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  • Kenneth Asher

American Nightmare


This isn’t the blog I was planning to write.


But at 11:40 in the morning on Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas, 19 beautiful children and two young teachers were massacred by a lone gunman, with the assistance of police officers who, for 78 minutes, kept the peace for the assailant to shoot and keep shooting.


And now there’s nothing else to write about. There should be nothing else to talk about, to think about, to worry about, to shout about. On the heels of a similar carnage in Buffalo just ten days prior, this should engulf us in fire and brimstone. Waters should rise and swallow this nation whole. The wrath of god should be upon us.


But there’s none of that. What’s happening now is the miserable usual: outrage and anguish for everyone not in in a position to stop the next one; obfuscation, obstruction and a sly nod to the devil from those who could deliver us from this torment.


They won’t, of course. Before too long, no one will be talking about Uvalde and Buffalo, and everyone knows this. What happens after these attacks is not worse than the mass murders, but it’s just ask sickening.


In the aftermath we get to see, up close – so close you can’t avoid the stench -- the evil that is in the marrow of this country and which seeps from its pores, still. We get to see exactly who we are – a country that sanctions the slaughter of its own children.


My views on guns aren’t represented in the U.S. (I’m vehemently opposed to gun ownership, full stop). No one I know supports the federal government’s laxity on gun rights, or its two-decade ban on gun violence research. There’s nothing about America and guns that makes sense to me at all. But I am an American and one thing that needs to change now, (from a very long list), is for each of us to own the total inheritance of US residency and citizenship, of U.S. power and privilege.


Our country is diseased. School shootings, gun violence, and everything that enables the wanton taking of lives here, has been tacitly accepted for as long as white Europeans have occupied these shores.


Uvalde isn’t an aberration. America, before letting troubled teenaged boys shoot up schools, allowed untroubled men lynch thousands of innocent black boys. Long before that, perfectly "normal" boys were richly rewarded for hunting down innocent native Americans. American boys in uniforms have slaughtered innocents in Southeast Asia, in prison yards and along the sides of roads in cars pulled over for any reason. Along the southern border, right this very moment, American policies are killing dozens of innocent people. The carnage will continue because a few Americans are stupendously violent and millions of Americans are stupendously confused about liberty, free speech and patriotism.


And because there are more guns in America than people, many designed for maximal killing with minimal effort and all just a credit card swipe away.


There’s a poison loose in this land and the Twitterverse is at work naming it. It’s guns and Republicans, first and foremost. It’s the NRA and the corruption in our campaign finance system. It’s deep-seated racism, misogyny, white supremacy. It’s the force multiplier of 4-Chan, Parler, Fox News. It’s the insanity of our political apparatus -- the Electoral College, gerrymandering, the filibuster, the Citizens United ruling. It’s second amendment zealots, firearms manufacturers, gun enthusiasts, paranoiacs. It’s the disenfranchised, the white replacement conspiracists, the incels. It’s mental illness and the failure to provide care for people with mental illnesses. It’s craven politicians.


But I think I’m finally beginning to make out the forest among all these trees. And what I think is this:

Millions of white Americans believe they have a supreme right to the benefits of this country – that the votes, views, and even the lives of others, count for less, or count not at all. This is now the Republican Party's doctrine and it is not popular. These people, and their electeds, are heavily outnumbered and the demographic trends of the country are against them. They are cornered and therefore dangerous. They have taken up a zero-sum position, and know they are in a death-struggle. Under democractic processes, they would find themselves in the minority and out of power. Thus there can be no compromise from them on anything, ever, including gun control – especially gun control. McConnell figured this out; they create their leverage through extremism and herd uniformity. The filibuster is their shield and their sword is the well-armed mob that they and their media keep in a state of constant fear and anger. Trump capitalized on that. These people and their leaders aren’t pulling the trigger every time. But guns, hate, division and vigilantism sew all kinds of collateral damage. The thoughts and prayers off their tongues belie the blood dripping from their hands.


