The perfect and the good
by Susan Estrich
Columnist
December 29, 2012 12:00 AM | 678 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
What happened to that millisecond after the election when both the president and the speaker said they’d heard the message that Americans wanted the two parties to work together, wanted to make divided government work, and that they would do everything they could to make that happen?

Gone? Shall we spend a lot of time pointing fingers and figuring out who is to blame? On the other hand, let’s skip it for now.

What happened to that millisecond after the Newtown shooting when it looked like we might actually turn the heat down on the paralyzing gun debate in this country, that keeps us shouting past each other? I know where I’d point the finger of blame on that one (hello, Wayne LaPierre), but there were also people playing along with his absolutist game, on both sides.

Plenty of blame there, too.

Shall we look back on 2012 as the year we managed to survive a presidential campaign most people hated before climbing back into our separate cars for a trip over the fiscal and political cliff?

We’ll survive the fiscal cliff impact — eventually. Not without some pain and probably most for those who are already in the toughest shape — isn’t that always the way. But the political cliff — that I’m not so sure of.

The perfect, Voltaire said, is the enemy of the good. Truer words were never spoken.

I don’t know any law Congress could have passed to stop a crazy, evil guy from setting a trap for firefighters on Christmas Eve. Evil. And I’m willing to concede that tougher background checks would not have kept a gun out of Adam Lanza’s hands, since it was his mother’s gun, she had it legally, she was trained, and she paid for her failure to keep it behind lock and key and get mental health help for her son with her life. Had she known what he was going to do, she would have tried to stop it. And it would not have been easy, by the way. I helped a friend get help for her son after he threatened her. I can’t tell you how difficult it was. And I am very, very good at accomplishing such things. It took months to find him a safe (for him, his mom and God knows who else) placement.

So no, I don’t have perfect solutions. But I know bad ones — and bad gamesmanship — when I see it.

Put an armed guard in every school, at a cost of about $8 billion, when schools are the safest place young people can be? No. Every school security guy you talk to will tell you that if you want to spend money, put counselors in schools. A school can expect a homicide every 6,000 years. Lightning strikes are more likely to kill your kid.

Does that mean we should do nothing about gun violence except keep screaming at each other as soon as the funerals are over? Of course not. To this day, I don’t understand why those who handle guns responsibly aren’t leading the fight to ensure that everyone must do the same. I know Mr. La Pierre’s logic, if you can call it that: the old “toe of the elephant in the door” thinking. But I also know that the only way to protect responsible gun ownership, in the long run, is to take on the plague of irresponsible gun ownership, and who better to do that than those who know the difference. What an opportunity squandered. What a failure of leadership.

What a familiar sight.

Maybe it will turn out that the fiscal cliff is not as steep as we thought. Maybe our taxes will go up and down, like poll ratings. Maybe we got back to business as usual without even knowing it.

But what a shame. If we learn nothing from school shootings and fiscal cliffs, from crazy people and evil in front of us, then shame on us. We can’t stop evil, but we can still do our best. Compromise. Reason. Steps in the right direction. Good, if not perfect.

Isn’t that what we teach our kids every day?

Happy New Year.

Susan Estrich is a law professor at USC in California.
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