Eight days after the El Paso and Dayton shootings, my girlfriend, Nidhi, and I drove to an Acme to buy ice cream. We arrived around 9:30 PM and shopped with the frenetic manner of people who know the store is about to close. We quickly found the ice cream we wanted and decided to do more shopping with the extra time. I needed cereal and razor blades — in case I was stranded on a dairy farm and didn’t want to look like Tom Hanks in Castaway — and she looked for clarified butter because she’s Punjabi. She puts it on bread, she puts it in her hair — it’s a thing.
As we turned an aisle, she snapped her head toward me. She looked suddenly tense, almost fearful.
“Look!” she said in a hushed voice.
I looked, and I saw a man with a holstered gun.
“Do you think he’s a security guard?” Her question brimmed with hope.
“I doubt it,” I said. The man was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and a baseball cap.
“Is he maybe an off duty police officer?”
“Maybe,” I said. I didn’t want her to worry, but I doubted that too.
The man didn’t bother me, but I became curious about him. I hadn’t seen many people carrying a holstered gun who weren’t police or security guards, and I never saw someone carrying while getting groceries at Acme. It certainly isn’t in the commercials starring Patricia Heaton from Everybody Loves Raymond.
We continued to shop as I tried to answer Nidhi’s questions. She asked if it’s legal to carry the way he had. I told her that he’d need a license to carry concealed, but I didn’t know if it applied to carrying one on his hip out in the open.
She was scared by the gun, and being from India I could understand it. She wasn’t used to guns while I had grown up in a gun culture. As an Indian woman, she had become used to other things, like men leering at her and copping cheap feels on a crowded train. Some of the stories she told me make me boil with rage. I’m not used to it, and I hope I never am. They horrify me as much as seeing a gun in public horrified her.
It was time to check out, and we ended up behind the man with the gun. I could see that he was wearing a baseball cap with an American flag patch on the back along with the stitched name of a gun manufacturer. I guessed that the man was carrying a gun openly to make a statement about the recent shootings, to tell anyone who cared to look that there was no way anyone was going to take his gun from him.
We pulled out of the parking lot, and Nidhi’s mind was on overdrive. She had a million questions about American gun laws, and I answered them to the best of my ability. She wanted to know why I didn’t seem freaked out. I told her that I am used to guns, that I used to own guns (I had told her that previously), and that many of the people I know own guns. She asked why. I said because we like to go shooting at the range. She asked me if this is the kind of world I want to live in, of going to an Acme and seeing guns on everyone’s hips like in the Wild West. I didn’t have to think long to answer the question. I don’t want a world like that, and I don’t want my son to grow up in a world like that.
We arrived at my apartment, and as I held the door for her, I saw a man approach the building. “Oh my God, it’s him,” she said, tugging on my arm. I looked and saw that the man in the Acme was walking to our building.
“Quick! Quick!” she whispered in my ear. She ran to the inner door, and I walked toward her, fumbling with my keys. I unlocked it, and she ran to the elevator. I stopped and turned back to look at him, but it was dark, and I couldn’t see his face as he was still outside the building.
“Come on!” she said.
I approached her as she kept hitting the elevator button. It was all very Friday, the 13th. The doors opened, and she stepped in and starting hitting the button to our floor.
“Would you relax,” I said, although I was a bit freaked out that the guy we had been talking about lived in my building. I worried that he had overheard what we said.
I was about to step into the elevator when the main door opened, and the man stepped in.
“Oh, hey,” I said.
“Hey, how’s it going?” he replied.
“OK. Coming to the elevator?” I held the door. The gun on his hip faced me.
“No, taking the stairs.”
“All right. Have a good one.”
I walked into the elevator, and Nidhi looked at me as if she had watched me eat my own head.
“What?” I said.
“What do you mean, ‘what?’”
“I know him. He’s a good dude.”
“You’re friends with him?”
“No, but I pass him in the stairwell. He seems friendly.”
Safely within my apartment, Nidhi told me she no longer felt safe in my apartment. I tried to explain that, statistically, there were probably other people in my building who owned guns. That didn’t help.
As I lay in bed that night, I thought of my neighbor and I thought of the Acme. It was a short bridge to thinking about Wile E Coyote. Acme is where he bought all his stuff, including guns.
So who, if anyone, is Wile E Coyote in this tale? I wondered this as I drifted off to sleep. When I sat down to write the next day, my first thought was that Nidhi was Wile E Coyote. She is quite wily, and she was also very unhappy about what had happened. Then I wondered if I might be Wile E before remembering I am the Miller Lite of wily.
