John Kelly’s Southern Strategy

Now that Tr-mp’s chief of staff, John Kelly, has outed himself as a card-carrying Tr-mper, we can move on with the job of trying to save our democracy ourselves. We’re not going to get any help from a man who is either as confused as he can be about the Civil War, slavery, and Robert E. Lee, or is just a tie-wearing white supremacist in the White’s House. You decide.

First of all, Kelly gave an interview, a very rare one for him, on Monday evening to Fox’s Laura Ingraham, trying, no doubt, to boost not only Tr-mp’s sinking ratings, but also the ratings for Ingraham’s brand new show, unashamedly a Tr-mp propaganda platform that Fox specializes in. Ingraham is a cross between Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity, which is why she has been a thang in the conservative media complex for years now. So, Kelly appearing on her show and only on her show is all we really need to know about him, in terms of hoping he would bring some sanity to the White’s House—at one point he used the it-polls-well phrase, “agents of the swamp,” to describe opponents. But there is more, much more, to know about him (go here for some of his past behavior).

Kelly, of course, recently lied about congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who just happens to be black. He absolutely lied about her when he was trying to defend Tr-mp’s call to the widow of a fallen soldier, who also happens to be a black woman. The fact that he lied through all that is not up for debate. Yet last night Ingraham asked him about the matter and about whether the thought he had something to apologize for. This is how that ended:

KELLY:  Oh, no.  No.  Never.  Well, I’ll apologize if I need to.  But for something like that, absolutely not.  I stand by my comments.

INGRAHAM:  Washington —

KELLY:  But I’d just as soon let that go.

He stands by his lie, and the arrogant way he said he wouldn’t apologize was stunning. He stands by the lie just like he stands by Tr-mp, who is a lie incarnated in an orange skinsuit. For Kelly, a black congresswoman apparently has no rights that a white man in the White’s House is bound to respect. Period. But, being a white gentleman who claimed he’d heard “screams out of the graves” at Arlington before he lied about the congresswoman, said he’d “just as soon let that go.” Thus, the interview moved on to the Civil War and another lie, or three.

In the context of some well-meaning folks planning on removing plaques honoring George Washington and Robert E. Lee from their historic church in Alexandria, Virginia—just why the hell were those plaques there anyway?—Ingraham asked Kelly:

INGRAHAM: What is your reaction to that type of attempt to pull down little markers of history?

KELLY: Well, history’s history. And, uh, there are certain things in history that were not so good and other things that were very, very good. I think we make a mistake, though, as a society and certainly as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say what those people— what Christopher Columbus did was wrong, you know, 500 years later. Uh, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then…I think it’s just very, very dangerous, and it shows you, uh, how much of a lack of appreciation of history and what history is.

I will tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But the lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.

Everything Kelly said was wrong, except for maybe the fact that history really is history. And sometimes I’m not even sure about that anymore. But in any case, let’s start with what he said regarding the way we look back at history. He said it was “inconceivable”definition: “not capable of being imagined or grasped mentally”—to him that “you would take what we think now and apply it back then.” Huh? IImage result for southern strategynconceivable? Really? He can’t imagine how folks living today might look back at, say, slavery and decide, “Hey, that was wrong”? Kelly can’t mentally grasp that? Well, of course he can grasp that. He just doesn’t want to grasp it, for whatever reason. Nobody (well, almost nobody) condones the so-called “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” by going back and applying a unique set of moral standards to post-WWI Germans. There were people alive at the time and living in Germany who knew it was absolutely wrong to target Jews, just as there were people living in colonial and post-colonial America who knew that it was wrong to enslave other people. And even if they didn’t, we do. And we have every right to look back and emphatically say of our ancestors, “You were wrong.” And we certainly have the right to not honor them with plaques and monuments.

Next we have the obnoxious “Robert E. Lee was an honorable man” claim based on what Kelly said about Lee giving “up his country to fight for his state” because states were “more important than country” in Lee’s day. My, oh, my. Where did Kelly go to school? Where did he get such nonsense? I’ll let Columbia University history professor Stephanie McCurry explain where it might have come from:

That statement could have been given by [former Confederate general] Jubal Early in 1880. What’s so strange about this statement is how closely it tracks or resembles the view of the Civil War that the South had finally got the nation to embrace by the early 20th century. It’s the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War. I mean, it tracks all of the major talking points of this pro-Confederate view of the Civil War.

Robert E. Lee was a traitor, as I have written before. He wasn’t merely fighting for the state of Virginia. He was fighting for the Confederacy, which made itself the enemy of the United States. That’s not even in doubt. The fact that Kelly tried to muddy the waters is evidence that he has a strong sympathy for “the Jim Crow version of the causes of the Civil War.” Or it is evidence that he is playing Nixon’s Southern Strategy political game. Or both.

As for Kelly’s breathtakingly weird claim that “the lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War,” another historian, Yale professor David Blight, said:

This is profound ignorance, that’s what one has to say first, at least of pretty basic things about the American historical narrative. I mean, it’s one thing to hear it from Trump who, let’s be honest, just really doesn’t know any history and has demonstrated it over and over and over. But General Kelly has a long history in the American military…Any serious person who knows anything about this can look at the late 1850s and then the secession crisis and know that they tried all kind of compromise measures during the secession winter, and nothing worked. Nothing was viable.

Abraham Lincoln tried, up to the last minute, everything he could think of to prevent the war. You don’t even have to be a professor at Columbia or Yale to know that. Just read Lincoln’s first inaugural address, which I will quote at length:

Apprehension seems to exist among the people of the Southern States that by the accession of a Republican Administration their property and their peace and personal security are to be endangered. There has never been any reasonable cause for such apprehension. Indeed, the most ample evidence to the contrary has all the while existed and been open to their inspection. It is found in nearly all the published speeches of him who now addresses you. I do but quote from one of those speeches when I declare that—

I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.

Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them; and more than this, they placed in the platform for my acceptance, and as a law to themselves and to me, the clear and emphatic resolution which I now read:

Resolved, That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the States, and especially the right of each State to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of power on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depend; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any State or Territory, no matter what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

I now reiterate these sentiments, and in doing so I only press upon the public attention the most conclusive evidence of which the case is susceptible that the property, peace, and security of no section are to be in any wise endangered by the now incoming Administration.

I remind you those words were offered in March of 1861. Five weeks later Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina and the treacherous war against the United States was on. Compromise simply wasn’t possible with white people who thought they had a God-given right to enslave black people. As Professor McCurry put it:

In 1861, compromise wasn’t possible because some southerners just wanted out. They wanted a separate nation where they could protect slavery into the indefinite future. That’s what they said when they seceded. That’s what they said in their constitution when they wrote one.

So, we have to decide what it is that motivated Kelly—who was born into an Irish Catholic family in Boston—not only to arrogantly refuse to apologize to an African-American congresswoman he lied about, but what motivated him to offer a version of our history that is a knife in the heart of any chance of a lasting racial reconciliation. About that white-centric version of history, Professor Blight said:

It’s just so absurd. It’s just so sad. It’s just so disappointing that generations of history have been written to explode all of this and yet millions of people — serious people; experienced, serious people and now people with tremendous power — have grown up believing all this.

