Sunday, September 16, 2012

Man With a Gun

There was a big fat guy sharing a confidence with a dealer in very large firearms yesterday at the Crossroads of the West gun show in Tucson.

"I know a guy high up in Homeland Security," the fat man was saying with self-assurance. "If Obama gets reelected, the first thing they're going to do is take guns away from anybody who's a member of any organized church."

The gun dealer nodded gravely, but actually he was looking over this lunatic's shoulder, searching for potential buying customers, of which there seemed to be few among the throngs of people who wandered the crowded aisles by counters and booths stocked with a staggering selection of rifles, shotguns and handguns, ammunition, magazines, martial-arts gear, hunting and survival knives, and even the occasional table full of religious end-times books. Will the religious nuts in America -- and I include even the perpetually alarmed nuns who taught me in grade school in the 1950s -- ever get tired of predicting the imminent end of the world, as a consequence of political opponents, insufficient public holiness, or (the 1950s nuns here) causing offense to the Virgin Mary in word, thought or deed.

They're wearing me out, these people.

Anyway, at the gun show, I was surprised to see the sign out front telling attendees that they had to check their own guns at the door. Maybe I miss the point of that, but it seemed to me that the gun show people were signaling that they are as wary as the rest of us might be of a crowd of armed gun-nuts assembled in a large group.

The Wall Street Journal the other day had a story saying that gun sales were going to go up sharply if Omaba gets reelected.

Says the Journal, "Even though there haven't been any substantial changes to gun-control laws under Mr. Obama, Cabela's, Bass Pro Shops, Smith & Wesson Holding Corp. SWHC -2.41% and Olin Corp., OLN +0.52% the maker of Winchester bullets, are anticipating another bump in sales this winter if President Obama is re-elected. Smith & Wesson raised its full-year sales forecast last week to $530 million ..."

Noted. But I saw no sign of the imminence of that at this gun show, where the lookers were in far, far greater strength than the buyers. Nor do I find the gun-show spectacle as alarming as this overwrought piece in Salon seems to have found a similar show in Phoenix.

I simply do not see a lot of guns being bought at these events, though there are a whole lot on sale.

Dunno: Maybe the gun market is sated? I mean, anybody who wants a gun -- for whatever reason -- probably already has one or more. And guns are extremely well manufactured. Buy one and it lasts pretty much forever.

As I've said before, I have no personal objection to gun ownership. I have always known hunters, even before I moved to a part of the country that used to be known as the Wild West. I have friends who are cops and other law enforcement agents. I'm a Vietnam veteran. I don't get hysterical about guns -- well regulated, to borrow a few words from the Second Amendment.

On the other hand, I recently declined to renew my membership in the National Rifle Association because the NRA -- which used to do important work in gun-safety and firearms training education -- has now become nothing more than a propaganda arm for the lunacy wing
of the Republican Party. And frankly, it just bugs me that the $1 million-a-year head of the NRA, the pompadoured Wayne LaPierre, is one of those loud-mouthed faux warriors who, like so many others in his cohort, is a draft-dodger who somehow managed to avoid going to Vietnam, back when there was real shooting.

Also, I wish the gun crowd, including those who are responsible gun dealers with genuine regard for firearms training and safety, would drum out the most indisputably ugly and unacceptable wares at those gun-show tables.

Nazi flags? Not okay.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

RIP Gaeton Fonzi

Gaeton Fonzi has died, age 76. He was one of the most dogged investigative reporters of his generation and the author of what is widely regarded as the most persuasive book arguing that President Kennedy was murdered in a conspiracy that the Warren Commission willfully chose not to investigate fully.

Here's the obit in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I remember Fonzi from the incipient glory days of Philadelphia journalism, when the city had three daily newspapers (later four), three aggressive local TV news operations and a monthly magazine, Philadelphia, that defined the dawning era in national city-magazine investigative journalism.

Like most serious investigative reporters, Fonzi could seem like a nut, especially when he was intensely focused. But he usually delivered, even if some of the prose was purple.

I think he indirectly helped clear the way for Gene Robert's fabled Philadelphia Inquirer that gained traction starting in 1972. In the late 60s, Fonzi and Greg Walter broke the story, in Philadelphia Magazine, of the old Inquirer's master shakedown-artist, a thoroughly corrupt reporter named Harry Karafin, who was blackmailing major Philadelphia businesses and institutions when the Inquirer was owned and operated by another scoundrel, Walter Annenberg, a gangster's son who had parlayed the Inquirer into an enormously successful business empire that included TV Guide and television stations.

Fonzi also wrote a book about Annenberg, who evidently decided by late 1969 that Philadelphia had become too inhospitable, or at least insufficiently malleable, and sold his paper to the reputable Knight Newspapers chain, which later became Knight-Ridder. The rest was journalistic history. Annenberg, who had prostituted the Inquirer shamelessly, received his reward from Richard Nixon, who named him ambassador to Britain.

