Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sunday Reading

This Madness — Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald.

“What sort of people are we, we Americans?…Today, we are the most frightening people on this planet.”

Historian Arthur Schlesinger

As these words are written, I am on a cruise ship pulling into the harbor of the Greek island of Crete. All around me, the morning sparkles. The water is placid, the sky is clear and pale blue, our ship is embraced by gently sloping hills dotted with houses and shops.

And I just turned on the television.

And I just heard about Dallas.

I have made it a point to keep the news at something of a distance these last two weeks of travel, filling my days instead with shell craters on a beach in Normandy, a shopping square in Barcelona, the ghostly remains of Pompeii. So while I know that two African-American men were killed by police under dubious circumstances in Louisiana and Minnesota a couple days ago, I haven’t seen the videos, haven’t checked too deeply into the circumstances.

I’m off the clock now. I wanted to keep the horror at arm’s length.

But distance is an illusion, isn’t it? That’s what I just learned when I made the mistake of turning on the television.

Indeed, sitting here in this picturesque place on this peaceful morning far away, it feels as if I can see the madness of my country even more clearly than usual.

Two more black men shot down for no good reason in a country that still insists — with righteous indignation, yet — upon equating black men with danger.

That’s madness.

Last night, I called my sons and grandson to tell them I love them, explain to them yet again that they terrorize people simply by being and plead with them to be careful. I am required to fear what might happen to my children when they encounter those who are supposed to serve and protect them.

That’s madness.

Twelve police officers shot by sniper fire, five fatally, while guarding a peaceful demonstration against police brutality.

That’s madness.

The usual loud voices of acrimony and confusion are already using this act of despicable evil to delegitimize legitimate protest by conflating it with terrorism, asking us to believe that speaking out against bad cops is the same as shooting cops indiscriminately.

That is madness.

And then, there was this coda: A black man, a “person of interest” turns himself in to police after carrying an AR-15 rifle through the protest in downtown Dallas.

An AR-15.

Through downtown Dallas.

As police are dealing with an active shooter.

Apparently, the guy was not guilty of a crime, but he is certainly guilty of the worst judgment imaginable — and lucky to be alive. But then, in carrying that war weapon on a city street, he was only exercising his legal right under Texas law. The NRA calls that freedom.

But make no mistake: It, too, is madness.

America has gone mad before.

The quote at the top is from one such period, 1968. Hundreds of urban riots had wracked the country, the war in Vietnam was uselessly grinding up lives, recent years had seen the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. Now, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had just been murdered within two months of one another

And many people were wondering, as Arthur Schlesinger was, about America and its character, about what kind of country — and people — we were. Said New York Mayor John Lindsay, “This is a drifting, angry America that needs to find its way again.”

His words, like Schlesinger’s, feel freshly relevant to this era, almost 50 years down the line.

There is a sickness afoot in our country, my friends, a putrefaction of the soul, a rottenness in the spirit. Consider our politics. Consider the way we talk about one another — and to one another. Consider those two dead black men. Consider those five massacred cops.

Deny it if you can. I sure can’t. Something is wrong with us. And I don’t mind telling you that I fear for my country.

On the night Martin Luther King died, two months almost to the day before he himself would be shot down in a hotel kitchen, Bobby Kennedy faced a grief stricken, largely African-American crowd in Indianapolis and with extemporaneous eloquence, prescribed a cure for the sickness he saw.

“My favorite poet,” he told them, “was Aeschylus. And he once wrote, ‘And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.’ What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Those words feel hopelessly idealistic, impossibly innocent and yet, wise, grace-filled and…right for the raw pain of this moment I commend them to all our wounded spirits on this shining morning from a peaceful place that, as it turns out, is not nearly far enough away.

It’s Back — Brian Beutler on the resurgence of Clinton Derangement Syndrome.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, then Republicans lost their minds chasing the Clintons down rabbit holes years ago.

They spent the 1990s turning every gnat fart in the Clinton White House into a six-part inquiry, and at the end of it, Bill left office historically popular. They’ve spent the better part of the 2010s doing the same thing to Hillary, and though she is emphatically not historically popular, Republicans have, in the process, tended to humiliate themselves and abet Donald Trump—the one person politically incorrect enough to call her crooked and accuse her of playing the woman card, at last, at last.

What we witnessed Thursday was part of a pattern that goes back more than 20 years. A Clinton does something—in some cases innocuous, in this case worthy of criticism—and her political nemeses respond completely out of proportion. They’ve invested so heavily in the fantasy that Hillary’s one email or utterance away from complete self-destruction that they can’t bring themselves to accept anything less than the highest return. A sunk cost fallacy of power politics and partisan score-settling.

The pattern has become familiar enough that reporters now anticipate it. When FBI Director James Comey excoriated Clinton for her sloppy email protocol, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Republicans would peer so deeply into the mouth of the gift horse he’d just given them that they’d pop out the other end. On Thursday, they hauled him up to Capitol Hill knowing that any number of right-wing members on the House Oversight Committee might attack his integrity, and sure enough they did. Now the chase continues.

