Oh, God, please leave us something to breathe!

3 12 2014

h/t Carmiah Townes, Think Progress





Does your conscience bother you

30 11 2014

“The reason I have a clean conscience is that I know that I did my job right.”

Darren Wilson killed an unarmed young man and his conscience is clean. He does “feel remorse”, and he “never wanted to take anybodys life, that’s not the good part of the job that’s the bad part”.

He just wants “to have a normal life.”

Others have discussed the shooting of Michael Brown, the way Ferguson policies its black community, the (un)reality of Wilson’s version of events, the unusual manner in which the Ferguson prosecutor approached his job in this particular instance, and the demonization of black bodies—all with much more knowledge and eloquence than I can.

So let’s talk about that “clean conscience”. Should someone who killed another person have a clean conscience?

Is it enough to say “I did nothing wrong” or “I was following my training” or “I was doing my job”? Is that enough to buff out the dents and scratches in one’s conscience?

Because shouldn’t killing someone dent your conscience?

I think it should. Even if it were justified, even if you kill someone who clearly and unambiguously was trying to kill you or someone else, even if the law and calculations of survival are on your side, it should bother you that you killed someone.

Maybe that’s the “remorse” Wilson mentioned, that he feels bad for Brown’s parents that “their son lost his life”—but Brown’s life wasn’t lost, it was taken. By Wilson.

I don’t trust clean consciences, and I don’t trust the ways in which we scrub them, be it via Jesus or training or even necessity. We should be burdened by our actions, should have to carry our deeds with us.

This isn’t to say that there is no way of coming to terms with those deeds or their consequences, that the weight should remain heavy and constant throughout our lives, or that we shouldn’t get help to figure out how to carry that weight. I am skeptical of redemption but atonement may be possible.

Atonement, at least, rests on the recognition of a banged-up conscience, on the recognition of misdeed and error and regret and wrong. It rests on the recognition of the weight.

~~~

I accept that there are some matters beyond good and evil, and I accept that one may act—including acting to kill—to preserve life.

But that something is necessary doesn’t make it good.

At that moment of survival, at that moment of killing, one may be beyond one’s own conscience, and that may be appropriate, necessary to one’s survival.

But that doesn’t mean you get to leave that moment in the moment. This is something you did, so that as long as you are you, you should carry that moment with you. It should mark you.

This isn’t a call to scorn those who kill, but to recognize the weight of killing. And insofar as we authorize some—police, soldiers—to kill to protect others, to protect us, then we ought to carry that weight as well.

~~~

Wilson’s words seem grotesque to me, but I understand the impulse, to say not just that “I got clean” but “I was never not-clean”, to reassure oneself that not only does one not regret what one did, but would do it again. To be untouched, weightless.

But what kind of human life is weightless?

I don’t know how long we should carry our deeds, good or bad, or how we should carry them so that we are neither crushed nor untethered by them. This is hard, to know how to live in the world.

This is the work, and this is how conscience gives us weight, in order to do the work and carry the weight.





This is not America/Ain’t that America

13 08 2014

Or should it be the Nick Cave song: “One more man gone” ?

The police kill an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, then try to lock down the town.

Ryan J. Reilly, HuffPo

Reilly and another reporter, Wesley Moore (of the Washington Post), were arrested for not vacating a McDonalds; they were later released.

So many others have so much more, and better, to say. I’ll note simply the insanity of militarizing the police in order to protect the police.

As if, in a polity, the police aren’t there to protect the citizens. As if we were a police state, where the point of the police is to protect the police. As if. . . .

In any case, #Ferguson gives the latest; Greg Howard goes long.

Whitney Curtis/NY Times

This is us.





Gotta keep bars on all our windows

27 07 2014

Israel is us or, shall I say, US, as told by Jon Snow:

I feel guilty in leaving, and for the first time in my reporting life, scarred, deeply scarred by what I have seen, some of it too terrible to put on the screen.

It is accentuated by suddenly being within sumptuously appointed Israel. Accentuated by the absolute absence of anything that indicates that this bloody war rages a few miles away. A war that the UN stated yesterday has reduced 55 per cent of  Gaza’s diminutive land to a no-go area.

Go tell that to the children playing in the dusty streets or the families forced out of  shelters like the UN school compound, to forage for food beneath shells and missiles.

