Prophet of the plague

Charlton Heston's dark view of his fellow humans makes him a perfect president of the NRA.

Published June 11, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Casting Charlton Heston as president of the National Rifle Association is perfect. Who better to embody images and stage compelling enactments of the organization's worldview than an actor-icon? Remember Ronald Reagan?

Of course, Heston has already appeared in one cinematic depiction of how the world looks to the gun lobby, but it's not as Moses in "The Ten Commandments." It's "The Omega Man" (1972) -- a cult classic in the rep houses that portrays a dystopian universe in which the gun-control advocates have taken over.

The makers of "The Omega Man" took their source material from "I Am Legend," a 1954 vampire story by Richard Matheson, the sci-fi writer who created "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (1956) and a dozen "Twilight Zone" teleplays. But the movie of "The Omega Man" retained little of Matheson's attack on post-World War II commodity culture. Instead, the movie denounced the political upheaval of its own time, indicting as civilization-killers the anti-Vietnam protesters, Black Power advocates and gender revolutionaries who were scaring the pants off America's supposedly "great silent majority."

Like "The Omega Man," Heston is no stranger to cries of kulturkampf. "A cultural war is raging across our land -- storming our values, assaulting our freedoms, killing our self-confidence in who we are and what we believe," the actor told the Free Congress Foundation last December. And in "The Omega Man," Heston exemplifies the NRA's recipe for resistance to such an assault. A man keeps his culture only so long as he keeps his carbine.

In the film, Heston's character, Richard Neville, is the only American still in possession of an assault rifle; he is the world's last civilized man. Neville roams an empty Los Angeles, the sole human to have been inoculated against a man-made virus that has destroyed the world. At first his only living companions are the members of a zombie sect, creatures who have been drastically altered by the infection, but not killed by it.

Named "the Family" -- the film came out one year after the Charles Manson trial -- these subhumans enact the rituals of contemporary urban crime: home invasion, abduction and violent assault. Only Neville's protective technology -- his machine guns, his infrared targeting devices and his security monitors -- ensures his survival. Led by the politically opportunistic Matthias, the Family has destroyed all the world's weapons except those in Neville's stockpile. The Family has demolished America's cultural treasures as well. "At it again, I see," Neville remarks from his balcony, high above the vandals' bonfires. "What'll it be tonight? The Museum of Science? Some library? Poor miserable bastards!"

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The fear underlying Neville's laconic observation is central to the philosophy of both Heston and the NRA. "We are not a
docile species capable of coexisting within a perfect society under
everlasting benevolent rules. We are what we are," Heston told the
National Press Club. Guns exist to support the "barricades that need to be in place to protect the individual."

Both Heston's Neville and Heston's NRA are unmoved by claims that crime has social causes. "They're sick," Richie, the black
child Neville eventually finds and cures, pleads on behalf of the ghouls. Neville understands that his world's monsters emerged from circumstances -- international biological warfare -- over which they had no control. But only their conduct counts. "They're homicidal maniacs," Neville tells the boy. "Vermin." And the only reasonable course of action is to maintain enough firepower to exterminate them.

Similarly, Heston's NRA sees life as a desperate struggle to hang
on to what you have -- held, as the NRA sees it, in the face of constant threat. Diverted by the organization's tortured logic -- for example, its ability to find in the Oregon schoolhouse massacre a triumph of handgun education -- we overlook the panic behind the group's polemics. Its members must keep their guns at any cost. At present, the cost of easy access to handguns is the lives of 14 kids per day.

Heston's Neville would have you believe that what he is defending is homestead. "It's where I live," the character
says of his fortified suburban residence. "It's where I've always lived. It's where I'm going to live, and no one's going to drive me out of it." But for Neville -- as for the denizens of Arizona's gated communities, Tennessee's trailer parks and Montana's sandbagged bunkers -- the issue is really one of heritage. Neville has made his enclave a storehouse of Western civilization's music and mores and masterpieces. That legacy -- its existence ensured by an arsenal -- defines him.

Heston, a former civil rights advocate, will tell you that the traditions his group espouses are blind to both race and gender. Certainly, the NRA has increasingly solicited minorities and women.
But if the organization's distinction between Us and Them is not overtly about color, it is about
culture -- specifically the norms of what Heston cheerfully
calls "wise old dead white guys who invented this country."

"The Omega Man," too, alludes to the transmission of cultural heritage when Neville uses his own blood -- 160-proof Anglo-Saxon blood -- to cure Richie of plague. Blood has always been a metaphor for lineage, and Neville's gesture is easily interpreted: Share my blood and be immune to the Family's deviancy. And when Richie leaves Neville's enclave, ambivalent about the tradition
Neville stands for, the barbarians come pouring in.
That lesson isn't lost on the NRA.

"Declining morals, disintegrating families ... and social mores that
blur right and wrong are more to blame [for carnage] -- certainly more than legally owned firearms," Heston told the media. Neville's end isn't the result of arms, but of the animus of those who want to dispossess him of who he is and what he has. Guns don't kill Neville, people do.

"The Omega Man" presents a bleak picture of the American future. So does the NRA. Both trumpet self-reliance and individualism. In truth, those terms mask a refusal to believe that we can ever govern ourselves for the greater good. No entity will ever be sufficiently
reliable to merit our trust. "There's never a cop around when you need one," says Neville in a wry quip that Heston has repeated on behalf of gun proponents. The irony is that Heston's superpatriots, under the guise of protecting American freedoms, can never commit to the existence of a polity. For Heston and the NRA, man always sees as a threat -- and is armed to meet it -- anyone whose values are different from his own.

"[He's] caught in a place he cannot stir from in the dark. Alone, outnumbered hundreds to one," Matthias observes of Neville. "Nothing to live for but his memories. Nothing to live with but his guns, and his cars, and his gadgets." Likewise, Heston and the NRA do not really esteem other individuals. In the end, they prize only themselves.

It may be disturbing that Heston defines the greatest
danger to America as deviance from his personal values. And that 3.5
million NRA members appear to agree with him. And that they're all armed to the teeth. But we need to understand Heston's perspective before we sneer at it. As of now, he is America's leading voice on
unlimited gun ownership.

By Terry Diggs

Terry Diggs is a columnist for the Recorder newspaper and for Cal Law, where a version of this story appears.

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