Evelyn Salt is an uber patriot, I thought, watching the eponymous film the other night. She is such a patriot that she will kill and kill and kick and kill some more. Such a patriot that she will kiss the ring of a Russian terrorist and feign nonchalance at the death of her beloved husband.
Evelyn Salt is a patriot. She does not retreat. She reloads.
It was difficult to watch Salt in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings. Already the airwaves were full of punditry and blame, speculation and woe. After all, how else are we to respond to something that is, at the same time, both shocking and unsurprising? Does it matter if Jared Loughner is a lone fruitcake too aberrant even for the Tea Party, or a zealot in the cause of sealing borders and arming the citizenry against a host of enemies? Either way he enacted the kind of violence that has come to characterize not only our forms of entertainment in TV, movies and gaming, but also our political, social and internet rhetoric.
Michael Daly remarks on Sarah Palin’s now-infamous Facebook depiction of Gabrielle Giffords in the cross hairs of a rifle scope with the words: “Don’t retreat! Instead—reload!”
“Palin would no doubt say that she was only speaking in metaphor, that she only meant her followers should work to unseat Giffords and 19 other Democrats who had roused her ire by voting for health care. . . . Palin should have taken it as a warning of what might happen when a Tea Party hothead dropped a gun while heckling Giffords at an earlier Congress On Your Corner event, more than a year ago. That did not stop Palin from declaring Giffords a “target.”
It’s tempting to point fingers and Sarah Palin is low-hanging fruit. But the reality is that she’s no maverick when it comes to martial and violent rhetoric. In fact, spend a casual ten minutes with your car radio and you will come across dozens of voices on Christian radio stations invoking the imagery of battle to characterize how a person of faith is supposed to live in this country. There is very little beating of swords into ploughshares.
And indeed, Westboro Baptist Church, legendary for its anti-gay protests at military funerals, is planning to protest at the funeral for 9-year-old Christina Green, the youngest victim of the mass shooting. This time the good people of Westboro Baptist won’t be wearing their anti-gay hats, but their anti-abortion ones.
As for Arizona, the state got 2 points out of a possible 100 in the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence state scorecard, avoiding a zero only because its Legislature has not—so far—voted to force colleges to let people bring their guns on campuses.
And Loughner was able to buy his 9 MM semiautomatic Glock because the law restricting its sale expired in 2004 and Congress, under pressure from the National Rifle Association, did not extend it. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign, observes that a Glock is “not suited for hunting or personal protection. What it’s good for is killing and injuring a lot of people quickly.”
Much is being made of the need to tone down the violent rhetoric and hate speech that has become such a commonplace thing in public discourse. That’s not a particularly laudatory observation, however; it’s merely a necessary one. But the problem isn’t only a matter of speech; it’s a matter of action. When the means of violence—whether it be the emotional sort wrought by a protest at a loved one’s funeral or the physical sort that claims lives—comes to be protected as an American right, something is deeply askew in collective national identity.
Which brings us back to Evelyn Salt. She’s a fictional, nearly genderless machine of a human being and if the viewer sympathizes with her at all, it’s because she’s manic in her patriotism and sense of duty to the United States. For the better part of the movie, she is thought by colleagues and law-enforcement personnel to be a threat to the nation’s security. But what the viewer knows—and what government officials that Salt leaves alive will discover—is that her violence is her patriotism. And, watching her desperate choreography of killing and maiming in the film, I was reminded not of a superhero dedicated to her country, but of the many voices screaming about love of country in tones of hatred—voices brought to life in a character whose patriotism is a threat to humanity.