State of the Union

Obama’s Odd Theory of ‘Creeping Resignation’ Over Gun Violence

Secretary of Defense /

Secretary of Defense /

From the New York Times report on President Obama’s speech at the memorial service for the 12 victims of last week’s mass shooting at Washington’s Navy Yard:

The question is not, he said, “whether as Americans we care in moments of tragedy. Clearly we care. Our hearts are broken again. The question is do we care enough?”

“It ought to be a shock to all of us, as a nation and a people,” he said. “It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation.”

I’ll admit it: after absorbing the facts about Aaron Alexis—he passed two background checks and legally purchased a gun; his job as a military contractor had furnished him with secret-level clearance to enter the Southeast D.C. installation—I did feel something like a sense of resignation: While the red flags look obvious in hindsight, this one would’ve been hard to prevent.

Yet this is not to say that I, or anyone else who reacted as I did to this terrible tragedy, am “resigned” to gun violence in general. It strikes me as curious that President Obama would lament a lack of hysteria over violent crime. (And despite the shocking nature and national trauma of mass shootings, they are a subspecies of violent crime.) This is a man whose party suffered nationally for years due to law-and-order Republican politicking. Concern over violent crime, the stoking of fear of violent crime, used to be a big winner for the GOP—that is, until crime rates did this crazy thing throughout the ’90s and steadily declined.

In fact, they’re still declining—despite the economic downturn of recent years. Gun violence, in particular, is down sharply since 1993. Indeed, the Washington Post reports: “Before last Monday’s mass killing at the Washington Navy Yard, the District’s homicide count was about on pace with 2012, a year that ended with 88 slayings, the fewest in a half-century.”

Could more have been done, institutionally, to prevent the Navy Yard massacre? Absolutely. I’m open to establishing a universal federal background check in the fashion described here. But it would be an odd thing indeed if Americans were in a panic over a threat that is, empirically speaking, gradually subsiding.

That’s not “creeping resignation.”

It’s realism.

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Shut It Down, Mr. President

Trayvon Martin was an unarmed teenager walking home from a convenience store with Skittles and iced tea, when he was shot to death by a racist, profiling wannabe cop named George Zimmerman.

In the Big Media, which has relentlessly sought out the voices of those most incensed by the verdict in Sanford, Fla., that is how the Saga of Trayvon Martin is being told. And from listening to TV reports of the rage across black America, that is what is widely believed there.

But is that what happened? Well, not exactly.

Trayvon Martin was not shot while walking home.

He was shot after sucker-punching George Zimmerman, breaking his nose, knocking him down, jumping on top of him, beating him martial arts style and banging his head on a concrete walk, while Zimmerman screamed again and again, “Help me, help me.”

This is what George Zimmerman said happened.

It is what the sole eyewitness to the fight, John Good, says happened. It is what Sanford police believed.

It is what the defense proved beyond a reasonable doubt. It is what that jury of six women came to believe.

Why, then, do so many in the black community believe Trayvon was profiled and murdered, when even most of the analysts on the cable news shows were saying in the last days of the trial that the prosecution had failed completely to make its case?

Answer: Many had convicted George Zimmerman in their hearts before the trial began. Here, as this writer noted a year ago, are some of the voices that had declared Zimmerman guilty of murder before a witness had been called.

“Blacks are under attack,” railed Jesse Jackson. “Killing us is big business.” Trayvon was “shot down in cold blood by a vigilante … murdered and martyred.”

“A hate crime,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said Trayvon had been “executed.”

The Grio compared his killing to the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. The New Black Panther Party put Zimmerman’s face on a “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster, called for 5,000 black men to run him down and said Trayvon had been “murdered in cold blood.”

Spike Lee twittered Zimmerman’s home address.

And President Obama? Did he calm the waters? Hardly. He signaled whose side he was on. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” he said.

Not only did they all inflame the black community into believing a racist atrocity had occurred, others still do so, even after the weeks of testimony that raised far more than a reasonable doubt.

Read More…

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Prison Reform a Model of Conservative Reform?

