Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

Last year I bought a sit-on-top kayak. This week I launched it from a secluded beach in Hither Hills State Park in Montauk and paddled an hour down the stony coast. The bay water made fractals; gentle waves rocked me; with my polarized sunglasses I learned to detect and avoid the swirl over a rock near the surface. I paddled back against a heavier breeze, reassured that I was strong enough to keep stroking for long stretches of time without taking a rest. My muscles fell into a routine, while my mind was completely becalmed. I came back to the beach with the rare sense I had just spent two hours in the physical world, rather than my two other places, the worlds of people and of my own thoughts. I wondered what I would become if I could spend more time in simplicity and beauty....but I did not go back the next day, because I had things to do still in the world, things to do with language. I am at once drawn to and frightened of that nonverbal simple world.

Your email is my reward for doing The Spectacle. I can be reached as always at jw@bway.net. --Jonathan Wallace

Jury Duty
Dear Mr. Wallace:

Great article -- I couldn't agree more.

Jim Warren jwarren@well.com

Dear Jonathan,

I just served on a jury in a pot-trafficking case. Had I not been on the jury, they would have surely convicted the deft. of felony trafficking without evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that he had done anything more serious than misdemeanor possession of under a bulk amount of marijuana. I found myself giving the rest of the jury a closing argument in the jury room that the defendant's attorney (who by the way was a worthless sod) failed to give in the courtroom. Otherwise they would have convicted him on simple gut reflexes.

During voir dire, I made it absolutely clear that not only was I a lawyer, but also a former city prosecutor. I still cannot believe that I was ultimately picked to serve.

Good article, excellent points.

John Trentes jtrentes@oh.verio.com

Dear Jonathan:

I am finding the issue on Jury Duty just great.

It's not my country, but still a very interesting theme as the only image of US justice we have is that conveyed by the movies in a whirlwind of "Objection, Your Honor"! and Perry-Mason-like coup de theatre.

Thanks for a fascinating and poignant read each month,

Isabel Zani isabzani@tin.it

Dear Jonathan -

I have always been irritated by the dumbo TV news folks talking about "jury nullification" - NO SUCH THING. It is, as your article says, jury SOVEREIGNTY. Period. I've never quite understood whether the apparent effort to conceal this from juries & the public is conscious & devious, or just done to avoid rocking the boat.

The degree to which the United States has been "dumbed down" I find just frightening.

-- Best
Arthur Ross aross@ieee.org (from Paris)

... where, BTW, I understand they are rewriting their legal code (named, in the popular mind, for Napoleon, who didn't really doesn't deserve the credit that he has traditionally received).

PS: I have begun to quietly suggest to my congressional delegation & others that maybe it's time to start thinking about a "Freedom of Information & Communication" constitutional amendment. Judging by the general reactions I'm getting, I think the notion has legs. Had a nice long chat with a staffer for Senator Jon Kyl (Junior Senator for Arizona) a few days ago.

Dear Jonathan:

You wrote:

The judge had undoubtedly given them a charge which contained statements along the lines of "If you find A, B and C you must convict." The jury, which had such a miserably mechanical view of its own duty, failed to realize that it was the sovereign in the proceedings--the boss of the judge and the prosecutors.

Having read your article, I agreed with what you wrote. But, but, ...

I would like it for there to be an "universal standard" against which the activities of citizens can be compared. Let us call this standard "the law", and let us assume that it acts as a deterrent against proscribed activity. What I am afraid of is that if individual juries take it into their heads to interpret what "the law" means, the resulting situation will be less of a "standard", and might encourage transgressors to think they might "get away with it".

I am afraid of democracy. Suppose the twelve (or whatever number) jurors all agree that the defendant having violet eyes is reason enough to find the defendant not guilty of the charge of slaughtering multiple people in order to eat their pineal glands. SHOULD in this instance the jury be king?

[I have had two jury-related experiences in which the requirements of "the law" did not match (in my opinion) the real-world-situation as I thought it was. Nevertheless, "the law" as we have it is the result of a large number of people working for a long time. If it were possible to change society, I would rather do that (and let "unjust" laws be stricken as obsolete) than second-guess "the law".]

mikus grinbergs mikus@bga.com (I am not a lawyer)

Dear Jonathan:

I saw the letter from "Jens truth" and would, if you permit, like to respond to the letter.

Jens wrote:

We get along fine without guns. I even dare say that a Swedish citizen is more free than an american. For example: Everyone can go to college, good public service radio/television, strong unions, no restrictions on language and sex in media etc.

I fail to see how this equates to freedom. Freedom may be a lack of restrictions, but merely ensuring accessibility to higher education, medical care and such has no particular bearing on 'freedom.' If anything, it relates to a political system, such as socialism.

