Category Archives: U.S. News

Sandy Hook, Newtown: One Year Later

Saturday will be the one year anniversary of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  I am often confused as to how this country can tolerate the kind of violence and loss of life that makes the United States unique among all other advanced, industrialized countries.  This goes beyond tragedies like Newtown to everyday occurrences like for-profit healthcare and  mass incarceration.  Newtown is just the culmination of everything that, at times, makes living in this country a traumatic experience.

There isn’t much that I can say or write that would make any kind of positive contribution to what happened in Newtown.  I wrote letters to the senators of this State on the subject of gun control and they both responded with form letters proclaiming their allegiance to the Second Amendment.  I have a young child and cannot even begin to envision what I would have done or felt had I learned that he was shot to death in school along with 20 of his classmates.  It is beyond comprehension for me.  But it’s also very much a reality.  Parents share a bond just like soldiers on a combat mission share a bond — one of mutual experience, trauma and direction.

In 2003, the late Roger Ebert reviewed “Elephant”, a movie about the Columbine  school shooting.  In his review, Ebert shared an encounter he had had with a news reporter the day after the shooting occurred:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Here is someone who is neither an “expert” in school shootings or a reporter to whom the public generally turns for “news”.  Certainly, he isn’t someone who  had his “report” blaming violent media for school shootings piped through the television sets of millions of Americans.  He is simply someone who has a clear understanding of humanity and is not afraid to express his views on the subject.

The Grand Compromise

The shutdown of the U.S. Government is a reflection of a government that, at all levels, has lost its moral compass.  One can blame the Republicans and the extreme right within the party as the ones who are primarily responsible for this debacle.  But they only made it this far because they have been aided in their lunacy, even if indirectly, by the Democrats and the other branches of the government.

By all accounts, including one from a sitting Justice, the Supreme Court is one of the most activist in history, gutting laws on an unprecedented pace and for reasons that have nothing to do with whether the law is right or wrong, but because it can.

Then you have the executive, in Obama and his endless cadre of advisers and deputies.  Had they really cared about the American people, those “regular folks who live paycheck to paycheck”, they would have sought to reform the country’s healthcare system from the ground up.  Instead, they cared more about their own records and ambitions, and having a law they could call their own.  The result: healthcare reform legislation that was written largely behind closed doors by lobbyists offering only incremental benefits to the public.

In making this grand compromise, Obama lost the one bargaining chip that perhaps would have made the difference in the debates leading up to today’s government shutdown: the merits of Obamacare.  Is there any question that the public would not have embraced a genuinely reformed healthcare system so that they would have done what they did with Obama’s request to Congress to back his foolish foray into Syria: tell their representatives and their government to stop the foolishness.  Instead, Obama is left with a impossibly complex, patchwork of a law that he can neither  discard nor defend.  How does one expect to energize the general public when all it really has to look forward to is the status quo?  But this is old news when it comes to Obama and the Democrats.

The impression one is left with is that the government makes decisions that only benefit those who run it not those whom it was created to protect.

The Fourth Estate Is Crumbling

This recent exchange between Meet the Press host David Gregory and Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald (video clip below) further proves my point that most journalists today, even those whom the public considers serious and respectable, are nothing more than mouthpieces for the government.  In fact, not only are they mouthpieces, they actively conspire with their government counterparts to shut down any dissent at all, especially when it comes to so-called issues of national security, to the extent that they are willing to level accusations of criminal conduct at another journalist on national television.  Despicable.

Debating Government Surveillance

Recently, we learned that our  government is engaged in secret data mining, telephone metadata collection programs.  News of these programs were provided by a former private government contractor to the Guardian and also to the Washington Post, although only reporters from the Guardian had direct and personal access to their news source.  Why the Guardian, you might ask?  Because Snowden, like many other Americans, just don’t trust their country’s news outlets, even the most respected ones like the New York Times.  The commercialization of news in this country and its emphasis on the bottom line have transformed many reporters to nothing more than mouthpieces for the government and large corporations.  But don’t just take my word for it, read about it for yourself in the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report on American Journalism.  Because of this, we can also expect that any debate that might be had on the morality, necessity and legality of the NSA’s data collection programs will end before it even begins.  How else can you explain the following leed to this recent New York Times article published only 2 days after the Guardian first broke news of the NSA’s telephone metadata program:

In early September 2009, an e-mail passed through an Internet address in Peshawar, Pakistan, that was being monitored by the vast computers controlled by American intelligence analysts. It set off alarms. The address, linked to senior Qaeda operatives, had been dormant for months.

