Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shooting Blanks

It's been more than a week since the school shootings in Connecticut, and, until now, I have remained mostly silent on the matter.

I saw enough of the initial coverage to know what had happened, and I've kept up with developments via articles online and in newspapers — so I feel pretty well versed in the basics of the case. I'm sure there are things I don't know, but I guess I know as much as anyone who is roughly 1,400 miles removed from the scene of the crime.

Anyway, if I am channel surfing and I land on a channel that is giving its attention to the shootings, I move on to something else. Doesn't matter who it is — CNN, MSNBC, Fox News or one of the channels my mother liked to call "free world" channels (ABC, CBS, NBC).

It isn't that I don't care. I do care. Very much. Too much, probably.

But I've seen all this before. Virginia Tech. Columbine. Gabrielle Giffords. The theater in Aurora.

It was happening long before that, too. Between the time I enrolled in first grade and the time that I got my bachelor's degree, two presidents were fired upon (one was wounded), two presidential candidates were shot at (one died, one was paralyzed), a civil rights leader was killed, the pope was wounded and a former member of one of the most popular bands in history was killed.

And those were just the best–known victims of violent crime. The number of ordinary Americans — as the ones who died in Connecticut last week were — who were at least wounded by gunfire in that time must be in six digits.

Not much is said when the ordinary Americans are attacked — and that may be the most frustrating thing about all of this, that people are shot every day, but it takes something like a mass shooting or an attack on a prominent person to spark society's outrage.

When that does happen, the same things are said — and usually by the same people (or by people speaking for them or by people who have replaced them in high–profile positions) — and the same suggestions are made.

And, in the end, little or nothing gets done.

Why not?

Well, that is a complicated question.

Let's start with the typical knee–jerk response to ban automatic weapons. On the surface, that makes sense, and I supported that proposal when it was made during the Clinton presidency in the 1990s.

Problem was, it didn't work, mainly because most automatic weapons can be modified to meet legal requirements. Neither do proposals to tighten gun control laws. You see, unless we are prepared to ban private ownership of all guns and repeal the Second Amendment, guns will continue to be owned by law–abiding citizens, the vast majority of whom will never fire their guns at another human being.

The mother of the Connecticut shooter was, by all accounts, a law–abiding citizen. It was her guns, purchased legally, that were used to kill not only her but more than two dozen teachers and students at an elementary school.

That is an horrific crime, understandably repugnant to most of us. And there is an equally understandable desire to do something.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to press for tighter gun control. And it would make sense to propose it — except the gunman did not purchase the guns.

Stricter gun control laws might create more hoops for people like the gunman's mother to jump through to acquire a gun, and that might be emotionally satisfying, but it will never prevent a mentally disturbed friend or relative from taking guns that were legally purchased by someone else and using them the way Adam Lanza did.

Here's another fly in the ointment. I keep hearing all this talk about automatic weapons, which is irrelevant if you really want to talk about laws that can prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.

The weapons Lanza used were not automatic weapons. They were semi–automatic weapons. I have never owned a gun, but even I know there is a considerable difference between automatic weapons, which are capable of spraying bullets with a single squeeze of the trigger, and semi–automatic weapons, which fire one bullet every time the trigger is pulled.

Most privately owned weapons are semi–automatics — so calls to ban automatic weapons are pointless. That will do nothing about the kind of weapons that were used in Newtown, Conn.

As usual, there have been those who have indicted video games and violent movies and TV programs. Lanza reportedly played a lot of video games, and there is a case to be made, as there has been for a long time, that the entertainment industry, with its ready embrace of violence, bears a certain amount of responsibility for this kind of thing.

But there is no one–size–fits–all solution to the general problem of violence and the specific problem of guns.

This is mostly an exercise in primal group grief. I think there are some people (although they will never admit it, I'm sure) who simply live for the times when they can mourn loudly and openly on their favorite soapbox.

I'm sure they are sincere about their grief — so was I when I was younger and something shocking happened — but I can't help feeling that many are lashing out at something they can't understand.

At the same time, gun rights advocates are put on the defensive. I have known many gun owners in my life, and I'm sure that most of them would never even think of shooting at a bunch of first–graders — nor would most think of shooting at a bunch of theater patrons at a midnight movie — but they are made to feel as guilty as if they had pulled the trigger themselves.

So they feel compelled to make ludicrous counterproposals, like suggesting armed guards in every school — a good old–fashioned concentration camp atmosphere, I suppose, to go along with the traditional instruction in the three R's.

Or the suggestion is made that God needs to be returned to the classroom — as if this sort of thing didn't happen when schoolchildren recited the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of every school day and all we need to do to stop this is to start reciting the Lord's Prayer again.

These are variations on familiar themes, and they point to some unpleasant (and usually ignored) truths that, nevertheless, must be acknowledged.

The central truth is that there is evil — or whatever you choose to call it — in the world. How else can one explain an adult man walking into an elementary school and deliberately shooting at small children?

Because the very thought is so appalling, people assume that the weapons that were used must have been automatic weapons. That, at least, would explain why the victims suffered multiple gunshot wounds. In that scenario, the gunman pulled the trigger once and several bullets were fired at the target.

But the weapons were semi–automatic, and that means that the assailant had to fire at each victim several times on purpose. The medical examiner has confirmed that each victim was shot at least three times.

That is evil. There is no other word for it.

Another truth that needs to be acknowledged is the fact that mental health issues often go untreated in our society, and that needs to change. Inevitably, it seems, mental illness figures prominently in mass shootings.

