People are not “Collateral Damage”

Amid all the finger-pointing over exactly who is to blame for the atrocities currently taking place in the Gaza Strip, one very important point is being largely ignored: more than a thousand civilians, including many women and children, have been killed.

The response from both sides, as well as many people reporting on the war from here in America is the same, that these casualties are collateral damage and part of the unavoidable cost of war.  This is unacceptable and also blatantly false.  Every single death in war is avoidable.  War itself is avoidable and to treat it as some sort of inevitability is to disrespect the lives of those whose lives are lost, both those who choose to fight and those who do not.

An infographic from the Washington Post details the casualties.  As of July 29th, they count a total of 1,170 deaths.  Of those, only 61 were Israelis (7 civilians among them).  The remaining 1,109 people killed were Palestinians, including 127 women and 232 children.  It can be hard to determine who among the rest of the dead were actually involved in the fighting, as rebels rarely wear uniforms or identify themselves as combatants.  But, the Post counts only 179 armed militants among the Palestinian casualties.  Even adding the 115 dead who had an “unknown role” brings the total to 294, a number dwarfed by the total of 815 identified as civilians.  And, as the fighting continues, these numbers will continue to grow.

Both sides, of course, blame the other for the terrible loss of life.  Hamas claims the fighting is provoked by the Israeli occupation of Gaza and their ongoing blockade, leaving Palestinians often without food, water, or electricity, and in constant fear of attacks from the air and on the ground.  Israel blames the rockets launched from Palestine into Israel, claiming that the Hamas must be destroyed and that their invasion and constant bombing and shelling is the only way to truly eliminate the rebel threat.  While both sides can be assigned blame, fairly or not, the fact remains that none of the resulting deaths were necessary.

Hamas is accused of keeping its weapons in houses, schools, and other places where civilians are assembled.  This means that these civilians are being drawn into a fight they may want no part of.  It must be remembered that it is Hamas, not Palestine as a whole, that is doing the fighting in Gaza.  Putting civilian lives at risk is deplorable.  And, to use those deaths as propaganda, as some have accused, is even worse.

Yet, Israel is still choosing to bomb these weapons caches, knowing that each bomb dropped or shell fired is likely killing innocents as it destroys weapons whose threat is questionable at best.  But, no one is forcing Israel’s hand.  Israel, and those whose fingers are on the triggers, can simply choose not to fire, not to slaughter civilians, not to perpetuate a fight that does not need to be happening.  They blame Hamas, but their own hands are stained red with the blood of a thousand people who did not need to die.

The fight in Gaza is rooted in thousands of years of history.  Israel is a small country fighting to maintain its identity in a world that is hostile to it.  Its people have been bullied, but they have been made strong by the support (both financially and militarily) of the United States.  Now, they are the bullies, keeping the Palestinians in a virtual prison in Gaza as vengeance for the injustices they have faced over the years.  They are two sides who cannot agree, and so they fight.  They fight over geography, over religion, over years of oppression.  But, none of those things are really worth killing or dying for.  And, they certainly do not justify the killing of people who want no part of the fight, and seek only to live their lives peacefully in a place they call home.

But, there is a solution, and it is a solution so simple that it is easily overlooked.  Just stop fighting.  That’s it.  It really is as simple as that.  Don’t shoot any missiles or drop any bombs.  Don’t kill any soldiers or women or children.  Just stop.  Too many people have died, and too many more will follow.  It’s so simple, even a child could see it.  But, in Gaza, children do not think of history, or geography, or religion, or even peace treaties.  They only think of staying alive as the bombs continue to fall around them, fired by their parents and fueled by the ghosts of their ancestors.  And so, the fighting continues, even if it doesn’t have to.

(The original posting of this cartoon, via Tom Tomorrow and The Nation, can be found here.)

Let’s Kill the Death Penalty

In what has become too common a story of late, there was a botched execution this week.  In their eagerness to end a man’s life, and in the absence of the drugs historically used for executions (due to objections by the makers of those drugs that their product was being used to kill people), officials in Arizona used a mysterious and unproven cocktail of drugs to torture a man to death.  Of course, death penalty supporters, including Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, claim that Joseph Rudolph Wood did not suffer.  But, torture is the only word to describe an execution that consisted of a man gasping for air for nearly two hours before finally dying.

My intention is not to defend Wood.  He was convicted of shooting and killing a woman and her father in 1989.  There were no appeals claiming he was wrongly convicted.  The only attempts to prevent his execution came on the grounds that the drugs used and their source should be disclosed before the execution could take place.  This appeal was denied by the Supreme Court, allowing the execution to go forward as planned.

