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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A quick follow up on the post below. "And suggesting that more guns in the hands of more people will cut down on gun deaths is sheer madness." That was the penultimate sentence of the fifth paragraph of what I wrote on December 20. It was and still is the belief of the putative representatives of the nation’s gun owners that more guns in the hands of more people makes for a safer society - but now the National Rifle Association has taken the madness one step further. Their solution to prevent the next Newtown or Columbine, as voiced by Wayne LaPierre, is to put an armed cop in every school in the nation. It’s impossible of course. The cost alone would be prohibitive. But think of what is being suggested - turning our seats of learning into armed camps. I think we all knew that the leadership of the NRA were zealots in defense of everyone’s right to own firearms and have been for years. Think of Charlton Heston holding a rifle aloft at the NRA convention in 2000 and letting the world know that the only way anyone could wrest it away from him was "From my cold dead hands." I think of the late actor as a Second Amendment zealot but I never doubted his sanity. LaPierre strikes me as one who has lost touch with reality other than that created in his own mind.

According to LaPierre, the answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. The sort of thing you see in western movies. No Mr. La Pierre, the answer to a bad guy with a gun is a bad guy with little or no access to the kind of gun that can kill 26 people in a matter of seconds. I know it will be hard to get anything changed when it comes to gun ownership in America and you can get an idea of how hard it will be when the opening salvo from the leading voice for gun freedom in this country is to call for more guns in more places. You’d think that bit of nonsense would be struck down without a second thought. If we took it seriously, what would come next, armed guards in every movie house, in every shopping mall, at every sports event, on every fire truck - on every street corner? But of course some will take it seriously and moves are already afoot to legislate armed protectors in our schools.

I don’t know how many efforts are underway to make LaPierre look less of a madman or to at least provide him with enough company to make him look no more mad than some others, but at least one legislator has jumped on the idea of putting guns into schools. Bob Marshall, a Virginia State Representatives plans to offer a bill that that would require that at least one person in every school in Virginia to be trained and to carry a gun - ready to fire at invading bad guys.

As I write, President Obama is enjoying Christmas in Hawaii and Members of Congress are spending the holiday break in their home districts. I hope they return to Washington mentally and physically refreshed because they’ll need to be to deal what will await them. Forget about the "fiscal cliff." Think SANITY CLIFF and how to prevent the country from following the leadership of the National Rifle Association over the edge.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Since this blog is devoted to commentary on the passage of history, I cannot, difficult as it is to face such a gut wrenching task, choose not to comment on the horror that took place in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. There are no words to describe the mixture of anger and sorrow that overtook my wife and I upon hearing of this monstrous act. We both watched and listened to the memorial service and the President’s remarks with tears in our eyes. How could such a thing happen? How could anyone, however disturbed, look innocent young six and seven year olds in the eye and pump bullets into them again and again, one after another? There is of course no answer to such a question. There can be no explanation that makes any sense. Yet if we are not to descend into a maelstrom of hopeless surrender to inevitable acts of madness, we must try to do what can be done to at least slow down their inevitability.

The argument is already raging, as it does after every one of these insane acts, about the role of guns. You know the defenders of the gun culture - the "Guns don’t kill people, People kill people" crowd. But people without guns can’t as easily commit mass murder in a matter of minutes as people with guns. And yes I know, crazy people can plant bombs, but that’s not the issue here. Unless we do something, the ticking time bomb that will likely result in another Columbine and Aurora and Newtown becomes closer and closer to exploding - the explosive material being the easy access to all kinds of guns and ammunition - and the fuse a troubled mind.

I remember when I first came to the United States as an adult - I was here as a child younger than the Newtown victims but grew up in England - I was struck by what I sensed as the potential for violence in so many people. It was like an exaggerated expression of the American right to say and do whatever one pleased and not be interfered with - something akin to the rugged individualism of life in the old west. There were times when I felt uncomfortable in some social situations. The feeling faded away as time went by and as I became more "American" but I was still aware - as I am to this day - that violence is more so a part of our culture than it is in any other industrial nation. I don’t know what the murder rate was when I arrived decades ago, but I have seen it grow year after year to the point where, if we had a summer weekend in Chicago without a murder, it would call for at least a small headline in our local papers.

