This morning I walked past a man about my age, sixty, who was wearing camouflage and a fatigue-style cap. He had two Bowie knives on his belt and was walking a ferocious-looking pit bull that had to weigh eighty pounds.
My immediate thought was, “Who’s this guy and what’s he afraid of?”
Who knows? Maybe he’s got good reason to be afraid. Maybe he’s in witness protection and the Mafia just put his home address up on their Facebook page. Or he just started a Salman Rushdie fan club. Or he’s a disguised federal prosecutor from Texas.
But I doubt it. I suspect he’s an extreme example of a surprisingly large group of people who are paranoid, perhaps not in clinical psychological terms, but in a not-quite-right sort of way. He’s obviously afraid of something, and whatever it is might show up at any minute on a quiet residential street in a nice small town like Bloomington, Indiana.
I’ve spent much of my life around poor and poorly educated white people and have met many folks who remind me of this guy. I’ve had them proudly pull handguns out from under their car seats and when I asked why they needed guns in their cars, the generic answer is they want to be ready in case somebody “messes with them.”
Who are the somebodies that’re going to mess with them, I always wonder?
I’ve asked that, too.
Sometimes the answer is enemies of the U.S. It’s hard to see how Muslims, or Russians, or Mexican cartels are going to mount an attack in the U.S., especially in central Indiana, but it’s always possible I suppose. No doubt those Bowie knives will scare a Spetsnaz or mujahedeen with an AK-47 right back to whatever unpronounceable place they came from.
Sometimes the answer is the government. However, most of the paranoid people I know are right-wingers. If the government helicopters ever do come, it’s far more likely they will have Christian crosses on the side and be coming not for righties, but rather for lefties like me. The great victory of the Nixon Youth has proven not to be a successful ideology that won most Americans over to their way of thinking, but rather a concerted and successful plan to infiltrate and take over the U.S. military. Motto: If we can’t convince ‘em, we can still kill ‘em.
Sometimes it’s their neighbors who might mess with them. This isn’t so silly a fear. According to the FBI, there are over a million violent crimes per year in the U.S. That means on average, a citizen has a one in 300 chance of being assaulted, raped or murdered each year, which says that one in four people will be assaulted, raped or murdered in their lifetimes. Now, of course, most of the people being assaulted tend to be young minority men in urban areas, not college-educated white people who live in the suburbs. But the man with the pit bull didn’t look well-to-do, and it’s entirely possible he lives in one of those neighborhoods.
Sometimes it’s people of color who will invade their homes in the night. According to hot-off-the-shelf Gallup data, 43% of Americans own and keep a gun in the home (I’m one of them.) Of these, 67% own one for self-protection (I’m not one of them.) Obviously, there’s a real fear here. Perhaps In Cold Blood scared the shit out an entire generation. It’s hard to say how real the perceived home invasion threat is. There are no reliable statistics on how many occur each year. Violent home invasions are probably relatively rare. But they happen and they are horrible. When they do happen, it’s usually to the poor and vulnerable. My mother was the victim of a violent home invasion by a man of color.
So the guy with the knives could be afraid of lots of things. Mujahedeen. The government. Neighbors. Strangers that come in the night.
Or not. I suspect President Obama had it right back in 2008. What people like the man I saw walking his dog really have to fear is that the world is leaving them behind. They lack the skills and education to catch up. The world economy is messing with them, it ain’t gonna stop, and they should be afraid. They can’t easily buy cheap protection against economic trends, so they arm themselves in the ways they can. They cling to defenses they know against threats they don’t.
I once worked on a dredge in Louisiana, a mammoth crane on a barge that dug canals through the delta. The digging was done by what’s known as a clam bucket which hangs by thick wire ropes from a boom. The bucket had two inch thick steel walls and was eight feet tall and big enough to put a half-dozen men in.
One day the bucket took a big mouthful of dirt and water and snagged a muskrat. The small animal was caught by one leg, and it hung there suspended fifty feet in the air, frantically trying to push open the bucket with its other foot. Kenneth, the operator, opened the bucket and let it go. He laughed about it for weeks, the idea of a muskrat trying to outmuscle a giant machine. He’d mimic the muskrat, contorting his face and imitating the animal’s frantic efforts.
Of course, if you’re a muskrat, and some giant force from the sky suddenly grabs you in massive steel jaws, you have to bite and push, because that’s all you know to do.
If you’re poor, you buy knives and pit bulls.