Monday, August 31, 2009

Mothers of the Disappeared Get a Database

The BBC reported tonight that the Chilean government is creating a DNA database to help identify (living or dead) people who disappeared (and were probably murdered) during the repression of the Pinochet era.

It reminds me not only of U-2's song, but of a speech I heard Cornell West give at Boise State University in 1997. One of the most deeply human desires is to be able to bury our dead. With the creation of the new database, Chileans will have a better chance to do that, for loved ones taken from him during the terrible violence unleashed by the Pinochet government.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Whole Armor of God

Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek all the time, right? Well, it's true that Jesus says this in two of the gospels (Mt. 5:39, Lk. 6:29). And certainly the Christian fold is big enough to include those of a quietist persuasion. Their watchwords are “Resist not evil,” lest by fighting evil they end up emulating it themselves.

Yet Scripture also contains a clear call to confront evil. The concluding passage of Ephesians, summoning the faithful to put on the armor of God, is a stirring call to fight the good fight.

How does one equip oneself for this struggle? Ephesians 6 prescribes a spiritual toolkit covering tip to toe.

● Belt of truth around the waist
● Breastplate of righteousness
● Shield of faith
● Helmet of righteousness
● Shoes conducive to proclaiming the gospel of peace
● Sword of the Spirit (the only weapon mentioned)

By insisting on the truth, faithful people (Christian or not) can help defeat ideologies that rely on lies. A generation ago, isn't that what we did to win the Cold War?

Today, on the issue of health care reform, let’s start with this: There is no such thing as “death panels” in the proposed legislation. For corroboration, see the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s fact check service.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

9-1-1: Anything Can Happen

If I were on Twitter, I’d have to keep this to 140 characters. Let me try (6:40 p.m.):

Approaching Co. Rd. 38 in AV, going south on Zoo Blvd, I heard sirens. One police car passed, going north on Zoo Blvd. Then another turned left onto Zoo Blvd off of 38.

Wow, 140 characters aren’t many! Geting the missive above down to 138 took a little doing. Thankfully, the blog format offers more room to maneuver.

It’s been seven years since I had a ride-along with a Carver County Sheriff’s deputy, while working as a program coordinator for the Minnesota Criminal Justice Resource Center. Yet I still recall the giddy feeling of zipping past and through the usual traffic limitations.

First responders do sometimes get into accidents in the course of their duty. On June 20, for example, an ambulance hurrying to the site of a car crash in St. Paul struck and killed a pedestrian. Tests showed that the veteran firefighter driving the ambulance had no alchohol in his system, and a Fire Department spokesperson described him as devastated by the fatality.

Accustomed as they are to dealing with demanding situations of extreme urgency, first resonders can also overeach and overreact. The recent case of Kerra Cameron illustrates this.

Cameron was filling out her wedding registry at Target in a Minneapolis suburb along with her fiance. She suffers from low blood pressure, which causes her to pass out occasionally, but is able to recover on her own within a few minutes without medical intervention. When she passed out at Target, however, someone called 9-1-1 and EMTs forced her into an ambulance, even though she had already regained conscoiusness and said she'd be fine in a few minutes. A police officer signed an "emergency hold" to force her to be taken to the hospital for tests, which revealed nothing wrong.

The case attracted the attention of the press when both the ambulance company and the hospital tried to collect for the unwanted services. A state ombudsman was quoted as saying that using Minnesota's "temporary hold" statute to force medical treatment on someone who is not suffering from a mental illness was not a proper use of the law. I'd go farther; it seems like a form of false imprisonment.

It's remarkable how relatively infrequent incidents like these are, however, given the degree to which − under the exigencies of an emergency − police, firefighters, and EMTs stretch the limits of what’s humanly possible. They do this initially in getting there so quickly, and then in dealing with the unpredictable, often highly dangerous situations awaiting them upon arrival. Bruce Springsteen's song "Into the Fire," about the firefighers and other first responders who entered the burning Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, epitomizes this can-do spirit at the highest level .

The one personal encounter I've had with EMTs was very positive and unforgettable. My father was dying of cirrhosis of the liver and complications of Parkinson's disease. In August 2007, my mother realized that she could not take of him at home any longer. We made arrangements for dad to be transferred to The Pillars, a hospice affiliated with the Health East system. Two young EMTs - both women - came to my parents' house to transport him.

Before the EMTs arrived, dad had been largely unresponsive, slumped in his chair. But they helped him muster himself, so that by the time he went out the door a conversation enlivened by the kind of light repartee that he loved was underway. My mom and I drove right behind the ambulance on the twenty-five mile trip from Apple Valley to Oakdale and helped dad get settled into his room at the hospice. The EMTs and the hospice staff were all like angels, taking on a burden of care that had caught us unawares.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Boot Camp, Without the Spit and Polish

Over a decade after its publication, Louis Sachar’s Holes remains a riveting story. The tale of a teenager wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of sneakers and sent to a remote boot camp to dig holes in a dry lakebed won the 1998 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Five years later, the Disney Company made it into a movie.