Of course, it did not go as planned.  Nor did two other executions this year where the drug Midazolam was used in place of drugs that are no longer available.  But, it was so important to the people of Arizona that Wood be killed that they were willing to use a drug that had twice before had disastrous results.  Of course, these results were not disastrous if the only intention is to kill someone.  In that case, all three uses were successful, eventually.  But, the use of the death penalty, legally anyway, hinges on it being carried out in a way that does not violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  To many, these recent executions do not meet that standard.

But, some would argue that all executions, regardless of the method or duration, are cruel and unusual.  A statement from Amnesty International takes this position:

The prolonged execution of a prisoner in Arizona yesterday represents another wake-up call for authorities in the USA to abolish the death penalty, said Amnesty International.

“How many more times do officials need to be reminded of the myth of the ‘humane execution’ before they give up on their experiment with judicial killing?” asked Rob Freer, Amnesty International Researcher on the USA.

At least three executions have not gone according to plan in the USA this year alone.

Amnesty International does not believe that there is any such thing as a humane execution, or that the cruelty of the death penalty is confined to what goes on in the death chamber.

Holding someone under a threat of death – for years or even decades – can hardly be described as the conduct of a state adopting a progressive approach to criminal justice or human rights.

“However the state chooses to kill the prisoner – and whether the execution goes according to plan or not – does not change the fact that this is a punishment incompatible with fundamental human rights principles,” said Rob Freer.

The death penalty in the USA is riddled with arbitrariness, discrimination and error. In recent years, death penalty states in the USA have faced problems obtaining drugs for lethal injection and have resorted to questionable sources and secrecy in seeking to continue judicial killing by this method.

I agree wholeheartedly with Amnesty International’s position on capital punishment.  Carrying out executions in such a reckless manner is using people as experiment test subjects.  And, while these people are presumably bad people (or, at least people who have done very bad things), they are still human and deserving of a certain level of respect and humanity.  What does it say about us as a society that we condone this kind of treatment?

Capital punishment is not about justice.  There is no justice to be found in the taking of a human life, even if that person has himself taken the life of another.  Execution of murderers is about vengeance.  And, what is accomplished?  The victims of these crimes are not brought back.  The families of the victims are not made whole when a killer is put to death.  And, the state is not improved by executing one of its citizens.  In fact, the state, and those who act on its behalf, are now guilty of the very crime they are seeking to punish.  Ignoring this hypocrisy does not make it any more tolerable.

Even common sense would show its flaws.  It is far more expensive to execute someone than to simply sentence a convicted killer to life in prison.  People have been executed and later been proven to be innocent.  And, it doesn’t even accomplish its primary goal, as capital punishment has been shown to have zero effect as a crime deterrent.  But, executing people is not about that.  It is about blood lust.  Just like we can cheer when villages are destroyed in foreign countries, we can cheer when criminals are killed here at home.  But, is any death, even that of someone we have marked as evil, worth celebrating?  We should be mourning, if not for the criminal, then at least for our own lack of humanity.

As a country that claims to be a world leader in morality and compassion for its people, there is no way to justify the continued use of capital punishment.  And, to see it continue (and to see it even be celebrated–remember the crowds of people cheering the huge number of people who had been executed in Texas during the last presidential primary?) is sickening.  The death penalty is indefensible, both morally and legally.  Most of the rest of the world sees that:

To date, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. The USA is approaching its 1400th execution since resuming judicial killing under revised capital statutes in 1977.

We should be better than that.  And, we can be.  Abolishing the death penalty is a must.

Whatever the Problem, More Guns is not the Solution

Pro-gun folks are getting ambitious with their new proposals.  They used to merely oppose legislation that would hinder the ability of people to own as many guns as they want, regardless of their criminal history, mental health, or ability to handle their weapon safely.  Now they want to push legislation that would encourage or even require more people to own guns.

Take the recent commentary from NRA News Commentator Billy Johnson titled, “Everybody Gets a Gun.”  Though he conceded that his ideas “may be seen as ‘ridiculous’–even by ‘Second Amendment advocates,'” I don’t think this admission comes close to expressing just how ridiculous his proposal is.  It is flawed from beginning to end.  But, it is a telling indicator of where some of the more extreme pro-gun supporters hope to go with gun policy.

All emphasis in the following excerpts is mine.  Johnson begins:

As a country we have an education policy. Imagine if that policy was about limiting who has access to public education. I mean, let’s be honest, the danger in educating people to think is that they might actually start to think for themselves. Perhaps we should think seriously about who we give access to knowledge. They could use it to do a lot of damage.

