Monday, December 24, 2012

Newtown, Lincoln, and God’s Intention: Civil War Redux and Reloaded

I’d like to focus on two events that have triggered my imagination this season of peace and hope, comfort and joy:  the movie, Lincoln (along with several years of reading about our sixteenth President) and the recent mass killings in Newtown, CT (along with lingering echoes of recent public shootings at Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood, TX, and Aurora, CO).  Actually, I’ve had a circumstantial connection with two mass killings in the last ten years:  more recently, for several years as a periodic “Stress and Team Building” consultant to army units at Ft. Hood, including two months before as well as three months following the Post rampage; next, I was living in the DC area during the Beltway Snipers' reign of terror – thirteen people picked off in a three week period – and did some stress debriefing with government employees during this traumatic episode.  FYI, the automatic weapon of choice both around the Beltway and in Newtown, CT was a Bushmaster.

Getting back to the aforementioned events, what might be a connection between Lincoln and Newtown, you may ask?  Well it’s a bit convoluted; bear with me as I outline my thoughts.

A.  Divisive Constitutional Issues

I see some parallels between contemporary times and the Civil War era, and divisive constitutional issues regarding property rights-personal life and liberty-community welfare and way of life are at the forefront:

1) Contemporary Times.  Today two controversial questions are, a) whether the average American, i.e., excluding an active military citizen, government security agent, or a police official, has the “unalienable” right to bear not just arms but rapid-firing assault weapons with high capacity magazines that clearly increase firearm lethality?, and b) should private citizens be allowed to carry concealed weapons of ever increasing lethality in all manner of public settings?

Clearly, these issues move beyond individual self-defense and into the realm of community standards and values, that is, does your liberty and way of life threaten my life and the safety (and sanity) of my community?  Beware false dichotomies from some gun advocates:  this is not an issue of creating a “police state” where only the government has weapons; the right to bear arms is part of our nation’s historical and constitutional heritage.  What I find appalling is when a mentally troubled or disturbed young man can snatch an assault weapon from his mother’s house and go on a domestic and public killing spree; what I find beyond the limits of reason and sanity is average Joe or Jane citizen, in some communities, being permitted to publicly or secretly pack a weapon when I might be watching football in the neighborhood sports bar.  Packing and drinking is a volatile mix!

2) Civil War Era.  In the mid-19th c., the divisive and explosive issue, of course, was the protection of property rights, even when the “property” was a human being, i.e., the states in the South were willing to secede from the Union and go to war not simply to keep the institution of slavery in place (which was protected by the Constitution), but to insure that slavery would have the unfettered federal right to expand into new states and territories, despite existing state or territorial policy or objections.  The issue was no longer simply defending regional “honor” or the “Southern way of life” but a determination to export and propagate it as well!  (Before becoming president, Lincoln extensively researched and persuasively argued that the intention of the Founding Fathers was the gradual dissolution of the institution of slavery once and for all time; while not fully ready to walk their talk, the original signers nonetheless declared that in the eyes of God, that is, as avowed by Natural Law, “all men are created equal.”  Also worth noting, as a state politician, Lincoln even supported enfranchisement for Illinois women.)

3) Comparative Analysis.  In my perception, the advocates of practically unlimited gun rights, akin to the supporters of slavery, see themselves as defenders of a cultural cornerstone and a “way of life” under attack by outside, unpatriotic, misguided, or radical elements – today, “Blue State” liberals and Obama socialists, PETA-files, etc.; back then, Bleeding Kansas zealots, free state Abolitionists, etc.  Any limits on private ownership of weapons and on the freedom to possess and use such property not only are contrary to their constitutional guarantees; such restrictions are an infringement on individual liberty and sense of personal control, not to mention an affront to one’s personal honor.

NRA:  No Rationality Allowed

When the National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre’s primary critical safety recommendation to the Newtown Massacre is the posting of armed guards  at school doors, (not more thorough security checks and gun registration requirements, not closing down gun show sales background loopholes, not improved mental health services, not state or federal programs to buy back these “loose cannons,” i.e., assault weapons, etc.), then what’s being offered is simply self-promoting, “good man with a gun” vs. “bad man with a gun,” liberty vs. lunacy gospel.  Oh, btw, armed guards weren’t such a blazing success at Columbine!

However, to be fair LaPierre did note how our culture is awash in violent electronic media.  (Upon turning eighteen, the average child has likely witnessed and participated in 200,000 virtual murders via TV, film, music videos, and video games.  The average male has logged 10,000 hours playing video games.)  And with the impact violent video games have on brain functioning, including shutting down emotional awareness and sensitivity, muting the reality of loss of life, while yielding sociopathic-like brain scans in teens (playing as little as two hours a day) this is a critical piece of the mass killings puzzle.  (One suspects the NRA has made the link between the younger generations’ passion for video games and their declining pursuit of real life hunting.)

But for NRA fans, games, like guns, are merely a tool (more precisely, “only a fool blames the tool,” to quote some pro-gun country singer); it’s a damaged human problem, stupid!

Ø    Register the Loonies.  While the NRA said nothing about strengthened background checks on gun buyers they did propose blanket database registration for all people with mental illness.  When the arrogance of power is not a sufficient bullying tactic, hey, you can’t beat throwing around dangerous stereotypes as a diversionary manipulation.  And this idea will surely encourage folks who need support to seek mental health treatment.  Not!!  Guess I better give the FBI a call…I’ve been on anti-depressant medication for years.