It is absurd. It is sad. It is disappointing. Just like Tr-mp.

Image result for cartoons on the southern strategy and trump

Jeff Flake And The Moral Treason Of The Republican Party

Published on October 24, 2017 @3:30pm

Senator Jeff Flake will no doubt disappoint Democrats with his votes as time goes by. We should expect that. He is after all a conservative Republican. But for this one moment we should appreciate what he did today on the floor of the United States Senate. The speech he gave was stunningly well-written and will go down as one of the great speeches in Senate, no, American history. It reflected not only a Burkean temperament that the conservative movement in this country abandoned long ago, but was a condemnation of the behavior of most of his fellow Republicans, as well as a longing, a cry for a pre-Tr-mp America.

I have posted the entire transcript below, which you should read, as Flake’s delivery wasn’t exactly perfect. But there was a portion of it where he quoted from Teddy Roosevelt’s famous editorial that appeared in the Kansas City Star in 1918, during WWI. Here is part of what Flake quoted:

To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. 

If I could have, at the moment those old words came through my television, I would have put my liberal Democrat arms around conservative Republican Jeff Flake and given him a big American hug. As I said, he will disappoint, but today we shared something that we Americans cannot afford to lose, but are fast losing—and may be unable to save.

Below is the transcript of the speech as it was prepared for delivery (courtesy of azcentral.com):

Mr. President, I rise today to address a matter that has been much on my mind, at a moment when it seems that our democracy is more defined by our discord and our dysfunction than it is by our values and our principles. Let me begin by noting a somewhat obvious point that these offices that we hold are not ours to hold indefinitely.  We are not here simply to mark time. Sustained incumbency is certainly not the point of seeking office. And there are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.

Now is such a time.

Image result for jeff flake speech on floor todayIt must also be said that I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our — all of our — complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.

In this century, a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order — that phrase being “the new normal.” But we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue — with the tone set at the top.

We must never regard as “normal” the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions; the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.

None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal. We must never allow ourselves to lapse into thinking that this is just the way things are now. If we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that this is just politics as usual, then heaven help us. Without fear of the consequences, and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal.

Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as “telling it like it is,” when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified.

And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else: It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength — because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects a corruption of the spirit, and weakness.

It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? — what are we going to say?

Mr. President, I rise today to say: Enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes normal. With respect and humility, I must say that we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it. We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that.

Here, today, I stand to say that we would better serve the country and better fulfill our obligations under the constitution by adhering to our Article 1 “old normal” — Mr. Madison’s doctrine of the separation of powers. This genius innovation which affirms Madison’s status as a true visionary and for which Madison argued in Federalist 51 — held that the equal branches of our government would balance and counteract each other when necessary. “Ambition counteracts ambition,” he wrote.

But what happens if ambition fails to counteract ambition? What happens if stability fails to assert itself in the face of chaos and instability? If decency fails to call out indecency? Were the shoe on the other foot, would we Republicans meekly accept such behavior on display from dominant Democrats? Of course not, and we would be wrong if we did.

When we remain silent and fail to act when we know that that silence and inaction is the wrong thing to do — because of political considerations, because we might make enemies, because we might alienate the base, because we might provoke a primary challenge, because ad infinitum, ad nauseum — when we succumb to those considerations in spite of what should be greater considerations and imperatives in defense of the institutions of our liberty, then we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics.

Now, I am aware that more politically savvy people than I caution against such talk. I am aware that a segment of my party believes that anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect.

If I have been critical, it not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States. If I have been critical, it is because I believe that it is my obligation to do so, as a matter of duty and conscience. The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters — the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.

A Republican president named Roosevelt had this to say about the president and a citizen’s relationship to the office:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants.He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.” President Roosevelt continued: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

Acting on conscience and principle is the manner in which we express our moral selves, and as such, loyalty to conscience and principle should supersede loyalty to any man or party. We can all be forgiven for failing in that measure from time to time. I certainly put myself at the top of the list of those who fall short in that regard. I am holier-than-none. But too often, we rush not to salvage principle but to forgive and excuse our failures so that we might accommodate them and go right on failing — until the accommodation itself becomes our principle.

In that way and over time, we can justify almost any behavior and sacrifice almost any principle. I’m afraid that is where we now find ourselves.

When a leader correctly identifies real hurt and insecurity in our country and instead of addressing it goes looking for somebody to blame, there is perhaps nothing more devastating to a pluralistic society. Leadership knows that most often a good place to start in assigning blame is to first look somewhat closer to home. Leadership knows where the buck stops. Humility helps. Character counts. Leadership does not knowingly encourage or feed ugly and debased appetites in us.

Leadership lives by the American creed: E Pluribus Unum. From many, one. American leadership looks to the world, and just as Lincoln did, sees the family of man. Humanity is not a zero-sum game. When we have been at our most prosperous, we have also been at our most principled. And when we do well, the rest of the world also does well.

These articles of civic faith have been central to the American identity for as long as we have all been alive. They are our birthright and our obligation. We must guard them jealously, and pass them on for as long as the calendar has days. To betray them or to be unserious in their defense is a betrayal of the fundamental obligations of American leadership. And to behave as if they don’t matter is simply not who we are.

Now, the efficacy of American leadership around the globe has come into question. When the United States emerged from World War II we contributed about half of the world’s economic activity. It would have been easy to secure our dominance, keeping the countries that had been defeated or greatly weakened during the war in their place.  We didn’t do that. It would have been easy to focus inward. We resisted those impulses. Instead, we financed reconstruction of shattered countries and created international organizations and institutions that have helped provide security and foster prosperity around the world for more than 70 years.

Now, it seems that we, the architects of this visionary rules-based world order that has brought so much freedom and prosperity, are the ones most eager to abandon it.

The implications of this abandonment are profound. And the beneficiaries of this rather radical departure in the American approach to the world are the ideological enemies of our values. Despotism loves a vacuum. And our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership. Why are they doing this? None of this is normal. And what do we as United States Senators have to say about it?

The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding, are too vital to our identity and to our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics. Because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity.

I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.

I have decided that I will be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself from the political considerations that consume far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles.

To that end, I am announcing today that my service in the Senate will conclude at the end of my term in early January 2019.

It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican party — the party that for so long has defined itself by belief in those things. It is also clear to me for the moment we have given in or given up on those core principles in favor of the more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment. To be clear, the anger and resentment that the people feel at the royal mess we have created are justified. But anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.

There is an undeniable potency to a populist appeal — but mischaracterizing or misunderstanding our problems and giving in to the impulse to scapegoat and belittle threatens to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking people. In the case of the Republican party, those things also threaten to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking minority party.

We were not made great as a country by indulging or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorying in the things which divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake. And we did not become the beacon of freedom in the darkest corners of the world by flouting our institutions and failing to understand just how hard-won and vulnerable they are.

This spell will eventually break. That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more, and I say the sooner the better. Because to have a healthy government we must have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith. We must argue our positions fervently, and never be afraid to compromise. We must assume the best of our fellow man, and always look for the good. Until that days comes, we must be unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it. Because it does.

