Saturday, March 31, 2012

Freedom: the Capacity to Gun Someone Down

I find myself lately changing the channel when I see news about Trayvon Martin’s killing. This reflects my weariness with the sorrowful tragedy of the case. It could so easily have been avoided had the killer been less gun-obsessed.

I’m making judgments about the killer, George Zimmerman, without knowing more about him than what the news offers, but I feel pretty sure about my judgments. This is partly because the idea of carrying a gun around in your neighborhood of an evening bespeaks obsession.

But it also reflects some of my experience as a receiver of hate mail over the decades. Soon after I began writing for newspapers some 30 years ago, I noticed that the two topics I could write about that would almost guarantee hate mail responses were guns and race. At first I couldn’t see a connection, but gradually, it dawned on me that the depraved hatred expressed in these two kinds of letters was rooted in a single sentiment: Dread. People who feel encroached upon by “those they perceive as different” are often the same people who nurture a need to arm themselves with murderous weaponry. Both of these sentiments reflect a feeling of vulnerability that drifts easily into fear.

However, we non-psychotic citizens also have cause to be fearful when we consider the crazy laws that the gun lobby has managed to get Florida to put on its books. The infamous “stand your ground law” that was passed here in 2005 is a perfect example. It might more accurately be called the “I-think-I’d-like-to-kill-someone-today-and-claim-that-I-was-standing-my-ground law.”

From the start it was obvious to normal people (but not, apparently, to Florida’s legislators) that this law was an invitation to gun nuts everywhere to snuff out those fellow citizens whom they found particularly annoying. Passing this law was, at the time, surely the craziest thing Floridians had ever done - but that was before they elected Rick Scott as governor.

The use of the phrase “stand your ground” is part of the problem, and it calls attention to the fact that the gun industry knows how to win wars of words. “Stand your ground” calls up visions of John Wayne or Gary Cooper displaying American-style manliness by bravely facing down a no good varmint or two. But it’s hard to see that kind of Hollywood bravado in a heat-packing, middle-aged man tracking an unarmed teenager until a confrontation results in the latter’s death.

There is a sickening difference between the gloriously brave sounding phrase that the gun lobby used to shove this law through the Florida legislature, and the creepy reality surrounding the many killings that have been justified by this law - a number which, by the way, is rapidly rising (Tampa Bay Times). Also rapidly rising is the number of Florida residents seeking licenses to own guns.

I’m not sure how the gun nuts are managing to win the language war, but so far they are. In their world, the word “freedom" means little more than the capacity to blow someone’s head off with a twitch of the trigger finger. Anyone who isn’t packing heat, they seem to believe, isn’t free.

Note that there are dozens of countries in which people are free even though almost nobody owns any weapons - England and Japan for starters. It’s also true that in some countries households have long been heavily armed where there is no freedom at all – Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for example. I’m not sure how the gun lobby, in spite of these realities, has managed to indoctrinate the culture with the idea that guns equal freedom, but it has.

Related to this is the nutty idea that we are only truly free if we have the household armaments necessary to face down “the government.” This notion harks back to the Revolutionary War era, a time when it made some sense. But face it, is there a community anywhere today in which citizens are prepared to take up their household armaments and go mano-a-mano against the U.S. Marines? Or the First Armored Division?

I raise this point with some hesitation since I’m sure there are some crazies among the gun lobby who would like to demand the right to own howitzers and anti-tank missiles and I’m frankly a bit leery of stirring them up.

Finally, in the language war department, there is the phrase “Second Amendment rights.” True, the Second Amendment references the right to bear arms in the interest of maintaining a militia, but the gun industry has used the phrase “Second Amendment rights” so regularly to promote legislation like Florida’s “stand your ground law” that the real nature of the Second Amendment is buried beneath their propaganda.

In an ideal world, every time some pro-gun politician or lobbyist used the phrase “Second Amendment rights,” a courageous journalist or politician would stop them in their tracks and insist that they reference the basis of a “militia” as the constitutional justification for gun ownership. But Florida, I fear, is light years away from this “ideal world.”

It may be too late, but I still believe it is worth the struggle to take back some of the language that the Murderous Weaponry Lobby has so effectively commandeered. Let’s start by bringing back this good old American phrase - “gun nuts.”


Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Farewell to Arms, 1967 Edition

I was, during the first two years of my college life, a midshipman in the U.S. Navy Reserve. During the summers, as part of my duty, I participated in training exercises, first, in 1966, on board a cruiser in the Pacific, and then in 1967 at a Naval Air Station in Texas and a Marine training compound in Virginia.

