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Crime

A Game of Life and Death

With clear winners and losers…played every day!

If you answered, “the twelve year old boy, of course!” then you are pre-qualified for a position on the Cleveland Police Department.


Discriminatory or Wanton Police Violence is Dangerous

To the Police

Note: I was planning this post for a few days, but in light of the despicable murder of two police officers in New York I feel that a caveat is in order. Violence is only justified in terms of self-preservation or protection of the innocent. And this only if no other options are available. Anger. Revenge. The target had it coming. Or, as a friend of mine once commented on social media, “it’s better to be tried by nine than carried by six.” These are not legitimate excuses for violence any more than is “he reminded me of Hulk Hogan and I was scared” or “a black teen in a hoodie must be up to no good”. The man who killed two police officers in New York yesterday, a man whom I speculate will be revealed as deeply troubled, is not in any way justified in his actions. Any future assaults on police, and I fear that there will be, are criminal acts. Period. They are not a legitimate form of resistance to police exploitation or discrimination. The following post should be read as a sociological analysis and a reason to solve the dissonance and anomie that exists between many police departments around the country and the communities that they serve. It is not a call to justify violence.

Max Weber defined the state as the institution with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force against a defined group of people. The police are the ultimate manifestation of this monopoly. It is the police who are assigned the task to actually perform the violence required by the state to assert external social control. For instance, if an average guy on the street approaches you, tells you to lean against a wall and then attempts to put you in hand-cuffs, you are probably going to resist. You are going to defend yourself. Whoever this person is, if you do not perceive that they have a legitimate claim to assert force over you, you are justified in defending yourself.

However, if that person has a badge, identifies himself as a police officer, even if you believe that you have done nothing wrong, you will probably submit and allow the officer to cuff you. In most cases, if you feel that there has been some mistake, you know that there are protections for you, so your life is not in danger. There are in place legitimate protections for your rights and a means of redressing any errors that might have been made. We are, for the most part, not in a Kafkaesque world in which one is guilty just by virtue of being arrested.

This legitimacy, in modern society, is predicated on a concept of the social contract that was born three hundred years ago and elaborated by highly regarded founders of modern thought, like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau. We no longer talk much about this social contract and what it means, but it is implicit in our understanding of state legitimacy, and consequently in the legitimacy of state actions.

It is clear from the description above that this legitimacy is pretty tenuous. After all, what is the real difference between someone with a badge and someone without? Why is one perceived as a threat which must be fended off, while the other is seen as a valid agent of power, even violent power? That shroud of legitimacy isn’t very thick, and in many communities it is tattered and gossamer thin.

There is a certain amount of flexibility in the system. Communities do account for human error. We recognize that there will be times when violence, even deadly violence will be used inappropriately, be it maliciously or unintentionally. After all, the actors of the state are humans, subject to human error, misjudgment and frailty. When such incidents occur, there is outrage, but that outrage can be addressed and the social contract renegotiated.

However, when there is a clear pattern of long term and systemic exploitation of this social contract, when it is clear that power has corrupted the very agents responsible for its exercise, the legitimacy of the state as an institution is called into question. Racially segregated systems, such as the police force in Ferguson, or inherently exploitative policies such as ‘stop-and-frisk’ in New York will, without redress, undermine the understood legitimacy between the state and people. Patterns of abuse will manifest in the citizen as an expectation of abuse. Then, when asked to lean against the wall and put my hands on my head, I may feel that I am threatened, that my life is in danger. That this exercise of power is not legitimate. I may be inclined to fight, to defend myself or my family as is my right. The authority invested in the badge is validated by the legitimate exercise of state power. Once that legitimacy falls, the badge is nothing more than a thin piece of metal, and the holder is no more subject to deference than anyone else on the street.

That’s why it’s incumbent on the police and on the state to protect that legitimacy. Being a police officer is difficult enough. Without this shroud of legitimacy, policing becomes impossible regardless of how devoted and altruistic the motives of the officer. We must understand that the relationship between the community and the police is an ongoing negotiation. Without open negotiation and a fair and just process for redressing grievances, this negotiation must become adversarial. Adversarial interactions ultimately take on an in-group/out-group manifestation. Each side becomes socialized to believe that it is “us against them,” and consequently, each side entrenches itself for conflict. Interactions become increasingly adversarial, and, consistent with the Thomas Theorem, this contentious relationship shapes and reproduces future conflicts. This is known as a conflict cycle.

We see this in black families who feel obligated to teach their children, especially their boys, how to “survive” an encounter with the police. Clearly the social contract has broken down. Re-establishing that social contract must be the priority of activists and police forces alike. That being said, police, being the representatives of the state and state power, are charged with the responsibility to take the lead in these negotiations. The police represent the state when they pick up their badges and don their uniforms. Consequently, it is the responsibility of the police to serve the community, not to oppress it, regardless of the circumstances, to preserve the validity of the relationship. If that shroud is torn, it is the state’s responsibility to start the mending process.

Added: That’s why I was deeply disturbed when I read the response from the head of New York’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, in response to the shooting. “There’s blood on many hands tonight—those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protests, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.” Comments like this only build walls between the police and the community. More walls are not needed. More doors are needed.

The community counts on the police for protection. The police require the legitimacy of their station as public servants licensed to do violence under very specific circumstances. When that relationship breaks down, as it has in communities all over the country, then both the community and the police are in danger. A state of anomie exists that can be exploited by the unscrupulous both at the community level, the police level and the level of the state. This is the nature of the protests (there is no “guise.” There is legitimate outcry against abuse). Those who believe that this crisis is over Mike Brown or Eric Garner or any of the hundreds, even thousands of victims (not all of whom have died) of police exploitation and abuse, misunderstand the nature of this issue. This is about delegitimizing patterns of systemic exploitation and corruption.

The fact is that the tenuous legitimacy of the police as a valid representation of state authority has been undermined by years, sometimes generations, of abuse. The killings of unarmed black suspects are only the clearest manifestations of that abuse. The increasingly militarized precincts throughout the nation represent further entrenchment and greater dissonance between the police and the communities they serve. Added: If there’s blood on anyone’s hands, it’s on the hands of those like Patrick Lynch who perpetuate an ongoing conflict cycle. It’s on the hands of those who profit from and exploit this dissonance, be it looters or weapons dealers.

It is clear that this breakdown of the social contract is dangerous to members of the community. However, it is also dangerous to the police—even to the great majority of officers who conscientiously serve.

_________________________________________

Addendum: Condolences to the family and loved ones of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.


Framing and Unframing Prejudice

My Response to a so-called Heartwarming and Hopeful Photo

 

 

My initial reaction to the now famous image of the Sgt. Barnum hugging twelve year old Devonte Hart was probably much the same as everyone else’s. Finally, something good, something hopeful, emerged from the dust of this horrible tragedy. It’s a perfect photo at the perfect time, after all. It’s exactly what we wanted to see. Healing.

Unfortunately, it isn’t what we need to see.

What we need to see is infinitely more complex and insidious. What we need to see is something that cannot be fixed with a hug.

First, Ferguson and now the Garner case and the multiple instances in which African Americans have been victimized by those very supposedly charged with the task of protecting us from the victimizers have gained notoriety in the press. It’s not like this race and class based oppression is anything new. It has simply gotten a voice by an active and angry community and a press that understands that, at least for now, this story sells advertising space.

On the other hand, it is part of the media’s latent function to support the status quo, to allow the foundations of privileged society to be shaken only enough to perpetuate the legitimacy of the press, but not enough to threaten the legitimacy of its elite patrons.

So, yes, the press reports on this issue, but at the same time does everything it can to turn our attention from the real issues, the true, damning reality that ours is still an oppressive, racist, exploitative and barbarically tribal society and that the victims of this barbarism cannot be kept down forever. Nor can they be pacified with a hug. So the press simplifies the story, frames it as a conflict between a man who happens to be white and a man who happens to be black…who may have had it coming to him anyway. Yes, Michael Brown was unarmed and shot dead because, as Officer Wilson admitted, he was big and scary. Cut to the video of Michael Brown being really big and scary, stealing little cigars from a store. Look at him. A big, black man pushing around that little store owner.

Sure, protestors are in the streets, facing a militarized police force, demanding redress, demanding justice. But look, here are some of the protestors looting a store! Look at the burning police car. How are the police supposed to protect us if stuff like this is allowed to happen?