As a country we have a far reaching public parks program. Imagine if that program was designed to limit who has access to those parks. You littered once in high school, sorry no park access for you.

As a country we have labor policies designed to ensure that people are given access to jobs regardless of gender, race, or creed. Imagine if that policy withheld certain types of jobs as only the purview of the government elite.

Here Johnson sets up his straw men, hoping that he can convince people who guns are actually comparable to any of these things.  But, let’s break them down, one at a time.

First, he compares the right to own a gun to the right to an education.  While it is true that only one of these things is mentioned in the Constitution, his argument actually defeats itself.  He claims that knowledge in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing.  This is the very crux of the argument for gun control legislation.  None but the most extreme anti-gun advocates is seeking to outlaw guns completely.  Most are merely hoping for measures are put in place that limit who has access to them, ensuring that they do not end up in the wrong hands.  Even if Johnson is attempting to be sarcastic or ironic (and he may very well be, to be fair), he fails in this attempt.  Claiming that knowledge can be dangerous but ignoring that guns can be is idiotic.  Or, assuming he is being sarcastic, he is admitting that guns can be dangerous and we should “think seriously about who we give access to” them.  Either way, the argument fails.

Next, he says litterbugs should be kept out of public parks.  This is obviously a reference to legislation that keeps violent felons and those with violence-related restraining orders from owning weapons.  But, his analogy is offensive as it compares acts of violence with littering.  I think the victims and survivors of these acts would dispute the similarity to leaving trash on the ground in a public place.  Surely, even Johnson can see the difference.  And, if this is merely an attempt at humor, again, he has failed, as there is nothing at all funny about violence or trying to prevent it.

Then, Johnson compares gun owners to those affected by discrimination due to their “gender, race, or creed.”  And he tops off this failed comparison with the right-wing buzzwords “government elite,” hoping to appeal to the paranoia of many gun extremists.  One would assume that he is trying to make an analogy to the fear that the government will come take all the guns away from regular citizens, meaning only the government itself will be allowed to bear arms.  Again, this is playing into the extremist paranoia, and doing so through an apples-and-orange comparison between the right to discrimination-free employment and the right for unhindered gun ownership.

But, all of that is just the set-up.  Now, we get to the heart of Johnson’s proposal.  He continues:

The point is that as a country we often write policy to protect access to something; education, parks, jobs. But one for one of the most important protections, a constitutional right, we write policy designed to limit access. Among Second Amendment supporters it’s common to talk about U.S. gun policy. We worry that policies will encroach on our rights; we share our concerns about overreaching gun policy that fails to make any of us safer.

But we don’t spend nearly enough time asking what is the purpose of policy and what should the purpose of gun policy be? We don’t have a U.S. gun policy. We have a U.S. anti-gun policy. Our gun policies are designed around the assumption that we need to protect people from guns, that guns are bad or dangerous. But what would happen if we designed gun policy from the assumption that people need guns — that guns make people’s lives better. Let’s consider that for a minute.

Gun policy driven by people’s need for guns would seek to encourage people to keep and bear arms at all times. Maybe it would even reward those who do so. What if instead of gun free-zones we had gun-required zones?

It is a common tactic among pro-gun supporters (or “Second Amendment” supporters) to fall back on the Constitution.  Yes, the Constitution does have an amendment that refers to a right to bear arms.  But, there has been great debate over the ambiguously worded amendment and just what it actually does intend to protect.  The Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  It was only with the recent Heller decision by the Supreme Court that this was found to refer to the right for all people to own guns of any kind without restriction.  But, even after that, the court has upheld numerous restrictions, as various states and cities have implemented legislation seeking to limit gun violence.  But, gun supporters have been bolstered by the Supreme Court ruling, to the point that they believe their right to keep and bear arms should supersede the Constitution’s promises to “establish Justice,” “insure domestic Tranquility,” or “promote the general Welfare.”  These far-less-ambiguous promises are exactly what Johnson mocks with his earlier dismissal of education, public parks, and jobs.  Surely, if limits can be placed on access to these, the same can be done for guns.  But, Johnson calls such restrictions an “overreach.”  He then claims that gun policy “fails to make any of us safer,” despite proof that states with more gun legislation in place have lower rates of gun violence, and vice versa.

Next, Johnson makes a blatantly false assumption and then uses it as the basis for the rest of his commentary.  He asks, “what would happen if we designed gun policy from the assumption that people need guns — that guns make people’s lives better?”  The answer is simple.  We would be making policy based on a false assumption.  We might as well make gun policy based on the assumption that guns can make people fly or grow to be ten feet tall.  All are equally ridiculous.

