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The Sociopaths Among Us

May 18, 2011
Recent reports of bad boy behavior among the high and mighty (Strauss-Kahn, Schwarzenegger) have dovetailed with a couple of other news stories about bad boy behavior in the Ivy League, specifically at Yale and Dartmouth. These elite institutions are, of course, the breeding ground for our future leaders, and I am wondering if we are not seeing a pattern here. More to the point, I am wondering where our leaders get this outsized sense of entitlement, that they can run roughshod over common morality with such impunity. JFK and Eliot Spitzer are two other such egregious abusers of women (their concubines and their wives) who spring to mind. And there have been so many others.

I am beginning to think a significant proportion of the people we elect to high places are sociopaths. Definition: “A person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.” Sociopaths are often oh-so-charming, slick and manipulative, without any capacity for empathy—solipsists to the core, in fact, for whom no one and nothing exists except to serve their own gratification, amusement, and enrichment. How else can one account for the mess we are in today?

Of course, we are all solipsists to an extent. It takes a real effort to imaginatively experience the otherness of another. When we do, it sometimes comes with a euphoric shock of recognition and, for me at any rate, a welcome understanding that I am not alone “in this dark world and wide.” But the Profumos of this world (and he was the earliest manifestation of this sort of thing in my memory) have no such epiphanic moments. They live locked in a world of their own exclusivity, unable to share in the wonder of the other. Which, I guess, would be fine, except sociopathy so often manifests itself in pursuits inimical to a healthy society, from running for office to serial killing.

Is there some way we can identify and filter these people out of our political process? Probably not. Unless we can find a way to identify the right people (rather than allow the wrong ones to self-select themselves for political office), and encourage and support them in their races. Otherwise, we are left with the non-solution proposed by Gore Vidal, that “[a]ny American who is prepared to run for [office] should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.”
tags: Law

Lifting the Veil

Apr 12, 2011
There has been much debate of late regarding the French ban on the wearing of the Arab niqab (mask) in public. The two sides are well represented in an editorial in Canada’s National Post,1 so I am not going to rehash them here.

However, I will add one comment not mentioned in this editorial or in anything else I have read on this issue. If a government is going to conclude that the wearing of a mask in public is, indeed, a matter for the legal system to deal with, then they should not double down on blaming the victim—which is what the oppressors of these women are doing in the first place—and arrest these hapless females. They should arrest the culpable parties—the husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons of these abused women.

The radical Islamists tell their women, “Get raped and we will stone you to death.” The French tell them, “Wear a burka or naqib and we will put you in a cell and fine you 150 euros.” Does such an attitude not merely represent a milder form of the same injustice and, ever at the root of this sort of thing, misogyny?
1 Don’t ban the burka, an editorial from the National Post, Ontario, Canada, Apr 12, 2011, accessed Apr 12, 2011.

tags: Law

No Entry

Mar 31, 2009
A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice entitled Maryland’s Parole Supervision Fee: A Barrier to Reentry (.pdf, 602Kb, 42 pp.) relates how the $40 per month fee charged to parolees in Maryland only gets paid 17 percent of the time, and is strongly opposed by parole officers, who feel it interferes with more important aspects of their jobs.1

Here is another example of Soaking the Poor we wrote about back in September 2008. Only 25 percent of parolees have full-time work upon release, and only a third are fully employed at the end of their parole. “Not our problem,” says the State of Maryland, however, which then duns the parolee for payment with letters threatening to revoke parole during the term, and turns the debt over to a collection agency at the end. The term of parole is supposed to be a time when the parole officer and parolee work to bring the ex-offender back into society. Dunning letters during and after the parole period certainly do nothing to help the recidivism rate in Maryland.

The report’s authors, Rebekah Diller, Judith Greene, and Michelle Jacobs, make a number of recommendations for revising the system if the state is not willing to abolish the supervision fee. The recommendations do not include what we would recommend, however: Get these people a job! Guarantee a job to every one of them willing and able to work. What must their lives be like, burdened by requirements which may also include substance abuse or anger management treatment and child support and alimony payments, and only a third of them have adequate employment by the end of their parole term!