It was during the combat training at the Virginia base that, courtesy of the U.S. Marines, I had my world turned upside-down. My experiences there transmogrified me from a Navy midshipman into a civilian anti-war protester. This change was a big deal for me, since, as a high school student, I had nursed dreams of becoming an army officer so I could whip-ass on the dirty, rotten Commies in Vietnam that I had been hearing about on the news.

My shift in outlook actually began in the spring of 1967 because of a Nicaraguan student named Rodolfo whom I knew in college. During a casual conversation I mentioned to Rodolfo that we (the U.S.) were helping the Vietnamese. Rodolfo smiled sarcastically at me and asked, “So, you think that when a Phantom jet drops a bomb on some poor Vietnamese farmer who’s carrying a bundle of rice home to his family, you’re helping him?”

I was utterly stunned, and I honestly don’t remember how I answered my friend. However, my conversation with Rodolfo had planted a seed of doubt in my mind. Could it be that we weren’t really helping the Vietnamese? This is when I began to be earnestly interested in Asian Studies; I started looking for evidence that would tell me whether or not our GIs were welcome there.

A few months later, as part of my navy training, I was doing marine combat exercises in Virginia. The exercises ended on a totally cool note. We had learned how to scramble down from a ship on a rope ladder and onto the rolling deck of a landing craft which would then speed us off and spew us out onto the "enemy" beach. It was all images of D-Day, and kind of fun – since we didn't face the prospect of actually being shot at or killed.

After our unit had hit the beach and laid down our appropriate lines of fire, one of our officers came over to tell us we should talk to the marines who were standing off to the side and who had just come back from Vietnam. This was the chance I had been waiting for: an opportunity to talk to some guys who had first-hand experience in Vietnam Theater combat. And what the marines told me pushed me over the line.

Several of the stories focused on what the marines called the “craziness” of the Vietnamese: “These people will work for weeks with nothing but a shovel just to tunnel under an American base so they can plant a bomb there.” But the image of weeks of laborious digging didn’t make me think the Vietnamese were crazy. It made me think they were dedicated.

The most dramatic story came from a guy who told us about being on patrol one night in a Vietnamese village. “I heard a click right behind my ear,” he said, “so I turned around and there was this old, bearded guy, must have been 60 or so, and he had tried to shoot me with a homemade shotgun made from a pipe, but it misfired. So, I got him with my knife.”

Wow. If a 60-year-old villager was taking on the U.S. Marines with a homemade shotgun, then Rodolfo was right. We were not “helping” the people in Vietnam.

Of course, I continued to explore and read as much as I could about the situation there, but the more I learned, the more convinced I became that we were not welcome in that country, not even by most of the “South” Vietnamese.

Back at college in the fall, I was still obligated to continue taking NROTC training courses and engaging in field drills and rifle cleaning drills, etc. But I knew I couldn’t be a part of the war that was the end point of all our training efforts. I imagined myself winding up in a combat situation, faced by a Vietnamese enemy who wants to shoot me. I asked myself, “Since he is only doing what any decent patriotic citizen would do – defending his homeland – would I let him kill me?” No. I would definitely try to kill him, even though he was in the right. This kind of shook me up. I had admitted to myself that I would murder on behalf of my own life, even if I knew I was wrong to do so. That’s war.

By the way, here’s where the arrogance of youth comes into play. I didn’t consider the possibility that I might be the one who ended up unwillingly dead in this confrontation. My entire vision was focused on the question, should I kill or allow myself to be killed? As though I were in total control of the situation. Dumb.

Anyway, when I realized that I should never allow myself to be placed in such a situation, I went in to talk to my immediate superior at the campus Navy base, a Lieutenant Cowan, a decent officer whose manner of speaking had an uncanny resemblance to Jimmy Stewart’s. I told the lieutenant that I could no longer be a part of the Navy, and as I spoke, I began to cry. This upset him to the point where he grabbed a pack of cigarettes and thrust them at me, “Moore, have a smoke!”

“No thanks, Sir, I don’t smoke.”

I left his office shortly thereafter and took a long walk around the Garden District of New Orleans until I could settle down emotionally and face my friends on campus again.

The next day I had an appointment to see Captain de Laureal, the base commander. He seemed to be expecting me to break down as, no doubt, Lieutenant Cowan had told him I had done the day before. But I didn’t. I was completely relaxed and in control as I said, “Sir, I want to get out of the Navy.”