In and out of an Israeli transit hotel for a few hours in Ashkelon, an hour from the steel crossing-point from Gaza, there were three half-hearted air raid warnings. Some people run, but most just get on with what they are doing.

They are relatively safe today because  Israel is the most heavily fortified country on earth. The brilliant Israeli-invented, American-financed shield is all but fool-proof; the border fortifications, the intelligence, beyond anything else anywhere.

This brilliant people is devoting itself to a permanent and ever-intensifying expenditure to secure a circumstance in which there will never be a deal with the Palestinians. That’s what it looks like, that is what you see. It may not be true.

The pressure not to go on this way is both internationally and domestically a minority pursuit.

He notes the security demands and commands from behind windows and walls, disembodied voices demonstrating control over voiceless bodies:

“Feet apart!” they said. “Turn! No, not that way – the other!” Then, in the next of five steel security rooms I passed through – each with a red or green light to tell me to stop or go – a male security guard up in the same complex above me shouted “Take your shirt off – right off. Now throw it on the floor… Pick it up, now ring it like it was wet” (it was wet, soaked in sweat).

From entering the steel complex until I reach the final steel clearing room where I held the baby, I was never spoken to face to face, nor did I see another human beyond those who barked the commands through the bullet-proof windows high above me.

Is this not how we in the US approach the rest of the world? We send drones over deserts and bombs into buildings and we sit in our sumptuously appointed country pointedly ignoring what we do and how we are.





Give me the gun

21 12 2012

Christ, is it even worth posting this?

I’m tired and crabby and have grading and have to get up early to work the second job tomorrow and do I really want to write—more to the point, do you really want to read what I write—about guns?

What the hell.

My views about guns haven’t much shifted from where I landed a decade or so ago: I’m not crazy about them, don’t hate them, and if I lived out in the boonies I’d have a shotgun, if only to scare off any big critters trying to get at my little critters. And the next time I go back to Wisconsin I’d like to try trap shooting or target shooting with my hunting-rifle-owning brother and brother-in-law.

So, guns: dangerous tools, useful in some circumstances, nothing more.

Except, of course, culturally they are so much more: Totems of freedom, penis-substitutes, toys for the uncivilized, power, markers of Real Americans, manly, gangster, and on and on and on.

That’s a big part of the problem, that instead of treating guns as dangerous tools, we polemicize them into ontological signifiers: To be or not to be, with guns.

Actually, that’s wrong: Most of us probably don’t polemicize them into ontological signifiers; most of us probably seem them as dangerous tools which it is okay to own and use in a properly regulated fashion. Go on and on about guns and you’ll be given the side-eye, but if you hunt or like to target shoot at the range, well, okay. And if you won’t buy your kid a Nerf gun because you think it promotes aggression, you might get an eye-roll, but, well, okay.

Honestly, I’m closer to the gun-control folks than the NRA (no kidding. . . ), but if you want to collect an armory in your basement in preparation for the apocalypse, well, it’s your dime.

There are a few steps you should have to follow, however: Every single person who owns a gun should have a background check, and perhaps should be licensed. Every single gun you own should be registered, and any gun you own which is not registered should be confiscated and you should pay a huge-ass fine for not registering it.

At the time of registration, you should have to take it to a licensed instructor and demonstrate that you know how to load, unload, fire, lock, and safely store the gun. And maybe when you fire the gun, the bullet should be collected and entered into one of the those nifty CSI-type databases.

(And for those, like me, concerned about civil liberties: Make the registration system dual key, i.e., the registrant is assigned a number, and that number is entered into the gun-owning database. In order to access the name behind the number, a search warrant would be required.)

If you sell your gun, you must file a transfer form with the gun registry. The new owner would then be required to file a preliminary registration application before the actual gun could be transferred. A background check would be performed in the interim, and once it comes back clean, the gun may be transferred, at which point the new owner would be required to complete the registration process. A reasonable fee—one which would cover the costs of the registry and the registration process—would be required.

If you sell your gun or give it away and don’t file a transfer form, if you lose it or it’s stole and you don’t inform the police, you would be open to large, large fines, and holds on any future firearms registration. If you are convicted of crimes which, if turned up in a background check would prevent you from owning a gun [for whatever period of time], you either have to surrender your guns to a licensed dealer for the duration of the n0-gun period, or you have to sell them. You’ll retain the right to petition the court for restoration of your gun rights, although further restrictions may be attached to them.

