Friday, January 16, 2009


Right now the Montana legislature is considering a rewrite of a law that permits home owners to kill intruders. Normally, these laws obligate a person in danger to try to escape before using deadly force in self-defense. There have always been a lot of jokes and tales about killing someone with one leg over the windowsill and then dragging them the rest of the way in, the same as cops are rumored to carry a gun to put in the hand of unarmed persons they have shot in error. Just now the conservative and guarded members of Montana society want permission to kill WITHOUT trying to avoid confrontation written into law. (They have also been making a run on the gunshops because it is rumored that Obama’s administration will confiscate all guns.)

Just a week or so ago I was talking to an elementary school counselor on the reservation who advised me with a shaking voice to get “a big mean cur” and at least a gun. Nothing has happened directly to her except a horse theft last summer, but there is a lot of talk about defects in police system. In fact, the biggest property theft she and her husband have suffered is the government impoundment of materials they were bringing back from Alaska for the fabrication of traditional artifacts. Senator Craig of Idaho, perhaps as a gesture of repentance, managed to get some of those hides and horns returned to them, but not the best (most valuable) objects. I will not get a gun.

That’s off my original subject, which is permission to kill. The law generally gives permission to kill (besides to 007) to a law officer, a soldier, a person defending himself or another person but not necessarily property, and -- in Oregon when I looked at the law there -- a person committing arson. That’s the obvious stuff.

There is another subtler form of “fatwah,” which is a positive command to kill, like the one Salman Rushdie has survived -- so far. When we first began to learn about fatwahs declared in the name of blasphemy, we thought it was a barbaric notion, unenforceable in a civilized country. Think again. Stigmatizing individuals or groups for their beliefs happens all the time. Attacking them verbally and violently is the great sport of the Internet. Aside from that, it’s easy and invisible to kill people in great numbers -- not by plunging airliners into skyscrapers, but by cutting off the funding for what might keep them alive. As I write this, the radio is talking about how Bush’s narrow moral dictates and polarizing us/them rhetoric have encouraged war and terrorism across the Middle East.

But let’s look at some more immediate cases. Earlier the radio was talking to Johnny Lee Clary, a KKK defector, who describes hate crimes and the initiation threat that defectors will be killed, a threat that caused one mentally ill woman to so panic that she tried to run from the ceremony -- whereupon she was killed. It is assumed that being threatened with death is the worst. For Johnny Lee Clary, being associated with the KKK -- even after he defected publicly -- eliminated his wrestling career and his gym business. He was shunned, that is, he suffered not physical death but virtual death: the pretense that he didn’t exist. Now, of course, he’s been on Oprah so he’s documented. The price was simply repentance. Now he’s a member of the Big O, a major economic advantage.

The theory is that no print attack is harmful to a person whose living is publicity-based. So long as they spell your name right, says Barnum. But real shunning eliminates publicity. For some people, who cannot accept this kind of nonexistence, they up the ante, like a child who taunts an abusive parent, feeling that even a beating is better than being ignored. The more you ignore them, the more outrageous they get and the more everyone agrees that they deserve what they get, which is the child’s deepest conviction.

One way of handling death threats is a kind of fatalism, accepting death -- maybe even longing for it, trying to trip the cops into shooting you. Another is to keep one’s adrenaline level so high that ordinary reason is taken off-line.

Mary Gordon relates on the NY Times blog, “Papercuts:” “. . . a man is standing in the middle of the road raving. Raving like an animal. Weaving in and out of traffic, raving unintelligibly. He is wearing a distressingly festive sky-blue or robin’s egg blue parka. I call 911. I stand on the corner watching, waiting for the cops. No one comes for 10 minutes. Then I see a friend. This gives me the courage to approach the raving man. I say: “You must get out of the street, you need help. I’ve called someone to help you.” He looks at me with hatred. “Why did you do that, why did you do that?” he says, and he runs into the subway. I want to tell him: “I didn’t want you to be killed by a car.” But I have no idea what he might want. Or if I finally approached him because I wanted to be seen by my friend as a compassionate and courageous person.”

The curse of a reflective writer is looking at all sides of the issue. The curse of the shunned writer living with death threats is quite different. How can they look at all sides? The only issue is how to survive. The great gift of all writers is to pay attention and tell the story.

Bob Scriver, to whom I was married in the Sixties, was threatened with death by self-righteous red-empowerment local tribal members. They put a curse on the curator of the then Alberta Provincial Museum, who subsequently died from a rare cancer. The announced intention with Scriver was to rope him and drag him, which was a way a local tribal law enforcement officer had been killed in those days. This sort of thing puts a worm in your heart that is hard to remove and that spreads from one person to another. For Bob, every bad thing that happened after that was caused by the threat and many white people believed him, adding to their conviction of us/them dynamics.

We are all hoping that Barack Obama will change the terms of the culture, but he can’t do it without the help of the rest of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are so right. We are prisoners of our culture. Mr. Obama will discover how powerless presidents are; how little he can change. He will be thwarted by bureaucrats, politicians, editorialists, cultural history, tradition, and his closest friends.

How strange that in Montana some activists are looking for an expanded license to kill--just when new defensive weapons, such as the Taser, make such draconian measures as killing intruders unnecessary. I fear most of these people are prisoners of testosterone. I sometimes wonder how many potential or secret killers abide among us.