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Lessons From Tombstone

I did the tourist thing in Tombstone this past weekend. It was pretty darn fun, I must admit.

There’s the OK Corral, where lawmen who were at times outlaws killed some outlaws who were probably at times not outlaws. There’s historic Allen Street, where who knows how many people died in random gunfights. There were mines, graves for people who were little more than expendable commodities to wealthy businessmen, and there was also no shortage of beautiful high desert scenery, where who knows how many people were killed by hostile natives who didn’t take kindly to being exterminated as settlers continued to occupy their territory. The nifty old courthouse museum, where the convicted were hanged and the acquitted were sometimes hanged too, was a real highlight. So was the Boot Hill graveyard, where the guilty-and-found-guilty, the guilty-but-found-not-guilty, the found-not-guilty-but-killed-anyway, and the totally-innocent-but-killed-anyway have all been interred side by side.

I could spend a lifetime learning about the characters described in various signs displayed around town and in pamphlets handed out at the sites I visited. A sign about a legendary drunkard lawyer who was frequently spotted nursing his hangover with a hair of the dog at local saloons during recesses seemed particularly popular with the tourists. I was surprised to see that a few of the county sheriffs, powerful elected officials at the time, weren’t above amassing substantial body counts on their own. The town too tough to die was filled with residents who seemed to kill each other left and right, but they never killed so many that there weren’t enough left for the primitive mechanism of the state back then to get its fair share as well.

It sure was exciting to see such a neat little piece of history. How strange does it seem to have gunslingers killing each other on the street? How bizarre is it to see the old wanted posters showing outlaws with massive bounties on their heads, prizes to be collected by ordinary citizens with a thirst for a bit of ultra-violence? How far we’ve come as individuals!

Stranger yet was the sign of how little we’ve learned collectively. Our government still murders, and the rich and powerful still consume the poor and desperate like infinite resources. We’ve improved the process, adding institutional posts and ropes to control the crowds wanting blood, moving the power from the many to the ones of the many who seem qualified to the few, and delaying the inevitable just long enough to appear we’ve thought long and hard about whether we’re only killing the people who really need killing, but the differences really end there.

We aren’t any better. We’ve just replaced the “we” of an ad hoc crowd of individuals with a deeply flawed process the same “we” created to make it look official. If that’s all you want to sleep okay at night, then I suppose there isn’t much of a problem. If you’d rather we not kill and exploit no matter how many procedures we create, then it’s pretty clear we haven’t even started to address the problem.

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