Friday, July 19, 2013

Zimmerman the Bully

It's taken me a while to figure out how to present my highly personal reaction to the case that has captivated the nation this week. I don't want to write about race; instead I am going to frame this as something at once broader and much more specific:

George Zimmerman is a bully, and this tragic case is about bullying.

Last fall, during the presidential campaign, I wrote a post called Romney the Bully, which resonated deeply with many other survivors of abuse. Like me, they picked up on an aspect of Mitt Romney's personality that apparently flew under the radar for a lot of people. From the very first, I had similar vibes about George Zimmerman. The man seemed like a bully.

An article posted on HuffPo last year confirms my suspicions. It describes Zimmerman's old MySpace page, which his lawyers acknowledged "will cast Mr. Zimmerman in a less-than-favorable light especially considering the charges he faces." On it, among other things, Zimmerman describes his delight that a judge had dropped two felony charges brought after his ex-fianceƩ, whom he calls "the ex hoe," accused him of domestic violence and took out a restraining order. He also disparages Mexican Americans in highly offensive terms. He comes across as a man itching for a fight and eager to humiliate others: the definition, in short, of a bully.

Now ask yourself whether a person who writes such things and who had domestic violence charges brought against him a few years earlier should be able to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, and you'll realize exactly what is wrong with the lax "shall issue" concealed carry laws in Florida and many other states. People with serious attitude problems and poor impulse control can carry a weapon almost anywhere they go, and this increases their sense of power—and their actual power—over the people they disrespect and wish to humiliate.

And then there are the Stand Your Ground laws that played such a central role in this case. (True, Zimmerman did not invoke Stand You Ground, but Stand Your Ground language was in the judge's instructions to the jury.) The existence of these laws on top of concealed carry laws creates a perfect storm of enabling mechanisms that encourage bullies to provoke fights, knowing that if they encounter any resistance, they can kill and have the law on their side.

The most common advice given to bullying victims—as I know from personal experience—is to fight back and show the bully who's who. Most bullying victims are unlikely to do that, often for the very reasons that made them victims in the first place. It comes much more naturally to just suck it up and let the bully have his petty triumphs, one after another after another, day after day and year after year. Anyone who has been in an abusive relationship can also understand this trap and its implications: Someday, when it gets to be too much, you may finally let the bully have it. Previously that might have gotten him to back off. Now he can pull out a gun and shoot you, and the law will back him up.

As someone whose childhood was stolen by relentless bullying and whose entire adult life has been a long, painful arc of recovery from that devastating experience, I am horrified by the legal nightmare that the combination of concealed carry and Stand Your Ground laws has created. A civilized society cannot keep creating laws that increase the power of bullies and bullying. For those of us who have experience with abuse, this situation perpetually opens deep wounds that will never entirely heal. For all of us, it debases our society and our lives, pushing us inexorably toward brutality and ugliness.

The jury may have had no choice, based on the laws, but to acquit George Zimmerman. The rest of us must do everything we can to change those laws. As a bullying victim, I am more determined than ever not to yield another inch to the bullies of the NRA. I will spend the rest of my life struggling to regain whatever ground is still possible.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

This week from hell

It would be unseemly, I suppose, to feel relaxed and happy after the week we all just experienced, so I hope I can be forgiven for sounding a bit grouchy in my first blog post in over a month. If you don't know, West, Texas is just a hop down the interstate from where I live, and I've stopped there many times to buy delicious Czech pastries. The disaster there on Wednesday has hit this area hard.

Like many people, I have also paid morbid attention to the events in Boston that reached the crisis point last night. The young man whom they cornered, bleeding and defiant, was the same age as my son. I can't even begin to comprehend what drove him to his recent actions.

By far the hardest disaster for me to witness this week, though, was the failure of the United States Senate to vote either for universal background checks on gun purchases or for an outright ban on weaponry that no civilized country can allow people to own. Notice that I said "can," not "should."

