Total Pageviews

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Call of the Wild

This past week, something that I never thought would happen, actually came to pass: I actually found myself agreeing with a libertarian viewpoint. It surprises me to even write that, but when the State of Maryland and its Child Protection Services intervened to detain two children who were walking home alone, I could not help but feel that there are times when the "less government" crowd is onto something.

Impossible claims aside - and let's face it, I could no more embrace a libertarian worldview than become the next President of USA (or India, for that matter) - I did find myself wondering what was wrong with our government that it devotes its time to grabbing children of the street and threatening to separate them from their parents. Yet, what was even stranger, was the revelation that the officials involved were following the law in their actions - Maryland actually requires that all children under the age of thirteen be accompanied by a guardian. What I did realize, once I'd filtered out all the noise and hyperbole, was that this is a perfect example of what I'd discussed a few blogs ago, that we pass laws with excellent intentions that then become impediments to other equally well-intentioned individuals. In this case, we have a law that was clearly meant to provide protection for children and ensure that the authorities had permission to intervene when they perceived a need. Of course, perception is everything and what the zealous officers of the local police and CPS felt was warranted was viewed quite differently by the parents who were at the receiving end. Hyperbole aside, and I feel quite sure that both parties will exaggerate the aspect that suits their narrative and downplay all else, the fact is that like the blind men conducting a tactile examination of a pachyderm, all are slightly right and also wrong.

Now those who want less government in our lives may immediately point to this case as evidence enough that the government needs to be reigned in and downsized. Sadly, things are never quite so simple. It was not the police in black helicopters who swooped in to seize the children, rather they were summoned by a concerned citizen. I would wager much that the concerned neighbor who saw two small children walking by alone had no idea that it was actually in the law that they should be accompanied but instinctively felt that it was not right and hence summoned the police. He, or she, was driven by the best of intentions and as a quick perusal of any discussion forum will reveal, there are many who share that opinion and would censure a parent for sending their children out alone. There are many though who feel that parents have the right to raise their kids as they see fit and that such laws as allow the State to intervene between parent and child are wholly misplaced and need to be repealed. Life, though is painted in subtle shades of grey, and there is no easy demarcation between the rights of parents and the responsibilities of the State.

Even were it possible to draw a bright line in this particular instance, there are so many more cases that muddy the water. Should children be prevented from touching any alcohol or should parents be allowed to choose when and where their child is exposed to the fruit of the vine? We not only proscribe parents from making this choice, but we threaten them with dire consequences for any infringement. This may be one law that is driven by self-righteous and meddling busybodies, and one that causes far more harm than it prevents but it also enjoys plentiful support. Vaccinations, and the refusal of some parents to allow it, is yet another hot issue, and the State may claim a legitimate interest, while parents may, and do, argue that it is their right to make that decision for their children. Methods of disciplining children is but one more example where the State often intervenes and separates children from parents. The target is abusive parents, but we have yet to find a universally accepted definition of child abuse. While caning or the use of a cat-o'-nine-tails may be generally accepted to be off limits, spanking, slaps and even yelling are still debated with great passion by both sides of the question. There is little doubt in the most egregious of cases, but it is the borderline and debatable cases that usually draw widespread attention, in part because of their ambiguity, and because of the passion they excite by partisans of all political stripes. It is worth noting here, that some of my more militantly atheistic friends claim that indoctrinating children in blind faith is a form of child abuse, an idea with which no religious parent would ever agree, highlighting once more my familiar refrain. One could sift through and find thousands upon thousands of similar examples, and they all show one thing: it is not the over-reach of the State that is the problem, but difficulty in formulating a law that protects the weak and powerless without intruding on the individual's privacy and sovereignty.

In cases such as this, it is worth pausing to reflect that the laws we hate, while sometimes deserving of our approbation, were usually, if not always a result of a public demand. An excellent case in point is the laws on sexual offenders. There are laws that prevent convicted offenders from living anywhere near all sorts of institutions - schools, parks, churches - which were enacted to meet a public desire to be safe from such menaces. Of course, the consequences can be quite devastating for those affected directly and sometimes counter productive; many sex offenders are unable to find accommodation (for who wants a rapist as a neighbor?) and hence logically unable to comply with the terms of their parole. This is but a single extreme case, but there are plenty more like this. The fault is not "the government" for our elected representatives typically act in ways that will win them continued support. And in the words of Lincoln, after all, we have a government of the people and by the people. When it seems that our government is not really acting in the interests of the people, we should take a deep breath and realize that in fact it very likely is expressing the will of the people and it is, we the people who have no clear idea of what we want. We are usually quite clear on how much  the State may encroach upon our lives, but we rarely are in agreement on the proper boundaries for our neighbors.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Right to Dignity

"It is better to live on one's knees than die on one's feet"
The dirty old man who reminded Nately of his father was one of the few people who celebrated living bereft of dignity. Tobe honest many, if not most, of us would choose life, even in the most degrading servitude, over the most glorious of deaths. Some cultures might vary, with Vikings, Spartans and Samurai to name but a few who would embrace death in combat over the chance to live, but that kind of thinking must be drummed into one from infancy to truly become a mantra of life (or death, in this case). Not only do few societies today embrace a culture of death so happily, but it is also a lot easier to go out in a blaze of glory when high on battle excitement and a lot harder when one's dignity is stripped slowly and incrementally.

