State of the Union

The Central Park Five

None of the games on were interesting, so I was flipping through the channels. Suddenly, at the top of the hour, appeared the new Ken Burns documentary, “The Central Park Five.” I had heard of it, seen a trailer perhaps, hadn’t wanted to see it. It’s the story of the imprisonment on false charges of five teenagers, four black and one Hispanic, for an horrendous rape and assault which took place in New York City 24 years ago.

Anyone in New York then would remember the crime. It was the most shocking crime of a decade full of them: a young woman, talented and working on Wall Street, was jogging in the park, near the reservoir, around 11 PM—not unusual in the city that never sleeps. She was brutally raped and assaulted, her head pounded and brain damaged—left for dead. She made a partial recovery, but never again functioned at her previous level.

At the time I was about four months into a job at the New York Post editorial page—a job I had taken as a kind of mission, to do everything in my power to help prevent the city from sliding into something like Newark or Detroit. That then seemed a real possibility.  Despite a financial recovery during the ’80s, crime was rampant. The murder rate rose every year, as did all the lesser crimes: shootings, stabbings, muggings. The police seemed overwhelmed. They and the city’s political class, led by Mayor Ed Koch, were under constant rhetorical assault for their alleged racism—which the media (except for the undeceived and uncowed Post editorial page) considered as if it might be fact. A few years prior, Al Sharpton and two black radical attorneys had held much of the metropolitan region hostage by gumming up the legal system, a campaign culminating in their touting of a false rape charge made by a young black girl, Tawana Brawley. If you read carefully the accounts of these case in  the Times, you could probably figure out that the racism charges they broadcasted were substantially groundless, but the general atmosphere pointed in one direction—racist cops, a racist mayor. Meanwhile if you were trying to go about your lawful day-to-day business on the streets or in the subway, you often felt under a genuine sense of menace from groups of young black males. You and pretty much every other person you knew had been mugged at knifepoint, or had apartment or car broken into. It was a constant. No one, it seemed, could do anything about it. The basic reality seemed to pervade every aspect of life in the city, and certainly (no matter how much one wished otherwise) influenced the way one looked at black people.

Ed Koch, a friend of the Post (and later a friend of mine) was running for a fourth term, and being challenged by David Dinkins—who seemed at one moment sensible and moderate, at another, a front man for the very black radicals seeking to undermine the moral basis of the criminal justice system.

Months before the critical Democratic primary, the woman in Central Park was raped. The sheer horror of the crime was eased slightly by the rapid arrest of suspects. Boy, the NYPD was good. There had been, on that warm spring evening, a night of wilding: some 30 youths had descended on the park from Harlem, committing mayhem on the late night reservoir joggers. Some were robbed and beaten, but except for “the jogger” they escaped serious harm.

What few people in the city knew was that the case against the Central Park Five was contrived. The cops got the kids, five of the perhaps eight they had picked up that evening. But they knew they had, in addition to the other robbery and mayhem victims, a woman hovering near death. They needed suspects, confessions. The city needed closure. Read More…

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Human Trafficking in DC’s Diplomatic Community?

A local NBC affiliate reported last night:

A case of “possible human trafficking” at a Saudi diplomatic compound in Virginia is under investigation, Homeland Security confirmed to News4.

Agents from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement/Homeland Security Investigations and Fairfax County police were called to a home in the 6000 block of Orris Street in McLean overnight and, in the words of a source familiar with the investigation, “rescued” two women. One woman reportedly tried to flee by squeezing through a gap in the front gate as it was closing.

It’s not clear yet who called the police to the home, and though the property is listed as belonging to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a spokesperson told BuzzFeed that it belonged to the armed forces. The diplomat living there does have immunity. CBS is reporting that the two Filipino women were brought here legally, but told investigators that they have never been allowed to leave.

The neighborhood is in the relatively isolated part of McLean north of Chain Bridge by the river, filled mostly with large, gated homes, many owned by various diplomatic delegations. It’s about a mile from the CIA headquarters.

On the same day HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Martin O’Malley, and Bob McDonnell were  speaking at a conference about, guess what, human trafficking.

