Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Cold Dead Hands

I got an unexpected piece of mail today. It was one of those envelopes that pretty obviously contains advertising while at the same time attempting to convey the message, "Treat me with respect, for behold: I contain something official and important." In large type above the address window was printed "Registered Documents Enclosed". In the upper left-hand corner there was the admonition, "ATTENTION: Carbon copies enclosed—Handle with care". Somehow the picture of a pocket knife with the legend "Free Knife!" seemed out of step with the otherwise serious-looking envelope. Looking carefully at the picture of the pocketknife, I noticed that it bore the logo of the National Rifle Association.

Yow, free stuff!

Now let me tell you something about me. I like shooting guns. I had a BB/pellet gun from the time I was around ten years old. I never missed out on the chance to go to the rifle range at Scout camp (yes, I was also a member of that organization). I spent my high school years in a rural area in Northern California, where guns, mainly rifles and shotguns for hunting, were pretty common. Some of my friends hunted with their fathers and owned firearms of their own. A couple had .22 rifles; one had a .22 magnum pistol that was a lot of fun to shoot; a couple had 12- or 20-gauge shotguns. A favorite pastime was to have a parent—yes, a parent—buy us a few boxes of shotgun shells and a box of clay pigeons, which we would take out to a flat, largely deserted area outside of town for some trap shooting using the shotguns that various friends owned.

Since my high school years I have rarely had the opportunity to do any shooting. The last time was probably a good 7–8 years ago when I was visiting my mother in a rural part of Texas and my stepfather brought out a .22 rifle and we went out and shot at a crude target we set up. I had forgotten how much fun that could be, but after we put the rifle away I didn't feel like I needed to go back out the next day and do it some more.

I've never owned a gun of my own, though I considered buying a shotgun of my own at one point in high school, so I wouldn't have to borrow someone else's gun to go trap shooting. But somehow I just found other ways to spend my somewhat limited money. I also never felt entirely comfortable with having a gun in the house, especially after an incident during my high school years in which a friend of mine accidentally discharged a rifle while unloading it and lightly injured a family member. This was a guy who had grown up around guns, and he was exercising due care, and yet this one time circumstances nonetheless conspired to remind us that these were dangerous weapons we were handling. Once I had kids of my own, the thought of having a gun in the house was entirely out of the question.

So why is the NRA looking to make me a member? Maybe it has something to do with the current push to tighten gun laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (and the Aurora theater massacre, and the Sikh temple shooting, and the Gabby Giffords Arizona shooting, and…). I'm sure they feel a need to mobilize and expand their forces. That's apparently why I "have been selected to represent gun owners in [my] area through this special survey". Said "survey" is one of those ridiculous pretend surveys that seem to be favored by right-wing organizations as part of their campaigns for donations and new members, in which you have a bunch of questions that are worded in such a way that it's pretty obvious how you are supposed to answer if you are not some kind of UN-loving commie scumbag. And, conveniently, there's a section at the bottom to fill out in order to become a member and claim that cool free pocketknife.

Remember your credit card number,
that's the part that matters.

I have no idea why the NRA is looking to me to join their ranks. Maybe everyone on the street got one, or maybe they got my name from the same mailing list that used to cause me to inexplicably receive invitations to $10,000-per-plate fundraising dinners for George W. Bush. (Fun fact: I have actually been to NRA headquarters. It's in an innocuous-looking building in an office park in Fairfax, VA. Were it not for the gun museum on the ground floor, you would not know that you were standing on hallowed, Second Amendment-guaranteed ground. I wasn't there for the NRA; I was visiting a consulting client who, it turned out, also happened to be in the same building.) 

I'm really not the right guy to recruit for the NRA, though. I did say I like guns. I don't worship them, though, and I don't understand people who do. After the horrific mass murder of twenty small children, after all the mass shootings that preceded it, and in view of the general background of gun violence in this country, I don't see how any sane person can say that there should be no limits on gun ownership rights. And yes, I am familiar with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. It states, "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." We get to have guns, but we get to have them in the context of "a well regulated militia". Ooh, there it is—that "R" word that gets NRA types so riled up.

