Wednesday, February 28, 2018

More guns, trained guns, no guns

As a precursor to today's post, I would be remiss if I didn't remind my readers that all posts I create which address what most people debate as the gun control issue, are saved in my blog under the title

Violence Control

I do so, not because I am trying to avoid the phrase gun control, but because it is clear that merely mentioning that phrase causes more ends to conversations as beginnings.  My recommendation for all people who perceive the need for an honest, sensible debate about guns in America, is to begin caching the issue as violence control.  While it is bewildering to me why any sane person believes that rapid fire, military weapons have a place in society, perhaps we can convince them the need to get a handle on the too easily used solution of resorting to violence to address conflict and disagreement.

So, before starting this post, I decided to read some of my other posts so as not to repeat what I have previously stated.  Sadly there were a number to read as many of them were written after previous mass killings.

To paraphrase a testimony given by General Mattis a few years ago during a congressional hearing on funding, he was adamant in stating that insufficient funding of the state department and its job of diplomacy, will result in the need for more funding for bullets and guns.  Conversely, it is not a big jump to the thought that without addressing the messages of our culture that advocate and even glorify violence, we will find ourselves wringing our hands over future mass killings.

Or, as the President has proposed, arming even more people.

So, let's get into it.

The premise is that by arming and properly training more people who are within the "soft" target areas, we will discourage future mass killings as the perpetrators will be reluctant to enter a place where certain death awaits.

Of course, there are a number of assumptions at work here.  First, that the mass killer uses logic to choose his targets (I won't say his or her targets since the vast majority of these people are male), and that death would be a deterrent.  Well, considering that most proponents of new gun control legislation argue that this is a mental health issue, doesn't that eliminate that line of reasoning?  If a mass killer is mentally unstable, the notion that logic is involved in the act is absurd.  And, I would posit that most mass killers are sociopaths at worst, temporarily bereft of any sense of humanity, at best.  If, however, a mass killer is sane, then he certainly knows that there are scant few instances where death or life in prison is not the end result of the act, so either the sane mass killer wants to die or somehow thinks that he will get away with it.  To me, any sane mass killer who believes he will escape justice for such a horrendous act, is probably not sane, revert back to example one.

The second assumption is that, under stress, an armed and specially trained teacher will hit their target.  This seems a bit of a stretch considering that there are many instances when the armed and specially trained among us, police and military personnel, have shot the wrong person.  Death by friendly fire in military conflicts is well documented, among the more famous being the friendly fire death of ex-NFL player Pat Tillman. Even more alarming, most articles about friendly fire deaths also mention the instances of death by one's fellow combatants on purpose which can arise from a lower rank soldier killing one of higher rank, or killing among the soldiers after disputes or fights.  What better place to hide a murder than in war.  And, of course, examples of police officers shooting unarmed citizens, innocents caught in the crossfire, and police using excess force when apprehending suspects, are all too familiar.  Would we therefore expect more or less instances of these errors by teachers who may only ever use their gun for cause once in a lifetime?  Or, in the apparent case of the trained gun on site at the Parkland School, would the armed and specially trained teacher even react in an appropriate way?

Additionally, and I know details of this plan are non-existent at this early stage, would the teacher actually carry a loaded gun in class?  On their person?  Again, are there not enough instances where victims are shot with their own guns when overcome or surprised by a third party?  Would we rethink the plan after the first instance of a teacher or student being killed by the gun assigned to protect the class, or would it take two instances?  Three?  Or, if, like those in the military who, under duress, use the cover of war to mask an non-authorized shooting, how do we react if an armed and specially trained teacher uses his/her gun inappropriately against a fellow teacher, administrator or pain in the ass student.  

Finally, there is the assumption that good people with guns will make the right decisions to use them, and that these armed and specially trained teachers, all certainly good people, will be perfect in this regard.  Huh? Again, we know that our military and police forces are filled with good people who have made poor decisions, or committed bad acts.  Yes, Virginia, good people sometimes do bad things.  Notwithstanding people like Bruce Willis in Death Wish, most relatives of victims are not people we should encourage to mete out justice themselves.  

