The Freedom to be Massacred?

It’s true, you know – freedom isn’t free. This little axiom has been used in the past to bolster support for armed conflict, as in “we have to be prepared to fight wars to ensure our freedom is not taken from us.” That has been true, though only once in the last century to my reckoning, in 1941.

But now, today, it’s different. We have to fight domestic lovers of conflict and haters of peace like the bizarre orange man-baby, the demagogues and indiscriminate saber-rattlers, the gun fetishists, the amoral greed of the military-industrial-technological complex, the soulless NRA and its meek toadies in Congress – we have to fight all of them. We have to oppose them in order to guarantee our freedom to NOT be party to the indiscriminate murder of innocents by way of legislative inaction or by allowing an insane megolomaniac to gain the awesome power of the presidency. It’s OUR government that’s doing nothing to protect the innocents, it’s VOTERS who put these people in office. Unless we act with courage against them, WE are culpable.

Thoughts and prayers? Faith without works is hollow boasting, vanity and evasion. Far too easy to cross oneself and then look away. Look back – the danger is still here, it’s not over because this week’s dead are buried. Your loved ones are at risk every day, all year long, as we know too well.

To hell with Congress’s moment of silence and Republican lawmakers’ fear of the demagogue. To hell with the transparent lies of the NRA. We need loud, angry voices decrying the inaction of cowards and the dangerous nonsense spouted by ignorant fools every moment, until we are heard.


Freedom Fever – Catch It!

I read a couple of good quotes the other day. One was from some philosophical hack or other, and it basically went, “A man is free at the moment he decides he is.” I suppose I could look up the author, but I suppose if I’m free, then I’m free to be lazy.

I have, in fact, decided to be free.

It’s not an easy thing to wrap one’s mind around. After all, one has to live somewhere, and virtually every place you can live has rules of some sort. I had an old friend, classic anarchist, who used to complain that he couldn’t live anywhere as a sovereign being, because anywhere he chose to live would force him to work and earn money. How do you mean, I ask. Well, because every piece of land that’s “owned” requires taxes, and taxes require money, and money requires work. “So I’ve gotta shackle myself to the man even if all I wanna do is just live.”

And I think that was the salient point – he would have to work. Some folks, God bless ’em, just don’t feel like working.* And they confuse the requirement of working with a kind of enslavement. But if that’s so, then we are enslaved by being born. Every creature must hunt its dinner. Some do it with a bow and arrow, some with a fishing net, some by pretending to be too crazy to take care of themselves, some by running a corporation.

The only ones who are exempt from work are invalids and the truly disabled. But they don’t get to enjoy it.

What about “welfare mothers” and criminals? Believe me, both are occupations. Those lifestyles take time and effort. I’ve known enough of both variety.

But I have decided to be free, and I think what the man meant was that our only prisons are the ones we build for ourselves (another stolen quote  – this one from Doris Lessing, I believe. But you look it up. I’m free.) So freedom is a matter of organizing one’s life in such a way that the necessities of life don’t infringe too much on a person’s human sovereignty, if at all possible.

If I have to work, I should work at a job that doesn’t make me feel like an indentured servant. Think I’ve got that covered. The job isn’t glamorous, but it lets me be me. (Read John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Company Man” to get an idea why I’m not more ambitious here at the ol’ office. In brief: we cannot help actually becoming the role we continually play — stole that from Kurt Vonnegut.)

And I should never have to say anything I don’t want to say, right? Only slaves watch their mouths. Yet, with age we come to realize that the mouth is a weapon, and kindly, responsible people wield it responsibly. Think drunken rock star on a trans-Atlantic flight. Sure, he can shoot his mouth off and make an ass of himself and not care for the consequences (since there aren’t likely to be any). But he’s still an ass. Better to balance the right to free speech with respect for the ears of others.

And I can come and go as I please. I don’t have to tell anyone where I’m going or, God forbid, ask permission (sound of “pussy whip” cracking in background.) But, again, with age we come to realize we’re building relationships that go beyond the casual friendship or pretend romance of youth, and we have people who depend on us. I suppose I could, for the sake of argument, take off for a few days without telling my family. But of course they would worry tremendously, and I don’t want that. So I make sure I tell them my whereabouts. It’s the human thing to do.

