James Edward Johnson

my thoughts from right to left

Posts Tagged ‘crime

Doubling down on a stupid policy.

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My column is up at the Press-Citizen.  Here it is:

Doubling down on a stupid policy

Let’s be honest.

The state law that prohibits alcohol for 18-year-olds is stupid.

The federal law that promotes such a policy is not only stupid, but an obscene abuse of federal power.

These laws really do not require sophisticated criticism. The only thing that is difficult to understand about the laws is how they have managed to remain in existence for so long.

Iowa City policy that bars 18-year-olds from establishments that serve alcohol are really just doubling down on a stupid policy.

The prohibition of alcohol for those younger than 21 already creates a rich market in false identification and identity theft. But that market is promoted principally among those who want to exercise the right to purchase alcohol directly. People who want to exercise those rights through the acts of others have little incentive to obtain a false identity.

Current Iowa City policy raises the bar. Now those who merely want to share a social environment with people who are in a drinking establishment must obtain false identification. This sort of identity fraud is bad in itself, but it also creates wider channels for a wide variety of identity fraud-related scams and crimes.

That is a fairly unique problem promoted by the 21-only policy, but the shift in alcohol consumption caused by this policy is troubling on many levels. Of course, some may argue that total consumption goes down because of the policy, but that seems rather unlikely given that most high school students can fairly readily obtain alcohol. College students have many more options.

Bars have incentives to protect their customers that house and apartment dwellers do not have. Bars enrich the nightlife of Iowa City in a way that house parties do not. Bars do not have readily available areas where men can easily rape women; houses do. Bars can be openly patrolled by police without a warrant; houses cannot. Commercial districts are better suited than residential neighborhoods to the heavy traffic and noise that goes with drunken revelry. Where do we want people to drink?

However, none of this addresses the core problem. That is, 18-year-olds suddenly free of parental constraint, 21 year-olds experiencing nominal “freedom,” and a variety of others indulge irresponsibly in their alcohol consumption and cause many problems.

Whether they drink at bars or houses, this core problem remains.

A better solution requires that we, as citizens, as a city, and as a state petition our elected federal representatives to repeal the insane federal laws that promote a 21-year-old drinking age. The best solution, in the long run, might even be to abolish the drinking age entirely or reduce it to, perhaps, 14.

Let’s imagine a 14-year-old drinking age. The first opportunity for a person to drink legally would happen when they are under their parents’ care, without the financial means to buy much alcohol, unable to drive, and generally incapable of creating an environment conducive to irresponsible drinking. The novelty of drinking openly once a person arrived at college would be substantially reduced. The aggressive binge drinking that is the rite of many 21-year-olds would be non-existent.

More personally and locally, I suspect Curtis Fry would not have gotten obscenely drunk on his 21st birthday. He would not have brutally beaten my friend, Patrick McEwen, to death at Patrick’s apartment on South Van Buren Street.

Fry’s parents seem like good people. Had Fry been able to legally drink as a 14 year-old, they would have raised him in a way that prevented him from killing someone.

He would not be in prison today.

For me, imagining an alternate reality where a young man is not a killer and an old man is not brutally killed is compelling enough.


Written by JamesEJ

Saturday, October 2, 2010 at 7:15 pm

The lynching of Leo Frank.

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Leo and Lucille Frank during his trial, 1915

Leo and Lucille Frank during his trial, 1915

Jews have it pretty good in the United States.  Indeed, it is the only place where large numbers of Jews have lived as a minority with equal rights  and without having faced genocide or ethnic cleansing.

Even so, Jews have had reason to fear persecution in America.  General Ulysses Grant issued his infamous General Order 11 in 1862, expelling all the Jews of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky.   It was revoked within one month – after President Lincoln ordered its revocation.

Even today, hate crimes are disproportionately perpetrated on the basis of an anti-Jewish bias.  Only anti-gay bias is more disproportionate as a motivation for hate crimes in the US.

But, perhaps the worst (certainly the most notorious) hate crime perpetrated against a Jew in the US was the lynching of Leo Frank, 95 years ago today.

Frank was a pencil manufacturer in Atlanta and was accused of murdering a young girl who was an employee at his factory.  He was convicted in a show trial and sentenced to death.  Reports of the trial describe antisemitic outbursts in the courtroom.  There is little doubt that the conviction was the result of an antisemitic animus and that exculpatory evidence was ignored in the trial.

The governor of Georgia commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison.  In an unsuccessful attempt on his life, Frank’s throat was slit by another inmate.

A group that would later form the (second) Ku Klux Klan began openly planning the lynching of Frank.  Dozens of people were involved.  They went to the jail where he was being held, removed him, and drove him in a motorcade 150 miles to near the home town of the murdered girl.  There he was hanged before a large crowd of onlookers.  No one was charged with his murder.

Frank’s lynching led to many things.  The perpetrators re-established the Ku Klux Klan.  Jews established the Anti-Defamation League.  Half of Georgia’s Jews fled the state.

