Choices: What the Uzi Teaches
Why the heck did I vote for Barack Obama? Twice?
Several weeks ago I received set of persistent and pointed emails from one reader who was asking me to justify my votes for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. He was polite, and I tried several responses, but the writer was having none of it, and finally, with no minds changed, we managed a ceasefire.
But that didn’t stop me from thinking about it. Why the heck did I vote for Barack Obama?
Mr. O has not had the best time of it, to say the least. I realize that in six years, my support has changed from aspirational to defensive. I knew, going in to the 2008 election, that Obama didn’t have the depth of experience I wanted in a President. I thought (and still think) he had both the talent and intelligence. I hoped he would change the fetid atmosphere in Washington, dominated by small-minded Roveian tactics enforcing the sourness of Cheney/Bush’s ever-expanding Unitary Executive.
He didn’t, for reasons that are going to be explored by historians and pop psychologists for decades. He has had a lot of help. If there ever was a definition of a bipartisan failure, the last five-plus years have been it. Rarely have so many politicians and elected officials done so much to discredit themselves, their ideologies, and their parties.
So, with the “hopey/changey” stuff off the table and the sewer filling up, I found myself in a defensive crouch. For a fairly long time, most of that was directly related to the overwhelming sense that Obama got a raw deal. The Republicans just wouldn’t play with the new kid on the block. But, even that didn’t suffice. At the end of the day, we were learning two things. The GOP might be the nasties in the neighborhood, but Mr. Obama showed minimal adaptability and growth. To quote the beloved Donald Rumsfeld in a different context, “you go to war with the army you have---not the army you might want.” What Republicans were demonstrating is that they would only join an army they were in charge of. What Obama was demonstrating was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make the effort to change their minds.
“With or against us” is a stark, binary choice. Go with an Administration and a person you agree more with on policy, but who hasn’t risen to the challenge, or dance with the authoritarian motorcycle gang who broke down the doors to ride into the ball?
Which leads me to the Uzi. By now, the story is so well known that I am relieved to not have to repeat it. There are a couple of things that appear to be clear: a) it was a complete, tragic, accident, and b) no laws were broken. Sadly, but inevitably, it’s turned into another one of the endless debates on the Second Amendment. In fact, it has virtually nothing to do with the Second Amendment. What it has to do with is choices—both how we as a group, through our elected officials, make them, and, far more intimately, the judgment we show in governing ourselves.
No law is a substitute for common sense. A law might have stopped this particular shooting range from offering that Uzi to that traumatized nine year old, and because of that, one wishes there had been one in place. But Arizona is a gun-friendly state that didn’t have one—and no law could have prevented all nine-year olds from ever being handed an Uzi to shoot. To preclude that, you need thinking, prudent adults that are supervising the children to all decide that an Uzi is just too dangerous to play with.
In short, the question the Uzi poses is the essence of how we think about government, or more accurately, how we should think about government. We can’t be purely top down rule-makers for every possible situation; it is both impractical and a betrayal of the ideals on which we were founded. What should be obvious to all is that while you can regulate and even ban behavior, nothing can completely prevent deliberate lawlessness, foolishness, or just bad luck. That principle applies whether we are talking about Uzis, or drinking, or social issues like reproductive rights or gays, or a host of other concerns. And it applies at every level of government. Integrity, respect for the Constitution, respect for the rights of others, and good judgment are what we ought to be looking for, not an expansion of Justinian’s Code.
That does not mean that government should abstain from deciding where public safety is concerned and the risks to others are great. That is why you can’t drive at 110 MPH in a 50 MPH zone. Or (hopefully) why you shouldn’t be permitted to dump your hazardous substance collection into the nearest well. But it does mean that the hand of government should be used with restraint. We cannot always protect people from themselves, and we have no right to insist, upon pain of the law, that they live the personal, moral, and religious life we would choose. A democracy cannot function when it prioritizes the creation of inmates and penitents.
And that’s the rub. Because, when you scratch the surface of both the Democratic and Republican parties, neither trusts the people. Neither ever means, “we don’t need no more laws.” What they really mean is “we don't need no more laws that we don’t agree with.” And that leaves the moderate voter, the non-single issue voter, whether he is center, center left, or center right, with a conundrum. When you go into the voting booth in a system that seems to be growing increasingly polarized and Parliamentary, you are not only picking alleged competence, but also a political and personal lifestyle.
We shouldn’t have to. That, oddly enough, is what we should all be getting out of the Uzi. Arizona didn’t have a law because it didn’t want one. Arizonans have recoiled in horror, they will mourn, but the culture isn’t going to change, and those of us who might disagree have no business insisting on it. We can do what we want in our own home states.
So, to my correspondent of a few weeks ago, who pressed me on why I supported Mr. Obama, here’s my reasoning: I am not willing to trade the personal liberty rights I value in return for an inchoate promise of greater competence and security. But show me a candidate who has demonstrated thoughtfulness, and is willing to trust and respect my judgment enough to put aside the base’s desire to create a ideological utopia, and I am more than willing to listen.
That’s my final answer.
September 3, 2014
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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