Posts Tagged ‘Crime’

Monitoring Syrians and Supplicants.

datePosted on 12:14, February 14th, 2014 by Pablo

The subject of spying is back in the news this week, but the coverage has been inadequate. Allow me to clarify some issues, first with regard to those who want to join the Syrian conflict and second with regard to politicians trying to ingratiate themselves with Kim Dotcom.

Contrary to the thrust of the coverage, not all those seeking to join the Syrian conflict are Syrian or descendants of Syrians. The Syrian War is a civil war between Shiia and Sunnis, where the minority Alawite-backed Assad regime is fighting to maintain its grip over a majority Sunni population (Alawites are a sub-sect of Shiia Islam). For a variety of affective and strategic reasons Iran (a very large Shiia dominant country) supports the Assad regime while Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia and Gulf oligarchies back the armed opposition. This opposition is divided into what can be loosely called secular moderates (such as those grouped in the Free Syrian Army) and Islamicists (such as those in the al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant).

The latter have come to dominate the military side of the opposition due to their superior combat skills and determination. Their ranks include Sunni internationalists from all over the world (including New Zealand) who see joining the struggle as a religious imperative. Egyptians, Jordanians, Pakistanis, Britons, Australians and French nationals are among those fighting in Islamicist ranks. That has led to serious clashes with the moderate secularists (who do not have as many internationalists in their ranks, although there are some), to the point that the fighting between the armed opposition factions has allowed the Assad regime to re-gain the upper hand in the overall struggle after being near collapse just six months ago.

Where the armed opposition is winning, it is the Islamicists who are doing so.

In the last nine months the Prime Minister has made repeated reference to would-be New Zealand jihadis joining the fight in Syria. Some are already there and others have been barred from going. They may or may not be Syrian in origin, but his use of the “Syrian trump card” is a naked political ploy designed to use fear-mongering as a justification for extension of domestic espionage and, perhaps, as a way of pre-emptively steeling public opinion against the negative consequences of the inevitable revelations from Edward Snowden about New Zealand’s foreign espionage role within the Five Eyes/Echelon signals intelligence collection network. The trouble with the PM’s ploy is that the proclaimed threat does not match the facts.

According to the government ten New Zealand passports have been revoked since 2005 and a handful of Kiwis are in Syria fighting. The PM makes it sound as if all these have associations with extremist Islam. Perhaps they do, but the Syrian conflict only heated up as of early 2012, so the Syrian card does not explain why passports were cancelled prior to that. Moreover, the PM says that passports were cancelled in order to prevent “radicalized” Kiwis from returning and making trouble at home. That begs the question as to what the frustrated wanna-be jihadis are going to do now that their plans are thwarted and they are forced to remain in the country under heavy scrutiny.

A Syrian community spokesman has said that two brothers had their passports revoked after their parents informed authorities of their plans to travel back home to join the fight. He also accused the PM and his government of “racial discrimination.” The latter claim is ridiculous and shows a gross misunderstanding of how democratic governance works. John Key did not personally order the revocation of any passports nor does he have the power to rescind the cancellation order. New Zealand authorities did not cancel the brother’s passports because they were Syrian but because of their purported intentions. They did not target the entire Syrian community for who they are.

In fact, under current legislation the government is well within its rights to revoke passports on the grounds that the individuals involved intend to become or are part of a criminal enterprise, of which terrorism is one. Since the Islamicists fighting in Syria are considered terrorist organizations by the New Zealand government, any intent to join them could be construed as an attempt to engage in criminal activity. One might argue that the definition of terrorism is too broad (and I believe that it is), but as things stand the government’s concern about returning, combat experienced jihadis is a legitimate motive for canceling passports.

I shall leave aside the fact that the chances of survival of those joining the Syrian conflict is quite low* and they are being monitored in any event, so mitigating the potential threat posed by returning jihadis is not as formidable as Mr. Key implies. There are technical means of tracking the location of passports, and the individuals who are in Syria or want to go there have been identified already via domestic intelligence gathering. In fact, allowing suspects to travel while being secretly monitored is a standard intelligence collection method, so one can reasonably assume that the handful of Kiwi internationalists in Syria as well as their as of yet to travel brethren are the focus of both human and signals intelligence collection efforts by local espionage agencies in conjunction with foreign counterparts.

However, Mr. Key’s repeated public use of the Syrian card certainly has alerted any would-be extremists in the New Zealand Muslim community that they have been infiltrated by the Police and SIS and that there are informants in their midst. In fact, the New Zealand Muslim community is a bit of a sieve since 9/11 because personal, sectarian and financial vendettas as well as legitimate concerns about ideological extremism have seen the accusation of “terrorist” thrown around quite freely within it. This has been well known inside security circles (who have to separate bogus from legitimate accusations of terrorist sympathies), but the PM’s public disclosure has given potential jihadis a clear signal to exercise increased caution and diligence when planning future violence (should there be any).

The most important issue, however, is the selective application of the passport revocation authority. If would-be Islamic internationalists have not been convicted of crimes in New Zealand, and barring clear evidence that they intend to engage in crime abroad, then they should be allowed free passage to travel. If they engage in war crimes or crimes against humanity during a foreign conflict (be it in Syria or elsewhere), they can be charged upon their return, or even detained on the suspicion of complicity in said crimes. This is not a far-fetched speculation because both the Assad regime and its armed opposition have committed a raft of atrocities that fall under both definitions of illegal war-time behavior.

This applies equally to those who may choose to join non-Islamicist groups in other foreign conflicts (for example, by joining Christian militias in the Central African Republic), so specifically targeting those intending to go to Syria to fight is, in fact, selective if not discriminatory application of the relevant law. As far as following the Australian example and making it illegal to join a foreign conflict under penalty of imprisonment or revocation of citizenship, one can only hope not.

The simple fact is that would-be jihadis and other internationalists should be free to join any foreign conflict. They assume the risk of doing so and understand that they give up the diplomatic protections usually reserved for citizens traveling abroad. Should they be deemed a potential threat upon their return (in the event that they do), then it is the responsibility of local law enforcement and intelligence agencies to mitigate that threat within the rule of law. As I have alluded to above, that is not particularly hard to do in the New Zealand context.

As for politicians meeting with Dotcom, the issue is far more simple than sinister. Dotcom is a NZ permanent resident who is a fugitive from US justice still under extradition warrant (which is being argued in court). The authorities may well consider him a flight risk because he certainly has the means to do so. They may believe that he is continuing his criminal associations or practices while his court case is being heard (I shall refrain from making bad jokes about those who have flocked to his side during the GCSB Bill debates, or about the politicians who have knocked on his door). Given his penchant for partying and those he associates with when doing so, they may want to catch him in possession of illegal drugs.

Thus the Police would have legitimate reason to run ongoing surveillance operations on him, and can do so legally with or without the help of the SIS and now, thanks to the passage of the GCSB Bill, the GCSB. In doing so, they would monitor and record the comings and goings of visitors to his mansion, with that information passed up the chain of command.

