Friday, December 21, 2012

A Response to the Newtown Tragedy -- Based In Logic, Torah, and the Mayan Calendar

Od Avi Chai – Joseph, Newtown, and the Mayans
Sermon for the End of the World – 12/21/12
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

So, we begin this evening with a riddle – what do Torah, the US Constitution, and an obscure Mayan calendric text have in common?  It is more than their convergence on this day – there is actually a message here, a message that virtually wrote itself in preparing for tonight.

I am pretty sure that we are ALL aware of the Mayan text by now – watching TV this morning with my kids, there were a shocking number of brand new commercials, unveiled for today’s “end of the world” prophecy.  I am also willing to bet that, no matter how little serious attention we all paid to this, how little credibility it had in or thinking and planning, many of us woke up this morning, and, even more than usual, asked “Am I still alive?”  And when, once again, we saw that we were, we went along with our normal routine and schedule for the day.  After all, here we are!  Not being Mayans, and not having taken it seriously, while this WAS still a moment of transition, it passed for all of us non-Mayans, relatively unnoticed.

Our Torah text, similarly, pivots on a poignant revelation, question, and transition.  Joseph, no longer able to maintain the charade of being an Egyptian prince before his brothers, reveals his true identity, and follows immediately with the question “Is my father still alive?”  This leads to the reunion, and a major transition for our ancestors, as they left the Promised land, and came to Egypt, in order to survive, starting the chain of events that led, ultimately, to the Exodus.

The Constitution is dragged into our discussion and our thoughts on this Shabbat in the aftermath of the tragic shooting rampage in Newtown, CT last Friday.  Our shock of last Shabbat has turned to profound sadness at the death of 26 innocent people, 20 of them first grade students, to anger at how such a thing could happen, and is hopefully now ready to turn to what can we learn from it and what changes can we make because of it.  Revelation of a tragedy, questions of why and what we can do, and now, the search for transition from the event to a better world.

Guiding that discussion, as it must, is the Second Amendment – so it becomes the text of focus on this issue.  We know it talks about the right to bear arms – but do we know what it REALLY says?  Do we know its interpretive history?  Do we understand how the current “gun culture” came to be what it is?  Can we get past our emotional reactions to a tragic event, and maintain context and perspective to get to appropriate and workable change?  These are the essential questions of the moment; the ones which, despite MANY political efforts at distracting us, need to stay in our view.

So let us begin with what the Second Amendment actually says:  A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  As a Rabbi, I know a little bit about writing, grammar, and syntax.  And I HATE the structure of this sentence from a grammatical perspective.  However, it IS the text we have. 

If the URJ Biennial was being asked to move this amendment today, it seems likely that the first clause would have been preceded by the word “Whereas,” and the second by “therefore, be it resolved that….”  And that is how I have always read it.  The statement about a well regulated militia is a factual truth, being used to explain why the right in the second clause is being established.

And I am not the only one who sees it this way.  As Jeffrey Toobin points out in an excellent item from The New Yorker, posted online, until relatively recently, the prevailing judicial understanding of this amendment had matched mine.  And, as a result, says Toobin: “In other words, according to the Supreme Court, and the lower courts as well, the amendment conferred on state militias a right to bear arms—but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.”

So, how did we get from there to Newtown, to a prevailing gun culture in which, quoting Nicholas Kristof: "More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined?"  Or, as appeared in an article in Monday’s NY Times:  "Children ages 5 to 14 in America are 13 times as likely to be murdered with guns as children in other industrialized countries, according to David Hemenway, a public health specialist at Harvard who has written an excellent book on gun violence."

The answer, in a word, or more exactly, in 3 letters, is the NRA.  And no, this is NOT going to be a diatribe against the NRA.  Just an attempt to understand the truth about where we are today and why.  Again, quoting Toobin: “Before the nineteen-seventies, the N.R.A. had been devoted mostly to non-political issues, like gun safety. But a coup d’├ętat at the group’s annual convention in 1977 brought a group of committed political conservatives to power—as part of the leading edge of the new, more rightward-leaning Republican Party. The new group pushed for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, one that gave individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms. It was an uphill struggle. At first, their views were widely scorned. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, who was no liberal, mocked the individual-rights theory of the amendment as “a fraud. 
“But the N.R.A. kept pushing…. Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 brought a gun-rights enthusiast to the White House. At the same time, Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, became chairman of an important subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he commissioned a report that claimed to find ‘clear—and long lost—proof that the 2nd amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.’ The N.R.A. began commissioning academic studies aimed at proving the same conclusion. An extreme constitutional theory, rejected even by the establishment of the Republican Party, evolved, through brute political force, into the conservative conventional wisdom.”

