Monday, January 31, 2011

Machiavelli and Egypt - The Inevitable Failure of Mubarak/U.S. Folly/What we just don't get

"Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries - for heavy ones they cannot." - Niccolo Machiavelli; Chapter 3, The Prince

If you have never worked through any of Machiavelli's writings, they are definitely worth a spot on your 'to read' list.  The quote above is from The Prince, which is widely viewed as written in irony and intended more to be understood in his broader contexts of writings as opposed to representing his true opinions.  Having read The Prince and most of The Discourses (which are absolutely huge, do not take these on lightly) I actually believe that this is true.  Machiavelli was a great humanist, who used the emperors of Rome to suggest that the best rulers were those who were even-handed and respected by his people.  The above quote seems to suggest that Machiavelli believed rulers should be despotic, vicious, and brutal in dealing with his subjects.  But in reference to his greater body of works, it makes more sense to believe he meant this to be read as advocating generosity in dealing with subjects. 

It is this quote from Machiavelli which leads us to one inevitable conclusion about Egypt - It could not succeed in its current state.

Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak was born in 1928 (quite an ironic year for the purposes of this writing), who rose through the ranks in the military and eventually became Anwar Sadat's Vice President in 1975.  We won't go through the entire development of events that led up to this, although they do bear on the situation, but in 1981 Sadat was assassinated by his own generals due to his signing of the Egypt-Israel peace accords.  After this Mubarak assumed office and has not relinquished it since. 

Really ever since 1981, the United States and Egypt have been close allies.  Egypt's willingness to play ball with Israel despite their history was basically set up by our willingness to give Egypt support and military hardware if they promised to play nice with Israel.  An oversimplification, but basically a truism.  In the meantime, Egypt has become one of the only Islamic countries to ally themselves with most Western European nations. Egypt has a relatively free media, unfettered internet access, and active public education.  But there has been a hitch:  Because our support of Egypt basically relies on their casual stance towards Israel, we fear the country being taken over by a regime which will change back to an aggressive stance.  At the same time, we pay lip service towards 'reform,' and greater civil liberties.  For reasons as old as Mubarak himself, this could not possibly be a successful formula.

The stage for Mubarak's failure was actually set for him long before 1981, however.  In fact, it was set in 1928 by Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.   I will not go into all the reasons for the creation of the MB, but it was mainly due to the colonial government of Britain (in the future I will write about the failures of the secularist national state in the Middle East).  Al-Banna was a proponent of the return to the Sunnah (path) of Islam, and life according to the Prophet and the Great Caliphs.  The MB became incredibly popular and set up chapters in Syria, Transjordan (now Jordan and Israel), and Lebanon.  Many groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, can trace their roots back to activism which began in the MB.  During WWII, the MB actively sided with the Nazis, performing espionage and other activities on their behalf. 
Eventually the MB was banned due to an attempted assassination of Abdel Nasser.  Nasser was a staunch secularist and nationalist, who kept the MB out of the political process.  This makes some sense in the context of the times.  The religious reformers in the Middle East were openly critical of nationalists regimes which dominated at the time, and openly advocated for social change.  Nasser was no different from any other nationalist regime; the MB likened him to "Pharoah" of the Old Testament, the oppressor of Moses and the Jews.  (Reminder:  Muslims believe that they too, are the children of Moses and Abraham.)  After the attempt, Nasser went on a no holds barred campaign against his opposition.  Thousands of members of the group were tortured, executed, or exiled.  In this period of time, there was no real activism taking place in Egypt.  Sayyid Qutb, the author of Milestones, left the country.  You could not criticize Nasser, nor speak out against his government, without a knock on the door from the secret police. 

During the Cold War, you could not run a bingo parlor without deciding whose camp you were in.  You were either supplied and aided by the Soviets, or the Western bloc led by the U.S.  Well, due to Nasser's relations to Israel, the U.S. led bloc would not support or aid Egypt.  Therefore, they turned to the Soviets.  Nasser modelled his political and economic structures after the USSR.  Dissent was crushed; you fell into line or you fell into a ditch with a bullet in your brain.  There were no other options.  It was in this environment that the MB was fostered and created.  One of outright, holistic oppression.  'Pharoah' was the object of hostility, and no one else.  But what was also growing in the environment was resentment; not just from those with religious aims, but those who just plain did not like the socialist/nationalist structure in place.  But that hostility was either pent up, or it was expressed in exile.