Today’s lesson? Don’t fall a little behind in this system because, Brother, you are on your own.
1 Brennan Center Study Shows Parole Fees Undercut Reentry, Mar 23, 2009, accessed Mar 27, 2009.
tags: Law

Prepare to Die

Jan 23, 2009
Because you’re going to, you know. Oh, it’s not so bad. Everybody does it. And if you believe in an afterlife, just imagine what a pleasant time is in store for you through all eternity.

Meanwhile, there’s work to be done and whatever age you may be, there’s no time like the present. A few recommendations:

Clean Out the Basement
Your spouse, kids, heirs, and assigns have no interest in thumbing through those old love letters, unpublished juvenilia, or heavily autographed high school yearbooks. You could only re-read that stuff with a shudder yourself. Chuck it all.

Teach Your Spouse to Pay Bills
If you’ve been doing it all these years, you better believe it, they haven’t a clue. Spare them.

Make a Living Will
Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. A living will can prevent the medical establishment from draining the last dollar of your net worth forestalling the inevitable with their endless procedures, drugs, expensive life-prolonging equipment, etc. LegacyWriter and other web sites can see you through the process of writing a perfectly adequate Living Will and Medical Power of Attorney without shelling out a bundle to a lawyer for one.

Donate Your Organs
We think there oughta be a law requiring the return of body parts to the common pool upon death, but there isn’t, so you have to make the gesture yourself. We can’t imagine a better way to express our gratitude for this lovely life than to leave it knowing we are giving the miracle of sight to a blind person or prolonging someone else’s days on earth. Learn all about the process and procedures involved at MedLine Plus’s Organ Donation site, maintained by the National Institutes of Health. You can also declare yourself an organ donor in your Living Will.

Make a Regular Will
Don’t die intestate. If what you are leaving behind is minimally complicated with a small number of people (1-3) to whom you will be leaving money, goods, or property, you can make your own will with web help (see Make a Living Will above). However, most of us acquire enough money and property, and sufficient people and organizations we want to remember upon our demise, that making a proper will under the guidance of a lawyer is probably not a bad idea.
Now settle back and enjoy the rest of your days, weeks, months, or years, knowing anyone can enter your basement without embarrassment, the medical establishment won’t torture you on the way out the door, your loved ones will get theirs, and the mortgage won’t be late.

“And death shall have no dominion.”
tags: Law

To Be or Not To Be1

Oct 12, 2008
Unwilling, we enter this world. Often even more unwilling, we leave it. Yet in 2005, 32,637 Americans left quite willingly,2 whether because they were in terrible physical or psychic pain or because they shared the sentiment of actor George Sanders, who at 65 left a suicide note that read, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”

Death is the great mystery, the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns,”3 the universal fate of all living things: “born but to die.”4 No wonder it breeds such hopes of heaven and of reincarnation. No wonder religions deny its existence so vehemently one might think it is religion’s sole raison d’être to do so.

How willingly, thoughtlessly, copiously we send others to their deaths! And how assiduously we continue to inhibit ourselves from pursuing the bare bodkin when life becomes too terrible or too boring to endure. Suicide, once a felony throughout the U.S., is no longer a crime in any state. However, only in Oregon has suicide been promoted to a right, with assisted suicide legalized. And even there, the right to choose to end one’s life is hedged in by a long list of conditions and procedures.

The Canadian Library of Parliament has released a report, Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: International Experiences, by Marlisa Tiedemann and Dominque Valiquet. A number of European countries allow euthanasia and assisted suicide. In each country, a great struggle over the legislation occurred between what we may call the Pro-Life and the Pro-Choice contingents. And in every case where the legislation was successful, conditions similar to those in Oregon are required for the act to be legal.

And why should that be so? Why should we not be freely and unconditionally able to choose a painless and peaceful leavetaking, having no choice in our coming hither, and our end so certain? “To cease upon the midnight with no pain:”5 a consummation, I would think, devoutly to be wished, and one which most people wish for. And yet we continue to deny it to ourselves. But we’re getting there. Oregon and a few nations have begun the journey toward death on demand.

It strikes us that if the term “human rights” has any meaning at all, this right must surely be among them.
1 Our illustration is The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David. Click this link to view larger versions of the painting.
2 Suicide Statistics at Suicide.org (Accessed October 8, 2008)
3 Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 1, lines 87-88.
4 Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope, line 10
5 Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats, line 56
tags: Law

Outta My Way, Smokey!