Having read up a little (and I emphasize a little) on the history of the Second Amendment, I accept that at least some members of the Congress that produced it, as part of a process of debate and ultimate compromise, did think that those arms in the hands of the people were there as a check on the power of some hypothetical future tyrant. And I disagree with those who say that the prevalent weapon of the times was the muzzle-loading black-powder musket, so that's what the Second Amendment allows us to have today; we regularly interpret the US Constitution to apply the probable intent of its authors to technologies such as modern telecommunications that they could never have imagined. 

But let's be real. The US military has assault rifles, just like the "patriots" running around Montana in their camouflage fatigues. It also has a fair number of machine guns, mortars, grenades, rockets, artillery, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, attack helicopters and all manner of other assorted hardware that the camo crowd doesn't. Its members, insofar as they are not currently engaged in actual combat duty, train day after day after day in the use of all that stuff. The notion that some rag-tag guerrilla army of citizens armed with their Bushmaster rifles is going to somehow take to the hills and overthrow some future rogue government is just a childish Hollywood fantasy that is happily instrumentalized by the arms industry and their mouthpiece, the NRA. The NRA, whose letter that accompanies all of the aforementioned material begins like this:

Dear Mr. --------------

With the re-election of President Barack Obama, we must face the fact that we are at the beginning of a four-year nightmare.

You know as well as I do that our freedoms are in far greater danger of being dismantled and destroyed than they were four years ago—not just our Second Amendment rights but all the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution.

The full weight of freedom's future is now on our shoulders…

And so on in the same vein. The letter goes on enumerate all the ways the NRA will fight for me. They will fight in Congress, they will fight Supreme Court nominees who don't share our interpretation of the Second Amendment, they will "fight to ban the U.N. from using even one thin dime of [my] tax dollars for their global gun-ban crusade." They will fight a bunch of other stuff as well, and all I have to do is send them twenty-five bucks. Such a deal! That's a lot of fighting for a paltry $25.

Actually, there's a bunch of other stuff I'd like them to fight for me. I'd like them to start with the Tiahrt Amendments, which prohibit the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Explosives and Firearms from releasing data about the use of firearms in crimes and hinder law enforcement in various other ways. Oh wait, the NRA supports that, so never mind. Or how about if the NRA were to fight its own highly effective lobbying in Congress to prevent the Centers for Disease Control from studying the effects of guns and gun policies on firearms-related injuries and deaths? Not going to happen, I guess. The NRA wants to protect me by making sure that practically everyone has a gun, but they don't want to protect me from the downside of making sure that practically everyone has a gun, and they want to make it really hard for me to research what that downside might even be. Maybe that's partly why gun violence is listed as one of the factors that helps to keep my life expectancy among the lowest in any industrialized country.

I don't need to cite all the statistics about how severe gun violence is in the US compared to any other modern industrialized country. You've seen those before. You know there's a huge problem, even if you don't want to admit it. You may not agree with me on the solution. But I hope you agree that to shrug and move on is not the solution.

The NRA and its adherents insist that the solution to the problem of guns in the hands of bad people is to put more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens. Put guns in schools, guns in churches, guns in offices, guns in homes, guns everywhere, the theory being that if I have a chance to fight back I have a better chance of escaping with my life when some crazed gunman, or just a garden-variety criminal, points his weapon at me. In principle that sounds logical. In practice I'm not so sure. If I'm carrying a gun, it's probably going to be a handgun; I'm not likely to go everywhere with my trusty rifle slung over my shoulder; that's just a little too cumbersome. I will have to keep that handgun on me and easily accessible at all times, though. And have you ever fired a handgun? I have. Not many, but a few. And I can tell you that it's harder than it looks to hit what you're aiming at. So I guess I'll have to spend a lot of my limited leisure time practicing at the shooting range.

