We have learned, courtesy the news media, that membership in the National Rifle Association has surged past five million souls since the Sandy Hook Massacre of little children in Connecticut last December.

It would seem that a significant minority of our American cousins will let nothing stand in the way of their right to massive firepower, which they insist is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

That’s not actually what the Second Amendment says, mind, but it turns out that American Constitutional literalists are a lot like American Biblical literalists — they’re inclined to pick and choose what to be literal about.

And so, in the case of the Second Amendment, they take literally the bit that says “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” and ignore the other part of the same sentence that says, “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.”

Asking that we cast our minds to more suitable horrifying events from the NRA’s point of view, during the NRA’s national convention last weekend in Houston CEO Wayne LaPierre posed this rhetorical question about the bombing at the Boston Marathon on April 15: “How many Bostonians wished they had a gun two weeks ago?”

That’s an interesting question, actually, given what the significant number of Bostonians who do exercise their Second Amendment rights in fact did when the U.S., Massachusetts and Boston authorities for all intents and purposes declared martial law because a single armed and dangerous criminal was on the loose in the hours after the bombings.

Indeed, there are serious questions raised by this spectacularly disproportionate state response to a terrorist attack and the passive willingness of a significant subgroup of the United States’ supposedly fiercely independent population, including many NRA members, not merely to go along with it, but to heap adulation on the people who imposed martial law on them.

We know that Americans aren’t particularly bothered by routine gun violence — even when it escalates to truly horrifying levels — as long as it is perpetrated by criminals or police.

Raymond Chandler — creator of Philip Marlowe, the Ur detective of American noir fiction — famously commented on this phenomenon through Marlowe’s voice. See all the criminals in Los Angeles locked up? Marlowe responds: “You and me both lived too long to think I’m likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide, green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don’t run our country that way.”

So why this evident American terror of terrorism?

Taken beyond the confines of the greater Boston metropolitan area, surely the reaction of Bostonians, armed and otherwise, exposes some of our most fondly held myths about the nature of Western society.

For martial law it was, and the actual presumed threat that kept at least a million people locked in their houses without access to emergency supplies of baby formula, toilet paper, beer or even cold pizza was that if they ventured outside, the paramilitary police in the streets would have shot them down like dogs, or at least like the single homicidal teenager they were looking for.

Even if there had been many more terrorists — or even the remote possibility of more — the response of the authorities seems preposterous.

After all, modern urban societies have muddled through mass aerial bombings by the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force, not to mention terrorist and criminal attacks with much higher casualty rates that this one, without cheerfully succumbing to a complete social and commercial lockdown.

Indeed, the tendency of human beings to pull together and refuse to knuckle under to terrorists, criminals and air forces is well known. So surely there must be cities on this planet where the population would have simply refused to co-operate with an attempt by the authorities to declare martial law because one — albeit homicidal — criminal was on the loose!

Texas, we are told, is the heart of the supposedly fiercely burning American spirit. So if the terrorist attack on April 15 (three dead, 183 injured) had been in Texas and the industrial accident two days later (14 dead, approximately 200 injured) had been in Massachusetts, would the citizens of Houston, host to the NRA convention, have remained meekly indoors?

The answer is almost certainly yes. If it had been Toronto or Sydney, Australia? Probably yes again. Montreal or Athens? Maybe, maybe not — a troubling thought for those of us old enough to have been raised on the indulgent notion that no one was more resistant to tyranny or indomitably independent than the English-speaking peoples.

Kabul, Mogadishu, Beirut or Tel Aviv? Well, apparently not.

But in Boston, as the New Yorker’s John Cassidy pointed out, two benighted post-adolescent bombers achieved something that was “beyond Emperor Hirohito and Hitler. They stopped the Greyhound.”

What was the financial cost of giving in to terror — or, at least, giving in to a single incident of criminality — this way? Immediately after the attacks, the Washington Post estimated lost commercial activity alone in the area at about $250 million to $333 million a day. That, of course, ignored the no doubt staggering expense of the massive paramilitary dragnet as it moved through the Boston region.

The cost to the American self image? Well, probably minimal, as Westerners generally are known to be highly resistant to critical self awareness, let alone to possessing a healthy sense of irony. Said U.S. President Barack Obama: “… A bomb can’t beat us. That’s why we don’t hunker down. That’s why we don’t cower in fear.” And the U.S. media reported it straight up, apparently missing the incongruity entirely.

So in the United States we have a population made up of tens of millions of individuals who won’t give up or restrict in any way their vast personal arsenals, many of them in congress over the weekend in Houston, apparently willing to sit timorously in their basements while an army outside searched for a single 19-year-old!

These are the same people will tolerate repeated massacres in schools and shopping malls to hang onto their weapons lest they’re needed to repel foreign invaders or topple their own government, should it grow tyrannical. Or so they say.

They try manfully to elect politicians who will defend their constitutional right to keep and bear arms. They turn up at political rallies waving assault rifles to prove this point.

The NRA’s newly elected national president, James Porter, on Friday extolled these gunpeople as “the fighters for freedom … the protectors.”

So what did “the protectors” do when the authorities seemingly took leave of their senses and shut down the core of a metropolitan of 4.6 million people to hunt for one bad man with a gun?

They hunkered down in their basements, fragile and frightened, on the say-so of the Mayor of Beantown and the governor of the Codfish State. Turning the words of President Obama on their head, they cowered in fear.

What’s wrong with this picture? Whatever became of the indomitable American spirit?

And what, pray, do these people need their Second Amendment for, anyway? They’re well armed, but they don’t have the courage of their supposed convictions to step outside. They’ve already surrendered!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...