What if it were terrorists at the school?

Newtown's AngelsAs a nation, we mourn for the losses in the senseless Newtown, Connecticut school rampage last week. In the wake of that horrible tragedy we’ve seen many calls for action—calls for improved mental health services and screenings; calls for re-instituting the assault weapons ban; calls to change our culture of glorifying violence; and even calls like President Obama made last night to just do something to make this better.

On the flip side have been many voices shouting that this is not the time for discussion of solutions. They try to counsel that there is simply evil in the world and there’s nothing to be done about it beyond the coping, the grief, and the prayers that such things don’t happen again.

But I can’t escape the glaring hypocrisy of the position that now is not the time to act. Consider for a moment what those same voices would be saying if a Muslim terrorist cell had raided that school and killed those children instead of a local white man.

As a country we have been all too eager to spend money and lives as well as sacrifice all manner of personal freedoms in the interest of keeping our families safe from the statistically small threat of foreign terrorism. And we sacrifice these things in almost knee-jerk reaction to events or near-events—consider 9-11, the underwear bomber, etc. We’ll let the government screen our calls and read our emails. We’ll let them illegally and indefinitely detain suspects, and perform so-called “renditions”. We’ll let them use torture as an interrogation technique. We’ll let them grope our wives and daughters prior to boarding a plane.  But hey, better safe than sorry, right?

But should the government want to provide medical services or restrict the ability for your neighbor to grocery shop while packing a semi-automatic pistol with a high capacity clip? Well, let’s not get crazy here. After all, this was just a troubled kid who went off the deep end. Shit happens.

But if that troubled kid looked Pakistani instead of like the guy next door? Well, shit would happen then too, but it would be different shit. And we wouldn’t be arguing about whether or not to act. This is America dammit. And overreaction to a threat is what we do best.


Cranston West: The school where Christianity went to die

Jessica Ahlquist
16-year old Cranston West student Jessica Ahlquist

To quote a favorite young lady of mine, “People suck.”

At Rhode Island’s Cranston High School West, student Jessica Ahlquist took issue with the banner hanging in the school labeled “School Prayer.”  She successfully sued her state-funded public school to have a it removed.  This was a classic textbook case of separation of church and state, and U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux even praised her for her courage in his written decision.

This was hardly judicial activism. Any high school civics student should have recognized that this was the inescapable outcome were this issue heard in any court in the land.  Some might argue the law is wrong, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being surprised that it’s the law.

Cranston BannerIt might even be argued that had the school had the good sense to label the banner “School Pledge” and drop the Heavenly Father reference and the Amen that it would have been a completely legal banner.  But they didn’t, and so it isn’t.

Yet it isn’t the loss of this banner that diminishes Christianity. It is the violent threats of retaliation against Ahlquist from other students. In what appears to be a woefully misguided sense of defending their religion, classmates are not only verbally insulting the young activist, but physically threatening her with assault and rape, both in this life and the next. Just a few of the things posted to Facebook and Twitter are listed below.

“May that little, evil athiest teenage girl and that judge BURN IN HELL!”

“I hope there’s lots of banners in hell when your rotting in there you atheist fuck #TeamJesus”

“If this banner comes down, hell i hope the school burns down with it!”

“U little brainless idiot, hope u will be punished, you have not win sh..t! Stupid little brainless skunk!”

“Fuck Jessica alquist I’ll drop anchor on her face”

“definetly laying it down on this athiest tommorow anyone else?”

“Nothing bad better happen tomorrow #justsaying #fridaythe13th”

“Let’s all jump that girl who did the banner #fuckthatho”

“”But for real somebody should jump this girl” lmao let’s do it!”

“Hmm jess is in my bio class, she’s gonna get some shit thrown at her”

“hail Mary full of grace @jessicaahlquist is gonna get punched in the face”

“When I take over the world I’m going to do a holocaust to all the atheists”

“gods going to fuck your ass with that banner you scumbag”

“if I wasn’t 18 and wouldn’t go to jail I’d beat the shit out of her idk how she got away with not getting beat up yet”

“nail her to a cross”

“We can make so many jokes about this dumb bitch, but who cares #thatbitchisgointohell and Satan is gonna rape her.”

