In bed at night, the machine guns start. At first, they focus on tanks, machines. It becomes obvious that the problem lie not in the machines but in the men operating them. The gun shots make them fall, one by one. An anti-tank rocket incinerates four men in their machine. The terrifying fire set off the ordinance in the bowels of the tank. The machine erupts in flames. I move my aim to the next tank, the next man.
It frightens me, to target men, and everyone in my dreaming is a man. Years of war movies and novels solidify in my mind that the business of warfare is special to men.
But I think, at the same time, of the end of dreams. The whole of who I am are my thoughts, sensations, influences are bundle of energies and literarily millions, perhaps, billions of experiences. Every time I think about the death of another person, I have empathy for them, knowing that they, too, have all the sensitivities and thoughts, dreams, memories, and influences that I have.
Why then, do I go to bed and imagine myself shooting other people? Movies and books have built a kind of response in me. Perhaps, I lash out think, out at the powerlessness I often feel in the face of life’s difficulties with my machine gun and RPG. I don’t want to kill or injure anyone. I watch a news reporter about a murder and do not think, what a bastard the murderer is. I think, instead, of the dead man. The disappearance of that bundle of energies and experiences that was once a living, breathing being. When a car bomb goes off in a Bagdad market, killing 69 people, I feel that. I feel grief at their deaths, as if I know them personally. When I see pictures of the aftermath, I am sick, sometimes to the point of crying.
The cruelty, the lack of empathy or sympathy for the victims strikes me to the core. That someone can treat another like that astounds me. On the other hand, I can imagine myself as a murderer. If I was to go off the deep end, I would not take no for an answer. I would go all the way, devote myself to murder. I would be one of the great warriors for the moment that such a grandiose thought motivated me. Afterward, of course, I would be inconsolable and filled with self-hatred.
Of course, murders are tawdry, pitiful affairs. Just as there is no glory in war, there is nothing redemptive or honorable when it comes to murdering another human being. You wind up a sad character trying to prove your mettle in a prison somewhere, if you are lucky to escape the long and grinding process associated with the death penalty.
In other words, murder and killing are not what we see in the movies. They are a sordid business that leaves no one redeemed.
There’s an honesty in a violent crime that war and terrorism do not have. At least, in the situation of a street crime, where one shoots or strikes another, there’s a mano-a-mano nature about it. In the event of a bombardier dropping ordinance on unseen populations, a dishonest distance comes between the perpetrator and the victim. The same with a car bomb or a suicide bomber. The point is to kill, injure, and maim as many people as possible with the aim of diminishing the enemy through attrition or fear.
I’ve always thought this way. When I was younger, President Carter signed Proclamation 4471, reestablishing the selective service program, I signed my card with my name and “under protest” underlined next to my signature. I resolved then to go to prison rather than take up a gun. Of course, I probably would not have gone to jail, but forced to work in education, conservation, health care, or care for the elderly and disabled. The United States government takes a very strict line on conscientious objection. If you will not go to war, you will go into something that they think is of national interest.
I dislike war movies and books that do not show the ugly side of war—the slogging, the hardship, the psychological impact that war has on people. A good war story includes the suffering of refugees and innocents, civilians displaced and torn from their homes. For every Saving Private Ryan, Patton, or Kelley’s Heroes, there should be a The Best Years of our Lives, Thin Red Line, or Apocalypse Now. At the end of a war movie, people should walk away understanding that armed conflict solves nothing and serves no one.
Yet, I lie in bed with my rifle. I see the men coming up the Beardsley Road bridge. I concoct various scenarios. I damage the bridge to stop the tanks. I save my neighbors from invading hoards. I am the guy who thwarts the attack, the one who dies while others live.
Then the realities set in. Many of my neighbors own guns. They would know their way around them better than anything I could muster. I have not held a gun since 2005, when my friend Gary and I plinked around with a .22 automatic on river sandbars as we made our way by canoe from Kansas City to St. Louis. I vowed then, that as much fun as we had with that pistol, I would never hold another firearm. I was too old at 43 to care much for the fun of guns. They are not play toys. They were designed to kill. I wouldn’t kill. Ever.
A few years ago, a friend of mine tried to persuade me to buy a gun. It would be protection for my family. I had a responsibility to take up arms. What if someone came in my house, threatening to kill or rape my family. Only a gun would stop them. I difficulty explaining to him my pacifist views. He wouldn’t take it. He called me selfish and self-centered. He asked me what I had against guns. Nothing, I said. Buy all the guns you want. It doesn’t matter to me. I just won’t own one, and nothing you can say to me will change my mind.
What happens if you’re attacked? he said. Well, I’ve been attacked. A gang of young men jumped one time as I came out of a liquor store. They beat me to a pulp with a tree branch and sent me to the hospital for a pint of blood and a stay of a couple of days. I came out looking like Frankenstein’s monster, my head shaved in wide swaths and my scalp stitched together in three places. You can still see the five-inch scars when I cut my hair short.
Did I wish I had a gun when I was getting beaten? No, absolutely not. Given the circumstances, a group of dangerous youths would have gotten their hands on a gun and did greater damage to me and others than they already did.
And, I felt sorry for them. What did they get? The police showed up during the beating. They fled into the night while the cops tended to me, bleeding not in dribbles but in streams. I thought of the pitiful lives these poor guys had to live. Even if their consciences did not bother them, they would still have that crime in them. Maybe that was the end of it. Perhaps mine was just another incident in a life of crime. Either way, they didn’t walk away clean. Someday, they would have to come to terms with it. They might have learned something. They might have to sit in jail cells. No one, ever, walks away from a crime unscathed.
What if someone came into the house with a gun? What would I do? I would most likely die for my family, I suppose. Of necessity, I might try to talk sense to the man (and the intruder is always a man in my mind). I’d give him all the money I had. I’d give him the credit cards and passwords. I would help him load our stuff into his car. I would do anything possible to save my family, but I wouldn’t shoot him. I don’t have a gun for just that reason.
So, I deal with contradictory impulses. The machine gun at night is part of my fiber. I don’t know where it came from—the only thing I can think of was all war-glorification movies I grew up watching. Maybe it comes from television, where so many problems are solved at the point of a gun. I should probably deal with the feeling of helplessness in the face of so much injustice and suffering in the world, not just in my city, but in the far-flung corners of the world where the gun is master.
And I, while I don’t despise guns and even have had a great deal of fun with them, will not own or use a gun for any reason. I have thought very deeply on the subject, gone through all the what-ifs. Some principles we can depend on. This is one.