Ft. Hood: We’ve Seen This Show Before

Is what happened at Ft. Hood a tragedy, madness, evil, carelessness? Can something be done, or are we doomed to endure one slaughter after another? One thing is certain, we don’t seem to know how to talk about these things, which is surprising since they are now commonplace features of American life.

On the radio a relieved woman said she was so happy that it hadn’t been bad. Then, catching herself sounding careless about three dead and 16 wounded, she said it was terrible, of course, but at least not as bad as the 2009 Ft. Hood mass murder – 13 dead, 30 wounded. She sounded too young to remember the Luby’s Cafeteria shooting in the same town in 1991, 23 dead, 50 wounded. If she had, she probably would have regarded the latest holocaust as no worse than a hangnail.

The mayor of Killeen said you could judge a place by how it dealt with adversity, but “adversity” seemed a tad too euphemistic for a fellow buying a gun where the last mass murderer had bought his gun and blazing away at his fellow soldiers and then killing himself. It would be interesting to ask the mayor why he thinks his town has so much adversity to deal with. Yes, these things can happen anywhere, but some places seem “adversity” prone.

There’s such a thing as Tornado Alley and it is less than surprising that ‘hoods that play host to gangs and their turf or drug wars have a higher body count than Darien, Connecticut or Salt Lake City. Are areas with a lot of military more likely to experience mass shootings or suicides? I wasn’t able to turn up useful statistics, in part because those available lump all military together including active duty, guard, and veterans.

How about Texas? It wouldn’t exactly astonish to learn that the home of chesty, cowboy, gun totin’ machismo was also disproportionately violent. In addition to Ft. Hood’s serial killings, there are the Texas Tower shootings, a presidential assassination and a vice president shooting an elderly lawyer to consider. But in fact the statistics show Texas to be in the middle as these things are counted. Rhode Island has half as many gun murders as Texas but places as diverse as Delaware, South Carolina and Hawaii have a higher incidence.

Soon it came out that the shooter had been a truck driver briefly in Iraq and was being treated for depression but had not yet been diagnosed with PTSD. Some idiot TV commentator implied Lopez would have been less guilty if he had been in actual combat or had a purple heart, but that a mere truck driver could hardly claim he was traumatized or under stress.

This is so wrong so many ways it is almost possible to respond. Just for starters, nobody – decorated hero or troubled loner — gets a pass for going on a murder-suicide spree. But as to the relative stress of combat and truck driving, it obviously depends on the person and how he reacts to stress, the combat and the truck driving.

In Iraq, beginning in 2003 the preferred targets were vehicles that could be destroyed using roadside IEDs. So every drive became a dance with death — 63 percent of military deaths and 66 percent of casualties in Iraq were due to IEDs. The NY Times called the first half of 2011, about the time the Ft. Hood shooter served, “the deadliest yet for IED attacks.” If being a truck driver there didn’t give you stress, what would?

Ultimately what was going on in Lopez’s head is unknowable. We must pity the poor deluded shooter and his poor hapless victims. But we do know a few things. The laws of the land allowed him easy access to the gun he used. Security on the base allowed him to get it in. The army’s mental health system failed to understand how dangerously troubled he was. A culture than glorifies violence and gunplay can hardly be let off the hook, either.

And what about our bad habit of asking young men and women to take part in wrongheaded wars we come to regret and would just as soon forget? As a result, we fail in our duty to bind up their wounds, as Lincoln said we surely must. A world of pain resides in this heartbreaking thought from the memoir of Irag war veteran Brian Turner, forced to conclude America “is not a large enough space to contain the war each soldier brings home. And even if it could — it doesn’t want to.”

So nothing will change. Nothing will be done to prevent the next catastrophe. There will be glib grief, a glib recital of all the issues for a week or two, televised last rites, interviews with experts, promises to do more and then business as usual. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Japan has 10 gun deaths a year, Australia has 30, the UK has 138, Canada 173, Texas alone 800 and the US as a whole in 2010, 8,306.

How could this happen? You know. We all know.

Doc, It Hurts When I Do This. Don’t Do That.

I had a doctor once who called me his favorite hypochondriac. That was okay, he smiled when he said it and was my favorite doctor. But other people have given me the same diagnosis, so I must seem like a hypochondriac.

I’ve never really agreed. Everyone worries about his health, I suppose. No one is really enthusiastic about disease and death. I just think I am better at worrying about it, or less reticent about admitting I do so.

I may also be better informed simply because when I run across an article about the latest flu or deadly outbreak traced back to poisoned pork or infected beef or mercury laden fish or e. Coli doused lettuce or hepatitis-spreading restaurants, I read it. Forewarned is forearmed, I figure.

In fact I’m baffled that a lot of people seem a little vague about their health and bodies. They don’t seem to know their knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone or the fact that the stuff they put in their mouths may have unfortunate effects on their heart or liver.

But I am not at the other extreme of people who can go on at length about ACLs and MCLs and Menisci, whatever they are. Or people who only put things in their mouths that didn’t have a mother and are beige.

Still, I’m willing to admit my eyes are attracted against their will to the latest report on how precarious life is and what god-awful pathogen is bearing down on me. But I don’t seek this stuff out; it seems to find me. For example, I was reading a recent copy of the “New Yorker” and hit an article about how the death certificate evolved. (Final Forms by Kathryn Schultz, April 7)

I probably should have quit right there, but it was interesting. First they just kept track of deaths by districts so you could avoid neighborhoods in the grip of epidemics. Then the count of deaths proved useful for actuarial purposes, but only belatedly did the record keepers get interested in the cause of death which proved useful in epidemiology.