That is why Mr Key’s version of how he came to know about Mr. Peters’ treks to the Coatesville property is odd. He claims that he got his information about Dotcom’s political visitors from Cameron Slater working with or independently from a Herald gossip columnist. That is troubling.

The Right Honorable John Key is the Minister of Intelligence and Security, so presumably he is aware of the status of security operations and the Dotcom case in particular given its history. But he claims that he received domestic espionage information about Dotcoms’s visitors from a right-wing, admittedly partisan “attack” blogger, rather than from the security agencies for which he is responsible and who have a legal right to monitor Mr. Dotcom. That is a sign of incompetence or willful ignorance on his part.

I have shares in a Bolivian gold mine I am willing to sell at a very affordable price to readers who believe a sociopath was the first source of the Dotcom visit data provided to the PM.  Perhaps I am wrong and it is simply too much for domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies to pursue the monitoring of Dotcom for a supposed copyright infringement when so many Syrian-focused terrorists abound. But given the amount of resources expended and the reputational stakes involved, it would not be surprising and in fact legal for security agencies to do so.

I would suggest that if people like Winston Peters are concerned about being spied on when visiting Mr. Dotcom, then they should look at their own roles in allowing that to happen. Since 9/11 the legal powers and practical reach of the domestic espionage apparatus have been increased incrementally yet extensively under both Labour and National governments. Other than a relatively small number of Left activists and the Green Party (as well as ACT while Rodney Hide was still around to lead it), neither the majority public or the majority of political parties did anything to oppose this extension.

In fact, although Labour party figures and Winston Peters joined Kim Dotcom on the stage at various anti-GCSB Bill protests last year, and the bow-tied buffoon with a pompadour posing as a political party objected to having his personal communications accessed during the course of an investigation into leaks of confidential government information, Labour is responsible for the majority of the extensions and Dunne and Peters supported all of them. National has merely deepened the trend towards a surveillance society.

Hence, whatever Labour, NZ First or United Future may say now as a way of partisan point-scoring, they are full accomplices in the erosion of Kiwi privacy rights over the last decade. Any current whinging about violations of their personal and the larger collective privacy should be dismissed as cowardly rank hypocrisy.

In any event, when it comes to intrusions on basic freedoms of association, privacy and travel, not only Syrians living in New Zealand have reason to feel aggrieved.

* This is due to the immutable Buchanan rule of ground warfare: if you are firing your weapon over your head, or firing blindly around corners in the general direction of the enemy, you will not last long once s/he closes in. Should that rule be miraculously violated without consequence, the fifth Buchanan rule of asymmetrical warfare comes into effect: strapping explosives or amulets to your body in the hope of divine intervention is based on a false premise.

Theater of the Absurd.

datePosted on 08:05, March 14th, 2012 by Pablo

Is there something in the water that trial lawyers drink?

First the prosecution claims that the Urewera Four and their merry band of role-playing wanna-be commandos were in the bush training for urban guerrilla warfare and posed an imminent threat to New Zealand’s peace and tranquility. The defense answers that all the gun play was just a wanaga exercise designed to train people for private security jobs so that they could move off the dole (even though all of the original defendants were well-known Left activists of various stripes, and several had jobs). Then Tame Iti’s lawyer sums up his defense by claiming that Iti is comparable to Nelson Mandela in the historical scheme of things. WTF?

Are these lawyers high? Is there something about the High Court that brings out the hyperbole in barristers? Do they think that juries are idiots? Or do they think that by offering up a mountain of bluster that the jury will not differentiate between smoke and fire? One thing is clear–the lawyers in this case clearly have Ph.D.s in argumentation: they Pile it High and Deep.

The sad fact is that after more than a million tax-payer dollars have been spent on punitively prosecuting some deluded and/or foolish people for acts that are otherwise commonplace in rural New Zealand, acts that happen on a weekly basis, we have been saddled with a four year court process ending in a trial in which both sides make patently absurd claims to bolster their respective cases.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, if this is the state of the art when it comes to criminal prosecutions and defense, then New Zealand is being very poorly served. And having to pay for that poor service is as galling as having the case go to court in the first place.

 

Exaggeration as a prosecution strategy.

datePosted on 10:33, February 20th, 2012 by Pablo

Judging from the media coverage of the Urewera 4 trial, including video and audio evidence given by the Crown to the press, the prosecutorial strategy is quite clear. It consists of three interwoven strands that together offer a narrative about politically-motivated armed criminal conspiracy. The first is to say that the activities depicted in the evidence were serious military-style (paramilitary) training. The second is to characterize the exercises as, in the words of the Crown Prosecutor, “training for…guerrilla warfare,” something that implies a target and an objective. The third is to claim that this training constituted a clear and present danger to the New Zealand public, or at least to the political elite who the defendants in the alleged conspiracy commonly oppose. Although the usual sub judice protocols are said to be in place, selective  leaking of the video and audio tapes (whose legality is in dispute) helps the Crown backdrop its case, in a form of trial by media in which there is no right to rebuttal. The release of the audio and video evidence was done for prejudicial reasons, not because the Crown had to.

The problem for the Crown is that the video and audio evidence covertly collected by the Police suggest something less than dangerous proficiency on the part of Tame Iti and his activist comrades. There is no doubt that the camps had a paramilitary flavor to them. So do hunting camps, paintball competitions, male-bonding sessions and survivalist exercises. More tellingly, the video shows rank amateurism and indifferent commitment by the people involved.  As an example, Omar Hamed, an original defendant who is not on trial, is seen in close up video coverage looking like an excited 12 year old with his first rabbit hunting.22 (which was the actual weapon he was holding) as he stares directly but obliviously at a surveillance camera a meter away (which suggests a lack of situational awareness given that the Police claim that Mr. Iti repeatedly warned his activist colleagues to beware of “eyes and ears” on their activities). His pea shooter may or may not have been loaded. Mr Iti’s concerns, as it turns out, were justified.

In the video some people march purposefully and some shuffle listlessly and mill about while others converse and apparently shoot at unspecified targets. Some give instructions. Some wear balaclavas. A car bonnet is used to prop up a shot. There is rudimentary martial arts training seen in the video, but it is farcical given the skills of the people involved (in a creepy sidebar with relevance to this aspect, it is suggested in some quarters that Mr. Hamed is more dangerous to activist Left women than he is to the status quo). Audio of cluster fire (cluster fire is the overlapping of multiple shots from several weapons in order to saturate a target area) does not identify who was doing it or what they were shooting at, and the presence of spent cartridges under a pock-marked tree tells little in light of the amount of hunting that occurs in the Ureweras.

Frankly, I would be more concerned if the videos showed the activists on a boar hunt, slitting the throats of piglets while yelling “death to imperialism!” The activities shown are far from that and much more about make believe. From what I have seen, the NZ public have little to worry about from this crowd.

