Looking for principle in America


October 20, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

Washington -- Life in the world's greatest democracy:

In Birmingham, Ala., pro basketball player Roy Tarpley is banned "for life" from the National Basketball Association after violating the league's drug abuse policy for the third time. In two years, he can apply to come back.

In Rexburg, Idaho, two sisters are arrested, fined and sentenced to jail for taking popcorn into the Holiday Theater after buying it at the Paramount Twin. The county magistrate says truthfully, "To arrest someone for having popcorn in the theater is silly." Then, instead of putting the sisters on probation, he sentences them to a day in prison.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., a 21-year-old white male is charged with being one of a gang of 20 that used baseball bats and razors to assail a 17-year-old black who stopped to buy a soda in their neighborhood. Four young blacks in the victim's car also were attacked and the car was wrecked by the gang.

In Baton Rouge, La., Jimmy Swaggart says God told him to keep on preaching after being stopped by California traffic police with a woman in his car who said she was a prostitute. Mr. Swaggart's son had said the preacher was going to take a break to get medical and spiritual help, but at a midweek service the good Rev. says, "The Lord told me it's flat none of your business."

In Killeen, Texas, a man crashes his pickup truck into a cafeteria, then methodically kills 22 customers and wounds at least 20 with a 9-mm. Glock-17 semi-automatic pistol that can fire 17 shots without reloading and a Ruger P-89 that can fire 15 rounds. He apparently changes magazines several times, firing more than 100 rounds.

After the televised soap opera here last weekend, you may guess that I pass on these bulletins from the provinces to prove that all the weird events of our time do not take place in the nation's capital.

Well, they don't. This is still the murder capital, for example. But in theory, the governmental capital is supposed to be a place where problems are solved, where good will and logic apply and compromise produces progress.

As to good will: At the Pentagon, the chief of naval operations formally apologizes for assertions that a sailor caused the gun-turret explosion that killed 47 crewmen on the USS Iowa. He also backs off the Navy's finding that said sailor set off the blast to commit suicide because he was spurned by a shipmate.

As to logic: At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, President Bush touts an economic package featuring a cut in the capital gains tax, which would benefit high-income taxpayers. This comes the day after Congress failed to override Mr. Bush's veto of a bill to extend unemployment benefits for Americans out of work for more than six months.

As to compromise: At the Capitol, some congressmen hoped the Texas massacre would raise political consciousness about gun control. Sale of high-capacity magazines for weapons like the Glock-17 would have been banned by legislation effectively defeated Thursday. Rep. Chet Edwards, from the Killeen district, was saddened by the massacre and switched to support the bill. To him, the shootings made old arguments about statistics and legal issues ring hollow: "It's a human story now, a human tragedy," he said.

But not our president.

He is against the jobless benefit extension and against gun control. A man of principle refuses to be swayed by human stories about how many millions have been out of work how long. He must be unaffected by human tragedy in a Texas cafeteria or on the streets of Washington, caused by weapons made for no earthly purpose except killing people.

If indeed our president had a history of steadfastness, we might believe principle was involved -- that he is primarily worried about threadbare widows whose only income is from shooting craps on the stock market, and noble sportsmen who would never point a gun at another person -- instead of concern for Wall Street and the National Rifle Association.

But anybody over 30 must recall our president's overnight conversion, when he joined the Reagan ticket, from supporting choice to opposing abortion. He became an evangelist for what he had called "voodoo economics" the day before. There is consistency, and there is politics.

Life turns out to be exactly as bizarre here as in Birmingham, Rexburg, Brooklyn, Baton Rouge or Killeen. When citizens do drugs, go to the cafeteria, pick up a hooker, buy soda or popcorn, bring sexual harassment charges, get pregnant or can't find a job, all take their chances alike in this America. If you admire principle, look for a good wrassling match on TV.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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