Saturday, April 20, 2013

Heroes, Criminals and Cowards


            We’ve seen it all this week, haven’t we?  The good, the bad and the ugly.  

            I think we can all agree on the “good.”  I’m referring to the first responders up in Boston who put their own lives on the line so that our collective national nightmare could finally come to rest.  

Do you remember that classic Seinfeld episode, “The Fire,” when George Costanza noticed a fire breaking out during a children’s birthday party, and proceeded to sprint out of the house, pushing aside children, seniors, and even the clown in the process?   Our first responders are the anti-Costanzas.  They will gladly put their own lives on the line to protect everyone else’s – and they’ll do it for little pay and no fanfare.  Hardworking, risk-taking, selfless and anonymous – those are our society’s greatest heroes. 

            Twelve years ago in 9/11, we all saw exactly what can happen when things go horribly wrong for our first responders.   This week, thankfully, they fared better.  But we still must not forget the heroism of M.I.T. policeman Sean Collier, who died in the line of duty, or his friend, transit officer Richard Donohue, who was seriously injured.  These men should become reminders of how fortunate we are that so many people are still willing to serve as police officers, fire fighters, soldiers, or security guards.  We don’t particularly celebrate them, remunerate them, or even pay much attention to them.   Instead, we take them for granted.   But my guess is that they wouldn’t mind being taken for granted.  They want us to go about our lives without having to worry about the constant threats that reside beneath the surface.  They know full well all of the dangers that lurk around the bend, but they want us to feel secure nonetheless.  They’re more than happy to tackle those threats themselves.   And why?   Because they are heroes.  This week, their behavior doesn’t need any fuller explanation than that.

            Men like Collier and Donohue are profiles in courage.  So, too, are men like the Tsarnaev Brothers.   I have no trouble calling them courageous.  Of course, I also have no trouble calling them evil sociopaths, whose spirit has less value to me than that of an ant.   

            In holding that perspective, I am probably in the minority.  Many would point out that even “sick” men like the Tsarnaev Brothers are human beings, made in the “image of God”, who for that reason alone deserve to be treated with respect – and should never be compared unfavorably to a mere insect.  I won’t comment as to whether, as a legal matter, they should be granted the same “rights” that are available to other human beings.  But as a moral matter, I see these two young men not much differently than I see cancer cells.  When all is said and done, their purpose on this planet is to destroy it – life, security, happiness, you name it.  They have chosen the path of hatred, cruelty, and even murder.  So while, as an abstract matter, I can acknowledge that they are cut from the same divine cloth as the rest of us … I can say the same thing about the cancer cell, or the ant.   And personally, if we were allowed in the future to have far more ants and far fewer people like the Tsarnaev Brothers, I’d be thrilled.

As for my claim that these two brothers are courageous, I recognize that this goes against conventional wisdom.   It has become de rigueur to refer to terrorists as “cowards.”  When that started I don’t know, but I was recently listening to a tape of Bill Clinton’s post-OK City bombing press conference, and sure enough – he referred to the then-unknown bomber as a “coward.”  Similarly, that was the ubiquitous term that the media used to refer to the 9/11 perpetrators.   And it was trotted out again this week in Boston.

Are these mass murderers really cowards?  By engaging in these acts of unfathomable brutality, don’t these terrorists immediately become marked men?   Don’t they immediately risk their lives and their freedom for their cause?   And regardless of what we think of that “cause” – and I cannot possibly think less of it – doesn’t it mangle the English language to say that these people lack courage?  That, it seems, is the one classical virtue they do possess, though I should add that their stories are grim lessons in how courage, when not coupled with empathy and rationality, is actually a vice.   

            I’ve been wondering this week why our politicians and media figures persist in using the “coward” label to refer to terrorists.  Why is that word used above all others?   The answer, I believe, stems from the fact that an act of terror is an act of war.   And in a nation like America,  whose military is second to none in size and which is geographically removed from the world’s major hotspots, terrorist acts are the type of warfare that threaten us the most.  As a result, when we are hit, our immediately reaction is to lurch into macho mode.   We are “tough,” we are “strong,” we are “resolute.”  And our enemies?  They are “gutless” and “weak,” and we will “destroy” them.  