As I have said before, it is not a good look for anti-war, Maori and environmental activists to be playing at commando. But it is not a crime to do so–many other people do–so the prosecution’s case is built on a grand exaggeration. It attempts to show a level of competence, organization and training focus to the paramilitary exercises that simply was not there. If anything, the video evidence is an embarrassment to those in them, whether or not they had a political motive for being at the camps. That is curious because neo-Nazi groups do the same type of “training” with a better (yet pathetic) level of competence and a definite, publicly stated political goal of preparing for racial conflict, yet somehow have avoided being the subject of a Ruatoki-style Police response and four year Crown prosecution.

The Crown exaggerates its case not only to secure convictions but also to smear and deter. Mentioning the phrase “guerrilla warfare” indirectly introduces the word terrorism into the juries’ minds. By overlapping the two concepts the prosecution smears a certain type of Left activism with the dreaded “T” word. Even those not on trial–we should remember that all charges were dropped against  13 defendants–are tainted by their association with that word even though no formal charges of terrorism have been laid against any of them. The purpose of raising the specter of guerrillas in our midst is clearly to smear the defendants, but also to deter others on the Left who might wish to add paramilitary skills to their activist inventory.

The Crown imputes coherent motive to the defendants when it speaks of guerrilla warfare. It claims that it has evidence of such. But even if a common motive was established (perhaps hatred of “Da Man”), the inference is that this motive was focused on preparing to use armed violence against specific targets in pursuit of a unified goal. That is a stretch, not only because of the varied causes that the original group of defendants espoused, but also because of the clearly different levels of enthusiasm and combat skills they exhibit, none of which come remotely close to credible guerrilla organization and tactics.

Thus, from what the press coverage has been so far, the Crown prosecution of the Urewera 4 is much ado about nothing. The process is the punishment, because after four plus years of uncertainty, expense and de facto restrictions on their movements (some of the original defendants have been refused entry to foreign countries, which means that their names are on an international security list very likely provided by the NZ authorities), those on trial today, their Urewera colleagues and others on the activist Left (since the neo-Nazi Right appears to be immune) will think twice about making like Warriors even if this trial results in acquittals (the most likely case for conviction will be firearms law violations). Regardless of the outcome of the trial, in that regard the Crown prosecutors and the Labour and National governments that have overseen them will have won. Engaging in procedural delays, legal manipulation of charges and prosecutorial exaggeration is a successful Crown strategy regardless of the formal outcome.

That is the most troubling aspect of the entire affair. By stretching the definition of what constitutes a serious threat of domestic guerrilla warfare in order to prosecute a well-known group of Left-leaning fantasists (who may or may not have had wanna-be militant ambitions), in what appears to be a specifically targeted vendetta, the Crown has played loose with the basic rules of democratic jurisprudence. In doing so fairness and justice in the legal system has been sacrificed at the alter of political opportunity, which is a far worse outcome than the individual fates of the accused.

There may be new and alarming revelations to come that would substantiate the Crown’s case against the Urewera 4. But from where I sit, using what is currently in the public domain, this appears to be a prosecution based on malice, not facts.

 

Bloody liability

datePosted on 10:41, January 19th, 2011 by Lew

Sarah Palin, as has been clear for some years now, has an unmatched talent for drawing the spotlight. A week after the infamous ‘blood libel‘ video she’s still at it today, pouring more fuel on a fire which should never have been started. ‘Blood libel’ and the American Right’s shrieking, paranoid victim complex are now a bigger story than the (attempted) murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a political rally outside a suburban supermarket. That takes an awful lot of doing.

But she simply doesn’t know when to shut up. Let me be clear: I’m by no means saying that she must shut up, or even that I want her to shut up; nor am I attempting to curtail her First Amendment rights or impinge upon her cherished liberty — let there be no persecution fantasies regarding the humble analysis which is to follow. Palin’s conduct is a matter of political strategy for her PAC, the wider Tea Party movement and ultimately the Republican party. If they want to keep pursuing a strategy which, politically, is a hiding to nothing, then far be it from me to stand in their way. But I am arguing, as are plenty of Republican-oriented strategists, including former Bush advisor David Frum — that as a matter of strategy she should just shut the hell up and resume her place on the fringes of this topic, because there’s nothing to be gained and an awful lot to be lost by continuing to fan these flames. Frum is hardly a bleeding-heart liberal; he invented the ‘Axis of Evil’. He is also Jewish, as is Rep Giffords, so one assumes the misuse of ‘blood libel’ by a renegade WASP like Palin has special salience to him.

Let me also say that Palin and the Tea Party had some right to be angry at the invective levelled at them and their movement in the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting. I generally agree with Pablo’s previous points, that Palin and the Tea Party must bear some responsibility for the climate of discourse they have created; but I’d also say that they have not created such a climate on their own. While disproportionately on the elephant side, warlike imagery and symbols of political violence are a commonplace in both camps of US politics. Influential US liberal commentators, notably Keith Olbermann, jumped all too gleefully upon the chance to all but blame Palin (and Beck, etc) for pulling the trigger, although at best there is only a tenuous link between Jared Lee Loughner’s anti-government sentiments and the Tea Party. (Although it is often overlooked that Olbermann’s rant also called strongly upon the American left to repudiate (not refudiate) violence in word and deed). The extent of the speculation and the attempts to pin the murders on Palin and the Tea Party before the dust had settled were unmerited and, as I say, the objects of these accusations were justified in a certain amount of self-righteous indignation.

But one of the defining characteristics of the Tea Party, and of libertarian-oriented small-government revivalist movements in general, is their utter lack of perspective, and Palin simply went too far. These are people who genuinely believe taxation to be armed robbery, after all. So, like the white supremacist who blames all misfortune on immigrants; like the misogynist who bemoans the PC feminazi dykocracy; or the wealthy white elderly Sensible Sentencing Trust supporters who believe themselves to be the most vulnerable victims of crime, when, objectively, the reverse is true — the Tea Partiers and Palin simply can’t see past their own trivial victimisation to the actual and genuine victims of the Arizona tragedy, those who are dead, wounded or bereaved. IrishBill, writing at The Standard recently referred to these sorts as Right Whingers, and the persecution narrative is a feature of modern backlash movements: when elites come under such threat that they feel as if they no longer command the fields of cultural battle, they claim to have been victimised. And they go on and on about it. “Help, help, we’re being repressed!

Nobody likes a whinger or someone who talks a big game but can’t play, especially in US politics. One of the Republican party’s strongest symbolic assets through the latter 20th century has been the sense that it’s a party of rugged individuals with the thousand-yard gaze of their pioneer forebears, while the Democrats are a bunch of preppy sissies with excuses always at the ready. To an extent there’s been some truth to this narrative, but the “all hat and no cattle” label attached to Bush did his party’s political fortunes considerable harm, and Palin has already weakened her own pioneer and Mama Grizzly credentials immeasurably with the now-infamous ‘hunting’ episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska. In it, despite her claim to being a life-long hunter, she appears unfamiliar with her rifle (“does it kick?”), is unable to chamber her own rounds (daddy does it for her); and takes five shots to hit a large animal standing on a skyline 120 yards away (and then there’s the estimate that a hunting trip in her home state cost $42,000 — not very pioneerish, that).

