Editor’s Note: this essay was selected to appear in Pushcart Prize XLVI (2022 edition)

The children are always ours, every single one of them, all over the globe; and I am beginning to suspect that whoever is incapable of recognizing this may be incapable of morality.   
~James Baldwin

In the paper there was a photo of police on their hands and knees, crawling in the high grass beside a playground named for a little boy killed there by gunshot a few years earlier. They were looking for a more recent shell-casing, however, still unfound two days after the shot that struck a ten-year-old girl whose aunt had brought her there to climb and swing.

In the photo, the faces of the officers seemed desperate, as if they needed to find the shell-casing to save the little girl, who was then in critical condition at Children’s Hospital. Their features suggested they might bring the casing to the hospital where a doctor would remove the pellets from the child’s body, tamp them back into the casing, poke it back into the barrel of the shotgun, put it back into the hand of the young man full of rage who had pulled the trigger and stop him so that the aunt could stand behind her niece on the swing, giving her a push at intervals, her hand on the small of the child’s back, careful not to push her too high.

In fact, by the time the photo was published the child was already gone; the doctors only waiting for her family to sign the papers to remove her from life support.

I’ve been trying to recall the first time I heard the word bullet. I have a snapshot of myself at age three or four aiming a toy pistol at the camera (probably my father was taking the picture). “Pow! Pow! Pow!” I would have said, not having mastered, yet, the a cappella imitations of gunfire that accompanied our make-believe combat. We didn’t yet have a television to watch the cowboys shoot at the Indians, the soldiers shoot at one another, the cops shoot at the bank robbers, so we didn’t know yet how a gun really sounded. When we did finally get a TV, I was especially proud of learning to make the sound of a bullet when it ricochets off a rock you’re hiding behind: you make a good gunshot sound, lots of spit behind your front teeth, and then you add a little whistle at the end.

I used to take the foil wrappers from my mother’s cigarette packages and roll them into what I meant to be silver bullets for my six-shooter because The Lone Ranger used only silver bullets in his Colt .45 so he could stop the bad guys without killing them. Like the virtuous masked man, I didn’t want to kill anybody. I only wanted to be a hero, mysterious, on a white horse.

Bullet is a strange word. I used to picture a little bull in the dark, at the beginning of a long tunnel, stomping head down in its stall, waiting to charge into daylight and gore its victim—man, woman, beast, child. But no, the dictionary says it was once spelled “bollet,” a small round boll or ball, especially a cannon-ball.

When I was eight or maybe nine years old, I had two silver six-shooters, cap-pistols that shot red paper rolls of caps that I kept in the holsters of a toy gun-belt embossed with cow horns, horses, lariats, and other Western icons. I tied them to my thighs at the bottom because that’s what gunfighters did so they could draw quickly. We used to have competitions in my neighborhood to see who was the fastest draw. I learned to twirl my guns before slipping them back in their holsters, sometimes pretending first to blow the smoke from their barrels.

Life imitates art. It follows that bad art begets bad lives. It’s a safe bet that without the continual refreshment of our fatal ballistic romance, our obsession with guns would have long passed away, a relic of pioneer days, like the Conestoga wagon or buckskin britches. But the gun has been front and center in American film and television since we have had film and television. It’s product placement hiding in plain sight. And it ensures bad art because it serves storytellers as the most common and simplistic deus ex machina of all: Bang! You’re dead. Even worse: Bang! Justice!

A friend of mine, a poet and psychologist, wrote an essay about men and sexual violence for The Good Men Project, an online journal that claims some three million visitors a month and whose tagline is The conversation no one else is having. Midway through his essay, an ad appeared for the chance to win a free pistol, the latest US Army certified Sig Sauer, “The Military’s First New Handgun in the Last 1/3 of a Century Delivers Reliability, Force and Spot On Accuracy Right Out of the Box.”

When I alerted my friend, he couldn’t see it. I don’t mean that he couldn’t see grounds for my dismay, I mean that he couldn’t see the ad itself. It seems that an advertising algorithm had determined that I was a likely target (and yes, I intend the irony of that term). Now, if the pitch had been for a fountain pen or even a hair-growing gel, I’d understand it as the latest in savvy marketing, but I have never owned a gun since I twirled that cap pistol, have no desire to own one, and otherwise prefer paperclips to ammo clips, literary magazines to thirty-round magazines, and ploughshares to swords across the board.

So what does it mean that I am nonetheless a mark for a gun monger? Is it simple spillover, a supersaturation of advertising? Was the algorithm looking for sites that contain the word “men” or that have a male readership? But my friend did not receive the same ad. He inquired about it with the editors. They told him they had little control over the ads on their site, that they were selected by a third party with whom they had contracted.