More importantly, few Americans would exult in a chance to demean and degrade their enemies, and even to the extent that they may, they would strenuously deny that they derive an iota of enjoyment from the act. The Romans may have enjoyed the sight of their enemies paraded in chains through the Forum, and roared in approval as those unfortunates met their death for the public entertainment, but we live in more civilized times. We may secretly enjoy the humiliation of our most cherished public figures, but we leave the public stripping to the tabloids and hold ourselves aloof from the act, while gorging our voyeuristic tendencies behind a veil of anonymity. We would never admit especially that we were responsible for the debasement of our idols, and with impressive self-righteousness, we tell each other that it is not our actions that fuel the fire that consumes them but rather that they have fallen only because of their own imperfections.

It is this refusal to admit the degradation of our fellows and our willful delusion that they must somehow deserve their fate that permits the stripping of every vestige of human dignity from "the others". The others could be anyone, marked with the sign of Cain by their enemies and declared to be less deserving of the right to human dignity, the same dignity that we not only demand for ourselves but which we declare the right of all men and is so entrenched in the psyche of Americans. Those others have included, at different times, ethnic groups like the Irish, the Italians, the Germans, the Asians, the blacks, the Mexicans; it has also encompassed religious groups - the Mormons, the Jews and today, the Muslims; professions have been included, like the Vietnam vets, the hippie students who opposed the War. Sometimes the groups consigned to the outskirts may be logical enough, like union labor or police or fat-cat bankers, but can also include seemingly strange targets, like teachers in Wisconsin, airport flight controllers. But above all, we love to demonize and dehumanize the weakest members of society - the poor and the unemployed.

The one thing that has always marked the stigmatization of a group has been the wish to paint that group in broad strokes, pinning real or imaginary crimes of a few on the entirety. If a few Muslims embrace hatred for the West and employ terrorist tactics, the demagogues then portray all Muslims as guilty by virtue of a shared faith. The miniscule group that uses fraud to enjoy the largesse of a welfare state are proof enough that all the poor and unemployed are out to cheat us and need to be watched carefully at all times.

This latter group has enjoyed a prominent place on our list of hatred for a long time, seemingly bound up into the unique way that Americans view the world, and having only themselves to blame if they are poor instead of living in McMansions. The hatred has surged and ebbed, but never really gone away, and is now enjoying a new energy. Though we know that nearly anyone could have lost their jobs or money in the Great Recession and that many who suffered that misfortune may never recover like jobs or clamber back to the same economic footing, yet we quietly accept the insults heaped on the indigent. Those same unfortunates blamed for being poor were once our friends and colleagues - I'll wager that few of us did not know someone who lost their job or house or both as the recession swept through our nation, destroying lives and wealth. Yet we sit silent, because those erstwhile equals are now the "other". We barely murmur a protest when insults are heaped upon the poor, be in daily imprecations by the all knowing talking heads of TV or the soul sapping demands placed on them by antagonistic governments. We sat silently while Florida demanded that Welfare recipients undergo mandatory drug tests, and though the program never showed any significant evidence that this was justified, still we rewarded its architect with a second term of office, basically endorsing the demeaning treatment of our fellow men. Now we watch passively while Kansas seeks to close a deficit of its own making by cutting benefits to its least empowered, and requires a humiliating accounting of their spending. Seemingly paternalistic and intrusive government is less important than bringing these wastrels to heel!

But hypocrisy aside, the issue here is not the actions of the government, but our willingness to play along. We gladly suspend empathy and embrace the narrative of hatred. Hatred comes in many shapes and colors, and it's not always garbed in black and screaming "Death to America". It can be far less visible and more insidious, erecting walls between citizens, turning us against each other. When we are willing to hate our neighbors, we have no chance to bridge the gaps with the rest of humanity that's further removed. And that suits the demagogues who seek power on the basis of hatred and division. Divided by ideology but united by method, they deal only in hatred of the others, the outsiders; we empower them when we refuse to think for ourselves and reject empathy for those others.

We need to remember that but for a few chances - of birth, of location, of opportunity - we may well be that unshaven, unwashed man standing by the freeway exit, broken and hopeless. Perhaps he too had a good job and comfortable life a few months ago, perhaps he has been homeless for years. Perhaps he worked fifty hour weeks till his employer went bankrupt and ended his idyl, or perhaps he does not care to work. Perhaps he went bankrupt when he ran up huge medical bills, or perhaps he has never paid a bill in his life. The important thing to remember is that we do not know what his (or her) life has been, we have not walked in their shoes or faced the awful choices they've made. We do not sit in comfort because we are deserving; perhaps we made some good choices along the way, but we live well mostly because of good fortune. We were born into reasonably affluent families, we were able to get good educations, we had the right guidance and mentors when we needed them - we had no hand in any of those events, and yet they have placed us where we are far more than anything we've done ourselves.

Humility in the knowledge of our good fortune and empathy for those who fell along the road should be our default stance, rather than a smug self-righteousness. We may not be able to personally help every person in need, but we can start by suspending judgement and we can hold our appointed agents, our government to the same recognition of reality. We universally agree that people deserve a second chance. But, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, they also enjoy a right to "live in peace, honor and human dignity--free to speak, and pray as they wish--free from want--and free from fear". Refusing to treat them as criminals for being poor, refusing to humiliate them for needing help is the first step in freeing them from want and fear. A man forced to live on his knees is not a man able to stand on his feet.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Destroying Mephistopheles

Some years ago, I came across a very profound thought in a Fantastic Four comic. Superhero comics, at their heart, portray the unending battle between good and evil, and in this particular story, the end is achieved when Mephisto, evil personified is banished from his own realm. Yet, in victory, one of the heroes explains that Mephisto did not create evil, but rather was simply the face of evil and that so long as evil lived on in the world, Mephisto would simply rise again no matter how often they defeated him. It was a lesson that struck a chord with me and I have never forgotten the idea.