Oh, look over here. Here’s a white person that was victimized by a black person. Yes, the black person was arrested and convicted and, because he’s black, received the highest possible sentence and will, because he’s black, more likely serve his sentence in full, and will, because he’s black, be subject to more stringent discipline while incarcerated, but never mind that. The point is that white people are victimized too, but you don’t see us rioting in the streets.

And don’t forget black-on-black crime. Nobody’s talking about black-on-black crime.

Now, look at this picture of a cop hugging a little black boy. See. Not all cops are bad. How unfair it is to condemn all police for the actions of a few bad apples. A few bad apples who will never even come to trial for their bad apple actions, but I’m sure there’s something else to look at.

In fact, look here and there and everywhere. But whatever you do, don’t look at the larger, more entrenched, more complicated issues. Keep buying our papers, but don’t take what is revealed too seriously. Let us, the fourth estate, do the thinking for you. Here’s a nice, feel good, picture.

Ironically, the larger issues are revealed by a closer, narrower examination of this now iconic image. Take a closer look at Devonte Hart. Look into his eyes. That’s where the story is. I’m sure that Sgt. Barnum is a nice guy and a good cop. Kudos to him for the role he has played. But the truth of this image is in the eyes of a twelve year old kid—a twelve year old black kid, because, let’s face it, it is imponderable that we would see this image, this expression, in this context, on a twelve year old white kid. Outside of the racial context, this image is meaningless. It is the fear, the hopelessness the uncertain yearning for security and stability mingled in the tears of Devonte Hart that is the real story.

The protests, the anger, the riots, the social anomie that is the outgrowth, is not about Michael Brown, or Eric Garner or any of a number of individual victims who have suddenly become newsworthy. It’s not about good cops or bad cops.

The real story, the story we need to see is that represented in the eyes of Devonte Hart. This is where race and class intersect with exploitation and oppression. Where prejudice and racism is incorporated into our social institutions, integrated into our perceptions through generations of social learning, the result will always be the construction and legitimization of the victimizer’s actions toward his victims. The norms that guide our behaviors are the result of hundreds of years of history and social processes. Officer Wilson’s interactions with Michael Brown were almost foreordained. A white cop, ingrained with the knowledge that his authority is to be respected, that black skinned suspects must be put in their place. A black male, knowing that he cannot expect justice from the police, must negotiate a tenuous sense of self and manhood between the conflicting and ubiquitous fear and anger. A community, wanting for economic and political justice, understanding that the police, the elected officials, the so-called justice system, does not exist for their protection. The badges and the guns are there to protect communities that matter, white communities, wealthy communities, from them. If that means a de facto death sentence for shop-lifting, or for just being big and black for that matter, so be it. The result is another black man, laying in the street, police bullets invading his body.

No more! We will take this no more!

Respect law and order despite the incessant disrespect that the law shows for you?

No more!

Protest peacefully despite never living a day in peace?

No more!

So when we look into Devonte Hart’s eyes, we must recognize that he is looking into his own future. We must try to see what he sees, and understand that there is more to this story than a cop hugging a boy or a victim slain. This is the story of oppression, exploitation, the systematic targeting of a community and the theft of Devonte Hart’s future.

That is the real story revealed in this image.

 


The Power of the Badge

Badge


Have We Forgotten our Responsibilities as Adults?

Regarding Trayvon Martin

 


Trayvon’s Right to Stand his Ground

there’s a key question that I really wish someone would ask with regard to the Trayvon Martin trial.did Trayvon Martin have a right to stand his ground?this isn’t just a key question fis probablyr the case, but also a clear weakness in the concept of a Stand Your Ground laws.

few conflicts are so simple as having an easily identifiable perpetrator and clearly identifiable victim. Usually both parties feel that they are justified in their actions. Zimmerman was probably sincere in his belief that Trayvon was a threat to his community. Perhaps this was motivated by race, or maybe it was motivated by the crime trends of the neighborhood as expressed by Zimmerman. He, therefore, felt justified in following Martin. When confronted by Martin, he almost certainly felt threatened.

What about Martin, however? Here was a young man being pursued by a stranger. Did he have, by virtue of Florida law, a right to stand his ground in the face of a threat? After all, the law should apply equally to Trayvon and to Zimmerman. Unfortunately, Trayvon did not survive the cinflict to make such a claim.

This is the hidden contradiction of Stand Your Ground laws. Only the survivor can make this defence. The law enshrines the dangerous ethic of “might makes right” or puts the law on the side of whoever shoots first.


A Note on Serving on Jury

And how the revolving door to the criminal justice system is greased

 

Yesterday, I had the privilege of performing my civic duty by serving on a jury. I’d always wanted to serve on a jury, but, despite being called almost every year, I never actually got on one—until yesterday, that is. It’s a good thing. I was beginning to take it personally.

I more than made up for my many years of exclusion. I took careful notes. I was appointed foreman and, I believe, the jury came to a just and right decision…with some prompting.

The experience was, however, an up-close look at how our criminal justice system perpetuates criminal stigma in individuals. The institutional norms of the criminal justice system tend to reinforce assumptions about criminal deviance. This often results in people trapped “in the system” in a destructive cycle of recidivism.

In this case, a young man was accused of “resisting and obstructing a police officer without violence.” This is an interesting law with some subtle implications with regard to what constitutes “resistance” if that resistance is not physically manifest How might such a law be used to reproduce “the criminal” and perpetuate criminal status and stigma?

Here’s what happened, according to the police: While responding to a noise violation the police found the defendant and two other people sitting on a lanai, listening to excessively loud music. Most of the police claimed that they could hear the music over a thousand feet away. The police claim that they smelled marijuana, but no evidence of the drug was collected at the scene.

When the police approached the lanai they discovered that one of the people, not the defendant, was armed with a pistol and very intoxicated. This prompted the police to secure the area. According to the police, the defendant was on the lanai and moving into the house. He was given a clear and direct order to stop, but instead continued into the house. He later emerged from a bedroom with his hands up and was arrested for the above charge. That was the nature of crime.

According to the defendant: He was in the kitchen mixing a drink (it was 6:30 in the morning, and he and his friends were up all night drinking) when he noticed the police officers’ flashlights. The music was really blaring. The source of the music was two-fold, a small, but powerful Bose stereo on the lanai and an even louder stereo in the home-owner’s bedroom. The defendant figured that he should wake the home-owner, tell him the police were there, and turn down the radio. He turned around, entered the house and proceeded to the home-owner’s bedroom, where he was sleeping. The defendant claims that he did not hear the police order him to stop.

This case really bothered us jurors. We were guided through the minutia of the second by second decisions that were being made by the police officers and by the defendant. Everyone agreed that the entire incident, with all of its variables among at least half a dozen participants, music blaring, and the emotional intensity of facing an armed and very intoxicated man, spanned less than one minute. No physical evidence was presented by the state, so all we had to go on was witness testimony. Both lawyers, especially the defense, made it a point to walk us through this testimony in detail.

The police did not have a consistent story with regard to where the defendant was at the time he was ordered to stop. Understandably, they were more focused on the man with the gun (a legal gun owner, for the record, who never drew his pistol). They all knew his location and disposition. As for the defendant, four police officers gave four different testimonials. Different still was the defendant’s testimony. He claimed that he was in the house about to step onto the lanai.

So whose testimony was “the truth”? It was impossible to say. In fact, it’s very likely that all of the eyewitnesses were wrong to varying degrees. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification accounts for 75% of convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. This truth is even recognized by the American Bar Association. What we see is predicated on where we are, what we are doing, what is going on around us. Despite the fact that we have over 180 degree field of vision, our focus is actually rather small. What we see is also subject to distortions in our recollection. When we are witness to something happening so quickly we miss many details. We then fill in the details later based on what we think might have happened.

With nothing to prosecute this case except eye-witness testimony, the state was burdened with ensuring that its witnesses were more believable than the defendant. This was not difficult. The five police officers, four of whom directly witnessed the event, were well spoken, thoughtful, professional and most likely honest. The status of the police officers gave their testimony weight. The prosecutor made sure that the jury was well aware of the officer’s qualifications and training. One juror stated flatly that police testimony in general weighs more significantly than the testimony of a defendant.¹

The defense attempted to insinuate that the police “got their stories straight” before the trial. Indeed, that probably happened to a certain extent. Perceptions of reality are social events as well as individual events. People, be they police officers or concert goers, will later collaborate on what they “saw” and develop a consensus as to the reality. They will know this collaborative reality to be true and valid. This is not dishonest, as the defense was inferring, but rather a human response to events, especially stressful events. It is, however, yet another reason why eye-witness testimony is so unreliable.

