Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sunday, bloody Sunday

The recent sets of tragedies--the mall shootings in Omaha, and now in rapid succession two shootings in Colorado--are a tapestry woven of many of the problem threads of modern life, especially modern American life. This is a blog, not a scholarly web site, so I will not try here to elaborate and comment on all those threads; my point is that they interweave not only in these few instances, but commonly, and that while each is critically important, so also is the reality that they cannot be considered or properly addressed in isolation.

First, of course, is the notoriously controversial issue of guns and gun control. This is not a matter that is as simple as either of the fanatic camps--anti and pro--would have anyone believe. It is also crucial to recognize that the dialogue on the matter has been defined almost exclusively by the fanatics, neither camp of which represents the majority of Americans. No one is likely to be convinced of anything by arguments set forth by manifest fanatics--not the opposed fanatics, of course, but also not anyone in the middle, less-fanatic zone. Moreover, the ferocity of the polarized camps has spawned such a proliferation of dubious statistics and even more dubious interpretations (that is putting it politely) that it is now almost impossible to extract meaningful data or sound analyses from the tidal wave of writings on the topic. (Those with a strong stomach can examine the Wikipedia article on "Gun politics in the United States".)

A second point is the shift in recent years in the type likely to commit these ghastly crimes. Once, the norm was the sad, sick adult male--often middle-aged--a sociopath, an established failure at just about every aspect of life. Now, as we see over and over, it is a very young person, often literally a child. And it is not just the shootings, though those get the press attention because guns make it easy for even a child to kill many people; there are also the "wildings" and other assorted cases of, again, children cruelly, aimlessly, pointlessly committing savage murders just to pass the idle time. Inevitably there are countless theories, usually sprung from some set point of view for which the crimes are mere fodder. But there is something real happening here, and we need to understand what, and why, and learn how to fix it.

Next is the press. For lots of these killers, child and adult, a documented (in their own writings or other ramblings) major factor is their sense that their act will make them "famous", a "celebrity"--and the commonsense point that they will likely be just a bit too dead to notice does not seem to matter. And they are absolutely, positively correct. The press, especially that of the "if it bleeds, it leads" school (which is most of the press today) turns these nothings, these nobodies, into just that: celebrities. If mass murderers do their killings to get massive press coverage, and they duly and invariably get that coverage, is not the press in some real sense an accomplice after the fact to the crimes?

The argument that the panderers put forth, that they are only giving the public what it wants, is--sad to say--mostly true. But true does not equate to valid. If the public in a sense "enjoys" mass murders, that is not a license to commit them; and if it enjoys press coverage of such nightmares, neither is that license for the press to become ghouls and feast on the flesh of the dead. Next time something like this happens, let one or two or three major media outlets grow some balls and publish a brief note: There has been a terrible tragedy in ----, in which an apparently insane nn-year-old [man/boy] brutally and senselessly murdered X strangers. Out of consideration for everyday common decency, we will say no more of him or of his horrible acts. Shame the rest of them and start a trend. Maybe I'm too optimistic, but how about someone at least gives it a try? Hm?

Then there is mental health and public policy. (One of the small ironies that fascinated me in the mall killings was the state agency that refused to disclose to the press details of the killer's history with them owing to "medical privacy concerns". Excuse me? The sumbitch is dead. Dead by his own hand after a wanton mass murder. Just how many privacy rights do dead people have?) This particular monster was not one of those "oh, he was just the sweetest little boy" types that fat old women always gush about after the little darlin' has slaughtered a dozen or two innocents. He was never anybody's idea of a kind and likely lad. He was in perpetual trouble, and got more or less perpetual public assistance.

We need to reflect on that: this boy got, for most of his life, all the help it is reasonably practicable for society to give. He cost his state over a quarter of a million dollars in assistance and treatment. And what came out the end of the process was a cold-blooded, insane killer. This is not some one person or agency making a bad decsision: it's process. The disturbing question that arises is Can we do any better? Are such creatures just beyond the reach of everything and everyone?

Closely related is the question of whether and how we can impose restraints of any sort on the free movement and activity of what are obviously severe threats to the public when those threats have not yet committed any serious crime and do not quite fit the going definitions of dangerously insane. Just about any rational person reading over this boy's history would see at once that he was what was once, in another time and place, called "gallows bait". But on what ground could one sequester him somewhere? In a larger sense, to what degree, and on what ground, can or should we institutionalize potential threats to public life and limb?

There are, I daresay, no cheap and easy answers here.

And also . . . .

Rudy Giuliani appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press". He did about as well as a politician can do when presented with question after question about documented malfeasance--"Mr. Giuliani was by turns defensive, apologetic and indignant" said The New York Times--but in the end his play was basically to keep repeating, in the best approximation of humble such an arrogant man can manage, "well, yes, I did that, but it was a mistake". If that's a valid excuse for anything and everything, then why worry about George Bush? Or Rudy Giuliani? As long as they say "sorry" afterwards, anything goes? Hmmm. Maybe not. We shall see.

