October 2009

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Rags and Bones

 

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

 

An innocent man executed

 

            A profoundly important issue in the death penalty debate is whether our system is capable of executing an innocent individual. Justice Scalia (with, in my opinion, ultimate malice and insincerity) has declared this could never happen. Whenever evidence is questionable, prosecutors, cops and even sometimes defense lawyers, rather than admit a tragedy occurred, join forces to present a united front. Given the general murkiness of human affairs, the problem of proving a negative is usually not completely surmountable. Modern DNA testing excludes the defendant as the rapist? Maybe he wore a condom or did not ejaculate. Every single eyewitness has recanted and alleged police pressure and threats? Maybe they are all lying now, and were truthful then.

 

            We may finally have the “holy grail” case of an unjust execution in modern times, in that of Cameron Willingham of Texas, executed in 2004 for setting a fire which killed his three small children.   In an excellent, detailed essay in the September 7, 2009 New Yorker, David Grann describes the perfect storm of factors which led to Willingham's conviction: state arson investigators with an inadequate scientific grounding, testifying that an accelerant must have been used;  the testimony of a jailhouse informant;  the evolving testimony of witnesses who originally said that Willingham was frantic and tried to save his kids, but by the time of trial opined he was playing a role, and never attempted to save them; the testimony of two “psychological” experts, one the notorious “Dr. Death”, neither of whom had ever met him; the inadequacy of court appointed counsel, who failed to counter any of the “expert” testimony; and Willingham's own hard luck background and personality, which included some petty theft, drinking, casual violence and tattoos.

 

            Before Willingham was executed in February 2004, an actual arson scientist, Dr. Gerald Hurst, had issued a report showing that the state investigators had relied on hunches and old wives tales, and not on actual evidence. All but one of the twenty one factors on which they relied—fire patterns, apparent puddling, brown stains, etc.--were by-products of natural (non-arson) fires, as Hurst was able to show both from lab experiments and records of actual experience such as studies of houses burned in California wildfires. Only one finding actually supported arson: a sample of lighter fluid detected on the front porch of the house. There were no findings of accelerants anywhere else in the house, though the prosecution's case depended on a theory that Willingham had walked from his children's room to the front door, pouring lighter fluid. The front porch finding was explained by the fact that a charcoal grill and bottle of lighter fluid stood there, and that the bottle was melted by the flames from the house.

 

            Also, the jailhouse informant, who like they all do had some possibility of benefiting from false testimony, subsequently tried to recant.

 

            Here for once is a case which does not depend on murky testimony placing someone at a certain scene or far away from it. The very instrumentality of murder, the arson, has melted away; the fire appears to have started in a space heater in the girls' bedroom into which one of them dropped something flammable. There was no intent, no accelerant, no murder, just a man with an unfortunate skull tattoo on his shoulder and a history of petty crime, who suffered multiple tragedies: losing his children; his freedom; his wife; and at last his life.

 

            I am bothered by the fact that the system is permitted to put away and, it appears, kill a certain number of innocent people, while the prosecutors and experts who deploy junk science and junk rhetoric  are rarely held responsible. I would like to see a rogue's gallery listing the names of those who twist the truth to get convictions, or who just don't care. From Grann's article: The arson investigators whose infirm and unscientific testimony convicted Willingham were Douglas Fogg and Manuel Vasquez. The prosecutor who sought the death penalty and convicted him was John Jackson. Jackson, who claims to be a death penalty foe, told the jury the children were interfering with Willingham's dart throwing and beer drinking. The court appointed defense attorney who failed to attack the arson and psychological evidence, at trial or in habeas proceedings, and who now insists his client was guilty, was David Martin.

 

Obama's school address

 

            In the Fort Myers News-Press for September 4, 2009, it is reported that Lee County, Florida, like counties in Texas and elsewhere, will not permit President Obama's speech to students, urging them to stay in school and not to use drugs, to be shown live in its schools.  This reflects local politics; Lee County is a Republican bastion, in which a huge constituency of unemployed people, without health insurance, losing their homes to foreclosure, don't want anything to change. But around the country, it also reflects schools giving in to pressure from parents threatening to keep their kids home, or asking for them to be excused.

 

            In the article, some parents are quoted as saying they don't want their kids exposed to Obama's “socialist” message. Given that the speech will certainly be restricted to platitudinal statements with which no-one could possibly disagree (“Kids, disregard the president urging you not to use drugs! Its all part of the worldwide Socialist conspiracy!”), the real fear has got to be that kids may find the president to be disarmingly likeable, honest and trustworthy. So lets protect them against him by not letting them watch!

