Americans may have a love affair with guns, but we are surprisingly squeamish about the sight of them in public. When a group of gun lovers wore their pieces openly in a Virginia restaurant last month, police were summoned. Surely it must be illegal. But it wasn't. The impulse to arrest them, even if contrary to state law, says a lot about our basic feelings toward such things. Guns, in public, make us uncomfortable.
Especially big ones. People with ominous-looking, large guns flashed back into American consciousness this week. On the streets of New York, dark-clad police with serious firepower patrolled outside the city's financial landmarks. The same could be seen in Washington. And with the Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr declaring an end to a shaky truce with U.S. forces, the young men of his Mahdi Army were out in force, assault rifles at the ready.
Newspaper images of these two unrelated events combined to make the world feel yet more gun-saturated. Knowing intellectually that the world is filled with guns is one thing. Experiencing it as a fact of daily life is another. Americans who travel abroad know the disconcerting frisson of arrival in a foreign land where uniformed teenagers with automatic weapons patrol airports and train stations. America, the quintessential "gun culture," takes for granted a symbolic low visibility of its military on the home front.
That wasn't possible this week, and the images that emerged both here and in Iraq underscored that the gun, in the public consciousness, is an uneasy object, both a tool and a weapon. Images of American police and military with guns emphasized the gun as tool. On Tuesday, in newspapers, including this one, heavily armed Metro Transit Police were pictured patrolling a Metro train. The submachine guns were held, barrels pointed down, by men laden with gear and communications equipment.
It was a striking image because it captured the transformative power of the terror alert. The train car becomes an armed space, its passengers look about nervously, seemingly subordinate to armed power, and even the police, simply doing their duty, are transformed by the bulk of the equipment they carry. The accouterments of war -- the body armor, the communications equipment and especially the gun -- square off the body, make it top-heavy, alter its basic lines and shape it into something we recognize instantly, not from our daily reality but from the virtual reality of video games.
The gun in Iraq, as it appeared in newspaper images yesterday, is presented as a weapon, an unpredictable and menacing object. It isn't cradled but brandished, held at all angles, up, down, diagonally in the air. The gun is also part of a transformation of the insurgent's body. Unlike the squared-off, mechanical figure of the professional soldier or police officer, the insurgent's body is in motion, and expresses emotion. He exults and clamors, threatens and celebrates.
Looking at these images side by side -- guns in America, guns in Iraq -- feels a bit like reading a Kipling poem. The wider world is vast and dangerous and filled with a bustling and bristling exotica. But America is on patrol in the world, keeping its dangers at bay, preserving an island of civilization in a sea of chaos.
This kind of poetic conceit and irrational connection is precisely the danger of a casual, side-by-side reading of these images. The al Qaeda threat against American financial institutions -- if it's real and if it is, in fact, a new and specific threat -- isn't part of the war in Iraq. But the gun is such a powerful image, so disturbing in its impact, that it can link things in the public consciousness that are unrelated.
The gun in Iraq suggests chaos and instability. The gun on the streets of American cities suggests vulnerability and a calm, professional response. Taken together they suggest a generalized sense of our relation to the world: Chaos out there means vigilance here. It is an accidental visual argument for connecting the war in Iraq to the war on terror.
Or perhaps it is not so accidental. If we are to live for the foreseeable future with big guns as part of our basic iconography, we must grow more comfortable with them in public spaces. The gun can't remain a discomfiting object at the same time that political leaders use them as part of their display of vigilance every time the terror level ticks up. We need a new image of ourselves, as Americans, that incorporates and increases the comfort level with the big gun as public tool.
A cover image from the April 12-19 issue of the conservative publication the Weekly Standard shows the outlines of this self-conception. An American soldier, on patrol in some unnamed Islamic country (the warped image of a mosque with minaret can be seen, as if through a wide-angle lens, in the background), carries a high-tech, M-16 carbine, with his trigger finger at the ready. He also has a mouthpiece for communication and oversize goggles pushed up prominently on his helmet. The world seems to trail in his wake. But the most telling thing about the image, with its suggestion of nervous vigilance, is the eyes: Squinting with determination, they look off to the side, toward unseen danger.
Drawings emphasize things that photographers can capture only with luck and persistence. And this drawing captures a set of values: determination, wariness, suspicion. The world is being scanned for signs of danger. The face is emotionally blank.
The headline, on this cover, is telling: "One War," with a subhead that argues Iraq is not a diversion from the war on terror. Another headline might be, "He Is Us." One could see that same look -- nervous, suspicious, alert -- in the eyes of train passengers in the photo of Metro police Tuesday. The soldier isn't just patrolling the world. He is offered as a model for how we should view our lives on the home front.