The Islamic world is ablaze, and once again the target of the Islamists’ wrath is (guess who) the United States. The protests started in Egypt and quickly spread to Libya, where popular American ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others died when a band of miltants torched the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Now the wildfires have spread to a dozen nations within Mohammed’s realm, that harsh and stony empire of fanatical faith that stretches from Morocco in the West to Indonesia in the East.
Why the sudden outpouring of hatred and vengeance in lands that were supposed to have been transformed by last year’s Arab Spring? Did the U.S. government offend Muslim sensibilities by admitting Israel to the union, or by declaring a holy war against Iran… or by outlawing the construction of an Islamic recreation center near Ground Zer0? No, the Islamists have been on the rampage because a lone American con man and ex-convict made an amateurish, disjointed, absurdly dubbed, almost incomprehensible 14-minute video, “Innocence of Muslims,” that denigrated the holy reputation of the Prophet.
The supreme irony is that the filmmaker is an Egyptian living in the United States. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who went by the pseudonym Sam Bacile and claimed to be an Israeli, had a legitimate ax to grind with Islam: he’s a Coptic Christian, member of an ancient
church that Islamists have been targeting in Egypt for decades. The assaults escalated after Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak fell from power, and dozens of Copts have died during attacks on churches (as well as from lethal force used by police during the resulting protests).
Nakoula Nakoula’s film begins with such an attack: Muslims terrorizing Christians in contemporary Egypt. Forced into hiding, a Christian family attempts to make sense of the violence, and the filmmaker suddenly cuts back to the time of Mohammed. The young prophet is portrayed by a handsome enough actor… but of course any visual portrayal of Mohammed is considered a crime against the Muslim faith. (If Christians had implemented such a rule for depictions of Jesus, every notable Renaissance artist would have been beheaded.) The film goes on to portray Islam’s founder as an increasingly promiscuous, intolerant and violent fanatic – a portrayal that, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t go over well in the Islamosphere.
Most of us would be justifiably angered to see Jesus or Moses portrayed in such a light. But here’s the point: we wouldn’t shed the blood of innocents because of an objectionable movie. It would be nearly impossible to imagine Presbyterians, Methodists or Reform Jews setting mosques ablaze after watching a stupid 14-minute video. That’s the difference between Islam and the two older Abrahamic religions.
The more fanatical followers of Islam — and their numbers are too great to be dismissed as a fringe element — still believe in collective guilt, that savage and primitive relic of Old Testament justice in which the sons can be blamed for the sins of their fathers, and the innocent can be punished along with the evildoers. It’s a nasty ancient tradition. Think of Jehovah cleansing the world of virtually its entire human population — babies, granddaddies and all — during the Great Flood… think of the plagues visited upon the innocent firstborn sons of Egypt… think of the wanton, divinely-sanctioned slaughter of Midianites and other tribes that stood between the Israelites and their Promised Land. Think of the centuries-long persecutions of Jews by the Catholic Church, based on the senseless notion that all Jews were to be held culpable for the crucifixion of Jesus.
Christians and Jews have left those ugly relics behind, but the Muslim world seems to be stuck in a medieval time warp. Moderate Muslims, civilized and educated, tend to keep their voices down and hope that the rabid element simply goes away. It makes sense: they’d rather not live with a fatwa dangling over their heads.
The New Moderate hopes that the murder of Ambassador Stevens, who devoted his life to the Muslim world and was well-liked by his hosts in Libya, could prove to be a turning point: moderate Muslims finally took to the streets and, with admirable grit, carried placards denouncing the crime. Even if their English was broken, their sentiments were whole: there could be no forgiveness for hooligans who murdered Americans because of a film produced by a renegade individual. Unlike the fanatics, they recognized that the notion of collective guilt is a mass injustice.
Meanwhile, in the West, right-wing Obamaphobes (not to mention the ostensibly “moderate” Mitt Romney) were ganging up on the president for “apologizing” to the terrorists. Internet message boards buzzed with rabid denunciations of our purported Muslim-in-Chief. Sorry, folks… it was the American embassy in Cairo that made the conciliatory remarks, not Obama. Other internet sites displayed grisly photos that purportedly showed vengeful Muslims dragging Ambassador Stevens’ soot-covered body through the streets in a triumphal procession. No again… the photos actually depicted Muslims who rushed to Stevens’ aid and carried the dying diplomat to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead from smoke inhalation.
