I don’t remember Roots too well. I was fairly young when it came out and, truth be told, at that time I was not yet ready to process the painful history that forms the backbone of the African American experience. But I remember one scene very well. Emancipation had occurred and one slave turned the tables on his master. Trembling while tied to a tree, the former slaveowner experienced the whip first hand. The former slave relished the role reversal, but his glee was short-lived. After a couple of licks, he dropped the whip and let his former master go, then walked away. Clearly he did not want to become that which he despised. The white man wept, with fear still clinging to his eyes.
This powerful scene reverberates to this day, over 150 years after the start of the Civil War and 147 after emancipation. During the 2008 presidential campaign, I heard an NPR series which interviewed groups of people about the election, how they felt about the candidates, and so on. One of the groups featured a self-identified elderly white woman who had trepidations about the potential election of the first African American president. She feared that if Barack Obama won, blacks would take the streets and riot, seeking retribution to all that had been done to them, and that she and other white folks would be targeted. A black man in the group laughed off the idea, though he added that people might get angry if it looked like the election had been stolen from Mr. Obama, a la 2000’s Bush v. Gore. Fortunately for the nation, hanging chads and inconclusive recounts did not pollute the 2008 presidential election, thus eliminating the need for yet another spurious vote cast by the US Supreme Court.
However, fears of a black nation have persisted and dogged the Obama Administration since before the President took the oath of office in January 2009. The usual sources have bloviated, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, et al., in the usual way. And during a speech to a joint session of Congress, President Obama became the first executive to be heckled, an event sent around the world on live TV, the infamous “You lie!” outburst by Congressman Joe Wilson. One peculiar fear, though, that has hitherto stayed just under the surface has been the notion that the Obama Administration would raid people’s houses and take away their guns. President Obama himself said both during the 2008 campaign and since taking office that gun rights and gun control were not issues his administration would focus on. And this has been the case. During most of his first term in office, the two domestic issues to preoccupy his administration have been the economy and health care reform.
But that hasn’t stopped the “he’s coming for our guns” crowd from sticking to their contention that the Administration wants to banish the Second Amendment from the land. The Rachel Maddow Show ran into such a crowd during the 2010 midterm elections while covering Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s tough reelection bid. Joe Miller, a tea party darling, primaried Senator Murkowski, forcing her to run as a write-in candidate in the general election. Rachel Maddow talked with some picketing Miller supporters on the street, who explained that they did not like Senator Murkowki because she voted to confirm Attorney General Eric Holder. They believed fervently that Mr. Holder would dutifully carry out President Obama’s unannounced campaign to take away their guns. Though when pressed for evidence that Mr. Holder was a threat to the Second Amendment, they couldn’t provide any.
The “he’s coming for our guns” narrative refuses to die. In fact, it recently reached a crescendo. The day before the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act as constitutional, the House of Representatives voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to yield all documents related to the ill-fated AFT action, Operation Fast and Furious. In a nutshell, Fast and Furious,
… was to encourage licensed Arizona gun merchants to sell firearms to known criminals, in the hope that law enforcement would be able to then trace the weapons from Arizona as they crossed the border into Mexico, slowly making their way into the hands of bloodthirsty Mexican drug cartels.
– The Daily Beast, What Is Operation Fast and Furious?
A ridiculous scheme, to be sure. The Daily Beast article explains that Fast and Furious was part of a broader program called Project Gunrunner which was started in 2005, four years before Mr. Obama took office. Fast and Furious ran from 2009 – 2011. The operation went predictably wrong and may have contributed to the deaths of law enforcement agents, and undoubtedly countless civilians. It clearly warrants and deserves a congressional investigation. But the deadly stupidity of the plan is not the main reason congressional Republicans have their collective undergarments in a twist. Oh no, they saw the botched operation as concrete evidence that the Obama Administration was indeed trying to get their guns.
Their source, as reported by Rachel Maddow on June 20, 2012, has been a Mr. Mike Vanderboegh, who believes that Fast and Furious was a program to cause a dramatic increase in gun violence by flooding the market with guns, thus giving the Obama Administration justification to crack down on gun ownership, ramp up gun control laws, and take away guns from honest American citizens for good. Attorney General Holder has become a convenient whipping boy to expose this plan; after all, he’s African American, too. Holding the whip and driving the contempt charges through the House is California Congressman Darrell Issa — the man who helped get Arnold Schwarzenegger elected governor of California by launching and financing a recall drive against then Governor Grey Davis.
Mr. Vanderboegh is not alone. NRA president Wayne LaPierre declared Fast and Furious to be the biggest cover up since Watergate.
They ran a massive campaign out the Department of Justice and the White House to manipulate public opinion and encouraged the media to slander the reputations of honest gun dealers—when they knew the truth all along.
– CBS News, September 23, 2011
So here we are with a US Attorney General found in contempt of Congress over a scheme so cockeyed that even Rube Goldberg would blink twice at it. But in my mind, the basic premise is very simple. Carved in the faces and laced in the words of Messrs. Vanderboegh and LaPierre and others shouting “he’s coming for our guns” is the same fear expressed by the former slaveowner who feared the lash of the whip held by his former slave; and the same fear expressed by the elderly white lady who did not want to see Barack Obama elected president. The fear in their minds is quite real, even if the thing that they fear is pure fantasy. They likely do not realize, nor would they admit, that their fears are based on the unresolved issue of race relations since emancipation, and this country’s inability to honestly look at its past critically and without blinking. Our inability to have this conversation allows unspoken fears to fester and in this case turn into very bad public discourse and actions.
It’s one thing for people to shout “he’s coming for our guns” and then devise kooky conspiracies to back up their claims. But it’s quite a different thing when one of the major political parties takes up the claims and kooky theories and grants them legitimacy, which is exactly what Mr. Issa and his Republican colleagues in Congress have done. Just as Mr. Issa drummed up the recall campaign for his own self-aggrandizement — he originally wanted to run for governor himself, but was ultimately outspent and outpolled by Mr. Schwarzenegger — he now wants to use this “he’s coming for our guns” straw man as a means to enhance his prestige and that of his Republican colleagues.
He and his colleagues may not even truly believe in the kooky theories, which makes their acting on them solely to score political points against the president that much more disgusting.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.