* * * *

The Los Angeles Times points out the irony of the new NIE being, ultimately, the end product of a White House push in 2005 to get Irani nuclear experts to defect.
The White House ordered the stepped-up effort in hopes of gathering stronger evidence that Tehran was making progress toward building a nuclear bomb. The Bush administration "wanted better information" on Iran's nuclear programs, said a U.S. official briefed on the expanded collection efforts.

"I can't imagine that they would have ever guessed that the information they got would show that the program was shut down," the official said.
Perhaps the key datum, though, is not that irony but this fact:
Former CIA officials said that the agency had built up a large Iran Task Force, made up of nearly 100 officers and analysts at headquarters, by the end of the Clinton administration. But that office shrank to fewer than a dozen officers early in the Bush administration, when the White House ordered resources shifted to other targets.

"When Bush came in, they were totally disinterested in Iran," said a former CIA official who held a senior position at the time. "It went from being a main focus to everything being switched to Iraq."
In short, President Cheney and his sock puppet said "Who cares about Iran? We're out to invade Iraq and that's all that will matter around here." Masterly. To this hour, no CIA "permanent presence" exists on the ground in Iran, and none has since 1979 when the U.S. shut down its embassy in Tehran.

* * * *
Concerned about the so-called "bailout" of over-extended home mortgages? Don't be, because the program is nothing but a PR ploy: as Kathleen Pender put it in the San Francisco Chrionicle, "The subprime rate freeze plan announced by the Bush administration last week was clearly designed to win votes. I just wonder whose."

A lot of people are extremely irate about the very idea of a bailout, the commonest refrain being "I was the ant, and now all the wild-eyed grasshoppers are being rewarded; I went without while they didn't, and now who loses?" And they are, of course, 100% correct. But the criteria for qualification suggest that somewhere from 100,000 to maybe half a million households nationwide (estimates currently vary quite a bit) will get any benefit at all.

Almost the only thing most commentators agree about the plan is that it's a pretty bad idea. (Check this New York Times editorial.)

* * * *

Here's a surprise: the United States will not commit to the mandatory emission caps being discussed at the Bali international conference. In fact, the Bush administration is essentially not only ignoring the Bali conference and goals, but instead setting up its own "major economies" group seeking purely voluntary caps--Harlan Watson, the State Department's senior climate negotiator and special representative, has indicated clearly that the White House sees its own talks as the important path in discussions about climate change. In effect, it's "screw the world, we're the U.S. and we'll do what we damn well please."

The rest of the world seems now to have ruefully shaken its collective head and gone out behind the barn to have a smoke till the U.S. elects a sane president, at which time the grownups can continue their work.

Let us profoundly hope they aren't up for a bad shock in 2008.

* * * *

The search for alternative sources of green energy has, in recent years, included much work on harnessing tidal forces by way of anchored energy-conversion buoys at sea. There is now some real development work, with the possibility of actual results in the not-too-distant future, going on of the coast of Oregon, an excellent site for several reasons (one being that its existing power network runs close to the ocean in several places).

Wouldn't you just know, then, that there is opposition based on petty personal concerns--in this case, commercial fisherman who worry about the risk of colliding with such a buoy.

From The New York Times:
"I don't want it in my fishing grounds," said [Chris] Martinson, 40, who docks his 74-foot boat, Libra, here at Yaquina Bay, about 90 miles southwest of Portland. "I don't want to be worried about driving around someone else's million-dollar buoy."
In other words, Not In My Back Yard. Everyone wants problems solved no matter the cost to anyone except them. Makes ya proud to be human, proud an' a little bit humble.

* * * *

Again from a New York Times editorial:
The White House is already complaining about reports that House and Senate conferees have come to an agreement on an intelligence measure mandating that all agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, comply with the Army Field Manual's outlawing of torture. The manual properly reflects American law by explicitly proscribing the gamut of torture measures--including waterboarding--that have proved dear to the heart of administration zealots.
Sarcasm is no longer appropriate--these monsters have gone beyond being caricatures of themselves. Nothing, but absolutely nothing, seems to them to be beyond the pale, or beyond their ability to arbitrarily command. Wars, torture, savaging of the Constitution ("just a piece of paper"--let's never, ever forget our own president's description of that Constitution), lies, immoral and probably illegal giveaways to their political and financial friends, the list ends up sounding like something from a Biblical prophet, but the stunning thing is that not only is it all true, it's all obviously true, yet few Americans seem to care or even notice any more. That is how far down the last 40 years have taken us.

Moreoever, as Glenn Greenwald points out on Salon, this is scarcely a Republicans-only disaster. Some, possibly much, of this collapse could have been averted or minimized had Democrats had the guts to stand up and be heard on these issues; instead, they have been complicit, and often even active participants in this national degradation--and it continues to this hour.

All in all, Democrats are a much better bet for the nation, but they are very far from being pure-at-heart blameless. And the sooner the rank and file stops singing Kumbaya and wakes up to the cold, hard realities, and demands Democratic candidates and leadership that are something besides Republican Lite, the better off we'll all be.

* * * *

No comments: