Monthly Archives: November 2011

Preventing Auto Accidents the Way the DEA Prevents Drug Diversion

Over 40,000 Americans die every year in traffic accidents. This is a terrible tragedy. But I have a simple plan that will completely prevent all 40,000 of these deaths.

The key to my plan is to note that these 40,000 accidents are a result of 40,000 careless people driving cars. So all we have to do to eliminate these accidents is to make sure these 40,000 people aren’t allowed to buy cars. Of course, the greedy auto makers insist on pushing their cars on everyone in the country, so some regulation will be required.

We need to impose strict production limits on U.S. auto manufacturing (and importing) to reduce the number of cars produced each year by just over 40,000, thus completely ensuring that irresponsible drivers are unable to obtain cars, which will completely eliminate all automobile deaths. This plan can’t possibly fail.

What’s that you say? You think my plan is completely stupid?

Well then, smartass, what does that mean for the DEA, which uses the exact same plan to prevent misuse of the prescription drug Adderall:

The DEA gets involved. It’s an arm of the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration. Its job is to make sure, to the extent you can, that drugs don’t get diverted into illicit use, drugs of abuse or potential abuse like amphetamines, the way these are.

And so it, every year, sets a ceiling on how much on the raw material, the active ingredient for a whole bunch of drugs, including these, can be made. So it’s an overall aggregate amount of raw material that the DEA regulates.

Sigh, naturally, the people who were diverting the drugs before are simply continuing to do so now. On the other hand, the people who actually need Adderall for their health and sanity are having trouble finding enough of the drug. And naturally, the price of this now-scarce drug is rising, pricing some patients out of the market, and forcing them to do without any medication for their condition or switch to less effective drugs.

(Hat tip: Radley Balko)

Thanks For My Friends

The last few years have been a bit difficult. Between my parents getting sick and dying, my consulting work drying up, and the ongoing recession, by this time last year things were looking precarious and about to get worse. But now my life is settling back into order and things are starting to look up again.

So on this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for all my friends who stuck with me through a difficult time, and all the new friends I made along the way. You made a difficult time much, much easier.

Thank you.

Time For a National Conversation on Law Enforcement

I haven’t had much to say about the Occupy Wall Street protests, mostly because I don’t understand the Occupy Wall Street protests. I think that’s because the protesters don’t understand them either. That’s okay, because building a consensus is a process. and it takes time. There’s nothing wrong with that. Here at Windypundit however, I like to talk about ideas and policies, and I can’t discuss what I can’t understand.

Which brings me to this, which I understand all too well:


That’s UC Davis police Lt. John Pike pepper spraying some students who are just sitting on peacefully on the public sidewalk at their school.

Some people have tried to explain this by pointing out that the protesters were blocking the sidewalk and had to be removed, but that doesn’t justify using pepper spray. Police have been arresting peaceful protesters forever, and the way to do it is for 2 to 4 police officers to approach each protester, pick him up, and carry him off to the wagon for transport.

What officer Pike did is a chemical variation on what is sometime euphemistically called “pain compliance,” which means hurting people until they do what you want. When used to control a violently resisting offender, it’s a legitimate escalation step in a police use-of-force policy. When used against non-violent people sitting on the ground, it makes you look like a dickhead.

I wouldn’t normally have written anything about this incident because, well, nobody out there seems to care. I don’t mean you, my faithful readers, I know you care. But somehow the news media and the American public don’t seem to mind that our police forces are routinely doing things that make them indistinguishable from violent street gangs.

Oddly, I was moved to write by, of all people, Brian Tannebaum, who actually took a break from his usual rants about legal marketing to write an impassioned call for a national conversation on law enforcement. That Brian would sound impassioned about anything as nebulous as a “national conversation” is a sign that his cynicism has been shaken.

It’s almost a daily exercise, watching video of law enforcement conduct that raises eyebrows. The responses are always the same: 1) The video doesn’t tell the entire story, 2) We don’t understand the “adrenaline” that causes police officers to beat the living crap out of suspects after they are securely in custody, and 3) So what, the guy’s a criminal anyway.

We as criminal defense lawyers, civil libertarians, and yes, even some prosecutors and judges, watch these videos and know that there is a large segment of the country that finds this conduct just “part of the job.”

And then something like this pops up.