Perhaps the nature of our society and the tendency for many of us to resort to violence to resolve real and imagined problems and inequities can’t be easily changed, but surely we can do something about the easy access to weapons that can swiftly kill from across a room, a street or a school yard by someone mad at some other person or at society - or just mad. There have been calls for some measure of gun control before, most strongly after incidents similar to the one we have just witnessed and they have gone unheeded. But there’s a feeling that this time it’s different, that there will be less resistance from those who see any gun regulation as an attack on their freedom - even from the NRA. There will of course be the argument put forward for the right to own something akin to a machine gun for the purposes of "self defense." Those arguments are usually from those who think of self defense in terms of defending their "freedoms" against government intrusion or a U.N. takeover of our society . There is a slightly more legitimate argument for the ownership of a handgun or rifle to defend against a criminal who might want to inflict bodily harm in the course of a robbery or some other kind of assault or property invasion, but the problem with that argument is that honest citizens don’t usually walk around or sit in their homes with a gun in their hands, the safety catch off and a finger on the trigger, while the criminal against whom they’re proposing to defend themselves is likely to be doing just that. There are occasions when one might be ready to defend as described. That’s when the "one" is a street gang member and those against whom he would be defending, other street gang members, similarly armed and ready.

The restrictions now in place are worthless. A "background check" isn’t going to reveal dangerous criminals. They already have their guns, acquired in one of many ways available to them. Similarly, background checks aren’t going to turn up dangerous psychotics. We’ve seen how guns have been obtained legally and with all the checks and balances in place by madmen who use those guns to commit mass murder. We can’t put armed guards in every school in the country as some are suggesting, nor does it make sense to arm teachers, which is also a suggestion. And suggesting that more guns in the hands of more people will cut down on gun deaths is sheer madness. So what can we do?

The first thing that can be done is to ban the sale of all weapons to the public other than rifles and hand guns that carry a certain maximum ammunition clip and that can only fire one bullet at a time. No weapon that can fire continuously with a single depression of a trigger should be available for public sale. This doesn’t take care of such weapons already in people’s hands so the law would have to ban the possession of those weapons with a grace period to turn them in, say, six months in exchange for reasonable compensation - making their possession beyond that period a felony. The sale of high capacity gun magazines - say anything beyond ten bullets - should be banned immediately, as should their manufacture or importation. There should be no vague description of weapons such as "assault." A simple description of their fire power should be enough to identify them.

Every weapon allowed under whatever law is passed should be required to have an imbedded identification and accompanied by a "title" similar to that required for automobiles and their sale should be registered at some central agency. Buyers should be required to take and pass a test for each kind of weapon purchased and would be issued a firearms license that would need to be renewed periodically like a driver’s license. A sale of a weapon from one owner to another would need to be registered and the title transferred to identify the new owner. And the number of guns that anyone would be allowed to purchase at any one time or within a given period of time would be restricted. All of these should be Federal laws. Leaving them up to the states would result in uneven enactment and application with a crime committed in one state not being recognized as such in another.

None of these restrictions would infringe upon gun ownership rights that already exist other than to limit the types of guns that can be purchased. Requiring sellers to create a title, buyers to qualify for a gun license and the other ideas suggested, would make buying a gun a more regulated process but would not restrict basic ownership or other gun rights. For example, a court has just ruled that Illinois, the only state that does not permit concealed carry, must change its law and join the rest of the nation in permitting gun toting citizens to roam its streets.

I don’t hold out much hope for these laws to be enacted, despite the feeling that the efforts to do something will be met with less resistance than in the past. While we mourn the loss of those little children and feel the agony of the parents who are burying them day after day, we are still a nation in love with guns and that believes the second amendment to the Constitution applies to all citizens for all time and all "arms." The best we can hope for is the ban on the sale of some weapons and perhaps high capacity gun magazines. Citizens would still be able to own guns and carry them almost anywhere, but perhaps their killing capacity would be reduced and the time it would take to cause multiple deaths increased. For the sake of the children who could be the next victims of some crazed gunman and out of respect for the memories of those who died in Newtown, I pray that we can accomplish that much in my lifetime.