Thankfully, no Jew has been lynched in America in the interceding 95 years.

Written by JamesEJ

Tuesday, August 17, 2010 at 5:30 pm

… and how to mitigate the risk. (2 of 2)

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Please note, this is the second of a two-part post. Read the first part here.

Kinnick Stadium at The University of Iowa (via HawkeyeSports).

So, you are sitting in a packed Kinnick Stadium with 70,000 of your closest friends …  A small single-engine plane flies low overhead and a fine powder begins falling from it.  What do you do?

The natural reaction is to panic and flee.  But why?  What do you accomplish by running?  You breathe more deeply, expose yourself to a wider area, endanger others with your panic, and gain nothing.   Imagine the powder is anthrax – how will this save you?  Anthrax, even in inhalational anthrax infections, does not kill quickly and is treatable.  You should stay still, avoid exposure in place by covering your mouth, and wait to find out what just happened.  You will be no worse off for doing so and you could very well be much better off.  By staying calm and reacting specifically to what you do know, you will help avoid causing harm to yourself and others.

The best solution to mitigating terror is not a top-down government solution.  It is public awareness and education.  Terrorism works because people improperly weigh risks and respond irrationally.  If people respond rationally – even if this were an anthrax attack – few would die at all and none would die because of mass hysteria.

Of course, as I noted in the prior post, a fake attack without any anthrax is easy.  Obtaining many pounds of anthrax spores, however, is many times more difficult.  Most likely, a terrorist making such an attack is relying on the response of people to his actions because he is likely not capable of an attack with the actual thing.  It is wise to remain cautious, but reasonable to presume that the attack is a hoax.

If we all responded to terrorism in the way we respond to auto accidents, terrorism would disappear tomorrow in most places.  Terrorism has a very low death count.  If it is worth your fear, then dozens of ordinary things deserve your fear too.  Never get in a car; in fact, stay at home.  Never meet new people.  Rarely use electricity or gas. Don’t even think of ever getting a pool in your backyard.  Become a recluse.  You should be crippled by fear of every ordinary risk if terrorism scares you.   It is not worthy of your fear because you will almost certainly die of causes other than terrorism.

Even at a small airport, the government should do little more.  Small airplanes are not, in themselves, very lethal.  You can kill as many people with one as you could with an SUV.  It is not worth hardening or securing.  If the government should secure small planes, then it should secure every gasoline semi-trailer, every fertilizer inventory, every gun store … every theater where someone might shout “fire!”  Even in these places, it is the diligence of the local people, and not the government, that will flag people for further examination by the authorities.

Persistence by pilots and staff in a municipal airport – by securing aircraft, noting and responding to suspicious people, raising alertness, … – will probably do far more to thwart my described potential attack than any government action.  This is, in large part, because terrorists adapt and exploit security holes.  The only practical response is to develop a cultural attitude wherein people adapt and change their behavior when they see potential criminal planning.  Remember, America mitigated the harm of one of the attacks on September 11.  Untied 93 was brought down prematurely, saving untold numbers of people, because ordinary people did something that the terrorists did not expect them to do – implement a response directly based on the specific actions of the terrorists.

Only that kind of ordinary vigilance will thwart these sorts of attacks.  More importantly, only this response will thwart attacks in a manner consistent with our nation’s commitment to a liberal, tolerant, and open society.  We need to be reasonably alert, remain in control when we sense heightened danger, respond with appropriate action when we see suspicious activity, and most of all, not respond with the irrational fear upon which terrorists rely for their efficacy.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, July 19, 2010 at 5:45 pm

How to perpetrate pure terrorism … (1 of 2)

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Please note: this is not a true how-to.  It is an exercise in situational awareness intended to highlight risks and provoke discussion.  Part 2 will address potential solutions to the problem posed here.

Risk awareness is a two-sided thing. In order to protect yourself from harm you need to consider how a criminal or terrorist might see you.

Terrorism is not about killing large numbers of people. If it were, terrorists could be more successful by making and selling inexpensive automobiles. Cars kill many more people than do terrorists and yet we hop into cars all the time with little worry that we might die.

Terrorism is about controlling people through fear and forcing people to do greater self harm than the terrorist can do directly. A terrorist who secretly causes the apparent accidental deaths of dozens is a failure. A terrorist who very publicly attempts to murder innocents and fails to kill even one is a success.

Putting myself in the place of a terrorist, I am aware of many gaps in national security that could be readily exploited in many places, and certainly in Iowa City.  Here is one:

Small airports are completely unsecured. Go to any small non-commercial municipal airport and you will readily make such an assessment. You can walk up to the hangars, enter the tarmac, and approach parked planes with little or no questioning or interference. The planes in such airports are small, easy to fly, and less secured than most cars parked on the street. Of course, if you steal a plane, there is a high probability that you will get caught eventually – planes are difficult to conceal or fence. However, if you just need one for a short period of time, there are few barriers to commandeering one.

