Enough, Mr. President!

Yes, our hearts are broken, as President Obama said the other day about the senseless mass murder of 28 people in Newtown, Connecticut.

The sentiments of his emotional statement were surely shared by many, many, across the nation. But, for many, including me, his words were not enough. We wanted to hear something more  — indignation, anger, impatience, in addition to the sorrow, over what America’s gun culture is doing to this country, that too many people have died for no reason at all, and that something must be done about it – finally, now!

But we did not hear this from the President, who gave no indication that he is now prepared to break his four-year-long silence on guns and gun control — during his entire first term. His one sentence that “we are going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics,” was far too general and vague for many, like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, maybe the nation’s leading gun control proponent:

“We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership. Not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today.”

David Remnick, The New Yorker’s editor:

“Obama told the nation that he reacted to the shootings in Newtown “as a parent,” and that is understandable, but what we need most is for him to act as a President, liberated at last from the constraints of elections and their dirty compromises—a President who dares to change the national debate and the legislative agenda on guns.“

In the days since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the voices of “enough” are heard more and more. Mass shootings and mass killings are now part of everyday life in America. The magazine Mother Jones reports that there have been 62 such mass murders in the last 30 years. We know them: Columbine, Oak Creek, Aurora, Tucson, Blacksburg, and now Newtown. This year, alone, almost one hundred people have died in this madness.

Still, little has happened. Not even the near death of Congress woman Gabby Giffords resulted in any political action. On the contrary, it easier than ever to buy a gun, including assault weapons, as the ban between 1994 and 2004 on those weapons was lifted in 2004. And you can now carry concealed weapons in schools and bars, on trains and in the National Parks.

Could the 28 deaths in Newtown, Connecticut be a tipping point? It remains to be seen, if Sandy Hook can “break the usual cycle of universal shock fading into political reality,” reported  the AP.

Sadly, more and more people see the battle for increased gun control as unwinnable. The gun lobby seems just too strong, and the American people do not seem support more gun control. According to Gallup, fewer Americans now favor stricter gun laws, from 78 percent in 1990, to 44 percent in 2010.

Still, the deaths at Sandy Hook of 20 school children between six and seven years old seem to have struck a chord among Americans. And how could it not? So if not now, when? Enough.

So that we never forget…

I saw this sign, “Torture is always wrong,” outside a Presbyterian church in Columbus, Indiana during my recent visit there. It can serve us well as a reminder that it is ten years ago this week since lawyers in the Bush Administration issued the “torture memos” justifying torture.

“Torture is always illegal,” writes Morris Davis, law professor and retired Air Force Col. and former chief prosecutor for the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in today’s Los Angeles Times. “And we should mark the 10th anniversary of the effort by the Bush administration to justify torture, remembering that as a nation founded on religious and moral values, we must work to ensure that U.S. government-sponsored torture never occurs again.”

Yes — repeal the “Shoot First” laws

The best thing that could happen as a result of the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin is that Florida’s so-called self-defense law “Stand Your Ground” and the similar laws in two dozen other States are repealed.

It’s hard to think of a worse law, and I was heartened to read on the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog that prosecutors in Florida have grave doubts about the law and that they are poised to recommend changes in the law, even its repeal. The law is presently being invoked by many to justify shootings, even by gang members when killing members of rival gangs.

It’s clear who is behind the “Stand Your Ground” law, or the “Castle Doctrine, as it’s also called. It’s the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) – just check out the New York Times on what happened in Wisconsin after a major campaign by the NRA. It’s not only about the right to bear arms it’s also about the right to carry them everywhere and to use them.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has long been a leading voice on strict gun control, has launched a nation-wide campaign to reform or repeal these, what he calls, “Shoot First” laws.

“In reality, the NRA’s leaders weren’t interested in public safety. They were interested in promoting a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it. Let’s call that by its real name: vigilantism…These laws have not made our country safer; they have made us less safe…all Americans already have a right to defend themselves with commensurate force, but these ‘Shoot First’ laws have nothing to do with that or with the exercise of Second Amendment rights. Instead, they justify civilian gunplay and invite vigilante justice and retribution with disastrous results.”

Well said, Mr. Mayor!

As Connecticut goes, so goes, hopefully, the nation

The State of Connecticut voted this week to abolish the death penalty, making it the 17th State to do so.

Since capital punishment was reintroduced in the U.S. in 1976, 1,290 people have been executed – with Texas leading the sway with 481 executions. 3,199 are presently death row in America’s prisons. This year twelve executions have taken place across the country, a steadily declining number since the highpoint in 1999, when 98 executions took place.

Almost two-thirds of Americans prefer other punishment than the death penalty for murder, according to a survey from 2010, and in the fall voters in California will decide on the death penalty there.

So, maybe, things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly, and maybe there is hope, that the United States, one day, will move away from the present dubious company of China, Iran, North Korea, and other undemocratic countries, where the death penalty is actively used against their  citizens.