I was reminded of this lesson, not once, but many times over the last few months as the Islamic State rose across Syria and Iraq. The sheer barbarity of these murderous hordes seems beyond comprehension, and as they piled on the atrocities, vows to defeat them have poured in from leaders in both the nations that bear the immediate brunt of their violence as well as those further out in the West. Last week, when they posted a video showing the chilling murder by burning of a captured Jordanian pilot, Jordan vowed to destroy the ISIS. And I found myself asking anew: how do you destroy the evil that drives this rabble?

Military power can never defeat the ISIS. To be sure, the armies now bringing their might to bear against this militia can wrest control of the towns and cities that currently lie in silent suffering beneath the black banners, but this is a war that is not really about territory. In some ways, the ISIS obscured the real problem when they set out to establish a physical nation or Caliphate. Now Syria and Iraq and their myriad allies have a tangible target, be it Mosul, Raqqa or any of the many other towns under ISIS governance. And in turn, when the ISIS sought legitimacy as a state, they undertook the very tasks and burdens that had marked the failure of the preceding regimes there and paved the way for the very success of the ISIS. There are reports that water supply and electricity services have seriously contracted under the ISIS and that farms will produce a fraction of what they did under the far from perfect or tender rule of Assad or Maliki.

But in the end, the ISIS is not a real state, no matter its claims. It is the face of an idea, and ideas cannot be defeated by battlefield victories. The ISIS may be destroyed in battle, its soldiers killed or captured and every last leader of note executed, but unless there is a real change in the mindset of an entire people, it is only a matter of time before another entity arises to feed the madness that infects the world. The ISIS did not train or dispatch the killers in Paris, or those who seem to strike near daily in towns across Europe. ISIS, or at least the original ISIS, did not capture the Egyptian Christians who were killed in Libya late last week. It was Boko Haram, not ISIS who stalks the villages of Nigeria, slaughtering innocents and kidnapping children to sell into slavery. The Lord's Resistance Army flourished in Uganda long before ISIS was even dreamed of, and provides proof, if further proof be needed that the madness may wear the face of one religion more often than others, but can in fact exist in any and every absolutist religion and ideology. Twenty years ago, we called that evil the Taliban in Afghanistan. It's worth recalling that two decades of war against the Taliban have brought us no closer to defeating them.

There are certainly steps that can be taken to constrain the rise of these murderous groups. The governments across the region, from West Africa, across the arc of North Africa and Middle East all the way into Central Asia, South Asia and beyond, have long failed their people at so many essential levels. So many of these countries provide less than acceptable civic services, be it roads, electricity or even drinking water; worse yet, the lands groan under a tyranny of corruption, where even basic justice is usually no more than a dream, and victory in the court of law has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with the depth of one's pockets. Be they secular or otherwise, there has been a collective failure that simply leaves the hapless natives willing to turn to any group that promises change. And harsh as the justice system is in the hands of these nominally Islamic parties, it sadly is often perceived as an improvement over the Byzantine and onerous system it replaces. A functioning and responsive government does not guarantee victory, nor ensure that religious fanaticism will never flourish, but it will greatly improve the chances of both and failure to provide such a government will doom the region to more, and viler versions of these butchers and their murderous ideas.

The second step is far harder. We, the world in general and the afflicted regions in particular, need to embrace liberalism, compromise, diversity and education. For seventy years or more, the governments of the Middle East have fanned hatred towards Israel to divert attention to their own shortcomings. Even governments further afield, with absolutely no real link to the Palestinian people, like India, Pakistan and Indonesia, have nurtured hatred towards Israel in an ill-conceived attempt to keep their Muslim populations pliable. But most of these regimes lost control of the forces they'd unleashed a long time ago, and most of the hatred they'd engendered turned inwards, towards their governments or convenient other targets. Israel was never really the issue, neither her real or imagined acts against Muslims, but hatred once released is easily fixated on alternate targets. It is unfortunate that we cannot turn back the clock and so prevent this madness. Instead we can only try to deal with the matured consequences of that juvenile decision. While honesty at this stage would likely gain little, a toning down of the mindless rhetoric would be a first and vital step. Acknowledging the mistakes of the past and especially embracing the rights of the religious minorities would be a crucial step.

Islam has no governing body, but a synod of Islamic scholars and priests would carry great influence, far more than any single leader. Simply because such an act has never occurred in the past does not preclude one in the future. If there is one thing at which religious leaders excel, it is finding new ways to remain relevant in a changing world. A Council of Nicea-style  gathering, and especially including the leaders of both major branches, could provide the only kind of compelling voice that can convince the credulous believers and footsoldiers of the error of their ways. If such a council did convene, it would finally launch the Islamic world onto a path for modernity.

And in the end, only embracing modernity and tolerance can deliver the Middle East from the madness of the ISIS. Killing a soldier of the ISIS, or a hundred or a thousand, means but little in a word where life in cheap, but de-legitimizing the  leaders and their ideology will make all the difference. In the end, it is impossible to defeat, or even permanently destroy the ISIS on the physical field of battle but they can and must be defeated in the realm of ideas.

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Law By Any Other Name

Some days ago I read an interesting article on the stranglehold our laws and regulations have over our daily life. This was a balanced and thought-provoking article, for most part, though it made a few errors in conflating laws and regulations and did not distinguish clearly between the federal government and more localized authorities. However, it reinforced a theory that I'd heard some years ago that there is no longer a single person or small group that controls our lives, but rather that we are at the mercy of a vast and faceless bureaucracy that punishes individuals not out of spite or hate but simply because it exists and functions.