Let's fast forward back to the present.  The MB still exists, and is still a large opposition group in Egypt.  But basically the fact is this:  Nasser and the Cold War Era policy of repressing dissent was carried over by Mubarak once he was in office.  The problem was that once Egypt hitched their wagon to Western Europe, their new found allies began to press reforms onto Egypt.  So Mubarak and his allies did the worst thing imaginable.

They allowed various forms of dissent and free speech.  But once some invisible line was crossed, that dissent was squashed.  This is a form of governance which is absolutely not sustainable.  Mubarak broke Machiavelli's rule from The Prince.  While Nasser's regime dealt with the people in very severe terms, crushing dissent and seeking to control, Mubarak's could be termed more 'passive-aggressive.' 

A good example is how Mubarak handled election issues.  Ostensibly, Mubarak was a 'President' of a republic which elected its President.  But Mubarak has only run a handful of times due to Egypt being in a constant state of declared emergency.  People may remember a few years ago the absolute catastrophe that was the Egyptian referendum.  On election day, areas that were suspected to be anti-Mubarak had the polling places barred by the police.  We gave them a quick slap on the wrist, but basically we did not mind that he did this because he said that these areas would elect Muslim Brotherhood candidates.  Israel (presumably) jumped for joy when they saw that the Egyptian people were being kept from exercising their theoretical right to vote.  Mubarak would have been better off saying there would be no elections whatsoever, as opposed to teasing his dissenters with the idea of a free election.  People can only bear insult for so long.

We have made a colossal mistake in our judgment of Egypt.  It should be apparent now that the spectre of radical Islam as the de facto heir of any regime was merely a pretext for Mubarak staying in power.  These protests are largely led by secular university students, professionals, and others who have quite deliberately distanced themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood and any radical Islamic ideas.  Earlier today I watched an interview with a woman leading a group of protestors.  She wore no hijab or covering of anykind, and there were many women with them in the group.  She spoke of a broken political process, not the desire to implement Shari'a law.  I am certain that some groups would like that, but they appear to be a minority.  However, this does not mean that these people do not share some of the Muslim Brotherhood's values and ideas.  The most obvious example is that Egypt will no longer take a deferential stance with Israel; they may even go to war.  The Egyptian people have the most negative opinions of Israel of any nation on Earth, according to many polls.  They will elect a leader who reflects that.  Might we see a very religious leader in Egypt?  I do not presume to know the answer to that question.  But I do know that this go round, the people will actually choose this leader.

Hopefully, this leader will deal generously with his people.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

2011 - The Year I Finally get into shape!

In the past I have often gotten a laugh out of the New Year's resolution crowd at the gym.  I spent five years working as a trainer at a gym in Lexington, and I came to dread January like a fat kid dreads the swimming pool.  I knew that once the door opened, I was going to spend the next eight weeks, minimum, doing equipment orientations, fitness assessments, and tours until I lost my ability to discern my job from my free time. 

This was further aggravated by how hard it was to actually get workouts in during this period of time.  I would often find myself lingering around in the weight room to get on a squat rack, while an overweight gentleman loaded 275 lbs worth of weights on the bar and stood around with it on his shoulders barely bobbing up and down, and then sneering when I asked to work in.

The worst part of all of this was one simple fact:  I stopped believing in New Year's resolutions completely.  It was hard not to get frustrated.  I knew that no matter how tuned in I was, how hard I worked on programs for members, or how often I encouraged them, coddled them, or tried to motivate them, that the majority would never stick with it.  I knew that most of the old guys coming in who started for Lexington Christians Junior Varsity football team in 1972 would believe they learned everything they knew about fitness by their sophomore year of high school (and then they blow out their knee, back, and stomach).  I knew that most of the college girls coming in would run away from free weights because they thought it would make them 'manly' (it doesn't). 

