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Matt Dorfman


‘Moment’ Is Having a Moment


AUG. 25, 2015
















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The Moment for Action on Guns


January 14, 2013

The New York Times


The next few weeks represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to harden the nation’s gun laws and reduce the threat of rapid-fire violence in America. A month after the slaughter of 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Conn., Vice President Joseph Biden Jr.’s commission is about to present a series of recommendations for new laws, and it is vital that his panel gets it right and that Congress immediately takes action on its report.

Federal laws on guns have been kept so lax, for so long, that the Biden panel could suggest scores of ways to improve public safety. But there are a few policies that clearly have to be in any serious legislative package, the first two of which were endorsed on Monday by President Obama: requiring criminal and mental-health background checks on every gun buyer, including sales from individuals; a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines; a strong statute prohibiting gun trafficking; and an end to the hobbling of the federal agency that enforces gun laws.

The need for background checks on every gun buyer has never been greater, now that the Internet has made it easy for private individuals to buy and sell guns without screening. The reason that both the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns have made universal background checks their top priority is that 40 percent of gun sales now take place privately, including most guns that are later used in crimes.

Requiring background checks at gun shows, parking-lot sales and Web sites would reduce the cash-and-carry anonymity of millions of gun transactions, putting buyers on notice that their sale is being recorded and can be traced. It is largely supported by legitimate gun dealers, who already have to conduct the checks and have long grumbled about competition from those who do not. And it would have no effect on law-abiding buyers who want a hunting rifle or a handgun to keep at home.

Such a law should be supplemented by a presidential order requiring federal and state agencies to contribute to the background check system with criminal and mental health information. Federal prosecutors, who have a dismal record of pursuing charges against those who lie on a gun application, need to enforce the system vigorously.

The assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 should be renewed and tightened, with a special emphasis on prohibiting magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. The millions who already own such weapons — unnecessary for hunting or protection — should be required to register them and submit to a background check to reduce the mass killing that produced this agonized debate.

A new law is needed to crack down on the trafficking of guns that an individual has reason to know will be used in a crime, increasing penalties and making it easier to track corrupt gun dealers. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives needs to have a permanent director, more financing and expanded authority to inspect dealers, and an end to restrictions that keep it from tracking all gun sales and retaining background-check data. Some lawmakers are already talking about focusing on the background checks and bowing to gun lobby’s opposition to an assault weapons ban. That shouldn’t stop the administration and its allies from demanding that all these provisions be passed immediately. With the deaths of Newtown’s children still so fresh, the public will be repulsed by lawmakers who stand aside and do nothing.

The Moment for Action on Guns,






Separating the Moment

From What Came After


September 10, 2011

The New York Times



A few days after Sept. 11, 2001, I received a stack of drawings and poems in the mail. They were by schoolchildren whose teacher had given them the lead article from The New York Times about the attacks and told them to write and illustrate a poem. Because I wrote the piece, she sent them to me. Many of the children picked up on my description of the planes as “gorged” with fuel, and their jets were huge and red, dwarfing the doomed black towers before them. Some of the drawings also had disproportionately huge stick figures falling from the towers.

I thought it was wise of the teacher to help the children come to grips with horror this way. That’s how we all struggle with sudden and enormous terror, searching for images and words that might help us fit the event into a framework we can understand. From the time the first hijacked jet ripped into the north tower of the World Trade Center, we had to find ways to explain and describe an event whose enormity and evil were almost beyond understanding. Crisis focuses the mind on the immediate tasks at hand, but it was hard that day to fend off thoughts of the final, horrifying moments of those people in the planes and the buildings before they died.

I had covered several suicide bombings in Israel before 9/11, and I always admired the way Israelis rushed to clear away the carnage and reimpose “normal” life, as if to say you can hurt us, but you will not change us. And I had always wondered how Americans would react if it happened to us.

We can certainly be proud of the dignity with which New Yorkers, and Americans, and much (alas, not all) of the world responded that day, whether it was the police and firefighters who rushed to the scene, or Mayor Rudolph Giuliani taking charge, or the thousands of people who lined up to give blood until the hospitals could accept no more. At The Times, several reporters commuted to ground zero by bicycle, showing up in the newsroom covered with ash and sweat to file a report and then heading back into the hell. Yet I also remember, monitoring the rush of information in the newsroom, a sense of shame that our president chose to fly around in silence all day, as if his safety was more important than standing with his badly wounded nation.

And how should we assess our actions since? Millions of words are being written around this 10th anniversary about the meaning and the legacy of that day; on its consequences for America and the world; on whether Americans rose to the challenge; on whether we got suckered into needless wars and, worse, into betraying our values; on whether we have become nobler or meaner.

There is a lot to criticize and regret. But can we really determine at this stage to what degree 9/11 was a cause, a symptom or a harbinger of all that has come to pass over the last decade? Perhaps if it had not happened, Americans would not have consented so readily to the erosion of their cherished liberties, and we might not have become so obsessed with homeland security. But in many other ways the world was already in flux since the end of the cold war a decade earlier. The Bush administration was already beginning to irritate the world, and already plotting a war in Iraq; the Middle East, as usual, was smoldering.

The fact is that that single day soon became associated in our national narrative with all that has happened — the military quagmires in the Middle East, the resentment of the Islamists, the decline of American global authority, the erosion of American self-confidence. Like “the fall of the Berlin Wall” a decade earlier, “9/11” has become shorthand for a momentous shift in geopolitical tectonics.

But this is not what comes to my mind when I think back on that day. I see the long river of ashen, dazed people flowing up 11th Avenue as I made my way down to Times Square. I recall the brilliant clarity of that morning, which must have made it easier for those murdering pilots.

