Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Regulation yes, prohibition no

One of the slogans used by those who want guns not to be banned is “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” One can hardly argue against a proposition of this form, since it is a tautology. If X is outlawed, then only those who break the law can do/have X. So if parakeets are outlawed, then only outlaws will have parakeets. If sunbathing is outlawed, then only outlaws will sunbathe. My favorite instance of this logical form was one I recently saw on a bumper sticker: “If evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve.”

The slogan about guns, of course, is somewhat more than a trivially true proposition. It does get at an important psychological truth, namely, the law of forbidden fruits. This psychological truth is reflected in the stories of many traditions, including in Jewish (and Christian) mythology. The story goes that when God commanded the first man not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2.16), then gave him a female companion, the first man and woman promptly ate the fruit of the only tree that was forbidden to them (Gen 3.6). As a result of eating the forbidden fruit, the man and woman became mortal, and their mortality was inherited by all their descendants. This feature of the story shows the potentially serious consequences of yielding to the temptation to do anything that is forbidden. And yet doing what is forbidden comes very easily to most human beings (and, so my observations tell me, to most dogs and cats).

People in the United States of America learned the consequences of trying to forbid the sale of alcohol during the Prohibition Era (1920-1933). Several other countries (Iceland, Norway, Finland, Hungary, Russia, the Soviet Union and some provinces of Canada) tried the same experiment with much the same results. The forbidden substance did not cease to be attractive, and the demand was quickly met by suppliers who, by the very act of supplying a forbidden substance, became criminals and made criminals of those who purchased the forbidden substance from them. It has been suggested by some that the advent of syndicated crime owes much to the attempt to prohibit a substance that was considered undesirable by some.

While people in the United States learned the consequences of prohibiting alcohol, they apparently did not learn the lesson fully. One still hears of people who strongly advocate prohibiting the sale and use of goods and services that they do not approve, thereby making the purchase of those goods and services criminal activities. Americans still have not fully realized the insight of the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi (Lao Tzu), who observed that there would be no crime anywhere if only there were no laws. It is lawmakers who make criminals.

There are several areas of life in the United States, I would argue, where prohibition is prohibitively expensive and should be abandoned altogether in favor of regulation.

  • The use of various drugs. The non-medical use of narcotics, opiates and amphetamines, and any use at all of marijuana, has been prohibited for quite some time. The result has been that all these substances are sold at highly elevated prices, so that those who are addicted to them are often driven to robbery and other criminal activity to pay for the illegal substances. Most of the crime associated with the use of drugs that are now illegal could be eliminated immediately simply by making the substances legal but regulated and taxed, in much the way that alcohol now is. This formula has worked with great success in the Netherlands.
  • The sale of firearms. Various legislators have proposed bills at various times that would ban the sale of various kinds of firearm. These attempts at prohibition are doomed to failure, and would, if ever implemented, almost surely lead to a great deal of violent crime. Banning firearms is hardly the route to go. More regulation of the sales and ownership and use, however, would likely result in a reduction of the amount of firearm-inflicted death within the United States. Licensing sellers, buyers and users of firearms has been successful in several countries in which the percentage of the population who die by gunshot is a fraction of what it is in the United States.
  • Homosexuality. Perhaps nothing is more absurd than laws prohibiting the natural expression of affection between two people who love one another. Fortunately, laws against homosexuality are falling by the wayside. There are those who still favor strongly discouraging homosexuals by making it difficult or impossible for them to have the full rights of marriage or civil unions, but polls suggest that the majority of Americans are now in favor of homosexuals being fully accepted in society (although a majority are still opposed to allowing full marriage rights to homosexuals). On this issue, Americans are moving slowly in the right direction, that is, toward tolerance and even acceptance. (There is a big difference between tolerance and acceptance. Tolerance still implies disapproval, but with a willingness to allow what one condemns to exist.)
  • Abortion. America has had a sensible position on abortion ever since the Supreme Court decision on Roe vs. Wade. Yet there are many Americans who favor a return to some kind of prohibition of this medical procedure. The experience of other countries in the experiment in prohibiting abortion is not very promising. Poland, a land in which abortion is illegal, has one of the highest abortion rates in Europe, often with disastrous results to women. It would be most unfortunate for the United States to revert to prohibition in this area.