What made this episode unique is that the same media that expected Republicans to overreach played a critical role in increasing their expectations of a political windfall.

Republicans in Congress and their conservative media allies largely brought this upon themselves. They were the ones who made right-wing sop out of baseless speculation that Clinton might be indicted for violating a law nobody’s ever been convicted of violating.

But due to a strange brew of incentives that proved toxic—the competition for eyeballs, the lack of subject matter expertise, the industry standard of reportorial balance—the mainstream media did nothing to puncture this myth. To the contrary, it treated the threat of indictment as a permanent question mark hovering over Clinton’s campaign like a dark cloud. In a different media ecosystem, this wouldn’t have happened. A mix of common sense and truly basic research and reporting would have established a consensus that Republicans were trying to gin up intrigue and damaging innuendo, but that an indictment was extraordinarily unlikely. Instead, the remote odds of one came to be seen as something like a 50-50 proposition, to the point where even professional Democrats began to worry Clinton might be charged with a felony and prosecuted.

By the time Comey handed down his utterly predictable recommendation that prosecuting Clinton would not be reasonable, it had become a foregone conclusion on the right that an indictment was imminent, and could only be sidestepped through corruption.

The ensuing dissonance between what this unimpeachable, Republican FBI director had concluded and what the Republican Party had trained its voters to expect explains why some members of the oversight panel felt compelled to question Comey’s honor. It also made it impossible for Republicans to congratulate themselves on a job well done, thank Comey for laying out the truth about Clinton’s “extreme carelessness,” and use his statement as ammunition in the election.

The only other way to resolve the inconsistency was to suggest that Clinton must have lied criminally along the way—to Congress under oath, or to the FBI in an effort to obstruct justice, or both. Jason Chaffetz, the committee’s chairman, thus promised to refer Clinton to the FBI for another investigation.

This will likely produce another disappointing finding (Clinton may have presented facts in a misleading way, but there’s no reason to believe she perjured herself). It will leave the conspiracy-minded GOP base blindsided once again, and give way to some other tangentially related but probably fruitless inquisition. We will be dealing with the fallout of the email investigation well into Clinton’s first term in the White House, unless Democrats reclaim the House and Senate. But now, instead of investigating Clinton for endangering national security or for some other crime related to her public service, it will transform into a shameless witch hunt. The kind of partisan onslaught that only seems to make the Clintons more powerful. And thus the insanity begets itself.

The Silence and Violence of the N.R.A. — Evan Osnos in The New Yorker.

In the language of today’s National Rifle Association, “an armed society is a polite society.” The aphorism, borrowed from the science-fiction author Robert Heinlein, is the inspiration for one of the N.R.A.’s most popular T-shirts, which bears the word “COEXIST,” spelled out in brightly colored ammo cartridges and guns. To promote the shirt ($17.99), the N.R.A. store says that Heinlein’s quote “emphasizes the independent, tolerant nature of gun owners in a fun and thought-provoking way.”

It is a vision at the heart of the modern gun movement: the more that society makes the threat of violence available to us, the safer we will be. In forty-eight hours this week, the poisonous flaw in that fantasy has been exposed from multiple angles: on Tuesday, two police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, fatally shot a black man, Alton Sterling, while trying to arrest him. Some reports say that, before police arrived, he was openly carrying a gun, which, under the makeshift patchwork of American gun law, would have afforded him more legal protection, not less. Louisiana is one of the forty-five states that allow residents to carry firearms openly in public, and though Sterling was a convicted felon (and therefore probably ineligible to obtain a concealed-carry permit) police could not have known his criminal record before investigating him. It was absurd not to ask whether a white man, exercising his right to open carry, would have been approached differently.

The next day, during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a police officer fatally shot a black man, Philando Castile, who, according to his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was licensed to carry a concealed firearm. According to Reynolds, who was in the car and broadcast the aftermath on Facebook, Castile had told the officer that he was carrying his gun, but when Castile reached for his license and registration, he was shot. In the hours that followed, as America turned, once again, to the ritual of mourning the killings of black men by police officers, the N.R.A. was silent. Its official Twitter feed, which often draws attention to cases of police questioning gun owners for exercising the right to carry, said nothing, even as the silence became conspicuous. (@CoolJ90: “@NRA care to come to the defense of a man murdered by police who had a license to carry his weapon?”)

For critics of the N.R.A., it was an awkward exposure of what is usually left unsaid: the organization is far less active in asserting the Second Amendment rights of black Americans than of white ones.

On Thursday, the politics of race, guns, and security exploded in a horrific attack on law enforcement. While protesters in Dallas marched in the name of Black Lives Matter, denouncing the latest killings, a sniper ambushed police, killing five and wounding seven others, along with two civilians. In a standoff, a suspect was killed by a police bomb. Dallas police later identified him as twenty-five-year-old Micah Xavier Johnson. In his statements to police, they said, he “wanted to kill white people, especially white police officers.” Three other suspects reportedly were in custody.

