Saturday, August 30, 2014

What To Do in Arizona

Up in the northwest corner of the state, about fifty miles as the crow flies from Las Vegas, is the town of White Hills.  There, on a stretch of Highway 93 that runs about ruler-straight between Kingman and Boulder City is the Bullets and Burgers open air shooting range.  Proudly displayed on this enterprise's website is the variety of some 40 different types of weapons available for use by mayhem-minded thrill-seekers, including various Browning .50 caliber machine guns, a Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle and a grenade launcher.

As evidenced by TripAdvisor online reviews, this quaint, but aptly name spot is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area.  And it was here this past Monday that a nine-year old girl, on vacation from New Jersey with her parents, accidentally shot and killed an instructor who was teaching her to shoot an Uzi submachine gun.

Where to start with this tragedy?

No laws or regulations were broken.  Instead of nine, the child could, under Arizona law, been even a year younger.  Nothing mandated letting her first try something less powerful than an Uzi, which fires 10 rounds per second at a muzzle velocity up to 400 meters per second.  Reportedly, it was the resulting recoil, or “kick” that caused her to lose control of the weapon.

And who in anything resembling their right mind puts that kind of firepower in the hands of a nine-year old in the first place?  For what conceivable purpose?  The range owner says that as a result of this unfortunate incident, he was considering requiring his customers to be over five feet tall and twelve or older.  (Parents consequently thwarted in their desire to give their younger offspring a fun day at a range can head to Texas where the legal age is a mind-numbing six.)  Show of hands, all those thinking an elementary school kid has the physical, mental or emotional wherewithal to be entrusted with this potentially lethal responsibility.

And what could the parents possibly have been thinking?  “I have an idea, honey.  We’ve pretty much done Las Vegas, so before we head home, let’s head out to a shooting range and give our little girl a treat.  You know how she’s always saying she wants to pull off some rounds with a semi-automatic.”  One of the parents recorded the initially happy event on a cellphone, presumably as a memento of the occasion.  In the tragic event, they turned it over to the Sheriff’s office.

In 2011, there were 851 unintentional gun deaths in the U.S.  Per capita, that’s a rate almost four times Canada’s, six times Australia’s, and thirty times Japan’s.  (Honors to the U.K., where with no such killings the rate was nil.) Small wonder that reporting of the event and the lamentable posting of the parent’s video have occasioned stupefied dismay among our friends and glee among our adversaries around the world. 

It’ll be interesting, but probably sadly predictable to see how the NRA and its spawn of enablers in and out of government spin this.  Blame will be spewed in all directions except the absence of meaningful measures to control gun usage in a country where self-defense against all enemies real and imagined completely trumps common sense.  And so the killings continue.

In the meantime, sympathies for the friends of the range instructor, and for a nine-year old girl who for the rest of her life will carry a burden she neither requested nor expected.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An Uncivil Affair

The depressing notion that civility is in terminal decline was given additional support, as if any were required, this past Sunday in the skies over the Midwest.  There, aboard a United Airlines flight 1462, a 737 enroute from Newark to Denver, two passengers got into an altercation that resulted in the flight being diverted to Chicago where the two combatants were removed from the plane by local law enforcement.

The cause of the disagreement was not, as might perhaps have been assumed, an issue of such consequence as, say, a preferred political candidate, the concept of original sin, or whether the New York Yankees have a post-season future this year.  Not a bit of it.  The cause was one passenger’s use of a $22 gadget that prevents the recline of the seat immediately ahead.  No arrests were made, as the incident was deemed “a customer service issue and not a threat to aviation security,” according to a TSA spokesperson.  Still, an unreported number of other passengers were subjected to a 90-minute delay, possible missed connections and other tribulations well-known to all air travellers.  To say nothing of the domino effect as the flight’s delayed arrival in Denver rippled through United’s system

This incident played out in the Economy Plus section of the aircraft, where, on this particular flight, 51 seats were available to passengers who had paid a premium of some sort for the privilege of an extra four inches of leg room.  Ignoring the 12 non-reclining exit row seats, as many as 39 souls could have settled into their marginally more commodious seats for the 4-plus hour flight with the expectation, should they desire, of using their seat’s designed recline capability to ease the journey.

Unfortunately, one Economy Plus customer on this particular flight seems to have succumbed to the malign notion that, having paid the extra tariff, the space separating his seat from the seat immediately forward was his exclusive domain and not to be infringed upon by anyone, certainly not the passenger in front of him.  To the end of forestalling this awful eventuality, he deployed the gadgets on the seat ahead.

History fails to relate if our hero, luxuriating in his personal seatback-free space, saw fit to recline his own seat, thereby encroaching on the passenger behind. In any event, the forward occupant of the now recline-disabled seat, thwarted in her quest for a modicum of additional comfort, requested a flight attendant to intervene on her behalf and, upon our hero’s refusal to give any ground, launched the contents of a water glass at him.  (Acknowledgement here to the TSA carry-on inspectors who just conceivably limited the weaponry to a potable liquid.)  Words of an unpleasant, discordant nature presumably followed at which point the flight crew, perhaps fearful of their routine air passage to Denver devolving into something like the streets of Aleppo, defused the situation with an emergency visit to the conveniently proximate Windy City.

Sadly on display here, as on elementary school playgrounds, is a stunning lack of consideration by both parties for anyone other than themselves.  Like most escalating disagreements, this one could and unquestionably should have been easily stifled at any point in its spiral. Self-centeredness is a failing as old and common as dirt, but its increase certainly contributes to the woes of the modern world.


Monday, August 25, 2014

What Could Go Wrong?

Among the visuals from Ferguson, perhaps none are as deeply disturbing as Michael Brown lying in the middle of Canfield Drive for over four hours while the law enforcement bureaucracies of Ferguson and St. Louis sorted out their respective responsibilities.  But, grimly, what may be even more the cause of both demonstrations and national soul-searching are the images of members of Ferguson’s police threatening the populace with an array of weaponry seemingly sufficient to start a medium-sized war.

In the proverbial long sad history of bad ideas, a place of some honor probably belongs to Washington’s decision in 1990 to escalate the war on drugs by making surplus military hardware available to law enforcement agencies at little or no cost.  Why not?  Equipment is required to fight a war, and who would argue using what’s available where it will do the most good?  Leave aside any quibbles about the lack of similarities between fighting insurgents in the Middle East and dope dealers in East St. Louis.

The 1990 initiative was modified in 1997, becoming Department of Defense Program 1033, still intended to make use of gear that otherwise would sit in some warehouse like toys in an attic, unused and unloved.  The reduction in troops in Iraq and then Afghanistan only increased the amount of battlefield hardware available.  (Even allowing for the weaponry inadvertently lost to the Islamic State jihadis and now being triumphantly paraded through the streets of Mosul.)

Since 1997, a total of $5.1 billion worth of this gear has been given to every state of the union, including $450 million in 2013 alone to some 8,000 different agencies.  Just since 2006, the results of this government giveaway have been remarkable.  Placid Middletown in Connecticut is the new home of a 24-ton, $733,000 mine-resistant, assault protected vehicle certain to be useful in the event of the town’s first roadside bomb or disturbances by Wesleyan’s students. Oconee County in South Carolina (pop. 74,273) scored 38 assault rifles, an armored vehicle and a helicopter.  Yolo County, California can boast one assault rifle per 450 residents, or about one half a rifle for every violent crime reported in the county in 2008.  Out in paradise, Honolulu received three mine-resistant vehicles, although being an island, perhaps mine-resistant vessels would have been more appropriate.  Front and center Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware and New Mexico.  Every single county in each of these states scooped up at least one aircraft, one armored vehicle, one set of body armor, one grenade launcher, or one assault rifle.

