Sometimes It Still Feels Good To Be An American

As I’ve gotten older and learned more about our history, it doesn’t feel as good to be an American as it used to. But there are days like yesterday that remind me how good it used to feel and sometimes still does.

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Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post said it much better than I could:

By the hundreds of thousands, they came. They gave impassioned and articulate speeches. The shared their experiences in Chicago, South Los Angeles and Florida. They gave one TV interview after another, displaying remarkable poise and heart-breaking sincerity. Adults decades older watched with awe. These are teenagers. How did these kids learn to do  this? 

The sense of amazement among adults, including jaded members of the media, was palpable — both because supposedly sophisticated adults had not pulled off this kind of change in attitudes about guns in the decades they’d been trying and because the teenagers shredded the talking points, the lies, the cynicism and the indifference that we’ve become accustomed to in our politics.

If this was a movie, you’d think it was inauthentic. However, it may be our image of our fellow Americans and teenagers that has been wildly inaccurate and unfairly negative. Too many of us have bought into the notion that teenagers are passive, addicted to their phones and lacking civic awareness. Too many have been guilted into accepting that “real Americans” are the Trump voters, and that the rest of us are pretenders, pawns of “elites.” The crowd reminded us of the country’s enormous geographic, racial, gender and age diversity. (Plenty of teachers, parents and grandparents turned out.) And in the case of guns, these people are far more representative of the views of the country than the proverbial guy in the Rust Belt diner. 

Social media has its downsides, we have come to learn all too well. But we’ve forgotten amidst the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal and the daily torment of President Trump’s tweets that social media merely amplifies what is there already. It gives the Russians, the haters, the xenophobes a louder voice and the tools to disguise their true identities, but it can also amplify sincere, empathetic voices and knit together a community — an overused but underappreciated phenomenon — without which the students’ organization on a scale of this magnitude would have been impossible. It is all too convenient to blame social media; the actual problem is the small but significant segment of the population behind the nastiness, anger, aggression and refusal to grapple with reality. As is always the case, the solution to bad speech is more speech. If we had forgotten that, the students who have grown up never knowing a world without iPhones surely hadn’t. 

The decision to let only children and teenagers speak was key to the entire endeavor. No canned political speeches; no feigned emotion. The experience of the more than 180,000 students who have been  exposed to gun violence in schools over the past few decades was suddenly very real, very immediate.

Those on the event stage talked about their friends, their certainty in political change, their solidarity with other victims, and their fearlessness in the face of naysayers and cynics. They mocked and condemned the National Rifle Association and the politicians who take their money…. They sounded angry, sad and serious. They spoke about democracy and urged the crowd to vote; they inveighed against party politics….

And so we are left with the stark contrast — the sincerity of the students vs. the canned platitudes of the gun absolutists; the speed and vibrancy of a mass movement vs. the gridlock and sameness of our politics; the dogged determination of teenagers not yet world-weary vs. the sense of futility that pervades our politics. The outcome is not preordained. Yes, democracies are under assault. Xenophobes and nativists certainly have come out from under the rocks. The president has tried to make the abnormal commonplace and the unacceptable  inevitable. But if nothing else, the marchers reminded us we have a choice. We can be fatalistic and passive, or determined and active. If teenagers can take the capital by storm, surely the rest of us can do something more than complain and yell at the TV.

The young lady in the yellow sweatshirt gets the last word:

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Hillary Clinton Made a Great Speech

At the A.M.E. Church conference in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 8th, the day after the killings in Dallas. The full speech is here, with excerpts below the video:

Partial transcript of her remarks:

Gun violence is ripping apart people’s lives. They’re trying to tell us. And we need to listen.

I know that, just by saying all these things together, I may upset some people. I’m talking about criminal justice reform the day after a horrific attack on police officers. I’m talking about courageous, honorable police officers just a few days after officer-involved killings in Louisiana and Minnesota. I’m bringing up guns in a country where merely talking about comprehensive background checks and getting assault weapons off our streets gets you demonized.

But all these things can be true at once. We do need police and criminal justice reforms, to save lives and make sure all Americans are treated equally in rights and dignity. We do need to support police departments and stand up for the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect us. And we do need to reduce gun violence. We may disagree about how to do all these things, but surely we can all agree with those basic premises. Surely this week showed us how true they are.

Now, I have set forth plans for over a year to reduce excessive violence, reform our sentencing laws, support police departments that are doing things right, make it harder for the wrong people to get their hands on guns. For example, there are two important steps that I will take as president.