Now, add the adrenalin of an actual life-or-death situation; even with practice, I'm not a trained marksman, and I'm certainly not accustomed to armed combat. What's going to happen when the you-know-what actually does hit the fan? As I contemplate that I think about the recent incident in which a guy took out a gun outside the Empire State Building, fatally shot a co-worker and then carried out a gunfight with two police officers. The police killed the guy; in the process they also wounded nine bystanders who had the bad luck to have been there at the time, and I assume those policemen train regularly with their weapons. But what if instead of two policemen it had been two random citizens blasting away at the gunman—the NRA scenario? I suspect that the collateral damage might have been a lot more than nine bystanders wounded. To spin it a little further, what if other bystanders had been armed, and in the sudden confusion didn't know why those two guys were firing in their direction and decided to return fire? This kind of scenario is why I'm not so convinced that all of us running around like it's Dodge City in 1875 is such a brilliant idea.

Consider also what happens to guns that are kept in homes for "protection". I absolutely understand the impulse to want to protect oneself, one's loved ones, one's property from evildoers. That's not how it works out a lot of the time. I already mentioned the NRA's attempt to squelch research into gun violence; apparently that's partly the result of a study by Art Kellermann of Emory University that found that guns were 43 times more likely to kill a member of the gun owner's household than to kill an intruder.

So what's the solution? Maybe first we should agree what the problem is. The general problem is a country awash in guns, in which gun violence is far more prevalent than in any of the other modern nations we would view as our peers (okay, I know that we are better than every other country and therefore have no peers as such, but humor me). The more acute problem is that of mass killings perpetrated by deranged individuals wielding weapons that give them massive firepower. Where do we start?

Maybe we could start by taking some of those guns off the street, and making sure that way fewer of them even make it to the street. Institute a real ban on high-powered weapons and high-capacity magazines, and not one like the earlier so-called "assault weapons ban" that was so full of loopholes that it still enabled guns like the one used at Sandy Hook to be bought and sold perfectly legally. Make it illegal for anyone but a licensed gun dealer to sell a gun, the one exception being that a private citizen may sell a gun to a licensed gun dealer (but not to another private citizen), and register every sale; have ATF audit the books of the dealers to identify any possible funny business, and let the dealers pay for that through their license fees. Prohibit gun dealers from selling any weapon or magazine that falls under the new ban; have the federal government purchase those items at the dealer's cost and destroy them. To pay for that, tax gun and ammunition sales, and by more than just a token amount—gun-related violence creates huge costs to us as a society, so let people who want to own guns bear some of that cost. Make all of the restrictions on gun sales apply to gun shows just as to gun stores. Prohibit all sales of firearms, accessories and ammunition over the Internet or through the mail. Require all gun owners to carry liability insurance, just like we require car owners to do; hold them civilly and criminally liable if a gun they purchased is used in a crime.

At the same time we need to better manage who gets to buy guns. Above all, we need to eliminate the many holes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) that is the basis for those background checks. Even John McCain, no bleeding-heart liberal he, was for that once upon a time. We also need to better ensure that people whose mental state should prevent them from ever owning a gun end up in NICS as quickly as possible. Currently, if I tell my therapist that I'm angry at the world and I'm going to get a gun and shoot as many people as I can, the shrink has no obligation to tell law enforcement about that—that should change. I know the argument is that breaching doctor-patient confidentiality in this way will make some people less likely to seek help for mental problems, but if you can make a professional judgment that someone is a danger to himself and others and should not have easy access to weapons, shouldn't the obligation to tell someone about that trump the confidentiality argument? According to the widow of a victim of the Aurora theater shooting, that answer would be "yes"—I will be interested to see where her wrongful death lawsuit against a psychiatrist who treated James Holmes goes. Maybe instead of trying to keep that important information from finding its way into NICS, we should be working to destigmatize mental health issues.