In one of my very first WWW posts, I wrote that the American people were at war with the federal government. It was an anti-Trump rant. Now, more than five years later, I see more clearly how we really are at war. Not with the federal government (at the moment), but with a faction of our fellow countrymen and their political operatives who are waging a murderous campaign to permanently wrest America from the premise and promise of majority rule. The Uvalde children are the latest victims, and all the evidence anyone should need to see what's at stake. More people will die in this fight for control of this country. People die in wars. Even kids. That's why Uvalde changes nothing.


***


I don’t normally write for catharsis and yet here I am, pounding away at this keyboard. My dissonance is total: I still can’t believe someone would do this -- I’m not surprised by it. I’m anguished. I’m also going about my daily business. I don’t want to talk about it; I can’t stop reading and talking about it. I am, once again, fishing for grace, trying to find a space, however tiny, of acceptance.


I think most everyone is just like me -- horrified and helpless. There’s nowhere to turn. Even god must seem far away and especially wrathful to the believers right now.


What everyone wants is a solution. How to fix it. Something to do. It’s understandable. When something hurts, the natural thing is to make the pain go away. But if this were fixable, it would have happened after Sandy Hook. US Representatives would not be running for their lives inside the US Capital. George Floyd would still be alive. As I said, this is who we are now. “All war,” said Steinbeck, “is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.” It’s not going to be easy to think our way out of this.


***

Except for the obvious (and impossible) need for congress to curb unfettered access to assault weapons, I don't have much to suggest. But surely one of the things to do now is to introspect about our national character. Certainly this is a time that calls for the wisest among us to teach us the error of our ways. Clearly we need to find a new and different way of living together on this land – to break the patterns of abuse, neglect and uncaring colonization that marks most of our history here.


In all my reading of him, I don’t recall Wendell Berry writing about guns. Nonetheless, I find him relevant as ever in this moment of national reckoning and mourning.


The essay I was planning to blog about is called “Writer and Region,” from the collection What Are People For? It’s about Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn in particular, and I'm going to close this post with one observation from the essay that I was pondering prior to Uvalde, and have done the more so since.


Wendell loves this story – it’s a book he grew up with, that reflected back to him a world he could recognize, filled him up with a boy’s intelligence that he surely must have recognized also, and spoke to him in a southern voice, unique in American literary history. But it is not, Wendell says, a perfect book.


“The book ends with Huck’s determination to “light out for “the Territory” to escape being adopted and “sivilized” by Tom’s Aunt Sally. And here, I think, we are left face-to-face with a flaw in Mark Twain’s character, that is also a flaw in our national character, a flaw in our history, and a flaw in much of our literature.”


What’s awry is the hopeless polarity of the choice that Huck thinks he’s faced with. It’s either going to be the confinement of a pious “civilization” sure to kill his spirit, or an “escape into some ‘territory’ where he can remain free of adulthood and community obligation.” The failure of the book, says Wendell, is the failure of its author, and its author’s culture. It is the failure to imagine a responsible, adult community life. Huckleberry Finn, the character – that finest spokesman for the great and estimable freedom of boyhood -- is stunted. Although the central narrative of his Mississippi journey calls for him to graduate into community, out of boyhood, into a life larger than his own adventure -- it doesn't happen. The path is aborted.


“Twain’s failure or inability to imagine (that) possibility was a tragedy for his finest character,” writes Wendell. As it is a tragedy for millions of American men today, and for the ever-expanding roll-call of victims who suffer their underdeveloped or malformed masculinity.


“We want to be free;” Berry says, in this essay ostensibly about writers and regionalism but which once again displays Berry's uncanny x-ray vision into our congenital American illness. “We want to have rights; we want to have power; we do not yet want much to do with responsibility.”


That’s the American nightmare. Boys, men, and now little children, with no chance of growing up.





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