The prosecution used one other tactic to reinforce the validity of his witnesses over the defense. He “accidentally” let it slip that the defendant was a convicted felon. Ooops! Of course, the defense objected and we were instructed to disregard. Yeah, right! This little slip of the tongue on the part of the prosecutor could easily have won him the case. One juror admitted to defining the incident as a simple party gone bad before being informed that the defendant was a convict. Knowing the defendant’s past changed how the event was defined, or made real, for this juror.

We are our past, and our reputations shape the meanings ascribed to our actions. In this case, all we knew of the defendant was that he was a young, black male with a felony record. Did race play an issue? Perhaps, though nobody admitted to it. One juror did ask the question, “If this was a clean cut white man sitting in front of us would we even be here today?” Hmmmm. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this is a legitimate question. Race shapes our perceptions of individuals even if we don’t define ourselves as “racist.” For the purposes of this post, however, it’s impossible to infer the extent to which race played a part.

The young man’s future hung on the reasonable doubt that many of us had that he heard the order to stop. The state had to prove, in part, that the defended “refused” to follow the officer’s order. With the blaring music and the dynamics of the scene, all happening within the span of less than a minute, it was conceivable that he did not. None of the police agreed as to the disposition of the defendant at that time. There was no way for the state to prove the intent inferred by the term “refuse.”

This baffled us even more. The prosecution had to know that this was a weakness. Indeed, the prosecution constantly pointed out that all of the officers heard the order to stop. With this complication, why did the state even bother to bring this case to trial? After the verdict of not guilty was read to the court, the judge admitted that such charges were unusual, and rarely brought to trial under these circumstances. So what made this case special?

After the verdict, the judge explained that the young man in question was on probation. If he had been found guilty he would have gone to prison, quite possibly for a long time. Prison? For walking into a bedroom against orders? A quick Google search revealed that, five years ago, the nineteen year old defendant faced some drug possession charges and one count of home invasion. Aside from some minor traffic violations, there was no record of criminal activity on his part in the last five years. Prime criminal years for an individual are between ages fifteen and twenty-five. It’s likely that the young man in question, despite demonstrating some bad judgment, was entering a less tempestuous stage in his life. Could a prison sentence be justified under these circumstances?

What struck me, however, was the fact that we the jury never really knew what was at stake for this young man. By error or design we knew that he was a convicted felon. We did not know the nature of his conviction, nor did we know when he committed his crimes. The jurors could not be blamed for assuming the worst, and some speculated on these earlier convictions. On the other hand, we knew that a guilty verdict came with consequences, but this was a misdemeanor charge. My heart sank when the judge mentioned prison time. I was thankful that we reached a verdict of not guilty.

This verdict of “not guilty” was not a given. As far as I could tell, only two of the jurors, me and one other person, had a strong reasonable doubt. One juror quickly came around to our way of thinking. Another was concerned about the defendant’s felon status, but upon hearing our reasoning was convinced that the state did not make its case. I wonder about these last two jurors. We, with the strong reasonable doubt, were the first to speak about the case in the jury room. What if certainty of guilt, rather than reasonable doubt, first view expressed? One juror was convinced of his guilt through most of the deliberation. Could that juror have swayed the two less certain jurors to decide differently?

Often, once we define our realities, we defend those realities, even in the face of evidence to the contrary (and yes, that is just as true for me as it is for anyone else, though I’d like to think my sociological training tempers this tendency somewhat). Another juror, I suspect, really didn’t care one way or another and expressed that he would sleep just as well if the “kid was found guilty or not guilty.” Might that juror have jumped onto the most immediate discourse?

Upon facing a majority opinion, there were practical contingencies to consider. It was late at night before we entered the jury room for deliberation. It was not uncommon to hear complaints about the possibility of “being here all night.” Might a juror who would sleep just as well regardless of the outcome, especially knowing that the defended was a convict, simply have reinforced the majority opinion out of expediency rather than civic duty?

If a majority of the jurors decided upon guilty, for whatever reason, faith in police testimony, disdain for a convicted felon, fatigue or apathy, they assert significant pressure on the majority to conform. This is a classic example of research done by Solomon Asch. In this experiment, subjects consistently answered questions based on the answers of the group, even if they knew the answers to be wrong. We, as human beings, are often more interested in finding acceptance from the group than we are with upholding the truth. Few of us have the intestinal fortitude of Juror 8 from Twelve Angry Men. What does this say about tenuous structure of the entire jury process?

We had everything that we needed to convict this young man and to do unalterable damage to the potential of his future. We had our prejudices, our pre-conceived notions, our stereotypes, our herd mentality. We were placed within an institutional structure that plays on these human frailties despite manifest rules to the contrary. Instead, we returned a verdict of not guilty.

I’m convinced that this verdict was valid in accordance with the law. I also happen to think that the verdict was right and just. It is my hope that this young man will take positive advantage of this chance he received and stay out of trouble. However, it’s very likely that he could find himself before a judge again for equally nebulous misdemeanor charges. The criminal justice system just doesn’t like to let go.

__________________________

¹On the other hand, there was question as to nature of police ethics. One juror suggested that the police “screwed up” and made the arrest because they needed to have something to show for the fact that five police officers were dispatched to a noise violation and ended up with three people in hand-cuffs. This juror was asked why he had such animosity for the police. The juror denied any such animosity but was convinced that this was the result of police incompetence. Not a fair assessment in my mind. No evidence suggests that the police were anything less than professional.

 


 


They’re All Our Children

When tragedy strikes our own children, we collectively mourn. The world would be a better place if we did the same for the children of others.

 

Figure 1: Pakistani Children Keeping Vigil for the Sandy Hook Victims Click image for the source

 

In my novel, The Revelation of Herman Smiley the title character is tasked with remembering what much of humanity has forgotten in our seven thousand year odyssey of civilization. For fear of spoiling the ending, I will reveal that this lost memory is, “It’s all about the children.” Herman Smiley feels like a fool for taking so long to remember something so simple and so glaringly obvious. Well he should. And so should we as we go about our lives wasting incalculable resources in wealth, time and emotion on meaningless paradigms of success, growth, status and so called “work ethic.” We, all of us, including at times this author, often lose the most basic and primal truth of human (and many other species’) existence to the rote and ritual regimens of everyday life.

Tragically, moments like the horrific Sandy Hook massacre jolt us back into stark reality. We’ve forgotten the children. We grieve for the fallen, for the bereaved parents and loved ones. However, a part of us retains a certain remorse for our own forgetfulness when it comes to the children. As a result we spend some time holding our own even tighter, being more attentive, more appreciative of the beauty and promise that we recognize as childhood. People die all over the world to war, famine, crime and sickness. These deaths are all mini-tragedies. When it’s children, however, we understand viscerally that there’s a qualitative difference in the pathos. We know that more than a life has been lost, but also a promise a dream for our own future.

When President Obama eulogized the deaths of the Sandy Hook victims he recognized this basic truth. “This is our first task — caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.” He offered an understanding and empathy not just as a national leader at a time of profound sorrow, but as a feeling man and as a devoted father. “There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have — for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace — that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger — we know that’s what matters. We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.”

More importantly, President Obama recognized the necessary, communitarian roots requisite of constructing a healthy childworld. “And we know we can’t do this by ourselves. It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize, no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself. That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together…” We all share responsibility for the children of our community, city, nation…

…world! It’s all about the children. All of the children.

Like most who listened to the President’s lofty words, I was moved. Yet it was difficult to synchronize his statements in Connecticut with his actual policies. How can Obama’s sincere remorse for the little lives lost in Sandy Hook, and all over the country, flow so effortlessly from the same man responsible for the deaths of children unfortunate enough to find themselves at the receiving end of a drone strike. According to Robert Greenwald, and the activist organization War Costs
62 children have been killed by drone strikes during Obama’s presidency, the equivalent of three Sandy Hook massacres. Since the drone program began under George W. Bush, 178 children, almost nine Sandy Hooks, have been confirmed killed.

