Friday, December 21, 2012

Taking Aim at School Violence

The head of the National Rifle Association today explained that the only sure way to keep schools safe is by filling our kid’s hallways, libraries and cafeterias with armed guards.  Gun-free zones like schools, he observed, “tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to effect maximum mayhem with minimum risk.”  That’s the reason random shootings have become a sad reality in schoolyards across the country but not at police stations, military bases or gun shows.

Except for places like Detroit’s Sixth Precinct, where last year a 38 year old man with apparently no motive opened fire with a shotgun and seriously wounded four officers.  Or police stations like the one in suburban Deerfield, Michigan, where a 64 year old man, again with no known grievance against the police, began blasting away at the cops there with a handgun just last month.  And don’t forget the Johnston, Pennsylvania, police who were attacked this fall by a shotgun wielding assailant, another “lone gunman” type.  Fortunately none of these shooters had assault weapons or high capacity ammo clips. 

The mere presence of guns doesn’t seem to deter madmen. It may incite them. Mayhem broke out in a gun store on the west side of Indianapolis this fall when a 26 year old man was killed after beginning to shoot at store employees.  And of course, mass shootings on military compounds like the one at Fort Hood, where a uniformed psychiatrist killed 13 and wounded 29 are no isolated incidents.  Another “loner” armed with a MAK-90 combat rifle murdered 5 and wounded 22 at the Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington, in 1994. 

Do guns guarantee safety?  My wife, a criminal defense attorney, is accustomed to being searched for weapons each time she enters the court room.  The only person with a firearm in the room is the policeman on duty, there to guarantee public safety.  Ironically, the only time public safety has ever been threatened was when some criminal grabbed the cop’s gun and started to shoot.  This has happened more than once over the course of her career.

The NRA’s argument that more firepower makes us more secure just doesn’t stand up to the facts.  Instead of arming the teachers, guidance counselors, hall monitors and lunch ladies, it’s time for sensible gun control.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

News of the Infinite

Asked if he was lonesome in his hut on Walden Pond, Henry Thoreau famously replied, “How could I be lonely?  Don’t I live in the Milky Way?”

Thoreau doubtless would have been encouraged by this week’s discovery of a new planet orbiting the sun-like star Tau Ceti, just 12 light years away and not much more massive than our Earth, right in the Goldilocks zone: not too hot, not too cold, just right for organic chemistry to flourish.   Scientists collated 6000 observations from three different telescopes to find the planet, while the Kepler spacecraft has found hundreds of others like it since its launch three years ago.  Given the size of our galaxy, there are almost certainly billions more.

Life is probably widespread in our universe, astronomers now agree.  Back when I was a boy, a famous experiment produced amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) by flashing an electric spark through a beaker of ammonia, methane, hydrogen and water vapor—thought to be the primitive components of earth’s atmosphere.  The theory was that, long ago, a lucky lightning strike in a shallow pond produced the first protoplasm.  But now we know that amino acids are everywhere: in the tails of comets and in the dust of interstellar space.  Wherever conditions are right, evolution takes off.

And conditions are right all over, not just on places like Enceladus, a moon of Saturn where liquid water has been proven present in geysers.  Many cosmologists agree that the cosmos appears propitiously suited to life, right down to the fundamental constants that govern gravity and allow stars and planets to form at all.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the universe was “designed” for beings like us.  But it does put a new twist on old legends like the Christmas star.  Does it really matter whether a nova appeared over Bethlehem all those years ago? For me, the real wonder is that we are all born out stars, every molecule in our bodies forged in the furnaces of the heavens.

What this means is that we humans belong here.  We are not just accidental tourists in this world.  We have grown out time and space as naturally as grass pushes up through city sidewalks.  And we are linked to nature, not only in our biology but in our minds and spirits also, which conceive space probes like Kepler and seem eternally fascinated by the big questions of where we come from and where we fit into the greater scheme.

