Sunday, July 28, 2013

Kelly and I agree ... sort of ... well, not where it counts

This weeks Jack Kelly column "The NSA's close shave: For now, let's hope that government incompetence will protect our privacy" is interesting for the reasons I describe below. What is below is a copy of a comment (mostly unedited here) I made on the online PG edition.

I found this Jack Kelly piece pretty interesting. First of all, I found I agreed with large parts, although not his ultimate conclusion.

Second, I will encourage people to read this Glenn Greenwald Guardian UK OpEd piece where he asserts that the Republicans do not block every Obama program as Democrats like to say. On this bill, as Jack Kelly suggested, the House Democratic and Republican leadership made common cause in voting against this bill. Now, if I say it should give the White House and Nancy Pelosi pause to be making common cause with John Boehner, maybe I am being too partisan. But I think I am on safe ground when I say that this White House has a considerable problem with its whole "anti-terrorism" program, that is increasingly looking like a domestic comprehensive surveillance program.

Third of all, I am confused by Kelly opposition to the Amash amendment. He says it "would have removed the legal authority for the National Security Agency to collect communications "metadata" on U.S. citizens." Well, then he goes onto to clarify the amendment would "permit surveillance only if the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decides that individual business records are relevant to a specific investigation." Frankly I thought that was how the Patriot Act was supposed to work anyway, that if a suspected or suspicious foreign person contacted a US citizen (at least on US soil), the NSA would make a request to monitor that US citizens "metadata" to the FISA court. I guess that was blown wide open (or made wide shut) in 2006, dropping the FISA court part if it had ever been there. As I have been reading, there was a debate to that effect in 2006, the last year the Republicans held Congress under Bush.

But if we are not going to rely on the FISA court to at least keep a record when it rubber stamps every NSA request, then what does Jack Kelly suggest we should do? He suggests nothing, which I suspect will always be is position.

This *is* an interesting Kelly piece, in that Republicans appear to be tying themselves in knots over whether to consistently oppose the President or in this case to preserve the ability to spy on American citizen for the next Republican President who comes down the line (whoever that might be and whenever that might be). And some Democrats show how little they care for what are supposed to be their principles, and rubber stamp White House that also should be following principles.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Martin/Zimmerman again

So I am trying to participate in this "Blogging Trayvon" or "blogging for justice". I have been writing about this incident on the PG OP/Ed comment section for months now. I have watched those who supported George Zimmerman evolve over those months. Many started generally saying that while it was self-defense Zimmerman should not have gotten out of his car, but after the verdict they hardened into a positon that by attacking Zimmerman, Martin sealed his own fate. This is what the gun rights advocates (or absolutists, as some say) seem to feel.

One thing that has been interesting to watch is the efforts to make a logical case for profiling Trayvon Martin. Actually this effort to use logic to justify one's position permeates the PG comment pages. There is a great deal of (something like) "if they would only take responsibility for themselves" and in the Trayvon Martin comments (something like) "It's a fact that African Americans commit (some number, I have seen as high as 76%) of (some crime - robbery, murder, etc)". This is all done in isolation, as if the only history we have are these crime statistics, there is no other history or context.

But this brings me to a first point about context. Much of what we know about what happened comes from George Zimmerman, and I would suggest he has strong incentives to paint himself in the best light possible. But there are a couple of things he said when he was talking to the police dispatcher that I want to note. First of all, early in the conversation he said "these assholes always get away". Shortly after that he tells the dispatcher Martin is running, and Zimmerman starts running after him (what he was thinking I can not imagine). The dispatcher asks Zimmerman if he is following Martin (as Zimmerman is evidently breathing hard) and when Zimmerman says yer the dispatcher utters the now famous "OK, we don't need you to do that".

I want to pause briefly to point out that Martin did not have a history of violence that I am aware of. Some possible petty theft and marijuana use, but not violence (and most people will say that marijuana promote lethargy, not violence). On the other hand, Zimmerman had once shoved a cop and once had domestic violence charges leveled at him. These did not come to much, but there they are, along with the mixed martial arts training and the concealed handgun.