And worst of all:  I knew that many of them would become frustrated, decide they could not do it, and then quit.  It honestly, truly, broke my heart every year.  This has led me to have a negative opinion of New Year's resolutions in general.  But in particular, it has led me to be incredibly cynical about those which are in anyway related to fitness.  So why did I make one?

Well this actually all started the other day because of a conversation I was having with McKenzie regarding people settling for being 'good enough' to get by.  I think that in many respects this attitude pervades in our society, and to our detriment.  We decide to accept our 'limitations' and often times we do not really test or question them.  Much like the people who would decide that they were not capable of working out.  That's what resolutions are all about!  They are supposed to be about changing something in your life; not accepting the status quo.  I came to the conclusion that for about the last 3 years, I have been living in a very hypocritical fashion.  I can run a mile in under 6 minutes, am roughly 9% body fat, (yadda yadda blah blah semi impressive fitness related number), and the end result of all this is that I am in better shape than a whole lot of men my age.  But is that enough?  I have decided that no, it is not.

So my resolution is this:  By this time next year, I will bench press 265 lbs, and my standing vertical will be back to 32" where it was when I was 23.  And here is how......

Operation Big Ass Bench Press

Right now, I bench press 220 lbs, and weigh 185.  The average man can bench press his own weight, so this puts me somewhat ahead of the curve.  I have hovered between 225-205 as a max for about the last 18 months or so, fluctuating in inverse proportionality to certain workouts I do and what the focus of a particular month or two are.  But I have sort of come to accept that this is my worst lift.  Proportionally, I should be stronger in this lift.  A good measure of equal chest/back strength is to see if you can bench press your weight in an equal number of repetitions to full pullups.  The numbers should be close.  But I can do about 15 pullups, and only bench 185 6 times.  That is out of proportion. 

So I'm going to blow it up.  I'm going to use a two day system for this lift, Mondays and Friday, with a different focus on each day.  The idea will be to actually train my muscles to work in a new way in conjunction with bearing the load.  I will do this for the next 8 weeks and retest.

Day 1

The best way to lift is to lower the weight (eccentric phase) in a controlled and slow fashion, while pushing the weight hard on the way up (concentric phase).  This is an oversimplification, but its basically accurate.  My theory is that I will train my muscles to fire faster in the concentric phase, to blast through the weight instead of just lifting it.  This will access and train Type II muscle fibers; the big, nasty ones that help you jump high and hit hard. 

So on Day 1 I will do 9 sets of 3 repetitions with one half of my max.  So right now thats about 110.  I will attempt to do these sets with about 30-45 seconds of rest in between.  I will attempt to finish each set in less than 3 seconds.  This will ensure two things:  First, the time limit will ensure that on each lift I am using an absolute maximum effort.  Doing this will actually generate more energy than a lift with a heavier weight at a slower speed.  I won't go through all the math (ask if you are fascinated, or sick, or both) but a lift with 220 lbs that takes 2 and a half seconds to push will generate only 150 watts.  However, pushing 110 lbs in less than half a second generates 298 watts.  Almost twice the energy.  Hopefully, by actually generating more energy, I can train my muscles to actually do the same.

Day 2

Oftentimes, you will hear people talk about a 'sticking point' in a lift.  A sticking point is the point at which the force your muscles exert on the weight actually equal the weight itself. This is dangerous because unlike the weight (which exerts a consistent force) your muscles cannot continue to exert this force without fatiguing.  So on this day, I will attempt to train my muscles to break this barrier, and push more consistently.

So to do this, I will use three different lifts which all emphasize the sticking point of the bench press.  The hope is to overload the muscles that are engaged in the lift, and to exaggerate the strain on that particular portion of the lift.  The towel bench press, floor bench press, and pin bench press all cut the movement off at or around the sticking point of the lift.  There are examples of these online.

What I will do on Friday is start by lifting the bar in a set of 3 with normal reps.  I will continue to add 20 lbs until it becomes difficult to do 3 reps, at which point I will switch to 1 rep.  Then, I will keep doing repetitions with more weight until I cannot get the weight up.  I will aim to be able to do more weight each week.

