Hunter S Thompson, with his other weapon of choice. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
A lot of people shouldnt own guns, Thompson said once. I should. I have a safety record.
Id come to Louisville for guns, but around town I began seeing banners for something called the Festival of Faiths, this years edition billed as Pathways to Nonviolence. Synchronicity + Serendipity = Karma, or at least a trail that seemed worth following. Friends of friends led to cocktails with some amiable Louisvillians, which led to dinner, which led to a festival concert presided over by Teddy Abrams, the wunderkind conductor of the Louisville Orchestra, which ended with all of the evenings performers Abrams, a Pakistani rock group, a 13-piece salsa band, an angelic South African vocalist, and Ricky Skaggs and his bluegrass band jamming like a musical UN while dozens of people who evidently dont dance very much (I was one) happily danced below the stage.
America is various. It refuses to be all one thing or all the other. The next day I was back at the festival to hear a panel discussion, Face to Face with Islamophobia, moderated by Tori Murden McClure, MDiv (Harvard), president of Spalding University, and the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean (America is various!). She began with a series of thoughtful, measured remarks about Islam, the global war on terror, and the abiding fact of the US military-industrial complex. She discussed terrorism in context, and offered numerical markers such as these:
US deaths from terrorism, 2001-2015 (all numbers estimated high-end and rounded up):
Military personnel KIA, Afghanistan and Iraq: 7,000
Military contractors KIA, Afghanistan and Iraq: 7,200
Military personnel, postwar trauma (pegged to KIA in the absence of reliable figures): 7,000
Civilians, domestic terrorism: 87
Civilians, overseas terrorism: 350
US deaths in non-terror incidents involving firearms, 2001-2015: 404,496
And also this:
Estimated civilian deaths from GWOT in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2015 (from neutral sources, low-end estimate): 1,170,000
Another Islamophobia speaker, Dr Ingrid Mattson, former president of the Islamic Society of North America, talked about the great closing of the American mind since 9/11 and its emotional corollary, as performed by people in airports freaking out at the sight of her headscarf. Whats with all these Christians walking around scared out of their skins? Follow the money, she advised. Track it through to the books, the thinktanks, the Pacs and TV pundits. Fear-mongering can be a great career move for a pol or talking head. Its exciting. It draws attention. It moves product.
This country depends on war as a primary industry, Hunter Thompson said in a 2003 interview, but he might have just as easily said fear as war. Later in the same interview he commented:
This country has been having a nationwide nervous breakdown since 9/11. A nation of people suddenly broke, the market economy goes to shit, and theyre threatened on every side by an unknown, sinister enemy. But I dont think fear is a very effective way of dealing with things of responding to reality. Fear is just another word for ignorance
So with all this banging around in my head, I walked into the Kentucky exposition center the next morning and confronted those 11 acres of guns. I had definitely found the money, but so what? This is America and this is what Americans do, we make money. I wandered around arguing with myself in this vein for a while, then decided that what was confusing me was the presumption, for lack of a better word.
The mashup of stone-cold lethality and sleek retail culture, a Mall of Death sort of upbeat perkiness, with thick dollops of belligerence and bravado. Our high-performance Brass Jacket Hollow Point rounds deliver massive expansion and deep penetration for ultimate stopping power. Shoulder Bones Are Mere Speed Bumps. Optimal penetration and expansion through even heavy clothing. One-shot confidence. Cutting petals. Deadly downrange stopping power. Expands rapidly to 2X the diameter to carve massive wound channels.
This kind of verbiage makes perfect sense, once you accept the basic premise. Guns are machines for inflicting deadly force whats the point of the damn thing if it shoots marshmallows? Its not hard to envision a scenario where you would want a firearm; where you would feel very much a fool for not having one. The world is indeed a dangerous place. Lots of disturbed people out there, damaged people, fanatics, shitbirds, mean people with all the conscience of a starved rat. But heres the rub: were much more likely to shoot our families, our lovers, ourselves than we are that marauding stranger. The numbers bear this out: you bring a gun into your house, the chances of you or a family member being killed by a gun are far greater than the chance youll ever use it for self-defense.
