At the end of John Ford’s classic Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the editor of the local paper decides not to print the truth about who really killed the murderous Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Legends now become facts in America at almost lightning speed. Often when lies are asserted as truth, they become frozen in time. Even the most damning later exposure of their falsity never quite erases their currency. As Jonathan Swift sighed, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.”
After the recent shooting tragedy at the Washington Navy Yard, cable news shows, newspaper reports, and talking heads immediately blasted lax gun laws. The killer, Aaron Alexis, had mowed down 20 innocent people — twelve of them fatally — with yet again the satanic AR-15 semi-automatic “assault” rifle. The mass murdering was supposedly more proof of the lethal pathologies of the National Rifle Association and the evil shooter crowd that prevents good people from enacting proper gun-control laws. Once more an iconic tragedy had the chance — in a way that even the near-simultaneous shooting of 13 in Chicago did not — to energize the nation to do the right thing and ensure that no other such mayhem would follow.
Then the assault weapon vanished into fantasy. Instead, over the course of the week, it was slowly learned that the unhinged Alexis had somehow passed at least two background checks, legally bought a shotgun, modified it, and for 30 minutes shot and reloaded it to slaughter the innocent. Are we to outlaw the owning of shotguns despite background checks and lawful purchases? Vice President Joe Biden, remember, had recently urged Americans to obtain old-fashioned, all-American shotguns for protection rather than dangerous semi-automatic assault rifles. If a shotgun could be used to commit mass murder in the middle of a military installation, how could any gun-control law, short of the confiscation of all guns, ensure that such heinous crimes could not be repeated?
Few seem interested in other, less politically correct, less melodramatic solutions. It was reported that Alexis had been treated for severe bouts of mental illness, yet apparently without endangering his security clearances. Like the deranged Sandy Hook mass murderer, Adam Lanza, Alexis was also pathologically addicted to playing violent video games for hours on end. Further controversy arose over the fact that most military personnel are not allowed to carry weapons at facilities like the Navy Yard.
Unfortunately, few of our elites dared to question the mental-health industry’s approach to treating the unstable, especially its resistance to properly monitoring whether those being treated as outpatients are taking their medications. Few faulted the entertainment industry for the savage genre of the modern video game. Should we also blame the incompetence of the agencies that conducted the background checks? Was the Pentagon to blame for not allowing military personnel and contractors to carry weapons while on their own federal military facilities?
After all, none of those considerations served the larger progressive purpose of restricting gun use and ownership. More likely, these other disturbing truths threatened liberal assumptions about First Amendment rights and freedom of expression. If the white extremist Timothy McVeigh, the iconic anti-government terrorist, long ago showed us how generic right-wing extremism could lead to atrocities such as the Oklahoma bombing, then the African-American, pro-Obama, Buddhist, Thai-speaking Aaron Alexis, who murdered without an AR-15, was hardly useful as an indictment of much of anything deemed Neanderthal.
All this is old hat. We still do not know exactly what happened that night of the tragic fatal confrontation between Travyon Martin and George Zimmerman. But we at least do know that most of the fables initially peddled by the media were demonstrably false — but even now not remembered as demonstrably false. George Zimmerman was not a bigoted “white Hispanic” who used racist language in his 911 call as he deliberately hunted down a black suspect. And he really did suffer visibly bleeding head wounds from a hard blow of some sort from Trayvon Martin. The latter was not a diminutive model student or the vulnerable pre-teen pictured in most media photos. Even photoshopping and doctoring tapes could not create a teachable moment out of such chaos.
No matter; such a moment was created anyway. Without any statistical support, our moral censors still wished to traffic in narratives of white racist vigilantes hunting down innocent African-American male teens. That narrative served as a reminder of why we have a civil-rights movement of the sort championed by the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who fiddle while thousands of minority youths are gunned down each year in our inner cities. In other words, as far as the Zimmerman trial went, the human story of tragedy, misjudgment, accident, reaction, and overreaction simply did not serve the larger liberal effort to address perceived issues of social justice. Tragedy was better served by melodrama, and both Zimmerman and Martin became cutout caricatures rather than tragic individuals.
The same may be unfortunately true of the infamous Matthew Shepard case. The savagely murdered gay youth was probably not, as we were told for years, the victim of the rage of Wyoming redneck homophobes, energized in their hatred by the sexual prejudices of an intolerant culture. The truth was more complicated, though Shepard’s fate just as tragic.
A 13-year-long investigation by a gay writer, who reexamined the Shepard case with the intention of writing a screenplay, instead suggests that it might be more likely that Shepard was cruelly tortured and beaten into a coma by methamphetamine-crazed psychotics, who may on prior occasions have shared their drug use with Shepard and intended to rob him. For all their crude macho talk, the two evil perpetrators may have been bisexual themselves. Shepard’s own homosexuality, in other words, seems to have been incidental to, not the cause of, his lamentable death. If Shepard’s sad fate must be an icon of anything, it more likely serves as a warning that the vicious meth cartels in rural America are out of control, and the addicted can ensnare and murder anyone, including naïve college students. Again, no matter — what was false has served noble purposes in a way that what was true will not.