Finally, we need to do something about the culture of violence that permeates our society. I will confess up front that I have no idea how to do that. Maybe it's simply not possible to remove the archetype of the crusader who takes the law into his own hands, visiting righteous violence upon the bad guys, from our national psyche. That's been there for generations, but somehow something has changed; I know that back in the mid- to late seventies, when my friends and I were running around with guns as an instrument of leisure entertainment, the thought of taking them to school to seek vengeance for real or imagined slights would have been utterly inconceivable to us. Nowadays when I sit in front of my TV and a promo for the new Schwarzenegger film comes on,  much of it seems to be about the arsenal of weapons that he will employ over the course of ninety minutes or so, and I am mindful of the fact that these films, these TV shows, these video games in which the guns themselves are practically supporting characters… they generally come with "Made in USA" stamped on them. If I watch a detective show from, say, Belgium, or Australia, or Japan, at the end the hero will outwit the villain; in the American show the hero will as likely as not outshoot the villain. I'm not saying there's causality between violent media products and violent acts, but it's hard for me not to conclude that there's at least some correlation there.

Vice President Biden this week presented the findings of his gun violence task force to the President, who will be announcing some sort of policy initiative based on that. I hope that there will be some real effort to do something meaningful as part of that, and not just a lot of watered-down symbolism. And I hope that responsible gun enthusiasts will find something in there that they can also support. I am hoping that the nuts who spout that nonsense about giving up their gun "when they pry it from my cold dead hands" will get shouted down for a change. There have been plenty of cold dead hands already.

Friday, January 4, 2013

What Was, What Is, What Will Be—Part Two

I promised this story would be continued whenever I got around to it, so now I'm getting around to it. I know that you've been waiting in suspense to hear how it continues. Recall that when we left off, my job had just been saved by the appearance of a benefactor from the Far East, who had founded a new company, Phoenix, from the ashes of XYZ Corp. 

The initial period right after the creation of the new company was one of improvisation, because there were no physical facilities as such. Phoenix rented a couple of offices in one of those places that rents out temporary office space, and into that were crammed a few desks and some file servers and networking equipment. Most of us either worked remotely from home or at a client site.

Right before XYZ Corp. finally threw in the towel, I had been staffed on a project to redesign the Internet presence for a large regional bank. I was taking over the security design part of the project from a colleague of mine, a competent member of our information security group at XYZ, but a guy who was also a little over-intense in his devotion to the principles of what we in the business affectionately refer to as "infosec", and generally kind of an oddball; the kind of person who presents a happy, friendly facade but who simultaneously gives off a vibe of having  something dark and troubling bubbling away under the surface. At some point he mentioned to me that he took regular medication for chronic depression; I don't know why he felt like sharing this with me and it wasn't something I necessarily wanted to know anyway, but it did explain some things.

But as the uncertainty created by XYZ's slow death spiral mounted, it turned out that my colleague was having marital problems at the same time, and I guess the situation got to be too much for him at some point. He began skipping meetings and ignoring deadlines for the one project he still had—the aforementioned bank project—and ultimately stopped showing up for work at all. I was given the task of taking over his role and cleaning up the mess that he had left with what was now going to be my client. I hate taking on those kinds of assignments, since starting out a consulting assignment with an already irate client is generally somewhat less than amusing. But hey, this was no time to be picky about work assignments.

There was another complicating factor in all this as well. The bank we were working for had also been an investor in XYZ. Not a major investor, but the sum of money that their CEO had committed with great fanfare as part of a "strategic partnership" wasn't trivial, either. That commitment was not without controversy, coming at a time when XYZ was already on the ropes, and Mr. CEO was left with a fair amount of egg on his face when XYZ gave up the ghost just three months later. Word was that he was not terribly happy about this.

So I knew that the meetings I had scheduled for my first on-site visit on a Tuesday morning in early September of 2001 were going to be somewhat challenging, happening as they were under the double shadow of both the overall flame-out of XYZ and the acute mess that had been left by my now ex-colleague. The office I needed to visit was just over the border in a neighboring state, about an hour and a half away. I arranged to get a ride with another of my colleagues who was working with the client. It was a beautiful fall morning as we drove down there.