Some time ago I saw a bumper sticker in the parking lot of a church that read “Prayerfully pro choice”. This bumper sticker could be applied to a wide range of behavior in this country. Opposition of a kind of behavior of which one disapproves is much better achieved through simply avoiding it oneself and trying through “gentle persuasion” (which is significantly different from emotional blackmail and intimidation) to influence the decisions of others. Vegetarians, for example, are much more likely to save the lives of animals by quietly pointing out the advantages of vegetarianism than by trying to pass laws against ranches and slaughterhouses or trying to shame meat-eaters. People who know the health hazards of smoking tobacco have set an example that could be followed in many other areas of life, namely, that regulation and education is far more effective than outright bans and prohibitions.

There is still time for Americans to continue the slow process of waking up to sensible and workable policies rather than dogmatic and emotion-driven strategies that nearly always fail.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The karma of a nation: "This Land is Your Land"

Emma Lazarus (1849–1887), a Sephardic Jewish American born in New York City wrote some of the best-known words in American poetry. Part of her poem “The New Collosus” were inscribed the Statue of Liberty some twenty years after the poet died, because the words were thought to capture the generous spirit of the American people.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I was born in a part of the United States that was made a territory after a war of US aggression against our neighbor to the south. I belong to an ethnic group, the English, that makes up less than 7.6% of the population of the state in which I was born. Almost 37% of the population of my state are descendants of Spain, Mexico or other Spanish-speaking countries, and another 10% are native Americans whose land was forcibly taken from them by waves of people of European descent. No doubt most of my views on American immigration policy is shaped by the fact that most of my ancestors came from England several generations before the United States was an independent country and that I somehow was born in a state whose principal values were forged more by Mexican and native American values than by anything from England. The Mexican culture of hospitality has shaped my thinking at least as much as the English-American value of equality. Because of my own deepest religious and social values, I find myself amazed at the attitude of many of my fellow Americans—an attitude that all too often strikes me as mean-spirited.

The aim of this essay is to outline a few considerations that I would hope might become the basis of American immigration policy in the near future.

  • Let there be an international agreement that allows people to move as easily across borders as goods. The North-American Free Trade Agreement did much to eliminate protectionist measures that stood in the way of the unimpeded flow of goods across the borders between the United States and Canada and Mexico. Unfortunately, NAFTA did little to help the people whose lives were affected by these changes in trade patterns. NAFTA was an agreement that served the interests not of ordinary people, but of multinational corporations. It was an agreement of the wealthy for the wealthy. It is time to amend the agreement so that all Americans—that is, all the people living in North America, Central America and South America can move freely from one country to another in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. The model for this agreement might be something like that which exists in the European Union, whereby citizens of the twenty-seven member states can move freely anywhere within the union. What I would propose, in other words would be an entity of united American states in which everyone from the Arctic circle to La Tierra del Fuego could travel without impediment and take up residence to work wherever they wish within the two American continents. The best way to eliminate illegal aliens is to banish the laws that make it illegal to move freely in pursuit of a livelihood.
  • Let there be a common currency throughout the Americas. Toward the end of facilitating the free movement of both peoples and goods and services, there should be a common currency somewhat like the Euro in Europe. It might be called something like the American Peso.
  • Let there be at least three official languages in the Union of American States. As anyone who lives in Canada has experienced, it is quite manageable to have two official languages. Switzerland manages four, as does the small Republic of Singapore. Surely a territory as large as the proposed Union of American States could manage the three languages already in common use throughout the region. Having three official languages would ideally be much more than a passive acceptance that these languages exist. Rather, Spanish, English and French should be taught to all students in all countries from the very beginning of a child's education so that everyone in the Americas would be comfortable speaking, reading and writing all three of these languages. Not only would competence in these three languages make a great deal of the world's culture accessible to all American peoples, but it would facilitate movement across borders so that all American people would be at home, at least linguistically, anywhere from the Arctic circle to La Tierra del Fuego.

The policies advocated by many citizens of the United States would be comical if the spirit behind them were not so tragically lacking in the spirit of charity that is so important in all the religions commonly practiced in the United States and the rest of the Americas. Some have proposed the ludicrous idea of building a tall wall or fence along the border between the United States and Mexico. Others have advocated tightening the border so that people cannot cross from one country to another as easily as they now do. These ideas are ridiculous, because both of the borders between the United States and neighboring countries are completely artificial. That is, they are not based on geographical realities but on arbitrary political decisions. Drawing a boundary with a straight-edged rule and then expecting animals, birds and human beings to honor those boundaries shows an appalling lack of any sense of reality. Millions of United States of Americans have relatives in Canada, Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas. These families have become divided not only because people have moved, but because artificial lines have been drawn on maps. As many people of Mexican descent in the Southwestern United States say “We did not cross the border. The border crossed us.” (One of my favorite buildings in the city where I live was built when the land it is on was considered part of Spain. When Mexico gained independence, the building became part of Mexico. When this land was ceded by Mexico as part of the Treaty of Hidalgo, it became a territory of the United States. The same is true of many buildings in the southwestern United States.)