Raw Story adds:

Saudi Arabian has face criticism for failing to adequately fighting human trafficking. The U.S. State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report stated, “Saudi Arabia is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and to a lesser extent, forced prostitution.” The report also claimed the country “does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”

This has happened before. In fact, Courthouse News reported this morning on a similar case involving an employee at the Qatari embassy and a Filipina worker, being heard in a federal court:

 A Qatari couple trafficked a Filipina woman to the United States, abused and enslaved her and forced her to work around the clock, the woman claims in court.

Christy Butigan sued Salwa Awad Saeed and Salah Al-Malki, a medical attaché for the Qatari Embassy in Washington, in Federal Court. She accused them of human trafficking, forced labor, involuntary servitude, conspiracy, fraud, assault and labor law violations: 16 counts in all. … Filipinos are frequent targets of forced-labor scams. Foreign diplomats in the United States are frequently defendants.

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Boston Marathon Suspects and Non-Suspects

An incredible manhunt is underway. Police have surrounded a 20-block area in
Watertown, as the entire city of Boston remains shut down. One suspect is now dead, while the other is the subject of an unprecedented search effort. From the bombs going off on Monday to the current pursuit, new tools of public information conveyance merged with the old in a frenzied rush of identification, misidentification, and false certainty.

For instance, in the middle of a wild Thursday night, before the Tsarnayev brothers were officially identified, several reports erroneously suggested that one of the suspects was in fact a missing Brown student previously fingered by users on Reddit. Ryan Chittum has more:

And then there were the keyboard crimefighters at Reddit. At one point a police dispatcher, apparently incorrectly, said that the suspects’ names were Sunil Tripathi, a Brown student who disappeared last month, and Mike Mulugeta. Reddit, still smarting from the backlash to their amateur sleuthing, took a very premature victory lap.

Earlier this week Alexis Madrigal warned against the giddy overzealous vigilantism on Reddit:

Read More…

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Marathon Bombers and the Watertown Shootout

Boston’s WCVB has more astonishing raw footage from the early hours gunfight in Watertown, Mass., where police closed in on the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, who answered with (according to several reports) machine-gun fire and thrown explosives. Science journalist Seth Mnookin, who teaches at MIT, was on the scene—and tweeted it. The night’s developments began with the murder of a police officer at MIT, followed by the Watertown gunfight, and a manhunt for one of the suspects. The other suspect apparently died after the firefight.

Much of this information comes from Twitter, in particular from relayed reports from police scanners in the area. Needless to say, news of this sort is subject to revision. But the Boston Globe is among the more established sources that confirms the outlines of what happened overnight. At first it was unclear whether the MIT incident was related to the marathon bombings—but the subsequent exchange of heavy fire between police and the suspects, who seemed to have explosive devices in their possession, tended to dismiss most doubts.

Update – This post has been corrected to include new information. We now know the two suspects are apparently brothers from in or near Chechnya. The elder died in a firefight and the younger is still at large.

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How Would Universal Background Checks Be Enforced?

Robert Wright moderates a debate between Adam Winkler and Jacob Sullum on the wisdom of the proposed gun control measure:

Brad Plumer has more. Check out our recent symposium on the Second Amendment here.

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A Natural—But Not a Second Amendment-Guaranteed—Right to Own a Gun?

Stephanie Frey /
Stephanie Frey /

Almost immediately after the the Newtown massacre, National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke mounted a vigorous defense of gun rights. “American liberties, including the right to bear arms, pre-exist the federal government, and are defined and protected in the same document from which the state derives its authority and its structure,” he wrote. “In a free republic, the people cannot be disarmed by the government, for they are its employers, and they did not give up their individual rights when they consented to its creation.”

With a renewed push for gun control on the top of Washington’s mind this week, I thought it’d be worthwhile to recall historian Garry Wills’s perhaps idiosyncratic view of the Second Amendment. In short, he is inclined to agree with the first half of Cooke’s apologia—individuals have a right to own a gun that pre-exists the Federal Constitution—but disagrees that this right is specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

Wills departs from the standard liberal hedging on this question. Jeffrey Toobin, for example, reads the language of the Second Amendment in two distinct clauses—one having to do with the regulation of militias and the other with the individual’s right to “bear arms”:

The text of the amendment is divided into two clauses and is, as a whole, ungrammatical: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The courts had found that the first part, the “militia clause,” trumped the second part, the “bear arms” clause. In other words, according to the Supreme Court, and the lower courts as well, the amendment conferred on state militias a right to bear arms—but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.

