Watching those rent-a-mob bands of bearded he-men swaggering around state capitols with their Confederate flags and symbolic AR-15s -- what were they going to shoot at, after all? -- reminded me of a scene in the old Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall movie Key Largo.
Bogart plays a fishing boat captain home from World War II -- a soft-spoken combat veteran visiting the family of one of his soldiers killed during the Italian campaign. Bacall plays the friend's widow, living in a small resort hotel on a remote Florida island.
A gangster on the lam, played menacingly by Edward G. Robinson, shows up demanding a boat ride to Cuba. Reflecting a different era's idea of heroism, Bogart's character avoids what he sees as a pointless confrontation with the thug. He has nothing to prove. But then, as a massive hurricane approaches, the tough guy shows signs of panic.
"Why don't you point your gun at it?" Bogart deadpans.
He can run a fishing boat, see, as the gangster cannot.
Just so with the hairy-chested protesters in their camo suits. Confronted with a deadly threat they can neither understand nor control, they've taken to playing soldiers. The rest of us are supposed to be intimidated.
Which is not to deny that a fool with a gun can be dangerous.
But this bunch, in their refusal to deal with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, endanger themselves and their families more than anybody else. Although the rest of us would definitely be imperiled should their cartoonish views prevail.
In Ohio, a fellow named John W. McDaniel tweeted that COVID-19 was nothing but a "political ploy." On March 15, he denounced Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike DeWine for ordering bars and restaurants closed: "I Say Bull**t! He doesn't have that authority. If you are paranoid about getting sick just don't go out. It shouldn't keep [the rest] of us from Living our Lives."
The rest of McDaniel's life was 30 days. He died on April 15 due to complications from the virus. His obituary described him as an "ornery son-of-a-gun and ... often the first to crack a joke no matter the occasion." His family called him a "loving and loyal husband, father, son, brother, uncle and friend ... Johnny McDaniel loved life and loved everyone he knew with his whole heart."
He sounds like a terrific fellow, albeit maybe a little bit prone to going off half-cocked. Had he lived, he'd probably have learned. There are thousands out there like him. God bless them, every one.
Which isn't the same as saying people should be paying them any mind.
Meanwhile, Gov. DeWine, who certainly has both constitutional and statutory authority to shutter public establishments during an infectious epidemic, says he has "full respect" for protesters, but begs them to keep practicing social distancing.
"We've won a battle, we've done well," DeWine tweeted on Monday, "but #COVID19 is still out there and most Ohioans are still susceptible to it. The spread concern is still as strong today as it was a month ago."
To date, 538 Ohioans have died of COVID-19.
So now comes the March of the Toy Soldiers.
Look, it'd be one thing for Fox News to tout these jackleg militias as if they represented something politically significant, although they do not. Polls show that anywhere between 60 percent and 81 percent of Americans understand and support the need for social distancing. They are heeding the experts. It's quite another to see CNN, NBC, CBS and the rest acting as if the protesters represent anything more than street theater: the Mighty Trump Art Players on display.
See, Boss Trump appears to think he's pulled a fast one. First, he claimed "absolute authority" over the nation's governors, saying that he alone would decide when the U.S. economy would reopen for business. He would give orders, and the states would obey.
Literally overnight, he did a complete 180. Now he says it's all on the governors. Trump takes no responsibility. Not for testing, nor protective masks, basically for nothing. Next he began tweeting calls for protesters to "LIBERATE" their states from tyrannical Democrats.
The plan is that Trump gets all the credit, while the governors take all the blame. What could possibly go wrong?
I fear we're about to find out.