Thats how I'm hoping to improve the bench.  Now for the ups.

Operation Squirrelly

Deciding to go back to the vertical drawing board made me feel a lot like Rocky Balboa talking to Duke in this scene.  I have done so much damage to my knees, back, hips, and ankles over the years that certain things are just plain out of the picture.

The way I did it before was plain, old-fashioned, high-volume, high-weight, sessions with deadlifts, squats, olympic lifts, kettlebells, and probably a small curly mustache and a unitard.  I would hit the track for sprints every other day, and often do this the same day as the lower body lifts.  But nowadays.....

Tendinitis limits what kind of volume I can actually take in terms of pounding on the knees.  Today, going out to a track for an 1 1/2 session of 100s, 60s, 40s, and agilities is out of the question.  I have had a herniated disc, which is one of those super fun recurring injuries.  Because of that, doing sessions which focus primarily on hard-load bearing lifts like squats are out.  I'm in law school, which sometimes requires my attention.  Because of that, I can't just play 2 hours of ball everyday and let it jump back up naturally.  Nope, if this is going to happen, I'm going to have to go squirrelly.

When I say squirrelly, I mean quick, agile, and light.  My focus will be to increase my flexibility, core strength, and balance.  These things all greatly affect your ability to explode upwards.  I still have the base strength (I can still squat 290), but there is a serious ceiling on that for me.  Instead, I need to improve the other facets of my ability to move, and hope that the gains I can make up in this arena will make up the vertical difference.  Right now my standing is 29 (running around 31), so the goal is to gain 3 inches in a year.  But that is a hell of a trick (I will explain some vertical leap myths in another post, there are HUNDREDS).   Let me say up front that part of this is counterintuitive to the bench press goal.  It is a hell of a trick if you can gain strength without putting on any weight.  But I cannot possibly achieve this goal and gain anything more than 5 or 6 pounds.  However, I have a plan......

Hugh Jass Day

Say it out loud.  This will be every Monday for the next 8 weeks, and it will be a pure focus on hamstrings and glutes.  As I always used to say, if you want to jump high, you need big ol powerful buttcheeks.  Normally if you want to do this, I tell people deadlifts, front squats, and back squats are the way to go.  But my back and knees can't handle that strain.  So those have to be done in moderation, as opposed to excess.   
So on this day, I will first do 10 minutes of stretching, followed by jumping rope.  After this, I will do Deadlifts, single leg squats, and 1 legged deadlifts.  The deadlifts will build on some of the base strength, but the single leg squats and 1 legged deadlifts will challenge my ability to balance.  That balance is critical to movement and quickness.

Pop Days

Pop days will be on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  What the 'pop' refers to is the ability to quickly fire the muscles in my legs to push away from the ground.  This will begin the same way (stretching and jump rope), but then it will transition into plyometrics, squats, and more balance work.  This will be the hardest day, in the sense that I will have to ensure I am properly warmed up, loose, and ready to do a lot of work.


This is going to be pretty difficult, but barring injury, I am confident I have the wherewithall to pull it off.  In any event, it feels good to once again have an actual athletic goal.  Although, I can't help but share the sentiments of the preacher from the Mel Brooks' classic Blazing Saddles (fastforward to about :50)...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Alabama and Disappointment

In 1949, James Elisha Folsom was the governor of Alabama.  He had been elected in 1946, running on a populist platform that would be very charming to many today.  He toured with a band, The Strawberry Pickers, and his speeches were all damning indictments of political corruption and money from outside Alabama taking precedent over the people.  Folsom's biggest goals for his tenure included an improved road system, better care for the elderly and for veterans returning for World War II, and the repeal of certain taxes he viewed as excessive.  James Elisha Folsom was also a staunch, unapologetic, Christian Southerner.  And that would be his undoing in the Christian South.