Friday, December 14, 2012

I was no great fan of Ronald Reagan and not particularly amused by any of his allegedly humorous quips. But when I look at what has been passing for governance for the past several years - at the national and local levels, one of his lines comes close to having a ring of truth to it. On July 28, 1988, in remarks to representatives of Future Farmers of America, he said:

"The ten most terrifying words in the English language are: Hi, I’m from the government and I'm here to help."
I was reminded of that quip after I got a couple of letters from my Congressional Representative Jan Schakowsky last month. The first, dated November 15, was a letter thanking me for contacting her about agricultural subsidies and childhood obesity. It was very nice of her to thank me, except that I didn’t contact her about either of these subjects. Maybe it was intended to let her constituents know how focused she was, because my letter was addressed to the full name, including initials, under which I’m registered to vote - a name that I never use in personal correspondence or in any other aspect of my life. But I guess I can excuse the error. After all, it didn’t do any harm except waste postage - and if that was the worst money wasting activity of members of Congress, we’d be celebrating Christmas in July - and every other month of the year. But then I got a second letter.

On October 24, 2012, with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, I sent the following e-mail to The Federal Reserve:

Whoop-de-doo. A big fat $1.38 interest just got credited to my checking account. Now my wife and I - both of us seniors - can really get this economy going again.

And in no time at all, the Fed responded.

Dear Mr. Smith:

Thank you for your recent correspondence to the Federal Reserve. We appreciate your willingness to share your views.


JPD Board Staff

More or less as a gag, I sent copies to a few people, including Jan Schakowsky, adding the heading "OUR FEDERAL RESERVE AT WORK SERVING THE NATION." As I said - and what should be obvious to anyone with half a brain, my comment was tongue-in-cheek, though it should also have conveyed to anyone reading it with said half a brain that I was not happy with the Fed’s interest policy. Before they went nuts trying to save the world through close to zero interest rates which has taken countless billions out of the economy, I was earning 50 to 60 bucks a month just on my checking account. Understanding my displeasure with the Fed, Representative Schakowsky took the trouble to respond to her copy of my e-mail. On November 30, 2012, she sent me the following letter:
Thank you for writing to express your frustration with the Federal Reserve Board. I appreciate hearing from you.

I’m sorry the response from the Federal Reserve was unsatisfactory. I’m not sure what your specific question was with regard to the interest you are earning on your checking account. However I would be happy to try to get you an answer for questions you might have if you want to get back in touch about it.

Again, thank you for reaching out to me on this issue. Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance to you in the future.

I think Representative Schakowsky does a fairly good job representing the views of Illinois’ 9th District and she’s a favorite Democratic spokesperson on many progressive radio and television programs. Her November 15th letter was sent under a reproduced signature which would be appropriate for what appeared to be a mass mailing. Her letter of concern about my problems with the Federal Reserve however, was signed below "Sincerely" in thick blue ink with the "J" of her first name curled around her printed name, giving the impression that she actually signed the letter and either wrote it or read what a staff member wrote and approved it, which worries the heck out of me.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect all members of Congress to have a sense of humor similar to my own, but at least I expect them to be able to distinguish between a serious inquiry and a silly comment. If Representative Schakowsky actually read my e-mail to the Fed that started with "Whoop-de-do" and says she isn’t sure what my specific question was - and if she actually read the Fed’s automatically generated acknowledgment of an e-mail and says she’s sorry that the response from the Fed was unsatisfactory, I have to wonder if the strain of sitting on two major House Committees plus being the Democratic Chief Deputy Whip and a frequent guest on radio and television programs has caused a political haze to form around her powers of perception. O.K., I’m kidding, but still it worries me that her office or the office of any Member of Congress could look at a piece of nonsense that comes over the transom or pops up in the e-mail in-box and think that it calls for serious response .

