Dec 09 2012

Why Costas Was Wrong

Posted by Steve Ross in Puke

First of all, I think it was pretty courageous of Bob Costas to take on a controversial issue like gun control in the middle of a football game, and just hours after Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself. Surely he knew what he was getting into.

Unfortunately, I feel like Costas missed the larger discussion that needed to be had, both as it relates to Football, and society in general.

If you managed to miss his comments, I’ve included them below.

Its pretty obvious, on the surface anyway, that if Belcher didn’t have a gun he wouldn’t have shot anyone. Its anything but clear that, absent a gun, he or his girlfriend would have survived the events of last week. The circumstances that led to the problem, and the ones that brought the final result might not have been any different.

When things like this happen, the natural and easiest reaction is to go to the thing that “caused” it…in this case people pointed to the gun. A similar reaction has followed other events, like the 2011 shooting in Arizona that killed 6 and wounded 13 others including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

One thing that is clear, guns are not sentient beings. I think everyone on both sides of the debate can agree with that.

Since guns can’t make decisions, blaming the gun is, by definition, missing the point. The old saying “people kill people” rings true here.

And while it is certainly easier to kill someone with a tool like a gun rather than say, a hammer, the result is the same. They’re still dead.

I didn’t hear a loud chorus of hammer control advocates speaking up when this guy killed his parents with one in 2011.

So maybe blaming the tool is misappropriating blame. The ease of use may play a role in the decision, but certain things have to be in place to even seriously contemplate the taking of a life. Maybe there’s something else that binds these three cases together other than the fact that tools were used to kill someone.

Its hard for me to imagine what kind of thinking brings someone to the decision that taking a life is any kind of a solution. Absent the incredibly rare “kill or be killed” moments I can’t imagine why anyone would even consider taking the life of another.

What I do understand is that considering murder as a solution is a pretty good indicator of some kind of mental health issue. What we learned in the wake of the Arizona shooting and the week since Belcher took the life of his girlfriend and himself, is mental health played a role in each.

According to reports, Belcher was struggling with head injuries and addiction. There are reports of domestic violence in the relationship. So do pervasive head injuries and violence in the home, coupled with addiction play a role in the taking of a life? Sure, but they’re not the final determining factors. If they were, we’d see a lot more violent crime than we do.

There has to be more to it.

That’s where things get complicated…much more so than dismissively blaming the gun. See, for someone to decide that taking a life is an option, they must first believe that there is no other solution. For someone to get to the point that taking their own life is the best choice, they must first believe there are no other options.

Of course, there are always other options, but those options can be lost in the haze of the moment, particularly in a society that places a fair amount of shame on mental health issues generally.

If we really want to see a decrease in violence, be it gun violence or any other kind, we need to focus on addressing mental health issues that lead to the violence rather than the violence or guns themselves. That’s the root of the problem. And that’s where Costas got it wrong.

Had Costas chosen to talk about mental health issues rather than the tool used in the violence, the size and scope of his platform might have opened up a discussion about role of mental health in the larger violence problem in our society.

That discussion is valuable, and something we, as a society need to start thinking about if we are serious about decreasing violence generally. An ounce of prevention…

Unfortunately, its just so easy and, to a certain degree, we’ve been conditioned to fall into the “blame the tool” argument that having that discussion right now seems as far away as a distant planet in another universe.

Costas was right about one thing. The outrage from this event has, just a week later, largely faded. We’ve already forgotten and moved on to the next outrage of the moment, in part because Costas chose an argument that pretty much everyone feels is unwinable and unproductive, and partially because that’s just what we do.

Hopefully, one day, we’ll make a decision to really start a dialogue about violence in our society, and work for real long-term solutions to the problem. That’s not in our nature, but here’s to hoping we start acting out of character soon. It would be a refreshing change.

Dec 08 2012

My (Continuing) Battle With Smoking

Posted by Steve Ross in Puke

More addictive than Heroin

I remember exactly when I decided to start smoking. I was in Jr. High. A lot of the kids that I went to school with smoked. I was the new kid. I didn’t really know many folks. I wanted to fit in. It was an easy way to immediately have something in common with the people around me. Turns out, it was about the only thing we had in common.

