Friday, May 30, 2014

On Rehabilitation

What is the extent to which words, customs, practices and music with unsavory pasts are permitted to overcome those unsavory pasts and be rehabilitated?

There's a beautiful piece of music by Haydn.  Christians who attend churches that still sing traditional hymns would recognize it as the tune for "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," and Christians have been singing it to those words for 200 years.  When Hitler came to power, that tune became the tune of the Nazi national anthem.  Today, the Nazi national anthem has been grandly forgotten -- I'd be surprised if one German in a thousand could recite the words to it -- and Christians continue to sing Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.  Some would say that the tune's use by the Nazis precludes it from being used in polite society.  Others would say that the world does not deserve to be robbed of a  beautiful piece of music just because it was appropriated by the Nazis.  If you want to hear what it sounds like, you can listen to it here:

What about Halloween?  Today, it is a silly children's holiday.  Once upon a time, it was a fairly bloody pagan religious ritual.  Its celebration was forbidden in the deeply religious home in which I was raised, in part for that reason.  Why should we celebrate an event that at one time caused much suffering?  On the other hand, there is no one alive who remembers that past, so should we deprive ourselves of what is today a bit of harmless fun for children?  The candy industry certainly hopes not.

Remember Yosemite Sam from the Buggs Bunny/Road Runner Hour?  Sam loved to cuss, and one of his favorite expressions was "cotton picking."  As in "ya cottin pickin varmint."  That term is of racist origin; it disparages the Black slaves who picked cotton in the South.  Probably none of the children watching Saturday morning cartoons in the 1960s and 70s made the connection.  A few of their parents might have made the connection.  But for most, it was simply a silly cartoon character saying silly things.

Reasonable minds may differ on the question, and it probably needs to be considered case by case.  But I'm of the mind that the better plan is to take power over words and music by not allowing their past to dictate our present.  Just because Hitler enjoyed Haydn's music doesn't mean I can't.  Just because slaves were disparaged doesn't mean I can't take some pleasure by watching a Yosemite Sam rerun on You Tube.

By doing so, we tell yesterday's bigots that we are stronger than they are; that while they are dust and ashes, we will transform their malevolence into joy.

There was once a restaurant that, in the 1950s, had a sign that said "No faggots allowed."  Time passed, and eventually the restaurant was sold to a gay man, who decided not to take down the sign.  He transformed it into a restaurant with a mostly gay clientele, and he still didn't take the sign down.  He left it up because every day the business opened with a gay owner and a mostly gay staff and a mostly gay clientele, was a day that he and his staff and his clientele were giving the finger to the sign and its previous homophobic owner.  Kind of like a dog taking a leak on a sign that says "No dogs."

The sign isn't there any more; a bunch of humorless bureaucrats from the local human rights commission didn't see it that way and made him remove it.  Pity.  I liked his message so much better.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There's hubris, and then there's hubris

The State of Illinois indicted Esteben Martinez for two violent crimes.  Unfortunately for the state, its two witnesses disappeared (or so the State claimed; how hard the State actually looked for them is another question).  After granting the State several continuances over a period of months so it could try to find its witnesses, trial was finally scheduled for May 17, 2010.

In the words of the United States Supreme Court, Esteben's counsel was ready; the State was not.  After giving the State most of the morning to get its witnesses to court, the judge denied yet another continuance and swore in the jury.  The State told the Court that it would not participate in the trial.

Let that sink in for a minute.  What, one supposes, would happen if a criminal defendant told the Court that it was not going to participate in the trial?  That's not a hard question: the trial would take place anyway, the defendant would almost certainly be convicted since the only side to the story the jury heard was the prosecution's, and the conviction would be upheld on appeal.  Trials don't stop because one side or the other decides to take its toys and go home.  Just for good measure, a sufficiently irritated judge might even have held defense counsel in contempt.

And in substance, that is what happened to the State.  After the State refused to make an opening argument or call any witnesses, the defense moved for a directed verdict of not guilty.  In laymen's terms, that means that the State, which has the burden of proof, hasn't even offered enough for the case to go to the jury and so the judge simply enters a finding of "not guilty".  The State granted the defendant's motion, found him not guilty of both counts, and sent him on his way.

And there the story should have ended, but for one minor detail:  Prosecutors sometimes have a bad case of thinking the rules don't apply to them.  They're special.  They're privileged.  And if they want to take their toys and go home in the middle of a trial, well, they're entitled.  And so the State appealed.

Now, readers familiar with the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Bill of Rights will immediately wonder how the State even has the ability to appeal.  In America, once the defendant has been found not guilty, that's the end of it, right?  The State can't retry someone who has been acquitted, right?  Yeppers, that's what I thought too.

So the State came up with a fairly clever argument:  Since the State hadn't put on the case, the defendant was never really in any danger of being convicted, and so there is no double jeopardy.  The first trial didn't count because it wasn't a real trial.

You can read the U.S. Supreme Court's smackdown of that argument here:

But here's the kicker:  The reason this case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in the first place, is that the Illinois Supreme Court bought the argument.  The highest court in the State of Illinois actually fell for that argument, hook, line and sinker.  Which brings us to the point of this post.

Lawyers will do what they can get away with.  The prosecutors made that dog of an argument because they thought there was a shot that the appellate courts might go along with it, and in a way, one really can't fault them for trying.  And, so far as the Illinois courts were concerned, they were right.  The Illinois courts were prepared to let the prosecution get away with pooping all over the trial court by refusing to participate in the proceedings and then demanding a do-over, something no criminal defense attorney would dare try.

Almost daily, one reads dreary story after dreary story in the press about innocent people wrongfully convicted because the police or prosecution lied, hid evidence, fabricated evidence, whatever.  Seldom are there consequences, except for the poor sap who sat in jail for ten years waiting to be exonerated.  Which is how the "we're entitled" mentality takes root in the first place.

I do blame the courts for letting them get away with it.  Lawyers may do what they can get away with, but it is the job of a judge to set outer limits on what they can get away with.  The Illinois courts failed miserably in that respect.  Thankfully the U.S. Supreme Court stepped up to the plate.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Our sociopathic leadership

Someone emailed an article to me about a claimed link between sociopathy and being an elected official.  I don't know if there really is a link between public office and being a sociopath.  Intuitively that would seem right, if for no other reason that just that it takes a certain personality type to want that kind of job in the first place.  So let us assume that there is a link between sociopathy and public office and ask the next question:  Is that a bad thing?

A president's job description is to deal with crooks and scoundrels, of both the congressional and the global political variety.  We have an incredibly cumbersome political system in which even having the president's party control both houses of Congress is no guarantee that the president will get Congress to pass the legislation that he wants.  Given those two realities, maybe sometimes being a sociopath is the only way to get something done.  Part of the reason FDR was such an effective president is that he was so very adept at both using deception and abusing power.

Contrast FDR with the basically decent but woefully incompetent Jimmy Carter.  Had our embassy in Iran been seized when FDR was in power, he would have turned Teheran into a moonscape; just ask the people of Dresden, a city FDR incinerated on far less provocation.  Having defeated Iran militarily, he then would have given Iran a pro-Western government rather than permit the ayatollahs to plunge it back into the Middle Ages.  Yes, people would have died but a clear message that it's not acceptable to seize an American embassy would have been delivered, and today, Iran might actually be a free society that doesn't threaten to destabalize the entire region.

Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was so loathe to use the military that he preferred to allow the United States to be humiliated for 444 days.  He was determined that no one would die, and he was also mindful that some of the Iranian's grievances against the United States had some merit.  While that may give him points for being a decent human being, it's no way to run a government.  Thirty years later, the emboldened ayatollahs are threatening the region with a nuclear weapons program, funding terrorism, and suppressing the civil liberties of their own people.

There is something to be said for being a decent human being.  But given a choice between the decidedly ethically challenged FDR and the fine human being Jimmy Carter, I'll take FDR any day.  We live in the world we actually live in, not the one we wish we lived in.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

This time, it really is a conspiracy

Since the war on drugs and the war on terror began competing with each other for which one could turn the United States into a police state first, there have been so many dreary stories of government treating people badly, unconstitutionally, and even despicably, that one might think they've reached the point where they can't even top themselves any more.  Well, one would be wrong.

On May 7, 2014, the DEA and the border patrol raided a small business in Alpine, Texas, which they contended was selling illegal drugs.  They also raided an apartment in the same building that belonged to someone unconnected to the business and for which they did not have a warrant.  The business owners were arrested on a number of charges, including both drug charges and resisting the officers during the raid.

The business owners claimed that the police had no valid warrant, that the police violently abused them, and that they were singled out for the raid because of their ethnicity.  The police deny this.  Such allegations are common when the police conduct raids.  Sometimes they are true and sometimes they are not.  Sometimes the police do abuse their authority; sometimes people already engaged in criminal behavior claim abuse to gain a tactical advantage at trial.  So, what we have at the moment is charges on both sides that have not been proven.  The business owners have not been convicted of any crimes, and the police have not been shown to have violated the business owners' rights.  So far, so good.