Fanaticism represents humanity at its most hysterical and most dangerous. Whether the fanatics are radical Islamists, fringe right-wingers, communists or fascists, all that misguided intensity can blind us to the truth. Fanatics see only what they choose to see.
Fanatics seem to be especially bent on vengeance when their beliefs are challenged. Their rigid fundamentalism gives them a sense of rock-solid security in a notoriously unpredictable universe. Take away that certainty, and all they have is a botched life and certain death to show for all their efforts.
Citing chapter and verse makes fundamentalists feel more at ease in the cosmos, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the time has come for all religions to recognize that their faiths are just that: faiths. Nobody has proof. No religion has an exclusive pipeline to the will of God. No religion can claim, with any validity, to possess books dictated by the creator of the galaxies. Religions have sprung from the inventive mind of man; God is who he is regardless of what we believe he is (or isn’t).
God, if he exists, would have to be far greater and more mysterious than the often petty patriarch who emerges from our ancient scriptures. No sentient being who invented atoms and gravity could possibly subscribe to simpleminded concepts like collective guilt. And I say thank God for that!
You can view ”Innocence of Muslims” – all 14 minutes of it — here. And be sure to check the comments section if you want to sample the unbelievable vitriol that this film has unleashed.
Now that the 2012 Democratic National Convention has winked into history, a dozen or so memorable moments continue to glow like embers in a late-evening fireplace.
Michelle Obama electrified the faithful with her passion, eloquence and wifely devotion… she could add a good ten years to any man’s life expectancy, especially if that man has been thwacked repeatedly by diehard partisan foes.
Massachusetts senatorial candidate and presumptive Cherokee Elizabeth Warren, an emerging folk-hero for the NPR set, delivered a stirring tribute to scrappy middle-class virtues, along with a persuasive retort to Mitt Romney’s assertion that “corporations are people, my friend.” Warren quoted from her popular campaign t-shirt and posters: “No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people. People have hearts. They have kids. They get jobs. They get sick. They cry, they dance. They live, they love, and they die, and that matters.”
Youthful baldy Cory Booker, Newark’s idealistc, ever-charismatic mayor, galvanized the crowd with his patented Energizer Bunny performance… the guy is a walking, talking electrical power source who could still have a future in national politics.
Highly heralded San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, introduced by his identical twin brother, slipped gracefully into the brilliant-young-minority keynote speaker role perfected by an upstart named Barack Obama back in 2004… though his winsome three-year-old daughter almost stole the show by primping adorably for the cameras.
Prematurely grizzled political fireball Rahm Emanuel — former Obama chief of staff and current Chicago mayor — managed to breeze through his brief tribute to his former boss without uttering a single expletive. Miraculous.
Ditto for the sometimes bumbling, always upbeat VP Joe Biden, who surprised the crowd with a genuinely moving hymn to the U.S. auto industry and its embattled workers (not to mention the president’s role in rescuing them from certain doom). He was at his best when he spoke quietly and convincingly about the importance of the industry to America’s cultural psyche… the kind of intangible value that a pragmatist like Romney would overlook in favor of the accountant’s balance sheet.
Young, articulate and eminently telegenic, the newly minted feminist icon Sandra Fluke castigated Romney and Ryan for their alleged insensitivity to women’s reproductive issues. Noting the deep divide between Democrats and Republicans on abortion, she described “the two profoundly different futures that could await women—and how one of those futures looks like an offensive, obsolete relic of our past.” At least she didn’t call for public funding of late-term abortions.
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm must have been a cheerleader back in high school. Shouting herself hoarse, arms waving wildly to and fro, she tallied the number of jobs saved by the Obama administration in half a dozen states, culminating with (of course) Michigan. (“211,000 good-paying, AMERICAN jobs!,” she yelled triumphantly.) Loud enough to make the average TV viewer adjust the volume, she scored a solid extra-base hit with her fellow Dems in the convention hall.
Instead of geriatric cowboy-director Clint Eastwood, who inadvertently delivered the most memorable remarks of last month’s GOP convention, the Dems mounted an eye-appealing parade of show-biz celebrities-du-jour and recent celebrities-du-jour, none of whom added much of substance to the proceedings. The Democrats seem to relish their role as the party of choice for Hollywood’s pretty faces.
Former President Bill Clinton lent his own superstar lustre to the convention. The aging Arkansas Fox, weighing midway between trim and anorexic (he’s gone vegan since his two close encounters with coronary disaster), blasted it out of the bleachers and then some; his 48-minute oration in praise of Obama garnered the highest plaudits of the convention from pundits and politicians alike.