Ø    Registering – Then.  Come to think of it, my deviant mind perceives another parallel. The Constitutional Founders had to devise a comprehensive system of registration for “human property.”  “The slaves states wanted to have their cake (slave representation in congress) and eat it too (no taxation value on "property" slaves.) Non-slave states wanted full taxation value and no representation for slaves. This led to the Three-fifths Compromise.  This compromise counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for both purposes – representation in the lower chamber and assessment of taxes for each slave” (American Freedom 1776 – Constitution).

Ø    Registering – Now.  With equivalent ingenuity, I’m sure the NRA can devise a system where, a) people with certain “safe” DSM/mental illnesses/diagnoses would be allowed – if not encouraged – to buy weapons, b) while other diagnostic categories must undergo a waiting period; I’m pretty certain an NRA psychiatrist can provide certification of readiness as a free service; (of course, a waiting period is unreasonable for all prospective buyers); and c) some, alas, will never have the privilege to “be a real man or woman” and purchase a weapon.

Ø    Distraction, Disease, and Dysfunction.  Clearly, certain segments of society are branded as inherently inferior, damaged, or dangerous – people with mental illness, people of color hijacked from Africa, etc. – and are easily scapegoated.  Odious in its own right, this strategic 3-“D” tactic diverts attention from the true source of the problem – the diseased and dysfunctional culture and power structure.

Taking my own advice, let’s get back to the issue at hand.  Obviously, there is a constitutional right to bear arms.  However, bear in mind, when the Second Amendment was written into law, the Continental Army was mostly composed of individual militia who of necessity had to provide their own weapons.  Today, some gangs, drug cartels, and domestic terrorist groups have weapons caches that surpass the firepower of local government enforcement groups.  (In fact, the first police responders in Newtown did not have the firepower possessed by the lone, deranged shooter, Adam Lanza.)  And perhaps debunking the myth of self-protection, the states with the highest numbers of gun owners have the highest murder rates; of course, this data includes domestic violence and suicide statistics.  Hey, that’s their personal business; sometimes the pursuit of life and liberty are simply on a collision course.

While the Declaration of Independence asserts we have unalienable rights, (which in practice did not apply to all human beings at the birth of our nation), I’m not convinced that all Americans are endowed by their Creator or by the Constitution with the inherent or “natural” freedom to possess military style, rapid fire automatic weapons under the “protective” cover of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

B.  Controversial Supreme Court Decisions

And in both the present and past, controversial Supreme Court decisions curtailed “states’ rights,” fueling national tensions.

1) Contemporary Times.  In 2008, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in the landmark gun-rights case known as District of Columbia v. Heller struck down Washington’s sweeping ban on handguns.  While this ruling applied to federal jurisdictions, a subsequent Supreme Court ruling in 2010 extended the Second Amendment reasoning to limit what states and localities can do.

Legal, Political and Practical Consequences:

Ø    Some state and local gun-control measures already have died over the past four and a half years, done in by the high court’s 2008 ruling that recognized expansive constitutional protections for firearm ownership (“Supreme Court rulings limit options of gun-control task force,” Michael Doyle, McClatchy Newspapers, Dec. 19, 2012 - 3:06 pm).

Ø    “The Supreme Court has decided that the Second Amendment confers a right to bear arms for self-defense, which is as important outside the home as inside,” Judge Richard Posner of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted in a ruling last week.  The Supreme Court’s 2008 decision also has confining power.  Judge Posner struck down an Illinois law that prohibited most individuals from carrying firearms in public.

Ø    Fortunately, there appear to be some limitations in the Supreme Court ruling: “laws imposing conditions and qualifications” on firearms sales may be permitted.
      For instance, according to Doyle, this might allow more background-check requirements.  The court further indicated in 2008 that “an important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms” extends to “dangerous and unusual weapons.”  That might include military firearms such as the M16 assault rifle, which the Supreme Court specifically cited.  (The Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle is a civilian version of the M16.  Having fired an M-16 in Army Basic Training, believe me, this is not a weapon used solely for self-defense; it’s a killing machine, firing bullets that are designed to cause maximal mutilation on impact.)

2) Civil War Era.  In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling restricting life and liberty in the states and territories – the Dred Scott Decision.  Dred Scott was the name of an African-American slave taken by his owner, an officer in the U.S. Army, from the slave state of Missouri to the free state of Illinois and then to the free territory of Wisconsin.  He lived on free soil for a number of years.  When the Army ordered his owner to go back to Missouri, he took Scott with him back to that slave state, where his owner died.  In 1846, Scott was helped by Abolitionist (anti-slavery) lawyers to sue for his freedom in court, claiming he should be emancipated having lived on free soil for a substantial period of time. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.  The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney, was a former slave owner from Maryland.  (Cited in The History Place:  Abraham Lincoln – The Dred Scott Decision.)

As described in Wikipedia, Dred Scott v. Sandford, held that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, and that people of African descent (both slave and free) were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens.  Since passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the decision has not been a precedent case, but retains historical significance as it is widely regarded as the worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court.

Ø    The decision began by concluding that Scott, as a person of African ancestry, was not a citizen of the United States and therefore had no right to sue in federal court. This holding was contrary to the practice of numerous states at the time, particularly Free states, where free blacks did in fact enjoy the rights of citizens, such as the right to vote and hold public office…The Court went on to hold that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories because slaves are personal property and the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution protects property owners against deprivation of their property without due process of law.

