Archive for the ‘Crime’ category

Life Without Parole

April 8, 2015

So. Dzokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted on all thirty counts in the Boston Marathon Bombing and (closer still to home), the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier.

Good.

Now for sentencing, in which the grotesquely termed “Death Qualified Jury”™ will decide between execution and life without parole.

Like an overwhelming majority of my Boston neighbors, I am opposed to the death penalty for Tsarnaev, as I am in all cases.  Three reasons:

1.  Error or malice.  It is hardly news to anyone reading this that police and prosecutors f**k up.  Death at the hands of the state not only renders those errors permanently uncorrectable.  As a citizen in whose name the state kills, I can’t accept that moral burden.

CaravaggioSalomeLondon

That some cases, like Tsarnaev’s, are open and shut doesn’t alter the moral and practical force of the argument above, I think. The moment you introduce discretion into death penalty jurisprudence, you re-open the opportunity for error or malice to kick in..  If the standard is overwhelming obviousness, then who decides; who processes the evidence in support of that definition, and so on.  The only way to be certain you’re not killing innocents is not to kill anyone under the cover of state-imposed penalties.

If that makes me soft, so be it.

2.  Soft or not, I’m vengeful, too.   To my mind, LWOP is a fate worse than death.  Because I do not believe in an afterlife, the only punishments that matter, like the only rewards, are those we receive in this life.  Fifty years in a maximum or super-max prison is, to me, a much more thorough and exemplary penalty than oblivion.

3.  I’m practical.  See reason one.  Cops and government lawyers f**k up.  We kill their errors and the urgency of addressing particular patterns of incompetence, indifference, and outright viciousness diminishes.  Patterns of bad behavior and unjust outcomes become much harder to discern.  Any hope, slim as it may be, of creating a better, more justice-driven law-enforcement system, evaporates when the living reasons to address current injustices disappear.  If we want to make things better, we need not to kill the people whom the system failed.  Simple as that.

One more thing:  I’m not non-violent.  But I’m anti-violence.  The fact that we (in theory) surrender to the state a monopoly on violence means that we need to hedge that power around with a mighty wall.  Not killing those in our power, even the most evil, is part of that wall.  Whether the more pragmatic arguments above carry greater weight some days than others, at bottom there is a moral imperative that I can’t find a way to avoid:  when we, or I, don’t need to kill, choosing to do so anyway is wrong.

Me being me, I could go on, but that there’s the gist.

What do y’all think?

Image:  Caravaggio, Salome with the head of John the Baptist, before 1610.

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

January 15, 2014

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_Google_Art_Project

The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

Dog Bites Man — Internet Bank Heist Version

May 9, 2013

Least suprising story of the year here:

…in two precision operations that involved people in more than two dozen countries acting in close coordination and with surgical precision, the organization was able to steal $45 million from thousands of A.T.M.’s in a matter of hours.

In New York City alone, the thieves responsible for A.T.M. withdrawals struck 2,904 machines over 10 hours on Feb. 19, withdrawing $2.4 million.

The scam was simple and very smart:  hack credit card processing companies in India and the US; then raise the credit limits on pre-paid debit cards issued by a couple of banks in the Persian Gulf.  Clone the data on said cards so that teams IRL could hit machines in multiple countries, stuffing wads of cash in backpacks that surveillance video shows getting heavier and heavier. Rince, repeat, profit.

Constant_Wauters_Der_ertappte_Hausdiener

All this comes out of an unsealed indictment for a New York City crew of eight involved in the impressively effortful spree noted in the quote above.

Don’t try this at home, kids — not only is it a pretty hefty felony, and not your money and all that — but then there’s this:

The authorities said the leader of the New York cashing crew was Alberto Lajud-Peña, 23, who also went by the name Prime. His body was found in the Dominican Republic on April 27 and prosecutors said they believe he was killed.

I have no doubt that there are folks involved in this that you really, really don’t want to irritate.  None of the putative kingpins have been identified, but in an even less surprising footnote to the tale, the authorities are tracking down some of the loot in predictable forms:

The authorities have already seized hundreds of thousands of dollars from bank accounts, two Rolex watches and a Mercedes S.U.V., and are in the process of seizing a Porsche Panamera.

