Response to School Shootings

February 21, 2018

After this latest school shooting with 17 dead, I’ve read wonderful pieces by people who lost loved ones to guns, and banal pieces by wonderful writers whose imaginations were fried by the horror. What’s left? Sometimes I try to convince, or fire the choir. Here I’m trying to understand why we can’t put the guns away.

There are many strands in our struggle over guns.

  • Some decided the Civil Rights Movement justified refighting the Civil War. There’s literature at gun shows and conclaves of gun owners that would be out of place anywhere else.
  • Some associations, like the NRA, respond to their most committed, and extreme, members. The NRA’s extremists found a way to hold and even enlarge their membership while pushing it further toward the wrong – the opposite of left is certainly not a synonym for correct.
  • Some politicians have been scaring people for decades. It’s us against them and support your police – hardly an issue until it’s used to justify shooting some people in the back – that’s against the law for everyone else and I can’t support so-called “law enforcement” that shoots people in the back.

Let me suggest another. The Founders’ divisions persist. The Founders talked and wrote about the general welfare, the opposite of selfishness. They did not glorify freedom from regulation. The record shows amazing levels of social regulation – and by the way you couldn’t keep ammunition in your house – it belonged in armories. The Founders believed in social responsibility, though they certainly did not always act the part.

On the other side, their “Don’t Tread on Me,” patriotic slogan is now taken as an emblem for extreme libertarianism. I’ve seen people so sure of their right to do whatever they wanted that they were outraged when cutting their driveway through a neighbor’s property and cutting down her flowering bushes drew a very angry response. And once the Revolution ended British restraints on westward settlements, the former colonists couldn’t wait to snatch Indian land across the Appalachians. Indians didn’t count any more than slaves did; in fact Indians were often enslaved as well as exterminated. If “we” want something, and “we” can get it, then “we” should take it. “Don’t tread on me.”

Many schools reduced violence by banning guns, but many gun enthusiasts think more kids with guns would make schools safer. Many cities reduced violence by keeping guns off the streets. To a carpenter problems can look like nails; to orthopedists problems can look like broken bones; to gun owners ….

The tools we hold invite the responses we make. They dis or disobey us, here’s my tool and it makes these surgical cuts in your internal organs. So as innumerable old western movies celebrated, you had to “hang ‘em up.” (Whoever thought those movies could teach us anything?)

It’s not just macho culture; not just about gender or sex. It’s about getting what we want, controlling the world, not sharing or living in it.

Trayvon Martin never threatened George Zimmerman even if he convinced a bizarre jury that he was in reasonable fear, but Zimmerman had a gun which made it easy to shoot a man in the back. That’s a piece of “American culture” I can do without. I much prefer people with the decency and the wisdom to try to live together in peace, paz, pacem in terris, shalom, salaam – peace in any language and the peace that we claim in all faiths.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 20, 2018.

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Democracy and Public Investment

January 30, 2018

What democracy can do is obscured by today’s free market, anti-regulatory, anti-government rhetoric. That rhetoric creates real winners and losers, but taking it at its word, it’s based on an everyone-for-him-or-herself form of individualism. It asserts that our successes and failures are almost solely the result of our personal abilities and denies that what we accomplish always rests in part on what society gives us.

That flatly contradicts reality. This country blossomed because we worked together, with a spirit of cooperation. Cooperation that made associations, large businesses and elective government possible.

Everyone-for-him-or-herself-alone ideologues shouldn’t blind us to the public role in development. America’s Founders knew they needed government. As aptly described in the show Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris and their colleagues understood the importance of a banking system and had government create it. Across the thirteen original states, Founders used government to open transportation to the west. Washington himself was deeply involved in efforts by Virginia and Maryland. When New York, which had a sea level path to the interior, finally built the Erie Canal, it set the path for industrialization and settlement for a century and a half, and made the North into the powerhouse that won the Civil War.