In reaching this decision, Taney had hoped to settle the growing controversy surrounding slavery in the United States, but it had the opposite effect.  The decision was fiercely debated across the country, as perhaps best exemplified by the Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858. Abraham Lincoln, the second-ever Republican nominee for President, was able to win the presidential election in 1860; the stopping of the further expansion of slavery was a key Republican Party plank.  The decision played an important role in the timing of state secession and the Civil War, although it is extreme to say the decision "caused" the war. The Dred Scott Decision is acknowledged for the influential role it played in altering the national political landscape:  the decision is credited with launching Abraham Lincoln’s national political career and ultimately allowing for his election.

3.  Comparative Analysis.  It’s ironical that for years so many of the political rightwing persuasion have excoriated the liberal left and an activist Supreme Court for reinterpreting in Orwellian fashion the sanctity and literal scripture of the Constitution.  These Constitutional Conservatives are often outraged by federal overreach along with the suppression of states’ rights.  Yet now, many in this Strict Constructionist camp want to use the Second Amendment to:  a) prevent individual states from establishing some limits upon the  indiscriminate purchase of military style weapons and b) disallow state jurisdiction for regulating who can carry firearms in public.  Akin to the protection of chattel property provided by the Dred Scott Decision, the NRA leadership and their weapons industry ilk want expansive constitutional protections for firearm ownership and blood-soaked profit, no matter the consequences to communal life and liberty.

C.  Economic Incentives for Arms Sales and Slavery

1) Contemporary Times.  The NRA and its corporate partners have more at stake in their fight for looser gun laws than the mere protection of a constitutional right.  With an estimated $4 billion in annual sales, firearms are very big business…which means big money is spreading its tentacles:  Through its lobbying and campaign efforts, the NRA is generous with its largesse.  In addition to its 4 million members – a sizable voting bloc – the NRA also has a lot of money to offer friendly candidates.  In the 2012 election cycle, it contributed almost $19 million to political campaigns.

Ø    Critical economic and public safety note – the U.S. consumer firearms market has undergone a seismic shift in recent decades, away from bolt-action hunting rifles, shotguns, and revolvers, and toward military-style semi-automatics like the M&P15, according to industry analysts.  In February 2006, Smith & Wesson, the storied gunmaker founded in 1851, unveiled its first-ever semi-automatic assault-style rifle. The company dubbed it the M&P15, for "military and police," but the gun was very much aimed at the (general) retail market.  

Consumer response was "overwhelming," Mike Golden, the former S & W CEO, told investors in a conference call the following year.  Sales of the M&P15 and other military-style weapons were playing a crucial role in pulling the company out of a deep sales slump, he said. 

Ø    The boom in assault weapons has more than offset dropping sales of traditional firearms caused by a declining national interest in hunting, said Rommel Dionisio, a securities analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities who follows the gun industry.  "That category of firearms has been a primary growth engine and profit driver for firearms companies for the last seven or eight years," Dionisio said.

Ø    However, the profits are not limited to gun manufacturers.  Assault weapons have become big sellers for national retailers like Walmart and Dick's Sporting Goods, Dionisio said. "You also have to look at the retailers," he said. "Firearms have certainly been very profitable for them."  (Alas, along with the profits there have been some losses:  For example, in July 2012, James Holmes, a disturbed 24-year-old graduate student, was accused of opening fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., using an M&P15 fitted with a high-capacity magazine, killing 12 and wounding 58.  Holmes bought the gun at a local sporting goods store two months earlier.)

It is easier now to buy firearms than firecrackers:  While 31 states place limits on the types of fireworks that one may buy without a permit, only seven require gun owners to register their arsenals.

Ø  Consider this frightfully closing summation by Garen Wintemute, a national expert on gun violence and public attitudes about guns as well as an ER doctor at UC Davis Medical Center:  "We've made policy decisions that have had the impact of making the widest array of firearms available to the widest array of people under the widest array of conditions."

a. Lethal Consequences.  For gun-control advocates, the proliferation of military-style weapons – and high-capacity ammunition clips that greatly increase their lethality -- is directly responsible for the rising frequency of high-casualty mass shootings.  Semi-automatic rifles like the M&P15 are modeled on 20th century battlefield weapons and are designed to quickly spray high volumes of bullets, making them a weapon of choice for mass shooters.

Ø    Another ignoble statistic, the number of deaths caused by guns in America – whether from domestic or gang violence, robberies, accidents, or suicides, in addition to mass killings – in three years, is expected to exceed the number of traffic fatalities for the first time in modern U.S. history (“Gun Deaths Will Exceed Traffic Fatalities By 2015, Study Says,” AOL Autos, Dec 19, 2012).  The number of shooting deaths is expected to rise to 32,929 in 2015, according to a 10-year average based on Centers for Disease Control Data.  By contrast, the number of traffic deaths is expected to continue its fall and decline to 32,036 thanks to advances in safety technology.

2) Civil War Era.  As noted in, “Slavery in the United States,” EH.Net Encyclopedia, by Jenny B. Wahl, Carleton College, “Slavery is fundamentally an economic phenomenon. Throughout history, slavery has existed where it has been economically worthwhile to those in power.  The principal example in modern times is the U.S. South.”  Nearly 4 million slaves with a market value of close to $4 billion lived in the U.S. just before the Civil War.  [Ed. note:  Ironically, as cited above, the arms industry today also generates about $4 billion in sales.]

“At the time of the American Revolution, slavery was a national institution; although the number of slaves was small, they lived and worked in every colony.  Even before the Constitution was ratified, however, states in the North were either abolishing slavery outright or passing laws providing for gradual emancipation.  The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 barred slavery from the new territories of that period, so rather quickly, slavery effectively existed only in the South and became that region's “peculiar institution” (CliffsNotes, “Slavery, the Economy, and Society”).