“But the government! The damn government!” Ah yes, the damn government. My response is another quote, this one from that sandal-wearing sage we all know and love. When he responded to the man who asked how it is possible to be true to God’s will while living under the yoke of Roman tyranny, he hit it right on the head. “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.” In other words, accept that free people always have to live within the borders of so-called “nations” run by those who seek to make their mark on history, which often  involves an attempt to curtail individuals’ rights to be left alone. The only way to remain relatively free is to allow the world’s “leaders” to play their overgrown chess game while attempting to stay  out of their way as they rage around the world with their wars and laws.

The government does not “provide” freedom or “guarantee” freedom. No. No government in history has been the least bit interested in issuing the power of true freedom to its subjects. Quite the opposite: governments use every power at hand to attempt control over their subjects, balancing the desire for control with the threat of rebellion should the  methods of control go too far. (An example today is the so-called militia movement. The government would prefer to simply wipe these people out and remove the threat, but that would simply stoke the rebellious spirit of the ones that get away, causing more problems.)

And yet, no government in history has been successful at a sustained denial of freedom. Those governments are upended by free people who will not stand for it. Or they are crushed under the weight of their own corruption. I’m no Pollyanna, I’m aware that despots and crooks are “in charge” all over the globe. But what are they really in charge of? Money, borders, bullets, but not people. They don’t own souls. So the trick is to live in the nation that doesn’t get on your back too much, if you can, and don’t get too cozy with the power structure. And maybe try to help those who live under the more oppressive regimes, if you can (though I have to stress that doesn’t mean killing them in order to “free” them from tyranny.)

In the end, I believe freedom is an overblown, overused concept. We don’t think that much about being free. We think about being happy, and our happiness is a byproduct not of our freedom but how we manage our lives as inherently free beings. When we do it in a way that honors our natural status as sovereign beings,  we are as free as birds in spirit even though some inhuman government may imprison our bodies. When we don’t, all the freedom in the world will not release us from what amounts to a self-imposed confinement based on willing submission to the rule of others.

*Quote from Ned Flanders, The Simpsons

Snow Falling on Laws

Snow falling again – the second time in a week. It hasn’t been much snow, but it’s bitter cold as well, so no picnic blowing it off the walks and driveway. I’ve been battling some bizarre illness the last few weeks, which has me very tired and lazy, and so I haven’t done as good a job on it as usual. I tromp out there in the evening and blow off the cement, but it keeps snowing, so there’s a new thin layer there by morning. And no way am I going out there in the dark of morning to blow snow. I see my neighbor out there plowing away, doing his duty as I’m guiltily pulling my car out into the uncleared mess, smashing down the snow on my driveway into ice and leaving the pedestrians to the whims of fate on my snowy sidewalk. But It’s just not in me. I hate that morning cold.

What I’ve been thinking about is the idea of decisions a society makes–or fails to make–as it stands on a threshold between what it was and what it will become. We have a few of these flitting around lately, mostly involving the rule of law versus the chaos of human nature. And no, it’s not clear which is better.

In fact human nature was all we went by for millennia, and for sure it resulted in some major atrocities. But after several hundred years of societies supposedly founded on laws, the atrocities continue. War itself is like a “time out” from lawful rule. Normally, it’s a big no-no to slaughter children. Individuals who do it are “monsters” whom we routinely put to death. But we, the U.S., a force for good in the world, now routinely launch weapons into our proxy “battleground” countries (Afghanistan, Iraq) that we know will kill innocent children. The only difference is we’re not intentionally targeting them. But it doesn’t change the knowledge that it will happen. And it’s OK because it’s war. And in war there are unforeseen casualties and, that most meaningless of euphemisms, “collateral damage.”

So people like me have to qualify an idea like “rule of law” with an undeniable knowledge that the rules are routinely broken by states that find them inconvenient. It is argued in high circles that nations retain an “escape clause” from codified laws–such as those prohibiting mass homicide–when they find it necessary to act to protect their own existence. In other words, in self defense. So each act of belligerence these days is carefully couched in the rhetoric of defense–we are merely defending, if not our actual sovereign land, then “threats” to our safety or our “vital interests” in other lands. We now launch unprovoked attacks that we know will kill innocents by the hundreds, if not thousands, because someone in those lands “might” be plotting something against us.

We decide to be a nation of laws, and this is perceived as a good thing. Because the high emotions of the lynch mob or the oppressive majority are supposedly held in check by a code of allowed and proscribed behavior, we can say we have an orderly society. But I submit that we have stretched the “escape clause” definition to an extent that ambition, or thirst for power or revenge, or mere political gamesmanship are too easily masked as “defensive” grounds for mass killings of the world’s surplus people–whose only fault is that they were born in backward countries, in chaotic times, in a world devoid of the rule of law.