But, Johnson is undeterred, next suggesting that what we really need are “gun-required zones,” an apparent reference to the erroneous belief that criminals seek out gun-free zones for their killing sprees, though that argument has been debunked.  So, now we have false information leading to a proposal that is itself based on the false assumption that people have a “need for guns.”

Now, we come to the big finish.  Johnson concludes:

Gun policy driven by our need for guns would insist that we introduce young people to guns early and that we’d give them the skills to use firearms safely. Just like we teach them reading and writing, necessary skills. We would teach shooting and firearm competency. It wouldn’t matter if a child’s parents weren’t good at it. We’d find them a mentor. It wouldn’t matter if they didn’t want to learn. We would make it necessary to advance to the next grade.

Gun policy driven by the assumption we need guns would probably mean our government would subsidize it. I mean, perhaps we would have government ranges where you could shoot for free or a yearly allotment of free ammunition. Sound crazy? Think about it. Education, healthcare, food, retirement, we subsidize things we value. Gun policy, driven by our need for guns would protect equal access to guns, just like we protect equal access to voting, and due process, and free speech. Our Founding Fathers believed that we did need guns. That’s why they codified our access to guns into the Constitution. But the idea of a gun policy that does justice to their intentions sounds ridiculous. What does that say about us? Even as Second Amendment advocates we can’t fathom a world where we would treat guns as a need.

Johnson has gone off the rails, contradicting himself at every turn.  He now claims that young people should be educated to use weapons, just like they are taught “necessary skills,” after earlier stating that education can be dangerous (unless maybe he is joking again; it can be hard to tell).  Then, in his most disturbing statement of all, Johnson says, “It wouldn’t matter if they didn’t want to learn.  We would make it necessary…”  Without making too many assumptions about Johnson’s political beliefs, wouldn’t this be the very type of government tyranny that Second Amendment folks are so worried about?  Johnson then calls for government subsidies for guns since “we subsidize things we value,” like education, healthcare, food, and retirement.  Again, aren’t these examples of government tyranny?  While I am surprised that he admits that those are things we value, guns clearly do not fall into the same category–at least not unless you are still buying into the false assumption that guns are something “we need.”

He concludes by saying that even the pro-gun crowd “can’t fathom a world where we would treat guns as a need.”  But, clearly he can.  Not only can he fathom it, he can come up with a dubious justification for it.  And, while this may be merely a tongue-in-cheek thought exercise, this kind of thinking can have real-world consequences.

For example, look at the recent legislation in Kentucky that seeks to arm survivors of domestic violence.  This shows the danger of treating guns as a necessity rather than as something that can be used to do great harm.  Rather than taking steps to keep people with a history of violence from gaining access to a weapon, Kentucky has now placed the burden on the abused, encouraging them to arm themselves, even though having a gun in the house drastically increases the likelihood that a domestic violence attack will result in the victim being killed.

The idea that guns make people safer is dangerous, and the idea that guns are something that people “need” is even more so.  While guns may be protected by the Second Amendment, regulations on them are also protected.  And, these regulations are necessary.  The right to own a gun is no more sacred than the right not to own one, or the right to be free from the fear of having one be used against you.  But, the NRA keeps pushing.  And, though Johnson’s proposal is admittedly ridiculous, it justifies laws like the one in Kentucky, where the answer to a problem of violence is more guns.  And, more guns should never be the answer, no matter what the problem is.


Some People Who Shouldn’t be in Jail Might Get Out a Little Early

So, this is potentially pretty great news.  After voting to reduce prison sentences for certain drug offences earlier this year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has voted unanimously to retroactively apply these changes to prisoners who have already been sentenced.  This means that more than 46,000 inmates could see their sentences cut by around 2 years each.

The decision is a small sign of progress for a system that has long imposed overly-long sentences on drug offenders, especially for those convicted on non-violent offenses or those who played a peripheral role in deals involving a large quantity of drugs.  But, it is not a complete fix, and honestly, it is not even close:

In fact, many federal judges have expressed vocal outrage over schemes that bind them to sentencing low-level defendants like kingpins. That fundamental scheme hasn’t been changed by today’s fix. Since the mid-1980s, these drug sentencing laws have placed an over-emphasis on quantities of drugs rather than a defendant’s role in the crime. That means that a person involved in an offense that involved 50 grams of methamphetamine could get 40 years in prison, regardless of whether they served as mastermind of the deal or a low-level courier of money.

The Sentencing Commission and the U.S. Justice Department would both like to see this scheme changed. But for that, they have to wait for an act of Congress, since even the Sentencing Guidelines are tied to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. “The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players,” Saris said in January.

