Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Dead

The latest news of the shootings in the First Baptist Church in Shurland Springs, Texas is just numbing. It has gotten to the point now where this ongoing cycle of gun violence has made me stop watching the news. That is not good for someone who considers himself a journalist.

I simply can't take another death count or see the images of innocent people - too many of them young with so much promise and expectation -  wiped out by bullets from a crazed shooter.

This comes on the heels of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at the Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas on October 1 where 59 died and hundreds were injured and last year's horrific anti-gay slaughter at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando where 48 were slain. Lest we not forget there was also the terrorism-inspired tragedy in San Bernadino in early December of 2015 where another 14 died. We have seen a sizable uptick in numbers of people killed in mass shootings.

But while these numbers capture the headlines and keep news anchors busy for a time, the truth is the most damning statistics show that we are a nation at arms with itself. More people die each year by gun deaths than do in automobile accidents. If we were to count up all of those who have died by gun violence in the last 50 years, the number of dead outnumber all of those who died on every field of battle in our nation's history since Revolutionary times.

Read that again. Since 1968, guns have removed more American citizens than those who fought for freedom from the British, contested the Kaiser in the Great War, opposed the Nazis and facists in World War II, confronted communism in Southeast Asia and battled our brothers during the Civil War.

According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control issued in November of 2017, 12 out of every 100,000 Americans will die as a victim of gun violence. That figure shows a rise for the second consecutive year, whereas previous years had registered as static. Approximately half of them will die from self-inflicted wounds. Regardless of who pulls the trigger, though, these Americans are dead as a result of access to firearms and I am now of the opinion, just as the CDC has also begun to indicate, that we are in the middle of an epidemic that must be stemmed.

I love my country. I consider myself a patriotic American who appreciates the liberties we cherish. But no other civilized country in the world has numbers of those felled by gunfire as we do. It is an ignoble record we break year after year without any hint that we may be receding from our relentless onslaught against one another.

In Israel thousands of young men and women patrol the streets with Uzi machine guns and assault rifles. There are an awful lot of guns roaming around among soldiers due to security concerns, but Israel's gun laws are among the most strict in the world. Unless authorities perceive a need for someone to protect valuables or explosives or to use a weapon as a means for hunting, they are not allowed to own a firearm. Residents of the West Bank are granted an exception too, but again only  due to security issues.

The United States would like to call itself "the Leader of the Free World," but as far as gun laws go, it is in reality "The Land of the Free and the Home of the Dead."

Two summers ago and last summer, angry crowds rose up to affirm that Black Lives Matter. While I do not mitigate the threat to African-Americans from law enforcement officers or for those that support the police with their support of the Blue Lives Matter cause, I must insist that we examine the problem as systemic and not aimed at just one segment of our population. When a bullet hits skin and pierces a body, it sheds red blood. The color we all need to see is red. All Lives Matter.

I am a strong supporter of the Constitution and I believe that we should all have a right to bear arms in defense of our loved ones or those dependent on us. But we cannot forget that the Constitution was written in 1789, a time when a flintlock was standard issue.  A typical weapon could be loaded and discharged within a minute before firing. There is no way the Founding Fathers could have foreseen an assault rifle with automatic fire capability that could have wiped out all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in one strike. And as to handguns, there is little reason to justify stocks with 12 or 15 chambers for bullets unless the intent is to kill a maximum number of human lives. 

Other than for military personnel in a period of war or preparation for the same can I ever see the need for an assault rifle. Just because one can afford to purchase an assault rifle should not given him access to owning one. I might have the funds to purchase a tank. It doesn't mean that I should own one. Obviously, we have limitations on what we deem as proper and normal.

Gun violence can be dealt with by legislation and enforcement. There is the argument that criminals don't follow the law and that is true. But so many people get access to guns that shouldn't, some of whom are mentally unstable, especially through gun shows and mail order firms that something must be  done to clamp down these sales. 

Above all else, there needs to be a new dialogue in each and every household.  All weapons need to be properly locked away and kept out of the reach of those who are too young or too vulnerable to access them. Unless a gun or rifle is needed for protection of the home, professional law enforcement should be called upon to deal with those that threaten life and loss of property. 

I watched in horror 22 years ago when Columbine High School was the scene of devastation. Since then we've seen death and destruction at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and even on Mother's Day four years ago in New Orleans when 19 people were shot during a second line parade. Of all those that were shot, Deb Cotton was the worst victim because she had dared to point a camera at one of the shooters. Years later, after many successful surgeries, Deb confronted her attacker and not only forgave him, but advocated for the possibility of an early release from his sentence of life without benefit of parole. Deb knew the path she strode was unusual, but despite what gun violence had done to her, she continued to seek justice in an unjust world. In early May of this year, Deb lost her fight to survive, a victim of a hail of bullets fired 1,450 days earlier.

We shall see victims perish as a result of injuries suffered in Las Vegas and, sadly, in Florida and Texas and these, too, shall go unreported. But what also will go unreported is the anguish and misery of those whose loved ones are taken so soon and the difficulties spent during a lifetime asking the unrequited question "why?"