We moved to the neighborhood after a difficult time in NW Arkansas. It was the mid-80’s. A pack of cigarettes cost about $1.25. At the time, laws that required you to be 18 to buy cigarettes weren’t enforced, and penalties hardly outweighed the financial upside of increased sales.

In my early life, my dad had smoked. He quit for good when I was 11 or 12. From my pre-teen perspective it was effortless. I had no idea how hard it would be to kick the habit later on in life.

Addiction is not just physical. There’s an emotional side to addiction that’s hard to explain. Part of it has to do with the rationale for smoking. Smokers regularly smoke to relieve stress or other emotional events. It can feel calming and comforting. This feeling of comfort is the first thing you miss when you decide to quit.

Over the years since the mid-1980’s I’ve quit several times. In 1989 I quit for 8 months. That was by far the longest stretch I’ve ever made it through.

You’re probably asking yourself why I started back. The answer is complicated and not something I really want to rehash, but lets just say I sought the comfort that I once had in the form of a cigarette. I think this describes all kinds of addiction.

I quit a couple of other times, usually for a month or two before falling off the wagon again. They say that after three days you’ve kicked the physical addiction. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but I can tell you you never kick the psychological addiction.

Back in October, after months of respiratory problems that began in earnest 8 months before, I quit again. My resolve was strong, the reasons were evident, quite honestly, it was easy…for a while.

The problem with quitting for purely health reasons is that once you start feeling better, your reason has gone away. The first month was easy. The second, as my health concerns faded, it became harder.

I was just days away from two months when I decided to buy a pack of cigarettes. I had been slipping for a couple of weeks, but managed to convince myself that it was temporary and I could get back on track at any time.

Now I’m not so sure.

Its not the physical addiction that I’m worried about, its the emotional dependency. That’s the thing that I’ve never been able to kick. That’s the thing that I think keeps lots of people from quitting…and not just cigarettes, any number of addictive substances.

I’m neither a professional addiction expert nor a prohibitionist. I don’t think making something illegal stops anyone from attaining that something. This should be clear based on the success of our 40 year “War on Drugs” alone. Demand will primarily determine supply, though other factors may weigh in on that relationship as well.

What I do believe is that in our search for a quick fix to all kinds of problems, from addiction to education, we’ve squandered our most precious resource…time. For decades now we’ve known about the psychological…the mental health element to a vast array of problems in our country. For that time and longer we’ve done everything in our power to try anything else to correct them…and failed.

We’ve doubled down on bad policy, enacting mandatory minimums on people suffering from addiction, and in the process, created a gateway for people who never engaged in violent crime to be forced into it in prisons, while truly violent criminals were let out to make room for people suffering from a mental health issue.

I won’t delve into the decriminalization issue except to say two things:

1. Washington and Colorado will save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade by not prosecuting and incarcerating non-violent marijuana users who would have been declared criminals just weeks ago.

2. If those governments would set aside just 10% of the savings and appropriate them for increased mental health services, they will ultimately save hundreds of millions more on healthcare and incarceration for any number of other issues and see increased revenues through increased productivity as more people do more than they ever imagined possible with their lives.

Because the problem isn’t the drug, be it nicotine or an opiate…the problem is the addiction…a mental health issue that when untreated, leads to all kinds of other problems.

I’m starting my battle with addiction again today, and hopeful that I’ll find more success this time. I know it won’t be easy, but I’m working to strengthen my resolve and fight the urge to give in again.

There are thousands of people, just like me, who are struggling with their addiction, be it nicotine or something else. While its easy to judge these people as weak or broken in some way, I hope we all would find the strength and courage to not pass judgement…but show them the support they need to fight their addiction.

It’s only through that support that they will find any success.

Jan 10 2011

Consequences

Posted by Steve Ross in National Politics

Saturday’s shooting at an event out side a Safeway in Tuscon, AZ is a national tragedy. While the majority of the coverage I’ve seen has been on the target of the shooting, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, I also think it’s important to note he other victims in this tragedy:

John Roll, 63, a federal district court judge, Gabriel Zimmerman, 30, Giffords’ director of community outreach, Dorwin Stoddard, 76, a pastor at Mountain Ave. Church of Christ, Christina Greene, 9, a student at Mesa Verde Elementary, Dorthy Murray, 76 and Phyllis Scheck, 79 as well as several others who were injured, though their names, as of this writing, have not been released.

