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Fiddling with Heston while American burns

In the wake of the latest massacre, the talk, as it always does, has turned back to guns. If only we could hear ourselves.

Guns killed the kids, some say: guns that are too plentiful, too available, too unsuitable for anything except killing people.

No, guns don’t kill people, people do, others say.

Neither side needed to say it, just replay it from last time, the same rigmarole by the same people on either side, on the TV programs -- and our national conversation is largely determined by the TV conversation.

Amazingly it always boils down to a debate between the National Rifle Association (some call it the gun lobby, which is almost the same thing) and the rest of the nation about right and wrong, life and death. No one seems to ask who appointed the NRA as proponents of one side of such an important national argument.

The script called for thrust and parry about numbers of guns, waiting periods, so much bore, so many gauge, so many bullets, automatic or semiautomatic, arcane names of models banned and resurrected under new names. No one was talking about reality.

The reality behind the talk is an insanity that has crept up on this nation. The sheer number of guns and the nature of them add up to a surreal culture that inflicts untold pain on society. Worse, our assumptions have been manipulated into accepting the gun lobby’s version of reality as a legitimate ground for debate. We’re talking about evil on a grand scale but we’re talking about it as if it were statistics and the length of gun barrels. In this we pulverize the very language we speak to each other, trying to make the sheer craziness of all those guns sound normal.

The ubiquitous Charlton Heston is not the problem, but he’s a symbol of how askew this reality has become. Heston may be a smart man, but his handlers seemingly were unwilling to trust him with more than one sound bite, program after program, about how the gun laws we have are not enforced. And the TV persons -- who stand in for the rest of us -- let him dictate the boundaries of debate.

When it is not being violent, this is a very polite culture. So the anchors fawned and mentioned the Moses factor, and again reality was blurred as this mediocre old actor donned the mantle of prophet, raised up by us, the mesmerized people, to the status of a national conscience. It was a stark reminder of the famous phrase about the banality of evil.

“Damn you, damn you all to hell,” actor Heston thundered in a very different movie, “Planet of the Apes.” He is saying it still, only in a more deadly language.

Oh, for a real Moses.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999