It is hard to dispute that we live in a highly regulated society, and many argue that we live in fact in an over-regulated world. This is a major political issue and even appeals across the political spectrum, though predictably the solutions are less clear than the problem and far less universally accepted. Regardless of which aspect of regulation one chooses to examine, the opposing sides of the political world have widely different responses. Environmental regulation and worker protections are anathema to conservatives while progressives swear we do not go nearly far enough, while abortion restrictions and marriage definition quite neatly flip their positions around. And therein lies the first of the problems: we do not object to laws and regulations per se, just to those that do not suit our political positions. In a world of compromise then, it follows that we will always have regulations that no not suit us; the burning question is whether the laws and regulations we have actually hinder us in our daily lives.

Many business owners contend that they struggle under an unsustainable load of regulations. There is usually some hyperbole involved, but there is also a certain justification for their angst. Yet, as the article points out, each law and regulation taken in isolation is usually justified and quite often widely supported. Laws are usually passed to reflect the wishes of the wider public, and whichever law one chooses to examine will seem justified. The Great Recession is an excellent example, where the excesses of the unregulated financial world plunged the economy into chaos and led eventually to a slew of new regulations designed to prevent a repeat. Similarly, the mass shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT prompted calls for regulation on certain guns (the fact that the public demand led nowhere is moot in this discussion, the point is that Congress reacted to an event and a public demand).

The key however is that laws and regulations make sense in isolation. Taken together we often end up with a jumbled mass of contradictory and mind numbing requirements, regulations that would challenge Daniel himself should be asked to judge their worth and meaning. This is certainly a problem, yet it is not an insurmountable issue, should the goodwill and political desire exist. It must first be recognized that there are three distinct sets of rules, viz. laws passed by Congress (or a lower level legislature) that distinctly specify certain requirements, laws passed but which leave the specifics to be spelled out by regulatory agencies and finally regulations put in place by various entities (both public and private) to help them navigate the first two sets. In the article I cited, it's crucial to note that most of the failures in practice were caused by the third set, and as often as not, caused by a lack of independent thinking or a clear understanding of the reasons for the rules (e.g. the school that banned teachers from calling 911 was attempting to prevent police being summoned too often for discipline issues, and understanding that would have freed the teacher to call emergency services for a medical issue). The second and greater problem is that all public entities (school districts, emergency rescue services, utility agencies) and private companies draft voluminous lists of rules on behavior to avoid being sued, by employees and the public they serve. Congress does not have legislation on acceptable interaction of men and women at work, yet many companies will have lengthy lists of "dos and don'ts" to negate the risk of inappropriate behavior leading to a harassment suit, to offer one example. Human nature is the culprit here; in the absence of regulation, stronger groups will assert themselves at the expense of weaker ones. Human nature also has led to numerous lawsuits against companies and public entities, no matter how big or how small the grievance and how much blame they actually deserved. Hence fast food companies feel the need to warn us that the hot coffee they provide really is hot, or that ingesting unknown chemicals may not be a wise course of action. These are not the result of a regulatory government run amok. The fault, if fault it be (for  reality is never cleanly defined in black and white) lies wholly with us, both the victims who sued and the juries of their peers who so often have rewarded the seemingly frivolous claims with the same largesse of more deserving cases.

While the laws passed by the government often complicate life, they are not always passed with that intent. Most laws are intended to address real needs and pressing problems. But as the years roll by, the vast numbers of laws begin to stack up and inevitably we end up with both contradictory laws and occasionally foolish laws. I am constantly disheartened by the laws in India that still prohibit any intimate gesture between the sexes in public, or the Texas law that criminalized homosexual relations till it was finally struck down by the Supreme Court. There are many more rules, passed decades even centuries ago that are antiquated yet remain in full force, if simply not enforced today. For all we know, there are probably plenty of laws against cohabitation, premarital sex or the like. Laws against blasphemy, swearing and drinking on Sundays have similarly fallen aside as society progressed. But other less visible restrictions remain in effect, forgotten till someone finds a reason to challenge them or use them.

We would definitely gain if all our laws were subjected to an intelligent audit. However, such an audit could be undertaken, leave alone succeed only if every player approached the exercise with an open mind and a spirit of compromise, a combination sadly lacking in most of us. Some have suggested that all new laws include a sunset clause that will automatically retire them unless renewed. I almost endorsed that idea for a moment, but in reality that would greatly complicate life. If every law we had today was temporary, we would have little to no certainty in life. In the most extreme case, one could imagine basic laws against theft and cheating falling prey to political squabbles and failing their renewal, leaving one at the mercy of the unscrupulous. Perhaps a better use of our energy would be to urge that different government agencies get together and reconcile their different regulations so that we have fewer outright contradictions in practice. And we should remember how irksome regulations can be when next we sit to draft rules or regulations that will affect others.

But above all, we need to remember that a world without rules and regulations has no order at all, and will not be a civilized land. It is rules that protect us from chaos and shelter us against the depredations of the greedy and the power of the wicked. The law is, in the end, not so much an ass, as a necessary evil.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Police and Public: A Two Way Steet That's Closed

It's been over four months since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO shone a light on a part of the American politic that most citizens would rather not face or acknowledge. Race in America is always a sensitive subject, and more importantly, certain to stir deep passions. When an unarmed young black man is shot by police, it is certain to cause great anger within his community, no matter the exact circumstances. When the shooting occurs in a Southern city, when the police of that predominantly black township is predominantly white and when the reaction on all sides seems tone-deaf at best, it would seems inevitable that trouble would follow. In the following months, more young black men were shot by police. More accurately, in the following months the press reported about more young black men who were shot by police. And this week, the next, and equally inevitable chapter was written, when two police were murdered while on duty, gunned down in cold blood by a young black man.

