In 1947, the poet W.H. Auden published his epic poem The Age of Anxiety. The poem’s title (far more famous than the poem itself) is often associated with the general unease of the 20th century. Sometimes I wonder if we have moved passed the age of anxiety into the age of hysteria.
I awoke this morning to find two headlines out of Laclede County in my newsfeed. The first, from KY3, declared, “Sheriffs cut price for applying for permits to conceal-and-carry weapons.” The second, via KSPR, said, “Large quantity of cellphones bought raises red flags.”
Considered separately, these are fairly innocuous headlines. However, when one considers, in unison, the content of the articles, something far more sinister emerges.
The KY3 story describes how Laclede County Sheriff Wayne Merritt is lowering the license fee for concealed carry permits. According to the article, Merritt believes that, in the wake of the San Bernadino and Paris attacks, citizens should arm themselves “so they can fight back, and put a bullet in anyone who attacks.” Merritt told KY3, “The government has already said they can’t keep track of all these home-grown terrorists, so we can’t be everywhere at the same time, so people will have to be able to defend themselves.”
Clearly, Sheriff Merritt is concerned about a terrorist attack in Lebanon, Missouri. While this may seem far-fetched, let’s not forget that Lebanon is also the name of a Middle Eastern country. Perhaps the terrorists will become confused and shoot up the wrong place.
Sarcasm aside, Merritt’s fears seem to have been justified this morning, when police were called to the local Walmart because of two men purchasing 60 cellphones. The cause for suspicion, other than watching too many spy movies? According to Merritt, “I’m not going to say just because they’re a different religion or because they’re Muslim. But these people were, they were foreign-speaking. You need to take notice, you need to let us know about it because it doesn’t hurt to check on it. You’re not being racist or anything like that. You’re just protecting yourself.”
“Foreign-speaking” and purchasing cellular communications equipment is eye-brow raising enough to warrant calling the police, apparently. Sheriff Merritt is correct about one thing here: calling the police over such a thing does not, in fact, make you racist – it makes you xenophobic. There is a difference and I’m glad Sheriff Merritt is on-hand to offer an example of the distinction.
Taken together, I think that we should begin to question if Sheriff Merritt is a sane, rational human being. His obsession with foreign (he means Islamic) terrorism, coupled with his call for everyone to arm themselves against it, not only brings into question his objectivity, but also begs the question as to whether or not he is stoking the fires of anti-Islamic hysteria; as a public official people take what Merritt says to have, pardon the pun, merit.
It is worth noting that the “good guy with a gun” scenario has been debunked over and over again as complete nonsense. As someone who has actual law enforcement training (I’m assuming Sheriff Merritt skipped this day in class), I can tell you that the last thing I want in an active-shooter scenario is a bunch of lunatics who think they are well-trained shooting at everything that moves. Not only is this hazardous to one’s health, but it makes it extremely difficult to locate the actual bad guy – good guys with guns look exactly like bad guys with guns. That Sheriff Merritt wants this scenario to play out is nothing more than his cowboy complex getting in the way of his better judgment.
The Sheriff’s fear of foreigners, betrayed by his extremely xenophobic comment, is also completely misplaced. As my friend and colleague Dan Arel has rightly pointed out (in an article that I highly recommend you read), Christian right-wing terrorism is a much more of a threat to public safety in America than any Islamic terrorist. Christian right-wing terrorism is, by the way, the kind of thing that is unwittingly promoted by ultraconservative xenophobes like Sheriff Merritt when they espouse and promote hysteria and fear.