Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mr. Murphy über alles.

As we have discussed here before, Robert’s Rule holds that simplicity is Murphy’s only natural enemy.

Consider last night’s carbine match. The stage was a monster: About 30 targets strung along the entire width of the range. Targets at 50 yards, targets at arm’s length. Reactive targets, steel targets, paper targets, bowling pins. Doors to go through. Hallways to clear. No-shoot targets to avoid. Multiple magazine changes. Rifle-to-pistol transition. All to be shot in one long string of fire.

But I was ready, steady, geared up and good to go. I was dressed warmly but lightly. My boots were snugged up just enough. I was wearing my very cool Bravo Company cap. I’d function-checked the optic. Each pistol and rifle magazine had been loaded with love. The AR 15 had gotten an extra sip of lube, in favor of the cold evening. My strength was as the strength of ten, because my heart was pure.

I came to the firing line, intent on laying waste to the evil cardboard, steel and bowling pins arrayed before me. At the safety officer’s word, I loaded, press checked and holstered my pistol. I powered up the carbine optic and loaded the long gun.* I nodded with grim and steely-eyed determination to tell the safety officer “ready.”

“Stand by,” said the SO.

I stood by.

“BUZZ!” sounded the buzzer.

Smartly bringing the carbine up to a perfect cheek weld, I aimed through one of the odd-shaped firing ports in the VTAC barricade, the bright red dot of the optic centered on the small steel silhouette 50 yards away. My finger went to the trigger and  . . . the bright red dot disappeared.

Of course it did.

So I flipped up the rear backup iron sight and shot the stage with iron sights . . . at night  . . .  without the eyeglasses I prefer to use to moderate my miserable presbyopia, but which do not work with the optic and so were left in my range bag. Let us just say my performance on the stage was less than distinguished.

And thus we see demonstrated another of Robert’s Rules: “The rules apply to you, even if you make the rules.”

*Note position of top round in magazine, insert magazine, pull charging handle fully to the rear and release, remove magazine, confirm top round is now on the other side, re-insert magazine, push-pull to confirm the magazine is seated.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Some folks like a triad. You will also hear lots of discussion about three-legged stools. Others prefer to slice a pie into four pieces.  Some would rather disassemble the device into components. Whatever your favored metaphor, the simple notion of “self defense” implicates many considerations.

 You have to have tools that work, every time, and are suited to you. You have to be able to use those tools effectively, so that means adequate marksmanship and competent, reflexive gun-handling. To achieve those, you have to train, and the training has to be realistic and relevant. Then you have to practice often and effectually – recognizing that training and practice are not the same thing. Your ancillary gear has to be suited to your particular use of it, and as reliable as your primary tools.

But while all of these are necessary, none of them is sufficient. All of these considerations matter, but there is one thing that is lord of them all: Mindset.

Robert's Rule is that "Mindset Matters Most." Fighting mindset determines outcomes. Mindset implicates the largest questions: How do you believe you came to occupy the universe? Mindset invades the smallest of moments: Will you keep fighting for this next second?

Not only will the better mindset prevail “all things being equal,” but the man with the better mindset can prevail over an adversary who is better equipped or trained or both, while a poor mindset renders expertise irrelevant. This is not a new notion. Sun Tzu* said 2500 years ago that every battle is won or lost before it is fought.

Proper mindset drives you toward the satisfaction of all the other necessary elements: You are determined to expend the time and sweat and money to train realistically and practice effectively. You have done the research and trials necessary to know what weapons and gear will work best for you, and you have not stinted on buying the best you can afford.  But mindset stands apart from and above all these other factors.

Proper mindset means that you have decided that you are a human being and that human beings have the right to defend their lives and wellbeing, and the lives and wellbeing of those in their care or charge. You have decided that you concur with the Founders' belief that your right to life is natural and inalienable. You have decided that the image of an armed woman standing over the bleeding body of a would-be rapist is morally superior to the image of a battered woman lying on the ground, watching as her rapist flees. 

To have a proper mindset is to be utterly ready for that which you earnestly pray will not occur. Proper mindset means that you can walk away from any insult or offense that does not warrant a fight, no matter the injury to your ego. But proper mindset means that you are ready to fight when it is time to fight, because you have decided you will fight long before the fight. Proper mindset is what spares you the paralysis of “this can’t be happening,” so that you can get into the fight when it will do you the most good. It is proper mindset that will keep you in the fight – when you are afraid or exhausted or shot – until you prevail or die.

Proper mindset means you have thought about what this kind of fight really looks like, even if you have never engaged in or witnessed one. You know that you are willing to do great harm to a determined assailant, to wet your hands with his blood, if that’s what it takes to end his aggression. More than this, you know if you are capable of ending the life of another human being if need be. Proper mindset means that you have examined your heart of hearts with unflinching honesty. If you are a person of faith, proper mindset means you have reconciled these issues with that faith before the moment arises.
Mindset is not magic; it is not an incantation or a prayer or a mantra. It is neither esoteric nor theoretical; it is, instead, the most practical thing there is. Mindset is a set of decisions, considered with greatest care, resolved to a moral certainty and then followed through, come what may. Proper fighting mindset may come easy or hard for you, but the having or lack of it is not a matter of luck or heredity, nor is it the exclusive province of any particular profession. Mindset can be learned.

I respectfully submit that's something worth considering when you formulate your New Year’s resolutions this week.

* I will leave it for others to debate the question of whether Sun Tzu actually existed as a single historical figure.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Let it snow.

Across Europe and the United Kingdom this week, travel has been disrupted, delayed, complicated and – in some cases – utterly stymied by an event that no one could ever have predicted, and for which no one could ever have prepared: It snowed in the wintertime.

One simply cannot expect airports to function in extreme weather conditions, and in London they faced snowfalls of as much as 8 cm! Given this massive snowfall, officials – er – wait a second. Let’s see here. Google search: “online metric conversion.” Click on “length.” Select centimeters-to-inches. Input “8.” That comes to  . . . wait for it . . .  3.15 inches. That can’t be right. Let’s check our work. Try inches-to-centimeters. . . .  Well I’ll be.

Now, I love to heckle the English as much as the next guy – so long as the next guy is, say, Gerry Adams  or William Wallace. But fair is fair. I’m compelled to say that, while it’s cold comfort to stranded travelers trying to survive off of gift-shop Toblerones and macadamia nuts, the Heathrow delays are, in a sense, just as they should be. The simple fact is that Heathrow wasn’t ready, shouldn’t be ready, for a large snowfall for a very good reason: it almost never snows in there.*

Chicago’s O’Hare Airport has vast battalions of de-icing and snow removal equipment (it starts at 1:30 in the video) and well it should. The folks in charge there know that the skies are likely to dump great thumping piles of snow ten months out of the year. (Alright, that’s not fair, either. Chicago's June and September snowfalls are seldom more than a dusting.)  In any case, O’Hare probably would have handled the three puny inches of snow that paralyzed London by asking the baggage handlers to carry brooms and tidy up as they went about their other duties.

This differing level of snow-handling capacity is the product of a little thing called risk assessment, and it’s not peculiar to London or Chicago. Examine airports around the world and a pattern will soon emerge: Cleveland, Reykjavik and Moscow, lots of snow gear; Cairo, Bangkok and Mexico City, not so much. The clever, efficient, profit-minded folks who run, fund and plan airport operations know not to treat every airport alike, as if every location presented an equal threat of snow delays. Because that would be silly. And ineffective. And waste finite resources.

Which makes it all the sadder that these airport officials and their government overseers are willing to treat every person – including every infant, soldier, and grandma – as if each presented an equal threat of terrorist attack. That’s simple stupidity, dressed up as egalitarianism.

