On the 1st of March, 2018, I sat atop the collapsing roof of Saddam Hussein’s former Guesthouse Palace, gazing across the ravaged cityscape of war-torn Mosul in northern Iraq. The city had fallen to the Islamic State in a matter of days in early June 2014, and the resulting nine-month campaign of round-the-clock artillery bombardment by United States and Iraqi forces in 2017 had left thousands dead, reducing much of the ancient city to rubble.

I was on a mission to one of my brigade’s infantry battalions, which had fortified its position inside the palace despite the massive shelling that had destabilized every floor with jagged craters and immovable debris. Horrified by the devastation I’d seen while flying in low over the city — and cognizant of the region’s historical significance — I grabbed a Bible and ascended several flights toward the gaping hole in the ceiling, to experience a moment of spiritual significance.

Mosul is the capital of Nineveh province, the same Nineveh that serves as the backdrop for the biblical story of Jonah. Jonah’s account comes from the last book of the Nevi’im in the Tanakh, but is also a critical fixture in both the Old Testament and the Quran.

The details are largely the same in each depiction: God commands Jonah to travel to Nineveh to preach against the wickedness therein; he refuses, is caught in a massive storm while fleeing by ship, and is then cast overboard and swallowed by a giant fish (mistranslated as “whale”) in whose belly he spends three days and nights. Jonah finally throws himself upon God’s mercy, who then commands the fish to regurgitate him so he can travel to Nineveh in fulfilment of God’s will.

Reading those ancient verses in the wreckage of the very city from which they derived was powerful.  Yet when I later recounted the experience to one of my soldiers, he merely shrugged, noting that Jonah wasn’t the only person ever to have survived being swallowed by a whale.

“In fact,” he continued — indifferent to my moment — “150 years ago, a fisherman was swallowed by a whale and had to be cut out of its stomach a week later.”

As it happened, I was already familiar with the fraudulent account of a supposed James Bartley, which had appeared as an anonymous article published in American newspapers at the turn of the 20th Century.  Rendering a quick google search with our unit’s spotty internet service, I confirmed that the story had indeed been discredited as a hoax.

But in a rebuttal search of his own, my soldier quickly found a dubious blog post detailing the harrowing experience of a Spanish fisherman named Luigi Marquez, who claimed to have survived 72 hours in a whale’s stomach after having being swallowed by one in — wait for it — 2016.

“Hold up,” I said. “Are you trying to prove that Jonah was swallowed by a whale by citing Luigi, or are you trying to prove that Luigi was swallowed by a whale by citing Jonah?”  

“Both,” he said.  “The accounts prove each other.”

****

This column decries society’s departure from a shared objective reality, and the discord which erupts where conflicting realities meet. As I prepare for another deployment to an entirely different country where a reconstituted ISIS once again menaces a population that disputes its particular version of divine history, I’m hyper-sensitive to the religious arguments that often stress our own national community.

For many, rather than asking, “What is it saying?” the Bible instead compels a different question: “Is it true?”

Yet, with a planet heating up, an economy slowing down, and societies the world over splintering into tribes, we have neither the time nor might to impose a universal truth. At best, we must coexist — each of us equipped with a different sense of what may have happened in the past, but united in executing the mission to secure our future.

So let me audaciously propose a compromise: Everything in the Bible is true, but any effort to prove as much is blasphemy.

With that settled, can we please finally work together to warrant salvation?

****

In 2016, biblical literalist Ken Ham opened the Creationist theme park “Ark Encounter,” the centerpiece of which is a replica of Noah’s Ark — a construction 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 5 stories high. The project took half a decade, over a thousand craftsmen, and more than $100 million to complete.

But what, exactly, had he shown? That you can put a price tag on God’s miracles? That you can replicate God’s work with enough men and minutes and money? Would Mr. Ham also endeavor to rebuild the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 5-8), blaspheming the word of God merely to prove it?

While I can’t personally say that God parted the Red Sea to allow the Jews safe passage in their flight from Egyptian slavery, the Bible (or Torah or Quran) can, and does so in Exodus 14:22-28. That’s what makes Ron Wyatt’s now fully discredited claim to have found an Egyptian chariot at the bottom of the Red Sea so viciously blasphemous; in deciding that God’s own words weren’t sufficiently convincing, he manufactured evidence to corroborate them.

These holy shams sew the seeds of broader strife, and risk surrendering the late Senator Moynihan’s “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts” to the more recently fashionable “alternative facts.”

Recall Job in Job 13:7-10: “Are you defending God with lies? Do you make your dishonest arguments for His sake? You will be in trouble with Him if you slant your testimony in His favor.”

There is nothing righteous about proving the word of God if you rely on specious whispers to do so.

Interpreting literally the biblical account of Jonah requires recognition that his journey through a fish’s digestive tract illustrates God’s irreplicable signature. Thus, citing provably baseless evidence that some jerk recently spent a weekend in a whale minimizes the magnitude of God’s past interventions.