Enter Judge B. Dwight Goains.  Judge Goains conducted a bond hearing to determine if the business owners would be released pending trial.  He granted them bond, but on one condition:  That they recant their allegations that the police had no warrant, abused them, or singled them out for prosecution.  You can read the order, in all of its unloveliness, here:

Determining whether the police violated their rights is why we have trials, not bond hearings.  And it's difficult to imagine a bond order that violates more provisions of the Bill of Rights:  Free speech, due process, right to bail, right to trial by jury, just for starters.  Even honest judges make mistakes, but this is no mistake.  This is a conspiracy between the judiciary and law enforcement to ensure that these women cannot get a fair trial, and cannot sue the police after the fact.  That it was extorted by forcing them to make the recantation under threat of sitting in jail until they did makes it that much more deplorable.  If I were president, I would seriously consider intervening and ordering the charges dropped.  Judge Goains is unfit for the bench.

Once upon a time I was agnostic on the war on drugs.  While I had some concerns about giving the police too much power and the right of adults to make choices, at the same time I recognized the damage drugs do, especially in the inner city.

But no more.  After watching thirty years of increasing police power, often unchecked, and at the expense of constitutional rights, I have come to the conclusion that living in a free society is incompatible with the war on drugs.  We can have one or the other; we cannot have both.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On holding morally accountable those who lack free will

I am somewhat skeptical that free will exists.  I think there may be some free will around the edges of minor things that don't matter much, but that most of a person's major decisions were made for him.  Part of it is genetics, but part of it is upbringing, life experiences, psychological predispositions, and other things over which an individual has little control.

Believing that, it's easier for me to be forgiving of people who do even atrocious things.  I see them as deeply bruised human beings with design defects.  I suspect that in his heart of hearts, Hitler probably really did believe that Germany would be better off without all those Jews, and that Southern slave owners probably really did think that slavery was a part of the natural order, not to be messed with.  Yet I still hold them morally accountable for the evil that they did.

How can this be?  If Charles Manson is no more than an automaton guided by the passions of his nature, then how is it fair to punish him?

Because the fact that an individual may be hard wired toward certain beliefs or conduct doesn't mean that the hard wiring can't be changed.  One of the things that comes from being human is the capacity to do self-assessments; to review one's life and ask probing questions.  Not only is it possible; it is desirable.  The older I get, the more I come to believe that the essence of ethics is the willingness to confront oneself with uncomfortable questions.

Having to live with the consequences of one's past is a powerful tool in causing that kind of self-analysis.  If one learns that acting in certain ways will result in social ostracism, loss of economic opportunities, loss of important personal relationships, or, at the extreme, possibly even loss of liberty, a rational actor is going to at least ask the question if the behavior is worth it.  If the answer is no, this can lead to changes in behavior.  It can lead to changes in the behavior of other people who witness the consequences of that behavior.

I consider myself neither a true liberal nor a true conservative.  One of the reasons I'm not a true liberal is my willingness to allow people to fail.  If the consequences of success and the consequences of failure are the same, then there is no reason for anyone to ever ask if their lives are turning out the way they want, and to make any necessary changes.  If Ted Bundy and Martin Luther King hold the same social esteem and enjoy the same prospects for a happy and prosperous life, then a major incentive to be good has disappeared.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Quotation of the Week

"Or consider that paradigm of entertainment intersecting with pseudo-instruction, the game show.  There is only one Jeopardy! -- only one show where there are identifiable right and wrong responses and where having paid attention in the classroom will actually do you some good.  The vastly more common model is Family Feud, where the goal is to guess the answer (to always broad, sometimes vague, and mostly inane questions) given most often by other Americans in a poll.  The point is not to be right or knowledgeable but simply to resemble the norm.  If other people think cheese is a vegetable or Paris a country, then you will be better off thinking so too, however much of an ignoramus that makes you."

William A. Henry III

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Witness to a death

He was not a nice person.  He had committed at least five known murders, and probably at least twice that many more for which he had not been caught.  He killed for money, he killed for revenge, and he killed because he decided that he enjoyed killing.  As a journalist, I had interviewed him twice and been struck by the complete lack of emotion he projected; I may as well have been talking to a machine.

On the day of his execution, it took four guards to get him into the gas chamber, not because he was actively fighting, but because he was scared out of his wits.  The man who had committed multiple murders with the same emotional detachment with which most of us swat a fly had, when faced with his own mortality, suddenly discovered that fear and dread are real emotions.  One wonders if he had an epiphany and realized that he was feeling what his victims had felt.  That's probably hoping for too much.

The gas chamber is a contraption straight out of the Middle Ages.  It was built in the 1930s, and the first thing one notices about it is just how noisy it is.  The door screeched as it was opened.  The clang of the door slamming shut rang throughout the witness area.  There is the blub-blub-blub of the hydraulic seal hermetically shutting off the inside of the chamber from the outside world.  I thought it was odd to hear water running through the pipes until I realized it was hydrochloric acid being pumped into the pan beneath the chair.  And even though I knew to expect the sound of the cyanide pellets drop into the acid, I found myself jerking when the sound came.

