Monday, April 23, 2007

Lowering the flags — again

A visitor from Neptune might easily conclude that, unlike other national flags, the Stars and Stripes were meant to hang only at half-staff. Or so it often seems. There's almost always some good reason to mourn: the slaughter in Blacksburg, the death in Iraqi combat of another member of the Oregon National Guard. But something is seriously amiss in a country that devotes so much time to mourning the violent deaths of its citizens.

Lately The Oregonian, our newspaper of record, has published numerous letters echoing familiar themes, and the usual clichés, on the seemingly dormant issue of gun control. The Democrats have apparently surrendered the field to the four million members of the National Rifle Association and their many sycophants in the GOP. Those who even raise the issue are accused of disrespecting the dead during a time of national mourning. So no one has to answer pointed questions like: why should a person with a history of mental illness, like Cho, be allowed to own semiautomatic pistols like the Walther P22 and the Glock Model 19 9-millimeter. Not to mention popular assault rifles like the AR-15.

Walther's website glowingly describes its P22:
Whether you are looking for a pistol for affordable training or simply the excitement of shooting, the P22 is the pistol for you. The WALTHER P22 is fascinating in its compact size, while still maintaining all of the features of a full-size pistol.
"Affordable training" to do what, exactly? Guns & Ammo's Handguns site adds that "this little rig would make a great way to get the next generation started."

As for the Glock 19, one admirer notes that "it's 100% reliable, and easy to shoot well, and very simple to operate. Small enough to conceal, but big enough to kill." As we now know.

The endless profusion of rifles and handguns, now numbering some 200 million, may have created a lethal feedback loop—a kind of arms race. As the number of weapons increases, owners feel compelled to buy ever more powerful guns to protect themselves from perceived threats. All this plays into the constant reinforcement of the notion, so widespread in movies, television and computer games, that violence is an effective and even acceptable way to resolve conflict.

In response to the VT killings, Congress will soon be looking at a bill that would place further restrictions on gun purchases by those with a history of serious mental illness. The reintroduction of the assault weapons ban (HR 1022) in Congress is likely to lead to another political dead end. Larger questions will be buried with Cho's victims.

Meanwhile, George Bush deigned to speak at a memorial service at VT after four years of not attending a single funeral for those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Frank Rich of the NY Times pointed out this weekend:
President Bush has skipped the funerals of the troops he sent to Iraq. He took his sweet time to get to Katrina-devastated New Orleans. But last week he raced to Virginia Tech with an alacrity not seen since he hustled from Crawford to Washington to sign a bill interfering in Terri Schiavo’s end-of-life medical care. Mr. Bush assumes the role of mourner in chief on a selective basis, and, as usual with the decider, the decisive factor is politics. Let Walter Reed erupt in scandal, and he'll take six weeks to show his face — and on a Friday at that, to hide the story in the Saturday papers. The heinous slaughter in Blacksburg, Va., by contrast, was a rare opportunity for him to ostentatiously feel the pain of families whose suffering cannot be blamed on the administration.
As for Cho, too many of these mass murders have been perpetrated by young men who, like Tim McVeigh and the killers at Columbine, have been marginalized in one way or another. Cho was shy, spoke with a Korean accent, had acne and lacked minimal social skills—not to mention his history of psychosis. Years of humiliation led to his isolation and final eruption in a catharsis of murderous rage.

Now I have no intent whatsoever to make excuses for Cho, or any other murderers, but it still might be useful to consider what in our culture might be promoting this kind of alienation and extreme violence. After all, this is a culture that worships financial success and celebrity and disdains those who stumble into the ditch. The cultural icons of the day are CEO's, celebrities and arrogant billionaires like Donald Trump who all demonstrate that, as some say, "money is life's report card." It's a culture that rewards CEO's, even unsuccessful ones, with "executive pay packages that typically equal 500 times the salaries of workers at those companies."

As for the rest, especially those who aren't on the make in their careers or personal lives, Randy Newman (in Bad Love) has a line: "I only know we're living / in an unforgiving land." And another:
Just like I'm glad I'm living in the land of the free
Where the rich just get richer
And the poor you don't ever have to see
There are signs that this harsh ideology, best described as a kind of social Darwinism founded on extreme individualism, has begun to erode. Disasters in Iraq and New Orleans, combined with the absurdity of 46 million people with no health insurance, have shifted the political focus to collective solutions for a few persistent national problems.

Though it's often overlooked in the minutia of legal interpretation and "strict construction" of its language, the Constitution unequivocally proclaims overarching collective goals in its preamble:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Individual solutions to collective problems are appealing for the wealthy minority that can afford them. But the Founders, through their Constitution, have declared that we have a certain responsibility for each other, commonly known as compassion. That's precisely what's missing in the current state of our culture.

PHOTO: Flag at half-mast outside the U.S. Supreme Court (apparently in mourning over the erosion of women's right to choose in last week's 5-4 abortion decision).

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