Brian, in turn, seems to have been inspired by Alexis Madrigal’s brilliant commentary in the Atlantic, in which he points out that Pike isn’t necessarily an innately evil person. He was probably following orders:

Then came the massive and much-disputed 1999 WTO protests. Negotiated management was seen to have totally failed and it cost the police chief his job and helped knock the mayor from office. “It can be reasonably argued that these protests, and the experiences of the Seattle Police Department in trying to manage them, have had a more profound effect on modern policing than any other single event prior to 9/11,” former Chicago police officer and Western Illinois professor Todd Lough argued.

No one wanted to be Seattle and police departments around the country began to change. “In Chicago for example, paramilitary gear such as that worn by the Seattle Police was quickly acquired and distributed to officers,” Lough continued, “and the use of force policy was amended to allow for the pepper spraying of passive resistors under certain circumstances.”

[Emphasis Madrigal’s.]

Madrigal also points to criminologist Alex Vitale’s observation that police are using vague laws to re-cast peaceful protest as a crime:

Consider what has precipitated the vast majority of the disorderly conduct arrests in this movement: using a megaphone, writing on the sidewalk with chalk, marching in the street (and Brooklyn Bridge), standing in line at a bank to close an account (a financial boycott, in essence) and occupying a park after its closing. These are all peaceful forms of political expression. To the police, however, they are all disorderly conduct.

I do think, however, that Madrigal goes a little too easy on Pike:

And while it’s his finger pulling the trigger, the police system is what put him in the position to be standing in front of those students. I am sure that he is a man like me, and he didn’t become a cop to shoot history majors with pepper spray. But the current policing paradigm requires that students get shot in the eyes with a chemical weapon if they resist, however peaceably. Someone has to do it.

No. No one has to do it. The police are not a military organization; there is no criminal penalty for disobeying orders. If Pike had refused to pepper spray those kids, the worst thing that could have happened is that he would have lost his job. If he had any doubts about what he was doing, he decided to ignore them in favor of a paycheck. He made a choice, and he deserves to suffer the consequences of his choice.

Mark Bennett suggests what those consequences might be:

Neither should John Pike be let off scot-free. Fired? Perhaps, though if he loses his job it will be a political move, intended to make people forget the institutional–and, indeed, societal–failures that allowed him to so cavalierly injure peaceful protesters.

But firing is too good for John Pike. John Pike should spend the rest of his life, until he publicly repents, feeling insecure. And so should every officer who followed him at UC-Davis.

They should not be able to go out to eat without knowing whether their food will be spat in, or worse.

Their babysitters should be chronically unavailable.

They should not be able to get their oil changed without knowing whether their drain plugs will be left loose, or park without knowing if they are going to get another door ding.

And the thing is, it seems likely that, contrary to Madrigal’s speculation, John Pike may not be a man like the rest of us. From Boing Boing (by way of Scott Greenfield), comes an interview with one of the students:

W. tells Boing Boing that Pike sprayed them at close range with military-grade pepper spray, in a punitive manner. Pike knew the students by name from Thursday night when they “occupied” a campus plaza. The students offered Pike food and coffee and chatted with him and other officers while setting up tents…

“Move or we’re going to shoot you,” Pike is reported to have yelled at one student right before delivering pepper spray. Then, turning to his fellow officers and brandishing the can in the air, “Don’t worry, I’m going to spray these kids down.”

From this account, Pike apparently treated those kids like they were little more than a smudge to be wiped away. He sounds like a psychopath. Of course, there’s no way to make that diagnosis from one incident like this, but this is definitely a data point in its favor.

Radley Balko has for years been referring to things like this as isolated incidents. That’s more or less what every badgelicking police apologist calls them, as if everything is alright with the police except for the occasional isolated incidents by a few bad cops. But these isolated incidents keep happening over and over and over. Part of the problem, I think, is that we have given the police far too much power over us. That would be unwise even if the police were all honest and decent people, but it’s downright suicidal given that some police officers are dangerous sociopaths.

Dealing with this reality is one of the central challenges of creating a system of government: The people we put in charge need to have access to enough violent power to perform the basic function of protecting us, but there need to be restraints on that power–legal, political, procedural–in order to limit the damage in those instances when, inevitably, evil people gain control of it.

We probably should have done something to stop this long ago, before it got so bad, but for God’s sake let’s do something now, before it gets any worse. In the unlikely event anybody heeds Brian’s call for a national conversation on law enforcement, this is one of the things we need to be talking about.

