Conceived in a dream of reason, what the Internet too often reveals is mass credulousness and fathomless irrationality. According to Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald, a video depicting the Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre as a government-sponsored hoax has drawn 8.5 million views on YouTube.
No doubt many viewers were drawn by idle curiosity or sheer incredulity. What would "evidence" for so transparently preposterous an allegation consist of? Nevertheless, there appear to be thousands of True Believers.
Try Googling "Emilie Parker alive," to sample the crazy.
Adepts claim that a photograph of a young girl sitting in President Obama's lap reveals that 6-year-old Emilie Parker was not murdered along with 19 classmates at Sandy Hook elementary as reported. Supposedly, the photo reveals a telltale blunder.
In reality, the child in the photograph is Emilie's little sister, Madeline.
But why go on? There's plenty more in the same dogged, delusional vein. To anybody capable of imagining that staging the Sandy Hook tragedy would even be possible — requiring, as it would, the active cooperation of half the population of Connecticut — mere evidence and logic are beside the point.
Maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Apart from religion, more Americans appear to be nuts on the subject of guns than all other topics. The National Rifle Association has raised and spent millions in recent years peddling scare stories about President Obama's secret plan to abolish the Second Amendment, confiscate everybody's deer rifles and set up a gun-free dictatorship.
Newtown conspiracy theories are only incrementally madder spinoffs of the NRA's master narrative. Yet its leaders are treated as VIPs in newsrooms and TV studios. Why?
To Believers, guns have become fetish objects in American popular culture, having magical potency. Witness Bushmaster Firearms' advertising its .223 caliber AR-15 — Newtown killer Adam Lanza's weapon — with the slogan: "Consider your Man Card reissued." Viagra ads are more subtle.
Hence conversations with gun cultists tend to be conducted in the dualistic, all-or-nothing terms of fundamentalist theology. Although polls have shown that large majorities of gun owners favor, for example, improved background checks to make it harder for criminals and severely mentally ill people to acquire deadly weapons, cultists see all such legislation in apocalyptic terms. All regulation amounts to total confiscation.
Hollywood's equally to blame. About half the emails I get on this topic invoke the "Red Dawn" fantasy, although it's not foreign communists people imagine taking to the hills to fight, but tyrannical U.S. government SWAT teams intent upon seizing their personal arsenals and making them eat arugula.
I'm always tempted to warn these jokers that I've forwarded their messages to the Obama White House for inclusion on Big Brother's Hellfire drone strike list, but I'm afraid most wouldn't get the joke. Tanks, helicopter gunships and drones have pretty much put an end to the adolescent fantasy of plucky survivalists taking on the U.S. Marines. Everywhere except in movies and at certain kinds of gun shows, that is.
Then there are the Lethal Weapon/Die Hard revenge comedies I'm partial to myself: the Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis vehicles where a wisecracking hero and his plucky sidekick shoot their way through legions of wicked, heavily-armed villains with universally poor marksmanship.
Let's put it this way: Ever seen a headline like this? "LAPD Detective Kills 17 Gangsters in Nightclub Shootout" (Lethal Weapon) Or this? "Vacationing Cop Foils Xmas Plot; 34 Terrorists Slain." (Die Hard)
Of course not. Because the working part of your brain understands that these films bear approximately the same relationship to reality as a Roadrunner cartoon.
However, deep in many of our lizard brains the Dirty Harry fantasy lurks nevertheless. NRA president Wayne LaPierre invoked it during his notorious Newtown press conference. You know, the bit about a good guy with a gun shooting it out with a bad guy with a gun — inside a first-grade classroom.
That's why the single most useful piece of journalism since Newtown may be Amanda Ripley's "Your Brain in a Shootout: Guns, Fear and Flawed Instincts." Writing for Time, Ripley interviewed highly trained, experienced cops and soldiers who talked to her bluntly about the crazy, jagged chaos of armed combat.
"[R]esearch on actual gunfights, the kind that happen not in a politician's head but in fluorescent-lit stairwells and strip-mall restaurants around America, reveals [that]...Winning a gunfight without shooting innocent people typically requires realistic, expensive training and a special kind of person."
And normally not the kind of person, oddly enough, that makes an excellent kindergarten teacher.