Yet drone attacks are only one avenue through which scores of Sandy Hook massacres are taking place in our name. U.S. wars and combat operations all over the world result in the senseless slaughter of children. For over a decade, the United States has overseen the deaths of children in Afghanistan. Military policy in Afghanistan under Obama condones the targeting of children who show “potential hostile intent.” The Administration also defines all “fighting age” males as potential combatants unless it can be demonstrated otherwise. How “fighting age” can be determined, especially from the air, is not clearly stated.

Indeed, many of the forces we are fighting do not hesitate to use children for military purposes. The Taliban is known to use children to help support its soldiers in attacking American positions. Also, what constitutes fighting age in the United States is not the norm throughout the world. Regardless, we must understand that these are nations in which the United States was not invited. We invaded not because it was the only policy, but because we can. For the United States, history’s most powerful military culture, invasion is the easy choice, never the only choice. We often justify invasion using the omnibus rationalization known as the war on terror, but terror cannot be defeated by drone strikes and cluster bombs. So the war on terror is a false pretense as clearly betrayed In the case of Iraq, in which almost four thousand children were confirmed killed as a result of combat operations and related violence. At least two hundred Sandy Hooks.

Besides, the tragedy of child soldiers is, when convenient, embraced or even ignored by the Obama Administration. The Administration continues to provide aid and training to nations known to use child soldiers. This is happening despite the fact that such funding is a clear violation of the Child Soldier Prevention Act; a law once co-sponsored by a certain Senator Obama.

Let’s not forget that President Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

Add on top of that the more complicated calculus of child death and suffering resulting from American policies. How many children are currently dying in Iran as a result of US led sanctions against that country? It’s impossible to say for sure, but if we look at the devastating Iraqi Sanctions put into place in 1991, we can get a good idea. As many as half a million child deaths can be attributed to that policy.

Then there is the blind eye that is shielded from ruinous trade policies and corporate exploitation that leads to the suffering and death of children from the coltan mines in West Africa to child labor mills and sweatshops throughout the developing world. The deaths of children under the American flag are, in essence, the equivalent of countless Sandy Hooks every year…in our name.

Whenever such tragedies in which children are the target occur we are hard put to define the cause. Is the murderer mad, suffering from some unfortunate mental illness? Perhaps he is a psychopath, a sadist or sociopath. It could be that he is just plain evil, unworthy of even the hint of a more sympathetic understanding. In most cases, we never really know for sure.

Yet how may we describe political policies, carried out in our name, which results in even worse deadly consequences?

If we really care about children…

If we really care about children.

 

 


 


The NRA Just Doesn’t Get It!

There’s no reason to let this group steer the debate and silence alternative voices

 

According to the New York Times, the NRA has a plan for preventing gun violence. “The N.R.A.’s main answer to school violence was a model program it unveiled called National School Shield, which would train and arm security guards at schools in those local districts that want to use it.” That’s the answer. Simply have armed guards patrol our schools. Never mind that many schools today are having a hard enough time getting up to date textbooks or a sufficient number of computers, or even adequate supplies of pencils and paper. According the NRA, we should reinforce the fortress society we are constructing by adding armed guards to the staff.

The NRA just doesn’t get it. The very fact that we live in a society in which we feel that we need armed guards in our schools to protect our children is not a solution. Indeed, it is the very manifestation of the problem. Our society is devolving into collective of insular fortresses that need to be protected from the psychopaths that pervade our streets. If the NRA had its way, each of these mini-citadels would be defended by well-armed denizens. It doesn’t occur to them that this very mindset is, in and of itself, pathological.

I shudder for a society paranoid of itself.

Considering that the United States has almost as many guns as it does people…


Trayvon and the Law

On Learning from Tragedy

 

If we are to gain anything positive from the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin it must be not only in the re-evaluation of the infamous Stand Your Ground laws (SYGs) that are spreading throughout the country, but rather in an assessment of law in general. The Trayvon Martin case highlights the inherent flaw in this and many other popular laws.

The nexus of this flaw is the assumption that in all criminal interactions there is a clear good-guy (victim) and a clear bad-guy (victimizer). The victim is righteous in his actions, while the victimizer is intent on villainy. Those who wrote, sponsored and voted for the Stand Your Ground law in Florida were intent on leveling the obvious injustice in requiring the good-guy to run away from the bad-guy. Clint Eastwood never ran. John Wayne never ran. If I’m in my home, watching television, when suddenly the door bursts open and a thief/murderer/rapist enters, I should be within my rights to shoot him without question.

It’s easy, especially by virtue of American culture, to embrace such an idea. However, human interaction is rarely ever that clear and the roles taken on by people are, more often than not, not so dichotomous as the victim/victimizer roles seen on television. Human interaction is wrought with complexity, emotion, pre-conceived notions, personal history, biological imperatives, socialization, cultural lensing, faith and a myriad other variables. The sinner oft justifies his iniquity, and the villain is never evil in her own eyes.

Such was the case with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. It’s likely that the victim/victimizer roles in this interaction were hopelessly confused. It’s impossible to know exactly what transpired between these two actors, but let’s assume that neither Trayvon nor Zimmerman are evil.

Zimmerman is described as a self-appointed neighborhood watch. Apparently, his neighborhood was subject to break-ins and theft, so Zimmerman took it upon himself to help. In any other context we might define this behavior as community oriented, even altruistic. He wanted to be a police officer, revealing a protective “instinct” if you will. Perhaps there are more selfish motives, an overblow sense of authority and the pursuit of status. Indeed, it is likely that Zimmerman held culturally reinforced ideals of manhood.

He sees Trayvon, an unfamiliar face, walking through the neighborhood. And let’s not pander and mince our words. He saw an unfamiliar black face in the neighborhood. Trayvon was a young black man who did not belong. Perhaps Zimmerman is not a racist, but the society in which he was socialized is racist. We cannot separate paradigms of race from our understanding of events.

Regardless, Zimmerman assumes that Trayvon is up to no good and calls the police. He knows, however, that the police will not respond in time. Trayvon is getting away. Maybe there is history of slow response time among the police. So, Zimmerman takes it upon himself to follow Trayvon and ensure that he is caught, guarantee that justice is done. From his perspective he is being a responsible neighbor, citizen and man.

Trayvon had his own perspective, however. This is often neglected in reporting this story, mostly because Trayvon is incapable of offering his perspective. Trayvon is a young man imbued with societal paradigms of manhood, right and race. He notices that an unknown man is following him. Interestingly, by virtue of the Stand Your Ground law, Trayvon was in his rights to stand his ground in the face of threat. How might this story have been different if Trayvon had a gun and used the Stand Your Ground law to justify shooting Zimmerman? Can we say that Trayvon had less of a right to stand his ground than Zimmerman?

Here’s where the details are lost to public knowledge, at least for now. We do not know the transaction between the two principles. It is not, however, a stretch to assume that a confrontation ensued. Trayvon’s girlfriend stated that he asked Zimmerman, “why are you following me?” Not an unreasonable question. Both men were hyped up on adrenaline, perhaps unwilling to back down. Zimmerman believed he had every right to protect his neighborhood; Trayvon was convinced that he had a right to walk down the street unmolested. Matters escalate. Perhaps they push each other, grab at each other. It’s dark. Each man is alone against a possible assailant. One man has a gun. The gun comes out. Anger. A shot. Tragedy.

Who is the good-guy? Who is the bad-guy? What are the parameters of the law in this case? Who had the right to stand his ground? How does the presence of a gun change the calculus of rights? The law was not drafted with such a complex interaction in mind. Yet most violent interactions align closer to this more complex story than to the storied victim/victimizer interaction. This story is that of two people acting within a matrix of decisions, actions and reactions that ended tragically.

Effective laws must take the complexity of human interaction into account. If they do not then the application of such laws can only compound tragic episodes.


Criminologists Don’t Pay Attention in Sociology Class

Crime, the Economy and Common Sense Notions Proved Wrong

 

A few of months ago criminologists were shocked and amazed that, despite the decrepit economy, the crime rate went down. Now, it’s true that the crime rate has gone down, and has been going down for quite some time. However, I cannot vouch for the statement that criminologists were “shocked.” If it’s true that criminologists were shocked, then there’s only one reasonable explanation for this. Criminologists, at least those interviewed by the press, did not pay attention in their mandatory sociology classes.

Most of the articles that I read asked economists to explain the poor correlation between crime and economic integrity. None of them really offered an explanation. They cited interesting research such as the exceptionally high crime rates in the 1960s despite general prosperity as compared to relatively low crime rates during the Depression. One article did offer sociological analyses. For instance, the 1960’s experienced the Baby Boomers entering prime crime commission age, the teens and early twenties. They speculated that the Depression was so severe that communities had to come together to survive, thus decreasing crime. That’s why, in these instances, crime did not follow the economic trends.