First he disarmed the opposition by praising virtually every Republican president since Eisenhower, but he contrasted those honorable gentlemen with today’s obstinately partisan GOP. Blasting the “right-wing factions that have taken over the party,” he shredded Romney & Co. by cleverly reframing the reasoning behind their pursuit of Obama: “We left him a total mess [in 2008], he hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.” He astutely characterized the president as “a man who’s cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside.”
As with any vintage Clinton speech, his Charlotte barnburner managed to fuse passion, policy and plain old common sense into a clear and compelling message. But this one had something extra: a righteous defense of the basic Democratic (as well as small-d democratic) ideals currently under assault by conservative ideologues. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer immediately canonized the speech as the greatest of Clinton’s career, and other talking heads quickly followed suit.
I was simply relieved that Clinton didn’t keel over at the lectern, but I had to agree that the speech was a personal and political triumph. Unfortunately, the ex-president raised the bar impossibly high for the current president, essentially playing the hot-blooded Captain Kirk to Obama’s cerebral Mr. Spock.
Spock delivered, though. Barack Obama deliberately shed the mythic poetry of his previous convention speeches in favor of a more sober and presidential address that reflected his hard years at the helm.
Looking fit and confident, Obama managed to hit most of the right notes for a liberal leader who governs from the center: America’s traditional belief (and a true moderate’s article of faith) that “everyone plays by the same rules”… the peculiar Republican zeal for cutting taxes on the rich and easing regulations on Wall Street while gutting government benefits for the middle class and poor (“we’re not going back there,” he assured us)… a much-needed plan to restore the proud “Made in America” brand by rewarding companies that create jobs here in the U.S. … the vital importance of affordable education and health care (repeat: affordable, not free) … a warning about letting our government fall into the hands of big lobbyists “with checks”… and a pledge to use the money we’re no longer spending on wars to “do some nation-building right here at home.”
Obama has been known to break promises he made in the heat and idealism of his 2008 campaign, so he scaled down the level of commitments this time around. He sidestepped policy-wonk specifics in favor of big-picture goals and ideals. (Nothing wrong with that: this wasn’t the State of the Union Address, after all.) He confessed his disappointments and took the high road, refraining from blasting the obstructionist tactics of the GOP opposition in Congress.
The president spoke persuasively of the need for balance between entrepreneurship and responsible citizenship… for replacing the “What’s in it for me?” mentality with “What can we do together?” Collectivism? No… just an overdue recognition of the fact that — guess what? — we all play for the same team. Class warfare? No again… Obama was adamant that success in America is something earned rather than given freely. A call for big government? Guess again: Obama insisted, with admirable moderation, that government can’t fix everything but it’s not the problem. “Not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington,” he said. Nobody but a hidebound libertarian could call his vision socialistic.
The New Moderate hopes Obama can muster enough political clout and savvy to convert his vision into a model of inspired centrist leadership. He’ll have to shun the constant nattering of special interests on the right and left, but if anyone other than Bill Clinton can do it, Obama can.
Give those Republicans some due credit: they’ve been putting on the kind of show that would have done Ziegfeld proud. Saddled with a vanilla nominee in Mitt Romney, they’ve been firing up their base with a multi-megawatt display of passion and purpose. And not only their base: the Republicans have jettisoned their dowdy image as the party of aging white guys; they’ve produced an array of stirring speakers who represent youth, ethnicity and womanhood… the future of America wrapped up in an attractive and exciting (yet still suitably conservative) package.
Back in my college days, communications scholar Marshall McLuhan gained a measure of fame for proclaiming that “the medium is the message.” In other words, what you say isn’t as important as how you say it… and how it comes across to your audience. So far, the 2012 GOP convention has excelled at skipping over the hard truths in the service of a lofty idealism that should play nicely on Main Street.
Ann Romney proved herself a powerful messenger as she forged an emotional bond with the wives of America. A decent and courageous woman who has suffered her share of hardships, she understandably overlooked the fact that some hardships are suffered a little more easily when your net worth is in the hundreds of millions. I have to wonder if a Romney presidency would grant less-privileged multiple sclerosis sufferers the kind of superior medical care that stabilized her own condition and allowed her to speak so passionately at the convention.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, never one to pull punches, delivered a rousing (if self-centered) sermon that credited his late mother with imparting his guiding philosophy in life: that it’s more important to be respected than liked. Aside from the questionable wisdom of that philosophy (I’d counter that a genuinely successful human being needs to maintain a fine balance between the two), it’s clear that Christie is elevating toughness to a virtue.