Which could be viewed as statistical proof as if it was needed that human beings are flawed. Were creatures of passion, impulse, pride, mood and pitifully fragile ego, with barely the patience to drive a mile in our cars without wanting to kill someone. Womens mortality rises especially high when guns are around. I thought about all this as I sat in Freedom Hall and listened to Wayne LaPierre, the NRAs longtime CEO, deliver a phrase so familiar to the membership that they recited it with him:
The surest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Sometimes it really is that pure, but human nature being what it is, we contain sufficient good and evil in ourselves that many of us can recall a crisis in our lives and be grateful that there wasnt a gun nearby. Or remember with regret that there was. Just as I can imagine scenarios where Id feel foolish and reckless for not having a gun, I can conceive of just as many situations where Id be the worlds biggest fool for having one.
But in NRA Land the lines are always bright and clear: us against them, good versus bad, American versus villains. We, in this room, we
are America, insisted LaPierre, whose gulpy, throttled delivery belied the clench of a man in serious need of breathing lessons. Anyone hoping for nuance or even coherence would have been disappointed in his speech, which pounded out a steady drumbeat of fear and alarm. He warned of those other rooms where political and media elites at the highest levels are conspiring to destroy the second amendment, and with it our core values, our freedom.
A Clinton White House would be a cesspool for NBC, ABC and CBS elitists to plan programming and orchestrate interviews to bombard the airwaves against our freedom. Elitists are shredding the very fabric of our country; seizing and destroying all the freedoms and values we care about most; and planning to put the full weight of a weaponized IRS, ATF, EPA, interior department and every other federal agency behind attacks against groups and people they dont like. If Hillary Clinton wins, its game over for everyone in this room, and everything that we all care about.
It seems safe to say that the paranoid style in American politics is alive and well. All of the classic elements that Hofstadter described in his 1964 essay were on full and florid display at Louisvilles Freedom Hall: conspiracy, persecution, apocalypticism, the characterization of political difference not as a matter of good faith give-and-take, but a final showdown between absolute good and absolute evil. We will save freedom! LaPierre shouted in closing. And America truly will be America again! He ceded the podium to NRA president Chris Cox, who announced the NRAs official endorsement of Donald J Trump for the office of president of the United States, then Trump himself took the stage to offer his thoughts.
In that long-ago essay, Hofstadter took pains to point out that the US has never had a monopoly on the paranoid style. As proof, he cited the one instance in modern history of the paranoid styles consummatory triumph, a distinction that belongs to Germany in the era of the Third Reich.
While in Louisville I made it my business to follow the trail of another native son of the city, a near contemporary of Hunter Thompsons. I went to his childhood home on Grand Avenue, a neat, modest, one-story pink house with a historical marker out front. I saw the gym where he trained as a youth, and toured the museum and cultural center that bears his name.
Muhammad Ali, leaving the federal building in Houston during a recess in his trial for refusing induction to the army in 1967. Photograph: Ed Kolenovsky/AP
Two weeks later these places would become crowded with people mourning Muhammad Alis death, but at the time I was visiting these sites out of the sense that for a real-life demonstration of rugged American individualism, you would be hard pressed to find a more salient example than Ali, n Cassius Marcellus Clay, who as a practicing Muslim renounced participation in that primary industry that Hunter Thompson talked about. For refusing military service during the Vietnam war, Ali lost his world championship title, his boxing license and thus his means of making a living and who knows how many millions of dollars in future earnings.
His indictment and trial in federal court led to a sentence (later overturned by the supreme court) of five years in jail, the maximum penalty allowed. With the wrath of the law and mainstream America bearing down on him, Ali still refused to bend. He wasnt scared of going to jail, of never boxing again, of trading his fame for infamy. Faced with the loss of pretty much everything a person can hold dear, Ali wasnt afraid, which years later moved his friend Bill Russell to say: Ali was one of the first truly free people in America.
As a loud, proud black man in the early 1960s who did his own thinking and spoke his mind, Ali blew out several of the hottest circuits in Americas paranoid wiring. I dont have to be what you people want me to be, he famously declared. Mainstream, ie white, America freaked, and then came the conversion to Islam and his refusal of military service as the Vietnam war escalated. At a time when paranoid delusions were driving the US into a catastrophic war, Ali saw it for the fraud it was; his was a mind free of unreasoning fear, which isnt to say he had little to fear. For refusing the draft, he lost his freedom.
Note: Ben Fountain paid for an NRA membership in order to attend the Louisville convention due to the fact that the NRA refused press accreditation to Guardian US.