The press is playing on the common sense notion that economic hardship leads to higher crime rates. After all, crime rates are higher in poor communities than they are in economically sound communities. This makes sense to the layperson and even to the sociologist. When a person doesn’t have legitimate access to the resources they want, they must turn to illegitimate means of achieving those resources. In sociology this is referred to as Strain Theory. Strain is the inability to satisfy socially accepted goals, such as economic prosperity. Strain, however, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Regardless of strain, most people do not turn to criminal behavior over all. Most people conform to the norms and values of their culture. Like most common sense notions, this presumed link between the economy and criminal behavior is wrong.

Criminal or deviant behavior is the result of a breakdown in the influence of norms (rules) and values on human agency (the decisions of individuals). Human behavior is influenced by socialization. Socialization regulates human behavior through internal and external controls. Internal controls are values that are internalized by individuals. They are the reason why we recoil when we see people do something we know to be wrong. They are the reason why we feel guilt when we do something wrong—the reason why we hesitate in the face of a deviant act. External controls are the mechanisms in place for identifying and dealing with deviants, such as surveillance, police and corrections policies in society or discipline plans in schools or families. When individuals are certain that they will get caught committing a deviant act and will suffer significant consequences, this is sometimes enough to dissuade their straying from the accepted path.

Crime is likely when these controls fail. What brings people to turn their backs on the norms and values of a society to which they are socialized? Well, of course here we make the assumption that we are all socialized to respect the same norms and values. That’s not necessarily true. Some are taught that the conventional rules do not apply to them and are socialized with contrary norms and values. This phenomenon exists in impoverished communities, subgroups and counter-cultures, but it is also apparent among the elite whose status offers them a certain protection from external controls and whose aristocratic arrogance reinforces an ideology of superiority.

The above scenario, however, should not explain changes in crime rates unless there are significant changes in the relevant populations. So how do we explain a differential acceptance of social controls? Once socialized, these controls are very potent. Yes, we all challenge them in relatively minor ways, but for the most part, we accept the legitimacy of what we’ve learned to be right and wrong. For us to abandon our values the very legitimacy of our socialization must be challenged. This can happen in a number of ways.

First, along the lines of strain theory, the individual may recognize that the values of the society are out of his or her reach. Through the resources and networks at her command, it is impossible to achieve higher status through socially legitimate means. Therefore, one might be inclined to pursue illegitimate means to achieve at least a representation of the desired goal, or will reject the goal outright and establish more local goals. However, this can’t be the only variable, otherwise one would predict that during times of economic hardship, more people will innovate to achieve the desired ends. At best, strain can only be one variable contributing to higher crime.

As a check against strain, social constructs exist that define the misfortunes, or dare I coin the term “disfortunes” of those with the least access to life chances and valued resources as proper, right and even natural. According to these constructs, for instance, society might define those who are poor as being undeserving of wealth. In the United States, such people are blamed for their condition. They are defined as lazy. Today, they are often framed as being parasitic, leaches on the welfare state with no incentive to pursue wealth or improved status. If they would only commit themselves to work and self-improvement, they would reap the benefits of our great nation.

Such a construct is no different than defining the “disfortunate” as being intellectually or, genetically inferior. In this instance, programs for improving the lives of the impoverished are nothing more than wasted resources.

In some societies, the dispossessed are so due to the whims of God. Perhaps they are cursed by God. On the other hand, God may be preserving the poor for a greater reward in Heaven. The legitimacy of iniquitous access to resources, according to this paradigm, is the will of God. Who are we to question the Almighty.

Regardless of the constructs, if those on the wrong end of the status ladder accept their position as right, proper or natural, then they will likely internalize the accepted norms of the society despite their status. However, when these status positions are called into questions, for instance when we see slothful dilatants living the high life, while our own toils go unrewarded, when we are witness to the profits gained by the morally reprobate while we are induced to righteousness, we may call into question the rightness, propriety and nature of our position. In this case, inequality, or shall we say conspicuous inequality, may invalidate established social controls.

Another factor that may contribute to crime is a breakdown in institutional legitimacy. This could result from paradigm shifts that demonstrate the iniquitous and often oppressive nature of accepted institutions. Philosophies recognized as otherwise radical may be vouched popular appeal, calling into question the values that hold our institutions together such as the concept of the social contract during the Ancient Regime. Perhaps a significant exemplifying event may force us to question our values, such as the death of Ann Hutchinson, or the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, or the Kent State massacre. Successful claims may be introduced to the popular discourse, such as feminist critiques of male primacy in the family, scathing Enlightenment critiques of nobility and religion, or the application of the fairness principle in the Civil Rights and LGBT movements. These movements have a moral center, but can serve to destabilize, at least temporarily, institutional legitimacy.

The above happens because, often, the institutions that provide stability and moral legitimacy are, in fact, iniquitous. Patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, economic exploitation, are vulgar foundations on which to establish social stability. An unjust society may be able to enforce, coerce or institute stability for the short term, but not in the long term. Injustice cannot be shrouded in secrecy or legitimized in the face of its victims for long. Eventually all injustices will be confronted and all institutions based on those injustices will be either reformed or ruined. During the interregnum, however, we can expect an increase in crime as institutions are the framework by which external and internal controls are supported.

That’s why crime often travels with the young. Adolescents are ripe for questioning the legitimacy of established social norms. Not yet fully socialized, adolescents offer the best critiques of the validity of our institutionalized norms. In some cases the young person can be persuaded to see the light, so to speak, and accept institutional validity. In those cases where they don’t, they can be drugged or otherwise coerced…for a time. This is especially true when the answers to their critiques are blatantly inadequate. It is also true when they understand that their future, in the legitimate sense, is at best questionable.

Economic variables are not the only factors involved in crime. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that our current calculations of crime show a continuation of its downward trend. However, we should keep in mind that current research is based on 2009 figures. Perhaps it is too soon for the calamities of 2008 to be internalized. However, all of the variables highlighted above, the questionable legitimacy of our institutions, inequitable access to life chances, conspicuous injustice, significant exemplifying events, are all in place today. We established a precedent (not really unprecedented to the historically literate, but unprecedented in the minds of many today) of rewarding those who believe that the established norms do not apply to them, namely the banksters and the Wall Street scammers, with a colossal, tax funded, golden parachute. This was not lost on those who are now expected to pay for the bailouts through punishing austerity measures while the elite toast their success with Dom Perignon.

Moreover, this was not lost on our youth, who learned an interesting lesson about “real” American values. But what did they learn? Did they learn that crime pays, when it’s Wall Street crime? Did they learn that the only way to avoid punishing “austerity” is to get rich by any means? Or did they learn to revile the modern day robber barons and to apply themselves to re-alligning American society with its vaunted values of fairness and opportunity for all? Unfortunately, at this point, there is no way to know for sure. Nobody is asking them. Maybe we should.

Based on the rough outline above, I would predict that the crime rate, especially property crime, will trough soon and start increasing. I base this not on the economy. The economy doesn’t appear to be getting any worse (yet), but on the conspicuous iniquity revealed after the dust of 2008 settled.


Getting Past the Gun Control Mythology!

If we are going to have a discussion about guns, let’s have one unhindered by the same old MYTHOLOGY

 

We need to have a discussion about guns. I don’t think this is a controversial statement. What may be controversial is the nature of that discussion. For many years now the discourse on guns in the United States has hinged on two assumptions. First, individuals have a right to bear arms, and infringing on that right makes citizens more vulnerable to criminal violence as well as to government tyranny. Second, it is in the public interest to regulate access to deadly weapons as the irresponsible and reckless use of such instruments poses a legitimate hazard to citizens. These are not unreasonable claims. The dominance of the “gun rights” paradigm, however, seems to have the upper hand over the “public interest” end of the debate.

Yet what do we really know about the reality of guns in America? There is the great cowboy mythology of the “peacemaker” side-arm carrying gun slinger enforcing justice and civilizing the west. This is juxtaposed with the reality that many towns in the west forbade firearms in order to control violence. There are the damning statistics on how violent the United States is, with homicide rates that make the rest of the industrialized world cringe. The fear that predators exist around every corner and only a well armed citizenry can protect itself from the psychopaths among us. We even have the extremist rhetoric that gun ownership is the only defense against the possibility of an American dictatorship.