While Annenberg went to the Court of St. James (and would later become better known for his and his wife's philanthropy), Karafin went to prison.

Fonzi, I always thought, had helped Annenberg make up his mind to sell the paper and blow town. And like a surprising number of other Philadelphia journalists from that era, he had started out at the then-scrappy Delaware County Daily Times -- where I myself had my first job right out of the military, as a columnist, before I went to the Inquirer in 1970.

Incidentally, I never got the chance to share with Fonzi my own take on the Kennedy Assassination, which I call the Sharkey Unified Theory. To wit:

Lee Harvey Owsald did it, acting alone that day. But at the same time there were at least two ongoing conspiracies to kill JFK in various stages of planning and preliminary execution at the time Oswald fired those three shots. Kennedy, clearly, had an array of powerful and resentful enemies.

Oswald, known for being unstable even to conspirators who might have met him, had some association with at least one of those conspiracies. But he nevertheless acted on his own that day. When he killed Kennedy, members of the actual conspiracies -- which overlapped at the edges -- were dumbfounded, and assumed that the the deed had gone down, somehow. Hence the mob's hair was on fire, as was the hair of the Bay of Pigs renegades. None of these players were known for a high degree of competence, after all.

The Sharkey Unified Theory accounts for all of the anomalies unearthed in the endless conspiracy-theory speculations, including Jack Ruby, lashing out in the mistaken belief that Oswald was working with the mob conspiracy. Both (or all) of the conspiracies to kill Kennedy were dangerous and ruthless, but also half-assed in their planning and organization. Hey, no one ever said the Bay of Pigs exiles or the mob were geniuses!

So the truth has actually been out there hiding in plain sight all along, in fractured pieces lying among among all of the incorrect shards and theories. And my guess is that some aged villains to this day believe they were part of the plot, unaware that Oswald, for his own twisted reasons, beat them to the trigger.

Fonzi might not have bought it, but he would have considered the possibilities.


Member to NRA: Drop Dead

I joined the National Rifle Association some years ago, after moving to Arizona, because I liked their work in gun-safety education and in firearms understanding. I'm not a hunter, but I know hunters. I'm a military veteran, so guns are not unknown to me. And I live in what used to be called the Wild West.

But I'm not renewing my membership.

The NRA, which has always had radical right-wing elements, has become nothing more now than an armed subsidiary of the extremist wing (and is there any other these days?) of the Republican Party, its publications foul with nasty propaganda, outright lies, and incessant Omaba-hating.

This has occurred under the aegis of the NRA's boss, a fellow named Wayne LaPierre, who wears a pompadour the likes of which I haven't seen since the Lawrence Welk Orchestra's trombone section was on a bus. LaPierre, who snarls like a warrior, is actually one of those faux warriors I love to identify -- a guy about my age who loudly supports war but who himself managed to dodge the Vietnam draft when he was a young man. They are called "chicken-hawks," and the list is long and sad.

And by the way, what the hell kind of a name is "Wayne LaPierre?" Sounds like something W.C. Fields would have cooked up.

Now my membership renewal in the NRA is predicated on the need to "defeat President Obama" who, LaPierre tells me in my renewal letter, plans to "dismantle the heritage of our country and tear down the foundations of our liberties."

LaPierre makes a cool $1 million as the guy leading the NRA into this folly.

My $25 renewal fee is not coming your way this year, LaPierre. The NRA is no longer an organization that has value as a representative of gun-owners and gun-safety advocates who are not also right-wing screwballs (and draft-dodgers).



Anniversary stories are a particularly chintzy form of journalism, and I'm grateful to the Times today for not going overboard on the 9-11 anniversary. (The amusingly irrelevant Poynter Institute and its professed shock aside, perennial anniversary stories can become, over time, as empty and forced in sentiment as Hallmark anniversary cards.)

There was, however, an important story in the paper today -- not a commemorative waddle through the oft-said, but rather a sharp and crucial piece on the op-ed page by Kurt Eichenwald, who used to be one of those bylines you looked for when he was on the staff of the Times.

Eichenwald's article examines the chronology of a series of urgent memos and other warnings from the C.I.A. to the Bush White House in the months right before the horrific, spectacular Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Yes, we've known about the memo of Aug. 6, 2001, in which Bush's daily presidential briefing file began with a top-secret warning: "Bin Laden determined to strike in the U.S." Famously, Bush and his cronies chose to shrug off that warning -- fixed, as they were, in the stubborn and absurd mind-set that Saddam Hussein was the enemy, not Al Qaeda.

Not well-known, though, are other briefing memos from the C.I.A. that Eichenwald describes preceding the Aug. 6 one, posing warning after warning that an Al Qaeda attack was coming, and that agents of the terrorists were already in place in the U.S. planning that attack, with potentially "dramatic consequences." These also were ignored by Bush and his cronies, to the profound frustration of officials and agents in the C.I.A.