Far surpassing even this extravaganza is the Department of Homeland Security’s funding since 2001, some $34 billion, to local police forces for the purchase among other baubles of a drone (Montgomery County, Texas), a remote-controlled, crime-fighting blimp (Ogden, Utah), and a tank (not surprisingly, the latter the responsibility of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio whose arsenal also includes 120 assault rifles, 5 armored vehicles and 10 helicopters).  

What appears to be at work here is the notion that the way to prevent crime is by the ostentatious display of overwhelming power to counter any threat. Or, to reverse the cliché, bringing a gun to any knife fight.  In warfare, this probably makes sense.  On the streets of Ferguson or any other place with unarmed citizens, not so much.  Peter King, Republican Congressman from New York, would differ.  He says he sees no connection between police weaponry and what happened in Ferguson and disagrees with anyone suggesting, “that somehow the police are the cause of what’s wrong.”  Well, no.  For the most part, members of law enforcement do an admirable and necessary job under difficult and often dangerous conditions.  Putting in their hands the military gear a third world country could use to invade a neighboring state is counter-productive.  And wrong. 


Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Tale of Two Other Cities

Straight shot, it’s eight and half miles from Ferguson to Creve Coeur, another St. Louis suburb.  Without traffic, you could make the drive in less than twenty minutes, bus in 90, or even walk in four hours (although leaving Ferguson on foot, you’d be well-advised to avoid the center of the street).

Beside proximity to The Gateway to the West, Ferguson and Creve Coeur are roughly alike in populations – the former having a few more and the latter some less than 20,000 inhabitants.

And that’s about where the similarities end.  Compared to its leafy neighbor, Ferguson is substantially poorer ($36K versus $85K median household income, with 22% versus 6% living in poverty), more likely to have households with only one parent (38% to 8%), and less well educated (23% versus 70% of those over 25 having bachelor’s degrees).  In 2012, Ferguson recorded a total of 42 murders, rapes and assaults – Creve Coeur 13.  Ferguson’s 1,079 combined robberies, burglaries and thefts was almost exactly four times Creve Coeur’s.

Worse, even aside from the events of the past week, Ferguson’s future looks rather less bright.  While Creve Coeur’s population has grown 8% since 2000, Ferguson’s has declined 6%.  In the ten years to 2012, Creve Coeur saw 335 permit applications filed for new housing construction.  Ferguson recorded 30.

Oh, and Ferguson is 65% black, compared to Creve Coeur’s lily 70% white.

And that last, depending on your point of view, says almost all or almost nothing of the recent events  in Ferguson.

It appears Michael Brown was shot and killed for no sufficient reason by Officer Darren Wilson.  White cop shoots black kid.  Roll presses, cue the news anchors, interview some locals and the itinerant troupe of the professionally outraged good and great.  And sadly, tragically, when in some month’s time Michael Brown’s name is only the latest addition to a list stretching beyond memory, the media circus will have departed and we will be left with . . . nothing.

Because at the deep root of the rage in Ferguson is the same anguish of long-throttled hopes that have erupted in countless countries for centuries among people of all colors and creeds.  Ferguson’s sons and daughters have much – too much – in common with protesters in Kiev, Cairo, Caracas, Athens, Bangkok, Ankara and South Africa to pick just a handful from the most recent past.  Not to ignore, for that matter, the peasants who even more famously stormed the Bastille two and a quarter centuries ago.  All shared the desire for a fair shot at life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, coupled with the frustration of that goal being denied by a system rigged and run by and for the benefit of those farther up the ladder.  Research in 2013 showed 62% of Americans think today’s children will be worse off than their parents, compared to only 33% who believed the opposite, and not without reason.  As much as our country’s continuing, intolerable prejudices demand attention, at least as much do the causes of loss of faith in fairness and hope for a better tomorrow.  

So whether we watch the events unfolding in Ferguson from the comfort of our distant living rooms, the more proximate Creve Coeur, or through the fog of tear gas on West Florissant, we ignore the reasons for the rage and despair at our great peril.