We need to define our nation’s acts as they are actually wrought, so that we might embrace our future as a nation of warmongers, or reject it and pursue another course.

Got Justice?

President Bush pledged today that those responsible for suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia that left dozens dead would “learn the meaning of American justice.”

Let’s explore that for a moment.

What I know of American justice can be boiled down into a few basic precepts. This is strictly off the cuff, you understand, but see if it doesn’t ring true.

If you want a big trial with all the trimmings, you have to think big

This observation comes from a number of recent “spectacular” crimes that have resulted in big-budget defense teams or unheard-of indulgence from the court for the accused. For whatever reason, it seems the amount spent on the trial is in direct proportion to the amount of damage you do. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was provided a crack defense team and a trial that dragged on for months. Several million dollars later, he was convicted and executed, to no one’s surprise. The trial of the D.C. snipers promises more of the same. Accused 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui has enjoyed every amenity in his never-ending trial, including numerous breaks and advice from the court in spite of his regular digressions into delusional nonsense and anti-American screeds, coupled with his complete lack of expertise regarding court procedures. His lawyer (himself) may have a fool for a client, but the joke is on the taxpayers who are funding this big-budget fiasco.

Contrast this to the regular Joe who guns down his wife or co-workers. He gets a sleepy public defender and the thing is wrapped up in two weeks.

If you’re famous, you can’t be jailed for drugs unless you really want to

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard of entertainment types being dragged into court for serious drug crimes, only to be sentenced to ‘”community service” and fines that are meaningless to millionaires. Eventually, after their fifth or sixth arrest, the judge gets mad and “threatens” actual jail time. But it rarely comes to pass. (Exception: Robert Downey Jr..)

But don’t try this at home. Non-famous people are regularly thrown in the pokey for simple possession.

Murderers are more important than their victims

Some ancient–and modern– justice systems, when dealing with murderers, prescribed restitution as a first remedy. Sometimes the killer was allowed to work in order to pay the family for the loss. The entire tribunal revolved around the wrong done to the victim’s family (acknowledging that the actual victim was beyond such concerns). The family was often consulted for their judgment on what should be done with the guilty party, and their wishes carried out.

Now, the victims’ kin are allowed to sit in the courtroom and watch, but that’s about it. Murderers no longer commit crimes against people – they commit them against “the state.” And the trial is centered around the accused, who is the subject of all aspects of the trial and the main focus of the state’s efforts.

After the trial and sentencing, the killer becomes of even more concern to the state. They house, feed and clothe him. They monitor his behavior. They provide endless appeals. They stage elaborate parole hearings that concentrate on the killer’s progress, the killer’s behavior, the killer’s future. When he’s finally released, they have other folks check in on him, monitor his progress, help him “assimilate.”

The family of the victim gets a letter once in a while.

Some murderers get famous for their inventive crimes. They get clever nicknames like “Son of Sam” and “The Preppy Killer.” Books, movies, cults sometimes follow. I recall that Ted Bundy, who may have killed dozens of young women, supposedly received a bulging bag of love letters and marriage proposals every day in prison. Over time, a killer’s “evilness” can be all but washed away and replaced by a kind of pop culture icon status (as with Charles Manson).  But I can’t recall any victims ever being immortalized or lionized, I guess because being killed doesn’t make you interesting. Just dead.

If you’re a lucky killer, Norman Mailer will find you “intriguing,” and he’ll write a book about you. Then they’ll let you go and you can kill again. Yeah, it happened.


Actual innocence of the condemned is not sufficient reason to stop an execution

This was one of the Supreme Court’s shining moments. Back when I did research for a living, I came across  this nugget, which involved a man in Texas who was convicted of murder in your standard non-famous-person trial (see above). The appeals process was exhausted, but new evidence came to light that appeared to exonerate the man. The prosecution, on seeing the new evidence, agreed. So there was really no one in Texas who wanted to carry out the execution anymore. But the “process” took over, the governor refused a stay, and the Supreme Court, answering a final emergency appeal, refused to halt the execution  because “actual innocence is not sufficient reason for this court to delay the timely carrying out of the sentence,” or words to that effect.

So they executed him.