Likewise, the emergence of the Tea Party and its rather more extreme rhetoric has seen the erosion of the traditional, conservative pioneer narrative in favour of a more excitable tone — perhaps a shift from ‘pioneer’ to ‘revolutionary’ would be the metaphorical change. This shift in itself is not a weakness, except when its less favourable characteristics come to the fore, and it is these aspects of the Tea Party movement which the Democrats and other liberals have been emphasising: its crazed extremes and frightening rhetoric; the cultish, heightened emotionality of leaders like Glenn Beck, which verges on the religious; its lack of concern with details like grammar, factual accuracy and proportion; its brittleness and temporary, ad-hoc nature as opposed to the reliable stability of the Grand Old Party.

By resort to the strident ‘blood libel’ line, Palin has fallen into the trap of confirming — and defending — key aspects of the liberal narrative about her and by extension about her movement: she lacks any sense of perspective or proportion, public decorum or decency or compassion; she is an attention-seeker with a persecution complex who thinks it’s always all about her; she doesn’t know what the terms she uses actually mean; that they’re desperate cranks rather than serious statespeople; and most seriously, that she can dish it out but not take it. This last will be the master narrative going into the 2012 Presidential election, in the increasingly unlikely event that Palin is the nominee, and Democrats and liberals the world over relish the prospect of a proven big-game player like Obama against a scattergun show-pony like Palin.

The decision to release and then defend the ‘blood libel’ video is a double tragedy for the Republican party, who took a strong lead in the November mid-terms, and have now missed the best opportunity in a decade to consolidate that lead by looking like the calm, sober, conservative adults they claim to be and to represent. Palin’s decline may be better for them in the long term; many commentators are now confirmed in the belief they held before the mid-terms that she had outlasted her usefulness as an energising agent, and is now simply a liability, a distraction from the serious business of government to which the GOP must now turn its attention.

L

Playing the denial and diversion game (with updated link).

datePosted on 15:04, January 13th, 2011 by Pablo

In the aftermath of the Tucson shooting, it has been unsurprising but nevertheless amazing at how the US media Right and other conservatives have rushed to deny any linkage between the shooting and the political climate of the moment. Even some of the usually smart contrarian commentators here at KP have been quick to join the chorus claiming that this attack was just the work of a lone nutter. But let it be clear: even if the killer has clear psychological issues, he chose a political target rather–as in the case of other mass killings by mentally disturbed individuals in the US in recent times–random strangers or family members. For that reason alone, the Tucson massacre is a politically-motivated crime regardless of the Right trying to deny it, and the proof of that is the federal indictments against Mr. Loughner.

Confronted with the obvious–that the vicious political discourse of recent times, a discourse rabidly promoted by conservative media outlets, internet commentators and political demagogues, has set the stage for an inevitable act of armed violence on the part of someone who shares, however partially and incoherently, the world view of the reactionary Right–the media Right and its political acolytes have turned to the tried and true tactic of deny and divert.

First, they deny that the shooting was a political act but instead was just an act of lunacy. These are the same media types who immediately saw world Jihadism behind the rampage conducted by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood. They are the same people who describe murderous anti-abortionists as people of conviction led astray by the strength of  their beliefs, and who claim that the Oklahoma City bombing was conducted by some loser social misfits. The flatly refuse to acknowledge the context in which these attacks occurred, and they flatly refuse to accept their share of responsibility for fomenting an atmosphere of partisan hate and violence. In a country that has seen its popular culture debased and vulgarised to the point that gratuitous violence is a mainstay of popular entertainment and an attitude of insolent disrespect has become a norm in inter-personal exchange, such incendiary posturing does nothing more than provide an accelerant for those who are already disposed to act out in violent ways. And yet, the cowards in the media Right claim they had nothing to do with the events in Tucson.

Instead, they and their political allies have adopted the tactic of diverting and deflecting criticism towards the “liberal” press and politicians who they claim have attempted to make political capital out of the tragedy. They have attempted to equate Left liberal acts of civil disobedience, peaceful resistance and direct action with the shooting and previous Right wing threats of armed violence and actual acts of such (in the infamous list of purported Left wing acts of violence posted by a notorious Right wing blogger there is not a single image of anyone with a firearm, much less of anyone shooting or killing in pursuit of their beliefs. In fact, among the supposed comparable acts listed by that blogger are recordings of people laying down in the front of weapons trains in protest of war. Can that really be considered morally equivalent to a mass shooting? Only in the fevered mind of a Right wing apologist).

Reactionary attention has centred on the comments of Pima Country Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, who has held the job for 30 years based upon regular re-election as a Democrat (in a county that is majority Democratic in an otherwise Republican state). In his first press conference after the shootings Sheriff Dupnik denounced the climate of hate and atmosphere of bigotry that has descended on Arizona and the country in general. The Right went ballistic at his  mention of this patent fact, accusing him of partisanship, jeopardizing the case and failing in his duties to prevent the shooting because Laughner was known to the police prior to the event (ignoring the fact that his department is hamstrung by mental health and civil rights laws that prevent it from arresting individuals in cases short of domestic violence where reported threat behaviour is not materially imminent). In other words, in spite of the Right’s attempts to smear him, Sheriff Dupnik well knows of what he speaks, because it is his office that has to confront the daily consequences of loose gun laws an anti-immigrant sentiment in a county that extends down to the Mexican border. Put succinctly, Sheriff Dupnik stated the truth. For that public service, he has been pilloried by the Right wing media frothers.

Regardless of whether Mr. Loughner was indirectly or directly inspired by hate speech and the venom directed at the federal government and “liberals” by Right wing political-media networks, the simple point is the obvious point that Sheriff Dupnik was making: the increasingly public language of hate and divisiveness was the backdrop against which he carried out his rampage. He chose a political target. His intent was political assassination. His was, in sum, a political act, however deranged he may be. And that act was carried out against a “liberal” Democrat in the US federal government who has repeatedly been, along with others of her ideological persuasion, the direct recipients of the hyper partisan vitriol emanating from the mouths of the fear and hate-mongering Right.

No amount of denial, diversion and obfuscation can detract from that fact.

UPDATE: Frank Rich does a good job of summarising the situation.

Justice delayed, now denied.

datePosted on 18:02, December 31st, 2010 by Pablo

Rather than ring out the old year and ring in the new year with the usual inane rubbish about new beginnings and fresh starts, annual lists, countdowns etc., how about we use the occasion for a reality check, in this case a reality check on the state of the NZ judiciary using one very important case.