What does it mean that one would never, ever, find an ad like that in a “women’s magazine?” Well, for one thing, it points to the relationship between masculinity as we now  understand it and destruction. It suggests that real men can be identified by their power to reorder the world by means of lethal violence. In this version of masculinity, not every man needs to actually inflict violence or bodily harm to be considered suitably masculine (which also means, in this discourse, heterosexual), but there has to be at least some signaling that he is willing to do so. Or maybe it’s enough simply not to object to this weird definition of manhood. Maybe it’s enough to keep your mouth shut.

But let’s truly have it, the conversation no one else is having: Is it normal that every day more than a million Americans pack their lunches and heigh-ho heigh-ho go off to work manufacturing increasingly efficient instruments that have no other purpose but the killing of other human beings? Well, yes, it is, has become, normal. The question is whether or not it is acceptable. And so far the answer seems to be yes.

Somehow a combination of economic pressure, rhetorical dishonesty, and a corporate culture similar across industries has managed to hide the fact that America’s paychecks are stained with blood, to hide it even from the people who assemble its killing machines. The companies make “integrated systems, products, and solutions,” offer young people the opportunity to “make your future with us” or even claim to be “making the world a safer place.” For most, the work is straightforward, assembly-line work, and the tedium is relieved by creating a social nexus that includes holiday parties, athletic teams, fund-drives for local charities, T-shirts, and ballcaps with the company logo. Most days there’s a card to sign for somebody’s birthday or engagement or baby shower: Congratulations!

In the early 1970s, with the exuberance and promise of the antiwar movement and counter-culture turning to disillusion, the poet Charles Simic asked the question I am circling here:

Poem Without A Title

I say to the lead

Why did you let yourself

 Be cast into a bullet?

Have you forgotten the alchemists?

Have you given up hope

In turning into gold?

Nobody answers.

Lead. Bullet. With names

Such as these

The sleep is deep and long.

Recently the President of the United States vetoed bipartisan legislation forbidding the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, which as I write this is conducting a genocidal war against the people of Yemen, largely with American arms manufactured by Raytheon, General Dynamics, General Electric, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and other companies central to our economy. He followed this by appointing Raytheon’s chief lobbyist Director of Defense, who was swiftly confirmed by congress. Nothing new in that, of course; indeed, this is business-as-usual, following most recently the examples of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

I know, I know—big news: the president is corrupt, the congress is craven—but are we willing to admit that killing people is America’s business model? I know that putting it so bluntly will seem unfair to many, but consider that if you combine defense contractors and manufacturers of other weapons and munitions we are talking about a ninety-billion-dollar sector of our economy. What does it mean to be the foremost arms dealer in the world? The health of our American economy presently depends upon the murder of other human beings. How did we get here? When did we make this deal with the devil? How long have we been addicted to this poison?

The answer involves a mysterious figure known to few: Zachariah Basileos Zaharoff, sometimes referred to as “Zed Zed” after his scrawled “ZZ” signature. Born in 1849 in what is now Turkey, he was employed, at age 12, by the local fire brigade in Istanbul—as an arsonist. As a teen he became a procurer for the local brothel, a role he expanded to trafficking young girls and blackmailing the men to whom he sold them. The son of a merchant, Zaharoff learned not only how to buy cheap and sell dear, he also found ways to elude regulation of his enterprises by keeping all his accounts secret, a modus operandi he maintained for his entire life. Summoned to court in London for “export irregularities,” he sought protection in Greece where, it seems, his career as a salesman of weaponry began with his exclusive contract to sell the first-ever truly automatic, deadly rapid-fire machine gun, the Maxim, and the first (not very reliable) submarine. Zaharoff made several trips to the US to contract with industrialists to provide them with “factory girls” from Ireland, and on one trip married a wealthy Philadelphia heiress, providing him an infusion of capital and, by the way, making him a bigamist since he was already married to an Englishwoman. As he consolidated his wealth, he found that his ability to exploit international tensions was more lucrative than any other enterprise, and he devised what has come to be known as “le systeme Zaharoff”: sell to the Greeks, then sell to the Turks, then sell to their enemies’ enemies, sell to the Russians, create and monger fear for profit, stoke conflicts, provoke war, and furnish weapons to both sides.

And the profits were astonishing. Soon Zaharoff was consorting with kings and prime ministers, financing arms manufacturing and development, advising militaries on three continents and generally amassing a great fortune. His model’s similarities to a straightforward protection racket clearly derive from his boyhood job as an arsonist in Istanbul.

