Posted tagged ‘Crime’

They Are Who We Thought They Were, Part Deux

May 16, 2016

The CIA really, really doesn’t want us to know just how badly it can f**k up:

The CIA inspector general’s office — the spy agency’s internal watchdog — has acknowledged it “mistakenly” destroyed its only copy of a mammoth Senate torture report at the same time lawyers for the Justice Department were assuring a federal judge that copies of the document were being preserved, Yahoo News has learned.

Das_Geheimnis_-_Le_secret

Although other copies of the report exist, the erasure of the controversial document by the CIA office charged with policing agency conduct has alarmed the U.S. senator who oversaw the torture investigation and reignited a behind-the-scenes battle over whether the full unabridged report should ever be released, according to multiple intelligence community sources familiar with the incident. [Via the esteemable Charles Pierce.]

As the aforementioned Mr. Pierce writes

A democracy cannot survive if its people believe they are being played for marks. It can survive for even less time if they turn out to have been right.

Shitty cops are bad enough.  Shitty secret police…

Feh.

Image: Felix Nussbaum, The Secret, 1939

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.

None Dare Call It Murder

February 1, 2012

I’ve got just one quick note to add to the discussion of the Komen Foundation’s surrender to Greater Wingnuttia and the Global War on Women.

That would be that this decision is not just about the dollars.  It’s genuinely a matter of life and death  — of murder, really, with only the anonymity of the victims to obscure the the connection between act and consequence.*

Y’all may recall that I wrote along these lines about eight months ago in connection with Mitch Daniels’ decision to defund Planned Parenthood in Indiana.  (Yup, that Daniels — the hack our friends in literate Wingnutistan see as the great hope of the GOP).  Now we’re back again to run the numbers on what the removal of the services Planned Parenthood provides to women seeking preventative care for breast cancer will do.**

Here are the basic figures:  over the last five years, the Komen Foundation provided Planned Parenthood with sufficient support to pay for 170,000 breast exams and 6,700 referrals for mammography. The question of how frequent and how early a mammography program should be has been, shall we say, vigorously debated, but the issue gained some clarity last year with the publication of a large scale longitudinal study by Swedish researcher in which over 133,000 women were followed for a total of 29 years.

The results of this study provide low-end estimates for the lives saved by screening:  for every 414 or 519 women screened*** for seven years running, one breast cancer death would be prevented.  What’s more, the researchers emphasized that this is a conservative conclusion:

Evaluation of the full impact of screening, in particular estimates of absolute benefit and number needed to screen, requires follow-up times exceeding 20 years because the observed number of breast cancer deaths prevented increases with increasing time of follow-up.

I’m being deliberately dry in this telling, and I’m sure you can guess why:  I do not wish the conclusion to lose any of its force to misplaced snark.  The bald facts are grim enough.

How grim?  Take the most modest number from this study —519 women screened for each life saved.  That’s on the order of 13 women from the 6,700 screened with Komen Foundation money who get to live.****

Or:  that’s 13 women who will die for lack of those funds.

As I wrote about cervical cancer screening in Indiana:  we won’t know who those women are.  We will never know their names; who loved them; how many kids they will leave behind.  But if the total funds for screening in the system drop with the withdrawal of Komen Foundation support, they’ll be dead all the same.

Caveats, before I drop this “just the facts, Ma’am” tone:  this is a blunt, back of the envelope bit of arithmetic.  There are all kinds of factors that a real epidemiologist would consider before making any such bold claim.  Some of the obvious ones push the conclusion to a higher likely total of preventable deaths:  these women are being referred for screening, which suggests that someone had an inkling that they might be at risk.  Planned Parenthood sees a clientele that is likely to lack more health care services than the general population.  And there are the general points the original researchers made to suggest that the total of lives saved through screening would be greater than their baseline number.  There are probably factors that weigh in the other direction as well — one could imagine, for example, that the preliminary examinations turned up more aggressive cancers, which may have outcomes that mammographic detection does not much alter.  You get the point.  The reality of public health, medicine, and the basic biology of cancer is such that precise predictions are always wrong.

