Saturday, November 29, 2008

What's Wrong With Wal-Mart's?

CNN reports today on two separate tragic incidents in Wal-Mart stores. One was a death by trampling and the other by shooting.

In the first, a temporary Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death in a rush of thousands of early morning shoppers as he and other employees attempted to unlock the doors of a Long Island, New York, store at 5 a.m., police said.

In the second, unrelated incident, two men were shot dead in a Toys "R" Us in Palm Desert, California, after they argued in the store, police said.

A few things about this story got my attention. One is the obvious, how could a crowd of people be so frantic to do shopping that they not only trampled an employee to death, but started lining up at the locked doors the night before? To me that seems truly bizarre.

And I wondered what's wrong with CNN to have devoted 90% of the article to the trampling and practically no information about the shooting in California. Maybe they just didn't have the details from the west coast, but is such a thing possible in the internet age? Could this be an example of their famous picking and choosing of the sexiest stories? Did they make an editorial decision that the trampling was so much more intriguing to the readers that they gave the shooting, which is commonplace these days, short shrift? It's been suggested that the only reason I find so few defensive shooting stories in the main stream media is because they prefer printing the violent illegal ones and not because the defensive ones are so rare. Could this story be an example of that very editorial mechanism in action?

And finally, about the title of my post, what's wrong with Wal-Mart. Besides a nifty bit of alliteration, it's a serious question. I often hear disparaging remarks about the retail giant, which I find odd. I know they exploit their suppliers by supporting the third-world sweat-shop system, and they exploit their domestic workers in various ways, but don't they provide exactly what America needs and wants? I've been out of the country for 20 years, but on my visits I've had occasion to visit Wal-Mart's and other places like them. I thought the vast variety and incredibly low prices made up for many of those sins. What do you think?

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Search for Whitey Bulger

The Boston Globe ran a story about the manhunt for fugitive gangster Whitey Bulger. We discussed this case before which was immortalized in the great movie The Departed.

Boston's most notorious gangster worked hand-in-hand with FBI agents, ratting out his Mob rivals in exchange for protection. When the partnership unraveled, James "Whitey" Bulger disappeared.

I don't know about you, but something about that bothers me. I think the story is that he was working with the FBI until it came out that the FBI was as dirty as he was. It reminds me of the way we've dealt with certain heads of state in recent years, Noriega and Hussein to name just two.

There are a number of fascinating articles on the Boston Globe site, among which is one from last year about a sighting here in Italy. A bunch of Task Force guys flew out. But I guess wiley Whitey was too fast for them. Come to think of it, I think I spotted him myself one day while sipping a cappuccino near the Coliseum. He was speaking perfect Italian and looked just like Jack Nicholson.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Trouble in the Nevada State Prison System

Many prisons throughout the country are famous for being dangerous, violent places, Newark, Huntsville, San Quentin, to name a few. But this is the first glimpse I've had into the frightening world of Nevada State Prisons.

The Las Vegas Sun reported a couple months ago on the dramatic situation of the leader of the Aryan Warriors.

Daniel Joseph Egan, also known as "Dano," was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Kent J. Dawson to over 16 years in prison for ordering violent prison assaults of two men in order to enhance his position in the gang, U.S. Attorney Greg Brower of Nevada said.
Egan admitted he'd stabbed another inmate in order to join the Aryan Warriors. He then rose to lead the movement from within the prison.

Today the Las Vegas Sun reports on the sentencing of Kory Allen Crossman, who goes by the nickname “Lobes.” He was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Kent J. Dawson to 140 months in prison and five years of supervised release.

In August 2005, investigators said Crossman sold 3 ounces of meth to an undercover informant for $2,200. The next month he sold 7 ounces of meth to the same undercover informant for $3,900.
Crossman had come in contact with the gang in prison while serving time between 2001 and 2005. Upon his release he became the gang's manufacturer and supplier of methamphetamine.

Authorities said members of the Aryan Warriors gang, made up of white men, distribute narcotics, extort money from people through threats and violence, run illegal gambling operations and assault other inmates. The organization, which operates in Las Vegas and elsewhere in the state, wants to control the Nevada prison system.

Wikipedia offers a pretty interesting article on the etymology of the word Aryan.