The late Warden Clinton Duffy of San Quentin Prison, who supervised the gassings of 88 men and 2 women, said that gas is a quick, easy and painless way to die.  He lied.  Cyanide is a miserable, miserable way to make one's exit.

Essentially, oxygen's function in the body is to aid in the conversion of food into energy, somewhat like the catalytic converter in your car.  Without oxygen, the ham and eggs you had for breakfast cannot be converted to the energy needed to power your brain, heart, and other vital functions.  With no power to run those systems, your body shuts down.

Structurally, cyanide closely resembles oxygen, so much so that when your body encounters it, it thinks that it is oxygen, and it gets sent out through the bloodstream to perform the work of oxygen.  Only since it doesn't perform the work of oxygen, your body gets none of the vital energy it needs to continue to function.  Essentially, death from cyanide gas is being strangled without a rope.  Most poisons work as poisons because they are structurally similar to some other important nutrient necessary to the body.  Arsenic, for example, is structurally similar to potassium, without which muscles do not work.

But this does not happen quickly.  Pain is the body's way of telling you that there is a problem.  As one vital organ and system after another realizes that it is no longer being powered, sharp spasms of pain ricochet across the body.  The muscles are flooded with lactic acid, which causes severe cramping.  The lungs gasp for air, but this simply results in more cyanide being delivered.  Finally, the brain, the lungs and the heart all fail, and death results.  The unlucky ones may fade  in and out of consciousness a few times first.  I had a good view of the proceedings, and I have no doubt that the prisoner was fully awake, and in pain, for a good five minutes after the cyanide entered the chamber.

After it was over, another journalist and I went to get some breakfast.  We made small talk to pretend that we hadn't seen what we had just seen.  We then went back to our offices to write our stories, before going on to the next story, and then the next story, and then the next story after that.

I wish I could tell you that this was just another story, but it isn't.  More than twenty years later, I still think about it, almost every day.  If I could erase from my consciousness just one memory, that execution would certainly make the top five.

I am deeply, deeply ambivalent about the death penalty.  If I were a member of the state legislature I would probably vote to repeal it.  At the same time, I'm not really sure what the argument is for why society is better off keeping someone alive who killed a dozen people in cold blood.  Maybe some people are so badly broken that permanently removing them from civil society is the best alternative for dealing with them, I don't know.

I do know this: Actually participating in the execution process changed me, and not for the better.  I will never look at life and death the same way again.  Maybe there are some rituals we really are better off without.

Friday, May 16, 2014

How to abuse copyright law to censor your ex

Chris Mackney was engaged in an extended, bitter divorce that mostly did not go well for him.  It sufficiently overwhelmed him that he committed suicide.  He left a suicide note in which he blamed his ex-wife and the family court system for driving him to end his own life.  You can see it here:

Now, I don't know Mr. or Mrs. Mackney, or the details of their divorce, so I'm not taking a position on whether Mr. Mackney's claims are true.  Maybe he really was treated badly by a vindictive ex and a toady judge.  On the other hand, maybe he was just a bitter man and the family court system mostly got it right.  I don't know, and that's not the point of this column.  What happened next, however, is.

After Mr. Mackney's suicide note went viral on the Internet, the former Mrs. Mackney managed to get herself appointed executor of his estate, probably because she is the guardian of his children.  She then invoked copyright law and started sending demand letters to various Web sites that had published the suicide note and demanded that they take it down as a copyright infringement.  Some sites have; some have ignored her; and others have publicly and vocally told her where she can stick her copyright claims.  Prominent First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza has gotten into the act, on the site of the Web sites.  It appears that whatever bad publicity had come from the suicide note before just got amplified by orders of magnitude.  Pass the popcorn; perhaps Mrs. Mackney should have researched the Streisand effect before sending cease and desist letters.

As I said earlier, I'm not taking a position on the merits of the divorce case.  But it does seem to me to be a particularly nasty abuse of the legal system for someone whom Chris Mackney obviously believed to have caused him misery to now be in charge of his estate, and to be using that authority to suppress a message he felt strongly needed to be delivered.

This kind of abuse is often its own punishment.  Before the demand letters started going out, "Chris Mackney suicide note" had about 200 google hits.  It now has over 4000.  Sometimes leaving bad enough alone really is the best policy.

Which conservative do you mean?

Conservatives fit into three general categories:  The Wall Street conservatives, who only really care about making money; the libertarian conservatives, who believe in small government even though they may not always agree as to its exact parameters; and the social conservatives (mainly Christian evangelicals) who want a government that actively and aggressively pursues a pro-religion, anti-abortion, anti-gay social agenda.  Obviously, one problem that conservatives have is that many of these agenda items are in conflict; if you’re a libertarian conservative you are most likely pro-gay-marriage; if you are a social conservative, then not so much.  And yes, liberals too fit into sub-categories with conflicting agendas and I’ll write about that another time.