Most often, I don’t know why, I recall the subway ride home in the small hours of the morning. A woman sitting near me began humming loudly. My first, shameful reaction was damn, who needs this? But then a man across the aisle, slumped in his seat in exhaustion, began humming along. Someone else joined in, and soon I, too, closed my eyes and let the music take over. Drained of emotion and thought, we surrendered to the refuge of sweet harmony.

Within days, the first massive cranes were rumbling past my windows on their way to ground zero. Acrid fumes from the smoking ruins moved through the city with the shifting winds. American flags appeared in windows. From Washington there came talk of war. We were in a new era, which 10 years later we are still trying to define.

    Separating the Moment From What Came After, NYT, 10.9.2011,






This Land

At a School in Kansas,

a Moment Resonates


January 21, 2009

The New York Times




Shortly before lunchtime on Tuesday, a strange quiet settled over Junction City Middle School. Strange because quiet does not come naturally to a collection of 875 students in the full throes of adolescence. But this clearly was a moment, a time to set aside childish things.

The sixth and eighth graders had shuffled into the auditorium of the year-old school, past the signs saying no gum, drinks or food, while the seventh graders took seats in the adjacent cafeteria, redolent of chicken patties frying. All were silent, and not only because the expressions of the adults hovering about signaled the need for communal reverence.

They gazed up at large screens to watch the presidential inauguration in Washington, nearly 1,100 miles away, though the distance sometimes seemed even farther. While the audio feed remained steady, the video stream stopped and stuttered, like old NASA images from space, so much so that Aretha Franklin seemed to start singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” before opening her mouth.

But this glitch only added to the moment’s import, as if to echo other firsts — sending a man to the moon, say — along the American continuum. And these YouTube-era students never snickered; they only watched, some wide-eyed, some sleepy-eyed, the flickering images of power’s formal transfer.

Also watching, also looking up, was Ronald P. Walker, 55, the schools superintendent, from a cafeteria table he was sharing with six seventh-grade girls. He wore a dark suit, a white shirt and a red tie — the same attire as the president-elect now striding across the screen above.

Mr. Walker grew up in an all-black town in Oklahoma, worked his way through the ranks of education, and is now the only black schools superintendent in Kansas. He worries about budget cutbacks as a result of the economic crisis throttling his state and his country, but he saw in the man appearing above him a thinker, a statesman, the embodiment of hope.

“And his emphasis on education is critical for all of us,” Mr. Walker said.

One could argue that many of the students in Mr. Walker’s charge have more at stake in this far-off Washington ceremony than most. Junction City may be a place of about 20,000 in the flat plains of Kansas, but it is as diverse as any place in the country, mostly because in many ways it serves at the pleasure of Fort Riley, a major military base a few miles away.

Slightly fewer than half the students are white, more than half receive free or discounted lunches — and a full third have some connection to Fort Riley, which adds both a cultural richness and an uncommon kind of stress.

School officials say the students worry less about grades and friends than about when a parent will be deployed, when a parent will return, whether a parent will survive combat.

These are not daydream worries, what with 3,400 soldiers from Fort Riley now in Iraq, and the knowledge that 159 soldiers and airmen from the base had been killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of last year.

Not too long ago, there was a report of graffiti in the bathroom at the high school. The culprit was a girl, and what she had written, over and over, was: I Miss My Dad.

So here they were, the children of a place called Junction City — a community proud of its distinctive Kansas limestone buildings, struggling still with its honky-tonk, “Junk Town” reputation of long ago — looking up at screens, waiting for a new and different show. Gazing up, too, were many adults, most of whom had thought they would never see the day.

Here was Ferrell Miller, 63, the school’s principal, whose father used to say the “N” word as if it were just any other word. Dr. Miller came to Junction City more than 40 years ago as a soldier, met and married a young woman from the Philippines, return to his Ohio hometown — and then moved back to Junction City because that place in Ohio “didn’t have the diversity we were looking for.” But Junction City did.

And here were the cafeteria workers, white, Hispanic, black, most of them wearing hairnets, taking a break from food prep to share in the moment. Margaret Langley, 73, a German woman who married a G.I. in the mid-1950s, is proud to be a naturalized citizen; Nellie Vargas, 29, from Houston, married to a soldier stationed at Fort Riley; Phyllis Edwards, 46, of North Carolina, married to a retired soldier and with a son in the eighth grade here.

“I’m just so nervous,” said Ms. Edwards, failing to find the words to match her emotions.

Finally, the moment. The announcer asked people in Washington to please stand; the students of Junction City remained seated. The chief justice of the United States said, “Congratulations, Mr. President”; those students burst into applause.

As President Obama began his Inaugural Address, the seventh-grade students began their lunch. They filed into the kitchen to collect their trays of chicken-patty sandwiches, fries and chocolate milk. Few opted for the peas.

Kimberlee Muñoz set down her tray and rendered her review of the Inaugural Address — “It was the bomb!” — while at a table nearby, Reggie Campbell ate his lunch in forced exile, having gotten into it with another student who was making fun of him. He said he lived with an uncle who was in Iraq at the moment, and he said he enjoyed watching the inauguration.

“I think it’s nice to have a black president for once,” he said.

Meanwhile, the adults at the middle school began the orderly transition from historic to mundane. Ms. Edwards took her place behind the buffet table, wishing all the while that she was in Washington. Ms. Vargas left her cafeteria work early to drive her husband to the airport; an emergency leave had ended, and he was returning to Iraq.

And Mr. Walker, in his dark suit, white shirt and red tie, set off for another meeting in another building in Junction City, leaving in his wake one word: Wow.

At a School in Kansas, a Moment Resonates,










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