Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Terror

1/17/2018

If a man with a handgun openly displayed on his hip walked out onto the main street of Dodge City when the town’s cops were Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, that man was subject to being shot dead on the spot by the marshal or his deputies. How have we come to the place where a disturbed teenager or ‟lone wolf” nutjob with a history of domestic violence and mental illness can carry a weapon of war into a WalMart or a public school? These sorts of incidents would never–NEVER–have happened in the days when I was plinking tin cans with my homeboy buddies back in the early 1960s. Later, I lived on the mean streets of New York City’s Lower East Side in one of the Big Apple’s truly dark periods (late 60s and early 70s). I saw a man felled—probably murdered–by a knife-wielding gang, and I can remember many episodes of running my ass off on my way home from work to get into my locked front door before a band of bad guys could catch me, hurt me, and take my money. It was a tough time in the big city, but in my years in New York, I never ever heard a gunshot. Today, in my quiet, peaceful hometown of Richmond Virginia, I wake up nearly every day to the news that some toddler, or school kid or grandma was shot down in their front yard in some neighborhood a few blocks away. I hear the nearly nightly rapid-fire discharges of 9-mm pistols with high-cap magazine issuing from the windows of cars cruising down the streets of my quiet Victorian neighborhood. Teenagers are gunning each other down daily.

I have no issue with a human being exercising their natural right to protect themselves and their families with a firearm, but since the 1990s gun owners and freedom lovers have been absolutely brainwashed into thinking that the right to keep and bear arms is meant to be totally unfettered, completely unregulated, and that is the result of the National Rifle Association’s dance with the Devil; that is, the firearms industry and its very deep pockets. Our individual freedoms do not grant us the rights to impede others’ pursuits of life, liberty and happiness by sentencing our entire country to an endless round of terrorism from unstable people armed with weapons of war.

I bought my first firearm in 1962 with the help of the NRA through its joint program with the U. S. Government known as the Civilian Marksmanship Program. The gun was a Springfield rifle, model of 1903, a Government-surplus weapon of the type that would be carried by ‟doughboys” when they went to fight ‟over there” in The Great War. It took my teenage body a bit of work before I was strong enough to carry all that steel and walnut, and to not wince at the punishment my shoulder was subject to when I fired a 30-06 round at a target.  My second gun was also from government surplus. It was a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, Model of 1911. My Navy ROTC unit armorer, a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, worked on my pistol, exchanging parts from our armory, to make that gun more suitable for me to use when firing in competition against the shooting teams of other universities. It was good enough that I won my event against the team from the Air Force Academy!

As a teen and a young adult, I loved shooting and shooting sports. I never hunted anything, although that same Gunny once took me on one of his favorite forays careening around the New Mexico desert in a jeep shooting at jackrabbits with a pistol.  I didn’t care to kill anything, but I enjoyed deploying the power of the gods to smite soda bottles and cans at a distance. As a young soldier and husband awaiting the birth of my son, I was assigned duty on the machine-gun training range at the Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. There my job was to help maintain safe practices on the range as trainees learned how to operate the potent M60 gun. The day I arrived at my new unit in Vietnam, I was handed my new ‟best friend,” the enormously heavy and awkward (but highly lethal and accurate) M14 rifle. I was also asked about my experience with the M60 and was immediately assigned duty as machine-gunner for my combat engineer platoon.

Both the M14 and M60 use the same 7.62mm NATO ammo: a hefty 30-caliber high-power round. I found myself going out on missions armed with a heavy rifle, an even heavier machine gun, at least two 20-round magazines of ammo for the rifle, two bandolier belts of ammo for the machine gun, a beefy tripod on which to mount the gun, and at least one box of additional ammo belts to feed the gun in case of enemy ‟contact.” The only good thing about being in command of such enormous firepower was that I had an assistant gunner to help me, and we went on our missions in the backs of trucks. While I always felt incredibly fortunate to be in a combat engineer outfit rather than infantry, at least those weary foot soldiers got to carry one of the new-fangled very lightweight M16 rifles which shot the relatively speedy but tiny 5.56 bullets.

Months later, I was transferred to a new job at battalion headquarters, where I worked in the ‟S4” yard, the heavily secured zone where combat-priority materiel were stored. I often found myself being the sole person on night duty at the yard. There was a .45 auto pistol in a holster and web belt that hung on a hook inside the S4 tent. My immediate superior, a staff sergeant, asked me if I knew how to use it. I told him about my NROTC shooting squad days and he encouraged me to wear that pistol and shoot anyone who tried to come around and ‟requisition” materiel from the yard without proper paperwork, even if it was ‟the colonel himself.” Occasionally I had to drive out into ‟Indian Country” accompanying a truck loaded with construction supplies for building helicopter landing zones or forward artillery fire bases. The sergeant encouraged me to carry the pistol in those cases.

