Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Better Words Than I Could Write About Nelson Mandela

Over the course of the early - mid 2000s, I took several trips to South Africa. During my travels there, and through the contacts I made, I had the opportunity to get a much deeper understanding of the transformation of that nation than many in the United States, for whom it is a very far and foreign land. I also had a glimpse of what apartheid was like, and how far the country had come since the transformation began in 1990. So I joined in heart in the celebration of Nelson Mandela's life this past week following his death at the remarkable age of 95.

I never met Mandela, but I did get the opportunity to meet two of his contemporaries who were also involved in the transformation story: Mangosuthu Buthelezi and President FW de Klerk. The stories they told me, the views they shared, and the things they have written show that the old American argument about whether Mandela was a "terrorist" (a tired argument that has, sadly, resurfaced in social media this past week) was far removed from reality. Liberals and conservatives in the US argued about South Africa from a distance of thousands of miles compounded by profound ignorance on both sides. Neither condition has changed much.

Rather than write my own essay on the greatness and meaning of Mandela, I would like to share a link to a better one. My internet friend and fellow blogger, Dan Djurdjevic of The Way of Least Resistance lived in South Africa for several years during apartheid. His essay on Mandela (linked here) is truly outstanding and I commend it to you.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Real and Messy Costs of Widespread Gun Ownership

I have blogged before about the complex calculus surrounding gun possession as a means of self-defense (here and here, among many others). I have focused on the relationship between self-defense and firearms, because self-defense is the primary justification for gun ownership given by those who advocate for few restrictions on guns. It is the battleground (if you will) on which they have chosen to fight, and so makes for a fair starting point.

In my previous writings, I've made it clear that guns can be useful for self-defense - I am neither an advocate for trying to ban all guns (an impossible task) nor a strict nonviolence pacifist. I have tried to make it clear that guns may be a useful but not sufficient condition for self-protection - many additional skills are needed (including a number not taught in most CCW classes).

On the other side of the coin - the one gun advocates rarely want to deal with in public - are the very real costs in innocent life of widespread gun ownership. I'm not talking here only of the high-profile Newtown or Aurora cases - discussions of which have often devolved into largely useless arguments over hypothetical tactics. These cases, while big in impact, are (thankfully) rare.

More problematic are the small encounters where the presence of a gun turns a senseless but probably harmful altercation into a deadly conflict. Emblematic of this kind of situation is this tragedy:
Alabama woman charged with killing fellow 'Bama fan after Iron Bowl loss
There are obviously a lot of factors at play here, and the evidence is admittedly incomplete. It is likely that alcohol played a role, which often lowers barriers and enhances strong emotions (in this case, intense disappointment over the outcome of a football game). It seems likely as well that the American worship on the altar of sports (football in particular) was an important factor, creating both the context in which strangers would gather and the emotional source of anger and frustration. Clearly if people drank less and were less consumed by sports, the conflict in this case would have been much less likely.

But it is one thing to talk about the sources of a fight between strangers, and another to talk about its outcome. I've argued before that the trite "guns don't kill people, people kill people" bumper sticker is beside the point. The reality is messier: gun's don't kill people by themselves, but they make it much, much easier.

The fact that one woman in this case had a gun didn't cause the conflict between them. It didn't make the shooter angrier about the football game, or make her dislike a complete stranger any more or less than she would have unarmed. But the presence of the gun changed one essential thing: the outcome. Without the gun, both women would be alive - possibly angry and with minor injuries, maybe even arrested on misdemeanor charges, but alive. With the gun, one woman is dead and the other's life is now ruined.

This is the reality that gun advocates need to confront, honestly and in public, if they want anyone outside of their tribe to take them seriously. The more guns are in public circulation, and the more ill-founded and even barbaric ideas people have about guns and violence, the more likely it is that minor scuffles that used to end in scrapes and bruised egos will instead end in funerals and murder cases. This is a very real price to pay for a particular form of freedom - and I think we have both the right and the responsibility to ask whether the price is too high.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Why Politicians Should Read Kuhn

The dust has (sort of) settled from the bruising and ultimately fruitless budget battle that shut down large swaths of the federal government for two weeks. I would say that the finger-pointing has begun, but in tribal American politics today it never stops, as evidenced by various snarky memes and comments in my FB feed:

As a number of folks have pointed out, all that the agreement reached by Congress has really done is kick the can down the road. The New York Times and others have run stories about the emerging political battle, largely shaping up within the Republican Party, for the "next round" of budget deadline gamesmanship.

Much of the battle - both among Republicans and between Republicans and Democrats - is focused on the Affordable Care Act, a package of health care legislation originally passed in 2010 and being phased in piece by piece. As with any complex, sweeping piece of legislation there are plenty of things within the ACA that people like and plenty of things they don't - and nobody on either side understands more than 10% of the whole.

But what intrigues me about the battle over the ACA is not the fervor with which some members of the GOP are pursuing it, or the lengths they are willing to go to try to stop it. What's interesting is that the battle is entirely negative. Unlike in the mid-1990s, when Republicans responded to the Clinton administration's efforts to reform health care (the ill-fated "Hillarycare" proposals) with alternative ideas (many of which, ironically, are in the ACA), this time around those most fervently opposed to the ACA have been absolutely and totally silent about what they think should happen.

This silence guarantees that the nay-sayers will lose.

How do we know they will lose? Not by counting votes (although that worked well in this last round) or by taking public opinion polls (although those run the wrong direction for the Tea Party). We know the anti-ACA movement will fail because you can't replace something with nothing. Just ask Thomas Kuhn.

Kuhn, of course, famously penned The Structure of Scientific Revolutions back in 1962. Among Kuhn's key insights: progress in science is not a function of new evidence and new discoveries so much as it is as political process. Outdated scientific models only get replaced by new ones when the new ideas ("paradigms" was his term) persuade enough people that they are better than the old ones.

In fact, this is a pretty good model for politics in general, especially when it comes to broad ideas about policy. It's not enough in science or politics to simply say "I don't like that". Whatever is in place right now - be it policy or theory - serves a purpose. The existing answer may serve that purpose well or poorly, but it is (by definition) better than nothing, because the system evolved it. There may be better answers, but not having an answer is not an option.

The problem that the Tea Party wing of the GOP has (undoubtedly one of many) is that they are attempting to get rid of something that, well or poorly, serves a purpose. The purpose in this case is "trying to fix the health care system in the United States". Given that there is nearly universal agreement across the political spectrum that the previous status quo in health care was badly broken and needed fixing, threatening to take away the ACA and replace it with nothing is tantamount to saying, "The way things were was fine. We don't need reform - let's just got back to the way it was." That's a non-starter of an argument.

If the Tea Party, or anybody else for that matter, wants to have a prayer of actually getting rid of the ACA they need to build a new paradigm - a better answer to the question of how the health care system should work. Until they do, stomping their foot (politically) and saying "No!" plays well to a certain political demographic (about 20% of the country, based on polling) but is guaranteed to lose the other 80%.