 

            President George H. Bush pere gave a similar speech to the schools in 1991. Democrats attacked it as being a waste of taxpayer money, political in nature, etc. But the nationwide atmosphere of hatred and polarization had not yet come into being.  Editorialists, bloviators and Democratic state chairmen did not accuse the President of trying to deliver a “Fascist” message to children.

 

            Obama, who is an optimist about human nature, made a tactical error, proposing this speech and even curriculum materials related to it, in today's hateful environment. But a spotlight on this and even on reasonable ethical questions of whether this is a good use of government money obscure the more frightening question. What happened to the idea of an honorable, loyal, respectful opposition in a democracy? The lunatic right has succeeded beyond all expectations in demonizing and marginalizing the elected executive of the nation, just as it legitimized the man who actually seized power in 2000. It makes me wonder whether America is one nation any more, or is even governable.  

 

Dead soldiers

 

            There is a mini-flap going about whether a photograph should have been published in the press, of a mortally wounded soldier in Afghanistan, Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard of Maine, taken by associated Press photographer Julie Jacobson.

 

            Bernard's father had adamantly requested that the photo not be published, feeling that it disrespected the soldier and his family. Though I am very sympathetic to their suffering—the main reason why I won't republish the photo here—I think the family's privacy is trumped by the public's need to know the actual consequences of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

            I grew up during the Vietnam era, and vividly remember newspaper and television coverage containing vivid images of soldiers in battle, wounded, and dead, flag draped coffins,  civilians burned by napalm, and the famous shot of our Vietnamese military ally executing a young Vietcong with a bullet to the head. Whether you support or oppose these wars, let us at least not turn away from the actual information about their costs and consequences. Honest people can maintain that the deaths of young soldiers like Joshua Bernard are the price we must pay for protecting our country against Al Qaeda or advancing our geopolitical interests in the Middle East and Afghanistan, just as honest people can insist it isn't worth it. Only dishonest people want to hide the information so that the public does not really understand what is going on.

 

            We live in a frighteningly dishonest time, where government bullying greatly sanitized the formerly independent press after 9/11, so that coverage was startlingly free of images which might trouble anybody's conscience about the human costs of war. The Associated Press made the right call to publish the photograph, which despite the family's concerns, honors Joshua Bernard for his sacrifice, while raising the question of how many young people like him we are willing to spend to achieve our goals.

 

Predatory banks

 

        In the two years after September 11, I was first unemployed, then working at a fraction of my old salary. For a while, I fell into significant debt. Later, when I was able to pay it all off, I made a decision not to have any  credit cards going forward, not even the type you pay in full every month. I decided I would live entirely on a cash basis, using only debit cards, checks and ATM withdrawals to pay all my commitments.

 

        For some time now, I have lived without debt, and am really happy to do so. I have no mortgage, no car payment, no outstanding obligations whatsoever. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that Bank of America extends me overdraft protection without my ever having requested

it—and that I am not even permitted to opt out. In effect, BOA is loaning me money I don't want to borrow, at an extortionate rate of interest.

 

        Of course, if you are really good at math and at balancing your checkbook, you may never have this problem. But bank accounts became moving targets with the introduction of ATM's, disparate check clearing times under complicated rules, and the levying of strange and varying monthly fees by the banks (my favorite was a $30 “analysis” fee Citibank used to charge me in the '90's). The image you have in your checkbook of how much money you have may be very different from the balance the bank “knows”. Every time you get too close to the bone—think you have $120 in your account when the bank thinks you have $0—you are vulnerable to “overdraft protection”.

 

        In the '80's and '90's, I opted for overdraft protection in an account I had at Chase. This worked like a revolving line of credit and was not automatically paid down, so within a couple of years, I was carrying $3500 in debt at credit card rates. I wised up and discontinued it.

 

        The banks' new variation on this theme is even more pernicious. Let's say you deposited a check for $500 on Tuesday. You thought it would clear in three days, but the bank has it on a five day hold. On Saturday, you used your debit card to purchase a $5.00 item, when the bank shows you as

having a $4.00 balance in your account. Instead of your card declining, the transaction goes through; when you look at your statement the following month, you observed that the bank charged you a $35 fee to extend you $1 in credit. This amounts to an effective interest rate of thousands of per cent, super-mega-usery if these charges were treated as loans as they should be.

