Friday, August 21, 2009

Domestic Terrorists

"In early August, a protester came to a raucous Tennessee congressional forum packing heat. Days later, President Obama's healthcare event in New Hampshire was marred by a protester posing for cameras with a pistol and sign reading, "It is time to water the tree of liberty" -- a reference to a Thomas Jefferson quote promising violence. And this past week, 12 armed men -- including one with an assault rifle -- not only showed off their firearms at Obama's Arizona speech, but broadcast a YouTube video threatening to "forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority."
These and other similar examples are accurately summarized with the same language federal law employs to describe domestic terrorism. Generating maximum media attention, the weapons-brandishing displays are "intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." Yes, the gun has been transformed from a sport and self-defense device into a tool of mass bullying. Like the noose in the Jim Crow South, its symbolic message is clear: If you dare engage in the democratic process, you risk bodily harm."
--from What it means to wear a gun in public by David Sirota in Salon.

Universal Healthcare--and the Sky Didn't Fall

When the City of San Francisco installed its plan for universal healthcare, it got the same crazed predictions of doom from opponents as we're hearing now. Two years later, it's working, and a new study says that the impact opponents warned of--job losses and businesses fleeing from the mandate to provide healthcare--didn't happen.

From today's SF Chronicle story:

"The sky has not fallen - the world as we know it did not come to an end," said [Mayor Gavin] Newsom, adding the controversial policy didn't prompt businesses to leave, bureaucracies to sprout up or the city's economy to crater.

Healthy San Francisco started in July 2007 to ensure the city's 60,000 uninsured residents had access to health care without regard for their pre-existing medical conditions, immigration status or employment status. It has now covered about 75 percent of the uninsured at a cost of roughly $120 million a year including city money, state grants, employer contributions and participants' fees."

This is all the more impressive because a city doesn't have the size and bargaining power of a state or of a nation.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Emerson for the Day

"There are degrees in idealism. We learn first to play with it academically, as the magnet was once a toy. Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments. Then its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true. It now shows itself ethical and practical."

Emerson, "Circles"

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Brink of Madness

Update 8/20: At least E.J. Dionne at the Washington Post is taking this seriously, though he is more measured than I felt I needed to be in this post. But he endorses the points that these are acts of intimidation, and they are dangerous.

The logic of what is happening is predictable, but how fast it is playing out is truly alarming. Especially since the danger is so great, and because there should be widespread public alarm, but there is not.

We're on the fast track to catastrophe. And it could happen very, very quickly. And then it will take on a death of its own.

No one seems to know what to make of it. It's weird. It's a joke. It passes through the media like every other oddity, just part of the noise. We don't seem to know what's really dangerous anymore.

It started with media inciters, with the talk of patriotic insurrection, of death to various enemies, including the President and his family. It became more organized and funded, with violent feelings whipped to a frenzy for political and monetary gain.

Then people began showing up at so-called town hall meetings to shout and threaten and wave incendiary signs. As one congressman noted, these were the exact tactics of the fascists in Germany before Hitler came to power.

Then one man showed up with a gun. Then another.

Then one man showed up with a loaded gun--a pistol in a holster-- in a crowd outside a town hall meeting with President Obama. To the surprise and shock of many, carrying a loaded gun in public, in a crowd, to a political event, near the President, was legal in that state, and in other states. This man got a lot of attention, as did his sign, which carried a quote that implied that it was time to shed some blood. He got interviewed on cable TV.

On Monday, at least two men were seen outside a town hall meeting in Arizona where the President was speaking, with assault rifles. At least twelve people in the crowd were reported to have guns. One of the armed men who was interviewed said that more people should come to these events displaying guns.

The next escalation of this drama is the fateful one. Someone is going to fire one of those guns. Someone gets angry, gets scared, gets desperate to get on TV.

Then what happens?

These are events fraught with emotion, in which at least two sides are passionately opposed, and one side is threatening the other. These are events that also attract people who are simply interested in hearing more about health care reform proposals, or in seeing their Member of Congress, or especially in seeing the President. There are families. There are mothers with babies. There are school children. There are elderly, and people in wheelchairs. When guns are fired--especially automatic or semi-automatic weapons, with the power of assault rifles--many innocent people could be maimed or killed very quickly.

At these events there are people of all races. There is already a racial element to the political situation. It's another factor that could add to violence, however it starts.

Some of the people who now feel empowered to carry guns to political events are likely to be angry. Chanting, yelling groups in each others' faces whip up more anger. Carrying a gun to a political event is aggressive, an act of intimidation. People are going to feel threatened, and they could get angry.

So someone gets angry and puts a hand on a gun. Someone else gets nervous and pulls a gun. The first shot fired is not certain to be the last. With all the publicity, it's likely that there will be people on both sides who come armed. Police will get involved, and perhaps fire their weapons. There's no telling what response there will be to that among those who feel government is out to get them.

Add to this mix the appearance of assault weapons. They can kill scores of people in seconds. A couple of assault weapons may outgun local police who are present.

And this is not the worst possible scenario. If twelve individuals with guns can show up, why would terrorists have to hide? A cadre of twelve shooters can do a lot of damage.

Regarding presidential events, the Secret Service professes not to be worried. If they really are not worried, then that worries me. They can legally prevent guns from getting near the President, but that is not the same as actually preventing it. How many assault weapons would it take to either get through them, or divert them from hidden shooters?

If a serious attempt were made on the President's life, which would almost certainly involve others being killed, or if certain circumstances accompany gun violence in a crowd at or near one of these events, we may be looking at more than one tragic event. Given the number and power of guns in this country, and all of the feelings--including racial feelings--as well as the speed and intensity of communication, we could quickly be embroiled in something beyond even the 60s urban riots--a kind and a level of violence this nation has never seen.

If the President is the target, it will likely be even worse. The assassination of President Obama, which these opponents are inviting (but which they of course would deny they meant literally), would be the death of hope, and given the historical situation, the death of the future. What kind of violence it might unleash in the immediate aftermath is terrible to contemplate.

What's to be done to prevent this? The first step is to stop treating the appearance of assault weapons at these events as something weird and funny, but unimportant. It is a clear and present danger. Because it's been allowed to go this far, it is already dangerous to deal with. But it is more dangerous to let it continue on its path. It's an axiom of the theatre that showing a gun in the first act means that before the play is over, that gun will be fired. We would be utter fools to ignore that likelihood in our national political drama.

In the weeks before the Bush administration started the Iraq War, I was one of those warning that this one step was fatal--that letting loose the dogs of war had its own inexorable logic, which has nothing to do with rationality. Once it begins, war has its own momentum, and we have felt the truth of that in too many tragic ways for year after year.

Right now we're at the brink again, this time of a kind of violence we cannot predict. Except that the logic of it is clear. It isn't rational, but once the first shot is fired, what happens will be beyond anyone's control.

And when it happens, we will be shocked, and there will be remorse and recriminations. And it will be too late.