Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ten years of suckage

In recent years, I've become increasingly hesitant about sitting down to write about the American political and legal scene. The fact is, every time I do so, sucking down a valium and vodka cocktail becomes not just a somewhat more viable option, but an increasingly enticing alternative to actually contemplating the country in which I live, the laws I must endure (and evade) and the people who craft and enforce those laws. I find ... Oh, God, where are the pills and booze ... ?

Sorry about that. I'm back now.

Anyway, I find life in these here United States at the end of 2009 to be deeply depressing, and not just because it has become socially acceptable to wear pajamas to the supermarket. The fact is, we live in a world in which our freedom erodes on a daily basis -- not because we were conquered, but because our friends, neighbors and relations (and, let's be honest, often ourselves) eagerly submit to intrusive, yet pointless, rules, regulations and "security theater" measures that make us not one bit safer from the world's bogeymen, but which provide an illusion of protection while enhancing the power of the creatures that rule over us.

And those creatures ... A less-impressive army of assclowns would be hard to imagine -- except that these assclowns are so very effective at whipping up public passions and extending their nasty tentacles over and into our lives. Bush may have been an incoherent bully, and Obama may be a presumptuous dilettante, but Nero would have wept with envy of the power that those two emperors presidents demagogues have commanded (including the awesome ability to make money appear from thin air -- and value evaporate).

So, if like me you shudder at the thought of living long enough to see the inevitable spectacle of Sarah Palin and Joe Biden declaring themselves co-dictators for life over the cheering masses of your fellow countrymen, then ... well ...

Nothing, actually. I'm out of ideas. So go mix yourself a drink and enjoy this rueful look at the last decade from ReasonTV:


Let's have some more of that failed security theater

It's worth noting that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was thwarted in his Christmas Day attempt to blow an airliner out of the sky, not by institutional security measures, but by an alert passenger and the cabin crew of the airplane in question. It's also worth noting that, rather than take inspiration from Jasper Schuringa's exercise of personal initiative, various government seatwarmers around the world plan more of sort of the sort of security measures that have long failed to do much more than make air travel an unpleasant chore.

Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian dubbed the "Fruit of the Loom bomber" by some wags, attempted to detonate a bomb he'd smuggled on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit as it approached its destination. He'd been allowed to board even though he'd been placed on one of the U.S.government's myriad lists of suspicious persons with terrorist ties after his own father, a prominent Nigerian banker, warned U.S. authorities that Abdulmutallab is dangerous.

Abdulmutallab was brought up short only when passengers on the plane noticed flames after the terrorist ignited his explosive device. They jumped the would-be-bomber and doused the fire. Dutch video director Jasper Schuringa is credited with putting Abdulmutallab in a headlock and stripping and subduing the terrorist with the assistance of flight attendants.

"We had to do something," Schuringa told reporters. Well, yes -- they did. It's very likely that the passengers and crew escaped harm because they quickly reacted to circumstances that they couldn't have foreseen as they happened.

It's difficult, really, to imagine a better defense than people willing and able to take initiative. Dutch authorities have taken a lot of flack for letting Abdulmutallab slip his explosive device through security, but terrorists have had decades to adjust their techniques to ever-tightening security measures at airports. American officials have been called on the carpet to answer for allowing Abdulmutallab to board a U.S.-bound flight when he's listed as a terrorism suspect, but the list he's on -- the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment list -- reportedly contains 550,000 names.

There comes a point of diminishing returns, when you've listed so many potential threats that there's no possible way to react to them in any effective manner. I suspect that point comes somewhere before you tally up a half-million terrorism suspects.

But Abdulmutallab was stopped -- on the plane, by passengers and crew. While the fact that the terrorist plot got that far is being treated as a failure in many quarters, it may have run up against the most effective security measures that there can ever be -- people at the scene who take responsibility and initiative as a threat materializes.

That's the most effective security measure there can ever be because its really the only measure that can't be easily anticipated or evaded by plotters. After all, if they want to harm people, terrorists have to be near people. And those people have the potential to react on the spot, as needed.

