Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Hum of the Hovercraft

In yesterday's post, I mentioned the 24 / 7 video cameras in "The Hunger Games."

Tonight, I read this in the Sunday's Star Tribune:

"All of the pieces appear to be lining up for the eventual introduction of routine aerial surveillance in American life - a development that would probably change the character of public life in the United States."

The quotation is from the American Civil Liberties Union, in a paper on unmanned drones published last year. The tile was "Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance."

In "The Hunger Games," it is unclear whether the hovercraft are manned. But they are always ominous.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Deterrence: The View From District 12

Social control takes many forms.

In the U.S., mass incarceration plays that role for many segments of the population - particularly African-Americans.

Most of that incarceration, however, takes place off-screen. Many of us don't even think about the fact that our country has over 2 million people locked up in jail or prison. We just let the correctional officers and other criminal justice professionals serve as our proxies.

The nightmarish world depicted in "The Hunger Games" provides a thought-provoking contrast to our indifference. In Suzanne Collins's dystopia, a lethal form of incarceration plays out 24 / 7 on out-size video screens.

The ritual is almost like a return to the era of the public execution in its over-the-top striving for a deterrent effect. No use resisting The System when the power to compel such extreme behavior is on in-your-face display.

The prisoners are children who committed no crime, yet are put under intense pressure to be their own executioners.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Beltless at the Dakota County Courthouse

“Trust, but verify,” Ronald Reagan supposedly told Mikhail Gorbachev upon signing a missile treaty in the waning days of the Cold War.

It’s a curious phrase. The more a party feels it necessary to verify, the more it would seem to undermine trust. After all, if there really is trust, there is no need to verify.

That’s why people in close-knit communities leave their doors open and their cars unlocked. They don’t feel compelled to review surveillance tape upon returning home to verify that their trust was well founded.

What happens, however, when the size of a community grows sufficiently large that the instinctive trust of a smaller community is no longer present?

Well, then you would have — to take one example — the Dakota County courthouse in Hastings. As the Star Tribune reported last December, the country board insists that attorneys remove their belts and go throw security every time they visit the courthouse.

Members of the bar pressed the board for an exemption from the belts-off rule late last year. In other metro counties, they pointed out, attorneys are regularly allowed to bypass airport-type security procedures.

In addition, as attorney Paul Rogosheske contended, attorneys are already screened for character and moral fitness by the bar admission process.

The Dakota County Board was completely unmoved by these arguments. Instead, the board reaffirmed its support for continuing to require attorneys to go through the same security screening as everyone else.

During the board hearing, a commander from the sheriff’s office, John Grant, displayed a shiv (a piece of sharpened plastic). “This will kill you, just like anything else,” he said ominously.

Similarly, one of the county commissioners, Liz Workman, flatly told the lawyers that the courthouse was like the airport. So they should get used to removing their belts and going through the whole-nine-yards security procedure.

There is an obvious problem, however, with the airport analogy. Airlines offer expedited check-in programs for their frequent flyers. It’s a pity that Dakota County can’t do the same for its frequent courthouse-flyers, namely attorneys.

It’s a pity not because it’s such an inconvenience to remove your belt. It’s a pity because using more verification than is really needed tends to undercut trust.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Pistol Packing in L' Etoile du Nord

Headline writing is a peculiar craft that will outlive newspapers. To capture a would-be reader's interest, in a few short words, is an important skill. Especially in an age of information overload.

Sometimes, however, the headline writers get a little too cute. Even worse, sometimes they obscure the facts.

For example, yesterday's Star Tribune featured a long front-page article on legalized gun carrying in Minnesota. Presumably trying to riff on the state's "Land of 10,000 Lakes" slogan, the article multiplied the state's number of lakes by ten to get the number of permit holders.

The result was a headline that read Land of 100,000 Gun Toters.

Ah, but reality is not always so nicely symmetrical. It is Wisconsin, our neighbor to the east, that has about 100,000 gun permit holders. Here in Minnesota, with more restrictive gun permit requirements than Wisconsin, the number is more like 51,000. (The Strib said it was 50,777 as of 2007, which is now five years ago.)

A pity, to have such a fine article undermined by a factually inaccurate title. Unless the Strib was trying to imply that the trend line is heading toward 100,000 gun carriers in Minnesota?