Monthly Archives: August 2010

Memorializing 9/11

I don’t understand memorials and monuments. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say I don’t understand how other people think about memorials and monuments. It just doesn’t make much sense to me.

I have the good fortune of having lead a peaceful life. Other than my parents, no one really close to me has died. Perhaps if I’d experienced more tragedy, I’d understand people’s reactions better. What I’m saying is that I’m perfectly willing to admit that I just don’t get it. Still, there are things that just seem wrong.

I remember hearing many years ago that someone was proposing a memorial for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, which is where he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in 1968. Part of the planned memorial was a laser beam, projected across the hotel grounds, that followed the path of the bullet that killed King.

To my way of thinking, this was completely the wrong way to honor Dr. King. The shooting at the Lorraine hotel had nothing to do with who King was and what he stood for. King did his great work in countless churches and gatherings, in marches and speeches and discussions with leaders all over the country. That’s what was important to Martin Luther King, and that’s what we should remember about him. That’s the part of his life we should honor.

It’s not that King’s assassination is unimportant. It says a lot about America that we had a guy like Dr. King in this country, and that he was murdered. But his murder wasn’t about him, it was about our relationship to him. It was about what other people did to him. Specifically, it was about what one man with a gun did to him. These people wanted to build a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, but it seemed to me they were building a monument to to the accomplishments of James Earl Ray.

(The Lorraine Hotel is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which seems like a much better much better way to honor Dr. King and his work.)

I got to thinking about all this after reading Scott Greenfield’s brilliant post about the controversy over building a Mosque near Ground Zero. Scott argues that Ground Zero and the location of the Mosque are worlds apart by Manhattan standards, and that people who don’t actually know the area from personal experience shouldn’t be telling folks in Manhattan what to do. In particular, he’s not impressed by the 9/11 families’ claims that the former site of the twin towers is “hallowed ground.”

(Scott also doesn’t like the phrase “Ground Zero,” and frankly neither do I. Ground zero is technical slang for the location on the Earth’s surface directly below an aerial explosion such as nuclear bomb. Its use for the site of the World Trade Center towers has always struck me as incorrect.)

I felt bad for people who lost loved ones in the terrors of 9/11, but I’ve found the whole “9/11 families” phenomenon a little disturbing. Again, as with the proposed memorial for Martin Luther King, it’s because the 9/11 families were brought together and united as a group by something that had nothing to do with them or the people they lost.

(Many of them would have known groups of the other families before 9/11 because their loved ones worked together. That does have to do with who they are and what they were about, so it’s not what I’m talking about here.)

After 9/11, I’m sure the families of the victims naturally came together in sharing their grief. But somewhere along the way, I think that unity got turned toward ends that were somewhat political. I don’t know where it started. Maybe reporters asked the family members for their opinions so many times that they selected people to speak for them, and those people became leaders. For some of them, it became a purpose in life, a reason to go on. But I’m sure other people saw that any claim of a connection to 9/11 was a way to draw attention and political power to themselves.

Then there was all the money. The September 11th Fund collected donations and eventually provided $500 million to the families, but that’s small change compared to the $7 billion they got from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The latter was a government program, and it was far from a simple act of charity. Among other things, it was a bailout of sorts for the airlines whose planes were hijacked: In accepting money from the fund, families agreed not to sue the airlines. Naturally, the airlines wanted this fund to be as large as possible to discourage lawsuits. You can bet they lobbied Congress hard for this.

Lawyers scrambled to represent the families. Politicians learned that they could get publicity by calling for more compensation for the families. Pundits attracted attention to themselves by commenting on how terrible it all was.

When people started talking about a memorial at the site of the towers, I began to get the same feeling I had from the proposed Martin Luther King memorial. The people in the towers on 9/11 were insurance brokers and underwriters, bankers, tourists, car rental agents, lawyers, accountants, computer technicians, doctors, travel agents, and restaurateurs. They were husbands, wives, parents, siblings, and children. They had no idea 9/11 was coming, they had no plans to make a sacrifice or take a risk that day. So why honor them as if they did? Why unite them as if they had a common cause?

(This doesn’t apply to the first responders — police officers, firefighters, and EMTs — who showed up to help. They risked their lives to help others. This was a cause they all shared.)

If we’re going to honor the victims of 9/11, we should honor them for who they chose to be, not for what Al Qaeda made them. We shouldn’t turn the site of the World Trade Center into a monument to the vision of Osama bin Laden.