I know kids can be stupid and cruel, but I can’t fathom that somehow this level of malevolence is being wielded in the defense of Christianity.  Even assuming that somehow this was well intentioned, in so trying to save their religion they have made it considerably less.  Ironically, atheists are often accused of unfairly conflating religion and violence.  Yet these allegedly Christian students make a compelling case all on their own.

Young Jessica Ahlquist returns to school today for the first time since the ruling on the banner.  Her morning Tweet suggests a high degree of optimism, or maybe hope. “time for school. Woot. #bestdayever,”  I hope she’s right.

WWJD, indeed.

Fear Sells

America has entered an age where we are almost entirely slaves to fear. I don’t just mean fear of the local nuclear plant melting down or fear of terrorists, but also fear of unemployment, fear of not having the thinnest iPad, and fear of being caught in last season’s fashions.

The Music Man
Professor Hill understood the power of fear

Marketing has always been about fear.  When Professor Harold Hill rolled in to River City, he used fear of trouble (with a capital “T”, no less) to manipulate the innocents into buying his wares and services.  Over the years, advertising has gotten progressively more sophisticated, but at its core it’s still about frightening you into action.

Somewhere along the way though, advertising and marketing techniques slid out of the commercial world into other venues.  Today, politicians are packaged and sold with all the deft and flair of a new sports car or a light beer.  Even news organizations, once heralded in this country as unbiased and objective, compete for eyeballs by hyping sensational stories to lure you in.

The Trouble is (with a capital “T”), fear is not rational.  That is not to say it’s never justified, but it is an emotional response. It’s a knee jerk to a perceived threat. It is only after the fear passes that one has the peace of mind to actually analyze and evaluate the situation in order to decide a rational plan forward. But the people using fear to manipulate you cannot afford to lend you that time to reflect. It might expose their plans. Fortunately for them, there is a never ending litany of fear mongering at every turn.

Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” But I don’t think what he meant was for us to embrace the fear—to wallow in it, seeking the next reason to run screaming into the night. Rather, I think he was trying to motivate us towards courage by acting rationally in the face of fear.

Mark Twain said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Most of what you fear is irrational.  You are far more likely to be killed by heart disease, homicide, or an auto accident than by terrorists, a nuclear accident, or a government death panel.  Yet chances are you’re still going to munch on the bacon-cheeseburger while driving to the polls to vote down the new power plant and vote for strip searches at the bus station.

There are people of all ideologies saying the country is falling to ruins. To some degree, that’s unarguably the case, but this is not something that’s happened since the last election, or even just in the last decade.  We’ve been on this path for a long time.  And it will be a long time until we hit bottom.  Very little is as urgent as the fear mongers would have you believe.

Professor Hill had one thing right.  He advocated “The Think System.” We need to start using that instead of the feel system we’ve been relying on.  If you’re watching or reading the news and you start to have an emotional reaction, step back.  If a politician makes you angry or scared, walk away.  Do your own research. Reach your own conclusions. Reason through the long term broad implications of the policies and politicians for whom you’re voting.

Don’t react out of fear… think.  The danger the country faces is not from liberals or conservatives nor unions or corporations. The danger is voters who are giving in to fear rather than having the courage to resist and master that fear. We have the power to take our country back… it’s between our ears.

Palin had nothing to gain from apology

Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin in her America's Enduring Strength video

Sarah Palin released her “America’s Enduring Strength” video today in response to the media reaction to the of shooting of Rep. Giffords and others in Tuscon, AZ. Palin is suitably sympathetic in the seven minute monologue, but is decidedly unapologetic for her rhetoric. Not surprisingly, the political left and right are having dramatically different reactions to her message.

While most everyone in the mainstream seems to agree there is no direct link between Palin and the mentally unstable shooter, Palin feels understandably attacked in the media aftermath.  There is ample basis for discussion over whether or not the violent and gun-based language and imagery used by Palin and other politicians and pundits is potentially inciting violent actions by the fringe elements of society.  And it’s understandable why the Arizona shooting has been the catalyst for bringing up the topic of the lack of civility in our political discourse.  But the fact remains that there is no traceable connection between this incident and anybody’s political rhetoric.  Palin defends that point, and strikes back at those who would try to pin any wrongdoing on her or the right in general.

Ezra Klein makes the eloquent case on the left for why Palin missed an opportunity.

