Last Sunday I was in the midst of a cross-country drive mostly on U. S. and state highways (just say No to Interstates!) from the Oregon Coast to the middle of New York State. During the week-long trip I spent nights in my tent in town and county parks. Disconnected from the internet and television, and avoiding the radio except for the occasional fiery sermon, I didn’t check the news. My aural diet was comprised of Beethoven symphonies and a vintage audiobook of Madame Bovary (the novel’s chemical-loving pharmacist and would-be agricultural scientist, Monsieur Homais, proves the perfect guide for an automotive tour through the regions of American agribusiness).
I learned of the mass shootings on Sunday night in Douglas, Wyoming when my sister called my cellphone from Seattle as I was settling down for the night on the banks of the North Fork of the Platte River. Knowing I was on my eastward trek, she wanted to make sure that I avoided Dayton. My chances of dying in a car accident were vastly higher than getting gunned down by a psychopath, but that’s the effect of terrorism: given the immediacy and saturating quality of media coverage, one is virtually forced to think that the insanity could have been visited on you or someone you know.
In Douglas the morning after the shootings, the oil and gas workers (mostly immigrants) and truck drivers were eager to down their breakfasts and get on the road. I heard no talk of guns or gun reform or of the sacrosanct second amendment.
Along my route the flags were at half-mast at post offices and rest stops, though the rituals of national mourning didn’t seem to be slowing the consumption of carbs and carbon. This was no time to fast. At the places I stopped at in Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois I didn’t pick up much talk of the mass shootings of August 4th, 2019. From behind the wheel and at gas stations and parks all seemed unchanged in the Gun-Loving Heartland.
When I had driven across a somewhat more northerly route from San Francisco to Ithaca in 1995 I vividly remember having breakfast at a diner in Smith Center, Kansas, a small town not far from what is claimed as the geographic belly button of the contiguous 48 states. Only a couple of months after the Oklahoma City bombing, the men in the adjacent booth extolled the fun and effectiveness of their assault rifles.
In 1989 I’d gone to a family reunion a couple of hundred miles north of Smith Center in the western part of North Dakota. My great grandfather, a Norwegian named John Bang, had been the first elected sheriff of Dunn County, a region edged by the Breaks of the Little Missouri River.
Half a century since he left the county heroic tales were still being told of the feats of the aptly-named sheriff: the felling with his own fists of a traveling boxing champion; his eloquence at Non-Partisan League meetings; his skill with a fiddle and a shooting iron; his pulling the tail off a bull down in the Breaks in the dead of winter; gunfights with bad guys on the run from Depression Era bank jobs. His saddle, with its engraved sheriff stars on either side of the J. B. monogram, had long sat in my father’s study. My father had also inherited John Bang’s Stetson, but had worn it up a mountain in the North Cascades only to have it snatched by the wind from his head and into the void.
One evening during the North Dakota reunion, a second cousin joined us at the old homestead outside of Dunn Center and presented my father with John Bang’s Winchester rifle. It had remained in the county when my grandfather had sold his farm and headed out to the West Coast to work in the Bremerton Naval Shipyard in 1942. “It wouldn’t be right if this gun didn’t pass along to John Bang’s grandson,” said Dale Bang, a struggling rancher who believed that the U. S. government was sponsoring a clandestine program to manipulate the weather and thereby impoverish and then enslave the American farmer. Earlier at the reunion, Dale had showed me his own photos of the sinister balloons and planes that he tracked across the Great Plains.
In the prairie twilight—or so I remember it, as if in a Western—Dale handed my father the rifle of Bang family legend, the rifle that had brought many an outlaw into the Dunn County jail in Manning, North Dakota and then, when necessary, on to federal justice.
The historic markers along U. S. 20—recently designated the Medal of Honor Highway—still pay tribute to heroes who “Won the West,” and their guns, too. Statues have not been toppled, the plaques of Manifest Destiny have not been removed, though in Wyoming, the highway is marked as the Sand Creek Massacre Trail.
Arriving unscathed back in Ithaca (though with two large cracks in the windshield after a biker gang overtook me on a gravelly stretch in view of Tetons) a couple of days ago I got on-line and read about the latest massacres and their reception. What caught my eye—and Beethoven-soaked ear—was the widely-reported marketing of the Dayton assault rifle built by Anderson Manufacturing in Hebron, Kentucky. The family-owned company’s June 26th video praising the weapons as an “orchestra of metal and hellfire” had already been pulled from its Facebook page.
Such aestheticized diction shocked. Music and the other arts should not be poisoned by association with crazed, violent acts.
Yet Beethoven himself was a master of military music, not just in his hugely popular Wellington’s Victory but in his symphonies, too—from funeral marches, to swashbuckling heroism, to the mimicking of fearsome janissary bands.
For centuries, European monarchs dedicated themselves with equal zeal to war, hunting, and music. They built up their orchestras at the same time and according to the same principles with which they organized their standing armies. The sounds of battle were imitated by singers and instrumentalists for the amusement of princes and their courtiers in concert halls and on opera stages. War itself was aestheticized not just in music but in paintings and architecturally in memorial monuments. Even the sacred works of Bach and Handel could evoke the blood-curdling rattle of sabers and the military destruction of enemies.
With terrible exceptions such as Dunblane, Oslo, and Christchurch, solitary gunman mass shootings are an American phenomenon. The number of annual gun homicides in Japan of any kind can be counted on one hand.
But the history and culture of guns and killing, of war and violence, can be seen and heard everywhere.