Part of me says that this is something to note because so much of the financial life of individuals and the economy writ large depends on the secure functioning of — and user trust in — global banking systems at every level from the corner ATM to the massive inter-bank clearing mechanisms.

The cyber security people I talk to have to hold their hands over the mouths to stop themselves from blurting “WAKE UP SHEEPLE!!!!!” — as that trust rests on a rickety tangle of hardware and software.  So while there’s a kind of Great Train Robbery thrill to the idea of capers like these, this could get ugly indeed.

The real question, though, is what role George Clooney will play.

Image: Constant Wauters, The servant as a thief1845.

 

Love that Dirty Water

April 19, 2013

Obligatory sound track here.

A couple of things:  I want to shout amen and amen to a couple of post here earlier today.  DougJ nailed it with his quote from Ron Brownstein — and even more so with his last line: “This is Jackie Robinson’s country, not Pam Geller’s.” Fuck yeah.*

Bernard reminds us that the political reflex simply gets it wrong in the face of the immediate emotional pressure of tragedy.  We’re fighting folks who are fucked up already. If we transform ourselves into the defensive doppelganger to that offensive failure, we don’t get safer; we get fucked up in our turn.  (And yes, though it doesn’t quite track in terms of sense, the sensibility of this poem is in my head as I write that line.)

And mistermix picks up on what I was going to write about in this post in re Lindsay Graham.  I’ll add just one thought. Speaking as a Boston guy, let me say that the last thing I want to do is honor this guy with anything like combatant status.  He’s not a warrior; he’s got no soldier ethos or ethics.  He’s fucking murderer who takes down kids for … I don’t know what.  Soldiers fight folks who can fight back, at the orders of authority constructed in a legitimate chain of command.  And yeah, I know that oversimplifies, and if the Brits had caught Adams and Jefferson and Washington they’d have dangled at the end of a rope as simple vandals and killers, but you get my drift.  This murderous child is no more a soldier than is my cat, and has less moral capacity.  He’s a criminal, and I want him to face the full material and ceremonial weight of the law.  Anything else in some measure validates a claim to some greater significance.

Dr_Deijman’s_Anatomy_Lesson_(fragment),_by_Rembrandt

That was the bedrock of my loathing for the “War on Terror” and its apotheosis in the Iraq War, the first feeling experienced before any consideration of what a dumb idea it was or anything else.  You don’t elevate murderers to your level; they’re criminals, and should be represented, pursued, and, when caught, treated as such.  That Lindsay Graham hasn’t figured this out yet shows nothing more than that he is hopelessly overmatched by the job he holds.

And now to the tone I want to bring to all this.  I’ve been enjoying — no, revelling — in the face my town is putting on right now.  Here’s one example, via Boston.com:

It was clear amidst the chaos Friday which was the hometown coffee chain.
On block after block of the Boston’s Financial District and Downtown Crossing, Starbucks shops went dark as the city locked down, spurred by a manhunt for the second marathon bombing suspect. Dunkin’ Donuts stayed open.

Law enforcement asked the chain to keep some restaurants open in locked-down communities to provide hot coffee and food to police and other emergency workers, including in Watertown, the focus of the search for the bombing suspect. Dunkin’ is providing its products to them for free.

“At the direction of authorities, select Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants in the Boston area are open to take care of needs of law enforcement and first responders,” spokeswoman Lindsay Harrington explained via email.

And here’s another, from a brilliant blog post by Jim Dowd

Oh man, you screwed up, didn’t you?

Yes, your little RadioShack experiment for evil hurt and killed some people and got you the attention you were obviously so desperately seeking. Point for you there, asshole. But I get the sense you really don’t know what you’ve done here, do you? Are you from out of town? I have the strong sense that you are.

If that is the case, allow me tell you a little something about the city you screwed with. This town is not your run-of-the mill medium sized regional capital…

Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? This small city produced both Stephen J Gould and Whitey Bulger.  This place gave us Leonard Nimoy and Mark Wahlberg.  Southie and Cambridge. Brookline and Brockton. This place will kick the screaming piss out of you, come up with a cure for having the screaming piss kicked out of you, give it to you for free, then win a Nobel prize for it and then use the medallion to break your knuckles. See what I’m talking about?

Read the whole thing. Delicious. Righteous.