Let me interject here with a small breakdown of what has happened recently involving Robert Bentley, who was recently sworn in as the Governor of Alabama.  At his swearing-in, Governor Bentley stated, "anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."  I will say two things in Governor Bentley's defense before I explain my reasons for being incredibly disappointed and disturbed at this statement.

First, he did say this in a church and he is a Pastor.  The problem with this being that when one takes on a role of leadership within the United States government, you must not show bias in the execution of your official duties.  He chose the site of his swearing-in, and made this statement during the course of this ceremony.  So while he may have slipped into "Pastor mode" a little bit, he should have been very wary of doing so.  For those of you who may think that it is unreasonable to ask such a man to refrain from a proselytizing statement, remember this:  He ran for office and he understands the job requirements.  If you cannot accept that a position is supposed to maintain an air of neutrality, do not take the position.  This is the same reasons that Hindus do not become cattle butchers or Jehovah's Witnesses do not become surgeons.  But I digress.

Second, the statement within the context of the born-again Christian tradition is relatively harmless.  To the vast majority of people in the room, the statement probably just washed over them without so much as a blink.  But to a non-Christian, there is a very explicit message of inequality in that.  If I were a Muslim or a Jew living in Alabama, whether or not I voted for Bentley, I would have been incredibly upset by that statement.  Bentley also said, "if we don't have the same daddy, then we're not brothers and sisters."  So while theologically I can make a sound argument that despite the later language, one could include Jews and Muslims, everyone else is clearly outside this fence. 

To me, personally, there is nothing wrong with an elected official discussing their faith.  Obama has done this more than most Presidents in memory (mainly due to the fixation of some in this nation that he is Muslim), but many other great statesmen of this country have done likewise.  I will include some examples below:
Daniel Webster; Masschusetts Senator 1845-1850
"...our ancestors established their system of government on morality and religious sentiment. Moral habits they believed, cannot safely be trusted on any foundation other than religious principle, nor any government be secure which is not supported by moral habits... Let the religious element in man's nature be neglected, let him be influenced by no higher motives than low self interest, and subjected to no stronger restraint than the limits of civil authority and he becomes the creature of selfish passion and blind fanaticism... On the other hand, the cultivation of the religious sentiment represses licentiousness... inspires respect for law and order, and gives strength to the whole social fabric at the same time that it conducts the human soul upward to the Author of its being."

John Hancock, Governor of Massachusetts (from his inaugural address in 1780)

"Sensible of the importance of Christian piety and virtue to the order and happiness of a state, I cannot but earnestly commend to you every measure for their support and encouragement that shall not infringe the rights of conscience, which I rejoice to see established by the Constitution on so broad a basis; and if anything can be further done on the same basis for the relief of the public teachers of religion and morality, an order of men greatly useful to their country, and who have particularly suffered in the defense of its rights by the depreciation of currency; as also for the relief of widows and orphans, many of whom have been distressed in the same way, and who are particularly committed by Heaven to the protection of civil rulers, I shall most readily concur with you in every such measure."

John F. Kennedy, President (yeah, you probably know of him.  Speech to a delegation of Protestant Ministers during the hysteria that ensued once people began discussing his Catholicism.)

For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia's harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson's statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.

There are thousands of examples like this.  Where these messages greatly differ from the message delivered by Bentley is that these messages from great leaders are not exclusionary statements.  They do not seem to lift any religion over any other.  Certainly some founding fathers (notably John Adams) believed that Christianity, and in particular certain sects, should be superior.  But they did not carry the day in 1787.  Their arguments for Christian supremacy did not make it into the Constitution, and that was quite deliberate. 

So we are right as a nation to be upset or disturbed when a leader of ours makes a statement which lifts one group of Americans over another.  We are all entitled to equal protection of the laws.  We are all entitled to a government which does not seek to influence our conscience on religious matters.  These are the guarantees of the law; not moralisms, not norms, or modes of understanding.  So it is written, so shall be done, as they say.

That is why a statement that can easily be interpreted as saying if you want to be my equal, you must become a born-again Christian, is not an acceptable one.  If your faith requires you to believe that anyone who is not of your ilk is inferior, or that those who share your faith must be treated better than those who do not, you are not capable of service to the United States as an elected official.  If you cannot do this, you should not run.  Again, the same reason your surgeon is not a Jehovah's Witness.