So my modest suggestion for moving past the gridlock over the ACA: send a copy of Kuhn's book to every GOP member of Congress. Hope they read it. And see if they can come up with a winning paradigm. Because without that, like it or not, the ACA is the dominant paradigm in town.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More Bad News from the For-Profit Higher Ed Sector

I've written before (posts too numerous to list here, search under the "higher education" label) about the for-profit higher ed sector and its woes. When online education first became a thing some ten years ago, enthusiastic boosters predicted that the University of Phoenix would put traditional "brick and mortar" institutions out of business. Turns out that maybe that model isn't so robust:
Apollo Group Plans to Lay Off 500, as Does Education Management Corp.
A drop in your customer base of 18% in a year is enough to cripple almost any business, as is a 36% decline in revenue. These are not signs of a business model poised to take over the industry - they're signs of a dying flash in the pan. For all the jargon about "disruptive change" and "avalanches coming", the best efforts of the online-education sector have yet to demonstrate that they have the staying power to really force major change. In a few more years we may be writing their obituaries.

I could speculate as to why things have gone this way, but I would do so largely without data. It's tempting, from the point of view of traditional higher ed, to say that this is a failure of Phoenix and its brethren to manage to produce a quality product. There's some truth to that - by all known measures of quality and productivity (publications, grants, stature and reputation of faculty, patents, etc.) online "universities" can't begin to compete with even middle-tier traditional institutions, whose faculties are filled with PhDs from eminent institutions who don't just teach, but expand the frontiers of knowledge on a daily basis. Possibly that edge in quality of faculty - who are, in essence, the "product" that universities sell - has persuaded the market.

Whatever the underlying causes, I expect to see more news items like this one in coming months and years. Online universities won't disappear overnight - they may find a market niche and hang on for a very long time. But the chances of their dominating the higher education landscape in the future look increasingly remote.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Skills Your CCW Class Doesn't Teach - But Should

In a number of past blog posts, I've tried to move beyond the bumper-sticker screaming that passes for "debate" on self-defense and gun control in the US by pointing out the real-world applications of guns and other methods of defending oneself or others. One point I've tried to be consistent on: carrying a gun does not, in and of itself, constitute a self-defense strategy. A host of skills are required, many of which don't have anything to do with the gun.

The article linked here provides a powerful case in point:
Transit passengers too absorbed by smartphones to notice man with gun before fatal shooting
Here is an instance in which one man shot another in broad daylight, in the middle of a train car filled with passengers. Moreover, the shooter didn't do so by surprise, leaving passengers with no time to react. He repeatedly pulled out the gun, pointed it, and put it back. For a period of some minutes, somebody on that train could have intervened in some fashion, or tried to get the conductor's attention, or tried to get farther away. No one did, because no one was paying attention.

I've made this point before: without awareness of the situation around you, all the guns and self-defense skills in the world mean nothing. Yet many folks continue to think that buying a gun and taking a CCW class will make them "safe".

A scan of CCW curricula across several states reveals that the vast majority spend their time on two things: the safe and effective operation of the gun itself, and laws surrounding gun ownership and use. These are good and useful things, and should be taught. But if you spend your transit time buried in a smartphone, this knowledge is worthless.

One could extrapolate the scenario in the story above still further and ask how useful, in a crowded train car, a gun would be for self-defense in this situation even if someone had noticed the attacker's gun. This is, frankly, a difficult situation with no clear answers given the apparently random behavior of the shooter - it's hard to know how he would have responded to various attempts to diffuse or disarm him. But that's a debate for another time.

The deeper point here is simple: pay attention. Whatever other skills and tools you choose to acquire to defend yourself or others, if you're not paying attention you will have wasted your time and money. No class, no gun, no martial art or weapon can make you safe by yourself. Beware those who, in pursuit of ideology or profit, would tell you otherwise.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Government Shutdowns: Why We Need More Process People and Fewer Zealots

There has been a lot of ink spilled in recent days about the government shutdown. Understandably so - while brinksmanship has become a regular feature of US politics, it's rare that the tires actually wander over the edge of the cliff.

Everybody's got their own view, of course, about who's fault this is. Those views depend very much on party ID and political ideology - a certain segment of the Republican party (not all, but some) think that this is great and that they're winning, while all Democrats and some Republicans think this is a terrible idea.

That partisanship, of course, is a big part of the problem. This is where our tendency to focus on outcomes in politics - whether or not Obamacare gets passed, or we intervene in Syria, or gay marriage is legalized, or any of a thousand other issues - becomes a real problem. Because the process of getting to those outcomes is more important than the outcomes themselves - and we seem to have lost sight of that.

Why is process more important than outcome? Because the process of representative democracy is all we have that binds us together. We have a range of opinions about political outcomes (although as many have pointed out, the policy differences are not nearly so extreme as we like to think - take a look at European democracies). Having different opinions is to be expected; the folks who wrote the Constitution certainly understood that. They also understood that the process - the rules of the political game - are the only way to insure that you get reasonable outcomes at an acceptable cost.

It's that last part that eludes us. We sort of understand (sometimes) that democracy produces messy outcomes, and that you're never going to get the perfect policy (if, indeed, there is such a thing). But what we forget is that in getting there, we really only have two choices:

1) We compromise, cut deals, or come up with rules to determine winners and losers that everybody accepts.

2) We start killing each other. Whoever is left alive at the end determines the outcome.

This sounds extreme, but politics tends to lead in one of these two directions. The moment you decide that a particular outcome - defunding Obamacare, legalizing marijuana, driving illegal immigrants out of the country - is so important that you would do anything to achieve it, it's only a matter of time before the guns come out. If the issue is existential (we must win this fight or our way of life will be destroyed) you will break any and every rule to win that fight. That's why Syria and Iraq are such a mess right now - those are, to the people involved, existential conflicts.

The system of government we have - flawed as it is - was designed precisely with this in mind. It was not designed to produce the best policies, or even necessarily good policies. It was designed to produce policies in such a way that nobody dies. We forget that the precipitating event for drafting the Constitution was an armed rebellion on American soil, pitting two different economic interests - farmers and bankers - against each other.

What does this have to do with our current mess? The decision to shut down the US federal government over a single issue (health care legislation) sends a clear signal. Those that have done so are saying clearly: the outcome on this one issue is so important to us that we are willing to do anything to achieve it. We don't care what the cost or collateral damage are - we will stop at nothing to achieve this particularly policy objective.

This has nothing to do with whether you like or don't like the ACA, or whether it is good or bad for the country. To make the claim that this health care law is an existential issue - that literally nothing is more important, and indeed that everything else the US government does put together is not as important - is the cry of the zealot. It is fundamentally anti-democratic, and fundamentally un-American.

Despite the hyperbole, there is something in common that binds this shutdown strategy (and, likely, a fight in two weeks over the debt ceiling, which will be worse) and terrorism. They differ in terms of the tools used, but they share the same fanatical devotion to the cause - to have their way regardless of the rules and regardless of what anybody else thinks. It is the strategy of revolutionaries the world over, from Lenin to Mao to bin Laden to Assad: I will impose my will on you, because I am right and you are wrong.

This zealotry is clearly emanating from one particular political faction, which therefore owns most of the blame for the crisis. But the political party system at large, and the binary identity thinking it has developed in the American public, are hampering a solution. Realists have told us for generations: when identities and alliances harden and there is no more flexibility, the result is war. What we are seeing is the product of a calcified party system that cannot adapt itself, being taken advantage of by a small band of ideologues with at best 20% of the population behind them. Whether the system can find enough flexibility to find a way out of the crisis remains to be seen.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Failure of Education

With all the talk of reforming higher education with MOOCs, online learning, and other fancy technological doodads, sometimes it's useful to remember that the real issue is frequently just plain ignorance:
LSU fraternity releases apology for offensive banner referencing Kent State shootings
Readers of this blog know that I have an interest in the Kent State shooting. To think that this banner qualified as a joke requires two things: 1) just enough knowledge to know that there was something called the "Kent State Massacre", combined with the ignorance not to know what it was or anything about it, and 2) a casual disregard for human tragedy - an inability to understand at either a personal or political level what that shooting meant. In other words, a more or less complete failure of education.

