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Ahlin: Perhaps we aren’t as far apart as we think we are

Two big news stories this week reconnected us to societal limits. In one, Minnesotan Byron Smith was convicted of both first-degree and second-degree murder in the shooting deaths of two teenagers who broke into his Little Falls home on Thanksgiving Day, 2012, shooting deaths that, oddly, he recorded.

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The other story also involved a recording, this one of Los Angeles Clippers basketball team owner Donald Sterling, making racist remarks. Sterling was swiftly and severely disciplined by the NBA, including a lifetime ban from the game, a $2.5 million fine and the likelihood of having to sell his franchise.

In the politically framed, partisan world America is today — particularly on the subjects of guns and race — the two stories suggest something different — specifically, shared moral and civil boundaries. Perhaps we aren’t as far apart as we think we are.

Smith’s murder of the teenage burglars brought to mind two Pakistani students in an English class I taught years ago. We were discussing essays on the death penalty, including whether it was a deterrent. The Pakistani students strongly believed in harsh deterrents. They were from a rural area not far from the Afghanistan border and bolstered their argument by telling of merchants who could leave stores open with no worry of robbery. If someone stole a rug, for instance, one of the thief’s hands would be cut off in the public square. Other students in class found that shocking. However, to the idea that such punishment was excessive and uncivilized, the Pakistanis shrugged as if to say, “It works.”

The coldblooded killing of the young burglars Smith called “vermin” was excessive and uncivilized. He went too far even for gun advocates. (Defending property does not include carrying out executions.) Still, the momentum across the country lies with increasing the rights of gun owners to kill. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a bill last year to greatly expand the right to use deadly force in Minnesota, a bill that would have justified shooting to kill as a response to almost any threat to property or person, at home or in a vehicle, real or only perceived. The boundary understood so well today in the Smith case would have been blurred.

As to the racist remarks by Donald Sterling, it’s important to note they aren’t new: They fit a pattern in Sterling’s past. Then, too, context counts — not only Sterling’s longstanding bigotry but also echoes in current events. Americans connect the dots between the racist remarks of Cliven Bundy, Nevada rancher and federal land use deadbeat, and Sterling’s ideas of white superiority. Forget the million dollars Bundy owes the government; he isn’t a guy bound to the “slavery” of federal largesse — not a white guy like he is. For his part, Sterling discounts the talent of African-American ballplayers, insisting he “gives” them what they have. They are dependent on him.

Americans draw the line at such blatant racism. It’s embarrassing, and we won’t tolerate it. Unfortunately, the blatant stuff is only part of it.

Both subjects — guns and race — are volatile but vital to our future as a people. To talk openly and constructively, is it possible we can begin where today’s limits are?

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for Forum News Service.