Since this nation’s bloody beginning—the decimation of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans—nothing has been more terrifying to white America than a Black man with a gun.

No matter what the motive, whether as a member of a slave revolt or with an undetermined purpose, Black men brandishing arms is the nation’s most troubling nightmare. That nightmare stands in stark contrast to the American dream the powers that be have tried to drum home to the dispossessed and downtrodden.

A few scenes from the American nightmare occurred quite frequently during slavery, and the countless rebellions are a testament to the fight against systemic oppression.

When Nat Turner struck a blow for his freedom with a brutal attack on his slave owners and their white neighbors in 1831, it sent tremors of fear across the South, and even a savage retribution was not enough to remove the horrendous memory.

In 1962, when Robert Williams’ book, “Negroes With Guns,” was published, it was a frightening reminder of a potential danger, although it was merely the author’s rebuke of the pacifism he witnessed from his colleagues in the NAACP. Even so, the message was received and resonated more threateningly to many other Americans.

Of course, a Black man with a gun isn’t always a moment of anxiety for white Americans. It’s quite all right for them to shoulder a weapon while in uniform or in service to the country. Black soldiers have been indispensable in practically every war the nation has waged, and perhaps never more gallantly than the Harlem Hellfighters during World War I.

But for them to bring their guns home after mustering out of the military, as a few did in Chicago during the race riot of 1919, was taboo. Black men ready to defend their homes and lives against nightriders and the Ku Klux Klan have rarely been honored or celebrated in this society. In fact, to take a stand against domestic terrorists, to shoot it out with a white mob as Dr. Ossian Sweet did in Detroit in 1925, is to discover the futility of self-defense.

None of this criticism is to justify the actions of Micah Johnson in Dallas or Gavin Long in Baton Rouge. Both were trained to use their guns in the military, and both seemed to be impervious to the risk they faced by attacking the police, an act akin to the suicide so prevalent among returning veterans. Each day 22 veterans commit suicide. Was this a form of fragging, a delayed reaction to their stint in the service and a desire to kill their commanding officers? Are we merely talking about a couple of deeply mentally disturbed young men with murder and mayhem on their minds?

Recently, in an online Counterpunch essay by Linda Burnham, she touched on the issue of dementia. She wrote, “Before boxing Micah Johnson up and setting him aside as deranged and demented it’s worth asking a few questions. Honestly, good people, did anybody in their right mind—that is, not

troubled or demented—think that the police could continue to pick off Black people at will and on camera without producing a Micah Johnson?” She concludes by citing a number of traumatizing episodes experienced by Black Americans historically, noting that if demented and troubled is shorthand for any of the flagrant, accumulative abuses, “then Micah Johnson may have been a lone gunman, but he is from alone.”

She wrote this essay before Gavin Long blasted his way into the American nightmare.

Sometimes, as we know so well, it only takes the perception of a Black with a gun or the fact that he is licensed to carry one, as in the case of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., to unsettle a trigger-happy officer.

If the image of a Black man with a gun is embedded in the imagination of white America and is the first thing that crosses a white officer’s mind when a Black man is accosted, then our situation is hopeless.

Two free dailies Monday were on the same page about the recent carnage in Baton Rouge. “An Attack on All of Us” one of them declared. “Ambush” was the other boldly emblazoned headline. It was hard not to see these signs of the times, times that can’t seem to disappear into some distant past.

“Violence is as American as cherry pie,” civil rights activist H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin) stated years ago amid a similar turbulence. And Brown’s dictum seems as current today as it was when he was on the ramparts, standing shoulder to shoulder with members of the Black Panther Party. When the Panthers announced, quoting Mao Zedong that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” the law enforcement agencies went on full alert and prepared themselves for combat.

But as the Panthers learned, as Johnson and Long learned, it’s one thing to frighten white Americans, and quite another to take it to the next stage, which even Huey Newton had to concede was admirable but nonetheless “revolutionary suicide.”

Neither Johnson nor Long can be defined as a revolutionary, but they do represent that alarming specter of a Black man with a gun. And if the deadly pattern of police killing of unarmed Black men continues, we can anticipate that Burnham’s conclusion will be another lethal reality.