And tough laws for any crimes committed with guns? Yep, as well as laws for negligence, brandishing, and general stupidity. (For the latter I prefer those huge-ass fines, largely because I think we already lock up too many people, but short jail, as opposed to prison, terms might be warranted.)

States and localities will retain the right to impose further restrictions on ownership, and while I think concealed-carry laws are a menace, I don’t know that there’s any constitutional way for the federal government to override them.

The feds can and should ban certain types of weapons—as they already do with automatic weapons—as well as certain types of bullets. They might also retain the right to impose stricter licensing requirements for various types of weaponry.

Oh, and ban large-capacity magazines—anything over 10 bullets.

Others have mentioned insurance requirements for gun-owners, which some states might wish to implement or at least allow insurers to ask before offering home or life-insurance. Let the insurers add their own (reasonable) licensing requirements. Tax the shit out of bullets.

[Edited to add: And that law Congress passed awhile ago shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits? Repeal it.]

The upshot of all of this: Recognize the existence of the [current interpretation of the] Second Amendment which allows for both gun ownership and gun regulation, and go from there. Recognize in law the difference between a bolt-action hunting rifle and a semi-automatic handgun or rifle, and recognize in culture the line between use of guns for one’s own enjoyment and that based on anti-social contempt.

It’s not enough, of course, to stop the gun violence in both our streets and our homes, nor is it enough to stop suicides or, maddeningly and sadly, periodic massacres. I think we’d all be better off if there were fewer guns—especially handguns—in this country, and I’m offended by arguments that we can’t live with one another without guns.

But I also believe if things are to get better—if we’re to kill fewer of us—we need to start where we are, and where we are is in a gun-laden and gun-positive place. We need to start treating guns as dangerous tools, and maybe, just maybe, down the line that’s all they’ll be.

Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll want fewer of them.





The needle and the damage done

18 06 2012

MI5 hates me.

The show, that is, not the actual service. And I don’t take it personally, because I think MI5 hates everyone.

I’ve previously discussed my weakness for caper flicks and police procedurals, so it should come as no surprise that I like spy stuff. (I mean, I even watch Covert Affairs, which is a really lousy show. Really.) I turned off 24 after the first season, as it was less clever than angry, and CONSTANT SHOUTY ANGER bores and CONSTANT SHOUTY ANGER justifying torture offends, but if you can get past that low bar (i.e., not constantly shouting angrily in favor of torture) in making a show, I’ll watch it.

There’s shouting in MI5 (known in the UK as Spooks), and torture, but the truly interesting dialogue tended to be quiet, and the torture damaged both victim and perpetrator alike.

And I guess it’s that damage that leads me to think that MI5 hates everyone (SPOILER ALERT!!): All of its characters are damaged, but with the exception of only a handful of it many characters, only a few of them live long enough to have to come to terms with the damage done, both to and by them.

In other words, just as you get attached to Danny or Fiona or Jo or Ros, they’re shot or blown up or shot or, er, blow up. And just as I was starting to warm to Adam (who replaced Tom, one of the few who was ushered out of the service rather than sacrificed to it), he gets, yes, blown up.

Huh, now that I think about it, I stopped watching MI5 after Adam took over the lead, but I picked the show back up again (skipping episodes and perhaps even a season or two) this weekend. Hermione Norris (who I liked in Wire in the Blood, even though I ended up truly not liking that creepfest) was cast as Ros against Adam’s lead, then took over after Adam went boom, only to go boom herself a season or so later.

(Huh, I should put a spoiler alert somewhere near the top of this post, shouldn’t I? Okay, done.)

I mean, for crying out loud, they even killed off Ruth—Ruth! And you knew as soon as Sasha picked up that bit of broken glass that she was going to get it, because no way would MI5 let anyone (well, okay, Zoe got a happy ending—but only after she went to prison and then was smuggled to South America, and Malcolm got to retire) walk away whole from the Grid.

Harry survives. He’s got nothing else in his life than Section D, nothing to live for beyond the job—hell, maybe that’s why he gets to live: With the exception of Ros, everyone else has something else, or the hopes of something else, off the Grid.

Maybe that’s why Ros’s death hit Harry so hard: She was him, and she was dead and he was alive.