I plan to spend the remaining fourteen months of my senate term doing just that.

Mr. President, the graveyard is full of indispensable men and women — none of us here is indispensable. Nor were even the great figures from history who toiled at these very desks in this very chamber to shape this country that we have inherited. What is indispensable are the values that they consecrated in Philadelphia and in this place, values which have endured and will endure for so long as men and women wish to remain free. What is indispensable is what we do here in defense of those values. A political career doesn’t mean much if we are complicit in undermining those values.

I thank my colleagues for indulging me here today, and will close by borrowing the words of President Lincoln, who knew more about healing enmity and preserving our founding values than any other American who has ever lived. His words from his first inaugural were a prayer in his time, and are no less so in ours:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.

Remarks And Asides, Bill O’Reilly Edition

This just in from Headquarters:

“You know, am I mad at Bill O’Reilly? Yeah, I’m mad at him. I wish I had more protection. I wish this stuff didn’t happen. I can’t explain it to you. Yeah, I’m mad at him.” —God

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O’Reilly, a serial sexual predator and hero of silver-haired conservatives everywhere, once wrote:

A number of Catholics have left the church because of the priestly sins, but not me. From the beginning, in Sister Claudia’s first grade class, I understood that the Catholic Church was about Jesus, not Father Flannery. Believe me, I saw so many loons in my Catholic school days that I should be a Buddhist.

Oh, another message just in from Headquarters:

“No thanks.” —Buddha

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In 2011, O’Reilly was on a mission “to find out why so many Americans are bearing false witness against their neighbors.” He wrote:

Lying and cheating almost always comes down to betrayal, and is most often driven by selfishness. America has become a nation obsessed with immediate gratification. Public schools have embraced secularism with a vengeance, therefore Moses and his Ten Commandments have been banished.

To which Headquarters has just replied:

“Uh, you were raised in Catholic schools, Bill, not public ones. So don’t blame secularism for your lying an cheating and betrayal and selfishness and, dare I say, your “immediate gratification.” And, dammit, leave me out of this.” —Moses

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Years ago, O’Reilly also wrote:

Throughout it all, however, I stayed with the church. If you cut through all the bull, the doctrines of treating others as you want to be treated, forgiveness and redemption, and charity for all stand the test of time. Even if the atheists are right and there is no God, the philosophy of Jesus is full-force positive. Live the way he lived, and the world will be a better place.

Man. Headquarters is busy. Another press release:

“Bill O’Reilly is why the world is not a better place.” —Jesus

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Oh, finally we have some video straight from Headquarters. It’s about time:

The Beast Corrupts

“The world that we used to know
People tell me it don’t turn no more
The places we used to go
Familiar faces that ain’t smilin’ like before
The time of our time has come and gone
I fear we been waiting too long”

—Steely Dan, Midnight Cruiser, 1972

Now that Tr-mp has done what we knew was evitable—essentially call the widow of a slain soldier a liar—we can forever rest assured we have not misdiagnosed him. He is what we thought he was: an orange-tinted beast beyond the reach of human decency. So, that’s that.

Image result for la david johnsonWe can also rest assured that former general John Kelly, widely and wrongly thought to be a moderating influence on the Beast, is not. He is an enabler. Kelly, for whatever reason, has chosen to spend his moral capital at the Tr-mp Thrift Store. I hope he enjoys the cheap trucker hats and other trinkets for which he traded his integrity and his dignity. The Beast corrupts and he corrupts absolutely, or the corrupt are attracted to him. Whatever the case, that’s also that. Kelly is Tr-mp’s ally, not ours. No one is coming to our rescue. Not Mattis. Not McMaster. Not McCain. Nobody. The Beast cannot be tamed, only caged. But he has the run of the land and no one in government is willing to hunt him down and capture him.

On to other depressing realities.

What we have to face are not just worries about a war with North Korea, a war with Iran, or more Russia-funded political outcomes. Domestically we have an all-out assault on many manifestations of human decency. Like:

The deliberate sabotage of the Affordable Care Act, which is life-threatening for many people.

♦ The hyper-partisan budget the Senate passed last Thursday—now fast-tracked for passage in the House—is powered by voodoo economics and, thus, loaded with human cruelty. And it makes possible even more cruelty to come in what Republicans like to call “tax reform.” Tr-mp, lying, calls the effort “tax cuts” for middle class Americans. As the CBPP points out, Republican priorities will enrich the rich and hurt children, the poor and homeless, schools, the disabled, and the elderly who rely on the safety net—you know, nearly everyone but Republican donors. Tr-mp said his tax plan will put $4000 in middle-class pockets. Advice to middle-class folks: don’t go on a spending spree. You won’t get four grand to spend. If you get two extra nickles to rub together, consider yourself blessed. Tr-mp also suggested his plan will be another “Morning in America” moment. He’s right about that, but he got the spelling wrong. It will be “Mourning in America”—especially for many of the dumbasses who voted for Tr-mp. Except they won’t know, or will refuse to acknowledge, who is to blame for their mourning.

♦ Our environment is now fair game for increased abuse. From the repeal of the Clean Power Plan to potential new drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to removing climate-change resources from the EPA’s website to barring EPA scientists from giving speeches about climate change, EPA now stands for Exploitation Protection Agency.

♦ Women’s reproductive rights are in extreme danger, both at the federal and state level.

♦ The Attorney General of the United States fashions himself as the general in the war on LGBT rights.

♦ The top spokesperson for Tr-mp says that it is “highly inappropriate” to question a “four-star Marine general” who actually isn’t even a general—and even if he was so effing what?

♦ The seemingly increasing open displays of white supremacy.

♦ Sitting on the Supreme Court, in a seat Republicans stole from President Obama, is a reactionary asshole worse than Antonin Scalia. And he will likely sit there longer than I’m alive.

♦ Less than two weeks ago, a man pretending to be our president actually said, “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write,” and, as far as I can tell, only one Republican, Senator Ben Sasse, has had anything to say about it. That scandalous remark got lost in the soup very quickly, which pretty much describes our biggest problem: our scandal cup runneth over.

♦ The Speaker of the House finds humor in the scandal-plagued and dangerous Deviant-in-Chief.

In the meantime, the man many misguided souls consider to be the head of the still-wounded Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders, has decided to remain and run as an independent in his 2018 Senate campaign.

Wish I had better news. I don’t.

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[photo credit: Joe Raedle / Getty Images]

Rock Bottom

Some people thought Tr-mp’s attack on John McCain in July of 2015 was the lowest anyone, especially someone aspiring to be president, could go. “He’s not a war hero,” Tr-mp said of McCain. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” 

Now, there have been plenty of political reasons to attack John McCain over the years, as far as I’m concerned. And I’ve done so. But to attack him simply on the basis of his being captured by the enemy, when he was serving in a war that Tr-mp aggressively avoided, is a low point for anyone. But it didn’t represent the bottom for Tr-mp.