That said, the broader claim still stands:  there is a significant and growing body of evidence that regular mammographic breast cancer screening saves lives.  The converse follows:  withholding that screening means real people will suffer.

And here I’ll drop the pretense of dispassion.  The Komen Foundation’s decision links directly to illness, to death and loss and dreadful sorrow left behind.

Those losses can’t be called manslaughter either, not as I see it.  Preventable deaths that flow from lack of access to the standard of care are wholly predictable, even if the individual victims are not identifiable.  Those blocking access through want of funds know — or should — what will happen.  There’s nothing accidental about these outcomes.w

Which means that this isn’t just another salvo in the culture war.  This is nothing to be clever about in 850 word columns on the back pages of the Grey Lady.  This is not a bit of clever gamesmanship to rev up a base for whom just the name Planned Parenthood conjures up all their horrors of female agency.

This is real life, and real lives lost…and, once again, this is why this election matters so much.

*Yup.  Still working the refs for that Moore Award.

**Just to be clear:  for what follows, I’m assuming that these services are withdrawn, that the withholding of resources from the Komen Foundation doesn’t get made up somewhere else.

*** The spread is down to the details of data collection and analysis in the Swedish study.

****The weasel is about the difference in the five year span of screening Komen funds are said to cover, and the seven year screening sequence identified in the Swedish study.  I lack both the data and the skill to do more than waffle a bit here.

Image:  Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael and Sisera, 1620

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: How Mean Was He?

March 21, 2008

March 22, 1699 offered Londoners one of their favorite entertainments: execution day, the carnival held at the foot of the hanging tree.

The pageant actually begun at Newgate Jail (Gaol, for any British/Commonwealth readers). There, at the edge of the old city of London, after church, and efforts by the chaplain to get the condemned men to repent and forgive, the convoy headed west for the execution ground at Tyburn, where the Marble Arch now stands.

Crowds as large as 100,000 would gather for the fun, passing gin to favored convicts as they rolled by, cheering or jeering bravery and cowardice at the foot of the gallows, thrilling to the beat of the hangman’s dance as dying men jerked and twitched on the rope. (Trapdoor gallows would not come into use until 1760, and even then it took a bit of experience to get the height of the drop just right — far enough to break someone’s neck, not so far as to decapitate them.)

On this particular March day, one of the men to be hanged was a coiner named William Chaloner, who had been convicted of counterfeiting the King’s coins earlier in the month, a crime classified as High Treason. The man who brought him to his last moments on the hanging tree — along three dozen or so others over the years — was Isaac Newton, then serving as Warden of the Royal Mint.

My next book, most likely to be titled Newton and the Counterfeiter (Harcourt/Faber 2009) will trace the quite remarkable story of the cat and mouse game Newton and Chaloner played. The story as I’ve found it sheds a lot of light on how Newton thought, what he was trying to do — not just as a civil servant, but as a natural philosopher, someone trying to make sense of the world of experience — and what he felt, what motivated him. There’s a lot of the times as well as the lives in my account — what it was like to live through an enormously transformative period, not just in science, but in pretty much everything to do with daily life. I’m telling a true crime story, in other words, but a lot more.

That terribly premature plug aside (the book won’t be out until early next year), the question for this post is did Newton take pleasure in the deaths he triggered?

That’s not my question, originally.  Some Newton biographers, most notably Frank Manuel in his psychology – drenched book A Portrait of Isaac Newton, saw Newton as a deeply damaged person. Manuel argued that Newton’s pursuit of counterfeiters to the gallows was a crucial psychological release, a transference of perceived guilt from his deformed psyche onto an external figure.

Manuel writes “In the Mint Newton was gratified with the exercise of naked power over fellow creatures. …With such avenues available to him, he never again sufffered a psychic breakdown like the one of 1693. He no longer needed to beat his head against the bars of his inner consciousness. There were other human beings upon whom he could vent his wrath.” And later: “At the Mint he could hurt and kill without doing violence to his scrupuolous puritan conscience. The blood of the coiners and cliperrs nourished him.”

To which I say, with respect (for I value Manuel’s Newton scholarship highly): nonsense, ahistorical, anachronistic nonsense.

Newton certainly was a good hater — Manuel is right there. I wrote a bit about Newton’s prosecution of his grudge against Robert Hooke here, and Newton certainly pressed without scruple the priority dispute with Leibniz.

And it is true that Newton could be violent, at least in thought.  Consider the transgression he listed among his sins in 1662:

Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne
them and the house over them

This confession is, in fact, one of the pieces of evidence Manuel uses to build his picture of an Isaac Newton so scarred by his miserable childhood that he became the blood-drinking monstrous adult described above.

But while it is certainly true that Newton had a lonely, and at least at times an angry childhood, it is too great a leap of logic to posit the connection to grown up psychopathology, or even a connection between what appears to ahve been a bout of depression in 1693 with a murderous streak judicially indulged.

Why? Because within the actual context of criminal justice in London in the late seventeenth century, Newton was a perfectly unexceptional agent of the state. He was more effective than many – not surprisingly. He was Isaac Newton! He knew how to do empirical research. He had spent years weighing evidence for his physical claims. He was incorruptible. He had been given a job to do, and he did it — no surprise there.

And as for bringing men (and a few women)* to their deaths: Isaac Newton did not invent the bloody code. He did not refine the miseries that Newgate and its turnkeys inflicted on the residents there. He did not, in fact, pursue a true horde of coiners to their deaths; many were reprieved — after providing him with enough information about bigger fish to earn their way out of jeopardy — or with or without his connivance were convicted of lesser offenses, and spared the gallows.

That is: Manuel and those who have since picked up on the notion of Newton as a damaged man, have allowed their modern revulsion at the severity of seventeenth century criminal justice to blind them to the fact that Newton’s prosecutions were normal acts in his time, obligatory, in fact. Once he accepted his post at the Mint, it became his duty — as his superiors at the Treasury reminded him — to pursue counterfeiters with all the energy he could command.

Did those he convicted die hard? Certainly. But seen as part of the historical landscape in which he lived, Newton’s moral culpability for their sufferings is roughly equivalent to that of the hammer for the nail’s pain.

*Women convicted of high treason faced an even grimmer fate than men. Out of respect for female modesty (or simply to block the prurient male gaze) it was considered unacceptable to feed the crowd the spectacle of a woman jerking at the end of a rope in a mockery of an erotic spasm. The solution: burn them, when convicted of either high or petty treason — high for crimes against the monarch, low for crimes against constituted authority, including the murder of one’s marital superior, a husband.

In practice, most of those condemned to burn were killed by strangulation before the fire was lit. The last time a woman was truly burnt to death judicially in England came in 1685, when Elizabeth Gaunt was done to death for her part in the politically over-hyped Rye House Plot against the Stuart monarchy. The last use of the stake in England came in 1789. Then, Catherine Murphy, a coiner was led past the hanging bodies of several men hanged that day, including that of her husband, convicted for the same counterfeiting scheme for which she faced death. She was led up to a low wooden platform, and bound to the stake . The executioner placed bundles of straw around her, but then, he tied around her neck a rope fixed to an iron ring at the top of the stake. The platform was pulled out from under her feet, and there she dangled. The executioner waited half an hour before lighting the pyre. bound tied to be hanged before having her body stood up at the stake, and set on fire.

The Sheriff of London, Sir Benjamin Hammett, officiated at Murphy’s execution. The next year, he led the successful effort in Parliament to end the practice of execution. He pointed out that he was himself technically guilty of a crime, like all Sheriffs for the previous fifty years, for he and they had all failed to follow the letter of the law in carrying out the immolation of convicted female traitors. The law mandating the gallows for female coiners passed in spring, 1790.

Images: José de Ribera, “Martyrdom of Phillipus,” 1639. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Diepold Schilling “A Witch is Burned at Willisau, 1447” 1513. Source, Wikimedia Commons.