In doing a little research for my book, I ran across a 2002 article that seems to be a justification for the American response to September 11th, basically the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Bruce Thornton wrote:
“The constant theme of the cowboy myth is that idealism is dangerous, for force is always the tragic choice necessary for destroying evil and protecting civilization. Nor is this choice simple: in the best movie westerns, the cowboy understands that his willingness to use force to protect civilized innocence is itself uncivilized and creates a moral burden, which he must accept and bear. As Alan Ladd says in Shane, ‘There's no living with a killing.’”
Basically, Thornton believes that some people are just evil (the reasons do not matter) and that such people cannot be talked down or reasoned with. In such cases, you just have to shoot them in order to prevent them from harming others. He then believes that the defining characteristic of a cowboy (or cowgirl) is a willingness to do violence in order to prevent violence and to bear that burden for society.
I have often wondered about this. The idealist in me would like to say I would never kill anyone, but I’m really not so sure. If the choice was as simple as my life for his or her life, I generally believe I would be ready to go, but it’s rarely that simple. Someone who is willing to use violence, to commit murder once, is likely to do so again. The world is full of serial killers, thugs, and soldiers so desensitized to violence they can’t even see another way. I have to wonder, if I knew this to be the case, would I let him or her live?
Would I let myself die and let them walk away to kill again? Yet if I am willing to use violence, to commit murder, then does not the same logic apply? Is it better for me to knowingly bear the negative karma for violence than to allow someone else to do so? Is pacifism an all or nothing bargain? Or can I just shoot to wound and hope they don’t bleed to death as a result? If we were all pacifists, would the thugs take over the world? Would it be China in Tibet? The Soviet Union in Eastern Europe all over again? Darfur? The Taliban in Afghanistan? Why is it that when we had a cowboy (Reagan, not W.) in the White House, nobody messed with us? Luck?
Thornton believes that the big stick and our willingness to use it is what keeps America safe. He believes it brought down the Soviet Union. I tend to believe the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of seventy-two years of a corrupt system which crippled their economy and destroyed their resource base to a point their expansionist wars could not longer compensate for, but, hey, what do I know?
He also believes some people are just downright evil and that you can’t negotiate with evil. This reminds me a lot of the Christian idea of original sin – that all people are basically sinners, if not outright evil, then at least prone to evil, and it is only through the Grace of God that they can be redeemed. Is the belief that humans are basically bad a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or does it even matter? Even if I know humans are basically good, that doesn’t stop them from doing evil things. Being basically good didn’t stop Hitler or Stalin or Bundy. Sometimes being basically good doesn’t seem to make a dent in our suffering or the suffering we cause each other.
Other times it seems like being basically good is the only thing that makes a dent. It is that very goodness, that buddhanature, that allows us to win free from our suffering and in so doing relieve the suffering of others. Thornton talks a lot about the “modern” idea of diplomacy: “Our modern tinhorns and tenderfeet, those intellectual deconstructors of every mythology save their own, scorn the cowboy as simplistic. His ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are old-fashioned concepts modern psychological science has shown to be no more real than fairy tales.” He doesn’t seem to notice that pacifism has appeared in the historical record as early as 600 BCE, and forgets entirely the Jesus of Nazareth was commonly held to be a pacifist some 2,000 years ago. Was Jesus a tenderfoot?
I still do not have all the answers to all my questions, not that I am surprised. However, willingness to use violence is not the defining characteristic of a cowboy. It may be the defining characteristic of a movie cowboy, but most of those movies were probably written by tinhorns anyway. I’ll give its due to the romantic, mythologized versions produced for mass consumption, but I’ll not use them as a model for the behavior of real people.
There is so much more to being a cowboy or cowgirl than John Wayne or Clint Eastwood could ever teach us.