Flash forward a summer after that shameful strike against McCain. In July of 2016, Tr-mp began his attack on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son, Captain Humayun Khan, was killed in Iraq in 2004 and posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. The Khans had made the grave mistake of criticizing Tr-mp’s Muslim ban at the Democratic National Convention. Khizr Khan had said to Tr-mp, as he proudly waved a pocket Constitution in front of the crowd and television audience:

Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.

While all of that was absolutely true, and while it was said by a father who had lost his son in combat for this country, that didn’t stop Tr-mp from first attacking Mrs. Kahn by playing on a Muslim stereotype that Tr-mp likely saw on right-wing Twitter:

If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.

Well, of course she was allowed to say anything she wanted. It was just that, as she had explained the day before Tr-mp’s bigoted attack, she was still grieving over her son. “I cannot even come in the room where his pictures are,” she said. But Tr-mp wasn’t finished. He compared his sacrifices to the Kahns:

I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.

The founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Peter Rieckoff, said of such unempathetic drivel:

For anyone to compare their ‘sacrifice’ to a Gold Star family member is insulting, foolish and ignorant. Especially someone who has never served himself and has no children serving. Our country has been at war for a decade and a half, and the truth is most Americans have sacrificed nothing. Most of them are smart and grounded enough to admit it.

Being neither smart nor grounded in anything outside his complex of disorders, Tr-mp had hit a new low. He had attacked a Gold Star family. But he still had not hit bottom. That momentous milestone he saved for his response to the death, on October 4, of 25-year-old U.S. Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was, according to the Pentagon, “a part of a joint U.S. and Nigerien train, advise and assist mission” in southwest Niger.

Three other Green Berets—Army Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Army Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Army Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia—died with Sgt. Johnson. But it was the way Tr-mp apparently spoke to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, and the way Tr-mp has responded to criticism of his attempt to console her, as well as his cynical attacks on President Obama and his inserting the death of John Kelly’s son (Second Lt. Robert Kelly, killed in Afghanistan in 2010) into the mix, that constitutes rock bottom, in terms of how low Tr-mp can go.

Simply put, he can’t go any lower. I don’t care what else he does, in terms of corrupting American norms, it won’t get worse than this.

After initially lying about President Obama’s handling of the deaths of U.S. soldiers, Tr-mp said to Fox’s Brian Kilmeade:

You could ask General Kelly, ‘Did he get a call from Obama?’”

As has been widely reported, President Obama invited Kelly and his wife to a White House breakfast honoring Gold Star families in 2011. The two sat at Michelle Obama’s table. Also, as The New York Times noted, people who worked with Kelly at the Pentagon at the time his son was killed “did not recall him expressing unhappiness with the way Mr. Obama handled the death of his son.” Purely as a logistical matter, during times when casualties are much higher than they are now, it isn’t possible for presidents to call all the families of those who have been killed in combat. The Times suggested that picking and choosing “could also raise questions about why one family merited a call but another did not.”

As for how Tr-mp handled the call to Myeshia Johnson—who was on her way to receive her husband’s body when the call came in—we will never know exactly what happened. In the car with Mrs. Johnson was a Florida congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson, who first brought her version of what happened to national attention because the call was on speakerphone. The New York Times put it this way:

Ms. Wilson said that during the call, the president told Ms. Johnson “something to the fact that he knew what he was getting into when he signed up,” the congresswoman said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday.

“But that’s not the worst part,” Ms. Wilson said. “She was crying the whole time and when she hung up the phone she looked at me and said ‘he didn’t even remember his name.’ That’s the hurting part.”

On CNN Tuesday night, Rep. Wilson elaborated:

She has just lost her husband, she was just told that he cannot have an open casket funeral which gives her all kinds of nightmares how his body must look, how his face must look, and this is what the president of the United States says to her?

Tr-mp, of course, couldn’t just leave it alone. Or he couldn’t just say, “Hey, I’m sorry if my remarks were misunderstood.” Instead, he said via Twitter early Wednesday morning:

Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!

When he was asked a short time later about the matter by reporters (just before a meeting with the Senate Finance Committee on his ridiculous tax heist), he said—with Claire McCaskill unfortunately sitting by his side—the following about Congresswoman Wilson’s claim:

Didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all. She knows it and she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said, and I’d like her to make the statement again because I did not say what she said. I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren’t too surprised to hear that.

He was then asked about the proof he claimed he had. He replied:

Let her make her statement again and then you’ll find out.

He said that twice. And Rep. Wilson quickly tweeted a response:

I stand my account of the call with @realDonaldTrump and was not the only one who heard and was dismayed by his insensitive remarks.

Later, Sgt. Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, corroborated the congresswoman’s account via Facebook:

Yes, he did state that comment.

Obviously, there is no “proof” as Tr-mp claimed. There’s nothing but his word, and the words of those who have demonstrated a willingness to lie for him, against the words of others. It’s quite possible that an awkward Tr-mp awkwardly tried to express what he thought was sympathy. But sympathy and empathy are strangers to him. He wouldn’t even know if he said the wrong thing because he has no right thing in his mind to compare it to. But none of that is really the point.

The real rock-bottom offense here is that we have a man, pretending to be president, who has broken perhaps the last taboo that almost all Americans acknowledge: don’t disrespect those who have given the last full measure of devotion. Is it too much to ask of such a man to honor fallen soldiers by a dignified silence, even if he feels personally slighted by something a congresswoman or a family member said? Is that really too much to ask? Is it too much to ask of a man who has stupidly started a fight with black NFL players—whom he accuses of disrespecting the country by simply kneeling during the national anthem—to avoid starting a fight around a quasi-sacred duty of the commander-in chief? Is it?

Whether he was misunderstood, whether he garbled words of consolation, what he did after that is as shameful as anything he has done. He didn’t just attempt to politicize a soldier’s death, as many have charged. He did more than that. He has shredded what’s left of the dignity of the office he holds by dishonoring the sacrifice of a man who left behind a mother, a pregnant wife, and two little children.

We know Tr-mp can’t help himself. He is sick. His very presence in the White House is a perversion. But the fact that he will continue on in that job, the fact that our system seems powerless to remove him no matter what he does, is a more profound perversion than perhaps any of us want to admit.

The Man Who Never Weeps

“that’s a fucking lie. to say president obama (or past presidents) didn’t call the family members of soldiers KIA – he’s a deranged animal.”

—Alyssa Mastromonaco, former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations

I have purposely avoided writing about Tr-mp lately. What more can be said about such a man? Recently someone said to me, “I hate him so much.” But that hate, while understandable, is misdirected.

Tr-mp houses in his head a plethora of pathetic pathologies that compel him to do the things he does. Nothing comes of hating him. The blame for Tr-mp goes to the culture that made him famous despite his failures, to the system that put him in power despite his unfitness, and that keeps him in power because of an unseemly institutional lust in the Republican Party for particular policy goals most members believe they can only achieve with the help of this historically dangerous and tragic figure.

Image result for mcconnell and trumpI watched his performance in front of the cameras yesterday, with the creepy Mitch McConnell by his side. I watched it all, as painful as it was. For almost two weeks Tr-mp has failed to even mention the deaths of four U.S. special forces soldiers in a desert in Niger. These and other U.S. soldiers were apparently part of a larger contingent of Nigerien troops who had met with some local leaders and were later ambushed by an Islamist terrorist group. Details are still unclear as to exactly what happened, but reportedly the mission these troops were on was not well supported. French aircraft rescued them, after flying from bases in Mali, hundreds of miles away. We will certainly find out more as days go by, but as for Tr-mp, we already know enough.