Wills interprets the language of the amendment quite differently (and I believe more persuasively); he sees it as a coherent whole that is entirely in reference to the regulation of militias. Wills developed this argument most fully in a long 1995 essay for the New York Review of Books, and later included a condensed version of it in his 1999 book A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government.

Here he is on the meaning of the phrase “bear arms”:

To bear arms is, in itself, a military term. One does not bear arms against a rabbit. The phrase simply translates the Latin arma ferre. The infinitive ferre, to bear, comes from the verb fero. The plural noun arma explains the plural usage in English (“arms”). One does not “bear arm.” Latin arma is, etymologically, war “equipment,” and it has no singular forms. By legal and other channels, arma ferre entered deeply into the European language of war. To bear arms is such a synonym for waging war that Shakespeare can call a just war “just-borne arms” and a civil war “self-borne arms.” Even outside the phrase “bear arms,” much of the noun’s use alone echoes Latin phrases: to be under arms (sub armis), the call to arms (ad arma), to follow arms (arma sequi), to take arms (arma capere), to lay down arms (arma ponere). “Arms” is a profession that one brother chooses as another chooses law or the church. An issue undergoes the arbitrament of arms. In the singular, English “arm” often means a component of military force (the artillery arm, the cavalry arm).

Thus “arms” in English, as in Latin, is not restricted to the meaning “guns.” The Romans had no guns; and they did not limit arma to projectile weapons (spears, arrows). It meant weaponry in general, everything from swords to siege instruments—but especially shields. That is why the heraldic use of “arms” in English (the very case Stephen Halbrook invokes) refers to shields “coated” (covered) with blazonry.

And here he is on the verb “to keep”:

Gun advocates read “to keep and bear” disjunctively, and think the verbs refer to entirely separate activities. “Keep,” for them, means “possess personally at home”—a lot to load into one word. To support this entirely fanciful construction, they have to neglect the vast literature on militias. It is precisely in that literature that to-keep-and-bear is a description of one connected process. To understand what “keep” means in a military context, we must recognize how the description of a local militia‘s function was always read in contrast to the role of a standing army. Armies, in the ideology of the time, should not be allowed to keep their equipment in readiness.

“History, philology, and logic furnish no solid basis for thinking the Second Amendment has anything to do with the private ownership of guns,” Wills wrote in A Necessary Evil. But hold on, he continues: this hardly means federal or state governments are therefore justified in confiscating all privately owned guns. The Constitution is not the summa of individual rights. The Ninth Amendment helpfully reminds us of this fact. One may reasonably argue, as Cooke does, that we have a natural right to own a gun, to defend our selves and our property, by lethal force if necessary. Indeed, this right may have seemed so self-evidently obvious that Madison did not deem it necessary to explicitly guarantee (enumerate) its protection in the Constitution.


Why, then, did Madison propose the Second Amendment? For the same reason that he proposed the Third, against quartering troops on the civilian population. That was a remnant of old royal attempts to create a standing army by requisition of civilian facilities. It had no real meaning in a government that is authorized to build barracks, forts, and camps. But it was part of the anti-royal rhetoric of freedom that had shown up, like the militia language, in state requests for amendments to the Constitution.

If Wills is right, it means that conservatives may debate the gun issue on the basis of reason, custom, and commonsense—but without dispositive recourse to the verbiage of the Second Amendment.

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The Politics of Restoring Felon Voting Rights

A Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee killed a series of bills that would have amended the constitution to automatically restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons once they had served their time. The Senate is expected to do the same today.

GOP-controlled legislatures killing measures which, by design or as a side effect, give more Democrats the vote is nothing new. Lawmakers pointed out that felons did have a procedure to restore the franchise by petitioning the governor. The issue, for the opponents of automatic re-enfranchisement, is the integrity of elections–someone convicted of a felony is of questionable judgment therefore they should be subject to review.

ThinkProgress writes, “Far from just simple procedural act, applying for clemency is no guarantee that whoever is governor will grant the clemency request.”

Strictly speaking that’s true, but Governor Bob McDonnell has approved the vast majority of these petitions since being elected and is a firm supporter of reintegration. He supported the bills, along with Attorney General and lone 2013 GOP gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli, and was disappointed at the outcome:

“Once individuals have served their time, and paid their fines, restitution, and other costs, they should have the opportunity to rejoin society as fully contributing members. As a nation that embraces second chances and believes in redemption, we want more productive citizens and fewer people returning to prison. Automatic restoration of constitutional rights will help reintegrate individuals back into society and prevent future crimes, which means fewer victims and a safer Virginia.”

