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

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.

I worry more about people like the friend of a friend with whom I just exchanged emails. The guy is brilliant, I was assured, an old soldier turned successful businessman.

He believes his literate and coherently argued discourse to be absolutely flameproof. Proven fact and observable evidence cannot dent his structure of beliefs.

One email likened Democrats to the old Evil Empire. “They” (the “Leftists”) built a Communist tyranny on the backs of “useful idiots” (that would be me) and “then went on to murder something north of 80 million.”

I asked if he equated President Barack Obama to Stalin. He replied, “I think the man has all the makings of a potential despot and a dictator.”

He dismissed “the media” en masse as worse than prostitutes since “they” are hookers who overvalue their worth. And so on. You can guess his view on climate change.

That was when I started to think about Pakistan.

Obviously, serious comparison is silly. As John Kifner wrote in the quarterly, Dispatches, Pakistan is a crime wave with borders. But it did not start out that way.

It began in 1947 as a functioning democracy with Westminster rules, a professional army and an independent judiciary that still manages to weigh in when it matters.

Much of that old order remains. Lunch at the Lahore Gymkhana Club, among a sophisticated set in bespoke suits, decollete and diamonds, shatters the usual stereotypes.

Educated Pakistanis mourn the loss of civil discourse and secular society. Ask any of them about warning signs they see in the United States.

In fact, ask anyone anywhere. Some people do, in fact, hate America. But many more who want badly to admire Americans now worry that we are losing our collective mind.

Each year I return to Tucson for a few months to teach international reporting to smart students who finish high school with little idea of the real world out there.

And now the legislature, like so many others, is slashing education budgets and raising college tuitions. Public discourse is increasingly simplistic and violent.

Last year, a major newspaper reported on a soldier from Phoenix who was so disgusted by what he saw at Guantanamo that he converted to Islam.

That was Le Monde of Paris, one of many papers that still cover crucial world currents we ignore. Its reporter flew to Arizona to break the story under our own noses.

These days, more and more, the word “terror” in a headline might well refer to “us” and much as “them.” It only depends on how you define the term.