I was very fortunate in that my year of duty in the war zone was relatively free of serious combat episodes. Our base was routinely rocketed and mortared. Our trucks were peppered with sniper fire. We had to search, find, and disarm booby traps—what today would be called IEDs—along the roads we travelled, but heavy firefights were not part of my experience. Nonetheless, I know for a fact that my having been armed and trained with both an automatic weapon (the M60 gun), and a semi-automatic pistol (the 1911) saved my life and the lives of others.

Once I was out of the Army, I had no interest in owning a gun at first. I was trying to find a normal life with my family. Besides, I was living in New York City, and guns were just not available, and the consequences of being caught with a firearm were serious. Eventually, I tired of city life, moved to the Virginia countryside, and renewed my old love of shooting. I reunited with the NRA by joining up so I could read the monthly editions of The American Rifleman magazine. The NRA had always been a patriotic and somewhat conservative organization, but its primary focus was marksmanship, gun safety, and education.  In the late 70s this began to change. Rather than simply informing members about various state, local and national laws or proposals related to gun ownership and shooting sports, the NRA transformed itself into a lobbying organization. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the NRA became more and more extreme in its efforts to affect legislation and advocate for the complete freedom for citizens to own all sorts of firearms while fighting any efforts at regulation or restraint. Their political stances moved very sharply to the right, and they became an unabashedly partisan organization.

I could no longer read The American Rifleman without becoming furious. The drumbeat set up by The NRA was quickly reflected in all the gun press as enthusiasts’ magazines, technical journals, shooting-sports reviews and other gun-related media began reciting often nasty partisan and contemptuous language ridiculing anybody or anything vaguely to the left of center and promulgating paranoid conspiracy theories of upcoming gun-grabbing forays by Democratic leaders. It is in the writings of many of the gun magazines of the 90s that I find the beginnings of the ugly ironic rhetoric that we now associate with the sort of alt-right ‟deplorables” who gang up on any internet ‟snowflake” post that might favor gun control, women’s equality, civil rights, or common decency. While it is certainly the case that much of the incivility in today’s rightist language is clearly a desperate reactionary response to advances of the past few decades in the civil rights of people of color, women, GLBT folks, and immigrants, the pattern (and patter) of the discourse is one that I feel was presaged and shaped by NRA’s CEO Wayne LaPierre and his take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises, philosophy beginning in 1991. This was the very approach taken by the GOP’s Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich beginning in 1995, and it has remained the dominant attitude of the American right ever since.  It is the dangerous and tiresome song that is sung by ‟gun-rights” activists every time another mass murder takes place. Gingrich is a lifetime member of NRA and a longtime fan of LaPierre. When we look around today and see ourselves swamped by the powerfully divisive nature of our contemporary politics, I believe it began with Newt Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker, and his strategy came straight from the the pro-gun-lobby strategy of NRA’s LaPierre.

I cannot go to WalMart and purchase an M60 machine gun. The laws of the United States do infringe my right to own a machine gun. They just make it expensive and very difficult to do so, and they require a strong measure of accountability on the part of those who choose to own such weapons.  I guarantee you that, even though I am trained and experienced in the use of a machine gun, I cannot own one and would be subject to some deadly consequences at the hands of law enforcement if I tried to carry one in public. An AR-15—the civilian version of the M16 military assault rifle—is the weapon of choice by most mass murderers in America these days. (That said, they could be equally efficient in affecting their evil intentions with a much cheaper and arguably less finicky Kalashnikov AR-47 or one of the many variants easily purchased any day in our country). The difference is that the machine gun is fully automatic while the assault rifles are simply semi-automatic. 

The M60 can fire 600 rounds a minute, while the AR-15 can only fire about 90 rounds a minute in the hands of an average experienced shooter with 3 loaded 30-round magazines. Obviously 600 rounds a minute in a crowded ‟soft target” situation could do unimaginable carnage before the barrel of a machine gun overheats or the ammo runs out. It is unimaginable because it has never happened. Not in America. The ‟right” to keep and bear machine guns has been effectively infringed by the government, as it should be. Is a fire rate of only 90 rounds a minute so much more acceptable? Isn’t Congress an eensy-teensy bit allowed to infringe the rights of some gun owners sometime? I would love to be able to ‟plink” with an M79 grenade launcher and I really enjoyed learning how to fire a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher with a High-Explosive Anti-Tank rocket at an old tank hulk back in basic training or A.I.T.  Weapons of war can be fun, but, alas, my right to keep and own such toys have been infringed by Congress, and I can’t play soldier in my back yard.