Not withstanding this logic, lets pretend that specially armed and trained teachers are placed in every school that requests them, or every school if this becomes general practice, and lets further assume an example occurs in which a mass killing is shortened or stopped by one such armed teacher.  Success!!  Do we then move on to other soft targets?  Armed and specially trained ushers at all movie theaters, guides at churches, bouncers at nightclubs, seating helpers at music and sporting events, or any other such places where people congregate?

Many gun rights fight any and all gun control legislation for fear that it might the beginning of a trend to disarm all Americans.  Would a program arming teachers in classrooms be the beginning of arming all Americans?

Do we really want a society in which at any time someone could legally use their concealed weapon to address a situation which they interpret as hostile or dangerous?  Knowing that good people, trained people with guns use them improperly, imagine the result if more people, simply by hitting a few targets in a controlled setting, were armed?  

I saw Paul Ryan on TV talking about the action the House of Representatives might take in response to the most recent mass killing.  He mentioned the culture of violence that I alluded to in this post.  Good for him. But when will he connect our culture of violence with our obscene $600 billion a year military budget? And where is his reference to the fact that our current President uses threats of violence in response to many issues.  The method in which he blithely discusses using nuclear weapons against our enemies is appalling! And his horrendous record of so many ambassadorships being unfilled to the various countries of the world. President Trump seems to be all about, I have the biggest, baddest weapons, so do what I say or else. Does this not contribute to a culture of violence, and perhaps effect a confused teenager who sees violence as the only answer to the problems of his life?  If Ryan wants to truly change our culture from shoot first, talk later, perhaps he needs to take Trump aside and remind him that the perception starts at the top.

Of course, it is not President Donald Trump's fault that a troubled youth in Florida went on a killing spree. For better or worse, we get the leadership we deserve, are led by those we elect.  If our leadership believes that more guns is the answer to violence control, then we need to put up or shut up in the next election.

Without putting too fine a point on it, I also think that the violence control issue is becoming a watershed moment for America and Americans.  Do we really believe that God is on our side when it comes to using violence to address our problems?  Is she really looking down upon us and saying, yes, more guns to the good people, and I will continue to make the bad people shoot poorly.  (Another Hollywood created falsehood; bad guy with machine gun misses every time, good guy with handgun kills with each shot).  Now, clearly, it is difficult to know the reasoning of the Almighty.  Perhaps she allowed us to create weapons of mass destruction as a test.  Perhaps it is just a phase we need to pass through as a society before we achieve a more enlightened state of mind.

But what if there is a revelation on the horizon of mankind's perception that can only be realized when we eschew violence as a means to resolve conflict?  If so, will America be on the forefront, leading the way towards that realization, or will she be holding back the rest of humanity simply because we need to justify spending so much money on "defense"?

The simple fact is, guns make killing people easier, and rapid fire guns easier still.  The 2nd Amendment does not guarantee the right to an assault weapon, only "arms", and we can choose, legislatively, how we define arms without amending or repealing that amendment.  Assault weapons of any type are weapons of violence. I imagine that most Americans would be aghast at using an assault weapon to hunt animals, yet we seem OK with using them to kill our fellow citizens.  There is no other use than for killing, so it seems obvious that we should be adamant in insisting that no citizen should legally possess one as a means of self defense, or, more likely as a means to kill multiple humans.  Similarly, devices like bump stocks which transform a
semi-automatic weapon into a more rapid fire one should be illegal.  Frankly, I am not sure why a citizen needs even a semi-automatic weapon, but we can at least start with those weapons that allow multiple shots to be fired with one pull.

Folks, in this age of instant information, it is quite simple to research firearm ownership and death by firearms.  And just as easily, it is clear that Americans own, per capita, more guns than any other nation, and that we consistently rank in the top 10 for most deaths by firearms.  Each and every year.  We are sacrificing our fellow citizens, and our children, to keep alive the illusion that our founders wanted us to be armed and ready to kill each other, when in fact they wanted us to be armed and ready to defend our nation against foreign invaders.  Happily, we have a well funded military for that, and state and local police forces to protect and serve our communities.