The image of the South as a place where plantation adjoined plantation and the entire white population owned slaves is a myth.  Three quarters of the southern whites owned no slaves at all, and among those that did, most owned fewer than ten.  Although the planter class, those individuals who owned twenty or more slaves to work plantations of about a thousand acres, was extremely small, it comprised the southern elite.

Slave owners enjoyed rates of return on slaves comparable to those on other assets; cotton consumers, insurance companies, and industrial enterprises benefited from slavery as well. Such valuable property required rules to protect it, and the institutional practices surrounding slavery display a sophistication that rivals modern-day law and business.

3.  Comparative Analysis.   In January 1961, at his end-of-second-term farewell address, President Eisenhower, a WW II war hero and quintessential moderate Republican, warned the American people of the steadily growing, corrosive influence on democratic institutions and processes by the “Military-Industrial Complex.”  On a smaller (though far from small) scale, and still potentially cancerous to the welfare and spirit of the country, is today’s “Military Style Weapons-NRA-Industrial Complex.”  This axis, like many other lobbying groups on both sides of the political aisle, not only buys and sells influence but will intimidate and ultimately target for removal legislators who do not toe the gun party line.

Of course, as powerful as it is, the NRA-weapons complex can’t truly compare or compete with the formation of the Confederate States of America (CSA).  (Still, following the Obama election, I suspect significant numbers of gun alliance members were among the tens of thousands who recently petitioned for their states’ secession from the Union; and while the four year Civil War left six or seven hundred thousand dead, during an equivalent span of time, in contemporary America, guns only result in about one hundred and twenty thousand deaths.)  Formed in April 1961, the CSA consisted of eleven states that had seceded from the Union (seven originally in January after Lincoln’s election; four more after the South’s attack on the federal garrison, Ft. Sumpter, SC).  However, fiery determination to protect assets and insure financial profit, including all arms and property rights (no matter the consequences), using the Constitution and the Supreme Court as a bully weapon to override state jurisdiction and local discretion, while also maintaining honor and a distinctive “way of life” are common denominators of both past and present alliances and cultures.

And once again, such a national schism, I believe has us engaged in a “colored” if not “off-colored” Civil War:  instead of Blue vs. Grey it’s “Blue States vs. Red States; it’s reactionary “Teas” vs. radical “Commies.”  Of course there is precedent.  As Jeff Greenfield, noted author and ABC-TV Political Commentator, observed the other night, throughout our nation’s history there have been many watershed moments involving violence among regional, demographic, or political adversaries.  Invariably, crisis collisions ignite movement and action affecting life, liberty, and legislation along with communal security and status, starting with, of course, the American Revolution.  The last fifty years have brought us such legal-cultural movement-markers as the Vietnam War protests, Kennedy and King Assassinations (the latter followed by urban rioting), the Civil Rights protest and police riots at Selma Alabama and, over the years, other cities throughout the country, street and police protests-riots at the Stonewall Tavern and the 1969 formation of the Gay Liberation Front, 9/11, and perhaps now, on the backs of an ever-growing number of violent tragedies, Newtown, CT.

Closing Summary – Lincoln’s Oration and God’s Intention

Will we find leaders with both the brain and backbone to navigate between the political extremes – outlawing or restricting almost all weapons other than handguns, sport shooting, and hunting weapons vs. the ability to purchase any and all kinds of automatic weapons, as well as to carry handguns wherever and whenever desired?  Will we strike a healthier bio-psychosocial equilibrium that recognizes constitutional freedom of expression and personal pursuits while rationally monitoring indiscriminate availability, excessive usage, and cultural worship of media violence, especially for those under twenty-one, when an individual’s constitutional brain-body cells are still rapidly developing?  (Some believe the Newtown shooters hours of video game playing helped him strategically prepare for his assault.)

Is there a leader who can be guided by the Constitution and recognize the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, including the right to bear reasonable arms, but also recognize when one group’s liberty and property rights are seriously endangering large segments of society – both individually and collectively.

1.  The Chosen Leader.  The leader that I will turn to for guidance, of course, is Abraham Lincoln.  During the Civil War, Lincoln managed to anger both the Secessionists and the Abolitionists, because he took steps within the bounds of the Constitution.  For example, Lincoln did not initially advocate the freeing of all slaves, but was determined to prevent the spread of slavery to new territory.  (Lincoln was also aware that if he attempted to free all slaves prematurely, slave-holding border steps would also likely secede, thereby jeopardizing the North’s strategic chances for victory.)  However, when the timing was right, Lincoln declared slaves emancipated in the Slave States but not in the Free States.  Belligerents in the South both detested and feared his proclamation; (most African-Americans rejoiced); many in the North belittled his seemingly hollow action – he had freed slaves in a region where he had no power, and refrained from doing so in states where he did.  Keeping his eye on the prize, once again, employing the Constitution as guiding star, and after the recent Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln strategically decided that Presidential War Powers enabled him to take unprecedented action in declaring “Emancipation” in the states with which the Union was at war.  And, of course, as the recent movie depicts, shortly after his second election Lincoln strategically moved and maneuvered the Congress to pass the 14th Amendment abolishing slavery.

2.  Lincoln’s Strengths.  Perhaps two of Lincoln’s greatest strengths were his capacity for complex and nuanced thinking and a determination to stay the course of “right makes might.”  “Honest Abe” and “Father Abraham” insisted that the battlefield slaughter continue to the only possible conclusion for the sanctity of Union, the integrity of the nation’s founding principles (a democratic government “of, by and for the people”) both at home and in the eyes of the world, and the unalienable rightful free citizen status of African-Americans.