So at that point that particular evening Zimmerman had lost Trayvon Martin (or so he said) and is supposedly returning to his vehicle. Trayvon Martin reappears. According to Zimmerman Martin "sucker punches" Zimmerman from behind, but it doesn't seem like that is born out by the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Martin up to the final confrontation.

We already know that Martin had tried to run away from Zimmerman. Why had Martin returned? Well, one possibility is that Martin had turned in a thug bent on beating Zimmerman to death (despite having no history of violence). Another possibility is that Martin, unfamiliar with the neighborhood, had gotten lost trying to get home, and in desperation had gone back towards where he had seen the creepy guy since he thought the house he was staying at was back that way.

So we have this claim by Zimmerman that Martin sucker punched him, which is made doubtful by other testimony. What if what actually happened is Zimmerman repeated to Martin a version of the thing he had said earlier to the dispatcher - "You are not going to get away with it"? What if to make his point Zimmerman life his shirt to show a gun concealed in his waistband? What if he did all that without identifying himself as a neighborhood watch volunteer who had call the police?

If those things were true, it is easy to see that Martin, already frightened, might feel his worst fears were confirmed, that he was dealing with a crazy person about to kill him for no apparent reason. Martin, only 17, might well have reacted instead of asking what was going on. As a member of the football team, Martin would have had some experience with tackling a person and taking him down to ground. Being terrified at that moment, Martin would had reserves of adrenaline and the training needed to overpower a heavier man (whose fitness at the time is apparently an open question), could well have knocked Zimmerman to the ground and if they were on the sidewalk (at least one witness put them on the grass, but whatever), could have wrung Zimmerman's chimes.

Am I justifying Zimmerman's claim of self defense? No I am suggesting what seems the strongest possibility is that Zimmerman provoked the situation at every step, right up to the point the kid did not cooperate by collapsing to the ground crying. Zimmerman played with fire and it got away from him and bit him in the ass (so to speak).

Much was made in the trial that Zimmerman had no obvious hatred of African Americans. Perhaps not, but how should we look at Zimmerman's automatic assumption that the suspicious figure he saw, who he knew was black, was "getting away" with something? The insidious casual racism can be seen as worse, in that it is so ingrained that we can overlook it. Supposedly at least a couple of the jurors started deliberations leaning towards a guilty verdict for Zimmerman (either of second degree murder or manslaughter), but were persuaded otherwise by the rest of the jury. And as I said earlier, even here in Pittsburgh, commenters on the PG online refuse to look at the totality of the situation of African Americans, instead only seeing violent criminals or at best welfare cheats and abusers. This is a problem that seemingly has been made worse by the election of an African American President during an economic downturn that has swollen the ranks of the unemployed and the welfare rolls.

The other point I want to make is how this all fits in with the logic of the gun debate. Gun rights advocate want to say that this has nothing to do concealed carry law laws or the stand your ground laws, except to prove that they work. But I think that gun rights advocates have based a lot of their arguments on the notions that gun owners are responsible, and therefore to do not need to be regulated. But we know that the neighborhood watch had training that said volunteers should not follow and especially should not confront suspicious people. We know the police dispatcher essentially reminded and reinforced that point with George Zimmerman that night. We can reasonably assume the purpose of saying those things to volunteers was to avoid the risk of injury to either volunteer or suspect. Yet Zimmerman ignored his training and what the dispatcher told him.

"Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun". So sayeth the NRA. But was Zimmerman a good guy with a gun? Does a good guy with a gun take unnecessary chances with people's lives? As I am sure others have concluded, George Zimmerman, taking chances and with a casual racism, went from neighborhood watch good guy with a gun to reckless vigilante, the guy who kept Martin from zlways getting away with it. Problem was, Martin did nothing except maybe get scared and then killed when he tried to defend himself.

What responsibilities does concealed carry place on you? In the State of Florida, apparently very few. And if things do go bad and a black man is shot, you can be confident people will decide he brought it on himself.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

What can be said about ZImmerman?