Today we’ve lost a shared sense of the public investments necessary to continued development, and the foundations of American success are falling apart. Bridges take unsuspecting occupants into the rivers and ravines below. Water systems deliver lead, mercury, and an armory of toxins. Sewage systems poison rivers, people and the living things that depend on them. Trains crash for lack of decent equipment. The electronic grid barely carries ordinary loads. The next solar storm can take the electrical and internet grids down, bringing the country to a lengthy stand-still. American colleges and universities have been the envy of the world but stripping their resources will ensure their replacement abroad and with them the R&D that has been central to American leadership. We are the wealthiest of countries but too cheap to fund our infrastructure, terrified that taking care of America would actually put people to work, or that public spirit in building and rebuilding America will help someone else’s business.

The best stimuli for business are investments in the capacity of the public, infrastructure for getting things done, and rules that create a common floor of good behavior. The idea that everything depends on lowering taxes is pure garbage from people who want their winnings the easy way – by taking them away from the people.

Trump promised to put infrastructure in his budget. It’s hard to know whether he’ll keep that promise, whether enough Republicans will follow him, or whether it would include anything more than a wall on the border or brick and mortar repairs. Public investment could make infrastructure better and more resilient, as so dearly needed in Puerto Rico and on the coasts. Public investment could go well beyond controversial minimum wage laws by offering decent, useful, jobs at livable wages. Public programs could improve the private market by creating a model to compete with, like the public health care option that Obama tried to get.

Madison, Hamilton and their contemporaries had a much more patriotic and mature understanding of what American progress depended on – the people, the whole people, not just a few plunderers appropriating for themselves what should be our birthright.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Jan. 30, 2018.


Sloppy Thinking About Gun Control

November 14, 2017

After the car ran down people in lower Manhattan, I read an article about making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. I’m not sure if I agree or disagree with the author’s suggestions but I want to make a point about arguments for and against. One could say that people with bad intentions will just find other ways to kill lots of people. True or false? Actually it’s completely misleading. How many people with bad intentions will find other ways and how many won’t? How many people will do as much damage to as many people and how many won’t? The statement that some will doesn’t tell you. And the claim that all will is pure nonsense.

In the early 70s, I was a manager of the New York City legal services program, then known as Community Action for Legal Services or CALS. We had twenty-two offices around the city. All of them were in the poorest and most crime-ridden areas of the city. And in those pre-computer days, many of them had IBM Selectric typewriters which made our staff much more efficient but were expensive. Some thieves craved them. In our East New York office there had been a series of burglaries. After each we hardened the office against further break-ins. But those thieves were determined. Unable to get through the doors, they blew a hole through the wall and took the typewriters.

Obviously some thieves will use explosives. Should we have concluded that we might as well remove the locks on the doors of our twenty-one other offices? Plainly no. Nor would I recommend that you remove the locks from the doors of your homes. Nor would I recommend that you take all the shades and drapes down became peeping toms will find a way around them. Thinking about problems without examining how many, and what proportion of people will do how much damage is just sloppy thinking.

The NRA tells us that bad people will get guns. That statement is neither right nor wrong. If they mean some bad people will get guns no matter what we do, that is clearly true. But if they mean that whatever measures we take will not reduce the number of bad people who can get powerful weapons, that is clearly false. And they can’t tell us anything realistic about the proportions because they convinced Congress to block research into the effect of possible regulation of weapons. So they make sloppy statements hoping you’ll be taken in.

The Founders of our country were not so sloppy and they did lots to regulate guns – the most significant of which was to prohibit people from keeping ammunition in their homes. Ammunition exploded and caused fires so it had to be kept in public armories. Regulation mattered and they knew it.

So when people try to tell you what regulation will or won’t do, don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes with sloppy nonsense. Some regulations work better than others. That’s a valuable subject of research and study, not an occasion for sloppy all-or-nothing claims.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 14, 2017.

 

 


Trying Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

May 7, 2013

It seems clear that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev exploded bombs at the Boston Marathon. Although some wanted him tried as an enemy combatant outside of the requirements of the Constitution, the Obama Administration has brought charges in the federal courts.

It’s fascinating how some Americans treat our Constitution. On the one hand, many people make a fetish about what the Founders thought and did in the eighteenth century, and on the other many, often the same people, argue that the Constitution is simply irrelevant, doesn’t apply, can safely be ignored or forgotten.

Let’s get past that one quickly. Although the evidence so far does not fit the definition, the Constitution has a very clear notion of what to call Americans who adhere to our enemies – “traitors.” Read the rest of this entry »


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