Richard Viguerie had an outstanding op-ed yesterday in the New York Times on the conservative case for prison reform.

An excerpt:

Conservatives known for being tough on crime should now be equally tough on failed, too-expensive criminal programs. They should demand more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety and the well-being of all Americans. …

In the past several years, there has been a dramatic shift on crime and punishment policy across the country. It really started in Texas in 2007. The state said no to building eight more prisons and began to shift nonviolent offenders from state prison into alternatives, by strengthening probation and parole supervision and treatment. Texas was able to avert nearly $2 billion in projected corrections spending increases, and its crime rate is declining. At the same time, the state’s parole failures have dropped by 39 percent. …

By confronting this issue head on, conservatives are showing that our principles lead to practical solutions that make government less costly and more effective. We need to do more of that.

Viguerie is exactly right here, and he offers a template for talking about policy that all conservatives, not just the fledgling reform movement, can agree on. “Compassion” doesn’t have to mean spending more money; it can mean saving money (which, to be sure, often means the elimination of waste-driven jobs). Getting government “out of the way” is not the end of the conversation; local governments and communities may have to remain “in the way.” Liberals don’t—or shouldn’t—have a monopoly on ideas that materially improve people’s lives.

And here’s the kicker: It’s okay for politicians to promise to improve people’s lives—especially the unfortunate and disadvantaged.

Here’s hoping more conservatives will follow Viguerie’s lead and begin to apply this template to issues like healthcare and tax reform.

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Rand Paul Learns to Love the Drug War?

Yesterday’s Post carried this story on Senator Rand Paul’s attempts to reach out to the evangelical community, and carried this choice, heretical-by-libertarian-standards, quote:

In an interview a day before his Iowa trip, Paul, 50, also tried to make clear just what kind of politician he is. “To some, ‘libertarian’ scares people,” he said. “Some of them come up to me and they say, ‘I kind of like you, but I don’t like legalizing heroin.’ And I say, ‘Well, that’s not my position.’ ”

Paul said he believes in freedom and wants a “virtuous society” where people practice “self-restraint.” Yet he believes in laws and limits as well. Instead of advocating for legalized drugs, for example, he pushes for reduced penalties for many drug offenses.

“I’m not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot,” he said. “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”

The evangelicals, at least according to the story, seem to be buying it:

[Pastor Brad] Sherman got that chance Friday when he joined other clergy members at the Cedar Rapids lunch to pose pointed questions to Paul. He said he came away liking what he heard. “He made it very clear that he does not support legalization of drugs like marijuana and that he supports traditional marriage,” Sherman said.

Not so much the libertarians, if Reason’s take (“I can’t help but wonder how Paul would be different from any other Republican president”) and my Facebook feed are any indication. Just like the flap over his position on drones, the outrage seems to be over a less elegant statement of the same position he’s held the whole time. Fair is fair, of course, and it’s entirely reasonable to take a politician at his word, but I have two thoughts.

First, many of the people now denouncing Paul for not wanting to end the drug war also share a sense that he’s concealing his radicalism. Second, assuming Rand Paul were to run in 2016, it’s highly likely that he’ll come out in favor of marijuana legalization, which a majority of voters now support—my guess would be by endorsing state-level initiatives rather than saying he’ll reschedule it at the federal level—but that probably won’t happen until he gets the nomination.

Comments made in the context of buttering up religious-right leaders shouldn’t be overinterpreted, especially given the American Family Association’s signal that they wouldn’t fight Paul on the marijuana issue. And there’s reason to doubt the assumption that the social conservative position is to favor an endless, wasteful drug war that is anything but Christian. Among religious leaders there’s more consensus about its failure than ever before, but radicalism isn’t going to get them to warm up to reform.

It’s also worth mentioning Rand’s carte blanche states’ rights position isn’t very different from his father’s, who, in the GOP presidential debate, didn’t actually say he’d legalize heroin, but that he’d leave it to the states. Despite some sloppy AP reporting to the contrary, the younger Paul believes basically the same thing; it works as rhetorical cover. I guess I part with a lot of libertarians in thinking it’s wise for him to be using it for the time being.

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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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