Two bipartisan bills to reform these laws are still pending in both houses of Congress.

But, any amount of progress, however small, is still a good thing.  The first 8,000 inmates eligible for a review of their sentence will appear before a judge in November 2015.  If every eligible inmate is awarded the maximum sentence reduction, it would mean a total of 83,525 fewer years behind bars, and would translate to huge savings for a prison system already short on funds.  But, just as importantly, it would be a small bit of justice for people who were penalized far more than they should have been.

However, one obstacle remains:

Congress has the authority to block both amendments by Nov. 1 of this year.

It would not be surprising if hardliners in Congress (especially those in the pockets of private prison companies) decided to stand firmly in favor of draconian drug sentencing and attempt to block the amendments from taking effect.  Fortunately, this Congress has a history of sitting on their hands instead of taking action.  And this is one instance where their inaction could actually do some good.  It would be even better if they would act and pass the proposed reform bills, but that may be too much to hope for.

Of course, none of this would be an issue in the first place if the U.S. did not have such severe penalties for drug offenses on the books.  Nor would it be an issue if marijuana were legalized (or at least decriminalized) since most drug offences involve marijuana rather than “scarier” drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin.  Sadly, change comes slowly.  But, it appears that change is indeed coming.  And that is a good thing.

Misogyny and Warmongering – Not Just for the GOP Anymore

Here is the winner for the worst tweet from a so-called “liberal” today:

There are a lot of things wrong with this tweet, but here are just a few:

  • Comparing Hamas to a “crazy woman” is demeaning to both.  Hamas is an extremist group within a community that has been oppressed, attacked, kicked off their land, and terrorized for years.  Are they themselves guilty of violence?  Of course.  But, their actions are a reaction (albeit an extreme one) to what has been done to them.  And calling a woman “crazy,” even the hypothetical woman in this tweet, perpetuates the stereotype that women are irrational or overly emotional, as opposed to people like Bill Maher, who theoretically has his shit together (though one would question his “craziness” after tweeting this nonsense).
  • Advocating violence as a practical solution to either Hamas or your hypothetical woman is merely a continuation of problematic behavior that has already proven to be of no use.  Again, the actions of Hamas are a result of what has been done to them, including being “slapped” by Israel.  And saying that hitting a woman under any circumstances, even if she is “crazy,” is inexcusable.  Misogyny like this is exactly what women have been trying to bring to light with the #notallmen and #yesallwomen trends on social media.  For anyone to advocate violence against women, but especially a so-called liberal like Bill Maher, shows that women sadly still have a long way to go in their fight to be treated as equal members of society.
  • Trying (and failing) to make a joke about either the atrocities in Gaza or violence against women belittles the struggles that Palestinians and women face on a daily basis.  A lifetime of oppression can make people act in a way that privileged people like Maher may see as “crazy.”  But, this just means that he needs to open his eyes to the reality of the world around him.  There are horrible things happening out there, and making jokes about them just makes it easier for Maher and other people like to him to ignore them.

I have generally been a fan of Bill Maher, and I have watched his shows for years.  But, lately, I watch far more for the guests than for Maher himself.  His anti-Muslim and misogynist views are getting harder and harder to ignore.  I get that he is a comedian, and that he is “edgy” and deliberately provocative.  But, this tweet, and comments like it are not funny or edgy.  They are offensive and potentially harmful.  Maher is in a position to have his voice heard by a very large number of people, to change minds, and influence attitudes and behavior.  To waste that opportunity by spouting garbage like this is a shame.

Stand Down, Don’t Stand Your Ground

So, it appears that another piece of pro-gun mythology has been debunked.  Two studies, one from Texas A&M and one from Georgia State, have found that “Stand Your Ground” laws do not deter crime, and instead actually increase homicide rates.

The Texas A&M study found that the law accounted for an additional 600 homicides in states with “Stand Your Ground” legislation in place, an increase of 8 percent.  The study simultaneously “found no detectable decrease in burglary, robbery or aggravated assault.”  The Georgia State study, using different methodology, found a similar increase of 7.1 percent.  Importantly, neither study found that the increase was due to justifiable homicides—that is, shootings in which a shooter is “standing his ground” against an imminent threat.

It was suggested by pro-gun groups that “Stand Your Ground” laws would lead to a decrease in crime, as criminals would be aware that homeowners (or other victims) would be justified in shooting them.  This would supposedly act as incentive for criminals not to engage in criminal behavior.  This has proved not to be the case:

“Collectively, these findings suggest that incentives do matter in one important sense: lowering the threshold for the justified use of lethal force results in more of it,” the authors concluded in the report. “On the other hand, there is also a limit to the power of incentives, as criminals are apparently not deterred when victims are empowered to use lethal force to protect themselves.”