On October 15, 2007 a number of individuals were arrested on a variety of charges, including planning terrorist attacks. Others were arrested later, and collectively they have come to be known as the Urewera 18. On May 30, 2011, three and half years after they were arrested, the majority of these defendants will finally go to trial (three defendants will be tried separately).  Not only is the delay largely a result of the Police and Crown trying to introduce new charges after the fact and argue for the admissibility of evidence obtained under the Terrorism Suppression Act that was ultimately not invoked against the accused. Now, in a decision which has had its reasoning suppressed by the court, the Urewera 15 have been ordered to have a trial by judge. You read correctly: not only have they been denied  the right to a prompt trial but are now denied a jury of their peers. To that can be added holding the trial in Auckland when most of the defendants live elsewhere and their purported crimes were committed outside of Auckland.

Between the delays, venue and judge-only trial, the Crown and judiciary is engaging in a blood-letting exercise designed to drain the defendants materially and emotionally long before they enter the courtroom on May 30. Arguing under section 12 that the case is too complex, with too many defendants, with too many side-issues and matters of procedure to be considered adequately by a panel of laymen and women is an insult to the NZ public as well as a thinly veiled attempt at juridically saving face in a case that was over-ambitious, politically-motivated and legally flawed from inception.

This is further evidence of the ingrained authoritarianism and lack of accountability rampant in the judicial system. Judges act as if they are above the laws they are supposed to uphold. The Crown vindictively prosecutes cases without regard to their merits or costs because political interests are at play (remember that the NZ wikileaks cables show NZ government officials telling the US embassy in Wellington that theZaoui case was not winnable–then saw the Crown go ahead for another two years arguing for Zaoui’s incarceration or expulsion until the SIS finally dropped the pretext that he was a threat to national security). Elites are given name suppression for the flimsiest of reasons and judges protect their own when these transgress. This is exactly the sort of judicial attitude in dictatorships.

And yet, it is the attitude in NZ as well. Meanwhile, not a single mainstream media outlet has raised the subject of the long delayed and now jury-denied Urewera trial since the decision on the latter was announced in early December. Not a single right-wing blog has raised the obvious civil liberties and rule of law implications of the case. The Left commentariat has been largely silent as well, with the notable exceptions of Idiot Savant and Russell Brown.

Why is this? Is this silence a result of the fact that the accused are an ideological minority that are easy to scapegoat and persecute? If so, that is exactly the reason why the full spectrum of democratic commentators should be protesting the case: in a democracy it is not mainstream, “normal,” “nice guys” who deserve the most legal protection and rights of redress. It is the ideologically suspect, reprehensible, marginalised, ostracized or otherwise outcast who deserve the full protections of law precisely because they are at the mercy of the majority–a majority that is often ill-informed or manipulated by authorities when it comes to evaluating the merits of any given case against anti-status quo political activists. The majority may rule, but free, fair and impartial trials are the minority’s best bulwark against its tyranny.

That is another reason why a jury trial is deserved by the Urewera 15. A  jury, selected from the public mainstream, can listen to and observe the prosecution evidence and the defense against it in detail, first hand, then deliberate on the merits of each. That ensures that no judicial bias or hidden quid pro quos enter into the process. As things stand, the judge who hears the trial is vulnerable to such accusations, which is more the reason to bring an impartial jury into the process.

I am not entirely sympathetic to the causes being espoused by the Urewera 18. I do believe in their right to act militantly in defense of them subject to the penalties of  law should they act in ways that contravene criminal standards (as hard as it is to say, I extend this belief in the right to militant activism to neo-Nazis and skinheads as well so long as no harm to others results from it). Here I disagree with some distinguished Left commentators, who have seen something sinister in their activities and who believe that the political motivations of the defendants makes the case “special.”

I have already written at length on why politically-motivated crimes should not be treated as a special category so will not belabour it here. But I am sure that those who see sinister intent in the Urewera 18  will agree that the way this prosecution has gone is wrong on several levels. Even if the Urewera defendants are in fact complicit in something more than activist fantasy-ism and role-play, they deserve to be treated fairly according to the rule of law consistent with the foundational principles of a free society. Yet they have not, and nary a peep has been heard about that from those who should know better and who ostensibly are champions of the democratic ethos.

This attitude is shameful and should be repudiated by all fair minded people regardless of ideological persuasion.  The trial-by-judge decision must be appealed as a denial of due process and publicly repudiated by those who believe in the democratic ideal.

How’s that for some New Year’s resolutions?

Countering threats as a growth industry.

datePosted on 18:15, July 23rd, 2010 by Pablo

News that the US has a network of over one thousand agencies employing more than 800,000 people involved in counter-terrorism efforts comes as no surprise. The post 9/11 reaction to the threat of armed Islamicist extremism by the US government was as visceral as it was knee-jerk, with a blanket call put out to increase every aspect of the country’s counter-terrorism capability. From intelligence gathering to emergency response and everything in between, counter-terrorism agencies proliferated from the local to the state to the federal level, as did the number of private firms engaged in direct counter-terrorism efforts as well as support roles.

But there are problems with this expansion, and it is not just the waste of resources associated with the duplication of functions and overlapping of roles that comes with it. Nor are the problems confined to the US. Let me list a few.

Around the world concerns about terrorism has seen the expansion of government security apparatuses dedicated to fighting it. Intelligence agencies, police forces and the military of virtually all Western states, to say nothing of those in the Sunni Arab world, Africa, Asia and the Antipodes, have increased the amount of resources directed towards countering potential terrorist threats (South America is the exception to the rule because traditional inter-state rivalries and the lack of Islamicist grievances in the region have led authorities to focus attention elsewhere). In New Zealand, for example, both the Combined Threat Assessment Group (an inter-agency combine that analyses intelligence flows and threat assessments from such as the SIS, Police, NZDF, MoD, Immigration, Customs and Foreign Affairs) and the Counter Terrorism Tactical Assault Group (CTTAG, a combined military and police specialist unit trained to respond to terrorist incidents) were created after 9/11. Similar agencies now litter the state security landscape throughout the world.

Along with the proliferation of agencies comes increases in their funding and personnel, and more perniciously, the scope of their responsibilities. Again, in New Zealand this is evident in the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA), which is modeled on similar legislation in the UK and US and which gives broad powers to the government to infringe on basic civil liberties in its efforts to detect and stop suspected terrorism-related activities on NZ soil. The same goes for the Search and Surveillance bill now before parliament. In the US the so-called Patriot Act, which is still in force, grants US security agencies broad powers of arrest and detention on the mere suspicion of terrorism-linked behaviour. The expansion in both the number and legal authority of counter-terrorism agencies has been facilitated by politicians who, in an effort to not look weak on the issue of terrorism, approve budgetary increases and laws that fuel the growth of the counter-terrorism industry. In the post 9/11 rush to promote security, only a few brave politicians have attempted to resist the trampling of civil rights that the expansion of the security apparatus inevitably entails.

