December 2012 Archives

Will Evil Be Allowed To Triumph?

The senseless slaughter of twenty small children in Newtown, Connecticut and six adults  is not the first act of horrendous gun violence in the United States. Since Charles Whitman's murder of 14 people at the University of Texas-Austin in 1966, gun violence in this country has continued to escalate as the ownership of assault weapons and ever larger magazines and gun clips has become common place. The carnage at Columbine in 1999, at Virginia Tech in 2007, and at Aurora in July of 2012  serve as gruesome reminders that the political and legal institutions of the United States have become utterly dysfunctional. 


    Easy access to firearms has been a major contributor to the epidemic of violence which has gripped U.S. culture. According to the Violence Policy Center, more than one million Americans have died in firearm-related suicides, homicides, and unintentional injuries since 1960. In the seven years after September 11, 2001, ninety-nine thousand people were murdered in the United States. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence reports that more than 30,000 people are killed by guns in the United States every year, or an average of 82 gun deaths per day.

    Sadly, the inability of government to prevent gun deaths by reducing the availability of these weapons is often excused based upon a misreading of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. Until recently, that amendment had universally been construed to grant to the people--and not to individuals--the right to keep and bear arms as members of a well-regulated militia (today's National Guard) as previously confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The Supreme Court's 2008 decision in District of Columbia, et al v. Heller,128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008) illustrates the ideological stranglehold that a political philosophy based upon anti-social individualism exerts upon current interpretations of constitutional jurisprudence.  Justice Scalia's tortured constitutional analysis and his inability to comprehend the grammatical interconnection between a subordinate clause in a sentence --"A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..."--and the main clause--"... the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed"--are an unfortunate consequence of the ideological bias in which his legal analysis remains mired.

    Scalia's bias--his commitment to eighteenth century notions of individualism--is so complete that he ignored the primary duty of a government --to ensure public safety and to protect its citizens against violence. In the name of an abstract right of the individual and his putative right to own a gun, Scalia denies the right of concrete human beings--who have died and will continue to die because of gun violence--to be safe from harm: "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country," Scalia piously intoned, "but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."

     Although Justice Scalia and the other four right wing jurists who joined him in the Heller case claimed to base their jurisprudence upon  fidelity to the original intent of the framers of the constitution, the decision in Heller neglects a central reason why the Articles of Confederation was abandoned and a new constitution was adopted. The majority in Heller also disregarded  the historical evidence: a government that cannot ensure the  safety of the public will, inevitably,  lose its legitimacy and ultimately cease to exist.  

    The mind-set exemplified by Justice Scalia and the enormous success of powerful lobbies such as the National Rifle Association - whose incantations are often echoed by equally reactionary federal judges and legislators who compound the confusion -  ensure that incidents of gun violence, including massacres such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, and now in Newton, will inevitably increase.

    This week, The New York Times commented in an editorial  ("Personal Guns And The Second Amendment," December 18, 2012)) that "The text of the Second Amendment creates no right to private possession of guns,  but Justice Antonin Scalia found one in legal history for himself and the other four conservatives. He said the right is not outmoded even 'in a society where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem.'"

    The Times further observed that ,"It is not just liberals who have lambasted the ruling, but some prominent conservatives like Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The majority, he wrote, 'read an ambiguous constitutional provision as creating a substantive right that the Court had never acknowledged in the more than two hundred years since the amendment's enactment. The majority then used that same right to strike down a law passed by elected officials acting, rightly or wrongly, to preserve the safety of the citizenry.' He said the court undermined 'conservative jurisprudence.'"

    The tragedy in Newtown confirms the presence of evil in our society and the enormous toll that it continues to extract. Evil, however, is not an elusive, abstract phenomenon. Rather, it manifests itself in a myriad of acts by thoughtless, greedy, cruel, narcissistic or malevolent human beings who defend the indefensible because of their ignorance, an bizarre adherence to some putative constitutional right to own and possess weapons of mass destruction, because they profit  from the manufacture and sale of these weapons, or simply because they enjoy mayhem or have become inured to the violence.  
    The massacre in Newtown occurred less than two weeks before Christmas, during a  season that summons all of us to the simple message peace and love for one another. As such, the tragedy stands at the intersection between good and evil.

     A quotation attributed to Edmund Burke reminds us that, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." If the right of anyone, without restriction, to purchase and acquire any number of weapons, no matter how destructive, becomes a core American value, the triumph of evil will be ensured because the rest of us -  good men and women -  were too timid or too preoccupied with our own selfish concerns to take concerted political action to end to the slaughter of innocents.
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Congress Votes To Purge Lunatics

       In past decades, a significant number of current GOP Congressmen in the House of Representatives would have been suitable candidates for commitment to the asylum.

    In an opinion piece in The New York Times ("The Crackpot Caucus," August 23, 2012), Timothy Egan described the comments of Representative John Shimkus of Illinois, chairman of a subcommittee that oversees issues related to climate change, toward the issue of climate change. Egan reports that at a 2009 hearing Shimkus sought to assuage the concerns citizens who worried about environmental catastrophes with a biblical reassurance: "The earth will end only when God declares it to be over," Shimkus stated, and then quoted passages from the book of Genesis. 