It was about 9 AM when we got into the building in which we were supposed to meet our other colleagues. I went to find the guy from Phoenix who was in charge of our group to ask where to park myself until my first meeting. He was on the phone with someone, talking in kind of an agitated way and saying things like, "a plane?" Another colleague turned to me to say that apparently an airplane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center Towers in New York.

I had been to the top floors of one of the towers a couple of times for business meetings and I remember watching the traffic of small planes and helicopters flying up and down the Hudson River and thinking how weird it was to be so high up in a building that I was actually looking down at air traffic going by. So when I heard that a plane had hit one, I assumed it must be an accident, that a small plane had somehow veered off course and into one of the towers. But when I finally got online a few minutes later and went to the CNN web site to get some details, I saw a picture of a gash across most of the front of the building that didn't look like it was made by a little four-seater Cessna. About the same time, the same colleague who earlier told me about the plane hitting one tower announced to whomever happened to be listening that another plane had just crashed into the other tower. I remember at that point just sitting down in a state of slack-jawed disbelief, with the feeling of all my blood rushing to my head, and thinking: This is Pearl Harbor. 

Somewhere in the midst of all this it was also announced that we all needed to attend a very important meeting at 10 AM with the client's management team. We spent the time until then doing the same thing as everyone else around us, i.e., scouring news web sites to try to find out what was going on. Somewhere in there it was reported that a plane had now crashed into the Pentagon as well. A little before 10 we all trooped off to our client meeting.

As the meeting was getting started, someone stuck his head in the room and announced that one of the WTC towers had collapsed. The meeting itself was a relatively short one. The gist of it was that the bank had had a relationship with XYZ Corp., and XYZ was no more. Nobody in the bank knew anything about this company "Phoenix", and certainly nobody from the bank had asked anyone from this unknown company to come on site, ergo our group had no reason to be there and we were to vacate the premises immediately. On the way out of the meeting room I paused to take in some news updates on one of the TV sets that had now been set up in various places in the office and learned that the other WTC tower had also just collapsed.

Ultimately, the work would resume, since Phoenix had in fact legally taken ownership of all of XYZ's client relationships and contracts, and the project would be brought to a successful conclusion. But for now, we just had to pack up and clear out. The immediate problem I had was that I had gotten a ride there with my one colleague, who had disappeared pretty much right after we arrived, and I hadn't seen him since, nor was he answering his cell phone. So I ended up sitting on a bench outside the office building for the next couple of hours until he eventually turned up and we drove home listening to the radio and trying to make sense of the events of the morning.

I arrived home to begin what would be days of shock, confusion, speculation, rumor-mongering and marathon CNN viewing. The sudden and unexpected demise of the bank project left me without much to do, but nobody was really doing much work anyway in those first few days after the attacks. A lot of people from our office had been traveling to client sites all over the country and were now stranded as a result of air traffic being suspended for the next several days, so the focus of company management was mainly on how to get everyone back home somehow.

That first week or so after the attacks was a very strange interlude. What I remember most of all was that it was just very quietAir traffic had come to a standstill, and so the accustomed periodic sound of planes heading to or from Boston Logan Airport, which is around 10–15 miles from my house, was strangely absent. Traffic of other kinds was also pretty low-key. Everyone was in a state of shock, wandering around in stunned silence, infused with a sort of undifferentiated dread about what might happen next. There was mass paranoia about vague, unconfirmed reports of plots to poison reservoirs or spray nerve gas over population centers from crop-dusting planes. The general mood was that we were all just waiting for the other shoe to drop, with no real idea about when or where or how that might happen.

The silence was initially broken for me by groups of people standing on various street corners around town waving signs that said things like, "Honk if you love America!" and cars honking back in response. I sort of understood the thinking and sort of didn't. Was this  the best we could come up with in the way of a response?