Doug Wilson is an unabashed social conservative who openly and forcefully calls for America to be a Christian theocracy.  In a recent blog post, he criticized another conservative for not being sufficiently anti-abortion and anti-gay, and used her as an example of what is wrong with modern conservatism.

Without getting into the merits of whether abortion is a bad thing or gay marriage a good thing, the real problem here is that conservatism is undefined.  Wilson’s criticisms are only legitimate if the social conservatives are the “true” conservatives and the others apostates.  As soon as one acknowledges that conservatism might possibly mean getting government out of the social engineering business, then his argument falls apart.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Maybe, but I'd bet against it

People love conspiracy theories.  It's far more exciting to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald worked for the CIA, or the Russians, or the Cubans, or Jimmy Hoffa, or Lyndon Johnson, or J. Edgar Hoover, or the Mafia, than it is to believe that a social misfit with a gun was able to kill a president and change history.  That plus it's a little worrisome that our security net is so tenuous that a 24-year-old of moderate intelligence can figure out a way to get past it, and one wonders how many other social misfits there are out there just waiting for their opportunity.  So I think that evidence or no evidence, a lot of people will always choose to believe that things happen because of diabolical plots by powerful forces rather than that a social misfit with a gun acted alone.

I believe in small-c conspiracies in the sense that people with wealth, power and influence will do what they can to hold onto them, which sometimes includes joining forces with other people of wealth, power and influence.  That is not, however, quite the same thing as believing that the Pentagon invented AIDS in a laboratory, or that 9/11 was an inside job, or that Osama bin Laden was on the CIA payroll, all of which I've heard from one or another unnamed reliable source.

My skepticism is based on two factors which seem to me to be powerful evidence against such conspiracies.  First is the well-documented incompetence of the type of people most likely to try to pull such conspiracies off.  Think Bay of Pigs.  Think Jimmy Carter's attempt to rescue the Iran hostages.  Think Iran-Contra.  Think of how many times we shot at bin Laden and missed before we finally got him.  Think "mission accomplished".  Think Operation Fast and Furious.  Think of the Obamacare Website rollout.  Think of the NSA's inability to detect and stop Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.  For that matter, think of the war on drugs.  It may be that at the top levels of our government there exist people with the competence to pull off 9/11 as an inside job and get away with it, but that's not the way to bet.  This is not to say that there aren't evil people who attempt evil acts; just that a conspiracy is far more likely to look like fast and furious than it is to look like a model of efficiency.

The second reason for my skepticism is that I know how much trouble it is to keep my own birthday a secret.  There are some kinds of secrets that just don't keep well, and most of these conspiracy theories are of that kind.  Spend a few minutes actually thinking through, if Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a grand plot, how many people would have had to be in on it.  And nobody has blabbed?  Everyone has managed to keep quiet about it?  Sure, I'll believe that.  Just as soon as I start believing that George W. Bush was well-read on the history of the Middle East before he decided to invade Iraq.

It may be exciting to believe that we are surrounded by all of these dark and sinister plots.  Show me some evidence.  In the meantime, Occam's Razor is still in full force and effect.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Are you a good person or not?

In 1991, James Patterson and Peter Kim published "The Day America Told the Truth."  They interviewed 600,000 Americans on a wide range of topics:  Personal morality, sex, political views, racial views, gender views.  According to Patterson and Kim, their comprehensive surveys were designed in such a way as to elicit what the surveyees really believe rather than the politically correct answer; it may be assumed that someone who thinks that child rape is OK isn't going to say so, even anonymously to a stranger taking a survey.  Since statistics is not my area of expertise, I am going to assume that they got it right and that their findings really are a true measure of what most Americans think -- or at least what they thought in 1991.

I read the book when it first came out in 1991.  I found it the other day while cleaning out a closet, and re-read it.

The first thing that struck me is what a complete and total period piece it is.  Let's just say that there has apparently been a huge shift in public opinion on a wide range of topics in the past 23 years.  I seriously doubt that they would get the same responses to many of their questions today.

One of the sections I found most intriguing was the section on personal morality -- are you a good person.  The first, obvious order of business in taking such a survey is to first define what it means to be a good person.  The Taliban thinks that good people suicide-bomb crowded marketplaces; unless there is some fundamental basis for telling them that they're wrong, who is or is not a "good person" becomes a meaningless matter of subjectivity.

