Communion Of Dreams

Just a brief note . . .
April 13, 2009, 8:19 am
Filed under: Ballistics, Guns

. . . to let everyone know that my posting here is likely to be light & sporadic (hmm – sounds like a weather forecast) this week. We’re going to be starting the next round of ballistics testing on Thursday, and I have a lot of work to get done before that.


Jim Downey

Why gun owners fear Democrats: An analogy.
April 11, 2009, 8:58 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Civil Rights, Constitution, Government, Guns, Religion, Society, Violence

(I posted this over on dKos, thought it might be of interest to people here.)

* * *

xxdr zombiexx’s diary on Thursday provoked a lot of good discussion, and brought out in high relief some of the differences here on the left regarding attitudes towards guns. One very insightful thing he said in the 3rd update to his diary particularly got me to thinking:

The point is that I do think that some people take this “right to own guns” bit too seriously and have elevated it to a religion.

OK, let’s use that as the launching point for an analogy. It is not a perfect analogy, but I hope it is an illustrative one – please keep an open mind, and give it a chance to work. My intent here is to explain, not argue.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I want to focus on the first two parts of that, concerning religion, which are commonly referred to as the “Establishment” and “Free Exercise” clauses.

(I am not an attorney, and am not trying to argue legal history – I just want to provide a basic premise for the analogy.)

We tend to think that these clauses mean that an individual American has the right to believe (or not believe) as he or she sees fit, and to exercise their belief freely, without the interference of the government. And by & large, this is true. There are disputes concerning what constitutes any kind of government recognition or support of one religion or another (things like having the Ten Commandments posted in courthouses, et cetera), and there are problems which occur with how some people exercise their religion (as in considering otherwise illegal drugs to be a sacrament). But for the most part, you can believe as you see fit, and exercise that belief within the normal constraints of the law. This is how the vast majority of Americans live their lives.

[Here comes the speculative part. Bear with me.]

OK, now consider how most people would view the Democratic party if it had a history of supporting limitations on the exercise of religion. Let’s say that during the 1960s, following the death of President Kennedy, there was an effort made to promote Catholicism, in respect for the religion of the slain president. After all, a substantial number of Americans at the time were Catholics, including a large percentage of the working-class base of the Democratic Party in the big cities of the North East. Oh, you could still believe as you saw fit, still be Baptist, or Jewish, or Mormon – but let’s say that there was legislation proposed that would make the Pope the nominal head of all religions in the US, just as a sign of respect to President Kennedy.

Of course, such legislation would be seen as completely inappropriate, there would be a backlash, and Democrats would pay a heavy price in following elections. After wandering in the political wilderness for a generation, most Democrats would know not to get involved in such a mess, to leave religion well enough alone.

Time passes. But then along comes a new religion. A bit of a weird one. Scientology. A lot of people see it as a cult. Its power and influence is seen to grow, though in fairly limited ways. Still, it makes a lot of people uneasy. Several European countries decide that it is something of a threat, and pass laws against it, some harsher than others.

A new Democratic president decides to do something, and is instrumental in passing a new law in an effort to protect people from perceived dangers of Scientology. But the wording is sloppy (as any such effort to limit a religion while trying to stay Constitutional would be), and as more people become aware of the implications of the law, the more different religions seem to be threatened by it. Over the course of a decade, even though the Democratic president and his Republican successor don’t really use the law to do anything against most people, the general consensus comes about among believers that this law should be allowed to lapse when it comes up for renewal.

And still, even so, there are those Democrats who think that Scientology is a real threat, and they lobby hard to keep the law. Their intention is completely honorable – all they want to do is have what they see as reasonable limits on this one particular ‘weird’ religion. But their actions remind people of the ill-fated (though again, well-intentioned) efforts to promote Catholicism, no matter how much they profess that *that* is not what they mean to do at all. Fed by the Republican noise machine, fear of Democratic interference in the free exercise of religion is kept alive, even while the anti-Scientology law is allowed to expire.

A new Democratic president comes on the stage. He seems to be honest, and forthright, and has a lot of messes to clean up from his inept Republican predecessor. He says that he has no interest in limiting anyone’s religion, that he is a non-Catholic himself, and most people believe him. But he did slip up once during the campaign, and made an unfortunate comment about small-town Americans bitterly clinging to religion. That made a lot of people nervous, even good Democrats who were people of faith. And he had been on record previously in supporting the anti-Scientology legislation. And someone remembers that he was raised an atheist. A couple of his top cabinet members make comments which can be understood to be hostile to Scientology, perhaps to religion in general. Oh, and his official government website says that he still supports making the anti-Scientology law permanent.

Then, still very early in his administration, there are several high-profile instances where Scientology is in the news and seems to be as much of a threat as ever, if not moreso. Demands on left-leaning political blogs increase for a renewal of the anti-Scientology law, as poorly written and ineffectual as it was. Some vocal atheists weigh in, say that the problem goes well beyond just Scientology, that it is religion itself that is the problem, and that we should all just grow the hell up and get past this infantile fascination, be more like the Europeans. People of faith – not just Scientologists, but all those who remember what has happened in the past – start to eye the Democrats with increasing unease and suspicion.