Schakowsky has always seemed to be one of the more reasonable members of Congress and these comments are not meant as some kind of attack on her. But receiving these two letters from her office - the first a response to an "expression of concern" that was never made and the second a response that wasn’t asked or called for to a copy of a gag e-mail that I thought would give most recipients a chuckle - as indeed it did among the rest of recipients, none of whom hold political office - makes me concerned about the kind of personal attention members of Congress or their staffs pay to what they might perceive as the kind of constituent comment or inquiry that can be handled with some basically generic placating response containing the elements of "thanks" and "concern." I wouldn’t put the two letters from Schakowsky’s office in the same category as the disembodied voice telling me how important my call is while I’m on hold waiting to speak with a humanoid at a bank or some other corporate body, but it’s close and doesn’t inspire great confidence in the workings of government at the individual constituent level.

On the other hand, though my nonsensical e-mail exchange with the Fed didn’t seem to strike my Congressperson as amusing, her response to it by way of a letter to me, gave me and few other people one hell of a laugh, so I guess the whole experience with our government at work was a net plus.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

I am not someone who necessarily agrees with those who have declared the English language to be dead and I am certainly not ready to conduct a funeral for it as one English clergyman did earlier this year. But I do get disturbed when I hear people assign meanings to English words that cannot be found in any English language dictionary. One that I have been hearing of late is the use of the word "mistake" as a substitute for something that’s almost the opposite of what the word means. If you were to look up mistake in the dictionary of your choice, I can guarantee that you will not find the word "murder" as one of its meanings. Or "grand theft" or "lie" - or any number of meanings that have nothing to do with the generally accepted understanding of what is meant by mistake. Adding six and five and two and writing down 27 as the answer is a mistake. Murder and grand theft are not.

Politicians often make mistakes. Some people believe everything certain politicians do is a mistake. They are usually extreme partisans who consider that the very philosophy of political parties other than their own is a mistake or even criminal. Then there are politicians who break the law. The last two governors of Illinois are serving jail time for their "mistakes" which law enforcement officials and two juries decided were crimes. The mistakes, if they existed, were getting caught.

Now we have two more politicians - or actually ex-politicians - who are in a peculiar way connected, citing "mistakes" as a substitute word for, in one case, two crimes for which convictions were obtained and in another, for what appears to be a crime or crimes for which the ex-politician is negotiating a plea agreement. The latter, as you might guess, is former Congressman Jesse Jackson Junior, who resigned from Congress citing poor health and "mistakes." The former, one of many seeking to replace Jackson as the representative from Illinois’ second congressional district is one Mel Reynolds, who was the Congressman from that district but resigned after being convicted for having sex with an under age campaign volunteer and later for fraud and served time for both crimes. He was succeeded by Jackson and now he wants the seat back, admitting that he "made mistakes" but pleading that it shouldn’t be a life sentence.

To a certain extent, you can understand the use of the word by politicians who get caught with their hands in the cookie jar. I don’t know of any politician accused of a crime who freely admits his or her transgression when they know they’re caught dead to rights. What I think they do by referring to their crime or crimes as mistakes, is find a way to concede their guilt in as face saving a way as possible - perhaps with thought, as in the case of Mel Reynolds, of making some kind of a comeback. But there are some cases where the use of the word is deceitful and immoral and insults the intelligence. Such is the case with NBC News.

George Zimmerman, who has been indicted on a charge of second degree murder for shooting Trayvon Martin and is out on bond awaiting trial, is suing NBC, claiming defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. As just about everyone blessed with hearing and vision knows, the killing of Martin took on racial overtones when authorities in Sanford, Florida initially declined to bring charges against Zimmerman, with Civil Rights advocates and cable news stations accusing them and Zimmerman of being racists. To this neutral observer, the hue and cry was exacerbated in no small measure by the reporting of NBC News. The Zimmerman lawsuit alleges, accurately, that NBC edited the recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call describing what he believed to be the actions of a suspicious character to a police dispatcher. The complete recording - just as it happened, was available to all news organizations. All or part could be played by radio and television stations or a transcript of the recording printed. NBC decided to doctor it for reasons as yet unknown, giving aid and comfort to those accusing Zimmerman of being a racist.

