Will We Remember?

I was a quiet observer, trekking uptown through swarms of people who smoked in the streets of a midtown packed, like it was a street festival. We looked up and the day tingled with a feeling of something different, new, no school today.

And the pictures of the towers started to go up on Facebook last night. And as we are counseled not to forget, I wonder what it is that makes us hold on so strongly.  I understand that this was important, that the towers were not only physical structures that held the flesh and blood of so many people who lived and loved, were fathers and sons, daughters and mothers, but perhaps more. Perhaps they were the force field that was supposed to signify the divide between us and them and that what shocked us all so much, myself absolutely included, was that the divide was so easily conquered. They  broke in with a fiery hellish fury – into our country, and into our consciousness. To some, into our conscience. 9/11 was the day that a war began. To some, it is much more personal than that. And to many, it will never end.

There’s a part in us all that likes to take ownership of tragedy.  To say, “I was there,” to stake a claim that we feel more than the guy next to us, or across the country from us.  It’s a cousin to that original feeling, the one that held us separate, that divided us.  I don’t know what you feel. Though I was in Manhattan that day, my ears were turned off to the screams of sirens, my heart to the fall.  I was a quiet observer, trekking uptown through swarms of people who smoked in the streets of a midtown packed, like it was a street festival.  We looked up and the day tingled with a feeling of something different, new, no school today.

No, it wasn’t until my train peaked through the tunnel eastbound and my exodus was complete that the sound came rushing back into my ears. In the safety of my bathroom that night, in a shower that washed the smell of soot from my hair, I felt.  I felt terrified.  And I felt that the world of foreign policy and boring pages in front of the style section of the New York Times were coming to get me, to shake me into wakefulness, so that I knew that it was all real – that people in pictures or who moved across the screen from me in the blue light of the television were actual. That speeches made from the pulpits of politicians held meaning. That legislation was connected to something that could affect even me.

Lines were drawn that day. Divisions that had been invisible then are now etched in permanent marker. Divides crept into our country dressed in red and blue, invading our neighborhoods, and working their way into our hearts and minds, disguised as truth.

And I think that maybe the towers didn’t signify divisions between us. Maybe they were buildings full of people. Maybe projecting symbols on them does a disservice to the people who loved – and lost – them. Especially as we’ve seen near endless death ever since.

Of course we won’t forget.

But will we remember what we learned?9/11

On Spitzer: Can our Leaders be Cheaters?

Do we really need to expose sexual peccadilloes of our politicians – does the immorality of their personal/sexual life translate into their jobs in public service? Or is this an outdated mode of judgement?

You know what I can’t stand? Cheaters. Though I try to keep an open mind about most things, and understand that nobody’s perfect – including and especially me – infidelity riles up something in my insides. It’s brought distance to previously close relationships and prevented some from what might have been. And although I thought I was an equal opportunity judge and jury of character, my husband sees it differently. He notes that I’m more tolerant and forgiving of our female friends’ transgressions than of our male friends.

It pisses me off when he says that.

Because he might be right. I hate when I’m hypocritical.

The thing is, I usually understand women better. Their motivations seem more complex than kicks on a Friday night. But it could just be my bias. I’m working to rectify that.

Here in New York, we are swimming in penis jokes. Between Anthony Weiner’s campaign for mayor and now Eliot Spitzer’s run for city comptroller, it would seem like New York is nothing but a bastion of sexual dysfunction – which makes for a fun coverage if you’re a late night talk show host or a headline writer for The New York Post. And though I can’t speak with authority for all of us, I wonder if maybe every single place in the country might be bastion of sexual dysfunction. Maybe not of the high-priced prostitute variety (which might be limited to the coastal states) – or even like the Twitpic heard ‘round the world that completed the punchline that Weiner’s name serves up on a platter, but of the unfaithful spouse type. Nothing gets the morality police aroused (heh) like an election, where we put our candidates through public scrutiny that isn’t matched in any other profession in the world.

It’s always interesting to watch candidates paint themselves as pillars of virtue while their opponents’ PR people dig up dirt. Eliot Spitzer was the super-smart attorney general from New York, who didn’t mince words and brought toughness and badassery to the democratic party. He ran on moral superiority – taking on the thieves, liars, and criminals that ran Wall Street before anyone ever knew it needed to be Occupied. He flew into the Governor’s mansion and I thought he was a sure shot to be our first Jewish president. And then. He was outed as “Client #9” in a high-end prostitution ring and he prepaid for his next visit. So while the revelations about Spitzer were particularly zing-worthy – uncovering a level of hypocrisy not seen before in recent memory – what does it really mean? 

Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the Women’s City Club, has taken Spitzer’s misdeed and painted it within the context of the wider sex-trafficking industry.  She makes a terrific point about how prostitution isn’t a victimless crime. And crime it is, since this is New York and not Las Vegas. A crime for which the prosecutor has yet to be prosecuted (unless you count the press.) And though Bien-Aime admits that Spitzer had worked to pass legislation against sex trafficking in the past, she is clear in her view: no forgiveness. NOW has taken a similar stance and is actively protesting both Spitzer and Weiner’s candidacies.

