Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Déjà vu

Well that didn’t take long. But as we have learned in the past, statists and aspiring tyrants like to feed on the bodies while they are still warm. And so, as predictable as the springtime return of short skirts to the Tuileries, as ubiquitous as the jambon buerre, as inevitable as an SNCF strike, Paris now brings us calls for restrictions (is it t0o soon to say “containment”?) of free peoples’ civil liberties as the only possible means to avert even more attacks. 

Everyone, it seems, wants a bloody mouthful. French President Hollande wants his 12-day "extraordinary powers"  – which include warrantless searches and detentions, and prohibitions of certain gatherings – extended for three months now and then written into the French constitution in a way that eliminates that onerous consultation with Parliament.

Here in the US, we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the FBI director wants private use of encryption restricted. But you have to admire the bureaucratic ambitions of the chairman of the Federal Communication Commission – last I checked, not a law enforcement agency – calling for more wire taps. Fortunately for them, these members of the Executive Branch needn't worry overmuch about pesky checks and balances by the Legislative Branch. They'll have enthusiastic support from lawmakers like Diane Feinstein, who never met an exercise of state control she didn’t want to take home and take to bed -- including state control over the cooperative playing of Mario Cart.

But then, we are talking about a government – at least here in the United States – that seems more than a little fuzzy on notions like the free exchange of ideas. How else to understand Secretary of State John Kerry’s facile and frightening distinction between last week’s Paris attacks – which he considers thoroughly unjustified – and the January murders of journalists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which murders he described as “legitimate, er, rational, um, particularized.*

We’ve talked about this before, this tendency for hard facts to make bad – usually grandiosely named -- law. But the danger is that you might want understand this impulse only as the sort of paroxysm of desperate, ex post facto panic that leads even a liberal Montessori mom to spank her toddler after he’s run into the street. But this is not an emotional overreaction by an otherwise liberty-minded set of leaders. This is no aberration.**

Rather it is inherent in the nature of the state always to expand its power and always to seek to expand. At its core is an understanding that, to ever expand, rulers must “never let a crisis go to waste.”*** As soon as, and every time that, events make the people a little less vigilant of the state, the state will take advantage.**** So while you're keeping an eye out for Daesh, spare one for Washington.

* OK.  I admit it. That paraphrase isn’t precisely perfect. But the link will take you to what he actually said, which was, frankly, worse.

** For this, I like to quote Robespierre: "The principle of the republican government is virtue, and the means required to establish virtue is terror."

*** Rahm Emanuel said it recently, perhaps revealing more than he meant to about his particular team strategy. But the concept by no means belongs to progressives alone. The quote is originally attributed to Winston Churchill (aren't they all), no progressive he, but quite the fellow for expanding state power, as many a dead Irish patriot could tell you from his grave.

**** And here we mean "take advantage" in the precisely same way a father means it when he warns his daughter before prom "not to let that boy take advantage."

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

EOW 11-10-75 (Redux)

On the fortieth anniversary, redux.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 Forty 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 forty 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.