The mean-spirited xenophobia exhibited by many Americans, nearly all of whom are themselves the descendants of immigrants, is creating a national karma that is not only disgraceful and embarrassing but also potentially dangerous. If the United States of America is ever to regain the reputation of benevolence and goodness it once held in most parts of the world, our people will have to meditate long and hard on the words of the Jewish American woman from New York whose words have brought tears of joy to countless millions of people, whether they were born in the United States or migrated to this country in pursuit of the inalienable God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Did Jesus defend our right to bear arms?

According to a feature entitled “God Not Guns,” broadcast on July 13, 2007 on the PBS program Religion and Ethics, a number of white Evangelical Christians oppose gun control and even find a passage from the Bible that they claim supports their view that Christians have a right to arm themselves. One minister interviewed on the program was Pastor David Whitney of the Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Maryland. He says the American public would be surprised at how many pastors favor guns. Churches, he said, “should be involved in helping arm and train people to use handguns effectively.” Members of his congregation, he says “understand that we have the biblical right of self-defense. Jesus said, ‘If you don't have a sword, go buy one’—for the purpose of self-defense.” So let's examine this “biblical right of self-defense.”

A quick search for the word sword in a Bible concordance shows that there is only one passage in the Bible where Jesus apparently endorses the purchase of a sword, namely, Luke 22:36-37:

Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet. Whoever has none, let him sell his cloak, and buy a sword. For I tell you that this which is written must still be fulfilled in me: ‘He was counted with the lawless.’ For that which concerns me has an end.”

There is a saying that a text without a context is a pretext, so let us examine the context of this passage.

The passage occurs in the context of Luke's narrative of the Passover feast that Christians commonly call the Last Supper. Peter has just declared that he will follow Jesus to prison and even to death, at which point Jesus says that Peter will betray him three times before the cock crows. He then asks his apostles whether they lacked anything when he had earlier instructed them to go forth without purse, wallet and shoes. They say they lacked nothing. He then delivers the lines cited above

According to notes on this passage in Luke in The HarperCollins Study Bible, the line “He was counted with the lawless.” refers to Isaiah 53:12

Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors: yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

The passage in Isaiah occurs in a chapter describing the sacrificial lamb.

Isa 53:3 He was despised, and rejected by men; a man of suffering, and acquainted with disease: and as one from whom men hide their face he was despised; and we didn't respect him. 4 Surely he has borne our sickness, and carried our suffering; yet we considered him plagued, struck by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought our peace was on him; and by his wounds we are healed.

Immediately after Jesus refers to this passage in Isaiah, his apostles say that they have two swords. Jesus replies simply “That is enough.” Enough for what? Enough for defending Jesus and all twelve disciples from the Romans who were coming to arrest him? The aforementioned study Bible suggests that the passage means that the swords are emblematic; perhaps two is enough to fulfill predictions in scripture.

That the swords were not be be used for self-defense becomes clear in the rest of the narrative that immediately follows. As Luke tells the story, Jesus twice warns his disciples not to fall into temptation. Then the arresting party arrives, and one of the apostles draws his sword and cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest. Jesus instantly responds to this act of violence by healing the person who has been attacked with the sword. In the version of the story told in Matthew 26:52, Jesus instructs the armed apostle “Put your sword back into its place, for all those who take the sword will die by the sword.”

Taken all together, this dramatic event in the life of Jesus hardly sounds like an endorsement of carrying weapons for self-defense. It is not clear how Pastor David Whitney could get such a message out of these passages. At best, his interpretation of the passage he cites seems far-fetched, perhaps motivated more by a desire to conform to the predispositions of his Maryland congregation than by a desire to portray accurately the teachings of Jesus.