During the Today Show on March22, 2012, several clips taken from the 911 recording were played, the first of them as follows: ZIMMERMAN: This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black. 911 DISPATCHER: Did you see what he was wearing? ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, a dark hoodie. A quick reading of the actual recording shows that NBC took bits from different parts of the recorded conversation to portray Zimmerman as a racist. The "he looks black" comment was in answer to the dispatcher’s question "O.K. and this guy is white, black or Hispanic?" Caught with its corporate pants down, NBC apologized to its viewers, calling the doctored tape "an error made in the production process" and has now responded to the lawsuit saying that the edited tape was a "mistake" and that they intend to "vigorously defend" their position in court

From what I’ve been able to gather, researching this issue on the Internet, there were several airings of doctored versions of the original recording, not all of them the same and a couple of NBC reporters lost their jobs - presumably for "making errors inn the production process." What utter garbage. The reason this story grabbed my attention is because I have considerable expertise in the matter of the kind of "production process" that NBC says was where a "mistake" was made. I produced, recorded, edited and distributed a variety of audio products over a period of forty some years. I could take conversations or speeches or any kind of voice recordings and make people say almost anything I wanted them to say, and indeed I often did, but with their knowledge and approval. One can make errors when editing audio tape, but making people say something that differs from what they originally said in a way that changes their meaning is a deliberate act.

I’m in no position to judge Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence in the death of Trayvon Martin, but he has every right to sue NBC for making him sound like he was a racist and I hope he wins - if for no other reason than to expose the hypocrisy of calling the deliberate creation of a lie a "mistake" - as it is for politicians to use the word to describe their breaking the laws that they are sworn to uphold and may have even voted to enact. Maybe their colleagues will one day pass a law to make people or corporations criminally liable for such fallacious language usage. Misdemeanor Mistake, Felony Mistake, Aggravated Felony Mistake, even First Degree Mistake. It probably won’t stop them though. They’ll just go the Thesaurus and start working their way through what they find there. It’s a long list so don’t hold your breath waiting for a raft of truth in politics and advertising.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

I stay away from commenting on the world around me for a couple of weeks and when I sit down in front of my computer to resume, it’s hard to pick something to write about from the wealth of material that has accumulated. Egypt elected a president and he turns out to be a dictator. The Republicans still don’t get it. Romney’s chief campaign strategists thinks he really won except for the people who don’t really count who voted for the other guy. Someone by the name of Charlotte Allen writes what seems to be a brilliant sit-com treatment in the Chicago Tribune about Sarah Palin being the best GOP pick for 2016 - only it turns out to be serious argument. Palin for President in 2016. Jesse Jackson Junior resigns from Congress and may be on his way to the Big House - and among the crowd clamoring for his seat is former Congressman Mel Reynolds who has already spent time in the Big House. I could go on and maybe I’ll come back to all of these topics - but right now I have to say a few words about the latest piece of alliterative nonsense - War and Peace in the Middle East!

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything about Israel and when I have written, it has been a frustrating exercise. Sane people I am sure do not want to live in a state of perpetual war and I am reasonably sure that sane Palestinians want peace as much as sane Israelis. Yet for 64 years, madness has prevailed and shows no sign of abating. And when the recent violent eruption of that madness was destroying lives and property, the Arab world was quick to condemn Israel for being the "aggressor" while the United States and other western countries supported "Israel’s right to defend itself." And now we have a cease fire. And those of us who’ve lived through decades watching this madness await the next salvo of missiles

I have no personal expertise when it comes to the decades old conflict, but I have personal interests. My oldest grandchild was born in Israel and is married to an Israeli, though they live in the United States. And I am old enough to remember the U.N. vote that led to partition of what was left of Palestine after 70% of the land was shaved off to create Jordan. One Jewish and one Palestinian Arab state on a sliver of land about the size of Maryland. And the chicken and egg history of blame and madness and violence began. I won’t bother to try to recount the past history of the conflict, which, as you can see from this timeline, goes back a lot further than 64 years. But I have an opinion on the current state of affairs.

