A Nightmare On Elm Street

"The Wild Wild West Will Blow You Away!" - Sign on a cowboy boot store, Elm Street, downtown Dallas.

When you visit Dallas, Texas, three salient facts immediately become apparent: First, you are in a small town, or rather a small city with a surprisingly small downtown for a "metro region" of 1.3 million, for a fat spot on the map whose name looms so large in the American psyche: "Dallas", the television phenomenon; the iconic Dallas Cowboys, "America's Team"; Dallas, November 1963, these are all signposts of a certain important city of the mind. In much more prosaic reality, you can walk from one end of the downtown to the other, if you walk slowly, in a matter of 30 minutes, as hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters in fact did on the evening of July 7th, 2016, their route taking them within two blocks of the biggest, let's be honest, the sole tourist attraction in the over-optimistically named Big D, and this is the second fact: There is nothing else worth seeing in this stubbornly one-horse town besides Dealey Plaza, the Texas School Book Depository and the legendary, if disappointing grassy knoll, collectively the site of one of the truly grievous wounds in American history, the original Nightmare On Elm Street. Here, with a uniquely American juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, the hushed "Sixth Floor Museum at Dealy Plaza" shares the old book warehouse with the offices of "Big D Fun Tours", your host for "The Award-Winning JFK Tour", which they bill as "The Best First Thing To Do In Dallas", apparently because "only" just wouldn't be as much "fun". Across Houston Street, the decidedly not-so-fun Dallas Holocaust Museum abuts a popular cowboy hat and boot emporium called "The Wild Wild West", whose website somewhat chillingly proclaims "The Wild Wild West Will Blow You Away". And here, our third fact emerges.

Dallas, Texas is the West, unmistakably, unrepentantly, a city of white Stetsons and open-carry gun laws, a Cormac McCarthy cow-town soaked in violence and pregnant with dry-heat mayhem, a city where even the annual college football classic is called the Red River Shootout. A rough, frontier justice has always obtained on these streets, and Chairman Mao's maxim that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun may well have been focus-grouped right here. If Houston smells like oil and Austin smells of weed, what you smell on the dusty streets of Dallas is gunsmoke.

On November 22, 1963, the story goes, a coffee-jittery young ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit, leading to Oswald's being chased to, cornered and captured in the Texas Theater™ as, on the big screen, Audie Murphy played himself in the true-life film "War Is Hell". The gun used to kill Tippit was found on Oswald, and by that night, the accused cop-killer was the prime suspect in the day's other big gun-down. Had he acted alone? As part of a conspiracy? Two days later, on November 24th, Oswald was killed in Dallas PD custody, gut-shot by small-time strip-club owner and pimp Jack Ruby, whose single, lucky, oh hell, call it magic bullet severed Oswald's aorta. Simpler times.

Oswald, like John Kennedy before him (and Ruby, in 1965), died and was pronounced at Parkland Memorial Hospital. Their secrets, in life as dark and rich as cherry Coke, vanished with them, wisps of blue smoke over the chaparral.

On the evening of July 7th, 2016, the story goes, a 25 year-old Black Army reservist named Micah X. Johnson opened fire on police at a demonstration to protest the police killings in Louisiana and Minnesota of two Black men in as many days. It was a bloody affair. Twelve officers were shot, five were killed. Johnson, a veteran of our adventure in Afghanistan, seems to have known his way around a long gun and a high concealment. As reported in The Huffington Post, "Johnson’s military training helped him to shoot and move rapidly, “triangulating” his fire with multiple rounds so that police at first feared they were facing several shooters." Fears of a multi-person hit team, coordinated, secret and still at large, gripped the city.

The morning after - The Associated Press

Unlike his predecessor Oswald, a couple of blocks and a million years away with his ancient, bolt-action carbine, Johnson, possessed of frightening, Texas-sized amounts of the best in modern firepower, died at the scene. He didn't even make it as far as a police station. Instead, in a true American first, he was killed by a drone strike, killed by a robot with a pound of C-4 explosive in its aluminum crab-hand, the first domestic criminal suspect on record to be dispatched in such a gruesome, 21st Century fashion. "Negotiations had failed", Chief David Brown of the Dallas Police told reporters. The suspect, Johnson, was hiding behind a brick wall in a parking garage, singing and taunting officers, and "negotiations had failed."

"Negotiations had failed". A world in that sentence, and a new, if not brave one. There was no capture, no arrest, no Miranda, no bill of indictment, no trial, no plea, no conviction, no sentence, no appeal. The entire mechanics of our criminal justice system were short-circuited by a crude, bang-on-a-stick technique, frequently employed but rarely spoken about, that our fighting forces overseas in the Wild Wild East use to kill Haji, when he's dug in, when he's around the corner, when he's being a fuckin' asshole and won't come out. When "negotiations have failed". The good thing about Haji is that he has no ACLU, nor a Bill of Rights, nor a movement claiming his life "matters". He may be safely exploded out of sight, without fuss, in any one of a number of wars that are themselves well out of sight and astonishingly fuss-free. This ad hoc, on-the-ground drone warfare isn't even counted in the Pentagon's estimates of nearly a thousand "official" US drone strikes in the past ten years, but it's on our collective hands just the same. 

Downtown Dallas, Texas, July 7th-8th, 2016

It's a truism, known to writers of TV cop shows the world over, that a cop-killer, once cornered, doesn't last the night, doesn't make it to the closing credits. The men and women in blue, their comrades' deaths fresh in their minds, their "blood up", will administer "street justice" with a hail of lead before the sun rises on the hard, hard city. In a cruel twist of fate, Chief Johnson's own son, David Jr., killed a Texas cop back in 2010 while high on PCP, and was himself killed in a shootout with police that very night, in accordance with the iron rules of the narrative. The Western variant calls for the shootout to take place out in the main street, which, conveniently in this case, was where the action actually was.

Micah X. Johnson, desperado, Wild West bad man, and a black life who suddenly mattered, certainly fit the profile. His last stand seemed tailor-made for this familiar story beat, till Chief Brown, a black man himself and a noted reformer who'd made history in reducing the use of force by his department, made another kind of history by approving the unprecedented use of a Remotec Andros Mark V-A1 robot, normally used to safely explode bombs. The Dallas PD armed the robot with a bomb to literally blow Johnson away. Wild Wild West, indeed. Had Johnson acted alone? Was he part of a terror cell? A conspiracy? As with Oswald, we'll never know. Safely exploded, Johnson's secrets, whatever they may have been, blew away with him.

When John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Malcolm X made the bitter observation that it had been a case of "the chickens coming home to roost", of the latent violence and the actual violence of American power turning to strike home at one of America's own. Terrible as his suspected crimes were, and let us grant that they were terrible, Micah X. Johnson, USArmy, Res. was one of America's own, too, but by the end of the night, he fared no better than Haji, safely detonated, out of sight. By crossing this new line, by executing via drone a criminal suspect, an American citizen, however heinous the crimes he was accused of, Chief Brown and the Dallas PD have brought the heightened, yet sanitized and out-of-sight violence of our foreign wars home to the Wild Wild West, and our country, today, is not the same.

 Micah X. Johnson, desperado, safely detonated.

Micah X. Johnson, desperado, safely detonated.