What is it about this country and guns and violence?
The Westerns I watched as a kid (John Wayne in particular) had guns in them, of course. Colt pistols, Winchester rifles, an occasional shotgun. And there was no shortage of violence.
But nowadays shows/movies feature much more gunplay with military-grade weapons and armor. The Western isn’t in vogue today. It’s military dramas instead. America’s overseas wars have come home for real on our streets and in mass shootings, but they’ve also come home on our screens, where SEALs are the new heroes.
A short series I recently watched, The Terminal List, features a Navy SEAL who must “go to war” domestically because he’s been betrayed by the U.S. government, which even kills his wife and daughter. Action scenes feature sniper rifles, assault rifles, grenades, explosions, and torture (one man is hung by his own intestines).
Torture and war, common to America’s war on terror, are now here to terrorize us, on our screens but also increasingly on our streets. Strangely, I don’t hear anyone complaining about violence on TV, as people did in the 1980s. It’s now acceptable, par for the course. We are inured to it. Worse: we desire it, or at least some of us do, judging by the success of The Terminal List and similar shows.
The theme is “trust no one” and exact your revenge in the most violent way possible. The SEAL in Terminal List keeps his own kill list: echoes of Barack Obama and his presidential kill list. But a democracy saturated in militarized violence can’t possibly survive as a democracy.
Interestingly, today it’s the MAGA Right that distrusts government with a passion. Fifty years ago, with the Vietnam War running down and Watergate winding up, it was the Left that distrusted government.
One of my favorite movies from the 1970s is Three Days of the Condor, which can profitably be compared to The Terminal List. The hero in the first movie is a bookish guy who’s betrayed by the CIA. The hero in this year’s Terminal List is a Navy SEAL and a violent man of action. In Condor, Robert Redford’s character outthinks his opponents and goes to the New York Times with proof of governmental corruption. The Navy SEAL simply kills all his enemies, or they kill themselves when faced with his demands for retribution, with an impressive range of deadly weapons. (Of course, such violent fantasies of hard men meting out murderous justice are hardly new; think of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo or various Chuck Norris vehicles.)
The Terminal List is truly a series for our times. It’s slickly done, and Chris Pratt is good in it. What it reveals is the profound skepticism so many Americans have in their government and in corporations — and rightly so.
The problem is elevating a Navy SEAL as the principled hero. SEALs make good warriors but are they what America wants for vigilante justice? In real life, SEALs can be loose cannons, as recent events show.
For me, real heroes are not often chiseled men of action like Chris Pratt’s Navy SEAL, with all his guns and violence. Or for that matter Rambo. Think instead of Chelsea Manning, Daniel Hale, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange. They may lack bulging biceps and impressive arsenals, yet Manning and Hale went to prison to reveal war crimes, Snowden is in exile for taking on the government and telling us the truth about wars and our surveillance state, and Assange is being tortured in prison for practicing oppositional journalism, otherwise known as real reporting.
Heroes in life come in all shapes and sizes; a Navy SEAL may be among the least likely of shapes and sizes we’ll see. They often do their best work without guns and grenades and without lengthy kill lists and torture routines. Their strength is measured by their principles, not by their pecs.
I think even John Wayne might agree with me here.