Though it is interesting to see that data backs up the beliefs of those opposed to the law, it is really just common sense.  If people are given more freedom to shoot their guns without legal consequence, they will shoot their guns more often.  And, if someone believes that they are “standing their ground” they will not look for ways to avoid confrontation, and might even seek it out.  The better solution would be to give people reason to avoid confrontation altogether.  Involving firearms only escalates situations that might otherwise be defused.  Guns embolden people who might otherwise rationally seek to settle arguments without violence.  Giving them more freedom to use their weapons in situations where they are not needed was a bad idea from the start, and now there is data to confirm it.

Death Penalty Killed in California

Though California rarely executes prisoners (at least compared with other states that still practice capital punishment), and have executed exactly zero since 2006, it still technically has the right to put prisoners to death.  At least, it did.  A ruling today from a federal judge has effectively ended that possibility.  And that is a great thing.

From the ruling:

“California’s death penalty system is so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay that the death sentence is actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death,” [U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J.] Carney writes. “For all practical purposes then, a sentence of death in California is a sentence of life imprisonment with the remote possibility of death — a sentence no rational legislature or jury could ever impose.”

Carney continues: “Inordinate and unpredictable delay… has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional.”

Generally, what happens in California spreads across the country, whether it be medical marijuana, same-sex marriage rights (ignoring the obvious, though temporary, outrageous interruption that was Prop 8), gun control legislation, environmental regulation, or anything else.  Here’s hoping that trend continues.  Capital punishment is an antiquated and utterly ineffective way to prevent crime.  It is inhumane and cruel, exorbitantly expensive, and is more a means of vengeance than justice.

Many states (and most nations) have independently outlawed the practice of putting people to death, but this is the first time the practice has been found to be unconstitutional.  If the recent wave of same-sex marriage decisions is any indicator, this could be merely the first in a series of findings that could bring the United States in line with the rest of the civilized world.

No Volunteers Needed

There is currently an immigration problem on our southern border.  Despite claims that it is a priority, Congress has done nothing to help stem the flow of immigrants fleeing northward from Latin America, many of them unaccompanied children.  President Obama has likewise done nothing, though he may be right in claiming that his hands are tied by the inactivity of the legislative branch.  Regardless, it can definitively be said, something must be done.  However, what we certainly do not need is this:

The Express News and The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, both reported on a YouTube video featuring Chris Davis, who has been identified as the commander of the militia, in which he apparently explained how the border would be secured.

“You see an illegal. You point your gun dead at him, right between his eyes, and you say, ‘Get back across the border or you will be shot,'” Davis said in the video, according to the reports.

These people are not patriots.  They are vigilantes, attempting to take matters into their own hands, illegally, and against the wishes of their country:

Law enforcement, for their part, don’t seem interested in the help that the militia purports to provide.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection told the Express News it does not “endorse or support any private group or organization from taking matters into their own hands as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences.”

“We don’t need their services on our border,” a Texas county sheriff told the Monitor.

But, these so-called “patriot” groups are undeterred.  Again, it must be stated that their intended actions are illegal.  Even the broadest definition of “Stand Your Ground” (which is already a deeply flawed law) surely cannot be used to justify the massacre of children.  The frustration with the lack of action on curbing immigration is understandable, at least for believers of the spurious claims by right-wing pundits that all immigrants are criminals, or that they are coming for American jobs, or to suckle on the teat of the American entitlement system that would provide them with education, health care, and food stamps (things people on the right are reluctant to provide even to needy citizens).  But, even if any of this were true, it does not justify an unregulated militia arming themselves and threatening to execute anyone who disobeys their commands to leave the country.  [It must also be noted that it is a bit ridiculous to think that children who do not speak English would somehow understand instructions in English, though I do suppose a gun pointed between their eyes could help overcome the language-comprehension gap.]

This “might makes right” mentality is unfortunately common, and leads to incidents like the above-mentioned stand-off at the Bundy Ranch, where an armed mass threatened government officials while standing up for a man who was blatantly breaking federal law.  Luckily, this incident somehow miraculously ended with no casualties.  But, in an incident like the Trayvon Martin killing, where an armed vigilante took it upon himself (against the instructions of police) to defend his neighborhood from the terror of a black teenager with snacks, things did not end without innocent bloodshed.