“Well, you know,” he answered, “what is likely to happen next is that you will be busted down to a seaman and assigned to a base anyway for breaking the terms of your scholarship.”

I assured him I understood this, but that I had to bail out.

But then, some pleasant surprises ensued. First, the captain wrote a letter to the Pentagon, explaining that I wanted to leave the Navy, but in the letter he included a phrase something like this: “This is the kind of reaction that a number of our young men are having as a consequence of this war in Vietnam.”

Holy Smoke. Captain de Laureal himself seemed to be critiquing the war. I was amazed - and pleased. He invited me to add my own letter to his, both of them to be sent together to Washington, DC. So, in my letter I confirmed everything the captain had said, but I added that I felt sure that, were I to be kept in the military, “my attitude would certainly wind up consigning me to the brig.”

I don’t know if it was a typical Pentagon botch-up, or if someone there actually sympathized with my position, but a couple weeks later I received a letter from Washington that included, not just the formal discharge that I had hoped for, but  - get this - an Honorable Discharge!

Very surprising. The best I was hoping for was a General Discharge, which is like a C- or D. A General Discharge says, “This guy is a loser, but we’re not going to make a big deal out of it by humiliating him with a Dishonorable Discharge.” I believe I still have my Honorable Discharge papers stashed away in a file somewhere.

Shortly after this, I began to participate in anti-war demonstrations, and, two years later, in graduate school, I began organizing anti-war activities in southern California. I had come a long way from the days when I had imagined myself defeating the no-good  Commies in the jungles of Vietnam.

I learned two lessons from that turning point in my life. One was that American students can learn a hell of a lot by interacting with international students.

The other concerns war in general. Every time one president or another tells us how important it is that we go to war against this or that country, I find myself mentally pumping the brakes; I can't forget how badly I, and millions of other Americans, were misled about the situation in Vietnam.

I'm not sure why so many young men think, as I did in my youth, that war is a noble adventure rich with opportunities to show the world one's heroic potential. Not to take away from those patriotic veterans who have put their lives on the line in combat, my reading of war today is completely different from what it was in 1966. Everything I've learned about war tells me that when we commit combat forces to its carnage and destruction, not only do innocent civilians die, but so does a part of every fighting man who faces death while dealing out the same against the enemy. I am convinced that in order to kill people, we have to first kill something within ourselves.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Separation: Iran and America

Darla and I saw A Separation last night with our friends Hoyt and Charlene. I found it a compelling story and Hoyt compared it to a Greek tragedy. Each character embodied a flaw and each flaw contributed to the disastrous sequence of events in such a way as to make the outcome seem inevitable. Sounds like a downer, but I enjoyed the film immensely.

Speaking of tragedies, how did the United States and Iran come to see each other as enemies in the first place? Greek tragedy? You be the judge.

The trouble may be said to have begun about a hundred years ago when the British gained control over Iran’s oil through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The AIOC was a classical colonial institution that for decades enriched itself at the expense of its Iranian employees.

Immediately after World War II (to make a long story short), the Iranian people, under the leadership of their charismatic prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, pressed for the nationalization of Iranian oil. In other words, the oil that had been enriching AIOC was now to be used for the good of the Iranian people.

The British government, which needed both the AIOC oil and its revenue, fought back against the Iranians and pleaded with U.S. President Harry Truman for help, telling him that Mossadegh was a madman. Truman invited the prime minister to visit him at the White House, and when he did so, Dr. Mossadegh impressed the president as a sincere and worthy leader. So the U.S. said no to British pleas.

Then came 1953: Truman retired, Eisenhower became president, and the latter appointed John Foster Dulles as his secretary of state.  Dulles was a right-wing ideologue who saw the destruction of communism as his life’s mission. His younger brother, Allen, was made head of the CIA.

The British easily convinced the Dulles brothers that Mossadegh was a tool of Iranian communists (he was not), and so the brothers began to plot the overthrow of the prime minister. The story of how the CIA destroyed Iran’s democratic government in August 1953 and replaced it with a dictatorship under the control of the Shah is told in detail in Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.

The CIA coup itself is an embarrassingly sordid tale involving American-sponsored acts of terror, the bribing of politicians, of military leaders and of newspaper editors, attacks on mosques designed to look like they were the work of Mossadegh supporters and various other underhanded activities.

This coup was not only a mistake, in my opinion, but a disgrace. Once the shah was in control of Iran, with American backing he set up the SAVAK, a secret police force that used torture, execution and imprisonment to terrorize the Iranians into subjugation.

