After the latest spate of mass shootings in the United States, I tried to engage NRA supporters in reasonable debate. But I struggled to comprehend their way of thinking about risk. Defending easy access to assault weapons, one of them argued that, “If I put one in front of you when your family is under attack by a mob, you wouldn’t blink an eye.” I wasn’t so sure.
Because I didn’t want to reject this possibility out of hand, I forced myself to think through various scenarios in which I might be compelled to defend myself, or my loved ones.
Could I imagine an occasion in which an assault weapon would truly mean the difference between life or death?
And could I imagine myself opening fire?
It was hard to flesh out a plausible narrative. Over and over, I found my attempt to sustain a fantasy of armed resistance undermined by deeply ingrained political reflexes. For many of the NRA supporters I engaged with, the prospect of leaving the defense of one’s family in the hands of the state was terrifying. They wanted as much control over their fate as possible, even if it meant increasing the risk that they might be responsible for injuring themselves, or others. For me, by contrast, it was precisely the prospect of not relying on the government for protection me that most troubled me.
My reasons for feeling this way are complex. It’s not that I trust my government to do the right thing, so much as that I want my fellow citizens and I to proceed from the presumption that its operatives are trustworthy until proven otherwise. While this distinction may seem minor, I think it brings the ideological underpinnings of the conflict over gun control into sharp relief. People like me want to act as though the State is a force for good; my opponents, by contrast, are convinced that its intervention in everyday life is almost always harmful.
This is why, as much as I would like to live in a country where mass shootings are not a regular occurrence, I am wary of proclaiming that my own preferences should become the law of the land. It’s easy for my fellow travelers and I to point out contradictions in the mindset of NRA supporters, and make fun of the dumb things that gun owners seem to do on a daily basis. But it’s just as easy for them to deride our own willingness to cede responsibility to the state, despite a preponderance of evidence that it rarely acts in the best interests of most citizens. To pretend otherwise is to promote the ideological equivalent of trench warfare, in which a vast amount of energy is wasted without winning enough rhetorical ground to matter.
In both cases, an ideological blind spot develops where people’s fear is centered. Rather than simply declaring repeatedly that my side is right, it might be more productive to examine the feelings that sustain that sense of certainty. The fact that I find it so difficult to identify with NRA supporters cannot be reduced to a purely rational explanation. If I were able to insert myself into the scenarios they imagine — a mob, a riot, mere anarchy loosed upon the world — I could dismantle their case from the inside. But since I am unable to do this with any conviction, the best recourse is to perform immanent critique on myself.
It’s hard to know how you will react in a potentially life-threatening situation until you are actually in one. Yet my limited experience in that regard suggests that my instinct for self-preservation might well be undermined by other factors. Fear is rarely as simple as it seems. Even when people experience what we might call primal fear, the sort programmed into our species many thousands of years ago, it doesn’t always take precedence over concerns that outwardly seem less important, perhaps trivial.
The concept of the existential threat is typically used to describe situations in which literal annihilation is a possibility. I would argue, though, that it can also be productively deployed at times when it is not “bare life” that is in danger, but the self-understanding that people require to transcend the body’s limitations. Indeed, it has been my experience that individuals are often more likely to take action in defense of their identity than they are in defense of the body. We all know folks who put off trips to the doctor for a series of minor excuses, sometimes for years. It is rare, though, to find someone who will be similarly negligent in taking care of what they believe in.
Reflecting on my own life, I realize that I have repeatedly demonstrated this inversion of priorities. One incident is particularly revealing, in part because it is directly connected with the national trauma of September 11th, 2001 that continues to cast long shadows over the American political landscape. Six weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, I found myself on my way to Austria for an American Studies conference in Klagenfurt. Once I arrived there, I would learn that all but one of the Americans slated to speak had canceled. I had thought long and hard about whether to cancel my own trip, but had made financial and institutional commitments that I was reluctant to break. And by the end of September, when I purchased my plane ticket, the situation at home and abroad seemed to have stabilized. But then, right before I was scheduled to leave, anthrax suddenly became headline news.
As I was waiting in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport for my flight to Frankfurt, television screens were blaring the news that traces of this deadly substance had been found in a number of new locations throughout the eastern United States. The extent of the problem seemed to worsen ever fifteen points, to the point where, as I finally boarded my place, I wondered whether the entire country would be at risk by the time I landed the next day.
Having spent much of the previous year, my first in Arizona, in a state of acute respiratory stress caused by Valley Fever and two bouts of pneumonia, I was overwhelmed by anxiety. If a spore or two made it anywhere near me, I would probably contract the dreaded illness, like the elderly woman in Connecticut who had succumbed to a trace amount that she inhaled from her mail. And a run on the antibiotics needed to fight it could leave me to die defenseless. Or at least that’s how I irrationally reasoned, while trying to make pleasant small talk with the woman in the seat next to me.