    Egan also observed that GOP Congressman Joe L. Barton of Texas, who has defended the interests of oil companies on Capital Hill for decades, sits on the same committee. In 2010, Congressman Barton apologized to the heads of BP after the Obama administration demanded that the company agree to immediately compensate victims whose livelihoods had been destroyed because of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At one point, Egan reports that Congressman Barton questioned whether producing energy from wind turbines would contravene God's own energy plan remarking that "wind is God's way of balancing heat" and that energy from turbines "would slow the winds down" and thus could make the earth even warmer. "You can't regulate God!" Barton also rebuked the former House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, during a debate on global warming.

     A third GOP Congressman, Jack Kingston of Georgia, a 20-year veteran of the House, serves as a member of the subcommittee that oversees labor, health and education issues. During an appearance on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher" in January of 2011, Representative Kingston stated clearly that he does not believe in the process of evolution. "I believe I came from God, not from a monkey so the answer is no," he said, laughing, when asked if he subscribes to the theory. Later in the segment he added, "I don't believe that a creature crawled out of the sea and became a human being one day."

    In September of 2012, Kingston's colleague, Georgia Republican Congressman Paul Broun, opined that modern science is an instrument of the devil. During a speech before the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman's Banquet, the two-term congressman stated: "All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior." 

    Broun further explained that much of modern science has been fabricated to hide the true age of our Earth. "You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth," he told the audience. "I don't believe that the Earth's but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That's what the Bible says." Perversely, Broun, a physician who somehow obtained an M.D. from the Medical College of Georgia and received a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Georgia at Athens, currently serves on the House Committee on Science and Technology as the chairman of one of its subcommittees on investigations.

    Equally bizarre, this past summer, GOP Representative Todd Akin, who was the GOP's nominee to  represent Missouri in the U.S. Senate, suggested that the female body had natural defense mechanisms against pregnancy in the event of "legitimate rape:" "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down," he said.

    In a similar vein, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate from that state, remarked "I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother. I just struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God--that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."

    Finally, lest anyone forget, during her unsuccessful GOP presidential primary campaign,  Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Backmann ominously warned that the HPV vaccinations could cause retardation if administered to pre-adolescent girls as the Centers for Disease Control  recommended . She quoted an unnamed woman "who told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter," Bachmann opined. "There is no second chance for these little girls if there is any dangerous consequences to their bodies."

        All of these lunacies need viewed in the light of a vote that the House of Representatives took yesterday. Members of the House, following previous approval by the Senate, voted to expunge the word "lunatic" from the United States Code because its stigmatizes  people who suffer from mental health disabilities. The Associated Press reported that the lone "no" vote was cast by GOP Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas who issued a statement that "not only should we not eliminate the word 'lunatic' from federal law when the most pressing issue of the day is saving our country from bankruptcy, we should use the word to describe the people who want to continue with business as usual in Washington." The good Congressman did not explain whether his use of the word "bankruptcy" referred to this country's fiscal condition or to the current state of civic discourse, as exemplified by his GOP colleagues and their supporters.  Nevertheless, his "no" vote should be applauded.

         President Obama should veto the proposed legislation in the public interest. The English language presently lacks any other meaningful word to describe the current condition - characterized as it is by delusions, a denial of reality, fantasies, obsessive fears and auditory hallucinations from celestial voices on high - from which so many GOP legislators suffer.     


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Filibusters Only Promote Gridlock

    In so very many respects, from separation of powers and checks and balances to the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, state-sanctioned efforts to suppress voting by ordinary citizens, and the roles that unlimited sums of money and influence-peddling now play in American politics, the government of United States increasingly resembles that of banana republic, ill-equipped to meet the needs of its citizens in the twenty-first century. The U.S. Senate is a case in point.

    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and a number of  Democratic Senators-elect have proposed to amend the cloture rules of the U.S. Senate to permit filibusters to be shut off by a simple 51 vote majority of members, as opposed the present provision that requires the assent of  60 Senators to even bring legislation to the floor for consideration. Not surprisingly, Senator Reid's proposal has induced apoplexy among GOP legislators, and it has prompted the Republican noise machine to go into overdrive as it tries to persuade ordinary citizens of the benefits that accrue to them from the continuation of  political paralysis at the national level.

    Recently, in an op ed column in The Boston Globe entitled "Burning Down The Senate," (December 3, 2012).former New Hamsphire U.S. Senator and GOP propagandist John E. Sanunu extolled the existence of the filibuster. Sanunu argued that "Since the chamber's inception, the basic principles at work in the US Senate have been simple. When legislation is brought to the floor, all members are given the chance to speak and offer amendments. When they are done speaking and amending, they vote. The design protects the rights of the minority as well as the rights of individual senators, no matter their party affiliation. All the rules of the Senate are intended to facilitate -- not restrict -- this process."