But what about James Folsom?  Why was a man voted out of office for his beliefs in Alabama?  Well the trouble really started in 1949 on Christmas day.  Traditionally, many elected officials make statements on Christmas, and many of them are religious, or have a religious tone.  Well Governor Folsom was a strong Christian man, who decided that the time was right to talk about the love of Jesus Christ.  And in the process, he damned himself.  I will reproduce certain portions of this speech here, but you can find the whole thing online.  I ensure you that I will not mischaracterize the nature of this radio address; if any of you believe I have once you have read it in its' entirety, I would welcome the opportunity to correct.  (I should also note that William Safire currently holds the copyright to reproduce this whole speech.  Hopefully this post won't be yanked)

I am happy to have this opportunity to speak to the people of Alabama on Christmas Day.  This is the greatest day, the most revered day, of our entire calendar.  It is the birthday of Christ, who was the greatest humanitarian the world has ever known....

The very foundation of democracy rests on Christianity, upon the principles set forth by Christ himself.  And I believe that it is no mere speculation to say that, without a government that guaranteed freedom of religious worship, this nation would have never become the great America that it is....

Our negroes, who constitute 35 percent of our population in Alabama- are they getting 35 percent of the fair share of living?. . . Are they provided with sufficient professional training which will produce their own doctors, professors, lawyers, clergymen, scientists- men and women who pave the way for better health, greater earning powers, and a higher standard of living for all of their people?. . .

As long as negroes are held down by deprivation and a lack of opportunity, the other poor people will be held down alongside them.  There are others too, who would share in our thoughts of the neglected - wounded veterans, the blind, shut-ins, the crippled, and on and on.

The job for us here in Alabama is a positive one.  It is time for us to adopt a positive attitude towards our fellowman.

Folsom insisted that it was his Christian beliefs that forced him to take the stand that he did on the radio that day.  Alabama was having none of it.  The state legislature refused to work with him, shooting down everything that came before them.  He was demonized by white Alabama; which was likely all Christian.  The man who rode a populist wave of support into the Governor's mansion was then run out of town on a rail in the next one because he dared to put forth a message of charity and inclusion.

However, Alabama fell on hard times.  In 1954, Folsom was re-elected.  But once again, he refused to desert his position on American Civil Rights.  Because he refused to condemn Dr. King as many of his colleagues did, because he wanted to enforce the Brown decision, Folsom was again cast out.  This time permanently.

I have contrasted Bentley with Folsom for a reason.  Bentley's message was one that could easily be taken as exclusionist.  As Rabbi Johnathan Miller of Birmingham, Alabama said, in a letter to Bentley, "I felt disenfranchised from your grace as our leader in the hours after your inauguration."  Miller's letter is also worth a read, and it is on the internet.  But what do people say to those who were offended or hurt by the message?  "Too bad."  "Move to another state."  "Who cares."  "You took it the wrong way."  Bentley's exclusionist language is excused, lauded, and we all move on, ignoring groups that the late James Folsom would have heartily reached out to.

But what happpened to Folsom?  How did we react to his positive message?  Well, Alabama voted him out of office.  Twice.  It is also worth mentioning who they put in his place, because it is a fellow some of you probably know of:  George Wallace.  The man who would later become famous for personally barring the entrance of the University of Alabama to black students.  Alabama traded a man who believed that Christ was a champion of equality for a man who believed that Christ implicitly supported the slave trade.

Oh Yeah.  This George Wallace.

It is critical that American citizens look at their public officials as being neutral, objective, and fair.  Without that, people lose faith in the system.  Look at countries around the world where religion or ethnicity is a legitimate legislating point, and look at what happens because of it.  Sri Lanka has been in a civil war for about 30 years.  The Sudan is about to split apart, and a genocide of unknown proportions has taken place there.  Look at the Georgian war with Russia.  Ethnic and Religious undercurrents pervade those conflicts. We do not allow these things to be legitimate points of governance because the Founding Fathers, by the majority, agreed that to do so would be to invite discord and violence.