At a press conference yesterday, someone asked Tr-mp about the four soldiers and why he hadn’t spoken about them or why he hadn’t reach out to the families of the fallen. By now you know what happened. Tr-mp, because it comes so naturally to him, lied. He accused President Obama directly, and other presidents indirectly, of not making calls to families who had lost loved ones in service to the country. For this damnable lie, Tr-mp has received justified condemnation, but he’s also received plenty of unjustifiable defense. As always.

We have one of the nation’s worst natural disasters in history going on in Puerto Rico and Tr-mp cares only about himself and his feud with athletes or other trivia. He has been both condemned and defended for his posture toward Puerto Ricans—again, as always. When he attacked war hero John McCain at the beginning of his campaign in 2015, he was both condemned and defended. When he attacked a Gold Star family, same thing. When he admitted to sexual assault on tape, ditto. When he appeared at CIA headquarters, in front of a memorial wall that honors fallen CIA officers, he talked about the size of his inaugural crowd and his war with the press. For that inhumanity he was showered with shame, but he had plenty of people offering him an umbrella.

He recently attacked John McCain again, this time for a vote against a nasty healthcare bill that McCain, a man now ailing from brain cancer, found objectionable. Tr-mp once more was condemned—and defended. Tr-mp has now made good on a threat to put millions in jeopardy of losing their health insurance, a move that was followed by more condemnation—and an indefatigable defense. I could go on and on with the outrageous things he has said about and done to real people, all of it accompanied by necessary and appropriate condemnation and an unnecessary and inappropriate defense.

We are witnessing the behavior of a man, as I have said before, who has no soul. To put it another way, he apparently has no neurological capacity for empathy. He cannot feel, much less bear, the burden of another human being. He knows nothing of honor, of sacrifice. He is a man who cannot weep. You can imagine Tr-mp doing a lot of things, but you can’t imagine him sitting alone in the Oval Office composing a letter to the family of a fallen soldier and shedding a single tear. You just can’t imagine such a normal, human reaction coming from him. And as sad as that is, the saddest part of this deplorable drama we’re living through, the most distressing reality we face in real time, is that a large number of everyday Americans—your Republican neighbors and friends and family members—along with nearly every Republican member of Congress, will move on from this latest outrage, this latest offense to honesty and decency, like yesterday was just another day.

We simply have to come to terms with the fact—those of us who see Tr-mp as the sick, empty man he is—that a large swath of our fellow Americans just don’t give a damn that nearly every day Tr-mp assaults what’s left of the old idea of American exceptionalism, which by now is a corpse that he drags through our national streets, mocking us, mocking our country, and mocking what we used to believe we all shared, if we shared nothing else: our common decency, our democratic values, and our lofty, if not fully realized, ideals.

 

Nature’s Monsters?

Every tragedy generates questions. After monstrous mass shootings, we wonder if our gun laws are as insane as they appear. After monstrous hurricanes, we wonder if man-made climate change is making the storms worse. After a monstrous presidential election, we wonder if our cultural institutions, and too many of our people, are hopelessly lost.

As important and vital as all those questions are, what happened in Las Vegas last Sunday night, and the mystery surrounding the motive of the killer, has me asking even deeper questions. I am inviting you to explore some possible answers to those questions. This lengthy journey is not for everyone, but it represents something I believe is important for thoughtful people to do: address the hard stuff. In doing so, I do not want to leave the impression that I am minimizing the suffering involved in this tragedy or disrespecting and ignoring the victims of this horrific crime. Obviously, the victims and their loved ones are owed our sympathy and compassion. The following examination, though, is focused on other issues.

I am fully aware that most of you will not read through this piece in its entirety nor watch the lengthy video at the end. We are, after all, living in the age of tweets. But I encourage you to take the time to read and listen. You may not agree in any way with what is said or claimed. We can discuss that in the comment section. But we can’t discuss it intelligently if you don’t invest the time and your thoughtfulness in what follows. I have pondered these issues and the questions they raise for most of my life, beginning with, as a kid, asking my father why it was that random thoughts, thoughts I didn’t like, popped into my head against my will and beyond my control. He had no answers. That phenomenon was then, and remains so today, mysterious to me.

_________________________________

PART 1: THE WHY

I stayed awake all night as the tragedy in Las Vegas was unfolding on television. When I found out the killer was a 64-year-old affluent white man with no apparent political or religious or even personal motive for killing innocent people, the first thing I thought of was a man named Charles Whitman, another seemingly “ordinary guy” who killed a lot of people. Since Sunday, a lot of people have mentioned Whitman and his role as the first mass-murderer in American television history, the man whose crime gave us SWAT teams.

I thought of him for a different reason.

Whitman was 25 years old in the summer of 1966, when the Marine-trained sharpshooter “decided” to ride an elevator to the top of the University of Texas Tower and use the many weapons he brought with him—all of them packed, along with supplies such as “canned peaches, deodorant, an alarm clock, binoculars, toilet paper, a machete, and sweet rolls,” in an old Marine footlocker that he moved with a two-wheeler—to kill innocent people. Here’s how David Eagleman, writing for The Atlantic in 2011, described what happened:

Front page coverage of UT sniper, Charles Whitman. Aside from standard A1 features like the brief weather forecast and a daily humor feature, the front page of the next day’s San Antonio San Antonio Express was wholly dominated by shooting coverage. The Photo: Digitized Microfilm / Digitized MicrofilmAt the top, he killed a receptionist with the butt of his rifle. Two families of tourists came up the stairwell; he shot at them at point-blank range. Then he began to fire indiscriminately from the deck at people below. The first woman he shot was pregnant. As her boyfriend knelt to help her, Whitman shot him as well. He shot pedestrians in the street and an ambulance driver who came to rescue them…

By the time the police shot him dead, Whitman had killed 13 people and wounded 32 more. The story of his rampage dominated national headlines the next day. And when police went to investigate his home for clues, the story became even stranger: in the early hours of the morning on the day of the shooting, he had murdered his mother and stabbed his wife to death in her sleep.

Now, I was almost 8 years old on August 1, 1966, and have only a vague recollection of that story as it appeared on the evening news—CNN wouldn’t come into existence for another 14 years. But I can guarantee you that plenty of people labeled what Whitman did, just as Tr-mp labeled what the Las Vegas killer did, as “an act of pure evil.”

Evil. Pure. If it were as easy as that.

Just what is evil? Why do we use the word? Do we need the concept of evil to help us live with the mysteries of our existence, the mysteries of human behavior?

I don’t recall hearing anyone refer to the series of hurricanes that have recently brought with them much death and destruction as “evil.” No one, as far as I can tell, said that what Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico and elsewhere was “an act of pure evil.” Why is that? Maria has killed more people than the murderer in Las Vegas killed. Why is one killer seen as evil and the other not?