Investigators worked their way backward and traced the e-mail to an address in Aurora, Colo., outside Denver. It took them to Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year-old former coffee cart operator, who was asking a Qaeda facilitator about how to mix ingredients for a flour-based explosive, according to law enforcement officials. A later e-mail read: “The marriage is ready” — code that a major attack was planned.

What followed in the next few days was a cross-country pursuit in which the police stopped Mr. Zazi on the George Washington Bridge, let him go, and after several false starts, arrested him in New York. He eventually pleaded guilty to plotting to carry out backpack bombings in the city’s subway system.

It is that kind of success that President Obama seemed to be referring to on Friday in California when he defended the National Security Agency’s stockpiling of telephone call logs of Americans and gaining access to foreigners’ e-mail and other data from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and other companies.

The government itself could not have put it better.

Or consider the headline to yet another post-NSA leak story by the Times: “Debate on Secret Data Unlikely, Partly Because of Secrecy”.  But what incentive would a reporter from say the Times or NPR even have in digging deeper?  Very little.  Emotionally, they may feel betrayed that Snowden went with a British-based news outlet rather than one inside the U.S. to publish his leaked documents.  So screw him, he’s nothing but a traitor and should be prosecuted as such, is perhaps the sentiment across many U.S.-based newsrooms.  Practically, these reporters have little to gain and much to lose if they were to try and corroborate or even expand on the leaked materials.  This is because the government sources who will be the focus of such efforts are also the same ones on whom the reporters increasingly rely for their own stories — through unofficial or official “leaks” — and hence livelihood.

As for the NSA-Snowden story itself, I noticed that sales of George Orwell’s “1984” have skyrocketed since the government’s Big Brother-esque ways were first revealed in the press.  The comparison is of course immediate and not altogether unjustified.  But I do not think Orwell himself would have rejected the kind of surveillance that the government has since admitted to practicing — at least not in a scenario that would  in fact require such prophylactic measures.  But  situations that would actually require such sweeping and secretive data collection efforts — that is, one where there is a real, imminent and extremely lethal threat to the security of the nation as a whole  — are few and far between.  And those on which governments often rely to justify their intrusive actions are, for the most part, contrived; used by the powerful to remain so.  As James Madison once said:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

(Thanks to Stephen Walt, who referenced this quote in a recent blog post.)

So we begin where we first started: debating the morality, legality and necessity of the NSA’s data mining/telephone metadata programs and perhaps the NSA itself.  Make no mistake.  The status quo is by no means inevitable, and it certainly should not be accepted as such.  I recently finished reading Tony Judt’s “Ill Fares the Land” in which he makes precisely this point, albeit in the context of the economy and less so in terms of national security.  But his observations and exhortations to action are no less relevant.

We have entered an age of insecurity — economic insecurity, physical insecurity, political insecurity.  The fact that we are largely unaware of this is small comfort: few in 1914 predicted the utter collapse of their world and the economic and political catastrophes that followed.  Insecurity breeds fear.  And fear — fear of change, fear of decline, fear of strangers and an unfamiliar world — is corroding the trust and interdependence on which civil societies rest.

All change is disruptive.  We have seen that the specter of terrorism is enough to cast stable democracies into turmoil.  Climate change will have even more dramatic consequences.  Men and women will be thrown back upon the resources of the state.  They will look to their political leaders and representatives to protect them: open societies will once again be urged to close in upon themselves, sacrificing freedom for ‘security.’  The choice will no longer be between the state and the market, but between two sorts of state.  It is thus incumbent upon us to re-conceive the role of government.  If we do not. others will.

As for the parameters in which such a debate should take place, I would quote from the following diary entry (from 4/27/1942) of George Orwell, who discussed the sorry state of commentary and analysis with respect to war-related news (then, World War II):

We are all drowning in filth.  When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth.  Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any suffering except self-ptiy and hatred of Britain and utterly indifferent to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends.  […]  Everyone is dishonest, and everyone is utterly heartless towards people who are outside the immediate range of his own interests.  What is most striking of all is the way sympathy can be turned on and off like a tap according to political expediency.  But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook?  Actually there are plenty, but they are powerless.  All power is in the hands of paranoiacs.

A Pictures Is Worth A Thousand Words (Or, If You’re Justice Sotomayor, More Than A Whole Slew of Statistics)

Today the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the much-publicized case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder. Some have described the case as having the kind of ramifications for the Voting Rights Act that Citizens United had for campaign finance laws: law that was once settled and based on sound reasoning has now come under imminent threat of upheaval.

