Post-Sandy Hook, an Acid Test for Actual Leadership

NEW SLAUGHTERMuch like how the word “hero” has been devalued by slapping it on every kid who scores a goal in PeeWee soccer, instead of remaining exclusive to people who risk life and limb to save or protect someone or something else, the word “leader” has also been diminished in recent years. An indispensable (and irresistible) tic of marketing jargon, “leader” today has been pretty much reduced to describing anyone who “wins”, which is to say “leads” in ratings, sales, revenue, page views, and Twitter followers.

Excuse me, but I prefer a bit more cred in my definition  of “leader”. I want something that has a fat chunk of the old school criteria of “hero” wrapped up in it. Where “leader” described, for example, a person who dares to take the first step into a dangerous, perilous environment because it’s the right thing to do and because … someone has to show courage and risk pain to get the tough things done.

President Obama gave another moving speech Sunday night at the memorial for the kids and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School. But after delivering four of these eulogies in four years (and passing on literally a dozen other “opportunities”) I don’t know what the guy can possibly say the next time, beyond, “This shit has got to stop.”

To date, Obama the deft politician, has played the far margins of America’s highly irrational gun “debate”. Every strategist has no doubt told him that there is no “winning” in any attempt to legislate sanity into the sub-culture of gun obsessives, people who regard their “right” to own and stockpile home arsenals as an imperative equivalent to breathing. Even at this moment, after his unspecific call to do “something”, Obama has to be calculating the effect of merely hinting at new controls on assault rifles, high-capacity ammo clips, hand guns, registration loopholes and internet ammo sales.

If his election in ’08 (and again last moth) setting off a buying frenzy among the country’s gun fetishists, convinced without reason that a socialist, liberal, black, Kenyan Muslim was going to send Black Helicopters full of ATF agents to confiscate their AR-15 squirrel-hunting rifle, you can only imagine the hysteria that will follow word — via Rush Limbaugh, FoxNews and local outlets like Phoenix’ “Gun Talk Radio” — that the bastard was actually making a move. By day’s end, every ammo warehouse in Pahrump, Nevada be stripped clean, and crowds out front would be milling ravenously, like extras from “The Walking Dead”.

Perhaps even worse, a serious, coordinated move on weapons of mass human slaughter would have the political effect of sucking the air out of every other thing Obama wants to accomplish in a second term. What he is weighing, I suspect is that lacking a constructive agenda of their own, Republicans, led by their “entertainment news complex”, have only obstructionism as a means to impact legislation. The GOP’s radical base would love nothing more than a fight over “constitutional rights” as a way to avoid dealing with genuine tax reform, entitlement spending, climate change … and every other thing we need the government to act on.

But upon the bodies of 20 bullet-riddled grade schoolers (and their teachers) Obama may have arrived at a point where he has no choice. Playing the deft political game of strategic avoidance isn’t going to cut it anymore. We may have reached a point where not just his base, but a critical mass of the “reality based” public will hold his legacy accountable if he fails to make a serious, concerted effort on gun control. An effort to defeat the roiling, semi-to-outright fanatical subculture that to date has successfully obstructed every attempt to put the United States on a civilized, first-world, 21st century legal footing regarding private gun ownership.

But we the public have good reason to expect effective leadership from others in addition to Obama. The regularly pilloried news media — credible institutions like daily newspapers and affiliate TV news rooms — are also in a position of having to put some skin in a risky, fight-worth-having. I note the Star Tribune this morning editorializing against assault rifles, high-capacity clips and the familiar litany of flabbergasting absurdities in our gun “laws”. Thank you, for that. But the Strib might be well advised to make the peeling of the onion of gun obsession a major commitment over the coming months.

Likewise, TV news, which floats on a marketing plan of neighborliness and fraternity while simultaneously lubricating its revenue stream with ghoulish coverage of any kind of mayhem that delivers “hot pictures”, is going to have to decide if it’s going to be part of the solution or just continue playing professional empaths to the latest appalling tragedy. It’s nice that all the local anchors demonstrate paternal concern after every one of these atrocities. But it would be far more helpful if they actually acted like the “leaders” they constantly promote themselves as being and also took a public stand in support of correcting gross misperceptions about violence in America, (we’re safer in our homes than we’ve ever been), if not the regulations most of the reporters, anchors, and news directors know are long, long overdue.

While I seriously doubt TV stations will get anywhere near such leadership, and newspapers will largely wall it off in earnest editorials, everyone effected by this kind of home-brewed terrorism needs to be honest about who were dealing with and what we’re afraid of.

Everyone can pick their favorite research, but the most credible is clear that an obsession with guns has profound psycho-sexual roots in feelings of inadequacy, marginalization, lack of power over personal fate, graspings for respect and authority and of course some level of paranoia. These aren’t  just references to the Jared Loughners, James Holmes and Adam Lanzas of the world — clear psychological basket cases — but fundamentally anyone who stockpiles ammo, “collects” assault rifles and makes the manifestly irrational argument in favor of military killing machines, high-capacity clips, internet ammo sales, etc.

Moreover, as I’m certain Obama well knows, the crowd who makes these pro-assault weapon arguments (otherwise known as the “arm the teachers” argument) is essentially the same crowd also making irrational, emotion-based arguments denying human-caused climate change, insisting only tax breaks for the wealthy and social cuts for the poor (and mentally unbalanced) can pull us out of recession, that “legitimate rape” prevents conception, that evolution is an unproven theory and on … and on.

The time for a “public dialogue” with this crowd is over. That dialogue, really an eye-glazing ranting match, has been had ad nauseam. There is no productive point to it. Their arguments were long since exposed as fallacious and nonsensical.