Sachar’s unflattering portrayal of the detention camp matches up with the social scientific literature. According to a systematic study by David B. Wilson, Doris L. MacKenzie, and Fawn Ngo Mitchell published in 2005, “the military component of boot camps is not effective in reducing post boot camp offending. Discipline and physical exercise by themselves do not appear to be the solution to our crime problem.” This is true for both adults and juveniles, the authors concluded.

Wilson, MacKenzie, and Mitchell left open the possibility that effective treatment components could conceivably be added to boot camps. Research has not yet established “whether effective
correctional programming is more effective within the boot camp environment than when provided within a prison or as an adjunct to probation.”

In other words, a lot depends on the design of the camp and how it is operated. It is possible that participation in a boot camp could lead to improved prosocial attitudes. But the camp setting can also become rife with abuse. Both of those aspects of reality are very much in play in Holes.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Time to Fight for Sentencing Reform

In late March, when Senator Jim Webb introduced a bill in the Senate calling for sentencing reform, Doug Berman’s sentencing blog was brimming with comments. Not surprisingly, a number of them reflected the reflexive vitriol that for too long has passed for discourse on criminal justice in America. Others, however, saw Webb as that exceedingly rare figure: a politician of genuine courage.

Tonight I went online to learn more about Webb’s background, and Elizabeth Drew’s article in the June 26, 2008 issue of The New York Review of Books did not disappoint. It was chuck full of information − such as Webb’s legendary boxing match at West Point against Oliver North, the famously gung-ho figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.

Though he grew up as a Democrat, Jim Webb broke with the party over President Carter’s grant of amnesty to Vietnam War draft evaders. Webb was a Marine rifle platoon commander in Vietnam, where he won two Purple Hearts, and later served as President Reagan's Secretary of the Navy. His military upbringing is also reflected in a plainspoken manner and a strong personal code of honor. That code of honor helps him recognize when the military is being misued, and led to his opposition to George W. Bush's war in Iraq.

"Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight," the Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn sang in the 1980s, after a visit to Central America when it was besieged by civil wars. As we look to the fall, and battles in Congress over health care reform and so much else, there will be ample occasion to put that notion to the test, and to apply the title of Jim Webb’s 2008 book: A Time to Fight.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Like a Complete Unknown, Indeed

Of all the memorable songs Bob Dylan has penned over the years, the most indelible may be “Like a Rolling Stone.”

“How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?”

The song went to number two on the charts in 1965, a pre-digital era when Top 40 was almost synonymous with name recognition

Bob Dylan is 68 now, and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world.

On July 23, however, he was stopped by police and asked for identification in Long Branch, a town on the Jersey Shore about a two-hour drive south of New York City. On tour with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, Dylan was scheduled to play a baseball stadium in nearby Lakewood, and − as he later told police − had gone out to look at houses to pass some time before that night’s show.

Someone called police with a report of suspicious activity. Two officers in their twenties responded and asked Dylan for his ID. When he did not have it on him, they accompanied him back to the resort where the musicians were staying, and tour staff vouched for him.

The press accounts from AP and CNN quite naturally reached back for Dylan’s own lyrics to emphasize the irony of the event. The famous Dylan, whose garbage was ransacked at one point by one fan looking for interpretive clues to Dylan’s often-cryptic lyrics, had been treated like a complete unknown, just as it says in his song.

The eerie thing to me is that this occurred less than a month after someone in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called the police on the noted African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, who had been trying to get into his own house without his keys. When Gates became combative with the responding officers, he was charged with disorderly conduct − a charge that was later dropped. This incident led to the high-profile “beer summit” between Gates, the arresting officer, and President Obama to discuss the problem of racial profiling.

Fortunately, no beer summit was necessarily to resolve the Dylan matter. One wonders, though, whether the episode will find itself reflected in a song

He Threw It All Away

Thirty years ago, Bob Dylan released a song called “I Threw It All Away,” on his Nashville Skyline album.

“I must have been mad,
I never knew what I had,
Until I threw it all away.”

It’s been a few years since I’ve listened to the song, but it came quickly to mind when I read the account in today’s Star Tribune of the ex-soccer coach sentenced to twelve years in prison for sexually assaulting a teenage girl who played on the team he was coaching. The incidents began when the girl was only 14 and continued for over a year, becoming increasingly graphic and offensive.

At trial, in January 2009, the victim’s emotional testimony brought tears to the eyes of jurors. “I felt I was speaking for girls who didn’t have a voice,” the victim said after the offender, Eric Hawkins, was found guilty.

Hawkins, now 45, was unrepentant, smirking during the victim’s testimony, cursing his former attorney after sentencing, and kicking at the door of the courtroom as he was escorted back to his jail cell by sheriff’s deputies.

Did he kick and curse because he knew he’d thrown it all away?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Walking the Line at Folsom, 2009

Today National Public Radio aired a disturbing report on the troubled California prison system, focusing on Folsom prison, where the singer Johnny Cash played a famous concert from a makeshift stage in the cafeteria in 1968.

Built to house 1800 inmates, Folsom now holds over 4400 in racially segregated cell blocks, and its once state-of-the art rehabilitation programs have been stripped to the bone. Violence − or the threat of violence − is omnipresent, with 15 to 20 inmate-on-inmate assaults per week.

