Friday, February 22, 2013

Thoughts on Washington's Actual Birthday

Today is George Washington's real birthday — not the manufactured Presidents Day that serves as the commemoration for Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were born in February but neither of whom was born on Presidents Day.

When I was a little boy in elementary school, the practice was to recognize each president on his birthday. My teachers would decorate one bulletin board with images of Washington and another with images of Lincoln, and they would talk about each president on the appropriate day.

Then, at some point, it was decided that it was better to honor both presidents with a single day.

I don't know how or why it was decided that would be better — or for whom. Maybe Lincoln's actual birthday distracted too much from Valentine's Day two days later. More likely, it interfered with Valentine's Day sales.

Whatever the reason for it, that is how things were done when I was a little boy. And then that is what changed.

A lot of other things have changed over the years. Whether they are connected is not necessarily for me to say but rather for others to decide for themselves.

But it seems to me that the clear theme is a greater disregard for history than at any other time in my life.

That is certainly saying something. After all, history was never a popular subject when I was in school.

I'm not really sure how I developed my interest in history, actually. Seems I've always had it, and it distresses me to see the lack of respect for the lessons of history.

After all, as George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And we humans seem determined never to learn from the past.

The ongoing debate over guns is a good example of that. Proponents of what is popularly known as gun control like to speak about it in terms of need — i.e., a hunter doesn't need a certain number of bullets to kill a duck or a deer.

I never believed the Bill of Rights was about needs — other than the fact that the Founding Fathers believed that Americans needed to have their rights spelled out in writing.

In the 18th century, the right to defend yourself and your freedom against all enemies, foreign and domestic, was very important to the men who had just fought a revolutionary war against a tyrannical ruler.

Although I have done other things in my life, at heart I am — and always will be — a journalist. As such, I value things like freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which were just as important to the Founding Fathers as the right of self–defense. So was freedom of religion. And a lot of other things.

We don't speak of things like the right to a trial by a jury of one's peers as needs. We speak of such things as rights — which are, I suppose, special kinds of needs.

Free men do need to have rights that are constant and respected. And such rights cannot be doled out as gifts from the government to the masses. They aren't the government's to give — or take — away.

The Founding Fathers essentially told the generations to come that, if they lived on this land, they had all the rights (as well as the responsibilities) that come with freedom.

(And over the years, by the way, the procedure for someone from another country to become an American citizen has evolved and been spelled out clearly. Nothing has been hidden from potential citizens. There are no surprises, and all are welcome — but that is not unconditional.

(By definition, anyone who attempts to enter the United States illegally is not an immigrant. That person is an alien.)

If the government can restrict a single right that is mentioned in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, what is to prevent it from restricting other rights?

What is to keep the government from shutting down news outlets that have been critical of its performance? Or attempting to intimidate citizens to keep them from speaking out?

What is to keep the government from telling you which religious institution, if any, you may attend?

What is to keep the government from conducting all legal proceedings in private, presided over by judges who have made up their minds before hearing a single witness?

Well, that's the main problem I have with the gun control debate.

A lesser — but not inconsequential — issue I have with it is the fact that, typically, when such a tragedy occurs (whether it involves guns, public or private health and safety measures or whatever), the legislation that is usually proposed is aimed at dealing with some aspect that made the tragedy possible.

In the case of the Newtown shootings, none of the proposals I have read would have prevented that tragedy from happening.

That's frustrating, I know. I guess it's human nature — or a free human's nature — to believe there is a quick and ready solution to all of life's problems.

In this case, I have yet to find one.

The guns were purchased legally by a middle–aged woman who most likely was subjected to background checks prior to purchase. The weapons were used by her son, who had not paid for them, who had in fact killed his mother to obtain them.

They were not automatic weapons, which are the kind of weapons that spray many bullets with a single pull of the trigger. Such weapons have been strictly regulated — and deservedly so — for decades.

They were semiautomatic weapons — handguns like the ones tens of millions of Americans own to protect themselves and their families. Those Americans don't necessarily go hunting for sport — neither did the Founding Fathers, for that matter, although many, if not all, hunted for food.

That was another practical application of firearms for people of the 18th century — but it was also practical to say that free citizens had the right to defend themselves against any enemies.

I can only wonder what Washington would think of this debate.

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