I am just sick of it. I can only hope that the tide of popular opinion will rise up in opposition to this epidemic. We need to address this immediately before the next tragedy occurs. Quite possibly, the life you save may be mine or those I love. Please stop. Do something now. Repeat....

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Make America grate again?

Hate groups from neo-Nazis to KKK members. (Photo by Alan Smason)

The hate coming out of Charlottesville is regrettable. But the levels of incitement and violence have proven to be far more concerning from the voices of the alt-right, fascists, neo-Nazis and KKK members than that which has come from the protestors on the left, who are far more reactionary than incendiary.

Perhaps more telling was that one misguided alt-right member was compelled by rhetoric or demagoguery into the criminal act of murder. He drove his muscle car into a crowd of helpless protestors to prove a simple point. It’s a point many of us learned during the era of lynchings that took place between the Civil War and the Civil Rights era. It’s the same point that was evident during the rise of the Nazi Party on the streets of Germany when hooligans and street toughs beat, maimed and killed those that got in their way.

With might there is right. Or, perhaps, with might there is alt-right.

It is true that many of these white supremacists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and xenophobes are holdovers from the philosophy of Tea Party politics. Rightly or wrongly, they were credited with helping to secure the election of Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th President.

Many of their numbers were emboldened when Steve Bannon was selected to be the President’s chief strategist and policy adviser. When Bannon was editor at Breitbart, that website catered to the alt-right blogosphere and advocated for their peculiar brand of politics.

Despite denials from many quarters of the White House that they did not support these purveyors of hate, there had been little in the form of specific pushback from President Trump. Even when the events of confrontation at Charlottesville turned ugly and then deadly, the rhetoric from the President reflected that the violence came from “many sides.” He neglected to honor the memory of the young woman whose life had been senselessly taken away. After both his daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, and his vice-president Mike Pence, a fundamentalist Christian, came out publicly to deplore the actions of the white nationalists and anti-Semites, Trump was mute. He appeared in no hurry to call out the KKK and the neo-Nazis specifically.

Then, after two days, he apparently changed his mind this afternoon. “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and other hate groups who are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” the President said.

Finally, after two days, the moral compass of the Chief Executive has risen to where he can now condemn those whose philosophies we fought both a Civil War and a Second World War to defeat.

Thank you, Mr. President. I could not have expected this ineffectual moral leadership, especially coming from a man some have labeled a firebrand. You told us you would make America great again. Instead your lack of words and moral leadership grates on the sensibilities of all forward-thinking Americans who had expected more from you. You are, after all, the President of all Americans, not alt-Americans.

It’s not about it being too little too late. It’s more to the point that it should be “Not on My Watch” and “Never Again.”

Meanwhile, more alt-right protests are scheduled for this weekend. Will we Americans see more of this new Donald Trump or will his rhetoric slide back to what we saw on Saturday, just after attacks?
Even The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi publication, was compelled to comment: “Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.”

That is one statement on which both the Nazis and I can agree.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Of mayors, monuments and miscreants

The dust has settled and only the rhetoric remains as the last of the four statues decried as public nuisances first by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and later in a 2015 city ordinance - that of Robert E. Lee - finally came down last weekend. We've had a lot of painful memories stirred up by the controversy as the flames of racism were fanned by radicals on both sides.

The deed is done. The monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, which was essentially an attempt to overthrow both the yoke of Reconstruction and the gubernatorial election of 1874 by the Crescent City White League, was probably the most egregious of the statues. A plaque added in 1932 during the Depression had attempted to rewrite the history of that bloody battle quelled by federal troops, fallaciously indicating that it had established white supremacy in the state. Enlightened and embarrassed city officials in the post Civil Rights Era in 1973 added yet another plaque on the side of the monument, noting that while the history of the battle was important, the previous sentiments were not in line with modern revisionist and inclusive thinking. The statue was used as a rallying point for David Duke and others for decades and had been taken down during street work in 1989. Its placement on the federally protected National Register forced city officials to restore the monument, but had it relocated to a less visible area in the French Quarter.

The statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was also allowed to be erected at a time when blacks enjoyed little political voice. Davis never sought reconciliation and was an apologist for the Confederacy, contributing to the philosophy of the "Lost Cause," wherein the secession from the Union was justified as reactionary to Northern aggression and the Old South with its plantation economy built on slavery was romanticized as an idyllic way of life.

The last two statues depicted two larger than life figures - Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard. Again, the lack of political pushback from former slaves and their descendants and others who might have pointed out that celebrating military figures who lost a war might not be practical or in the best of taste. Beauregard and Lee, however, did advocate for reconciliation between the states. Beauregard in particular pushed for integration and full rights for the emancipated population. His equestrian statue might have survived scrutiny had he not been shown in full military regalia.

In the weeks leading up to the removal of the four monuments, dozens of outsiders - many of which were hate groups and white supremacists - descended upon the city, unfurling Confederate and other splinter group flags. New Orleanians who had lived with the monuments, oftentimes oblivious to what they represented to the black populace, were sometimes offended more by the methods of removal and the attempt to rewrite history. They found themselves in the unenviable position of being on the same side as members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Sons of the Confederacy.