One more thing.  I’m still thinking about my friends in my old place, trying to comfort their kids in the basement while bombs and guns were going off in earshot.  I’m thinking about them while trying to figure out how to write something, anything even vaguely printable (a low bar in this day and age, I’ll admit) in reaction to the deep thoughts of one Nate Bell, a Republican Arkansas state rep, who tweeted:

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR 15 with a hi-capacity magazine.

Yo, Nate, you pathetic waste of carbon! Hey Nate, possessed of all the wit of my old pet rock!

MSKG - De idioot bij de vijver - Frits Van den Berghe (1926)

Hey, Asshole! Call on me. I can answer…

And I do:  None.  No one.  In Boston, we actually have enough sense to realize that all the armed men and women along the marathon route couldn’t — and couldn’t have been expected — to stop a murderer with a pressure cooker in a bag.

We recognize that when thugs take down a cop (armed) sitting in his car, that gun didn’t help.  And we know damn well, and are grateful, that we had some damn well trained and equipped first responders taking great personal risk to keep us safe from those thugs — and the last thing they needed was some idiot(s) with a rifle running around playing cowboy while they were on the job.

Oh — and we know too that the people most at risk from such a gun in the house are the folks who live in the house; that acts of vicious and inexplicable murder of strangers are rare — horrible, but uncommon — but suicides and accidents and domestic violence are much less so, and we’d like to keep the body count down in our neighborhoods thank you very much.  And, by the way, that’s what we do — as you’d know  if you’d check out any gun violence map that correlates to states with even remotely reasonable gun control, you fatuous simulacrum of  sentience.

In other words, you can hang on to your  projected feelings of inadequacy in Arkansas.  In Boston, we’ve got business to take care of.

Hell — I guess I’m rambling again.  Time to stop.  Night all.  Thanks again for a great day on the threads.

*Y’all know that I have this habit of bowdlerizing my profanity.  Take that as the measure of general pissed off-edness.

Images: Rembrandt van Rijn, Dr. Deijmans Anatomy Lesson (fragment), 1656

Frits van den Berghe,The Idiot by the Pond, 1926

But, But, But, He Drank From The Fingerbowl!

August 14, 2012

You know, children, this kind of thing just isn’t done:

In making his solo claims that the bank [Standard Charter] covered up $250 billion in transactions involving Iran, Mr. Lawsky has been likened to Eliot Spitzer, who drew high praise and harsh criticism as New York’s top prosecutor for his aggressive tactics on Wall Street and tendency to muscle federal authorities aside.

Just like Mr. Spitzer, Mr. Lawsky has rankled federal authorities in Washington who say that the state banking regulator is encroaching on their territory and even overstating his case. Mr. Lawsky, a 42-year-old who was born on a naval base in San Diego, has started an international firestorm, with some politicians in London, Standard Chartered’s home, denouncing his actions as those of a upstart regulator bent on damaging British banks.

Some officials investigating the bank view Mr. Lawsky’s action as the product of political ambition, suspecting that he is already considering a run for governor himself one day. As an indication, they and others cite the tone of Mr. Lawsky’s order against the bank where he called it a “rogue,” claimed it had “zeal to make hundreds of millions of dollars at almost any cost” and was engaged in “dealings that indisputably helped sustain a global threat to peace and stability.”

Of course such a tone of disdain and insult should never be applied to institutions that, after all, serve as the carapace for our betters:

Standard Chartered has said it “strongly rejects the position and portrayal of facts” by Mr. Lawsky’s department.

That was last week.

Today:

New York’s top banking regulator reached a settlement on Tuesday with Standard Chartered over charges that the British bank laundered hundreds of billions of dollars in tainted money with Iran and deliberately lied to regulators.

The bank agreed to pay $340 million to the Department of Financial Services, which is led by Benjamin M. Lawsky. “The parties have agreed that the conduct at issue involved transactions of at least $250 billion,” Mr. Lawsky said in a statement.

Oh, and just in case anyone wants to try on the  “this does not reflect the values/behavior of the institution as a whole” line, suck on this:

Beyond the dealings with Iran, the banking regulator said it had discovered evidence that Standard Chartered operated “similar schemes” to do business with other countries under United States sanctions, including Myanmar (formerly Burma), Libya and Sudan.