I do not believe that Robert Bentley is a bad person; and I don't believe he meant his words to be taken to mean that he could not be a fair leader.  And I do not believe that those words indicate he is incapable of doing so.  But I do believe that if a man chooses to be a represent of all of his people, he must endeavor in every respect to do just that.  Robert Bentley has stumbled out of the gates; and he has been called out on it.  Let's not make more of it than what it was.  Some people have gone way too far in their condemnations.  But let's not act like it was meaningless, or acceptable.  But I fear that in the great state of Alabama, such a message may be all too acceptable. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Yesterday's Incident - My Thoughts

As I watched the events of yesterday unfold, my mind kept going back to my undergraduate work in Anthropology that focused around communal violence and "cults."  In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan was assassinated by members of the People's Temple in Guyana as he attempted to return to the capital of Georgetown.  I have heard many people comparing the incidents.  Because I studied one of them extensively, I thought perhaps I could offer some meaningful opinions on what is similar, what is different, and perhaps what it means for us as a nation.  Maybe even what we should do about it.  I also found some similarities between this incident and the Aum Shinrikyo attacks in Japan and certain aspects of David Koresh's rants.

(Author's Note:  The best source for anyone who wants to learn about what happened in Guyana is a book entitled Our Father Who Art in Hell, by James Reston Jr.  It was written during the year immediately after the tragedy, and is an excellent resource for anyone interested.  I have a slightly dog-eared copy with many tabs in it.  You may borrow it if you wish.  But do not remove my tabs.  God help you should you remove my tabs.  In fact everything I talk about here I've got a lot of print on.  Just ask if you are interested.)

Leo Ryan v. Gabrielle Giffords

Leo Ryan was a classical 1970s "man's man," who molded himself in the form of a sort of investigative legislator.  He was never satisfied with second-hand information, and always sought to find out the truth in person.  For example, in 1965, Ryan actually disguised himself as an inmate in Folsom Prison for ten days to discover what it was like there while he was serving the California State Assembly.  When Ryan went to Guyana he went there with no United States Marshals, or any kind of law enforcement.  He believed that this sort of thing would incite Jones to violence, or at least make people reluctant to deal with him. 
In any event, Jim Jones was a well known sham by this point in his career, and was notoriously unstable.  Ryan was actively warned by many, including the FBI, that travelling to Guyana would agitate him.  He refused to listen, believing that if he did not go he would look like a coward.  Ryan's bravado resulted in the deaths of most of the crew that came with him (By the way, Dan Qualye was originally supposed to make the trip).

This is an actual image taken by a cameraman at NBC as the group was being fired upon.  It was the last thing several people ever saw.

Giffords (at the time of writing) near assassination could not be under more different circumstances.  Far from being an active agitator, Giffords was simply holding a rather standard 'town-hall' sort of meeting in a public place.  Much is being made of the threats that had been levelled at Giffords before, but I am unsure of how they should currently be characterized in wake of available information, but I will get into that later.  The critical distinction is this:  Ryan walked into hell.  Hell walked up to Giffords and shook her hand.  That should be very disconcerting for us as American citizens, and even more so for the citizens of Arizona.  How someone managed to get to a member of Congress point blank with a Glock 9 mm and then shoot her and 19 other people is absolutely confounding.  Why he did so is not relevant to this point, although I have some idea of why with the information available.  Why was there no security at this event?  How did someone with Loughner's record wind up with a powerful semi-automatic handgun with 90 rounds of ammunition and extended clips?

I should point out that if you have followed the story, than you are aware that Loughner was not the only armed private citizen at this assembly.  The man who restrained him was armed.  I am absolutely sick of hearing people comment with something akin to "well, if I was there with MY Glock 9 mm....."  Just stop it.  You have no clue what you would have, or could have done.  You could just as easily have wound up being shot in the head .  Sorry, temporary irrelevant rant.