That security officials appreciate the value of such flexibility is clear from the Transportation Security Administration's announcement that it will "surge resources as needed on a daily basis" and that "[p]assengers should not expect to see the same thing at every airport."

OK. Flexible is good.

But TSA officials aren't the targets. They're the people the terrorists are evading. No matter how many new checkpoints or measures they put in place -- millimeter-wave scanners, extra baggage checks at gates, behavior detection, dogs, bans on putting anything on your lap or moving around the cabin -- the most officials can do is create hurdles that terrorists must plan for, and that seriously inconvenience anybody who still chooses to travel through the police state that air travel has become.

That government officials know that they engage more in security theater than actual security is pretty clear. The Government Accountability Office has called the TSA on the carpet in the past for implementing procedures without ever bothering to investigate their effectiveness. In a 2007 report, the GAO recommended:
[T]he Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for TSA to develop sound evaluation methods, when possible, that can be used to assist TSA in determining whether proposed procedures would achieve their intended result...
In March 2009, the GAO followed up, finding (PDF):
TSA has taken some actions but has not fully implemented a risk management approach to inform the allocation of resources across the transportation modes (aviation, mass transit, highway, freight rail, and pipeline). ...
Without effectively implementing such controls, TSA cannot provide reasonable assurance that its resources are being used effectively and efficiently to achieve security priorities.
The latest measures will almost certainly be implemented with the same disregard for effectiveness, because they are and can only be primarily for show. Real security doesn't come from lumbering institutions, uniformed snoops and high-tech scanners, it comes from people who take responsibility for themselves.

But what bureaucrat wants to admit that there's only so much he can do? Who wants to put himself out of a job by telling scared travelers that real security comes from emulating Jasper Schuringa?

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Video advice for dealing with police due out in January 2010

Unlike most civil liberties groups, Flex Your Rights is dedicated to trying to prevent civil liberties violations instead of addressing them after the fact in the courts. To this end, the organization engages in educational efforts so that people are better prepared to navigate the spiderweb of laws that entangle our country, and to properly handle themselves during encounters with the myriad government employees tasked with enforcing those laws.

In January 2010, Flex Your Rights will release a new 45-minute video advising people on how to handle themselves when dealing with law-enforcement officers. The full-length 10 Rules for Dealing with Police will be sold for $15 per copy, with a substantial discount for bulk orders. A preview is posted below.

If you balk at spending money for advice on dealing with police encounters (and how much will a lawyer cost if you need one?), don't miss the completely free video presentations on handling yourself in such situations from Professor James Duane of the Regent University School of Law and Officer George Bruch of the Virginia Beach Police Department.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Border Patrol learns how to make friends and influence people

It's not a dystopia if it's actually happening to you.

At least, that's what Canadian science fiction writer and marine biologist Peter Watts may be thinking after suffering a taste of American post-9/11-style hospitality. In an incident at a border crossing on Tuesday, December 8, Watts was punched, kicked and pepper-sprayed before being arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers. He now faces charges that could land him behind bars for years and bar him from reentering the country.

While returning home to Toronto after helping a friend move, Watts was stopped at the border crossing for a random search -- a warrantless intrusion common at the border, where constitutional protections for individual rights are minimal. Watts apparently stepped out of his vehicle to inquire as to the reason for the inspection. After that, accounts vary, but it's clear that, as usual, Border Patrol officers took the questions as a thrown gauntlet. On his blog, Watts initially described the incident in the following terms:
If you buy into the Many Worlds Intepretation of quantum physics, there must be a parallel universe in which I crossed the US/Canada border without incident last Tuesday. In some other dimension, I was not waved over by a cluster of border guards who swarmed my car like army ants for no apparent reason; or perhaps they did, and I simply kept my eyes downcast and refrained from asking questions.

