Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

Some Thoughts on the Boston Marathon Bombings

April 24, 2013

Although the police are to be commended for having solved this case so quickly, there are still some things about this episode that a leave one feeling uncomfortable. Such as the unnecessary decision to completely shut down the city of Boston. (Common sense dictated that Dzokhar Tsaraev would likely be found in or near Watertown, and, indeed, he was found hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard in that very city.) Or police officers in military gear searching people’s homes without warrants. Or the government’s refusal to read Tsarnaev his Miranda rights.

The Constitution is really the only thing that holds this fractious country together, yet we increasingly treat it as something disposable, like Kleenex. Mayor Bloomberg of New York recently announced:

    The people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry. But we live in a complex word where you’re going to have to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution, I think, have to change.

This is coy. Bloomberg has made it clear that he has nothing but contempt for the Constitution, as when he ordered the police to attack Occupy Wall Street protestors, or in his “stop and frisk” policy that targets minority youths. He no doubt drooled as he added:

    We have to understand that in the world going forward, we’re going to have more cameras and that kind of stuff. That’s good in some sense, but it’s different from what we are used to.

We already have lots of cameras in our society. Photos and videos taken by private citizens helped the police to pick out the suspects. Hizzoner is specifically referring to surveillance cameras by the police, likely to be positioned to keep the world safe for Wall Street hedge fund managers.

And then there is the question of the motives of the Tsarnaev brothers. There is a substantial amount of evidence that Tamelan was attracted to radical Islam, but Dzhoubar attended a party at UMass-Dartmouth shortly after the bombings, which is not the sort of behavior that one would expect from a Muslim fundamentalist. I suspect that there is a complicated story here, one which we learn about as more evidence comes to light.

Dzhoubar has been charged with using a “weapon of mass destruction”. It used to be that this term only referred to nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It now applies to pressure cooker bombs. No doubt it will soon apply to firecrackers. (But not, of course, to assault rifles!)


February 8, 2013

The fortress that is the Los Angeles Police Department.

Police all over Southern California have been carrying out a manhunt for a former LAPD officer, Christopher Dorner, who has gone on a killing spree. As the New York Times tells it:

    The police across Southern California were on high alert in a dragnet that appeared to stun even a part of the country familiar with dramatic police hunts. Teams of police officers were dispatched overnight to guard uniformed officers and their families, tactical officers set up lines of defense outside the fortress that is the Los Angeles Police Department, and motorcycle officers were ordered to retreat to the safety of patrol cars.

“The fortress that is the Los Angeles Police Department”. Sounds impressive, no? And what happens when the denizens of this fortress swing into action? The Times immediately tells us:

    In Torrance, two women delivering newspapers were shot and wounded by police officers who mistook the vehicle they were driving for the one identified as belonging to the gunman.

So police officers opened fire on a vehicle without knowing who was inside it. I suppose it’s easy to mistake two women for one man. The LAPD expressed regret for the incident:

    In a press conference Thursday morning, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck confirmed that police shot innocent bystanders during the hunt for Dorner. He detailed the two victims’ gunshot wounds:

    “One has a minor gunshot wound and is in the process of being released. The second person is in stable condition, with two gunshot wounds,” said Chief Beck. “Tragically, we believe this was a case of mistaken identity by the officers.”

You think so, huh? And is it a tragedy because it was a case of mistaken identity, or is it a tragedy that they only believe this was a case of mistaken identity?

I suppose we shouldn’t be too outraged by this. After all, we have a president who draws up a weekly kill list and orders drone attacks without much concern for the legal or moral consequences. The LAPD are clearly in step with the twenty-first century.

Since When is Rape an Organizational Matter?

January 10, 2013

I have always had a strange fascination with the British Left. Perhaps this is because it seems more lively than the US Left, which is sodden with hippy platitudes, conspiracy theories, quack “alternative” medicines, and anarchist posturings.

The British website, Socialist Unity, has posted an internal document from the Socialist Workers Party of Britain. Although I don’t care for SU’s politics, they have a right to publish any document from any organization that falls into their hands. The document in question concerns an accusation of rape against a member of the SWP. Charlie Kimber, the National Secretary of the SWP wrote an e-mail to SU protesting against their decision to post the document, which he as a right to do. SU has posted his e-mail. When I read it, I was troubled by the following passage:

    Organisations [sic] that have to deal with personal cases and allegations of this sort deserve the right to privacy about the details of the proceedings. Do you think that trade unions, for example, should publish transcripts of such cases? [I do, as a matter of fact. – SP]

Whenever a woman is raped, that is everybody’s problem, not just the business of some organization that she happens to belong to.