It seems obvious that the reason we put what hurricanes do in a different context than what human beings do is because storms are seen as natural events that have no intentionality. We know there is no “Maria,” in the sense of a personality making willful decisions to target innocent islanders in the Atlantic. Hurricanes are complex low-pressure tropical weather systems fueled by the evaporation of warm ocean water and “steered” by environmental conditions, such as prevailing winds. They begin life as mere tropical disturbances that may or may not become “monsters” that kill and destroy. Why some do and some don’t is a matter of “organization,” the process of which is not completely understood.

People, on the other hand, are almost universally viewed as moral actors. That seems as obvious to us as the idea that hurricanes don’t have intentions. Human beings, we believe, have free will, and consequently their actions can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, or somewhere in between. In the case of Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower killer, his actions, like the actions of the Vegas killer, clearly appear to most people as “pure evil.” As noted, Whitman stabbed both his devoutly religious mother and his wife in the heart with a hunting knife before he went to the Austin campus and began his killing spree there, including shooting that pregnant student in the stomach, her boyfriend in the neck, and another student in the mouth. Here is what he wrote in a note he left at his murdered mother’s apartment:

To whom it may concern,

I have just taken my mother’s life. I am very upset over having done it. However I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now. And if there is no life after, I have relieved her of her suffering here on earth. The intense hatred I feel for my father is beyond description. My mother gave that man the 25 best years of her life and because she finally took enough of his beatings, humiliation and degradation and tribulations that I am sure no one but she and he will ever know—to leave him. He has chosen to treat her like a slut that you would bed down with, accept her favors and then throw a pitance [sic] in return.

I am truly sorry that this is the only way I could see to relieve her sufferings but I think it was best.

Let there be no doubt in your mind I loved that woman with all my heart.

If there exists a God let him understand my actions and judge accordingly.

Charles J. Whitman

He apparently wrote that note, on a legal pad, after he had moved his mother—whom he likely strangled and hit in the head with something heavy before he stabbed her—into a sleeping position on her twin bed, and after he washed his hands and knife. He placed the note on her body and covered her up with a bedspread. He left her apartment around 2 A.M. and headed home, home to kill his sleeping wife with the same hunting knife, plunging it into her chest multiple times. At that crime scene he also left a note—most of which he had typed the evening before—one that he finished in his own handwriting after the murder. Here is the entire note, beginning with the typed portion:

I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks. In March when my parents made a physical break I noticed a great deal of stress. I consulted a Dr. Cochrum at the University Health Center and asked him to recommend someone that I could consult with about some psychiatric disorders I felt I had. I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail. After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder. I have had some tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin in the past three months.

It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from work at the telephone company. I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationaly [sic] pinpoint any specific reason for doing this. I don’t know whether it is selfishness, or if I don’t want her to have to face the embrassment [sic] my actions would surely cause her. AT this time, though, the prominent reason in my mind is that I truly do not consider this world worth living in, and am prepared to die, and I do not want to leave her to suffer alone in it. I intend to kill her as painlessly as possible.

Similar reasons provoked me to take my mother’s life also. I don’t think the poor woman has ever enjoyed life as she is entitled to. She was a simple young woman who married a very possessive and dominating man. All my life as a boy until I ran away from home to join the Marine Corps [at this point, Whitman was “interrupted” by “friends,” which he noted in handwriting in the margin; the rest of the note was handwritten after he murdered his wife] I was a witness to her being beat at least one [sic] a month. Then when she took enough my father wanted to fight to keep her below her usual standard of living.

I imagine it appears that I bruttaly [sic] kill [sic] both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job.

Years before the killing began, Whitman kept a diary. After he murdered his wife, he took the time to go through some of the old diary entries before he left his home to prepare for the killing to come later that day at the University of Texas. One such entry was dated February 23, 1964, and its subject was mostly about how much he loved and valued his soon-to-be wife (they married in August of 1964). Using the same pen that he used to finish his explanation for brutally killing his mother and his wife, he jotted just above the entry:

I still mean it. CJW 8-1-66

That February, 1964, entry had ended with this:

My Darling Kathleen, I love you very much. That statement is so simple but maybe someday I’ll be able to convince you of all the emotions and feelings that it encases. My wife, you are wonderful.

Whitman, again, just after he stabbed his wife to death and covered her bloody body, took the time to comment on that diary entry:

Only time has shown me how right I was in these thoughts over 2-1/2 years ago. My wife was a true person. CJW

This former Eagle Scout—at age 12 he was nationally recognized as the youngest Eagle Scout in the world—also took the time just after murdering his mother and wife to write brief notes to his brother Johnnie and his brother Pat. To Johnnie he wrote:

Kathy and I enjoyed your visit. I am terribly sorry to have let you down. Please try to do better than I have. It won’t be hard. John, Mom loved you very much.

Your brother, Charlie.

To Pat he wrote:

You are so wrong about Mom. Maybe some day you will understand why she left Daddy. Pat, Mom didn’t have any desire to harm Daddy whatsoever. She just wanted what she had worked for. She really needed that $40.00. Thanks for sending it. She’ll never know about that Grandmother or not.

Charlie

Perhaps now is a good time to say a little more about Charles Whitman and what is generally known about his life, since the point here is to try to understand how a human being could commit such murderous acts, acts that people call pure evil.

Whitman first attended the University of Texas on a Marine scholarship, majoring in architectural engineering. His IQ was reportedly above 130. He played the piano, some say “beautifully.” He took amphetamines. He had a bad temper. He was very comfortable with guns. He was apparently a domestic abuser “who expected too much from” his wife, according to a close friend of his. That friend also said Whitman was a “perfectionist,” who “would wipe his hand behind pictures hanging on the wall looking for dust.” The same friend told police that Whitman “had turned atheistic in his belief,” despite the fact that he had attended Catholic parochial schools most of his life. He also “talked frequently about his father” and how much he “hated him.” His father, who ran a successful plumbing business in Florida, was allegedly “very strict and domineering and ran the household with an iron hand.” In the spring of 1966, Whitman went to Florida to bring is mother to Texas, after she reported to him that there were “family problems.” And, as already mentioned by Whitman himself, he suspected something was wrong with him.

Whitman liked to make lists. One such list he titled, THOUGHTS TO START THE DAY.Here are the items on that typed list:

READ AND THINK ABOUT, EVERY DAY

STOP procrastinating (Grasp the nettle)
CONTROL your anger (Don’t let it prove you a fool)
SMILE–Its contagious
DON’T be belligerent
STOP cursing, improve your vocabulary
APPROACH a pot of gold with exceptional caution (look it over – twice)
PAY that compliment
LISTEN more than you speak, THINK before you speak
CONTROL your passion; DON’T LET IT lead YOU — Don’t let desire make you regret your present actions later (Remember the lad and the man)
If you want to be better than average, YOU HAVE TO WORK MUCH HARDER THAN THE AVERAGE
NEVER FORGET; when the going gets rough, the ROUGH get going!!!!!

YESTERDAY IS NOT MINE TO RECOVER
BUT TOMORROW IS MINE TO WIN OR TO
LOSE.  I AM RESOLVED THAT I SHALL 
WIN THE TOMORROW BEFORE ME!!!