So, who do the authors consider to be good people?  Some of the survey questions follow:

Would you take on full responsibility for the care of your aging parents?
Would you jump in front of a moving car to save the life of a child you don't know?
Would you object to a homeless shelter being located in your neighborhood?
If your best friend lost his or her job and home, would you take him or her in?
(My favorite) If you won $20 million in a lottery, would you give half of it to charity?
Would you take a 10% pay cut to save the jobs of your co-workers?
If you found a large sum of money and knew who it belonged to, would you keep it?
Would you physically intervene to stop a stranger being attacked in the street?

The thing I find most striking about these questions is that an awful lot of them deal with extreme circumstances that most of us will never find ourselves in, and that we really don't know how we would react if we did.  I don't know if I would intervene to stop a stranger from being attacked; I'd like to think I'd be a hero and do the right thing, but maybe I'm just not that brave and so maybe I wouldn't.  It's easy, as I sit here safe and comfortably in front of my keyboard, to say that I would do this or that, but the only way to find out is to actually confront the situation.

Likewise, if $20 million dropped into my lap, I'd like to think I'd be generous, both to family and to charity.  But maybe I wouldn't; money has been known to change people, and not always for the better.  That, too, is something that could only be determined if it actually happened.

So let me suggest that rather than judge people based on the single most unusual event that ever happened to them, maybe morality instead consists of going to work every day, paying one's bills, donating to charity, not running away from one's obligations no matter how tempting, reducing the amount of pain in the world when opportunities present themselves, setting a good example, cleaning up one's mistakes, making it right to people that one has injured -- in short, morality isn't about the things that get someone a Purple Heart.  Rather, it is about doing the right thing in a hundred small ways day after day after day.

Friday, May 9, 2014

That you call reasonable?

It is possible to believe in private gun ownership while at the same time believing that there is such a thing as reasonable regulation of weaponry.  Nobody in their right mind thinks there is a Second Amendment right to have a hydrogen bomb in your basement.

It is possible to believe in abortion rights while at the same time believing that there is such a thing as reasonable regulation of abortions.  Nobody in their right mind thinks a high school dropout with a butcher knife should be able to open an abortion clinic.

What is not possible, or so it seems, is to have a conversation about what exactly is a reasonable regulation, because neither abortion rights supporters nor the NRA think that anyone who advocates for reasonable regulation can be trusted.  Proponents of both see any regulation as being a way station toward a full ban.   People who hate the idea of legal abortion, or privately owned guns, are smart enough to understand that they're not going to get a flat ban on either enacted into law any time soon, so instead they nibble away at their availability, with an eye toward taking away as much of the right as they can, little by little, nibble nibble nibble.  And someday, like the frog in the pot of water brought to a boil very slowly, we will all wake up to find that we live in a country in which no one has any guns and all pregnancies are carried to term.  Or so is the thinking among the eternally vigilant on behalf of abortion rights and private gun ownership.

This thinking is not entirely paranoid.  I blogged a couple of days ago about how liberals and conservatives both try to get around laws they don't like by making their enforcement difficult.  That post was about the theory; this post is about the practice.  Or, if you like, the social consequences of that kind of politics.

Kermit Gosnell is an evil, evil man.  He ran an abortion clinic in Philadelphia that by any reasonable definition of the term was a butcher shop.  His clinics were filthy, understaffed, and staffed by unqualified personnel.  More than one woman who came to him for an abortion died of a botched procedure (or, in one case, bled to death unattended).  In at least seven instances that are known he committed actual infanticide by killing healthy babies after they had already been born.  He is now serving a well-deserved life sentence and, if there is any justice in the world, will die in prison.

So, where were the authorities while this was going on?  Well, this happened in Blue (or at least dark purple) Pennsylvania, where any real attempt to regulate abortion providers is greeted by howls of outrage that this is just a first step toward banning abortion altogether.  And why might anyone think that?  Because in Mississippi, their idea of reasonable regulation of abortion was to successfully close down what was the only abortion provider in the state by enacting regulatory requirements that were impossible to meet.  Arguably, the Mississippi right to lifers made Kermit Gosnell possible by creating a climate in which it's entirely plausible to think that one regulation will lead to another, and then another, and then to a practical ban.  And in Pennsylvania, unlike Mississippi, abortion rights activists have enough political muscle to keep that from happening.

Same song, second verse with gun ownership.  I grew up with guns; I own guns; I have no issue with guns; and I firmly support private gun ownership.  At the same time, I personally have no quarrel with requiring a gun safety course as a condition of owning one.  We do, after all, require people to prove they know how to safely handle an automobile before we issue them a driver's license.  Of course, nobody is seriously trying to ban cars.

So why don't we have a basic, common sense regulation requiring a working knowledge of gun safety?  Two answers:  Chicago, and the District of Columbia, both of which actually did pass complete bans on gun ownership.  Even people who think the NRA is batshit crazy (which I also do, by the way) can understand why, in light of those bans, those who value the right to keep and bear arms might be uncomfortable with allowing that particular camel to get a nose in the tent.