The threats against Giffords DID in fact come from "Tea Party" types.  Most of these were in relation to the healthcare bill and to Giffords active criticism of her close friend Jan Brewer's immigration policy.  Her office routinely received death threats and was vandalized.  Therefore it is not surprising that many people immediately assumed that the shooter was directly related to the Tea Party.  However, it appears this is not the case.  But I think it is highly unlikely that Loughner acted alone, and I would not be shocked if someone 'nudged' him in Giffords' direction.  Here is why:

Larry Layton & Susan Atkins v. Jared Lee Loughner

I'm sure many of you have heard of Susan Atkins, but I would bet that Larry Layton is a less well known figure.  Susan Atkins was a member of the famous "Manson Family" who murdered the LeBianca family, Sharon Tate and her friends, and are suspected in numerous unsolved murders around the time of their activity.  Larry Layton was one of Jim Jones most trusted lieutenants, although he is probably more accurately described as a foot soldier.  Layton disguised himself as a "defector" to leave Jonestown with Ryan before opening fire on them in the plane while it was parked on the runway.  Had his gun not backfired, he could have easily killed everyone on board. What I am going to get at here is a sort of cultural/social, and maybe psychological, link between these three people.

I will note from the start that I have little to no background in psychology.  My focus is elsewhere, which is why I will not attempt to draw some sort of "psychological profile."  To be honest, I have doubts over which model is more efficient, although I suppose those both often end in similar places.

People in every culture I have ever studied have a deep seeded need for some purpose, some sense of direction.  This is a very prevalent norm in American society.  All you need to do is look around our streets to see it everywhere.  We have clubs, religion, political parties, thousands of things you can easily think of which help us to define ourselves, our purpose in life, and our direction.  Most people do not think of themselves as having any similarity to people like Loughner.  But you do.  So do I.  I am an Eastern Kentuckian who attends law school and aspires to one day work for the FBI.  In this sentence I have revealed crucial parts of my identity and purpose.  My surroundings and circumstances have helped shape me, helped define those goals and facets of my identity, and continue to guide me.  Sometimes this sort of thinking makes people uncomfortable, but I feel that recognizing our own need for belonging and direction is a very healthy thing.  Just my opinion.

In any event, Layton and Atkins come from that classic mold of the person who is seeking a direction.  The direction that they found was given to them by a leader; a person who was charismatic, charming, and convincing.  That person then convinced them that to achieve their purpose, they needed to kill.  I theorize that Loughner was the same.  People like Layton, Atkins, and Loughner, are (pardon the irony of the expression) like loaded guns.  There is so much repressed energy that can be released in a dangerous way.  But for it to happen, someone needs to aim them, and pull the trigger.

Read Loughner's posts on youtube.  They make absolutely no sense.  They are directed at no one in particular, speak in nonsensical tautologies, and appear for the most part to be benign nonsense.  This is wildly different from someone who is a self-motivated sort of mass murderer like Seung-Hui Cho.  Cho (the Virginia Tech shooter) had volumes of ultra-violent bloody writings, where he fantasized about the mass murder of classmates and teachers.  Cho had mental disorders that were diagnosed as early as his 7th grade year.  The Columbine killers were similar to Cho, with histories of mental disorders and worshipping violence.  Loughner, appears at the moment anyway, to just be a troubled kid with a history of personal failures.  I feel that Loughner's 'purpose' in life became about showing people how the government was brainwashing us all, using fake currency, and other such conspiracy theories which are prevalent online.  The internet has become all about new forms of identity and ideas.  I am very interested to see why Giffords herself was chosen, as if this was just purely anti-government, any number of choices would have made sense.  Perhaps it was because of her vulnerability and visibility at the rally.  Or perhaps because Loughner was informed that this was the person who was his enemy.  Similar to how Layton and Atkins were informed who their targets were.

There could be a hint to this buried in his last message on Myspace.  The one imploring his friends to "not be mad" at him.  If Loughner acted alone, and was only motivated by his own recognitions of who his enemy was, why would he apologize for acting for everyone's benefit?  Unless he knew that many of his "friends" would not understand what he now did "understand," thanks to his motivator? 

Just a theory......More to come as we learn more....