The “apparent fraudulent and deceptive conduct” by Standard Chartered happened from 2001 to 2010, the order said, and was particularly “egregious,” because some of the transactions were being processed even as the bank was under formal oversight by New York banking regulators from 2004 to 2007.

You know…it’s true.  Being loud and blunt and accurate in one’s description of criminal and/or evil behavior may indeed be bad manners in certain circles.  Which is just about all you need to know about such folks.

Also too:  as Romney/Ryan will tell you, all we need to do to unleash a job creating tsunami led by MOTU is to crush the jackbooted regulators of the hostile state.  Then no bank will provide aid and comfort to the worst people on earth. Not ever.  They promise.

Image:  El Greco, Christ Driving The Money Changers From The Temple, c. 1570-1576.

Moral Compasses. Can I Haz Pleeze? (Paterno/PSU Edition)

July 15, 2012

This item in the Times yesterday caught my attention:

In January 2011, Joe Paterno learned prosecutors were investigating his longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky for sexually assaulting young boys….

That same month, Mr. Paterno, the football coach at Penn State, began negotiating with his superiors to amend his contract, with the timing something of a surprise because the contract was not set to expire until the end of 2012, according to university documents and people with knowledge of the discussions. By August, Mr. Paterno and the university’s president, both of whom were by then embroiled in the Sandusky investigation, had reached an agreement.

Mr. Paterno was to be paid $3 million at the end of the 2011 season if he agreed it would be his last. Interest-free loans totaling $350,000 that the university had made to Mr. Paterno over the years would be forgiven as part of the retirement package. He would also have the use of the university’s private plane and a luxury box at Beaver Stadium for him and his family to use over the next 25 years.

The university’s full board of trustees was kept in the dark about the arrangement until November, when Mr. Sandusky was arrested….

Anyone care to defend Paterno on this one?  PSU?  Best keep this in mind then:

The university’s full board of trustees was kept in the dark about the arrangement until November, when Mr. Sandusky was arrested and the contract arrangements, along with so much else at Penn State, were upended. Mr. Paterno was fired, two of the university’s top officials were indicted in connection with the scandal, and the trustees, who held Mr. Paterno’s financial fate in their hands, came under verbal assault from the coach’s angry supporters.

Board members who raised questions about whether the university ought to go forward with the payments were quickly shut down, according to two people with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

In the end, the board of trustees — bombarded with hate mail and threatened with a defamation lawsuit by Mr. Paterno’s family — gave the family virtually everything it wanted, with a package worth roughly $5.5 million. Documents show that the board even tossed in some extras that the family demanded, like the use of specialized hydrotherapy massage equipment for Mr. Paterno’s wife at the university’s Lasch Building, where Mr. Sandusky had molested a number of his victims.

I’m reading Chris Haye’s Twilight of the Elites just now — highly recommended btw, from a just over half way perspective — and one of his key points is that disintegration of a viable polity or society is driven in part by the discovery that those at the top play be utterly different rules than the rest of us.

Yup.

One more thing:  the claim routinely made by academics — and especially by the leaders of the Academy — is that in a complex and here-and-now society, universities teach and embody not just knowledge, but values — or rather, an approach to living that makes it possible to lead an ethical life, one of value. Obviously, everyone reading this can come up with examples in which such claims are honored only in the breach.  But still, that’s the point of the liberal arts, and have been claimed as such since the days of the trivium and quadrivium (and before).

That means to me that there really is a higher obligation here — just as there was and is for, say, the Catholic Church when confronted by the abomination of child rape.  The Church conspicuously failed in its duties to its own claims of virtue, and it continues to do so, which is one of the reasons why someone like me, not a member of the faith, so deeply resents any assertion of moral authority in politics by the princes of the church.

In that context Penn State/Paterno scandal only makes it easier to lump the universities in with every other failed institution in our society — at a time when the importance of knowledge and its interpretation/application to the great problems we face has never been greater.

Hence, it seems to me that Penn State needs demonstrate that it’s not just another Lehman/Boston Archdiocese.  How to do that?  I don’t really know — I haven’t thought hard, nor talked to people who really understand how institutional cultures change.  Suggestions?

Image:  Francisco de Goya, The Great He-Goat or Witches Sabbath, 1821-1823 (worth the click through for seeing it at a readable size.)