Ironically, given the oft-invoked conservative embrace of “originalism,” the belief that the proper meaning of the words of the Constitution was fixed at the time of ratification, and their scorn for “judicial activism,” it is hard to find a more significant example of ignoring original intent for the sake of using the judicial branch to create new law than this invented right of the individual to, without limitation, own and operate arms.

I happen to agree with a lot of what the NRA’s CEO Wayne LaPierre said today, in the organization’s first public statement on the subject, even if I reject his conclusions.  Blaming violent video games and movies, and the media is not inaccurate.  When he said that the students in Newtown might have been better protected had officials at Sandy Hook Elementary been armed, or that putting a police officer in every single school in America might make schools safer, he was expressing a speculative opinion with which I do not agree, but which is hard to refute, since it is cast in the speculative verb “might.”  I also happen to agree with his statement that "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

My problem is that we can, and need to do more to keep the bad guys from getting a gun in the first place.  We need to take steps to make everyone more secure, but also need to be careful not to create a “security state,” where we are forced to be comfortable being frisked every time we enter a building.  And my problem is that, bottom line, the NRA is nothing more than an advocacy group, and a lobbying group, for gun makers and sellers, who cloaks itself in the legitimacy of claiming to protect the rights of gun owners, and the 2nd Amendment, as they have helped to redefine it.

My problem is that our current public policy utter fails to recognize the impact of guns – real and theoretical – on our society.  Because I also agree with the following statements of inconsistent reality in our lives today.  All of these were taken off the Internet this week:

1.  “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb, and we all take off our shoes at the airport.  31 school shootings since Columbine and no changes in our regulation of guns.”  John Oliver

2.  (Picture of a senior citizen):  I have to show a photo ID at the drug store to buy Sudafed, so the government can track how much I buy, so they know I am not running a drug lab…
(Picture of a smiling young man):  I just bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition for my killing spree over the Internet.  No Id needed, and no way for the authorities to be tipped off that I might be planning something bad…

3.  “If a pre-school child hits another pre-school child with a rock, the solution is NOT to give every pre-school child and teacher a rock!”

Here is the truth – the Second Amendment still has relevance.  However, it is no longer the truth of the framers anymore, as we now HAVE both a national “militia” in the form of the Armed Forces, and local militias – the National Guard – neither of which require their members to own their own weapons.  Neither is it the absolutist vision of the NRA, in which their answer to Newtown is to arm educators and guards, and increase the armed police presence in public schools – in other words – selling more weapons.

As the 3 examples I just gave demonstrate, common sense and experience indicate that some level of governmental regulation Is possible without abridging the rights of individuals to own guns, because with that right must come responsibility.  The best model I can propose is that which goes into owning and operating an automobile.  Drivers must demonstrate proficiency and understanding of the laws of the road to earn first a learner’s permit, and then, after further testing, a license to operate.  In addition, proof of insurance and purchase must be provided to register a car before it can be legally driven.  The car must be regularly inspected to insure it safety on the road.

A gun ownership policy built on this same structure would seem to make sense.  Moreso, it seems appropriate and necessary.  However, let us be clear.  Such a system, by itself, will NOT solve all of our gun related problems.  People still operate vehicles that should not be, or drive without a license, or with willful refusal to obey the laws of the road.  Unless there are also enforcement and penalties that are balanced but perceived as a serious deterrent, such actions will not make a difference.

In addition, just as driver’s licenses exist in different categories for different vehicles, different weapons should require different approvals.  There is a difference between owning a single handgun, for personal security, or a single rifle, for hunting, and being a collector, or operating more lethal weapons.

I can see NO reasonable purpose for semi-automatic or automatic weapons in the hands of the vast majority of citizens.  Likewise, the huge ammunition clips for these weapons, or the purchase of wholesale quantities of any ammunition, or so-called “cop killer” bullets serve no useful public purpose either, and should be banned by law.

As one of my elementary school friends put it this week: “When a neighborhood has a "drug" problem... we go after the drug dealers. Well our neighborhood, the U.S. of A, has a gun problem, and we ought to go after the gun dealers. It's just that simple. Let's start talking about who sold the gun, who manufactured the gun, who made the bullets. Let's name names. Let's start shaming them into a new business. Since that's what it is. It's a business. And it kills.”

I am NOT willing to go that far.  BUT, there have to be limits.  And, if we are being honest, the NRA needs to be part of the discussion, if we hope to get the best possible results.  But, the NRA needs to stop being a lobbying group for the makers and sellers, and do what it claims to do – work for the protection of gun owners and the Second Amendment.  Otherwise, these efforts will fail, and other well-meaning Americans will come to the same conclusion as my friend, Mary.  The makers and sellers need to chose to be part of the solution.