MI5 flayed its characters and it flayed us for watching its characters. There were no redshirts in MI5, which from a plot point of view was good, but killing off everyone is, in its own way, equally predictable, and even more cynical.

Followed Danny through his credit and impulse-control problems and grown to admire his decency? Shot in the head.

Like how Ben Caplan reacted to almost getting (yup) blown up and deciding to abandon journalism for intelligence work? Then turn away as Connie slices through his throat.

Colin and Tariq, the tech guys—tech guys!—hanged and poisoned, respectively.

And Jo, Jesus, Jo and Ros. Jo so much like Danny, so decent in her need to hold the line against the consequentialism of spy-trade in lives, signalling to Ros to shoot Finn as she stands clutched behind him, trying to prevent him from (oh, man, this is getting ridiculous) blowing up the room.

Forcing Ros to shoot Finn, which means she shoots Jo.

That’s just some fucking hateful writing.

So I’m pissed for having dipped back into the show, for forgetting how pissed I was last time I watched at the sheer cussedness of getting rid of the people we, the audience, have the gall to care about, and pissed about the laziness of the constant killing itself.

It’s not so much the brutality—if you kept watching after the second episode, you knew the show wouldn’t skimp on the brutal—but the repetition of it, the leaching away of cleverness in favor of killing that ultimately turned me off.

I’m open to the idea of a morality of brutality (any Game of Thrones fans here to chip in a thought or two?), but as a mere dramatic device, it cannot exist unto itself if it is to retain its power. And a brutality which bores is a waste, in every way.





If I had a rocket launcher

22 05 2011

The invasion of Poland was almost unbearable.

I knew it was awful, but awful only in a general way; the opening didn’t linger on the atrocities, but the details—the killing of 55 Polish prisoners here, the burning of village after village there, the many smug justifications for murder—knit the details of death into the whole cloth of invasion and mass murder.

If I didn’t know how it all ended, I told a friend, I don’t think I could read it.

I’m on the last book of Richard Evans’s trilogy of the Third Reich, finally cracking it open after it sat on my desk for a few weeks.

I raced through The Coming of the Third Reich (useful for its doleful portrayal of the Weimar Republic) and read with fascination The Third Reich in Power, but The Third Reich at War, well, the premonitions of the first two books are borne out in the last. It will get worse, much worse, before it ends; it cannot be said to get better.

Reading about genocide and slaughter has never been fun, but I used to be able to do so without flinching. I remember reading in high school  Anne Nelson’s dispatches in Mother Jones about the Salvadoran death squads; I close my eyes, and I can still conjure up the accompanying photo of bloody heads on bench. College was apartheid and nuclear war, and grad school, human rights abuses generally.

The University of Minnesota maintained an archive of human rights material in its law school library. I’d trudge over there from my West Bank (yes, that’s what it was called) office and read reports of the massacre at the finca San Francisco, of soldiers smashing babies’ heads and slicing up their mothers. Reports of torture in Nicaragua and disappearances in Argentina and killing after killing after killing in Guatemala.

It was awful, but I could take it, and since I could take it, I felt a kind of duty to do so. There was nothing I could do, hunched over these documents in the back corner of the library, but to read them, to read as many of them as I could.

I no longer have the compulsion, or the arrogance, or frankly, even the stomach, any more to do so. I still think the reading matters, the knowledge matters, even if I can’t precisely say why, but it is so hard, almost too hard, to keep reading. To read is to conjure these lives, these men and women and children, and watch them murdered all over again.

It was like that with the footage of the airplanes hitting the World Trade Center, and of the two towers collapsing into themselves. It seemed important to watch, to see, to know what I could, but after that, it just seemed obscene, as if the replays were killing people all over again.

I know that’s not how it works—I am aware of at least a few laws of physics—but the necessity of witness is found precisely in the knowledge of what is witnessed, that is, in the knowledge of the killing of over 2500 people. I don’t want that knowledge dulled or forgotten.

Maybe that’s why it’s so difficult now to read of atrocity: the outrage has been so stretched and worn that in too many places the bare horror is all that remains. The outrage is still there—reading (again) of the T4 extermination program, I raged against the ideology of rassenhygiene and “lives not worth living”—but it no longer protects as it once did. Its use as a buffer is gone; the horror gets  close.

Still, the knowledge matters, so I read what I can when I can. It is the least, the very least, I can do.








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