Violence control demands that we identify the tools which are used by both good and bad people to harm and kill Americans, limit and/or eliminate those tools from public access, and follow the example of the vast majority of civilized countries which experience death rates by firearms that are 50, 75, even 90% less than are own.      

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Music and Chess

Nora and I were fortunate enough to see a performance by Al Stewart last week.  For those of you who do not remember Stewart, his popular songs were Year of the Cat, Time Passages, and On the Border (my favorite).  We had seen him perform many years ago, at a nightclub in Philly, I think, although the memory has faded over the years.  At last week's concert, Stewart played all the favorites, plus some more recent tunes.  He was accompanied by the extremely talented Marc Macisso and his current back up group The Empty Pockets. In addition to the wonderful music, Stewart prefaced every song with a story, often about the writing or inspiration of the song, or sometimes just as a reflection of the times in which it was penned. And, while there were moments when Macisso rocked out on the sax or flute, or the lead guitar player let loose on his electric guitar, most of the enjoyment emanated from Stewart, his voice, his stories, his songs, and the moods they inspired, reflective, nostalgic, folksy.  Like listening to an old friend recount shared, fond memories.

As the crowd made its slow departure from the theater, Nora and I waited a bit in our seats and discussed how being a folk lyricist seemed the perfect job for Al Stewart.  Was it coincidence that he seemed to have found the job in life that suited him best, or were we seeing the results of years of learning and refining his craft that made the performance seem so natural, as if watching a bird take flight and knowing that flying is the natural activity for such a creature?

I am continuing my reading of the Winter Edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called States of Mind.  I recently read an excerpt from "The Chess Master and the Computer", by Garry Kasparaov.  In the essay, Kasparov recounts what he terms the golden years of man vs machine in the realm of chess, 1994 to 2004.  It was during that time when the computer progressed from too weak to too strong in its ability (its programmed ability) to play chess.  For Kasparov, those years and those matches were not unlike the progress one's child might make as a father taught her to play chess.  At first, father wins every time, but then there is a time period where the matches are close and interesting as the child learns from her mistakes.  In this case, the child was as much the programmers who uploaded the chess playing algorithms as the computer, but Kasparov seems to indicate that he knew it was inevitable that the computer would eventually be the better player, just as if often the case that the child bests the parent over time.

Kasparov concludes this particular part of the book by recounting how the new challenge in chess is to combine the sheer number crunching power of the computer with the ability of the grandmaster, against other such teams.  In other words, make use of the best of both worlds.  It is that kind of thinking that, were it to be applied to the problems of the day, might make a difference in addressing those problems.

There are some who thing that music and chess are the best expressions of the two parts of our brains.  And further, that these skills, when performed at the highest levels, share a common thread; precision.  I decided to link these subjects for a different reason, however.  Like Al Stewart, Garry Kasparov seems to have found the perfect occupation for his talents.  This is not to say that other occupations for either man may have also matched their skills.  During the concert, Stewart joked that his job might soon be vacant, referring, I assume to the thought that he couldn't perform forever.  He indicated to us that he thought that the best folk lyricists might be found teaching history as he considered himself as much a historian as a song writer, or perhaps both at the same time.  Perhaps Kasparov would have found complete job satisfaction from being a physicist, or actuary.

Thinking about this takes me back to high school and those aptitude tests that we all were subjected to. Certainly, there was real science at work, just as there is some validity to using a dating service that evaluates likes and dislikes and matches accordingly.  The problem with high school aptitude tests may not have been the results but the audience.  Why would a teenager listen to any adult about the results of a test that tells him that he should be an accountant?  Certainly, I hold no value judgement against accountants, in fact I like numbers as much or more as the next guy.  But who wants to hear that assessment, even if accurate, when the whole world is out there, full of promise and excitement and the unknown.  Sure, as we reflect on our lives and realize that being in retail or fast food or working an assembly line or any of the other jobs that we all have done, and perhaps still do, to pay the bills, we might wish to vault back in time to our teenage selves and extol the virtues of accounting in hopes of avoiding the drudgery and boredom of our future lives.

