Wednesday 29 August 2012

Legal Menace

After the murder of 12 people and the wounding of 58 by a seriously deranged shooter in Aurora, CO I decided to let the dust settle before broaching gun control - or lack thereof.

But with the country awash in upwards of 300 million guns it’s hardly surprising that the carnage continues unabated. A white skinhead supremacist, so stupid that he couldn’t tell the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim, took out 6 more people in their house of worship scarcely a week later.

How can a criminally insane person manage to acquire an AR-15 assault rifle, a Remington 12-gauge 870 shotgun, two 40-caliber Glock handguns and 6000 rounds of ammunition?

A simple answer – without breaking a sweat; James Holmes, the Colorado suspect, was perfectly within his rights. Guy could have bought 60,000 rounds through the Internet with little more hassle than ordering a dozen albums from his favorite bands.

Just as Wade Michael Page could legally purchase a 9-millimeter handgun at a local gun store, despite the fact that he had a criminal record, a long and storied history of involvement in the white supremacist movement, and was dismissed from the US Army “without an honorable discharge.”

Ever met a white supremacist skinhead bigot? Well, let’s just say they’re not exactly the type you’d take home to Mom. But what’s a gun store employee to do. This creep had the law on his side – no matter how crazy, hateful and ignorant he may have been.

When will this madness end - this craven bending of the knee to the National Rifle Association? Well, not while we have the current brace of politicians running in the presidential elections.

One could hardly have expected any principled stand from Mr. Romney – while Governor of Massachusetts he supported an assault weapon ban and embraced strong anti-gun laws. However, as soon as he departed Red Sox Nation he joined the NRA and now boasts of his skill at blowing the hell out of “small varmints.”

President Obama, on the other hand, supposedly supports a renewed ban on assault rifles along with background checks on those purchasing weapons at gun shows. But, hey, a guy’s got to get elected in the fall. So mum’s the word on requiring the like of Holmes and Page to prove that they’re sane enough to be entrusted with the death-dealing sophistication of modern firepower.

In fairness to Mr. Obama, he’d have plenty of time come November to pen a new memoir if he did speak out. Or would he?

Hillary Clinton would now be president if she’d had the courage to speak out against the soon-to-be disastrous invasion of Iraq back in 2003. A week can be a long time in politics, nine years an eternity.

Why so? The Internet – where ideas of taste, manners and opinion can be swept away in a manner unthinkable a decade ago. A lone gunman with an AR-15 in rush hour Grand Central Station could trigger some first class national soul searching.

The ban on the sale of such weapons of mass-destruction was let slip into abeyance in 2004 by a cowardly congress afraid to speak up for fear of provoking NRA financial and organizational muscle.

The Second Amendment is now seen as untouchable, though its original conceit was that citizen militias bearing their own weapons could be quickly summoned, thus negating the need for an expensive standing army.

The truth is, the mania for gun ownership is of pretty recent vintage. For instance, there are few mentions of gunfire during New York’s 1863 Draft Riots.
Despite Hollywood fantasies, guns were not that prevalent on the Western frontier and cowboys were required to check theirs in with local sheriffs on their occasional visits to towns.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) estimates that 1.5 million guns were produced in the US in 1950, while this figure had shot up to over 5 million by 2010.

Those figures speak for themselves; just as the murder and general mayhem will continue until the myth of the gun and the invincibility of the NRA are challenged by ordinary citizens willing to confront a legal menace that threatens us all.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

My Heart Is in the Highlands

Isn’t it odd how the stray dream of another person can so influence our lives?

My niece had a yearning to get married in a Scottish castle; she mentioned if often but since the man of her dreams took his time about showing up, we didn’t have to confront the consequences.

Then one frigid December the family found itself strolling down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and soon thereafter heading out to the countryside to fulfill a little girl’s dream.
I had never been to Scotland before. God only knows why, for I love the music, the people, the very thought of the place. In the rush and joy of a weekend wedding, however, it’s hard to take a sounding of a whole country. But I resolved to return and last month I did.

It was like coming home. It’s not just that Scotland is like Ireland – for there are many differences; it’s just that there’s a sense of – dare I say it – a spiritual familiarity.

Once more I was back on the Royal Mile. What a remarkable setting, it stretches up steep cobblestone streets to a perfectly preserved medieval castle as notable for its fairytale setting as for a lingering grimness.

