Wednesday, December 2, 2015

In Search of Outrage

There is a National Debt Clock in New York City’s Times Square area.  It is supposed to be a visual manifestation of how quickly we borrow and spend—a constant call to arms for those who see it to demand accountability of feckless electeds.  It was originally erected in 1989, was covered, briefly, when we actually stopped running deficits, at the end of the Clinton Administration, and then started anew when we returned to regular habits--with an even greater appetite. It's purpose was to elicit  outrage, yet tens of thousands of people look right past it every day.  We just don't care enough to do anything about this.

So it is, apparently, with overwhelming majority of mass shootings.  According to an article in the Washington Post this past Monday, there have been 351 mass shootings in the United States since the start of 2015.   A “mass shooting” is defined as one having at least four or more victims (three, apparently being too common to take notice of).   If you do the quick math, it means a bare minimum of 1,400 casualties from spraying bullets in a shopping center, or a movie house, or a school, or a place of worship, or any location where people gather.

Do we care?  Not all that much for the victims, it seems.  The casualty numbers keep growing, and the larger they get, the more inured we are to them.  In one respect, this may be a good thing—at least, in most, the families of the victims have the dignity of private loss.  But other incidents take on a symbolic value that seems to be just too tempting for us to ignore.  So we wade in, using the genuine grief of the families to advance whatever our personal agendas are—in effect, we hijack other people’s tragedy to serve our needs.  That a friend, a child, a spouse or a parent loses their life becomes almost irrelevant when the discussion turns to guns, or race, or the political ideology of the shooter, or the location of the shooting, or the targets themselves.

So it was in the Planned Parenthood shootings in Colorado Springs.  Twitter and the comment boards on major news sites lit up with all types of nasty anonymous postings, the ugliness pouring out like sludge from a ruptured sewer pipe.  In Colorado Springs, we hit the Daily Double—guns and abortion. 

It is precisely at this point where leadership was so important—when the tone of the discussion teetered on a razor’s edge between civility and coarseness.  To their credit, both National Right to Life and the conservative group Concerned Women of America expressed their concern.

But, for the politicians, particularly those running for the Republican nomination for President, the brutal acts in Colorado posed an acutely difficult conundrum—Iowa is two months away, social conservatives dominate it, and evangelicals in general have a disproportionate impact in certain Republican primaries.  Whatever their private feelings, they had to tiptoe up to the water’s edge of compassion while not offending hard-liners. Some did better than others—Kasich and Bush were careful (neither mentioned Planned Parenthood) but consoling, while Rubio and Christie, apparently watching their poll numbers intently, avoided any immediate comments. Carly Fiorina, declining rapidly and under fire for fibbing about an abortion video, launched a full frontal attack—against “the Left”.   Ted Cruz initially tweeted something along Kasich-Bush lines, but then, seeing an opportunity, and ostensibly prompted by a report in a hard right news aggregator, blamed a “transgendered Leftist Activist” for the shootings (the alleged murderer, Robert Dear, is none of the above.) 

If you sense a lack of empathy from me for their inner conflict, it is because it is not there. 
I understand how controversial the issue of abortion is, how deeply passionate people can be about it, but, for now, at least, it is entitled to Constitutional protection. That’s what the Supreme Court says and that is what is has been saying for more than 40 years, since Roe v. Wade. The right to an abortion is not unlimited,  a State or the Federal government can regulate after presumed fetal viability, but it cannot prohibit or unduly restrict it before then. 

I don’t want to re-litigate whether Roe was decided correctly, and I am fairly sure that four Justices would repeal it this minute if they had the chance, but that is standing precedent.  It has the same value as law as the Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which recognized a more expansive view of Second Amendment rights.  And the same as Citizens United, or the Voting Rights Act cases like Shelby, or Kelo v. The City of New London—the widely reviled Eminent Domain ruling. 

You don’t need to agree with the Court on any or all or those decisions, and you don’t even need to agree with every part of the Constitution and subsequent Amendments, to understand that we are a nation of laws and liberties.  Among those is the right to protest, vigorously, but non-violently, and the right to have the protection of the law to freely exercise all of your liberties, whether popular, or not.  The government cannot act to favor some over the other, or punish some for engaging in legal behavior.  Our universal ownership of an equal stake is the very essence of being an American.

This is the acid test of leadership in a democracy.  It isn’t coming up with the most brilliant policy prescriptions, or most wonderful programs, or making the most dazzling speeches. It is, rather, the steadfast willingness of elected officials to govern for the benefit of all the people, not just the ones who elected them.  It is their pledge to subordinate their personal philosophy and even their sense of outrage, and respect the law, and uphold it, whether they agree with it or not.  In the end, and above all, the victims of Colorado Springs were citizens and human beings—if your politics, or your political ambitions preclude you from caring about them, then you are unfit to hold any office, much less President of the United States.
The Nobelist Isaac Bashevis Singer once described a scene in which a distraught woman, unhinged by the suicide of her son, comes to Singer’s father to seek solace.  In her agony, she loses control, curses, even denies the existence of God.

“No man is judged in his hour of grief,” murmurs the old man. 

Singer’s father was right.  No one should be judged in the throes of great loss.  But a corollary is true as well.  We are judged, all of us, in how we react to the pain and grief of others.  Monetizing it for partisan gain is the one unforgivable outrage.

December 2, 2015

editor's note.  This article was originally posted shortly after midnight, December 2, 2015.   A few hours later, the brutality at San Bernadino began.  The name calling moved seamlessly to a new tragedy, and we are not in the least bit closer to having any answers.   It has also been edited to correct an error in describing the location of the National Debt Clock.  

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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