 

        Check clearing times are a scam in the first place. The bank gets your money and earns interest  on it for days while placing a hold on your use of it.  In the scenario I just described, the levying of a penalty charge is really triply disgusting: 1. The bank already has your money, they are

just not letting you use it. 2. You were never asked if you wanted overdraft protection. 3. The effective interest rate is stunning, worse than any loan shark in the history of organized crime.

 

        By the way, whenever you open a checking account, you are giving the bank your money to use for free—the bank isn't paying you any interest on it. Of course, the bank does incur some processing expense on checks, statements and the like. But any kind of monthly charge--”analysis” fees

or overdraft charges or whatever—involves the bank finding ways to make you pay for the privilege of loaning it your money interest free.

 

        What do I want to happen if I attempt to process a $5 charge when I have just $4 in my account? Decline the transaction—please.

 

Afghan vote

 

        Another stolen election has just taken its place alongside the Iranian one in the news—mild-mannered, well-spoken, smiley President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has apparently just engaged in the most rampant ballot stuffing, with phantom polling places, not a voter in sight, producing

thousands of votes, and villages endorsing his opponent discovering that their ballot boxes have been seized by his operatives before anyone even has a chance to vote.

 

        Karzai, who earlier had seemed like a promising ally because of his intelligence, civility and lack of brutality, has now become just one more Third World thug clinging to power, trying to buy off Western allies and his own people with an unconvincing sham of democracy. Its sad and embarrassing that we always seem to end up with these kinds of allies when fighting third world insurgencies, and it makes the expenditure of American lives in Afghanistan seem more questionable.           

 

            I am not automatically anti-war any more. When we first went into Afghanistan after September 11, I was cautiously in favor; the Taliban had created a safe harbor for people who were launching murderous attacks on U.S. civilians, and there was both justice and self-protection in driving them from power and ending the safe harbor. Afghanistan made sense, as the later absurd Iraq boondoggle did not. The problem is that we are still there most of a decade later, engaged in a seemingly futile nation-building exercise. Nation-building in Vietnam didn't work, and geopolitics in the decades since have made clear that it didn't even matter that it didn't work.

 

        The consequences of a Taliban return to Afghanistan would clearly be more serious than the Communist takeover of Vietnam proved to be. But there is a theory of war, which the Israelis are following in Gaza, which says that a swift and lethal response may be a better deterrent, and  cost

fewer lives, than a military occupation. I am not enough of a strategist to know if this would work in all of Afghanistan, but there are voices already speaking up who seem to think we can do more with bombers, Predators and special forces than we are with infantry boots on the ground.

 

I'm all right, Jack, so fuck you

 

        I don't know why I should be shocked, but I am. People who have health insurance don't want other people to have it, if there is any outside chance their own benefits will be affected. Americans with employer coverage or Medicare are two major constituencies the President must

convince to support change.

 

        We have a dysfunctional status quo in which a minority of the population is receiving a lion's share of the attention. Some of that attention consists of unnecessary products and services—tests, scans and medications  that are not medically indicated but have come to be regarded by the population receiving them as a right. This perpetuates the problem by raising everyone's premium. As someone with decent coverage who does not seek out or accept anything I believe is not medically necessary, I am subsidizing these others (I had a fifteen percent bump in my group premiums a few months ago; another bump or two like that and I won't be able to afford the coverage). But these avid

consumers of medical services are  screaming about the possibility of “subsidizing” anyone else.

 

        In hard times, shouldn't we be willing to tighten our belts a little to support others? Especially if the belt tightening involved foregoing unnecessary stuff paid for by everyone else?

 

The death of civility

 

            I was shocked by the Congressman who shouted “You lie!” at Obama during his health care speech. He quickly realized he made a severe tactical mistake, and apologized, and the president gracefully accepted. But his instinctive, hateful action was symptomatic of a greater evil which is pervasive.

 

            He was able to do that because on a deep emotional and psychological level, he believes that the President is not legitimate. This is in fact the line that the bloviators and hard core ideologues are taking. It is the reason for the constant muttering about whether Obama was born in the United States, the tedious and contentless constant deployment of the word “socialism”, the delight the dominant fringe takes in Obama's middle name, “Hussein”.

 

            What is so heart-breakingly bizarre about it is that everyone knows George Bush profited from the activism and even violence of the same lunatic fringe in 2000, and the partisanship of a Supreme Court majority, to declare himself the victor of the 2000 election. If we ever had an illegitimate president in my lifetime, it was W. in his first term. But everyone, Gore first, decided to treat him as the victor so we could get on with our lives and democracy. We had none of that Latin American stuff, of legislators walking out, or turning their backs on an unelected president. The only riots were the ones the right trumped up to prevent a recount in some counties in Florida.