In addition to prudence and persistence, another uncommon strength was Lincoln’s profound humility, especially when it came to understanding the inscrutable ways of Providence.  While Lincoln’s belief in Natural Law, that all men are created equal in the eyes of the Lord was unshakeable, he did not presume, to grasp definitively the ways of the Almighty.  Most of the Civil War adversaries, to quote Bob Dylan, loudly declared having “God on their side.”  But Lincoln’s intense and ongoing pondering, led him to postulate that the horrific Civil War just might be the Lord’s punishment on a nation that had allowed the institution of slavery to long stain a nation’s moral fiber and soul.

3.  The Second Inaugural – Pondering Providential Purpose.  On March 4, 1865, in his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln approached the mysterious ways of the Almighty and, in the process, by oratorical and historical consensus, gave one of the most overwhelming pieces of political prose ever crafted in any language.  Consider his words and ways:

Ø    Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.  "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh."  If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?  Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.  Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Comparative Analysis.  What if, somewhat akin to the right to own slaves,” one of the offenses is our enslaved mentality towards “weapons of mass destruction” – less WMDs possessed by international terrorist groups and more “homegrown” WMDs, that is, military style-rapid firing assault firearms, that seem to possess a certain segment of Americans.  Might there be a need for some spiritual exorcism – as in a “ceremony that seeks to expel an evil spirit from a person or place?” (The Free Dictionary).  Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, recently pondered:  "Is the need for sensible gun control a religious issue?"  His answer:  "Indeed it is, for our worship of guns is a form of idolatry."  (Adelle M. Banks, “Clergy Push Congress On Gun Control,” Religion News Service, Dec 22, 2012)

Putting this issue in a psycho-religious context, I’m not sure you have to be a Freudian to ask the following:  Just as the definition of and repressed presence of slaves helped many whites feel superior as individuals and as a race, might there be an illusory and inflationary impact on an owner’s ego and sense of power from possession of (and possession by) military style weapons?  (I suspect video game addicts have some of the same “possession” issues.)

In addition to calls for changes in laws – banning assault weapons, restricting ammunition sales and conducting stricter background checks – some are also calling for changes of heart.  "We need a conversion," said the Rev. Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. "American evangelicals need to be born again on this issue."

On Friday, leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a "call for action" on gun violence, telling lawmakers that "guns are too easily accessible" and calling for parents and producers of violent entertainment to acknowledge its negative effects.

Speaking outside the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said the unified response of faith officials reflects a national sense that "we can't take it anymore" after previous massacres in Colorado, Wisconsin and Arizona.  "I think the religious leaders of our country have often said after these things we've got to do something, but now there have been too many of them," he said. "We have reached a moment that we cannot wait anymore."

I shall give the Honorable Mr. Lincoln the last word – helping us unite the spirit of two small towns – Gettysburg and Newtown – in this Nation’s quest for a more perfect Union:

Ø    Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.  It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

With Lincoln’s reflective wisdom in mind, when communication-entertainment systems too often reflecting and shaping a culture of violence, awash in brutal and bloody media and military style weapons, continue to rain down upon the heads and hearts of Americans, triggering repeated and repeated executions, both public and private, both real and virtual, perhaps there is a Providential price to pay until getting a divided and destructive house in order.  Let us fervently hope, pray, and work for a speedy passage.  Amen and women to that! 

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote, kickoff and webinar speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring, and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations.  In addition, the "Doc" is a Team Building and Organizational Development Consultant as well as a Critical Incident/Grief Intervention Expert for Business Health Services, a National EAP/Wellness/OD Company.  He is providing "Stress and Communication,” as well as “Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for a variety of units at Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services.

A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger.  The Stress Doc blog appears in such platforms as,, and MentalHelpNet.  His award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Rescuing and Rejuvenating a Manager at the Bureaucratic Burnout Battlefront

At a recent small group workshop on “Burnout Prevention” I engaged a County Government Manager who was feeling trapped in a chronic, unrealistically demanding work situation.  Not surprisingly, this precarious environment was taking a toll on her energy, focus, and morale.  Our protagonist, a tall, seemingly self-assured, articulate, 50 + y.o. woman (let’s call her Anne), had worked for State Government for nearly thirty years (she was a little over two years short of retirement).  For the last five years she has been the Manager of Personnel Records.  More specifically, Anne, along with her 3.5 employees, was responsible for the upkeep of 13,000 records!  The last couple of years of budget and staff cuts yielded a fairly hazardous, “do more with much less” work environment.

After reviewing the “Four Stages of Burnout” (email for my classic essay), with time a consideration, I peppered Anne with questions, and discovered that she has a good working and mutually supportive relationship with her staff.  However, the team cannot keep up with the workload.  Initially, Anne said there was no money to hire new staff.  Feeling discouraged, she has thought of leaving the Department.  For the last six months, every two weeks, she’s been checking new county job postings, alas, to no avail. 

My sense was that Anne, despite her considerable knowledge and experience, was starting to gasp for air, while treading water in a whirlpool that’s slowly sucking her under.  However, exhaustion alone was not holding her down.  She was also feeling bound by the likelihood that a change of position means taking a demotion for the next couple of years. Transferring into a lower payment grade reduces the monetary value of her final retirement package, that “pot of gold” looming precariously over a two-year, almost-within-my-grasp horizon.  Will she be able to outlast the taxing if not toxic status quo with mind-body health intact?  Anne is caught in the old “Financial-Stress-Retirement Catch-22.” 

