Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Too Many Days Like This One

When will this insanity stop?

My cousin Nan said we don't have the problem with mass shootings in Canada like they do in the US because Canadians are just nicer people. I beg to differ. We've had a half dozen school shootings in the past 40 years, but only two which resulted in multiple deaths, one in 1989 when a mentally ill former student decided competition from women students was the reason he had failed his courses, and shot 28 female students, killing 14 before killing himself. The other was in 1992 in which four people died, shot by a former professor who had been a colleague in the engineering dept. But in 110 years 28 people (students, faculty and staff) have died in school shootings in Canada. Most of these were single fatalities and the result of someone settling a grudge or a dispute with a gun.

The USA and Canada are very alike in culture and demographics. We basically have the same early British and French roots, and demographically we have much the same immigrant populations. Our populations watch the same TV shows, see the same movies, play the same video games.

This "niceness" argument can be refuted by looking at the gun homicide rates in each country. In 1975 Canada's gun homicide rate was 3.03 per 100,000, about the same as the gun homicide rate in the USA between 2008-2010, which was 2.98 per 100,000. In 1975 Canada had dozens of different gun laws on the books, none of which had much impact on crime or gun homicides. But in 1977 Canada put gun controls into place that required a firearms acquisition certificate (FAC) in order to purchase any firearm, and introduced controls on the selling of ammunition. Applicants were required to pass a basic criminal record check before receiving the FAC.

Since 1977 gun homicides have steadily dropped and are now down 80% from what they were before gun controls, to 0.76 per 100,000. Let's put that into perspective, in the USA=over 10,000 people murdered with a gun in 2010, in Canada, 170.

Hardly any guns are used in the commission of crimes (like robbery) in Canada, 94 of those 170 deaths were gang related. We had four gun homicides in Calgary in 2012, a city of over a million people. One of the four gun deaths here last year was a young woman was shot at a gang party where someone decided to settle a drug score and she got in the way. The rest were as a result of domestic violence, which is surely one of the best arguments for not having a gun at hand in the home.

The second place we differ is this: Hate speech and hate crime are not legally tolerated in Canada. Freedom of speech does not extend to the denigration of others, nor acts of hate, based on race, religion, culture, gender, sexual orientation etc. I have heard words come from the mouths of American politicians in this last campaign that would get them charged with hate speech in Canada.

Canada is a country of immigrants (I am one of them). In the 1970s the government adopted a policy of promoting acceptance of cultural diversity. Immigrants are encouraged to retain their ethnic identity, language and traditions while adopting Canadian social norms and cultural values.

Thus while it's encouraged that immigrants retain their religion, traditions and cultures, they are not allowed to bring their homeland's oppression of other religions, traditions and cultures with them. It's expected that everyone will live peacefully side by side with their neighbour.

Now, I was born early in the morning, but not yesterday morning, so I am not so naive as to imagine there is no prejudice here, no sad little White boy groups who think they are somehow superior because they are melanin challenged, or because they uphold "Cross and Crown" like weapons, but society as a whole does not tolerate such behaviour openly. When a White "supremacy" group announced a rally in Edmonton last year hundreds of protestors showed up to refute them. The few "supremacists" turned tail and ran as soon as they saw the waiting crowd. The KKK received the same reception a few years ago in Calgary when they came up from Idaho to "recruit". Faced with an actively hostile crowd they retreated rather than recruited.

Compassion is seen as a value here, and is expressed though the provision of universal medical care, and constant pressure exerted on the government to extend fair treatment to disadvantaged and vulnerable populations. Not that this is always successful mind you, but laws are set up to protect the citizen more than the corporate structure, and wealth is more equally distributed than in the US. Banking and mortgage regulations kept the Canadian real estate market from the chaos seen in the US market, and the resulting fiscal crash, and while the tax burden is somewhat heavier it is more equally distributed, and it includes medical and social benefits available across all strata of society.

Calgary made a decision a few years ago to eradicate homelessness and is well on its way to providing decent shelter for those who are hard to house, the mentally ill, the addict, the mentally challenged, elderly veterans, abused women, those who have for one reason or another found themselves living on the street without options. With it, counseling, a monthly income, job training if appropriate. Above all, dignity and compassion. Yes it costs money, but it costs society to ignore these people too. A society hardens its heart at a price.

In America the GOP has politically prospered by fostering hatred, division and paranoia for the past 40 years. The politicians who talk most loudly about individual freedoms are those who work the most aggressively to curb them and who work hardest to divide people along racial, cultural and class lines. Their list of who to heap contempt on; the "welfare queen", the unemployed bum, the 47%, the union lackey, the greedy pensioner, the sick child who needs medical care, the medicare leech, the illegal immigrant coming to suck at the freely flowing government teat, their litany of who to hate today goes on and on - everyone but "us" - you and me, especially me.

While right-wing American politicians cry we need to go back to the "good old days" when the Bible was (supposedly) the law of the land (it never was), what they really want to go back to is a time when the only power lay in the hands of the wealthiest, and everyone else had to knuckle under extreme privation or starve. They prey on paranoia fostered by 40 years of fear-mongering, of building an "us against them" mentality that has Americans patrolling their neighbourhoods with guns, shooting teens armed with a bag of candy bought from the corner store, and countless others armed to the teeth against an invasion of - who?

The mother of the mentally ill teenager who killed 26 small children and their teachers in an elementary school this week owned all these weapons because she had bought into the political paranoia that the government was going to collapse and there would be an "invasion". By whom one might wonder? Six year olds?

She knew her boy was unstable. A man who babysat him, even as a 10 year-old, had been cautioned never to turn his back or allow the boy to get out of sight. So what was she thinking giving him access to firearms of any kind? She paid the price every gun owner is far more at risk of paying than the person who does not have a gun in the home. A gun in the home increases the risk of a gun death, by homicide, suicide or accident twenty-two times over a home in which there is no firearm. Unfortunately she was not the only victim of her poor judgement and paranoia.

At some point Americans have to take their heads out of their political assholes. No, guns don't kill people, but people with guns do. If these crazed mass shooters had access only to a kitchen knife or a 2 x 4 they wouldn't have gotten far, because you have to get up close and personal to do damage with that kind of weapon, and none of them are that brave.

Any coward can shoot a six-year-old from 10 feet away, or a stranger from 250 feet away, or 10 strangers, or 50, with your automatic weapon. On the same day a deranged man went into a school in China with a knife and attacked a class of 22 kindergarten age children. He injured four before he was stopped. All will recover. Not one of those children died.

But in the end, people are people. Canadians and Americans. Just like children can be brought up to be well-mannered, considerate and compassionate, they can also be brought up to be selfish, brutal and cruel. Depends on the parents and their peers, and what is expected and tolerated by society.

One man at the scene of this latest shooting said it best, "To all those who love your guns, I pray that you love your children more."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Most Astounding Fact

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked by a reader of TIME magazine, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?" This is his answer.