First, I will bring law enforcement and communities together to develop national guidelines on the use of force by police officers. We will make it clear for everyone to see when deadly force is warranted, and when it isn’t. And we will emphasize proven methods for de-escalating situations before they reach that point.

And second, let’s be honest — let’s acknowledge that implicit bias still exists across our society and even in the best police departments. We have to tackle it together, which is why in my first budget, I will commit $1 billion to find and fund the best training programs, support new research, and make this a national policing priority. Let’s learn from those police departments like Dallas that have been making progress, apply their lessons nationwide.

Now, plans like these are important. But we have to acknowledge that — on their own — they won’t be enough. On their own, our thoughts and prayers aren’t enough, either. We need to do some hard work inside ourselves, too….

I’ve tried to say for some time now that our country needs more love and kindness. I know it’s not the kind of thing presidential candidates usually say. But we have to find ways to repair these wounds and close these divides. The great genius and salvation of the United States is our capacity to do and to be better. And we must answer the call to do that again. It’s critical to everything else we want to achieve — more jobs with rising income; good education no matter what ZIP code a child lives in; affordable college; paying back debts; health care for everyone. We must never give up on the dream of this nation.

I want to close with a favorite passage — a passage that you all know — that means a great deal to me and I’m sure to many of you, from Galatians. “Let us not grow weary in doing good” — “for in due season, we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”

Automatic Weapons Again

A statistic from Vox:  More Americans have been killed with guns since 1968 than have died in all of our wars going back to 1776. 

Now, we all know that the purpose of “automatic” weapons is to disable or kill many people very quickly. Rational Americans understand that no private citizen should legally possess powerful weapons of this kind or the ammunition that goes with them. The Constitution doesn’t give us the right to bear any kind of “arms” no matter how dangerous. Making these weapons illegal does not require going down the slippery slope to banning all firearms. The United States isn’t going to invade Texas and even Texas isn’t the Wild West. More guns and more powerful guns means more innocent people being maimed and killed.  

But if law-abiding citizens don’t own such weapons, only criminals will! That’s exactly right. Police and the armed forces will have access to these weapons in case they’re needed. Anybody else who has an automatic weapon will be and should be a criminal.

From New York Times op-ed writer Timothy Egan’s article about our latest massacre:

A day after the California carnage, the Senate decided to do nothing, again, voting down a measure that would have made it more difficult for people on the terror watch list, felons and the mentally ill to buy guns.

Well, it wasn’t as if the whole Senate made that decision:

YEAs (Do Something) — 45
Baldwin (D-WI)
Bennet (D-CO)
Blumenthal (D-CT)
Booker (D-NJ)
Boxer (D-CA)
Brown (D-OH)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Cardin (D-MD)
Carper (D-DE)
Casey (D-PA)
Coons (D-DE)
Donnelly (D-IN)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Franken (D-MN)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Heinrich (D-NM)
Hirono (D-HI)
Kaine (D-VA)
King (I-ME)
Kirk (R-IL)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Leahy (D-VT)
Manchin (D-WV)
Markey (D-MA)
McCaskill (D-MO)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Merkley (D-OR)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Murphy (D-CT)
Murray (D-WA)
Nelson (D-FL)
Peters (D-MI)
Reed (D-RI)
Reid (D-NV)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schatz (D-HI)
Schumer (D-NY)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Tester (D-MT)
Udall (D-NM)
Warren (D-MA)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wyden (D-OR)
NAYs (Do Nothing) — 54
Alexander (R-TN)
Ayotte (R-NH)
Barrasso (R-WY)
Blunt (R-MO)
Boozman (R-AR)
Burr (R-NC)
Capito (R-WV)
Cassidy (R-LA)
Coats (R-IN)
Cochran (R-MS)
Collins (R-ME)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Cotton (R-AR)
Crapo (R-ID)
Cruz (R-TX)
Daines (R-MT)
Enzi (R-WY)
Ernst (R-IA)
Fischer (R-NE)
Flake (R-AZ)
Gardner (R-CO)
Graham (R-SC)
Grassley (R-IA)
Hatch (R-UT)
Heitkamp (D-ND)
Heller (R-NV)
Hoeven (R-ND)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Johnson (R-WI)
Lankford (R-OK)
Lee (R-UT)
McCain (R-AZ)
McConnell (R-KY)
Moran (R-KS)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Paul (R-KY)
Perdue (R-GA)
Portman (R-OH)
Risch (R-ID)
Roberts (R-KS)
Rounds (R-SD)
Rubio (R-FL)
Sasse (R-NE)
Scott (R-SC)
Sessions (R-AL)
Shelby (R-AL)
Sullivan (R-AK)
Thune (R-SD)
Tillis (R-NC)
Toomey (R-PA)
Vitter (R-LA)
Wicker (R-MS)

So, I have two recommendations. The first is for Democrats (D) and Independents (I): 

Support rational gun control, do what you can to make your position known and always vote, but never, ever vote for a Republican. 

