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.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ego dilecto meo, et dilectus meus.

One of Robert’s Rules states: No one understands anyone else’s marriage.

As with all of Robert’s Rules, a moment’s consideration demonstrates the Rule's veracity. You will immediately see that it applies to most couples you know. She’s happy with him? He puts up with her? They live like that?

But even beyond those examples where application of the Rule seems self-evident, the fact is that all those couples you think are exceptions to this Rule are not exceptions at all. It’s just that the Rule applies to them with such force, and your misapprehension of their relationship is so complete, that you simply don’t know what you don’t know.

Here? Imagine a happy mash up of “I Love Lucy” (with the ethnicities inverted) and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (with pork standing in for lamb), with Paul of Tarsus as screenwriter.

Monday, November 1, 2010

One from column A. One from column B.

My recent leap from the political bleachers into the arena itself was an experience rich with learning. Unalloyed defeat tends to be instructive if you manage to survive it and, fortunately, having your head handed to you in an election isn’t nearly so fatal as, well, actually having your head handed to you.

One of the things I learned that may surprise you is how many men and women run for office for what we would universally agree are the right reasons: a desire to serve, a willingness to sacrifice and a sincere conviction that their ideology, properly applied, will secure the common good. I say I learned this lesson only recently, because my prior experience – as a reporter, as member of the polity, as a consumer of candidates’ rhetoric and as a voter – hadn’t provided much evidence to support the notion that earnest hearts of service beat beneath many candidates’ American flag lapel pins. I say this may surprise you, because chances are you’ve had similarly scant evidence yourself.

The reason is that, by the time the attack ads start running cheek by jowl, and certainly by the time you get to cast your ballot, those candidates have fallen to the clanging, grinding, dollar-fueled machines that propel the candidates for whom you DO get to vote. Your choice is made among professional pols and puppet patsies, who would be indistinguishable from one another (at least on grounds of character) if not for those handy Rs and Ds. You may cheer on one side or the other, but come Wednesday morning, the real comfort is we don’t really rely on these folks for much. We go on raising our families, practicing our professions, living out our faiths, satisfying our responsibilities, ensuring our own security, plotting our own courses, and it matters almost not at all who prevails. It’s the difference between ordering the egg drop soup or the hot and sour. 

But I count myself blessed to at least have shared the hustings with the sincere rabbi with a first career singing Christmas albums; the single mom trying to make a better life for her boy; the philanthropic businessman with a teacher’s insight; the Marines and the Navy SEAL looking to vindicate further the oath they took and honored on real battlefields -- and a good dozen more..

As for the candidates still on the ballot? Sorry about that. No substitutions allowed.

The treason of images.

A few days ago, a little boy went back to school in Broward County after a year away. He came within a bureaucrat’s whisper of being expelled for good. After all, he brought a gun to school.

Except of course, he didn't bring a gun at all. He brought a toy. A clear plastic toy with a red plastic tip. Not even the most hoplophobic school board member could ever have mistaken it for a gun.  Not even the most nearsighted lunch lady could have been shaken down for extra Tater Tots. Not even the most vulnerable, sensitive little soul could have been traumatized by the boy brandishing his toy on the playground  -- which he didn’t, by the way. And if he had done, not even the most gung-ho school resource officer could have been led into a mistaken overreaction.

Try though you might, you cannot fashion a set of circumstances, however fanciful, under which the little boy or anyone around him was in more danger from this particular toy, than from a clear plastic bunny of equal mass. Instead, the potential for danger was entirely emotional and administrative, the boy was the only one at risk, and all the danger abided entirely in the minds of policymakers and bureaucrats.

It doesn’t begin or end in Broward County. Lest you think, or perhaps pray, that this was isolated idiocy, Google “toy gun suspension” for score upon disheartening score of stories as bad or worse. Toy guns are the least of it. If you are a child in the wrong school, then drawing a picture of a gun, making a gun out of your thumb and index finger, carrying a book about guns, wearing a t-shirt that depicts a gun – even in the hands of a Minuteman – all can get you sent home from school for the afternoon, for the semester, or for good. Don’t even ask about your permanent record.

This nonsense isn’t limited to guns. A Tylenol may have the same effect in some jurisdictions. So might a harsh word. Principals are no longer breaking up schoolyard tussles between little boys – they’re calling the law and the law is prosecuting. And a second grade kiss in the coatroom? Sexual harassment if the miscreants are lucky, some variety of assault if they are not.

School board types' reflexive justification for the stochastic and draconian effects of zero tolerance  is usually the ceaseless invocation of the policy itself, as if the policy were not of their own making, and susceptible to their own better impulses, should any such arise. (Discussing this so-called reasoning, the temptation to violate Godwin's Law ab initio is a strong one.) But if one can get proponents past such circularity, the most likely articulation will have something to do with "safety."

You know what makes people safer? Common sense makes people safer. Good judgments based on real facts make people safer. An understanding of what danger really looks like makes people safer. A willingness to forcefully confront true evil makes people safer. The thoughtful, restrained – even reluctant – application of a government’s power to its own free citizens certainly makes them safer.

But mindless, reflexive, self-justifying authoritarian excess? I’ve got no tolerance for that at all.