The International Air Transport Association, the industry group that represents airline interests worldwide, recently made an announcement  that may be cause for a flicker of hope. (Hope because, while our government shows no inclination to listen to ordinary citizens on this issue, lobbyists for enormous industries can usually get someone’s ear.) The IATA is calling on governments, including ours, to begin to change the focus of air travel security away from “dangerous” things, such as nail clippers and water bottles, and on to dangerous people. IATA would like to see a three-tiered system that recognizes that some folks are more likely to pose a threat than others, then subjects those more likely to pose a threat to a greater level of scrutiny.** The IATA proposal is nothing new.  The basic idea has been well developed for a long time and the Israelis famously and effectively classify and assess travelers beginning with the same kind of process.

At bottom, it comes down to recognizing a distinction between, on the one hand, a 60-year-old US citizen making his fifth round trip of the year between Akron (where he owns a shop called “Cool Indian Stuff”) and Flagstaff  (where he buys cool Indian stuff to sell in the shop), and, on the other hand, a 21-year-old Yemeni student with no prior travel history in the U.S. and a one-way ticket from New York to Kansas City. Then, having recognized a difference, allocating resources accordingly.

It’s not that no 60-year-old citizen shop owner has ever been a threat. And it’s not that all Yemeni students with indeterminate travel plans are always a threat.

It’s just that it hardly ever snows at Heathrow, whereas it more or less always snows at O’Hare.

* I admit that, fooled perhaps by those Dickensian images we all love, I was surprised by how rare even an inch of snow is at Heathrow. If you like, you can access monthly weather records for airport going back to 1948 to see for yourself.

** We are not talking about racial or ethnic profiling – that’s pointless. This kind of profiling is based on markers, behavior and habits particular to a person. Does he travel often? Does he travel here often? Did he go to school at The U, or a madrassa? Did he buy his ticket on his Gold AMEX, or with a funds transfer from his uncle in Gaza City?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

You've got to be carefully taught.

UPDATED below.

Clay Duke has lessons to teach us. He didn't come to school to teach. Instead he came to die, and quite possibly to kill. But that only makes the lessons more important.

Here is Clay Duke's instructional video. An alternative view can be found here.

Clay Duke, a paroled felon with mental health issues and angry over his wife’s termination, left a suicide note on Facebook on Wednesday and went to a meeting of the Bay County School Board toting a can of spray paint and a pistol and planning violence. Stepping to the public comment podium he sprayed a symbol from the graphic novel “V for Vendetta” on the wall, shooed the audience out of the room, drew the pistol and held the board members hostage for about six minutes.

Here are just three lessons from an incident brimming with them.

Lesson One: Act violently enough, soon enough, for long enough to end the threat. This incident turned out as well as it was ever going to – bad guy dead, no one else hurt. The security officer who took the shooter down is of course to be commended. But it’s only thanks to the Clay Duke’s lousy shooting that innocent people didn’t die before he did. Because the security officer waited until after the gunman had fired a shot to begin shooting himself. That was far too long to wait.

The time to shoot Clay Duke was when he first produced the handgun. Or when he first started ordering people around with it. Or when he first told the board members to stay put at point of the gun. Or when he raised the weapon and pointed it at a board member for several seconds before pulling the trigger. Or any time before he started shooting.

Lesson Two: Gun free zones aren’t. Anywhere in the U.S., it’s illegal for a felon to possess a firearm. In Florida, it’s illegal to bring a gun onto school board property. It’s illegal to bring a gun to a government meeting. It’s illegal to conceal a weapon without a permit. Not for nothing, it’s illegal to threaten people with a gun, to hold them hostage or to shoot at them, too. Little surprise, though, that Clay Duke – mentally ill, despondent and intent upon his own death – did not heed these laws. I don't know, but will presume he walked right past a "no guns" sign on his way into the meeting hall.

The “gun free zone” in which the school board met was, like all gun free zones (including those the size of a city), only free of lawfully possessed guns in the hands of law abiding citizens, who were thus deprived of the ablity to defend themselves.

No prohibition or statute or sign or board policy was going to discourage Clay Duke or protect those board members.* What might have protected them, however, was the wherewithal to lay down a cross fire of sufficient volume.

Consider the little old lady with the enormous purse who takes a swing at Clay Duke early in the incident. Her actions – while admirable in a sort of vaguely comical way – were utterly and inevitably futile. But imagine if that enormous bag had held a pistol. She had the drop on Clay Duke, who clearly didn't see her. Suffice to say a bullet in Clay Duke’s brainstem would have made for a shorter video.** Even if you are squeamish about engaging in this exercise, you still have to answer this question: Which do you consider the morally superior picture – Ginger Littleton (the little old lady) standing over the dead body of Clay Duke, a smoking pistol in her hand; or Clay Duke standing over the dead body of Bill Husfelt (the superintendent who bravely offered himself if the gunman would let his colleagues go)?

Lesson Three: Handguns are lousy man-stoppers. Watch the video closely. You can see Clay Duke fire his first shot, then he lowers the pistol and unintentionally discharges another round, obviously inadvertently,*** into the floor. He’s then hit from behind with the officer’s first two shots. Nevertheless he is able to advance on the dais and fire two more shots at close range, before he is hit a third time as he goes to the ground. Although shot to the ground, Clay Duke is still able to fire his weapon. In a portion of the video obscured by CNN, he shoots himself in the head. He might just as easily have rolled toward the security officer and sent rounds that way.

Handguns are not magical talismans; they do shoot a death beam like a Star Trek phaser. Hollywood may have you convinced that the impact of a handgun round will blow the bad guy off of his feet and  through the conveniently placed plate glass window. Certainly no television news report ever refers to any handgun used in a crime as anything but “powerful” or "large-caliber."  But the truth is that the only time handgun rounds are terminally effective is when they are placed very well. You can only count on a handgun to end a bad guy’s aggression by either disconnecting his central nervous system, or by breaking apart the structures that hold him up and allow him to act, or by causing him enough blood loss that he loses consciousness.

So, be prepared to act. Be equipped to act (not only with a weapon, but with the knowledge and will to use it). And keep shooting until the threat is neutralized.

UPDATE: From an interview with security officer Mike Jones, we learn that he had to go to his car to retrieve the weapon he used (sigh) and he hesitated to shoot Clay Duke, because his shots were going to hit the gunman in the back and he was worried about being charged with a crime (double sigh). So we have these additional lessons: There is no use in good intentions or wishful thinking. The only firearm you can use to protect yourself and others is  one you actually have. And: Life is not a 1950s movie Western. If you are justified in using lethal force, then you are justified in using lethal force. Trying to ensure a fair fight is a good way to die or get others killed.

*Which it makes it nearly certain, in the aftermath of this incident, that some politician somewhere will propose a new law to "prevent this from happening again." As if any law could.

** She’d have needed to watch her angle of fire to ensure she didn’t endanger the other board members. “Know your target and what’s beyond it,” as Col. Cooper taught us. That was likely the challenge for the security officer as well, who appears to have had the school board members directly in line with his target as well.

 *** Col. Cooper also taught "Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Μολὼν λαβέ

The truth is that I don’t love guns. I appreciate guns. I am pleased to discuss guns. I enjoy competing and training with guns. Guns have a crucial place in my defense of myself and my family. But the gun qua gun, the gun as an object, doesn’t much move me.

I am no kind of collector. Plenty of fellows have safes full of interesting specimens. Me? I own one each of two kinds of rifle, a single shotgun and several handguns, nearly all of which look more or less like this object of beauty:

But you protest that this is no beauty? You say you see a brute, industrial hunk of black plastic and metal? When I said beautiful, you had something else in mind? This perhaps:

 Or this:

Sorry, no.

What makes a firearm beautiful to me, what I admire above all other qualities, is reliability – the weapon's ability to function as it is supposed to function tens of thousands of times in a row without a single failure. Certainly a firearm ought to fire a caliber useful to the task; and of course I need to be able to shoot that firearm accurately enough to put rounds into a useful part of the target. But if a gun will only do that 999 times out of thousand, it’s of no use to me. That weapon might belong in some collection, but it doesn’t belong in my holster.

