1000 Words: Wartime

Let’s not kid ourselves anymore. We’re in a civil war.

It’s being carried out right now only by those on the outermost fringes of society. But it’s real. It’s happening.

People are being killed. That, of course, is the basic definition of war. During World War II, for instance, anywhere from 60 to 90 million people lost their lives. The carnage was so widespread and indiscriminate that those whose job it was to actually count the bodies threw their hands in the air after a while and basically said Let’s go with round numbers. And, while we’re at it, we’ll always round up.

That was a hot war. The hottest our war-loving species has ever engaged in. The war we’re in right now, largely confined to the shores of this holy land, isn’t hot. It’s still fairly tepid. It’s a crap shoot as to whether this civil war will come to a boil. Maybe we’ll get lucky and cooler heads will figure out a way to douse it. Then again, maybe not.

Time will tell.

Now our reporters and opinionators are providing us almost daily running casualty totals, reminiscent of the Walter Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley era when newspapers and TV screens’d display the latest death totals in Vietnam, as if they were points on a scoreboard. We’re winning, the totals appeared to say. On any given day, it’d be, oh, 1575 Vietcong dead versus, say, 175 Americans. Woohoo!

Contemporary casualty totals don’t emanate from rice paddies and dense jungles but from shopping malls, schools, gay bars, churches, community centers, movie theaters, drag show venues, and any number of other heretofore unremarkable gatherings of everyday folks.

Everyday folks who are being killed at a rate unheard of in our history, as long as one ignores the countless Jim Crow era extrajudicial executions — but that was a whole other war.

The deaths these days are being carried out by a thin but growing swath of society that feels a need to eliminate another swath of society they see as The Enemy.

And isn’t that precisely what war is all about?

Michelle Goldberg writes in today’s New York Times that the war may well have begun as far back as May 1995, nearly 30 years ago, when Timothy McVeigh truck-bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and injuring 680. McVeigh’s Wikipedia page reads, in part:

A Gulf War veteran, McVeigh sought revenge against the federal government for the 1993 Waco siege as well as the 1991 Ruby Ridge incident and American foreign policy. He hoped to inspire a revolution against the federal government, and defended the bombing as a legitimate tactic against what he saw as a tyrannical government.

For years, McVeigh was viewed as a kook, a one-off, a deranged terrorist who was swiftly apprehended and dispatched to hell six years after his horrifying act. Thank god, America whispered, we don’t have to worry about that kind of thing anymore.

Only, we do.

“McVeigh,” Goldberg writes, “who was a member of the K.K.K. and harbored a deep resentment of women, hoped that blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building would inspire an army of followers to make war on the government. This didn’t happen immediately, although, as the historian Kathleen Bewle has written, there was a wave of militia and white supremacist violence in the bombing’s aftermath. But today, an often-inchoate movement of people who share many of McVeigh’s views is waging what increasingly looks like a low-level insurgency against the rest of us.”

Even if the latest mass shooter has no idea who McVeigh was, he’s likely the man’s spiritual brother. The world, McVeigh “reasoned,” was going to shit and it was incumbent upon him to do something about it. Too often, when authorities pour through the journals and diaries, the social media posts and the hate group memberships, of the latest mass shooter, that same “reasoning” emerges.

None of today’s wholesale killers wear uniforms but they’re soldiers nonetheless. They’re killing “the rest of us” by the hundreds and thousands. If that ain’t a war, I don’t know what is.

America’s official Civil War didn’t pop up as if by magic with the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. There’d been any number of clashes, skirmishes, atrocities, and acts of terrorism committed in the decades before that date. The Civil War, it can be said, began in 1851 or even 1841. The start date of any war usually is arrived at by some manner of agreement among historians. Who’s to say World War II didn’t start with the Japanese Rape of Nanking in 1937? This even though it’s generally held that the war started when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Tell the people of Korea, of Manchuria, of Czechoslovakia, of Austria that the death and destruction they suffered before the invasion of Poland wasn’t war.

Let’s not tell the hundreds, the thousands killed in American mass shootings there’s no war going on either.

Fed a steady diet of grievance, panic, and hatred by Right Wing “news” channels and websites, urged on by provocateurs like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tucker Carlson, and driven by their own deep-seated psychopathologies, today’s mass shooters are merely the advanced guard in what may well become an organized fighting force coming, as Goldberg writes, for the rest of us.

Should some Reichstag Fire-like tragedy occur on these shores within the next few years, say some nut takes a shot at Donald Trump or somebody with tenuous ties to Black Lives Matter plants a bomb at the next NRA convention, more and more people will join with those on that outermost fringe of society to, as they see it, set the world straight

Maybe Goldberg’s right and the first shot was fired in Oklahoma City in 1995. Maybe it was in Memphis in 1968. Maybe Kent State and Jackson State in 1970. How about Philadelphia in 1985?

We’re at war with ourselves even if we don’t recognize it yet.

Maybe we’ve been at war against each other for a hundred or even two hundred years. All I know is in this year of somebody’s lord, 2023, we sure as hell love our guns a lot more than each other.

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