And yet, we have yet to acknowledge the real problems, of which all the violence and angst of these past months is but a symptom. While the New York police may blame the death of their colleagues on the rhetoric of their mayor, a bit of introspection should tell them that the badly disturbed killer was not taking his cues from Bill DiBlasio, especially when he first shot his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore before heading to New York. If anything could destroy the righteous anger of the thousands protesting peacefully, it was this senseless act, and the greatest tragedy in a tale marked by more than its share will be that protesters will now be reluctant to air their legitimate concerns and that the supporters of harsh police action will feel and act vindicated. In weeks past, athletes on the biggest TV stages made a quiet statement with mute gestures as they entered the stadium or a simple T-shirt message.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this sordid mess has been the response of the police to these protests, or in fact any protests. The St. Louis police demanded that the Rams football team apologize for drawing attention to the fact that Michael Brown was unarmed when shot, as were the victims in so many other similar cases. The police do not understand the frustration and anger in the communities they serve and in turn feel that those protesting their actions do not appreciate the risks they face daily, every moment that they are in uniform. That is essentially the same feeling that has led to a almost juvenile behavior of the New York police, when the mindlessly lash out at the Mayor for his empathy with an unarmed man who died in a police choke hold; they ignored the equal empathy he wished to display when their fellow officers were murdered in cold blood last week, in part because they feel that his earlier criticism denies him the right to condole with them in their loss.

Like a couple in a bad marriage, both the police and the minority communities do not see each others point of view and every act is seen through a prism of distrust. Add in a racial filter and it's all too easy for the two sides to neither hear nor understand each other. In reality, all the anger has obscured an important fact: these deaths are not about race, they are not about a police force out of control, it's most certainly not about the wrong and overeager use of lethal force or prohibited choke holds. Those are all valid concerns, but they are simply symptoms of the actual underlying problems. Not surprisingly, both problems are fairly uniquely American and that in part makes them both harder to recognize and certainly far more difficult to address.

The problem starts with manpower and cost. The US has always struggled with the high cost, and shortage of, manpower and the police forces have been no exception. It's generally left fewer officers on the street than might be ideal, and police departments have always turned to technology to extend their reach with fewer personnel. We've seen police switch from foot patrols to police cruisers; in the last twenty years, most departments have switched from a pair of officers per cruiser to just the one officer in each car. This definitely extends the reach and coverage of units with limited personnel, but it exacerbates  a different problem that I will address below. However, the most obvious effect has been to create a gap between the officers and the neighborhoods they police. A modern police force, reflecting the modern view of policing, should interact with the community. Totalitarian states, echoing the concept from colonial nations of yesteryear, use their police to suppress and control their population and the police serve the ruler, not the people, but in a liberal democracy one would expect the police to live up to the idea that they serve the community. It's a concept that receives plenty of lip service (after all, nearly every department has "To protect and serve" in its motto) but without a real interaction between the groups on either side of the blue line that sentiment rings hollow. The problem goes far beyond just a lack of information on criminal activity; when the police force is insulated from the people there is a lack of empathy in both groups and a real lack of understanding of the issues that the other side faces.

Given the generally enlightened attitudes on race, so far removed from just fifty years ago, I cannot imagine that even a predominantly white police force walking the streets of an inner city populated by black people or Hispanics would be unable to reach out and develop a rapport with the people. But this can happen only if the officers can interact face to face with the people. Human interaction should never be underestimated, and it can transform the way people think about each other and the way they act. Conversely, when police and citizens are separated, there is a dehumanizing aspect - think about rap music referring to police as "pigs" - and when forced into confrontation, it is a lot easier to employ lethal force against someone that isn't really seen as a fellow human being. Once the first step of separation is taken, the gap simply widens. Today, even when one encounters police out of their cruisers, there is a lack of interaction. Given that their paths will rarely cross again, neither  the citizens nor the police make much effort to even greet each other more than perfunctorily. When police do respond to a call for their services, they tend to be professional (in the best sense) but there is a lack of human contact in the meeting; we are but statistics, mere numbers in a spreadsheet rather than people. Again, this is not a failing of the officers at a personal level - when given the chance, police officers have reacted with great warmth and sincerity - but the system in which we live today makes such events few and far between. In the end, the best chance one has to meet a police officer today is when one is a victim. Or, sadly, suspected of wrongdoing. Given the relative time we spend not in either role, it's not surprising that we barely know each other. When the only interaction between the police and people is suspected crimes, as is the case for so many young black men, it is hardly surprising that the only emotion between them is suspicion, fear, resentment and anger.

This lack of interaction plays no small role in the other major problem plaguing police-civilian relations, and as I mentioned before, this too is a quintessentially American problem: guns. Now admittedly, I am strongly in favor of gun control and naturally any case involving a shooting death will prompt me to urge greater control of firearms. It seems so self-evident to me that an overabundance of guns, coupled with ever less control on who may carry them or where they may be taken, is the greatest reason that police will react with lethal force in any confrontation. In the case of Ferguson, MO, the police officer has testified that Michael Brown lunged towards him, and he reacted instinctively to protect himself. Leaving aside the possibility that his story is not strictly true, the fact is that a police officer would be not unjustified in suspecting that every person he confronts may be armed and willing to shoot back. When police confront a person, they fear him or her, just as much as the person fears them. Just this past weekend, an officer in Flagstaff, AZ was shot dead when he responded to a domestic violence call. When an officer in Cleveland shot and killed twelve year old Tamir Rice, he was responding to a report of an "armed man"; as it turns out that was a kid with a toy (but realistic looking) gun who refused to obey an order. From the kids viewpoint nothing made sense - a police officer (who he was probably conditioned to distrust) order him to drop his gun and lie flat, as though he he some dangerous criminal. For a young kid on the cusp of becoming a teen, refusing an order would seem the most natural thing in the world. For a policeman, lacking any empathy with the boy he's confronting, who may be armed and dangerous, that refusal was enough to trigger his deadly reaction. No one was wrong and no one was right - but a child died because he had a toy gun.

