Saturday, December 15, 2012

It's time for some serious introspection

I feel the same way today that I felt on September 12, 2001: I woke up to a permanently scarred, and permanently changed, America.

How can things ever be the same after the carnage in Newtown, Conn., yesterday? There is no way they can be. What kind of a depraved human being could walk into a grammar school, filled with little kids, and shoot 20 of them dead? How horrific must it have been for those teachers and administrators who had to make snap, heroic decisions to throw themselves in front of children in the line of fire ... knowing they were giving up their lives for their pupils? 

In the wake of September 11, 2001, this country launched a massive effort to improve security at airports and in other venues where, when you think about it for a second, people have probably been sitting ducks for these enormous tragedies for decades. All it took was enough depravity on the part of the perpetrators so set such a historical atrocity into action.

We may have had debates about whether everything the president did back then was ethical and moral, and whether it was an erosion of our liberties. But he operated under the belief that one of these tragedies was one too many ... and that two would be absolutely, positively catastrophic.

And while we may have argued over the direction George W. Bush took in that "war on terrorism," nobody with any sense could deny there needed to be one.

So why can't we take the resolve we showed after September 11 and apply it to what has happened in our society over the last few years. Because seriously? What happened in Newtown yesterday is simply the culmination of  a series of mass shootings where someone who had no business having access to one gun, let alone three, was able to shoot his way into an elementary school in an upscale community and kill 26 people -- 20 of them children -- before turning his weapons on himself.

This is when I wonder whether we have any national resolve left in this country. I can't pinpoint when, exactly, the tipping point was, but nobody in this nation wants to confront difficult issues anymore. Oh, we talk our way through them and around them. But we don't do anything. We don't have the courage to confront serious economic issues and establish a consensus that prevents us from falling off the "fiscal cliff." We don't have the courage to come up with a meaningful policy on immigration. We'd rather stand on opposite sides of the street and scream at each other than meet in the middle and solve anything.

What I find ironic about this is that the people who complain the loudest about "entitlements" act pretty damn entitled themselves when it comes to stepping up to the plate, compromising, and sacrificing anything they feel they're owed. 

And we can throw the obstinate among us who simply refuse to view all this carnage without feeling a bit of responsibility for any of it into that mix too. If I heard it once I heard it a thousand times yesterday: Now is not a time to "politicize" this tragedy. It's a time to mourn and to pray. We can do the debate later.

Let's just get this out of the way now. How many "laters" are we allowed in this lifetime? How long are we going to put intelligent, adult discussion off? When are we going to rise up and understand that the only people "politicizing" this issue are the ones who might stand to lose a small portion of their "right to bear arms"? 

I wasn't around when the Bill of Rights was constructed and neither was anyone else in this lifetime. A huge portion of the American public doesn't understand what the First Amendment means, and the Second Amendment is worded so clumsily (apparently lawyers and obfuscation have gone hand-in-hand since forever) that anyone who claims to really know what it means has one on me.

The First Amendment doesn't mean your boss can't fire you, or suspend you, for saying things that make him, and his company, look foolish or worse. And it doesn't mean that religion -- however odious it might be to some people -- cannot exist in a free society. But it does mean that the U.S. government can't put you in jail, or otherwise persecute or prosecute you, for expressing unpopular opinions and it cannot coerce you into worshiping anything if you don't want to.

The Second Amendment says -- quote -- "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Like I said earlier,  that is some seriously ponderous wording. And if you read any of its history, you'll see that there was some fierce debating over how to word it .... right down to a comma that, in one of its earlier forms, stood between the words "arms" and "shall."

But however vague the wording is, one thing is, or should be, pretty clear: it does NOT mean that someone's 6-year-old child should cower in fear in his or her own school because a deranged, heavily armed person has stormed his way into a classroom and started shooting at random.

How can anyone justify this? How can anyone see this an not acknowledge that, at the very least, there should be some mature, adult dialogue on this feeling that the right to arm yourself to the teeth is sacrosanct?

To me, there's a special place in hell for anyone who seriously believes that our gun culture isn't linked to these heinous mass murders; and right next to it is a special place for all those pusillanimous politicians who grovel at the feet of those to perpetuate this warped culture.

