Posts Tagged ‘Crime’

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.

Let it burn

datePosted on 09:59, March 5th, 2010 by Lew

At the head of a large army [Po-ts’ai] was besieging Ch’ang-she, which was held by Huang-fu Sung. The garrison was very small, and a general feeling of nervousness pervaded the ranks; so Huang-fu Sung called his officers together and said: “In war, there are various indirect methods of attack, and numbers do not count for everything. Now the rebels have pitched their camp in the midst of thick grass which will easily burn when the wind blows. If we set fire to it at night, they will be thrown into panic, and we can make a sortie and attack them on all sides at once, thus emulating the achievement of T’ien Tan.” That same evening, a strong breeze sprang up; so Huang-fu Sung instructed his soldiers to bind reeds together into torches and mount guard on the city walls, after which he sent out a band of daring men, who stealthily made their way through the lines and started the fire with loud shouts and yells. Simultaneously, a glare of light shot up from the city walls, and Huang-fu Sung, sounding his drums, led a rapid charge, which threw the rebels into confusion and put them to headlong flight.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, XII.9(4)

I can’t agree less with Grant Robertson’s, response to David Garrett’s latest bit of madness. He says he “doesn’t want to give further oxygen” to Garrett’s “extreme and appalling” views, but that’s exactly what they need: oxygen. At present both Rodney Hide and John Key probably want to forget the fact that Garrett is the ACT party’s Law and Order spokesperson, and that consequently there are no such things as his “personal views” on these topics which are separable from those of the party — he is the ACT party’s mouthpiece on such matters, and the government’s ally. We, the people who elected him and permitted Hide to assign him that role, are entitled to take these views seriously, examine them in the context of other things he has said and done, and the opposition’s job is to prevent anyone from forgetting what this man stands for, and how far his definition of “reasonable” is from that of the wider public. From now until he’s ejected from parliament, Garrett should not be able to show his face to the public without a graphic reminder of the fact that he think homosexuality is morally equivalent to paedophilia; that he favours policy (now implemented) which means more prisoners will suffer rape as a consequence of their punishment; and that he thinks poor brown parents should be sterilised. He must be required to either defend his views robustly, or forced to issue yet another humiliating public apology; and both ACT and the government must be required to defend their association with him, or forced to dissociate, demote or publicly censure him.

The instinct for the opposition to deny a topic like this the spotlight only makes political sense when the opposition is vulnerable on the issue; when they fear it could result in a populist backlash against them. Even then, the principles at stake mean a very strong backlash would be required to justify restraint on simple pragmatic grounds. There is no prospect of such a backlash in this case: as Grant says, the statement is “extreme and appalling”. Does Grant think his own sense of what is extreme and appalling differs so much from that of the electorate that they will not agree with him? The worst possible course of action for ACT and the government is to allow this topic to remain at the top of the political agenda for as long as possible. Failing to even try to keep it there shows a lack of political nerve on the part of the opposition; a continuation of the failed strategy employed prior to the election, which Key won in no small part because the very people who should be fighting against him bolstered his public image as a mild, simple, non-threatening chap. Genuine threats must be neither mocked or minimised; the “extreme and appalling” should not be laughed off or left unchallenged. This is the sort of weak-kneed liberal wimpishness and lack of rectitude which leads many voters to mistrust parties on the left, and cleave to parties and leaders whose convictions are firm and forthrightly held. The good and the just does not speak for itself, much as we might wish it would. It requires champions to stand for it, and evil truimphs when those champions fail to stand and fight.

To do so is not the “dirty” personalisation of politics: the character and views of a man who sits on the Law and Order select committee, and in the future could conceivably hold a warrant for Justice, Corrections or Police are perfectly legitimate matters for political debate, which speak both to his ability to represent the interests of New Zealanders and to the quality of the processes and people which allowed him to attain such a position.

The Garrett Solution, as I’ve argued elsewhere, contradicts almost everything the small-government right claims to stand for. After a decade of howling about “Nanny State in the bedroom” and “social engineering” we now see that their erstwhile objections to both these things were not principled, as they claimed, but were in fact just objections on the merits. Social engineering is wrong, they say, unless it’s at the genetic level. It’s also not new: this sort of thing was enthusiastically embraced during the last government by the more unhinged members of the extreme right, and now it has gone mainstream.

