New Hope

Without a doubt the recent March For Our Lives in Washington by an estimated crowd of 800,000 teenagers to protest the sale of automatic weapons to the clinically deranged who seem to be targeting schools brings us all hope. The protest is part of the efforts initiated by survivors of the horrific shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That movement, which seems be gathering force, is determined to take on the NRA and others who are making a fortune from selling guns to those clinically deranged shooters — and the politicians who refuse to take meaningful steps to stop the carnage.

We must all be hopeful. But at the same time, we need to keep our balance so we don’t find ourselves vacillating between hope and a despair that so often results in cynicism. Think back to the 1960s when the young took on the “establishment” only to later become Yuppies worried about their promised pay raise so they could make the payment on the Volvo. The only real result of that movement was the elimination of history from college curricula — thought to be “irrelevant.” We must remain hopeful about this latest movement, which is clearly becoming a serious player in national politics, while at the same time we maintain our perspective.

The problem with such movements is not at the start. It is in maintaining the momentum when inertia sets in. After the initial enthusiasm (and clearly many of these young people are just along for the ride, having a picnic and drawing attention to themselves) there will come the inevitable let-down. That’s when the real work begins. The fight against powerful opponents like the NRA, the corrupt politicians, and the gun manufacturers who support them will be anything but a picnic: it will take courage, hard work and determination. And, given the typical American’s short attention span, concern about the Cause will have drifted off somewhere else. Once the lights and cameras are no longer looking at these kids themselves many will have lost interest and the few will have to find within themselves the strength and determination to push on and persist.

Because their cause is most just and worthy of success, I do not mean to disparage the effort of those amazing kids, many of whom were witnesses to the terrible events at their high school. But for so many followers it is mere hear-say, stories they have read on their iPads and stories that will soon be replaced by others less compelling but more current. And, as we know, the latest is always the most attention-grabbing. Let’s hope the kids at the core of this movement can continue to hold their ground, maintain their focus and determination to bring about results that will at the very least slow down the freight train of destruction that is clearly our of control — or at least in the control of those whose only objectives are profit and power, which amounts to the same thing.

No one who urges common sense in the insane war against automatic weapons wants to take all guns out the hands of hunters and those who are in need of self-protection. Many have even read the Second Amendment and realize that it was designed to protect the rights of the militia, not the so-called “right” to bear automatic weapons. But the freight train has considerable momentum, and it is powered by seemingly limitless funding and the fear of timid politicians who worry that if they take on the freight train themselves they will lose their well-paying jobs and actually have to find honest work. So the fight will be long and difficult. But these kids certainly have the right idea and it is impossible not to wish them well and hope that their fight is a successful one.

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Grist For The Mill

I am breaking two pledges to myself this morning. First, I was not going to add my voice to the hysteria surrounding the shooting in Aurora, Colorado yesterday. Secondly, I was going to take a day off from blogging to reflect on the events of that dreadful day. But here I go, adding grist to the mill.

The event itself has been covered in depth by the media and we will be hearing again and again about the “tragedy” — that overused and misunderstood word — until we are sick of it. There will be calls for gun laws — as there should be when a young man can walk into a store and buy an automatic weapon that fires off “50 -60 rounds in a minute” — not to mention the other weapons he had in his possession. We will be hearing from his neighbors what a “nice young man” he was — a “bit quiet” and “a loner.” At this point no one knows why James Holmes did what he did, as though you could probe the motivations in a sick mind and come up with anything that makes sense.

But what astonished me most as I watched CBS News last night with mouth agape and wonder in my eyes was the interviews with some of the people who were there. One young man in particular was interviewed carrying a three-month old baby and standing next to his wife and two young children. It occurred to me: what on earth was this man thinking taking those young children — and that baby — to a movie at midnight that promised to be violent from beginning to end? What is the matter with us that such a thing would seem perfectly normal?

We don’t know for sure whether watching violence makes us violent, though there is considerable evidence that there is a connection, if not a causal relationship. All animals learn from imitation and humans are animals. It follows that we also learn from imitation. And if we see violence on TV, in the movies, and in our video games hour after hour it would be reasonable to infer that we might be encouraged to walk into a store, buy an automatic rifle and a couple of handguns with some of our extra cash, and plan a shooting. The wonder is that it doesn’t happen more often!

The gentleman who moderated the news program began the show by calling this the “largest killing in the history of this country.” This is hyperbole if it isn’t downright false. What about the killing of thousands of native people? What about the Civil War? What about our long history of killing one another? We are a violent people and have been since we landed on this continent. No one quite knows why though I do think it has to do with our tendency to solve problems with weapons rather than with our minds — comparing our detective shows with those that come out of Britain, for example. And it also has to do with the escalation of violence in the media that surrounds us on every side, as Michael Moore suggested when he probed the causes of the Columbine shooting. But I don’t profess to know THE cause. I just know that the climate we live in promotes violence and when it occurs as it did in Aurora, Colorado on July 20,2012 we shouldn’t be too surprised — though we should most assuredly reflect deeply on the implications of such acts.