More Thoughts on the Connecticut Shootings

December 17, 2012

It’s interesting the ways that people will try to avoid the arguments for gun control. One argument that’s been circulating tries to blame the media for mass shootings. It argues that shooters do what they do in order to become famous. Because the media devote so much attention to these shootings, it makes other people want to become shooters themselves. (This argument is made in a quote circulating on the Internet that has been falsely attributed to Morgan Freeman.) With regard to Adam Lanza, this idea is pure speculation. We simply don’t know what he was thinking when he went to that school or even when he shot his mother. He left no notes (or none that have been found so far). He didn’t say anything to anyone. All we know for certain is that Nancy Lanza purchased semiautomatic weapons that her son later used to kill people. It was the availability of weapons that made the shootings possible. That is all we know so far.

The Connecticut Shootings

December 15, 2012

The school shooting in Newtown, CT is one of 61 mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. since 1999. The U.S. is not the only country that has had this type of shooting, but it has them more often than any other country. (The Washington Post offers some interesting statistics on this. You can find them here. This reasons for this are probably complex, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that the U.S.’s shredded social safety net and lax gun control are factors in this. We live in a country where a man who was obviously schizophrenic, Jared Loughner, was able to purchase a Glock 19 without any trouble.

I come out of a political tradition that opposes gun control on the grounds that it disarms the working class. This argument might have some traction if there were workers’ militias in this country, but there aren’t. (The militias that do exist all have reactionary politics.) It was the George W. Bush Administration that allowed the ban on assault rifles to expire. You know that they didn’t do this so that oppressed minorities could fight the police. I think it significant that the people who most strongly oppose gun control laws also support “Stand Your Ground” laws, which are effectively an invitation to vigilantism. The Right wants people to live in an atmosphere of fear and violence. In such a society, people are more easily manipulated, and they are more deferential to authority.

Music from the Big House

June 23, 2012

Rita Chiarelli and Ray Jones in Music from the Big House.

During the 1880’s, a former Confederate army officer named Samuel James persuaded the Louisiana state government to let him lease convicts (most of them black) to work his plantation, known as “Angola”, because it was believed that the slaves who once worked there were from that country. After James died, the Louisiana State Penitentiary was built on the site. It was commonly known as Angola Prion. It is said that conditions there were horrendous. It is also believed that the prison played a role in the development of blues music. Leadbelly and other musicians spent time there as prisoners.

The Canadian musician, Rita Chiarelli, visited Angola while she was doing research on the history of blues music. She discovered that some of the prisoners there play blues or country music. She decided to organize a concert in which she would perform with these men. This took a certain amount of courage, considering that these men were convicted of violent crimes. Most of them are serving life sentences.

Of the various people we meet in this film, perhaps the most interesting is Ray Jones, who has been a prisoner at Angola for thirty years. He killed a man during a drunken fight. Jones was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He tells us, “In Louisiana, life means life”, meaning that the parole board rarely shortens convicts’ sentences. Jones expects to spend the rest of his life at Angola. Chiarelli tells us that most of the people we see in this film will probably die in prison. (In one scene, we are shown the prison cemetery.) Not surprisingly, many of them are deeply religious. (Marx: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”) Jones is an ordained minister, and he acts as a spiritual adviser to the other prisoners, as well as being the prison librarian. (I know a man who was wrongly convicted of murder and spent time in prison. He too became a minister.)

Although conditions at Angola have improved since the early twentieth century, it is, like all prisons, a grim place. In one scene we are shown the area in which Jones lives. There are about fifty bunk beds lined up in rows. The prisoners keep their belongings in wooden boxes at the foot of their beds. They have no privacy. We are told that this is actually one of the better parts of the penitentiary. Prisoners are moved here as a reward for good behavior.