The topic of eugenics is the strongest symbolic matter introduced to the political sphere by any participant this term; it is a topic on which the right can only lose, and introduced by someone who is already vulnerable. The grass is high around the government’s camp, the fire is set by one of their own: now, if they are to gain an advantage, the opposition must fan the flames and beat the drums.

L

Voodoo justice–compassion or condescension?

datePosted on 14:13, August 17th, 2009 by Pablo

The news that five Maori family members were given community sentences and spared jail terms after being found guilty of the manslaughter of their niece, who they believed to be possessed by demons, during a prolonged exorcism ritual that involved repeated eye scratching and waterboarding (a term now unfortunately part of the popular lexicon) of the victim (who it turns out was mentally ill rather than possessed), has caused a predictable stir in judicial and political circles. Pundits on the right lambaste the apparent double standard applied to Maori in this instance, where gross ignorance, superstition and stupidity cloaked in the garb of “traditional beliefs” is given a cultural pass when it comes to adjudicating personal and collective responsibility for the lethal consequences of said beliefs. The argument goes that any Pakeha exorcism resulting in death would have seen those responsible incarcerated, and that ignorance is no excuse is the eyes of the law. There is truth to this view, as there have been prior instances of bible-bashers (here meant literally) being jailed for abuses against individuals suspected of possession or other religious transgressions. There is also the issue of relative justice, in the sense that people involved in assisted suicide or drugs offenses have received jail terms rather than community service (ie. their crimes were less heinous  than this one). From this vantage point, the light sentences handed down to the defendants on grounds that they did not realise the consequences of their actions and thought that they were doing good for the victim is an astonishing act of judicial double-standards rooted in over weaning political correctness. The bottom line, in this view, is that is is condescending, patronising and just plain wrong to let Maori off lightly because they may have “traditional” beliefs the lead them to commit acts that others could not get away with. After all, “traditional beliefs” are not always correct, civilised or appropriate, because if they were then NZ society and the law would approve of foot-binding, genital mutilation and ritualistic whippings as acceptable practice for those who ascribe to them.

On the other hand, some progressive pundits and cultural relativists see in the decision a wise act of compassion by a judge who believed that the family had suffered enough with the inadvertent death of Janet Moses at their own hands. In this view it serves no purpose to punish them with jail terms because they are already acutely aware of the mistake and have a life long punishment to serve as a result of it. They and society would be better served by having them do community service and learn more about their own cultural heritage so as to not distort traditional beliefs regarding makuto and its treatment.

From my perspective, the main trouble is that in democracies the law should universally apply, and that application should apply universally in sentencing. If ignorance of the law is not an excuse for violating traffic regulations, then surely it is no excuse for manslaughter. Yet in heterogeneous societies comprised of an assortment of pre-modern, modern and post-modern beliefs espoused by indigenous, colonial and post-colonial groups, it may be impossible to apply the “justice for all” standard in ways that do, in fact, ensure so. I am thus left with mixed feelings about the verdict and sentence. On the one hand, the actions of these individuals are inexcusable; on the other hand, they were acting in good faith when they committed them. What then is a fair sentence in this case?  Are some groups entitled (that word again!) to different standards of justice based upon their belief systems? For the moment I am left with the uneasy feeling that ignorance may not be bliss, but for some it makes for a better defense.

I don’t see a test case

datePosted on 23:15, May 20th, 2009 by Lew

Much has been said about the poor reporting of the case of James Mason, who was yesterday found guilty of punching his four year-old in the face, but the thing I can’t figure out isn’t the focus on the ear-flick or whatever, but why anyone thinks it is a s59 test case. From having read the Stuff and Herald stories, I gather the following:

  1. To qualify as a s59 test case the verdict would need to hinge on a question of law in the new section of the Crimes Act. Mason would have had to admit striking his son and claim it was either inconsequential or not for the purpose of correction but for the purpose of preventing harm.
  2. Mason denied having struck his son, thus negating the possibility of any defence on either of those grounds.
  3. Mason’s denial was contradicted by two witnesses who testified to seeing him do so.
  4. The jury found that as a matter of fact Mason did strike his son, and duly found him guilty, there having been no argument that it was justified on the grounds of being inconsequential or for the purpose of preventing harm.
  5. Since Mason didn’t appeal to a matter of law, but to a matter of fact, the case couldn’t have been a test case no matter what the verdict was.

It may be because I haven’t read widely today, but the only other person I’ve seen make this argument is RedLogix at The Standard. Are we missing something here?