These folks just wanted to see their representative to the US House, something that thousands of people in hundreds of districts across the country do every year.

Since the first reports, people have been trying to cast blame on the Tea Party or Sarah Palin, while some on the right have been defending their rhetoric or pointing out the suspected shooter’s “reading list” as proof he’s a leftist.

The truth is, if you’ve looked at his YouTube channel it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to know that this guy suffered from some kind of mental illness, probably schizophrenia. So trying to assign a political ideology to that condition is ill advised at best. Suffice it to say, the guy had problems and probably needed some help for those problems.

At the end of the day the consequences of this event will be felt nationwide. Just what those consequences are is unknown. But this event is also a consequence of something else…the combination of rhetoric and policy that together may not have been the direct or proximate cause of the shooting, but led to an environment where such an event was much more likely.

Rhetoric

Here’s a portion of a discussion held on NBC’s Meet the Press this weekend regarding the heated political rhetoric in our society today.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Just hours after the shooting, former Democratic Senator Gary Hart wrote this commentary regarding the heated political rhetoric in our nation today. From the post:

Gradually, over time, political rhetoric used by politicians and the media has become more inflamatory. The degree to which violent words and phrases are considered commonplace is striking. Candidates are “targeted”. An opponent is “in the crosshairs”. Liberals have to be
“eliminated”. Opponents are “enemies”. This kind of language eminates largely from those who claim to defend American democracy against those who would destroy it, who are evil, and who want to “take away our freedoms”.

Indeed, Hart notes that the rhetoric of politics, particularly in the just past cycle, has moved from “I disagree with your idea” to “it is blasphemous to lay your idea on the altar of the United States and you should be punished for your it”.

This is not an environment where solutions to America’s problems can be found. This is an environment that uses violent speech to push a political perspective.

Pinning the entirety of this event on Sarah Palin’s target map or even Sharon Angle’s “2nd Amendment Solutions” alone is a stretch.

Could this rhetoric have contributed to an environment where the events of Saturday were more possible? Absolutely. But there is no way to find a direct relationship between political speech and the actions of an individual whose motivations are not only unclear, but tainted by mental illness.

That said, the media climate has contributed to the prevalence of violent political speech, as noted by Rick Perlstein in the New York Times.

The problem is that elite media gatekeepers have abandoned their moral mandate to stigmatize uncivil discourse. Instead, too many outlets reward it. In fact, it is an ironic token of the ideological confusions of our age that they do so in the service of upholding what they understand to be a cornerstone of civility: the notion that every public question must be framed in terms of two equal and opposite positions, the “liberal” one and the “conservative” one, each to be afforded equal dignity, respect — and (the more crucial currency) equal space. This has made the most mainstream of media outlets comically easy marks for those actively working to push public discourse to extremes.

Rewarding this kind of speech with wall to wall coverage can help foster an environment where these events are more possible, but the speech itself doesn CAUSE it. The cause is a symphony of things, some of which we can currently understand and some of which we can not.

Policy

According to this report the suspect was suspended from Pima County Community College for “classroom and library disruptions”. The college told the suspect that he could only return if he was cleared by a mental health professional and did not “present a danger” to other students.

I’m not a mental health professional or an educator, but it seems to me that the Administration of this Community College failed society in not connecting the suspect with a mental health professional in the process of issuing the suspension. Doing so may have created a record that could have prevented him from purchasing a firearm at a local dealer a few months later, thought the Wall Stree Journal is reporting that:

Law-enforcement officials, speaking on background, said the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, purchased a gun legally on Nov. 30 at a Tucson outdoor-sports retail store.

Under federal law, a mentally ill person is barred from purchasing a gun if a court has found that the individual is a danger to himself or the community.

Certainly, if the suspect wanted to procure a firearm there are plenty of ways to do so outside the normal retail market. However, this would have made it more difficult for him to do so, and a private seller may have been able to quickly identify that this person was unstable, and perhaps, not the best candidate for gun ownership.

Arizona also recently passed several laws and budget cuts that may also have played a contributing factor in the event.

