And In Color

Many people reading this are likely too young to have ever heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak live. I was just a kid and kind of blew it off while playing with my toy trucks or what have you, but, yes, I distinctly remember hearing Dr. King when he was living. Growing up, I became used to the nightly casualty reports from Vietnam—a grisly and horrific death count that dwarfs anything you folks may have heard from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. As a child, I just assumed that’s the way the world was. Each and every day, for most of my childhood, these reports came in enumerating teenage boys killed over in southeast Asia every single day. And I thought nothing of it. I mean, that’s just the way things were. If 45 teenage boys were shot dead in Los Angeles in a single day, that would be all any of us would be talking about. But, in 1968, it was commonplace. We lost 16,592 American soldiers that year, an average of 45 per day. And that's how it was: 45 teenage boys were shot to death today in Vietnam, and now a word from Frosted Flakes.

Political assassinations were also commonplace and, to a child who didn’t know any better, were just the way of the world. Oswald in the book depository, James Earl Ray in the rooming house, Sirhan Sirhan in the hotel kitchen—this stuff just kind of bounced around the atmosphere as the world moved on. 1968 was a dangerous, violent year, with riots following Dr. King’s assassination, at the Democratic convention, over the war. Depending on your age or point of view, the political assassinations of the 1960’s were either the coordinated efforts of an elite death squad originally developed by President Eisenhower to take down Fidel Castro but ultimately used to protect multi-billion dollar corporate interests in the Vietnam war machine—the opposition to which is the common denominator between JFK, Malcolm X, King and Bobby Kennedy—or, the assassinations were exactly what they appeared to be: random acts of violence by unhinged nuts. It was the way we settled our differences in the 60’s, the way we resolved conflicts. The conspiracy theorists’ meat and potatoes hang on actuarials such as the single bullet fired from way across the road, severing MLK’s spinal cord at the brain stem. This was a logic-defying statistical improbability requiring James Earl Ray, a nonviolent burglar with no combat weapons training, to somehow know King would be staying at the hotel across from his rooming house and to strike with expert marksmanship precision. The lone nut theory also requires us to believe the police and FBI, stationed in a fire house mere feet—feet—away from Ray, never canvassed the area and had no one on patrol scanning open windows across from the hotel—routine precautions when protecting a public figure so hated, with so many death threats leveled against him.

But folks who lived through those violent times understood, instinctively, how utterly loathed King (and, for that matter, the Kennedys) were, specifically by gun-toting right-wing extremists—the same types of people marching around with placards of President Obama painted up like The Joker and who bring assault weapons to political rallies. 1968 was a dangerous year in a series of very dangerous years. Death squad conspiracies are the comfort of liberals who over-think everything. Red meat conservatives intrinsically understand Oswald in the book depository or Jared Loughner at the Safeway last week. Lone nuts do exist, and they tend to internalize the partisan bickering and violent rhetoric most normal people dismiss as the currency of partisan politics. Unhinged persons have difficulty separating rhetoric like Sarah Palin’s gunsight map from literal violence. Without dismissing Oliver Stone’s well-reasoned and likely conspiracy theories, I have to give equal weight to the likelihood the political assassinations of the 60’s were exactly what they appeared to be: the actions of unhinged individuals. In the case of Malcolm X and Dr. King, I presume it likely the FBI and local police likely didn’t do enough to protect these men, but that’s a long toss away from suggesting they actually assisted in those murders.

Rat A Tat Tat

Why Legislation Doesn't Work

I remember, distinctly, the very moment I realized I no longer lived in New York City. I was shopping at a Longs Drugs store here in Colorado, picking up, I don’t know, some aspirin and a pint of Moose Tracks, when I came across a glass case filled with toy guns. I used to collect pistol replicas and was excited to find a store that still carried them—good ones, too. They looked pretty real. Which was when I realized—they were real. Real guns. For sale down the aisle from picture frames and laundry detergent. Welcome to Colorado. I don’t own a gun. I haven’t felt it necessary to own one, at least not since moving here. I know a lot of people who do own guns, owning a gun is pretty simple to do in Colorado. I don’t know anyone, anyone at all, whose gun has even once been useful to them in any practical way. They love to show me their guns. They love to carry their guns—conceal permit or not. But never once has a friend told me a story in which their gun actually helped prevent some tragedy or serve any positive purpose other than cracking open walnuts with the pistol grip.