Aside from which, let me repeat the sentiment that those who want to burn political capital by defending a man who punches a four year-old in the face in public are more than welcome to do so.

L

How well did the media do on the Napier siege?

datePosted on 23:59, May 12th, 2009 by Lew

Ethical Martini asked the question on Sunday. Out of largely professional interest I watched, read and listened to the coverage on the two main TV newses, National Radio, Stuff, the Herald online and their various dead-tree editions from Thursday to Monday so perhaps I’m too close to it, but I’ve been pondering the question since, unsure how to answer because it comes down to one’s assumptions about what the media is supposed to do in such a case. That’s a tricky question.

If it’s supposed to maximise value for its shareholders, then it sure as hell did that, with garish wall-to-wall coverage and plenty of breathless speculation, really hitting the spectacle out of the park in such a way as to ensure that the name of Jan Molenaar will long be remembered as shorthand for `paranoid survivalist with guns, dope and death-wish’; our own little Ruby Ridge (but without all that annoying moral/ethical/legal equivocation).

If it’s supposed to perform a civil defence or public order function, keeping those in immediate need of information informed for the purpose of ensuring their safety, security, peace of mind, etc, then I would have thought they did a pretty decent job – from Wellington, I thought I had a pretty clear picture of what was going on, despite not ever having been to the place in question or in such a situation. Comments from those in the local area, however, are mixed on this count – and those who know Napier express some frustration at the constant mangling of street names, landmarks, etc.

If it’s supposed to be keeping the wider public informed on a matter of national significance, then I think the media did an exceptional job of keeping everyone engaged and updated with massive amounts of information, although with the proviso that much of that information was speculative at best.

If it’s supposed to act as a communication medium from authority to gunman in the sense of megaphone diplomacy, then I think it failed miserably. Although this was largely down to police command not using it in such a way, the media also framed coverage of Molenaar in the third person and spoke to his family members in othering ways, hardly making it possible to reach out to him. I think the first broadcast message I heard which addressed him directly was on Friday night.

If it’s supposed to act as a balm for a shocked nation, then I think it did a pretty good job of that as well, bolstering public confidence in the Police by portraying them as calm and disciplined rather than vengeful and reactive, and local businesses, charities, schools, Civil Defence and local government as united in solidarity, working well together for the public good, as we might hope they would in what I hope it isn’t too churlish to term `a proper emergency’.

If it’s supposed to tell us who to cheer for and who to boo at, once again it did a cracking job. You know you’re dealing with a real villain when all the people who can’t go home for their own safety are classified as `victims’ and even the people who make cups of tea for them are `heroes’.

If it’s supposed to stimulate and inform public debate on the wider political and social issues which are germane to the case – drug law, gun law, alienation, the role of the coercive arm of the state in private affairs, police doctrine and posture, the complexities of entrenched tactical operations – then it gets a bit more complicated.

On the one hand, I’m inclined to think it did an execrable job. If I may cram a whole lot of mixed metaphors in here: the lobby groups, armchair experts and those with an axe to grind on such matters have played the media like a fiddle, and the media has tuned itself up and rosined the bow to allow it. We’re going to get an awful lot of heat and precious little light. Instantly we have people calling for more guns, less guns, more guns but only for some people, guns to be licensed like cars rather than owners being licensed, the absurd notion I heard on NatRad this morning that all privately-owned firearms should be stored at a central, secure facility and be checked out and back in again. The battle of the slogans is well underway – `if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear’ counterposed against `when you outlaw guns, only the outlaws have guns’, for a start. And then there’s the debate about marijuana, with the frankly idiotic counterfactual that if the police didn’t prosecute minor drug crime then they wouldn’t have been in this sorry mess at all – possibly true, but only until something else brought the red mist down on Jan Molenaar.

On the other hand, the free flow of information around this case – the fact that every idiot on Your Views and talkback radio gets to listen to the so-called experts and decide what to think – should mean in principle that we have the basis for a good fact-based debate. Is not free expression via the media, with everyone putting their arguments up to be judged in a market of information, the most efficient means of determining which views have merit and which are bogus? If not, by what other means should we determine the relative merits of conflicting views and arguments?

I’m still no closer to an overall answer to the question Martin posed. I think it’s pollyanna-ish to say that the coverage did what it needed to do because everyone got a say, we all got our little reality TV fix and all the experts got a chance to climb up on their hind legs and argue the world to rights, but I think it’s curmudgeonly to decry the whole affair as a lurid farce.

What do you reckon?

L

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