Toughness fits Christie’s “Jersey bulldog” image, and today’s Republicans respond to his kind of toughness. Not for them the wimpy bleeding-heart histrionics of Obama liberals. What does it matter if a Romney presidency adds to the burdens of the middle-class and working-class Republicans who will be voting for him? They can all revel in their toughness… and their dogged faith in a system that holds out the dangling carrot of success for everyone who makes the effort.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is a magnificent woman and an equally magnificent speaker, qualities she demonstrated almost effortlessly during her dazzling convention speech. Orating without a teleprompter, she spun a vision of America as an “exceptional” nation that must continue to exert its leadership around the globe. Inspiring stuff, though my inner alarm system tends to start beeping whenever I hear the words “America” and “exceptional” in the same sentence. (Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan believed they were “exceptional,” too.)
Again, here was a morally questionable vision (neocon interventionism) couched in soaring rhetoric reminiscent of JFK’s inaugural address. Back in 1961, the young president promised that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Alas, after our decade in Vietnam, a grueling war in Iraq and an interminable engagement in the wilds of Afghanistan, that kind of expansive idealism seems not only dated but fatally unsustainable. During an ongoing economic crisis at home, we simply can’t continue to bankrupt ourselves by policing the world.
I didn’t expect VP nominee Paul Ryan to be such a firebrand onstage. His photos tend to fit his reputation as a dorky policy wonk, but he had all the right stuff when he mounted the stage in Tampa. Animated, youthful and bold, he praised his mother’s work ethic, ripped into Obama as a failed president, set the stage for Romney the turnaround wizard, and essentially anointed himself as the political standard-bearer for his generation.
Ryan also played fast and loose with the facts, as when he accused Obama of breaking his campaign promise to keep a struggling General Motors plant open. (Fact 1: Obama never promised to keep the plant open. Fact 2: It shut down while Bush was still president.) “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” harrumphed Romney operative Neil Newhouse. That’s right… just dole out the Kool-Aid and encourage all those financially strapped conservative believers to drink all they like. No matter that the Romney team would boost military spending during a budget crisis, roll back benefits for the poor and elderly, and shift even more of the tax burden from the rich to the middle class… it takes real patriotism (and toughness) to vote against your own interests.
And of course, all those inspired, idealistic and passionate speeches only made the Republican vision more lethally convincing across Middle America. Let’s see if the GOP nominee can strike a proper balance between image and truth when he steps to the podium for his big moment tonight.
Here’s the third and last of my summer reruns before we return to live action. I wrote this piece in December 2009, as you might guess from the first sentence below. It still rings true, unfortunately, because it’s tougher than ever to be a moderate in today’s pathologically polarized America. As for the moderate movement I sing about… well, let’s just say I haven’t lost hope.
As we enter the final month of the most demoralizing decade in recent memory, I think we moderates need to ask ourselves some critical questions about our place in the world. Don’t worry about the answers. Right now it’s more important to ask the questions than to answer them (though you’re invited to supply us with any solutions that pop into your head).
If you’ve noticed the title at the top of this page, you already know my first question. Are moderates just misfits? Have we crash-landed in our lonely, uncharted, unregarded territory only because we couldn’t land anywhere else? Are we pariahs on the political scene? Do we really know what we believe, other than the fact that we can’t buy what the right-wingers and left-wingers are peddling?
This past weekend I had dinner at the home of a couple I like and respect. Both the husband and wife fit comfortably in the “NPR liberal” mold: they’re ardent vegetarians and members of the local food co-op… they send their two kids to a progressive private school that refuses to grade its students… they donate books to the poor. They’re good and generous people.
When I told them I had launched a blog for moderates, the wife was incredulous. “Do moderates believe in anything?,” she asked in earnest.
I reached deep into my hat and produced the obligatory white rabbit. We moderates believe in restoring a sense of balance, I told her. When we see the boat tipping to one side, we feel an instinctive need to tip it the other way. I said we support “the greatest good for the greatest number,” employing that hoary utilitarian catchphrase in all its sweeping vagueness. I added that our views are flexible and prone to shift over time; a moderate on race relations half a century ago would sound quaintly conservative (if not downright bigoted) today.