Attached to that list was another list, handwritten:

Whitman
1. Grow up (think-don’t be so ready with an excuse)
2. Conduct with superiors (time and place for everything)
3. Know your status and position and conduct yourself accordingly.
4. Courtesy (Generally show respect for seniors but lets personal feeling towd. indiv. show.)
5. Organize yourself and your work so that the insignificant is not a major crisis.
6. When time permits exhaust all effort to find answers before asking the simplest of questions.

Just below that list, was another typed list referencing his wife:

GOOD POINTS TO REMEMBER WITH KATHY
1. Don’t nag.
2. Don’t try to make your partner over.
3. Don’t criticize.
4. Give honest appreciation.
5. Pay little attentions.
6. Be courteous.
7. BE GENTLE.

On the day of the murders, Whitman wrote at the top of the first list the following:

8-1-66whitman's list
I never could quite make it.
These thoughts are too much for me.
CJW

Now, what do we make of all this? What do we make of someone, widely seen as an “all-American boy,” who goes to the trouble of trying to improve himself by such measures and then, with much planning and forethought, brutally murders his mother and wife and fourteen others (one of those shot from the Tower died in 2001 and the death was ruled a homicide connected to Whitman) on a summer day on a college campus in Texas? Why did he commit such a monstrous act? Was he a monster?

Remember that Whitman had asked in his “suicide” note that an autopsy be performed on him. And I believe that Texas law, under the circumstances, required one. So, an autopsy was done. The Atlantic’s David Eagleman explains:

Whitman’s body was taken to the morgue, his skull was put under the bone saw, and the medical examiner lifted the brain from its vault. He discovered that Whitman’s brain harbored a tumor the diameter of a nickel. This tumor, called a glioblastoma, had blossomed from beneath a structure called the thalamus, impinged on the hypothalamus, and compressed a third region called the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression. By the late 1800s, researchers had discovered that damage to the amygdala caused emotional and social disturbances. In the 1930s, the researchers Heinrich Klüver and Paul Bucy demonstrated that damage to the amygdala in monkeys led to a constellation of symptoms, including lack of fear, blunting of emotion, and overreaction. Female monkeys with amygdala damage often neglected or physically abused their infants. In humans, activity in the amygdala increases when people are shown threatening faces, are put into frightening situations, or experience social phobias. Whitman’s intuition about himself—that something in his brain was changing his behavior—was spot-on.

So, can we blame a brain tumor, affecting the amygdala, for Whitman’s actions? Or was it some combination of the tumor and genes and environment? Or was he simply an evil man, with an evil soul, who made evil choices?

As Eagleman points out, there are many cases in which brain tumors are suspected to be major contributing factors to psychopathic criminal behavior. But not all psychopaths are violent criminals and not all psychopathy is caused by brain tumors (and, to be clear, there is a difference between psychopaths and psychotics, which you can learn here).

To move away from the issue of tumors altering feelings and behavior, there are other brain impairments that are connected to psychopathy.  A neuroscientist named James Fallon has been studying the brains of psychopaths for two decades. Four years ago he published a book, The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain.” Here’s how the stunning revelation in the book was described:

While researching serial killers, he uncovered a pattern in their brain scans that helped explain their cold and violent behavior. Astonishingly, his own scan matched that pattern. And a few months later he learned that he was descended from a long line of murderers.

Those close to Fallon had known that he wasn’t “normal.” Here’s how Tanya Lewis of Business Insider told the story:

When Fallon saw that his own scan fit the pattern of brain activity he had found in the psychopaths, he started to question his theory. He thought to himself, “I’m okay, I’m not a bad guy.”

But when he went home and told his wife what had happened — how his brain resembled that of a psychopath, at least according to his theory — she reacted very strangely.

It wasn’t that surprising, she said.

But it wasn’t just his wife who reacted this way. Friends and colleagues told him the same thing, that he was “kind of not there emotionally,” Fallon recalls. Even his daughter thought so — as a young child, she painted her dad as a “dark figure.” Fallon’s psychiatrist friends described things he had done in the past that they said showed a profound lack of empathy (one of the telltale signs of psychopathic tendencies), like skipping a friend’s funeral because he thought it might be boring. His friends and family agreed. “I realized people had been telling me something for years, I just didn’t put it together,” Fallon said.

It’s important to keep in mind that scientists are still researching psychopathology and they don’t have all the answers yet. But they think that people like Fallon have a connection with the world that’s very different from others.

According to some of this research, psychopaths understand when there are people in need or in pain, but they don’t feel it viscerally the way most people do. As Fallon put it, “I don’t get the interpersonal warm and fuzzies.”

So Fallon started looking to his genetics for answers. It turns out he has a gene that’s been linked, in several studies, with an increased risk of violent and aggressive behavior.

An ABC News report continues Fallon’s story:

Two of his distant relatives were notorious: One, Lizzie Borden, was acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with a hatchet in 1892. Another, Thomas Cornell, was the first in the American colonies hanged for killing his mother in 1672.

Fallon said he escaped the same fate because of the interplay between nature and nurture. He was raised in a loving family. Still, he had some other telltale signs, such as panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive tendencies and social anxieties.

“Looking at my genetics, I had lethal combination, but I just had the happiest childhood growing up,” he said. Fallon’s mother had four miscarriages before his birth and, as a result, he said he was, “treated well because they didn’t think I would be born.”

“There were dark periods I went through, but they didn’t bring me to a psychiatrist, but they told my sisters and teachers to watch out for me,” he said. “My mother instinctively knew there was a problem.”

Conscience and a sense of morality and impulse control lie in the limbic system and in the orbital cortex in the brain, according to Fallon.

“They connect and inhibit each other not unlike the super-ego controlling the id,” he said. “It’s the interface between the intellectual mind and the emotions attending to them.”

Fallon’s brain scans show low activity in both regions of the brain.

“No behavior is really evil or bad — it’s all contextual,” he said. “There is a time for sex and a time for killing, when someone attacks the family. But it’s done in context. The orbital cortex adjudicates the idea of morality and interacts with the amygdala’s drive to eat, drink and screw. There would be mayhem if it didn’t exist.”

As a neuroscientist, Fallon said he always believed humans were ruled solely by their genes and not their environment in the nature versus nurture debate.

“I never took it seriously,” he said. “I was the poster boy for genes causing everything. But I had to eat crow and say I was wrong.”

I consider all these insights to be the most important scientific discoveries of our time. And the research continues. A recent Harvard study concluded:

Psychopaths’ brains are wired in a way that leads them to over-value immediate rewards and neglect the future consequences of potentially dangerous or immoral actions.

The senior author of that study, Josh Buckholtz, an Associate Professor of Psychology, said (emphasis mine):

For years, we have been focused on the idea that psychopaths are people who cannot generate emotion and that’s why they do all these terrible things. But what we care about with psychopaths is not the feelings they have or don’t have, it’s the choices they make. Psychopaths commit an astonishing amount of crime, and this crime is both devastating to victims and astronomically costly to society as a whole.

