Too many, however, including U.S. presidents, ignore or reject objective information that is available to them. They turn to personal relations, personal experiences, political loyalties and raw emotion for answers and for justifications to act.
In 2011, for example, the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature proposed a firearms law that would permit concealed weapons on college campuses. Surprisingly, the measure was voted down, handing the National Rifle Association a rare defeat in the Sunshine State.
The bill was defeated because Sen. John Thrasher, the powerful chairman of the Rules Committee and former Florida House speaker, persuaded fellow Republicans to reject it. He had been personally affected by a gun-related tragedy in a fraternity house at Florida State University.
On Jan. 9, 2011, Amy Cowie, 20, held her dying twin sister Ashley after she was accidently shot by Amy’s boyfriend with his AK-47 rifle. The twins’ father, Robert Cowie, was Thrasher’s dentist. Asked by journalists why he opposed the concealed-carry bill, Thrasher said: “It’s beyond personal for me. Any other time, I might support something like this, but I can’t.”
What had prevented Thrasher from objectively weighing the need for concealed weapons on college campuses? Why did his dentist’s 20-year-old daughter have to die for him to stop the gun lunacy?
Now, in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, where 20 children and six adults were shot and killed, Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who enjoyed an A rating from the NRA for his support of gun rights, appears to be prepared to support new gun restrictions.
National Public Radio host Steve Inskeep asked Warner what had influenced his change of heart.
“Last Friday (Dec. 14), something that, not as a senator, but as a dad, kicked me in the stomach more than anything,” he said. “You thought, oh, God ... how do we keep our kids safe? That day happened to be the day when my college-aged daughters all came home from school and kind of said, ‘Dad, you work up there. What are you going to do about this?’ And the answer of kind of, well, just to enforce the existing gun laws didn’t seem satisfactory to me.”
Years of attempts by fellow Democrats to engage Warner in rational discussions about guns had little if any influence. Apparently, he was monitoring his NRA rating. It took personal pleas from his daughters to give him an epiphany.
Florida Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the longest-serving Republican member of Congress, is a defense hawk and has supported every war the United States has fought during his career, which began in 1970. Until recently, he repeatedly opposed resolutions to pull troops out of Afghanistan, even a resolution to set a timetable for a total withdrawal.
Objective evidence — dead troops, maimed bodies, suicides, Afghan betrayals, millions of U.S. tax dollars squandered — indicated from the beginning that our military ambitions, like those of all nations before us, would be buried in Afghanistan, “the Graveyard of Empires.”
None of it dissuaded Young, chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee. He believed that our mythic invincibility would make us victorious where others had failed.
In September, the congressman changed course after Army Ranger Matthew Sitton was killed in Kandahar province. Sitton was a local warrior who had attended the Christian school operated by the church where Young worships.
Before Sitton was killed, the congressman had received a letter from the soldier describing bad decisions by commanders and Sisyphean challenges that may have contributed to the deaths of many troops.
Young acknowledged to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board that he been moved by Sitton’s prediction of his own death, saying: “I think we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can. I just think we’re killing kids that don’t need to die.”
We were “killing our kids that don’t need to die” long before Sitton’s letter. And we are still killing them.
Leaders who control the fates of other Americans should not make vital decisions based on emotion. Yes, it is good the likes of Thrasher, Warner and Young modified their thinking, but we cannot trust leaders who are not seekers, who dodge objective information, who extrapolate from their own narrow perspectives.
The late President John F. Kennedy left a useful insight: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.