 

            Now we have a President who was actually democratically elected by a large majority of the nation, and the right is promoting the idea that he is not in authority and we owe him no respect. This is a trend I believe began when  the Republican majority impeached Bill Clinton. The real charge was that they didn't like him; he hadn't committed the high crimes and misdemeanors of Richard Nixon or of George W. Bush (torture, extrajudicial detainment, wiretapping without warrants). The goal was to deligitimize him, to cut him off at the knees, and they succeeded.

 

            In weak democracies, we sometimes see the spectacle of a weak, well-meaning president whose ability to act is crippled by the fact that the real power lies elsewhere: in the military, the plutocracy, or some other elite. (President Karzai of Afghanistan seemed like one of these in the early years.) It is an open question whether Obama, like Bill Clinton, possibly like any Democrat elected in the future, will be one of these “cosmetic” presidents. What is truly frightening is the possibility that, even with a filibuster-proof Democratic contingent in  Congress, the “majority” party is running scared because its members know that the true power has been retained by the bloviators and the troops they control.

 

September 11

 

            Today is the eighth anniversary of the attacks. We are not at all where I imagined we would be. To the positive, I thought that there would have been more major terrorist actions by now, in New York and elsewhere, even a dirty bomb. On the other hand, I would rather live in a world where Bin Laden had been caught by now, and we never invaded Iraq. Never tortured anyone, never had Guantanamo, avoided a ridiculous security system stuck always at Orange, had better government databases which cross-referenced so that terrorists could not maintain pilot's licenses, had intelligence agencies that were better integrated and run and didn't miss so much stuff. Rebuilt ground zero. Really learned some lessons, rather than simply forgetting and carrying on. Within a few years, its likely that even airport security will relax enough that we will see another catastrophic multiple hijacking.  Twenty years at most, and hijacked passengers will be complacent again, not believing that the terrorists plan to crash the plane and kill them all.

 

            New York City is an amazing forgettery. In 2002 and 2003, I was sitting in ambulances half expecting to be dispatched to the Next Big One. Now, even though I was under the Trade Center when the second plane hit in 2001, its like an old story I heard from someone else, or read in a book. We were always taught that history was a linear narrative. World War II: We were attacked, we were caught short, we organized ourselves, solved problems, kicked ass. We didn't go looking for Hitler in  Antarctica, but headed for Germany. History today sometimes seems desperately random; its hard to impose a very linear narrative on the events of the past ten years.

 

Health care and who gets what, when

 

            I am trying to wrap my mind around the extremely popular fear-trope which says that under “socialized” medicine, you won't get cared for. A lot of the people who believe it, are receiving no care now.

 

             There is a core group of people today, Medicare patients and people with really great private insurance, who can see any doctor they want (or at least a wide variety) and get any service, without regard to medical necessity. There is strong anecdotal evidence—regular newspaper articles with interviews, people we know personally—that many people with Medicare use their doctors as a kind of social network and time-filler, seeing doctors every week for reassurance and sometimes requesting tests which are not really needed (scans, blood work, etc). This would be relatively harmless if it didn't result in health care being so expensive, and driving up taxes and premiums.

 

            As various columnists have pointed out, everything on earth is rationed, sometimes by the free market, sometimes by government. Nobody wants to wait on line for six hours to buy toilet paper. Many of us who never experienced that are familiar with other types of shortages, like having to wait to buy a Kindle or other popular device because of the demand. Most of the time, the rationing is either invisible to us, or is second nature, so we don't even think of it as rationing.  Waiting a few weeks for a nonurgent test doesn't seem very dangerous. Waiting months for an urgent surgery could be a death sentence. Screaming about rationing skews the issue in a false direction. We are not children, who require instant gratification. The correct test is not whether we can get every medical service (essential or not) instantly, but whether we can get good care soon enough.

 

            On the issue of allocation, who gets what, let's do a little thought experiment. Suppose that a president seventy years ago, fulfilling the promise of a “chicken in every pot”, instituted a federal “chicken distribution service” which provided free chickens to people over 65. A system sprang up around the same time in which employed people received free chickens in return for a premium paid by the employer to the Chicken Farming Association.