There’s been a lot of talk, all week, about guns. About banning guns or invading our privacy even more with ever more invasive exams before a citizen can own a gun. And of course there’s been all this talk about loners with websites. Gee, thanks a lot. I think the political hay being made out of the tragedy in Tucson is disgraceful, pundits on the left and the right lighting up the night, exploiting the awfulness to sell commercial air time. At the end of the day, this is what we’ve got: a free society. In a free society, there will be people we disagree with. There will be sick people—physically and, sadly, mentally. Legislating against objects, against guns, is perhaps the least enlightened way to deal with the fact that unhinged folk are indeed among us. Blaming this guy’s gun or the size of the clip or, I don’t know, the color of his holster, is ridiculous. It was a tragedy. If the guy didn’t have a gun, maybe he’d have a bomb. If he didn’t have a bomb, maybe he’d have a flock of killer pigeons or a vial of Polio virus or what have you. It wasn’t the gun. It was the guy. And the truth is, we can legislate all day, turn America into a fascist state, and there’ll still be sick people among us who will find a way to create tragic circumstances.

I don’t own a gun. I don’t particularly want or need to own a gun. And I accept the fact that part of the cost of our freedom, of living in a free society, is the real risk that I might be harmed or killed or otherwise suffer because we don’t monitor every move that every person makes. The truth is, even if we did, sick people, like the guy in Tucson or, for that matter, the guy in Memphis 43 years ago, would still find a way.

It's All About Her

Sarah Palin Plays Politics With Murder

Professional political barfly Sarah Palin released a video last week deliberately timed to contrast with President Barack Obama's eloquent, graceful and conciliatory speech at the Tucson memorial service for the dead and wounded in last week's massacre. Palin reaps political benefit from being compared to or contrasted with Obama, as though she is his political or intellectual equal. In stark contrast to Obama's inclusive and comforting speech, Palin appeared disgusted and defensive. Obama's speech was about all of America—conservatives and liberals, all races, all creeds, all of us. Palin's' speech was about Palin. It was narrow, rigid, and eloquent enough to have obviously been written for her. Obama seemed like Obama. Palin seemed a lot like Senator John McCain—cranky and off the mark. Her timing in releasing her video could not possibly be worse or place her in a worse light. Her defensive sputtering (including a puzzling invocation of the term "blood libel," which denotes slurs used against Jews in World War II) was ludicrous and banal. It was all about her. And nowhere in the speech did she apologize for her poor judgment in having posted, for the past year or longer, a map of the United States with gunsight crosshairs over congressional districts—including the one in Tucson. It is criticism of her poor judgment, of her constant use of violent rhetoric, "We don't retreat, we reload!" that has put Palin on the defensive. I don't claim to know her or understand her motives for doing anything beyond getting rich off of ignorant white housewives. I have no earthly clue why she didn't take this opportunity to bring the nation together instead of choosing to continue to polarize it. A simple, "I'm sorry. I used poor judgment," would have rocketed her in the polls I'm sure she tracks relentlessly. She chose, instead, to be shallow, mercurial and ridiculous.

Here's what I do know: when I hear people stammering on defensively, it marks them as immature and ultimately irresponsible. Saying, "I'm Sorry," costs you absolutely nothing. It doesn't affect your credit rating. It has no impact on your IQ or raise your blood pressure. Why so many people I know simply cannot bring themselves to say those two words is one of those major mysteries for me. A simple apology short-circuits all drama. The person still holding the grudge once an apology has been offered is the jerk. Sarah Palin taking a defensive political stance at a time of national public mourning exposes her for who she actually is: an utterly soulless, shell of a woman who's built a political career out of exploiting ignorance—hers and ours. I remember the gasps throughout the liberal blogosphere way back in February of 2009 when President Obama shrugged and said, "I screwed up." It was the shot heard 'round the world. Leaders, I suppose, aren't supposed to admit errors in judgment. But God's grace, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is predicated as much upon our own humility as anything else. Mrs. Palin's arrogance makes a lie of her claims to be led of Christ and exposes her for the ridiculous political dilettante she is. And yet, housewives—in large measure, white, middle class, suburban soccer moms—will still line up to try and put this ridiculous person in the White House. And they just might succeed. Because, from all evidence, the dumber and more ignorant a candidate is, the better they do in national contests. The American public, myself included, are just that gullible, just that polarized, making world-changing choices based on slogans and sound bites and, yes, skin color. And nonsense like this, this ridiculous woman exploiting a terrible tragedy for political gain.

Christopher J. Priest
16 January 2011

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