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.