The good news for Americans is that most Iranians seem willing to let the past lie. But, naturally, the current talk of a pre-emptive strike against Iran by Israel does not help matters.

And what about the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company? They survived the coup with flying colors and continue to enjoy bodacious profits even today. We know them as BP.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


The current leaders of the Republican pack -- Romney, Santorum and Gingrich -- represent the GOP’s three classic prototypes – the Corporate Moneybags, the Christian Jihadist and the Evil Genius. These three types have dominated national Republican politics for decades as evidenced, for example, by George H. W. Bush, Dan Quayle and Richard Nixon. Or John McCain (through marriage), Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney.

It’s actually a bit of a stretch to call Newt Gingrich a genius, but the evil part is self-evident. Dumping divorce papers on his first wife, while she lay in bed recovering from cancer surgery pretty much speaks for itself, as does having an adulterous affair behind his second wife’s back while attacking Clinton for his adulterous affairs. Then there’s the censure from Congress for ethical violations.

Think about that for a minute: Gingrich’s ethics did not even measure up to the minimal standards that Congress sets for itself. Yes, I’m talking about the same Congress that legalizes insider trading – but only for itself – and provides health and retirement benefits for itself that it routinely labels as “socialism” when granted to the rest of us mortals.

  Homo satanicus


Where Gingrich’s unspoken motto might be “Power! Must have power!” Santorum’s is more along the lines of “People who no stuff about evolution and global warming and things like that shood just shut up.”

But wait. I’m not sure that Santorum is simply dumb. After all, he earned a B.A. with honors in political science from Penn State and followed this up with an MBA and a law degree. (Hmm. I wonder why he called Obama a snob for promoting college education.) No, rather than raw stupidity, I believe Santorum is motivated by fear. In fact, where pride is the primary motivator of the GOP Evil Genius type, fear is the besetting sin of the Christian Jihadists. Santorum and his followers look at the world as a scary place, and they have an irresistible yearning for the kind of security that doesn’t exist in reality, but that a fanatic attachment to religious ideology can conjure up as an imaginary refuge.

Santorum’s followers want the world to consist of white people who go to church and who will someday go to heaven, except for the ones who enjoy sex or vote for Obama. Suddenly coming to mind as I write this is a hefty white woman from West Virginia who, during the 2008 election was asked by a reporter why she opposed Barack Obama. “I don't like the Hussein,” she began, “I’ve had enough of Hooosane!” - emphasizing this last word with a twangy self-assurance.

Her problems with Obama were that he was not a white guy and he had the same last name as a Third World tyrant that the U.S. had recently demolished. More than anything, she was afraid of people who were different from herself and her neighbors. This, I believe, is the foundation on which Dan Quayle, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum build their candidacies.

Homo ignoramus

Mitt Romney, like Gingrich, is driven largely by pride. (Of course all candidates, Republican and Democrat, are suffused with more than a daily recommended dosage of high self-regard. After all, how could a humble person aspire to be president?)

But where Gingrich’s pride is bursting with a deranged megalomania, Romney’s churns with a strong, insistent current of greed. Making lots and lots of money is what Romney’s life has been all about, and his “Make government smaller” position is code for “Don’t let those pesky regulations stop me from siphoning more money out of the middle class into my own bank accounts.” This, after all, was Bain Capital’s primary objective when Romney ran it.

Homo conglomocorpus

Romney with the ones he loves (which are being held by some people he knows)

In addition to these GOP types, of course, there is also Ron Paul, the only one among them who everyone knew from the start could never be president. GOP leaders reject him because they like our monstrous military budget and regard it as a source of strength. Of course, a quick look at history will remind anyone that America became really strong by NOT going to war in the 1930s when the other great powers were bankrupting themselves doing so. Score one for Ron Paul, when he points out that we don’t actually have to spend billions of dollars to station troops in, e.g., Germany.

But Paul is rejected by GOP leaders (and almost everyone else) because of his extreme views on economics. I’ve been looking for a neutral, university-based economist who accepts his rather nineteenth-century economic ideas (eliminate the Fed, go back to the gold standard), but so far I haven’t found any. The economists I have spoken to assure me that following Paul’s economic policies would plunge us into a depression worse than the one we experienced in the 1930s.

So, though I do wish political leaders, Democrat and Republican, would give his foreign policy ideas some consideration (without buying into them wholesale), I’m grateful that nobody believes in his economic plans. I will say for him that at least he is neither a phony nor a standard issue Republican. He’s just an honest but hopeless case. And I wouldn’t at all object to him mounting a third party candidacy…

Homo anachronus