|Explosion at fertilizer plant in West, Texas, April 17, 2013. Photo by Andy Bartee / KVUE.com.|
Politicians refuse to protect the public
Only a dramatic revolution of values focused on respect for people, creatures great and small, and the natural world can make life worth living for our descendants.By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / April 22, 2013
While the safety and welfare of the public should be the minimal standard to judge the actions of politicians, recent events and public debates demonstrate the inadequacies of our political system and the failure of our politicians to assure public safety.
People throughout the U.S. learned in their local newspapers and on television of the April 18 explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that killed and maimed over a hundred people, and destroyed homes and businesses located in a five-block radius of the plant. Inadequate regulation of such inherently dangerous operations put the people and buildings of the town of just over 2,800 residents in grave danger. The explosion destroyed 50 homes and an apartment building, and it damaged a middle school and a nursing home.
After so many lives are lost, it is not enough merely to declare a state of emergency, as did Gov. Rick Perry, who opposes most government regulation for the safety of citizens. With adequate regulation, most of those lives would have been spared. But saving lives requires a “state of care” before emergencies happen. And most politicians don’t care enough to fix the problem.
A second event, which will cost many more lives, occurred in the United States Senate this past week on the same day as the West explosion. An ineffective bill to address gun violence failed to get enough support to expand background checks for gun buyers (much less ban assault weapons, and ban high-capacity gun magazines). The National Rifle Association (NRA) incited its members to badger senators to oppose the measure through phone calls, e-mails, and letters. The NRA spent $500,000 on the day of the vote alone on an advertising campaign against the pitifully inadequate legislation.
The public safety cannot be adequately protected from gun violence with anything short of total gun registration and severe penalties for possessing an unregistered gun. Registration, reports of all transfers of guns, universal background checks, and mandatory reporting of stolen guns would enable law enforcement agencies to track guns used in criminal activities, arrest and prosecute offenders, and gradually reduce gun possession by criminals and the mentally unstable. None of these measures are unconstitutional under Supreme Court decisions, and they do not violate the Second Amendment.
As Robert Parry explained recently citing (research by Steven Krulick), “the key point about the Second Amendment is that it was never about an individual’s right to possess guns without restrictions. It was framed mostly out of concern that a standing army could become excessively powerful and that the states should maintain their own citizen militias.” Certainly, it had nothing to do with the modern libertarian claim that it is about the right to possess guns so that we can occasionally revolt anew and kill elected representatives.
Nevertheless, four Senate Democrats voted against the weak gun control bill introduced in the Senate: Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. As Joe Nocera, a New York Times columnist explained it, “The four Democrats -- along with many Republicans -- quake in fear of the National Rifle Association.”
With overwhelming public support for gun control, even among members of the NRA, only the money in politics, focused on selected members of Congress by groups like the NRA, can explain the unwillingness of so many public officials to protect the public from gun violence like that at Sandy Hook Elementary School last year or the persistent gun violence that results in nearly 1,000 intentional deaths each month in the U.S. (over 30 per day).
As reported by journalist Ezra Klein, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center has found “substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders. This holds true whether you’re looking at different countries or different states.”
Klein also reports a clear correlation between states with stricter gun control laws and fewer deaths from gun-related violence:
Last year, economist Richard Florida dove deep into the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. Some of what he found was, perhaps, unexpected: Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence. But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. The disclaimer here is that correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive.Florida explains that states which have one of three gun control restrictions in place -- assault weapons bans, trigger locks, or safe storage requirements -- have firearm death rates that are significantly lower than in states without the stricter gun control.
A third failure to protect the public safety involves the unregulated practice of fracking in the search for oil and gas in the U.S. The recent appearance of biologist, mother, and environmental activist Sandra Steingraber on Moyers & Company was a reminder that we don’t know much about the safety of the many chemicals used in fracking. Many of us have seen the images of water so contaminated with methane as a result of fracking that it can be lit on fire as it comes out of a home’s water faucet.
But Steingraber is concerned, as well, about other toxins she says are threatening our health by contaminating our air, water, and food. She calls these substances “toxic trespassers.” These substances are leading to earlier sexual maturation in girls. They are contaminating breast milk and affecting our children’s bodies at the molecular level. As Steingraber explains, breast milk “now has more dioxins, more toilet deodorizers, more mothproofing agents, dry cleaning fluid, pesticides, and P.C.B.'s than any other human food. And they didn't get there on purpose. They were carried to us by ecological forces outside of our individual control. They represent a form of toxic trespass.”
Toxic trespass occurs because our laws do not require that before a new substance is introduced into our environment (and into our bodies) it be proven safe. Our regulatory system benefits the economic interests of the corporations that produce the toxic trespassers rather than the health of the American people.
All of these matters concern the liberty interests of Americans to be free from human-made threats to our right to life and the pursuit of happiness. Public policy should be decided on the basis of what will protect the liberty of most of us, balanced against the liberty interests of the few. The right to be safe in our homes and neighborhoods can be protected by a government that serves the public interest.
The founders never intended gun ownership to be a personal right, no matter what five right-wingers on the Supreme Court now claim. The right to be free from contaminates in our water and air that may be carcinogenic should not even be a debate -- it should be as self-evident as Euclid’s first common notion.
But our real liberties -- as opposed to those imagined by some people -- are under greater threat today than they were in 1776. These threats are pushing the United States closer to becoming a failed state largely because our politicians have sold their souls to the wealthy who fund their political campaigns or threaten their re-election. This is no less true of Democrats than of Republicans, and involves most of the politicians in Congress and our state legislatures.
The American people don’t know what to do to take back their government from those who serve the wealthy special interests rather than the health, safety, and welfare of the vast majority of people -- the 99% who have insufficient money to buy influence and are not organized to take control of their government.
Perhaps we will become another in a long line of dead empires from Eastern dynasties to the Ottoman, the Roman, the Mongol, and the British empires, to name a few. We will continue to exist in some form, but there will be no luster. We will continue to tell ourselves that we are great and wonderful, but this will be self-delusion.
The so-called “world’s greatest democracy” will be a shell of democratic promise. The peoples of this planet will remember us as having been built first on the exploitation of the indigenous inhabitants of North America and Africa, then on the exploitation of the entire world’s natural resources, and finally on the degradation of human beings everywhere.
Our disrespect for people and nature will exhaust us morally and physically. Neither religion nor science will save us from such a fate. Only a dramatic revolution of values focused on respect for people, creatures great and small, and the natural world can make life worth living for our descendants. I wish I had more hope that such a revolution will occur.
[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]
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