Do these rhetorical elements stand up to reality? The answer is no. Because our existing paradigms on gun control do not adequately describe the realities of guns or violence in the United States we cannot have a legitimate debate on the issue. We need to look at the data, decide what is relevant, and then move on from there.

This shouldn’t be a tall order, but it is. When special interests steer the debate they tend to make available the data that they like, and downplay the data that they don’t. This strategy is not specific to either side of the discourse, but it doesn’t take much research to determine which “side” owns the debate at this juncture. Try it yourself. Type “crime and guns” into a Google Search. Most of what you will get is an explanation on why more guns equate to less crime. Of course, criminals in a heavily armed society are less likely to ply their trade lest they run the risk of getting shot. Among the most notable sources you will find is author John Lott, who wrote More Guns, Less Crime. This perspective is very popular among the many gun owners and gun rights activists in the United States. Is it true, however?

For that we have to access some more literature that addresses Lott’s hypothesis. And the research just does not support his claim. Such research is, however, hard to find. Part of the reason for that is the NRA. According to the New York Times, pressure from this very powerful organization often axes research that does not conform to the NRA’s position. Truth cannot become a part of the dialogue when the research is censored.

Despite this obstacle, however, there is research out there that sheds doubt on the ?”more guns less crime” hypothesis. Most notably is a research study done by Ian Ayers and John Donahue III published in the Stanford Law Review. They tested Lott’s position, but expanded the parameters to include more logistical data and state specific variables. They find that Lott’s conclusions did not hold water once the research parameters were extended, as it should have if the “more guns less crime” hypothesis was correct. There was no strong correlation between violent crime and shall-issue laws for carrying firearms. In fact, the only statistically significant outcome was, in fact, an increase in robberies associated with shall-issue laws. Since Ayers and Donahue could not develop a satisfactory model to explain this increase, however, the researchers caution that this result is most likely an artifact of unknown external variables. The Ayers/Donahue research is supported by a study done by the National Research Council. There is no reliable data to suggest a link between crime and gun possession.

I did my own evaluation of this research by comparing gun ownership to murder rates at the national level. I figured that national statistics may be revealing since nations are more likely to control the movement of weapons across borders than are states. For instance, such a comparison among states or municipalities that have strong controls regarding weapons possession may be skewed if there are municipalities with more permissive laws nearby. This is less likely with national boundaries. I used murder rates because there are variable cultural perspectives among nations with regard to that which constitutes a “violent” crime. Murder, however, is a fairly stable construct, especially if defined as intentional killings. My results are below.

It is visually obvious that the lines for Gun Ownership (in blue) and for Murder per Capita (in red) look nothing like each other. This would indicate that there is a low correlation between the two lines. But to be sure I ran the correlation between the two and found it to be -.22. In other words, there is a very weak correlation suggesting that as gun ownership increases murder rates decrease. But a .2 correlation is very weak and is most likely the result of other variables. An r² suggests that gun ownership explains, perhaps, 5% of the variance. So 95% of the murder rates cannot be explained using gun ownership as a model.

This data is illuminating, but also problematic for both ends of the gun debate. On one hand, gun ownership is not a reasonable defense against murder, or any other crime for that matter. On the other hand, access to guns does not appear to create a threat to the public. The bloodbaths as a result of looser gun laws as predicted by gun control advocates just do not happen. Yes, there is regional data used by both sides to support their positions, but this data is inconsistent and not predictive.

Why? Shouldn’t one side or the other be true? Not necessarily. It could be that ease in acquiring and carrying a gun does act as a deterrent, but makes it easier for criminals to acquire guns that counter that deterrent. We know that guns are used every day in defense. We also know that guns are used every day to commit crimes. It could be that the deterrent factor on one end does not compensate for, or minimally compensates for, the ease of criminal gun ownership on the other end, and vice versa.

The next part of the debate I wanted to test had to do with freedom. It is a core belief among gun rights advocates that gun ownership equates to preserving freedom from government tyranny. Sounds good, but is it true? Turns out, no. There is no correlation between freedom and gun ownership. To test this I used the data from Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2010 report.

Again, the chart speaks for itself. The data is divided into Political Rights (in blue), Civil Rights (in red) and Gun Ownership (in orange). The correlation between civil rights and political rights is clear, but gun ownership does not follow anything close to the same trajectory. In fact, the correlation between political rights and gun ownership was -.19, explaining 4% of the variance. This indicates that as gun ownership increases political rights decrease, but with a very weak correlation indicating that there is no definable relationship. The correlation for civil rights was -.23 explaining 5% of the variance. Gun ownership is no guarantee of freedom. Nor is gun ownership a threat to freedom.

So if the fundamental assumptions on both sides of the gun debate are irrelevant, where does that leave us? I would say that this should advance the debate because we don’t have to be bogged down by the irrelevant. If we are freed from the fear of leaving our citizens vulnerable or subject to bloodletting, and we are freed from the fear of tyranny, we can move on to matters that are significant.

The fact remains that the United States has a very high violent crime rate including an obscene homicide rate. If guns do not explain this phenomenon then what does? A very revealing set of data offers a suggestion for areas we might want to consider. The chart at left was created by Richard Florida for The Atlantic. We don’t have to ban guns, but this graph implies some suggestions that might make a difference (of course, as Florida rightly states, correlation is not causation so the following suggestions are purely speculative). We must address poverty and the instability of the working class as these are positively correlated with gun violence. This is reinforced by the significance of economic output as a negative correlation for gun violence (as economic output increases, gun violence decreases). Standard of living and well-being also appear to have a meaningful correlation, as SofL and well-being increases, gun violence decreases. These variables never enter the debate about guns and gun violence.

Some simple reforms that may make a difference according to the graph are an assault weapon ban (if self defense and freedom are irrelevant, what do you need an AK-47 for?), trigger locks and safe storage requirements. These are reforms that do not infringe upon a right to bear arms. Remember, in the time of our founding fathers there were no assault weapons.

The larger issues, however, are also touched upon by the graph. McCain states were positively correlated with gun violence while Obama states were negatively correlated. This shouldn’t place blame at the foot of Senator McCain. However, it is safe to assume that McCain states tend to embrace conservatism more than Obama states (although this could be an artifact of many other variables outside of conservatism). Conservatism is predicated on the primacy of individualism as a central tenant. It might be a good idea to look into the influence of individualism on society in such a way that has not been done since Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. When people feel that they are on their own, that justice is in their own hands, could that be a contributing factor in violence? And, if so, how is that sense self-defined justice influenced by the presence of guns? Is it a coincidence that the United States is seen as the most individualistic society in the world, as well as being the most fatally violence industrialized culture? Again, this is speculation, but speculation that I believe is worth looking into.

 

 

 

 


Crazy Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

Dismissing Jared Loughner as crazy silences real discussions we should be having about our society

 

Before embarking on this discussion, let’s dispense with some of the ridiculous standard faire discourse born from the tragedy in Tucson.

  1. Liberals: Conservatives are not to “blame” for this attack. Loughner was most certainly not a right winger, his ax ground by the extremist Tea Party. It is natural to try to pin a cause to this or any tragedy. But such events are typically the result of multi-causal variables working in just the right way against just the right mentality to inspire tragedy.
  2. Conservatives: You may not be culpable for the attack, but you do share a considerable amount of the responsibility for creating a political environment in which such an event catches nobody by surprise. Yes, both sides pander to rhetorical flourishes, hyperbole and name calling. The conservative rhetoric, however, has been especially polarizing, alienating, exclusionary and eliminationist.
  3. There is every reason to believe that Jared Loughner is a very mentally disturbed individual. As such, there is no objective way to determine his motivation. Whatever incentive he had was the product of an addled confusion of thoughts and perceptions that defy the conventional logic and causative analysis that we might ascribe to a rational actor.
  4. Jared Loughner was not a radical liberal simply because he read Marx, nor was he an extreme conservative because he read Ayn Rand. I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita, that doesn’t mean I’m a Hindu.
  5. Though Loughner is disturbed, his actions cannot and should not be interpreted absent the social and environmental context of today’s society.

