Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

17Dec/125

If Not Now, When?

I want to be better.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do in the wake of a tragedy is to look inward. As Friday stretched into the weekend, many of us logged onto Facebook, our twenty-first century church house, to commune over the loss of twenty-six innocent lives. We responded the best way we knew how, saying, in a thousand ways both trite and original, that a.) our hearts were broken, b.) we wished we knew how to help, and c.) there must be a silver lining. Well, there is no silver lining. There's nothing we can do that will bring those children or their doomed protectors back. There's nothing you or I could say or do that would make even the slightest dent in their community's unfathomable pain. That's a hard truth to write. It was an even harder truth to feel. We sure felt it, though, didn't we? And we hoped, in our self-comforting way, that at least maybe this horror would bring us closer together as a country.

And then within minutes we were arguing over about how to be more caring, meaning holier or smarter or righter. I say "we" because I did it, too. Please don't take this as a lecture. It's a confession. I want to be better.

The debate this weekend focused on two issues. First, some people claim God abandoned our schools because we abandoned Him. Well, I'm probably the wrong guy to point this out, but the U.S. has the highest population of Christians of any country in the world. True, we're probably as agnostic as we've ever been these days, but that's not saying much. And if you're willing to suggest, even suggest, God allowed twenty children to die because we decided not to make a daily ritual of prayer in our schools, then you're describing a Deity Who deserves none of your affection. I don't believe in that God. I'll bet you don't, either. Not that God. You shouldn't. That God would be worse than any Devil ever imagined. And please don't hand me that business about free will. You have the "free will" to let a killer get away with shooting a child in front of you, but if you do, especially if you have the power to stop a mass murder, you'll be indicted as an accessory, as well you should be. You can't inject God into this discussion without opening...

Well, obviously this is one of those "can of worms" topics that is bigger and deeper than any of us, and I probably shouldn't delve into it further, especially since it's not the real meat of my comments. Suffice it to say I refuse to believe God allows people to die simply because of their political or even moral choices. That's magical, medieval thinking, and we need to outgrow it.

The other hot topic this weekend was gun control. In any sensible republic, this would be the time, maybe long past the right time, when we had a sober, mature, adult conversation about how to keep insane people from getting their hands on automatic weapons. But we can't seem to have that conversation, because the assumption is "gun control" = "the government is coming to take the guns you bought with your own money to protect your home and family or at least feel like you could if you had to." That also is medieval thinking, because I know very few people--I can count them on the fingers of one hand--who suggest any such thing. As for me, I don't want all your guns. I don't want the government in charge of such a program. I believe in the right to bear arms.

Having said that, I believe in the right to bear arms the exact same way I believe in freedom of speech or car ownership or religion or any other freedom. When your freedom gets in the way of children's safety, your freedom must bend. That's called being a grown-up. You can certainly own a car. You can even drive it. You can't drive it at eighty miles an hour in a school yard.

Now wait just a doggone minute, you say. I own a gun, and I'm no danger to children. How dare you? I know. I know many of you own guns, and I know your kids are at more risk driving to the store than living next to your duly locked gun safe. I know because my mom has a small arsenal locked in a gun safe. I know because I've been trained in how to use guns by people who understood the level of danger they represent. I know my friends are good people, sane people, who can be trusted with a weapon. I want you to be able to protect your family. I know you're hunters and you enjoy that, and I like free venison. We have no difference of opinion on any of that. But if you believe, if you genuinely believe, it should be easy for average people to buy and load semi-automatic weapons, then I really don't know what to say anymore. Does it have to be all or nothing? My friends, can we not even talk about this?

Because really, in almost any moral question in life, isn't the truth somewhere smack in the middle? Isn't it possible, for example, that freedom of speech has its limits? I raise that example because freedom of speech is my own pet right. I believe in it body, mind, and soul. But when I hear the Westboro "Baptist Church" plans to picket the funerals of children, I realize my favorite freedom can be abused, so even freedom can benefit from limits. (It sounds paradoxical, I know. C'est la vie.) Should freedom of religion be extended to even those Westboro monsters? Is that how anyone wants it? Is it possible, even probable, that in order to keep our civilization functional, we may sometimes have to compromise around the edges of even our most cherished "rights?"