In retrospect, my anxiety might have driven me to the point of acute respiratory panic on the plane — my kind of asthma can be triggered by both environmental and emotional factors — if she hadn’t proved such a delightful conversation partner. She was Dutch, though both her English and German were impeccable. That’s why it surprised me, as our plane banked into a tight turn in the sky over Phoenix, when she pointed out the window and said, “Look, it’s the BOB!”, the colloquial name at the time for the Bank One Ballpark where the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team played.
Seeing the confusion on my face, she explained that she had just finished a three-week group tour of the United States with a contingent of Dutch umpires. “But that’s my second job, the one I do on the side for fun.” Still struggling to comprehend that there were enough Dutch people interested in becoming better umpires to make this tour feasible and surprised that they had made the trip in the aftermath of 9/11, I stuttered my way into a follow-up question.
“W-w-w-what’s your regular j-j-job then?” Smiling in a way that temporarily soothed my nerves, she declared that she was a “New Age undertaker. We do all the same things as traditional undertakers, except that we don’t believer in embalming.” She then went on to describe both her jobs in greater detail, before shifting her attention to me. As it turned out, she was familiar with Dennis Cooper, the author I’d be presenting on at the conference, and had apparently seen him in person while he was living in Amsterdam. In light of the fact that Cooper was hardly a household name in the States, her breezy familiarity with his depiction of extreme sexual violence was somehow comforting to me.
I owe that woman, whose name I never thought to ask, a good deal. Not only did her surreal presence distract me from my fixation on possible contamination. She also played a role in my not having to be treated like an American on the long flight to Germany. Because the flight attendant had seen us talking to each other, when she spoke to him in German, he assumed that he should speak German to both of us. Having passed this initial test, I was able to spend many hours free of my native tongue and everything it was making me feel. That seemed extremely important to me at the time, though I remain hard-pressed to articulate why.
What I do know is that I devoted the following four days in Europe to sustaining this sense of liberty as much as I possibly could. There were times, such as the conference, when I was called upon to speak as an American and, at times to speak for Americans. But even then I did so in German, as if the distance from my culture that I was thereby able to achieve could also provide distance from my fears.
First and foremost of those was not al-Qaeda, but anthrax. I spent the duration of the conference feeling my airway gradually constrict, half-afraid that I had somehow managed to contract it already. As I later figured out, the reason for my trouble breathing was that I was availing myself too eagerly of the delicious Vollkorn bread served with breakfast at my hotel. It contained walnuts, which always induce an allergic reaction in me. Instead of considering the matter logically, however, I let the news I’d been reading about Milzbrand contaminate me.
On my last morning in Klagenfurt, after the conference had ended, I wandered the streets looking for presents to bring my just-turned-three-year-old daughter. I still felt like I wasn’t getting enough air. Part of me wondered if these would be the last gifts I ever gave her. In retrospect, it was more than a little silly of me. But it didn’t feel that way at the time. That’s why, when I saw an apothecary, I had the sudden impulse to rush in and buy as much Cipro as I could for the trip back.
I’d heard that it was available over the counter in Austria. And I knew from the conference that Europeans were nowhere near as panicky about possible biological terrorism as Americans, who were still reeling from 9/11. If I wanted a fighting chance against anthrax, this was my opportunity. The more I thought about it, though, the more apprehensive I became about walking into the Apotheke.
They would know I was an American, if I asked for Cipro. They might know I was one even if I didn’t ask, of course, but the nature of my request would remove all doubt. After successfully impersonating a German for most of the trip, I didn’t want to give myself away. In the end, my reluctance to be identified triumphed over my reluctance to be a potential victim of anthrax. I literally decided that I would rather die than be singled out as somebody worried about dying because of where I lived.
Nearly fifteen years later, the outcome of my deliberation seems like sheer madness. Yet it is a type of madness I have consistently exhibited, if less dramatically, over the intervening years. Once I conclude that I don’t want to be perceived a certain way, only the most extreme threats to my day-to-day existence have the power to override my efforts to escape identification. And sometimes even they aren’t sufficient to burst this bubble of denial.
I mention this because people who share my political convictions often speak of NRA supporters as if they were living in such a bubble. And many of them surely are. But the lesson to take from that is not that people like me are on the side of truth, standing outside of ideology with a smug grin on our faces. Although the fantasies that motivate Second Amendment diehards may not compel us, that does not mean that we should belittle anyone for being in their thrall.
It might seem that I am suggesting a laissez-faire attitude towards political fantasy here, in which we should aspire simply to live and let live. That is not my intention. Rather, my purpose in telling the story of my own experience in a potentially life-threatening situation is to underscore the ways in which reason can be turned into an instrument of irrationality, particularly when fear runs high.
Yes, the scenarios that NRA supporters envision often veer sharply from what statistical analysis tells us we should be worrying about. And, yes, those scenarios are often distorted by prejudice, as the ugly underbelly of social media amply demonstrates. We can acknowledge all this, however, without dismissing the real fears that inspire them. Just because we cannot find common ground in what we fear does not mean that we will be unable to find it in the recognition that we fear. Becoming aware of the role that fantasies rooted in fear play in our political convictions is an important first step in moving beyond the ideological stalemates that take up so much of our time and money.