Internal and External Intervention Steps and Strategies 

With little time to spare, I proposed here-and-now efforts to patch some “battlefield wounds,” plug the energy drain, and generate “higher level” purpose.”  Consider these strategic recommendations for transforming angst and anger into problem solving that emphasizes camaraderie and confrontation along with commitment-testing and creative community-building: 

1.  Circle the Wagons.  When Anne responded to my question about team meeting frequency (“every two weeks”), I immediately suggested a 5-10 minute morning huddle, as much to remind the group that “we have each other’s back,” as to share battle zone data and critical time lines.  Anne jumped at that suggestion. 

2.  Generate a Tangible Document and a Good Faith Test.  Earlier I mentioned the difficulty in hiring new staff.  However, with a little probing I discovered that Anne’s boss fairly recently said that if she could produce a facts and figures proposal-report county leadership might consider new departmental hiring for her shop. 

Anne acknowledged she hasn’t been able to gear up to do the report.  (I sensed the report was not a Herculean task.)  Of course, some “spinning her wheels” resistance comes from being overloaded.  However, another obstacle drags her down – third stage burnout “cynicism.”  Her implicit message:  Why waste my time!  Will a report really make any difference?  Alas, it may not just be exhaustion that leads to resignation…it may also be frustration or anger.  I can imagine Anne thinking, it’s obvious that reinforcement is urgent; why should I have to jump another bureaucratic hoop? 

Once again I tapped into her vulnerable yet smoldering emotional state.  Intuitively sensing she needed added motivation and meaning, I expressed the belief that working on this report really provides an opportunity to clarify two basic choices – to weather the storm or jump ship.  By generating an objective document, which can only clearly express the pressing need for additional staff, the sinking boat/life jacket call for arms is in upper management’s hands.  Their response becomes a litmus test regarding concerns, commitments, and priorities as well as an omen for staying or moving on.  And with this report, “You will have done all you could for yourself and your team.”  Anne saw the light and, in a way, so did I. 

3.  Battle and Break Out of the Job Search Box.  The final intervention step-strategy complemented step #2.  It was apparent that her regular in-house job listings search was proving futile.  I asked Anne if there was a Career Advancement Department or if there was an individual higher up the organizational ladder who might have some aerial view-inside perspective on other management position openings.  In fact, there really wasn’t a career path resource for most managers; however there was a District Head (DH) who ran a special leadership meeting for higher-grade managers.  Unfotunately, Anne was not eligible to attend, and it would likely be a couple of years before she could obtain eligibility (at which time she hoped to be in a position to retire). 

Sensing this DH was a potential resource, I asked Anne about setting up a meeting with him.  Alas, she was averse as it violated bureaucratic norms if not standard policy; someone at his level just was not approached by a Department Manager.  I inquired about getting permission from her supervisor; this tactic was also shot down.  (Anne did not seem perturbed about discussing her current job search efforts with her supervisor.) 

Finding a Pass in the Impasse 

Amidst our back and forth, seemingly thinking out loud, Anne lamented the lack of a program-pathway that enabled most managers to have adequate emotional support and lateral position-transfer options.  And this wish was just the opening needed.  Again I challenged Anne to flesh out a proposal for a role support/career advancement process-plan, not just for herself but also for colleagues who felt bureaucratically stressed and boxed in. 

Finally, Anne stopped her counterpunching; we had reached consensus.  In my estimation, the bottom-line moral of this interplay:  Many individuals, who are not able to simply fight or advocate for their own interests (perhaps viewing such a stance as too selfish or self-serving) will leap to the barricades to defend the rights and opportunities of others.  Taking a “larger” position-action not only provides safety in numbers, but transforms the motivational frame from “me” to “we.” 

In addition, I shared with the group that Anne’s and my willingness to battle back and forth, not to give up in frustration, but to challenge each other, culminated in an “outside the box” synthesis.  (Of course, you may have to discriminate between people capable of this manner of genuine, if not provocative, ideational interaction and those dysfunctional antagonists – power or egoal-driven, “my way or the highway,” bosses or passive-aggressive and “zero sum game” competitors who hold grudges and become vindictive.) 

Actually, our cognitive spiral reflected the insightful observation of John Dewey, 19th c. pragmatic philosopher and the father of American Public Education: 

Conflict is the gadfly of thought.  It stirs us to observation and memory; it shocks us out of sheep-like passivity.  It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving.  Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity. 

Closing Observation:  There are times, especially at the “bureaucratic burnout battlefront,” when we all need a TLC “stress buddy”:  someone who will give us “Tender Loving Criticism” and “Tough Loving Care.”  Surely, words to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress! 

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote, kickoff and webinar speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring, and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations.  In addition, the "Doc" is a Team Building and Organizational Development Consultant as well as a Critical Incident/Grief Intervention Expert for Business Health Services, a National EAP/Wellness/OD Company.  He is providing "Stress and Communication,” as well as “Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for a variety of units at Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services.

A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger.  The Stress Doc blog appears in such platforms as,, and MentalHelpNet.  His award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Passionate Address on the Vital Role of Workplace Grief – Part II

Part I of this two-part series illustrated the defensive and short-sighted modus operandi of a macho-driven work culture in the face of a long-time employee’s self-inflicted death by handgun. The essay depicted how such a culture, during times of loss and grief, buries their minds and emotions in the sand. This “self-protective” approach invariably walls off employees from the grief consultant and grief process, thereby losing a unique opportunity to impact positively the bottom line as well as touch the interconnected heads, hearts, and spiritual well-being of the employees and the organization. The closing segment of this workplace grief series will be a somewhat elaborated written version of the words I was not permitted to share with the company’s employees at their morning “all hands” meeting.

