated the outcome of the French and Indian War, 150 years later – we European immigrants have been at it: exercising superior firepower to solve perceived problems, and in the process creating many more. Much as I hate to quote Sarah Palin, I have to ask, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

We were still at it when units of the American Seventh Cavalry – smarting, no doubt, from their defeat fourteen years earlier at Little Big Horn – arrived at a Lakota encampment in late December, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. Their mission was to disarm the warriors. Naturally, there was a scuffle, and the soldiers, who’d surrounded the camp, opened fire. Between150 and 300 Sioux men, women, and children were slaughtered in the fight, and twenty of the soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.

So no, this latest wasn’t the worst in our history. It was instead another grim news item in our long record of shooting our problems. From preliminary reports, the shooter was an abusive spouse, serial loser, and homophobe who’d been outraged a few days before his apocalyptic action by the sight of two men kissing. His ex-wife, interviewed early Monday, offered the opinion that he was mentally ill. That’s probably a safe assumption. The angry assertions that he was a Muslim jihadist are most likely far off the mark and a pretext for people like Donald Trump to scapegoat.

When I worked in western Texas sixty years ago, there were rattlesnakes everywhere. No, that’s an exaggeration; but it is true that there were likely to be rattlesnakes anywhere, anytime. The old cowboy who owned the ranch wanted them gone, and whenever he came across one, dispatched it with a couple of vigorous licks of his cane. When I mentioned one day that John Wayne always blew their heads off with his six-shooter, he rolled his eyes. “Hollywood cowboys,” he said, “always shoot their problems. If he hit a rock, there’d be pieces of lead flying everywhere, and no real cowboy would waste expensive ammunition on a snake, anyway.”

Still, our all-American heroes generally carry weapons designed primarily to kill or maim their fellow human beings. From Dirty “Make my Day” Harry to Wyatt Earp, from John Wayne to Charles Bronson, they all administer “justice” – sometimes even before all else fails – from the barrel of a gun. Their legacy lives on in bumper stickers that proclaim, “This vehicle insured by Smith & Wesson,” and yard signs warning, “We Don’t Call 911.” As Senator Claghorn used to shout, “Thass a joke – I say, thass a joke, son!” But not many of us find those very funny.

Winston Churchill is often cited as the origin of the saying, “You can rely upon the Americans always to do the right thing – once they’ve exhausted all the possible alternatives.” A search of databases reveals it wasn’t Churchill. But that makes it no less true. The United States has an extremely serious public health problem caused by a combination of cowboy culture, readily available semi-automatic fantasy weapons, and a climate of fear encouraged by gun manufacturers and their stalking horse, the increasingly embattled and discredited National Rifle Association.

A “fantasy weapon” is one that gives its owner a feeling of super power. He (or she) takes it to the gun range, shoots multiple rapid rounds at black human-shaped targets, and feels that the world (at least in his immediate vicinity) is safe from “bad guys with guns,” as Wayne LaPierre so memorably describes them. (It’s hard not to wish that the targets could shoot back, in order to create a more realistic situation.) Actually, the more of these characters we have to protect us, the more likely we are to be shot. Imagine the chaos that would erupt in the New Hampshire State House, for example– where about four dozen legislators of all ages and fitness are armed – if there were, as one of them put it, “an issue.” They forget that the “good guy with a gun” present at Gabby Gifford’s shooting was very nearly shot by security till the survivors shouted, “Not him!”

I was appalled this morning that, reading the list of the mass shootings since Columbine, I couldn’t recall them all. But the list led to the reflection that, if anything good can come out of all these horrific spasms of violence, it will be revealed that Newton’s Third Law is still in operation; that a large and growing majority of Americans favor stricter regulation of cowboy culture; and that Americans, having tried all the alternatives, will finally come to the right decisions.

Photo by Willem lange