I ask because I believe, even more than God or guns, our American hatred of compromise is the biggest obstacle to preventing another Newtown. And we must. We simply must. I don't want to hurt like this anymore. Do you? I thought not. So why can't we just talk about things? Why is the word "compromise" seen as a negative? It's basically the foundation of any working civilization. Don't we know that, in our heart of hearts? So why do slogans like "never give an inch!" and "no quarter asked, no quarter given!" resonate so happily in the American psyche?

I saw a lot of people blaming the media this weekend. It's the news, people said. It gets us so worked up we can't even think anymore. Well, I used to work in TV news, and I can promise you, whatever you may have heard about the "liberal media," it's owned by incredibly rich people. The media may not always agree with your preconceptions, but believe me, the media has only one bias: it wants to make money. And in order to make money, it needs your attention. It tries like hell to go wherever you're looking. If everyone started watching calm, clearheaded summaries on PBS, that's what every other news program would look like before the week was out. This isn't about how the media presents us with information. It's about the kind of stimuli we seek.

We're a thrill-seeking nation, short on patience and long on extreeeeeme! We like monster trucks and fisticuffs and 'splosions and silicone and yelling and crying and colors and sound. Our national anthem crescendos toward "rockets' red glare" and "bombs bursting in air." AC/DC, once decried as "the devil's music," now accompanies Walmart commercials. We pretend to declare wars on things like poverty and drugs that aren't aware they're in a war. We use pronouns like "us" and "we" to refer to the 'roid-raging athletes on our favorite football teams. We even burst into sobs when they lose, as if people we don't know losing a ball game somehow affects our lives. We use inflammatory rhetoric like "George Lucas raped my childhood!" to complain about silly children's movies about light-swords and robots. We can't seem to talk about anything without raising our voices or leaping to doomsday conclusions about every eventuality. There are people in my family we can't even mention the duly elected President of the United States around because they will literally start screaming and their hearts will explode.

My friends, I ask you in all sincerity, what is wrong with us? Aren't we better than this? Why do mundane budget sessions have to end in "fiscal cliff" and "armageddon" scenarios? Why can't we say "snow" without adding the suffix "-pocalypse?" When did vitriolic anger addicts Sean Hannity and Bill Maher acquire the status of journalists? How did we get so worked up? Don't we know we have each other's best interests at heart? Are we so wedded to our insane American drama junkie personality that we can't take a single step back and reassess, even if it means risking the lives of children?

It's so hard to look in the mirror and realize we've gone crazy, but that's what we've done. We've allowed ourselves to degenerate to a place where we can't even look each other in the eye and discuss our mutual future, or that of our children, in good faith. We can't take steps to minimize global warming, because even admitting there is such a thing is decried as anti-business. We can't resolve our budget woes, because the rich will be damned if they'll pay the same tax rate they paid under Reagan. We can't let more people get married or the End of the World will be upon us. We treat everything like the magic trigger that'll somehow undo the fabric of our society. But the sad thing is, we're the trigger, and even worse, we're all trigger happy. I'm as guilty as you, Gentle Reader, perhaps more so. I want to be better.

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  1. I feel almost exactly how you do on in relation to the WBC and the 1st amendment, while defending the 2nd amendment in the wake of last week. I feel almost dirty trying to defend it at times because I can see the intended value of both sides of the aisle. But my shamefulness runs a bit deeper. The events last week failed to resonate within myself. I think it is because I’ve become so jaded to stuff like this because of my experiences in both Afghanistan and Iraq; though, it makes me feel less than human none the less.

    As for our collective lack of ability to hold an objective civilized discussion I think a lot of it derives from our Education system. Through all of primary school for instance children are taught how to form academic arguments with the end of the paper coming with an affirmation of your contentions and why you think you are right. And that is where the dialog ends, more onto the next subject. There is no extended dialog between teacher and student, usually, over the chosen topic other than receiving a grade for their work. Other ways of framing arguments and experiencing extended dialog on a subject don’t occur until a student enrolls into an English 102 class and they are introduced to things such as the Rogerian argument framework. (I’ve got more, but this is all I’ve been able to form into coherent thought. So I’ll leave it at this).

  2. If it helps, the First Amendment didn’t wind up with that number by accident. It’s the Big Kahuna of individual rights, and its treatment under the law — the preferred position — is embodied in any and every constitutional decision where the court must factor multiple rights. Freedom of speech/religion/expression outweighs every other right we’re guaranteed. It’s never been interpreted differently.