Faith vs. Reason: Stand Your Ground/Violent Crime Edition

March 23, 2012

Last night the PBS News Hour program held a roundtable on the Trayvon Martin murder.  Ta-Nehisi Coates was on, as were Reihan Salem and Donna Britt.  So was Dennis Baxley, the Florida state representative who co-authored the Stand Your Ground law under whose cloak George Zimmerman stalked and gunned down the 17 year old Martin.

Baxley said — and appeared to mean — the right things about Martin’s death, that it was a tragedy, and that nothing in the law he helped enact should be interpreted to authorize someone to pursue, confront and shoot another.  But Baxley rejected the notion that the law itself might have contributed to the catastrophe, arguing instead that it is a force for good, a way, in his words, a law intended “to empower law abiding citizens to stop violent things from happening.”

What’s more, said Baxley, the law has done just that:

Since ’05 to 2012 we have seen a reduction in violent crime in Florida.  And what I’ve learned from it is that if you empower to stop bad things from happening they will and they do and they have.

Except, of course, those bad things that happen because people are able to claim that a “feeling” of danger constitutes authorization to use deadly force more or less at will.

But snark aside, what of the claim about crime rates in Florida.

Here, I’ll take a cue from Rachel Maddow, and say that Dennis Baxler is lying.

Check out Florida’s crime statistics.  Two things stand out.

The first is that the number of violent crimes has not dropped from 2005 through 2010 (where the data series ends); rather it has jostled about in the noise.  From 2005-2008, violent crime totals exceeded the 2004 tally of just over 124,000; in 2009 and 2010 the totals dropped below that figure. If there’s a clear case for correlation with the Stand Your Ground law, it must exist at some much finer grained level that the invoked violent crime catch-all

So what about murder?  That is, after all, the crime of crimes, and the one for which I think most of us would be most comfortable in giving deference to claims of self defense.  Those numbers make Baxley’s story worse:  the murder total in Florida dropped from 946 to 881 from 2004-2005, and have exceeded the 2004 total for each year reported since, peaking at 1,202 in 2007 — or about a 26% hike from the 2004 number.

The shorter: violent crime numbers do not support a claim that the SYG law has consistently reduced violent crime incidence since 2005.

The other key fact to leaps out from this chart:

The slope of the rate/100,000 (blue) line has been pretty consistent for twenty years.  It gets a little steeper from 2008-2010, to be sure, though not as much as it did from 1997 to 1999 or 2000.  But this picture is consistent with the story in the rest of the country: violent crime is a much less severe problem now than it was decades ago. Any explanation for this ongoing process cannot have anything to do with a law enacted in 2005.  That longer history alone makes a mockery any sudden 9mm ex machina explanation for Florida’s recent and welcome continued reduction in rates of violent crime.  And, of course, any monocausal explanation  is almost certain to be wrong.

Hell, I’ll go further and say that a priori, such accounts are always wrong.

Consider instead another story.  Sometime in a leisure-filled future, (hah!–ed) I do plan to blog this really smart Adam Gopnik piece in the New Yorker examining research into  what drove crime rates down in New York City over the last several decades.  But for now in this context, take this home:

Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” [Wrote Franklin E. Zimring]…Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.

All of which is to say that when Baxley asserts that Florida is experiencing a respite from violent crime because it now allows citizens to act as amateur law enforcers, empowered to use deadly force as their judgment drives them, he’s not telling the truth.  He’s lying, saying something that is false as a mundane fact and wrong as a causal inference.

Which is why this from Baxley is a type specimen of moral cowardice:

This kind of very unfortunate situation I think is a misapplication of this statute.

If you enact a law that carries with it a predictable budget of unintended, undesired consequences that result from the application of that law in daily life, then you’re not talking about “unfortunate” events, nor “misapplications.”  You’re talking about a murder that was a probabilistically predictable result of enacting a crap law.

I’m sorry Mr. Baxley.

I’m sure you mean well.

I have no doubt that you did not wish the particular child, Trayvon Martin any harm — how could you? You never knew him.

But what you feel in your heart, that regret that someone didn’t behave under your law as you think they should?  Not an excuse. No absolution.  Trayvon Martin is dead because someone empowered in his own mind by the terms of your law stalked down a street, confronted him, and shot that 17 year old kid down.

You own your part of this.


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