Besides the obvious problems that come with the “squeezing” of civil society by the security state (since the expansion of the state’s counter-terrorism powers come at the direct expense of the right to privacy and presumption of innocence), there is another downside that needs to be considered: the construction of threats in order to justify the existence of counter-terrorism networks. What is more, this phenomena extends beyond government security agencies and into private enterprise and academia.

In order to justify their existence, security agencies have to be able to identify and counter threats. In some countries the threats are real, as is the need to thwart them. But in much of the world the threat of terrorism is no more than it was in the 1990s, 1980s or 1970s. One such place is NZ. In these countries security agencies have a bureaucratic self-interest in identifying “threats,” because if there are no new threats then the rationale for their role and resource expansion goes out the window. Thus in 2005 the NZSIS identified “home grown jihadis” as the gravest security threat to NZ. A year later it dropped all reference to local Islamic extremists and highlighted foreign espionage networks operating on NZ soil. The following years have seen it highlight foreign-based computer hacking and industrial espionage as sources of concern. Each year appears to bring with it a new threat, even as the others are quietly dropped from annual reports.

Along with state security agencies conjuring up or exaggerating threats, so has an army of private security firms, including open source intelligence providers, security guard outfits and private military corporations sprung up to take advantage of the post 9/11 climate of fear. They bandwagon with state security agencies to emphasize the dangers of terrorism and other threats so as to nurture a client base for their services. The infamous Blackwater (now known as XE) private military corporation is an example of a “one-stop” private contractor that has its own intelligence, airborne, naval and ground units ready to serve both public and private clients for handsome fees (one of their latest ventures is in anti-piracy operations).  Thousands of other such firms now dot the global security landscape, all emphasizing the dangers of  the threat environment in the pursuit of profit. Not only does this industry work neatly with state security agencies’ agendas, but it further squeezes civil society in the measure that its surveillance capabilities and quasi-police powers increase as well.

Even academia is not immune from this trend. Over the last decade “counter-terrorism” centres have sprung up in dozens of universities world-wide. They receive their funding from governments, hold conferences, and churn out reports, books, even specialised journals that are dedicated to the subject (including “Perspectives on Terrorism” and “Terrorism and Political Violence,” although my favorite journal along these lines is “Small Wars and Insurgencies”). Here too the push is on to identify threats so as to justify continued funding. Places like Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, home of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, have dozens of highly paid researchers working on counter-terrorism and threat analysis projects (including one analyst at RSIS who declared that NZ faced a domestic Islamicist threat without ever having been to the country). Since funding for its facilities and personnel is directly related to its threat analyses, NTU has a vested interest in helping ensure that the perception of the global and regional threat environments is that they are variegated and “dense.” NTU is certainly not alone in pursuing the counter-terrorism dollar–this is a world-wide trend.

And of course, there are the countless terrorism “experts” that have sprung up as analysts and talking heads in the corporate media. No matter how tenuous their qualifications for discussing issues of threat posed by terrorism and irregular warfare groups, these pundits materially benefit from the exposure afforded to them by the sound-bite crowd.

Which brings up the thought for the day. Threats to international and national security do exist and terrorism is real. But pragmatic threat assessment and better use of extant security agencies and criminal law to counter terrorism have been overwhelmed by the urge to manipulate the impression of threats for individual, corporate, bureaucratic or political gain. That in turn has seen a shrinking of the civic space and private sphere in inverse proportion to the expansion of integrated (private-public) national security networks.

When money combines with a climate of fear, impressions of threat can be manipulated (if  not invented) in order to pursue profit or bureaucratic power. Threat manipulation in pursuit of corporate self-interest and the expansion of state security apparatuses poses a serious risk to democratic society. In another life long before 9/11 I participated in actual threat assessment exercises for the US government. The ethos then was to call things as they were, objectively, so as to not allow political agendas or ideological bias to divert resources away from real dangers. Now that logic has been reversed: threat mitigation is seen as a potential source of income and power, with the more threats identified the more resources will be directed towards them by political elites and a fearful public. By that logic, counter-terrorism is the mother of all cash cows, and as NZ prepares to host the Rugby World Cup, we can assume that there will be plenty of interested parties working hard to milk it regardless of the real threat environment in which the tournament is held.

Sleeping dogs

datePosted on 23:08, July 8th, 2010 by Lew

Tim Watkin usually writes good sense, but with the latest post on gun control it’s clear he just doesn’t know his subject. Toughening gun control in NZ is basically a hiding to nothing, both in policy and in symbolic terms. It’s pointless for three main reasons:

  1. We already have pretty sane firearm laws and gun culture which regulate legitimate gun owners, and constrain the sorts of weapons most useful to criminals;
  2. As a country, we own a lot of guns, and they’re important to our way of life and identity, and this importance is the subject of bipartisan political consensus;
  3. We have very low rates of gun-related crime already, and any regulation which would be effective would be very costly, both in financial and political terms.

Just to preface this: I own a hunting rifle, and as a bit of a propaganda geek I’ve paid close attention to gun control as a matter of symbolic politics (alongside abortion, it’s a leading “touchstone” rhetorical issue in US domestic politics). I’ve been watching the way NZ is beginning to develop a (rather amateurish, but effective enough to not be laughable) US-modeled gun-ownership lobby with interest as well. But I’m not one of those “don’t tread on me” gun nuts who thinks bringing a loaded assault rifle to a town hall meeting is a core part of the democratic process. Owning a firearm is useful, but it’s not an absolute right — rather one which must be weighed against other consequences, including those which stem from arming communities. But I object to knee-jerk policy proposals which misoverestimate the problem, won’t solve it in any case, and will come at considerable cost.

What problem?
The most significant objection I have to Tim’s analysis is that he assumes gun crime is a serious enough problem to warrant harsh regulatory consideration; and seems to think that tackling it like the government has “tackled” knife crime is a sensible approach. I reckon both are suspect assumptions.

According to a UN survey from 2000 (the most recent I can easily access), 13% of our homicides (including attempts) were committed with a firearm, at an annual rate of 0.18 per hundred thousand population. That is a rate slightly higher than the UK (0.12 per hundred thousand, with much more strict firearm laws); just over half the rate of Australia (0.31, also with much more strict firearm laws, including a hugely expensive buyback programme undertaken in 1996 with the intention of solving the problem). I don’t think things have changed all that much; in 2009, the year of Jan Molenaar, the figure was 15% of our recorded murders (incl. attempts). You can use the Statistics NZ tools to get data here. You can also compare a bunch of countries’ rates here, but be sure to read the disclaimer. The bottom line is that we have extremely low gun crime rates by world standards, especially given that we have very high gun ownership rates. By far the highest proportion of gun-related deaths in NZ are suicides — I don’t have the numbers to hand but I recall it being above 70%. That’s a consideration, since suicides are usually committed with weapons of opportunity, and a firearm is particularly effective. But this is not the argument being made.