Judging by some of the other "controversial" banners referenced in the news story above, it would appear that #2 is pretty much enshrined with this group. #1 is probably pretty firmly lodged as well. 

Those looking for an argument about the deleterious impact of college sports on American university education could seize on this group, which has managed to marry willful moral and historical ignorance with love of sport to near perfection. In truth, I don't think there's a clean causal arrow here - I don't think that LSU football "causes" these young men to be ignorant & morally blind. But it does create an occasion wherein such characteristics are not only tolerated, but celebrated.

I've no doubt that the apology will be accepted, and that next week or the week after another similar banner will grace the hallowed halls of this fraternity. There will be no lasting consequence, no lesson learned. Most of these young men will probably graduate with LSU degrees, schooled perhaps in their chosen fields of study but comfortable in their ignorance. 

Regardless of whether they go on to well-paying careers that pay off their college debts, that will still be a failure of education - which no set of "metrics" or rankings system will capture. And 20 years from now, we will complain still more about the ignorance coarsening our national dialogue, and wonder anew "what happened to civic discourse?" It is dying the slow death of a thousand cuts at universities just like LSU across the country.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Real World Self-Defense With Guns

Regular readers will know that I've blogged a number of times on the subject of guns and self-defense (posts too many to link here). My main point has been that, while guns can be appropriately used for self-defense in some situations, a) they are not a cure-all for all security problems, and b) far too many vocal gun advocates have unrealistic (even barbaric) notions about when and how guns should be used.

As a case study in what I've been talking about, I offer the video and commentary linked here. The video itself has been widely circulated on the internet; the commentary is by one of the most respected voices on civilian self-defense in the blogosphere, Dan Djurdjevic. Dan's commentary and dissection of the video is incredibly insightful and I urge you to read it in full. I will add only a few observations of my own:

• Yes, this is case where having a gun was a very good thing for the "victim's" defense needs. Had he not had a gun of his own, he would have been in a very different situation - as you can see in the video, the attacker is out of hand-to-hand melee striking range and on the other side of a counter. Had the cashier not drawn his own weapon the attacker could simply have backed up 4 feet from the counter and raised his weapon again. I will freely admit that having a gun certainly stopped the crime, and may have saved the guy's life.

• Just having the gun was not enough. As Dan points out, the cashier (because of his military training and past experience) had excellent situational awareness and the reflexive skills to stop the attacker from raising his gun at all. Note - he negated the attacker's gun with his bare hand. Had he lacked those skills - the situational awareness that a weapon was likely to be produced, plus the appropriate skill to counter it when it came out - having his own gun would not have done him any good.

• The cashier's gun was available, both in terms of location and in terms of skill. He had it where he could instantly reach it, and he clearly had a well-developed reflex to draw it and bring it to bear quickly. Without these factors, the attacker could have backed up and brought his gun to bear a second time before the cashier could get his out. It is only the fact that he had this "fast-draw" skill that kept shots from being fired at all. If the situation had devolved into a "simultaneous draw", one or the other would almost certainly have fired and one (or both) might be dead. Drawing his own gun was not the cashier's best first option, so he didn't.

• The cashier's response (as Dan points out) was proportionate. He did only what was necessary to insure his own safely. He didn't try to apprehend the attacker or punish him for his attack. He let the attacker walk away. Because of that, he's a hero instead of being on trial for murder. So many of the macho gun stories one sees on the internet are fantasies that pander to emotion - usually anger and fear. This guy kept his emotions in check and responded appropriately.

I'll finish up by echoing one of Dan's points, which in turn echoes a point I've made before. If you want to acquire a gun for self-defense, fine. But the gun itself doesn't come with any of the conditions I've listed here. It's up to you to develop all of the skills on this list - which means training and practice, not at a firing range but from and with a self-defense instructor who knows what they're doing. If all you're going to do is buy a gun, don't bother - get a dog or a bodyguard.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Stretching the Boundaries of "Self Defense"

I've blogged before about the dangerous notions we carry around about "good guys" and "bad guys". Generally, people rationalize their behavior to think that what they're doing is right. This is why - the George Zimmerman case aside - so many self-defense claims are turned down by the courts: people get into fights and then want to claim that they were defending themselves - that they were the victim. But if you started the fight, or preemptively attacked the other guy, you're not the victim, whatever "rights" you think you have.

Along these lines, here comes a story from Florida (is Florida a magnet for this stuff?) of a guy claiming a pretty expansive view of self-defense:
Florida Man 'Preemptively' Kills Neighbors, Cites Bush
My guess is that his lawyers' appeal to the Bush Doctrine aren't going to get very far. But assuming that the attorney's filing is an accurate representation of his client, this guy clearly felt that he was simply "defending himself" by pulling out a gun and killing his neighbors. That notion of self-defense is, put simply, barbaric. That same logic leads to Hobbes' State of Nature (or, for those less book-inclined, to modern Somalia) - everyone for themselves and the heck with the state.

I have no doubt that this fellow feels sincerely aggrieved and believes himself to have been in the right when he shot three men. It's up to the rest of us to remind him - and everyone else with fantasies about preemptive violence - that he's wrong.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Future of US Foreign Policy? Obama, Congress, and the Syria Question

I've written a few things on Syria recently, including my best guess as to what the likely US response will be. As regular readers (all three of you) will know, I tend to stay away from the "what should we do" questions and steer more in the direction of analysis - what likely will or won't happen.

If you're a fan of the former, the best piece I've read on evaluating the options in Syria was written the other day by Ora Szekely and posted to Political Violence @ a Glance. Szekely is a former student of my friend & co-author Steve Saideman, which speaks well of both of them. Szekely's take is very thorough and well thought out, and comes to a surprising conclusion - that while missile strikes are likely useless or even counterproductive (that we knew), the best thing we could do is send aid for the refugees. I encourage readers here to go and check out the entire piece - it's a good antidote to the simplicities of Peter Parker punditry ("With great power comes great responsibility" - an awkward guide at best to foreign policy).

As the debate continues in the US, I've seen no changes in the major political forces to suggest that the outcome will be anything other that what I've already predicted. International reaction is still mixed; Congressional support is dubious at best; and public opinion is still against it. Moreover, the options have narrowed down pretty much to two: missile strikes or nothing. Since these are the two outcomes I predicted as mostly likely, I'm most of the way there.

What strikes me as interesting in the process of getting to a final decision - even if that decision is to not strike - is Obama's choice to formally ask Congress for an Authorization to Use Military Force. These kinds of joint resolutions long ago took the place of declarations of war. And for major campaigns (Afghanistan, Iraq) Presidents have still asked for Congressional approval through AUMF resolutions. But for minor attacks (up to and including the brief ground invasion of Panama to remove Manuel Noriega, as well as the bombing campaign in Kosovo, missile strikes on Iraq in the 1990s, and a host of others), Presidents have generally ignored Congress and just ordered the missiles to fly. So why is Obama doing it here?

We can only speculate, of course. But there are a number of interesting possibilities:

- After the Bush War Presidency, this is an indication that the pendulum is swinging back, at least a little bit. Much as John McCain might not like it, perhaps previous Presidential action was overreach and this is a "market correction".

