Friday, December 21, 2012

About the shootings in Newtown, CT

Shooting in Newtown
Temple Beth Jacob
December 21, 2012

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking about the shootings last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut.  It is a deeply sad event.  Unlike everyone else, it seems, I feel deeply cynical and without much recourse.  In a complicated situation I recoil from the simple pieties that people feel they must spout and I struggle to find some hope.

I’m afraid my deepest cynicism comes from the calls for us to learn this time.  This time we will do something, people say.  But that’s what we said last time and the time before that.  I fear that this time will be like the last time in that people who don’t understand guns and gun culture will call for their banishment, people who like guns will feel attacked, nobody will be willing to discuss or spend public money on mental health initiatives and the NRA has circled the wagons with a simple call for more weapons and armed security at every school every where.  People already have staked their positions firmly in concrete.  Some want to ban guns which will never happen.  Others see any regulation of anything having to do with firearms as an attack on nothing less than liberty and our way of life which is absurd and overwrought.  We’ll see if the murder of 20 children along with 6 teachers and one mother is enough to shock enough people to create political will.

The President seems motivated.  Despite fears and dread that once he became President he would seek to ban all sorts of firearms -the NRA openly said candidate Obama had a “secret plan”- this president has done almost nothing regarding gun control as he pretty much promised.  It is not his issue either because it isn’t or he doesn’t feel he has the political will do anything about it.  Before this past election I read similar fevered worries that now the President would ban all the guns because he doesn’t have to stand for re-election anymore.  My belief is that no such thing nor anything like it would have happened.  But now, maybe not.  The President is talking tough.  Sort of tough.  We’ll see what happens.

I’m also cynical at the outcry.  For the parents, for the friends, for those directly connected, there will never be enough tears.  I understand the terrible sadness and thinking of the young lives lost is awful.  There is a reason the Jewish tradition is to create headstones in the shape of a cut down tree for those who die young.  It is a symbol of a life never able to grow, never able to flourish.  We cry for those who cry but I can’t get past the idea that we cry for the unusual circumstance, for the terrible uniqueness of the situation and not for what is truly sad because where are our tears when children die in ones or twos?  Where is our outrage when an Oregon mall got shot up or when a movie theater is shot up?  Where are our tears for these people the President mentioned on Wednesday during his press conference?  He said:
Since Friday morning, a police officer was gunned down in Memphis, leaving four children without their mother.  Two officers were killed outside a grocery store in Topeka.  A woman was shot and killed inside a Las Vegas casino.  Three people were shot inside an Alabama hospital.  A four-year-old was caught in a drive-by in Missouri, and taken off life support just yesterday. Each one of these Americans was a victim of the everyday gun violence that takes the lives of more than 10,000 Americans every year -- violence that we cannot accept as routine.[1]

            And yet we do accept them as routine though we shouldn’t.  Aydan Perea was four years old and got caught in a drive by gang conflict shooting.  His death is, sadly, a local Missouri story because his death happened alone.  There is no moral distinction between Aydan and the 20 children in Newtown.  There is no difference between one child and 20 children being murdered aside from volume.  They are equally tragic, equally awful with no distinction other than we only seem to become emotional when the scale overcomes us.  We can, it seems horrifying to say, handle Aydan dying and any number of children dying if they don’t die all at once.

One study “by the US Center for Disease Control, and published in the American Journal of Pediatrics, studied injuries to persons 14 years of age and younger from 1993-2000. In that time period there were fatal gunshot injuries to 5,542 children, averaging 1.89 per day.”[2]  Another one from 2010[3] offered this:  “The researchers analyzed data on nearly 24,000 gun-related deaths among children 19 and younger from 1999 through 2006. That included about 15,000 homicides, about 7,000 suicides and about 1,400 accidental shootings for the eight-year period.”  Accounting just for the homicides, that’s an average of 1875 a year or 36 per week or five every day.  Yet we don’t weep.  We don’t even know.  But if you really want a good cry, if you really want to weep, imagine five parents you know having their children die by murder.  Then imagine the next day five more of your friends have their children murdered and then again the next day and then every single day.  How many days until you become outraged?

I am horrified by the murders in Newtown but outraged when people suggest as they always do that they didn’t think it could happen here.  It can happen here.  It is already happening here and everywhere in this country every single day.  Every single day.  And failing to know that or simply accepting that is truly grotesque.  But who knows, perhaps now, with such a volume of death, maybe now the political will can be found.  Maybe.

I’m cynical at the opinions some have been brazen enough to raise, that these deaths, terrible though they are, shouldn’t cause us to act emotionally and begin creating legislation and policies that regulate guns.  The usual argument that “guns don’t kill people” is out there and that “gun-free zones are useless” is out there and that “if only more people had weapons then a lone shooter wouldn’t have the freedom to wander the halls” is out there.  All of these are specious and either ignorant or intentionally missing the point to distract us.

I’m cynical at how the arrogant notion of American exceptionalism seeps into even cooler heads that allows to come up with all sorts of reasons for these shootings except the one that would let us look at our society as a whole and wonder if there is anything larger at play, something that might be embarrassing that we don’t want to look at because exceptional countries don’t have systemic problems.