Perhaps it was unreasonable to hope for more. Making some progress on gun control, though, would have been an enormous morale boost at a time when the struggle to keep the machinery of death off of college campuses has dominated much of my past teaching term. I could not have coped with that struggle last spring, when the wound from losing Barbara was still raw and my daily teaching round required all my concentration and strength.

At the same time, though, the joy that I take in teaching was a major part of what got me through that incredibly difficult spring and summer. This year, having to work so hard against people determined to bring guns on campus has robbed me of much of that joy. I love teaching so much that I used to assume I would keep doing it until I could no longer physically make it to the classroom. Now I'm wondering if I will have the strength to keep fending off this insanity every two years until I am eligible to retire. This makes me very sad.

I know there are probably few gun rights advocates reading this blog, but to any who are, I have a very simple message. I know you believe that you are working to expand your freedoms. I need you to understand that you are destroying mine. I feel less free than I have felt in a long time, and even the limited freedom I have left seems threatened. We cannot live together in a democracy unless you are willing to compromise. Otherwise, in your efforts to oppose tyranny, you become tyrants yourself.

What I am trying to recover is nothing less than my freedom, my joy in what I do and, most importantly of all, my country. I care about those things too much to give them up. I've heard all your arguments. Please listen to mine.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Spiritually confused

I heard a man testify today that he feels naked when he goes to church because he can't bring his gun there.

It's called being in the presence of God.

I heard a man describe a simulation he had carried out to prove that concealed handgun licensees were effective 100% of the time in preventing campus shootings, and security guards weren't effective at all.

It's nice to know that you can design an experiment to prove your pre-determined beliefs.

I heard a young woman fiercely describe her "God-given" right to defend herself with a gun and assert it in terms that easily lapsed into self-parody.

I sure wouldn't want to run into you on a dark street at night. Oh, and I've said it before, but describing violent self-defense as a God-given right is the clearest example of blasphemy that I've ever heard.

I heard a young man say that *I* am suppressing the free expression of ideas by arguing against guns in classrooms.

A gun is not an idea. You can come to my class and argue for gun rights all you want. Bring a gun to my class and I will personally see you expelled.

And so it went for nearly five solid hours. Arguments both for and against campus concealed carry were made before the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee of the Texas House of Representatives. I said my piece and it went well. John Woods, whose girlfriend was killed at Virginia Tech, gave an amazing speech. Articulate people from colleges, schools and police forces spoke against the four bills under consideration, as did three survivors of the 1966 shootings on the University of Texas campus that are the unfortunate archetype for all subsequent such events.

What I mostly felt during the testimony, though, was a constant low-grade horror at the mentality of so many of my fellow citizens. Not because the people who testified for campus concealed carry were fools, but because so many of them were not. A lot of them, I have to say, appear to be good people who honestly think that they need to carry a gun everywhere they go to be safe, and that everybody else does as well.

And here's the sad truth: A society in which a few extremists hold that view is par for the course. A society in which good and decent people hold it is sick unto death spiritually.

I hope against hope that what I saw today in a Texas hearing room is not typical of my state, let alone of the country. Recent news stories suggest that despite escalating gun sales, fewer and fewer people actually own guns, and violent crime is on the decline. After hearing that testimony all afternoon, though, I am very confused spiritually. I have rarely felt so certain that I was speaking for the side of the angels, and I have rarely felt so appalled at the arguments used by the other side: appalled not so much by the arguments themselves but at the casual ease with which they are assumed to be unanswerable.

Nevertheless, they can be answered. The inability to think outside of the box of violent self-defense is a sickness, and it cannot possibly be cured by more and more guns. The only way to deal with it is by removing the cause, and that cause is the ridiculous availability of deadly firepower in this country. Reasonable restrictions need to be adopted, because there is no other solution. I made that case today as best I could, by speaking up for the culture of the academic world to which I have dedicated my life, and to which campus concealed carry poses an unimaginable threat. I will keep making it in as many ways as I can, because my conscience will accuse me if I do not, and then I will have no answer to make.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Perfect love casteth out fear"

I have had my attention drawn to I John 4:18 repeatedly in the past few weeks, and as I prepare once again to testify in the Texas State Capitol against campus concealed carry this Thursday, I feel drawn to record a few thoughts about the resonance of those words in my life.