Those who believe that the Bible is the word of God bear no burden to “prove” it.  Indeed, the search for extra-biblical corroboration is the point at which believers veer from the path of faith.

In Joshua 10:13, the sun is recorded as having “stood still ... in the middle of the sky” for a whole day.  Yet believers and non-believers alike should condemn the legions of websites falsely claiming that “NASA computers” once detected proof of that so-called “missing day” in the celestial calendar.

No such detection ever occurred, of course, and that’s as it should be. For if God is the author of the physical laws governing our universe, then God can also suspend them.

It’s therefore not inconsistent to believe both that the Earth always and unalterably rotates on its axis, but that there was also a miraculous and indiscernible instant where, for a day, it didn’t. That’s why it’s a miracle, operating outside the normal laws of physics and immune to probative testing. If the world stopped turning every second Tuesday of March, Joshua wouldn’t have thought to record it.

Contorting the laws governing our existence to devise bogus “scientific” explanations for how Seth lived to the age of 912 (Genesis 5:8), for example, is the core of blasphemy — an attempt to prove that which is designed to be unprovable.

And it is through this practice of conjuring false evidence in the service of a partisan belief that people come to trust fake news and conspiracy theories, to become untethered from reality, to be rendered vulnerable to the hucksters on cable news.

These are not just religious concerns; they are political ones. Our clergy and politicians should be equally committed to fostering the critical reasoning skills among congregants and voters alike so that they can identify both devil and dictator.

The ramifications of not doing so are dire. A citizenry that denigrates the process of rational inquiry cannot maintain the very institutions which accommodate, for example, freedom of religion.

Yet there’s an even more pressing reason to unite in identifying and denouncing the “Deceitists” who traffic in deception, who manufacture fake blood stains on the shroud of Turin, or who — most devastatingly — attribute to God’s divine will the irreparable harm our species is inflicting on the global climate.

And that is this: Earth is our Ark. It’s damaged, and we need to repair it.

The world God has bequeathed unto us to taste and touch, to smell and see, should be embraced for the miracle it is on the terms God has constructed for us to witness. It’s a world worth saving.

But it’s a world we can save only if all humankind agrees on what it is that we taste and touch and smell and see. Rather than prove what was, we have to recognize what is, so we can jointly salvage what can be.

The Christian’s belief in Jesus’s resurrection may contrast sharply with the atheist’s perspective on the physical viability of post-mortem levitation, but surely both Christians and atheists can agree that the extinction of over 500 vertebrate species in the last 100 years isn’t ideal. Aren’t these beings, too, worthy of rescue? Two-by-two is better than none.

The account of Noah’s Ark can be true even if reports of ancient wooden beams discovered atop a mountain are not. It can be true even without Mr. Ham contriving tourist attractions out of “miracles” made achievable solely through the ample application of municipal tax incentives.

And it can be true even if, this time, God isn’t the reason that the waters are rising. Though God may have once sent the flood in response to human wickedness, human wickedness now invites the flood all on its own.

In short, those who endeavor to prove that a fish can swallow a man are focused on the wrong miracle.  Now, it’s the miracle of life on this planet which humanity must endeavor to prove. The choice before us is stark: Will the rising tide lift all boats, or will battle-scarred cities disappear beneath the sea?

****

Back at the top of Saddam’s palace — from my vantage point above the vast stretches of pockmarked edifices crumbling into rubble — I wondered what Jonah would say if he were summoned once more to preach in Nineveh. The deathly silence bespoke lessons unlearned from his prior ministry.

Looking one last time at the blackened landscape, it occurred to me then that the essential fact in the Book of Jonah is not that a man was swallowed by a whale, but that humanity has a heartbreaking tendency to turn its back on God.

Editor’s note: Captain Jesse Sommer is a paratrooper and Judge Advocate in the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He is a lifelong resident of Albany County.

 

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— Carol Coogan

Last month, a gray-haired clerk asked for identification when I tried to purchase a celebratory cigar.  Looking at him skeptically, I handed him a driver’s license reflecting 36 years of age. He glanced at it, raised his eyes to study me, peered back down at my ID, then looked back at me just as skeptically.

“Uh-huh,” he said, unconvinced but unwilling to press the point. “You must use sunscreen.”

In fact, I do. But I nonetheless doubt that anyone other than an older gentleman to whom all millennials look the same would have similarly mistaken me for the person I was half-a-life ago.

As I drove home in the very Jeep I’d dreamed of one day owning back in high school, I was struck by just how much he had overlooked. Suddenly cognizant of 2019’s significance, in that moment I realized that I’d been 18 when I graduated Clayton A. Bouton in 2001, and somehow — unnoticed and without much fanfare — another 18 years had deposited me at this current point in time and space.

I’d considered authoring a retrospective about the worlds on either side of those 18 years when, a few days later, Enterprise editor Melissa Hale-Spencer asked me to write a column for the Keepsake Graduation Edition. Like the name of the nursery school that first introduced the world to me, her email was pitch-perfect Serendipity.

