Thursday, December 17, 2015

Violence in America

 Violence has always been with us.
Cain killed Abel. Lions kill gazelles. Israelites killed the Canaanites and the Romans threw Christians to the lions. Crusaders murdered Saracens and even Christians that they mistook for Saracens.  Hitler murdered Jews and Stalin murdered Ukrainians.  Pol Pot murdered 80% of his own population and Hutus with machetes murdered Tutsis, or was it the other way around.
Those are just the atrocities that pop into my head. There are thousands of others. Sad to say, but supposed Christians have committed more than their share.   America is unfortunately a country started by violent people, including soldiers of fortune and England’s prisoners.  American conquered the Indian nations and defeated the British, twice.  We have been engaged in more foreign wars than I care to count.
When guns are used we hear an outcry for more “reasonable” gun control, reasonable meaning “Do it my way.”  This is followed shortly by a scheme that will not work, and a public scramble to buy more guns. Then both sides cherry pick data to prove that more guns = more/less violence.  Did prohibition eliminate whiskey?
You can find peaceful cultures with lots of guns, Switzerland, Vermont.  You can find violent places with very strict gun laws, Venezuela, Washington DC.  It is way more complicated than that.  There was violence long before there were guns.  Cain slew Abel.
One thing has changed recently, the 24 hour news cycle.  It took 50 years for the Gunfight At The OK Corral to make it into the national consciousness (Wikipedia).  Some murders were never reported, at all.  Now a “mass shooting” is on everyone’s lips before the smoke clears.  Debated, defended, sliced and diced on the evening and morning news ad nauseam, by pundits, who are no more qualified than you are.
There are reported to be 300 million guns in the US, it might be a lot more, nobody really knows. Suppose we could make them all disappear.  Nature abhors a vacuum. How long before someone imported another?  How long before someone made another?  In Afghanistan village blacksmiths hand-made copies of British .308 Enfield rifles that were almost indistinguishable from the original. Then they learned to make AK47’s too.  When guns are outlawed outlaws still have guns.  How long before bullies terrorize their neighbors?
It’s been said that God made men and Sam Colt made them equal.  The inquisition did not need guns. The Samurai ruled Japan with a cruel iron fist holding a steel sword.  The Portuguese introduced the harquebus, a crude firearm and the people threw off the yoke. (National Geographic).
The second Amendment was intended to retain with the people the power to revolt in order to prevent an overzealous government from becoming oppressive. (Federalist Papers).    Some argue that that concept is obsolete because they did not anticipate assault rifles, tanks and aircraft.  The colonists Pennsylvania rifle was infinitely superior to the military musket of the time, with it they defeated the most powerful well-armed military machine the world had ever known.  The Mujahedeen kicked the modern Russian Army and Air Force out of Afghanistan.
The USA has not been invaded by foreign forces in 200 years.  One legend has it that Admiral Yamamoto was asked why after Pearl Harbor he did not invade.  He supposedly said “There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.”
Let’s move on.  Absent firearms there are many ways to perpetrate violence, knives, garden implements, “Lizzie Borden took an ax…)”, explosives, gas, clubs, spears, poison, screwdrivers, frying pans, fire, garrotes, clubs, spears, broken glass, acid, germs, sticks and stones, bare hands.
There is also convincing evidence that gun owners prevent many, many crimes, without firing a shot, or creating a report.
What can we do?
One mass shooter was talked down by school teacher Antoinette Tuffl.  He put his gun down and surrendered to her before the police arrived.  So it does not take a good man with a gun to stop a bad man with a gun.  She was not the only one.  There is a start: every manager of a place where people gather should be taught hostage negotiating skills: Principals, Mall Managers, Theater Managers, and come to think of it Police Sergeants.  Shooting the perpetrator to ribands may save the cost of a trial, but it deprives us of the opportunity to learn what makes them tick. A problem well defined is half solved.  As long as they are talking, or listening they are probably not shooting.
DE-ESCALATE THE FIREPOWER:  When the police can be expected show up looking like an Armored Division the perpetrators tend to equip themselves accordingly.  LA invented the SWAT to deal with unique big city situations, but does Dogpatch really need one too?  Did it really take 380 rounds to disable two San Bernardino perpetrators, or 18 in the back a teenage boy?
TONE DOWN THE RHETORIC:  Just call them perpetrators or criminals until there is distinct evidence that they are something more.  Minimize the hyperbole.  Minimize the inflammatory adjectives.  More coverage begets more copycats.  Quit interviewing hysterical witnesses on the air.  “No comment at this time” is an acceptable response from law enforcement at the scene.  Do not instantly analyze complex situations.  Newsroom mantra “If it bleeds it leads” because “Nobody was shot today” does not attract eyeballs.
LEAVE RELIGION OUT OF IT:  We seldom hear the religion of a perpetrator unless he looks different.  Besides that, of 355 mass shootings only 1 or 2 were the perpetrators Muslim.
DON’T ATTEMPT TO SENSOR: Let the crazies expose their own asininities.  Most people know crazy when they hear it as long as responsible media don’t give it too much credence.
LEARN PATIENCE: Violent response makes violence acceptable.  Does the perpetrator really need to be handcuffed or dead before shift change?  If the perp can be isolated, wait him out.  If he is in an enclosed space consider pumping in odorless colorless nitrogen gas with 10% oxygen.  The low oxygen concentration will make everyone sleepy.  Airline pilots know they can settle unruly passengers by lowering the cabin pressure.