I’m probably projecting my own values into the situation too much, but I can’t help feeling that the 9/11 families have had their grieving process hijacked by the media, the politicians, and to some extent the American people. I’m not saying that their grief is unnatural or fake, but part of the grieving process is socially constructed. We do some things because people expect it of us, and when 300 million people are aware of your loss, you’ve got to feel some pressure.

The reverence people have for the site of the twin towers really surprises me. I don’t really get it. People talk about preserving the footprint of the towers, and not building anything there. It all just seems so technical and dry. I don’t understand the attachment to the location. I can understand why the location is painful and emotional and maybe cathartic to visit for people who lost a loved one, but I can’t understand the reverence.

I’ve tried to imagine how I’d feel if, say, my wife was killed in a car accident. How would I react to the location of the accident? I think I’d hate driving past the site, and would probably avoid it for a few years. But I wouldn’t revere it. It wouldn’t be hollowed ground for me.

And yet… When my father died, my wife and I took his ashes back to Kentucky where he was born. The last few hours of driving were off the interstate, on state roads winding through the hills and farms of eastern Kentucky, and I became accutely aware of passing small crosses that had been placed on the side of the road. I assume these were markers of locations where someone had been killed in a car accident.

I can kind of understand that. If someone I loved had died in one of those accidents, it would seem strange that the road appeared so normal. Here this important and terrible thing happened, and everything about the place is completely ordinary. It wouldn’t seem right.

On the other hand, I still don’t think I’d put up a marker. The location was the result of random chance, and it had nothing to do with the person who died.

All of this is not to say that there shouldn’t be a monument to the people murdered at the World Trade Center on 9/11. I’m just not sure that this should be it. I haven’t been following the planning of the 9/11 memorial, so I don’t know much about this, but it looks like they’re setting aside eight acres of Manhattan for the memorial, and they won’t be rebuilding any commercial buildings where the towers stood.

Somehow, it all seems like too much. By comparison, when the Eastland rolled over in the Chicago River in 1915, over 800 people died. The only memorial is this plaque (although there are plans for a slightly larger exhibit). Of course, almost four times as many people died on 9/11, and they died not in an accident but in an act of war, which does make a difference. Still, the 9/11 monument is half an acre larger than the National World War II Memorial.

I can’t escape the feeling that some people see memorializing 9/11 as a business and political opportunity, that some people who claim to represent the 9/11 families are really representatives only of their own self-interest, and that some people who claim to be honoring the dead are really trying to attract attention to themselves.

Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Like I said, I really don’t understand how other people think about memorials and monuments. It only makes sense, therefore, that the things other people plan won’t have much appeal to me, nor should they. When it comes to building the 9/11 memorial, no one should give much thought to pleasing someone who feels as I do. Nothing they do there is going to upset me much.

Still, I wish they’d do something. It’s been almost nine years since the towers fell. That’s four years longer than it took to build the towers or almost a third of the time they were standing. Looking at the construction site webcam as I write this, night has fallen, and imprints of the towers are just two dark holes in the ground. It sure looks like what Osama bin Laden wanted.

As Long As No One Got Hurt…

I had met my friend Fritz at a local pizza joint for some lunch, when we noticed something suspicious at another table: A couple of pasty-looking white guys, they had briefcases on the table and were exchanging things them while speaking in hushed tones. They wore paramilitary outfits — matching blue shirts and pants and matching blue jackets — and we could see suspicious shapes under their jackets, which had the letters I, C, and E on the back. I guessed that was a hidden reference to some sort of terrorist organization, possibly even the dreaded narco-terrorists, since everyone knows that “ice” is street slang for crystal meth.

We were concerned for our well-being and for those of other restaurant patrons, so Fritz counted quietly — one…two…THREE! — and we both leapt up and drew our weapons. Thanks to the exciting new gun laws here in Chicago, I was armed with my recently purchased Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol and Fritz had one of those blocky H&K USP pistols.

I yelled “Freeze! Don’t move!” while Fritz screamed “Hands up!” We had caught them cold. Both of them jerked their hands up as their eyes got real big, and I think one of them pissed his pants. Fritz maneuvered around behind them, and I started going through the contents of their briefcases, which turned out to be mostly shipping manifests of some kind. They had circled some items in red. Clearly, they were smuggling something into the country, possibly components for a dirty bomb.