Workplace Grief Address

Normally, I would say “Good morning,” but today these words seem hollow. I will take a few minutes to share some thoughts on loss and grief; to help us all reflect on this tragedy. Why a person with many strengths and admirable qualities still takes his own life is a complex, paradoxical puzzle. When under intense and especially chronic stress, perhaps struggling with an unstable biochemical nature or some mental illness, taking one’s own life may ironically be a final attempt at having some control when you and your life feel hopelessly out of control. But I’m not sure there’s ever a definitive answer other than this individual is no longer physically with us. And many will miss him.

As for the people in mourning’s path who live on, here’s a fundamental truth: there is no one right way to grieve; some will immediately be visibly upset while others will appear stoic or unshaken, yet emotions smolder within. And of course there are myriad reactions in between. In addition, there’s no appropriate time line for grief. My blood pressure gets worked up when I hear someone say, “It’s been three months now; get over it!” (However, I will talk further about people stuck in their grief.)

Signs of Grief

Nonetheless, there are emotional reactions that people may well experience when in the throes of grief. You may recognize some, several, or even none:

1. Shock. Many people are likely feeling a sense of shock or disbelief: How could this happen? You don’t know what to say; perhaps the neural wire connections between the thoughts in your head and heart and mouth are momentarily not working.

2. Sadness. Surely, for numbers in the room there’s a profound sense of loss; perhaps some at this moment sense their eyes starting to water as the realization sinks in that this individual will never be physically seen again.

3. Regret or Guilt. Some people may be upset that they didn’t have that conversation that was on their mental calendar. Others may be torn for missing the warning signs or for not taking them seriously enough? “Why didn’t I (or we) see this coming?” First, it’s hard to imagine the unthinkable. The other reality is that most of you were juggling many stress balls in your own lives. And this individual didn’t come this far in his journey without being a pretty good juggler and fighter. Alas, hindsight provides an insight that we truly did not have in foresight!

4. Anger. Anger during grief may be vexing. How can I be angry with someone who is dying or who has died? This is not a logical process but a psycho-logical one. And maybe our anger, whether with the deceased or with God, or whoever is a sign of missed opportunities to connect – with battles had along with along with those avoided; perhaps anger is a cover for acute emptiness or regret; of how much we want the person back. Or perhaps we rage at life’s unpredictability; we don’t like feeling so helplessly out of control.

Existential Questions and the Fragility of Life

Based on personal experience and my recent Critical Incident Stress Management (or Grief Debriefing) work, when the deceased is relatively young, the fragility of life gnaws at if not haunts the imagination. For example, when a young, mid-30s, much beloved, health-conscious – avocado salad eating, mountain climbing – manager died in his sleep, the oft-repeated refrain of team members was, “If this could happen to Steven…” Now is a time for concerted reflection, an existential self-assessment if you will, in terms of one’s own:

1. Personal/Family Direction – how comfortable am I in my own skin? As an individual and/or as a family, what is the balance between aliveness and stagnation or dis-ease; am I moving forward, are we stuck in a rut? Is work-life balance a laughable notion? Is there a troubling gap between my aspirations and my current position?

2. Sense of Time – in terms of my personal, career, and/or family goals – is time an abundant resource or is time running out?; do I need to shake up my life somehow – sooner rather than later?

3. Quality of My Relationships – especially with meaningful others or significant loved ones, how open am I with emotions and words that need to be expressed and shared?; how often am I wearing a mask?; do I run from conflict or do I try my best to grapple with it constructively?

Communicating with People in Mourning

Another question that often looms during a time of grief is how to share your own thoughts and emotions with family members or close friends of the deceased. Here are “Three Tips for Appropriately Sharing Your Concern and Condolences”:
1. Trust Your Gut and Touch – say what you are experiencing and be real, for example, “I’m shocked; I don’t know what to say. And regards nonverbal communication, unless you have a close connection, a light touch on the arm will likely be more comfortably received than a hug,
2. Be Humble – I suspect the response that has the most potential to be more upsetting than consoling is, “I know what you are going through.” Unless you walked in the exact same moccasins…Remember, it is difficult to comprehend the array, the intensity and the subtlety of grief emotions (or the need to numb and momentarily close down). Much better to come from a place of humility: “I can’t truly imagine what you are going through.”
3. Be Available – if sufficiently concerned, let those closest to the deceased know you are available with an ear, shoulder, or a hug if and when they are ready; “Just give me the word!” Or, “Is there anything I can do – run and errand, cook something, stay with the kids, etc.”
Again, timing and readiness is important. Consider, “May I call or stop by next week?” This approach affirms your presence while respecting the deceased’s need for time and space. I’ve also seen a spouse have an open house the night of the tragedy. She wanted to be embraced by stories from her husband’s colleagues. Light touches of humor do not have to be placed in hibernation. As that great disability’s pioneer, Helen Keller, observed: The world is so full of care and sorrow. It is a gracious debt we owe one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks.

But perhaps the most important way to be available is mostly to listen and accept whatever emotions the grieving person shares, or chooses not to share. And again, you can always say, “I’m so sorry” or “I don’t know what to say.” As a grief consultant, I’ve also learned to travel with a box of tissues.

