Would you rather be safe or free?

From the archives: I wrote this in 1999, not long after the infamous shootings at Columbine High School. I really can’t add anything 24 years later.

Would you rather be safe or free?

Those are the choices, you know. There are ways you can try to protect yourself and your children from the possibility that the events of Littleton, Colo., never again happen. But the only way to do it is to lock us all in cages.

You can have a society where no one tells you what church to attend, where no one monitors what you read, write or say, where no one keeps you from going to a Packers game or driving to see an old friend in Missouri.

But you run the risk that someone else may worship Satan or Hitler, that someone may read, write or say persuasively hateful things, that someone at the Packer game may try to sell you a $40 ticket for $250, that bad people will use the Interstate to transport illegal goods or kidnap your daughter.

So the solution is to regulate what church you can go to, what you read and write and say, and place checkpoints at city limits and state borders.

You can have a society where you are free to protect your property or defend your person, or to hunt and feed your family.

But you run the risk that someone with a sick mind will arm himself and kill you or your children.

So the solution is to make sure only the police and military have weapons.

You can have a society where, if you obey the law, no police officer or military unit will ever knock on your door and search through your personal belongings or drag you down to the county jail.

But you run the risk that your next-door neighbor is manufacturing narcotics in his basement or scheming to overthrow the government.

So the solution is a police state.

You can have a society where, if you are accused of a crime, no one can throw you in jail without proof, or torture a confession out of you,  or force you to testify under oath that you did it — even if you did it.

But you run the risk that murderers will occasionally escape justice, or criminals get out of prison and commit new crimes.

So the solution is to lock us all up.

When you have a free society, there will be times when someone abuses his or her freedom and harms someone else, perhaps even kills someone else.

The only way to try to prevent such abuses is to take away our freedoms.

And the bad things will not go away.

Confiscate our guns, and criminals will use knives or bombs made of pipe or fertilizer — or steal guns — and we will be defenseless.

Regulate what the media reports, and you lose the right to know what’s happening. Regulate the Internet and you depend on the government to inform you. Regulate what singers can sing, writers can write,  and painters can paint, and you begin to lose life itself.

And even then, you will not be safe. You will only have built a cage and crawled in. It will be easier for evil to find you when it decides to look.

So how to prevent future school shootings?

Teach children right from wrong. Teach them to cherish life and other living things. Teach them good choices from bad. And punish them when they do wrong, when they harm living things, when they choose badly.

Our nation, this bold experiment, has thrived because of the notion that the only limit on my freedom is that it not impose on yours. The most defining speech of our history concludes, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

Sometimes the people of the world look at America and says, “How can they tolerate such things!” But most of the time they envy America and wish to live in a society as tolerant as ours. Immigration has always outpaced emigration because of our promise. 

We must live free. Or we die.

– – –

This essay and more have since become part of my book Refuse to be Afraid. Just sayin’

Fine smoke and grand mirrors

At some point you either succumb to hopelessness or you stamp your foot, shake your head and your booty, and cry, “Enough!” A person gets tired of felling tired and worn down by the various and sundry injustices of the world. Tyrants petty and large loom over the landscape wreaking sundry havoc, life in general is unfair and often harsh, and oh bother, Eeyore, just trouble and bother, eh?

People are shouting and whispering in your ear, “Stand up! Get off the mat and fight,” and though you are content to lie on the mat and rest, at some point yes, you have to get up. You make your way through the unfairness and the injustice and you make a life despite all that dross and detritus. All you have been given to work with are your life and your body, and it has to be enough. And come to think, all anyone is given is a life and a body, and it IS enough. You may not see it as you lie there, feeling defeated, but God, the universe and everything everywhere all at once have given you the tools to make a life, and so off we go — Off we go on the adventure of a lifetime, because a lifetime IS an adventure, don’t you know.

Perhaps this little pep talk is brought to you by Humbug Incorporated, and I am trying to conjure a miracle out of smoke and mirrors, but even the humbug has to rise off the mat, doesn’t he? Somebody has to make the smoke, and someone has to invent a mirror, and it may not be what you want it to be, but it’s fine smoke and a grand set of mirrors, and if you work hard enough, someday it just may become what you want it to be after all.

What’s that you’re saying? I’m full of excrement? Did you know everybody poops? You’ll find excrement deep inside all of us. What’s your point? We can focus on the waste product or we can focus on the building blocks. Every moment of every day presents a choice: Wallow in the excrement or rise above. Once choice may be easier than the other, but the more challenging choice is more likely to bring contentment.

Time to rise above? It shouldn’t even be a question. Choose to rise every time and oh, the heights you will reach.

The transporter chair

I sat down in my chair, and suddenly I was in a small town in Massachusetts, where a woman was being humiliated for the crime of adultery. It was evident that she was guilty, because her husband had been away for some years and yet here she was, carrying a newborn baby.

I leaned back and took a breath, and it was centuries in the future, when a man named Hari Seldon was revered for using mathematics to predict and shape the fate of civilizations.

I sighed and looked another way, and it was 1928 and boys who ran about town like lightning were visiting a Civil War veteran who, as it happens, was also an honest-to-gosh working time machine.