Along some other timeline, I did not get out of the car to ask what was going on. I did not repeat that question when refused an answer and told to get back into the vehicle. In that other timeline I was not punched in the face, pepper-sprayed, shit-kicked, handcuffed, thrown wet and half-naked into a holding cell for three fucking hours, thrown into an even colder jail cell overnight, arraigned, and charged with assaulting a federal officer, all without access to legal representation (although they did try to get me to waive my Miranda rights. Twice.). Nor was I finally dumped across the border in shirtsleeves: computer seized, flash drive confiscated, even my fucking paper notepad withheld until they could find someone among their number literate enough to distinguish between handwritten notes on story ideas and, I suppose, nefarious terrorist plots. I was not left without my jacket in the face of Ontario’s first winter storm, after all buses and intercity shuttles had shut down for the night.

In some other universe I am warm and content and not looking at spending two years in jail for the crime of having been punched in the face.

But that is not this universe.

Stay tuned.
U.S. officials insist that the 51-year-old writer and scientist, traveling with a single companion who didn't take part in the altercation (but was handcuffed anyway), initiated a physical confrontation and choked an officer -- a felony punishable by two years in prison and a fine. U.S. officials agree that Watts was pepper-sprayed.

Border Patrol turned Watts over to Port Huron, Michigan, police. According to court records, he was then charged with assaulting, obstructing, and resisting a police officer, released on $5,000 bond, and ordered to appear in court on December 22.

In Canada, the incident is reinforcing America's growing reputation as a festering police state where even making eye contact with a government official can be taken as sufficient grounds for arrest and a beating.

Although nominated for the respected Hugo Award, Peter Watts has reportedly discovered that writing is one of the few professions that can make a career in the sciences look lucrative. To help him with legal expenses, a Toronto bookstore is accepting cash and checks made out to the author's name.

Bakka-Phoenix Books
697 Queen St. West
Toronto, Ontario
M6J 1E6

Happy holidays, Phoenix-style

Presumptuous busybodiness knows no particular season. The arrogant assumption of the right to boss people around is a year-'round affair that has bureaucrats patrolling for bacon-wrapped hot dogs in the heat of summer and chasing down joyful sledders in the cold months so they can jam helmets on their heads and force them to sit upright. But every now and then you get a perfect storm: nannystaters who meet the demands of the holidays with an uber-authoritarian frenzy wrapped in a bow. Then, public officials issue just-in-time-for-Thanksgiving orders to churches and synagogues in Phoenix, Arizona, to stop feeding the homeless on their own property because ... well ... slapping down a few warming trays to serve free food in a church utility room counts as operating a business in a residential neighborhood. And rules are rules, you know.

For now, the CrossRoads United Methodist Church -- the House o' God at the center of the decision, though it applies everywhere in Phoenix  -- is continuing its Saturday morning breakfasts, pending the hearing of its appeal in January by the Board of Adjustment. That means Christmas meals will be served, perhaps sparing the meddlers the worst possible press over their intrusive -- not to mention Grinch-ish -- ruling.

But  come January, doers of good deeds in Arizona will have to go hat in hand to a bunch of government seat warmers to find out if they'll be allowed to continue feeding hungry, poor people at their own cost, and under their own roofs.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Note to Obamatons: We mock your pain

If you're an Obama supporter, the only possible reaction to uber-establishmentarian political journalist Dana Milbank's Sunday column in the Washington Post is a painful wince. Take, for example, these cutting words:
It was bound to happen eventually. Obama had become to his youthful supporters a vessel for all of their liberal hopes. They saw him as a transformational figure who would end war, save the Earth from global warming, restore the economy -- and still be home for dinner. They lashed out at anybody who dared to suggest that Obama was just another politician, subject to calculation, expediency and vanity like all the rest.
Certainly, Obama gets some blame for encouraging the messianic cult as he stumped for change and hope. "I am asking you to stop settling for what the cynics say we have to accept," he would say as he wrapped up speeches. "Let us reach for what we know is possible: A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again."