- Obama may simply care more about other things in his agenda than he does about Syria. By going to Congress, he can lay blame for whatever happens (or doesn't) at their feet, leaving him free to pursue other goals domestically. He has nothing to lose by letting Congress make the choice, and everything to lose if he goes it alone.

- Since the Middle East is the Land of Lousy Alternatives, this could just be a way of getting someone else to pick one.

- Could it be that we have a President who actually believes in shared power across branches of government? Hard to believe, I know, but this could actually be a philosophical stand on Obama's part.

- Perhaps he's convinced that his masterful skills of political persuasion will get him the votes he needs. If so, what happens if he loses?

From published reports, Obama's decision to go to Congress took a lot of people (including many inside the Administration) by surprise. Whatever the US military does or doesn't do may be much less important than the precedent of this choice, if future Presidents feel constrained by (or future Congresses feel empowered to demand) the necessity of asking Congressional permission before bombing someone else. That, far more than the outcome of the Syrian crisis, may have a profound impact on future US foreign policy.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

You Keep On Using the Word "Democracy". I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

This is a blog post I've been meaning to write for about a week, but haven't had time until today. I've found renewed motivation for coming back to this topic after perusing the book room at APSA, where I found several books on this subject.

The starting point for today's argument can be found in an open letter from a coalition of Tea Party groups in Tennessee to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN). You can read the complete letter here.

The key point to the letter is to encourage Sen. Alexander to remove himself from contention for his Senate seat next year, lest he face a Tea Party-backed challenger in the primary and lose. That, in and of itself, is not all that interesting - political groups interested in affecting the outcomes of elections say all sorts of things, and public threats of primary challenges may be one way to get the person you don't like to step down without a fight. So far, not much interesting to see here.

What is interesting about the letter is the reasoning behind their request/demand/threat. Why are these avowedly conservative groups so upset with Republican Senator Alexander? The money paragraph of the letter is here (underlining added):
During your tenure in the Senate we have no doubt that you voted in a way which you felt was appropriate. Unfortunately, our great nation can no longer afford compromise and bipartisanship, two traits for which you have become famous. America faces serious challenges and needs policymakers who will defend conservative values, not work with those who are actively undermining those values. Quite honestly, your voting record shows that you do not represent the conservative values that we hold dear and the votes you have cast as Senator are intolerable to us.
Now, the groups that penned this letter have every right to disagree with Sen. Alexander's votes and actions in the Senate, and every right to vote against him as a consequence. But the argument that the United States "can no longer afford compromise and bipartisanship" is either fundamentally ignorant or treasonous, depending on whether the authors of the letter understand what they are saying.

The reality is that, however much the members of these groups may believe that their conservative values are superior to the ideas of others, those ideas are not shared by the majority of Americans. Electing new members to the Senate who do share those values will not change this fact. So if you want American political outcomes to reflect the values held by a minority of Americans, you must do one of two things:

1) Take control of enough of the machinery of the government that policies aligned with your values are enacted even though you are in the minority.

2) Convince a large number of Americans that you are right and they are wrong, so that your views become the majority's views.

The first option is, of course, fundamentally anti-democratic. It goes against the very basic principles of any pluralistic political system - and yes, America is a pluralistic system. To argue otherwise is essentially to argue for oligarchy or some form of apartheid-style minority rule. If this is what these Tea Party groups mean, they have failed to understand the most basic roots of our politics and have crossed the line (albeit unwittingly) into treason - they are proposing replacing our current system with the forceable rule by a minority.

The second option is more democratic, although even this is problematic if the values you are espousing call for actions that violate fundamental civil rights. At points in our history, the majority opinion was that blacks shouldn't vote (judging by recent actions in some states, this view may not be so far in the past). But our understanding of the fundamental sovereignty and dignity of individuals was and remains that that view shouldn't hold, even if 51% of the population agrees with it. Tyranny by the majority against a minority is still tyranny.

There's no evidence, in any case, that these Tea Party groups (or the Tea Party movement as a whole) has any serious plan for convincing more people to join its cause, or even an intention to do so. In my experience most of their communications consist of shouting at the rest of the country about how wrong it is, and self-congratulatory back-slapping about the righteousness of their cause. Neither of these is either seemly or productive behavior in a pluralistic democracy.

Fundamentally, all politics tends in one of two directions: either towards greater levels of individual choice and freedom and a removal of government restraints on individual choice, or towards the use of force to impose the views of one set of people on another.

In the real world, political systems have to choose a path between these - enjoying the benefits of a modern society means accepting some restrictions by the state, based on rules which most if not all of us can agree on. There's plenty of room for political argument in there, in which the Tea Party and everybody else is welcome to engage. On the whole and with unfortunate exceptions, American politics has been about trying to steer as close to the "freedom" end of things while keeping the whole mess functioning.

But the moment you start pushing towards the "governance by force" end of things (option 1 above), you have gone off the rails of American politics and deserve to be ignored (if you are a fringe movement) or opposed (if there is some chance you will get your way). Members of these Tea Party groups would do well to think about exactly what kind of country they want to work towards, what the political reality around them is, and whether they really share the American values of democracy and freedom that they claim.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The "Do Something" Syndrome: Revising Predictions on Syria

There's been a lot of chatter and speculation about Syria in the last couple of days (some of it mine). As is usual for such things, there is talk about what we want to happen and talk about what is likely to happen.

Because the issues involved are partially value-laden (the use of chemical weapons as a "red line" is more normative than practical, as this post from the Monkey Cage pointed out), people can become inclined to the "want" rather than the "likely" questions. I heard a BBC reporter interviewing Chuck Hagel this morning; his line of questioning leaned heavily on the emotional side of the use of chemicals and whether this was in some undefined way "intolerable". But for the present, I'd rather focus on the "likely" question - what is the US most likely to do?

There are lots of "signals", of course - envoys for the US telling Syrian rebels various things, contingency plans being drawn up, President Obama talking about military options. None of these mean anything - they're all talk, most of it predictable. Militaries always make contingency plans, and both Presidents and envoys say all sorts of things. Talk, as they say, is cheap.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration is in a very difficult spot. As colleagues of mine have pointed out on FB, pinprick airstrikes are unlikely to accomplish anything except pissing off the Russians and the Chinese (and Iran, but they're already mad at the US). They won't change anything on the ground nor significantly degrade Assad's capabilities. Even a "no-fly zone", which would likely be costlier to enforce, would mean little since the Syrian regime and its allies still have plenty of ground-based systems with which to cause mass casualties. Finally, international pressure is mixed; the Europeans seem inclined to some form of action, but Russia and China are strongly opposed. No clear mandate there, and the UN Security Council is off the table.

Unfortunately, unmanned missile strikes are about the only "do something" option that meets the acceptable threshold on the US domestic front. Support for intervention among Americans is extremely low, while opposition is high. And despite a few voices in Congress, there's no clear movement there for getting involved in any way that costs money. Indeed, continued debate about it could quickly become a Republican civil war between John McCain internationalists and Tea Party conservatives who hate both spending money and giving the President something to brag about.