So yes, I supplied my friends with answers… but were they satisfactory answers? Did my impromptu apology for moderation give us a recognizable shape, a brand, a credo on which we could build a movement? I’m not sure. I’m afraid my answers gave the impression that we moderates have no fixed values of our own… that we exist primarily to foil those wicked extremists.
I did a little soul-searching after that dinner. I found it interesting that I’m both a longtime moderate and a longtime cynic (although less of a sneering, hard-boiled cynic than a disgruntled idealist who secretly clings to his ideals). I wondered if the two states of mind could be related. A cynic, after all, is inclined to be skeptical of all human certainties. So is a moderate.
I’ve tried to pry myself into the ideological hiking boots of the left, and I’ve attempted to squeeze into the glossy wingtips preferred by the right. Neither pair fits, so essentially I’ve had to cobble my own footwear. Maybe you’ve had to cobble yours, too.
Until now, we moderates have had no lodestars to light our way… no moderate magazines, or moderate activists, or larger-than-life moderate heroes immortalized in statues, verse or TV miniseries. Nobody knows what we stand for, including most of our own tribe, and until now we’ve been content to be left out of the public debate. We’re misfits, all right.
Then I had a minor revelation: in a society gone berserk, being a misfit is a gleaming, 24-karat badge of honor. We moderates swear allegiance to no rigid ideologies, bow at the feet of no preening potentates, drink no Kool-Aid before its time. In short, we own our souls.
We’ve been marginalized, yes… but we’re also free. Free to oppose special interests, with all their willfully self-serving hidden agendas. Free to speak out against coercion, censorship and chicanery. Free to shout “Humbug!” when we observe humbug in our midst.
Odd, isn’t it, that thoughtful moderates have so much in common with thoughtful cynics. We’re misfits, renegades, knights-errant battling windmills. And we get no respect from the safely entrenched insiders. Milquetoasts, are we? Timid and noncommittal? I don’t think so. We’re in good, robust company.
Give us a little time, and we’ll build a movement. We won’t be marching in lockstep; that’s not our way. But we’ll be moving… moving to the center of American political life where we’ve always belonged. Care to join us?
While I’m busy vegetating in the wilds of upstate New York, you can enjoy another entry from the first year of The New Moderate. I used to write them shorter in those days, a habit I should probably learn to embrace once again. This column sounded a mildly hopeful note about the future of American politics, and I still hope I wasn’t being delusional.
It would be pleasant, and a bit of a hoot, to imagine our hardened lefties and right-wingers holding hands, swaying in unison and singing Kumbaya. Impossible, you say? Downright silly? Well, yes and no. In the unexpectedly polarized Age of Obama — with its noisy town-hall rants, radio demagogues and fiery online diatribes — such an overripe expression of sociopolitical harmony seems to be out of the question. And yet…
I’ve noticed some striking similarities between certain sectors of the left and right. Of course, you won’t see a HuffPost blogger from San Francisco cozying up to the nearest Wall Street Journal columnist anytime soon. But down in the less exalted regions of our populace, where the money flows less freely and virtuous Americans fret about their futures, a strange and forbidden sort of union seems to be taking shape. It hasn’t happened yet, and it might scare the pants off our more elite commentators if it does. But the vibrations are starting to resound across our suffering republic, and some of us are picking them up on our internal radio receivers.
I’m talking about grassroots populism, a movement that has bubbled up to the surface from the masses of downcast, angry, alienated citizens across the political spectrum — ordinary Americans who want their country (and money) back. This movement is revolutionary, it’s unprecedented in my lifetime, and the elites can no longer ignore it.
Right-wing populists and left-wing populists don’t agree on everything, naturally. You can still find them raging against their own separate and irreconcilable hobgoblins (right-wing populists hate illegal immigrants, left-wing populists hate racism). But their anger merges and swirls like a newly spawned tornado around some important common issues.
The populists from both camps agree that the federal government is spending us into oblivion, racking up debts that even our most brilliant yuppie grandchildren won’t be able to repay. They agree that our elected representatives are essentially puppets operated by the lobbyists who fund their campaigns. And they’ve concluded that our economic system has been rigged, like some great sinister casino, so that the house wins every time. Countless billions of our money to bail out the very banks that decimated our life savings! Eight-figure bonuses for evil investment bankers who masterminded the crapshoot!