The organized forces known as Take 'em Down, who agreed with the mayor and the City Council that the four objects needed to be removed, were as vitriolic as the other side. They had flags and banners on their side too as they marched through the city or confronted each other as vigilant New Orleans Police Department officers separated and watched the two factions. Take 'em Down has indicated that it wants to continue to advocate for changing the names of streets bearing Confederate personages or former slaveowners and take down other iconic statues such as that of Andrew Jackson at Jackson Square in the Vieux Carré. Understandably, there is major pushback there for those that still consider Jackson "the hero of the Battle of New Orleans."

It is sad that the polarization of the city these days has sprung up over monuments of bronze, brick and mortar. The city of New Orleans has largely enjoyed a different kind of culture than that found in other areas of the South. Mardi Gras has always been a unique celebration that has unified the city and from its earliest days Creole culture has embraced many non-Caucasian ethnicities. What endures more than statues and obelisks is the humanity of its people and their capacity to love one another.

Now that this bitter chapter has ended, we should all hope that this is the beginning of a positive era of better relations and that we should all mind our own fences. As a city, New Orleans will be celebrating its tricentennial next year. We need to hold high the official flag of New Orleans and proudly declare that we will chart our own destiny, not let outsiders decide for us what we want and try not to erase history, but learn from it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

An Open Letter to Our President-Elect

The dust has settled from the contentious election of 2016 and we are now about to swear into office our nation's 45th President. It is not true to say there has never been as colorful a character as Donald J. Trump to be selected as president. Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson are probably great examples of figures also cut from an uncommon cloth.

What disturbs me most at this momentous juncture is the tremendous disconnect that many Americans have for the man who will be the leader of the Free World and in whom we will entrust with the unthinkable nuclear option as our Commander in Chief. Whether we recognize him as "My President" or not, the reality is that he will be the face of our nation for the next four or, possibly, eight years.

My hope is that he will grow into the presidency and that he will give up some of the petulance that has marked his campaign and his transition. All presidents should be aware that their every action is recorded for all time and that every decision they make will be examined under the lens of scrutiny by future generations.

President Obama's greatest legacy, the Affordable Care Act, which he was able to see passed despite tremendous opposition, appears dead on arrival once our new President is sworn in and the Republican Congress has its way. Replacing it with something that approaches the current law may take some time and gaining agreement on both sides of the aisle may be a daunting task. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful.

As we say goodbye to the administration of President Barack Obama, I think on the events of the last eight years - a financial crisis and housing market collapse not seen since the Great Depression that was somehow righted, a disengagement from the Iraq war and the death of Osama Bin Laden and the dismantlement of Al Qaida. Then there were his failures: a significant chill in relations with Israel and no progress made in furthering the prospect of peace in the Middle East, the shaky implementation of the Affordable Care Act (known colloquially as Obamacare) and rising costs associated with keeping it in place, gridlock on Capitol Hill, no end in sight on deficit spending and the inability to get Congress to accept his final appointment to the Supreme Court.  Of course, much of the latter difficulties ranged from pushback from the Republican controlled Congress.

No matter how many times critics vilified his name, the constant questions as to his faith and practice or whether he was actually a native-born American citizen, the one thing he always displayed was grace under pressure. It was always clear that he was a family man, first and foremost, and that he grew in understanding about a number of issues by seeing how they affected his daughters and his supportive wife. Along with Vice-President Joe Biden, who helped push the President's acceptance of the right for gays and lesbians to marry, our nation's 44th President will be judged by the image he presented to the American people and to history.

As the dawn of a new presidency greets us, let us all hope that when this incoming administration is remembered in the past that it shall share a measure of the same kind of respect now enjoyed by the Obamas and the Bidens. Yes, there are those who are delighted that today is their last day in office, but the ax swings both ways. Four years or eight years from now, will we be feeling as secure? Time will tell.

The hallowed office of the President should be open and above board. I am hoping that my fellow journalists will be treated with respect by the administration and that the antipathy that exists at present will mellow in the years to come.

The American people wanted change in November and the Trump campaign, despite overwhelming odds against, knew how to win in the states where it counted and achieved a victory in the Electoral College. Beginning today, the incoming President needs to bring the majority of Americans who voted against him into his camp by his words and his deeds. It doesn't matter if he builds a wall or who pays for it. It doesn't matter is he repeals health care legislation. It doesn't matter if he closes America's borders to immigrants.

There are a great many people in America today who are scared. These include the poor and disenfranchised, but it also includes a great many gay Americans, Latinos, Muslims and Jews, who see a rise in racist activities and hate crimes by many supporters of the President-Elect.

If Donald Trump wants to truly make America great again, he needs to brings us all together with vision and statesmanship, not rhetoric and grandstanding. Mr. President, myself and millions of Americans who are keeping their minds open, want you to be presidential and lead, not react. We need more laws passed to protect us and less mean-spirited tweets on Twitter that make you feel better.

That said, I welcome you to the White House, the symbol of the highest office in the land which you have earned, and I wish you a successful term to come. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.