Some people view the cease fire as some kind of hopeful sign. I see it as another moment of madness in what has been a history of madness. There is an ongoing war. This cease fire, like all that have preceded it, official and unofficial, is just a momentary pause on the fighting on one of the several fronts of that war. There is nothing particularly hopeful about it. In the chicken and egg history of this conflict, you can pick any point in time to support your particular point of view of who is to blame and/or who started what. The Palestinian Arabs would probably pick what they call Disaster Day - the day that Israel declared its independence. From their point of view, the very existence of the State of Israel is at the root of the entire problem and in a sense, I would agree with them. Violence between Arabs and Jews had been going on a long time before the partition decision and the declaration of independence - but it’s that last thing - the official arrival of a Jewish state on a fraction of the Biblical Kingdom of Israel, that instigated what has become a never ending conflict - never ending because enough crazy Arabs refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist.

I’m not saying that the Palestinians have always been in the wrong and Israel in the right. Israel has made its share of bad moves that have thrown roadblocks in the way of achieving some sort of rapprochement with Palestinian Arabs, most of them since 1967 - a year which many Palestinian sympathizers around the world seem to think was when the conflict began. But I place most of the blame on the Arabs who rejected every opportunity for peace up to and including 1967. Of course Israel could have unilaterally withdrawn from the areas captured during the ’67 war, but that wouldn’t have brought peace - not without an agreement with the Palestinians.

I agree that the settlements in areas that would become a Palestinian state if agreement between the two antagonists could ever be reached are a problem - but the continued occupation of these areas only came about because of the "Three No’s" of the Khartoum Declaration - No Peace, No Negotiations and No Recognition of Israel. Yes, despite that declaration, Israel was eventually able to make peace with Egypt and Jordan, but as long as there are Arab leaders who insist that Jews have no historical connection to the land and as long as a member of the United Nations continues to call for Israel’s destruction and its Hezbollah client stands ready to rain down thousands of rockets on Israel and as long as leaders of Palestinian factions declare that their aim is the destruction of Israel, any "cease fire" is little more than a cruel joke.

There can be no movement toward a meaningful settlement as long as the bulk of what is described in the foregoing paragraph continues to be the case. Israel cannot negotiate a peace treaty with an enemy whose opening and continuing proposal is that Israel should cease to exist and all its Jewish citizens murdered. Their is no point in trying to reach an agreement with the faction of the Palestinians that might accept Israel’s right to exist while another faction continues to wage war. The cease fire allows Israeli citizens who live within range of rockets launched from the Gaza strip a chance to return to some semblance of normal life. For the rulers of Gaza, it allows time to restock weapons - as indeed they have publicly stated they plan to do, before resuming rocket fire.

Frankly, I am tired of hearing about peace processes and so called peace activists trying to break the sea blockade of the Gaza coast and all of the condemnation of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank. I have nothing but sympathy for those Arab s who want only to live in peace who have to put up with check points and other hardships and indignities. But as long as the crazed people who live only for Israel’s destruction or whose negotiating positions are know non starters are a substantial part of the group with whom Israel is supposed to negotiate and make peace, the chances of it happening are zero. Those who were involved in arranging this last cease fire are talking and will continue to talk about it offering a chance to break the stalemate. While they’re waiting for this miracle to take place, I’ll be waiting for the next group of rockets to land in southern Israel and beyond.

Maybe one day there’ll be a majority of sane people from both sides who can negotiate with each other who’ll leave pipe dreams outside of the meeting rooms and not make ridiculous demands of each other and actually find a way to live in peace and understanding. I hope I live long enough to see it, but I probably have a better chance of winning the next Powerball lottery - and you know what those odds are.