John Dickerson of Slate takes Spitzer to task for asking the forgiveness of the public while being known to never be particularly forgiving himself, as if “forgiveness” is a virtue that we want in our attorneys general. Spitzer is known for his ruthless, take no prisoners style, which is appropriate when you’re actually taking no prisoners. And though Dickerson gives Spitzer props for having the foresight to prosecute Wall Street for its illegal pillaging of American society way back in 2005, his conclusion is unequivocal: no forgiveness.

Forgiveness. It’s a fascinating concept in the political context. Politicians, like celebrities, have their marriages fail on the public stage: John Edwards, Newt Gingrich, Weiner, Spitzer, Mark Sanford. They parade with the cuckold wives, standing beside them to prop up their lost credibility. We tut tut and gossip and judge, then go have one too many and make out with the neighbor’s husband or hook up with old high school girlfriends on Facebook.  It all begs the question: do we want politicians to be philosopher kings, above and away from the public in geography and morality, or should we accept them as a reflection of who we are? Can they serve the public owning their humanness or do we have to hold them to moral perfection (which includes the obligatory church-going?) Might these expectations result in a powder keg of unrealistic expectation? Might the celeb status of our politicians contribute to their spectacular failings?

Am I asking these questions because I’m looking for a way to forgive Spitzer because I admire his tenacity, his mind, and the good that I can still see him achieve in public office? As a woman, am I participating in a paternalistic culture that shames women by doing so?

Or might I be becoming a more equal opportunity forgiver, able to see nuance in not just the infidelity of women, but men as well?

NY Misses the Target on Mental Health: DC Gets It Right

Quite frankly, the biggest issue with New York’s new gun law is not what’s in it, it’s what’s missing.

New York took bold steps last week and with lightening-speed passed what has been called the “nation’s toughest gun law.” The stuff that makes NRA-types go nuts got all the media attention – bigger restrictions on assault weapons, a new limit on ammunition magazines, a ban on Internet sales, and real-time background checks to name a few.  But also within the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act (SAFE) is a new provision that requires licensed mental health professionals – psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers – to alert local mental health officials if a patient “is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.” The local mental health folks will then conduct their own evaluation and if they concur with the potential risk, that patient will be added to a statewide database of folks who can’t get a gun. If they already own a gun, local cops are going to bang on that person’s door, demand to see the gun and take it.

Mental health professionals have always carried an ethical duty to warn, but the state has generally left it to practitioners to decide when and how to report. Practitioners usually listen for an explicit threat, conduct a more thorough assessment, and then weigh a series of options that might include notifying those at risk, arranging hospitalization, and/or calling the police. That flexibility has given clinicians the ability to deal with a potential risk of violence without breaching confidentiality and perhaps keeping that person engaged in a course of treatment that in and of itself, may diminish risk.

The mandate in the new law is broad and in this environment, will likely be applied much more often than the current standard. Several prominent mental health experts have already expressed their concerns.  Dr. Paul Appelbaum, director of law, ethics and psychiatry at Columbia University told the New York Times, “It undercuts the clinical approach to treating these impulses, and instead turns it into a public safety issue.” Dr. Eric Neblung, a psychologist and the president of the New York State Psychological Association told the Wall Street Journal, “You’re turning psychologists into police officers.”

To the average person, keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill is a no-brainer. But get this: a large body of research suggests that people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime. One national survey found that those with chronic and severe mental were victimized a whopping eleven times more often than those in the general population.

And if we can’t get that imposing image of the crazed gunman out of heads long enough to consider the numbers, it’s important to recognize that New York’s new law doesn’t target the few mentally ill who could become shooters. It targets those who seek treatment – including cops, corrections officers and other uniformed personnel, who are often most reluctant to seek help. And if we are truly concerned about guns winding up the hands of unstable folks, why not make psychological testing a pre-requisite for getting a gun?

Quite frankly, the biggest issue with New York’s new gun law is not what’s in it, it’s what’s missing. The Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act does absolutely nothing to enhance access to mental health services and contains no new funding for such programs. Perhaps that’s because our state is cash-strapped, or maybe it’s because including funds would have prompted some of the more fiscally conservative folks to hold-up the bill. Then New York wouldn’t have been first.

A day later, President Obama rolled out his gun control package. It contained all the high-profile stuff like background checks for gun show shoppers, limits on high-capacity ammunition magazines and the like, but he also called for new federal investments in school safety and mental health counseling. 

In addition to $180 million in school safety spending, the President’s proposal includes: $15 million to help teachers and youth professionals provide “Mental Health First Aid,” to identified students; $40 million to help school districts, law enforcement and local agencies better coordinate services for students in need; $25 million to finance new, state-based strategies to better identify individuals ages 16 to 25 with mental health and substance abuse issues and get them the care they need; $25 million to boost school-based mental health services aimed at treating trauma, anxiety, and enhancing conflict resolution; and $50 million in new funds to train social workers, counselors, psychologists and other mental health professionals.  That money would also provide stipends and tuition reimbursement for more than 5,000 new mental health professionals that want to work with young people in school and community-based settings.

Is it enough? Probably not.  It does, however, restore some of the $235 million the Administration ripped out of the state Safe and Drug Free Schools grants program last year and ensures a more proactive, comprehensive approach to keep our kids and communities safer.

While it’s true that New York, our legislators and Governor Cuomo can now lay claim to passing the first and toughest gun law in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, the absence of solid mental health solutions means that it probably won’t prove to be the nation’s best.

Photo: White House Photo