The concert scenes are wonderful to watch. Chiarelli is an appealing person, and she develops a real rapport with the prisoners. At a time when there are incessant calls for increasingly harsh punishments for crimes, it is refreshing to see a film that argues for the possibility of human redemption.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

June 2, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay from the novel by Lionel Shriver, has been receiving mostly favorable reviews, I must say though that I found it oddly unsatisfying. The story, which is mostly told through flashbacks, is about Eva (Tilda Swinton), who has had a difficult relationship with her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), since the latter’s infancy. He spurns her attempts at affection, and he is often willfully disobedient towards her. Kevin’s father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), however, sees nothing wrong, because Kevin always behaves himself when he is around. During his senior year, Kevin takes an archery bow that Franklin gave him and kills a number of his teachers and fellow students with it. He also kills his father and his sister, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich).

Those hoping that this film will teach them something about the psychology of a school shooter will be disappointed. Kevin’s behavior is never explained. The biggest weakness of this film – and it’s a very big weakness in my view – is that we are told absolutely nothing about Kevin’s relationships with his fellow students or with his teachers. Are we really supposed to believe that Kevin kills these people just because he has an unhappy relationship with his mother? I don’t buy it. And why does he kill Franklin and Celia, who are both kind to him?

Of course, this film is really about Eva and not Kevin. It is about her attempts to make sense out of what has happened. After the killings, Eva remains in the town so she can visit Kevin at the nearby prison. The people either shun her or are openly hostile to her. (Apparently the fact that her own husband and daughter were killed doesn’t elicit the least amount of sympathy from them. This is another detail in the film that I found a bit hard to believe.) When a woman smashes Eva’s eggs at the supermarket, Evan insists on buying them and eating them anyway. This suggests that Eva feels responsible for what her son did. In the final scene, Eva hugs Kevin before he is taken to Sing Sing prison. She has forgiven him. But are there not some things that are unforgivable? After all, Kevin caused suffering to many people, not just his mother. It’s a problematic ending to a nearly two-hour film about people being extremely unpleasant to one another.

Stand Your Ground

March 25, 2012

Trayvon Martin

The murder of Trayvon Martin has drawn people’s attention to a peculiar law that exists in Florida. Called the “Stand Your Ground” law, it states that one can use deadly force if “he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony”. What I find disturbing about this law is that it diminishes the importance of objective truth. From a legal standpoint, what actually happened is no longer important, only what one person perceived to be happening.

A recent court case in Miami illustrates the problem:

    As critics assail Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law in the wake of the killing of an unarmed Miami Gardens teen in Sanford, a Miami-Dade judge on Wednesday cited the law in tossing out the case of a man who chased down a suspected burglar and stabbed him to death.

    Greyston Garcia was charged with second-degree murder in the slaying of Pedro Roteta, 26, whom he chased for more than a block before stabbing the man.

    The case illustrates the difficulty police and prosecutors statewide have experienced since the 2005 law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat in the face of danger, putting the burden on a judge, not a jury, to decide whether the accused is immune from prosecution.

    In Sanford, police have cited the Stand Your Ground law in their decision not to arrest a neighborhood watch volunteer in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17. A Seminole County grand jury will decide on whether the man who shot Trayvon, George Zimmerman, 28, should face homicide charges.

You see, Garcia claimed that he thought Roteta was about to stab him.

A man chases another man down the street and stabs him to death, and a judge considers that to be “standing his ground”.

We are living in dark times.

Troubled Water

February 19, 2012

Troubled Water is a 2008 film by the Norwegian director, Erik Poppe, from a screenplay by Harald Rosenløw Eeg. A teenager, Jan Thomas (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), and another boy steal a stroller, resulting in the death of a four-year-old boy. Jan is sent to prison, where he learns to play the organ and performs in religious services. At the recommendation of the prison pastor, Jan, who is now an adult, is paroled and he applies for, and gets, a job as an organist at a Lutheran church. He eventually becomes romantically involved with the church’s priest, Anna (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), while becoming a father figure towards her young son, Jens, who bears a resemblance to Isak. By chance, Isak’s mother, Agnes (Trine Dyrholm) learns that Jan is working at the church. Still haunted by her son’s death, she begins following Jan and learns of his relationship with Jens. She convinces herself that Jan is going to harm Jens, so she ends up abducting the latter, creating a crisis not only for Jan and Anna, but also for Agnes’s own family.

The first half is shown from Jan’s point-of-view, and the second half is shown from Agnes’s point-of-view. There are two main issues in this film. The first is Jan’s unwillingness to admit his responsibility for a terrible crime. The second is Agnes’s unwillingness to forgive Jan or to even see him as a human being. These issues feed off each other during the course of the movie, resulting in its terrifying climax.