The Awakening of Grief Ghosts

One of the most perplexing aspects of a critical incident, especially involving an unexpected or violent loss of life, is the presence of two sources of pain – one obvious, the other covert. The overt and immediate pain involves emotions surrounding the loss of a colleague along with heartbreak for the family, etc. The second pain, often clouded or confusing, is how our own past, recent and even anticipated losses, threats, or traumas, which may or may not be specifically related to the workplace tragedy, often get stirred during this vulnerable or crisis period. For example, shortly after acknowledging her visible upset for a colleague killed in a morning drive-time head-on vehicular collision, a middle-aged supervisor shifted emotional gears. She suddenly associated to the 9/11 Twin Towers death of her sister…ten years earlier.

The loss of life is not required for the rise and release of “grief ghosts.” All manner of losses – from separations, divorces, and disconnections to health issues, previous trauma, major regret or remorse, and a chronic loss of control as well as a slow dying dream – may trigger a ghostly uprising. Clearly, as the double-edged Chinese icon for “crisis” illustrates, there is disruption if not potential “danger” when fighting specters of confusion along with feeling out of control. However, piercing cracks in our psychological defenses, the opening of a psychic wound, and the resurrection of painful memories also provide “opportunity.”

Engaging the Ghost

As mentioned earlier, each person has an individual bio-psycho-social-cultural style of grieving. In addition, there are key, oft common emotions– shock, sadness, fear, anger, guilt or regret, confusion and ambivalence, as well as relief and acceptance – that many grapple with on a head, heart, and soulful grief journey. Here are “Four Grief Styles”:

1. Instrumental – certain individuals in the face of grief keep busy, focusing on necessary or mind-distracting tasks – whether for themselves or others – as a way of managing their thoughts and feelings, to prevent the incomprehensible from morphing into profound confusion or chaos,

2. Be Positive – some people believe in moving on and not “dwelling on the past”; alas, short-circuiting the grief process may, paradoxically, only prolong and complicate it. Grieving the unexpected death of a close colleague, one gentleman decided he would only contemplate positive memories and feelings. I suspect he feared a profound emptiness or uncontrollable rage might erupt. For me, grief is a holistic yin-yang process, especially if one wants to sustain the deceased person’s spirit within. My analogy for mourning is a capacity to venture through two interrelated doorways: one leading you down a dark, moon-lit path while the other opens to a warm sun-lit trail. Ultimately, not only do these passageways intersect rather, in yin-yang fashion, they circle together forming an infinite loop. Now the seemingly oppositional passages define and set the stage for each other; with dawn and dusk midwives, cycles of ebb and flow give birth to contradictory yet complementary, active and reflective (sometimes even manic and melancholic) twins, as day drives and drifts into night.

3. Delayed – some people must allow grief to smolder underground for a considerable time before they are ready to receive its poignant gifts. I recall one gentleman who described being alone, quietly listening to a soulful jazz record, belatedly realizing it was his father’s favorite. His dad had died two years earlier; he had not been able to shed tears at the funeral. Yet now, with grief gods and ghosts aligned, in geyser-like fashion, his tears poured forth. This son had finally achieved a sense of peace with the loss of his father.

4. Emotionally Expressive – and, of course, there are numbers of people along with some cultures that encourage the immediate and intense expression of grief – open wailing, tears flowing, anguished nonverbal gestures, even the beating of one’s body, customary black clothing, etc. I suspect a sensitive, somewhat introspective-depressive-expressive nature (actually, a melancholic-writer cave persona along with a sometimes manic speaker stage persona; more intense cyclic tendencies before biochemical intervention) mostly places me in this fourth and final category. As I once penned, Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position, or a powerful illusion each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

When Mourning Becomes Depression

Some people hold off grieving because they fail to make an important discrimination: there’s a real difference between “Feeling sorry for yourself” and“Feeling your sorrow.” When you are feeling sorry for yourself you are mostly blaming others. When you are feeling your sorrow you are demonstrating the courage to face your pain. And there are times in life when we all need to feel our sorrow.

Another barrier to effective grieving is confusing the sadness or temporary depressed mood of grief – a natural part of the healing process – with clinical depression, which in fact may be influenced by or a consequence of delayed or denied grief. If after six to eight weeks in response to the loss of a significant professional or personal-family relation, colleague, or friend you are still feeling exhausted, drained of energy, or going through the motions, are underperforming at work, isolating yourself, perhaps uncharacteristically losing your temper, and/or are having trouble eating or sleeping please, please, reach out for counseling. If your organization or company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), make the call; talk to a professional.

While a first year graduate student, struggling to manage an array of external and internal stressors, my School Social Work Field Instructor imparted some much needed wisdom: Not everyone needs therapy…but everyone can use it!

Workplace Grief Intervention serves a somewhat analogous broad-based healing and protective function for individuals, teams, and organizations.


Thank you for this opportunity to reflect on death and life…to share some of the psychic and spiritual air that I breathe. I hope my words were“inspirational,” as in the literal translation of “’spirit” or breath and of the word “inspire” – to breathe life into. I will close with haiku-like verse, attempting to capture the vital role of grief in realms uplifting and mythical as well as fiery and motivational:

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain,
To transform the fire to burning desire!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote, kickoff and webinar speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst" known for his interactive, inspiring, and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the "Doc" is a Team Building and Organizational Development Consultant as well as a Critical Incident/Grief Intervention Expert for Business Health Services, a National EAP/Wellness/OD Company. He is providing "Stress and Communication,” as well as “Managing Change, Leadership and Team Building" programs for a variety of units at Ft. Hood, Texas and for Army Community Services and Family Advocacy Programs at Ft. Meade, MD and Ft. Belvoir, VA as well as Andrews Air Force Base/Behavioral Medicine Services.

A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. The Stress Doc blog appears in such platforms as,, and MentalHelpNet. His award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email or call 301-875-2567.