I of course wondered what this meant for me personally. Were we going to war? If so, with whom? If we've just relived Pearl Harbor, is the right thing to do to enlist in some branch of the military? That latter thought came and went quickly, considering that at that point I was already 40 years old, but it was there nonetheless. If I'm a citizen of this country, and this country is under attack, am I not obligated to do my part in some active way?

What I did expect to happen was to see my taxes raised to pay for whatever response was going to be undertaken. I hardly consider myself to be a hawk with regard to military matters, but I fully expected that part of the response to this event was going to be to rain down death and destruction on its authors, and I did not have a problem with that. And I emphasize: part of the response—more on that later. But I assumed that I and everyone else would  be asked to sacrifice in one way or another in order to support what was going to come next. 

Remember, this was only a couple of years after Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation", had been published. You may not have read the book, but at the time, all the media coverage would have ensured that you nonetheless would have been familiar with its theme: a celebration of the generation that endured the hardships of the Great Depression and then went on to endure the additional hardships of fighting and winning World War Two, a time in which every citizen was called upon to live with rationing of food and strategic materials, to scrimp and save and recycle, to pay his income taxes and the special Victory Tax and buy War Bonds to help finance the war effort, to supplement the food supply by planting victory gardens, and so on.

Donald Did His Part

I was of course asked to do no such thing. On the contrary, my president told me to go out and spend. He wanted me to "[g]et on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed." Instead of asking me to chip in a few bucks more to help fund the war in Afghanistan, and the one he had just started in Iraq, in 2003 he actually cut my taxes. My president didn't want me to sacrifice a thing. On the contrary, he wanted me to live my life as if absolutely nothing had changed. I know I'm not the first to make this point, but that doesn't make it any less valid: what a missed opportunity. In the wake of 9/11, Americans were ready to do whatever needed to be done, to contribute and to sacrifice whatever it would take to ensure such a thing would not go unanswered. But the leaders of our country just said, "Thanks all the same, but that really won't be necessary. Maybe you should take a nice vacation instead."

The other missed opportunity: the chance for maybe fifteen minutes of introspection. I in no way wish to excuse or apologize for the cold-blooded murder of thousands of people in the service of a political cause infused with a heavy dose of religious extremism. But when the president of the USA boiled the genesis of this event down to this: "Americans are asking 'Why do they hate us?'… They hate our freedoms.", he hardly did the citizens of his country a service. Sure, I  realize that from a rhetorical standpoint, a speech given a week and a half after the event was probably not the right time to say, "guys, maybe some part of this was our own fault." But there could have been a policy response that at least implicitly recognized this principle. We could have asked ourselves what these guys were so angry about that they would do such a thing, and whether we should at least consider what implications that might hold for how we comport ourselves. What did we get instead? A misguided effort to try and reshape the Middle East by force, framed in idealistic language but smelling suspiciously of an obsession with settling old scores, executed in breathtaking ignorance of the history and the political and ethnic dynamics of the region and leaving a legacy that I suspect we will all still be chewing on for many years to come.

More than a decade later, I'm reminded of all this more often than I would like to be. For the last nine months or so, every two to three weeks I find myself in the offices of a current client in Jersey City, NJ, which are situated right on the banks of the Hudson River, directly across the river from the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. Right outside the building is a monument consisting of a twisted hunk of steel from one of the World Trade Center towers. In the background, across the Hudson, I see the slowly rising frame of the new Freedom Tower, which in the course of various visits to NYC over the years I have watched grow from a muddy hole in the ground to its present state, in which it appears to have reached something approaching its planned final height of 1,776 feet. I think about the horrible spectacle for which the people in that building must have had a front-row seat on that day some eleven-plus years ago. I wonder what it will be like, when that new building has itself been standing complete for a decade or more, to convey to the generation looking up at it what it was like on that day in September of 2001.

What Was, What Is, What Will Be
So now I've veered way off course from my original story about how I found an old newspaper and what I found in it. I guess I'll tell you about that some other time.