Thus, my relationship to firearms is a utilitarian one. Their possession serves an essential, but narrow purpose. They exist to accomplish a task. They are the necessary tool for a job I hope not to have to do. One might as well speak of a pretty life insurance policy. For me, collecting guns would make the same sense as collecting hammers, or circular saws, or snow tires.  Like some hoplophilic disciple of Louis Henry Sullivan, I demand that, and am pleased when, a gun’s form follows its function to the essential exclusion of all other aesthetics.

The function at issue is defense of life in gravest extreme. If such defense of your life and the lives of others is a God-given natural right -- and it is -- then your choice of the tools you employ in that exercise is necessarily a matter of great moment. To be clear, it's not even slightly as important as having the right mindset or sufficient training. But tools do matter, and among the tools I choose is the ugly black pistol pictured above, a Glock 19.

The Glock 19 is a slightly more compact version of Austrian gunmaker Gaston Glock’s genius innovation, the Glock 17. The Glock 19 fires a 9mm round, which means the bullet that leaves the barrel is, near as makes no difference, 9 millimeters in diameter.* In usual practice, those bullets weigh from 115 to 124 grains** (with heavier weights available for special purposes).

The Glock 19 is a semi-automatic pistol: After the user loads and cocks it by inserting a magazine and racking the slide (pulling the slide back and releasing it) the pistol will fire one round each time the trigger is pulled. Instead of an external hammer, the Glock 19 has an internal striker to impact the primer in the base of the cartridge.*** The recoil from each fired round operates the slide, strips the next cartridge off of the magazine stack, loads the round into the chamber and cocks the striker, so that the next pull of the trigger will release the striker, ignite the chambered round and start the cycle all over again. Here is a nifty video animation of what this all looks like.

I have a Glock 19 from the year they were released in the United States, a so-called “first generation” version. With the occasional replacement of springs over the past 21 years, this pistol has undergone the described firing sequence in excess of 40,000 times without a single failure. I don’t love guns, but you have to love a machine that has worked just as it should 40,000 times in a row. The newer Glock 19 that I carry every day is a later generation, and so far only has 10,000 or so rounds through it without a failure. But I have ultimate confidence that the next time I pull the trigger, it will do exactly what it is supposed to do.

Robert’s Rule states that “Simplicity is Murphy’s only natural enemy.” At the core of what makes this pistol reliable (which is to say beautiful) is that it is about as simple as a pistol can be.  It takes perhaps two minutes to learn how to “field strip” the Glock 19 – that is, to disassemble it into its major components for cleaning and maintenance. Each time after that initial tutorial, field stripping and reassembly take about 12 seconds each. No tool is necessary to accomplish this. Beyond that, the pistol can be completely disassembled into its only 35 parts with a simple punch in perhaps a minute.That's kind of lovable, too.

Another of Robert’s Rules holds that “Only a fool tries to say better what has already been said perfectly.” Better, like  a good reporter, to quote with full attribution: 

"I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend" J.R.R. Tolkien, via Faramir, in The Two Towers.

* Most handgun rounds are described first by diameter, either by “caliber,” as in .38 caliber, which is the diameter in decimal inches; or by millimeters, as in the 9mm. This can get a little arcane as the 9mm is close to .38 caliber, there is another round called the .380, which is the same diameter as the 9mm but, shorter – and called the 9mm kurz in Germany, and so on. Common calibers in modern defensive handguns include:  .38 Special, .357 Magnum (actually the same diameter as the .38), 9mm,  357Sig, .40 S&W, and .45ACP.

** Grains are units that measure the weight of the bullet – the projectile – only. There are 438 grains in an ounce; 7,000 grains in a pound.

*** A cartridge is an assembled “round” of ammunition, with a case containing gunpowder, holding a bullet (the projectile which leaves the barrel) at the front and a primer (a small, pressure sensitive disc that ignites when struck).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Don't need a weatherman.

By noon the day after Thanksgiving, our Christmas tree was up. By the end of that weekend, every surface in the house was covered in some sort of Christmas decoration (including three complete Nativities within sight of each other). Early Monday morning, we had a semi from Publix back up to the front door to unload pallets of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. A low-flying Cessna kicked out kilos of red and green sprinkles.

Christmas in our house is by no means a single day – in fact, it can hardly be contained in a single month.

And yet, even with all of this open and notorious holiday cheer under way, we have been left in peace. Not one single protester has picketed in our driveway. No socialist apparatchik in a Mao jacket has served us with papers demanding that we desist. I have gotten no nasty letters from Christopher Hitchens or Stephen Jay Gould. Neither Muslim nor Jewish nor Hindu advocacy groups have stopped round to demand that we give equal observance to any other holiday.

Indeed, when we hold our Christmas open house later this month, there will be Muslims, Jews and perhaps even a stray Hindu or two in attendance. I fully expect everyone present will – each according to his own tastes and relevant dietary constraints – enjoy the hot chocolate and Irish coffee, marvel at the talent of the singers, and enthusiastically devour some of the one hundred dozen or so cookies Herself will have baked by then.

None of these folks, it turns out, are bothered by my keeping Christmas, any more than I am angered by the fact that they don’t. (And they all know I’m always up for an invitation to Eid, Chanukah or Diwali.) This is so because we live in a nation of tremendous religious tolerance. Not to suggest there aren’t rare people of ill will, driven by religious zealotry to do evil.* That happens, even among Americans. But as these things are measured in the world, the various faiths get along pretty well here. Compare our occasional minor disruptions with the endless, seething to-and-fro of sectarian violence in places like the Indian subcontinent, swathes of the Middle East, much of Africa, and – in the not too distant past – Northern Ireland.

Now, Lord knows, I love to be outraged as much as the next guy – so long as the next guy is seriously peeved. Certainly, without a ready supply of dudgeon, this blog – like most – would be less fun to read and far less entertaining to write. But if you want me to be exorcised about “The War on Christmas,” you’re going to have to do two things:

First, you’re going to have to show me that it actually exists. Not with second- or third-hand anecdotes about how you heard from someone that they know someone whose boss made them doff their jingle bell suspenders. And anything related to you by Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter** is hereby deemed inadmissible. (I may have lost the damned election, but I can still set the rules of evidence on my own blog, by golly.) If there’s really a war going on, then you ought to have assaults of your very own to relate.

Second, even if you can show me that anyone is trying to make war on Christmas, you’re going to have to then prove to me that it makes a lick of difference in your life. Because it’s nothing to me if the city puts up a menorah next to the crèche – or bans the crèche altogether. I don’t give a rip if the public high school includes a Kwanza song in the “Winter Pageant.” My mail box can overflow with insipid greeting cards wishing me a “Happy Holiday Season.” None of that touches or can touch Christmas where I keep it: in my heart, in my home, in my church, with my family.

Robert’s Rule clearly states: Anyone can be surprised by the weather; only a fool is surprised by the climate. The corollary to that Rule is this: The weather doesn’t change the climate.

The fundamental cultural climate in this nation is still a tradition of broadest religious tolerance, not just on an institutional level, but also person-to-person. This individual religious tolerance is one of the most salient features of our American identity. While I might very well evangelize to you if you'll let me, I'll have no trouble being your friend or colleague – or party guest – even if you remain unconvinced, and, needless to say, vice-versa. Not only does this distinctly American characteristic remains intact, let's tell the truth here -- the American climate has been, is and will continue to be especially favorable to Christians such as I.

There are plenty of threats to individual rights that warrant our attention (viz. the right to travel; the right to be free from unreasonable searches). But there’s no war on Christmas until someone tries to jeopardize your right to celebrate the holiday. And no one has.

Finally, what’s most galling about all this is that there is plenty of real persecution of Christians around the world and all this whining about a fictional “war on Christmas” in a land still highly favorable to us belittles the struggle of those millions of Christians who really cannot worship in freedom and safety. It cheapens the sacrifice of Christian populations upon whom actual war is made. It dishonors today’s actual Christian martyrs – of whom there are still many being made.

There’s no question about the true meaning of Christmas. If it weren’t clear enough, Linus and Luke make it awfully plain. I’m at a loss to see how misplaced militancy and ginned up outrage over a non-existent “war on Christmas” do anything at all to spread that message.