I’ve decided to take about a week to contemplate the Arizona shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and nineteen others. This shooting was beyond the understanding of most people, by which I could say rational, stable people. Loughner’s actions were, by common understanding, senseless and without provocation. Faced with such a tragedy it is understandable for us to seek a sensible understanding of the event. We want to find the cause. We want a clear explanation as to why a man would take such brutal measures. To do this, we apply our understanding of the world and of society and our place in it—the things that we understand and can grasp—to make sense of an event that is far from sensible. It’s as if human beings have this innate aversion to the random, often chaotic, variables that influence our lives.

Consequently, during times of chaotic tragedy, we often find ourselves grasping and accepting explanations that are often baseless. We jump to conclusions about causality, and confirm our conclusions through reference groups that share our worldviews. These reference groups further shape our understanding of the event. And where there are reference groups in conflict, it is certain that these conclusions will lead to finger-pointing, scapegoating and equal amounts defensiveness and counter claims.

So when a tragedy like the Tucson shooting occur, it’s a good idea for those who really want to understand the event to avoid their trusted reference groups, separate the facts from the impressions and opinions of others, and draw what conclusions can be drawn. It is equally incumbent upon the researcher to accept that a complete understanding cannot be reached with limited data. Some levels of understanding will never be reached, and any conclusions we draw are nothing more than speculation.

For instance, there is only one way to determine the motives of Jared Loughner and that is for Loughner himself to come out and say, “My motives in this shooting were…” Even then, if Loughner is psychotic or schizophrenic or suffering from any other psychological impairment, any direct explanation of his motives will, most likely, be unsatisfying even if it’s intelligible. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon as his lawyer will almost certainly keep any statements by the alleged shooter clamped down tight. Perhaps, as with Timothy McVeigh, we might be able to make some inferences about his motives years from now. It’s likely that these motives will be unsatisfying. For an addled mind, anything could serve as stimulus for violence, from misinterpreting political hyperbole for a literal call to arms to hallucinations of divine voices.

Yet to dismiss Loughner as simply crazy, and therefore an illegitimate locus of social criticism, is missing the larger picture. Jared Loughner and his atrocious actions do speak to us and we can draw some lessons from his irrational actions. For it is safe to say that we are living in unstable and unsettling times. The legitimacy of our social institutions is under question and under fire from very visible sources of critique. All of us are trying to navigate this instability, economic, political and social, the best we can with greater or lesser success. However, if there is one thing that sociologists know, if there is one thing that sociologists can contribute to the discourse, it’s that structure determines behavior.

As a counselor and as a teacher I’ve had experience with this very thing. Take a person and put him in an unstable environment and you will get irrational behavior. Where the norms are weak and the values uncertain behaviors will reflect that instability. So if you take an individual who is already mentally unstable, and further destabilize his life, you can expect an escalation of behavior. This is especially true when the environment dis-empowers the individual, isolates him or, for whatever reason, does not allow for proper integration of the individual.

The New York Times recently ran an in-depth story on the life of Jared Loughner. Reading this story was not much different from the scores of psycho-social evaluations I’ve read on young men and women under my care or tutelage. Here was a young man whose life was defined by strained social integration and bouts of isolation, both voluntary and involuntary. From his community, in which children would consider a ball hit into the Loughner yard as lost, to the army, who rejected Loughner after he failed his psychological exam. From acquaintances and girlfriends to teachers in college, all recognized that he was a troubled young man, and all practiced the same technique for dealing with him…exclusion. Virtually no resources were made available to Loughner to get help, to stabilize his life. Ironically, it was much easier for Jared Loughner to get a gun than it was for him to get help, despite the fact that his state of mind was almost universally recognized as troubled.

Crazy does not happen in a vacuum. What is the cause of Loughner’s mental instability? There’s no way to really answer that question as society and psychology are interacting phenomena. One who is psychologically compromised will find social integration and acceptance more difficult if not impossible. This further exacerbates the psychological problems which, in turn, complicate social integration. Did this downward spiral begin environmentally, genetically, organically? Most likely his mentality was a combination of many elements. Regardless, it is safe to say that the state of our society certainly did not help Loughner and continues to do harm to countless men and women like Loughner in every town and city in the country.

We cannot separate Loughner, who specifically and intentionally targeted a political event, from the trend in threats of violence and acts of vandalism directed at public officials as a whole. This phenomenon is happening while violence as a whole in the United States has troughed after falling for over ten years (as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at left). So there is something about the political climate that is unique, something that the actions of Jared Loughner, regardless of his psychological status, have brought to the open.

And we know this. We can’t hide from it. New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman was the first “pundit” I read on this topic as I respect his status as a social scientist. He asked a very poignant and illuminating question. “When you heard the terrible news from Arizona, were you completely surprised? Or were you, at some level, expecting something like this atrocity to happen?” I know that I was not particularly surprised. So I asked this question of my college students, “How many of you were surprised by the shooting in Tucson?” Not a single hand went up.

Violence in the United States, despite its downward trend in the last generation, is still such an integral part of our society that it really doesn’t shock us. Yes, it repulses us, offends us, but are we really surprised that such things happen in the United States anymore? I don’t believe we are. And that is very telling about the state of our society.

The fact that the target was a political official[s] also didn’t catch us off guard. This is indicated by the immediate response to the shooting. That is the near universal consensus that the “toxic” tenor of our political discourse was somehow to blame for this incident. There’s no way to know if this is true, but the fact that it is the first explanation to come to mind, the first discourse to develop from this tragedy is a social fact with sociological significance.

The focus of this presumed toxicity was also nearly universal—conservative pundits and politicians. Said conservatives, like Sarah Palin, went on the defensive, which one could interpret as a tacit acknowledgement that toxic speech is at least part of the problem. In Palin’s case, while she offered a defense of “passionate” political discourse, she did take down her much criticized “target” website. Why? If such “passion” is defensible, why take down the site in the wake of this tragedy? Why is using rifle scopes and talk of second amendment remedies and eradication only problematic after a political shooting?

And despite claims that liberal commentators were also guilty of such passionate discourse the focus remained on the conservative pundits. Not because they were necessarily wrong. Yes, liberal commentators have used insulting language and questionable discourse in their contests with their conservative peers. This author has not been immune using such rhetoric. Yet, there is something qualitatively different about the conservative end of the discourse. It’s in conservative rhetoric that we hear gun metaphors like “lock and load” and eliminationists rhetoric such as defining liberalism/progressivism as a disease that must be eradicated. Conservatives twist the established history by suggesting that liberalism is fascism, that liberalism is the process by which tyranny is established. Conservative commentators offer that liberalism has been the source of evil throughout history. Evil. Tyranny. Disease. Eradication. These are extreme forms of in-group/out-group discourse that defines political opponents as something more than just individuals with whom one has legitimate political and philosophical differences. In this case the out-group (liberals) are vile, a cancer on our way of life. As such, liberals cannot be compromised with. They cannot be reasoned with. There is nothing left to do but to destroy liberalism, cut it out of the body politic like the cancer that it is.

It cannot be said that there is a similar discourse among the liberal establishment. Even the often angry outbursts of Keith Olberman and Ed Schultz’ descriptions of conservative statements as “psycho talk” do not measure up to the conservative level of eliminationist rhetoric. Of course there are certainly some left wing blogs one could find that offers such rhetoric, but at the level of the established punditocracy such discourse just isn’t there.

So it’s not so much that the conservative discourse is the actual “cause” or motivating factor of the Tucson shooting. It’s the fact that we cannot reasonably separate the two; that our immediate response to the shooting was to look at our political speech is revealing. We know it’s wrong. We know it’s irresponsible. Even if the case cannot be made that an individual act of violence is caused by what we say, or the larger trend of threatening our public figures when they make a decision we don’t like, we at least recognize that there could be a connection. We recognize that maybe, just maybe, we might want to look at how we are saying things beyond the actual message we are trying to send.

If nothing else, we have learned that what we say is only part of the discursive process. There’s an audience out there that we cannot control. Currently there are over a thousand registered users on Mad Sociologist Blog. I’d like to think that all of you are rational and reasonable people, but I don’t know that. With this in mind, I might want to make sure that the rhetoric I use, however passionate, is also responsible. Yes, there’s no way of knowing how my writing will be interpreted, especially by one whose psychology may be impaired. I should not self censor my message, but I should at the very least be responsible about the way I present that message. Just because I may not be culpable in an individual’s atrocious decisions, does not mean I’m off the hook for what I say or write. If nothing else, the Tucson shootings should, at the very least, provide that lesson.