Jim Downey

Well, maybe I’m not such a crank, after all.
April 8, 2009, 7:34 pm
Filed under: ACLU, Civil Rights, Government, Politics, Predictions, Privacy, Society, tech

Huh, a couple of weeks ago I complained about this:

Cameras keep watch downtown

The city of Columbia has installed a cluster of four surveillance cameras at Ninth Street and Broadway as a demo for a larger project to monitor and deter downtown crime.

Well, seems that my bitching (along with a lot of others), had an effect:

Council kills surveillance camera plan

In a move that surprised city staff and the downtown business community alike, the Columbia City Council last night on a 6-1 vote denied a transfer of funds that would have allowed the lease of surveillance cameras for downtown streets.

The mobile camera units, perched on trailers at downtown intersections for the past month during a trial period, will soon be hauled away, Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said.

What started out as a transfer of funds from one account to another to cover a budgeted expense became a lengthy discussion of privacy, safety and civil rights among council members and members of the public.

I’ll be damned. Maybe there’s hope for us, yet.

Jim Downey

There ain’t no such thing.

The annoying cold I mentioned the other day seems to be trying for an upgrade to bronchial infection, perhaps with delusions of becoming pneumonia. So I’m not feeling particularly creative or insightful. Maybe I used up too much outrage yesterday. Anyway, since I am a bit under the weather, let me just post an excerpt from something you ought to read. This is the closing of The Most Dangerous Person in the World?:

Security itself is an illusion. It is a perception that exists only between our ears. No army, insurance policy, hazmat team, video surveillance or explosive sniffer can protect us from our own immune system, a well-intentioned but clumsy surgeon, failing to look before crossing the street, an asteroid randomly hurtling through space or someone willing to die in order to do others harm.

In this sense, the only things that can truly make us more “secure” are not things. They are the courage to face whatever comes with dignity and intention, and the strong relationships that assure we will face the future together, and find comfort and meaning in doing so.

Imagine, then, what might happen if we simply quit listening to the scaremongers and those who profit from our paranoia. Imagine what the world could look like if we made a conscious choice to live out whatever time we have with courage, compassion, service and joy.

Terrorism is an act of the weak. But so is walking through the airport in our socks.

We can make better choices.

Go read the whole thing.

Jim Downey

(Via Bruce Schneier.)

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
April 6, 2009, 10:53 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, Civil Rights, Government, Politics, Privacy, Society, Terrorism, Travel, YouTube

So, there was a convention in St. Louis weekend before last. No big deal – just the sort of regional thing that is held in cities around the US regularly. This was a political convention, for a group which is a little out of the mainstream, but just a bit: Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty. Not my cup of tea, but like I said, no big deal.

And at this convention they sold the usual books and bumper stickers and t-shirts you might expect, and there were probably ticket sales to special events and whatnot. All this is standard fare. Following the convention, one young man who had responsibility for handling some portion of the sales receipts was trying to get home, and went to the airport to catch his flight back to Virginia. There, going through the security checkpoint . . .

Oh, wait – first, let me give a little bit of background. See, recently there was a big flair-up here in Missouri over a government report issued by the Department of Public Safety which caused a huge uproar. The document, titled “Modern Militia Movement”, was sent to law enforcement agencies around the state, outlining what potential threats might come out of right-wing groups. Problem is, a lot of people took the report as being hostile to legitimate political groups. Here’s the relevant passage:

Political Paraphernalia: Militia members most commonly associate with third party groups. It is not uncommon for militia members to display Constitution Party, Campaign for Liberty, or Libertarian material. These members are usually supporters of former Presidential Candidate: Ron Paul, Chuck Baldwin, and Bob Barr.

This created such an uproar that the the governor intervened and told the head of the DPS to correct the problem. From a newspaper report on the 24th:

In a letter dated March 23, Public Safety Director John Britt told third-party presidential candidates U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Chuck Baldwin of the Constitution Party and Bob Barr of the Libertarian Party that he was ordering the “Modern Militia Movement” report altered to delete their names and the names of their political parties as possible indicators of militia involvement.

* * *

The inclusion led members of these parties to fear they would be profiled by police based on political bumper stickers or other paraphernalia.

Britt, who oversees MIAC, writes: “Portions of the report may be easily construed by readers as offensive to supporters of certain political candidates or to those candidates themselves. I regret those components were ultimately included in the final report issued by MIAC.”

Britt also wrote that any characterization of the three presidential candidates or their parties as possible militia members was “an undesired and unwarranted outcome.”

OK, so there’s that. Now, back to our story.