To answer the question, I started thinking about the real Wile E Coyote — you know, the cartoon. He is painted as the villain in a series of Warner Brothers cartoons who is obsessed with hunting, killing, and eating the protagonist, The Roadrunner, for whom we’re supposed to cheer, even though Roadrunner lacks depth and is kind of a dick as he smugly helps Wile E torture himself with his clownishly self-destructive machinations. Still, what is the dominant attribute of Wile E that explains his behavior? That’s simple: Wile E Coyote is starving. He is emaciated, and will occasionally pull on his skin to show his rib cage and other bones. That’s why he uses dynamite. That’s why he buys tornado pills, and that’s why he buys guns. He buys lots and lots of guns: handguns, shotguns, sniper rifles, harpoon guns, magnetic guns. Acme, of course, representing corporate America, is more than happy to sell him all the devastating weapons he needs.
I suspect the young men who continue to buy guns and kill innocent strangers are also starving. They starve for attention, for meaning, and any kind of path forward.
In Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl’s text has an uplifting tone because he observed these traits in concentration camp survivors, but it can be extended to our seemingly endless supply of American shooters whose lives have been so expertly stripped of meaning that they not only want to kill others but also themselves. Many of these mass shooters are suicides, either directly or indirectly. They chose the wrong path, but maybe to them being on the wrong path was better than being on no path; perhaps it was better than living a life with no direction and no meaning. There is nothing more frightening to people than the idea of chaos, that our world exists without a plan and without order. We see this in the myriad conspiracy theorists who feel more comfortable believing our government orchestrated 9/11 than the reality that it was planned under the noses of our all-powerful surveillance state and executed by a handful of foreigners.
Frankl mentions attitudes, and the shooters have plenty of it. So do other people who falsely call themselves Libertarians. Theirs is an attitude of entitlement, the idea that just because something is legal it should be done without going through any filters of ethics and decency. I’ll give two examples.
I have a friend, who I’ll call Pat, who is a self-proclaimed “big-time Libertarian,” yet who strangely had never heard of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, or Friedrich Hayek. We were at a bar one night when he told me to look down. I looked and he slid a Glock 26 from his pocket (some call it “The” concealed handgun because it’s small and has a lot of stopping power). He then said, “Do you want to see my license to carry?” I nodded, and he gave me a hand-written note that said:
I do what I want
The second example happened at work. I had a co-worker, who I’ll call Frank, who I came to know as a good person. He was a family man, he was a Christian but didn’t shove it down your throat, and he was interested in other cultures, which was good since our team was very diverse. He and I shared a conference room as our workspace, and we had meaningful conversations in between writing computer code. The day after the Parkland shooting, he brought an NRA travel mug to work and displayed it prominently on his desk. The message was clear: he stood united with the NRA and the gun lobby. Later at lunch, he took out his phone and showed me his guns. He called them his “kids.” I don’t know the name of it, but one looked like the assault rifle Rambo carried at the end of First Blood. I looked at the photos with interest, but my overarching thought was “why?”
This is my point about decency versus legality. If you were at a funeral, and the deceased owed you money, would you ask his widow for it while standing in the receiving line at the wake? You’d be legally within your rights to do so. After all, he owed you the money for years. But wouldn’t it violate all decorum? You wouldn’t go to prison, but you’d be a rotten person. Isn’t that worse? (No, prison is much worse, but I hope you see my point.)
Getting back to Wile E Coyote and the question of “why?”
I simplistically thought of Wile E because the drama took place in an Acme. After thinking about it, there are parallels to our stories except an important one: within in the context of the cartoon, I understand why Wile E buys guns. He’s hunting, and if he doesn’t kill the Roadrunner, he will die of starvation. The Roadrunner seems to be the only game on the barren landscape, and the amount of meat the scrawny bird possesses wouldn’t satiate Wile E’s hunger for more than a few hours. And there’s the crux of it: whether or not Wile E eats the Roadrunner, he will eventually starve to death. That is a certainty, which gives it an amount of futility on par with Beckett’s Endgame. The absurdity is multiplied when you consider that most of Wile E’s plans involve setting traps with birdseed. Since Wile E never eats the Roadrunner, although he did catch it once, the result of the whole futile exercise is that Wile E feeds the Roadrunner while he himself starves. Similarly, the shooters feed the gun lobby while they starve, while they die, and while they slaughter innocent people; and as with the cartoon, we the viewing public sit in front of our TVs and watch the mass shootings with feelings of horror, terror, morbid entertainment, and the sense there is nothing we can do to stop the madness.