When I questioned them, they claimed they were part of some government agency called “Immigration and Customs Enforcement” which seemed like something they made up to explain the lettering on the jacket. For one thing, everyone knows that it’s called the “Immigration and Nationalization Service.” More importantly, Chicago is hundreds of miles from any international border. They tried to explain this with some bullshit about O’Hare International Airport being nearby, so I shoved them both to the ground and Fritz stood on their heads for lying to us.

As it turned out, their story kind of checked out, so we had to let them go. Boy were they pissed off! All because we made a little mistake. They even threatened to arrest us, but what could they do? We hadn’t actually shot anybody, and that’s what counted, so we did absolutely nothing wrong.

As you probably guessed, none of that actually happened. I was just fantasizing about what it would be like if ordinary folks could get away with stuff just like law enforcement officers do. I was inspired by Brian Tannebaum’s post about some ICE agents who did pretty much that exact same thing to the Boveda family last week, and then explained that it was okay because nobody got hurt.

I’m thinking I could turn this into a series. Maybe next time I’ll fantasize about getting caught on video beating a helpless person senseless and getting away with it because the police felt the video didn’t show enough context to establish that I didn’t have a good reason.

P≠NP (maybe)

Wow! Vinay Deolalikar, a Hewlett Packard researcher, has published his proof that P≠NP. It may not mean much to most of you, but P versus NP is the greatest unsolved problem of theoretical computer science. A complete explanation of the problem would be lengthy, but let me see if I can summarize it.

P represents a large set of computer science problems that are known to be solvable in polynomial time. This means that however large the problem gets — expressed as n, the number of items in the problem — the time it would take to solve it is bounded by some constant multiple of a power of n.

For example, for any given computer, sorting of items is bounded by n2. That is, we can write an expression that includes a constant multiple of n2 that will always be larger than the execution time of the solution. For example, 0.001*n2 seconds would always enough time to sort a list of n names, no matter how big the list got: A million names, a billion names, 6*1023 names, whatever.

(Sorting is actually much more efficient than n2, but it’s not as efficient as n, so n2 is the closest power.)

On the other hand, there are also problems that are not known to be solvable in polynomial time. For example, there’s the traveling salesman problem: Given a set of cities and the travel times between all of them, find the shortest route that visits all cities. The brute force approach of trying all possible combinations is bounded by n!, so solving it for 10 cities takes time proportional to 10*9*8*7*6*5*4*3*2*1. Smarter approaches have lowered the time to 2n. Still, there is no constant power to which n can be raised which will always be larger than 2n, so there are no known polynomial time solutions to the traveling salesman problem.

The traveling salesman problem is only one of many problems which are classified as NP-hard for which it’s possible to create hypothetical algorithms that solve the problem in polynomial time by using a magic guessing step called an oracle that always chooses the correct next step. (I’ve always assumed the oracle character in The Matrix referred to this kind of oracle.) This oracle is a stand-in for a really smart solution that we haven’t figured out yet. The NP-hard problems are related, so that if we find an algorithm that makes one of them solvable in polynomial time, all of them will be solvable in polynomial time. If that happens, then there will be no problems in the set NP that are not also in the set P. In other words, P=NP.

Most complexity theorists think that the reason we haven’t found an algorithmic replacement for the oracle is that none exists. The set NP contains problems that can never be solved in polynomial time. In other words, P≠NP. However, this has never been proven.

Until now. Maybe.

I’m not nearly smart enough to analyze Vinay Deolalikar’s 100-page paper in which he claims to have proven P≠NP, however the smart betting, according to Steven Landsburg, is that it is

a) not crazy (which already puts it in the top 1% of papers that have addressed this question),

b) teeming with creative ideas that are likely to have broad applications, and

c) quite likely wrong.

That last is just a guess, based on the long history of this problem. Unlike the hoard of crazy people who have announced solutions, Deolalikar’s solution might be for real. But the odds are against it.

And in breaking news, while I was writing this, Deolalikar removed the paper from his website.

Three Badgelickers Explain Why You Shouldn’t Make Videos of Cops

Radley Balko has been covering the issue of citizens who take videos of cops and get arrested for it. It’s only illegal in a few states (including Maryland and Illinois) but that doesn’t mean you can’t get arrested for it anywhere. In Radley’s latest piece, he interviews two prosecutors and the head of the Fraternal Order of Police, and they say some of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.