So, despite knowing full well that I’m too young to be deemed wise by their parents, yet old enough to warrant disregard by the graduates, here goes.

****

Dear Graduates of the Class of 2019:

Congratulations! And buckle up: The authors of countless graduation speeches and op-eds across the country are mining their own personal experiences to advise you on how to navigate the next chapter of your lives.

But, even if they arrive at some valuable insight, there’s not much you’ll be able to do with it. It’s hard to implement advice concerning that which you’ve yet to experience, or which may no longer even be applicable. I certainly won’t presume qualification to give you any guidance.

After all, the world I encountered at 18 was far different than the one before you now. Eighteen years ago, we didn’t have cell phones. Instead, the coolest kids had box-shaped devices called “pagers” that beeped when receiving the exclusive transmission for which they were designed — i.e., a phone number — which then compelled finding the nearest payphone to return the call. Payphones? You wouldn’t believe me if I tried to describe them, so I’ll just refer you to Google.

Speaking of, Google wasn’t a thing. Nor was Facebook or Twitter, or — for that matter — the entire institutional construct of social media. In fact, though it was only two presidents ago, at age 18, I had to access the internet via dial-up, which I would otherwise explain if conjuring the memories weren’t so traumatic.

Also traumatic was 9/11, which was still three months away when I graduated. Back in June 2001, America had yet to enter the war that has defined the entirety of your American experience. The country had yet to invade Iraq, withdraw from Iraq, and invade Iraq again.

And there was yet half-a-decade hence before the planet would decide that the Kardashian family was something with which to keep up.

Still, as dramatically different as was the world 18 years ago, it pales in comparison to how different your world will be when you’re my age. Five years from now, Uber claims that customers will be able to hail on-demand single-person aerial drones for flights about town.

In 10 years, esteemed artificial intelligence technologists project that machines will evolve consciousness. In 12 years, politicians warn that the planet’s ecosystem will commence its irreversible collapse.

And in 18 years, you, too, may get carded in some random tobacco store and realize that the future has arrived without your notice or permission.

So what good would be my counsel? Besides, despite advanced education and a career and myriad relationships in my wake, I’m more lost now than I’ve ever been.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was only in realizing that I have no idea what I’m talking about that I finally started to make sense.

As such, while I can’t really dispense any advice, I can at least offer a forecast. Because no matter how different our worlds may be, there’s no better prophecy than the past.

Over the next 18 years, your weekends will become more sacred to you than they’ve ever been before, as the fight for survival settles into the workaday dreariness of “making a living.” If you’re lucky, someone will break your heart; if you’re not, you’ll break someone else’s heart and forever shoulder the weight of that crushing guilt.

Some of you will marry, and many of those marriages will end in divorce. There will be unwelcome news from doctors, and family vacations postponed in the face of unexpected bills. Your car will break down at the exact mathematical worst time, your heroes will be exposed on the front page, your rent and taxes and premiums will rise interminably every year.  And when that selfless saint among you steps up to organize your 10-year reunion, some of you may no longer be around to attend it….

But, if all that sounds grim, remember this: At all times, the path to fulfillment already lies within you.

With the right mindset, your job will be a source of pride and satisfaction — the financial means by which you make the most of your weekends. Your broken heart will signify a love for which you bravely took a risk, while your guilt will in time transform into self-awareness.

That terrifying prognosis will help you finally make the overdue lifestyle change, just as those unexpected bills will help clarify your budget so you can make the most of family time when the long-awaited vacation finally becomes tenable.

And, at your 10-year reunion, the people with whom you once roamed the halls between classes will assemble to memorialize the departed, and bask in the blessing of seeing each other’s weathered faces.

To paraphrase Glinda, you’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas — but that’s something you’ll have to learn for yourself.

Unlocking that epiphany entails acknowledging that nothing defines you so much as the outlook you choose to adopt. Doing what’s right will often be agonizingly hard, and will likely require courage that takes years or rock bottom to find.

But my forecast for you, Class of 2019, is that despite the obstacles ahead, you’ll figure it all out. I’m rooting for you with every fiber of my being.

At some point during these past 18 years, I dated a woman whose battle cry turned out to be the only truth I’ve ever encountered: “No one knows what they’re doing. Do whatever.”

Amen.

Graduates of the Class of 2019, trust me on this: At first, you’ll likely be as horrified as I was when you discover that everyone’s faking it — that your boss, your parents, the politicians and pundits and professionals are all commuting to work every morning wondering if today’s the day they’ll be exposed.

But you’ll soon find in that awareness your path to freedom. As Nanea Hoffman famously noted, “None of us are getting out of here alive” — so don’t surrender to someone else’s expectations your only opportunity to discover what you want to be.

DO WHATEVER. Do it however, whenever, and forever. Do it unabashedly, unashamedly, uncompromisingly.