Knives are a much more serious problem, accounting for about twice as many homicides in NZ, and “other weapons” and “manual” which I assume includes unarmed homicides are also generally more common than firearm murders. The government has seen fit to “crack down” on knife crime by trying to prevent youths’ access to knives at the retail level using a voluntary code of practice. This is pure security theatre. Everyone credible knows it won’t make a blind bit of difference because kids don’t go and buy a knife from a shop, they just take one from the kitchen drawer or the toolbox in the garage. Firearms are already much more heavily regulated than this, and as a consequence people wanting one but who lack a license don’t roll into Hunting & Fishing and buy one — they get them illegally because we have no idea how many there are or who owns them (more on this later). So the comparison between guns and knives, while tempting, is bogus. Knife crime is much more serious than firearm crime, much less-heavily regulated, and the trivial additional regulation proposed won’t change anything — but it also won’t cost anything.

What guns?
Part of the reason gun crime is such a minor problem in NZ is due to our history and culture with guns, and in particular the fact that “personal defence” has never been a justification for firearm ownership. Tim also gets this wrong: citing “personal defence” as a reason for needing a firearms license will mean you get denied one, especially if you’re trying to apply for a restricted weapons license (which is the example he uses).

Excluding the post-settlement period, firearms in NZ have generally been conceptualised in law and culture as tools rather than weapons — for hunting, sport shooting, or the defence of the realm. Most in existence today are .22 calibre rabbit guns, or bolt-action ex-infantry rifles from the first and second world wars, passed down from father to son, or modern firearms based on near-identical designs, or shotguns designed for gamebird hunting. Partly due to length, partly due to action design and calibre, these are pretty useless for self-defence except for the appearance of threat and as clubs. By the same token, they are far from ideal for offensive use. Part of the reason criminals are rarely armed with firearms is because they are nearly impossible to conceal (which makes carrying or using them a riskier proposition than, say, a knife), and if sawn off below the regulation length of 30 inches, they are still not very convenient, and give police instant cause for book-throwing if discovered.

There are relatively few pistols or assault rifles in NZ, and those which are owned are very tightly controlled, with extremely high standards required of the owners. The NZ Police apparently operate a “sinking lid” policy on restricted weapons: to gain permission to import or produce one, you need to destroy another. This has driven the market price of such weapons through the roof, putting them out of the reach even of many legitimate collectors; although it must be said that the distinction between a “military-style” semi-auto and any other semi-auto is largely (not entirely) cosmetic, and one is no less deadly than the other. As the rather grim saying goes, the seven-round magazine restriction on an ordinary semi-auto centrefire rifle just means that if you want to kill more than eight people, you’ll need to reload.

Firearm licenses, especially those for restricted weapons like military-style semi-automatics and pistols, are issued at the discretion of an Arms Officer on the basis of the applicant being of “fit and proper” character. The threat of losing the license acts as a firm constraint on legitimate gun owners’ behaviour, with most hunters, collectors, etc. living in fear of having their license revoked. This constraint comes into force, for example, when deciding whether to keep a firearm for self-defence purposes in a country where most potential assailants, burglars, etc. are not themselves armed: if you happen to use it as such, you must then explain to your arms officer how come you had it handy, rather than locked up in its safe, with the bolt and ammunition separated. Most people comply to avoid this inconvenience, and because they know that the chances of a family member actually meeting a life-or-death situation are much higher with a loaded firearm lying around than otherwise.

In general (and again, I don’t have the figures to hand) the vast majority of gun crime in NZ is committed by people without a legal right to own or use a firearm in the first place (being not “fit and proper”). Jan Molenaar was just such a person, so using him as an exemplar of all that is wrong with the system is a bit misleading. It’s certainly an indictment on police procedure following the last shake-up of gun laws. Probably the biggest failure in our gun licensing regime is the lack of a registration system for specific firearms. It’s expensive, time-consuming and bureaucratic but would have been of some use had it been implemented when suggested by the Thorp report, even if just to draw a clear demarcation line between compliant and non-compliant owners. I think that horse has bolted now.

As for the matter of private internet sales of arms and ammunition — Tim clearly hasn’t used Trade Me for this purpose. It’s considerably more robust than any comparable method other than a brick-and-mortar shop (and many B&M shops use the same methods to sell nationwide). Anyone can view restricted auctions, but to bid or ask a question you need to enter your firearm license number. Repeated failure to do so (or entering made-up numbers) gets you blacklisted. If buying otherwise than by a face-to-face meeting, you are required to complete a form designated by the Police for this very purpose, and have it counter-signed by your local Arms Officer, who sights your license. The first step (needing to enter your number) prevents anyone without access to a license even bidding or making contact with a seller. This is probably the most effective safety mechanism in the system.

Sleeping Dogs
These are policy and cultural reasons which explain why trying to crack down on gun ownership in NZ is likely to be pointless. But Tim’s post was largely about the political aspects of the issue: the tension between the imperative to be Tough On Crime and the danger of getting tarred with the Nanny State brush. In symbolic terms, I reckon gun control is a loser for both of the major parties because, unlike the knife measure which is empty theatre, any meaningful changes to the gun ownership regime will come at a considerable costs. One important consideration with this is that in NZ (and Australia), unlike in the USA, gun control is seen as a matter of bipartisan consensus, with both National and Labour generally occupying the middle ground (and ACT and the Greens taking up the flanks). This means there’s little or no partisan advantage to be gained by either side.

The first of these costs is purely financial. A registration, licensing audit, inspection-reclassification or buyback scheme to remove firearms (or certain firearms) from circulation (or from the hands of those not “fit and proper”) is hugely expensive. The Australian Federal Government raised a special tax for the purpose and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its buyback scheme, and even given the dramatic reduction in gun crime rates which resulted, it was generally seen to be wide-open for rorting. In New Zealand, with a much lower baseline level of gun crime, much less money and much more pressing law and order policy issues, this simply wouldn’t fly. Quite apart from the money, the drain on already-stretched police time would make a mockery of the government’s pledge to deliver resources to the front lines and away from the “bureaucrats”. And for all of that, it would still predominantly capture guns possessed by licensed owners: the “good guys” who, of all people, should retain their gun-owning privileges.

The second, and probably weightier cost is about the NZ identity. As I’ve argued before, wild places matter to us in identity terms. While most New Zealanders don’t own firearms, and never will, many more than the 250,000 who do like to think of themselves as potential outdoorsfolk who might go and shoot a possum and do their bit to save the rata. I don’t want to overstate this, though. Gun owners and hunters are viewed with considerable ambivalence by the general public, and with some cause. The gun lobby doesn’t do itself or the more reasonable branches of the sporting community any favours, and to a large extent they’re thought of in similar terms to Jan Molenaar and the various flavours of SHTF nutters.

