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Madison Smartt Bell

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American Terror

Posted: 03/29/2011 12:17 pm

How many of us are old enough to remember just how scary Charles Manson was, back in the day? Of course he and his minions only did away with half a dozen victims--not 10 percent of the people that die in car wrecks every day. But it was the quality of the Manson murders that counted. They proved that anybody could be murdered in bed any time -- and for no reason at all.

Or maybe the scary thing was the reason. Forty years on, one tends to forget that Manson was, in fact, a political actor. His political purposes may have been incoherent but they did exist. Manson intended the violent overthrow of American society as it was then constituted, and in that sense it's fair to say that he and his Family were on the cutting edge of the other radical movements of the late 1960s--whose political programs were more intelligible and whose methods were at least a little less extreme.

I was growing up in the rural South in those days, in total intuitive sympathy with the sunshiny side of the counterculture. If I got nervous when at home alone, I'd clean the shotguns; it made me feel safe. My father recommended the shotgun for home defense: You may not kill whatever it is, but you'll make it go away.

Another scary thing was that the Manson Family was stocked with runaways, many of them young women, though most of them didn't really come from the softest pockets of the middle class. But there was the idea that your children could be turned against you. Your children might come home to kill you. Jim Morrison sang about it (in "The End"), and the Symbionese Liberation Army turned it up a notch, proving that radicals could take a child of ultimate wealth and privilege and turn her into a beret-wearing, bandolier-strapped, machinegun-wielding revolutionary. King Pentheus must have felt a similar alarm when his mother and her sisters turned into Maenads, and he wasn't wrong, because in their sacred frenzy they finally did tear him limb from limb.

Around the end of the seventies, it all appeared to let up. The revolutionary counterculture had mostly gone out of business already, having achieved certain limited goals: improved civil rights and the end of the Vietnam War. Gun-slinging Tania turned back into Patty Hearst and began to appear in John Waters' movies. It was morning in America again, and the skies stayed clear for about two decades. The closest thing to homegrown terrorism was no worse than the odd school shooting. (Well, --if you manage to overlook the Oklahoma bombing...and the Unabomber was just a crank.)

Then the planes hit the towers. But that was different: a threat from without. All the same I remember thinking, any set of terrorists that can make me feel visceral fear whenever I see a plane in the sky has done a helluva good job. That part wears off, of course. At least in the United States it does, where most citizens have enough peaceful time for desensitization to succeed. In other parts of the world, however, where our military makes the rubble jump! -when American flying machines take the air, they elicit similar adrenal surges among the populations below: a blend, perhaps, of fear and rage. Bruce Cockburn sings about it, in "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," a song which powerfully expresses the mood of the people on the ground beneath our gun-ships, and what they do about it when they can, and how the whole thing keeps repeating, on and on.

The U.S. still deplores state terror, and used to practice it only by proxy, in the various right wing dictatorships, with their death squads, we've supported in the southern half of "our" hemisphere. Since 9-11 we've done it directly, at Guantanamo and the black sites of extraordinary rendition... only a little bit, of course--which is like being just a little bit pregnant.

Meanwhile, on the home front, there's nothing to be afraid of, and we don't really have to think about all the ways that violence perpetuates its vicious circles, or not until the next nut job in need of a major catharsis steps out with that easily-acquired fast-repeating firearm and lays waste to (for example) Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her entourage. Now, in common with some other women I've known (including a conservative Orthodox Jewish college student and a Reiki healer who moonlights chauffeuring authors on tour) Ms. Giffords is in favor of handguns herself, though somehow I doubt if she owns one of the designer purse pistols recently featured in the New York Times Magazine: you can get roses engraved on the barrel; you can get an automatic with fuchsia trim. And no, I don't mean that what happened to her was in any way her fault.

I mean it's your fault, and mine, and that we're all implicated. Violence is built into human nature, for sure. Most of us are carnivores. Some of us are predators. Among First World peoples we Americans are exceptional in the levels of violence we casually permit ourselves--as individuals if not as a state. And not all of our violence can claim a good cause. We have got hold of both ends of the stick, and both ends of the stick are bloody.

 
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