To me these seem like fairly heavy sentences. I'm sure that will come as no surprise to anyone. What I mean is, if for selling drugs and for doing violence in prison we're already talking about time like this, 11 years and 16 years, no wonder we hand out life sentences so easily. And, is there any possibility at all that a guy like Crossman will improve during his long incarceration? There's got to be a better way, don't you think?

And what is it with these white supremacists and methamphetamine? Is that something unique to them or is everyone into that drug these days? I'm afraid I'm definitely out of that loop, and glad of it.

Please feel free to leave a comment.

Marine Corps Training

I've been wanting to dedicate a post to Bob S., one of our frequent commenters, who seems to disagree with me on just about everything, but has a respectful and thoughtful way of doing so. His son recently graduated from the Marine Corps Basic Training in San Diego.

I myself went through that training in Parris Island in the summer of 1970. I did it for all the wrong reasons, mainly to get my father's approval. All this is in retrospect, of course, but even during that summer's frenetic activities, I often wondered what I'd gotten myself into. On the graduation day, which followed what was at that time nine weeks of incredibly intense physical and psychological assault, my elation at having survived and the thrill of receiving the drill instructor's as well as my father's beaming approval, inflated my persona into something new and different for the 17-year-old, 135 pounder that I was at that time.

I went on to have a less than illustrious military career and to commence upon a decade and a half of rebellion against everything, all material for other posts. Yet, I believe some lifelong habits and attitudes were instilled in me that summer, many of which have served me well.

Best of luck to your son, Bob. May the Universe smile upon him wherever his military duties take him. And may he be one of the survivors like I was.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ali al-Marri Held Indefinitely in America

The New York Times published an opinion the other day about the case in which, for more than five years, the Bush administration has been holding Ali al-Marri, a legal resident of the United States, in near isolation under President Bush’s reprehensible enemy combatant doctrine.

Mr. Marri was arrested in Peoria, Ill., in December 2001 on criminal charges. In 2003, while his criminal case was pending, Mr. Bush designated him an enemy combatant, and he was moved to a Navy brig near Charleston, S.C. For 16 months, Mr. Marri was held incommunicado. During his detention, he reportedly has been subjected to treatment that borders on, or actually is, torture.
That doesn't sound like the America I grew up in. Do you think some of this Executive power will be diminished with the new administration? I certainly hope so.

The Witness L.A. site put it a bit plainer.

Intolerable is exactly the right word. It has been intolerable to have our democracy highjacked by an administration so drunk on its own unchecked executive power that it has crossed a line, the crossing of which, as British historian Andy Worthington put it, “.. cannot be accepted in a nation, like America, committed to basic human rights and the principles of its Constitution.”

REASON NUMBER 4768 THAT WE ARE HAPPY OBAMA WON: Because we will soon have a president who will not repeatedly fill us with shame and dread by imprisoning people without due process.

What do you think? Were the many questionable detentions that took place in the wake of 9/11 justified? Did some hidden good come from them? Were we perhaps spared other attacks as a result of these policies?

Does so much Executive power inevitably get misused? What if Mr. Marri had been a gun enthusiast? If he and his family and friends had been armed to the teeth, legally, would that have made a difference? I read today about how an armed citizenry is what's preventing tyranny. How would that work exactly?

Brancato Murder Trial Begins

CNN reports on the beginning of the Lillo Brancato trial for murder. As we discussed before, Lillo is accused of Second Degree Murder because he was present during the burglary when his partner Steven Armento shot and killed Officer Daniel Enchautegui.

Brancato's attorney, Joseph Tacopina, told the jury his client was an addict who "ruined his life" with drugs and was "clearly strung out" at the time of the slaying.

But he argued that the true culprit was Armento, who was convicted of first-degree murder on October 30 and has been sentenced to life in prison without parole.

According to the article, it could all hinge upon whether the jury believes Brancato knew Armento was armed. What do you think? Should that matter?

I'm thinking it was a dangerous and reckless errand the two of them were engaged in, but no one planned on murder. As tragic as this scene is, especially for the family of the brave officer who lost his life responding in the middle of the night to noises he'd heard, I can't see it as First Degree Murder, especially for Brancato.