    However, the First Amendment is loaded with restrictions. George Carlin’s seven dirty words are not dirty in my house, but over “the public airwaves,” they carry a massive fine for the operator of that broadcast entity and the person responsible for airing them. I can’t call my neighbor a rapist just because I want to. The First Amendment has been, is, and will be abridged countless times for reasons of public safety, public good, or public decency. And that’s the best we can ever hope for of our strongest and most personally held individual freedom. Even Westboro Baptist recently suffered a First Amendment blow — and there’s really no other way to put it: They’ve been banned from protesting within 300 feet of grieving family members from two hours before through two hours after a funeral. That is an evident breach of their right to assemble, and yet…

    Therefore, the Second Amendment should carry similar restrictions for reasons of public safety and public good. It’s not as important and has never been considered so. The extreme line in the sand is it’s illegal to own nuclear weapons, so illegal that we can apparently dictate that to other countries, as well. More realistic guidelines look like this: Felons can’t own guns (Gun Rights Act of 1968, reinforced in 1986); if you’ve received a felony or misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence or are subject to a restraining order, you can’t own a gun or ammunition (Lautenberg Amendment); even in cases where felonies are later expunged, some states still won’t let you own a firearm.

    The idea that requiring weapons purchases to be more accountable and traceable or that background checks should always be enforced somehow makes Ted Nugent less Nugenty is preposterous. Yes, we need better mental health support and all the rest, but there are 88 guns for every 100 people in the United States and we kill 20 times as many people with guns than the other 22 of the 23 richest countries in the world combined. Where there are more guns in this country and around the world, there are more homicides. And suicides. And accidental deaths. Another way to look at it: 80% of all people gunned down in the 23 richest countries on the planet lived here. That number grows to 87% of all children killed with guns in those same countries.

    My own position on this subject has veered sharply over the years, but it becomes more concrete every time we go through this because there’s no legitimate conversation about how to save lives, only how to save votes. Honestly, if you think your Second Amendment rights can’t be subject to restrictions in the name of public safety, you don’t fully understand the argument.

  3. First of all, thanks to both Ed and Colin for thoughtful, intelligent responses. Ed, I don’t think one’s response to a specific tragedy is a measure of his or her humanity. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you why this one in particular has affected me so deeply. I think you see it in Colin as well. We’re done playing. But none of my friends would tell you I’m a huge fan of children. I’ve never quite warmed up to the smelly little snot factories. But I spent this entire weekend on the verge of tears, often tipping over that verge. My friends threw a first-birthday party for their toddler, and I watched a roomful of children playing and tried desperately not to imagine someone blasting their way into the room and spraying lead into their tiny little bodies. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t pretend gun enthusiasts’ hobby, their affection for murder toys, is more important than the lives of innocent children anymore. It isn’t right. We can’t even say we don’t know what the outcome will be if we pull the most dangerous guns and ammo off the streets. We do know. Other countries have tried it–and it worked. We have inarguable data on this. We can argue whether banning first person shooters or The Walking Dead would have an impact, because the truth is, there’s no way of knowing. We can debate the best way to help mentally ill folks, and I’ve heard persuasive arguments on both sides. But this isn’t one of those questions. We know banning assault rifles for civilians will help. We know if a person can’t load and fire over a hundred rounds in a matter of minutes, their ability to kill large numbers of people will be reduced. I won’t spend much more time making that case here, partly because Colin had done such an eloquent job already, but also because it’s self-evident. Civilians don’t need military weapons, and they’re dangerous. And even if a gun owner is responsible, the next person who lays his or her hands on that weapon may not be. After all, the shooter’s mother was one such quiet target shooter, but she was yet another victim of her own gun.

    But again: I don’t think any of this would be a problem if we didn’t have such strong, knee-jerk responses to dealing with it. Ed, you question our educational system’s focus on rhetoric over communication, and there’s probably something to that. I can tell you as an educator myself that college campuses used to be a lot more willing to entertain intelligent debate. I remember in particular a sociology professor at my alma mater who began his class on “Cults and Religions” with the caveat, “I should tell you right now that I believe Christianity is a two-thousand-year-old fairy tale.” Yes, there were voices raised in protest, but not from his employers. College deans are much less excited these days about hearing how their students were offended. Twenty years ago, “Teacher questioned stuff I always assumed to be true and it hurt my feelings” was considered a less valid complaint. You can bet I was careful about things I said in classrooms (though admittedly less so than others), because I didn’t feel like sitting through a meeting on the topic of “Stick to the math. Enough with all these jokes and personal commentaries. Students came here to learn, not to think.”