 

            Seventy years later, it is apparent that the chicken distribution system has become  dysfunctional. Chickens have become wildly expensive and are unavailable to many people who are not 65 or are not employed (or don't work for companies which opted into the chicken system). Part of the problem is that some of the recipients are ordering far more chickens than they really need. These excess chickens are being paid for by the taxpayers and the employers. The Chicken Farming Association is suspected of acting as a monopoly to run up chicken prices.  Meanwhile, there are a huge and growing number of emaciated people who would benefit greatly from chickens but don't have access to them unless they buy them at ever increasing prices in the open market, which they can't afford to do.  Along come President Obama and a Democratic majority, vowing to correct the imbalances in American chicken distribution. In their faces suddenly is a Republican lunatic fringe shouting about “socialism”, and the entrenched chicken farming lobby deploying its clout and money to oppose change. Behind them, stand the traditional recipients of the free chickens, the elderly and the employed, apparently afraid that if anyone else is included in the system, they will receive fewer chickens themselves.

 

            It appears obvious to me that the only two groups with a logical and fully elucidated position on the issue are the libertarians and the liberals. The libertarians believe that the government should not be in the chicken distribution business at all. The liberals believe that chickens should be distributed to every citizen who could benefit from them, and not merely to a select group.

 

            Even the “Tea Party” types incited by the Republican fringe aren't arguing that the government get out of the chicken business; most elected Republicans (as opposed to the purer, more liminal bloggers unafflicted with the necessity of attracting votes) don't want to get rid of Medicare. So the Tea Party banner really reads, “A continuation of free chickens for some”--really a logically and morally  indefensible position.

 

Human rights and Nazi memorabilia

 

            Back in 1995, I picked the name “The Ethical Spectacle” to highlight the entertainment factor involved in ethical disputes. Many of the events and issues I have covered are highly disturbing, tragic, and despair-inducing; but many of  them are also quite funny. Just when you think you have seen every variation of fucked up shit, along comes some new fucked up shit.

 

            This was my first thought upon learning that a military analyst for Human Rights Watch is also an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia. The same man responsible for covering the Israeli use of white phosphorus in Gaza shvitzed in an anonymous Internet posting about how excited he was to get hold of an SS leather jacket.

 

            At first reveal, his employer stood by him, but now appears to be backing away. The controversy falls into a long and generally dishonorable history of the circumstances under which people in public and quasi-public jobs (and I include nonprofits on this list because their work is subject to public scrutiny) can be terminated for extracurricular activities. Can we fire schoolteachers and diplomats for being Communists? Homosexuals?  In general, the trend has been that people should be protected against losing their jobs because of unpopular lifestyles or beliefs.

 

            This is a complex question, but with some hesitation, I believe that an obsessive collector of Nazi badges and clothes  should not be the military analyst for Human Rights Watch. I don't think anyone ever actively collects items evocative of an individual or culture they find repulsive—there probably are no collectors of Elvis memorabilia who can't stand his music, for example. So this individual's hobby at least suggests a tolerance for, if not an admiration  of, Nazi ideology. Even if he weren't covering Israelis, I think the interest in Nazi stuff raises an issue. He is analyzing potential war crimes, while showing some admiration for war criminals. Suppose he was a campaigner against violence towards women, but collected Ted Bundy memorabilia?

 

            Tactically, organizations like Human Rights Watch, which do admirable work, are always under  attack by governments who want to marginalize and demonize them. The Israeli government has a highly questionable human rights record, including seizure of Arab land, bulldozing of homes, and most recently, the use of white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas. Human Rights Watch's interest in maintaining political neutrality so it can broker maximal international focus on actual rights violations, trumps its employee's  interest in pursuing his hobby while remaining employed in a public role.  

           

From little Acorns grow great ouches

 

            Acorn gets into trouble too much. A couple years back, we learned that Acorn temps hired  by the hour to register voters were filling in the cards themselves with names like “Mickey Mouse”.  More recently, it came to light that the founder's brother had embezzled nearly a million dollars from the organization—but the embezzlement was concealed from the public and from donors with some false paperwork, and the brother was allowed to make very slow restitution, supplemented by contributions from knowledgeable donors who wanted to help the organization avoid scandal.

 

            Now a pair of right wing campaigners posing as a prostitute and her pimp have video, shot with concealed cameras, showing various Acorn members in different parts of the country giving the two advice on ways of concealing their occupation while applying for mortgages.