    Sanunu's argument is little less than a specious attempt to defend the indefensible. Filibusters today are not intended to give Senators an opportunity to talk or to offer amendments. Rather, they are solely calculated to prevent legislation from being voted upon without even a requirement that those Senators who wish to filibuster  take to the floor and speak until exhausted or incapacitated. Nowadays, the mere threat of a filibuster is sufficient to bring the machinery of government to a standstill.    
    The concept of a Senate - whose members before the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 were appointed by the state legislatures -  was created by the framers of the Constitution as a device that would serve as a check to control the popularly-elected House of Representatives and to ensure that the interests of property owners would be protected. Article 1, ยง 3 of the U.S. Constitution guarantees each state two senators, irrespective of population. This peculiar and patently undemocratic provision was originally included in the Constitution as a compromise to protect the interests of property-owners in the original slave-holding colonies and to persuade them to accept the Constitution.

    James Madison defended the idea of a Senate and disguised his personal investment as a slave owner in that "peculiar institution" by  addressing his appeal for a new constitution to the broader interests of commerce. As he explained in The Federalist No. 62:"....great injury results from unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements.... What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will not render him a victim to an inconstant  government?....No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without possessing a certain portion of order and stability."

    Today, the Senate, despite the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment, is a deeply dysfunctional entity that primarily serves the moneyed interests and their army of lobbyists who benefit from the existing gridlock.
     Over the course of past 220 years since the Connecticut Compromise was negotiated at the Constitutional Convention, the composition of the Senate has become increasingly less representative. At present voters in rural America and in the less urbanized areas of the country exercise disproportionate political influence over this country's policies and priorities. For example, the rural and almost uniformly white state of Wyoming, with some 530,000 citizens, has the same number of U.S. Senators as the ethnically and economically diverse state of California which, as of 2009, had a population of about 37,000,000 citizens.

     The ability of a small minority of Senators to impose its will and to prevent colleagues from voting on proposed legislation is illustrated by the case of departing Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown who was defeated by Elizabeth Warren. In 2010, in his first vote as a newly-elected Senator, Brown voted to sustain a filibuster that prevented the Senate from even taking a vote on one of President Obama's nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, Craig Becker. Becker, a former lawyer for the AFL-CIO, had been chosen to fill one of the two open seats which, as a matter of policy, only a member of Democratic Party may hold. Becker's nomination was opposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National "Right To Work Committee"  which claimed that he was too pro-labor.

    The Daily Kos (May 7, 2012) reported that, thereafter, Brown supported GOP filibusters that had the backing of at least 50 Senators - measures that failed but would have passed on an up-or-down vote - 40 times out of 53 roll call votes, or 75.5% of the time.

    Prior to election of Scott Brown, the 40 Republican Senators represented only a third of the population of this country, which fact meant that Republican voters already had more representation than anyone. With the addition of Scott Brown's vote, Senate Republicans were thereafter able thwart the will of the majority of voters - who elected President Obama - and pander to the entrenched interests of the status-quo.

     In Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964) and companion cases in the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed the principle of majority rule based upon the concept of "one person, one vote." As the Court held in Reynolds, "[A]n individual's right to vote for State legislators is unconstitutionally  impaired when its weight is in a substantial fashion diluted when compared with votes of citizens living in other parts of the State." The effect the court's decisions was thus to overturn unequal voting districts in state and local elections. As applied to the federal government, this principle of equality had been previously determined  by the U.S. Supreme Court, under the rule of Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S.497(1954), to be implicit in the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
     Despite the adoption of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court has declined to extend the principle of basic voter equality to the United States Senate. Its unwillingness is undoubtedly rooted in the doctrine of separation of powers that declares the Senate to be part of co-equal branch of the government; it is perhaps also based on the misplaced theory that the United States, as a federal republic, is constitutionally permitted to treat voters unequally. (Note, however, that the doctrine of judicial abstention did not prevent five unelected justices of the Court from intervening to determine the outcome of the Presidential election in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000).)  But this reluctance by the Supreme Court to act does not obviate the fact that the U.S. Senate, as an institution, is profoundly anti-democratic and that basing its representation upon states rather than population denies all citizens the equal protection of the of the laws.

    The Founders intentionally made it difficult to amend the Constitution by declaring, in Article V of the Constitution, that any proposal to amend the constitution required a vote by 2/3ds of the Senate or the state legislatures, and then had to be approved by three-fourths of legislatures of the fifty states or conventions therein, before any such amendment could become effective.  Hence, it is virtually impossible to abolish the Senate as an institution altogether - or at very least to reorganize it by representation based upon broader geographic regions of equal population.

    Given this high hurdle, it is essential that policies and procedures that have also helped to make the Senate an institution unresponsive to the public interest need to be eliminated. Ending the filibuster and requiring  a majority vote of 51 of elected Senators, by an up or down vote,  to approve legislation or nominees proposed by the President would be a modest step toward creating a more responsive and accountable federal government.

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