*And the 9/11 attacks don’t count for this discussion. Although indisputably acts of religious terrorism (we’ll discuss Lawrence Wright’s seminal book on the subject soon) those attackers were not Americans, raised in the culture of broad and abiding religious tolerance that characterizes Americans. The Fort Hood shooting and the averted bombing of the tree lighting ceremony in Portland are more dicey propositions on those terms. But even the latter incident is not what folks mean by the “war on Christmas.”

** No more plausible than the threat of alien abduction, I think their blathering about a war on Christmas is nothing more than about the most knowing and cynical gambit for ratings and relevance I’ve ever heard.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Las cosas cambian.

What once seemed the fruit of perfect reason, is later seen for rank folly. What was virtue yesterday, is anathema today. What you knew for certain then, you know for nonsense now. Like the King of Siam, you find confusion in conclusion you concluded long ago.  

Nothing wrong with a certain limberness of mind, since so often our certainty was a huge mistake in the first place. It’s not just that we adapt our understanding to new-learned facts, or that our view changes as we scale previously unclimbed vantage points. Even some core values and fundamental standards are subject to review and revision, and should be.

So things – including our minds – can change. And that's a good.

Except when it isn’t. Except when we're not actually assimilating new facts or evolving our mores, but instead simply letting our cognitive dissonance run wild. 

Consider the recently reported results of two polls, one take in 2006, in the middle of George W. Bush’s second administration, and a similar one taken this year, in the middle of Barrack Obama’s first. In both polls, Gallup asked if respondents considered their own government “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.” In both polls, just about  45% of the respondents said they did. If you’re a regualar visitor here, or are ever subjected to my in-person bloviations, you’ll know I find that number too low for common sense. If you love this country as I do, that number cannot make you happy.

But what’s far more striking about the two polls is this: in each poll, just 21% of respondents who belonged to the party in power considered government a threat to their freedoms, while large majorities of those out of power (57% of Democrats in 2006,  66% of the Republicans in 2010) said they perceived the threat. In simple terms: respondents’ disposition toward the threat posed by government was overwhelmingly tied to whether their party sat in the White House or not.

In even simpler terms: people are idiots.

I’ll grant you that the president of the United States is a powerful fellow. But he is NOT the government. Neither are the 15 people in his Cabinet. Nor the 535 folks in the House and Senate. The government is the bureaucracy and the millions of bureaucrats who populate it.* While I can’t find precise numbers for the amount of turnover, across the bureaucracy writ large, attributable to a change from one administration to the next, I’d be stunned if it approached one percent.

Let’s be clear: I don’t use “bureaucrat” as a pejorative as so many do. My dad spent 25 years as a government bureaucrat, and the people of Cleveland were better for it. They were better because his decisions about what the city ought to buy, for how much, from whom, had a steadying constancy largely unaffected by the whims of ever-changing mayors and council members. (Although no one ever really liked the chartreuse police cars.) Bureaucrats like Dad are what keep the machinery moving, and the inertia of their influence is what keeps the air traffic control radar running on Inauguration Day. It’s not just that they know which forms need filling out. They know in which drawer the forms are kept; they know how to order more forms.

But we’ve talked here before about the nature of the State, and how its natural tendency to grow and assume greater powers necessarily comes at the expense of each individual’s God-given rights – that stuff Jefferson said was unalienable. If you only say you are worried about that dynamic when the party you oppose is in the White House, then you are an intellectually dishonest scoundrel. If you really only believe in that dynamic when the party you oppose is in the White House, that’s even worse – your intellectual dishonesty is so complete, you’ve managed to delude even yourself.

But at least you’ve got plenty of company. There are droves of people who have reduced themselves from citizen participants in a republic to spectators at an arena, mindlessly rooting on one team in favor of another, cheering the referees as geniuses when they call the visitors for interference, damning them when they call the home team.  That’s OK for football.  But if this nation, conceived in and dedicated to personal liberty, is going to long endure, we have to dig deeper. We have to see more clearly, act more honorably.  We have to be willing to apply a rigorous intellectual honesty to the actions our representatives take, to the policies they pursue.

If you celebrated Charlie Rangel’s shaming on the floor of the House last week, were you similarly gleeful at Tom Delay’s criminal conviction? If you were incensed about warrantless wiretapping under Bush, do you know it has continued, unabated, under Obama? If you think ACORN was a front for an Astroturf conspiracy, were you equally unhappy with where the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth got their money? If you think Obama is dishonest for declaring Iraq a victory while 50,000 Americans remain there under arms and in harm’s way, please tell me you remember “Mission Accomplished.” Think Camp X-Ray was an outpost in “Bush’s Gulag”? OK. Can you agree with me that, as the Dormouse might have said, it’s much of a muchness to the 174 prisoners still in Guantanamo two years into Obama’s administration,?

So things change. Except when they don’t. The least you owe yourself is to recognize the difference.

* How many is that? Good luck finding a reliable figure. Excluding the military and some security services, the best numbers for direct federal employees seem to hover around 2.75 million. If you want to add 1.5 million for the members of the armed services, I won’t quibble.

The Ugliest of Things: Chapters Seven and Eight

Note to the reader: COMING SOON TO AMAZON

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ignorance is.

C.J. Chivers’ new book, The Gun, is topflight history and great journalism. Here, the definite article is the Avtomat Kalashnikova 47, the assault rifle* credited (somewhat unfairly, Chivers demonstrates) to Soviet soldier turned designer Mikhail Kalashnikov.

(Chivers also wrote one of the finest pieces of journalism I’ve ever read: “The School,” in the May 2007 Esquire Magazine, a dissection and analysis of the Chechen terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia. You can read it here here and you should.)

In The Gun, Chivers puts the object into its longitudinal historical context. We see how the world around it shaped the AK-47 and how the AK-47 shaped – and shapes – its world. He does more or less the same thing for the AK-47 that Mark Kurlansky did for salt.

As a former Marine Corps officer and a senior foreign correspondent for The New York Times, Chivers comes to the project honestly, and well prepared and – like all of us – with a context of his own. He writes about weapons of war, and one in particular, in a comprehensively authoritative way that leaves little room for cavil by less-well disposed analysts. The book is strongest when Chivers is writing about technical development, the human stories behind it, and the strategic and tactical impact of fully automatic small arms on the battlefield. I think he does a little less well when treating the object as an icon or a social force of its own. But this is a tremendously commendable book.

Trouble is, the folks who ought to read it won’t.

Because when it comes to guns, to paraphrase Chris Rock, people love to not know. Really, it’s worse than that. In contemporary American discourse, people pride themselves on knowing nearly nothing about firearms while holding the most ardent opinions, making the most impassioned arguments – and setting the most ridiculous policy. The emotional argument reigns supreme and facts are held in frank contempt.

It’s a case of ignorance not only as bliss, but as virtue.

Chivers book isn't about self-defense or tending the flock. But it's a good and important book that will be important, among other reasons, for the list of those who won't read it.

*The AK-47 is a true assault rifle in that it fires a rifle caliber in full automatic. (That is, one pull of the trigger results in continuous fire until one lets off on the trigger or the magazine empties out.) About 90 percent of the time anyone in American public life uses the phrase “assault rifle” they are referring to something that cosmetically resembles, but is not really, an assault rifle.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Beyond parody.

I am still bugged by this "Homeland" business. It's not just that I find the word ominous, it's the particular nature of its ominousness.

Besides the Ministry of Truth vibe, it's offensive as a word qua word. You cannot trust a word that can simultaneously ring of both fascism and collectivism. It is a word both cloying and caustic, so that, when used in the phrase "the Department of Homeland Security," it somehow manages to be twee and quinine bitter at the same time.