Rectify the mistakes you make, but don’t avoid the ones from which you need to learn. Apologize for the feelings you hurt, but never for the person you are.

Daydream as often as you can, but not so much that you run out of time to manifest your imagination. Embrace just enough of The System such that you can make room to discern yourself. 

No matter what: Do whatever.

At 36, it’s been twice a lifetime since I walked across that stage to receive my diploma; I feel a little sheepish that “do whatever” is all I’ve got. So, in an effort to give you guys something a bit more concrete, I’ll concede that there’s probably merit to Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich’s admonition — made further famous by Baz Luhrmann’s spoken-word musical adaptation — which was seemingly confirmed to me last month by a grizzled tobacco store clerk:

Wear sunscreen.

You’re going to experience a lot over the next 18 years, and sunscreen will keep much of the wear and tear hidden on the inside. But every now and then, take time to appreciate those invisible scars. Eighteen years from now, they’ll be among your most precious possessions — and proof of a life post-graduation.

Editor’s note: Captain Jesse Sommer is a paratrooper and Judge Advocate in the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He is a lifelong resident of Albany County.

 

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— Photo from Jesse Sommer​

Jesse and Mum.

My mum was only 4 years old when her own mother died, just before Christmas in 1954. That terrible loss blasted a hole in her heart that she’s spent a lifetime trying to fill, first with the thousands of furry or feathered friends for whom she’s cared in her capacity as a veterinarian, and then, eventually, with four babies of her own. She wears that psychology on her sleeve, nurturing as many souls as she can find in the same way that her mother couldn’t do for her.

In short, she became the mother for whom she mourned, while I became the beneficiary of a limitless love borne of that bereavement — blissfully unaware that a “mom” was something which might one day disappear.

Growing up as the son of the town vet was often surreal; classmates would routinely approach me at school to volunteer intimate reports of their pets’ medical conditions while recounting my mother’s exploits.

Sometimes I benefited from her performance — as when the crush who’d never before acknowledged my existence showered me with gratitude because “Dr. Holly” had fixed the family dog’s broken hip — while at other times I was treated to cold and bitter stares from friends who would announce, unforgivingly: “Your mom killed my cat.”

Yet irrespective of the particular medical treatment, my mother was widely regarded as among the planet’s sweetest and most empathetic women. And no amount of evidence to the contrary — be it my reports of the insufferable organic “health food” to which she subjected me, or the capriciousness of her school-night curfews, or her unAmerican prohibition of Nintendo, or the indignity of being forced to make my bed on Saturdays — could convince the community otherwise.

Mother’s Day is this weekend. First observed in 1908, it was founded by peace activist Ann Marie Jarvis.  In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson formally designated the second Sunday in May as a national holiday to honor mothers.

But when my mom’s mom died four decades later, “Mother’s Day” assumed a significance for her that was very different than what it’s always meant for me.

For the first time in my life, I’m viewing Mother’s Day in a new light. Rather than conceive of it merely as the intended day to honor mothers, it suddenly seems like a holiday honoring my incomprehensible privilege of having taken 35 consecutive Mother’s Days for granted — having been blessed to annually send the perfunctory two-sentence “Mother’s Day email” to the woman who gave me life — when so many among us aren’t that lucky.

I don’t know why I’m thinking about this now. But, if I’ve ever deemed mailing a Mother’s Day card to be a cursory chore on an interminable to-do list, then I’ve clearly failed to grasp that my mum would have given anything, everything, for the chance to send her mom a card each May.

Because for some, Mother’s Day packs the prick of wrenching heartbreak that I’m not ready to confront myself. Logically, I know that someday I’ll join the ranks of those whose mothers have died, for whom Mother’s Day is a day of remembrance. Logically, I know that someday I’ll have to mourn not only the loss of my mother, but the loss of that final connection to a childhood she made safe.

But just because I’m not ready to contemplate that distant someday doesn’t mean I have to wait until my mum isn’t around to appreciate the significance of the holiday that celebrates her. Henceforth, the annual “second Sunday in May” will be a day I pledge to honor Mum’s values, and to take stock of whether I live up to them.

Too often I fall short. Most relevantly: I don’t call enough; I’m not great with in-person demonstrations of affection; I’m reliably late in reimbursing my sisters for the Mother’s Day flowers they send in my name.  (OK, Robin, relax — I just sent it to your Venmo. We good now? Sheesh.)

Yet I’m hoping this column will nonetheless warrant posting to the refrigerator, just like that dried noodle artwork on my Mother’s Day cards 30 years ago. Because, as the person who officially made my mum a mother, my arrival on Earth redefined her relationship to Mother’s Day. And despite the vast multitude of my imperfections, I’m hoping that mothering me so lovingly over the course of my entire life has helped my mom heal the scar of losing hers.

Even when she’s gone, my mom will always be my Mum — which is why I still won’t be able to buy Froot Loops when I pass through the cereal aisle because it’s just not worth neurotically combatting the admonishing voice in my head as it recites the evils of sugar cereals.

