Are you folks ready for a gunfight?”
“Yeah!” we answer.
Firing his gun into the air, Doc Holliday repeats, “I said, Are you folks ready for a gunfight?”
“Yeah!” we say again.
“All right! Now, before we get started, I do have to talk to you about a couple of things. First things first, these are not toys—these are real firearms.”
He aims at a soda can and fires. The can explodes.
We all go, “Ahhhh!”
And then there’s another gunshot, and the O.K. Corral reënactment officially begins.
The history of frontier towns like Shakespeare and Tombstone is one in which primarily white populations moved West, claiming territory and forcibly ejecting or killing those who were already there, then defending that territory against “invaders,” who were often the previous inhabitants—that is, Native Americans and, later, Mexicans—and, finally, establishing law. This last stage of frontier history is what is most often mined for reënactments: a Manichean representation of good (white) lawmen vs. bad (white) cowboys, which is ultimately a celebration of the founding of white America. The rest—the part about killing or banishing non-white others in order to defend claimed land—is conveniently elided. But the practice lives on, in a kind of reënactment with very real consequences, in which the protagonists are civilian border patrollers—people who feel they have a right to do whatever they can to keep others, and especially non-white others, out of this land. This vigilantism rests on the myth of the frontier, or on the idea of a place at the very edge of civilization that needs to be conquered and tamed and then guarded—with guns or with walls—against potential invaders, or bandidos. Like two mirrors facing each other, Wild West reënactments and the myths that fuel them shed light on the emotions driving the response to “the border crisis,” and, conversely, thinking about civilian border militias unveils some of the myths behind reënactment culture. The knot of intuitions I came with on this trip is finally unravelling. But, of course, there are new questions.