Still, as bleak as the very word leaves me, I really thought I was writing parody when I suggested that the helpful folks at Homeland Security, with their nudie x-rays and blue rubber gloves,  might be coming soon to an interstate rest stop near you. As it turns out, however, and as this one minute and forty seconds of video demonstrates, some things simply cannot be parodied.*

I know you'll recognize the scary part, but let me tell you the scary part. The scary part is that, just that fast, these fellows have dropped any pretense that this is about the safety of the traveling public or even terrorism. Listen closely, beginning at 0:38, to the list of things they are "looking for" which includes: "threats to national security,"**  "immigration law violators" and "cash." In other words, the folks in charge of Der Vater. . .  er  . . .  домовина . . .  um  . . . the Homeland admit they have turned "traveler safety" into one giant pretext stop. It's  widespread warrantless searches for anything we can turn up. Everyone gets to play. Three lines, no waiting.

If you happen to be a Constitutional law buff, and you want to put a finer edge on your outrage, set down the Fourth Amendment for a moment -- you won't be needing it anyway -- take a look back at Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3, and consider that these bus riders are expressly traveling between destinations within the state of Florida, but are being subjected to screening by a cadre of Federal operatives.

The story goes that, on his way out of the Pennsylvania State House at the end of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin was asked by a passerby what sort of government the delegates had created in the document they drafted. Ben is said to have answered: "A Republic, if you can keep it."

Sorry Ben.

 *For those with dial-up or a disinclination to click through: DHS, ICE, Border Patrol and Tampa police screening folks getting on a Greyhound and saying why.

** This I understand, actually. I imagine that plenty of baby-faced, traitorous, disaffected, 22-year-old, Army PFCs ride Greyhounds. That is who the fellow is talking about, right?

Friday, November 26, 2010

As I was saying.

Palmetto Bay, the next village up from where we live, is a very nice town.

It has a cadre of top Miami-Dade Police Department officers solely dedicated to covering its quiet residential streets. A call to 911 will get you a driveway full of excellent police protection in just a few minutes.

Thankfully, this resident didn't make that call until after he'd protected his home.

We've talked about exactly this not too long ago.

As my poor, long-suffering bride will tell you I am wont to say: this stuff is not theoretical.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Can only flee from evil.*

Kilgore College in Kilgore, Texas is the home of the Rangerettes, the self described first women’s precision drill team in the world. The group was founded in 1939 with two goals in mind: To attract more young women to college, and to keep fans in the stands during halftime, lest they slip away for an unapproved beverage.

What this has meant in practice, lo these 70 years, is rows of young women in startlingly brief cowgirl costumes, showing off their – um – precision high-kicking skills across the playing fields and parades of Kilgore and the nation, strobing the crowd with brilliant white smiles and even more brilliant red panties. (For the record, I am by no means opposed to this behavior.)

Kilgore’s football team went 4-6 this year in the South Western junior College Football Conference, but Coach J.J. Eckert’s job is in no jeopardy. The utter superfluity of the game – or “that nonsense between Rangerette routines,” as the alumni call it – is understood.  As important as football is in Texas, it is girls drill team that find its greatest expression there, and the Rangerettes are both the source waters and the sine qua non of the drill team ethos. Rangerettes have a reverence for their traditions and prerogatives that rivals the United States Marine Corps.  Just as there are no “former Marines,” there are no former Rangerettes; they are instead called “Forevers.”  They have a museum.  All active Rangerettes – even local girls – are required to live on campus, in a dormitory named for the founding  director of the group. And, in the service of what appears to be a perfect, patriotism-catalyzed combination of the salacious and the wholesome, they are expected to maintain good grades, shapely figures, better deportment and perfect integrity.

I mention the Rangerettes not so that I can have cause to dwell on rows of young women in startlingly brief cowgirl costumes (well, not merely that), but so that I might also introduce you, in context, to Dr. Bill Holda, president of Kilgore College.

Dr. Holda, as it happens, opposes the notion that his adult students who already have a license to carry a firearm ought to be permitted to carry that weapon when they walk on campus. The movement to allow campus carry, on simmer over the past 15 years as more and more states allowed lawful carry in general, came to a boil and stayed there after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. It seems mass murderers like Seung-Hui Cho fare better where disarmed citizens – or “victims,” as rational folk call them — are deprived of the tools to defend themselves by adherence to the gun-free policies which, quelle surprise, those intent on mass murder are themselves disinclined to heed. Thanks to the efforts of groups like Students for Concealed Carry, Cho’s would be imitators will find rougher going on 70 campuses, with more to come.

Dr. Holda is not swayed, however. No weight of common sense arguments will convince him to revise the present Kilgore College choice between getting an education and forfeiting a natural right. Still, Dr. Holda wouldn’t be worth mentioning if all he did was recite the usual litany of emotional arguments opponents favor. But Dr. Holda is a doctor – of something or another – and a university president, too, and he’s made himself worth mentioning because he has employed a far more scholarly rhetorical device than mere emotion: He favors pure fabrication.

Dr. Holda cited to the second largest mass shooting in U.S. history, the Luby’s Restaurant shooting in 1991 in Killeen, Texas, a couple of hundred miles away – or “down the road a piece,” as Texans call it. What lesson did Dr. Holda find for us in that tragedy? Well you see, Dr. Holda pointed out, the trouble at Luby’s was “that you had multiple shooters, and innocent people were killed by other people who had concealed, licensed handguns, because they weren’t sure who was the shooter and who was a defender.” [Listen to the video at about 1:20.]

That’s not just a lie. That is a damned lie. There’s no dispute: no one else in Luby’s fired a shot that day, and everyone killed or wounded was shot by George Hennard. In fact, the Luby’s massacre led directly to the Texas Legislature making Texas a “shall issue” state for concealed carry. One survivor that day was Suzanna Hupp, whose parents died unprotected because then current laws, which she obeyed, required her to leave her pistol in her car. She went on to become a legislator after that and is a leading proponent of lawful carry.

Sadly for Hupp and the other Luby's survivors, they have no defense against Dr. Holda’s vile slander of their loved ones.

I don’t know how Dr. Holda would look in a startlingly brief cowgirl costume, but he could learn a thing or two from the Rangerettes when it comes to deportment and integrity. And I don’t know if he can get his leg straight up in the air, but he can clearly get his head all the way up his ass.

* “An unarmed man can only flee from evil, and evil is not overcome by fleeing from it.” Col. Jeff Cooper

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mr. Occam, meet M. Bastiat.

Across America there are great hordes of folks --  9-11 truthers and birthers and anti-Bilderbergers and a dozen other varieties -- who are convinced not just that things are bad, but that they are bad intentionally, in an organized, centralized way.

Everybody, it seems, loves a good conspiracy theory. In a great new book, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, David Aaronovitch explores lots of popular conspiracies (Marylin's death gets plenty of ink), delves into the extremes of credulity, and examines how belief in even the wildest, contra-factual scheme can serve the needs of those who believe it. Often enough, it seems, there's such comfort to be found in the notion that someone is in charge, that events have order and worldly meaning, that belief in a malevolent plan is unconsciously preferable to belief that that there is no plan.

In that vein, what used to interest me in discussions like those now ongoing over TSA abuses was the question of “why?” Even when considering "officials" who groped grandmothers, strip-searched children, seized prosthetic breasts, interrogated travelers carrying legal amounts of currency, evacuated ostomy bags, threatened arrests, shared nude photos, robbed human dignity  and vitiated all manner of rights, I would – in the normal course – have dismissed notions of any grand and evil plan.

Instead, I would have leaned toward two 19th Century French political philosophers from opposite ends of the spectrum: Napoleon Bonaparte (who warned not to attribute to malice what can be accounted for by incompetence) and Claude Frédéric Bastiat* (who wrote extensively on the nature of the State -- most relevant here, the characteristic that it will always seeks to expand its powers). I’d have then wielded Occam’s Razor and concluded that the State was simply being the State, just as the State would always tend to be.

But, of late, I am coming to believe that the line between conspiracy and statist inertia is the wrong place to cut. Instead, the line that matters is the one between analysis and resistance. To put it in terms those my age will recognize, I think we are past the time where it useful to wonder why the boot is pressing down ever more firmly on our throats. Many thousands of people will do that tomorrow in what can only be called protest by way of civil obedience. It's a start.