Even when she’s gone — leaving me gripped by sadness and nostalgia on Mother’s Day — I’ll still be soothed by tender memories of the crackers and daytime television she’d permit when stomach bugs kept me home from school (she practically made illness something to look forward to).

Even when she’s gone, on Mother’s Day I’ll still join the legions of people nationwide who will reflect on all those mornings that mom got us ready for school, on all her paths not taken so she could ferry us to hockey practice or dance class, and on all the glorious sleep we denied her — whether as crying infants or that time we kept her up sick with worry because we forgot to call.

Together, we’ll take a moment to honor the first person we met when we entered this world, and of whose body we were once literally a part.

But since Mum isn’t gone, I’ll use my space in this edition of The Enterprise to exclaim: Happy Mother’s Day to you, Dr. Holly Cheever. And to my sisters who are now mothers themselves in turn. And to all those who care for others as only a mother could.

And happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers no longer with us, but for whom we’d give anything for just one last chance to say “I love you, Mom.” Indeed, on this Mother’s Day, I address a woman I never knew, but without whom I wouldn’t exist:

Grandma, you would have been so proud of your daughter, just as I am so proud to be her son. Thank you for looking over her, and for blessing me with yet another Mother’s Day where I can call my mum to tell her that I love her.

Just as soon as one of my sisters reminds me to.

Editor’s note: Captain Jesse Sommer is a paratrooper and Judge Advocate in the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He is a lifelong resident of Albany County.

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Once again, a guy who looks like me killed those who don’t. The heart-wrenching murder of 50 Muslims at the hands of a white supremacist on March 15 played out as it has so many times in the past, with a narcissistic male high on hate wreaking carnage on innocent families engaged in prayer.

But because it happened in New Zealand, this time the response was different. And mind-bogglingly swift.

Within six days, the national government had banned “military-style semi-automatic assault rifles” (read: AR-15s) and mandated that all such weapons be surrendered. There was virtually no opposition — because, in New Zealand, there’s no legal provision affirming an individual’s right to own weapons.

With gratitude to The Enterprise for affording me the outlet, this column externalizes my inner turmoil as I try to reconcile my American identity with the social costs of my gun ownership.

This month, America recognizes the 244th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord. At dawn on April 19, 1775, the colonists who confronted British forces on the Lexington town green did so with weapons beyond the Crown’s control; the American Revolutionary War erupted with the “shot heard round the world,” and instantly enshrined a critical ethos in the minds of our nation’s founders:

“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.”

I’m intolerant of those who endeavor to read ambiguity into the elegance of our Constitution’s Second Amendment; there just really isn’t a good-faith claim of vagueness. But for the benefit of those who profess confusion, I’ll add three words and delete a fourth:

Given that a well-regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

There’s no room for misinterpretation here. With a blood-soaked rebellion against an overreaching government still fresh in their minds, our Constitution’s authors knew that you cannot have a well-regulated militia unless the people possess weapons with which to equip it.

Centralized government control of the weapon supply was the precise evil against which the Second Amendment was designed to ward. It codified the recognition that Revolution would have been impossible had the people no arms with which to marshal a militia to meet the Red Coats.

In short, the Second Amendment established as a fundamental right a last-ditch means of ensuring all the others.

Ergo, the critical question before us now is not what the Second Amendment means, but whether it must be abolished. Any debate concerning gun control that avoids this singular question is disingenuous.

The Second Amendment does not say: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of a well-regulated militia to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

A militia can only materialize (and become well-regulated) if people have the arms with which to report.  Those who claim, for example, that the National Guard is the intended “well-regulated militia” misapprehend Title 32 of the United States Code, which places state forces under the control of the president.

Nor does the Second Amendment say: “A dinner consisting of turkey and venison, being an enjoyable end to a day of sport-hunting, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

While Americans may possess a national imagination rife with hunting traditions and lore, thinning bison herds on our great Western plains was not what concerned the delegates to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention.

And, notwithstanding the preposterously-reasoned 2008 Supreme Court decision United States v. Heller (554 U.S. 570), the Second Amendment also does not say: “The ability to employ lethal force, being necessary to the security of a person’s home, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Writing for the majority in the Court’s 5-to-4 decision, the late Justice Antonin Scalia affirmed that the Second Amendment “protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.”

However, he went on to hold that this “ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms” was in the service of another rationale, to wit, for the sake of self-defense.

Nonsense.

While self-defense might be a beneficial byproduct of possessing firearms, the political imperative of the Second Amendment was forged in the fire of war, where patriot statesmen envisioned a citizenry’s capacity to muster their muskets and bravely stand their ground against the excesses of tyranny — as a ragtag force of irregular volunteers declaring their inalienable liberty. (And furthermore declaring their bratty unwillingness to pay their fair share for debts stemming from the French and Indian War, but who’s counting?)