This blood lust, where people are willing to disobey the requests of law enforcement personnel to take things into their own hands, empowered by guns and the prospect of using them to kill innocent people, is dangerous and is a recipe for tragedy.  Remember that there are already 20,000 Border Control Agents on the job and that many of these immigrants are children fleeing crime and poverty.  These children want nothing more than to live somewhere free from the threats of death and hunger.  And, these militias think that showing them the business end of a gun is the proper way to greet them.  Have we no compassion at all?

So, should we just let in all the immigrants come stay in America?  I honestly do not know.  But, I think that would be much preferred to slaughtering those that manage to make it across the border.  There must be an answer, but like usual, guys with guns are not it.

Mind Over Money

The loudest news this week on the anti-gun front came from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is using his group Everytown for Gun Safety, as well as $50 million of his own money, to try to beat the National Rifle Association at its own game.  Sadly, his effort, while well-intentioned, is destined to fail.

The idea is to mirror the NRA practice of giving political candidates a survey to determine their stance on guns and gun legislation.  These surveys would then be used to endorse candidates in upcoming elections.  Those with strong gun control strategies would receive Bloomberg’s blessing.

This has certainly proved to be a sound strategy for the NRA.  Republicans have fallen all over themselves trying to prove their pro-gun bona fides, carrying guns in parades, and shooting them in their campaign ads.  Meanwhile, Democrats are reluctant to speak out against guns (and often even support pro-gun legislation) for fear of losing votes.  And, Bloomberg’s copycat strategy will do little to change that.  Because it is not surveys or even money that wins elections or passes legislation, it is fear.  And, the GOP and NRA are masters of spreading fear, even if they are not scared of Bloomberg:

“Money cannot buy the hearts and minds of the American people when it comes to the Second Amendment,” [NRA Spokesman Andrew] Arulanandam said. “Michael Bloomberg is just the latest incarnation of a long line of anti-freedom billionaires who’ve tried to take on the National Rifle Association.”

This is why background check legislation cannot get passed, even with support from 92 percent of the public (including 86 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of gun owners).  As long as the NRA can spin “gun control” to mean “gun prohibition” and make “guns” synonymous with “freedom,” they will win.  The same poll shows that only 50 percent of people support “gun control,” even though they almost all support background checks.  By dictating the definition of the term, the NRA has managed to control the issue. They have created their own language and their own set of facts.  And, this is how they have inspired people to hoard guns, form ramshackle militias, or parade around in public with semi-automatic rifles.  This is why gun sales continue to grow even as the number of people who own guns decreases.  This is why people can rail about a tyrannical government or impending terrorist takeover while not seeing the irony in pictures like this:


Girls with Guns

The juxtaposition of the gun, Bible, and flag in that picture are telling.  They are the trinity of the modern GOP.  And, all three are necessary for membership in the club of “true” conservatism.  The caption illustrates this.  Holly Fisher is a supporter of the owners of Hobby Lobby and their efforts to exempt themselves from providing contraception to their female employees.  Yet, her fellow conservatives pointed out that she was missing the three totems of the party, so she quickly obliged by posing with the requisite props.  And somehow, these conservatives fail to see the similarities between their own fanaticism and that of the extremist Muslims they love to demonize.

This is why even those conservatives and gun owners who may actually support background checks or other sensible gun legislation can only admit to it in an anonymous poll.  At the ballot box, they must prove their dedication to the party ideals.  The candidates know this, which is why their stance on guns and God matters far more than their economic or foreign policy.

And this is why Bloomberg’s plan is destined to fail.  He cannot shame Democrats into supporting gun legislation the way the NRA shames Republicans into supporting guns.  The truth is, it just is not as important to voters on the left.  Ana Marie Cox at the Guardian explains it well:

That’s the key misunderstanding between gun-control advocates and the wide swath of voters they need on their side: Americans are OK with guns. They don’t like violence. They don’t like guns in the hands of mad men and criminals, or shoved in their faces in restaurants and shopping centers, but they’re OK with guns.

And, even if we are not OK with guns, it does not matter, because the people we have elected to represent us are certainly OK with guns.  Or, at least they are OK with being seen that way, and OK with the money they receive from groups like the NRA to keep gun regulation an impossibility.

Bloomberg thinks that he can help change laws by taking a page out of the NRA’s book.  But, he is taking the wrong page.  It is not the money that matters.  It is the mindset.  The NRA, and by extension, the Republican Party, have convinced gun owners that their right to own and carry guns is divine.  It comes not just from the Constitution, but from God himself.  And, anyone who attempts to limit that divine right in any way is not just wrong, but evil.  To stand any chance at all, Bloomberg must make gun regulation matter as much to Democrats and guns do to Republicans.

That is the battle Bloomberg is fighting, and it is not one that can be won with money alone.