Some things will take longer.

INCARCERATE LESS: The urge to solve problems by incarceration has gotten out of control.  In Biblical times there were few alternatives, death, torture, disfigurement or exile.  Incarceration and exile have the sole advantage of being reversible.  Exile unfortunately just passes the problem to a neighbor, and is hard to enforce.  It fell out of fashion.  Death, torture, disfigurement are irreversible and disturb modern sensitivity.  Torture, disfigurement, and incarceration stigmatize the offender for life, and often his family too.  There are some criminals that cannot be allowed to mingle with free society but we need to learn how to identify them, and isolate them from the general population. 
Incarceration creates an underclass of frustrated desensitized individuals who may never make the readjustment to normal social living.  Incarceration seldom rehabilitates.  The recidivism is 80%.  Prison has become criminal academy.  The skill set to survive in jail is totally inverted compared to the skills needed in free society.  Short term highly disciplined boot-camp seems productive for first offenders provided there is some education too.  Lock ‘em up, forget about ‘em and then drop them back in society with no new skills, a bad attitude and a stigma is not working.  And it is expensive, very expensive.
EDUCATION:  It cost more to imprison an adult for one year than to provide someone a K-12 education, some say a college education.  Young minds are malleable, as the twig is bent… There is pretty strong evidence that pre-kindergarten has lifetime benefits not just to the pupil, but to society.  This is the opportunity to instill commonly held values that the small child’s parent, or foster parent, or peers do not know how to teach.  A time to identify emotional problems and provide counselling, not punishment
DESTYGMATIZE EMOTIONAL HISTORY:  Obviously we do not what the deranged running about with deadly weapons, not guns, not anthrax.  Unfortunately we still have a lot to learn about who is dangerous and who is merely distraught.  Better access to mental health counselling would help.  The Catholic Confessional and the neighborhood bartender come to mind.  Could we have a public confessional, anonymous advice line?  Some people can de-stress talking to their dog, or goldfish.  We need to separate that from the chronic or intense emotional dysfunction that leads to atrocities.  That is going to be hard to learn if we keep shredding the perpetrators instead of analyzing them.
END THE WAR ON THE POOR: For example, if a person is fined for an offense it should be equally painful no matter whom the offender is, but it's not. If the immigrant laborer is fined $55 for a parking violation that is a day’s take home pay.  His kids might not eat.  To the Wall Street trader, that's just one less imported cigar, in the humidor, no big deal.  If traffic fines were based on value of the vehicle it would more closely resemble ability to pay, be less onerous on the poor and be more effective against some well-funded abusers.  What if a fine was "An hour’s income", or “A day’s income”?
   "Thirty dollars or thirty days" is catastrophic to the dish washer, insignificant to the trader.  This is just one of dozens of examples at 
Inability to pay a fine can lead to a bigger fine, and possible incarceration and a broken family.  We need alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.  We need better ways to insure court appearance than bail or jail.
End the practice of depending on fines for a significant portion of budget.  When law enforcement is motivated to collect fines it becomes a form of random taxation that tends to fall hardest on those least able to pay.  When the money from fines goes into the same pocket that pays the Police and the Court there is a risky incentive.  It is not unlike the tax farming that brought about the French revolution.  Fine income needs to be completely divorced from those issuing or collecting the penalty.
END THE WAR ON DRUGS:  It is an abysmal failure.
It has not accomplished any of its official goals, and instead has been a bonus to the criminal / incarceration complex.  When drugs are outlawed, outlaws have drugs. It penalizes people for normal behavior and benefits criminals, especially organized crime.   The most powerful political organization in our largest state is the prison guards union.
Reefer madness hysteria led to draconian Rockefeller laws that threw thousands in jail for victimless crimes.  The flawed hypothesis was that drug use made people commit crimes.
In reality it was the high price of illegal drugs that motivated crimes.  Still is.  Most (not all) druggies are passive when high.  The worst sin is that every prisoner represents a broken family. Wives without husbands, children without fathers, stigma transferred from incarcerated member to siblings.  Not only do the accused go to prison, their innocent families may lose jobs, education, housing or benefits through no fault of their own.
In some jurisdictions out of control police, trying to look effective, round up marginal people and accuse them of drug crimes.  Ambitious prosecutors abuse plea bargains to improve their conviction ratio and further their career at the expense of people who cannot afford proper representation.  A felony conviction looks more impressive and the accused goes to state prison instead of local jail.  This spares the county the cost of incarceration.  Mayors and Judges go along because they need to be “tough on crime” to get reelected.  We need judges with the fortitude to nullify laws obviously designed solely to generate fines for the revenue.
 YES we have to fight crime and terrorists, but not at the expense of terrorizing ourselves.

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