If you live in the company of other human beings, you are either a citizen or a subject. The difference between them is that the former are governed through a consensual grant of their own authority to the government, while the latter are ruled by the exercise of the ruler's own authority. Since 9-11 -- whether by intent or simple statist inclination -- the question of which we in America shall be has become a live one. Any hope that question was limited to life under the prior administration is gone.

We will answer it -- or it will be answered for us.

* Haven't read Bastiat? He was a French economist and social theorist. His most important work, The Law is available online and, as mid-Nineteenth Century political philosophy goes, you will find it very pleasant reading. An example:

"If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?"

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ripped from the headlines.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Department of Transportation, in a joint program with the Department of Homeland Security, has announced plans to begin random airport-type screening of cars, trucks and buses  entering the nation's interstate highway system. "Tollboth" type facilities will allow vehicles to be searched while the driver's credentials are verified and everyone in the vehicle passes through backscatter scanners made by RapiScan, Inc. or is subjected to enhanced pat downs.

Federal authorities say the program is designed to address the likelihood that more weapons, explosives -- and terrorists -- travel across America by road than by any other means.

"The threat to high value targets like tanker trucks, water plants and food supplies is simply too big to ignore," said Lawrence Amwright, the DOT official in charge of pilot programs to be rolled out between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The first three locations for the pilot program are I-95 in Miami, at the I-80/I-35 junctions in Des Moines and at I-64/I-84 junctions in St. Louis.

"We're starting with areas that are transportation hubs and where we have had threats," Amwright said.

Following the six-month pilot program and an evaluation period, DOT wants to begin expanding the program. "It will take several years and the cost is clearly going to be in the billions," Amwright said. "But we want to see this program nationwide."

Amwright rejected the notion that such a program might infringe travelers' rights or be a drag on commerce.

"The entire process should not take more than 15 minutes," he said. "That's not long, considering many travelers are making long drives to start with. Of course we will seek to be efficient. But If we can stop one deadly attack, I think we can all agree it's worth the effort. Our goal is to ensure that everyone driving along these federal highways is properly screened."

Early plans for public hearings in the pilot locations have been set aside in light of a recent surge in negative public opinion over similar security measures in airports.

"I'm confident the overly inflamed reaction we are seeing from a few isolated objectors is not indicative of what the majority of security-mined Americans think," Amwright said. "There's not a lot of point in letting this minority view have an official forum. That's only going to erode confidence in our agencies"

"Travel on interstate highways is not a right," added DHS Deputy Director Frank Myway. "We know for a fact there are illegal aliens, drug dealers, and even terrorists using these roads. That's a fact; those people are there. I don't think anyone will disagree that these people need to be stopped. If other people do not want to be subjected to the screening, then, ultimately, they are going to have to use other routes."

Well of course I made this up. The story that is. (You can take the boy out of the newsroom, but you can't get the newsroom out of the boy.) But click through the links and decide for yourself whether this is bad pastiche, or pretty good prognostication.

The Ugliest of Things: Chapters Three and Four

Note to the reader: COMING SOON TO AMAZON

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fee fie ho hum.

News this week from the British Empire. Perhaps you have heard.

I can understand that there is no hole on the Sceptered Isle deep enough to hide from the story.  But I’ve been a bit surprised – and more than a little ashamed – at the relentless ubiquity of the story here in the United States, where I thought we’d fought a bloody action a couple of centuries ago precisely so I could watch the Today Show without such nonsense. And by “nonsense,” I mean a fawning, rapturous orgy of subservient bliss, with commentators ecstatically spouting the word “commoner” like some class-conscious manifestation of Tourette syndrome, then falling to the ground and wriggling with pleasure at each supercilious insult hurled their way by some dentally-impaired “royal watcher” from “across the pond.”

The utter reprehensibility of royalty was distilled for me in a single scene from the film, The Queen, an outstanding examination of the people and institution of British royalty, rendered down to cracklings in the crucible of the Diana’s Spencer’s death. Tone deaf doesn’t begin to describe the royals, who stumbled stoutly about on tweed-wrapped “walkies” in the countryside,  weeping over the beauty of leaping roebucks, while their “subjects” clamored for some slight expression of public regret over the death of an actual human.

Almost thrown away in the movie is the scene where Tony Blair, having been made prime minister following a resounding victory by his party, goes to the palace for his first official visit with Elizabeth. If the two of them had engaged in sexual congress, I’d have been less shocked by what happened next. Because what happened was, he dropped down on both knees before her. I am assured by my British friends (I retain a few despite these periodic anti-monarchist rants and my more frequent Republican pronouncements regarding the Six Counties) that this is indeed the manner in which Elizabeth has received  all of the one dozen prime ministers elected during her interminable reign. (Nice job defeating the Nazis, Winny -- now get down where you belong.)

I say, to have the embodiment of the collective will of the voters of one of the world’s enduring democracies groveling before an official whose own mandate comes from no greater consensus than the serendipitous meeting of two gametes. Bad enough. But it is worse – far worse – unforgivably worse – simply to have any human being abase himself worshipfully before any another human being.

It’s offensive, it’s dangerous, it’s a whisper away from blasphemy. It is precisely the stuff from which any self-respecting revolution should be built. And it is just so unutterably silly.

I don't think anyone has ever given a truer insight than did the Monty Python troupe: "Strange women, lying in ponds, distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.  . . .  If I went around saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bink had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!" But say what you will about the Arthurian legend, a farcical aquatic ceremony is every bit as legitimate a basis for supreme authority as whatever fairytale old Lizzy tells herself before she employs the royal we.

Then again, what do I know? I’m just a commoner. Truthfully, I can have no cavil with that characterization. But I’ll be damned – or dead – before I’ll be any man’s subject.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Are you talking to me?

Years ago I was at a grocery store with my older son. He’s a much better driver today, but he was only about eight then and he ran the nose of the shopping cart into the heel of another shopper.

No one enjoys that, and the fellow was in his rights to turn and shout “hey!” just as he did. I’ll even grant him the angry “watch it!” that followed, although seeing that the offending driver was just a kid, a better man would have smiled instead.

But he wasn’t done, and he took the opportunity to share some emphatic child-rearing advice with me. I put myself between my boy and the offended shopper as I apologized for the accident, and I began moving us toward another aisle. He shifted from telling me how to raise my son to suggesting all sorts of deficiencies in my own character and ancestry. (If he only knew.) Although others in the store had little choice but to pay him attention, I was ignoring what he said and watching his hands as we moved away. The shopper didn’t appreciate being ignored, so he asked, in an obvious bow to classic movies of the 1940s, if I wanted to step outside. I held my tongue, kept watching his hands, and moved us on.

My decision to act as I did is, I trust, such an obvious one that it doesn’t bear much explaining. Really it boils down to the old schoolyard incantation about the orthopedic limitations of sticks and stones. Nothing particularly interesting there; no lessons to learn.

More interesting by far is to consider these events from the perspective of the lightly bruised, fully inflamed shopper.

I’d put the angry fellow’s age at 60, give or take a year. He was five-feet, six-inches tall and weighed maybe 140 pounds. I can accurately assess his weight because his attire – tank top, Lycra biking shorts and flip-flops – left far less to the imagination than one would wish.* Furthermore, this getup made it obvious – to an anatomically explicit degree no outfit regularly found outside a ballet studio ever could – that he was almost certainly unarmed.

I, in contrast, was some 20 years his junior. I’m over six-feet tall and weighed near to two of him. My clothing that day – cargo slacks and an un-tucked camp shirt – made it impossible for the fellow to know whether I was armed with, just as an example, a 9mm pistol, a spare magazine, a hefty folding knife and pepper spray. I hope it's clear that my point here isn't that I'm some sort of high-speed, low-drag badass. But rather that it was surprising that, given just the facts available to him, this man's default position was to try to engage me in combat.