On Monday, Justice Sotomayor issued a “statement” in a case, Bongani Calhoun v. United States, No. 12-6142, involving the racist remarks of a federal prosecutor in Texas. The statement came as the Court declined to hear the case for mostly procedural considerations, but Justice Sotomayor felt it necessary to write separately so she could “dispel any doubt” that the Court’s decision “be understood to signal [the Court’s] tolerance of” the “racially charged remark.” “It should not,” Sotomayor bluntly stated. After taking the Government to task for its conduct, both with respect to the remarks and to the way it approached the case as it wound its way to the Court, Sotomayor ended her statement by warning or perhaps lamenting that she “hope[s] never to see a case like this again.” Only Justice Breyer joined Sotomayor in her statement.

That Sotomayor decided to issue such a statement at this particular time in the Court’s sitting is not, I submit, a coincidence. Instead, Sotomayor’s brief yet emphatic statement may have been her way of alerting her colleagues on the bench that now is not the time to be tinkering with or, worse yet, altogether scrapping the prophylactic measures that have been enacted to protect minorities from the kind of racism that, to Sotomayor, is as much a part of America as baseball, apple pie and barbecued ribs. And she did so in vivid almost picturesque fashion, none of which can really be captured in the raw data and statistics that will be thrust at the Court as it considers whether to overturn the Voting Rights Act, or at least a key part of it.

True, Sotomayor’s colleagues may decline to heed her warning or disagree with her view that things are still as they were back when Congress first passed, and then continued to renew, the Voting Rights Act. But even in pure temporal terms, we are only a mere 50 years removed from a time (1963; the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965) when many thought that the country could not survive as a democracy without measures like the Voting Rights Act — a time when George Wallace, Alabama’s then Governor refused to de-segregate the University of Alabama, in direct defiance of President Kennedy and and a time when an owner of a segregated restaurant in Maryland felt fit to physically humiliate individuals who knelt in front of his restaurant to call attention to their message of integration. (These pictures are from a series of 50 photos taken in 1963 that was recently posted on the website for The Atlantic.) To argue that such racism, or more appropriately, its remnants has been purged from the fabric of this country is at best inaccurate and at worst irresponsible. Knowing that this view will probably not hold sway with the majority of the Court, however, my thoughts turn to those, like the Maryland protestors, who through their dedication and sacrifice helped put on the books laws like the Voting Rights Act, and without whom our country would be even more segregated than it was in 1963.

The Un-Pardonables

Among the many year in review stories we saw in 2012, one that might have escaped notice is Obama’s atrocious and yes, unpardonable, clemency record .  Thanks to Professor Ruckman over at the Pardon Power blog, he has compared  Obama’s record of pardons and communications with that of other presidents, and the results are truly one for the record books, and not in a good way. The more interesting question, of course, is why Obama hasn’t been more generous with exercising his pardon power.  In the unlikely event that one is able to get Obama to discuss this in candor and on record, we may never know.  But we can certainly guess.  Here are some of my hypotheses:

(1) Criminals are increasingly becoming a permanent underclass: this has as much to do with the racial composition of the group of individuals who are most in need of executive clemency (either for employment or public benefits) — they are without question mostly black — as with the economic and personal backgrounds of these same individuals — they are overwhelmingly poor and have few or no individuals to whom they can turn for economic or emotional support.

(2) Compassion for the “criminal” is politically unpopular and potentially toxic: this should come as no surprise.  It matters not whether you are the nicest most well meaning person in the world, qualities some have ascribed to our current president.  If you are an elected figure, you will avoid politically unpopular acts.  Forgiving someone for their past criminal conduct is one such act.  And it becomes even more unpopular when tragedies like the Newtown/Sandy Hook shooting occur and the shooter is portrayed as both a criminal and a freak; he is almost certainly neither.

And we should ask ourselves this question: when was the last time our lawmakers floated a legislative proposal whose primary purpose was to improve the lives of ex-offenders and the communities in which they reside? I am not talking about changes to unjust sentencing laws or reducing prison populations, all of which are important in their own way but do nothing to keep people out of prison; I refer instead to proposals that are meant to create communities that are strong and cohesive and provide their members with zero incentive to think about let alone engage in criminal acts.  But such bold initiatives might very well be a thing of the past.  This is especially true when those most in need of help are the least visible, based on the size of their bank accounts and the color of their skin.  Hell, we cannot even get our president to exercise his pardon power, and he needs neither   Congress’s  approval nor its input to do it.

11-11-11: Veterans Day and Armistice Day

In commemoration of those who have served their countries with honor and bravery, I post here a video clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the Vietnam War.  I do this not to denigrate the sacrifices of those to whom this day is dedicated but rather in hope that those who have gone a different route do not take for granted and are not blinded to the circumstances which have perpetuated the scenarios and theaters that have become the breeding ground for such sacrifices.