Who Are Children Shooting With Toy Guns These Days?

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Zombies, Terrorists, and Space Aliens

I remember well going to the rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York City with my six-guns proudly strapped to my hips. I was probably eight or nine years old and those two ivory-handled -- okay, undoubtedly plastic -- revolvers were probably from a Hopalong Cassidy line of toys. That cowboy character was a favorite of mine on TV and, of course, with my friends I regularly played "cowboys and Indians." But far more of my war play -- we're talking the early 1950s -- came out of World War II, my father's war, even though the country was then involved in a bloody stalemate of a conflict in Korea.

Imagine me, an eight or nine-year-old, running through the potato fields behind a friend's house on Long Island. The year is probably 1952. America is enmeshed in its second Asian war of the century, this time against -- to a child -- a horrific but blurry enemy. Fortunately, the fighting that goes on and on in a faraway land called Korea is unimaginably distant from this moment. My friend and I crouch down, furrowed dirt and leafy potato plants as far as the eye can see. The two of us scan the horizon. Somewhere out there the enemy is approaching -- not the one in Korea, but a real enemy, the "Japs" or Nazis ("Japanazis," as World War II comic books sometimes called them) or maybe even those Indians. The choice is ours. No parents nearby to tell us what to do, no teachers to instruct us, and we're armed. I grip a stick. I can feel the curve where it fits into my palm, and what more do I need than a good eye, the ability to make battle sounds -- the sharp rat-a-tat of a machine gun, the budda-budda of ack-ack fire, or the long whistle of incoming artillery? We've been at this for an hour already, beating back attack after attack, then diving for our "foxholes" between the rows of plants. "Watch out!" my friend shouts as loud as he wants, because no one cares that we, and the invisible but palpable enemy, are here at war in these fields. Yes, I notice it now, too: the faint motion of leaves that might pass for the wind. It's them! A banzai charge! We leap up, firing madly, but with deadly accuracy. The enemy begins to fall.

It was all so obvious to us then, millions of kids whose fathers had come home, often grim and silent, from a terrible world war. Films glorifying that war were a commonplace of our lives. The good guys and the bad guys were clear. We could be left to our own devices because who should die and why seemed so obvious, not only to us but to the adults around us. The world of American war was, in fact, already growing increasingly complicated and, more than a decade later, many of us would find ourselves in the streets in opposition to just such a war, but we didn't have to worry about such things then. What, I wonder now, thinking about TomDispatch regular Frida Berrigan's latest essay on her children and our world ("Pow, Pow, Yous Are Dead!"), goes on in the junior version of gun culture these days? What script or scripts are today's children playing off of? How do zombies, terrorists, space aliens, and god knows who or what else sort themselves out at the point of a gun when kids begin to go pow-pow in 2016? What exactly are they powing in a world too strange for words, one armed to the teeth and ready to kill right here at home in ways inconceivable in 1952? In a world littered with dead bodies from Orlando and St. Paul to Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Nice, not to speak of Baghdad, Kabul, Tripoli, and Istanbul, in a world of drone assassinations and god knows what else, what can they possibly be playing?