In this two-level game, the President (any President, of any party) is likely choose the option that is minimally acceptable in both domestic and international arenas.  Lacking that, he is likely to choose the option with the lowest costs on all fronts. Missile strikes are right in the "sweet spot" of this convergence of interests:

• They satisfy the "do something" impulse for internationalists at home and abroad that can't stand the idea of doing nothing in the face of a serious breach of a significant international norm.
• They cost almost nothing, and so neither bust the budget nor get Americans killed - a very serious "red line" on the domestic front.
• They are ineffective enough that responses from Russia and China are likely to be limited to yelling.

Maybe there's another way to run this calculus, but I don't yet see it. Keep in mind that this has nothing to do with what I think should happen; it is only my best guess as to what will happen. My second-best guess is "no action". We will see if either of these is right.

Monday, August 26, 2013

You Break It, You Bought It

With mounting evidence that the Syrian regime launched a large-scale chemical attack on civilians, there are growing calls for the Obama Administration to "do something!" This is a political problem partly of his own making, since a year ago he declared chemical weapons use a "red line" that would provoke an (unspecified) response. At the time, it seemed likely that he said that partly to try to deter Assad's use of chemicals, and in part to get domestic critics off of his back by demonstrating that he had a policy. Deterrence has now failed, and I don't think the other thing ever really worked out.

So now what? As my friend Steve Saideman has pointed out, there are no good options. Steve's latest post on the subject even leaves out a critical point: unlike both Libya and Iraq, Syria has a fairly formidable air defense system, increasing the likelihood that not only would a no-fly zone be largely pointless, it would also cost the US pilots and planes. We've gotten used to no-fly zones being essentially free; that may well not be the case here.

The reasons Obama, and pretty much everybody else, are reluctant to get involved, are twofold:

- There are no good guys. The Syrian opposition is severely divided and fractured, and there are indications that they are already fighting amongst themselves (see: Afghanistan, 1980s). It's not clear who, if anybody, the US would want to support - and without a side to back, intervention seems ridiculous.

- Colin Powell reminded us (unsuccessfully) of the "Pottery Barn Rule" ahead of Iraq: You break it, you bought it. If the US steps in in a serious way (i.e. with boots on the ground), we essentially own Syria for the foreseeable future. And THAT is something nobody wants.

Despite John McCain and some other voices in the GOP there is very little stomach in Congress, and even less among the American public, for intervention, whether Assad used chemicals or not. Nobody wants another war, nobody wants to become embroiled in another vicious local dispute among groups who are, at the very best, indifferent (if not downright hostile) to US interests in the region.

Predictions are tricky things, but I think the odds against serious intervention are long. Yes, Obama will take some lumps from some factions of the GOP for doing nothing - although if he's clever, he can get Republicans to argue amongst themselves, since I doubt the Tea Party/libertarian wing wants another war. It's just hard to see any options that aren't very expensive, useless, or both. Maybe this will start to send the message: America's might is limited. We very often can't control things at all. And if you don't have any control, trying to exert some is usually a very bad idea.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Oh, the Irony...

There's always been a kernel of truth behind the bumper sticker that says, "Gun Control Means Using Both Hands". Responsible gun owners - and there are many - do stress the importance of safety and respect for the tools they own and use. Which is why this story from elsewhere in Ohio is so thoroughly ironic:
Instructor shoots student in gun-safety class
The instructor, apparently an otherwise law-abiding gun owner who both owns a gun range and is certified to teach CCW classes in Ohio, failed to observe what I understand to be the most fundamental rule of gun safety: always assume the gun is loaded. In this case, he got lucky - the result of the accident was a wound from which the victim will likely heal fairly quickly. 12 inches (just a degree or two of firing angle) in a different direction and this story could have had a very different outcome.

I suspect that this story will be uncomfortable for some folks on the political right. Some on the left will want to use it as evidence of the inherent danger of guns (and therefore, argument for further restricting them). Many will just make snarky comments. And many in the responsible gun ownership community will use this as a cautionary tale, which I suspect is what it deserves.

There really isn't a broader lesson here, except that the central rules of gun safety really are true: always assume the gun is loaded, and treat a gun at all times as if it were a deadly weapon - because it is. I have borrowed the phrase before: guns don't kill people, they just make it a whole lot easier.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Gun "Rights" and Self-Defense: Listen to the Experts

Given my ongoing interest in self defense issues, I end up reading & seeing a lot of pretty dogmatic stuff about self defense on social media. A lot of is, as I've pointed out before, is based on revenge fantasies, idealized notions of righteous uses of violence, and a lot of misunderstandings about real-world threats, usually spoken from comfortable middle-class white privilege.

If you're really going to buy a gun (or, indeed, take any serious steps) for the purposes of self-defense, you need to do better than dogma. I recently ran across an interview that should be required reading for anyone with even a passing interest on the subject:
Self-Defense and the Law
The interview participants are a martial arts expert who trains MMA fighters; a prison guard/cop/military combat medic who is one of the nation's foremost experts and authors on self-defense; and a former prosecutor who now works as a criminal defense attorney specializing in violence and self-defense cases. These are folks who deal with real-world cases of self-defense (and other forms of violence) day in and day out.

The entire interview is well worth reading; here are a few particularly interesting tidbits (Harris is the blogger hosting the conversation; Levine is the lawyer; Thornton is the martial artist; Miller is the cop/guard/author. Underlining has been added for emphasis). The punch line here: if you want to talk in public about guns, or self-defense, or violence, you owe it to yourself and the rest of us to understand reality. Let's stop babbling about Hollywood fantasies and bumper-sticker platitudes about Good Guys and Bad Guys.

