Bad, Stupid Shit Has Happened in Colorado

A gunman has opened fire at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. At present, about four hours after the shooting, there are at least 14 dead and 50 wounded, with children in both categories. Apparently the shooter released a gas bomb and then opened fire with three different guns. The police have a suspect in custody. I’ll do updates on this as I can, but I was in bed when I got a text about the story, so if you want up-to-date info, tune into the news.

I’m supposed to see the movie in about twelve hours, btw. For some reason, my enthusiasm has waned.

UPDATE: 3:59am MST: From what I can see, and this could just be my perception, but it looks like the area is largely black. The shooting suspect is white. Oh, dear.

UPDATE: 4:13am: Just heard the expected message of support from the President. Nothing exceptional, but I’m sure it will help some people.

UPDATE: 12:54pm: Well, I’m finally awake and dealing with the day. Apparently there’s actually only 12 dead and not 14, which is a plus. A lot more injured, though. Still, a bad day all around.


The Origins of Torture

So during the Bush years the United States became a nation that used torture. It’s illegal under US and international law, sullied our image in the eyes of the world, violated 200+ years of legal history and tradition in this country, was covered-up by people who clearly knew that it was illegal, and, worst of all for some people’s views, it didn’t even work.

You might ask yourself, as I have, how exactly we came to be the kind of country that thinks torture is acceptable. Well, have a look at this article from Slate, which will clear up some of your questions.

You know, the more that I think about it, the more it’s clear that Bush and company knew this was illegal. Given that, I’m wondering why they didn’t just go to Congress and have a law passed saying they could torture people. If it’s such a good, effective, vital weapon in the war on terror, this should have been a no-brainer, especially in the days after 9/11. But that didn’t happen. Instead we used torture against people who weren’t nearly as dangerous to us as the Nazis were, and we didn’t torture them. In fact, as I’ve pointed out before, we put Japanese officers on trial and killed them for doing to our troops what we did to (sometimes innocent), people.

I’ve given up any real hope of Bush and company going to trial for this. They should. But since no one wants to do it, I’d at the very least like there to be a truth and reconciliation committee. This committee would be empowered to investigate anything and everything connected to torture, and evidence they unearth would not be allowed to be used in courts. As a result, none of the people who turned us into a torture nation would be legally punished, but their acts would be dragged out into the light and we would all have to face up to the crimes done in our names.

But since that won’t happen either…the best I can probably hope for realistically is that fifty years down the line Bush ends up at the bottom of the list of effective presidents, with a legacy as repudiated as that of, say, Andrew Johnson. One can dream.

Alone Among the “Civilized”

In 2011, 20 countries carried out state-mandated murders against helpless people, something more euphemistically called “capital punishment”. And if you don’t categorize convicted criminals as “helpless”, ask yourself how helpless you’d be locked in a small cell with several large, armed men coming to put you in chains and haul you off to die.

Those countries are:

South Sudan
Saudi Arabia
North Korea

And in case you didn’t see this one coming…

The United States of America

Notice the company we keep on this list. States like North Korea, Iran and Syria, who are known sponsors of state sanctioned terrorism. Dictatorships like Belarus. Countries who were so rotten that we invaded them, like Afghanistan and Iraq. Notice also the countries that aren’t on that list. Mexico, Russia, Libya. And then there’s us. The land of the free, the home of the brave, etc. A nation not built on the concept of revenge, but one that’s fully embraced it.

Don’t pretend the death penalty is anything other than revenge and murder. It’s clearly not self-defense, since we’re quite capable of putting people in prison and keeping them from escaping. Don’t pretend it’s a deterrent, because we know it isn’t. Don’t pretend it’s anything other than revenge and murder. Revenge against someone for doing something we don’t like, and murder because they’re helpless and a threat to no one at the time they are killed (and if you do think they’re a threat, again, ask yourself how much of a threat you could be locked in a 6′ by 8′ cell with large armed guards available 24/7).

