Don’t Fence Me In

Let me ride through the wide open country that I love

Jeff Sharlet had some trouble coming back from a trip to Canada because he took a picture. Remember when America was great and you could cross the border willy-nilly, both North and South?

Granted, I’ve not tried to sneak across from Canada with a trunk full of Molsons and Export A’s. Instead, I’ve just gone to the WASP homeland a couple of times and to some of our Caribbean colonies. But things are a wee bit less casual now than when you had to wake up the customs agent so he could stamp your passport for a souvenir. The inclination to make it harder has been there for some time, since at least Prohibition, but really took off after Sept. 11, 2001, prompted Congress to pass the so-called P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act they’d just happened to have had in a drawer for the occasion, and then reorganized the Executive to make things a bit more efficient.

Jacob Levy of the Niskanen Center writes that lawlessness at the borders bleeds beyond the border into the interior. That is, without due process at the border, due process can disappear elsewhere. While this could be a slippery slope argument, allowing the border–where Customs and Border Patrol have jurisdiction–to expand 100 miles from the border–where most of the people in the United States live–makes it much more a concern.

Do you carry valid identification?

Are you prepared to present your papers if asked?

Are you ready to disappear?

There’s an inside and an outside to a fence. National borders don’t only keep people out, but keep them in. And though I’m, almost, demographically in the majority (being a white male instead of a white female), my first thought whenever our dear leader talks about building a wall is not about how well the wall will work to keep the zombies out, but that I’m trapped inside.

There was a conceit during the Cold War that the United States didn’t have, and had never had, internal passports like those of Soviet Russia or pervasive bureaucratic identification schemes like Nazi Germany. Citizens of the Free World had freedom of movement; it set us apart from places like North Korea, Cuba, and Berlin. A free society doesn’t need to trap the serfs on the plantation. “Papers, please,” was a joke. Folks laughed at the concerns of those like Hal Lindsey that Americans would be marked with the Number of the Beast, but there was considerable opposition to national population tracking schemes, not just from the John Birch Society–concerns which not only disappeared, but appear to have inverted, in the past few years. Everyone is so scared these days.

The question of borders, artificial though they may be, is an important one, and will become even more so as migration due to climatic changes increases. The urge is to build walls to keep the flood out, and has been since at least the Great Wall of China. But I’m not aware of any way to stop this wave. It will crash.

I don’t want to be here when it does.

The War on Terror

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

What are arms?

An intercontinental ballistic missile? A tactical nuclear device? A MiG-29? A tank? A Gatling gun? Chlorine? Ammonium nitrate? A sword? Any blade longer than three inches? A penknife? Knitting needles? Tweezers? Shoes? A stick? My hands?

What does it mean to keep and to bear?

There have been some laws made on this subject since 1791. There have even been discussions about the placement of the commas.

Let’s imagine for the moment that the Second Amendment is plain on its face, and that Congress, and, by way of the 14th, the several States, shall make no law concerning the simple possession of a weapon.

Let’s make this assumption because otherwise everyone just shouts past each other. Fear and shouting among the populace is all well and good if one’s intent is to retain power, but it doesn’t address difficulties surrounding the use of weapons.

How else, other than by forbidding possession of weaponry, might one address the fears expressed by the citizenry?

Because there is no doubt they are afraid. Parents are afraid their children will die in school. Children are afraid that they will die in school. And fear is one of the defining reasons why one has a weapon.

Let’s not amplify those fears.

Because we are afraid, we want to prevent Bad Things from happening. We want assurances that nothing will go wrong, that no one will die. Unfortunately, those are not assurances that can be made. Everyone dies. Media vita in morte sumus, etc.

Let’s not discuss prevention. That way lies pre-crime. While prevention is exactly what we want, it is imaginary. The aforementioned fact of life, and the rules of the game, which preclude certain actions and insist that one be punished only for what one has done not what one intends, stand in the way. For good reason. Jesus may say,

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. [Matthew 5:21–22 (ESV)]

But we are not omniscient. We are fallible.

Let’s discuss risk reduction.

Perhaps it would help to ask different questions. What might reduce the probability of murder? What might reduce the probability of accidental death?

To answer these, it would help to know the cause.

