Not So Long Ago, In an America Not So Far Away

Star Wars 7

This week, Walt Disney Studios will release the seventh installment of the Star Wars series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Arguably the most popular and recognizable franchise in film history, millions have grown up watching, reading and playing the adventures seen in these films for nearly 40 years.  The latest movie will see the continued exploits of the Rebel Alliance, turned Resistance fighting against the First Order, which was once the Galactic Empire.  In the early episodes, it was the Jedi Knights and Galactic Republic against the Trade Federation and the Confederacy of Independent Systems.  As we watched these stories unfold, you might have seen an awesome science fiction expression of space, impossible technology and futuristic themes that dominate the genre.  I, however see much more than that.  Star Wars is the ultimate retelling of democracy, tyranny, religion, politics and war that is as old as our civilization itself.

Now, despite the themes in Star Wars being rather timeless, the conception of the story had its genesis back in 1962, where the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, who was a fan of the likes of Buck Rodgers, Flash Gordon and sci-fi heroes of that time, found his true passion in auto-racing.  Unfortunately for him, this passion would lead to him getting into a violent car crash, nearly costing him his life and landing him in the hospital for months recovering.  With little to do, stuck in a hospital bed for weeks, George Lucas had plenty of time to watch the television set in his hospital room and it was around this time that coverage of the crisis in Vietnam was beginning to dominate the news.  What Lucas watched, as he recovered, was a low technology, loosely organized resistance force, the Viet-Cong, challenge a more technologically advanced, militaristic and tightly organized army in the American-backed South Vietnamese and win.  How they were able to win is the question Lucas sought to answer when he began writing Star Wars a decade later.

Earlier, I mentioned the overall scope of the competing forces throughout the films: the Jedi and the Galactic Republic vs the Trade Federation and Confederacy of Independent Systems as well as the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire from the original trilogy.  Each themselves reflect familiar themes that are current in our world we know today.  To that end, if you look at the plot of the films, the subtext of what they are actually about is told within. Take the first movie in the series(chronologically 4th made), The Phantom Menace. Ostensibly, the movie is about a galactic trade conglomerate attempting to force the queen of a small planet to bend to their will, an idea plotted by a senator, who represents the planet in a galaxy wide republic, who himself is beholden to an ancient evil cult vying to rule the galaxy. That alone is the plot of the first episode. However, once you remove the science fiction elements from the story, here’s what you are left with: a powerful labor union exerts it’s control over a local government forcing a broken and corrupt democratic republic to bend to the will of a right-wing religious group. That sounds less science fiction and more of a story of real world political intrigue. Now, as the Star Wars saga unfolds, what happens is we see a powerful, yet thoroughly corrupted senator, named Palpatine, is elected to lead the Republic and with the imminent threat of civil war and the fracture of democratic rule from threats within, he convinces the legislative body to slowly give up their freedom in the name of greater security. Eventually, he’s able to seize absolute control over the republic and transform it to an authoritarian ruled, heavily militarized oppressive empire.

That is Star Wars in a nutshell. And if you look at our current social and political environment, what might have just seemed like a silly space fantasy, is more reflective of what we see in our nation over the last several years and even reflected in societies and civilizations of the past. In Star Wars, we saw the Galactic Republic transform from a large democratic body to an tyrannical Galactic Empire. The Empire did not go to war with the Republic. The Republic was never defeated in battle, nor was it usurped by a power enemy. The actual enemy was from within the Republic itself. It became so powerful that it could not control it’s individual parts. If you look at history, practically every great democracy would share a similar path of Star Wars’ Galactic Republic. The Roman Empire began as a Roman Republic. It even had a senatorial body that survived the republic within the Empire, just as Star Wars did. In France, 1400 years later, it was democratically ruled by a Senate until Napoleon Bonaparte became First Counsel and was eventually crowned Emperor by the senate, much like Chancellor and Emperor Palpatine did in Star Wars. 120 years after Napoleon, Europe saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany from the Weimar Republic, which was a representative democracy in Germany at the time. And just like in Star Wars, where the chancellor was continuously granted more emergency powers, which he used to render the senate obsolete as Emperor, Hitler followed the same path as chancellor, eventually rendering the ruling Reichstag obsolete as he became Fuhrer. In fact, most democracies are hardly ever ended by outside agitators, but are taken over from rogue elements from within and often is the case these elements are swept in to power by popular demand.