In turning guns on police, the Dallas ambush scrambles the usual polarities of gun politics. For more than two decades, the N.R.A. has maintained a facsimile of respect for law enforcement, reflexively announcing its devotion to “warriors” and “heroes”—even as it has pushed to relax laws that police routinely describe as a threat to the safety of their officers and the public. Last year, under lobbying pressure from the N.R.A., the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms abandoned an effort to stop the sale of armor-piercing “cop killer” ammunition that authorities have tried to ban for thirty years.

After each high-profile public massacre in recent years, the N.R.A. and its allies have deployed a reliable strategy: deflect criticism from the basic problem—the unqualified availability of military-grade weapons—by fixating on technical details that serve their political ends. After the massacre in San Bernardino, they emphasized that, despite strong gun laws in California, the killers had legally purchased some of their guns—as if that proved that gun regulation is useless, and so society shouldn’t bother. After the slaughter in Orlando, in an effort to defuse attempts to impose stricter regulations on AR-15s, the military-style rifle used in San Bernardino and many other attacks, gun-rights advocates fixated on the fact that the Orlando killer did not use an AR-15. (He used a similar military-style rifle, produced by Sig Sauer.) It was, in retrospect, an especially shortsighted strategy: by drawing attention to the broader range of weapons that are widely available to civilians and capable of inflicting mass harm, gun-rights advocates inadvertently aided their opponents by making it newly evident that banning AR-15s alone would not solve the problem.

The Dallas ambush will be harder to explain away. There is much still to learn about the guns involved, but early videos appeared to show a man executing a police officer using a military-style rifle, which has proved to be especially deadly for American police. The Violence Policy Center, a gun-safety group, noted that, in 2014, the most recent year for which information is available, “one in five law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty were killed with an assault weapon.” The center’s executive director, Josh Sugarmann, said in a statement, “Responsibility for this lethal assault falls directly at the feet of the gun industry, which designs, markets, and sells the military-bred weapons necessary for such attacks. They must finally be held accountable.”

The Dallas ambush has also exposed an uncomfortable fact for the gun-rights movement: for decades, even as it maintains its abstract tributes to law enforcement, it has embraced a strain of insurrectionist rhetoric, overtly anti-government activism that endorses the notion that civilians should have guns for use against American police and military. In a 1995 fund-raising letter, the executive vice-president of the N.R.A., Wayne LaPierre, called federal law-enforcement agents “jack-booted thugs,” and suggested that “in Clinton’s administration, if you have a badge, you have the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.” In Texas, where the police ambush occurred, an open-carry advocate last year urged the killing of state legislators if they do not approve a more relaxed policy. (“They better start giving us our rights or this peaceful non-cooperation stuff is gonna be gamed up . . . We should be demanding [Texas legislators] give us our rights back, or it’s punishable by death. Treason.”) At the annual N.R.A. convention last year, the board member Ted Nugent said, “Our government has turned on us.” Stopping short of calling for violence, he urged members to focus their ire on “the bad and the ugly.” He said, “It’s a target-rich environment. If it was duck season, there’d be so many ducks, you could just close your eyes and shoot ’em.”

The consistent failure of our politics to take reasonable steps to prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands makes it difficult to predict with any confidence that even the slaughter of police officers will alter the frozen politics. But it may have a subtler effect, causing gun owners to reconsider whether the N.R.A. truly has the country’s best interests at heart. More than a hundred million Americans live in households with guns, but many remain largely uninvolved in gun politics. The N.R.A. has between three and five million members, which means it represents only a sliver of American gun owners. Moreover, even among its members, many are unconvinced, I and others have found, by the belligerent rhetoric; they own and love guns for a variety of reasons—from sports to hunting to self-defense—and they overwhelmingly support reasonable steps to prevent innocent people, civilians or police, from being killed by gunfire.

On Friday, after hours of silence, the N.R.A. issued a statement from LaPierre, who had authored the “jack-booted thugs” letter. This time, he expressed “the deep anguish all of us feel for the heroic Dallas law enforcement officers who were killed and wounded, as well as to those who so bravely ran toward danger to defend the city and the people of Dallas.”

The N.R.A.’s explicit call for a more armed society reveals the lie behind its homage to “coexistence.” By directing rage against the government, by preventing politicians from heeding the overwhelming demands of their constituents for broader background checks, by endorsing Donald Trump’s plan for mass deportations and bans on Muslim immigration, the N.R.A. has assembled a volatile case against the idea of coexistence—and then disavows the result when it explodes.

Doonesbury — Take your positions.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. I’ve already gotten a link to the Dowd op-ed in today’s Times predictably sent from my brother. Talk about deranged: this tops it all. She need serious long term mental work.

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