The American West was an eight-part documentary series that ran on the AMC network last summer. With Robert Redford as executive producer, it focused on a series of prominent personalities, “heroes,” forceful men who “took what they wanted.” These men were described in this documentary series as representing the American character of strength and enterprise.
These men included “outlaws” such as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and Crazy Horse, who took up arms against often unjust and corrupt government actions. They also included lawmen such as Pat Garrett, Wyatt Earp, and George Armstrong Custer, who tended to shoot first and worry about evidence and trials only if there were survivors from the shooting. In many respects, in this retelling of their stories, there was not that much difference between the outlaws and the lawmen. All were forceful characters who took bold action.
American culture still seems to revere heroic outlaws (from The Godfather to The Sopranos) and trigger-happy lawmen (from John Wayne to Dirty Harry and Luke Skywalker).
As Americans agonize over the current shooting war between young black men and white police officers, they should not be surprised. From the beginning of their nation, Americans have often chosen to solve problems with guns. Sadly, the current violence is very much part of an American tradition. It is just that, looked at closely, reality seems more sordid and less heroic than the legends.