Chest x-ray taken 4 mo. after the onset of anthrax in a 46 yr. old male (via CDC).

Flour is completely unregulated and probably never could be regulated. It is widely available, widely used, and cheap. Even if it were not, there are a huge number of similar look-alike substances – chalk, talc, plaster, powdered sugar … But, for a terrorist, these substances, when applied in the right context might as well be anthrax. They are, of course, non-toxic, but since the 2001 anthrax attacks the American public has been conditioned to associate unusual dispersion of fine powder with anthrax.

If a person receives an envelope with white powder in it, it will cause that person to panic, trigger a significant police/security response, and make people cautious about receiving and opening their mail.

But, if someone aerially distributed a large volume of powder over a crowd, it would cause immediate and widespread panic. If done over an area where there are few known exits, such as an open air stadium or arena, that panic would cause people to run towards those exits at such a rate and with such force that many people would be crushed to death – either by asphyxiation or blunt force trauma. Many more would be injured and fear of large gatherings would suppress interest in a huge variety of entertainment and other mass public events.

Specifically, in Iowa City, stealing a plane, carrying a dozen bags of flour on board, and dumping them at low altitude over Kinnick Stadium during an Iowa football game would cause such panic. People would presume it was a terror attack, attempt to flee the stadium, and kill many by falling, trampling, and crushing asphyxiation as the exits became overwhelmed.

It would be the ultimate terror attack. The acts of the terrorist alone are not particularly murderous. Only because of the resulting terror would people be killed and injured.

It does not have to be this way. My next post will address what to do about this …

Update: Part 2.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, July 19, 2010 at 7:00 am

Posted in terrorism

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AMIA massacre 16 years later …

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Z-Word over at the AJC comes through in reminding us of the AMIA massacre of Jews in Buenos Aires by Hezbollah 16 years ago today, and giving us an update on the current situation:

Though the AMIA massacre occurred on July 18th, 1994 the official commemoration of its sixteenth anniversary took place on the 16th. In these two stories covering the events that took place you’ll find Guillermo Borger, head of the AMIA community organization. the one directly affected by the attack, praising the “good performance” of the present administration with regard to the investigation into the attack and lauding Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s “bravery” in calling for the extradition of the Iranian fugitives in her speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations.

via Two Theses On The AMIA Massacre at Z-Word Blog.

Here in Iowa City, I have heard several people refer to Hezbollah as “brave”, “freedom fighters”, and other such nonsense.  Such people need to read about the AMIA bombing (that killed 85 and wounded hundreds) and learn that groups like Hezbollah are not simply enemies of Israel.  They are enemies of the Jews and all tolerant people everywhere.

Read the full post at Z-Word.

Written by JamesEJ

Sunday, July 18, 2010 at 9:51 pm

The joke that is airport security …

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Tonight with a few friends, the conversation turned to airport “security.”  Anyone who has been to Israel knows that American airport security leaves much to be desired.  Whenever the topic comes up, one article comes to mind.

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in the Atlantic, offered what is probably the best critique of airport security that I have ever read.  Here is an opening bite:

Suspicious that the measures put in place after the attacks of September 11 to prevent further such attacks are almost entirely for show—security theater is the term of art—I have for some time now been testing, in modest ways, their effectiveness. Because the TSA’s security regimen seems to be mainly thing-based—most of its 44,500 airport officers are assigned to truffle through carry-on bags for things like guns, bombs, three-ounce tubes of anthrax, Crest toothpaste, nail clippers, Snapple, and so on—I focused my efforts on bringing bad things through security in many different airports, primarily my home airport, Washington’s Reagan National, the one situated approximately 17 feet from the Pentagon, but also in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, and at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport.

via The Things He Carried – The Atlantic.

You will have a hard time believing what Goldberg did.  You will have a harder time believing that he never got arrested.  If you have not read the piece, read it.   When you are done, if you want more, start reading Bruce Schneier’s excellent blog.

Written by JamesEJ

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 12:35 am

Losing all of his hatreds – my column in the Press-Citizen.

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My column on Frank Meeink’s autobiography, Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, is in today’s Iowa City Press-Citizen.  Here is the opening:

Losing all of his hatreds

Frank Meeink grew up in South Philly doing things that one would hope could not happen anywhere. The power of his story is its demonstration of how easily dejected kids can be radicalized into terrorists.

“Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead” is the story of Meeink’s journey from a rough life in the streets of South Philly … and his sometimes rougher life at home. Most centrally it is a story about his radicalization into the top neo-Nazi skinhead recruiter on the East Coast and his recovery from hatred. More generally the reader is drawn through a variety of problems from which Meeink learns that he must recover.

Read the rest of Losing all of his hatreds.

Meeink will be speaking tomorrow, Tuesday, July 13 at 7pm at Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City.  I spoke with him over the phone a few weeks ago; he is a colorful speaker and has an interesting personality.  It should be an excellent event and if you are in the Iowa City area, I hope to see you there.

Written by JamesEJ

Monday, July 12, 2010 at 6:11 pm