And even though psychopaths are often portrayed as cold-blooded, almost alien predators, we have been showing that their emotional deficits may not actually be the primary driver of these bad choices. Because it’s the choices of psychopaths that cause so much trouble, we’ve been trying to understand what goes on in their brains when the make decisions that involve trade-offs between the costs and benefits of action. In this most recent paper…we are able to look at brain-based measures of reward and value and the communication between different brain regions that are involved in decision making.

“Trying to understand what goes on in their brains.” That’s what scientists do. That’s what all of us should do. And while there is so much more to learn, and while some of the tentative conclusions may turn out to be mistaken, the overwhelming evidence points to the connection between the physical brain and psychopathy, a connection that only gets more complicated as we throw genetics and environment in the mix. The ScienceDaily article featuring that Harvard study elaborates on the physiology:

What they found, Buckholtz said, was people who scored high for psychopathy showed greater activity in a region called the ventral striatum — known to be involved in evaluating the subjective reward — for the more immediate choice.

“So the more psychopathic a person is, the greater the magnitude of that striatal response,” Buckholtz said. “That suggests that the way they are calculating the value rewards is dysregulated — they may over-represent the value of immediate reward.”

Buckholtz zeroed in on what appears to be the culprit. And I include his lengthy explanation here, even if we laymen aren’t familiar with the terminology, merely to emphasize that we are talking about something physically wrong with the brain:

“We mapped the connections between the ventral striatum and other regions known to be involved in decision-making, specifically regions of the prefrontal cortex known to regulate striatal response,” he said. “When we did that, we found that connections between the striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex were much weaker in people with psychopathy.”

That lack of connection is important, Buckholtz said, because this portion of the prefrontal cortex role is thought to be important for ‘mental time-travel’ — envisioning the future consequences of actions. There is increasing evidence that prefrontal cortex uses the outcome of this process to change how strongly the striatum responds to rewards. With that prefrontal modulating influence weakened, the value of the more immediate choice may become dramatically over-represented.

“The striatum assigns values to different actions without much temporal context” he said. “We need the prefrontal cortex to make prospective judgements how an action will affect us in the future — if I do this, then this bad thing will happen. The way we think of it is if you break that connection in anyone, they’re going to start making bad choices because they won’t have the information that would otherwise guide their decision-making to more adaptive ends.”

The effect was so pronounced, Buckholtz said, that researchers were able to use the degree of connection between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex to accurately predict how many times inmates had been convicted of crimes.

If you have read this far, you may or may not be ready for what Dr. Buckholtz says next:

Ultimately, Buckholtz said, his goal is to erase the popular image of psychopaths as incomprehensible, cold-blooded monsters and see them for what they are — everyday humans whose brains are simply wired differently.

“They’re not aliens, they’re people who make bad decisions,” he said. “The same kind of short-sighted, impulsive decision-making that we see in psychopathic individuals has also been noted in compulsive over-eaters and substance abusers. If we can put this back into the domain of rigorous scientific analysis, we can see psychopaths aren’t inhuman, they’re exactly what you would expect from humans who have this particular kind of brain wiring dysfunction.”

That may not be what most of us want to hear after what happened in Las Vegas. And I understand the intense anger directed at the killer. If he had murdered someone dear to me, I would be out of my mind with anger. But consider that the man who killed at least 58 concert-goers in Nevada had a father who was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for years after escaping from a federal prison in Texas, where he was serving time for bank robbery. Just before that, the father tried to escape from a jail in, of all places, Las Vegas, where, according to the FBI, he attempted to run down an agent with his car. The FBI also noted at the time (1969) that the father had been “diagnosed as being psychopathic.” That’s the father. As for the son who would go on to become a killer, one writer noted,

It seems he was 8 when his father was convicted of armed robbery and sent to prison; 15 when the old man escaped and went on the lam; and 26 when he was re-apprehended.

No one knows what, if any, effect those experiences had on the Las Vegas killer. It is hard to imagine they wouldn’t affect him in some way, even if they didn’t contribute to his crimes. And no one, at this point, knows if the killer had any brain impairments. His brother, who is naturally upset and bewildered by all of what happened, said recently:

I hope to hell they find when they do the autopsy that there’s a tumor in his head or something because if they don’t we’re all in trouble. No one wants to hear this but I’m as touched by this.. my brother is dead who wasn’t this guy that did this. He’s dead… I liked my brother, he was a good guy. This is a horror story in every possible way.

Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo recently referred to the killer as “disturbed and dangerous,” which is a much more informative, if less satisfying, description than calling him “evil.” The sheriff also said that the killer “spent decades acquiring weapons and ammo and living a secret life, much of which will never be fully understood.” Perhaps Sheriff Lombardo is right. Perhaps the killer’s life, a life that led to such an unimaginable act of cowardly violence, will never be fully understood. After all, the life of Charles Whitman isn’t fully understood after all these years. And we must admit that there are plenty of people who have awful parents, troubled childhoods, and even damaged brains who don’t end up as record-setting killers. But there are scientists out there trying to understand psychopaths, especially those who turn to violence. And the closer we get to understanding them, the better off we all will be.

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PART 2: THE WILL

For years now, I have been wrestling with the issue of whether human beings have genuine free will. Certainly we have the sense that we are making free choices. And certainly the idea that we are all free moral agents is socially useful, even if it isn’t strictly true. No one can argue otherwise. But do we really have free will? Is it merely an illusion? And why does it matter whether we have it or don’t?

As for me, like many others, including scientists and philosophers, I have settled on the conclusion that we don’t have free will. We are not free moral agents. Whether we have what some call a soul, which, after our physical bodies die, lives in eternal bliss or torment, is not something that I or science can speak to. But science can, and does for many people, speak to the idea that what we experience as “our will” is just our brain fooling us. Here’s the way Sam Harris puts it:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

Free will is actually more than illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.

Now, that may seem strange to some people unfamiliar with the progress of neuroscience. And it may seem strange to categorically claim that none of us is directly responsible for what we do. But if you watch the video below, and carefully follow the argument, you will see the logical basis both for the illusion claim and how to deal with the issue of responsibility that appears problematic if that claim is true. No matter whether our choices are “determined by prior causes” or the “product of chance,” we are not morally responsible for the acts done at the behest of our illusory will, but—and this cannot be missed or misunderstood—we have to be held responsible for them in a social context. No one can have a get-out-of-jail-free card when unspeakable crimes are perpetrated. Until we solve, through science, the problem of how to fix defective brains or mitigate dangerous brain states, we have to quarantine the violent psychopaths. If they can be treated and made well, we should do that. If they can’t, we should keep searching for effective treatments—even as we necessarily isolate them.

I could write even more about the issue of free will. I could cite many learned people who don’t believe in its reality. But the video below does the best job I have seen of explaining the issues involved. If you have read to this point, obviously you are interested in this topic. I ask you to invest more time—with someone much more knowledgeable about the brain science and its implications (including the philosophical fatalism that denying free will suggests) than I could ever be—and then we can have a layman’s discussion in the comments section:

NOTE (January 11, 2018): For some reason the original video I posted below is unavailable. Too bad. I wish I had saved it in my own files. But here is another one that does a good job of explaining the issues:


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