By Michael Bryan
I'd like to let you all know that Drinking Liberally will be meeting this week at the regular time and place (Wednesday, 6pm at The Shanty). This week our guest is... Me! I will be presenting the Propositions that will appear on this November's ballot (and a few that might not be...). We'll discuss the pros and cons (where such exists) and a have a few beers. For a preview, or if you can't make it, you can take a look at my 2012 Ballot Prop Guide.
I personally read almost every news source in Arizona - and keep up with national reaction to our politics, as well. I do it to bring you readers of BlogForArizona the Arizona Donkey Feed, which appears on our right-hand sidebar every day (you may also have the Feed emailed to you daily). Sometimes the avalanche of information available in our 24/7 news cycle can be overwhelming. I do generally succeed in keeping the Feed topically restricted to Arizona politics. But it is a lot of noise to sort through, so, I decided I might like to sit down once a week and take some time to look around, and try to get some perspective on the news.
This week, I chose to present an extended rumination on the Jared Loughner plea and the Arpaio trial. I sense some connections that might not be entirely obvious.
Read more after the click...
Jared Loughner will be accepting a plea deal that will result in his spending the rest of his life in prison without possibility of release in exchange for avoiding the death penalty. There is some concern in his psychological evaluation about his ability to remain competent throughout any extended litigation.
This resolution may bring some measure of closure to those affected by this travesty. But nothing can possibly restore the loss, or assuage the pain that Loughner's psychotic break and shooting rampage caused his victims, their families, and our community. It is all too easy, and understandably tempting, to look at the legal resolution of a case like this and consider it the period at the end of this terrible chapter of Arizona's story.
It's not. If anything it is only a ellipsis as this incident merges with those all-to-similar terrifying incidents being visited upon families and communities across the country. I'm not the first to point out that Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Virginia Tech, and Oikos University, and Columbine, and all the many lesser-known tragedies are but points on a trail that leads back to our seeming inability to place reasonable restrictions on assault and high-capacity weapons, or to fix the gaping holes in our nation's institutional response to mental health problems.
This rash of shootings points to systemic failures of our ability to effectively address our most pressing problems. Our political system seems to be incapable of any rational and methodical response to the underlying problems of mental health care and easy access to weapons of mass murder, not to mention the host of other dire problems we face. That systemic failure engenders a reasonable anger, frustration, and fear in the people. If we cannot take reasonable steps to secure our communities, many will demand irrational and counter-productive ones just to see something being done.
This is not a new phenomenon; it has happened again and again in our public life recently.
It happened after 9/11. We tore apart our Constitution and un-moored ourselves from our moral foundations seeking ways to combat the insecurity that ghastly attack engendered. We still live with that legacy: in the systems of warrantless surveillance we now tolerate; in the continuing legal and ethical snarl that is Guantanamo; in the misguided and meandering war in Iraq. We wasted trillions in treasure and thousands of lives thrashing our way toward some perceived security because our political system seemed incapable of any rational response to terrorism. We sought security through military means which were, in large part, inappropriate to achieving that goal and engendered massive and perhaps still unforeseen consequences.
Similar reactions occurred here in Arizona, and across the country, in response to growing numbers of illegal immigrants in our communities. Human societies have never, even in the best of times and circumstances, reacted well to a perceived incursion by outsiders. Expecting most people to react to strangers with kindness, openness and understanding assumes a degree of trust and cosmopolitanism that few possess. With so many feeling insecure economically and culturally, many reacted strongly and negatively to the influx of outsiders into their communities. Those immigrants were moving in response to major economic incentives - income disparities, NAFTA, the collapse of domestic farming in Mexico, and a booming demand for cheap and tractable labor here in America - which our political system seemed unable and unwilling to address or ameliorate. Many reasonably sought security through the only avenue our political system seemed capable of delivering: criminal sanctions and brute militaristic tactics.
And there was no shortage of politicians willing to provide that illusion of security and action that people demanded - Sheriff Joe Arpaio among them. If our political system had proven incapable of creating any rational and coordinated response to the challenge of a large and undocumented wave of Mexican immigration, there were those willing to pedal irrational and ad hoc responses in exchange for votes, money and veneration. Arpaio was in the right place, and of sufficiently venal temperament, to provide the abusive saturation patrols, racial profiling, and hateful rhetoric that gave people an illusion of progress toward a solution. Luckily, our legal system still retains the political will and support to curb abuses of citizens' rights by one as lowly as Arpaio, though perhaps not those as lofty as a President, or a Congress.
I don't believe that everyone who supports Arpaio is a racist (though many are), some are merely fed-up and willing to accept the only responses that our political system had on offer. Abusing civil and human rights is not an appropriate or useful response to the real problems caused by un-managed immigration, nor to the threat of terrorism. But if our political system is unable to provide rational and effective policy responses to these very real security problems, many will settle for irrational and ineffective ones.
I worry what inappropriate and irrational responses our broken political system might offer to the problem of spree murdering psychopaths and home-grown domestic terrorists.
If the last decade has demonstrated anything, it is that some portion of the electorate will support any response to their need for security and peace of mind - even wildly counter-productive and patently ineffective ones.
If I were of a conspiratorial turn of mind, I might suspect that our political system's inability to produce rational and effective policy in response to such major challenges to our security is not a bug, but a feature. When vested interests who extract major rents from these problems and their ineffective and even counter-productive policy responses (such as private prisons, consumers of cheap labor, financial interests facilitating the drug trade, arms dealers, military contractors, private intelligence services, etc.) are able to effectively bribe our political elites to prevent more effective responses, the electorate is left with little option other than despondency and surrender, or to demand yet more of the same ineffective policies.
The criminal justice system and the military embody the monopoly of the State on the use of force. When social problems fail to be effectively addressed at their roots, many will support the deployment of coercive force, which provides a comforting illusion of control. The resulting "get tough" approach is seldom very effective in actually curtailing a social ill or ameliorating a source of insecurity, but merely provides a plausible claim by those in power that everything possible is being done to meet the challenge, and a comforting illusion of control in the minds of the electorate. Meanwhile the underlying problem remains unaddressed or obscured, and effective policy is incrementally removed from the realm of political possibility, or even discussion.
Rather than invest is our schools and infrastructure, require work to provide an adequate income, extend an adequate safety net, and decriminalize drugs to focus on treatment in order to address poverty and crime, we will turn our cities into war zones financed by the illegal drug trade, turn our police into para-military auxiliaries, and allow our prisons to devolve into massively expensive hell pits spawning ever more dangerous criminals in order to manage the underclass and fight the "War on Drugs".
Rather than fix our immigration and labor systems, assist Mexico in developing a sustainable economy for its people, and working to integrate those here without documentation into civil society and the legal labor pool in order to reduce and manage immigration, we will build private detention facilities, create massively costly and ineffective security systems on the border, allow hundreds to die needless deaths in the desert, and undermine the civil rights and dignity of Latino Americans and residents to provide the rest with an illusion of control.
Rather than identify real terrorist threats with human intelligence, cooperation among Muslims of good-will, and cultural and religious understanding and dialog in order to identify, marginalize, isolate and apprehend terrorists, we build a puzzle palace of private intelligence consultants, a swarm of deadly drones raining terror on innocent and guilty alike, and forward military bases all over the Middle East at a cost of billions and massive ill-will, then shred our own Constitution, reducing our own citizens to a mass of cowering suspects in order that we can burn the haystacks in search of the rare needles.
Who benefits? Not us. Not the people. Not American society.
Domestic terrorists and spree killers pose a new challenge to our sense of security. They strike in our places of political gathering, in our places of entertainment, in our places of worship, in our places of learning - everywhere and anywhere in our communities. What is the response from our political system? Criminal justice after the fact, perhaps; but never sound and effective policy to prevent the terror these people bring to our lives. What irrational and ineffective, but politically and financially profitable responses will be allowed by our dysfunctional and sclerotic political system? What rights and privileges will we be asked to surrender?
I don't know. People are only starting to realize that these rampages are not isolated accidents. They are becoming a regular feature of American life. And people will not put up with it. People will demand a response. Given that reasonable and effective policies to deal with the root causes - mental health care and access to mass killing weapons - are effectively foreclosed by claims of austerity and declarations of the supremacy of a twisted view of the 2nd Amendment over all other rights, I fear what unreasonable and ineffective, but emotionally satisfying, substitutes our political system might offer.