The Cost of a Human Life

The latest on the killings of 17 Afghanistan civilians by an American soldier starts as follows: “KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States has paid $50,000 in compensation for each Afghan killed and $11,000 for each person wounded in the shooting spree allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan, an Afghan official and a community elder said Sunday.”

I must say, I am proud of my government that it is willing to come up with such a sum to compensate the families of the victims. It beats the $1,000.00 or $2,000.00 the Afghan government paid out for the woundings and killings (respectively). It shows how much more generous we are. But seriously? How on earth does anyone come up with any dollar amount to compensate a distraught parent for the loss of his or her child? It cannot be done. And how do we decide on the correct dollar amount for a wound? Some wounds are more serious than others. Perhaps they should have come up with some sort of sliding scale. Again, seriously?

I am reminded of the calculation Ford Motor Company came up with some years ago for the victims in fiery collisions in their Pinto motor car. Ford, led by Lee Iacocca at the time, got out their handy calculator and figured out how much each maiming and each death should be worth — and then decided it would be cheaper to run the risk of law suits than to recall all of the Pintos on the road to replace a part that would have cost $11.00 per vehicle. So they didn’t recall the cars.

Surely, this is the reductio ad absurdum of our urge to quantify everything from love to life itself. How much does it cost? How fast can it go? How long before the battery runs out? How much is it worth to you?  Look at the chart and tell me how bad the pain is from 1 to 10. If it can’t be quantified, it ain’t real, so we think.

I don’t know about you, but I know if I was handed a check for even as much as $50,000.00 for the killing of my son or wife by a half-crazed soldier I would find it totally inadequate. You simply cannot measure some things — like the life of a loved one — by dollars and cents. And you cannot quantify something like love or fear, but they are very real. We need to tear ourselves away from the prejudice that wants to put a number on everything. The exact sciences are exact because they are supported by mathematics. That is entirely appropriate. But when the social sciences start posing as exact sciences by using math in the form of statistics and “studies” and “polls” we have started the skid toward absurdity — which is called “scientism” and it accompanies blind commitment to the scientific method in all walks of life.

Everything cannot be quantified. In fact, many of the most important things in human life cannot be quantified. But they are not only real, they are the very things that make us human. This is not a plea for metaphysics; it is a plea for common sense, and the rejection of the blind faith we all have in numbers. They cannot tell the whole story.

Don’t get me wrong. I am pleased that our government chose to compensate the families of the victims of the shooting in Afghanistan. I don’t see any other way it could have been done — except to have the U.S. government commit itself to a total withdrawal of troops from that country. But this seems even more doubtful after the chaos stirred up by the shooting itself. And, oh yes, make sure the perpetrator of these crimes is justly punished. But even if we cannot see an alternative to dollars for lives, it can never be enough.

Revenge is Bitter

There is more news from Kabul these days following the bizarre shooting of sixteen civilians by an American soldier recently. The story begins: KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan lawmakers expressed anger Thursday over the U.S. move to fly an American soldier accused of killing 16 civilians out of the country to Kuwait, saying Kabul shouldn’t sign a strategic partnership agreement with Washington unless the suspect faces justice in Afghanistan.

And more recently  we read: “In a near-simultaneous announcement, the Afghan Taliban said it was suspending nascent peace talks with the United States seen as a strong chance to end the country’s decade-long conflict . .  .”  This was predictable. But leaving aside for another time the tempting conspiracy theory that this soldier went “berserk” in order to purposely scuttle the talks with the Taliban, let’s turn our attention to the first story as it raises more pressing issues.

In one sense, the removal of the soldier from Kabul makes perfect sense in light of the fact that the Army wants to deal with its own. It always has and probably always will. But again given the unrest in the region and the attempts by this country to smooth over ruffled feathers following not only this incident, but also the recent burning of the Quran by American troops, the move to fly the soldier home seems unwise. In the Quran incident 30 people were killed and Afghan troops killed 6 American soldiers, an incident that was followed by anti-American demonstrations in the streets. These events, coupled with the fact that the U.S. would love to leave Afghanistan in relative tranquility (!), make clear the diplomatic dilemma.

If the shooting had happened in this country, I dare say there would be a huge outcry about the “criminal” being moved elsewhere. We would want to satisfy our blood lust. The families of those slain in Kabul feel the same way. Now whether or not we approve of revenge and blood-lust, it is a fact of life. We all share that urge. Law is simply a civilized way of channeling that urge. But it doesn’t satisfy on the visceral level. So we can understand the outrage the families are expressing in Afghanistan, even if we cannot condone it.

The Army has not ruled out the possibility that the soldier will be tried in Afghanistan, but one suspects this is merely rhetoric to sooth the outrage that is being expressed. What will be interesting is the question of whether he will be given justice in Kuwait or whether there will be an outpouring of sympathy in this country for the soldier who is mentally unstable and was at risk in a country brimming with hostility. Again, it’s a question of understanding, not condoning. By no moral standards can we condone what this man did. But we can understand why he might have done it under the circumstances, and we can certainly understand the outrage from those who want the man tried in the country where he committed the crime.

But the end result of this latest “episode” in Afghanistan simply proves that McGovern was right all along and that Obama should never have gotten himself more deeply involved in a country where chaos reigns. When will we ever learn?