I'm no pie in the sky idealist. I understand that you can't just unilaterally ban guns ... no more than you can realistically round up every illegal alien in the United States and deport them back to their native lands. Anyone who thinks you can do either is -- at this point -- doing nothing more than acting as a huge impediment against coming up with an answer to the thousand million questions we have about hate and death and war (apologies to Justin Hayward).

But you can move forward. You can at least acknowledge that what we're doing isn't working. If we have 100 gun laws on the books and we're still seeing rampant gun violence, then we need to change the laws. We need to attack the problem from a different perspective. We need to do SOMETHING. 

We cannot just sit there and admit defeat without trying. Because if we do, there will be another day, another massacre, and it'll keep getting worse.

We also have to grow up and realize that it's not just guns because guns are simply a means to an end. They are not THE end. They may be the quickest way -- short of a bomb -- to inflict mass casualties in the most spectacular fashion. For that reason alone we should all be horrified -- and ashamed -- at their rampant proliferation  ... especially assault weapons that serve no logical purpose EXCEPT to inflict mass casualties as quickly as possible.

But the problem is much bigger. We've all heard the term "culture of violence" and I'm afraid it's true. We do have a problem with it. We are desensitized to it. Violence permeates our entertainment media, and the incessant glorification of it is insidious.

I'll give you an example in my own life. I've sat in front of the TV for hours at a time marveling at how clever, and darkly funny, the movie "Pulp Fiction" is. And on one level it is brilliant.

But does it not glorify violence? Does it not leave you, at the end of the day, with the feeling that resorting to violence to settle scores is just a little too easy? And do we accept it a little too easily? 

Are we a little too accepting of misogyny in our culture? Of hostile language? Of bullying (though thankfully we seem to be aware now of how destructive bullying can be)? 

And here's where things just start falling together like a jigsaw puzzle. Violence begets violence. And I think back to the mass shooting in Arizona -- the one that left Gabby Giffords irreparably harmed and that little girl dead -- and remember the debate over whether the hate-speech spewed on all sides of the political spectrum may have spurred the perpetrator on.

And I remember how many people took umbrage over the suggestion that their lack of civility may have played any part at all in this. And I wondered at the time what it would take for people to understand.

It's a given that anyone who would take a gun and start shooting indiscriminately is deranged. Whether they're clinically deranged, or just so full of hatred and resentment that they become that way, is of small comfort to the victims or their families. In fact, it's almost irrelevant (even though we also should probably start another dialogue about how hard it is for mentally ill people to get treatment versus how easy it seems to be to get guns). 

Deranged people aren't stupid. They can read. They can hear things. In fact, paranoid, deranged and  unbalanced people often have more finely tuned antennae than you and I. And you don't need to be a psychologist or a psychiatrist to understand they feed off hate and negativity. 

This isn't to say that we're singularly responsible for any of these atrocities or that we should all retire from watching adult-level entertainment and stick to "The Waltons." But collectively, we can, and should, demand better. 

We should be able to distinguish the truly grotesque and misanthropic and -- of our own volition -- reject it. We should be able to tell the difference between legitimate debate and inflammatory pandering on hot-button issues and reject the demagogues. We should send a message to politicians all over America, whether it's by demonstrations, mass-mailings, whatever ... that we are angry over something besides whether our taxes are going to go up a few dollars. There's got to more to existance than that.

We need to get a grip on the fact that evil exists, and that evil people will forever look outward, rather than inward, for the reasons they're unhappy. And we need to be protected from them BEFORE THE FACT; NOT AFTER IT. AFTER IT IS TOO LATE.

The time for this introspection is not next week, or next month, or the next time Congress convenes. It's now. Today. Sit down and write your congressman. Flood his office with voice mails. Vote the sonofabitch out of office the next chance you get. Hold your leaders responsible for the fact that we're almost into 2013 and we're no closer to finding the right path that might lead us out of this wilderness than we ever were.

DEMAND uniform national standards for the right to own a gun and stand up to the people who throw states' rights at us as an impediment ... and remember that the cloak we used to justify slavery for 80 years after the Constitution was ratified was "states' rights." And remember the country is called the "United States" of America. Not "50 Individual States of America."

But most of all, and apart from the anger, please, please keep the victims of this and all these massacres in your thoughts. Because the minute they -- and these events -- recede from the national consciousness, the debate and discussion we always way we're going to have on this issues somehow recedes with it.

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