From what I have read, Lanza was identified as an at–risk youth fairly early on. He came from a reasonably affluent family that was able to provide him with treatment that many families probably could not, and the educators in his life apparently made many efforts to help as well.

Those efforts, however, clearly — and tragically — failed.

There are no easy answers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Daniel Inouye

During the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, the attorney
for H.R. Haldeman called Daniel Inouye "that little Jap."

When I think of Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who died yesterday at the age of 88, I think of his soft–spoken dignity during the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings.

As Emma Brown observed in a Washington Post obituary, Inouye "rarely sought the media spotlight" in more than half a century of service in Congress. That seemed especially true during the days of Watergate,

In an age when bipartisanship is a popular buzzword, though, Inouye's absence is likely to be felt. He didn't just give lip service to such concepts, he lived them.

I didn't grow up in Hawaii, where Inouye was a well–known figure before Hawaii became a state in 1959. If I had, I would know more about his life than I do. But I still know quite a bit about him.

He served with distinction in World War II and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Clinton. He was a member of Hawaii's first congressional delegation as its representative in the House, and he became a senator in 1963. Only Robert Byrd of West Virginia served in the Senate longer.

When Byrd died in 2010, Inouye, by virtue of being the most senior member of the majority party in the Senate became its president pro tempore, a title he held until his death. Constitutionally, that made him third in the line of presidential succession behind the vice president and the House speaker.

Most of what I know about Inouye I learned from watching the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. As a Democrat investigating the campaign activities of a Republican president and his staff, Inouye may have felt additional pressure to be fair, but my impression was that it was a genuine aspect of his personality.

Anyway, there were times when the testimony of the president's men offended him, and it showed. Another thing that showed was his eagerness to see the best in people.

"You are a wise man," I remember Inouye saying comfortingly to Watergate burglar Bernard Barker.

"If I were a wise man," Barker replied, "I probably would not be sitting here right now."

Inouye was the last surviving Democrat from the Senate Watergate Committee. Two Republican members survive him — Howard Baker of Tennessee and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Memories of a Mentor

It is my understanding that the word mentor has its roots in Greek mythology.

It was the name of a contemporary and friend of Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) who befriended and advised Odysseus' son. Because of Mentor's relationship with the younger man, over the centuries his name has come to mean someone who shares what he has learned with a younger and less experienced comrade.

Well, that's my understanding, anyway. I really have only a modest background in mythology, and I could be wrong.

Nearly everyone has a mentor, I suppose — to some degree. A few of us thrive in spite of growing up in adverse conditions — including not having an older and wiser influence to keep us grounded and focused — but, thankfully, for most of us, there always seems to be a teacher, a minister, a professional role model.

Someone. Usually several someones.

In my case, it was a man named John Ward. He was the editor of my hometown newspaper, the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark. I met him through my mother, who must have known nearly everyone in my hometown. I'm not sure when that was, but it was long before he actually became my mentor.

He actually became my mentor, I guess, when I was in high school. I had always been interested in writing, and my mother encouraged me to apply that interest to newspaper writing. As a result, she prodded me to seek John's counsel, and he was quite obliging.

Many were the days I spent in his newsroom office as a teenager, learning from him and soaking up the wisdom he had acquired. My memory is that John was a large, gregarious man, larger than life in many ways — although perhaps he only seemed so to me.

I know he was a presence in the community, helping to establish Toad Suck Daze, an annual festival in my home county that gets its name from an actual town along the Arkansas River. He was an accomplished musician and probably performed at the early Toad Suck Daze festivals although that would have been after I left Conway.

He was an admirer of Winthrop Rockefeller and played important roles in both his gubernatorial candidacy and statehouse tenure. John wrote two books about Rockefeller, the first of which I bought and gave to my mother. She enjoyed it so much that she asked me to get him to sign it, which I did.

After Mom died, I kept that book. John's inscription read, "To Mary Goodloe, a wonderful friend and a lady I admire very much. ... Glad you enjoyed this. I wish now I could write it all over again."

Those weren't empty words. When John said something, he meant it.

John gave me my first freelance assignments and showed me, when I brought him my earliest journalistic efforts, what I needed to do differently. Somewhere in some musty microfilm room — or wherever such data is stored these days — you can see (if you want to, that is) my first bylines.

Shortly thereafter, I got my first bylines in my high school newspaper followed by my first bylines in my college newspaper — and, after that, my first bylines as a professional writer. I like to think that the stories that followed those early bylines got progressively better; and, if that is so, it is in large part because of John's influence on me.

A life in writing had been launched, for good or ill, and John had been the one to smash the champagne bottle at its christening.

John died a week ago, and I have been trying to think of a way to honor him.

And I have concluded that the best way is what I've been doing.

For the last 2½ years, I have been an adjunct journalism instructor in the local community college system, sharing with my students what I learned in my years of newspaper work.

But I have come to realize that my students are getting more than that. They are getting the benefit of wisdom I acquired from John — and it is often shared, I have discovered, in the same words he used when he shared his wisdom with me.

Such are the often subtle ways a mentor influences.

For all I know, they may have been the same words that were shared with John many years before that. Who knows the lineage of a pearl of wisdom? My students don't know it, but what I tell them is never something that I was the first to discover. Journalism is like anything else. There are truths about it that remain constant.

Sometimes, I must admit, I feel like a bit of a plagiarist when I share things with my students that John or my college mentor, Roy Reed, told me — but I guess that's a reflection of my training. I always feel compelled to attribute that knowledge to my source (even if it wasn't the original source of the knowledge).

I feel I learned from the best. There are/were others almost as good — but none was better.

Thanks, John. Vaya con Dios, amigo.