The fact is police face a danger every minute they are on duty. They are alone, stripped of wingmen - costs and manpower shortages have reduced patrol cars to just one officer per vehicle - so many stops involve two and three cruisers converging on a single vehicle before the police approach. If the person stopped turns violent, the police have little chance to protect themselves from the first strike and hence they respond with measures designed to give themselves some protection, but which are humiliating for those on the receiving end. Now when you add in racial tensions, and a lack of empathy between police and civilians, every move by one is viewed through a hateful prism of distrust and even the smallest, most innocent actions are interpreted in the most negative manner possible.

These are not problems that can be solved easily. Having the same number of police per capita as say France, would involve increasing the total number of officers by fifty percent, a cost increase that is beyond unimaginable. Even were that possible, our sprawling suburbs would make foot patrols impossible and even if we had the men to walk the streets, they would find contact rare; in the inner cities, decades of distrust will not vanish overnight even if we could triple or quadruple the number of officers and worse yet would probably lead to an initial feeling of being invaded and occupied. Guns are so deep a part of American culture that removing them from the equation between police and community is not even worth a thought today. Until America awakens to the consequences of universal gun ownership, nothing will happen, and so far the attitude has pure denial. Meanwhile we will continue to send our police for more training and we will write lengthy directives on the correct protocols for employing deadly force. But our police will remain removed from the community around them, suspicion and distrust will continue and increase, and the next confrontation will end as always - in a death, that whether it's that of a child, a young adult or a police officer is just as tragic.

(On a sidenote: for those who think that more guns would reduce crime and killing consider that two armed officers of the NYPD were shot down before they or anyone else could react. Two trained police officers could not save themselves from a less than emotionally stable civilian; what chance then for a bunch of people who have never trained to react to a shooting situation?)

Some interesting links:
Today more and more police wear body armor while on duty -
A comparison of police manpower levels around the world -

Friday, December 12, 2014

Forgive Me When I Cry (I Have Legal Status, the World is Mine)

Soon after the President announced his executive action on undocumented immigrants, I came across a thoughtful open letter addressed to the President and seeking answers on behalf of the real forgotten class, viz. legal immigrants. Titled "Mr. President, What About Me?", the letter swoops straight to the question that constantly burns in the minds of legal immigrants. The US system seems oftentimes tilted against those who wait patiently in line, forgotten and ignored while those who throng in without following the rules seem to hog all the attention.

On reflection, though, I realized that the author had made several mistakes, likely in ignorance. It does reflect on the Byzantine immigration laws that even reasonably intelligent persons have little chance of navigating the system without retaining specialized counsel. But one must remember that the American system, most notably its tax laws, treat citizens with the same lack of empathy or reasonableness. The opacity of the immigration system aside, Ms. Godinho has really far fewer complaints than she realizes. She bemoans the ten years spent in the US without reaching the end of the road on citizenship. But for a Portuguese citizen like her, the lines are typically far shorter. Of course, i do not know under which category she applied, but employment based categories tend to be current for everyone except applicants from China, India, Mexico and the Philippines. In other words, she would normally qualify for a permanent residency visa soon after applying. If the process has dragged out longer, it is undoubtedly an indictment of the system's complexity but it would seem that the complexity rather that the actual law has stymied her.

She also mentions the familiar complain that non-permanent immigrants have to periodically visit US consulates outside the territorial borders to obtain a visa stamp. But her use of the term "self-deport" is misleading, even unnecessarily inflammatory. While an undoubted hassle, the requirement is not really that onerous, and till recently, there was an option to obtain the necessary stamp in Washington D.C. rather than travel out the country. That option, like many other conveniences, was swept aside after the terror attacks on the Twin Towers in 2011. However, it is still not necessary to travel outside the US to get the stamp. Rather it is necessary to get one's visa stamp only if one has traveled outside and wishes to return. I have sometimes gone several years without an updated stamp, and get that addressed only when I'm next traveling internationally.

She also mentions the burden on being tied to the employer who initially sponsored her residency visa application. But if she feels so constrained, it maybe out of a misunderstanding of the rules. Not only does she have the option of concurrently remaining on a work visa which can be transferred from one employer to the next, but after clearing all the checks she may apply for a temporary document that would release her from her dependence on an employer.

To be sure, the points I've addressed are still a burden of some magnitude, and I, like any other legal immigrant would welcome any action that eased my path to permanent residency and lifted the Damocles sword of deportation. But that is perhaps the most important point to address in her appeal. The President has actually taken some steps to ease the path for legal immigrants as well. This was a far less publicized aspect of his action, since legal immigrants do not stir emotions in the same way as those who are less welcome, but it exists and we may well see some positive developments in the days ahead. Even if those presidential actions do not yield benefits for me personally, I would be no worse off than I was before, and in reality still better off than those who were granted this so called amnesty.