Frank Rich, the generally doctrinaire liberal columnist for The New York Times, recently observed that American politics is no longer about the struggle of right versus left, but of ordinary Americans against the elite. Right-wing preachers like Sean Hannity can no longer convince their congregation to support Wall Street, while President Obama can’t seem to persuade his base that his colossal expenditures will halt the Great Recession.
The sages of our public commentariat still prefer to organize our body politic as if they were setting up an orchestra: liberals and socialists over on the left, conservatives on the right, and moderates like us in (where else?) the middle. I confess to the same habit, and I also confess that I’m finding it less and less applicable to our peculiar time and place.
I never thought I’d catch myself agreeing with Frank Rich about anything, but maybe a Great Recession makes for strange political bedfellows. Very strange. (Good night, Frank. Turn out the light, will you?)
Since I’m on vacation and trying not to think too hard, I thought this would be the ideal time for summer reruns of New Moderate columns from 2009 — our first year as a full-fledged blog. Daily readership in those days numbered in the low-to-mid double digits, so these columns will be new to most of you. I’ve picked out a few that are still relevant in 2012… and I’ll run them every couple of days until we return to live action.
Do moderates really need to think? Can’t we just examine the opinions of the extremists and take the average?
Afraid not. There’s more to being a moderate than dwelling in the middle. The midpoint has its charms, but we moderates could use a little more imagination, fire and gusto if we want to see our ideas prevail. That’s right — we need ideas, too. And the more original, the better.
Example: Both right-wing and left-wing groups depend heavily on lobbying, the unsavory practice of allowing special interests to fund the campaigns and pet projects of senators and congressmen in exchange for “favors.” The lobbyists fill a politician’s pockets, and they expect said politician to push their agendas in return. In other words, our elected representatives can be bought — and believe it or not, it’s all perfectly legal.
Where does a conscientious thinking moderate stand on lobbying? There’s no middle ground here, because the left and right seem to be in perfect agreement that lobbying is a politically (and financially) useful practice. We moderates can’t simply “take the average” on this issue and walk away. We need to stand up, stick our heads out of our cozy foxholes and denounce the practice of paid lobbying until somebody listens… until it becomes unacceptable and eventually illegal for private interests to play puppeteer with the representatives of the people.
What will it take for American moderates to grow into their destined role as outspoken champions of impartiality and fair play? Our republic and its ideals are being frittered away by a combination of partisanship, corruption and inertia. Thinking moderates everywhere need to renounce their traditional role as quiet and dispassionate onlookers. We’ve been too polite. We need to let ourselves get angry now and then, to awaken our inner Patrick Henrys (are you down there, Patrick?) and let fly a good resounding salvo in defense of our beliefs.
Come on, moderates, let’s find our voice!
Of course it had to happen on July 20, the anniversary of the single most stupendous achievement in the history of our species. And in a way, it paints a sorry symbolic portrait of a great nation in decline. From 1969 to 2012 — a mere 43 years — we’ve gone from walking on the moon to witnessing a massacre of innocents by a lone gunman at a Batman movie in a suburban multiplex.
I probably shouldn’t read too much significance into the date the killer chose to carry out his deadly deed. It’s obvious that he picked July 20 because that’s when ”The Dark Knight Rises” premiered at a midnight show in Aurora, Colorado. But, given my general pessimism about the state of this Union, I couldn’t help noting the date and thinking back to that other July 20 that so many of us baby boomers remember so vividly.
My brother and I can still recite Neil Armstrong’s final words as the lunar module closed in on its target: “Forward, forward… drifting to the right a little… contact light.” That was the moment: the touchdown, the goal achieved. And good old Walter Cronkite, as boyishly exultant as the rest of us, shouted a simple sentence that drove it all home: “MAN ON THE MOON!” The Eagle had landed.
So why does it happen here, almost routinely, with such sad and predictable results, in the same nation that sent men to the moon? Is it our national gun fetish — or something deeper and even darker?
And why are the perpetrators so eerily indistinguishable from one another? It’s always the same, isn’t it? Young single male. White (usually). Quiet (always). Kept to himself mostly. Unwilling or unable to form intimate relationships. Frustrated. Very frustrated. A bit grandiose. And obsessed with guns.
We don’t really know what kind of devils got into the head of James Holmes. A stellar student until very recently, he fit the classic mass-murderer profile like a size-10 foot sliding into a size-10 shoe. But most lonely young men who fit the same profile don’t launch homicidal attacks on random crowds.