In evaluating what’s “necessary to the security of a free State”, ask:  Free from what?  Secure against whom?  It wasn’t the home intruder that concerned the Founders, but rather the government oppression they’d endured as colonists, and the war their former overlords had waged against their audacious declaration of inalienable rights. 

Yet irrespective of the Heller decision’s underlying reasoning, its outcome bolsters the clear intent of the Constitution’s framers: Individuals are to be assured of their personal right to keep and bear arms.

And so we arrive at the prevailing fever-pitch political consideration: whether the lethal consequence of preserving the right to square off against the government is too dire to maintain that right. Can we justify the societal cost of 39,773 nationwide gun deaths in 2017 — the largest yearly total on records maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — against the remote prospect of coercive government oppression?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that my precious niece and nephews are turning into little people who will soon roam school hallways that a sole disturbed individual might transform into a battlefield. On the other hand, I also know that, even in recent history, members of my ethnic group have been repeatedly targeted for extermination by a slew of central governments.

I know that the weapons I’m issued in the Army are designed for use against apocalyptically dangerous enemies and require significant specialized training. On the other hand, I also know that soldiers like me are the ones who tyrants unleash against a populace that would be utterly defenseless without its own source of firepower, whether in Syria today or on a colonial town green 244 years ago.

I don’t know the answer. But I do know the question: “Is it time to abolish the Second Amendment?”

The Constitution has been amended 27 times; even the amendments themselves have been amended. So don’t think you can dodge the question.

Sure, you can circumscribe the right to bear arms without infringing it, say: by requiring that firearms remain only in the home, unloaded in a locked safe; or by requiring notice to and approval by a federal agency upon receipt of any firearm, whether purchased at a store or gun show or via inheritance or transfer; or by restricting the type of firearms that citizens can possess to the point that the right itself is merely symbolic; or by installing technological mechanisms restricting a gun’s use exclusively to that of the actual owner.

But understand that merely constraining the method of gun ownership so as to preserve an inarguable Constitutional right will always enable the lone wolf, the bigot, the deranged, the vengeful, or the domestic abuser, to harm the ones we love.

The choice is nightmarishly stark: abolition, or acceptance.

In addition to 39,773 gun deaths, America in 2017 also suffered 40,231 fatal motor-vehicle accidents and over 80,000 alcohol-related deaths. Yet we accept the tragedies inflicted by both cars and alcohol as necessary evils in our society.

Are weekly shootings thus the price of freedom? Of being an American, as opposed to a Kiwi?

I just don’t know.

But it makes me cry that, for so many of my fellow Americans, this is not a hypothetical question. Until we divine an answer, may God protect us — both from the tyrants, and from ourselves.

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One week ago, the Honorable John Dingell Jr. died at his Michigan home in the Congressional district he’d served for 60 consecutive years. His 30 terms in the House of Representatives is a historic feat.

But there’s something unsettling about America’s longest-serving Congressman succeeding his father in the same office (Representative John Dingell Sr. had held the seat for the 22 years prior) only to be succeeded by his own wife (Representative Debbie Dingell was elected when her husband retired from office in 2015).

That a House seat has been in the control of a single family (from father to son to son’s wife) for over 85 years — more than a third the age of the House itself — is more awkward than praiseworthy. The Khan family didn’t even rule Mongolia for that long.

Similarly, consider the Congressional leaders well into their third decade in office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was elected in 1984, while Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi was elected in 1987. Also in 1987, Donald Trump declared to Larry King on CNN, “I don’t want to be president,” and “Walk Like An Egyptian” by The Bangles was the year’s number-one song.

Clearly, times have changed a lot since 1987. Why haven’t the faces?

I propose an overdue 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Hereinafter referred to as the Federal Term Limit Amendment — “FTLA” to those in the know — the text of this proposed two-section Amendment (available upon request) limits members of Congress to 12 two-year terms in the House and four six-year terms in the Senate, and limits Judges to one 24-year term on the federal bench.

A mission to limit elective or appointed federal service to 24 years is ripe for criticism. As the proponent, I’m equipped to respond to all of it. I’ll now take your questions.

TOM: Isn’t this antidemocratic? What if I want a guy to represent me for 60 years?

Democracy unchecked subverts itself. Sure, you may want your Michigan Senator to represent you for 60 years, but his legislative votes also impact me in New York. Sometimes democracy has to be curbed to make things more democratic. Moreover, this is a federal limitation; locally, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan will still be free to make Erastus Corning’s 41 years in office look like child’s play.

Besides, there’s already a precedent for restricting a term of federal office; the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution formally established a two-term limit for the presidency. Are you really concerned that we’re becoming the Soviet Union because you couldn’t vote for President Obama a third time?

DICK: But why 24 years? That’s an odd number.

Actually, it’s an even number. And it’s also one conveniently divisible by both the two-year House terms and the six-year Senate terms. Additionally, there are 24 hours in a day, and “24” won Best Drama Series at the 2004 Golden Globe Awards. If you don’t like 24, take it up with either God or the Fox Network.