Who cares whether astronomers find another habitable world anyway?  It would take our fastest rockets more than a thousand years to reach Tau Ceti not even figuring in pit stops. But the answer is, people care.  For beyond the business cycle, the election cycle, and other ephemeral headlines, human beings remain creatures hungry for news of the infinite.  And for me at least, it is satisfying to know not only that we live in the Milky Way.  In some important sense, the Milky Way—in all its brilliance and unfathomable extent --also lives in us.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Torturing the Truth

A new movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, has renewed debate over the “enhanced interrogation” of terrorist suspects.

As a disclaimer, I haven’t seen the show (and am not sure I want to).  According to reviews, it opens with a graphic depiction of waterboarding, giving an impression that torture helped provide useful information ultimately leading to Bin Laden’s death.

The problem is it’s not true.  I recently finished reading Confront and Conceal, an account of Obama’s “secret wars” by New York Times’ chief Washington correspondent David Sanger.  Sanger reminds readers how Bin Laden dropped out of sight after his escape from the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in 2001. By the end of the Bush administration, the missing Al-Qaeda leader was seldom mentioned by the White House.  As incoming President, Obama put renewed energy into locating the mastermind of 9/11, but the trail had grown cold. 

One scheme to find him involved flooding Pakistan with cheap video cameras, each containing a secret digital signature that could be traced.  Since Bin-Laden loved to make propaganda videos, the hope was that he might actually use one of the devices, which would then give a key to his location.

But in the end, it was old-fashioned sleuthing that smoked him out.  A suspicious cell phone conversation from an Al-Qaeda courier led agents to the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where the CIA discovered a mysterious white compound surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire.  Images from a surveillance drone showed a tall, reclusive man walking daily inside the enclave. When President Obama ordered the two Black Hawk helicopters carrying a team of special forces to raid the house in the nighttime of May 1, 2011, that was basically all the information he had.  None of it was obtained through torture.
The film maker defends her version of events, saying the movie doesn’t pretend to be a documentary.  But the film is made in the style of “cinema verite,” striving for graphic realism.  The nocturnal raid, for instance, is filmed through night vision goggles, giving the viewer a sense of boots-on-the-ground participation in the action.  Little about the movie suggests that it’s a work of fantasy.

But the idea that torture protects America, or has been a useful tool in the fight against terror, is pure fiction.  Inflicting torture on prisoners of war is not only contrary to our nation’s fundamental values, but is also counter-productive, since the victim will say anything he thinks his tormentor wants to hear.  Torture puts our own fighting forces at greater risk of receiving brutalized treatment when they fall into enemy hands. It has no place in civilized society or in defense planning. 

By suggesting otherwise, Zero Dark Thirty tortures the truth.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Serf City, Here We Come!

The Michigan legislature today passed a misleadingly labeled “right to work” law.  You might think a statute with that name would be concerned with the dignity and welfare of labor, but you’d be wrong.

What the law actually guarantees is the right to work for substandard pay, under dangerous conditions, without health or retirement benefits or vacations or sick days, for long hours with no over time.  What the law protects is a child’s right to leave school and become a drudge in a sweatshop.  What the legislation defends is differential pay for men and women, and being fired-at-will if you complain about no lunch breaks or not having a sanitary bathroom in the workplace.  What the “right to work” really means is the freedom to live in a company town, paid with scrip that can only be spent at the company store, so that the harder you work the deeper in debt you go.

You see, virtually all the protections that American workers enjoy today—that make a job in Flint, Michigan better than a job in Beijing, China, for instance—were won through the struggles of organized labor.  The eight hour day, equal pay for equal work, the abolition of child labor and similar reforms were achieved only through collective bargaining and tools of mass action like picket signs, general strikes, sit downs and boycotts that begin to give individual employees something like parity with the vast power of the corporation.  Naturally, China outlaws trade unions.  That’s why Chinese workers are paid a tenth of their U.S. counterparts and why they’re three times more likely to be killed on the job.

But Michigan’s new “right to work” law guts the power of unions by declaring that individuals can opt out of paying union dues, even when they are with a firm whose employees have voted to unionize, even when they are sheltered by contracts and enjoying benefits that can only come from the power of organized labor.  For unions, this means death by a thousand cuts.

Michigan’s working families have moved one step closer to destitution. But at least their right to become indentured servants has been upheld. 

Serf City, here we come!