Connect to share and comment

Opinion: In America, "terror" is more than Al Qaeda

In Wyatt Earp and Geronimo country, it's starting to feel a bit like Pakistan.

Elizabeth Barmanti shoots a toy gun at a target range supplied by the National Rifle Association at the Conservative Political Action Conference during their annual meeting in Washington, Feb. 19, 2010. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

TUCSON, Arizona — You know we’re in trouble when a New York Times headline says, “Obama Team Split on Tactics Against Terror,” and you think that means the health care aftermath.

Democracy worked in Washington, finally. But out here in the bushes where zealots abandon reason and spoil for action, America is starting to feel a little like Pakistan.

In just one small sign of new times, someone smashed the office windows of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. A Democrat, she was guilty of committing democracy.

Later, I dropped by the Arizona Gun Show at the Pima County Fairgrounds, a slightly more genteel version of the open-air arms bazaar near Peshawar.

A pleasant woman named Marilyn Bernstein, who owns six or seven guns, explained her rationale: “Now more than ever with the government we have, I have to protect myself.”

A mere $3,795 buys a Barrett .50-caliber bipod-mounted 5-foot-long sniper rifle that can pierce a tank from a mile away. No license is required.

Bills advancing fast in the state legislature would abolish permits even for concealed weapons and shield any guns made in Arizona from any nitpicking federal laws.

The right to bear arms runs deep in the American psyche. In Wyatt Earp and Geronimo country, you don’t want to get too prissy about pistols, shotguns or rifles.

But weapons that reduce your average whitetail buck into antler splinters and deer pate? Or those sneaky Derringers so well-suited to blowing off a left toe?

Soon after, Sarah Palin came to town, stumping for John McCain. Her demagogic simplicity drove the crowd wild. Forget the “lame-stream” press, she said. Go with your gut.

Palin did not call for blood. She is probably as careful with her weaponry as, say, Dick Cheney. But her gun imagery and raw appeal to ugly emotions are hair-raising.

When she says her political adversaries are in her “crosshairs” and tells supporters to reload, not retreat, you have to wonder about whoever buys those .50 calibers.

There was no mistaking another New York Times headline: “Militia Plotted to Kill Police, Charges Say: Michigan Group Said to Seek War on U.S.”

The Justice Department said the group of apocalyptic Christian militants was plotting to kill law officers to spark an anti-government uprising. The Times called it “the latest in a recent surge in right-wing militia activity.”

This is a play on the strategy of Latin-American guerrillas I covered in the 1970s: force the police toward harsh repression and recruit among disgruntled loonies.

When you stitch together the fragments — pockets of paranoia and wildly irrational outbursts of vicious, simple-minded rhetoric — deeply troubling pictures emerge.

America has always had small knots of armed crazies in the woods. With hard times and right-wing rabble rousing, today’s batch no longer seems so harmlessly folkloric.