HARRY: But isn’t a 24-year tenure still too long for someone to remain in office?

Shush, Harry. The FTLA doesn’t guarantee 24 years in office, it just establishes an upper limit — you’d still be able to use the routine exercise of democracy (elections) to remove people from office. In most cases, the FTLA wouldn’t impact the terms of elected and/or appointed federal officials; the average length of service is about 10 years for both the House and Senate, and the average tenure of federal court judges is between 11 years (district) and 15 years (circuit).

The FTLA isn’t supposed to be a radical reformation of the system; it’s merely designed to spare us from those irremovable outliers who dominate the conversation as a function of their ubiquitous longevity.

Granted, there are benefits to a long Congressional career, given the institutional knowledge and talent for legislative procedure that accrues, plus the fact that committee leadership is based on seniority. Likewise, the stability in jurisprudence that results from long judicial terms ensures that the evolution of social norms proceeds smoothly, without sparking disruptive backlash.

But a term of office lasting nearly a quarter century achieves these advantages. After all, the FTLA accommodates nearly the entirety of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s celebrated 26-year Supreme Court tenure.

Besides, a term limit on judgeships would encourage presidents to appoint more senior and experienced jurists; there’d no longer be incentive to nominate the youngest candidates solely to ensure the longest possible lifetime stamp on the judiciary.

Given the reality of longer life-expectancies on judicial tenures, it’ll eventually be absurd not to impose such limits. Like, how many octogenarians should be interpreting laws that impact every citizen in this country, really?

JANE: I’m an aspiring member of Congress. Won’t the Federal Term Limit Amendment prevent me from amassing wealth and consolidating power in a cynical and self-obsessed bid for economic socio-political dominance?

Nope, not at all, Jane! With a little strategic planning, the savvy politician could rely on the FTLA to stay in office for 80 total years. Eight-zero years!

Let’s do the math. Jane wants to run for a seat the House of Representatives. Hooray! She wins, and then proceeds to do so again 11 more times for a total of 24 years. (Why not risk almost a dozen reelection campaigns? In 2016, only eight of 387 House incumbents were defeated in the general election — that’s an incumbency rate of nearly 98 percent, which was actually higher than the average incumbency success rate of 94 percent since 2000!)

In her 12th and final term in the House, Jane then thinks to herself: “I rather like my morning D.C. commute. But I can’t serve in the House anymore because of that dang FTLA. Wait! I’ll just run for Senate!”

Excellent choice. Jane launches her first Senate campaign and — relying on the notoriety and donor networks forged during nearly a quarter-century in the House — handily wins.

Jane moves her belongings from the Rayburn House Office Building across the National Mall to the Russell Senate Office Building, where she makes herself at home over the course of three additional six-year terms. (The prospects of an incumbent’s reelection in the Senate is only a nail-bitingly dismal 93 percent, but somehow, Jane ekes out a few more wins.)

Don’t despair, Jane! Your Congressional career may be coming to an end by operation of the FTLA, but that doesn’t mean you can’t run for president on the back of your hefty legislative career!

In fact, if Jane can secure reelection to a second presidential term, she could go so far as to unabashedly appoint herself to that newly-vacant Supreme Court seat in the twilight of her presidency, and rely on her former Senate colleagues to confirm her to the coveted 24-year term on the Supreme Court.

Add it up: 24 years in the House, plus 24 years in the Senate, plus eight years as president, plus 24 years as a Supreme Court Justice. That’s an 80-year reign over the affairs of state. Not too shabby, Jane! (Or, rather, Honorable Justice Madam President!)

My proposed Federal Term Limit Amendment ensures that power will be less consolidated among entrenched elites, but not so much so that our covetously ravenous lawmakers can’t still endeavor to devour each and every iota of power. That, my friends, is a win-win.

In summary, as we witness the dueling conceits of a few inexhaustible yet graying politicians, consider that Ms. Pelosi and Mr. McConnell have been in office for longer than 47 percent of the United States population has been alive. (Yup: nearly half of all Americans were born after they were elected to Congress. With an incumbency rate of over 90 percent, that functionally is a lifetime appointment.)

Furthermore, consider that a president who didn’t win the popular vote will impact our country for decades to come via the two lifetime appointments he’s already made to the Supreme Court.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Tom Brady may be a phenom, but wouldn’t it be nice if he let someone else win football for a change? If you agree that a century of Dingells in office is probably enough, call your representative and tell them to support the FTLA. Remind them about Jane’s 80-year career if they’re hesitant.

Editor’s note: Captain Jesse Sommer is stationed with the United States Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Florida.

 

One of my oldest friends works for one of the federal government’s three-letter agencies. After more than a decade serving her community, she recently decided to seize an opportunity to serve her country. So, mindful of that transition, I called her this past weekend to ask how she was holding up.

“I’m doing OK,” she lied, nonetheless striking a brave note despite having worked unpaid for the better part of a month.