Sam Harris: One sometimes hears horror stories about people who engaged in seemingly necessary acts of self-defense and yet were zealously prosecuted and landed in prison. What is the worst that can happen?
Steven Levine: The worst that can happen is that you go to prison for the rest of your life, especially if you kill somebody. In California, even if you have a valid self-defense claim, the DA’s office will typically still file charges on you. I recently had a client, a 50-year-old nurse, who was in her own home when her ex-boyfriend (for 26 years) came over. He’d moved out 7 months earlier. There was a small history of domestic violence. But in fact, he had recently assaulted their 22-year-old daughter by head-butting her. While they were discussing things downstairs in the living room, he picked up a sledgehammer. She grew worried, told him to leave, and retreated upstairs. He put down the hammer but followed her upstairs and told her he did not have to leave. Once upstairs, he was yelling at her. Finally, she grabbed her gun. She’s a cancer survivor. She’s had a double mastectomy. She’s half his size, and she told him to leave. He went for the gun, and she shot him. The bullet went through his rib cage and he died. She tried to save him by doing CPR.
The jury convicted her of murder despite the fact that she said that she was scared for her life
Steven Levine:  The real issue is using force on another person. And I’m telling you, most people do not succeed with self-defense claims in California.
Sam Harris: I suspect that most martial artists and gun owners will find that a pretty startling statement.
Steven Levine: The way to prevail with a claim of self-defense is to have it accepted prior to filing, because once the DA’s office is invested in your case, they’re just not going to let it go. It’s at the pre-filing stage where you need for them to say, “I’m not filing this; that was just self-defense.” If they think it’s something more, then you’re going into the system.
Matt Thornton: The fact that most self-defense claims don’t succeed doesn’t strike me as that surprising when you consider that most victims know their assailants—and much of this violence occurs in the home
Rory Miller: In my experience, most of the people who claimed self-defense had been involved in a mutual fight and were rationalizing it as self-defense
Matt Thornton:  Sam noted that for a self-defense claim to be valid, the other person must have the means, opportunity, and intent (I’ve also seen this covered under the rubric of “jeopardy”) to harm you. But there is a fourth requirement that one often encounters:preclusion. This is the idea that force has to be the only available option (i.e., all peaceful means of escaping danger were “precluded”). My guess is that many self-defense cases fail because the victims are unable to show preclusion. I also suspect that the proliferation of “stand your ground” laws affects this fourth criterion. Can you say something about this and about whether you think such laws are a good idea?
Steven Levine: Well, like Florida, a person being threatened in California has no duty to retreat and can stand and fight. I was amused when I read so much criticism of the Florida Stand Your Ground Law when we have that here, albeit not in a statute, but as part of the common law. Just don’t be the initial aggressor here, because then stand your ground is not available.
Steven Levine: GBI [Great Bodily Injury] in California is particularly broad: For example, a cut lip can be GBI, a broken bone of any kind, a bruise under the eye, and DAs have no qualms about alleging what to common sense seems like a minor injury as GBI. But the basic fact is that if you cause serious injury to your assailant in the course of defending yourself—if you stab or shoot him, for instance—your actions are going to be heavily scrutinized, and the DAs will err on the side of caution. This means that they will at least file the case, and you are going to find yourself hiring a lawyer
Matt Thornton:  One point I’d like to make in this context is that the best defense against violence is always your own mind. People tend to overlook this because it sounds like an empty platitude, but it’s true. Some people acquire the maturity and understanding to avoid violence early on, but these days—and this is obviously a good thing—most of us go our whole lives without encountering violence, so we need to be taught what to look for. We also need to be willing to see it, and we need to know how to manage our distance from it.
From the victim’s perspective, an attack may seem to have occurred suddenly, but we know that in most cases it was anything but sudden.
Steven Levine: If you’re actually in a fight, and you’re scared, and you think you’re about to suffer great bodily injury, then you have the right to defend yourself with deadly force. But the major criteria are: Did they start the fight? Is the fight actually happening? I mean, we have all seen the movies where the bad guys pick on the person who they think is the easy mark, and to the audience’s delight, he kicks all their asses. Well, in real life, if you are being attacked, you can kick ass, but if you pull out a gun and start shooting, you will have problems explaining the reasonableness of your conduct. If you pull out a knife and stab three guys to death, that also presents problems.
Matt Thornton:  I am certainly not suggesting one shouldn’t learn to use a weapon. To the contrary, I am saying that every weapon comes with a great responsibility, not just when it is used, but also in the ongoing training needed to remain competent in its use. For a civilian, carrying a knife or gun dramatically increases the danger posed should he find himself in a fight—especially if he has to grapple on the ground. This is, in part, due to the fact that it will always increase, rather than decrease, the stakes (as in the example I offered above). Because of this, a weapon should make one less likely, rather than more likely, to engage in any conflict; but it takes a certain level of maturity to realize that (the lack of which was on display in the Zimmerman case). I realize some self-defense experts claim that every physical conflict is a potentially lethal situation, but what I don’t think many grasp is that the addition of weapons into the situation almost guarantees that is so. Some might ask, but what if the attacker has a knife? The question assumes that a rational response to such a situation might be to pull out my own and engage in a knife fight.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Guns and the Different Planets We Inhabit

Recently I took a driving trip that involved substantial stretches on the road by myself. I used the time to catch up on some podcasts I had been saving for some time, but hadn't had the chance to listen to. In particular, I was able to get all the way through a two-part series put out by This American Life on reporting they had done on Harper High School in the fall of 2012, aired in February of this year. You can find the episodes here and here; I highly recommend them (fair warning: they are depressing).

In the show, the reporters present a series of stories gleaned from spending 5 months (fall semester 2012) at Harper High, a predominantly black high school on the south side of Chicago. Although it is well-run and well-kept within the building it is clearly in a rough neighborhood, and the majority of the reporting focuses on violence (shootings) involving current and recent students. Pretty much all of this violence takes place outside the school building itself, but it nevertheless has a profound impact on the school and the students. Over the year prior to the reporting (the 2011-12 school year), 29 current and former students had been shot, 8 of them fatally.

The discussions reporters had with students and staff were remarkably frank and matter-of-fact, both about the violence that these young people had witnessed (many if not most had seem someone shot in front of them) and about the social and economic systems that sustained and encouraged that violence. The discussions on gangs blew apart most common conceptions about what gangs are and are not, and how and why violence among these rival tribes occurs.

At the end of the report, the host mentioned that they had gotten a tweet after the first episode from a listener who accused them of finding the most violent high school anywhere, implying that they were blowing the problem out of proportion by focusing on an outlier case. In response, the last segment of episode 2 is simply a role call of roughly a dozen principals and superintendents from cities around the country citing similar numbers of casualties among their students. This is clearly not an isolated problem, except insofar as it is isolated in the poorest inner-city regions within major American cities.

And therein lies the disconnect. It struck me as I listened to 15 and 16 year old black kids matter-of-factly talk about guns - where to get them, how much they cost, how to keep them hidden, which kinds are the most desirable. The national conversation about guns and gun control over the past year in the United States has been almost completely dominated by middle-class and upper-middle-class white men. Occasionally a white woman, usually a prominent one, will get a voice in (say, Gabby Giffords). Occasionally, a prominent and well-to-do black man will be let in as well (Leonard Pitts or Thomas Sowell). The debate has a largely theoretical tone, focusing on rare cases like the Aurora theater shooting or the Sandy Hook tragedy. High-minded ideas about the Bill of Rights and the Founders' Intent are bandied about. Wayne LaPierre expounds his now-famous "good man with a gun" theory.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of those actually affected by gun violence - young urban poor, often minority kids - are left out completely. Those Harper High kids could tell you with precision and cold calculation the value of a 30-round clip (it lets you keep shooting longer in a firefight, which is good since most shots miss - these kids are lousy marksmen). But if the NRA showed up with its arguments about the 2nd Amendment and Inalienable Rights penned by white slaveowners over 200 years ago, would we expect those urban black kids to understand, or care? Would the social workers in the school, who do their jobs with energy and enthusiasm day in and day out despite fearing for their lives, care about the niceties of whether this or that model of assault rifle can or can't be bought at a gun show with a background check? They live in a world so far removed from the pundits and pontificators that they might as well be on Mars.

Except that the decisions that result from the tussle among pundits, politicians, interest groups, and others - the wealthy chattering classes - have a very real impact on those poor black kids and teachers in south Chicago. In fact, the urban core suffers the consequences far more than the rest of us do. Whether I can or can't buy an AR-15, or a 30-round clip, at my local gun store is largely peripheral to my life, and (however much they may protest) to the lives of nearly all wealthy white suburbanites who are the ones carrying out the argument. Nobody I know will die whether gun laws are tightened or loosened, whether 30-round clips are legal or illegal. Some conservatives will get into a high dudgeon about their "freedom being taken away", but this is largely the kind of freedom that wealthy people with very few real problems in the world can argue about - the epitome of the hashtag #firstworldproblems.

Back in the urban core, meanwhile, the fact that guns are freely available and that gun laws are being loosened on an ever-wider basis has real life-and-death consequences for those kids at Harper High. Police stats show that at least 40% of the guns in the Harper neighborhood come from straw purchases at nearby suburban gun stores and shows. When 30-round clips are readily available, more poor black kids die.