See, it was just an amusing description of record keeping changes over time. Or was until I learned that a master list of possible causes or death began to be kept which has now grown to a staggering number, over 8,000. And here I’ve only been worrying about a dozen or two. So many diseases, so little time.

I seem to have begun early in failing to ignore the bad news I ran into. My mother loved to tell a story about when I was eight or nine and she took me to the doctor for the annual winter sore throat, what they then called tonsillitis. When we got in to see the doctor, he asked me what I had. I told him I was pretty sure I had leukemia since I had all the symptoms and therefore had only months to live.

Taken aback, he asked me how I’d reached that diagnosis. I told him that in the waiting room I had read the story in “Reader’s Digest” about the death of Red Skelton’s nine-year-old son of leukemia. The doctor then stood up, went to find the front desk lady and told her to gather up all magazines that weren’t “Highlights” and throw them out. Then he looked down my throat, told me I had inflamed tonsils and sent me home to gargle. I lived.

In fact I lived to hear my mother tell that story at my expense for another 20 or 30 years, but what’s a fellow to do? I didn’t stop paying attention to the world, and you really can’t help running into the latest terror tales of viruses and germs. But I contend that if I were a full blown hypochondriac I’d be rushing off to the doctor all the time.

But I don’t, possibly because half the medications they might prescribe seem to have side effects worse than the disease. And what with MRSA and all the other drug resistant germs now lying in wait at doctors’ offices it is safer to stay home and hermetically seal its doors and windows. And as for visiting a hospital, you might as well just go directly to the nearest charnel house.

Since I am getting older, I do see doctors occasionally about the normal miseries – knees, back, neck, skin worries caused by the sun exposure in an earlier century, GI worries caused by eating and drinking things everyday. But I just can’t stop. Eating and drinking things, that is. My hearing is fading a bit too. But luckily my mind is still…

What was I saying?

Oyez Oyez, The Supreme Lawgivers Have Spoken

Once again the Supreme Court has ruled and there is shock and awe. The latest “surprise” is that the Roberts Court has extended its campaign finance rulings to increase the ways in which money can buy elections. Since money is speech and speech is free, we have no choice but to be ruled by Oligarchs. Like in Russia. God Bless America.

Yet how can anyone be surprised? There is now a long list of cases in which Roberts’ Raiders have overturned, limited or ignored earlier precedents. Clearly this is not a conservative court since respect for precedent is the bedrock of conservative jurisprudence. All of the present conservative justices vowed a deep love for the principle when trying to get on the court, then promptly forgot all about it.

Thus, the Roberts Court has shredded precedent in a series of campaign finance cases, have overturned longstanding protections in voting rights cases, discrimination cases covering hiring, workplace rights and education, and made it harder for people to seek redress when wronged by government or corporations.

The reason most often given for dumping past precedent is “circumstances have changed.” Apparently in the America where the justices live, racial and gender discrimination is a thing of the past, corporations never misbehave, big money no longer tires to control elections or thwart the will of the people and all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Or will be when they get through returning us to the days of the McReynolds Court, or possible the Taney Court.

The Roberts Court has made a habit of doing what Scalia and other conservative icons have accused liberals of doing. It has made new law and ignored the intent of the Founders. In the campaign finance cases it has said you can only restrict campaign giving to prevent corruption and has defined corruption narrowly to mean only a quid pro quo. That is, a bribe. I give you money, you vote my way.

But there is no need for the transaction to be so crude. When the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson give millions for campaign media does anyone doubt the beneficiaries know what they are supposed to do in return? Lower taxes on the prosperous and lightly regulate casinos and polluting industries, for instance. At the minimum the dough earns the donors access to the donees. Good luck getting the same privileged treatment if you’re a regular American.

Prof. Lawrence Lessig filed an amicus brief in the most recent campaign finance case specifically refuting the historical justification for this narrow interpretation. He demonstrated that of 325 references to corruption by the Founders only six defined corruption so narrowly. More commonly corruption was taken to man “improper dependence” by public officials or office seekers on others – as in the cases above. Money perhaps should not be equated to speech, but it sure does talk. And pols listen.

No less a figure than James Madison, Father of the Constitution, said in Federalist 52 and 57 that at least one branch of the government, the legislature, was designed to be “dependent on the people alone” and not “the rich more than the poor.” Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Roberts and Kennedy must have missed class the day that was covered.

But parsing these endless Roberts’ revisions of constitutional precedent and history or debating political philosophy is pointless. The Court and its acolytes are not amenable to reason, legal or otherwise. They are the Supreme Law of the Land. Those terrified of what they will do next would do well to remember the valuable lesson taught by an earlier Supreme Court Justice, William Brennan.

Each term Brennan had a get-to-know-you meeting with that year’s crop of law clerks and asked them a simple question: “What is the most important principle of constitutional jurisprudence?“ And the eager beaver young lawyers competed to shine in the eyes of the great man. “Separation of powers?” “Judicial review?” “Stare decisis?” (That’s precedent, to you.)

To all of which Brennan would shake his head ‘no’ and then finally hold up one hand with the fingers spread. The only principle that really mattered, he said, was The Rule of Five. With five votes, you can do what you want on the court. Without five votes, you can’t do anything.

If you don’t like what this court is doing, the only thing you can do about it is elect presidents who will appoint judges who will rule otherwise. Which is why the rulings by the Roberts Court on campaign finance and voting rights are especially sinister. Their effect is to stack the deck so as to prevent the election of anyone who doesn’t share their views and agenda. Not exactly what Madison had in mind.