Perhaps that dichotomy is a metaphor for Scotland and its history. The story of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, played out within Edinburgh castle. She gave birth there to her baby, James who would later unite the crowns of England and Scotland. You can even visit the carefully preserved room where she delivered the wee spindly prince who would go on to commission the King James Bible and, and unlike his mother, keep his own head.

Down “the mile” stands the house of John Knox, a founder of Presbyterianism, who made life a hell for Catholic Mary. But you’d be wise to step carefully around the many adjoining alleyway for the ghosts of writers like Robert Louis Stephenson and Robbie Burns careen and carouse past still searching for that perfect word or rhyme.

Still, the Highlands were calling. Weeks later I’m still transfixed by mountains and glens, rivers and mist, heather and cloudy peaks, all shrouded with a deep sense of mystery and even foreboding.

If you’ve never been to the Isle of Skye, go! The beauty is staggering, and it boasts two of the best bands in the world, the Celtic trance dance Peatbog Faeries, and Runrig, now in its 40th year (think of U2 with less Bono and more content.)

But the wellspring of Scotland can be found on the barren, boggy, bloodstained fields of Culloden where Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated and the Jacobite cause finally squashed by the Hanoverian kings of England.

This battlefield evokes the same tragic loneliness as Gettysburg; but the defeat at Culloden had even more consequences. England and a reluctant Scotland were united, the clearances of the highlands began, and the brutally evicted crofters went on to seed Canada and the American states.

Ireland was no less affected. Without the repeal of the penal laws by the longed for Catholic Jacobite king, the vast majority of people had to endure another hundred years of tyranny that culminated in the Potato Famine of 1845-47.

Would there have even been an independent United States of America had a Stewart ruled rather than mad King George III?

Mere grist for the mill now but the Jacobite flame never went out in Scotland. It often flickered but remained alive in the music, the poetry, and the desire of a people to speak for themselves. The Scottish Nationalist Party – once a joke – is now the majority political party in a self-governing national parliament.

In 2014 there will be a referendum on independence from London. Who knows the outcome, but one thing for sure – the slaughter at Culloden has not been forgotten. The wheel turns and the “what if” of the Jacobite defeat of 266 years ago has come full cycle.

There’s a rough magic astir in the glens again. Go over and experience it. I guarantee you’ll feel very much at home.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Waterloo Sunset

It was one of those warm Irish summers. Or do all teenage summers seem warm in the rear mirror?

I spent much of that August in Rosslare Strand hanging around my Aunt’s seaside caf√© while the jukebox pumped out future classics from scratchy 45’s.

Wexford was mad about music and moved to the inexorable beat of Luxembourg, Caroline, and the BBC. No one would be caught dead listening to Radio √Čireann, except when the county hurling team made it to the All-Ireland Final, and that was rare enough.

You can still catch echoes of those long-ago radio hits in the lanes and backstreets of Wexford town. Teddyboys on the cusp of 70 saunter by whistling Buddy Holly tunes; while skinheads who have long since hung up their bovver boots strut past in Ska unison.

I guess that’s why my Aunt Elsie’s jukebox was so eclectic for she encouraged the local aficionados to stock the machine, even while bemoaning the fact that they’d all “go deaf from the bloody volume!”

On hot days she hauled that jukebox out on the desiccated lawn that skirted the cafe. The teds, skinners, country chaps in their Sunday best, and townie girls abrim with peroxide curls followed, and soon that lawn throbbed and bopped to a host of different drummers. That’s where I first noticed the girl from Kelly’s Hotel.

She was so obviously from Dublin, down for a fortnight with her sisters and drawn to my Aunt’s by the magic of the music and the teenage compulsion to be as far away from her parents as possible.

You had to be of a certain class to stay in hotels back then, particularly luxurious Kelly’s. Through discreet inquiries I found out she was from Foxrock, for nothing moved on Rosslare Strand without my aunt’s knowledge.

Had it not been for the music I would have left it at that – after all there was a huge divide between the leafy avenues of Dublin’s stockbroker belt and the graveled back-lanes of Wexford town. But I loved everything that girl played on the battered jukebox. It was as if we were twins of taste separated by birth.

Twins we might have been but not in appearance. She had long dark hair, sea-green eyes, and moved with the ineffable confidence of a girl soon to be a woman. I, on the other hand, was a jumbled mass of red hair, freckles and every manner of doubt and insecurity known to a teenage boy.