Our current Presidential elections have featured similar elements that are present in history, also reflected in Star Wars.  Of course, you don’t have to look hard or far to see rhetoric from the likes of Donald Trump and compare it to the rhetoric and actions seen in Star Wars.  When Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi says that the evil Dark Lords of the Sith “deal in absolutes”, I can’t help but to think of Trump’s penchant to over-exaggerate and ignore nuance, how everything is the biggest ever or best ever, as he often stays.  In the same vein, the way the Sith Lord, Palpatine pointed to the religious order, the Jedi as the bad ones threatening their democracy is much like Trump’s pointing to Islam as the bad ones threatening our democracy.  That we must give him power because he is the one that can save us from what he tells us is the threat.  But the most striking example of such a parallel, is with the fervent and loud support someone like Donald Trump has received for the things he’s said.  Although I am of the absolute belief that Donald Trump has no path to the Presidency, this was the same situation seen in Star Wars, Episode I.  Then Senator Palpatine was one of thousands of nameless senators, but when he used a tragedy to boost his own profile, he was swept into leadership by popular support.  Just as incredibly, we see Trump’s polling numbers surge in the days following tragedies in Paris and San Bernardino.  Step by step, the actions seen in Star Wars have direct comparisons to words and actions that are more familiar today and in history.

18th Century Scottish historian, Alexander Tytler, developed a theory on democracy and the cycle it takes.  He posed that a society starts in bondage and oppression.  From there faith and courage leads to society’s liberation.  However, that liberty eventually leads to complacency and apathy, which allows for certain elements to take advantage, causing a dependency or a need for a savior.  This dependency then causes the society to willfully give up their liberty for bondage again.  As I noted, most democracies have gone through similar cycles.  The obvious question is of course, is the United States of America doomed to follow the same path?  Will we share a similar fate as Vietnam, Rome, France and Germany in the past?  This was the same path illustrated by George Lucas in Star Wars, with the apathetic Republic replaced with the oppressive Empire, which itself spawned the courageous Rebel Alliance and Resistance.  As America navigates this cycle, we achieved our liberty from the bondage of a British Monarchy 200 years ago.  Are we at the point of complacency and apathy in our country that our liberty will eventually turn to bondage and tyranny?

In Episode III, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Senator Amidala, who was the queen from Episode I and opposes Palpatine’s authoritarian transformations has a line towards the end of the film.  As she sits in the Senate Chamber listening to Palpatine play upon the fears of the body, he announces that they must form a Galactic Empire to secure their society from all threats to which hundreds of other senators cheer their support.  She turned to a friendly senator and said, “So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause.”  When Donald Trump announced that the United States should ban all Muslims from entering the United States, what struck me was not his proclamation, which is rather typical and unsurprising coming from him by now.  What really gave me pause was the cheering from the crowd as he made the announcement.  Is Donald Trump the Phantom Menace seen from Episode I?  Can America scare itself into tyranny?  Some say we already have.  Some say we’re inevitably headed that way.  I say, I’ve seen this story before…  Only difference is it was on a screen, in a galaxy far, far away.

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A History of (Gun) Violence

Stars and stripes on gun

This week, the United States Senate voted once again on a law to repeal the Affordable Care Act of 2010.  However, this particular vote came the day following a deadly mass murder in San Bernandino, California, where 35 people were shot, of which 14 were killed by two assailants brandishing two variant models of an AR-15 assault rifle and two 9mm handguns.  These firearms were all bought legally.  In the wake of the massacre, California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein proposed an amendment to the ObamaCare repeal bill, tied to a separate bill itself, to block known and suspected terrorist from being able to buy firearms.  These amendments were resoundingly voted against by all but a single Republican Senator.  This was not Senator Feinstein’s first attempt to block such individuals from being able to purchase firearms.  Earlier this year, Senator Feinstein, a senator who is pretty far on the left of the political spectrum, teamed up with Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York who is definitely on the far right of the political spectrum.  They co-sponsored a bill to add “Known or Suspected” terrorist to a list of dangerous persons prohibited from purchasing firearms by federal law.  The two have tried similar bills in the past as well as others going back as far as former Attorney General under President George W. Bush Alberto Gonzalez.

Despite this being the deadliest massacre since 20 kids were shot to death in Newtown Connecticut in 2012, which was the deadliest massacre since 32 students were shot and killed on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007 and well over a dozen high profile massacres in the years in between, the list of prohibited persons that Senator Feinstein wanted to update to add known and suspected terrorist has not been updated since the late Senator Frank Lautenberg sponsored and passed the Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban, which added those convicted domestic violence as an additional category of individuals prohibited from firearm ownership in 1997.

18 years ago was the last time our firearm laws have been updated, despite massacre after tragedy after massacre after tragedy.  However, this phenomenon of doing nothing after extremely grievous tragedies is only as old as these last few years.  The United States of America’s history with gun violence and laws enacted in response is well documented, extremely active and clearly defined.  This goes back as far as the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution itself.