“There is something stunningly disgraceful about the company we (the U.S.) keep on this issue,” columnist Robert Scheer wrote once. It’s also sad.

After Troy Davis, is there still hope?

Troy Davis was executed last night in Georgia.

The question is whether it could be said any better than by Robert Scheer on Truthdig:

”There is something stunningly disgraceful about the company we (USA) keep on this issue…Execution is a means of summarily ending the pursuit of justice rather than advancing it.”

Scheer did not mention that another death sentence was carried out last night, in Texas, against Lawrence Russell Brewer, a white supremacist who killed a black man, James Byrd Jr., in a hideous hate crime in 1998. The execution took place, quietly, without any public protests.

Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, 1, 267 people have been executed in the United States. Of all the things about America, this is the hardest for us Europeans to comprehend, and nothing upsets us more.

Still, there might be hope that America will finally turn against the death penalty, as outlined in two recent must-read articles on the death penalty by Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic, and Dahlia Lithwick on Slate.

The King memorial finally opens on the National Mall

Forty-eight years after his “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington National Mall, Martin Luther King, Jr., finally, has his own memorial on the U.S. capital’s hallowed grounds.

The statue and the new monument commemorate the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 60’s that fundamentally changed this country, and it is fitting that president Obama on Sunday will interrupt his vacation and come down to Washington to give the big speech at the inaugural ceremony — for without King, no Obama.

The festivities on Sunday are expected to bring out hundreds of thousands, but yesterday, and continuing this week, the public got a first glance in glorious summer weather of the memorial in white granite and with walls of quotations from King’s many speeches up until that fateful April day in Memphis in 1968.

At the new memorial, Martin Luther King is surrounded by America’s history and its former leaders. Carved out from a white “stone of hope” by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, King looks out over the Japanese cherry trees and the Tidal Basin where he, on the other side, can see the memorial to Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and author of the Declaration of Independence — “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” Glancing to his left is the tall George Washington monument, the nation’s first president. Over to the right, under some shady trees, lies the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. And right behind King is the Lincoln memorial, from which King on August 28, 1963 spoke so unforgettably about his dream.

Martin Luther King is the first African American with a statue on Washington’s National Mall. It’s about time, and you could sense and hear that from many of those waiting, of all races, in the bright sun to view the memorial and read its important messages of peace and non-violence. The King memorial is an important addition to the National Mall.

A fight about a mosque in the middle of Tennessee

On my way north during my recent little journey in the South, I eventually came to Tennessee, not really the deep South, but more of a border state, on the map low but wide.

I crossed into Tennessee at Chattanooga – which inspired Glenn Miller’s old hit from 1941 “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and is now the site of a historic hotel by that name – at the southernmost end of the Appalachian Mountains. Here, mountains are high and valleys are narrow. There were no cotton plantations here and much of eastern Tennessee sympathized with the Union, while the rest of Tennessee chose the Confederacy. The result was hundreds of bloody battles in the State during the Civil War. In the 1960s, many hard-fought battles took place during the civil rights movement.

In Murfreesboro today, a university city of just over 100 000 inhabitants in the geographical center of Tennessee, there is a different civil rights struggle taking place. It is not African-Americans fighting for their rights, but Arab-Americans, who want to build a mosque in their hometown.

The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro can be found on Middle Tennessee Boulevard, almost hidden behind some shops and parking lot. The city’s 250 Muslim families have gathered here every Friday for years to pray, often using the parking lot for the overflow crowd.

Last year, the congregation purchased land in the outskirts of the city to build a proper mosque and eventually a community center. The only neighbor was a Baptist church. No problem. Local authorities said yes. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, and it was nothing more to it, it seemed, especially since the Muslims had legally bought the land and there were no zoning problems.

But, conservative activists began to protest, eventually supported by conservative forces from outside of Murfreesboro. The city’s politicians were sued. In spite of support of the Muslim community from various religious groups in the city, opposition to the mosque grew, resulting in vocal protests, even destruction of construction equipment.

“It has been polarizing, creating anxiety and fear in the community,” said Abdou Kattih, who is a pharmacist and originally from Syria, when we talked at the Islamic Center. His car outside carried a sticker, “Freedom of religion, for all”. He described the Muslim community, totaling around one thousand people or one percent of the city’s its population, as deeply rooted in Murfreesboro. He, himself, has four children, all born here, and it is here we want to live, he said.

On the Center’s website, it is written:

“Let us stand together and build bridges rather than barriers, openness rather than walls. Rather than borders, let us look at distant horizons together, in the common spirit of the value and dignity of a shared personhood as citizens in this great nation.”

The Muslim community was encouraged the other day when a local court ruled in its favor, allowing for the construction to begin. But final victory is not guaranteed, at least not yet – the opponents have vowed not to give up and have threatened to appeal.