Young Holmes had been an academic superstar… his prowess in school undoubtedly formed the core of his self-esteem. One of his former classmates recalled that the kid never had to take notes; he just sat there in silence, absorbed everything by osmosis and aced his exams. But maybe the doctoral program in neuroscience forced him to bump up against his intellectual limitations for the first time in his life. (I bumped up against mine a little earlier, in high school physics and calculus… and I have to tell you it took years to recover from the shock.)
Holmes’s grades began to crumble; he was about to be put on academic probation when he withdrew from the doctoral program at the University of Colorado. The world suddenly must have seemed sinister and unreal to him… as sinister and unreal as a Batman movie. What a joke… and so the former wonk metamorphosed into The Joker, that malevolent archvillain and Batman nemesis with the grotesque grin etched permanently onto his face.
Did the young man’s first brush with academic failure drive him to bitterness, despair and bloody revenge fantasies? Did it poison his shy, bookish, grade-dependent nature? Was it enough to drive him insane?
We could speculate that America has become a hard-driving culture in which failure is not an option. And yet Japan is, if anything, even more hard-driving and intolerant of failure. But here’s an eye-opening statistic for you: in the U.S., the annual gun-related death rate per 100,000 people (including both homicides and suicides) is 10.27 — among the highest in the world. In Japan, the figure is 0.07 — among the lowest in the world.
Guns simply are not indispensable props in Japanese culture. By contrast, Americans have been romancing them since since the days of the lone frontiersman with his buckskin jacket and trusty Pennsylvania long rifle… a potent symbol of American manhood and independence. The Western gunfighter and Prohibition gangster long ago entered American lore, along with leathery, gunslinging cinematic role models like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
An American man’s sense of personal failure – his inability to live up to culturally imposed standards of success and manliness — can turn lethal in the presence of guns. The possession of a long, cold steel weapon bolsters his sense of potency. He begins to imagine himself a stoical hero in the Old West tradition… a hardened maverick half in love with violent death.
Because, you see, in addition to being a success-driven and gun-loving culture, America is also a narcissistic culture. Just as we love to believe that any American can succeed with enough grit and hard work, we love to believe we’re special. (The Japanese don’t.) With a little imagination, we envision ourselves as heroes in the making… even celebrities. Walter Mitty is alive and well, and today he carries a Glock. James Holmes carried two of them, along with an assault rifle and an old-fashioned Remington shotgun.
Right-leaning men (and plenty of women) in America today seem to be wedded to their guns — or at least the concept of guns — as a form of resistance to encroaching government and its entangling tentacles. If the Second Amendment were to be repealed — if it suddenly became illegal for Americans to own guns — why, the feds could confiscate our property without a peep and we’d all become slaves. Or so their nightmare fantasy goes.
But what if we simply outlawed assault rifles and other semi-automatic weapons that spray sudden death toward crowds of hapless victims? I can’t think of a single peacetime use for such weapons — except to make it easy for psychopaths to commit mass murder. And yet the NRA and its amen corner would go all apoplectic if we took their semi-automatics away.
I wonder how many intruders they expect to be breaking down their doors in the near future. I wonder how many shots per minute would satisfy their lust for the heroic superpowers denied to them in life?
So how do we get our gun crisis under control without triggering an armed rebellion from the NRA crowd? In The Cynic’s Dictionary nearly twenty years ago, I proposed (only half-facetiously) that we should allow everyone to own guns but suspend the production of bullets. We probably don’t have to go that far. But it’s definitely time to push for an unconditional domestic ban on assault weapons, which should be strictly limited to use by the military in foreign wars.
And let’s toughen 0ur standards for granting gun permits. We already put prospective drivers through a rigorous battery of written and hands-on tests before they can earn their licenses. Let’s do the same for firearms.
With over 250 million guns already in private hands here in America, it won’t be easy to stuff this unwieldy genie back inside the bottle. But since the worst gun offenders are usually young and inexperienced, we can raise the bar to make sure that prospective gun owners are fit to use firearms. If they fail, or if they violate gun laws, we simply deny them a license the way we would deny a license to a clueless driver. End of story. The Second Amendment doesn’t prevent us from subjecting gun owners to more intensive screening.
Fair enough? I think so. After all, in the wrong hands, both guns and cars are deadly weapons. We need to be at least as vigilant with gun owners as we already are with drivers.
Still not convinced? Just ask the parents of the twelve people whose lives ended prematurely in that Colorado movie theater on the 20th of July.