            The problem with this talk is that it skews our understanding of the situation.  It causes us to underestimate terrorists when we don’t even acknowledge that they have the courage of their convictions.  And perhaps even more importantly, it prevents us from dealing with some of the root causes of terror.  When you take a world with modern weapons technology and throw in an ample supply of seemingly never-ending international conflicts, you’re going to have terror.   So why not redouble our efforts to work for peace?   The answer is that every time a terrorist act occurs, we don’t speak with the voices of peaceniks – we don’t chastise our enemies for their lack of compassion, or talk about how we will be resolute in working for just resolutions of international disputes.  No, we call the enemies cowards, and talk about how big and tough we are.   And so, the cycle continues – more mayhem, more macho responses, and no lessons get learned.

            What do you say, for just a few minutes today, we stop reveling in our toughness.  What do you say, for just a few minutes, we start thinking about compassion.   I won’t ask that we feel that emotion for the Tsarnaev Brothers – that may be too much to ask.   But I’m thinking about all the innocent people around the world who are being victimized by violence and oppression.  Can’t we do something to help them?   In fact, isn’t it our obligation to try?   Maybe we’re not heroes, like the first responders, but even if we’re unwilling to risk our lives, can we not devote a little time to a cause that is grounded in compassion?  Think about it.

            So, I’ve spoken about the good (the heroes) and the bad (the criminals).  But what about the ugly?  We’ve seen that pop up this week as well.   And as is so often the case lately, we’ve seen it pop up in none other than Capitol Hill.

            Those who read my post last week could probably tell that I honestly expected background-check legislation to pass.  I assumed that since 90 percent of the American public supported it and since the powers-that-be were allowing it to come up for a vote, how could it fail?  

            Silly me.  I should have realized that when it comes to taking on the NRA, legislators in Washington don’t vote their conscience.  I should have realized that given the current crop of homo sapiens who populate the nation’s capital, anything the NRA will oppose is D.O.A. – unless and until the American public demonstrates during an election that they will vote out all moderates who side with the NRA. 

            The focus of my attention when it comes to the background-check vote is precisely the moderates in the Senate.  Unlike some, I don’t begrudge the hard-right Senators for their decision to oppose the bill.   I will give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they are wildly pro-gun, they are legitimately concerned that a victory for the gun-control movement on this bill would have emboldened that movement, and for that reason alone, they needed to oppose the measure.   In other words, I will grant them what I granted the Tsarnaev Brothers – that they have the courage of their convictions.  

            My issue is with those folks who truly supported the bill but dared not vote against it, lest the NRA target them during primary season.   According to conservative Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, there were 15 Senators who would have voted for the bill had the NRA not “scored” it.   That’s a polite way of saying that 1/3 of the Senators who blocked the bill are, in fact, cowards.  They – and not the gun-zealots who joined them – are the true villains of the vote.  They are the ones who have decided to put their own re-election above not only the views of their constituents but their own consciences.   

            So, who are these fifteen men and women?  I honestly don’t know.  And perhaps I don’t want to know, because if I did, I’d probably throw money against them in the next election, and most likely, they’d win anyway.  So it is with incumbents in Congress who are consumed above all else with self-preservation.   But let’s not forget what these “statesmen” accomplished this week.  They pulled a Costanza.  They saw a potential fire (the NRA taking them on), got the hell out of harm’s way, and in the process, made sure that children, seniors, and maybe even a clown or two, will get shot and killed in the future because criminals will continue to be able to buy guns without a background check.   

            When Costanza did it, it was funny.  When Senators do it, it is just plain ugly.


Stacey said...

I haven't been reading much lately, just listening to radio. And crying. Overly emotional I suppose, but no one is perfect.
Thank you for this piece. I couldn't agree with you more (and maybe you are preaching to the choir, unfortunately). So the question now is: how did past generations instill respect for all human (and other) living things to us, and how do we teach this to more human beings? Are we doomed to destroy ourselves, or is the force for good stronger than the force for evil? It's so hard to believe in good at these times...Thanks again.

Daniel Spiro said...

I continue to believe that we are not doomed to destroy our species or our planet, in their entirety. But I do believe we are doomed to wreak a whole lot of destruction to our species and our planet. Just being honest.