This notion that gun-owners’ rights are absolutely not infringable is a very new thing. It has nothing to do with the history of firearms in this country, nor is it something that was ever conceived by the authors of the second amendment. It did not come about until hardcore reactionary nuts like Wayne LaPierre and Newt Gingrich got their grips on the country’s conservative politics. This is nothing but libertarianism taken to its most absurd limits, and it is not a perspective that was shared by any of our country’s founders. It is certainly correct to say that the second amendment was designed to protect individual communities and states from despotic leaders. Remember that tories and British troops quartered themselves on American colonists’ farms and in their houses and seized their firearms and their provisions. The second amendment assured citizens of the young new nation that they could keep their muskets. It was never intended to mean that any citizen of any sort in any instance could wield the power to murder dozens of other citizens in a moment. This is a perversion of our nation’s sacred Bill of Rights by fanatics, and it must end now.

To my libertarian, freedom-loving, unlimited-gun-rights-advocating friends, I beg you to invoke your better sense and drop this idiotic facade of unrestrained firearms rights being somehow woven into our historic fabric as a free people. That is bullshit and you need to stop consuming it. It is killing our children and grandchildren, and it is destroying our country. The terrorism of mass murder continually moves us closer to, not further from, authoritarian rule and the loss of more personal freedoms. Your AR-15s are much more likely to be seized with each new homicidal horror, and it won’t be by snowflake liberals. It will be by your neighbors when they are sick to death of this idiocy, or by some ‟law-and-order” autocrat who can’t tolerate dissent or resistance by mere citizens. Please support strong, appropriate gun laws everywhere before we no longer have any liberty left to protect.

 

 

Monumental Decisions

 

Some Timely Thoughts for August 18, 2017

In 1996, I was asked to participate in a panel of scholars and prominent citizens in an open forum as the Commonwealth of Virginia struggled to decide whether the time had come to ditch its official state song, a slightly modernized version of Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, composed by African American songsmith, James Bland in 1878. Many found the song to be offensive due to its romanticization of slavery and its lyrics that used minstrel-like parodies of of African American speech. On the other hand, it was at that time the only state song in the country that had been written by an African American. My advice at the time was that a work of art that offends a substantial portion of the population should be somehow honored for what it is, but demoted from its public pedestal. It could not properly represent all the people of Virginia. Virginia decided to designate the song as “state song emeritus,” retired it, and went on to seek a new state song more suitable to Virginia at the turn of a new millennium.

One and a half centuries after the end of the Civil War, much of the South—the former Confederacy—struggles to decide what to do with symbols that trouble many citizens. One of these is the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. This so-called “Confederate Flag” was never used as an official flag of the Confederacy, but it has nonetheless come to be viewed as symbolic of the South as a distinct “nation” within the larger United States rather than as a bottle flag of an Army that raised arms against the United States.

Similar symbols of the South are the numerous statues of leading generals and statesmen of the Confederate States of America that are found throughout the South. Like the old battle flag, they too have become bones of contention between folks who find them to be offensive reminders of a not-so-grand historic era of White supremacy, slavery and racism versus those for whom they are romantic and honorable memorabilia of a time and culture that formed the South into a distinctive cultural region of the nation.

Today the South deals with this question: Is it time to “retire” the monuments and symbols of the Confederacy? Nowhere is this question more important than here in Richmond, Virginia, the former Confederate capital, and no other display of public art and artifact in Richmond can begin to compete with the grandeur, beauty and intensity of feelings generated by Monument Avenue. Depending on who you are and what you know about the grand avenue and its monuments, you may view them as commemoratives to honor Confederate leaders, especially military leaders, or you may view them as disgusting and reprehensible reminders of the evils of racism. Perhaps you have never really thought about them in depth and they are simply the decorative artifacts of Richmond’s grandest public avenue.

It helps to understand what they were built for, and at this point I believe most knowledgable scholars would argue that they are clearly the product of the so-called “Lost Cause,” a massive cultural mythos evolved in the hope to have the South “rise again” after the period of Union occupation and Reconstruction. Southerners had it found humiliating and degrading to be forced to permit African Americans to vote, to own property, to get education, and to hold public office. No sooner had the occupation ended than the South immediately launched the oppressive Jim Crow era which aimed to undo the progressive actions of Reconstruction and to institute laws and extra-legal sanctions against African American (and other non-White) citizens. Thus began the long ugly rein of lynch mobs, the Klan, and segregation.

Richmond’s mayor, Levar Stoney has created a commission of scholars and prominent citizens of the city to address the possibility of finding acceptable ways to “contextualize” the monuments on Monument Avenue and, perhaps, elsewhere in the city as well. The mayor’s vision was to seek a solution that would teach the actual history of the monuments, warts and all, without having to take the extraordinary move of decimating an enormously important historic district and its unparalleled artifacts of both the beauty and the beastliness of Gilded-Age Richmond.