The fact is, and this is where I strongly disagree with Ms. Godinho, we legal immigrants have always been much better off than those who  are undocumented. We face hassles and irritation in our daily life while seeking the American Dream; those who hike across the southern border face physical hardships and dangers we could scarcely imagine. While we come here to pursue the life we dream of, the undocumented visitors have only the most backbreaking and menial jobs open to them. That magic page in our passport that grants us leave to live here also opens doors to us that remain firmly shut in the face of those lacking it. My wages are regulated against unfair depression, while undocumented residents must work for a pittance and have no recourse. Once it is proved that my skills are unavailable from any US citizen, my employer is required to pay me according to the worth so proved and I can seek a better market for my skills if I'm unhappy with my remuneration; an undocumented worker has no such freedom and all too often they fall victim to unscrupulous employers.

But above and beyond mere dross, my legal status empowers me in a way that an undocumented resident could only dream of having. I can live in any residential community I desire, while they are forced into inferior quarters where landlords ask no questions. They could certainly never hope to own a house, since no bank would be able to extend them credit. More importantly, I am protected by US law and its enforcement services, while the undocumented must skulk in the shadows and avoid all contact with the police, even when they are the victims. That is the cruelest aspect of their life, for the people sworn to protect and heal them are enemies to be avoided on account of the dark secret they bear. When my home was burglarized or when my car was rear-ended, I had not a moment's qualms in calling the police for assistance. Imagine however a life in which even serious injury must be borne in silence, for it is impossible for an undocumented resident to seek aid without risking all they have struggled to achieve. The children of legal visitors are automatically citizens of this country; though the children of undocumented residents enjoy the same status, they are sometimes unable to avail of their rights without endangering the residency of their parents.

My confidence stems from that little slip of paper that bestows upon me the right to live freely here, albeit for a limited time. But in that time, I enjoy all the freedom and rights of my American neighbors, save the right to flip burgers at McDonald's (or other menial low-wage tasks) or waste my vote in a highly partisan political experience. I live, secure in the knowledge that I am on a path of permanent residency here, long and meaningless as it may seem; my undocumented counterparts know that they may never enjoy full status, not even if they live their entire lives here. I may live here, with dignity. That respect may never come to those in the shadows and that, in short, is why I fully support the President's action and do not feel that I have been forgotten. True, I may have been forgotten, but it is because the trials I face in my path are mere irritations and discomforts and barely worth mentioning, while the millions of undocumented residents daily live in fear and hardship. This executive action, while merely a start, at least bestows upon them some security in life and permits them to stand tall and live with the respect and dignity that should be the right of any man or woman, more especially those who live in the USA, no matter how they got here.

Monday, July 7, 2014

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Jihadists?

The Mother Abbess in "The Sound of Music" liked a measured approach to her problem charge, counseling her fellow nuns to accept Maria for what she was. And that turned out really well, as we all know. However, when the problem is not a spontaneous, free-spirited young woman, but a group of blood-thirsty murderous and merciless killers, acceptance is not so much a policy for dealing with them as it is a graceful suicide note. This past couple of months have seen separate groups in different corners of the world showcase their vision for the world around them, and their vision is so terrible that life for those subject to their tender mercies is a worse hell than anything dreamed up by any theologian.

In Nigeria, a group whose name explicitly explains its world view has found worldwide recognition after kidnapping two hundred school girls and threatened to sell them into slavery. (A side note: their threat reveals the very real existence of a slave trade for young women, centered strangely enough on the same Islamic world that so worries about the morals of everyone). Boko Haram (or "Western ways are bad") is determined to impose a highly regressive regime on the vast regions of Nigeria that it currently terrorizes, banning not just the common "ills" like alcohol and gambling, and of course women in public, but also proscribing all modern education presumably because it is seen as "western".

In Iraq and Syria, an equally rabid group has seized control of massive swaths of territory. While the stunning advances in Iraq have been aided by far less fundamentalist allies who have attempted to temper the blood lust of the jihadists, there have already been claims of massacres of those judged not sufficiently pious. While typically such claims would be denied as propaganda of their enemies, in this case the claims are made by the jihadists, complete with videos proudly documenting their actions. It would be unacceptably murderous, but understandable if these were part of a psychological warfare campaign designed to strike fear into government troops and convince them to quit the fight. Unfortunately, while terror is the aim of this group, it seems be mostly a promise of life to come for everyone once they establish their ideal Islamic state. Perhaps nothing is as telling about the nature of this group as the fact that they are considered too fanatical and blood-thirsty by their original inspiration, al Qaida.

While I normally accept the right of every person to follow any religious belief, the determination of the more religious fanatics to impose their beliefs on everyone else is unacceptable. I disagree with any attempt to force one's personal beliefs on one's fellow citizens, even in a relatively benign manner, notwithstanding the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States. This does raise the delicate question of whether atheists are as guilty of forcing their world view upon people of faith. However while some atheists do occasionally get over-enthusiastic in demanding that their religious brethren open their eyes and embrace rationality, they rarely have the inclination, much less the power to do much more than vocally berate. For all the claims of being beleaguered and oppressed by agnostics and atheists, that usually arises from their frustration at being unable to impose their beliefs on others. Being prevented from opening public meetings with prayers is not oppression of the faithful, it's protecting all other sects including non-believers from the oppression of the majority faith. Similarly demanding, even insisting that science classes teach evolution as the accepted theory and give no time to malarkey like Creationism is not in any way a denial of religious rights, it simply insists that science classes be devoted to science and not to religion.