. . . Steve Bierfeldt was stopped. He had a metal lockbox which contained Ron Paul & Campaign for Liberty bumper stickers, and $4700 in sales receipts. He was asked why he had such a large sum of cash. He asked whether he was required by law to answer the question. Things predictably degenerated from there. Here’s the TSA’s version of events:

Incident at St. Louis International Airport

At approximately 6:50 p.m. on March 29, 2009, a metal box alarmed the X-ray machine at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, triggering the need for additional screening. Because the box contained a number of items including a large amount of cash, all of which needed to be removed to be properly screened, it was deemed more appropriate to continue the screening process in a private area. A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employee and members of the St. Louis Airport Police Department can be heard on the audio recording. The tone and language used by the TSA employee was inappropriate. TSA holds its employees to the highest professional standards. TSA will continue to investigate this matter and take appropriate action.

Movements of large amounts of cash through the checkpoint may be investigated by law enforcement authorities if criminal activity is suspected. As a general rule, passengers are required to cooperate with the screening process. Cooperation may involve answering questions about their property, including why they are carrying a large sum of cash. A passenger who refuses to answer questions may be referred to appropriate authorities for further inquiry.

Now, take a few minutes to watch the following video. Yes, it is a clip from FOX News. My apologies for that – but it contains about 70 seconds worth of recording from the event itself, which clearly gives an indication of the type of tactics and behaviour being employed by the TSA:

Let me sum up for those who don’t wish to watch the video. Mr. Bierfeldt is repeatedly asked why he has such a large sum of money. He in turn asks whether he is *required by law* to answer that question. He is then told that he will be “taken downtown” and turned over to the FBI and/or DEA if he doesn’t answer the question. He is further threatened with missing his flight, arrest, et cetera for not cooperating. One of the four or five TSA officials in the room even states directly “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

This evidently went on for the better part of 25 minutes. At the end, a plainclothes police or FBI official came into the room, whispered to the TSA officials, who then gave Bierfeldt back his things and got him on his scheduled flight.

* * *

OK, several things. If you want a very enlightening insight into the functioning of the TSA mindset, go look at their official blog post and read comments from multiple TSA employees, who make incorrect claims about the law about transporting money saying that such a large sum gives them the right to investigate, that they are required to watch for drug law violations, et cetera.

It is *not* illegal to carry large amounts of cash. I would even say that $4700 doesn’t even qualify as a large amount of cash, though that’s more than I ever carry. Detaining someone for having that kind of money on them is nothing short of harassment.

Was Bierfeldt singled out for his political beliefs? Remember, that Missouri Department of Public Safety bulletin was still fresh, and had only been ‘rescinded’ a week previously. I think a reasonable person could conclude that there was a likelihood that it played a part.

Did Bierfeldt ask for this kind of problem? Wouldn’t it have been easier for him to just answer the stupid question and be done with it? Yeah, probably. But I consider the man a hero for sticking up for his rights. More of us should.

While I have some libertarian leanings, as I said at the beginning of this post Ron Paul and the Campaign for Liberty are not my cup of tea. And I find it a bit telling that only now when a nice white kid gets hassled by the TSA during the Obama administration does FOX News find it worth covering. But I certainly do hope that this is the start of people becoming more aware of what kinds of threats we all face to our liberties by the ‘security theater‘ which is the TSA. After all, what threat to airline security is presented by someone with a wad of cash?

Jim Downey

(Via BB and Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Cross posted to UTI.)

My dad was a cop, killed on the job.
April 5, 2009, 9:53 am
Filed under: Violence

Got an email from a close friend last night:

Heard about the officers in Pittsburgh – how are you doing?

Because she knows my history: almost 40 years ago, my dad was killed on the job investigating a robbery. His name was Wil Downey, and it happened in University City (St. Louis area) on December 12, 1969. I was 11.

I tried avoiding writing about this. When these things happen, as they do with a disturbing frequency, I usually just like to withdraw a bit, reflect, try to find my equilibrium. It is always surprising just how much it hurts, even now.

But for whatever reason – whether due to the death of four officers in Oakland two weeks ago, or because we’re coming up on the annual prayer service for fallen officers in the St. Louis area (which I know about but never attend), or because of other recent discussions in which I have been engaged on dKos – for whatever reason, I find that just turning away isn’t working this time.

So, I write. Even though I have very little to say, really. Just to point out that when you read about the death of a cop, chances are they were someone’s child, or sibling, or parent. This is always true, of course, with any death – whether it was a death by violence, or accident, or illness. We are all linked together in ways we rarely appreciate. The officers killed yesterday were not just fodder for your arguments about guns or what the right-wing crazies said. They were real people, and had real families. Sometimes we forget that.

Jim Downey

(Posted on Daily Kos. Thought I would also post it here.)

Why atheists’ arguments don’t work.
April 3, 2009, 9:33 am
Filed under: Humor, movies, Religion, YouTube

A little chuckle for a Friday:

“Logic.” You keep using that word — I do not think it means what you think it means.*

Jim Downey

(Via MeFi. *Apologies. Cross posted from UTI because I have an annoying cold and little imagination today. So there.)