Monday, January 10, 2011

Slouching from Tucson

I’m thinking I can no longer call myself a liberal, or progressive. Perhaps I never was, anyway. Liberals tend to believe that people can learn to live peacefully with one another. They believe the human race can make progress towards justice and equality. They think we can learn from our mistakes.

I used to think that way, even as late as 2008, maybe 2009. Not any more.

It’s not the madman’s mayhem in Tucson that brings me to this conclusion. Whether—and to what extent--that sick individual was influenced by the rabid right into attempting to murder Democratic Rep. Gabriel Gifford is something we’ll find out in time. Certainly, the American culture of violence was culpable.

No, what gets me is the hope that liberals profess that maybe this time, we’ll all change for the better, we’ll all put the muffler on runaway rhetoric, we’ll get Congress and state legislatures to pass rational gun control.

Don’t hold your breath.

We live in a plutocracy now, a country where money doesn’t merely talk, but swears (my apologies to Dylan). And those with money are telling us to go fuck ourselves, because nothing’s going to change.

Sure it’s a damn shame that Jared Lee Loughner, by all accounts so psychotic that he scared the bejesus out of his teachers and fellow students, was able to buy a Glock and kill six people, including a nine-year old girl. But as the NRA says, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. He could just as easily have beheaded all those people, and diced up a bag of carrots to boot, with a sharp samurai sword. He could have converted an old hash pipe into a blow gun and strafed them with curare-tipped darts. He could have strapped dynamite around his body and…nah, that’s not the American way.

And as for any other means of killing people, not very likely either. Nothing kills like a high-capacity 33-round hand gun. Unless, maybe, it’s an AK-47.

A sensible thing to do would be to ban assault weapons. Another sensible thing would be to require background checks at gun shows. But none of these proposals will get through any state or federal legislative body because the NRA opposes them. The NRA cites the Second Amendment, but really, it’s policies are based on unfettered free enterprise. Any law that hinders the purchase of firearms cuts down on the profits of gun manufacturers and dealers. That’s what it’s all about, making another buck, or another billion.

Far more people have been killed in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but then, there’s been far more money to be made by the American war industry. After all, we gotta keep the economy rolling.

I have a fantasy—and just an abstract fantasy, please—that some day, some guy who’s hearing voices coming through the fillings in his teeth will start firing a gun-show-bought semi-automatic weapon at someone like this guy:

Nice, friendly looking fellow, isn’t he? His name is Ron Schmeits and he’s a small-town banker in New Mexico. Was a mayor of a small town in Minnesota years ago. Today, he’s the president of the NRA. Not quite as studly as Charlton Heston, but just as gun crazy. Just like the premature death of anyone, it would be a shame if someone capped him…but also, deliciously ironic.

By the way, most of the political leaders assassinated in the past 50 years have been Democrats.

So short of evening the score, what can we do? First, recognize that this kind of tragedy is just a more dramatic rendition of the collateral damage wreaked daily by our economic system and the vast inequality of wealth and income in our country. Death just is another externalized cost of doing business in the U.S. The solution isn’t state socialism, but simply the kind of strong regulation found in Europe and most of the rest of the developed world.

Second, people have to put their lives on the line. That means way, way more than starting a Facebook issue page and getting a million people to put some slogan in their status update. Even more than volunteering at the food co-op or homeless shelter, as worthy as those deeds are.

No, it will take active resistance and pro-active organizing. Massing thousands of people at the next NRA convention, for a start. Or organizing a boycott of companies that contribute to the NRA. Perhaps moling inside a large nefarious organization or corporation and causing all sorts of havoc. I don’t think it requires violence, but it does require personal risk.

And that’s the catch. Even as we get picked off one-by-one by the economy, by the housing crisis, by unaffordable health care, by hazardous working conditions, by deadly pharmaceuticals, by random gunfire, we remain all too comfortable, so long as we have our I-Diversions. In a few days, we’ll still be talking about the Auburn-Oregon football game and barely remember who Gabriel Giffords is.

I have to admit, I’m pretty comfortable, too. I haven’t found a cause that I would die for. But if the right cause came along under the right circumstances, I might kill for one.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dead Men Don't Wear Birkenstocks

As you may have noticed, people in Portland live a little differently than people elsewhere. They die a little differently, too.

One annual piece of good news for our fair city is that not that many people are murdered in Portland. Last year, there were 29 homicides, up from 21 the year before. Still well below the rate of most major U.S. cities.

If you want to live more dangerously, move to New Orleans, which has a murder rate of 52 per 100,000 residents. Portland’s rate is just a tenth of that. Other high-murder cities include Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore and Chicago. These cities average more murders per month than Portland has in an entire year.

Now for the less rosy picture: in 2010, 13% of Portland’s homicides were committed by our police force—and that figure goes up to 22% of the African-Americans killed. Nothing surprising there. We all know that Portland cops have a penchant for shooting people, especially black people. Or mentally disturbed people. They’ll shoot your in your car, they’ll shoot you where you live, they’ll shoot you on the street or when you are in the park.

Best thing to do is avoid the police, because they’ve been getting away with murder for decades and nobody at City Hall has the brains or guts to do something about it.

Nevertheless, in Portland, you have a .00005% chance of getting murdered. About the same as winning at Powerball.

If, however, you want to reduce those odds even further, there are several things that could work in your favor (other than being polite to the police).

  1. Take your meds and don’t hang around people who won’t take theirs. Two of the people shot be the cops were, according to witnesses, behaving in a mentally unstable manner and four other victims were killed by mentally disturbed assailants.
  2. Be white. Forty percent of the homicides were committed against people of color, usually by people of color (except for those shot by cops).
  3. Learn knife defenses, which are taught in many martial arts schools and self-defense classes. Seven victims—about a quarter of the total—died from knife wounds. Portland’s rate is far higher than the national average of 14%. On the other hand, just over half of Portland’s murders were committed by firearms, while the national average is 70%.
  4. If you are a woman, don’t get involved with an angry, obsessive or jealous man—and if you do and want to leave him, you may want to spike his cocktails with a few drops of methyl alcohol. The reason for this precaution is that of the seven women murdered last year, five were killed by their husbands or boyfriends (two after they had become estranged).

This last factoid is a recurring nightmare, worse even than cops killing black folks. In previous years, the number of women murdered by crazed ex-boyfriends or husbands has approached massacre levels. I can only guess at why it happens so much. Some men have a “master” complex and when a man sees his slave leave him, his ego is humbled. He can’t let it go and get on with his life, because a big part of his life is mastery over another human being. So he tries to bring her back home. And if that fails, he kills her.

Restraining orders are futile against crazy men. I propose a law that says that whenever a woman takes out a restraining order against a man, the man has to wear a GPS bracelet for a sufficient period of time, which would allow the police to make sure the ex is not getting too close to the object of his desire, or if he is, to warn her.

Either that, or methyl alcohol (methanol). If administered in just the right amount (about 10 mL), it will lead to blindness, but not kill him.