P.S. Maryland, by the way, is a state that does not regulate the sale of rifles or shotguns and where no permit is required to purchase a rifle or shotgun. Apparently the lawmakers of the state agree with Pastor Whitney's views that guns need not be controlled; whether their thinking is based on Biblical considerations only God knows.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The right of people to bear arms

According to a feature entitled “God Not Guns,” broadcast on July 13, 2007 on the PBS program Religion and Ethics, approximately thirty thousand Americans die every year through firearms; these results include homicides, suicides and accidental shootings. While this is admittedly fewer than the more than 40,000 people who die every years in vehicular accidents on American roads, it is an alarming statistic when contrasted with other nations. The number of people per 100,000 who die of firearms in the USA is between 14 and 15 in most recent years, in contrast to Canada (4.31 per 100,000), Israel (2.91), Australia (2.65), Spain (0.78), Netherlands (0.70) and Japan (0.05). In the program mentioned above, one of the most intriguing points made was that a number of white Evangelical Christians oppose gun control and even find a passage from the Bible that they claim supports their view that Christians have a right to arm themselves. (This Biblical argument will be examined in a separate article on this blog site.) An increasing number of African-American Christian ministers, on the other hand, are beginning to speak up about the epidemic of gun-related death in the USA, no doubt because a much larger percentage of African-Americans die at the hands of guns than any other ethic group. As one black minister has said, it is as if there is a civil war going on inside the United States, a disproportionate number of the casualties of which are black Americans. As I examine all these facts as a Quaker and a Buddhist, and as I think of ways of reducing the number of people who die of gunshots, a number of points come to mind, none of them original or remarkable, but all of them (it seems to me) sensible.

  • Licence users: People must receive licenses to drive cars and trucks, operate boats, fly airplanes and operate certain kinds of heavy equipment. Why not licence gun users? As with other kinds of license, minimum ages could be set, and people would have to pass tests to receive a license to operate a firearm. Operating a firearm without a license would then be a punishable offence. Careless or illegal use of firearms would result in the loss of a license. Just as there are classes of vehicle that a person is licensed to drive, there could be classes of firearm that a person is licensed to operate.
  • Liability insurance: People who are licensed to operate weapons should also be required to carry liability insurance. As with automobile insurance, rates could be adjusted by the age and safety record of the individual licensed. As with automobile insurance, lower premiums could be awarded to those who took approved courses in firearm safety.
  • Registration of all firearms: Again in analogy to automobiles, trucks, trailers, boats and aircraft, every firearm should be registered in the name of its owner.
  • Regulations for storage and transportation: In Canada, there are laws specifying how firearms and ammunition are stored, and permits are required for transporting firearms from one location to another. People who fail to store firearms in locked cabinets are subject to being fined.
  • Example to be emulated: An example of carefully thought out regulations can be seen at the Canadian Firearms Centre. By following Canada's lead, Americans might reduce the number of deaths through firearms that occur within the United States. A national law governing firearms is probably an impossible dream in the United States. At present each state governs the sale, use, registration and transportation of firearms. In New Mexico, for example, no permit is required to purchase any firearm, no firearms need to be registered, users are not licenced, and permits are required only for the transportation of handguns. One need not be a resident of the state to purchase a firearm in New Mexico. Similar regulations exist in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida. In Vermont no permit is required to transport any firearm. In Massachusetts, on the other hand, permits are required to purchase handguns, owners must be licensed, and permits are required to transport certain weapons, but firearms need not be registered. (The regulations for each state can be viewed on the Gun laws page of the National Rifle Association website.) While a nationwide policy may be out of reach, concerned citizens in each state might review the laws as they now stand and consider joining with others to petition for more sensible regulations in their state.

All the proposals recommended above seem fully within the letter and the spirit of the so-called “Bill of Rights” ratified December 15, 1791, and especially the second amendment, which reads

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.What this amendment makes clear is that keeping and bearing arms is not an absolute right. Rather, it is a right contextualized by the need for a well-regulated militia to ensure the security of a free state.

The regulations proposed above may be seen as a minimum start towards having a potential militia that is well regulated.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Ending the war on terrorism

Quakers are traditionally called to “live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars.” Buddhists are reminded in the Dhammapada that hatred never ends through hatred but only through love, and that anger will never come to an end as long as one dwells on all the ways in which one has been wronged and abused. How can these principles, one from a Quaker source and the others from a Buddhist source, be applied to what has come to be called the war on terrorism (or the war on terror)?