I’m nauseated at the cruelty people toss when they divine that these deaths are the result of prayer not in the public schools as Mike Hukabee offered.  And I understand the need to comfort but I shake my head when pastors and our President say that these children have been called home.  No.  Their souls may live on with God but they were not called home as though playtime was over.  Indeed, they will never be called home again.  There will be sermons this week noting how Joseph consoled his brothers saying, do not worry and do not be sad; all my troubles were from God who wanted me to suffer so that I could arrive at this point.  The message is that God has a plan even with apparent cruelty.  The difference is that Joseph wasn’t murdered.  Whatever lesson he took from his trials didn’t require that he die to learn it.

But I’m hopeful that there is more talk than usual.  It remains to be seen if this outrage becomes just another story soon to be forgotten.  Time will tell.

I’m hopeful that even though it takes the deaths of 20 very young children, six teachers and one mother, a obscene requirement, people seem outraged over this more than usual.

I’m hopeful because I have no choice but to be that Vice President Biden will pull together some sort of policy agreement where all sides of the debate can find the strength to compromise.

In the meantime, we must do something.  Most importantly we need to talk to our elected officials particularly on a Federal level.  For this we must wait until January 3 when the new Congress is sworn in and our new Representative Sean Maloney assumes his office.  I worry that the moment will have passed but if we can maintain our outrage for just two more weeks, our first call January 3 should be to his office and demand that Congress work to create meaningful gun regulation that respects gun owners but limits accessibility and that mental health receive more research money and more street level clinics for people to turn to.  But we must tell them something else.  Wayne LaPierre of the NRA today gave his organization’s first response.[4]  He came out with passion and fire proclaiming the need to have more guns.  He called for every school in the entire country to have an armed guard at the entrance by the time school opens in January.  He avoided legal arguments and turned the tables on the emotional argument.  Instead of banning assault rifles to project children, why didn’t we have a weapon in the hand of a guard at the entrance?  Those children would be alive if they had.

Wayne LaPierre lives in a world where mass shootings will happen.  He lives in a world where the mentally ill will attack us.  He lives in a world that presumes criminals will open fire with assault rifles.  He begins his assumption that your child will come under fire.

When we call Congress, when we talk with our friends, we must reject that world.  I have a vision where assault rifles are not presumed to be available to all who want.  I have a vision of a world where an elementary school is not assumed to be under fire.  We do not have to buy into LaPierre’s world view.  Things can change.  Crime is down in this country.  Have you been to Times Square?  Where you there in the 70s?  I was.  It has changed.  Crime does not have to be a presumption.  We must reject the paranoid frame of mind that has given up on a peaceful society.  Wayne LaPierre has given up.  You do not have to.

We must stand up to and decry outrageous chatter and bluster and false premises.  We will never get anywhere with loud nonsense.  I fear the opposite will happen.  The strident will scream, the reasonable will tire and the issue will be forgotten until the next time and there will be a next time.

But we must hope because if we don’t believe we can make a change then we admit that we live in a world where mass shootings happen as an ordinary occurrence.  I don’t want to live in that world.  I’m cynical but I have hope.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Happy Holidays

Here's my essay in the Times Herald Record:

Dear Christians,
This week, Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah and so, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas.
Have a meaningful Christmas filled with whatever makes you merry. Whether it's joyful worship celebrating the birth of Jesus or simply gift-giving, I truly wish you the best.
You'll notice I didn't wish you a Happy Hanukkah. That wouldn't seem right, given that you are not celebrating Hanukkah. (Unless you are; in that case, Happy Hanukkah!)
And I didn't wish you "Happy Holidays" because, my Christian friends, I know that you celebrate Christmas. I also know that some of you have a problem with "Happy Holidays," and that's why I'm writing.
Every year there's a whole "Happy Holidays" kerfuffle because some Christians feel it degrades Christmas. Let me try to explain how I see it.
I believe "Happy Holidays" is an attempt to create a positive environment in stores.
Every marketer knows that a welcoming environment boosts sales, and I am grateful that capitalism welcomes all of us, regardless of heritage, to shop.
Human Resource directors took up "Happy Holidays" once they recognized that not all employees are uniform in belief and that "Christmas" wishes were alienating some of their workers. And let's remember Orthodox Christians who are disrespected when we forget they have a different date for Christmas. (It's coming up on Jan. 7.) If productivity requires different types of people to work together, why remind some of us we are on the outside? An office "Christmas" party sends a very clear message: we are not part of you.
And this is the heart of the matter.
If a store has only Christmas decorations, the message is it cares only for its Christian customers. If a public school celebrates only Christmas, then the message is very clear: Non-Christians are not truly part of the community. If my place of business can't be inclusive the message is that I am excluded.
We Jews are well practiced in being the minority. You, my Christian friends, have been in the majority for so long, I fear you may not understand so I respectfully ask you to trust me on this: When you insist that "Merry Christmas" be the only greeting allowed, you make it very clear that the rest of us are out, that we are not really part of America. That may not be your intention, but it is the result.
"Happy Holidays" is an American statement. It says that even though we all know which religion dominates, all Americans can partake in the feelings of good will at this time of year. "Happy Holidays" is kind and thoughtful and makes me feel like our place as a minority is valued by the majority. Some of you may grouse but we on the outside really do appreciate it.
Of course, let's not go overboard. My synagogue doesn't have a "holiday" party: We have a Hanukkah party. Likewise, it would be strange to have a "holiday" party in a church. (Exception made for and a respectful shout out to the Unitarian Universalists.)
To my Christian colleagues, neighbors and friends, have a very Merry Christmas. To all the rest of us, with respect, Happy Holidays.
Sincerely, Larry