I was personally glad to hear about Mayor Stoney’s commission, because as an archaeologist-historian I am a firm believer in preserving our cultural artifacts precisely so that different communities and different eras have their opportunities to appreciate, interpret, loath, and/or love the manifold meanings such artifacts can elicit. I was equally glad to hear that the mayor extended the mission to include gathering public comment and input on the possibility of removing the monuments, especially because he added that he finds them personally offensive. He is African American and does understand what they meant to those who erected them and what they mean to many Richmonders and other Virginians today. Like that old state song, how can a landscape that is so public be permitted to stand when it is offensive to so many citizens.

So to return to my original question: who owns these artifacts of history and culture? Legally they belong to the City of Richmond, I suppose, but I question whether or not the Mayor or City Counsel have the ethical right to remove these monuments without some sort of city-wide, and perhaps even state-wide or nation-wide referendum. At the very least we need a long, ongoing, serious public discussion. As the Mayor’s commission discovered in its first public meeting, this will be a loud, emotional, not always rational discussion. There will be lots of heat before there is any clear light to light the way to a decision that can be broadly supported.

I find the so-called Confederate Flag offensive because it represents institutionalized racism. It always has done and it always will do, ever since it was taken up by the KKK and then again by post-1964 redneck racists opposing integration and civil rights enforcement. My thought about the flag is that if you view it primarily as a romantic icon of the South and Southern culture, then hang it on your living room wall and enjoy it. But keep it out of my face in public places.

I find the question of monuments to be a much thornier thicket, especially the monuments of the Confederacy on Monument Avenue. There is no question that these are major elements of the city’s architecture, landscape and history. They define a major central neighborhood—a neighborhood designated as historic and significant by the national, state and city governments. The monuments have stood for nearly a century and have, therefore, played a very significant role in the spirit and culture of Virginia’s capital. Most Richmonders, I suspect, can barely imagine what a loss they would feel if the city were to have them removed.

Nonetheless, it cannot be denied, that they, like that battle flag, came into being through the post-Reconstruction institutionalization of White supremacy in Virginia. It should not surprise anyone that some of our city’s citizens and visitors who understand that truth find them as offensive as I find the “Confederate” flag to be. Nothing could be more “in your face” than these huge bronzes of generals, an admiral and a president of the rogue nation Confederate States of America parading endlessly down the grandest boulevard in town.

My recommendation to the Mayor and his commission is this. Recent history reminds us pointedly that we have not outgrown the hunger by some to keep alive a state of White supremacy in Virginia and elsewhere in this country. Richmond has been making some very fine progress in conquering that evil in recent years. I am proud of my city, my home and its people for that reason. Let’s not make any rash decisions in the current environment of political rancor, the rise of the “alt-right” and the beyond-the-fringe element of White supremacists currently stirring their long-simmering pot in the Federal government. If the City feels a need to take some action sooner rather than later, then please don’t make it an irreversible one.

Let’s try something like this first. The City could seek help—financial help and planning help—from both the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Park Service which has designated the district as a National Historic Landmark. The effort would be to continue considerably extend the mayor’s original plan of seeking the best practices for contextualizing the monuments. I would personally love to see fairly prominent signage at the major entries to the district on and adjacent to the Avenue. Such signage would state unequivocally that the district began shortly after the Civil War as a search to erect a monument to General Lee upon his death. That initial idea lay mostly dormant until after Reconstruction when it became perhaps the most prominent urban-art expression of The Lost Cause. Further signage at each statue could address both appropriate histories of the persons represented there, but they should also detail the complex meanings of the Lost Cause, the rise of the myth of Southern honor and chivalry as well as the unambiguous effort to subjugate African Americans and codify White supremacy in the South.

Perhaps the messages of such signage could be more extensively interpreted through a Monument Avenue museum: a small but purpose-driven institution perhaps run or advised by the Virginia Historical Society, the Valentine or the City, funded, one would hope by both private benefactors and public governments up to and including the National Park Service or other appropriate Interior Department entity. The mayor’s current commission might best give way to a permanent entity responsible to the city’s public for the ongoing interpretation of Monument Avenue.

This is just one citizen’s ideas, not even fully formed. That said, they are the ideas of someone who devoted most of his adult professional life to discovering, conserving and interpreting the history and culture of Richmond and its surrounding region of Central Virginia. I have probably given as much thought as anybody to the meaning of our material artifacts and how they can be used to help our communities progress towards an ever more enlightened understanding of our shared histories and destinies.

Archaeology of the Rocketts #1 Site

The link, below will take you to the complete Phase III excavation report of from a three-year urban archaeology project in Rocketts, the 18th- and 19th- century port of Richmond, Virginia. For my colleagues and I at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Archaeological Research Center, this was, by far, the largest, most complex, and most satisfying urban excavation we undertook in the 21-year tenure of the Center. Thanks to VDOT archaeologist Mary Ellen Norissey Hodges for providing the .pdf versions of the report.

Rocketts Archaeology (Dan Mouer)