Perhaps then, we might try the best of both worlds for our youth as we assist them in discovering their strengths and pursuing the opportunities that will be presented them.  Give them those silly aptitude tests, but present the findings with the idea that a job pays the bills, and we all must take the occasional job to survive in the world, but an occupation should be a reflection of your life.  It is OK to use an aptitude to find the occasional job, but a much bigger reward, a more satisfying life will result in finding an occupation that reflects your being.          

Perhaps if we spent more time seeking satisfaction in our daily lives, including our work, we might be in less need of distractions, especially those that lead to harmful addictions or rage or depression.  

Life satisfaction, priceless.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Super Bowl Champion Eagles!!

As I begin this post, the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl Parade is culminating with player and coaches speeches on the Art Museum's steps with thousands of people cheering, clapping and celebrating the first Super Bowl Championship in Eagles history.  It is a glorious day in the City of Brotherly Love!

For those of you who are not familiar with the remarkable story of the 2017-18 Eagles season, it is truly a wonderful tale.

The story of a 2nd year coach, hired amid doubts and the disappointment of the Chip Kelly years, coming off an initial 7-9 season during which his football intelligence and pedigree were openly questioned.

The story of a GM who was emasculated during those same years, but who stayed with the team and honed his skills, culminating in two amazing off seasons during which he traded up to draft a franchise quarterback, signed a number of important free agents, and even wrangled a mid-season coup to bring a workhorse running back to compliment an already strong offensive team.

The story of a rookie quarterback who played more like a veteran from week to week, who made the impossible play routine, and who led the team to a league best 9-2 record despite losing their Pro-Bowl offensive lineman, star running back, best special teams player and star middle linebacker.

The story of a backup quarterback who all but quit the game just two years ago, but decided to give it one last shot, who signed on as the rookie's relief, just in case, and them was thrust into the limelight and pressure when yet another season-ending injury struck the rookie quarterback sensation.

And the story of a team of players who worked in unison towards a single goal, who absorbed one hay-maker after another as their teammates fell, who took the cliche, next man up to its fullest expression, who ignored all the experts and pundits who not only discounted their chances to win, but actually made them underdogs in all three playoff games, including, for the first time ever, the games they hosted.

Finally, the story of a team who won for themselves, their fallen teammates, and their fans, beloved in the Delaware Valley and besmirched everywhere else, and who walked among them on this very day, high fiving and celebrating this tremendous victory of cooperation and collaboration.

Cooperation and collaboration.

Sports is clearly not the real world.  Games played by adults for large sums of money in cathedrals akin to those celebrating religious rites.  Entertainment for the masses to distract us from reality, and the hard truth that our exploits in athletics as kids were just fun and games.

But there are lessons being taught and learned on sports fields everyday.  Lessons about perseverance which can result in the best team overcoming a team with the best players.  Lessons about loyalty, even in the face of personal injury or failure.  Lessons about winning humbly and losing graciously, the first being displayed to the man by the Eagles, the latter less so by the losing Pats.

I bemoan the money in sports, the obvious priority that winning takes over an education in college athletics, the lure for those born in less economically advantaged situations when an education should be paramount over the slim chance of a professional athletic career, the sheer magnitude of the economics, when our schools and infrastructure are in such dire need of resources.

But for those who follow the political scene, who tune in to the shows that inflame our passions for or against those who adhere to a different economic or political philosophy, this Eagles story and victory should be a required course of study.

You see, it is possible to take a group of people from all areas of America, with as myriad a variety of backgrounds, with different skin colors, different religious beliefs, different perspectives on patriotism, gun control, social justice, and have them work together, despite their differences, to achieve the seemingly unreachable.  

To come together and seek the best ideas, regardless of its source, and evaluate that idea based on its merit. To put partisanship aside and stay fully vested in the welfare and happiness of all of the fans, or all of the country.  To remember that if your only goal is to advance that which benefits you, then those you need to work are more likely to advance only that which benefits them.

That a stalemate is not a win for either side, but a loss for all sides.

So again, hail to the Philadelphia Eagles, and its legion of sometimes boisterous but always passionate fans for their Super Bowl LII victory.  And hats off to my brother Paul who flew in from Texas to be there, and to represent all of us who could not or did not attend.