You might want to read the Eichenwald piece using this link, because as it appears in the print edition of the paper it's a little difficult to read. Someone on the op-ed page thought it would be a good idea to allow one of those infernal "graphics" people to set the article in negative type (white letters on a black background), in two twin columns meant to resemble the fallen towers. But as I said, it's difficult to read in pribnt because somebody got too cute with the graphics.

And incidently, along with the online interest, there have been some sharp demurrals in reaction to the Eichenwald article, which is evidently part of the promotion for a book he has out. Essentially, the criticism is that all of this stuff was already on the record.

Anyway, I'm glad for the subdued 9-11 news-pages coverage, if only because I don't have to read some reverential reporting on the reappearance at the site of the odious Rudy Giuliani -- you know, the faux warrior and Vietnam draft-dodger who installed his palatial, shockingly luxurious "emergency command center/tryst pad" inside one of the World Trade Center towers after that complex had already been attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists in the 1993 bombing that killed six and injured more than 1,000.

Meanwhile, the breathtakingly expensive memorial at the World Trade Center site continues to be a source of controversy and scandal.

And it raises questions about what, exactly, we are commemorating at this complex -- the horror and valor of 9-11, or the excessive, freedom-choking security-industrial state that it spawned.

In Slate, Mark Vanhoenacker has this compelling article looking at the issues of the stringent, ridiculous security that greets visitors to the memorial, and what those measures signal as the cost to a free society.

Among the past articles he links to in his article is a piece by me in this space, which I wrote last spring after a visit to the memorial. Here it is:


A Visit to the 9/11 Memorial in New York Where Silly Security Shows That the Terrorists Did In Fact Win

"Remove your belt!"

I'm passing through the crowded security checkpoint at the new 9/11 Memorial on the site of the World Trade Center ruins in lower Manhattan and I realize this goon in a blue shirt that says "SECURITY" is yelling at me.

He is also poking some kind of a wand into the tray holding my camera and cellphone, knocking them around a bit before they pass through the magnetometer.

"Be careful with that stick you're banging my camera with," I tell him.

"Remove your belt," he repeats loudly, in a tone that not even the rudest TSA screener would dare to use at an airport. He glares at me in a way that says, "If this was Guatemala, you'd be on the ground right now, pal."

Welcome to the 9/11 Memorial where, given the absurd degree of pointless security that abounds, the terrorists have clearly won.

There is not a sign, and barely a reminder, of the courage and fortitude shown by New Yorkers on that terrible day as those huge buildings crumbled and all of those people died at the hands of religious-fanatic murderers who were determined to bring this great city to its knees.

No, there is just the security, the fear that is so obviously on display, now that the actual threat is gone.

You need to go online and arrange a pass and a time to visit the memorial site, which is dominated by two giant sunken pools with waterfalls cascading into the pits where the Twin Towers each once stood.

I know that ground well, because I worked for years at the Wall Street Journal, pre-Murdoch, when Dow Jones was based at the World Financial Center across the street from the World Trade Center. When I go there today, I see not those holes in the ground, so tastefully designed to eradicate all memory of the offense of the horror, but the vast and unspeakable emptiness in the air. All of that mass, gone, and yet I still feel it there.

The security, I am deeply saddened to say, spoils any sense of reflection or reverence at the site. Instead, the fear is everywhere, in the humorless faces of all those rent-a-cops, all those real cops, all on guard. All that law-enforcement presence, and for what?

Against what?

I wanted to tell the hump who ordered me around at the metal detector, Listen, Skippy, you are aware, are you not, that this place has already been blown up? That there is nothing left to destroy? That the threat to American freedoms is from the likes of you in your quasi-military blue uniform and your Guatemala militia manners? The terrorists have moved on. There is no opportunity at this place now.

The New York City police commissioner, Ray Kelly, has given interviews about the security at this site and come up with little more than an expressed concern that some people might be so overwhelmed with grief that they might feel the impulse to jump into one of those reflecting pools. I am not kidding.

"People might commit suicide," Kelly said in one interview. "We're concerned about the possibility of somebody jumping in. This is what we're paid to think about."

It does not matter, because common sense has died, that anyone with a desire to end it all can merely cross the street, stroll a block west, and hop a low railing right into the churning Hudson River.

No, we have a memorial at the World Trade Center site, the site of such courage and resolve when the enemy was real, and the memorial is to fear. And to the growing security state. And in a very sad way, it is a pathetic tribute to the murderers who sought on 9/11 to make that hideous statement about the vulnerability of America.

I'd post a photo or two of the site that I took yesterday but I cannot. As I left the security area, I turned around to snap a picture, and one of the glowering rent-a-cops blocked my exit.

"You can't take a picture. You have to delete it," he ordered me.

I insisted that he call an actual police officer, and two responded. Yes, they agreed, I would have to delete the picture.

I wasn't sure how to do that, so the rent-a-cop took my camera and did it for me. Deleted all. And then dropped the camera, which no longer functioned properly.

This, of course, would be an illegal act in America. But not here, I guess. Not at this tasteful memorial to fear, where the security state rules.