In the case of murder and suicide, the weapon is a means to an end. The choice of weapon is often a matter of convenience. In America, guns are convenient. The kill decision is made by a human. Why? Because it was Monday? One interesting thing that’s been discovered in recent years is that math describing epidemics can also be used to describe violent crime: murders behave as if they are contagious. Mass murders, whether in one event or a series, are generally thought to result from a disconnect from society. Why? Violent crime is strongly correlated with young men. Why? Violent crime is correlated with a disproportionate allocation of sexual partners. Why? Men commit most intimate partner violence. Why?

In the case of accidents, there is no intent; the weapon is the cause, and risk reduction is related to training, handling requirements, liability insurance, and torts.

Accidental gun-related deaths are easy to address. Start there.

You can have the gun. But you are liable for the consequences of its use.

This is a different discussion than in other countries because the Second Amendment removes the obvious remediation from discussion. One cannot simply take away the child’s toy. Work within that limit. What sort of creative solutions to the actual problems–murder and suicide–can be found?

Patience, Grasshopper

A little attention goes a long way.

I’ve come to believe that a great deal of unnecessary coercion, what one might call excessive use of force, is directly related to impatience; to a misplaced urgency; to the idea that something must be done now, when I command, not later on its own time. We see this in the daily challenges of parenting, those quotidian sins of our life, beating the weaker as that merciless master the clock beats us: yelling at No. 1 Daughter to get in the car so we get to church — or anywhere – on time; shoving No. 2 Son on the bus every day for the first years of schooling; yelling at No. 2 Daughter to clean her room; throwing No. 2 Son in the water at swim lessons; threatening repercussions if the room is not clean, if the teeth are not brushed, if the music is not practiced, if the homework is not done, if the lights are not off. We see this present systemically, in ever earlier compulsory schooling, for example, with the requirement to read on schedule rather than when the child desires. It’s in our language, when we equate listen with obey, or when we force a plant to bloom.

It backfires. The bed goes unmade. They fail out of college. They stop singing. We express puzzlement and alarm at why a large percentage of adults give up reading when they have the option. The blooms fall off so quickly.

No. 1 Son started a fire on the sidewalk yesterday. He was so proud. He tells me he knows the secret to using flint and steel.

His grandfather has taken an interest in No. 1 Son’s scouting. They go to the meetings together. Each week Pop-Pop helps him with one of the rank requirements. Together they’ve come up with a plan to make Eagle Scout. No. 1 Son set the goal. Pop-Pop encourages and guides him along, helping to shape the vague intention into slow, steady, methodical action.

I sat this morning with No. 2 Son. He gets frustrated quickly with his practice, and angry with anything that isn’t immediately easy. After he calms down, he’ll return to the drums and continue, but it takes some time for his inner John McEnroe to pass. Watching this from behind the safety of my pressing tasks is both frustrating — he’s not getting it done! — and easy for me: the burden is all his.

But this morning I sat with him. I was interested in what he was practicing. I tried to play it. He showed me how to do it. I held the sheet music for him. I listened carefully. I followed along. He played without difficulty or complaint. We enjoyed our thirty minutes together. And then caught up with Ash and his Pokémon.

Such a small thing, attention and time.

Observations on Compulsory Schooling

Walking back from the bus stop, No. 2 Son, who is only just 10, looked thoughtful. A few steps later, he remarked, “School is slavery.”

“It isn’t,” I replied.

“School is like slavery.”

“How so?”

“You are ripped away from your family.”

“But at the end of the school day you come home.”

“That’s true.”

He turned to his friends who were walking alongside: “School is like prison.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“You are forced to go there and you cannot leave.”

Who Forged These Chains?

For someone who works with computers, I have very little respect for them. Perhaps that’s left over from a programming class where the teacher reminded us that the computer only does what we tell it to do. It’s mindless. Or more likely it has been experience reinforcing this: the computer program is only as good as its author, and I’ve seen so many that aren’t. What this results in, however, is prejudicial treatment of the machines. I simply assume that my experiences with them will be even worse than experiences with human, so I despise voice mail jail (Press 0 for an operator.), interactive voice response systems (Hi, Siri!), time-sheets, and resume sifting by keyword. This disrespect is misplaced; it’s no fault of the computer’s own that it is incompetent and hard to deal with. It’s the fault of those humans who designed it. But they are anonymous and the computer sits there, refusing to take what I give it until I alter my behavior to suit its inflexibility. I’m not the one wrong; it is. Why? Because I am not the computer’s accessory. It is doing a task for me. Why does it end up being the other way ’round?