But Nanny State also comes into this. Tim suggests that Labour couldn’t afford to do this for fear of strengthening the narrative established by the last term of the Clark government (I agree), but that National might just be able to get away with it. I disagree. Half of National’s support base are farmers or rural/semi-rural men of above-average income who are generally law-abiding and consider themselves responsible citizens in partnership with the authorities — of the view that the government “works for us”, rather than the view that the government is an agent of their oppression. (There are exceptions to this last, but mostly they vote for ACT and are thus irrelevant to this calculus.) This is almost exactly the same demographic which wants to be able to take care of his own rabbit problem and hunkers down in a cold maimai before dawn on the first weekend of winter for a laugh, and they greatly value the illusion that doing so is an inalienable right akin to that laid down by the Second Amendment. They tolerate (often with considerable reluctance) the existing licensing regime partly as a pragmatic solution to the social problem of crime, and partly because it accords them the status of being officially deemed “fit and proper”. But they will not tolerate further incursions on these privileges, and it is this demographic whom the gun lobby, with its US-imported “armed society is a polite society” rhetoric, is targeting using the present hysteria about violent crime as a springboard. These are the guys who already feel under threat from policies like the ETS, which prevents them from buying the V8, forcing them to settle for the V6.

This demographic might be the sort of people who could be persuaded to support tighter restrictions if there were a strong crime-reduction case to be made for it. But since there’s so little to gain, and since the existing regime is already at the margins of what is acceptable, National rouses these sleeping dogs and permits their radicalisation at its peril.

L

Hīnaki

datePosted on 10:30, April 16th, 2010 by Lew

HīnakiI agree with Kelvin Davis’ criticism of the eagerness of certain Māori groups to be involved in owning and operating the new private prison, and I think it’s a strong and principled argument.

My clear preference is for no private prisons. But if there are going to be private prisons (and it looks like a certainty), then all else being equal, wouldn’t it be better if they were (part-)run by Māori, with a kaupapa Māori focus (on rehabilitation, restorative justice, etc)? As I remarked, and as Eddie C sketched in slightly more detail in comments to my last post on the topic, the incentives are screwy for private prisons and rehabilitation, it’s hard to measure and hard to manage and as a consequence rehabilitation is even less effective than usual. But I can’t help but think that attaching a cultural incentive — the knowledge that one’s whanaunga are actually or potentially involved — might change that picture and take a few of the harsh edges off the “business of punishment” model employed by mainstram private corrections agencies.

L

An Armed Crowd is a Polite Crowd.

datePosted on 17:51, April 2nd, 2010 by Pablo

I heard this phrase when living on a ranch on the Arizona-Mexico border in the early 1990s. It was prompted by my asking a bartender at a local saloon if she felt threatened by the crowd of drunken, armed cowboys in the establishment one evening.  In that environment, it made perfect sense (in fact, Arizona has just legislated that a person can carry a concealed firearm without a permit, loosening the laws in force during my time in the state which allowed for the open carrying of firearms without a permit but which required a concealed weapons permit). In fact, on repeated visits to that watering hole I never once saw anyone raise their voice in serious anger.

I mention this because statistics have recently been released that show that the incidence of violent crime in NZ has increased exponentially in the last five years. That has led to the National government talking about “getting tough” on crime along the lines frequently barked by its ACT closet authoritarian partners.

But what does it mean to “get tough” on crime? More incarcerations? Longer sentences? More arrests? More convictions? More confiscations of property? More severe punishments? Reinstitution of the death penalty for heinous crimes? More tasering? Arming the community constables? Expanding the armed offenders squads? Increasing liquor bans in public places?  Having the police using more armed force when dealing with crowd control, gang and other collective disturbances? Increasing youth sentences?

I mention this because “getting tough” on crime, at least when phrased in the above terms, does not address the causal mechanisms behind the upsurge in violent crime (which I agree has increased and now become a serious pathology in NZ civil society). One can seek explanations for causes in many places: exposure to media-provided violence at a young age, dysfunctional familities, bullying culture, the pervasive influence of alcohol, the long-standing tradition of civil disobedience and passive resistance practiced by some communities and individuals, now taken to new extremes, the degeneration of popular and civic culture into venal self-absorption–the list of possible causes is long.  But what does “getting tough” have to do with any of these possible causes? Unless a more draconian criminal system is seen as a deterrent to violent crime (and there is much dispute about the deterrent value of things such as capital punishment), how exactly is “getting tough” on crime going to solve the problem?

I must confess to being of two minds, because as an immigrant from the US I have always felt that punishment for serious offenses was a bit of a joke in NZ and that there are not enough resources dedicated to crime-fighting  (in fact, I still believe that NZ is a country where one can literally get away with murder if cunning and meticulous). But I also know that the “tougher” US approach to crime also has done little to nothing to drive down crime rates (in fact, the “broken windows” approach to petty crime adopted in New York City in the 1990s, and in which worked marvels in lowering the overall crime rate in that city, was focused on early intervention at the lower end of criminality rather than on increased punishment for more serious offenses). Instead, US violent crimes rates, not surprisingly, lowered as the economy expanded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and, not surprisngly, have increased since the recession began to bite hard in 2008. Which is to say, although the violence of socio and psychopaths is unaffected by economic cycles, much of the residual acts of violence tend to overlap with economic downturns when unmitigated by early intervention or causal prevention schemes.

Which brings back the cause-effect–response syllogism mentioned earlier. There is a reason why that crowd in the border town saloon was armed. At the time there were only 2 sherriff’s deputies avaliable to patrol over 1000 square miles of national forest and ranchland strung along the border and extending some 20-50 miles northward. Besides the various stinging and biting small critters and large predators (bears, big cats) that stalked the Sonoran high plateau and mountain ranges in which our properties were located, there were human dangers emanating from across the border as well as from within Arizona itself (organised crime drug smuggling and survivalist militas, respectively). Absent the protection of the state in such remote locales, people actually practiced the concept of self-defense because to not do so invited serious victimisation, often of a terminal sort. As the saying goes, the best home insurance policy one can have in such a personal threat environment is the sound of a pump action shotgun chambering a buckshot round. The point being, that armed crowd had reason to be so given the causal mechanisms at play in that particular crime environment (which I must say, remains one of the most beautiful landscapes I have had the pleasure to experience first hand). Unfortunately, perhaps, things changed after 9/11 and the region is now swarming with Border Patrol, National Guard, roadblocks, fences, audiovisual sensors and motion detectors as well as increased numbers of north-bound migrants, to the point that many long-term residents have moved away in search of solitude and workable land. It turns out, at least in that regard, I left just in the nick of time.

That brings me back to NZ, my adopted home since 1997 and in which I have seen a steady decline in civility during the last decade that is now confirmed by crime statistics. Not being a criminologist or a social welfare expert, I cannot offer any concrete prescriptions, much less a panacea for the upsurge in criminal violence now afflicting Aotearoa. But what I can say is that it does no good to play the role of chickenhawk or attack poodle by fulminating about getting tough on crime without linking the thirst for punishment to an understanding of what drives violence and insecurity in the first place. In fact, until the latter is identified, addressed and ameloirated, then the former is just another way of pouring salt into a gaping wound.

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