Imagine if Palin had come out and said, “My initial response was to defend the fact that I had never condoned such violence, and never would. But the fact is, if I in any way contributed to an unhealthy political climate, I have to be more careful and deliberate in my public language rather than merely sharpen my defenses.” That would’ve been leadership: It would have made her critics look small, and it would’ve made her look big. Those who doubted whether Palin could rise to an occasion that called for more than sharp partisanship would’ve been silenced.

The right’s reaction is typified by fellow Examiner Lori Calabrese.

In a climate of hate, Palin rose above her critics with a beautifully written address that spoke to us as a nation and,although, Palin struck back at her critics, she didn’t further divide our great nation, yet called for unity and defended the rights and freedoms that make America exceptional.

I don’t know about you, but I saw something different in Sarah Palin. She leaped into the leadership role of the Republican party with her statement, while other GOP hopefuls have either remained quiet on the issue or proved that they don’t have the grapefruits to lead our nation. Palin defends our rights spelled out in The Constitution addressing the fact that a member of Congress went so far as to announce that he would propose a law that would criminalize speech he found offensive.

What Klein and others on the left are not owning up to is that while Palin may have made a few points with a more apologetic message, it would not ultimately have changed any of their minds about Palin.  Meanwhile, an apology would have inflamed her supporters who expect her to stand firm, refuse to compromise, and take no prisoners.  She had everything to lose by appearing to kowtow to the accusations of culpability, and nothing to gain.  However, staying true to her “don’t retreat, reload” mantra, she struck back at her accusers.  In doing so, she reinforced her credibility with her loyal base, and acted about like everyone else expected her to act.

All indications are that strategically this was the appropriate message for her to release.  Whether you loved it or hated it, she gets credit for being smart enough to recognize there is little she’s going to do that would persuade those who have already written her off to give her a second look.

AZ shooter is a nutjob, but violent rhetoric still matters

Sarah Palin's infamous "crosshairs" map of Congressional targets for 2010

Mere minutes after news broke of the shooting of Rep. Giffords and others in Tuscon the media war was launched to assign blame.  The left blamed the right, and the right blamed the left.  As more and more facts come to light on suspected shooter 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, the only clear picture emerging is that he was mentally unbalanced.

The shooter’s particular lunacy embodied elements of crazy right-wing, crazy left-wing, Libertarian, Communist, and Nazi fixations.  This was mixed with a heavy paranoia about mind control, and an obsession with literacy.  It would be difficult to ascribe Loughner’s behavior to his allegiance to any political movement or his influence by any particular pundit or politician.

Loughner was a disturbed and frightened man looking to blame someone for everything.  And that is maybe the whole point.  When Sarah Palin says to “reload” in an effort to take back the 20, or Sharon Angle suggests the need for “Second Amendment solutions” to take back the government, sane people don’t hear that as an explicit call for armed insurrection.  They recognize it as charged political rhetoric intended to engage and polarize an audience.  But if your mind is a little less balanced… if your predisposition is toward paranoid fear… if you are basically a walking bomb in search of a detonator, then such messages resonate somewhat differently than mere rhetoric.

The political right has a particular penchant for militant and violent political rhetoric.  Their opponents are often positioned as evil and bent on destruction of the country.  Labels of communists and fascists, political regimes the country has previously been at war against, are thrown about.  Guns are frequently brandished at political events.  Even terms such as “death panels” position those with different policy opinions as an existential threat.

As an exercise, try searching the web for the terms “right wing militia” and “left wing militia“.   Alternatively, try “right wing violence” and “left wing violence“, or choose whatever terms you may like.  In all the cases, note the discrepancy of article types and images returned.  It’s not that the left is less fervent or politically active, but the results suggest a significantly lower affinity on the left for militarism, guns, and violence.

We may never know exactly what set Loughner on the tragic path that led him to shoot Giffords and kill six others, including a federal judge and a 9-year old girl.  As Glenn Beck has reminded us before, these happenings are each the act of a “nutjob”.  Granted.  But it would be naive to assume that nutjobs are immune to the influence of violent rhetoric.  On the contrary, they are likely the most gullible, malleable, and primed to be incited to violent action.

Perhaps your words don’t make you criminally negligent… but they still matter.  Choose them wisely.