We also have a grave lesson of another troubling calculus of our nation. Crazy doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Social instability and an inability or unwillingness to integrate members of the society may exacerbate psychological instability in individuals. But those individuals must live and interact within the very society which makes their condition worse. Case in point…Jared Loughner. By all accounts anyone who interacted with him on a significant level quickly recognized that this was a young man with serious problems. Acquaintances, girlfriends, schools, army recruiters, employers all recognized that there was something wrong. Yet, as it stands, not one of these sources put any effort into getting help for Loughner aside from one school that demanded proof of psychological counseling before they would allow him to return. In some cases, such as his college, the agents’ hands were bureaucratically tied. What about other instances? How many more Jared Loughners are slipping through the cracks?

And how many more Jared Loughners are arming themselves with high tech weaponry? The US army, during time of war, refused to arm Jared Loughner, yet he was able to purchase a Glock with two extra-large clips. Here was a young man, universally recognized as mentally unstable, able to take advantage of some of the most lax gun regulations in the country and gun down twenty people. Might this be an occasion to discuss how we arm our citizens? Raising such questions is not advocacy for banning guns, or overturning the Second Amendment; they are a rational response to what clearly demonstrates a cultural predisposition to violence. When we celebrate a reduction in violent crime to only 1.5 million instances should create pause. When it is easier to get a gun than it is to get a job we have some serious societal problems with our priorities.

So the calculus amounts to this, social instability + social isolation + political polarization + more guns = potential for tragedy.

It’s not wrong to use this moment, and the life and crime of Jared Loughner to add to a reasonable national discussion. It’s not wrong to insist on raising the standards for conducting this important discussion. Dismissing Loughner as crazy will contribute nothing to the very necessary, democratic discussions and will legitimize a status quo which we all know is not good enough for addressing the troubles we face today.



 


Immigration, Crime and Hypocrisy in Arizona

Just in case there are folks out there who still believe that Arizona’s now infamous “paper’s please” law is a rational response to the influence of illegal immigrants on the state’s crime rates, here’s a report by the Immigration Policy Center. It demonstrates that, contrary to popular opinion, the crime rates in Arizona have been going down. In other words, all those illegals are doing nothing to merit being subject to targeting by the state. Indeed, the report outlines that immigrants are less likely to be charged for crimes than citizens, and those states with the most immigrants tend to have the lowest crime rates.

So it turns out that the justification for statist policies are not true. Knowing this, how can we best understand the existence of this law? Could it be the almost cliché explanation of race and racism? Scapegoating? What else do you call it when you single out a group of people for no real reason and accuse them of crimes that they have not, for the most part, committed?

Or could this be a response to a more generalized fear. We are living in uncertain times. The market forces that are pushing us are outside of our capacity to understand, let alone control. Now here’s a group of people whom, despite our best efforts to keep them out, they just keep coming in. Well, we have to get control of something! Don’t we? Um…don’t we? Of course, conservatives are a big part of stoking this fear. Can we thus infer that there may be more cynical political contrivances at stake here? After all, who benefits politically from the resultant instability that comes from fear mongering?

Or perhaps cynical is not the word. Perhaps sinister is more apropos. After all, we have John McCain requesting six thousand US troops patrolling the borders. Governor Brewer actually calling for strike drones! To keep out people who are not a threat?

Dealing with fear requires a great deal of introspection. When you encounter something that inspires fear, instead of reacting in an irrational and even destructive way, sometimes it’s a good idea to stop and ask yourself, “what is it that I am really afraid of?” If your answer is reasonable, come up with a reasonable response. In this case, there is no rational reason to be afraid of so called “illegal” immigrants with regard to their criminal intent. It’s more rational to be afraid of fellow citizens. So what are we afraid of? Race/Ethnicity? A generalized fear of the other?

It’s also a good idea to ask yourself, where is the fear coming from. Is it a visceral, natural fear of the unknown? Or is it a framed fear stoked by groups who benefit directly by you being afraid.

Or perhaps it’s not fear. Perhaps its hatred. Hatred, like fear, requires introspection. What is it that I really hate? The fact that this person would trespass on my country? The fact that he has brown skin? What is it?

All I know is that when decisions are made based on fear and hatred they are certain to be wrong.


Turning Against Capital Punishment

Death Penalty

It’s always difficult arguing against the death penalty.  It really doesn’t matter on what grounds one is making such an unpopular (in the US) stand.  The bottom line always devolves to the accepted eye for an eye concept that those who take a life deserve to die.  Indeed, when one considers the kinds of psychotic and sadistic killings that make the headlines, the rape/murders of children, mass murder, serial murder, it’s hard, if not impossible, to suggest that those who commit such violence do not deserve to die.  In fact, such people do deserve to die. I have no sympathy for such monsters, myself.

The question for me has always been, “can the state, or any institution for that matter, be trusted with the responsibility to decide who should live and who should die?” The sociology behind this question is clear.  No system known to man is flawless enough, rational enough, objective enough to make such a decision.

The United States is the only western power that uses the death penalty.  Since the death penalty was reinstated in the late seventies violent crime has risen and fallen without regard to capital punishment.  The system itself has been soundly criticized for being burdened with racial, ethnic and class biases. The expense of pursuing capital punishment is astronomical, leading some to call for less time on death row with quicker implementation of the sentence.  Such a strategy would be disastrous considering the number of people who have been exonerated after many years on death row. The death of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 is just the only example of an innocent man being put to death. It’s unknown how many more innocent people have been executed as investigations almost always end after the death penalty has been successfully applied.

Willingham Family

This last fall The American Law Institute, the group that was instrumental in the reinstatement of the death penalty as a legitimate punishment, rescinded it’s opinion on capital punishment (this paragraph references the linked article).   The ALI cited “…the current intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment.” According to the New York Times: “A study commissioned by the institute said that decades of experience had proved that the system could not reconcile the twin goals of individualized decisions about who should be executed and systemic fairness. It added that capital punishment was plagued by racial disparities; was enormously expensive even as many defense lawyers were underpaid and some were incompetent; risked executing innocent people; and was undermined by the politics that come with judicial elections.”

This is not news to sociologists.  Capital punishment decisions have a long history of reflecting societal prejudices rather than justice.  What is the acceptable level of error in a system designed to kill only those who are deserving?


Why I’m Against the Death Penalty

It’s hard to be against the death penalty in the United States.  Sometimes it’s even hard in my own mind.  When I read stories about brutal killers, serial murderers, child killers and molesters I must admit that I really do believe that such people deserve to die.

Yet, that they may indeed deserve to die does not mean that I think the state should have the power to make that decision. No institution should, in my opinion, have that power since all institutions are flawed.  The decision of life and death over an individual is too important to be left at the discretion of any institution.  Since the institution making the decision is flawed, the unintentional death of innocents is a certainty.

So the question boils down to how many innocent deaths are justified by the knowledge that some who deserve to die do so?  Can we countenance the death of even one innocent person in order to continue meeting out lethal “justice” on a hundred guilty people?  These questions have, historically, been nothing more than interesting philosophical fodder and perhaps even the prompt for some interesting sociology class discussions.

Now, however, such questions are no longer academic.  The death of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 has now cast a glaring and real spotlight on the grotesque consequences of a capital punishment system. It turns out that a scientific analysis of the forensics proves that Willingham was innocent of the crime for which he was ultimately executed.  Willingham was accused of intentionally burning his three children to death in a house fire. Turns out the fire was an accident, and his insistence that he was innocent was true. Ironically, his  stubborn refusal to admit guilt is what lead to his death, as he was offered a plea bargain to save his own skin with a confession.  What does this say about the American system of justice?

We really don’t know how many people have been unjustly killed by the state. Courts do not re-open cases after an execution.  This peculiar form of blinding hindsight is a great way to keep our heads in the ground about the possibility (no, the certainty) that in a flawed human system innocent people will be hurt. We do, however, know that plenty of innocent people have gone to prison for crimes they did not commit.  Some were later discovered to be innocent and were freed with apologies, as well as possible lawsuits. Since it’s the same system that sentences people to prison and to death, it’s a reasonable hypothesis to suggest that there will be instances of wrongful conviction in both capital and non-capital cases.

So now we return to the original question with renewed vigor and profound wariness. How many innocent victims are we, as a nation, willing to tolerate in order to perpetuate a flawed system? One?  Mr. Willingham?  How many more are there? Mr. Willingham was found guilty and executed. He was later acquited in the court of history. I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is good enough.