I discussed this question at length, because it is critical to distinguish between those who demand the right to live their beliefs and those who understand that right as a carte blanche to run roughshod over the rights of others. Most religious groups believe that they have a unique knowledge of the unknowable (their own way of seeing it, really since history has a habit of rendering the mysterious unknowable remarkably mundane). They have every right and freedom to their smug self-importance, and even to tell us non-believers about the everlasting torture that awaits us post-death. Unfortunately however, when faced with skepticism, the faithful prefer to use force to convince those who would shrug off well-meaning attempts to save their souls.

The big difference is that while the more mature religion of the West, and the less insistent religions of the East refrain from overt coercion, newer (comparatively speaking, by some seven hundred years) Islam has yet to learn restraint. While the majority of Islamic people would undoubtedly prefer to live in peace and leave the judgment of the world to the all-powerful god they believe in, and even the small minority who would force their view mostly push a more inclusive attitude. The truly violent groups like Boko Haram, the Taliban, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and al Qaida and its many offshoots represent a small, even miniscule, minority that will commit any violence, any atrocity to further their dream of an Islamic state that conforms to their twisted vision.

It is easy to ridicule the central pillar of their belief - if they truly believe in such a powerful god, why does he need them to act with such great violence, and why do non-believers need to be killed as quickly as possible, when there is all of eternity left for their god to mete out judgement - but neither logic nor ridicule is likely to sway such fanatics. Filled with absolute belief in their mission, they will never hear anything that would conflict with their vision. Even of that small group of fanatics, most of them are young and impressionable, led into a life of violence and murder by a tiny number of older leaders. Whether these leaders truly believe in the hatred and venom they spew or whether they are the ultimate cynics is impossible to say, though it is hard to understand how any man could be so scared of a fourteen year old girl as to order her death for speaking out for education; or how anyone who claims to be serving a higher power can justify enslaving hundreds of young girls for the "crime" of being in school; or how there can be any justification for the near daily murder of hundreds of their fellow humans, and even fellow Muslims, in the name of liberating them. 

All this begs the question: how do you neutralize this threat and stop their mindless violence? It is extremely difficult, when they are prepared to kill anyone and everyone in their path, and at least amongst the lower level fighters, are ready to sacrifice their lives readily if they can take their perceived enemies with them. Most ideologues hope to enjoy the world they fashion and that means that they are both interested in living to see their efforts succeed and that they may be willing to compromise and accept a lesser version of their dream if faced with determined resistance; these  jihadists however are willing to die willingly and there is no way to prove to them that their dream of eternal  bliss is but a foolish dream and neither force nor reason will deter them. There are many who would argue that the only way to stop them is to kill them all. Though I consider myself for most part a liberal, there are times when I wonder if that is the only available path. When these misguided fighters wage war on the innocent and defenseless, when they would enslave (literally!) women and kill girls who dare to pursue education, when they would destroy everyone who does not adhere to their own twisted ideas, it seems that ultimate force is the only way to truly stop their murderous journey.

Perhaps. Perhaps, sadly, for many of the young and angry youth who form their violent corps, there is no way to stop them in time. Some of these youth have never known any world but the world of hate and weening them from that savage dream is likely impossible. But it is critical to note just how few that number really is. These jihadists number in the thousands, at most, while there are over a billion Muslims in the world. In not one single theater of war do they command a majority, either in numbers or even in support. Why then are they able to produce so massive an effect? True, they are usually the most brutal and most fanatical in support of their cause. But the environment that they spring from is in the end the answer, both to their inception and their neutralizing. In most cases they come from societies that lack liberal education, openness and a respect for the rule of law or the right to peaceful dissent. Those that come from the Muslim communities of the West have faced a mixture of distrust outside and confusion within themselves, and that mixture has made them vulnerable to simplistic answers. It is telling that the Nigerian Islamic terrorists virtually rule massive swathes of the country because for all their brutality and madness, they still provide a better government than the official rulers.

Education and good government are the main weapons that would defeat the terrorists. These are not the kind of weapons that turn the battle overnight, but if the masses of the Islamic world have governments that they can trust, and critically that can act on information without brutality or repression, those millions of ordinary people would ignore the preachers of fanaticism aside. Starved of followers and money, the most virulent strain of jihadism would weaken and collapse. While this may seem simplistic and to and extent is so, consider two cases where the most rabid strains of Islam have failed to establish any deep roots - Bosnia and India. Bosnia's Muslims found themselves under attack from Serbia (and Christians at that), yet their nation has remained relatively quiet, and peaceful; all the more amazing when you consider the extremism that has been seen on every side, from Western Europe to the Middle East to the Caucasus. In India, a Muslim minority lives in relative harmony with a Hindu majority, giving lie to the idea that Muslim minorities are a recipe for disaster. Undoubtedly, there have been outbreaks of violence in India; but the critical factor is the lack of extremism within that Muslim community. This stands in especial contrast to the violence that wracks neighboring Pakistan, a nation created as a refuge for Muslims.

The lesson of India and Pakistan is perhaps the most important ever. A Muslim community, closely entwined with its liberal host, aware that there is a brighter future for its children through education and growth eschews the violent dreams and twisted paths of a Muslim majority that for all its religious freedom has neither real freedom nor any future worth living for in this life. Is it then surprising that they seek a path that promises happiness beyond the grave?

In the end,  there are few easy answers and no silver bullets in combating this scourge. But violence begets violence and every forceful act against the crazy minority will risk shaking an undecided few that their way of life is under attack, and will line up to replace the "martyred" fools. Focusing instead on the small steps that would stem the flow of new fighters will go far further in ending this madness. As Abraham Lincoln so eloquently said, "I defeat my enemy when I make him my friend." We do not bow down to the jihadist madness, but we should look instead to choke off their supply of rubes.