Health care is deeply problematic. Facilities throughout the California system are under federal receivership because the state let inmate medical care deteriorate to the point that the federal courts found violations of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The abandonment of any attempt at programming for most inmates contributes to the strikingly high recidivism rate. Seventy five percent of the inmates return to prison within three years of their release.

In its admirably analytic way, NPR offered an informative survey of the policy decisions that have brought Folsom, and the entire California system, to this calamitous state.

• Increased parole sanctions
• Prison time for nonviolent drug offenders
• Elimination of indeterminate sentencing
• 1994’s “3 Strikes” law, which mandated life in prison for a third felony, even if it involved shoplifting

Not surprisingly, these policies led directly to a skyrocketing of the prison population. After holding steady at around 20,000 in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, it is now over 167,000.

Growing right along with the prison population − and even lobbying politically for that growth − has been the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The union has gone from 2,600 officers to 45,000, with salaries that are now so high that one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year. NPR quoted two recent directors of the state corrections department who asserted that the biggest problem they faced was the political influence of the union.

When will conservative critics who rail against what they claim is heavy-handed and inefficient government intervention in people’s lives turn their attention to the prison-industrial complex?

The truth about what’s going on behind the razor wire cannot be hidden much longer by the shibboleth of public safety rhetoric. It doesn't promote public safety to use prison as some sort of dog house, where people are kicked when they're down and come out of the cage even more dangerous than before. And in a recession like this one, with California’s state government having to issue improvised I-owe-Us trying to cover its debts, $100,000 prison guards and policies that put shoplifters in prison for life are due for a second look. Maybe even a change.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Health Care Shouldn't Require a Lottery

In 1993, when the Clinton administration tried to reform the American health care system, there were 32 million uninsured. Sixteen years later − after the Lewinsky impeachment travesty and the W. should’ve-been-impeached-for-real interregnum − the (astonishingly high) number is up to 48 million, according to tonight’s Marketplace broadcast on National Public Radio.

As surreptitious forces with ties to the insurance industry and the Republican party try to scuttle another good faith effort to overhaul the dysfunctional system, Americans of good will are finding ways to respond. In Los Angeles, a nonprofit group called Remote Area Medical that originally aimed its services at places like the Amazon is providing free health care at the old LA Forum, to people selected (as with Michael Jackson’s funeral) through a lottery. And good old Jim Wallis and others in the progressive religious community are uniting to support President Obama’s plan for national health care reform.

Please contact your congressperson after reading this, saying you support President Obama on health care reform.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Keep Those Lawyers Alive

The name Dave Ramsey was not one I knew until last Sunday. As I was standing in the narthex of my church, however, someone invited me to a preview immediately after worship of a financial planning course that will be starting up again soon called Financial Peace University.

My wife, Diane, and I are doing alright financially. But in this economy, many people are struggling, and Financial Peace University is therefore a significant program at our church. So I thought I'd check out the preview.

Ramsey is a dynamic presenter who isn’t shy about telling his story of quickly making lots of money in real estate as a young man and just as quickly losing it. Today, he’s a bestselling author whose latest book, Total Money Makeover, is number three on the New York Times business hardcover list.

Why, then, did Ramsey take a gratuitous shot at lawyers in his presentation? Out of the blue, he trotted out the hoary old tale about someone suing McDonald’s for serving hot coffee that subsequently spilled.

Maybe Ramsey felt that a little lawyer bashing would help him build rapport with his audience. But surely there was another way to make his point that we should seek first to take responsibility for our own actions, rather than blame others. Of course we should each take responsibility. But that doesn't change lawyers' key role in holding others accountable for harm that can be prevented with reasonable care.

When Shakespeare has a character in Henry VI say, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” he was warning of the dangers of anarchy. Dave Ramsey might be inclined to take this line literally, but fortunately there isn’t a Shakespeare unit in the Financial Peace University curriculum.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Harry Potter on the Death Penalty

Fictional characters, no matter how famous, are not the first place to turn for insights into arguments about the death penalty in America. But considering how wide an audience the Harry Potter books and movies have reached, the opinions expressed there cannot help but influence the matrix of moral sentiments in which the debate takes place.

Toward the end of the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, the man who betrayed Harry’s parents is finally unveiled. Peter Pettigrew had conspired to turn Harry’s parents over to be murdered by the dark lord, Voldemort, and then went underground (often quite literally) for twelve years while another man, Sirius Black, went to prison for killing Pettigrew and others.

Black and another old friend of Harry’s father, Remus Lupine, are about to execute Pettigrew, after having extracted a confession from him. They raise their wands to kill him − but Harry intervenes. When the abject Pettigrew tries to thank Harry for the mercy, Harry cuts off the gasping gratitude by saying, “I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it because − I don’t reckon my dad would’ve wanted [his two closest friends] to become killers − just for you.”

Not a rationale that soars with moral grandeur. But it’s a start at a more developed consciousness, recognizing what the act of killing might do to someone, even when the killing is retribution for another.