Despite this, I find the american gun debate very interesting and try to follow it when I can. I have a couple of questions that more than likely has been adressed in the past and was because of that not included in your debate with what's-his-name. None the less, these are questions I'd love to have answered by a gun-advocate.

1. I claim that the old saying "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" lacks in logic. If I understand it correctly, this means that if a person really wants to kill another he/she can do it with a properly sharpened pencil. The gun itself matters not.

My question is: Why would you possibly need one then? If you really want to defend your home from a burglar you can do it with a properly sharped pencil.

You can certainly defend yourself with any weapon which is available - but if your weapon is inferior to that with which you are faced, you can prevail only with difficulty and large amounts of luck. Generally you will not prevail. What the statement "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" means is that the gun is merely a tool, and you cannot prevent bad actions by attacking the tool. It is an old saw (no pun intended) that only a poor craftsman blames the tool instead of accepting the blame for his own work. If the problem is guns, then the problem exists whether the gun is secured or not, or whether it is used or not. Clearly, the problem of firearms violence only exists when the gun is used, and if it only exists when certain people use the gun (since law- abiding people by definition do not commit crimes, which are the problem), then the proper method of addressing the problem is to address the common factor, i.e. criminals.

The fact is that a gun is a tool specifically made for killing. It makes killing easier. It makes justified and non-justifed killing easier. Just like a hammer makes carpentry easier, no matter what house you're building.

Exactly. The gun is a tool. That it is dangerous is important, yes, because it has a specific function. But its utility and value derive from that function. They would be singularly useless were they not dangerous.

Death rates increase with guns around, because without them killing is less efficient.

This is an unproven and unprovable claim. It is nothing more than a statement of unsupported opinion, not fact. Were it true, then death rates would be exceedingly high in Israel and Switzerland, where almost everybody is armed with the blessings of the government. Schoolchildren on field trips in Israel are accompanied by armed guards - not because the death rate increases with guns around, but because the presence of guns in the hands of people who are NOT criminals deters criminals. This DECREASES the death rates. Similarly, Professor John Lott has shown by reference to every single U.S. country that increasing the number and availability of guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens depresses the rates of violent crime. If the claim were true, the areas with the greatest absolute number of guns, no matter whether they were in the hands of criminals or law-abiding citizens, would have the highest death rates. Insted, they have the lowest.

2. I claim that without laws against guns aggressors are rewarded.

I simply find it more likely that an agressor would have the upper hand against a defender, gun or no gun. If I want to rob, rape or kill you I will ambush you. I'll have my gun in my hand while yours is still in your pocket. Guns assist the defending party only if the aggressor has none. I, however, find it more likely that the aggressor will buy one sooner than the defender.

Again, opinion, not proven fact, and studies do not bear this out. Aggressors tend to dislike the possibility that their victim will be armed, and if the demonstrated statistics are to be believed, then they either turn to more legitimate ways of obtaining what they desire or to actions which are less likely to cause them to confront armed citizens, such as burglary. Forcible rape, in particular, has shown a dramatic drop in areas where citizens may obtain licenses to carry concealed weapons. Just because a criminal has a gun in his hand does not mean that he has the mental attitude necessary to use it immediately, and the potential that his victim will fight back tends to remain even if his approach is unexpected. In cases of deliberate murder, true, the victim can be ambushed - but deliberate murder is not particularly common. In cases of robbery and rape, the greatest deterrent is a victim who refuses to submit, and the best tool in the hands of a potential victim to allow such resistance is a firearm.

Since most violent scenarios, in my opinion, will give the aggressor the upper hand, I prefer guns not involved. Because guns makes inflicting damage easier.

But criminals already have guns. Legal decisions in this country establish that criminals cannot be required to register their guns and cannot be compelled to surrender them voluntarily. Contrary to your opinion, the optimal method of surviving a 'violent scenario' is with swift, unexpected and forceful resistance in as great a degree as possible. This usually means with a firearm. Most law-abiding citizens, too, would prefer that guns not be involved. However, that choice remains in the hands of the criminals, because only they instigate the encounter. If they have guns, as they do, then guns are already involved, and, as you note, inflicting damage is easier - when there is no gun to oppose them. If damage is to be inflicted, then logic and justice both suggest that it is better that such damage be inflicted on the lawbreaker, not the victim. If the agressor has the only gun, then there is essentially no chance to do so.

3. I claim that the statement "We need guns to protect us from our own government" is without merit.

America is a democracy. In other words, the government does what the majority of the people want. The above statement seem to claim that the government (acting on behalf of the people) should be threatened into obedience by a gun owning minority. Notice how this is the opposite of democracy.

