Sunday, October 07, 2007

The tragic lesson of Bo Ward.

Around the world there are little bodies of people who quite literally control the destinies of others. That thought horrifies me. These are people who are allowed to make decisions as to what other people may, or may not, do with their own lives, bodies or property. Individuals with little or no stake in the results are able to decide for people for whom their decision may literally be life or death.

Consider the story of Ronald “Bo” Ward. He owned a small business, Bo’s Barber Shop down in Clarksville, Tennessee. Bo’s barber shop was something of an institution. Part of the reason was that Bo was willing to give haircuts to local military personnel even if they didn’t have the money to pay for it. The commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell actually issued a statement about Bo. He called Bo an “icon” “known for his hospitality, warm smile and engaging conversation” and someone “who genuinely cared about soldiers.”

Bo expanded his shop and found himself in some financial difficulties. He had a way out, his home. He asked for permission to rezone his property to commercial. As commercial property the value would increase and Bo would be able to get the financing he needed to see himself through the rough patch. A month ago he said that if the application “doesn’t go through, I lose my home, I lose my shop, I lose everything I got.”

But this requires asking a group of faceless bureaucrats to grant him permission to use his own property in a more profitable way. The city council voted 5-7 against the request.

Bo’s response was simple: “Y’all have put me under. I’m out of here.” Bo Ward pulled out a handgun and shot himself in the head. Bo’s life was out of his control. It was in the hands of other people.

Consider the problem of politics. Each government official makes decisions which have an impact on others. They may give, or deny, permission to an individual to use their life, liberty or property in the way that they choose. If the bureaucrats make the “right” decision they gain nothing. If they make the wrong decision they lose nothing.

They have nothing of substance on the line, not like the people who’s lives they hold in the palms of their hands. A simple nod of the head can change a life. To have such power over others strikes me as inhumane. At the very best it is indecent.

I consider myself a rather smart guy. I know where I stand on the IQ chart. I know what I’m capable of doing. Yet, I’d never feel comfortable having this type of power over the lives of other people. It is one thing if individuals make a decision and discover it is the wrong one. But what happens to these people when they are powerless to make that decision and they are forced to rely on the decisions of others, other people who lose absolutely nothing if they act wrongly?

Bo Ward’s life was out of his own control. It was handed over to a group of people who call themselves the city council. But does it really matter that much if they are called a council or a lord, a king or even “master”. Can humans ever realize the danger and obscenity of allowing some people to rule over others?

The city mayor, Johnny Piper, tells the council “How you voted was not right or wrong.” What?? Is that really how he sees things? The decisions politicians make can literally destroy other people. And this man actually says there is no “right or wrong” decision. It’s just another vote, another decision. What those decisions mean to the people they control is very significant to them. For Piper it was just another vote. For Bo Ward it was life or death.

Mayor Piper says the council “showed no guilt because they did what they were asked to do, as far as handling the business of the city.” The business of the city! It was Bo’s business that they controlled at that moment.

This is part of the problem with the political class, they see things as “affairs of state” or “government business” when in reality they are controlling other human beings. Piper says he will be putting in metal detectors because he’s concerned about “security for elected officials.” How nice! He’s concerned about himself and his fellow politicians. How concerned was he about Bo Ward and what impact his decision would have on that one citizen? Apparently not very concerned at all.

Another city council member showed a similar sensitivity. Council member Marc Harris says he had no regrets over his vote. “The vote should’ve been 12 nos,” he bitched. I guess the fact that five council members didn’t agree with him causes a problem. If it were unanimous he could comfort himself by being part of the collective.

One of the insurmountable problems of government is that it allows the sort of thinking that Harris and Piper show so clearly. Since they are each a member of this impersonal machine they take no responsibility for what they do. It’s the system. They can cast votes with little consideration that this might destroy people and their lives, they comfort themselves that they personally are not responsible. It is the system.

Government is like a glorified lynch mob where each participant convinces himself that what he is doing must be right since everyone else is doing it as well. And Harris is acting like he’s the victim. He says, “I’m at the point where I want my life back.” Sort of the way Bo Ward wanted his life back. But Bo didn’t control his own life that night, the city council did.

This collective mentality, this idea of seeing oneself as just a cog in the machine called government, destroys the concept of responsibility. Felix Morley once wrote that “the State has no conscience." A conscience is the attribute of an individual. But in politics decisions are made by groups so no one individual feels responsible.

Each politicians feels less and less responsible for the outcome, as there are more and more of them controlling the outcome. The “government” decides not the individual so the “government” is responsible not the individual politicians. And the bigger government gets the more it has. But the bigger it gets the less there is any sense of individual responsibility among those who wield that power. What a lethal combination is being created by this thing called government. More and more power is concentrated in it while there is less and less individual moral restraint.

So you end up with people with vast amounts of power over others, who have no real incentive to make good decisions, and who feel limited responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. The result of this is tragedy for the Bo Wards of the world.

The really sad thing is that most of the Bo Wards out there, who have their lives devastated by government, simply never make the news. And Bo Ward wouldn’t have either but for the dramatic way in which he ended his life. Consider an alternative ending.

Bo walks out of the meeting dejected. In a few months time the financial crunch is too much. He can’t raise the funds he needs and his business goes under. He can’t pay for his house and it is repossessed. At his age, with just the skills of a barber, he has limited job possibilities. He suffers great emotional stress watching his family put out of their home.

Maybe he takes to drink. It helps him forget the troubles and the pain and shame he feels in failing the people he loves. One night, after a little too much to drink, he gets into his car but he never finishes his journey. There is an accident and he is killed. There might be a small mention in the local newspaper about the local man, who once owned a barber shop, and how he was killed in a car accident. Yet his fate was actually sealed the night the council voted 5-7 to deny him the right to use his own property in the way he wished.

With this sort of ending no one would be traumatized, except his grieving family and friends. The city council members would continue on, blithely ignoring the reality that they are controling the lives of other people.

Thousands of people daily have their lives turned upside-down by the politicians. It might be the young National Guard member who dies in Iraq. It may be the cancer patient who can’t eat but can’t use marijuana medicinally to help himself.

Vast powers, in the hands of fallible men and women, without the incentive to do the right thing. Vast powers, being held by people who feel little moral responsibility for the outcomes they create. And most of the time they never see the trail of tragedies that they create during their career of “serving” the people. They never see it because the disasters happen outside their range of vision. Bo Ward’s action, as horrible and tragic as it was, was done right in front of them.

He didn’t let them escape the consequences that they imposed on him by their vote. He made it real to them. What they do does direct the destiny of other human beings. But the consequences of those decisions rest almost entirely with the victims of the politicization of life. Bo Ward’s action made the consequences real to the people who made the decision. For that they will never forgive him. They will denounce him. They will be angry with him. They will tell everyone it was his own fault.

Bo Ward broke the illusion that controlling the lives of other people is merely a necessary thing. He brought individual responsibility right into the laps of the decision-makers. Instead of going away quietly, and suffering the consequences that the council would create, he made those consequences apparent and instantly obvious to people who had long ago forgotten that their power can destroy the lives of others.

This may haunt some of the politicians. Most will ignore it. Most will forget that there are victims each time they sign their resolutions or make their decisions. Most will argue that they have no moral responsibility for the trauma they create. They will tell everyone how they are necessary and they will pat each other on the back. They will call it “serving their fellow man” -- I wonder if the plantation owner convinced himself that he was “helping” the slaves he lorded over? And when they retire they will give each other laudatory farewell speeches and awards and brag about their altruism. And they can do this because, unlike Bo Ward, most their victims went away and suffered outside their view.

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