In April, Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that allows people to carry concealed firearms without a permit. Removing this regulatory function may not have deterred the shooter from carrying out his plan this past Saturday, but there’s no way to know for sure now.

Another angle in this event is the availability of mental health care services in Arizona. Arizona Central has an article that notes:

Earlier this year, Gov. Jan Brewer signed off on a $36 million reduction in funding to the Arizona Department of Health Services as part of an effort to close the state’s billion-dollar budget gap.

The cuts, which included a wide swath of treatments and services for the mentally ill, impacted about 12,000 adults and 2,000 children not covered by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program.

This report came out about the same time the Community College directed the suspect to mental health services. If services for a person so clearly mentally ill, and likely suffering from the same problem as the Governor’s own son, were unavailable, this policy has a much more direct relationship to the events of this Saturday than any overheated rhetoric.

At the end of the day, the role policy plays in the events that led up to this attack may also not have been a direct or proximate cause. However, the relationship between rhetoric and policy should be noted. The policies enacted by the State of Arizona follow the ideological arguments of the people primarily responsible for the rhetoric. This relationship further builds the case that, while the specific rhetorical devices used, or the individual policies enacted may not have alone caused this event, they create an environment where an event such as this is more possible or even likely.

Access

Finally, as Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post notes this event will likely have a chilling effect on our ability to have access to our Federal Elected officials.

Thirty years ago, there was no such thing as security on Capitol Hill or for members. Members of the public were free to roam the halls, and police presence was practically invisible. There were no barricades around the grounds, and even the leadership rarely had any form of protection.

The Hill was the very model of the People’s Place — and in that respect it was an inspirational symbol of our democracy.

Congress began to close in on itself in 1983. A bomb explosion outside the Senate chamber engendered the installation of magnatometers; in 1998 a gunman shot two Capitol Police in an attack in the House. The result was a system of careful monitoring of all visitors and the extension of police protection to all members of the leadership. The 9/11 attacks led to the erection of barricades and new defense perimeters around the grounds; new inspection procedures were initiated after an anthrax attack in 2003 on the offices of then-Democratic leader Tom Daschle’s office.

The construction of a new Visitor Center now means that the public can only enter through a secure facility and can only walk the halls in tour groups.

The contentious Town Hall meetings that dominated the 2009 Health Care debate may soon be a thing of the past. I reported on one held by Rep. Steve Cohen in August of 2009. The truth of the matter is, even though there were Sheriff Deputies in attendance, the presence of law enforcement would not have deterred someone from acting, particularly in this particular venue. There were so many people that anything could have happened. Thankfully, it didn’t.

Considering the already difficult challenges in selecting a venue for such events, and the logistics often involved in supporting these events, throwing what would likely be a security nightmare into the mix is a recipe for the end of Town Halls period.

I’ve been working, organizing, and providing technical support for public events since the late 90’s and I can tell you, even small, low budget affairs have a great deal of planning involved. Adding another layer of planning by ramping up security at these events will make them fewer and farther between. The added expense, the added planning and the increased anxiety combined have the consequence of us being less personally connected to a government that we’re already fairly disconnected from in the first place.

This will have a chilling, long-term effect on our Republic.

While I understand the outrage felt on both the left and the right concerning this event, I would note that pointing fingers in either direction only increases the rancor rather than solving the problem. The ultimate problem is that we the people are not adequately considering the impact our rhetoric and policies have on our lives beneath the surface. Everything we do and say has deep consequences, the result of which may not be felt for years. While those consequences may not be immediately known at the time, there are some things that we can immediately know.

Neither civility, nor rancor are accidents. Both are intentional acts. Fighting rancor with rancor creates a rhetorical arms race. Rewarding rancor with wall-to-wall coverage gives legitimacy to that rancor despite the consequences it might have on society. Using that rancor to pursue policies that reduce an individuals ability to thrive in society creates a double whammy that hastens the decline of civility.

It is a vicious cycle.

Until we as a nation recognize this, we will be held captive by our own inability or unwillingness to recognize our faults and deal with our problems like adults, the consequence of which will be felt for generations to come.

See Also:

Moment of Silence
REFLECTIONS FROM ONE WHO IS NEITHER SHOCKED NOR SURPRISED BY YESTERDAY’S SHOOTING IN AZ
In a Safeway parking lot