It's a now-classic Hollywood gag. Indiana Jones, searching for love interest Marion in a crowded bazaar, finds himself face to face with a boastful swordsman. The place is crawling with Nazis and treacherous locals, Marion has just been hauled away in a rattan basket, and now there's this black-garbed showoff to deal with.
The conventions of the genre call for flamboyant antics to ensue, but Indy -- whose nickname could be short for "individual" as well as "Indiana" -- doesn't have time for a Zorro act. With a squint of annoyance, he produces a .45 and shoots his challenger dead. Cue surprised laughter.
Morbid as well as funny, the scene tells us much about the allure of the gun, and why it's such a potent symbol of our national ethos.
Like the video camera and the PC, the personal firearm erases obstacles and distinctions. Physical size and strength matter little in the face of a gun barrel; the assassin's skilled swordplay won't fend off a bullet. As the adage says, "God made men, but Colt made them equal."
It also decentralizes fear. While people living in an absolute monarchy or a totalitarian state worry about the whims of their rulers, citizens of an armed democracy have to factor in the general public -- the foil hat next door, the grudge-nursing co-worker, the unknown psycho with his inscrutable mission.
Public violence, of the kind that shocked Tucson this month, often seems driven by familiar American preoccupations, but in an extreme and lethal form. Individualism morphs into narcissistic fantasy, a healthy disdain for authority becomes violent paranoia. Our values go rogue.
The same love of initiative and action which spurs on great entrepreneurs can, under certain conditions, beget killers. The positive side of our ethos fosters innovation -- a better type of search engine, or a phone that lets you take photos and then post them on the web. The pathological side generates body counts. In a competitive, results-oriented society, violence is careerism by other means.
Did Sarah Palin's rhetoric find its way into the stew of obsessions -- from grammar conspiracies to currency to "conscience dreaming" -- that apparently prompted the bloodshed in Tucson? Maybe, though we'd also have to ask if George Lucas and Star Wars bore responsibility for Timothy McVeigh, or if Holden Caulfield murdered Lennon. A surer explanation is that a mind gone off the rails, like Jared Loughner's, will find plenty of nutriment in our cultural narratives.