"We all have guns," said Nancy Fine to an NPR interviewer yesterday. Fine lives in Burns, Oregon, where protesters have been congregating in solidarity with the militants who have been occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for a month. Fine went on:

"But none of us wear them on our hip and kind of flaunt them around. We consider that extremely rude and ungentlemanly at best." 

Fine says one sure way of identifying an outsider is a prominently displayed sidearm. She shoots a scornful glance at a trio of men standing in front of her, their arms crossed, their holsters hanging out.

According to the story, a good many of the residents of Harney County, Oregon, agree with the protesters who've descended on their town -- but they would rather deal with their concerns on their own, in their own way, without the help of a crowd of noisy strangers.  According to the story, 

most [local] people here do think the federal government overreaches, especially when it comes to environmental rules and land use. But they're also sick of outsiders hanging around, trying to start a movement.

The occupiers and protesters, in their ostensible fight to preserve liberty, have made it harder for the citizens to live their lives. 

In New Hampshire, where I live, a few anti-government militia types are always drifting around town. They love to hang around street corners near the library, or browse around Walmart, letting their guns swing with elaborate casualness. The bigger the gun, the better.

If you asked them why they do it -- why they make such a show of being armed -- they'd say that they're signalling to criminals that the place is protected, or, more likely, that they're doing it because they can. They have the right to open carry, and they're going to, end of story, no other reason necessary. Many of these folks are Freestaters, who have come uninvited from elsewhere in the hopes of instituting some kind of libertarian paradise in our state. 

Well, it is rude. And that's bad enough. Don't come into my town and be rude!

But worse, it doesn't make anyone feel safer when they wave their giant guns around. It makes the world feel crazier and more out of control. It adds tension and fear to a situation that ought to be peaceful and mundane. It makes it harder for me to pursue happiness as I shop for dog food and laundry detergent. 

I was struck by the incredulity and soft contempt in the voice of the Oregon woman they interviewed on NPR. "We all have guns," she says -- but for the locals, those guns are quietly integrated into their lives. They are in service of the kind of life they are trying to lead, which includes a cultural tradition of hunting, self-sufficiency, self-defense, and independence.

We, too, are gun owners, but we don't open carry, or flaunt it, or yammer about it endlessly. Gun ownership is not an end in itself; it's part of what helps us to live a life of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which are the rights that the Declaration of Independence says come from God. Guns are not something to be flaunted and paraded about, any more than you'd flaunt or parade about your wallet, or the ample supply of food in your freezer, or the gold bars you're saving for retirement. These are things that you have a right to amass, and which may help you to live the kind of life you are supposed to be free to pursue. But to flaunt them without regard for the people around you, as if they were in themselves the highest good, shows a stunted understanding of what it means to live well.

Now hear this: I'm not really talking about guns. I'm not really talking about guns. I'm not really talking about guns. I'm talking about the way we live our lives. What's our highest good? What's the thing we keep on protesting that we have a right to? Is it supposed to be an end in itself, or is it supposed to be in service of something higher? If so, are we pursuing our rights in a way that makes it easier or harder to achieve those higher goods? Are we prophesying and moving mountains and fathoming all mysteries just for the sake of doing it?  Are we just a clashing cymbal and a noisy gong?

It's not a conservative problem. This empty, stunted thinking afflicts zealots of all political stripes. Think about the way we speak about "choice," as if choice in itself is the highest good. What good is choice, if the choices you make lead to evil and suffering? What good is any freedom, if you never make an effort to use it in service of the good? What's it all for?

One of the most disheartening maladies plaguing 21st-century America, both left and right, is that people no longer feel the need to think about why we do things. We think only about whether or not we have the right to do something, and forget to ever ask ourselves why.