So, the questions arise: Just exactly what did this diminutive little ball of outrage have in mind? How exactly did he see this turning out? What about the tiny, inadvertent insult he suffered was worth the risk he was taking in acting as he did? Was he so caught up in his own self-generated rage that he couldn’t master himself?

Of course, I confess that I don't know what I don't know, either. There’s a chance he was a secret ninja warrior of the eighth degree. Maybe his ear concealed a tiny CAS radio uplink and he was poised to call in an air strike. Perhaps – despite all the evidence his behavior provided to the contrary – he was the product of decades of Tier One military expertise. Maybe my first step outside with him would have been my last.

But I rather doubt it. I suspect he was just what he appeared to be: a scrawny, aging yuppie with bad impulse control, who led such an insulated life of privilege that the possibility of real violence – any violence, let alone the lethal variety – seemed impossibly remote to him there in that fluorescent oasis of civilized, upscale consumption.** I’d wager he’d made similar threats before, with similar outcomes. Maybe he went home and told his wife another tale about how he told off some fat, middle-class, cowardly asshole at the store.

But he violated one of Robert’s Rules: “Never depend upon the other guy’s better nature. He probably does not have one.”  He could safely violate that rule with me because I’m a civilized guy; because my impulse control is as powerful as his is poor; because I didn't assess him as a threat; and, most of all,  because he was never the least threat to my child.

But it’s the nature of Robert’s Rules that you ignore them at your peril. The next guy he tries may be more inclined to teach him that by way of an object lesson.

*Although a purely sartorial discussion is beyond the scope of this post, I know there are those who would suggest that this outfit, worn anywhere but while actually riding a bicycle, is sufficient justification for mayhem. I would not argue with them.

** Our scene was set in the Whole Foods Market in Pinecrest which, for those familiar with the place, is all that needs saying.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Bad touch.

One of Robert’s Rules holds that any idea expressed through this formulation – “If we can [verb] just one [noun] then [rule, requirement or restriction] will be worth it.” – is errant nonsense. Always and without exception.

As with most of the Rules, examples are ubiquitous. In many cases the examples, while surpassingly silly, are at least harmless. Unfortunately, as innocuous as many instances are, this formulation can also be the source, justification and means of limitless folly and bottomless evil.

The dangerous power of this particular incantation lies in the seductive, implicit math of the first clause, which renders every such proposal inherently effective. Put another way, with a sufficient number of samples, the proposed action can always be shown to have – in at least the single instance required – the proposed result.  Put still another way, these kinds of rules always “work” on their own terms, and this very “effectiveness” then becomes a basis upon which their proponents will defend them.

For example: “If we can save the life of just one squirrel by mechanically limiting the speed of all motor vehicles to 12 miles an hour, that will be worth it.”

This is going to “work.” Propagate the practice sufficiently, slow down enough motor vehicles, and you will soon be able to identify at least one squirrel spared fatal flattening to live and scamper another day. So, because the proposal is statistically guaranteed to “work,” the only objection available to you – if you’d like to, say, allow an exception for fire trucks and ambulances – is that the single saved squirrel really isn’t worth the other, unmentioned consequences of the proposal. (Which optimistically assumes you can distract the joyful squirrel lovers* from their celebration over passage of the Squirrel Protection Act long enough to consider other consequences at all.) Your objections must all then depend upon subjective assessments of what is "good." In our example, while you’ll perhaps have plenty of human support for your opposition, you can expect that  squirrels – who have no need of  firemen and don’t get to ride in ambulances – will be strongly in favor, and they’ll be joined by a coalition of raccoons, opossums and stray cats.

And so I give you “airport security,” every demoralizing, mind-bending, randomized, futile measure of which is justified in violation of this Rule, which now can be stated thusly: “If allowing us to submit travelers (including their children) to a choice, between  either being photographed in the nude or having their genitals fondled, saves just one life, then it’s worth it.”

Unlike the Squirrel Protection Act above, this is not some exercise in reductio ad absurdum on my part. It is instead precisely the choice you have had since early November if you fly though a large and increasing number of U.S. airports: Submit to backscatter radiation full-body scans (which produce pictures far more detailed than you have been led to believe, which are stored and which have health effects worrisome enough to concern those who fly for a living) or be punished with what amounts to public sexual molestation.

At best, at its most benign, this is security theater – wasteful and ultimately dangerous because it funnels our limited resources into futility and it anesthetizes us to real threats. At worst, at its most malevolent – and, I fear, at bottom – these increasingly draconian measures and mounting humiliations are really about helping the sheep get used to the chutes.

*For the record, I love squirrels. Yes, a squirrel is little more than a rat with a bushy tail and a nose job, but he has personality. As we know from Jules and Vincent, personality goes a long way toward determining the worth -- and edibility -- of an animal.

Updated: Maybe folks are deciding that enough is too much, as my Grandma used to say.

Updated: This. Watch this. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

End of watch 11-10-75.

Forty-one years.

You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Mighty Fitz was a Great Lakes ore boat and, at more than 700 feet, among the largest of her kind. Thirty-five years ago, in a raging late-autumn storm, she broke in two and found the bottom of Lake Superior , taking 29 men with her. You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald because Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about her. But you’ve never heard of my Uncle Bill, because no one ever wrote a song about him.*

Bill was a cop’s cop and a detective sergeant in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford Heights. That Monday he and his partner, James Toth, visited Blonder’s Paint Store with books of mug shots. The store had been robbed five weeks before, and there still was no arrest. Bill was a sweet man, but that kind of thing pissed him off, so he was going to work the case until something broke.

Nobody was in the front of the store, so Bill walked through to the back. Michael Manns was waiting for him, hiding behind a bathroom door, because he was robbing Blonder’s Paint Store again. Manns and his crew had the employees held hostage in the back room. The moment Bill came through the door, Manns put a pistol to Bill’s neck and pulled the trigger, blowing out Bill’s spine and carotid artery. Bill fell flat to the floor, shattering the big glasses he always wore -- except his official photo.

Manns knew exactly whom he was killing when he murdered my uncle. Bill hadn’t wanted to startle store employees fresh from the prior robbery, who might be jumpy at someone coming through the door unannounced. So he’d called out “Sgt. Prochazka, police department!” as he walked through.

After firing the shot, Manns fled with his accomplices, George Clayton, Dwain Farrow and Duran Harris. Store employees, now having seen the robbers twice, were able to identify them and Clayton, Farrow and Harris were arrested within a day or so by Cleveland police. Manns was on the run for several weeks, until police caught up with him in Detroit.

The funeral procession drew police cars from 49 states, every province of Canada and most of Northern Mexico. Bedford Heights was a small department, but despite all the other lawmen there, the BHPD  wouldn’t let anyone else stand honor guard over the coffin, day and night, until they put it in the ground.

Bill, with his twin brother Bob – also a cop – was the youngest of ten brothers and sisters. He left my Aunt Loretta, a daughter and three sons. Over the days of viewing, I saw the strongest people I knew – the strongest people I thought there could be – reduced to mewling, groveling beasts by their grief. During the service, someone played “Amazing Grace” on the piano. Bill’s youngest boy stood before the coffin and saluted, exactly like John John in Stan Stearns’ iconic photo.

All four men were convicted of aggravated robbery and murder. Our family had people at every day of trial. On the day each man was sentenced to death, all eight of Bill’s surviving siblings, and dozens of cousins, nephews, and nieces stood witness. Not long after that, all of the death sentences were commuted to life in prison when a court ruling banned Ohio’s death penalty. Harris was granted parole and freed in 2003. Corrections officials had failed to inform the family of the parole hearing, so no one was there to oppose his release. Now, as the other men’s hearings periodically arise, someone is always there – led by Bill’s son Robert, a cop in Willowick, Ohio.