We continue with this bizarre, appalling, barbaric practice despite the fact that we like to claim we’re the best, most civilized country in the world. Many people also like to claim we’re uniquely virtuous and Christian. I guess if you think that your god was killed by capital punishment, than perhaps it isn’t too bad, but remember that as far as I know, Jesus never called for people to be murdered by the state.

We can and should be doing better. I don’t want us on the same list with these other countries.

This Time Last Year…

I had a job! Yes, and also Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), was shot in the head. She lived. A bunch of other people didn’t.

I find it absolutely amazing to think of the progress she’s made in the last year. She’s still going through rehab, but thanks to excellent doctors and excellent rehabilitation people, she’s up and moving, alive and talking. Those are all wonderful things. They also have nothing to do with “miracles”; It’s science that saved her, not religion.

The only suspect in the case, Jared Lee Loughner, is still going through the legal process, and baring any stumbling blocks, my guess is that he’ll go on trial later this year. My inclination, and this is just a layman’s view from what I’ve seen and heard about the man in the last year, is that he’s almost certainly the gunman, and almost certainly insane. If he is both those things, I hope he’s able to get psychiatric treatment. But this being Arizona, I know we’re quite keen to murder him the name of revenge, so I expect that’s probably what will happen instead.

On Drug Legalization

This is a paper I wrote my my sociology class. I got 100% on it, and the teacher seemed overall impressed. I thought I’d share it with you guys and see what you think! Enjoy!

Allow me to stay up front that I do not do drugs. I never have. I have zero interest in them. I don’t see the attraction. I don’t do drugs, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. That aside, I firmly and fully believe that all drugs should be legalized, heavily regulated and taxed. I believe this for several reasons.

Freedom Matters – I don’t feel that I have the right to tell you what you can and cannot put into your body. I strongly disapprove of tattoos. I think they look stupid, and if you have a whole bunch of them snaking down your arms, I’m going to make certain unfavorable assumptions about you (which aren’t necessarily accurate, but there you are). But having tattoos is your choice, and I would never dream of telling you that you can’t have them.

Drugs are the same. It’s not my business if you choose to snort a line of coke. It’s your body and what you put into it is your concern. I don’t think you should be doing it, but if you decide to, well, it’s your choice.

Now it becomes my problem if you make poor choices while on drugs. If you get really whacked out on meth and decide to go driving, or get high on coke and shoot someone, those are serious issues. But we have laws that already cover those problems (driving while intoxicated and a variety of laws about shooting people), so having further laws that make even the use of drugs illegal in case someone does those things is pointless.

The fight against drugs also erodes other freedoms. Without the drug war, we likely wouldn’t have any court rulings allowing retroactive search warrants, yet we have that today. That’s not to mention things like drug screenings for jobs and drug screenings for kids in after-school events.

Perhaps connected to the freedom issue is the fact that, well, this interferes with capitalism. Surely under a capitalist system, people should be able to buy and use whatever products they want, as long as they aren’t causing physical harm to any other person or property that isn’t theirs?

Think of the Children! – Right now, drug dealers can and do sell their products to anyone with money. This means if a twelve-year-old wants to buy crack and has money, there’s nothing stopping her from doing so.

On the other hand, it’s a bit more difficult for said twelve-year-old to get access to alcohol or cigarettes. It’s not impossible, but it is harder due to the fact that we have laws restricting what age you have to be in order to buy those things. If drugs were legalized and sold in stores that were required to card people for purchases, you can bet the instances of use among people who are under age would go down. It wouldn’t vanish entirely, because there are always ways around the law, but they would at least decrease.

This Costs How Much?! – The War on Drugs is expensive. This year we’re spending about $23 billion to fight this war. What else could we spend that money on? That’s far more than NASA gets each year. If we legalized and taxed drugs, I’m sure we’d more than make back the $23 billion, plus we wouldn’t be spending that money to fight the drugs. That’s about $46 billion we’d have each year. Funnel $10 billion into setting up really good treatment centers for those who want to stop and can’t, and even after that we have $36 billion left over. Imagine what we could do with an extra $36 billion for our schools.

Keeping Drugs Illegal Stifles Treatment – Let’s say that you’re very much into something that’s illegal. You want to stop being so into that something, but you are reluctant to join treatment efforts, even though you know they exist. You’re afraid that the authorities might monitor such treatment programs, and you might even be right about that. So you don’t get treatment and your problem spirals.

One of the reasons AA is so successful is because alcohol use isn’t illegal. This means that people who seek treatment aren’t admitting to any wrongdoing. With drugs, it’s a whole other matter, and that can cause problems.

Prohibition Doesn’t Work – In just about every prison in this country you can get just about any drugs you want. In prison. In the most heavily regulated and controlled environment this nation is able to create, you can get drugs. Given that fact, there’s no way and no laws we can ever make that will keep people in the outside world from using them.

Back in 1920, we passed a Amendment to the US Constitution that banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. That was when we learned that if you take something a huge number of people want, and make that something illegal, you’ll soon find yourself fighting a nasty war against your own people as organized crime parties down.

The amendment was widely viewed as a massive failure, and was repealed in 1933 after much blood and treasure was spent trying to enforce it. We’d learned our lessons when it came to alcohol. We have yet to learn them when it comes to drugs.

Summation – The simple fact is that there are a lot of people want to do drugs for whatever reason. Those people will do so, and no laws against drug use will make them stop. By keeping drugs illegal we create an air of mystique about them, and we also increase disrespect for the law in general. We further cast aside any possible monies that can be made from legalization and allow that money to go to drug lords who have no problems doing very evil things to keep their money flowing.

Some might argue that legalization creates many social problems, but what they don’t recognize is that those social problems already exist. Making drugs legal won’t add to those problems to any great degree and, by increasing the odds of treatment, might even go some way to removing or lessening the effects of those problems.

I’d certainly say it’s worth a try.

The Casey Anthony Thing

I ignored this trial as much as I could. For one thing, it was local news to the people of Florida. I don’t live in Florida. The killing of one child, while unpleasant, is certainly not national news and should not have been covered as such. I should have never even heard of this case, but thanks to cable news, I heard about it far too often.

For another thing, I just don’t care. There is nothing at all about this case that even remotely interested me. No one important was involved, it’s not going to set some sort of major legal precedent and, frankly, from what I heard from the media it seemed fairly open and shut.

Ah, but there’s the problem. I assumed she was probably guilty based on what I’d picked up through osmosis by the media. I didn’t have any real information and didn’t really know all that much about what was going on, but like everyone else, I thought she sounded guilty as hell. Well, like everyone else except the people on the jury who though the state couldn’t prove its case. On a side note, I love that at the end of each verdict the phrase “so say we all” was read off. Turns out that is common when the verdict is unanimous, but I always associate it with something else.

It’s entirely possible Ms Anthony had nothing to do with the death of her child. She’s apparently not a very stable person and it’s entirely possible her daughter died by accident and she couldn’t deal with it. So she went out drinking and partying while her child was missing? So what? Different people deal with grief in different ways and her doing that meant nothing. Also it sounds as though there was no clear motive expressed by the prosecution. Had I been on the jury, I might have voted to acquit her as well.

Here’s the other problem. What if she genuinely didn’t do the crime she was charged with? What if there was, in fact, no actual crime to begin with, other than covering up an accidental death? Well, even if she is factually innocent as well as legally not guilty, it doesn’t matter, because her life has been destroyed by the media. There is no where in this country Casey Anthony can live without someone recognizing her. She won’t be able to find a real job anywhere, certainly not in a place where she has interact with the public. Even if she is innocent, it doesn’t matter because she was tried and convicted by the media.

As I said before, I should never have even known who she is. I don’t need to know. She lives a couple thousand miles away from me and didn’t do a single thing that effects the larger world. The media really needs to practice some restraint in these cases, and I’d be inclined to favor a rule that says you cannot publish the name of someone accused of a crime unless they’re found guilty (this would take a Constitutional amendment and won’t happen). Since there’s no law about it, I do at least wish the media outlets would adopt it as a guideline, but they won’t.

Casey Anthony now joins other people, like Dominique Strauss Khan, the Hofstra accusation victims, the Duke rape case victims, Michael Jackson, Richard Jewell and many others who weren’t legally guilty of any crime (yes, this includes OJ Simpson prior to his latter convictions), but who have been destroyed by the media. It’s not right and it’s not fair and it really needs to stop.

The Imprisoned Innocent

I think, or at least hope, we can all agree that convicting people of a crime they didn’t commit is a very, very bad thing. Not only is it ethically unpleasant, but from a practical point of view it means that the person who did commit the crime in question is still out and about, able to reoffend. That’s why it’s important that we have a slow, steady, impartial judicial process that assumes innocence, requires the state prove otherwise, and has many, many safeguards. It’s a sad and simple fact that even with all that, we still have people who are innocent and get convicted anyhow.

But over the last few years DNA testing has come up and that’s freed 268 people since it first started in 1989. Ok, so that’s not a lot, and under our current prison system it’s barely a drop in the bucket. But consider what’s been happening in Dallas County, Texas. From Reason magazine.

It’s notable that one of the few places in America where a district attorney has specifically dedicated staff and resources to seeking out bad convictions—Dallas County, Texas—has produced more exonerations than all but a handful of states. That’s partly because Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins is more interested in reopening old cases than his counterparts elsewhere, and partly because of a historical quirk: Since the early 1980s the county has been sending biological crime scene evidence to a private crime lab for testing, and that lab has kept the evidence well preserved. Few states require such evidence be preserved once a defendant has exhausted his appeals, and in some jurisdictions the evidence is routinely destroyed at that point.

“I don’t think there was anything unique about the way Dallas was prosecuting crimes,” Watkins told me in 2008. “It’s unfortunate that other places didn’t preserve evidence too. We’re just in a unique position where I can look at a case, test DNA evidence from that period, and say without a doubt that a person is innocent.…But that doesn’t mean other places don’t have the same problems Dallas had.”

If the rest of the country has an actual (but undetected) wrongful conviction rate as high as Dallas County’s, the number of innocents in prison for felony crimes could be in the tens of thousands.

That’s pretty horrible. It also raises a very good question: why aren’t state and local governments required by law to provide a special oversight organization that’s designed to root out bad convictions, like what they have in Dallas County? Sure, they’d be overworked and almost every convict would try to say that they’re actually innocent, but that could be sorted out fairly quickly.

It’s important that this be done with people who are in prison, but also people who aren’t. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who has been convicted of a crime you didn’t actually commit (yes, it can happen to you). Imagine that you don’t do any prison time, but you have to, say, pay a $100,000 fine. face five years probation and are now a felon. Well, there goes any chance you have of landing a decent job, especially if you don’t have an education. Very few companies that are willing to pay decently will have anything to do with a felon. Also, God help you if the crime was drug related, or even worse, a sex crime, cause then you’re really screwed. Without doing a single day in jail or prison (they aren’t the same, by the way), your life is royally screwed up. But you haven’t any real recourse, unless you have money.

I think every jurisdiction should have a unit set up to root out the wrongful convictions. Yes, it won’t be cheap, but given that it costs around $35,000 a year to house one person in medium security, each wrongful conviction they find can save the state some money (especially if it’s found earlier, since the longer someone innocent is held, the more money they usually have to give the victim in restitution). Yes, it will be embarrassing to the people who convicted the innocent person, but they need to be held accountable.

Fundamentally there’s no reason not do this other than the fact that it might make people feel uncomfortable. Too bad. Imagine how uncomfortable an innocent person feels when they’re convicted. We used to say it’s better for a thousand guilty men to go free than to allow one innocent man to go to jail. Let’s prove they we can keep the guilty behind bars and let the innocent go free. Let’s have commissions all over the country that look at possible bad cases. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the fair thing to do. Justice requires nothing less.