As his clientele engaged in the butchery of the First World War, his power increased with his ability to tip the scales in the direction of one or another of the combatants. With the fortune Zaharoff amassed, he was able not only to buy immunity from several prosecutions, but even to endow a Chair named in his honor at Oxford, and later to have himself knighted. His conversion to respectability was ensured when he founded British Petroleum. Shortly before his death in 1936, he removed from his safe the relatively few records he had kept of his dealings and burned them. It would take a whole book, one written by a more talented investigator than I, to peel apart the many plies of exploitation, manipulation, greed, sycophancy, blackmail, deception, secrecy, and ulteriority that comprise the crooked route that Zed Zed took to become Sir Basil Zaharoff. I can only say that the course of that journey has become  a model, creating markets, setting standards, creating norms, and generally poisoning the ethical understandings of our era. The deadly plume of oil purling from his BP’s disastrous rig in the Gulf of Mexico offers a ready metaphor for this toxic history.

I was born in the middle of the twentieth century, in the immediate aftermath of the bloodiest war in human history, with eighty million people slain, and the development of the most nightmarish weapons the world has ever known, weapons with the capacity to make every apocalyptic vision the imagination ever concocted a practical reality. I am therefore not like human beings who were born in earlier centuries. The impulse to forget this basic fact is strong: Who doesn’t wish to see himself in the stable frame of ancestors and descendants? I locate myself that way most of the time. It takes a great deal of denial, though, a variety of mental maneuvers and artful refusals of the truth, to go on ignoring the precarity the previous century has created, and the terror, both existential and metaphysical, in which it has steeped me.

By now the epoxy of innocence has been laid on so thick, the propaganda of 1950s and early 1960s pop music and TV is so entrenched, and the sentimentalizing of childhood so pervasive that it might seem to some that I exaggerate when I describe those years as terror, but dread shadowed childhood then. The cold war wasn’t cold for me as a child; it was aflame with a horror actively conjured for me by my teachers, envisioned again and again as a mushroom cloud, a terror refreshed by photos of weapons tests, warnings about godless communism’s sole wish to see us all dead, and school- and community-wide air raid drills. I used to lie in my bed at night shaking, near tears, praying the rosary for “world peace,” for the Russians to come to their senses and not incinerate us. I dreamt the entire conflagration many times when I was eleven or twelve years old, and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when I was thirteen, made me sick with fear. For years afterward I often woke from a nightmare in which I saw the burning tail of a missile across the sky’s canopy reach its apogee and begin its horrifying descent.

In that dream I always tried to ascertain the missile’s trajectory, praying that it would land on someone else.

The best people I know are trying, steadfastly, not to succumb to nihilism. With great difficulty they hold fast to an ethical system that poses restraints, that shapes their behavior, that values sacrifice. The great mass of people, by contrast, appear to have defined virtue as obedience to a set of conventions. I used to believe that very nearly everyone possessed at least a modicum of empathy; now most days I feel foolish and wonder where the hell I ever got that notion. I used to believe one could appeal to conscience, or at least to law. But conscience arises from axioms upended entirely in a might-makes-right world. And law, it has become increasingly clear, exists not to ensure fairness but first and foremost to legitimize and protect hierarchic power.

“Have you given up hope/In turning into gold?” Yes. Evidently, many of us have. We continue to set new records for opioid deaths and suicides. In our shame and despair we have developed an ingenious and largely unconscious disruptive faculty that breaks connections wherever we find them, wherever such connections sneak through the colossal megacomplex of money and noise we call American culture to challenge our delusions.

In a very real way, we are all warriors for the empire; no matter what we think we are doing, no matter what we make. We are inside the largest militarist society the world has ever known, and we are at war always. Trillions of dollars of pensions—teachers’, firefighters’, nurses’ pensions—are tied up in the arms trade. Major universities have hired lobbyists to procure millions in defense contracts. Security is always the stated aim, or technological progress, but the end result is the creation of new markets for weapons. Statecraft involves knowing how to conduct wars that do not spiral out of control, that do not roil the market, that only kill populations with little political power. Appreciation of others, respect for other ways to be human, becomes first a Sunday-school lesson, then something to sneer at, and finally something to rally against to prove we belong with the winners. We live with and export a baseline level of stress the world has seldom known before, and most of it has been normalized by convention. We dare not let down our guard.

The argument is put forth that people need jobs: What people? What jobs? We need teachers; we need builders, farmers, doctors, nurses, plumbers, electricians, firefighters, carpenters, grocers, engineers; we need people to make shoes, boats, pianos, clothing, novels, furniture, music; people to care for the sick and the elderly, to bless us and bury us and repair what’s broken.

My next-door neighbor, among the nicest guys I’ve ever met, is retired from his job as a machinist at General Electric. His house is surrounded by ceramic squirrels and bunnies, gnomes, a birdbath. We talk about the birds, the robin who built a nest in my bicycle helmet, the cardinal with whom he is sure he has a personal relationship (every morning he shells a peanut and leaves it for him).

We talk about our grandkids. His come by on weekends and I hear him chasing them around the yard, “I’m gonna get you! Run! I’m gonna get you!” He catches them and tickles them. He worked at GE for 30 years. I don’t know what he was making all those years. Neither does he.