“Yeah, but are you OK really?” I persisted. “The shutdown isn’t causing any undue hardship?”

“Well,” she said after a pause, likely searching for the most optimistic response, “I didn’t take this job for the paycheck.”

My friend is one of those bafflingly selfless people who would work for free if it were practical. And, like more than 800,000 of her fellow federal colleagues, she’s also one of those people who’s working for free because she has to.

It’s been over a month since political dysfunction precipitated yet another federal government shutdown; this one is the longest in history. That depressing distinction signifies mass multitudes of public-sector employees (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of federal contractors) who haven’t received paychecks since well before Christmas, but who are still reporting to work to perform the critical government functions that ensure the vitality of our society.

Indeed, I write this column from 30,000 feet, having just passed through a security gate staffed by unpaid employees of the Transportation Security Administration.

“I’ve got a few days before I’m in trouble,” the woman feeding my luggage through the belt-scanner told me as I wished her the best and then awkwardly thanked her for showing up to work. I felt weird heading off on leave — still receiving my federal paycheck — while she was reporting for duty, in uniform but unpaid.

I mumbled a few more words of support and a stupid apology. “Oh don’t worry, baby,” she said, smiling.  “At least everyone is being really nice to us for a change.”

Maybe so. But pleasantries won’t put food on the table, nor will it insulate Americans from the second- and third-order effects of delayed paychecks.

Those who brush aside these federal workers’ pain are oblivious to the interconnectedness of our economy, where a month’s worth of missed paydays means a landlord can’t cover the mortgage on her rental property because the tenant can’t make his rent on time. I’ll spare you further example.

A government shutdown occurs when Congress fails to pass sufficient appropriations bills to fund the federal government’s operations (or when the president refuses to sign such bills into law). In these instances, the federal government must curtail certain services and furlough “non-essential” personnel.

Since 1976 — forty-three years ago, for those of you following along at home — there have been a total of 10 government shutdowns wherein federal employees were furloughed; two of those instances occurred in just the last year. Indeed, shutting down the government has now become a seemingly annual tactic. But to what effect?

It’s not my objective here to express an opinion on “the Wall,” or on immigration policy, or on the proper application of tax dollars to ensure border security. I don’t know enough about these topics to commit any thoughts on them to record.

But what I do know is that there are friends and family and neighbors nationwide who are laboring under increasing economic hardship to keep our society afloat, and it’s hard to see how shutting down the government has meaningfully contributed to resolving this political dispute.

Given the wholesale lack of any sense of urgency that the shutdown has lent to high-level discussions, was it even necessary? In what way will it have facilitated any eventual compromise? Clearly it didn’t accelerate negotiations.

Have we arrived at a place where our democracy doesn’t work unless pain is being inflicted on those who keep us safe from terror, poison, crime, and pollution? If our elected representatives are unable to negotiate unless hostages are involved, can’t we at least ask that the hostages be relevant?

This whole ordeal is reminiscent of the time that I threatened to cut the hair off my sister’s favorite doll if she didn’t let me have the window seat. The problem was that I had the wrong sister’s doll.

And explaining to Brenna afterwards that it was awfully hard to keep track of which toy belonged to which sister provided only the coldest of comforts, as she tragically cradled her newly-bald Kid Sister doll while Robin laughed at us from her prized perch by the window.

Similarly, federal employees can be forgiven for wondering how deliberately jeopardizing their finances creates any type of meaningful leverage at the bargaining table. It’s as though our elected officials are tormenting middle-class workers for the sport of it, forcing nearly a million people to go without paychecks so that they can score rhetorical points against one another on cable news.

As a soldier, I’m one of those lucky federal employees whose compensation is deemed too critical to mess with. Yet both my oath to uphold the Constitution and my duty to defend the nation are impossible tasks absent the contributions of so many others who each constitute a small but crucial piece of the puzzle.

Our reservoirs and food supply, our coastlines and air space, our energy grids and satellites — they’re all protected by thousands of federal employees whose efforts secure our way of life, whether in shoring up our stock markets or facilitating our daily commutes. Each of those citizens play a small role — often indirectly — in supporting the most successful society our species has ever known.

And right now, they’re working solely for love of country, as bills pile up.

Still framed in my apartment is a memorandum emailed to all servicemembers exactly one year ago by our revered former defense secretary, on the eve of yet another looming government shutdown. Amid that rancor and uncertainty, Secretary Jim Mattis’s memo was personal, gracious, and soothing, urging the nation’s warfighters to remain the calming beacon of selfless sacrifice that he knew them to be.

And while I didn’t think to share his words with my friend as we got off the phone, this column offers me a second chance to channel General Mattis, in the hopes of comforting her and the many Americans on whose federal service we gratefully depend:

“Steady as she goes — hold the line. I know our Nation can count on you.”

Editor’s note: Captain Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of New Scotland, currently stationed in Florida with the United States Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne).