Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sandy Hook

Last summer, after the shooting death of a dozen people in a Colorado movie theater, I decided that such senseless killings on a sickening scale are perfectly “acceptable” to the American people.

There seemed no other explanation for the lack of serious response by the public and politicians. Almost no one dared speak out in favor of restricting access to the type of so-called assault rifle used in the Colorado massacre. Apparently, even that killing spree, and the one at a Sikh temple two weeks later, was too routine to spark any real outrage. It was shrugged off. I found this extremely frustrating and wrote at the time:

“There must be a frequency and scale of gun deaths at which public opinion finally turns vigorously against the gun lobby. What would be that tipping point be?”

Now maybe we know.

The tipping point seems to be the cold-blooded murder of twenty innocent children in a ten-minute rampage in a first-grade classroom in Connecticut. The horror was unimaginable. The grief has been overpowering. And the response – this time – may be different.

There are encouraging signs. A Democratic Senator has vowed to reinstate the assault weapons ban that was allowed to lapse in 2004, and President Obama, who has been mostly silent on the issue of gun control in his first term, has finally promised to do something. He has announced a commission to find solutions to this “epidemic of gun violence”.

Protests have been held outside the headquarters of the National Rifle Association, the all-powerful gun lobby. The NRA seems to be hunkering down, keeping a low profile in the face of a spike in anti-gun public opinion. It was silent for four days after the shooting, no public statements, no tweets, and its Facebook page temporarily going dark.

At the same time, support for greater gun control is far from universal. The shooting at Sandy Hook hasn’t likely shaken the firm belief of the most ardent gun lovers that the Second Amendment is all that separates them from total annihilation by criminals. Or the Federal government. Or the UN. Or Democrats. Or zombies.

Still, it seems the anguish and outrage over the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary has forced “gun rights” advocates into an even shakier defensive position than ever before.

The takeaway of some religious leaders and conservatives to the tragedy is instructive. Bryan Fischer, who hosts some kind of fundamentalist Christian radio show, blamed the massacre in Connecticut on the fact that prayer was taken out of schools in 1962. I guess the logic here is that God is willing to allow children to die in order to score political points against American liberals. God, how petty can you get.

The notion that God declined to save the children at Sandy Hook because of America’s flirtation with evolution, same sex marriage, secularism, and – I don’t know, maybe even fluoridated water - was echoed by others, including prominent conservative preacher James Dobson, morally bankrupt politician Newt Gingrich, and Erick Erickson, a leading light of the modern conservative movement and CNN contributor.

Erickson in his RedState blog went even further, blaming “the collapse of the American family”, in particular the demise of the two-parent household with “multiple children”. Erickson’s fixation on the presence of “multiple children” in a family (he uses the term repeatedly) as a way of preventing mass killings is odd. Of the nine mass shootings this year (this year alone), only two have been carried out by an only child.

It’s one thing to focus on God’s passive-aggressive behavior or America’s lackadaisical procreation as root causes of gun violence. It’s idiotic, but at least it doesn’t make the situation worse.

That can’t be said for what is emerging as gun supporters’ favorite prescription to the national malaise of mass shootings in public places, namely, we need more guns.

Many conservative commentators, and a few Republican politicians, have reacted to the tragedy last week mainly by agonizing over the fact that teachers at Sandy Hook didn’t have assault rifles of their own.

They seem to be trying to divert attention away from any possible discussion of restricting firearms by doubling down on the idea that while guns don’t kill people, they certainly can be used to kill people who have guns intended for killing people.

A common fantasy among some gun lovers is that when duty calls in a crisis situation a well-armed populace of untrained citizens will turn into natural-born Jack Bauers. I’m skeptical that such a scenario would turn out well.

At a place full of experienced gun users, like an Army base, you might think you could stop a shooter without unintentionally adding more innocent bystanders to the body count. But when an attack occurred at such a place, Fort Hood in Texas, the assailant was able to shoot 42 people, killing thirteen, before he was finally stopped. If that can happen at a place teeming with military, how effective would the armed response of a city street full of overexcited Average Joes be?

In some of the best-known cases where armed civilians were credited with stopping shooting sprees, either the “civilians” were security professionals or the gunman had already stopped shooting.

Another meme on the right is that “gun-free” zones like schools or movie theaters are perfect targets for armed psychopaths precisely because they know no one can shoot back. At least, not before the police arrive.

For this reason, many conservatives are calling for guns to be allowed in schools. Maybe there are countries where it’s normal for math teachers to show up with a sidearm – I’m thinking Yemen or the libertarian paradise of Somalia as good candidates – but I’d hate to think America has come to that. Wait, it already has. At least one school district, in northern Texas, has allowed teachers to carry guns since 2008. If some on the right have their way, many other schools would follow.

What the NRA leadership proposed today, in its rather disjointed and out-of-touch press conference, is that instead of arming teachers themselves, the US should station a police officer in every school, an excellent works program for law enforcement types.

Again, if saturating every public space with firearms would actually deter would-be mass murderers who don’t expect to survive their killing sprees anyway, how do you explain the attack at Fort Hood, which is not exactly a gun-free zone?

But then there’s the case of Kennesaw. This small city in my home state of Georgia is perhaps unique in the nation. In 1982, Kennesaw passed a law requiring all “heads of households” to own a gun. (This was long before conservatives learned to object to tyrannical governments forcing citizens to buy products like, say, health insurance.) The rationale is that if criminals know that every single family is armed, they will think twice before attempting a home invasion.

As much as I hate to admit it, maybe there is something to this grim calculation. Apparently, Kennesaw has enjoyed one of American’s lowest crime rates since the law was enacted. And, that is a sad thought.

Maybe that’s what it takes in a country like America. In other advanced western nations, people can rely on a peaceful society and rule of law to feel safe, without having to militarize their own homes. But maybe the US is different. Maybe it is already so awash with guns, with fear, with crime and lawlessness, that the “every man for himself” attitude toward personal safety is the only way to feel secure.

I certainly hope that’s not true and that the US won’t go further down that path. How the American people act in the aftermath of Sandy Hook will say a lot about how much of a failed state America really has become.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

O Holy Socks

I haven’t been blogging much lately, being too busy with other things that someday might lead to something more lucrative than blogging – which is to say, anything other than blogging. We can always hope.

Now that it’s Christmastime, the season when many people entertain at home, I’m reminded of one of the lesser-known customs of the Finns. Soon after coming to live here, I learned that before leaving the house to visit friends you should always check your socks for holes.

Reinos - classic Finnish footwear.
The reason for this extra attention to hosiery is that Finns, as a rule, do not wear shoes indoors at home. That goes as well for guests, and having a hole in your sock is something you can’t easily hide. Holes in both socks are even worse.

I’m not sure if this custom is shared by other Nordic countries, though I imagine it might be. In the case of Finland, it’s probably due to the Finns’ obsession with cleanliness and good housekeeping. Plus the fact that for at least some good portion of the year, the world outside the front door is a vast sea of mud, or muddy slush, or slushy mud. You get the picture.

So, good manners dictate that in addition to bringing a bottle of red or white, guests should avoid tracking unwelcome grime into the house by leaving their shoes in the eteinen (small entryway) when they arrive.

The more fashionably conscious guests, usually women and especially those of a certain age, often work around this shoeless custom by bringing along a pair of dress shoes to change into once they’re inside.

This particular Finnish habit is so ingrained that whenever my children visited my parents in Georgia, they always immediately removed their shoes and left them in a neat row by the front door, a practice that always impressed my mother.

The shoeless custom is also why the only bones I’ve ever broken have been toe bones. Walk around the house long enough in socking feet, and you’re bound to bang your toe pretty hard against something. Repeatedly. Maybe that’s why a few years ago I adopted another local tradition – the Reino. These are the legendary beige-colored plaid slippers that some Finns do wear at home. Reinos have a certain retro appeal that has made them très chic in the last few years. Or maybe that’s just what those of us who wear them would like to think.

While the custom of going shoeless indoors seems completely sensible in this climate, it can lead to awkward situations. Years ago, I attended an epic Friday-night party at a colleague’s small apartment downtown. He threw great parties, and soon the eteinen was overflowing with shoes. Some details of that night are best not dwelt upon, but by Monday morning I had fully recovered and was dressing for work when I noticed one of my shoes felt different, very roomy. It was identical to the other, only a size or two bigger.

Obviously, leaving the party with my facilities somewhat blunted by judicious servings of alcohol, I had picked up someone else’s shoe from the pile. When I arrived at the office, ready to exchange footwear with my colleague, I found that over the weekend he had left for a weeklong business trip to Singapore, obviously with one shoe that was too tight. When he arrived back in Finland, he was still not too happy, but it did make a great story.

At dinner in a restaurant (where even Finns wear shoes) a few months later, I enjoyed retelling the story to some female colleagues visiting from Dallas. At first, I didn’t understand why a story about a shoe mix-up that I thought was quite funny was met with such awkward, concerned looks from my Texan friends. Then I realized they were trying to work out exactly what kind of party this had been anyway, where guests can mistakenly go home with the wrong article of clothing.

I had neglected to mention the key piece of information that people living here take completely for granted – no partygoer should ever be shy about stripping off their shoes. Unless they have hole-ly socks.