Troubled Water is a highly intelligent drama that argues for the necessity of moral responsibility, understanding, and forgiveness. The film benefits from good performances from the cast. Dyrholm is especially powerful as Agnes. She makes the character’s growing anxiety and paranoia convincing. I wish this film had wider distribution here in the US, for it touches upon issues that are relevant to the debate over the death penalty.

Into the Abyss

December 16, 2011

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is an examination of murder and capital punishment. Although Herzog makes no secret of the fact that he is opposed to the death penalty, he resists the temptation to editorialize in this film, instead telling the story through interviews and leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions. The result is a deeply moving and deeply disturbing work.

The film revolves around Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were accused of murdering three people. Perry was given the death penalty and Burkett was given a life sentence. As teenagers, Perry and Burkett decided they wanted to steal a red Camaro that belonged to Sandra Stotler, who was the mother of a friend of theirs, Adam Stotler. On October 24, 2001, they went to her house in a gated community near Conroe, Texas. They killed her and then dumped her body in a nearby lake. When they went back to get the Camaro, they found that the gate was closed. They waited around, hoping that someone might let them in. As luck would have it, Adam Stotler and his friend, Jeremy Richardson both showed up. Perry and Burkett told them that a friend of theirs had been injured in a hunting accident and they needed help. They led Stotler and Richardson to a wooded area and then shot them. They took the clicker from Stotler so they could open the gate. They also took the Isuzu Rodeo that Stotler had been driving, as well as Stotler’s wallet. They then went to the house and took the Camaro. (You can find a more detailed account of these events here.)

It was a stupid crime that was carried out in a stupid manner. Within a few day, both Perry and Burkett were arrested. There is no doubt about their guilt. Immediately after his arrest, Perry confessed to the murders and told where the bodies of Stotler and Richardson were. (Perry later claimed that the police coerced his confession. This is quite possibly true, but it begs the question of how he knew where the bodies were.) There were dozens of witnesses who saw Perry and Burkett with the stolen vehicles. Some said they heard them talk about the killings.

A large portion of this film is devoted to interviews with people who knew Perry and Burkett. Herzog takes us into a world where crime and punishment are everyday facts of life. While Burkett was growing up, his father was in and out of prison. The elder Burkett is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence for multiple felonies. One of Burkett’s friends tells us that he learned how to read while in prison. Jeremy Richardson’s older brother served time in prison. While he was attending Jeremy’s funeral, the police arrested him for violating his parole.

There are extensive interviews with both Perry and Burkett. They seem like human opposites. Perry smiles a lot and tells us that he will go to Heaven. (Herzog interviewed him eight days before his execution.) Burkett is poker-faced, and he only discusses things relating to his case. It’s hard to imagine these two plotting a murder together. Neither one of them discusses the killings, no doubt because they were both appealing their convictions. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, but it is nonetheless disappointing. The essential mystery of this story – why two seemingly sane persons would commit such terrible acts – remains unknowable.

In one scene, Herzog visits a yard where the red Camaro sits slowly rusting in the open air. “Three people died for this car,” a police detective observes. The sense of waste is palpable.

There are extensive interviews with relatives of the murder victims. Their grief is heartrending. There is also an interview with Burkett’s father, who turns out to be an interesting and articulate person. He blames himself for what his son did, and he expresses his sorrow for the victims’ families. He talks about how at one time he and his son were hand-cuffed together on a prison bus. He tells us that this moment made him feel like a “failure”. There is also an interview with a woman who married Burkett after he was convicted and who claims that she is pregnant with his child. In all honesty, I have no idea what to make of this person. And there is an interview with a man who supervised over 125 executions in Texas. After the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in 1998, he began seeing the faces of all the people whose deaths he presided over. He resigned from his job, even though it cost him his pension. “No one has a right to take another person’s life,” he tells us.

This film makes it clear that the execution of Perry accomplished nothing. It also shows the unfairness of our criminal justice system: Burkett didn’t get the death penalty, even though he was just as guilty as Perry, if not more so. At Burkett’s trial, his father gave an emotional speech asking the jury for leniency, which resulted in Burkett getting a life sentence. Perry had no one to speak for him, so he was killed.