Speaking of Hate

I really hate that the rhetoric of liberty is perverted in the service of illiberal causes. And I hate this not just because of the hypocrisy of it. I hate this because now that the language of liberty is indeliably associated with those wishing to deny liberty to others, it is relatively simple for all who wish to deny liberty to others to argue that it is in fact those who wish to defend liberty who are in reality attempting to suppress it.

For example, it is well-known that the Ku Klux Klan would deny liberty to blacks, Jews, and Catholics, among others. Yet in rallying people to their cause, they speak of defending their freedoms. Now any who would defend liberty can be discounted as fellow travelers, tarred by association.

This rhetorical identification allows those who would expand their power at the expense of liberty greater discretion. You don’t really want to be like them, do you?

What, Me Worry? I’ve Done Nothing Wrong.

One thing I’ve never quite understood is how advocates for expansive government power never quite seem able to imagine themselves as being on the unpleasant receiving end of that power.

Take, for example, Michelle Malkin, who has been a vocal and enthusiastic proponent of the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act but is now, finally, concerned that her liberty might be at risk. I’m not alone in seeing the irony in this.

It would, however, be a crying shame if the people whose party was until recently the token opposition conveniently forgot their defense of liberty now that they are in power.

Somebody Watching Over Me

In Sleeper (1973), there is discussion between Miles and Luna over belief in God. Luna starts, asking Miles. Miles responds in a typically Allen fashion. After Luna complains that she doesn’t understand anything Miles says, he asks if she believes in God.

“Well, I believe there is somebody out there who watches over us.”

“Unfortunately it’s the government.”

Angling for Satisfaction

excerpts from, and an interview with the author of, Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency are disturbing, and reinforce what we already suspected.

In what I hope is not a quixotic exercise, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has brought suit, Jewel v. National Security Agency, et al.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency (NSA) and other government agencies today [September 18, 2008] on behalf of AT&T customers to stop the illegal, unconstitutional, and ongoing dragnet surveillance of their communications and communications records. The five individual plaintiffs are also suing President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington, former Attorney General and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and other individuals who ordered or participated in the warrantless domestic surveillance.

Go Wake Up the Judge

You know how in the movies, when the cops want to bust in on the mob doing their dirty deeds, first they go wake up the judge in the middle of the night, or drag him out of his poker game or away from his mistress, and have him issue a warrant?

Oh, wait, those aren’t current movies.

In an otherwise interesting post, Jeff Jarvis writes

“It so happens that I agree with Obama on this issue (and I know my view is as unpopular as his). When government forces you do to something then that force must come with immunity. The problem is not the telcos going along but the government making the demand and there being no check on that. But that’s a different debate.”

There was no force. There was willing participation without a warrant. Contrast with Qwest, which refused. The remaining telecommunication providers went along because it was their Patriotic Duty, even though their participation was illegal without a warrant. If there was force, it was a kind peculiar to regulatory regimes: trading dirty deeds for FCC merger approval.

There was a check, even if a pathetic one of Top Secret paperwork known only by handful of amenable judges. The administration ignored it.

The revisions supplant that paperwork check with an even flimsier one, the ipse dixit clause, which lets the Executive do anything as long as the Executive says the Executive says it is ok.

That’s not a check. That’s a blank check.

Remember, They Are Your Representatives

Dear Congressman Hall:

Thank you for your thoughtful and considered response to the concerns expressed in my mail of February 15th this year. Unfortunately, I read this evening that the House passed a compromise bill (H.R. 6304) that contained language permitting the Executive and abetting telecommunication firms to escape responsibility for their actions over the past seven years, as well as granting permission to this and future Executives to peak into our bedroom windows, listen to our most intimate conversations, and learn far to much of our habits without the simple pleasure of a warrant.

Thank you for voting against this bill. I do wish that your fellow members of Congress would show the intestinal fortitude necessary to defend Liberty from Power these days. Perhaps your party’s presumptive nominee for President might remind the Senate that these additional powers are unnecessary and undesirable — and that the citizens of this great Nation do not desire that the Executive enjoy them.


C. William Cox, Jr.

Every Now and Again a Writer Takes a Plane

Peggy Noonan is tired of the security theater at the airport.

Why do we do this when you know I am not a terrorist, and you know I know you know I am not a terrorist? Why this costly and harassing kabuki when we both know the facts, and would agree that all this harassment is the government’s way of showing “fairness,” of showing that it will equally humiliate anyone in order to show its high-mindedness and sense of justice? … All the frisking, beeping and patting down is demoralizing to our society. It breeds resentment, encourages a sense that the normal are not in control, that common sense is yesterday.

