Democracy Under Assault
Theopolitics, Incivility and Violence on the Right

Michele Swenson

The Psyche of A 'Gunocracy'
by Robert Jay Lifton

The Psyche of A 'Gunocracy'

Firearms are icons of freedom and power, 'equalizers' in an egalitarian country. Can we change our myths and break this troubling bond?

Newsweek/August 23, 1999
By Robert Jay Lifton

Beneath the murderous behavior of Buford O. Furrow Jr. flows a dark undercurrent that deforms the American psyche: our unique bond with the gun. That bond readily lends itself to zealotry, the dangers of which become all the more terrifying in our age of high, unregulated technology. The historian Richard Hofstadter once said that after a lifetime studying the American experience, what he found most deeply troubling was the country's inability to come to terms with the gun and its association with the warrior subculture. Indeed, the gun has become close to a sacred object, revered by many as the essence of American life.

The sources of our "gunocracy" date back at least to the Revolutionary War and our romanticized visions of citizen militias, which place the gun at the center of our national creation myth. That mythology was elaborated in heroic frontier tales and given more recent expression in Western movies, such as the John Wayne film sagas. Through the flux of people and ideas, the gun remained entrenched as an essential aspect of our identity the icon of freedom, power and the rights of the individual. In that way, the gun has filled much of the psychological vacuum created by the absence of a traditional American culture. Looked upon early as the "equalizer," it became an important vehicle for our sense of ourselves as an egalitarian people.

The contemporary resurgence of paramilitary groups has been accompanied by fierce resistance to political efforts to impose the mildest kind of gun control. And this is not surprising, since even God, as envisaged by these groups, is gun-centered ("Our God is not a wimp" is one popular slogan). The violence committed in his name is likely to be performed on behalf of a "white race" supposedly endangered by Jews, blacks and homosexuals.

Whatever the social dislocations that fuel such racist ideology, the gun is always available to provide an absolute solution. The gun is crucial, as well, to the enactment of vengeance, so central to the martyrology of the racial right. Furrow lived with the widow of Robert Mathews, who formed a racist group called the Order and was killed in a gunfight with the FBI. The Order, in turn, took its name from a novel by William Pierce, "The Turner Diaries," about a revolutionary martyr who helps to overthrow a Zionist-controlled American government and wipe out nonwhites. Seeking to avenge other martyrs of the racial right, Timothy McVeigh timed the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to coincide with the second anniversary of the government's ill-advised attack in Waco, Texas, on the Branch Davidians and on the very same day that Richard Snell, a leading figure in a number of far-right groups, was executed for murder.

Killers like Furrow and McVeigh have long since upgraded their arsenals from flintlock rifles and Colt pistols to assault weapons and fertilizer bombs. The latter are lethal enough, but we should not delude ourselves into believing that weapons worship stops there. Aum Shinrikyo, the fanatical Japanese cult that released sarin gas in the Tokyo subways in March 1995, killing 12 people and injuring 5,000, has another lesson to teach us. Its guru and his disciples had no equivalent tradition of gunocracy to draw upon. They turned quickly to weapons of mass destruction, producing chemical and biological stockpiles and trying to acquire nuclear weapons, as well. Such ultimate weapons are in no way outside the imagination of the American racial right: all are embraced in "The Turner Diaries," in which the destruction of most of the world's population is achieved by nuclear "cleansing." In other words, the worship of the gun can be extended to weaponry of any kind, including that which may destroy everything.

Besides fanatics and mentally disturbed people (Furrow appears to be both), many ordinary Americans have also become caught up in the cult of the gun. For them, it is not a jarring source of violence but as much an accepted part of the landscape as forests and rivers. Such people often resist controls over the objects they revere. But human beings are capable of modifying their own mythologies. After the tragedies in Littleton, Colo.; Atlanta, and now Los Angeles, Americans have shown signs of a change in their feelings about guns, seeing them increasingly as more dangerous than sacred. That kind of collective psychological shift is necessary if we are ever to transcend the crippling fraternity of the gun.