Sep 28, 2008
Take a beautiful winter landscape, cold, quiet, white, and pristine, filled with protected wildlife and a wealth of natural phenomena such as geysers and hot springs. As the wonder and peace and magnificence of the place lifts your heart with joy, off stage left comes a sound rather like a large mosquito, louder, then louder, until what appears to be a sled comes crashing into your vision, tearing at 40 miles per hour over the virgin snow, passing in front of you, so loud you can’t hear yourself asking your companion what it is all about, then fades away in a smelly cloud of exhaust off stage right.

Until recently, this was the Bush idea of a good time at Yellowstone National Park. Then, on September 15, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Bush Administration’s decision authorizing snowmobile use in Yellowstone violated the National Park Service’s responsibility to protect the clean air, wildlife, and natural quiet of national parks. A link to the decision may be found on the site of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. The decision was written by Emmet G. Sullivan, who was appointed to various benches by Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton.

Though he has spent his life in Washington, D.C., he is a mighty friend of America. Thank you, Judge Sullivan!
tags: Law

Where Will It All End?

Sep 24, 2008
There has been a great deal of work on why individuals or groups resort to terrorism. There has also been a growing literature on whether terrorism “works.” But there has been virtually no systematic analysis by policymakers or academics on how terrorism ends.1

Now there is, thanks to a study by Seth G. Jones of the Rand Corporation. Jones’s statement before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Terrororism and Unconventional Threats and Capabilities of the Committee on Armed Services (whew!) has been published as a Rand Testimony entitled Defeating Terrorist Groups.

And terrorist organizations do close down their operations—eventually—usually. Examining the international terrorist scene since 1968, Jones finds that approximately 62 percent of all terrorist groups—though only 32 percent of religious terrorist groups—have ceased their activities. In the overwhelming majority of cases, these culminations have come about either through political negotiation or police action. Overall, military force has ended terrorist activity a scant seven percent of the time.

Though there have been some victories wrought by terrorist activity overall (10 percent of the time), no religious terrorist group has achieved victory during the period Jones studied. He recommends a two-prong strategy in dealing with al Qa’ida: more cooperative international police and intelligence work supplemented by military action taken by indigenous forces as opposed to the U.S. military.

Although most of Jones’s testimony concerns the implementation of that two-pronged assault on al Qa’ida, early on in his testimony he lists other tactics that bear emphasizing: “redressing grievances and meeting the legitimate aspirations of Muslims; and countering al Qa’ida’s ideology.”2

Let us lay to rest the nonsense regarding the motivations of suicide bombers. No one blows themself up in order to enjoy the favors of 70 virgins in the afterlife. They do so because they despair of attaining their interpretation of liberty and justice in this life, and they do what they do in hope of attaining it for others. And among their grievances are legitimate ones involving foreign intervention, resource theft, and religious and social persecution. That their methods are horrifying and inexcusable only speaks to the depth of their despair, and to the urgency with which it needs to be addressed—by all legitimate means available—by the international community.

Jones’s full-length study, upon which his testimony is based, is entitled How Terrorist Groups End.
1 Defeating Terrorist Groups, pg. 1
2 Op. cit., pg. 7
tags: Law

Reefer Madness, 2008

Aug 18, 2008
The Office of National Drug Council Policy, a component of the Executive Office of the President, has published its latest jeremiad against the civilization-threatening evils of weed, “2008 Marijuana Sourcebook—Marijuana: The Greatest Cause of Illegal Drug Abuse,” a report so fearsome, and fear-mongering, they had to name it twice. Their numbers come from the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services, another component answerable to the executive branch, and so—these days—are advisedly taken with a grain of salt.

For instance, they say that in 2006 14.8 million Americans smoked marijuana in the month preceding their poll. That’s about 4.8 percent of the population and I can’t believe so few tokers were abroad. Perhaps that’s because I live in Vermont, the only state that shows the consistently highest usage rate (greater than 7.51 percent) across all its counties. Most of the rest of the country shows a usage rate between 4.76 percent and greater than 7.51 percent, which also casts doubt on that 14.8 million/4.8 percent number. Then, of course, there’s the problem of the undercount. I mean, if you were high, would you admit it to some buttoned-down government type with a clipboard?