We need reasonable abortion regulation to keep the Kermit Gosnells of the world out of business.  And we need reasonable gun regulation for public and private safety.  We're not getting either unless and until there can be confidence that they really aren't a hidden agenda for something more nefarious.

More on comments

I've heard from a few people that comments aren't posting.  According to tech support, comments can only be posted if the commenter accepts third-party cookies.  If you don't want to accept third party cookies, or if you still can't post, email me at and I'll post your comment myself.  Thanks.


Four people have emailed me to tell me they have tried unsuccessfully to leave comments.  I don't know what the problem is but I'm working on it and hope to have it fixed soon.  Sorry for the inconvenience.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

An honest question

In Pakistan, a lawyer has just been murdered for defending a client accused of insulting Mohammad:

In Nigeria, nearly 300 schoolgirls have been missing for nearly a month; they were kidnapped for wanting to better themselves through education.

In Brunei, a formerly relatively moderate Middle Eastern country, Sharia law has just been imposed; if actually implemented it could result in people being stoned for adultery, having hands amputated for theft, and being thrown off cliffs for being gay.

In Uganda, which at the behest of Western evangelicals just enacted legislation providing for life imprisonment for being gay (a death penalty provision was dropped), mobs of vigilantes are attacking the homes of people suspected of being gay and beating them to death.

Elsewhere in Africa, the Lord's Army, a terrorist organization most famous for kidnapping boys and turning them into child soldiers, continues a campaign of murder and mayhem in the name of Jesus.  All over Africa and the Middle East, girls continue to be subjected to deforming genital mutilation in furtherance of their parents' superstitions.

The Middle East is now in its 66th year of a bloody conflict that has claimed thousands of lives and trillions of dollars that is a dispute between two Abrahamic religions over which of them is entitled to a small strip of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.

If you've read this far, you are probably thinking this post is an anti-religious screed that is an attack on faith and that lays all human misery at the doorstep of churches, synagogues and mosques.  Well, it isn't.

Though not religious, I would be the first to acknowledge that religion has at times been a force for good in the world.  It feeds the hungry.  It clothes the naked.  It helps people in need.  It educates poor children.  It runs hospitals.  At some times and places it has provided badly needed social stability.

But here's the question:  If we had a giant scale, and were able to balance on one side the good that religion has done, against the evil that religion has done, would we overall be better off with it or without it?  Taken as a whole, since the dawn of civilization, has religion done more good than harm, or more harm than good?

I don't know the answer to that question.  I don't think anyone else does either.  It's child's play for those who hate religion to assemble a set of talking points to support their position, and for people who love religion to assemble the mirror image set of talking points of their own.

But if we stop assembling talking points and earnestly seek to find the truth of whether religion has been good for us or not, I don't think the answer is at all clear.  And the fact that it's not clear should be deeply troubling to religion.

Same Rules, Different Sides

Social conservatives have been just as disappointed by the Supreme Court's decision striking anti-abortion laws as social liberals have been by the Supreme Court's decision upholding the death penalty.  And both sides have adopted the same strategy:  If you can't make it illegal, make it impossible.

There are at present over 3000 inmates on death row in the United States.  In 2013, there were 39 executions.  At that rate, it would take 78 years to clear away our death rows even if no more prisoners were added.  The leading cause of death among death row inmates is old age, followed by suicide.

That's because opponents of the death penalty have been spectacularly successful in making it harder and harder for states to carry out executions.  (Full disclosure:  I witnessed an execution, 20 years ago, and it was one of the worst experiences of my life; I shall write about it in a later post.)  They have gotten the Supreme Court to stop just short of declaring that states must guarantee that executions are pain-free; an impossible burden.  They have persuaded drug manufacturers to refuse to sell execution drugs to states.  They have put in place an appeals process that takes on average 15 years.  The late Justice Thurgood Marshall aptly compared being executed to being hit by lightning; it takes an incredible amount of bad luck for even the worst murderers to find themselves inside a death chamber.

Meanwhile, abortion opponents have been doing the same thing.  They can't get it banned, but they can get states to impose regulations making it harder and harder to obtain.  Women seeking abortions are harassed with vaginal ultrasound requirements; 48 or 72 hour waiting periods mean that poor women who have to travel to obtain an abortion will find it more expensive; abortion providers are being required to have admitting privileges at local hosptials which then deny them admitting privileges.  And their strategy is working:  In 2013, there were 1.21 million abortions in the United States, comapred to 1.5 million in 1979.  The numbers of abortions have been declining steadily since 1980, and not all of that is attributable to restrictive laws; there are other factors that play a role as well.  But there are probably quite a number of abortions that don't happen because abortion opponents have been successful at restricting access to it.