America is NOT a democracy, and it never has been. It is a representative republic, at least in theory (this is not the place to go into a discussion of governmental evolution). But the issue is not 'what the majority of the people want.' The issue is that the majority is not always correct. A group need not (and practically cannot) threaten the government into obedience. However, an armed, determined person cannot be enslaved, and that IS the point. What can a government do to an armed man? It can kill him or disarm him. Once disarmed, that man - or woman - can be enslaved. But so long as ammunition and determination hold out, that person cannot be enslaved. Remember the Warsaw Ghetto. So long as the Jews had arms and ammunition, they withstood the Germans.

And, too, the Jews were a minority. Their government - which was popularly elected in a republic - did far worse than enslave them. They were prevented from defending themselves, except in a few cases such as Warsaw.

You might say that the government can not be trusted. That democracy is a joke. That it is quite possible that the government will become a dictatorship sooner or later.

If that happens, do you really think you can stop the air-force, tanks, nuclear weapons or what have you with the Magnum you keep in your closet?

No, you, the individual, certainly cannot withstand government. Enough determined people can. And once again, you can stand for what you believe in, or you can go quietly - but once you go quietly, you are at someone else's mercy. You no longer have any control over what happens. Can government be trusted? I am sure that the Jews in Germany in 1933 thought it could. By the time they learned that what government was going to do was far worse than anything they could have imagined, it was far too late.

I suggest spending the time you invest at the shooting-range, on reinforcing the democratic system. I recommend fighting to keep your freedom rather than buying a gun that is next to useless should your government turn on you.

Under the Constitution of the United States, the people are guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms. One cannot parse the Constitution; either it stands in its entirety or it breaks. Any right which is discarded without proper legal procedures, such as repeal, opens the way for ANY right to be discarded when it falls into disfavor. The Constitution and the guarantees it offers are not for popular rights; those rights are not threatened. It is the UNPOPULAR rights which need the protection of our highest laws. The gun may, indeed, have limited value if the government turns out to be the greatest danger. But a far greater danger is to throw away a guaranteed right because it is disliked. If ANY right can be legislated out of existence despite the protection of the Constitution, then so can any other right. There have been times in this country's history when the rights of free speech, free press, freedom of assembly and freedom from 'unreasonable search and seizure' have been unpopular; at least for certain groups of citizens, but our courts have held them inviolable, to our eventual benefit. Certainly there are many, many times when it would be preferable to permit the government to require that a person offer self-incriminating testimony. Our Constitution forms an impregnable barrier to such practices, despite (at times) opposing public opinion. But if one such right is held to be 'less important' and 'less protected' and 'less worthy of protection' than any other, how long will any unpopular right last?

Once cannot successfully defend a fort which is missing one side. Neither can we expect our Constitution to remain the highest law of the land and serve as a protection for our rights if we dismiss even one guaranteed right as not worthy of protection. If we value and revere our Constitution, we must do so. If we pick and choose from it, rather than defending it in its entirety, so, too, can others do the same - and if their standards are not ours, what happens when they pick and choose differently?

Anthony J. Kohler arbitrator@ispchannel.com

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I am responding to your review of Into Thin Air. I have been very moved by the story of Yasuko Nambo and yours is the first explanation of the tragedy that has made any sense to me. Of course I have read Into Thin Air and followed the South African expedition but something I read about the actual moment she was finally abandoned has stayed with me. I enjoyed your review.

With regards,

Marion Baxter m.baxter@ru.ac.za

To Lizard:

In response to A Created Universe Would Not be Proof of God, It was so ignorantly written I had to let you know about it. Fo instance this section...

Incontrovertible evidence of intelligent creation is not incontrovertible evidence of the existence of your God -- or anyone elses, for that matter. To argue otherwise is to claim, in effect:"Here is a pocketwatch;it is obviously a made thing;the makers' name, therefore, was Fred, he was 52 years old, and owned a pet beagle named Lucy."

So, the universe was made. What does this tell us about who or what made it? Nothing. What can we infer about his, her, its, or their nature? Zip. What moral guidance does it give us? None. What purpose does creation serve? Unknown. Why did he/she/it/they make the universe? No answer.

A "watch" does not answer any of these questions either, bonehead. You only knew the answers cause it was told to you. Try to get a better argument next time. Your whole writing didn't prove a damn thing.

Mr. Wallace:

Re the Interview With the Vampire review:

Who, on God's Green Earth wrote this shallow drivel? Why would any good webmaster allow this filth on his page? The author was drawing many conclusions, and making references to completely unrelated to the issues presented in the movie. I was outraged from the first paragraph to the last.

Mike Lacombe asher_rolante@thefragile.com

An Auschwitz Alphabet
Hello Jonathan,

Thank you for the resource you have provided.