The second is for Republicans (R):

Seek treatment from a qualified mental health professional. 

~~~~~

Times columnist Gail Collins describes some of the rationalizations offered by Republican politicians in support of doing nothing.

The Decline of the Militia

From What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe:

Jeffersonians of the founding generation had reposed great confidence in the militia as an alternative to a standing army that could be used against the liberties of the people it supposedly protected.This militia, organized in each locality, consisted of all physically fit white males of military age, who would supply their own arms and donate as much of their time as necessary to keep in training and readiness when called upon to deal with insurrection or invasion. This was the “well regulated militia” postulated in the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights and prescribed by the federal Militia Act of 1792.

The militia had proved ineffective on many occasions in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (George Washington never put much trust in it), but its gradual disappearance in the generation after 1815 had nothing to do with its military shortcomings.

The militia gradually ceased to function because most male citizens resented it as an imposition, and hated serving in it so much that they either refused to show up for the periodic musters and drills, or if they came made a mockery of the occasion. Since the men who defied the militia laws constituted the electorate, politicians dated not to coerce service. White male democracy could successfully defy the law, as squatters defied landlords or Indian treaties…. When the war with Mexico came in 1846, the administration made little use of the militia and relied instead on its small professional army plus volunteers trained and equipped at government expense [p. 491].

Now, 170 years later, we have the most powerful military and most heavily-armed police in the world, while sad, angry men, with a death wish for themselves and others, “serve” in the “militia”.

PS – “994 mass shootings in 1,004 days”

Meanwhile, In Gun News

It’s been reported recently that the US government doesn’t keep track of how many people are killed by the police. The FBI relies on individual police departments to report “justifiable homicides” they commit, but a study by The Wall Street Journal found that “hundreds of police killings are uncounted in federal stats”.

That’s why The Guardian created “The Counted”. It’s an attempt to document everyone killed by America’s police departments during 2015. The database includes people shot to death, as well as those who died under other circumstances, such as the 15 people hit by police cars. As of today, the database contains 506 deaths, 442 by gunshot. You can look at the database and see brief accounts of each incident here.

In a related Guardian article, it’s pointed out that:

… police in the US often contend with much more violent situations and more heavily armed individuals than police in other developed democratic societies. Still, looking at our data for the US against admittedly less reliable information on police killings elsewhere paints a dramatic portrait … : the US is not just some outlier in terms of police violence when compared with countries of similar economic and political standing. America is the outlier … [my emphasis].

One way to reduce both the number of violent situations the police confront and the number of people they kill would be to reduce the number of firearms in circulation. (If you want to get shot by a police officer, the most efficient way is to acquire a gun and then point it at a cop, like David Schwalm did last month.)

And one way to reduce the number of firearms in circulation would be to enforce something like Connecticut’s “permit to purchase” law. From Salon:

Connecticut’s “permit to purchase” law, in effect for two decades, requires residents to undergo background checks, complete a safety course and apply in-person for a permit before they can buy a handgun. The law applies to both private sellers and licensed gun dealers.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins reviewed the homicide rate in the 10 years before the law was implemented and compared it to longitudinal estimates of what the rate would have been had the law not be enacted. The study found a 40 percent reduction in gun-related homicides….there was no similar drop in non-firearm homicides.

The relationship between tighter regulations around handguns and fewer gun-related homicides is in keeping with previous research out of Johns Hopkins on what happened after Missouri repealed its own permit law.

When Missouri repealed its permit law, the number of homicides went up, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. The John Hopkins researchers found a 23% increase in gun-related homicides in the five years after the law was repealed.

Cosmic Justice

According to the Detroit News, a 19-year old black woman, Renisha McBride, had a car accident in the predominantly white suburb of Dearborn Heights, Michigan, at around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Her cell phone battery was dead, so she began looking for help. After knocking on the door or ringing the bell at a house on Outer Drive, she was shot in the head and killed. The Dearborn Heights police department found her body on the front porch. They know who killed her but haven’t released the person’s name.

