Letters at 3AM

Black Helicopters

Since Timothy McVeigh's arrest as the prime suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing, journalists can't agree on how many states have "patriot militias" (the figures run from 30 to 50), nor on how many people are in those militias (some say 15,000; some 100,000). But most reports and interviews mention "black helicopters" - a belief among the militias that sinister machines, manned by U.N. troops, patrol the vastness of the American West by night. That's easy to laugh at. Even if you think, as militia-people seem to, that a New World Order plans the military takeover of America, helicopter surveillance still doesn't compute. America is huge, and it would be more secretive and more efficient for the U.N., or anybody, to monitor us by satellite than by helicopter. (I imagine infrared cameras could be quite effective at night on the Montana plains or the Nevada deserts - states in which these militias seem especially strong.) And in the dark, does a helicopter's color make much difference? Far from the glow of a big city, at night most helicopters look black. With the "black helicopter" image, then, you're in the realm not of theory but of nightmare. Which is, in turn, the realm of metaphor.

For while the theories of the militia-people don't make much sense, their metaphors do. Analyze their metaphors as some might a dream, and America turns its new face toward you.

The "black helicopter" is a metaphor of a technologically haunted land where no place is isolated enough to escape the sense that something darker than night is coming out of the air, something deadly, piloted by an alien presence speaking an unintelligible tongue. The metaphor says that the land is no longer ours and that some unnamed and unnameable force threatens the safety of the smallest town.

In a general way, this is something many feel: scientists studying how human beings have damaged nature, culture-trackers disturbed by the erosion of standards, ghetto activists unable to stop the flow of drugs and guns, workers watching jobs disappear, and all who are frightened by the hate and fear that is making our neighbors hateful and fearsome in our own eyes. Militia-people express our shared dread as something they can shoot at: black helicopters. It is no wonder they reject any suggestion that what's really going on can't be fought so easily. The nightmare they've invented is so much more manageable than the nightmare they're actually in - the nightmare they share with us.

Not many are willing to give up the manageable for the unfathomable. (And blaming the hate-prattlers and fear-mongers for an America that was deeply troubled before the prattling and mongering began, is just another retreat into a manageable illusion.)

It is also no wonder that, since Oklahoma City, the militia-people's favorite theory or metaphor is that the federal government itself was responsible for the explosion - that the Feds sacrificed those bureaucrats and children to start a backlash against the militias. Timothy McVeigh is a reflection of themselves, and people generally go to great lengths to not face themselves. The uneducated and desperate do it one way, the educated and equally desperate do it another, but the result is the same: Fear feeds fantasy, and fantasy, in turn, feeds fear, 'til who we really are gets twisted in a maze of distorted mirrors - reflections in which hope is lost along with reality.

It's no good saying that hope and illusion cancel each other, not to people whose illusions are their hope.

Some of the militia's fantasies are marvelous inventions, in their way. They say that 15,000 Gurkha troops from India are hiding in the hills of Michigan, waiting for our government to signal a New World Order takeover. Presumably, they will reinforce the division of Russians believed to be burrowed in the salt mines beneath Detroit. These Gurkhas and Russians will work in concert with special National Guard units. (How Gurkhas, Russians, and Americans, will speak to each other isn't part of the metaphor.)

But even that wacky vision describes an America that has absorbed cultures as different as India and Russia to such an extent, and at such a depth (salt mines!), that they are joining with homegrown changes (symbolized by the National Guard) to overwhelm what used to be called "the American way of life." As an analysis, this is not far wrong. (Whether you approve of cultural blending, as I do, is another issue.) Again, the militia-people have turned a complex historical moment into a metaphor that allows them the fantasy that grabbing a gun might do some good.

Which is why they are incensed by any effort to restrict the use of guns, the issue that's their rallying cry. Stripping them of guns strips them of their metaphors, of how they make sense of the world. Without their guns they would feel helpless even before their own metaphors; and that is as good a prescription for insanity as can be found. This is the heart of the gun-control controversy. They've nurtured these metaphors because, within this metaphoric realm, guns give them power. Take away their guns, and their own metaphors will eat them alive from within.

Sometimes their metaphors are disturbingly close to real. They believe that dollar bills of all denominations are imprinted with bar codes so that secret agents can drive by one's home and, with secret scanners, count one's money. In an age of centralized bank computers, credit cards, and TRWs, scanners are hardly necessary. Business, government, and computer hackers, can approximate with ease how much money any of us has on any given day. Again, the metaphor of actual secret agents in actual (black?) vans with actual secret scanners, makes this a situation one can shoot at. Almost all their metaphors come back to a sense of power that can be held in the hand: a gun. But it's also true that almost all their metaphors are descriptions, in crude terms, of a reality that many of us would recognize.

Especially if you read a New York Times "Op-Ed" piece on May 3rd, by Simon Garfinkle, titled `The Road Watches You": "Highway authorities throughout the country are building futuristic `smart-road' systems designed to unclog traffic and improve driver safety." Garfinkle, a respected expert, warns of Orwellian dangers, saying this technology is "just the beginning of a nationwide plan called Intelligent Transportation Systems.... It offers unprecedented opportunities to monitor the movements of drivers. It would create a bank of personal information that the Government and private industry might have difficulty resisting."

That isn't a metaphor. It's what's happening to privacy. The fears of the militias aren't groundless, but their fantasies are too simple for the complexity they're attempting to confront.

They have another fantasy that I wish were more far-fetched: that concentration camps are being built to corral dissidents. It has happened here. During the Red Scare, the late and "liberal" Senator Hubert Humphrey (later our country's vice president, and the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968) sponsored a bill to build internment camps for American "reds." The bill passed. Five camps were built. They weren't used but they were ready for use. To assume this couldn't happen again would itself be a fantasy.

So it's not surprising that, since Oklahoma City, militia enrollment has increased, by some reports, as much as 25 percent. Or that my sister heard a very normal-looking old woman at the Los Angeles airport say to two equally normal-looking men, "The revolution has started." One can describe some kinds of social upheaval as: people taking their metaphors concretely and acting as though they were real. When, however crudely, their metaphors describe a reality, life can get dangerous indeed. For it's hard to convince people they're wrong when, at some level, their wackiness strikes a true chord. Hard to tell people they're crazy when their metaphors resonate, however discordantly, with what we experience every day.

Timothy McVeigh insists he's "a prisoner of war," and he is: a prisoner of the war within himself, and a prisoner of his warring metaphors. McVeigh is said to have told friends that the army inserted a computer chip in his buttocks to monitor his movements. For a man whom no one can remember having a girlfriend, that is a pretty telling fantasy. He also wrote, in a letter to a newspaper: "The American Dream of the middle class has all but disappeared, substituted with people struggling just to buy next week's groceries." That is the truth. Something he is also a prisoner of.

If guilty, McVeigh is as crazed and cowardly as any Irish or Arab or 1940s-Zionist terrorist. But that doesn't lessen the truth that when mad and half-mad metaphors describe (even crudely) a commonly perceived reality, then reality itself has gone mad, and not just buildings but whole societies explode. n

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