I am an Englishman (non-Jew) and have been interested in war-time events for a number of years. I think the Holocaust should remind us of how low humanity can sink if it lets itself. It is perverse irony that the nation which embodied Western advancement, in thought and science, could allow itself to become so degraded beyond belief and is a dire warning to the 'civilised' world. Your site does a service to illustrate this.

I have not read any Primo Levi, but will do him the honour thanks to your work.

As a Christian, I cannot reason or theologise away atheism, especially when it is the result of events such as the Holocaust. I know it would be sad that the people who brought me my faith and much of what I love, should lose their faith as a result of the outworkings of the philosophies of the anti-semite.

If I have ranted, please forgive me, but be encouraged that I shall not forget the events in Auschwitz and like places and will do what I can to ensure others in England do not.

Yours gratefully,

Guy Jones guy.jones@vodafone.net

Dear Mr. Wallace:

I am a retired engineer, 60 years old. During my adolescence I was interested in what happened at the concentration champs in Europe during the Second World War and I have read a large amount of books about this subject, all of them Portuguese translations, almost al written by survivors.

Last year my daughter that is a journalist in Brazil was invited, with many other fellows, to visit Germany and in this trip was included a visit to Buchenwald concentration camp.

This event revived my interest on the subject and in the end of March this year I was searching the Internet for material about concentration camps when I found a small masterpiece: your " An Auschwitz Alphabet".

In comparison with your work all other books I had read become irrelevant. All of them (or almost all) presented the vision of what happened with a survivor, describing the experiences he was able to endure and, later on, to tell others (writing a book, for instance). But "An Auschwitz Alphabet" includes the worst that happened with many people. Besides that the intellectual level of the author is much higher than those of the others authors I had read. In my opinion the work reaches peaks of geniality, for instance when it shows that the German language had to be distorted to allow such monstrosities and that those which survived were not necessarily the best in moral terms.

It seems to me that your work should be of mandatory group reading in groups at schools because the reflections it arises about the monstrosities the human being is sometimes capable of (German or Jews, dead or alive, yesterday or today) and how it would be easy to avoid what happened! (It would suffice to air bomb the railways that led to concentration champs, as many American Jews proposed at the time).

But y am writing you not only to congratulate you but also to give you a suggestion and a clarification.

The suggestion is that you make available your work also in the form of a text document (or a Microsoft Word document) to be downloaded for those that preferred to read without being connected to the Internet. The reason for my plea is that the telephone fares in my country (and perhaps many others) are charged in a per minute basis and also that Internet providers charge for the time you use them. As it is was not economic to read your work in your home page, I opted to download each page and I had to do the following steps:

1. to select the page

2. to copy it

3. to paste in a Word document in my computer using the "non formatted" option (because if I just paste I would need a new document for each 2 or 3 pages due to Microsoft Word limitations)

4. to repeat the steps for the next page

5. to make a big document, remove everything that was not related with the matter (but come due to the use of the non-formatted option) and format the resulting text.

Obviously this was very laborious and it would be preferable if I had both possibilities: to read direct in your home page and to download.

The clarification is about the word Musselmanner (Musulmano in Portuguese). In your work you say: Musselmanner (Moslems) was Auschwitz slang for people near death from starvation and privation. (Lifton, p.38; Levi, Survival, p. 88). The exact derivation of the phrase is not known, but it was common to all concentration camps.

I want to tell you that books I had read in my adolescence told that when prisoners were close to die from starvation they refused to eat and just waited for death, which would, came in few days. The Nazis used these prisoners to act as guards that would denounce fellows prisoners trying to evade or simply leaving the barracks. The Nazis put these men waiting to die in front of the barracks and let them to wait death. During the night, when someone tried to let the barrack, some of the men waiting death started a kind of cry (almost a chant) that progressively became louder and thus alerted the Nazis.

I don't have any doubt about this use of the prisoners waiting to die. I remember more than one book telling about the efficiency of these "guards" and about the horrible "cry" or "chant" they produced even though it could be heard only because there were many of them.

The behavior of these prisoners was obviously pathological. Indeed what they were doing was to say and to act this way: If I couldn't evade Hell I will not allow you to evade also. In my adolescence, when I read the books about concentration camps, it was quite obvious for me that this kind of pathological behavior was the reason for the use by the Nazis of the word "Musselmanner", even though no one of the books mentioned that explicitly. (as if the Nazis had a kind of prejudice against Moslems).

Congratulations for your work!

Sergio Correa Salek sergiosk@rj.sol.com.br

Dear Mr. Wallace:

"Musselmanner" meant muslim. I'm not sure in which language or why they applied it to those inmates who were clearly about to die, but you'll probably find reference to it in a lot of books, particularly Martin Gilbert's monumental The Holocaust.

Stefan Pearson spearson@bailliegifford.co.uk