Michigan is one of the states that now has a “Stand Your Ground” law. Michigan’s law says that a person has the right to use deadly force against another person if he or she “reasonably” believes such force is necessary to protect himself, herself or someone else from imminent death, great bodily harm or sexual assault. Given the facts reported so far, asking the woman ringing your door bell at 2:30 a.m. what she wanted or calling 911 would have been more reasonable than putting a bullet through her head. The incident is now in the hands of the Wayne County prosecutor.

In news that could be related, physicists have discovered that the Higgs field, what the New York Times calls “an invisible ocean of energy that permeates space, confers mass on elementary particles and gives elementary forces their distinct features and strengths” might undergo a phase transition resulting from a random quantum-level fluctuation. This phase transition would make the Higgs field much denser than it is now. That change would destroy everything in the universe more complex than hydrogen, the simplest element there is. 

In fact, a random fluctuation of this kind might have already occurred, meaning that the resulting phase transition (in effect, a wave of destruction traveling at the speed of light) might be heading for us right now. We won’t know if it’s coming or notice if it arrives: “the idea is that the Higgs field could someday twitch and drop to a lower energy state, like water freezing into ice, thereby obliterating the workings of reality as we know it”.

It would be as if Someone finally got fed up and turned off the cosmic switch that controls everything around us, including Dearborn Heights, Michigan.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view of cosmic justice, it is very, very unlikely that the Higgs field will change any time soon. Nevertheless, it could happen, especially if Someone gets really fed up.

Update:  Apparently, it was a man who killed Renisha McBride. He did it with a shotgun and says it was an accident. He also says he thought she was an intruder (the kind who knocks on the front door or rings the bell?).  

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The death of Renisha McBride:  http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20131105/METRO01

The Higgs field: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/05/science/finding-the-higgs-leads-to-more-puzzles

A nice, 14-minute video that explains how very unlikely it is that the lights will go out while we’re still around: http://www.ted.com/talks/why_our_universe_might_exist_on_a_knife_edge

More Insanity

I started this blog 14 months ago, a few days after the massacre in Aurora, Colorado (the one in which 12 people were killed and 70 injured during a Batman movie). The title of my first post was “Insanity”.

Now we have another 12 people murdered in Washington, D.C. And their killer shot dead by the police.

According to an article called “Facing the Real Gun Problem” in the New York Review of Books, there have been 1.3 million Americans killed by firearms since 1960, either in suicides, homicides or accidents. The author of the article, David Cole, argues that we should strengthen background checks and improve gun safety in order to reduce the ongoing toll of death and injury. He thinks gun owners would support these kinds of measures if they could be convinced that their right to own guns wasn’t threatened.

For that reason, Cole doesn’t think we should try to ban assault weapons, since relatively few people are killed with assault weapons and gun owners fear that a ban on those guns would eventually lead us down a slippery slope toward banning all kinds of guns. I don’t agree with him about the assault weapon ban, but he makes some good points, including the need to decriminalize certain drugs and reduce our prison population. He believes that guns are here to stay in America, so we should do whatever we can as a nation to limit the carnage.

To get a sense of how guns are used every day to kill and maim, you can check out a blog called “The Gun Report” in the New York Times. One of their columnists, Joe Nocera, uses the blog to discuss gun-related issues, but he also presents a daily list of shootings from around the country. It’s a daily accounting of American insanity.

There are 19 incidents described in today’s entry of “The Gun Report”. Here are a couple, chosen at random:

Lance Wilson, 3, was shot in the head and killed at a mobile home park in Michigan City, Ind., Sunday afternoon. 24-year-old Zachariah L. Grisham, who is romantically involved with the victim’s mother, was charged with reckless homicide. Investigators found that Grisham and the victim had been playing a game, with the boy using his hand to pretend to shoot Grisham. During the game, Grisham took out a handgun and, thinking it was not loaded, pulled the trigger.

A man was shot in the face and critically wounded after a verbal altercation in the Caddo Heights neighborhood of Shreveport, La., Monday afternoon. Police said someone in a car opened fire on the victim, who was in a Toyota Camry. A white SUV was spotted leaving the scene.

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Facing the Real Gun Problem:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/jun/20/facing-real-gun-problem/

The Gun Report:
http://nocera.blogs.nytimes.com/