Start with Joseph Cassilly, a prosecutor in Hartford County, Maryland:

“The officer having his gun drawn or being on a public roadway has nothing to do with it,” Cassilly says. “Neither does the fact that what Mr. Graber said during the stop could be used in court. That’s not the test. The test is whether police officers can expect some of the conversations they have while on the job to remain private and not be recorded and replayed for the world to hear.”

In the Graber case, he was making a helmet cam video while riding on his motorcycle when a motorist cut him off and jumped out waving a gun. This crazy motorist turned out to be Maryland State Trooper Joseph David Ulher, driving an unmarked car and dressed nothing like a cop. This was all caught on the helmet cam.

Now Cassilly is prosecuting Graber for violating the wiretapping laws. Apparently, Cassilly thinks a cop somehow has a right to privacy even when he intrusively inserts himself into a video that started recording before he got there.

The second badgelicker is right here in Illinois. Here’s the background:

Crawford County State’s Attorney Tom Wiseman is currently bringing five felony charges against Michael Allison, a 41-year-old construction worker who recorded police officers and other public officials he thought were harassing him.

Now here comes the crazy:

“The only person doing any harassing here is Mr. Allison, who was harassing our public officials with his tape recorder,” Wiseman says. “They may have problems with some bad police officers in some of your urban areas. But we don’t have those problems around here. All of our cops around here are good cops. This is a small town. Everyone knows everyone. If we had a bad police officer here, we’d know about it, I’d know about it, and he’d be out. There’s just no reason for anyone to feel they need to record police officers in Crawford County.”

You say something as stupid as “we don’t have those problems around here. All of our cops around here are good cops,” and you expect us to just take your word for it? And obviously there was a reason for someone to “feel they need to record police officers in Crawford County,” because somebody did. That feeling may not be justified, but without the recording, how would anybody know?

The king of the badgelickers is Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. His job is to stand up for the cops regardless of whether they’re right or wrong, so he says the stupidest things by far:

Pasco, who supports these arrests, says he’s worried that video could be manipulated to make police officers look bad. “There’s no chain of custody with these videos,” Pasco says. “How do you know the video hasn’t been edited? How do we know what’s in the video hasn’t been taken out of context?

When a witness testifies that the defendant assaulted him, how do we know he’s not lying? I think this is one of the reasons we have trials and lawyers and judges and juries, to figure out these kinds of things.

With dashboard cameras or police security video, the evidence is in the hands of law enforcement the entire time, so it’s admissible under the rules of evidence. That’s not the case with these cell phone videos.”

Really? So if I witnessed, say, three gang members beating down a cop on a subway platform and I recorded it on my cellphone, I could testify to what I saw, but the video would be totally useless to the prosecutor? No one has ever made a case off an unofficial video? How stupid does Pasco think we are?

But what about cases where video clearly contradicts police reports, such as the McKenna case in College Park?

“You have 960,000 police officers in this country, and millions of contacts between those officers and citizens. I’ll bet you can’t name 10 incidents where a citizen video has shown a police officer to have lied on a police report,”

And if it’s illegal to make videos of police on the job, we’ll never be able to.

(Actually, I’m pretty sure I could just search The Agitator and Simple Justice for the word “video” and come up a lot more than 10 incidents.)

“Letting people record police officers is an extreme and intrusive response to a problem that’s so rare it might as well not exist. It would be like saying we should do away with DNA evidence because there’s a one in a billion chance that it could be wrong.”

Uh, the malfeasance rate among cops is a lot higher than 1-in-a-billion. Just here in Chicago, we’ve had cops taking bribes, cops robbing stores, cops running hookers, cops working for street gangs, cops running jewelry theft rings, and cops killing people for money. On average, seven Chicago police officers each year are prosecuted for crimes. Are we supposed to believe that these guys wouldn’t fudge their reports?

Heck, my last traffic ticket, the cop changed his story between the time he stopped me and the time he testified in court. It was probably an honest mistake, but if I’d been rolling video, he wouldn’t have gotten away with it. Video doesn’t just catch lying cops. It also catches honest mistakes and keeps them from corrupting the justice system.

“At some point, we have to put some faith and trust in our authority figures.”

Yes, at some point we do, but why rely on faith and trust in the kinds of situations where we can have evidence

I mention Michael Allison’s case to Pasco, and ask if he supports the Illinois law.