However much we love or are loved, however deep our connections to our wives and husbands and children and friends, there is a sense in which we each travel through life aboard a ship with a single passenger. Even shared experiences are felt uniquely, individually. Standing in the same storm, each of us hears the thunder at a slightly different moment, feels the wind from a certain, personal angle. So it was that, drenched in sadness that entire miserable, sleet-soaked funeral week – and although I loved him so much – I did not cry for Bill.

I was too busy making an acquaintance of hate, whom I hadn’t occasion to meet before then.

Twenty-nine sailors, a good cop and a teen boy’s faith all died that day thirty-five years ago, to be buried under steel gray waves, or brown earth or  black despair. I said I was through with God that day, and for twenty years I made good on that vow, except to make war on Him from time to time. But He wasn’t done with me. So today I can pray for Bill, and for his family – and even for Manns, Clayton, Farrow and Harris.

But that’s another story.

*Actually, as it happens, I wrote a song about him -- which amounts to the same thing.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Ugliest of Things: Introduction

When you try to sell a book, you send agents and publishers something called a query letter. The object is to sum up the project briefly and accurately and enticingly enough to capture their interest.
 About four years ago, I completed a novel called The Ugliest of Things and soon I was sending query letters by the bin-load. Here's the meat of those letters:
Monahan is an ex-soldier who thinks he has put the ways of war and the burdens of duty behind him, in exchange for a tumbledown charter boat business and a comforting stream of whisky. But when a revolutionary zealot manages to stow away aboard Monahan’s boat and get himself murdered there, Monahan is dragged back into an especially horrid place from that warrior past, and propelled into the heart of a mystery.

Monahan struggles to maintain the vestiges of his honor while figuring out his part in a scheme to run guns to a group of desperate Central American insurgents. But Monahan doesn’t really know the play and he’s probably wrong about the players: Hector Ruiz might or might not be a doomed rebel true believer; Leo Braswell, professional spook, could be an ally or a deadly nemesis; Elena Ruiz is something more powerful and dangerous than the broken schoolgirl her father describes; and Fat Benny Eltham, a ruthless Jamaican crime lord and sweetly devoted family man, just might wind up as Monahan’s father-in-law.

Delivering the guns is the least of Monohan's worries. He's hoping for redemption, but had better figure out who's really hired him -- before it kills him.

I did my best to sell the thing, but no joy. Lots of publishing professionals had a crack at it. Quite a few of them actually read it. All of them ultimately said "no," in one fashion or another. Now there are rejections and rejections, and some of the most encouraging ones praised the book, while saying they just didn't think they could "find a place for it." They couldn't decide if it was a thriller, a mystery or a tough-guy novel. Fair enough; neither can I.  But they told me that meant it didn't fit handily into a publisher's list. So the genre-mix that had seemed a virtue to its author turned out to be the kiss of death in a publishing world that grows more Balkanized every day.

So alright. I suppose I'll have to "find a place for it."

UPDATE: As loyal blog readers knew, I serialized it here. Now it's headed for Amazon. Watch this space for the link soon.

I hope you will enjoy it.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Remember remember.

One day after Florida passed, by a large majority, a constitutional  amendment designed to put some rational limits on gerrymandering, two Republican congressmen sued to have it overturned. The next day we learned that the county mayor who was instrumental in securing what amounts to a $350 million gift to an already profitable baseball teams and a 13% raise for county lawmen -- both in a county struggling to keep the lights on -- received $50,000 each from the team and the police union to help him fight off a recall. So today is a fitting day to remember the last person to enter parliament with honest intentions, and to note that that was 405 years ago.

A proponent of the school of politics that holds that there is no problem which cannot be solved by a suitable application of high explosives, after the authorities encouraged his confession, Guy was supposed to be hanged until not quite dead, then drawn and quartered. But he thwarted the plan by jumping from the gallows and breaking his neck.

You rarely see that level of commitment anymore. Hell, only about 40% of us bothered to vote this week.

And so:

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot ;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes,
'Twas his intent.
To blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below.
Poor old England to overthrow.
By God's providence he was catch'd,
With a dark lantern and burning match

Holloa boys, Holloa boys, let the bells ring
Holloa boys, Holloa boys, God save the King!

Hip hip Hoorah !
Hip hip Hoorah !

A penny loaf to feed ol'Pope,*
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him.

Burn him in a tub of tar,'
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head,
Then we'll say: ol'Pope is dead.

*Despite the desire of later commentators to attribute Fawkes' actions to pure civic-mindedness, the best evidence is that Fawkes, a member of the repressed English provincial Catholic minority,actually attacked in support of -- and perhaps at the direction of -- Catholic Spain, for whom he had once enlisted against the Dutch. (Although some have suggested this was a false flag attack, arranged to steel English determination.) Sadly, this makes it harder to use him as a simple symbol of fierce resistance, and ranks him more reasonably in the company of religious terrorists. So it has always been in public discourse -- no perfect men.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Who you gonna call?

Go and find a cop. Ideally, find one with 20 or 25 years of service who has spent his entire career in a patrol division, cruising the streets in a prowl car and answering calls. Now ask that cop these questions: How many armed robberies have you stopped while they were occurring? How many in-progress rapes have you broken up? How many times have you caught an armed burglar still in the house with the family he was victimizing? Then ask that cop this: How many reports have you written after the fact for armed robbery, rape, or home invasion?

I know to a metaphysical certainty that the numbers corresponding to the first set of questions will be vanishingly small compared to the numbers in the second set.* How could it be otherwise? Unless a lawman is on your block – or, for that matter, in your driveway – when the call comes, you cannot reasonably expect him to be there before the deed’s been done.  It’s one of Robert’s Rules: When seconds count, the police are just minutes away. (I didn’t make that one up, but it’s one of the Rules nonetheless.)

So I’m always stumped by the credulous, even irrational, faith of folks whose plan to defend themselves, their family, their home or their business is a call to 911. They have to know the Rule intuitively, if not from experience, don’t they? Yet they live like it isn’t so. It's hard to imagine them being similarly ignorant of the acceleration of gravity, so that they decide to take the window instead of the elevator to get from the top floor to the lobby.

Which is why I suspect that the failing is not intellectual, but moral.  I’d posit that these folks aren’t really ignorant of the capabilities and role of their local police department, but that they simply find it unpleasant to contemplate. Like Matthew Harrison Brady, they don’t think about things they don’t think about. They don’t think about what’s going to happen before the law arrives – or, more to the point, what they ought to do before the law arrives – because it doesn’t square with the popular lie, into which they have been steadily indoctrinated, that their security and their families’ security, is someone else’s lookout.

Lord knows, the indoctrination is ubiquitous, relentless and not easily resisted. My poor television is never so much in peril as when a TV journalist (now there’s an oxymoron) concludes yet another report of a citizen triumphing over a would-be bad guy the way such stories are always concluded: With the anchorman arching his eyebrows up under his blow-dried coif and scolding that, although it magically worked out this time, viewers should never consider similarly “taking the law into their own hands.” As if the talking head is peeved to have to report on a data point that falls outside the unified field theory of dependency.  As if defending yourself and your family were some form of vigilantism, instead of an absolute, God-given right and a sacred, non-delegable duty.

In a world where all manner of bad things happen, you cannot perfectly protect yourself or your family from all of them. But if you do not equip yourself as best you are able with the means, the training and – most importantly – the mindset to defend yourself and them from those bad things that can be met, countered, ameliorated, deterred, defeated or killed, then you’re a wastrel or a fool or a coward – or some admixture of the three.

*This statement is not theoretical, it is empirical. I come from a family full of cops. One in particular, my uncle Bill (EOW 11-20-75) had a tremendous influence on me and his on-duty murder when I was fifteen resonates still. My professional life has been spent in close association with cops. I recreate and socialize with cops and ex-cops.  I’ve asked every cop buddy I’ve ever had (and there are lots) and all of them – cops with 5 months on the job and cops with 35 years on the job – have said the same. The only exceptions: Those guys who served on crime suppression teams, what we used to call stakeout squads. And all of those will tell you those exceptions applied only while they were on those units, and only in the rare places such units were deployed.