Usage peaks at age 20 (20 percent), then declines rapidly to the 55-59 set (about 2 percent), takes a slight bubble-up in the 60-64 age group (where I am happily ensconced at present), then drops to a negligible number thereafter (among the oldsters who really know how to keep their mouths shut).

The graphs and figures go on (and on), but the picture isn’t much different than it was in 1936, when the movie came out (“Women Cry For It—Men Die For It”). Meanwhile anyone who’s ever smoked a joint knows it’s a puppy dog compared to alcohol addiction.

So why is marijuana so demonized by the establishment? There are a number of arguments for this. The liquor lobby is the one most often cited. They are aware of the threat posed by marijuana. Stoners are much more likely to crack open a package of chocolate chip cookies than a beer. The travel industry can’t be happy about all those heads tripping out right in their own living rooms. The truth may be less related to economics, however, and a good deal less admirable. And it is to be found in those usage numbers, showing it peaking at age 20. Marijuana is, largely, kids’ stuff, and children are not well-loved, trusted, or cherished in America. In fact, they are more often feared and loathed, and so the long legal arm of the establishment falls most fiercely on them.

Meanwhile, Canada, not a nation known for its predilection for whoopee, has been inching toward full legalization of marijuana for some time now. Ontario started the ball rolling in 2000 by overturning the statute containing a blanket prohibition of marijuana, because it did not make an exemption for medical marijuana uses.1 Since then, public use of marijuana has been increasingly tolerated (as it is in many other countries) and other legal cases have upheld that first one. A Canadian Senate committee on illegal drugs has called for its legalization.2

That is the same Canada which opted out of Bush’s mideast adventure when it failed to gain U.N. sanction. And I’ll drink to that—if I have to.
1R. v. Parker, 2000 CanLII 5762 (ON C.A.) (Accessed August 9, 2008)
2“Legalize Marijuana Now Says Canadian Senate” (Accessed August 9, 2008)
tags: Law

Read the Press Release and Download the Report

“So far like the present...”1

Jul 30, 2008
I just finished an extraordinary book, which I should have read years ago. In fact, I should have been in it!

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 by Taylor Branch, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989. It is, quite literally, a blow-by-blow recounting of the early years of the greatest struggle of our time—the struggle for equal justice for all in America. Now I was a nine-year-old midwesterner in 1954, so I probably shouldn’t blame myself for not being in on the inception of the civil rights movement. However, I was 17 in 1963 and should at least have been in Washington, D.C., listening to the “I Have a Dream” speech which climaxes this volume.

Of course, 1963 wasn’t the end of the civil rights movement, not even the beginning of the end, though it may have been, to quote Churchill, the end of the beginning. King’s role would go on for another five years, until his assassination on the balcony of that infamous Memphis motel on April 4, 1968. Branch’s magnum opus goes on as well, in two more volumes, Pillar of Fire (1963-65) and At Canaan’s Edge (1965-68).

The highlights of this first tome (it is over 1,000 pages) are familiar to any literate, engaged American: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott; early voter registration drives; Birmingham with its fire hoses and police dogs; the assassination of Medgar Evers; and, of course, the huge March on Washington, the largest and most peaceful demonstration in D.C. history.

However, it’s the infinite, day-to-day details which Branch covers that most impressed, moved, and horrified me. The jailhouse beatings of the female Freedom Riders; J. Edgar Hoover’s obsessive and underhanded pursuit of King and his inner circle; the Kennedys’ vacillations and betrayals. And through it all, the enormous cast of characters besides King which he brings to vibrant life. They risked (and too often lost) everything to put an end to lives that were scarcely an improvement over slavery.

The depth and breadth of hatred, brutality, and injustice which southern politicians, law enforcement officials, and average citizens have visited upon their black brothers and sisters is sickening to behold, and there can be only one possible explanation for it in my view: They must be so unable to get past what they have done to black people that it makes them all crazy.

