Arthur, Mr. Wells, and the Frontier Mentality

America, historians tell us, has been largely shaped by its frontier. Of all the types of frontier life, none has received more popular attention than the Wild West, and perhaps the best-known and most enduring example of Wild West life is the gunman-to-gunman shootout.

The scenario is familiar to all: There is a good guy and a bad guy (white hat and black hat – no doubt as to their identities). They face one another (shooting in the back violates the Code). The bad guy reaches for his gun (he’s the aggressor). However, the good guy is faster on the draw, and so despite the bad guy’s initial advantage, the good guy shoots first and usually shoots the bad guy dead.

This is the Frontier Mentality. It has several implications: There are good people, acting righteously, and there are bad people, who act for evil purposes, and there is no doubt which is which. Good people have a built-in natural advantage that enables them to overcome bad people, given a fair chance. Therefore social problems are to be solved by the good people exercising their talent for force and violence against the bad. In other words, we need only make sure that the white hats have shooting-irons and are able to use them. This point of view emphasizes personal responsibility – good or bad outcomes rest on the actions of the individual.

In addition, the Frontier Mentality ignores causes and distinctions (other than the simplistic distinction between the good and the bad, of course). It assumes that the righteous are always mighty, and will always win out in a contest of force and violence (not quite the same as the doctrine of Might is Right, though it could slide into that.)

The Wild West shootout was replicated in Cleveland’s Inner City some weeks ago when 15-year old Arthur and his companion, displaying a handgun, accosted and threatened Mr. Wells in front of his home. Mr. Wells had his own handgun. He beat Arthur to the draw and shot and killed him.

I thoroughly agree with the majority opinion (alas, not universal) that Mr. Wells was justified in the shooting. If I had been in Mr. Wells’s place, I probably would have done the same.

What I question is the generalization that every righteous citizen should be allowed and even encouraged to carry his or her own firearm for protection -- that a shooting iron should be provided to every white hat.

Is the Frontier Mentality the answer? Or have we seen a particular set of circumstances in which the shootout produced the right winner (although it most certainly did not produce the best result, which would have been the survival of all who were involved). It was happenstance that led to the result; it could have been otherwise. Consider a few What-ifs:

What if Arthur, seeing Mr. Wells draw his gun, had shot first, and had killed Mr. Wells?

What if Arthur had had no intention of shooting, perhaps hadn’t even loaded his gun? (I offer this not as criticism of Mr. Wells, but merely to point out that there are consequences of any shooting, righteous or not.)

And in regard to the Virginia Tech shooting, I offer a couple of What-ifs addressed to the proposition that every student and employee at every university should bear a firearm for protection:

What if everyone had a gun, and some totally innocent but strange-acting student, with a bulge under his (or her) clothing, was shot by a righteous citizen who suspected the student of holding a handgun with bad intent?

What if, after a bout of binge drinking, a group of drunken students staged a shootout and massacred each other? (This possibility has been mentioned by a university official.)

As an answer to the problems posed by the Cleveland shooting, the Frontier Mentality is chancy at best. Any adequate solution has to recognize that the problem is not merely personal – the good individual confronting the bad individual – but societal. The response to the incident was like the lifting of a rock to reveal a nest of vipers (surprising to those outside the Inner City, though all too familiar to residents of the area) – a situation that is shocking, appalling, incredible. disgusting – choose your own adjective.

It is as if the inmates are running the asylum: The criminal is extolled and the would-be victim is condemned. Vigils for Arthur. Vandalizing for Mr. Wells. What we see under the rock has rightly been called a thugocracy.

About this situation, the Frontier Mentality has little to say. The answer lies not in individual responsibility, but in social responsibility; not in decisive application of force but in reflective examination and intelligence. First we need to make distinctions – obviously, between those residents of the Inner City who are law-abiding and those who are affiliated with the thugocracy. We also need to distinguish between excusing the thugocracy and explaining it, finding its causes.

Why is it that so many endorse the cause of criminality? Is it some hideous perversion of the spirit of opposition exemplified by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.? Is it the immediate and long-range effects of poverty and discrimination? Or something else? Or a combination?

The Frontier Mentality, as I mentioned, is of no value in explaining or eradicating thugocracy. Indeed, it may well be a contributing factor. It may be that the emphasis on force and violence, so prevalent in our society, leads some young people to see force as the way to settle their disputes, redress their grievances, and achieve success, legally or otherwise.

It is not the solitary gunman, quick on the trigger, who can solve this problem, but rather the entire community -- political leaders, experts, and committed citizens of all stripes and from every part of the region. We all have a stake in overcoming the thugocracy and in curing the social pathology that underlies it.

For this reason I was surprised and delighted to see Kevin O’Brien, in his Plain Dealer column of May 2, state that the welfare-to-work approach (“demanding that poor moms go to work”) has been a mistake, and has worsened the problems it was meant to resolve. After noting the record of parental neglect and abuse that had made Arthur the hoodlum he was, O’Brien proposed supporting single mothers on condition that they raise their children to be responsible and competent citizens.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at reading this, because I know nothing of what O’Brien has written on this particular subject in the past. But I do know that many writers of his ilk criticized the welfare policies of previous decades, which provided support to poor single mothers without requiring work in return, on the grounds that such policies corroded individual responsibility. We have seen where that viewpoint gets us.

So O’Brien’s proposal, along with the multitude of other outcries, is a call for every viewpoint and every neighborhood, urban and suburban alike, to come together in battling this malignancy.

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Volume 3, Issue 10, Posted 10:21 AM, 05.09.2007