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Now, despite the right’s repeated attempts to strike the first 13 words of the Amendment from memory, the framers did specific write the Amendment for very specific reasons.  The Amendment was created off the basis that the United States do not have a standing army, which is what the framers feared.  Instead of a solid standing army, the framers asked that our army, if needed, will be of the people.  Thomas Jefferson took heed from Greek and Roman civilizations before and wanted to take the power of an “engine of oppression” from the rulers and leave it among the people.  To this end, each state(not the combined United States as we were all individual entities then), was in charge of its own security, which the 2nd Amendment asked us to keep regulated(formed and trained).  That was the reason why individually we were given the right to keep and bear arms.  It was about the defense of the state.  Not about the defense against the state.

The prohibitions did not stop there.  In fact, the very year the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution was enacted, African slaves in Saint-Dominigue, the French colony on Hispanola, revolted against their masters leading to the establishment of Haiti.  This would frighten other French colonist in Louisiana to cause them to have free blacks disarmed in their territories.  Within the English Colonies and eventual American states themselves, such fears of slave revolts were as tangible and based in reality.  In 1831, after Virginia slave Nat Turner had his revolt ended, more laws were passed to prohibit free blacks “to keep or carry any firelock of any kind, any military weapon, or any powder or lead…”  Other states would pass similar laws.  Naturally, slaves were not citizens to have their 2nd Amendment rights denied from them.  However, after the Civil War ended and slavery abolished, this did not end prohibitions on Black citizens from owning firearms.  Starting in 1865, facing shrinking majorities, many former Confederate states passed firearm laws included in the Black Codes, which qualified the right to keep and bear arms for certain individuals.

These such laws would last throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th Century when a new class of Americans began to threaten the sensibilities of Americans with the rise of gang violence.  In Chicago, February of 1929, four individuals dressed as police officers detained and brutally assassinated seven members of the North Side Gang, principle rivals of notorious mob boss, Al Capone.  Other Depression-era criminals like John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, George “Baby Face” Nelson and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd terrorized police, commerce and hundreds of others in the early 1930s.  On the heels of these high profile gangsters, congress passed the National Firearms Act of 1934, which required firearms to be registered and taxed.  This law effectively banned “burst fire” machine guns, short barreled rifles and shot guns and destructive devices such as bombs, grenades and explosives.  This is the reason why no one owns a missile silo in their backyard.

The National Firearms Act was very restrictive and was able to limit the widespread violence caused by these gangsters.  But this wasn’t the end of our nation’s troubles with gun violence.  Instead of targeting those on the lower end of law and government, assassins now targeted high profile leaders.  In 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John Kennedy with a rifle purchased via mail.  This would prompt efforts to regulate interstate commerce to licensed manufacturers and dealers and require individuals to be licensed to buy firearms from firearm dealers.  It would take another five years with the assassination of his brother in June of 1968 and world leader, Martin Luther King in April, that congress would pass the Gun Control Act of 1968. 

It would take another 14 years for the United States to face another situation where gun violence became an all too immediate threat to our most notable citizens.  In 1981, John Hinckley Jr, known Presidential and Hollywood stalker, approached President ronald reagan and shot him and three others including White House Press Secretary, James Brady.  This would eventually lead to the passage of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, known as the Brady Bill which not only added a provision to the Gun Control Act of 1968, which began the aforementioned list of prohibited persons from purchasing firearms that Senator Lautenberg would amend four years later, but also established background checks of those seeking to purchase firearms.

However, in that same year, religious fundamentalist took up arms against the United States government and in a bold fashion that showed the world the damage extremism can cause when left unchecked.  No, I am not talking about the bombing of the Twin Towers in February of 1993.  I am talking about David Koresh and his shootout with modified assault rifles against federal agents two days later.  This was the one time, someone actually took a current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment as a defense against the government and it did not end well for him or his radical views of religion.  With the siege of Waco, the rise in the crack-fueled gang violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and several spree killings, all with powerful weapons, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed the following year.  This law expanded the death penalty, funded construction of more prisons and more militarized police, but most notably was the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which took effect in September of 1994 with an expiration date built in, which also has since expired and has been in the center of political debate since.

But that was the end of it.  Again, the Lauterberg Amendment was passed soon after, but beyond that, our response to deadly high profile firearm massacres has stopped.  Firearm right have, however expanded, primarily by edict of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Though, it should be noted in the last case on gun rights before the Supreme Court in 2008, District of Columbia vs Heller, although written with the majority opinion, the extremely conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, noted that even though the right to own and carry handguns in the nation’s capital was expanded, he said “like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.”  Now, if Justice Scalia can recognize what you’ve just sufficiently read about yourself, then our current congress has no excuse.

Thomas Jefferson has a quote attributed to him where he states, “Law without order is as great of a danger to the people as order without law.”  We are a nation of laws.  These laws are implemented by our elected leaders.  They have the duty to protect each of us with these laws.  And over the last 220 years, we have had the law and the order it has given us.  Sadly, the last 20 years has shown that we are increasingly becoming a nation that has order without the law to protect it.  And without that, we won’t survive.