What's your opinion? Is there any mitigation of culpability based upon their being addicts? Should addicts, driven by drug lust, be treated exactly the same as every one else?

Please feel free to leave a comment. Can we all agree that it's a terrible waste? Lillo Brancato had a shot at a prosperous acting career.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Abolishing the Death Penalty

The Huffington Post published an article by the Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Diann Rust-Tierney.

There are too many instances of innocent men and women being sentenced to death, of people of color, both defendants and victims, being treated more harshly, and dealt with as if they were expendable.

This is why New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007, and why we fully expect other states will follow.

Americans would be appalled to discover how much of their tax dollars support the flawed, ineffective death penalty system. For example, it costs Florida $51 million a year to enforce the death penalty above what it would cost to sentence first degree murderers to life in prison without parole.

I'm a big fan of hers. I subscribe to her organization's newsletter. But I believe she has it wrong. The reason we oppose the death penalty is because it's morally wrong, period. It's true that innocents may have been executed and that blacks and hispanics fare worse than whites in the system and that it's tremendously expensive to manage, but those are not the reasons we oppose it. We oppose it because it's morally and ethically wrong.

Of course, these side benefits of abolition could be persuasive where ethics and morals are not, in which case, I wouldn't want to quibble. But I think in any discussion of the death penalty we should be careful not to overlook the major reason for abolition.

What's your opinion? Do you think Ms. Rust-Tierney would still oppose capital punishment if no innocents were ever convicted and if no discrimination ever existed and if it were cost effective? I think yes. She would.

What do you think?

The Famous Gun Show Loophole

On the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence site there's a very informative article about what is called the "gun show loophole." I've heard mention of it several times, in a disparaging way, from my friends who love guns and oppose gun laws, but in reading the article I had quite a rude awakening.

Unfortunately, current federal law requires criminal background checks only for guns sold through licensed firearm dealers, which account for just 60 percent of all gun sales in the U.S. A loophole in the law allows individuals not “engaged in the business” of selling firearms to sell guns without a license—and without processing any paperwork.

This means that in many States guns can be sold privately or at flea markets or at actual gun shows to anyone. Given the estimated 5,000 gun shows that take place annually, some of them huge gatherings, combined with flea markets and individual private transactions, we're talking big numbers.

This is how the gun culture is feeding the criminal world. This is how gun proponents who oppose common sense laws that would restrict their hobbies or rights under the 2nd Amendment are contributing to the problem, and in my opinion, responsible for it.

Background checks that are required in gun stores when purchasing from a licensed gun dealer should be universally applied. In two Western States, where individual rights are generally championed, changes have come. Too bad it took something like Columbine to open their eyes.

"If we can save up about $200 real quick...we can go to the next gun show and find a private dealer and buy ourselves some bad-ass AB-10 machine pistols."
- Columbine killer Eric Harris, who was 17 years old at the time

In two states, voters themselves closed the loophole when their legislatures refused to do so. On November 7, 2000, the citizens of Colorado overwhelmingly voted 70% – 30% in favor of Amendment 22, closing the gun show loophole in their state. The referendum followed the tragic shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. One of the guns used at the Columbine shooting was purchased at a Colorado gun show.

In Oregon, voters also voted overwhelmingly, 62% – 38%, in favor of Measure 5, effectively closing the gun show loophole in their state.

What's your opinion? Is this loophole as bad as it seems? Wouldn't honest law-abiding gun owners themselves what to put a stop to it? What do you think?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Great Moments in Opera

Giacomo Puccini wrote Tosca. One of the most famous arias in it is E lucevan le stelle. Here are two videos (inspired by Weer'd). The first one is Luciano Pavarotti, who many say is the greatest tenor of the second half of the 20th century. The second is Placido Domingo, who many of the others say is the greatest. I love 'em both. The Domingo clip is from an interesting movie they made here in Rome about 15 years ago. They filmed it on three consecutive evenings in the exact locations in which the action takes place. Act 1 is in the Basilica of S. Andrea. Act 2, in Palazzo Farnese, the present day French Embassy, and Act 3, part of which we see in this video, in Castel S. Angelo. The English translation is right in the videos. The Italian is below. The scene depicted could not be more dramatic. The hero, Mario Cavaradossi, is about to be executed for political crimes and is recalling an intensely beautiful moment.