Meanwhile,2 Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old father of two, was beaten to death by six white teenagers in Shenandoah, PA, in front of eyewitnesses who were able to—and did—identify them all. It happened a little over two weeks ago. No charges have been filed. [Update, August 1, 2008] Three teens have been charged in the beating death, including 16-year-old Brandon J. Piekarsky, 17-year old Colin Walsh, and 18-year-old Derrick Donchack.2.1 In addition, 23-year-old Joseph McTiernan has been charged with giving Donchack alcohol before the crime was committed.2.2 [Update, August 19, 2008] Two of the teens will be tried for third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation. A third teen will be tried for aggravated assault and other charges.2.3 (Update, September 6, 2008) A fourth juvenile (unnamed as of yet) has been charged with aggravated assault, ethnic intimidation, and related counts.2.4

Meanwhile,3 a handcuffed African-American named Baron Pikes was shot nine times with a taser gun by white police officer Scott Nugent in Winfield, Louisiana. Pikes was unconscious for the eighth and ninth shots, which killed him. It happened six months ago. No charges have been filed. [Update, August 1, 2008] “Winn Parish [LA] District Attorney Chris Nevils announced Monday that the grand jury is scheduled to convene on August 12 and begin hearing evidence in the death of 21-year-old Baron Pikes.”3.1 [Update, August 14, 2008] The grand jury indicted Nugent for manslaughter yesterday.3.2 It makes one wonder what it takes to be guilty of murder in Louisiana. It probably has something to do with your color. [Update, September 13, 2008] The Winnfield Civil Service Board upheld the firing of Scott Nugent and the Pikes family has filed wrongful death suits against Nugent, the city of Winnfield, and other parties.3.3.

Meanwhile,4 there is good reason to suspect that 19-year-old Pfc. LaVena Johnson was beaten, raped, and murdered by one or more American contractors in Iraq. The Army has ruled her death a suicide. It happened over three years ago. No independent investigation has been launched. No charges have been filed. [Update, August 1, 2008] According to Truthdig.com, a 15-person civilian task force was named early in 2008 to look into allegations of sexual assault of military personnel. However, the panel has yet to meet.4.1

How long, Oh Lord, how long?
1A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, quoted on Quotationsbook.com (Accessed July 26, 2008)
2Friend of Mexican Immigrant Beaten to Death in Pennsylvania Gives Eyewitness Account of Attack, Democracy Now!, July 24, 2008 (Accessed July 26, 2008)
2.1Now that Shenandoah teens are charged, reactions vary, Pottsville, PA, Republican Herald, July 27, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
2.2Man charged with furnishing alcohol to Shen[andoah] beating suspects, Pottsville, PA, Republican Herald, August 1, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
2.3Judge Reduces Charges in Killing of Mexican Immigrant. from Democracy Now, August 19, 2008 (Accessed August 19, 2008)
2.4Juvenile charged in fatal immigrant beating, from the Morning Call, September 5, 2008 (Accessed September 6, 2008)
3Death by Taser: Police Accused of Cover-Up in Death of African American Man Shocked Nine Times While in Handcuffs, Democracy Now!, July 24, 2008 (Accessed July 26, 2008)
3.1Grand jury to probe taser death, WDAM-TV, July 28, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
3.2Ex-officer faces charges in Taser death from the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard, August 14, 2008 (Accessed August 14, 2008)
3.2Civil Service Board upholds firing of Winnfield Officer in Taser case, from thetowntalk.com, September 12, 2008 (Accessed September 13, 2008)
4Suicide or Murder? Three Years After the Death of Pfc. LaVena Johnson in Iraq, Her Parents Continue Their Call for a Congressional Investigation, Democracy Now!, July 23, 2008 (Accessed July 26, 2008)
4.1Sexual Assault in the Military: A DoD Cover-Up?, by Col. Ann Wright, in Truthdig.com, August 1, 2008 (Accessed August 2, 2008)
tags: Law

Read the 1988 New York Times Book Review

The Killing Fields

May 25, 2008
Amnesty International (AI) has released its report on “Death Sentences and Executions in 2007.” Although figures are almost certainly much higher than AI can determine, here is a summary of what they know:

  • In 2007, 1,252 people were executed in 24 countries; 3,347 others were sentenced to death in 51 countries.
  • The U.S. is the only arguably civilized country to make the top ten, occupying the 5th position with 42 executions in 10 states, more than 19 other countries on the list.
  • China is top dog in executions, with at least 470 in 2007, over 150 more than #2 Iran. (One U.S.-based organization believes the actual number of executions in China to be over 6,000.) Saudi Arabia claims the honor of the highest number of executions per capita.
  • Three countries (Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen) vied for the privilege of executing the youngest individual, with the prize going to Iran for killing a young man who was 13 at the time of his alleged offense.

tags: Law

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