We can begin by noting that the principles stated above suggest that terrorism can never be brought to an end by terrorism. We can then go on to ask what the nature of terrorism is. Having asked that, we can ask how terrorism might be brought to an end.

Terrorism usually means the use of violence or the threat of violence as a means of intimidating or demoralizing a population, especially a civilian population, so that the people being attacked or threatened will stop being an obstacle to what one wishes to achieve.

The government of the United States has characterized some actions taken against American citizens (and others living in the United States) as acts of terrorism. The most frequently cited instance, of course, is the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC on September 11, 2001. The response to those attacks was swift and aggressive and resulted in violent actions against people, many of them perfectly innocent civilians, in Afghanistan and Iraq that led to much physical and psychological suffering. The response has also resulted in threats of violence to Iran and more subtle reminders that violence is an option in dealing with other countries, such as Syria and North Korea. The response to terrorism has been a series of actions that could themselves be described as terrorism.

The response to the American terrorism has been yet more acts of terrorism against the allies of the United States. The cycle of violence shows no signs of subsiding. To a generation of people who have lived through the so-called cold war, a time of incessant stockpiling of nuclear and biological and chemical weapons (often now called weapons of mass destruction), this war on terrorism is nothing new. It is a continuation of woefully incompetent ways of dealing with people who are perceived as obstacles and threats. The time has come to consider other ways of taking away the occasions of war.

A place to begin taking away the occasion of terrorism against the United States is to ask why the United States is perceived as an obstacle to the dreams and wishes and needs of the people who have been attacking the country. Fortunately, one does not have to inquire very far, for the people being called terrorists have made their wishes known. One festering issue for more than a decade has been the continued presence of United States military personnel in Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Middle East after the first Gulf War, a presence that has been maintained despite promises made by Richard Cheney at the time of the first Bush presidency that United States troops would withdraw when that conflict was over. Continued military presence has been seen as a betrayal and as a promise broken. It is not in any way unreasonable for people around the world to be alarmed by the number of American military and naval bases situated all over the planet when it is not obvious that the military presence is either necessary to maintain peace and stability or effective in doing so.

The United States could perhaps bring hostility against itself to an end rather quickly if it were bring all of its military personnel and equipment back to this country rather than maintaining a costly and not obviously useful presence in every continent in the world. (As of 2002, the US had military bases in 63 countries and troops stationed in 156 countries.) This would eliminate one of the occasions of war and terrorism.

The United States, long after the cold war has come to an end, has maintained a frighteningly large stockpile of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. These armaments can only be a source of concern and fear (perhaps even terror) to billions of people. Maintaining those weapons while working to prevent other nations from acquiring them can only be seen as hypocrisy, and this hypocrisy natural results in frustration, resentment and even hatred against the United States. Maintaining those arms is not necessary for defending the country against any of the forces that now threaten it. They should be dismantled and destroyed. That would eliminate another of the occasions of war and terrorism.

Although wars are often justified as means of protecting abstract ideas and values, at the root of most conflicts are disputes over territory and access to means of livelihood. In the world today there is an enormous disparity in access to goods and services. A small percentage of the world's population live in a state of unprecedented affluence and abundance, and the majority live in deprivation and desperate poverty. The economically and socially weak have very few means of improving their lot in life. The disparity can be addressed only if the affluent do all they can to bring about a more even distribution of the means of achieving life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If the United States is serious about protecting itself from terrorism, she could begin to find more productive and charitable uses for the much of the $532,800,000,000 now spent on military readiness. (This figure does not count research and development of WMD, which is done through other agencies.)

There is, of course, no guarantee that repatriating all military personnel, reducing stockpiles of armaments to the modest quantities necessary to ensure domestic peace, and redistributing the world's resources will bring an end to all war and conflict. There is, however, a near certainty that a failure to do these things will perpetuate a climate of resentment, fear and loathing directed at the United States until such time as this country, like all empires before it, collapses from its own extravagance, arrogance and incompetence.

Quakers are advised as follows: “Stand firm in our testimony, even when others commit or prepare to commit acts of violence, yet always remember they they too are children of God.” Buddhists are advised to regard all living beings with the love a mother has for her only child.

Needless to say, one need not be either a Quaker or a Buddhist to stand firm in the testimony to take away the occasion of all wars. This is a testimony that all agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Baha'is, Christians, Daoists, Hindus, Humanists, Jews, Muslims, Pagans and shamanists can stand firm in together. It is worth trying.