 

            This kind of attention can't merely be dismissed as McCarthyesque harassment. There is no doubt we are sliding towards McCarthyism—the \ far right is happy to make up lies when truths don't exist—the Swift Boating of John Kerry was a prime example. But the spotlight on Acorn is not an example. Acorn appears not to have a culture of ethical restraint or caution which would allow it to carry out its mission without putting itself at risk. Its a shame, because there is a deep need for the services it provides—voter registration and financial counseling for the underserved.

 

            President Obama has a tough enough row to hoe right now without getting dragged into this kind of  prejudicial flap.

 

Racism

 

            Ex-President Jimmy Carter just came out and said it: the opposition to President Obama is based on racism. Tiptoeing around overt expressions of prejudice, which they dimly know are no longer socially acceptable, the bloviators are using code words to express a racist message. Anyone in the US who is not a WASP has probably encountered this at some time or another; the implication that someone is “not one of us, not our people”, “doesn't belong here” and so forth.

 

            The bloviators' behavior, and Carter's pronouncement, force Obama into an interesting practical and ethical dilemma. We are in an interim period where a black man can win election to the Presidency but virulent racism nonetheless still exists. The best strategy for a member of a minority wishing to gain mainstream power or standing is to ignore the differences. The minute he calls a thing by its name—accuses an adversary of “racism”--he is considered to have committed an act of weakness: “Too bad! He played the race card!” One of the ways we deny racism, while denigrating people from other backgrounds, is to claim that they see racial issues everywhere, even when they don't exist, and use the specter of racism to gain unfair advantage. Obama, if he said the word “racism”, would also be differentiating himself from the rest of us, reminding us he is “other”. So, like black people in business, universities and public affairs all over the country, he is frequently forced to “suck it up” and remain mainstream by pretending racism does not exist, even where it does. Years ago, Senator Arlen Specter had a similar moment when he was the only Republican Presidential candidate not invited to address a Christian Coalition meeting. They could exclude him because he was Jewish—but he couldn't say that they had.

 

Medical malpractice

 

            An article in the New York Times for September 23 reports on a surprising study which says that medical malpractice costs are a very small factor in the burgeoning cost of health care. The article suggests that the biggest impact is not from the verdicts but rather, the unnecessary tests and procedures doctors order to protect themselves against malpractice.

 

            I suppose an elephant looks small next to a sperm whale, but it still seems big to me. Medical malpractice litigation is warping our health care system by driving up malpractice insurance rates to untenable levels. People are leaving ob-gyn practices rather than pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual premiums. The use of litigation as a social mechanism to redress widespread problems ends up being questionable, as there is no system wide oversight or smoothing process to make sure that the victims are being compensated equably. Instead, litigation is a lottery. A victim over here, with a sympathetic face and an affectionate jury, receives hundreds of millions of dollars, while a victim over there with an almost identical claim, gets stiffed for being less sympathetic to a more conservative jury.

 

            For years, medical malpractice litigation has been untouchable by Democratic administrations (and probably even by Republicans) because of the clout of the lawyers who make the huge contingency fees. As part of health care reform, even if it is a small part, some sort of cap on malpractice recoveries would be beneficial. Juries awarding hundreds of millions of dollars to victims are probably unaware that we are all paying the tab. Politicians who know this to be true should now do something about it.

 

Who gets cared for?

 

            An article in the September 24 New York Times poignantly encapsulates the core ethical dilemma pertaining to medical services. Grady Hospital in Atlanta, which is losing a lot of money, wants to close its free dialysis unit, which services people without insurance. About two thirds of its customers are illegal aliens, and all of the ones the Times interviewed think they will die if Grady closes the unit. There is no place else that will dialyze them without charging fees they can't afford. The illegals say they can't obtain dialysis at home, even if they could afford to return there.

 

            Closing the unit therefore seems to mean killing some or all of these people, a shocking result. On the other hand, providing free dialysis for illegal aliens serves as an incentive for more  to come here, worsening the losses at places like Grady. In that case, why stop at denying dialysis to illegal aliens? Why not refuse them emergency room treatment for injuries or heart attacks as well? How would you feel if you saw dying people lying on the sidewalk outside the ER, turned away because they couldn't show a green card or insurance card?

 

            The problems at Grady illustrate the dilemma of apportioning health care in a just society.  Rejecting  anyone at the emergency room, or at the dialysis unit, seems horribly cruel. Treating everyone who comes regardless of ability to pay, as all public hospitals do, results in tremendous losses, at it has at Grady and many New York City area hospitals. The right ethical solution seems to me to be to treat everyone, while trying to control illegal immigration. But the necessity under the American system that even a nonprofit hospital run as a for profit institution—filling enough beds with paying patients to subsidize those who can't pay—creates a terrible weakness in the system that prevents us from doing the right thing.