In other cases, Obama truly has gone back on campaign vows. Even some of his advisers are disappointed that he has moved so slowly to close the Guantanamo Bay prison. Civil libertarians are justifiably disappointed with his decision to continue much of the Bush administration secrecy. Clean-government types are understandably frustrated that Obama vowed that lobbyists "will not get a job in my White House" but now grants waivers so that lobbyists can work in key administration jobs.
 Milbank closes:
This is what happens when true believers mistake a mortal for a messiah.
"Messianic," "true believers," "Church of Obama," "false prophet" -- Milbank pounds home the point that Barack Obama spawned (and encouraged) a cult of personality. Inevitably let down, his once-blind devotees increasingly become disillusioned cynics.

Of course, Milbank raises these concerns over a year after the election, but better late than never, I guess. Although, to be honest, Milbank -- who has left-of-center credentials dating back to his college days -- ranked relatively early among those who thought Obama was getting a little ahead of himself.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Generalissimo Joe poised to turn Arizona into a Banana Republic

A law-enforcement officer is filmed stealing documents from a defense attorney. Ordered to apologize in public, the officer, with the encouragement of his high-ranking boss, refuses. The judge who jails the officer as punishment for his defiance then faces retaliation in the form of a bomb threat, striking police and official complaints filed by that high-ranking official, all in support of the transgressing officer. Just another day in Zimbabwe, right? Or maybe Venezuela. But no -- it's actually the latest headline-grabber in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Detention Officer Adam Stoddard made the national news when he was caught on camera helping himself to confidential documents belonging to defense attorney Joanne Cuccia. Found guilty of contempt of court for his actions, Stoddard was ordered by Judge Gary Donahoe to make a public apology or face jail time -- a sentence likely intended as light slap on the wrist for a cop, but one which brushed up against constitutional free-speech protections.

That's all Sheriff Joe Arpaio -- the self-proclaimed "America's toughest sheriff," and the man most likely to turn Arizona into a Banana Republic -- needed. Saying, in essence, "they can't do that to our pledges! Only we can do that to our pledges", Arpaio basically forbade Stoddard to comply with the judge's order.

Sure enough, Stoddard held a press conference only to flip the middle finger to Judge Donahoe, and was ordered to jail the next day -- a a jail managed by Sheriff Arpaio, by the way (so we have to take his word about any given inmate's whereabouts).

Now, with Sheriff Arpaio's support, officers who protect the Superior Court where Judge Donahoe works are calling in sick in sufficient numbers to shut down business. The courthouse was also evacuated when a bomb threat against public defenders was phoned in (Cuccia is a public defender).

And Arpaio has filed a complaint against Judge Gary Donahoe, along with three other judges. Against Donahoe (PDF), "the complaint alleges possible obstruction of justice, stymieing a criminal investigation, and open hostility towards courtroom staff."

Further complicating this picture is that Sheriff Joe Arpaio, despite erratic and confrontational conduct that has repeatedly put him at the wrong end of lawsuits and press coverage, is immensely popular with Maricopa County voters. In fact, recent polling suggests that the governor's office is his for the asking. He's a favorite for the Republican nod and an apparent shoe-in in the general election.

Given the level of his support for the sheriff even after costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements over abuses committed by his department, and after revelations that he is under FBI investigation for misusing his power to punish critics, it's not too great a stretch to suggest that Arpaio might win popular acclaim if he were to forego the cost and hassle of an election and just unilaterally park his uniformed butt in the governor's office.

That kind of support for even the worst behavior creates an environment in which police feel free to punish judges for penalizing a fellow officer's crimes. It's still an open question as to who will ultimately win this showdown.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Climategate emails -- now in easy-to-peruse format!

If you're interested in those East Anglia Climategate emails, but don't want to download and dig through a zipped file of documents, there's now an easier alternative. The emails are all online in searchable format at Eastangliaemails.com.


Will Arpaio jail one of his own officers?