I am not a Greek scholar, but I understand that the love of which the apostle speaks is "teleia," and that this word refers to something that has been brought to completion, not something that is immutably, inhumanly perfect. It is a love to be aspired to, and perhaps to be glimpsed in moments of our full humanity. It is not a pill, a formula, or a magic spell, and it doesn't mean that a life without fear is the normal state for somebody who loves, any more than it is the normal state for anybody else. You cannot have love that is perfect in this sense unless you have known and experienced fear as an everyday companion, and have discovered the inadequacy of any other means of taming it.

Two very different circumstances these past two years have reminded me that many people are afraid to live in fear. It is very natural and very human to seek a way out that is neater and easier than this messy business of perfecting our love for each other. Thus, I have heard repeatedly since Barbara died that "there is a reason for everything that happens, and you have to believe that, even if you can't understand right now why this terrible thing has happened to you." I struggle with this statement, because I know those who make it mean well and honestly believe they give comfort by saying those words. If you are reading this now and are one of those people, please know that I understand.

I can state from hard experience, though, that there is probably nothing worse you can say to a bereaved person. That statement tells us that God is responsible for the death of our loved one: that God took him or her for reasons that are clear to God but that make no sense to the rest of us. If God is in full control of everything that happens in the universe, then fear is unnecessary and grief is insufficient. What this means, though, is that in order to cast out the fear of the random, unfathomable nature of everyday life, you have to make God a monster and then suggest that we conquer our own fear and grief by making our peace with that monstrosity. Such thinking cuts like daggers into the hearts of the bereaved. In it I hear the voice of fear, not that of faith.

I also hear the voice of fear in repeated statements that "the world [including college campuses] is a dangerous place, so I need a gun to protect myself." If this is your belief, then I would suggest that you are also yielding to fear and seeking an easy way out. You are seeking - and again, I understand, because this is human nature - to take control when reality counsels that you should learn to live with some degree of uncertainty instead.

If the Gospel teaches anything, it is that achieving such control is beyond our ability, but that with faith we can live in uncertainty, knowing that behind the randomness is a powerful force of love that alone deserves our trust and allegiance. Turning to anything else - either to the false god of total control or to the equally false god of violent self-defense - only serves to make our love less perfect than ever, and to move us further from the one God.

When I walk into the capitol building on Thursday, I will be wearing my love as conspicuously and as vulnerably as possible: not in a concealed holster or with any kind of assurance that my actions will achieve the desired results. If guns come to be openly allowed on college campuses - one of the safest and least fearsome places in our country - fear will have won an important victory and love will be correspondingly diminished. On Thursday I will be taking a step not just to try to prevent that disaster from happening, but to perfect my own love as well, in the knowledge that by so doing I am casting out fear from the world. I would appreciate your prayers.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

For the record

The messages of support I have gotten during the past week and a half because of my opposition to SB 182, Sen. Brian Birdwell's bill to legalize concealed carry of handguns on college campuses, have been overwhelming. They have come from colleagues, students, administrators and friends: groups which, of course, are not mutually exclusive. The public reaction, though, has been more equivocal. Letters have appeared in both the Baylor Lariat and the Waco Tribune-Herald opposing the stand my colleague Blake Burleson and I have taken, and the Lariat managed to find a colleague to interview who supports the bill. I have written a letter to the Lariat that I hope will appear tomorrow, so I am going to use this space to clear up a misunderstanding which unfortunately is all too typical of the way this debate is conducted.