She also has a suggestion for Barack Obama.

Compulsory Education

via Arnold Kling, we learn that the State of California does not like home-schooling by parents who are not also teachers, on the assumption that certification ensures quality. Mr. Kling pulls out this quote from the article.

“Parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children,” wrote Justice H. Walter Croskey in a Feb. 28 opinion signed by the two other members of the district court. “Parents who fail to [comply with school enrollment laws] may be subject to a criminal complaint against them, found guilty of an infraction, and subject to imposition of fines or an order to complete a parent education and counseling program.”

I’m not sure what interest the State has in compelling schooling, but I am sure that I have an interest in not being compelled.

You Made Your Bed, Now Lie in It

I read Joel Spolsky’s “Martian Headsets” post a while back, in which he discusses Microsoft’s about-face with regards to Internet Explorer 8 in terms of balancing backward-compatibility with standards compliance, as if they are necessarily incompatible. Mark Pilgrim followed up with this funny translation into colloquial English.

So I was reading Spolsky’s piece, and nodding, and sort of agreeing that his central premise was correct, and then I got to this part, the conclusion.

98% of the world will install IE8 and say, “It has bugs and I can’t see my sites.” They don’t give a flicking flick about your stupid religious enthusiasm for making web browsers which conform to some mythical, platonic “standard” that is not actually implemented anywhere. They don’t want to hear your stories about messy hacks. They want web browsers that work with actual web sites.

Damn straight we want web browsers that work with actual web sites. But I must beg to differ about 98% of the world installing Internet Exploder 8 of their own volition. If they’re not using Firefox 3.0 because their friends told them it’s the bomb, they’re still using AOL, or Internet Explorer 6 on Windows 2000, or maybe Internet Explorer 7 on Windows XP — but the only reason they switched to IE7 is because it just happened, and unless IE8 offers some compelling advantage, that is the only reason they will switch to IE8.

Oh, and the reason IE8 won’t work with some websites is not standards. Opera and Firefox and Safari do just fine. It’s Microsoft. Site developers have been kowtowing to Internet Explorer’s quirks for years, and have come up with tricks to make Internet Explorer display the site the way that they want the site to be displayed. Either they fork their content so that IE gets the “good stuff,” or they’re willingly putting in more effort to please those customers who just happen to be stuck with a browser older than my kids. (And, no, I don’t mean Netscape Communicator 4.0.) The way around that impasse is to quit being Internet Explorer. Quit asking for special treatment. Quit demanding a segregated web.

We want web browsers that just work with web sites. And we want them to just work whether we’ve chosen to use Microsoft Windows Vista, Apple iPhone, Nintendo Wii, or Ubuntu Linux.

Low Opinion of the Press?

Would you like your opinion of the Fourth Estate lowered further? Thought it couldn’t get any worse? Suspect that journalists on deadline have less scruples than a Congressman on a junket? Then read Glenn Greenwald‘s series on how the chattering classes have disconnected their brains from their mouths.

On the one hand, criticism of the media is a bit much like navel gazing, since one can find exceptional coverage of important matters. The Associated Press did notice that footnote, after all. But it is exceptional. The vast bulk is trivial. Where Greenwald errs is in asserting that this is exclusively a “right-wing” or Republican phenomenon. Perhaps the Democrats, as a party, are simply less competent in their manipulation, but all in power attempt to distract the People from their actions.

Bread and circuses, my friends, bread and circuses.

Yoo Hoo! Cato! Over Here!

I’m surprised that Cato hasn’t mentioned the stink around the latest memorandum from John Yoo [part 1, part 2]. Perhaps they are as shocked, shocked!, as I am to learn that the Executive has been up to no good.

There are more memoranda, which are perhaps just as shocking, in the same vein. The Associated Press noticed one mentioned in a footnote which blithely remarked that,

Our office recently concluded that the Fourth Amendment had no application to domestic military operations.

Excuse me? Come again?

Domestic military operations?

The Castle

At the age of 19, Murat Kurnaz vanished into America’s shadow prison system in the war on terror. He was from Germany, traveling in Pakistan, and was picked up three months after 9/11. But there seemed to be ample evidence that Kurnaz was an innocent man with no connection to terrorism. The FBI thought so, U.S. intelligence thought so, and German intelligence agreed. But once he was picked up, Kurnaz found himself in a prison system that required no evidence and answered to no one. [CBS News]