On October 19 of this year, Maricopa County, Arizona, Detention Officer Adam Stoddard was caught by surveillance cameras helping himself to a document from a defense attorney's files. He and his colleagues photocopied the document before returning it to attorney Joanne Cuccia. Responding to a formal complaint, Judge Gary Donahoe ordered the errant lawman to apologize at a press conference. Egged on by the county sheriff, Stoddard publicly refused. Now the officer has been ordered to jail. But will he go?

The showdown may have been inevitable as soon as Judge Donahoe issued his unusual (and possibly unconstitutional) order in what may have been a misguided attempt to spare the officer a fine or jail time -- the usual penalties for contempt of court. But Maricopa County's Sheriff Joe Arpaio -- the self-proclaimed "America's toughest sheriff" -- isn't known for apologizing, or for observing legal niceties. Arpaio announced, "My officer was doing his job, and I will not stand by and allow him to be thrown to the wolves by the courts because they feel pressure from the media on this situation." He added, "I decide who holds press conferences and when they are held regarding this Sheriff's Office."

Adhering to Arpaio's line, Stoddard held a press conference on the last day allowed by Donahoe's order, but what he said wasn't exactly what the judge had in mind.
I am Maricopa County Detention Officer Adam Stoddard. I work in the Court Security Division of the Sheriff’s Office and have been with the Sheriff’s Office for five years.

Recently, Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe ordered me to hold a press conference to publicly apologize for doing the job I have been trained to do.

Part of my job in providing security to the court is to inspect documents brought into the courtroom. On October 19th, I saw a document that I had not yet screened, and that raised security concerns. I retrieved that document in plain sight and had court personnel copy it to preserve it as evidence in case it was a security breach.

It was a split second decision and I do not regret my actions.

Judge Donahoe has ordered me to feel something I do not and say something I cannot. I cannot apologize for putting court safety first.

The judge therefore puts me in a position where I must lie or go to jail. And I will not lie.
See a video of the conference below.
Now, surprise, surprise, the Maricopa County Superior Court says that Officer Stoddard will have to do what any mere civilian would have been forced to do to begin with -- report to jail to serve out the usual sentence for his offense.

But ... the jails in Maricopa County are run by Stoddard's boss, Sheriff Joe Arpaio -- the same guy who instructed his underling to flip the bird to Judge Donahoe to begin with. Will Arpaio actually cooperate with the court and throw the officer behind bars?

And what about making escaping a stretch in jail conditional on obeying a kiddy-time order to apologize? Judges normally can't compel people to espouse opinions they don't hold; will that complicate matters as Stoddard and company appeal the sentence up the judicial food chain?

Stay tuned to developments in Maricopa County to see whether the police will agree to submit to punishment for an act the court has already held to be a crime.


The end of helicopter parenting?

I hope it's true (but it's in Time, which is wrong about oh so much). Anyway, the aging, archaic newsweekly reports that helicopter parenting -- that freaky, overbearing, effort to program every kid like some kind of robo-child, customized for success -- is on its way out.
All great rebellions are born of private acts of civil disobedience that inspire rebel bands to plot together. And so there is now a new revolution under way, one aimed at rolling back the almost comical overprotectiveness and overinvestment of moms and dads. The insurgency goes by many names — slow parenting, simplicity parenting, free-range parenting — but the message is the same: Less is more; hovering is dangerous; failure is fruitful. You really want your children to succeed? Learn when to leave them alone. When you lighten up, they'll fly higher. We're often the ones who hold them down.

I never planned on overparenting my son -- unless you count training him early to mix the perfect manhattan as an exercise in excess (well ... maybe so) -- and my family lives in an area that's strongly resistant to the parenting school of thought that shuttles kids between Mandarin for Toddlers and lessons in playing musical instruments that mass twice as much as the budding musician. But I've never been terribly fond of what helicopter parents were doing to their kids and the culture around them. Millions of college freshmen unable to decide between fake-ID vendors without first making a cell phone call to mommy are just too depressing.

So maybe now more kids will get to be ... kids.

That's good news.

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