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.