It's not surprising that people who feel strongly about something will find ways to get around laws they find repulsive.  Liberals do it, and conservatives do it.  Eventually they sometimes actually succeed in getting those laws changed; I would not be surprised if the death penalty exists nowhere in the United States twenty years from now.  It's also not surprising that people on the other side of the issue feel intense anger and outrage at their will being thwarted.  Listen to an abortion-rights activist or a pro-death penalty advocate fulminate against what they see as dirty tactics on the other side; the frustration comes through loud and clear.  So does the hypocrisy of those who support such tactics on issues in which they agree with the outcome while decrying them when used by "the other side".

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The evil of banality, Exhibit No. 872

Every now and then there's a news story about a bureaucrat who does something that seems monumentally stupid to the rest of us, often hurting some innocent citizen in the process.  Once upon a time I thought that government bureaucrats were either evil -- mini Hitlers who live to inflict pain and suffering just because they can -- or moronic -- someone who is too dumb to get a job in the private sector.

I've now changed my mind.  I don't suppose that, on average, the people hired to enforce mindless regulations are any more ethically challenged or of lesser intelligence than the rest of us, and there is probably a wide range of reasons why anyone in particular might take a government job.

I think the answer is more simple, and can be demonstrated by the bad example recently set by administrators at the Jensen Beach High School in Florida:

It was prom night, which for many seniors is arguably the second most important day on the calendar, right after graduation.  Students, especially girls, spend months planning for it, and parents spend a lot of money on dresses, makeup, limousines, and corsages.  School administrators know this.  They understand, or should, that it is hugely significant to their students.  And what's important to students should be important to administrators, at least if the claim that they're in it for their students is anything more than just a platitude.

The Jensen Beach administration required all of its students to sign an agreement that they could be breathalyzed if there was reasonable suspicion of alcohol.  So far, so good.  Students have been killed on prom night because of alcohol; the school's interest in keeping the prom alcohol-free is legitimate.

It seems that forty students rented a bus to take them to the prom.  Apparently there was an empty champagne bottle and glass on the bus from a previous rider.  We know it did not belong to any of the students, because every one of them tested negative on the breathalyzer.  But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

When the bus arrived at the prom, the school resource officer took a walk through the bus and found the bottle.  Apparently he didn't look too closely, because if he had, he would have noticed that the bottle had been empty for some time.  Bottles that have recently been emptied are wet and dripping; bottles that have been empty for a while are dry because the liquid evaporates.  Even a resource officer and school administrator should remember enough high school physics, never mind have enough life experience, to know that.  But let us concede that an empty champagne bottle, wet or dry, probably is suspicious enough to justify hauling out the breathalyzer, and if that's all that had happened, it would be unremarkable.

That is not all that happened.  It took authorities a half hour to get the breathalyzers set up.  It then took them another hour to test everyone.  And by that time the prom was over, and the students were told to go home.  After spending all that money, their special night consisted of hanging out outside the dance hall for two hours being tested for alcohol.  No one tested positive, by the way.

The students may have signed an agreement to be breathalyzed, but we very much doubt that the agreement contained a provision that the process would take two hours and cost them attendance at the prom.  Adding insult to injury, students who complained were disciplined.  Can't have future free citizens of a free republic challenging an administrator's authority, no siree.

Now, how would reasonable people have handled this situation?  First, they would have been prepared, with adequate breathalyzers and staffing, to complete the tests in minutes rather than hours.  It was completely forseeable that a busload of students might show up at the same time, and there is something to be said for being prepared.  That way, the school's safety concerns could have been met and the students still could have made the prom.

Second, when it became apparent that the students really hadn't been drinking, they could have dispensed with testing everyone.

So, why didn't they do any of those things?  For two reasons.  First, because for an administrator, there is no downside to inflicting misery on other people, so bureaucrats tend to be less cautious with other people's interests.  It's not the school administrators who had to pay all that money for dresses and makeup that ultimately went for nothing.  If the students sue the school, it's not the administrators who will have to pay any judgment or settlement; that will be the taxpayers.  And a big step in the right direction, we think, would be to change the rules so that at least in egregious cases, at least part of the judgment does come from bureaucrats involved.  That way, they have a stake in the outcome, and would be more inclined to ask if there's an easier way to do things.

The second reason is that nobody said "stop this".  Once a bureaucratic process gets started, it continues to its end.  I don't think the administrators said to themselves, "Let's make the students miss the prom just to be mean."  Rather, once the process got started, whether the students made the prom became irrelevant.  The only thing that matters to a bureaucrat is that the rules be followed, let the heavens fall.

We suspect that giving bureaucrats a financial incentive to mitigate the damage would probably go a long way toward fixing the second problem.  Unless and until the law is changed, neither will bureaucrats.