Of all the lessons my parents taught me with words or actions, I am most grateful for the times when they picked up books and explored other times and places and minds. By following their example, I have expanded my horizons in infinite directions.

7 things I’ve learned along the way 

Seven things I’ve learned along the way to posting 1,000 consecutive daily blog posts, of which, in case you were not counting, this is the 1,000th:

1. I can do it, one day at a time.

2. A person tends to repeat herself from time to time over 1,000 days, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

3. The universe in general doesn’t give a flying flamingo about you — but some people do, and they make all the difference. Thank you for that.

4. Theodore Sturgeon said 90% of everything is crap, but if you look carefully, you’ll find much more than 10% of what you’ve done was worth the effort — and so, perhaps, 90% of Sturgeon’s assertion is crap.

5. A person who sets out to do something, a little bit at a time, can exceed his own expectations many times over. After all, my intention was to post every day for three months, 92 days in all. Nine hundred and eight days after that, here we are.

6. There is a force that hates success. Is it Satan? The Dip? The Resistance? I lean toward calling it Satan, because such evil lurks there. As the last 10-20 days loomed, the distractions that kept me from sitting down to write, from writing, from even thinking about writing, became close to overwhelming. Even as I write this 1,000th piece, I have not yet finished numbers 997, 998, or 999, and so I continue to stagger toward the finish line. (Yes, yesterday’s post was the actual 1,000th daily post, but I presented it 999th — kind of like the second Star Trek pilot was presented third, or the first Firefly pilot was aired last.)

But know this:

7. I am just a more or less ordinary human being, with aches and pains and big dreams and big shortcomings — so, if I can accomplish something, one day at a time, SO CAN YOU.

Do we need Rules of AI?

Robot © Kittipong Jirasukhanont | Dreamstime.com

I’ve flirted a little bit with the ChatGPT and Midjourney artificial intelligence websites to see how these new tools work, with mixed success. They are interesting, and I can see how they can augment the creative process.

Of course, alarmists are concerned that they could replace the human aspect of the creative process altogether. The concern is that we will be flooded by innumerable Great American Novels or painted masterpieces generated by computers within a few seconds, subverting the time-honored tradition of spending weeks, months and years in the throes of creative fever.

I have an old-fashioned faith that people will continue to respond to the human element in their art, and we will be able to tell the difference between a book by, say, Mark Twain and a book produced by an AI that was prompted to write in the style of Samuel Clemens.

Be that as it may, some folks are worried about the Terminator scenario, in which an artificial intelligence named SkyNet evolves to the point where it decides that humanity is the greatest threat to Planet Earth and therefore must be exterminated.

Perhaps it’s time to resurrect Asimov’s Laws of Robotics and insist that our AIs must abide by them:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

You have to admit, if these were applied in the case of Sarah Connor and her son John, the whole James Cameron franchise would have been impossible and SkyNet would be a boon to mankind. Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be bock” machine would be much warmer and fuzzier.

It’s an interesting conversation.

By the way, I wrote this. 

World seeking

Through the years and many generations, little girls and boys have sensed there is a magical land over some rainbow where dreams come true and happily ever after is real. The question has always been: How do we get there? Where do we find it? Why are unicorns and mermaids and wondrous kingdoms where buffalo roam so entrancing but hard to find? What marvels are hidden in mist and tucked away for only the adventurous to find?

“Only the adventurous” — only those ready to take on the challenge and risk it all.

Ready? Is any of us ever “ready” to risk it all? Say rather “willing,” or “compelled,” because at the start of any adventure, a corner of our hearts is never ready, always willing to wait for a better time to face the challenge.

But I believe I digress — and that’s another puzzle for the generations to solve. How does one stay the course and avoid digression? The world abounds with rabbit holes and other things to see and do, and concentration or focus is an almost-lost art. “Stay on target: is a wistful goal, elusive as a March hare.

Although … I’ve seen many a hare this particular March. Perhaps this is the precise time to be searching for magical lands over whatever rainbows I can find …

It matters

Starfish © Santos06 | Dreamstime.com

Somewhere in all of this is a theme, and the theme encompasses an idea, and the idea might save the world if only people would —

“Oh Lordy, it’s another one with a savior complex,” said a voice with no name. “You can’t save them all, it doesn’t matter. Wait, wait, wait, I know this one. This is when you pick up another starfish and say, ‘It matters to this one.’”

Now you’re talking, actually, he thought, pushing back at the voice. If we’re to save people, it will be one at a time. If we are to meet people where they are, it must be one at a time. One at a time, because people are not masses. Heck, every dog, every cat is different when you get to know them, and so are people. 

How dare you make assumptions about “the masses” as if hordes are comprised of people who all think alike? Every person in every crowd had a different journey to get there, How dare we make assumptions about who they “all” are and what they believe?

It matters to this one.

And it matter to this one.

And maybe this one is ready to give up — and it doesn’t matter to this one — but if you help this one anyway, you both may find that it did matter after all.

There’s something to be said about slogging along even when you don’t know where you’re going, or you think you’re making no progress, or you think it doesn’t matter. You never know what might matter to someone along the way — so keep slogging.