It was in this context that Chicago passed (and, to some degree, still maintains) incredibly strict handgun laws - the very kind that the NRA and their comfortable suburban members seek to get rid of. I have no idea whether such laws are effective or not - so far, the dent seems to be minimal. On the other hand, only a very great idiot would expect the NRA's call to arm everyone for "self-defense" to lead to anything other than a bloodbath in urban core areas already awash in petty violence. Those kids are Harper will tell you themselves - guns aren't for defending yourself when you're being shot at, they're for taking revenge against the people that shot your buddy. These kinds of "gang wars" go on for years, with nothing more at stake than pride, "turf", and survival.

The fact that the victims and perpetrators of violence are mostly poor, minority, and in the inner cities, while the pontificators (me included) are mostly white, wealthy, and well outside those inner city regions means that the "national conversation" on gun violence is neither national nor a conversation. It is a Kabuki argument between wealthy ideological tribes with no real material stake in the outcome - a political game played for money and votes and influence in Washington and in state capitols around the country. Those stuck in the urban killing zones, while they are in theory citizens with equal rights to the rest of us, live in a democracy in name only. They have no voice in the decisions that affect whether they are likely to live or die.

It is long past time that those people had a voice. Until they get it, the "gun debate" in our country is a worthless farce, akin to letting farmers with pickup trucks in Montana control mass transit policy in Boston, or Los Angeles plastic surgeons decide the fate of dairy farmers in Wisconsin. We would recognize this as injustice in just about any other area of public policy - the cries of "No taxation without representation!" are quick to run at Tea Party rallies when decisions they care about are on the line. But because the victims and perpetrators of gun violence (and often, they are both) are poor, and confined to urban slums, and largely not white, it seems somehow natural that the rest of us should decide their fate for them. I don't know how to solve that problem, nor do I expect a resolution any time soon. But if the NRA or other gun-interest-groups want any thinking people to take them seriously, they should stop arrogating to themselves, from their suburban and rural base, the power to decide the fate of people who live in another world entirely.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Police, Race, and Shooting: Here We Go Again

Another week, another case of tragic violence:
Police shoot unarmed man in his driveway
There are a lot of facts that aren't yet known about this case, and it's probably fair to say that some judgment should be reserved until an investigation is completed - although one fears that much of the evidence will be of the he-said/they-said variety, leaving everybody unsatisfied.

However, the outcome is not in question: a 60 year old man, in his own car in his own driveway, was ordered out of his car at 2:30 in the morning and then, upon exiting, was shot at some 15 times by police officers. The man was not armed. This is the end reality that people see, and the one that we most care about - as it should be.

I watched an interview on CNN this morning with the county Sheriff, David Morgan, whose deputies were involved. I wish I could find the video of that interview (there's a little bit in the link above, but the questioning in the later interview was more extensive and direct) - it's instructive (if depressing) to watch. In it, the Sheriff tried to make two points:

• This isn't about race.
• The officers followed their training and did everything properly.

This is, of course, a huge mistake. This guy needs better advice on dealing with the public and the press, and he needs it now.

Like the Zimmerman/Martin case, I expect reaction to this incident to line up on both race and party lines pretty quickly. Black Democrats will be quick to criticize the police; white Republicans will be quick to defend them. Both will accuse the other of being wrong, tensions will likely flare, and we will add still more wood to the burning fire surrounding both race and violence.

Into that inferno (perhaps unwisely), I would offer the following observations:

1) Anybody who says this isn't about race doesn't understand the nature of race politics. As I've said before, things aren't "about race" or "not about race" objectively. Race is a construct that exists in people's minds, both individually and collectively. The fact that I think race is not involved has no bearing on whether someone else agrees - and since race politics is all about perception, anybody's perception becomes reality. It is a near-certainly that portions of the black community in Florida already think this is about race - and therefore it is, whether anyone else likes it or not.

A corollary to this: trying to argue that it shouldn't be about race by citing counter-example cases doesn't help. In the later CNN interview, Sheriff Morgan was asked about the race question. His response was to cite a case from a few weeks prior in which several black women had killed a white woman. He said that no one had gotten upset over race about that case, concluding that therefore no one should in this instance either.

This line of argument is simply throwing gasoline on a fire. At heart, it is an offer of conditional caring. What the Sheriff was saying (or, more importantly, what many people in his community will hear) was: I will care about you and your kind as human beings only after you start thinking, behaving, and acting the way I want. It is a position both morally indefensible and politically moronic. If my compassion for you (which is very much what the CNN interviewer was getting at) is conditional on you agreeing with me and seeing the world the way I do, it is not compassion at all. Stop acting like it is, and stop pretending that you're trying to constructively resolve the conflict - you're just making it worse.

2) Police agencies have largely used up their supply of "trust us, we know what we're doing" as a line of defense. Most of the interview consisted of the CNN interviewer asking the Sheriff whether he was at all disturbed or concerned about the outcome, and the Sheriff defending his officers and their training protocols. This was repeated three or four times, nearly to the point of absurdity.

Police agencies need to understand that "trust us, we're experts" doesn't work as a defense in public when you just shot an unarmed man in his own driveway. Your officers made a mistake. Falling back on police procedure and saying that they followed proper protocol raises a far more troubling prospect: that we have created a system in which police can shoot whoever they want, whenever they want. I don't think anybody - Republican or Democrat, black or white - wants to live in that society (even though some apparently already do).

Precisely because police are given license to carry and use weapons, the standards on their conduct are supposed to be higher, not lower. Moreover, appeals to "expertise" contradict the reality of a democratic society: the police don't get to make the rules, they just get to enforce them. The rest of us are supposed to decide what the rules are, and hold police and other government officials accountable for the results. Every time a Sheriff or a police chief gets up and makes the "trust us, we're experts, you just don't understand" argument, he is essentially arguing for a police state: shut up and let us decide what's best for you, even if that means shooting the occasional unarmed 60 year old man with a bad back.

There's a self-defeating irony in this as well. Police organizations have been pretty steadfast in their opposition to the NRA's "everybody should be armed" proposals, because they understand that if everybody is armed their officers are at greater risk. But every time they make a mistake like this, they increase private citizens' security dilemmas and make it more likely that individuals will seek to arm themselves - including against the police. Again, if your desire is to make the world less violent and more safe this is a pretty boneheaded way of going about it.

The investigation in this case has been turned over to state authorities, who will hopefully be both thorough and swift. But we need to have a larger conversation as citizens about when we think it's justified for police to use deadly force or not. They work for us, and they answer to us. I hope that this case might raise an opportunity to advance that conversation, because there are too many (defined as any number > 0) unarmed citizens being gunned down by police.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Thoughts About Reactions to the Zimmerman/Martin Case

Both media and social media have been lighting up with responses to the not guilty verdict returned in the George Zimmerman case. As usual, I'm far more interested in the reactions than in the verdict itself. As I wrote some time ago, Zimmerman will suffer for the rest of his life for shooting Trayvon Martin, whatever the courts do or don't do. The fate of Zimmerman the man is his concern; it's what the rest of us do in response that interests me more.

Obviously, I can't possibly be comprehensive - everybody's got an opinion on this case, or as one popular internet meme had it:

That's a fair point - most of us aren't lawyers. On the other hand, most of us interested in this case are American citizens, and as I understand citizenship it is not only our right but our duty to consider how things like the legal system should or shouldn't work, and to express those views - not that we always get our way or agree with each other, but the conversation is important.