And that brings me to my last point tonight – what can we do ourselves, to help make things better, and to feel like we are working to make a difference.  Because, if we do not, as the public, make clear our revulsion at the frequency of these massacres involving guns, do not make clear that even one Newtown is too many, then nothing will change.  Silence in this case will be interpreted as acceptance of the status quo.  And if there is ANYTHING we have all come to agree upon in the last week, the status quo is NOT acceptable.  When Joe Scarborough, who received the NRA’s highest ratings when he was in Congress, and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, equally lauded by the NRA, both respond to what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School by saying that change is needed, then, clearly, change is needed!

But there is more.  We can, and need to continue to console ourselves and our families, and work to make sure that it can never happen in our back yard, or anywhere.  We need to remind our children, and ourselves, that we will be okay and safe, not because we wish it to be true, but because we have worked to make it true.

We need to have the other difficult conversations -- about mental health care in this country, a system gutted during the Reagan years, that still is in need of repair; about the politicization of our basic safety needs; about the glorification of guns and violence in movies, video games, and more; even about how the media handle such tragedies – how many of us know the name of the shooter last week, and how many know the name of a single victim?  These secondary issues must also be addressed as part of any effective solution.

And, we need to find little things to do to feel like we are being part of the solution.  Write letters to the editor, and lobby for common sense gun reform – in the upcoming Maryland legislative session, and from our elected national leaders.

But, and this one is so easy, and even fun, let us reach out to the victims in Connecticut.  After the vacation, the students at SHES will go back to school – in a new building, to limit the impact of being back in the place of such personal trauma and loss.  We can help to make their new, temporary home a little warmer, a place of caring and healing.

Over the break, sit down with family and friends, and make some paper snowflakes.  Send them to:

“Snowflake Project”
Bonnie Marsicano
22 Pine Tree Hill Road
Newtown, CT 06470

and they will become part of the fabric of their new school home.  The mailing information is available on sheets in the lobby, and will be included in this week’s news e-mail.

In this way we can take the poignant revelation of the tragedy in Connecticut, and allow the legitimate questions it raises for us become the catalyst for significant change and improvement – for ourselves, and our world.  We embrace the example of our Torah text, and allow the first days of the new Mayan world to gain dramatic significance.  Win-win.  KYR

 This is the flyer that our members received:

Ways to Help in the Wake of Last Week’s School Shootings

Looking for a way to do SOMETHING to feel like you are helping in the aftermath of the Newtown, CT tragedy?  Here is a simple – and fun – craft project that, in a small way, makes a difference, by sending a healing message of love and support.

“Snowflake Project”

The students at Sandy Hook Elementary School will return to school after the holiday, in a new physical location, to limit the trauma of returning to the scene of the shootings.  To help them be more comfortable in their new setting, the plan is to decorate the walls with snowflakes.  And we can help!

If you have the chance over the break, sit down with family – children, grandchildren, friends – and make some snowflakes!  Use our creative energies to help.  And when you have them done, send them, with a note identifying yourself as part of Temple Solel, to:

Bonnie Marsicano
22 Pine Tree Hill Road
Newtown, CT 06470

And they will be used to brighten the new school space.

If You Want to Make Your Voice Heard

If you want to be a part of the public discussion, or let our elected officials know how we feel, DO IT!  Our silence will only be heard as acceptance of the status quo!

Write a letter to any local paper – The Washington Jewish Week, Bowie Blade-News, Crofton Crier, Annapolis Gazette, Washington Post or others.

Contact our representatives in Annapolis or Washington – your voice will be heard!

In Memory Of:

Let us change the culture of glorification of the perpetrators, by remembering the names of the victims instead:

Charlotte Bacon, 6 
                        Daniel Barden, 7 

Olivia Engel, 6                                Josephine Gay, 7 

Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 6 
           Dylan Hockley, 6

Madeleine F. Hsu, 6
                        Catherine V. Hubbard, 6 

Chase Kowalski, 7                          
Jesse Lewis, 6                                    

James Mattioli, 6 
                           Grace McDonnell, 7 

Emilie Parker, 6                              
Jack Pinto, 6

Noah Pozner, 6 
                             Caroline Previdi, 6

Jessica Rekos, 6                             Avielle Richman, 6

Benjamin Wheeler, 6                       Allison N. Wyatt, 6
Rachel Davino, 29

Dawn Hochsprung, 47, principal
Anne Marie Murphy, 52, special education teacher

Lauren Rousseau, 30, teacher
Mary Sherlach, 56, school psychologist 

Victoria Soto, 27, first grade teacher