Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I remember...

as a child watching the first runs of Mel Brooks's Get Smart with my parents. In one of the episodes a character mentioned torture, and my mother said the American forces would never use torture.

My mother did not indulge in illusions about Americans. She never saw the United States with awe or reverence or as the exceptional and unique nation many Americans profess to see. She saw a nation among all others, home of Janas Salk and Bull Connor, Martin Luther King and George Wallace, John F. Kennedy and H. L. Hunt. She saw a country with manifold, even brutal flaws, a country capable of great good and great evil, a country where, in that moment, the good outweighed the evil. Above all, she saw a country which stood for something, something that included a code of conduct. And that code of conduct simply excluded torture.

I refuse to believe that country no longer exists. I believe many, many Americans still hold to and live the basic American propositions about the fundamental dignity of human beings, and would never engage in. or condone, torture. The American Empire may have grown over the American Republic, but it has not devoured the American Republic. Yet when I read long discussions in comments on the recently released US Senate report of CIA torture, discussions focussed entirely on the question of utility, of whether torture works, I cannot shake the conclusion that my mother would find many contemporary Americans deeply dsappointing.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Black lives matter

For Canadians tempted to get smug about the American legacy of slavery, let me add: First Nations lives matter as well.

The incidents in the United States between African Americans and the police have piled up lately in a particularly sobering way. A police officer in Ferguson MO. shoots an unarmed student. A police officer in Staten Island chokes a man selling for loose cigarettes. Officers shoot and kill a shopper in the middle of buying an air pistol and a child playing with a toy. A police officer stops a motorist, orders him to fetch his license, and shoots him when he goes to get it.

Rudolph Giuliani weighed in on the shooting in Ferguson, terming "Black on Black" crime a worse scourge on the African American community than  any heavy-handed police presence. Plenty of people have responded to the moral insensitivity of his comments, but the factual problems with his claims bear some consideration.

When Giuliani speaks of the need for a police presence in majority African American neighbourhoods plagued by violence, he implies that the police present will protect the community. In fact, as Radley Balko documented in a Washington Post article, in the environs of St. Louis law enforcement activities often serve the purpose of raising funds for otherwise economically unsustainable communities and their work forces. Since the work forces include the police, the officers on duty have to fund their own positions through fines. For years, the residents of Ferguson lived with the absurd fiction that police can dispense even handed justice when their real mandate is to find ways to extract money in the form of fines from the community. It did not dispose them to accept the explanations offered by the police for the shooting of an unarmed student.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014


the Jabberwock, my son. Oh, and the two-tonne steel bomb with the driver who thinks everyone on the street should wear high-viz or stay at home.

Operating a powered vehicle on public streets for your own convenience, pleasure or profit is a privilege. That privilege comes with responsibility. That responsibility is simple: do no harm. If you can't drive safely for any reason, don't drive. Driving safely means, at a minimum, not hitting pedestrians with the right of way. Period. It does not matter what the pedestrian has chosen to wear. If you think you can make a legal right turn on red but you can't tell for sure if you see a pedestrian waiting to cross, don't make the turn until you have made sure. If you get an impression that you see motion at night, you probably do: in darkness, the human eye does a better job detecting motion than shape. That fleeting impression of something moving could mean a human being, and until you've identified it, stay stopped. You and your car can mange to wait to make the turn, but the pedestrian can't make do without their life. Adjust your speed to the visibility. If you can't see a pedestrian in a black coat in a crosswalk in time to stop, slow down until you can. You will get where you want to go a whole lot earlier if you don't have to stop to explain how you injured or killed someone along the way.

Motorists keep putting more and more onerous conditions on vulnerable road users. It has to stop now. The appetites of car users for speed and convenience already dominate most of the usable public right of way. Motorists have an unconditional responsibility not to injure pedestrians using the limited public space left them. Don't hit pedestrians in crosswalks, at four way stops, in crossovers, or on the sidewalk. Just don't do it: full stop, no excuses.