In the Lariat's coverage of our delivery of the petition to Sen. Birdwell's office last week, I was quoted as saying that if the bill passes, Baylor, as a private university, could still make it against our policy to bring guns to campus, but that students who violated that policy would no longer be committing a felony. In response, a student wrote the following in a letter that is currently on the Lariat's website:

"Wallace again claims that if concealed carry was legalized in Texas on college campuses, Baylor would still retain the right to deny that freedom being a private university, which is true. He points out that the university would need to produce signage and a 'legal force' to enforce such policies; however, he also states, in the event concealed carry on campuses is legalized, that '[s]omebody who violated that rule would no longer be committing a felony as they are at present.' While I do not deny that instilling some ‘physical force’ would be more effective, clearly Wallace has not taken the time to educate himself on concealed carry laws – Texas Penal Code § 30.06 to be exact. There is already a 'legal force' in place in the form of a sign. It is called a 30.06 (pronounced 'thirty-ought six”') sign. Texas CHL owners are instructed in the proper interpretation of these signs, meaning that to enter any premises that visibly displays this sign while carrying a legal firearm is, in fact, a felony. Wallace’s statement that they would not be committing a felony would be false if Baylor were to place them at all boundaries of the campus."

I checked and easily confirmed that violating a 30.06 sign is, at worst, a misdemeanor trespass and not a felony.  Furthermore, the law requires that 30.06 signs must be displayed in a conspicuous manner clearly visible to the public. I am informed by a knowledgeable third party that the lack of a clear definition of the words "conspicuous" and "clearly visible" opens up a huge legal loophole that makes 30.06 violations extremely difficult to prosecute. So Baylor is actually on even weaker legal ground than I had previously thought. If SB 182 passes, the most serious charge we would be able to bring against someone who brought a concealed handgun to our campus would, as I thought, be misdemeanor trespassing. Even that, though, would be hard to substantiate, especially on a campus as large as Baylor's.

Monday, February 18, 2013

But, doctor...

"Dr. Toothacre, can you understand why some patients would think they need to be prescribed heroin in order to deal with the pain they experience after having a tooth extracted?"

This morning, my Baylor colleague Blake Burleson and I went over to State Senator Brian Birdwell's office in downtown Waco. Senator Birdwell is one of the main sponsors of SB 182, the latest attempt by members of the Texas legislature to make it legal to carry concealed weapons into buildings on college campuses, including classrooms, dormitories and libraries. We were accompanied by a small entourage of interested people, including a reporter for the Baylor Lariat, and were met by reporters from three local TV stations, the Waco Tribune-Herald, and KWBU, the local NPR station. We were carrying a petition signed by 120 faculty and staff members at Baylor, explaining why we think the bill is an extraordinarily bad idea.

"Yes, I can understand that. Having a tooth extracted is a significant trauma to the body. It can hurt."

It was kind of eerie standing with Blake in the lobby of 900 Austin Avenue while flashes went off and three TV cameras were trained on us simultaneously. I felt pretty composed as we dealt with primarily softball questions about our reasons for opposing the bill and about its implications.

"It would be a dentist's job, though, to explain to such a patient why the demand for heroin constitutes an excessive and misguided response to that pain."

After the interview, we took the elevator up to the senator's office, where they clearly weren't expecting us. The staffer there was very polite, but emphasized that the Waco office doesn't handle political issues and that the senator was in Austin with his political staff. She kindly offered to scan the petition and send a .pdf to Austin. She also gave me the name of the senator's chief of staff there and suggested I call him. I did. He hasn't responded.

"What would you do, though, if the patient persisted?"

Going back downstairs, we found the reporters still there, and the Fox News reporter asked for a longer interview. He tried to push Blake and me a bit—as I suspected he would—asking whether we understood why some people really wanted the ability to defend themselves and didn't feel comfortable without it. Again, I think we both handled ourselves well and gave valid, articulate responses.

"I would tell him/her that this was a matter for my professional judgment, and that as a medical professional, I could assure him/her that taking heroin would not be beneficial or helpful, no matter what the short-term benefits in terms of pain avoidance."

The point that we tried to leave him with—and that we will try to impress upon the senator if he deigns to meet with us—is this. As education professionals, we are best suited to know what is beneficial to our students and to the learning experience. Just as we would expect our state senator to consult with local dentists before trying to push through a bill mandating that they prescribe heroin for toothaches, so we would expect him to consult with us before trying to push through a bill allowing students to bring guns into our classrooms. The fact that he didn't feel the need to consult with college professors before introducing this profoundly misguided legislation for the second legislative session in a row is telling. It means that he, and the other senators who are sponsoring this bill, do not respect our professional integrity. They don't think we know what's best for our "patients." It's time we told them otherwise.