But that crowd can still do plenty of mayhem. They form the basis of the “primary challenge” scenario that terrifies every Republican incumbent. They will empty their bank accounts to support everyone taking a harder, tougher, crazier stand than the guy wobbling in the face of being shamed into voting for the right thing.

Politicians and anyone else daring to promote themselves as a community leader is going to have to suck it up, gird themselves, take the flack — and hit to advertiser dollars, if … if … they have any conscience about being a responsible citizen.

Over the past decade, counting the build up of the intelligence industry and two wars in the Middle East, United States taxpayers has spent well over a trillion dollars fighting terrorism, which is generally defined as any act that injects a pervasive fear into the population. So what else to do you call this gun insanity? What has to stop first is the craven pandering to and avoidance of a political subset most notable for their irrational fear-mongering (with, As I say, rates of violence ironically declining in all Western cultures), hot button hysteria and the willingness to support their most cherished single issue with their checkbooks.

Genuine leaders will have to isolate this sub-culture, by calling it out for what it is, and then take the fight directly into its face by laying out how the rest of us — including cherubic grade schoolers — are being held prey to their paranoia.

Shoot First, America.

Other than as an infallible acid test for how rational the person you’re talking to is, there’s very little to be gained arguing America’s gun possession laws. It’s like abortion. Minds are made up. Those of us who perceive little or no mortal danger in our daily modern mostly urban lives can’t fathom the need to own one. Much less can we understand the need/desire to acquire a small arsenal. So … we and look on the crowd arguing for the need/right to carry, then conceal and lately “Stand Your Ground” (the so-called “expanded Castle Doctrine”) as precisely the kind of people — addled by bizarre paranoias — that should not be packing heat as they order their triple macchiatos and/or stroll the aisles of Home Depot.

A comprehensive psychological profile, administered to gun license applicants, would do wonders for denying permits to the personalities who need guns way too much for reasons that have nothing to do with “personal safety”.

In the past two weeks we’ve had two more incidents of outrageous gun play by (very likely) damaged characters acting as guardians of our safety. First, Master Sgt. Robert Bales in Afghanistan, accused of the mass murder of 16 civilians, including nine sleeping children, and now George Zimmerman the, and I quote, “self-appointed” citizen watch guard who pretty obviously stalked an unarmed black teenager, engaged him in a confrontation and shot him dead … all in, as I say, his personally appointed role as guardian of a … wait for it … gated Florida community.

Far from being beside the point, the mental instability of both Bales and Zimmerman is highly germane to whatever conversation you might care to have. Bales was obviously in a war zone. But the truly grotesque irony in the Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case is that Zimmerman most likely imagined himself in something similar.

How did either one of these guys get in the position to do what they did?

I have very little confidence that the Army, left to its own investigation and courts-martial, will reveal any of its possible failures to screen out Robert Bales, a family guy (with a red flag financial management career) who had already served three tours in Iraq and reportedly didn’t want to re-deploy. (Who would? In Bales’ favor is that he was sane enough at that point to understand that another combat tour wasn’t in his best interests. If it were me, I’d be testing any soldier not complaining about  returning for a fourth tour. Someone’s enjoying just a bit too much.)

The Zimmerman-Martin episode speaks more directly to the fear-struck homeland side of the equation. Florida has the law that gun-talking/gun-loving/gun-toting small town police chief/Republican legislator Tony Cornish has been pushing here in Minnesota for what seems like years. Mark Dayton vetoed the bill this time around on the grounds that it was — yet another — GOP solution in search of a problem. What statistical evidence there is that ordinary citizens need legal protection to extend their “threat zones” to basically any place they happen to be, allowing them to “Stand Their Ground”, shooting first and thinking of retreating later, is preposterously subjective at best. Even anecdotally there isn’t enough to suggest this is necessary legislation.

The larger point though is the psychological screening that goes on with “avid” gun buffs. As I say, if ever there were a signal that someone needed a thorough screening for irrational thinking and aberrant threat assessment, it’s the guy building an arsenal in his leafy suburban basement or arguing loudly that he needs a loaded gun on his hip to gas up the truck at SuperAmerica.

To any rational person that is thinking of someone in a paranoid fantasy land, i.e. someone very likely to contrive a situation to “deploy” his arsenal.

How someone like George Zimmerman, plainly a nutcase based on his constant 911 calls alone, was allowed to cruise around — a gated community — unimpeded by police has everything to do with political cowardice in the face of gun zealots and NRA lobbying. “Stand Your Ground” is the law in post Tea Party Florida. The survivor’s word that he was acting in self-defense is good enough, no matter how palpably unstable the pistol-packing citizen appears to be.

(In the context of inducing fear in legislators I note the profound under-coverage of the Zimmerman-Martin case by FoxNews — the cable news organization of choice for many gun lovers, I’m guessing — and the entirely predictable twisting of the story into yet another “war on guns” by hysterical liberals.)

The hysteria and fear-mongering, of the imminent threat to home and family by homicidal intruders, is a constant theme of far-right media. I spent a couple of hours driving around Phoenix last winter slack-jawed at the paranoid nonsense being spewed by … Arizona Gun Radio, a station entirely devoted to gun talk, gun rights and … fear of everybody walking past your front door.

George Zimmerman may well be crazy. The likelihood is that a lot of people who have crossed the line from amiable deer-hunter to gun fetishist are also crazy on some level. But the issue here is what is the sequence of events and influences that put a crazy-ass character like him on a “block watch” detail … with consent to carry (at least one) loaded gun … and enough legal immunity that he not only shot to kill an unarmed kid … but hasn’t been arrested?