 

Gun brains

 

            In this issue's letters column is an exchange with a Second Amendment type, who starts out rightly questioning a sweeping statement I made some years ago, but ends (as these correspondents almost always do) by flaming me (if they don't actually threaten my life).

 

            I had said in an old essay that technology inspires a desire to use it, and that all handgun owners have a desire to use them for the purpose for which they were intended, to shoot people. This was an overstatement. I believe, as many people have lectured me in the years since I published the essay, that to some owners, handguns are merely tools, stored away with a devout private wish that it never be necessary to use them.

 

            I should have said that some gun owners dream of using them. I have personally observed this in a couple of different permutations. In gun shops in the south and west, a little book is sold which counsels its readers on the circumstances under which it is legal to shoot a human being. I don't know if the book gives this advice, but I have heard people tell each other the following, which also popped up immediately on a Google search of “shoot drag inside” (from a thread on city-data.com):

 

            I understand that if someone breaks into your home and "you fear for your life" that you have every right to defend yourself in anyway.

 

            Even if they are outside and you shoot them the conventional wisdom is to drag the body inside.

 

            Standing near the gun counter in Target in Austin, Texas (where that little book was available), I vividly remember a conversation between a clerk and customer about the human stopping power of different ammunition types, conducted in an eager, lighthearted fashion. Describing the inadequacy of a particular type of bullet, the clerk said, “The husband of a friend of mine shot her eight times with these one night, and she's still movin'.”

 

            A book on the law of self defense might be bought by some number of people who desperately don't want ever to use a weapon, but seriously want to know what their legal risk is if they do. However, its hard to imagine anyone, gun in hand, feeling endangered and saying to themselves, “No, no, that little book says I can't save my life under these circumstances”? I think books like that and certainly, “drag 'em inside” discussions are of much more interest to people looking to push the envelope, who on some level, conscious or unconscious, would welcome the opportunity to use their handgun against a human if they thought they could get away with it.

 

            My correspondent flamed me and then went silent. My next question to him would have been, do you acknowledge there are some people like that? I predict he would have denied there is anyone who wants to use a handgun. (What about those who actually do use handguns for offense?)  If he acknowledged that this type of personality exists, the rest of the discussion would have been simply a debate about percentages. Is it one percent of the gun owning population or almost all of it? Of course, there is no way to settle this, because some percentage of people who have day-dreamed of using a handgun will deny it, so you will never get accurate numbers. My correspondent denied that he himself had ever had such a daydream. By analogy, there are also some number of husbands who have never daydreamed about an act of infidelity. 

 

Absent friends

 

            I began publishing The Ethical Spectacle in 1995, the year I turned 41. This is its fifteenth year.

 

            My own perception of the passage of time is very subjective and detached. I have changed—I have less hair, certainly—but not in my mind's eye. I am in somewhat better physical condition than I was. I weigh the same. I haven't had any serious health problems. When I encounter people I met long ago, who have changed more radically, I am always shocked, and somewhat angry on their behalf, as if the Second Law of Thermodynamics had treated them unfairly.

 

            Over the years, various people have become regular contributors to the Spectacle. Most I have never met in person, or even spoken to on the phone. People send me an essay a month for years on end, and then drop out as they move on to other things. Some stay in touch; others I never hear from again.

 

            Other people were influential in other ways, by forwarding information or by opening up a wider world for me via access to their mailing lists, even though they did not write much themselves. One of the most exciting and revelatory things about the Spectacle was the way a community formed around it, and it also gave me access to other online communities.

 

            Two of the most important  influences on the Spectacle were Phil Agre and Matt Gaylor.

 

            Phil Agre was a professor of information technology at UCLA who published an online newsletter, distributed via email, called “The Network Observer” during the 1990's. Some issues contained his essays, while others were extensive, sometimes exhaustive bibliographies of books he had read on various topics. Phil was in Isaiah Berlin's terms a fox, good at a lot of things; his two greatest focuses were politics and the sociology of the Internet, but he was a public intellectual, an intelligent commentator on a wide variety of the issues of the day. I found his liberal politics very sympathetic—I don't remember radically disagreeing with him on anything. In general, I thought Phil was a little smarter than me, and much better organized. In a brief introduction to the last piece of his I published, on the Florida recount in 2000, I wrote that Phil was who I wanted to be when I grow up.