The easy interpretation of House’s motive for scuttling the bill is pure self-interest. As with many Voter ID laws, the GOP claims to be looking out for the integrity of elections while making voting more difficult for reliably Democratic constituencies.

Yet with the number of felons McDonnell has pardoned, it’s hard to claim that there’s a failure in the current approach to reintegrating ex-felons, and certainly not a big enough one to justify a constitutional amendment. So long as the governor’s hand doesn’t get tired.

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Second Amendment Symposium

With the shock of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings still reverberating, TAC today presents a symposium of views on the limits to the right to keep and bear arms. Zack Beauchamp of makes a progressive appeal to conservatives for gun control, while Jack Hunter argues that firearms prohibition is as irrational as liberals see the death penalty as being. Alan Jacobs, meanwhile, considers the issue in light of the Christmas season and the moral demands of Christianity. We also re-present Brian Doherty’s review of Living With Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment, a piece that went to press before the Newtown massacre.

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No, Let’s Not Turn Schools Into Garrisons

The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, about which I’ve refrained from commenting for lack of anything useful to say, has occasioned a debate about the need for renewed gun-control legislation at the national level. That’s fine. I’m doubtful that advocates will have much to show, legislatively speaking, after this outcry subsides. And with any luck, mass shootings will continue to be a rare occurrence and schools will remain the statistically safest place children can be.

Such, at any rate, is the reasonable, conservative/civil-libertarian case against overreaction.

Here’s a conservative version of the case for overreaction (via the blogger Econophile):

Arm some teachers and staff members so they can protect themselves and our children. I know this will get a big reaction from those against firearms, but think it through in light of the reality of the issues that I have outlined. It is not possible to prevent these tragic shootings before they happen, so should we leave our children unprotected while some maniac walks around and shoots them at will?

BigHollywood’s John Nolte agreed, tweeting: “Why are schools not treated like airplanes as far as security? Are we going to ban mega-clips and then remove air marhsals [sic]?” And: “Why are airplanes secured with armed personnel but not schools? We’ve stopped hijackings and terrorism. All Left wants tho is gun control.”

So let me see if I have this straight: more gun control is tantamount to creeping tyranny, but succumbing to hysteria and fear and calling for armed teachers is a blow for freedom.


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Legal Pot Makes Federalists out of Democrats

After Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana via ballot initiative this month,  the Department of Justice warned about the potential “constitutional showdown” between the states and federal enforcement authorities. The easiest way to avert such a showdown  would be for the DEA to use its discretionary authority under the Controlled Substances Act to simply reschedule pot. They’re not going to do that.

In the face of such a conflict you’d think, drug war politics aside, that the GOP would stand on the side of state rights and fewer regulations. They might show their limited government bona fides, and their sincerity in reaching out to young libertarian-leaning voters, and maybe even advance some sort of bill to ameliorate the constitutional problem. Congresswoman Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado, has beat them to the punch with a bill watering down the language of the CSA.

Jacob Sullum writes:

[T]he bill so far has only two Republican co-sponsors: Ron Paul of Texas (naturally) and Mike Coffman of Colorado. It seems like Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who backed a more ambitious Paul-sponsored bill aimed at repealing federal marijuana prohibition, should not be shy about adding his name to this list as well. How about Justin Amash (R-Mich.), who “supports federalism on all legislation not specifically authorized in the Constitution”? Any others? Now is put-up-or-shut-up time for avowed federalists in the House. It is certainly strange, if not embarrassing, to see that Democrats are more enthusiastic about a bill with “states’ rights” in the title than Republicans are. Behold the power of pot.

The merits of legalization aside–which are considerable, even from a conservative standpoint–eventual change is beginning to seem inevitable. Majorities now favor it, and two states have just taken the plunge. From a purely cynical standpoint, it behooves the GOP to get ahead of the curve on this, or other issues for which there’s a strong conservative case, such as copyright reform. Can you imagine the outrage among the liberal base of the Democratic Party if Harry Reid were the one to block these bills? If a bill respecting federalism for drug laws passed the House but died in the Senate because of the Democratic Party’s fondness for the policemen’s union? It seems they’d prefer to let the Democrats carry the banner of federalism.

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