It's a now-classic Hollywood gag. Indiana Jones, searching for love interest Marion in a crowded bazaar, finds himself face to face with a boastful swordsman. The place is crawling with Nazis and treacherous locals, Marion has just been hauled away in a rattan basket, and now there's this black-garbed showoff to deal with.
The conventions of the genre call for flamboyant antics to ensue, but Indy -- whose nickname could be short for "individual" as well as "Indiana" -- doesn't have time for a Zorro act. With a squint of annoyance, he produces a .45 and shoots his challenger dead. Cue surprised laughter.
Morbid as well as funny, the scene tells us much about the allure of the gun, and why it's such a potent symbol of our national ethos.
Like the video camera and the PC, the personal firearm erases obstacles and distinctions. Physical size and strength matter little in the face of a gun barrel; the assassin's skilled swordplay won't fend off a bullet. As the adage says, "God made men, but Colt made them equal."
It also decentralizes fear. While people living in an absolute monarchy or a totalitarian state worry about the whims of their rulers, citizens of an armed democracy have to factor in the general public -- the foil hat next door, the grudge-nursing co-worker, the unknown psycho with his inscrutable mission.
Public violence, of the kind that shocked Tucson this month, often seems driven by familiar American preoccupations, but in an extreme and lethal form. Individualism morphs into narcissistic fantasy, a healthy disdain for authority becomes violent paranoia. Our values go rogue.
The same love of initiative and action which spurs on great entrepreneurs can, under certain conditions, beget killers. The positive side of our ethos fosters innovation -- a better type of search engine, or a phone that lets you take photos and then post them on the web. The pathological side generates body counts. In a competitive, results-oriented society, violence is careerism by other means.
Did Sarah Palin's rhetoric find its way into the stew of obsessions -- from grammar conspiracies to currency to "conscience dreaming" -- that apparently prompted the bloodshed in Tucson? Maybe, though we'd also have to ask if George Lucas and Star Wars bore responsibility for Timothy McVeigh, or if Holden Caulfield murdered Lennon. A surer explanation is that a mind gone off the rails, like Jared Loughner's, will find plenty of nutriment in our cultural narratives.
Whenever a new shooting makes headlines, I think of Gang Lu, the young Chinese physicist who opened fire on his professors and rivals, including some of the top names in the field.
I used to take classes in Van Allen Hall where most of the carnage had occurred. It was a large, but not particularly distinctive university building, enlivened by some space science displays in the front lobby, and the classrooms were just regular old classrooms, with fraternity names scratched in the desks. You wouldn't think daily life at such a place could be anything but routine.
But in the winter of 1991, Gang Lu decided to get even. "All my life I have been honest and straightforward, and I have most of all detested cunning, fawning sycophants and dishonest bureaucrats who think they are always right in everything," essayist Jo Ann Beard describes him as writing to his sister back in China.
A gun could make things fair again and put everyone -- his rival, the biased professors, the university administration, the bigoted USA -- in place. "Don't be too sad about it," he wrote, "for at least I have found a few traveling companions to accompany me to the grave."
Lu had come to these shores with the expectation that he'd find opportunity, prosperity and happiness. He imagined himself wooing a blue-eyed meiguo nuhai, but ended up as the protagonist in a different kind of American narrative: that of the rabid lone wolf.
It's the dark flip side of our dreams and aspirations, and the two are irrevocably intertwined.