All such concerns evaporated the day she played Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks. Noticing my fevered approval she smiled at me; I was so taken aback that I turned a shade more vivid than a ripe beetroot.

What matter, I now had a plan! From that day on, the moment she set foot on my aunt’s lawn I played “our song.”

Her sisters soon caught on and teased her unmercifully, but it never stymied her sweet smile of appreciation. Many times I thought of speaking to her but I just couldn’t summon the nerve. Anyway, I figured I’d run into her at some teenage hop – where hopefully I’d be strutting my stuff in the coolest of cool beat-groups.

If music threw us together, it also kept us apart. As luck would have it I was hired to play bass in a professional band. It was a tough, exhilarating gig playing mostly to teds and skinners all hepped up on cider and testosterone.

By the time I got back to Rosslare, the girl with the sea-green eyes had gone home. The years passed in a blur, music took me to Dublin and eventually New York. Once, while home on vacation, I asked my Aunt what had become of the girl.

“She married young, a medical student; he’s a doctor now and they still come to Kelly’s every summer with their two children.”

She’s probably a granny now but I wonder if the girl with sea-green eyes ever thinks of a long-ago teenaged summer whenever she hears Waterloo Sunset? I know I do.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Bloomberg, Jefferson & Supersizing

Where do you stand on Mayor Bloomberg’s desire to impose 16-ounce limits on sugared drinks? As ever opinions are likely to split on one’s political views or, even more likely, on whether you lean towards the rights of the individual or the community.

In any case the argument is probably hypothetical, as most people tend to agree that enforcing such a law would be difficult.

And yet, Hizzoner has definitely succeeded in placing the prickly issues of health, obesity, and cost to the community full square in the public eye. Besides, one can never underestimate the clout of an extremely rich man – who would have imagined ten years ago that you could get ossified in your local saloon without smelling like an ashtray the next day.

But should government get involved in these matters? Shouldn’t one be allowed to choose one’s own poison? Such valid thoughts surely flit through the mind of any self-respecting individualist.

These opinions hold less appeal for the community-minded citizen concerned with national health, not to mention footing the bill for a country’s fast-food nutritional misadventures.

To add fat to the fire – no pun intended - Type 2 Diabetes, the fastest rising health issue in the US, is caused primarily by a diet high in sugar and fat intake.

And since a certain percentage of people suffering from obesity do not have health insurance and are treated for little or no charge in hospital emergency rooms - thus driving up health insurance premiums - we find ourselves back in the realm of health care policy.

Oh dear, how did an innocuous 20-ounce container of Pepsi or Sprite land us head first back in the thorny fields of the Affordable Health Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare?

Perhaps because health care as a percentage of the federal budget is rivaled only by defense costs, and since we seem to have finally come to a national consensus that we can’t afford to invade any other countries, health – or lack thereof – has become a huge political football.

Now few politicians with an eye to the future will mess with Medicare, since all of us feel that if we can somehow make it to 65 we’re entitled to our lawfully earned benefits. So where does that leave us?

Ah yes, in the evil empire of Medicaid where welfare queens drink daiquiris and do the boogie-woogie all night with others of the subsidized indolent.

Medicaid, for all its detractors however, also underwrites the health care of disadvantaged children and the disabled; for the most part it does not cover single people without a disability. But in order to provide some form of universal health insurance, Obamacare would add 20 million of the working poor - single and otherwise - to Medicaid.

This is a move heartily endorsed by hospital administrators, long tired of caring for the uninsured in their emergency rooms. Many others in health and government circles also feel that, despite hefty early expenditure, this move will eventually bring down long-term costs, as the health of the uninsured will improve through preventive care and education.

Still, is this the responsibility of the federal government? It would not appear that the founding fathers had any such intention when framing the constitution.

On the other hand, should we eternally look to these revolutionary icons for inspiration; Republican freethinker that he was, Thomas Jefferson would surely seem less than politically correct today by his advocacy of castration for homosexuals. Times change, as do solutions to problems - real and perceived.

And to think we began with Mayor Bloomberg’s distaste for the super-sized! With the presidential election approaching much hay will be made of the battle between individual rights and community wellbeing; but in the end such questions will ultimately give way to the real bottom line in any democracy – how much does it all cost and how few people can be offended in the process?

A sensible compromise might be that people are indeed free to poison themselves in whatever way they see fit – but only if they’re prepared to foot the cost of doing so.