    But teachers and administrators are Americans, too. It’s all part of the same syndrome. Yes, the news is shouty and incoherent and sensationalistic. Yes, we love violent movies and video games. Yes, we hate reasoned debate in good faith. Yes, our educational system is deeply, deeply flawed, and yes, we use God to legitimize our own prejudices and hatreds, but those are all symptoms. The disease is our shared personality. I didn’t fully realize that until I moved far north enough to watch Canadian TV. Their networks are advertiser-driven just like ours, but the programming is altogether calmer and, frankly, smarter. It can be, because Canadian viewers don’t have as much interest in other kinds of programming.

    The real thrust of my argument is that we need to change ourselves even more than we need to change our laws. America has developed a serious, murderous personality disorder, and it’s time we got help.

  4. At the risk of sounding like a jerk, I think we (as in the media–producers and consumers) have made this event into something much bigger than it was. Yes, it’s horrific that children were slaughtered. Believe me, I felt a horrible ache in my stomach because I have a son in 1st grade and I can’t imagine him having to go through that horror. But this was an unstable person who simply committed crimes.

    He stole the guns he used. He broke into the school to even start his spree. And of course, he murdered people. It is ilegal to do all those things. This was a nut job who decided to hurt people. Period.

    This crazy notion that we have to revamp gun control laws or change our entire country’s culture is simply absurd to me. Unfortunately, there are people that decide to hurt others and inflict harm. When I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, there was a nut job that took a huge knife (they have strong gun control in Japan) into an elementary school and started hacking people at random.

    What we as a society need to do is be observant. If someone in your life is mentally unstable, keep an eye on them. Neighbor, family member, coworker, whatever, if they start to act Off or Weird, report it. Every so often we hear a news story about people doing just this. Police will indeed check on known troubled individuals if someone reports odd behavior. They are not big fans of doing this, but they will do their best.

    What saddens me is this “DO SOMETHING!” reaction we constantly have now. I certainly blame the media for this. They love to hype up events like this tragedy to sell papers, magazines, get website hits, or generate TV ratings. Then the politicians love to use these issues as platforms for their own ideaological plans.

    If you create more laws, then there will simply be more laws broken the next time some crazed person decides to hurt people.

    What we really need to do, is stop screwing around and fix this economy. It’s well documented that the more people have jobs and can support their families successfully, violence goes down.

    Ironically, it seems every shooter of this nature decides to kill themselves once someone with a gun shows up to stop them. That is something to chew on.

  5. The problem, Chris, is that laws by themselves aren’t a cure-all. We may have 20,000 gun laws on the books (that’s the number gun rights groups have cited recently), but if they’re unenforced, are they really laws at all? When the president announced his executive orders, several sheriffs said they wouldn’t enforce them. So those are instantly ineffective. Obviously, many of the “laws on the books” have been subsequently undercut or diluted by additional legislation. Chief among those are background check and permit regulations, which have been so obscured the ATF can’t even perform functions it was originally required to in earlier laws. And those are just publicly acknowledged indifference, to say nothing of haphazard inattention to detail.

    Beyond Newtown — which, I agree, has pushed past its actual scope — the real scourge is gun crime. 30,000 deaths a year (murder, manslaughter, suicide). But keep looking: Just for armed robbery and assault, there are another 265,000 gun crimes in the U.S. every year. (They don’t, as yet, keep an official statistic for forcible rape where the force involves a gun, but there are over 80,000 forcible rape attempts every year, so a few of those would surely qualify). So, we’re at a gun crime rate of 1 in 1000 or so. Every year. That doesn’t count things like hunting accidents or unintentional self-inflicted wounds or, again, whatever the total is for rape, nor does it count illegal gun trafficking. But you see how it adds up when we don’t just want to stop mass murder. We could be looking at half a million gun incidents and accidents every year.

    So the “Do Something” reaction is legitimate. It’s easier to get a gun than a post office box. And unfortunately, many people treat them just as lightly. People skate by with this notion that we have the Wild West in our national blood, but check the ordinances of Dodge City or Tombstone or virtually any other notorious town of that era: They had bans on concealed weapons. Half the country had bans on them in the 19th century, because they understood what we apparently don’t now, namely that guns are terribly dangerous, they aren’t a good idea in public, and more of them only make matters worse.


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