Forty years after the Supreme Court found a constitutional right to abortion in the Fourth Amendment on behalf of “Jane Roe”—a 25-year-old single mother in Texas named Norma McCorvey—America is as unsettled as ever on the issue. This is for two reasons that, by their nature, are at odds with each other. The first is that abortion is a metaphysical enigma to which neither wisdom nor experience provides a definitive answer; we’re therefore left to fashion an imperfect political response to a question that’s fundamentally spiritual.
The Republican Party is given these days to hysteria, and what appears at the moment to be a white-guy cabinet in the second Obama term is more likely the result of botched orchestration than anything. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s contention that the president is deliberately getting in the opposition’s face with his recent nominations. As those of us who have been supportive of the president wrestle with the moral question of whether he deserves as much grief as we would have given a newly elected Mitt Romney for filling the three biggest jobs in his administration with old white males, or whether Obama’s first term—including a female secretary of State and two female Supreme Court appointments—earns him some slack, the Machiavellian genius of the choices is lost. The Republicans are in disarray not because they drew some particularly wacky names from a hat when it came to fielding congressional candidates but because their constituency is wacky, something so obvious that the only option for pols and pundits alike is to ignore it: A third of the country is fucking out of its mind. Of course some portion of the country always has been out of its mind, which is what Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are about, and the country’s task always has been transcending this. But now that Republican psychosis has become so pronounced even the party itself is beset by flashes of self-awareness, a cleave has developed into which Field Marshal Barack drives his pincer division of Kerry, Hagel, and Lew.
When President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in 1862 (a couple of times, actually), he conceded the possible unconstitutionality of what he had done but concluded that since the move was necessary in a time when half the country was at war with the other half, he would take his chances with Congress, the courts, and history. The country’s current chief executive finds Lincoln comparisons disconcerting, but this is a case where he might pay attention, because his legal grounds for unilaterally raising the ceiling on the national debt in a time of congressionally inflicted crisis are no weaker than Lincoln’s and probably stronger.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty opens to blackness and the sound of a conversation that we immediately know is real. Trapped on a high floor of a tall building engulfed by fire, a young woman says, “I’m going to die,” while the emergency responder at the other end of the phone tries to reassure her otherwise. “I’m going to die, I’m going to die,” she keeps repeating, her voice already becoming unmoored from her few years on this earth and pitched at some impossible place between hysteria and resignation. The emergency operator keeps promising help; both women understand it will never come. We understand as well because this is the 11th of September 2001. When the call disconnects, we hear the operator mutter under her breath, “Oh my God,” and nothing in the movie that follows will be as wrenching as these few seconds in the dark; the next two and three-quarter hours are haunted by this prologue that can’t be undone or rectified, just avenged.
It’s almost midnight and my seven-year-old is finally asleep. Tonight, she and I had the usual arguments about her taking a bath, about when she would go to bed; as it happens I’ve been a single dad the last several days, so we’ve argued more than usual. Two days ago was her Christmas play at school, at eight in the morning when her second-grade class sang, “All I Want for Christmas Is a Hippopotamus,” and it wasn’t until I was back in the car afterward that I heard on the radio about Sandy Hook. By the time I got to lunch there was nothing else on the news. It would be an overstatement to suggest that all of the restaurant had come to a stop, but certainly it arrested the attention of many, some of the waiters stopping to watch the TV over the bar when the president came on. From where I sat, I could see the TV but not hear it; I saw the president brush something from one eye as though there was something in it, and only when I saw him brush the other eye did I know for sure that this wasn’t something I had seen him do before.