As I look over the various responses, I see some on both the right and the left that strike me as misguided. The very fact that this has become a "Left/Right" issue strikes me as wrong, and is a strong indicator of the pernicious effect of party tribalism in American public life (links too many to mention; just look for all most posts with the "tribalism" label...)

On the right, there are some folks who seem desperate to make the point that the Zimmerman/Martin incident was "not about race." Here's a Facebook message typical of the genre:

Before you judge, those of you who know me, know I have a biracial son and am probably the LEAST prejudice person you'll ever meet. This is about principles, not about color. I just read all of the notes on the Zimmerman case (I don't watch the news to avoid crap like this, so I googled it) and I don't see how this is a racial issue.
 People keep referring to Zimmerman as a "white man", he is Latino...hello? The kid (black white blue purple or green) was suspended from school and wandering around an obviously high crime neighborhood in the rain, high as a kite and when someone questions that, he punches him, knocks him down and proceeds to beat his head against the ground.
 I strongly suggest kids behave so they are in school when they should be, stay away from drugs and certainly not pick a fist fight with a man exercising his right to carry a weapon to defend his life. Sorry kid, I don't care what color you are, you picked a fight with the wrong guy...I would have shot someone who was beating on me too. Thank you Sharpton, Jackson and for the love of GOD Obama (cringe) for hopping on the racist bandwagon. People are killed every day...of all races, religious origins, and ages. Where are Sharpton and Jackson at when it's black on black or white on white or black on white crime? These idiot loudmouths should make this much noise in every murder case, but I truly believe they are the ones who keep racism alive and well...and Obama jumping on the bandwagon reinforces my belief that he is a complete waste of space, time and air. I shall now hop down off of my soap box and pray for peace in the world between all people. We need to start living together as a HUMAN peace. What the hell is so tough about that concept???
To acquit Zimmerman of racism and simultaneously accuse Sharpton, Jackson & Obama of it in the same breath seems a little confusing to me. Is this about race or isn't it? The fact that some people seem to want it very much to NOT be about race (and who simultaneously assume that Martin was the aggressor...) says that it is just as much as the NAACP's statements (they clearly have a different perspective on this question). The fact is that things aren't "about race" or "not about race" in and of themselves; they are judged so by people with different perspectives. The Zimmerman case is a Rorshach test - people see in it what they bring with them. But the fact that a lot of people think that race matters here means that it does, however much some conservatives wish that it doesn't. Sorry, but that's the way it is.

There has also been a bit of crowing from the "guns are good for self defense" crowd on the right. It's one thing to project your agenda onto a very specific set of events (which most of us do); it's another to reedit those events to fit your agenda. As I've mentioned before, Zimmerman's life is ruined because of the gun he carried. Would Trayvon Martin, unarmed and empty-handed, have killed Zimmerman except for that shot? That seems a stretch. Hurt him, perhaps. But death? Highly unlikely. So those who would cry "better to be tried by twelve than carried by six" need to find a different poster child. If anything, this is an indication of something I've argued many times before: guns are terrible in most circumstances for self-defense. Perhaps the NRA should ask George Zimmerman how safe he feels today...

On the left, there are certainly many who are disappointed in the verdict - though given the evidence that was publicly available, I'm not sure why folks were surprised. Some of those most disappointed have made the argument, in varying ways, that this verdict shows how broken the legal system is. This, too, is misguided. Assuming that the jury saw what the rest of us saw - and in a trial this closely followed, that's a reasonable approximation - it's hard to make a case that a reasonable person would believe in Zimmerman's guilt for the crimes of which he was accused beyond a reasonable doubt. That's our legal standard, and it's become the gold standard of the world. You can argue with the prosecution's tactics, but in the end the evidence just wasn't there - too much ambiguity, too much contradiction, too much simply unknown.

If there's any accusation to be made of the legal system, it is inflexibility. The jury could only consider Zimmerman's guilt or innocence on the charges filed - murder and manslaughter. On these, it was hard to reach a definitive conclusion, and in our system the defense wins ties. Many reasonable people think Zimmerman did something wrong - disobeying the police instruction to not follow or make contact with Martin, for example. But in our system, neither judge nor jury can consider such things. We can argue about whether that might be reconsidered, but that's a tweak, not a fundamental flaw. In fact, it's very difficult - if not impossible - to argue on the basis of any single case that there is a systematic problem. Systems will always make mistakes (Rodney King, OJ?) And it isn't even clear in this case that it did.

This is also not to say that the law itself should not be called into question. Some have pointed out that the "stand your ground" portion of Florida's law isn't really the issue here, since at the one point of the altercation actually witnessed by someone else, Zimmerman could not have retreated. But there is the very real issue of whether you can claim self-defense if you initiated the altercation in the first place. In a number of jurisdictions, the answer to this is "no", but it's ambiguous and requires judgment on the part of a judge and/or jury - and evidence on which to base that judgment. Trying to figure out who started a fight can be a very tricky thing - is it the person who threw the first punch? Who hurled the first insult? Who first drew a weapon? Using the Zimmerman case by itself to try to define what the law should be is almost certainly a bad idea. We need a serious national conversation about the use of force and the rights of self-defense - something we seem incapable of having right now.

Ultimately, the altercation between Zimmerman and Martin is a tragedy, in the classic literary sense. Both men were human beings, with faults and foibles which may or may not have been involved in this particular incident. Was Zimmerman racially profiling Martin, or profiling him on class or something else? Was Martin's past drug use relevant? What we can say, which I think nearly everyone would agree, is this: a man died needlessly. In a better world, much less a perfect one, this would not have happened. But then as an Episcopal Bishop pointed out, in a better world Zimmerman would have offered Martin a ride to get out of the rain.

The nature of this particular tragedy illustrates a point that people in my academic field (international politics) have understood for a very long time: there is no "better safe than sorry". We call this the "security dilemma": the difficulty in dealing with an Other with unknown motives. If I deal kindly or reasonably with someone who intends me harm, I am wrong and I will get hurt (Chamberlain, Munich, 1938). But if I deal aggressively with someone who means me no harm, thinking that they do, I will cause the very conflict I wish to avoid (Europe, 1914). This is what the "tried by twelve/carried by six" crowd doesn't understand - there is no "safe" pathway. Thinking otherwise - thinking "I have a gun, so I can safely assume that he's up to no good" - is not a path to either peace or security. It's the road to tragedy.

At the international level, this is difficult to resolve because knowing the motives of another country is well-nigh impossible. On the interpersonal level, it should be much easier - because I can talk to someone and get some reading on them and see what they say and do. If I do so without bias - if I allow from the very beginning for the fact that the other person may, in fact, be innocent and mean me no harm - I have a better-than-random chance of getting it right. If I engage that conversation assuming I know what the answer is, of course, I will only see what I expect to see - which is the deeper point beneath the political bumper stickers about "racial profiling".

This brings up perhaps the root of the entire tragedy: fear. Zimmerman was clearly afraid - for himself (why else carry a gun?) and for his neighborhood (why else be such a zealous neighborhood watchman?) It is likely - not provable, but likely - that his fear clouded his judgment, clouded how he saw Martin and how he chose to engage with him. And that fear led to tragedy.

The answer, which we mostly don't want to hear, is therefore simple: don't be afraid. Be wary and watchful and cautious, yes - all of these can be reasonable responses to circumstances. But if we truly want peace and justice in our communities, we must conquer our fear. Or, as has been put more wisely than I can by both philosophers and movies:

And, with a tip of the hat to my friend Steve Saideman: