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Tomgram: Frida Berrigan, Guns for Tots

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

I remember well going to the rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York City with my six-guns proudly strapped to my hips. I was probably eight or nine years old and those two ivory-handled -- okay, undoubtedly plastic -- revolvers were probably from a Hopalong Cassidy line of toys. That cowboy character was a favorite of mine on TV and, of course, with my friends I regularly played "cowboys and Indians." But far more of my war play -- we're talking the early 1950s -- came out of World War II, my father's war, even though the country was then involved in a bloody stalemate of a conflict in Korea.

Imagine me, an eight or nine year old, running through the potato fields behind a friend's house on Long Island. The year is probably 1952. America is enmeshed in its second Asian war of the century, this time against -- to a child -- a horrific but blurry enemy. Fortunately, the fighting that goes on and on in a faraway land called Korea is unimaginably distant from this moment. My friend and I crouch down, furrowed dirt and leafy potato plants as far as the eye can see. The two of us scan the horizon. Somewhere out there the enemy is approaching -- not the one in Korea, but a real enemy, the "Japs" or Nazis ("Japanazis," as World War II comic books sometimes called them) or maybe even those Indians. The choice is ours. No parents nearby to tell us what to do, no teachers to instruct us, and we're armed. I grip a stick. I can feel the curve where it fits into my palm, and what more do I need than a good eye, the ability to make battle sounds -- the sharp rat-a-tat of a machine gun, the budda-budda of ack-ack fire, or the long whistle of incoming artillery? We've been at this for an hour already, beating back attack after attack, then diving for our "foxholes" between the rows of plants. "Watch out!" my friend shouts as loud as he wants, because no one cares that we, and the invisible but palpable enemy, are here at war in these fields. Yes, I notice it now, too: the faint motion of leaves that might pass for the wind. It's them! A banzai charge! We leap up, firing madly, but with deadly accuracy. The enemy begins to fall.

It was all so obvious to us then, millions of kids whose fathers had come home, often grim and silent, from a terrible world war. Films glorifying that war were a commonplace of our lives. The good guys and the bad guys were clear. We could be left to our own devices because who should die and why seemed so obvious, not only to us but to the adults around us. The world of American war was, in fact, already growing increasingly complicated and, more than a decade later, many of us would find ourselves in the streets in opposition to just such a war, but we didn't have to worry about such things then. What, I wonder now, thinking about TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan's latest essay on her children and our world, goes on in the junior version of gun culture these days? What script or scripts are today's children playing off of? How do zombies, terrorists, space aliens, and god knows who or what else sort themselves out at the point of a gun when kids begin to go pow-pow in 2016? What exactly are they powing in a world too strange for words, one armed to the teeth and ready to kill right here at home in ways inconceivable in 1952? In a world littered with dead bodies from Orlando and St. Paul to Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Nice, not to speak of Baghdad, Kabul, Tripoli, and Istanbul, in a world of drone assassinations and god knows what else, what can they possibly be playing? Tom

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"Pow, Pow, Yous Are Dead!"
Children, Toy Guns, and the Real Thing
By Frida Berrigan

It was a beautiful evening and the kids -- Madeline, two; Seamus, almost four; and Rosena, nine -- were running across a well-tended town green. Seamus pointed his rainbow flag with the feather handle at his sisters and "pow-powed" them, calling out, "Yous are dead now, guys. I shot yous."

Madeline and Rosena laughed and just kept on running, with Seamus at their heels. I hid my face in my hands. It wasn't just that he was playing guns, but that he was using a Pride flag as his gun at a vigil to mourn those killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. My pacifist husband Patrick ran to redirect their activities, replacing the flag with a ball and glove and beginning a game of catch. Vigil organizers were taking turns reading the names of those killed into a microphone.

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"... Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22
Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
Luis S. Vielma, 22..."

Those three men and 46 others were massacred on June 12th. Another 50 people were wounded. Omar Mateen, who killed them, was armed with a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle and a Glock 17 9mm semi-automatic pistol. He bought those two weapons legally in the days leading up to the attack.

The carnage brought politicians and pundits out in force, using all the usual arguments for and against guns. Because the victims were mostly gay and mostly Latino, and because the attack was carried out by an American citizen with an ethnic last name who may have been enthralled by Islamic terrorism, or a closeted, self-hating homosexual (or both), the commentary quickly became muddled. Was it a hate crime, Islamic terrorism, or a strange double-bonus hit for the haters? Mateen was killed in a shootout with police and so can't speak to his motives. Investigators were left to sift through the material evidence and a dizzying compilation of online comments, Facebook likes, and recollections from old co-workers, family members, and possible lovers in their search for answers.

The most essential facts are, however, not that complicated: Mateen had a license to carry a gun, training as a private security guard, and hatreds to act upon. He armed himself and he killed.

And all over the country, since that fateful day that elicited the usual cries of "never again," the killing continues: Alton Sterling and Philando Castille by the police; Dallas Area Rapid Transit Police Officer Brent Thompson and four Dallas Police officers, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, and Patrick Zamarripa, by a lone sniper, Micah Johnson, who himself was then killed by an armed police robot; three more police officers in Baton Rouge on July 17th.

"... Montrell Jackson, 32
Matthew Gerald, 41
Brad Garafola, 45..."

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And the killing continues. Using the Gun Violence Archive, I counted another 306 deaths by guns throughout the United States in the first eight days of July alone. Most of them weren't high-profile police shootings or mass tragedies, but in a small-scale and localized way, the grief and outrage of Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas were replicated in every corner of this country, including Ticfaw, Louisiana; Woodland, California; Tabernacle, New Jersey; and Harvey, Illinois. More than 300 deaths by gun in just eight days.

"Stabbin' My Bunny": Teaching Kids About Guns and Violence

And then, of course, there were my kids, my husband, and those "guns." As a boy, Patrick wasn't allowed to play with toy guns. Instead, he, his parents, and their friends would go to the mall during the Christmas buying spree to put "Stop War Toys" stickers on Rambo and G.I. Joe action figures. When he went to his friends' houses, he had to tell them that war toys were verboten.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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