“I don’t know anything about that case, but generally it sounds like a sensible law and a sensible punishment,” Pasco says. “Police officers don’t check their civil rights at the station house door.”

Maybe not, but there is no right to privacy in a public place. That’s why it’s called “public.”

We’re talking about the right of ordinary citizens to make video recordings in a public place. In general, if you or I are out on the street and we discover someone is making a video of us, there’s nothing we can do about it. Anybody can roll video at any time as long as they’re not trespassing. How do you think all those celebrity gossip shows get videos of Lindsay Lohan behaving scandalously? How do you think 60-minutes can do ambush interviews?

Finally, isn’t it ironic to hear cops and badgelickers talking about other people being “intrusive”? These are the guys whose job it is to butt into everyone else’s business. They pull cars over in traffic and ask the driver for identification. They detain random people on the street and pat them down for weapons. It’s more-or-less what we pay them for, but I have no sympathy for their complaints when it’s their turn.

Not Even Close

Deep inside the cynical exterior of a Miami criminal defense lawyer…beats the heart of a true believer. Brian Tannebaum wins his case, and shows us that sometimes not even the federal government can send a man to prison for doing nothing wrong.

This was not about an acquittal, a framed verdict form on an office wall, or an “attaboy” from my colleagues. This was about how the government can create criminality from stupidity, from naivety, from a desire to send a message to society that is mired in an environment of blame.

I think that if I was on that jury, I would have second guessed myself a bit too: Am I missing something, or could the feds really have gone to all this trouble when they don’t have a case?

in Legal

Music For My Dad

It was a year ago today that my father passed away. During the last few months, he spent a lot of time listening to his music CDs, and I figured it would be a nice idea to post some of the songs he liked. I hope you hear something you enjoy.

I’ll begin with his all-time favorite singer, Mahalia Jackson, singing “When the Saints Go Marching In”:

Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass perform “A Walk In The Black Forest”:

Tom Jones sings “Green Green Grass of Home”:

Jim Neighbors sings “Dream the Impossible Dream”:

Marty Robbins sings “Red River Valley”

Roy Orbison sings “Blue Bayou”:

Mahalia Jackson sings “How Great Thou Art”:

Jim Neighbors sings “Go Tell It On The Mountain”:

Roy Orbison sings “Pretty Woman”:

Marty Robbins sings “I Walk Alone”:

Since this is a bit of a memorial for my father, I reckon someone’s got to sing “Amazing Grace.” Again, here’s Mahalia Jackson:

“Hey, are you a terrorist?”

It’s hardly the greatest infringement of free speech I’ve ever heard of, but this doesn’t sound right:

The manager of a North Chicago sandwich shop learned in a Lake County courtroom this week that the difference between a joke in poor taste and an inflammatory remark is about 75 bucks.

Arjunsinh Sindha, 64, said he feels as if he was treated unfairly when he was fined $75 after he was found guilty of disorderly conduct for asking a Pakistani-born customer if he was a terrorist.

Khan reported Sindha’s comment to North Chicago officials and Sindha was issued a ticket under a city ordinance for disorderly conduct.

I can’t tell from context if Sindha is a jerk or just a talkative guy who went a bit over the line, but either way I’m pretty sure this falls well within his right to freedom of speech. Cops have always stretched the definition of disorderly conduct to include whatever happens to piss them off, but speech restrictions like this are supposed to be based on time, place, and manner of speech — e.g. screaming your head off late at night in a hospital zone — not on the offensiveness of the words spoken.

Know Any Good Protest Songs?

I’m trying to put together a music playlist, and so I’m appealing to you, my Gentle Readers, to help me find songs of a certain type. I’m calling them protest songs, but that’s probably not a very good description. I’m not talking about, for example, ’60’s anti-war chants, and I’d like to avoid an excess of Dylan.

The only way I can think of to explain what I want is to give a few examples of the kind of song I mean. Probably the defining member of this type of song is Old Crow Medicine Show’s “I Hear Them All”:

Another good example is the classic Jimmy Cliff song “The Harder They Come”:

For something a little more hard core, I’ll take “Guns Of Brixton.” But not the Clash version. I prefer this haunting cover by Nouvelle Vague:

That’s not to say I don’t mind a little anger. Or a lot of anger, as in Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”:

I don’t know if there’s really a common theme running through those songs, but if you know of other songs that you think I’d like based on this list — or even if these songs just remind you of some other songs — let me know in the comments.