“What discourages us from making the connection between a child shot dead in Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen, and a child shot dead in Newtown, Connecticut, or in Parkland, Florida, or on a playground swing in Boston? Politicians and even gun-control activists seem to believe that the best we can do is modify the technology, the means of killing students and shoppers and concert-goers; they want to reduce the number of bullets—“rounds”—in the magazines of weapons, as if the problem were only that too many people were being killed too fast. The resistance to the carnage largely focuses on the N.R.A., and rightly so; however, the N.R.A. is merely a trade organization like any other, doing all it can to protect its industry. At political debates, or gatherings after the latest episode of crazed killing, people dependably cheer the line, “These are weapons of war and do not belong in our neighborhoods!” What keeps us then from asking whose neighborhood they do belong in? Sometimes people say that the AR 15, manufactured exclusively by Colt, is a weapon developed for the “battlefield.” As if there were such a thing anymore, as if there were separate militarized areas free of everyone but soldiers who lined up on either side of the field and advanced on a signal like Hussars or Napoleonic infantry. According to creditable sources, civilians account for somewhere between 75 and 90 percent of deaths in conflict, and more than two thirds of them are children.

The tower will come down, one way or another, the tower of piled weaponry, but before it does, the wars will all have come home; their poisoned waters are already flooding our shores.

The ten-year-old girl shot in the park was named Trina. The park was named for nine-year-old Jermaine, shot there eight years earlier. Of the twenty-seven people gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School, twenty were children. Their names have been published along with their photos. Online there is a video taken just moments before the missile struck and roasted the children inside the Yemeni school bus, the boys are laughing and throwing a crumpled ball of paper around; and there is a photo of their schoolmates, later, standing by their coffins.

And then there is also, or was, Christopher, eight-years-old, his father standing behind him, hands on his shoulders, proud, as he fired an Uzi at an event held by a Massachusetts Sportsman’s Club: “It’s all legal & fun—No permits or licenses required!” according to the ad for the event. The fun was to have been shooting at pumpkins, watching their soft flesh splatter, but the Uzi recoiled, jumped in the boy’s hands, and in a fraction of a second a bullet entered below his chin and tore through his head.

What maniacal dream unites us? I think back to my cap guns and BB rifle, my heroic silver bullets bringing justice with their delusional righteousness.

Or what about that other neighbor of mine, whose son killed his brother accidentally with a gun his father had not secured? Dear god, that man, whose pain I can barely fathom, whose guilt is forever in his eyes, whom I wish to understand even as I try not to recoil from him: my fellow father, my tragic contemporary, what is his life since then, his post-life life?

Our discourse is poisoned by all that we do not allow ourselves to see about the ways the world has changed, about how it has come under the domination of “le systeme Zaharoff.” We are militarist to the max: our rhetoric, our entertainment, our athletic events, our cars, our aesthetics, our very conception of ourselves is congruent with warfare’s axioms. More than that, all of nature herself has been compromised by our weapons, our radioactive seawater, our spent uranium, our carcinogenic defoliants. You cannot make modern weapons without mining—iron, bauxite, uranium, lithium—and the required forging of alloys to make death’s gleaming toys is a demonic process that surpasses most other industries in poisoning the ecosystem. The resulting cascade of extinctions, could we see it, would look like those films of the glaciers crumbling into the sea. What’s more, like arms manufacturing itself, the mining and metals industry is propped up by vast subsidies and a corrupt jiggering of debts, along with bribes, kickbacks, and global systemic corruption.

What will it take to extricate ourselves from this unholy covenant? If we start right now, how many generations? How long before a child on a swing in Boston, a child in a classroom in Connecticut, a child on a school bus in Yemen, a child in a hospital in Syria, is safe from the bowling team at Raytheon, the softball team at Colt, the company picnic committee at Northrop Grumman?

What is the future with the present so precarious? We are layers away from any possible clarity, layers of lies from the truth. And so, it could be that this is truly who we are, that it really is our intractable human nature to see strangers as always threatening, as potential aggressors who must be discouraged by our own greater capacity for violence, and to destroy ourselves sorting people into victors and victims. In my lifetime I can find no evidence to the contrary. And yet I cannot allow myself to believe it. I suppose that is the definition of faith—not hope, faith—I have to believe, have often to work to make myself believe, that compromised as we are, we are not cursed, and that although “the sleep is deep and long,” we can wake.

Richard Hoffman

Richard is the author of seven books, including four poetry collections: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award; Emblem; and Noon until Night, winner of the 2018 Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry. His prose works include the memoirs Half the House and Love & Fury, as well as the story collection Interference and Other Stories. His work has appeared in numerous journals including AGNI, Colorado Review, Harvard Review, The Hudson Review, The Literary Review, Poetry, Witness, and elsewhere. He is Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College, and Nonfiction Editor of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.

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