"And if he/she ignored that advice, I would still know that I had the full support of my profession in giving it. I would know that I had the law, and common sense, behind me as well."

Shouldn't professors be entitled to that kind of support?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The first salvo

It's that time again. Every two years, like a smoothly oiled machine, gun rights supporters in the Texas legislature reintroduce a bill that would make it legal to carry concealed weapons into college classrooms, dormitories and libraries. This year, it has surfaced in the form of SB 182, which has the sponsorship of my very own state senator, Brian Birdwell.

As readers of this blog know, we managed to stop this juggernaut two years ago, preventing the implementation of what surely ranks as one of the worst ideas in the history of democratic government. We—by which I mean the overwhelming majority of college teachers, administrators, campus police and parents—are determined to stop it again. We wish to stop it for the sake of our children and our students, and of the academic community to which we all belong.

One important step will be to make Sen. Birdwell aware of the depth of opposition his proposal stirs up within the college community. (Based on my conversation with his office staff two years ago, he has no idea.) My colleague Blake Burleson and I have written the following letter, which we plan to deliver to Sen. Birdwell's office in a few weeks with maximum possible publicity. The more signatures we can get the better. So I am including the text of the letter here. If you are connected with a college or university in Sen. Birdwell's district in any of the capacities I mentioned above—teacher, administrator, campus police or parent—please feel free to copy it, sign it, and return it to me. Thanks. Together we can beat this thing—and we must!

Robin Wallace
Box 97408
One Bear Place
Waco, TX 76798

February 13, 2013

Senator Brian Birdwell
1400 Congress Ave
Austin, TX 78701

Dear Senator Birdwell,

We are writing to voice our opposition to the proposed legislation SB 182 that would allow students and other individuals to carry concealed weapons on our college campuses.  While those of us at Baylor University are relieved that this bill would not force private universities to comply, we object to the proposed change that it would no longer be a crime for someone to carry a weapon on our private campus.  Furthermore, as educators we are concerned about the effect this law would have on higher education at all of our public universities in Texas.

Not only are the intended outcomes of this legislation (i.e., a safer campus against acts of violence) highly questionable but the unintended outcomes of this legislation are predictably disruptive and potentially disastrous.  Allowing students to carry deadly weapons into our classrooms will potentially change the way we lecture and facilitate discussions.  It may very well impede the free flow of ideas and exchanges which are essential in the academic enterprise; it may introduce an element into this environment that causes anxiety, tension, concern, and fear.

Allowing students, parents, or others to carry deadly weapons into our administrative offices where decisions are made about the academic status of students (including probation, suspension, expulsion, grade appeals, and graduation), where decisions are made about disciplinary matters (including probation, suspension, and expulsion), where decisions are made about financial matters (including the awarding of scholarships, financial aid probation, and financial aid termination) would, as you can surely imagine, create potential risks to administrators and their staff; this would be somewhat like allowing an individual to carry a loaded gun into a court room.  When transcripts, personal records, and financial aid of students are affected by decisions that we make, you can imagine the high levels of emotion which can be engendered in these situations.

Furthermore, it is no secret that our 17 to 25-year-olds are in transition from youth to young adulthood; they are at various stages of intellectual, emotional, and moral maturity.  Loaded handguns carried by youth can be dangerous anywhere but surely we do not want them in our classrooms, chapels, laboratories, residential halls, recreation centers, sporting events, intramural fields, health clinics, student government meetings, cafeterias, cashier’s office, financial aid office, registrar, record’s office, and many other administrative offices.

We ask you not to gamble with the lives of our students, staff, and faculty at Baylor University and other Texas colleges with this ill-conceived experiment.

Instead, we ask you to support universal background checks as a way to keep our campuses safer.