Hail To The [REDACTED]

I must get something out of the way right off the bat.  I LOVE the Washington professional football team.  I grew up rooting for them.  In fact, my earliest memories are of watching with my father as they beat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII and as they lost to the Raiders the following year.  I have the second quarter of their victory over the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, in which they overcame a 10-0 deficit to put up 35 unanswered points (with an additional touchdown in the second half) playing on a loop inside my head.  I have rooted for them in the good times and the bad times.  I remember sitting in old RFK Stadium and later in Jack Kent Cooke Stadium (now FedEx Field) and shouting until my throat was hoarse.  In fact, the first full sentence I ever uttered (at least according to my parents) was an echo of the radio call broadcaster Frank Herzog used every time they crossed the goal line.  I cheered when Art Monk and Darrell Green were elected to the Hall of Fame, and I cried when Sean Taylor was taken from us far too soon.  Even as I have moved across the country, my loyalty has never wavered.

But, I HATE the name.  I don’t remember exactly when it first started to bother me.  Certainly not when I sang the team fight song while wearing a plastic hog nose as a child.  And maybe not even in the lean years after legendary coach Joe Gibbs first retired.  But, it bothers me now.  It bothers me so much that I am a bit ashamed to reveal who I root for.  So much that I always wear a sweatshirt that can be zipped up over my burgundy and gold shirt when I go out in public.  And so much that, after all these years, I have even considered the unthinkable–rooting for another team.

The name, which I can’t even bring myself to type, is a slur, plain and simple.  I don’t know how I ignored that all this time, but I can’t ignore it any longer.  It is a derogatory term that is used to refer to a people who are varied and oppressed and driven into reservations far from their historical homes.  It is a word that paints them as something less than human.  And, that is what it all comes down to.  These are human beings we are treating as mascots.  We paint a caricature on our helmets and wear headdresses whose meanings we don’t comprehend and sing songs that mock their culture.  And for what?  Tradition?  Bullshit.

Despite any claims made by ownership, fans, or hired lackeys, the name of the team (or its mascot) do nothing to celebrate the culture of any particular tribe, much less the thousands of tribes that once occupied this nation.  We are not holding them up, we are keeping them down.  Just like we have done for centuries.  Even after years of civil rights progress, we still treat Native Americans as exotic, as something different.  But, they are not.  They are people, just as we are people.  And they deserve respect, just as we do.  And, if even one person among them is offended by the name (to paraphrase the empty promise of Commissioner Roger Goodell), then the name should change.  Sports are meant to celebrate the best of what people can do.  Must we taint it by clothing it in a reminder of our worst?

There has been dispute over the origin of the name, whether it was coined by Native Americans themselves or by the European invaders who slaughtered them.  And some have pointed to various Native American schools who use the same name as proof that it is not actually offensive.  These arguments are ridiculous and miss the point.  Some African-Americans have “taken back” the word most used to disparage them, using it in song lyrics and even in conversation with each other.  Does that make it less hateful or ugly if it were to come out of my mouth?  Not at all.

Daniel Snyder, the owner of the team, claims that he has loved the team for his entire life.  That may be true.  But, that does not mean that he has to love everything about them.  It can be hard to see the flaws in the things we love, but it is not impossible.  He can take a page from another local team owner who ignored history and tradition to do what was right.  The Washington Wizards basketball team was for years known as the Bullets.  But, the owner did not want a name that referred to something as ugly as gun violence, so he changed the name.  It was the right thing to do, even if it was not easy to admit the name needed changing, and even if there was resistance from fans hanging on to nostalgia.  Snyder can do the same.  But, he is digging in his heels, as are many fans.  Why?  Does any name, and especially this name, really mean that much?  Why fight so hard to preserve racism?  Is that really worth holding on to?

There is nothing respectful in treating Native Americans the same way we do Lions or Bears, as costumes to don.  Native Americans are not Cowboys, or Packers, or Steelers, or even Vikings.  They are not a job or a persona to adopt.  Not only do we not honor them with the name, we dishonor ourselves by pretending that this is a reasonable way to treat other people.

Historically, Americans have done very little to honor Native Americans.  We have taken their lives and we have taken their land.  In fact, the very ground on which the Washington football team plays its games was forcefully taken from Native Americans.  Where is the honor in that?

Will changing the name of a football team undo centuries of wrong?  Of course not.  But, it can stop rubbing salt in a wound that has been bleeding since Europeans first set foot on this continent all those years ago.  Football is a game.  It is meant to be fun and uplifting, a way to bring people together.  We cannot do that by holding other people down.  Change the name.