I believe several Pittsburgh bloggers are posting about the Zimmerman/Martin case tonight, unless I have missed them doing some earlier time. Whether or not I might have missed the group, I am doing this tonight.

Like so many others, I have been following this case. It certainly seems to have had a polarizing effect, down predictable party and liberal/conservative lines. For liberals, Zimmerman profiled Martin, decided he was up to no good and in danger of getting away with whatever he had done, and literally hunted him down. For conservatives, Zimmerman was merely doing his neighborhood watch duties, apparently thought Martin would elude police, and so followed Martin.

What seems like undisputed facts are that somehow Martin approached Zimmerman and took him by surprise. I do not know if any words passed between them, whether maybe Zimmerman showed Martin that he had a gun in his waistband or a holster, but we do know the two proceeded to start fighting. I think at least one witness said the two were rolling in grass, one or more may have supported Zimmerman's story about Martin being on top of him, another one or more may have said Zimmerman was on top of Martin (possibly post gun shot). Martin may have been fighting harder than Zimmerman expected, possibly because Martin was fighting a man who he thought was about to shoot him. In this context, one can make a case for both the man and the boy invoking self defense, but only one of them had access to lethal force.

Having said all that, I actually want to step back and discuss events directly prior to the fatal confrontation. I want to talk about rules governing our behavior. I know that saying "I was only following orders" is practically an archetype of a certain form of (perhaps bureaucratic) evil, yet I will say I think many of the individual acts of evil in history come from people deciding to ignore orders. The My Lai massacre leaps to mind immediately, although the specific orders in that situation may have been somewhat ambiguous.

But my point in bringing up orders is that as a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman had a set of parameters that were supposed to govern his activities while watching the neighborhood. He was supposed to be the eyes and ears of the police, but he was not supposed to pursue and absolutely not supposed to confront. Yet when Zimmerman left his vehicle to follow Martin that night, he knew he was risking confronting Martin. Why would the neighborhood watch rules say not to follow and risk confronting someone suspicious? Exactly because of what happened next.

In a way, the Zimmerman trial is a simplified version of the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration alleged Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that it was going to give to terrorists in the near future. After we invaded, we did not find any WMD's. I maintain that if you looked at the total history of the weapons inspections after the Gulf War and the sanctions, unless you literally had a nuclear bomb or canister of sarin gas in front of you, it simply was not credible that Iraq had any kind of WMD's, and that's what turned out to be the case. Yet George Bush was never held accountable for thousands of American deaths, and as many as a hundred thousand or more Iraqi deaths.

Similarly, George Zimmerman decided not only that Trayvon Martin looked suspicious, but that he must have committed crimes in the past, and was looking to commit a crime in the immediate future. All that based on zero evidence connected to Martin himself and zero evidence of any crime Zimmerman had heard about occurring that night or anything Martin did besides walk. Zimmerman then departed his car in direct violation of neighborhood watch training as well as what the police neighborhood watch coordinator told him on the phone at that moment. Yet Zimmerman is not going to be held responsible for violating his instructions and the eminently predictable death that resulted from his actions.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

After a week's delay, Jack opines ...

Below is a copy of a comment I made on the PG website about this weeks' Jack Kelly column, "Obamacare on hold" Curiously, last Sunday's Kelly print column never appeared online. No idea what that means.

I read somewhere that the election was the major reason for this new delay in implementing part of the ACA. Apparently a number of companies decided maybe Mitt Romney had a chance, and he *was* promising to repeal Obamacare (although *how* he would do that was not clear). So businesses are behind on their reading and taking the steps necessary to implement their part of the ACA. And in fact businesses should be glad that the administration is giving them more breathing room.

But Republicans/conservatives/Tea Party Types are determined to undermine national universal healthcare as best they can, even though they have *never* had a coherent plan to replace it.

In fact, some say it is reasonable to say the entire party is now irrational.

But of course gerrymandering will insure that Republicans will keep the House for decades to come (no matter what is done with the filibuster in the Senate).