 

            I hadn't heard from Phil in years, nor thought about him, until I started writing this month's essay on the Republican violence towards language. I remembered that was one of Phil's big issues, and I shot him an email at UCLA, which bounced. When I went to look at the UCLA web page listing faculty, I saw that Phil (who was a few years younger than me) is listed as ex-faculty. Not emeritus, just gone. They've kept his web page (last updated in 2004, when he wrote and posted a wonderful essay I hadn't seen before, on the dangers of conservatism). But they are bouncing his email, which seems very unusual and disrespectful to an ex-professor.

 

            I googled Phil and was startled to see that his large Internet footprint ends in 2004. Eventually, I found some appalling “rate (or slander) your professor” sites where students said he had an unspecified health problem which apparently interfered with his ability to teach. Whatever happened, I am startled and sorrowful that one of the good guys is no longer publishing and appealing to the rest of us to use our common sense in listening to the rhetoric of politicians.

 

            Thinking about Phil, I remembered Matt Gaylor. Matt wasn't a writer but the creator of a significant Libertarian mailing list. Sometimes several times a day, I would receive email from “freematt@coil.com”. Matt and I radically disagreed on everything except freedom of speech, and he helped me gain a readership for the Spectacle by sending my First Amendment essays out to his list. Later, we concocted the idea of a debate on gun control which would take place simultaneously on his list and on the pages of the Spectacle between me and a thoughtful, philosophical NRA member. This didn't turn out to be as much fun as I expected, because it earned me a flurry of scary and insulting email from his readers, including one credible death threat. Matt was a little contrite about his readership's bad manners, but not greatly; he felt their pain on Second Amendment issues. As the 90's became what I call the “oughts”, I stopped hearing from Matt, and hadn't thought about him until I went looking for Phil Agre.

 

            I googled Matt yesterday and found out he died two years ago, in his late forties.  Though I rarely agreed with him on anything—and I find some Libertarian beliefs to be dangerously misguided and illogical—he was also one of the good guys, disseminating information and helping to build an online community that I still remember with nostalgia (despite the death threat).

 

            I wish that Matt was with us, that Phil was well, and that both were going strong, arguing, critiquing and adding to the richness of dialog so crucial to a healthy democracy.

 

Blame it on the Jews

 

            Speaking as a Jewish guy who opposes much Israeli policy (in fact doubts whether the creation of Israel was strategically intelligent), and favors national self determination and freedom of religion, I resent being blamed for everything which goes wrong in the Arab world.

 

            An Egyptian cultural minister, who had been more associated in his two decades with censorship than with the promotion of culture at home, just lost his bid to lead UNESCO. As he should have. In his campaign, he had to reassure the voting countries that he did not hate Jews. Upon losing, he told the Egyptian press, “There were a group of the world's Jews who had a major influence in the elections who were a serious threat to Egypt taking this position.”

 

            Arab countries with serious internal problems (not just issues of democracy and free speech, but failing economies, corruption, lack of educational opportunities, and overwhelming bureaucracy as well) have too long used the Jews—not just Israel, but all the Jews of the world-- as the scapegoat for every problem. They have, much of the time, succeeded in redirecting the energy of the people who would threaten them via protest, to volunteer for international jihad instead. Al Qaeda feels no gratitude to most of these regimes, but seeks to overthrow them as too secular. By blaming the Jews for every problem, nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria have summoned a monster they cannot control, which is trying to kill them as well.

 

Holding Gun Sellers Responsible

 

            A federal court in Tacoma has ruled that a local gun store won't get back its license, which was suspended for its role in providing the DC snipers with weapons. This is a very unusual outcome. Any gun store which stays in business long enough becomes aware of situations in which it sold a murder weapon. Almost every murder weapon in America began its odyssey in a store (there are no illegally manufactured weapons out there, nor any need to smuggle weapons across the U.S. border). The issue in a given case, such as Tacoma, is whether the seller broke the law, by selling to someone who did not legally qualify as a buyer, failing to do the background check, etc. The NRA has worked very hard to make sure that sellers will not be on the hook, civilly, administratively or criminally, when guns are used to take life. This contrasts very bizarrely with the rules for every other kind of product. There is more potential liability in America today for selling a toy on which a child can choke,  than for selling a gun which may be fatally used by the child, or against the child. Yet the same rules of tort law, regarding foreseeability, causation and harm, apply to the gun and the toy. The gun lobby wants a free pass for guns, products designed to cause fatal harm as the toy is not.