E lucevan le stelle,
e olezzava la terra
stridea l'uscio dell'orto,
e un passo sfiorava la rena.
Entrava ella, fragrante,
mi cadea fra le braccia.
Oh! dolci baci, o languide carezze,
mentr'io fremente le belle forme discogliea dai veli!
Svani per sempre il sogno mio d'amore...
L'ora e fuggita e muoio disperato!
E non ho amato mai tanto la vita!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Cars and Guns - Apples and Oranges

On a recent post I received this comment from Bob S., and not for the first time. In fact so often has this type of questioning been used by my gun enthusiast friends, that I've been accused of dodging it.


Simple question, please answer truthfully.

There are thousands of drunk driving deaths a year. You are a car owner, do you bear the same responsibility for the illegal actions of those car owners?

You've asked repeatedly if gun owners bear responsibility for illegal acts with firearms but aren't illegal acts with cars more frequent, have more deaths and injuries?

How dare you accuse/impugn or imply that I have responsibility for illegal acts if you aren't willing to accept the same responsibility.

November 21, 2008 1:32 PM

My first impression, whenever one of these questions was put to me, was that it's like comparing apples and oranges. We've had cars, knives, alcohol, any number of things compared to guns in this way. I tried, without much success, to point out that perhaps the problem with this type of comparing is that guns are unique among all these items. hand guns, especially, have but one purpose. But a big discussion ensued as to what that purpose really is. And we got nowhere.

So, I'll give it a go. I say gun availability is a problem and that law abiding gun owners bear some responsibility for the problems caused by criminals using guns. Here's how, using cars as an example.

Let's say there are 1000 people. 900 of them want cars, 100 do not. The 900 have a powerful lobby that fights against any laws that might prevent them from having cars; the 100 are always trying to limit or curtail car availability. So far the 900 prevail.

Of that group, 100 are irresponsible. They include drunk drivers, drug addicts, mentally ill people, road rage maniacs. These 100 cause tremendous problems, but the 800 good drivers, insist they are not to blame. "That's them," they say. "We have nothing to do with them." The 100 anti-car folks, naturally say this is proof that cars are dangerous and bad and will always result in problems and should be banned. The 800 are too powerful to let that happen and continue to insist it's not their fault or problem. That's where we stand.

I say the 800 bear some responsibility for the problem. Certainly the 100 anti-car people don't. And the 100 problem drivers wouldn't even be a problem if it weren't for the 800 and their powerful lobby.

Translated into everyday language, for me to deny any responsibility for the drunk driver who kills a kid on a bike, would be wrong if there were a serious movement afoot to ban all cars from the road and I opposed it. By supporting car availability, I would automatically bear some responsibility for the consequences, good and bad.

What do you think?

Suicide Live on the Internet

Yahoo News reports on the sad story of a young man who committed suicide live on webcam. It touches on some of our previous discussions about suicide being an individual right.

The father of a college student whose suicide was broadcast live over a webcam said Saturday he was appalled by the virtual audience that egged on his son and called for tougher regulation of Internet sites.

Abraham Biggs Sr. said those who watched and the Web site operators share some blame in his 19-year-old son's death.

"I think they are all equally wrong," he said. "It's a person's life that we're talking about. And as a human being, you don't watch someone in trouble and sit back and just watch."

I agree with the father that someone should have done something to prevent this tragedy. The article goes on to explain that Abraham Biggs Jr. suffered from bi-polar disease and actually used his medication to kill himself, I suppose in one huge dose.

What I noticed with interest is Biggs Sr.'s suggestion that the viewers and the internet provider share in the responsibility. It sounds a lot like my suggestion that legal gun owners share in the responsibility of tragic gun events. About the guns, I'm still working on that connection; perhaps this story will help me sort it out.

The major question remains: how much autonomy should be give individuals who wish to commit suicide? Previously I argued that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem and as such should be discouraged emphatically or even physically prevented. But I admit it is complicated.

Does the very fact that one wants to commit suicide imply mental illness? Is there any validity to Mr. Biggs' claim that the viewers share in the responsibility? Is inaction on their part culpable?

What about those "tougher regulations for internet sites?" What might they be and would they be appropriate?

What's your opinion?