Muddled Thinking About Universal GPS Tracking

I knew as soon as I read George Washington University Professor Amitai Etzioni’s ridiculous bootlicking CNN op-ed (via a tweet from Radley Balko) that I wanted to write something about it. As often happens, Scott Greenfield beat me to it with a biting response to the legal issues. Still, let me give you a taste:

The Supreme Court is about to hold hearings on whether the police need a warrant to attach a GPS tracker to a suspect’s car and trace its movements while it is in a public space…

The intense debate the case has already elicited among legal scholars, civil rights and libertarian activists, and those particularly concerned with public safety and national security is largely focused on the question: what would the Founding Fathers have said about the case? As I see it, at least equal weight should be accorded to the question: How well are our public authorities doing in their dealings with criminals?

Yes, because police expediency is such an excellant way to decide what our rights should be. In fact, it would really speed things along for our overworked police forces if young black males would be so courteous as to report to the nearest prison when they turn 16. Thank you for your cooperation.

Basically, Etzioni seems willing to give police whatever power they want, as long as they say they need it to protect us. As is usually the case when someone makes this argument, Etzioni seems unwilling to consider that giving police this power might come with a significant cost, that the cost might include significant abuse by the police, and that the giving the police this power might not actually make us safer.

It’s a common enough way of thinking. But what got my attention is Etzioni’s depressing misuse of science, statistics, and logic.

According to national statistics for 2010, less than half (47%) of violent crimes committed in this country are “cleared” (that is, suspects are arrested, charged, and turned over for prosecution) and only one out of five (18%) criminals who commit nonviolent crimes (such as burglary) are caught and tried.

Etzioni offers no context for these numbers. Is a 47% solve rate bad? Or is it an all-time high? Crime rates have been falling since the 1990s and if clearance rates are not unusually low, it’s not clear that we need to grant police such a broad privacy-destroying power.

For obvious reasons there are no such statistics available for terrorists, and the fact that there was no successful attack in the U.S. over the past 10 years tends to make us complacent.

However, if one takes into account that there are many millions of people in the world who hate us and wish us harm (and at least a few right here in the U.S.), we should maintain our vigilance. As one terrorist group once put it, “You have to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once.”

Etzioni likes the statistics when they are in his favor (the low clearance numbers, which imply a large number of criminals roaming around) but when the statistics cut against his argument, as with the low terrorism rate, his response is to downplay the statistics and warn us not to get complacent.

I get the feeling this is due more to intellectual laziness than dishonesty, since Etzioni is actually wrong on the facts when he asserts that there has been “no successful attack in the U.S. over the past 10 years.” Thirteen people died in the shooting attack at Fort Hood in 2009, and twelve more people have been killed in smaller incidents that are considered terrorism. (Five more died from the anthrax mailings after 9/11, but that’s technically just outside the 10-year boundary.) It averages out to about three domestic terrorism deaths per year.

As to what is reasonable, it obviously changes with the circumstances. Given that criminals can use freely all the new technologies — including of course GPS trackers, smartphones and spyware — it seems eminently reasonable that the police should also be able to use some of these, especially in public spaces, in which people have no expectation of privacy (or at least should not have one).

Huh? Criminals also smoke crack. Does that mean we should let the cops smoke crack?

The proper question is not whether police have the same technology the criminals have, it’s whether Police have the right technology to do the job. For example, cops have been arguing for years that they need better weapons because the criminals have better weapons. That makes some sense, because one of the best ways to counter an opponent’s weaponry is with weaponry of your own. But it’s not clear that criminals are doing anything with GPS systems that the police could counter with GPS systems. What’s the logic for demanding GPS parity? This seems like lazy thinking.

Moreover, often some such surveillance is needed before a tip or lead can be developed to the point that it meets the standard of probable cause.

The counter-argument that if the police are allowed to proceed, we shall be all tracked seven days a week, round the clock does not withstand minimal criticism. At most, the GPS data tells us that someone drove a car to certain places. Who lives or works there, what happened, etc. etc., all remain to be investigated.

Again, Etzioni is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. If we don’t need to worry about cops having our GPS data because it’s so useless, then why do cops want it so badly? The obvious answer is that knowing where a person travels in a day or a month tells us a lot about that person. That’s why the cops want it.

And then Etzioni says something really stupid:

If the police put GPS devices in all the cars on the road, or even only in one out of every thousand, cops would be buried under an endless flood of data points — among which suspects would be lost.

Um…no. Not at all. Not even a little bit. This one really bothers me, because I’ve encountered this misconception before and it’s seriously wrong. Etzioni is trying to sound smart by talking about things he doesn’t understand. Modern internet-scale computing routinely solves these kinds of problems.

I got curious and did some of the math. Assuming we can store GPS latitude, longitude, altitude, timestamp, and transmitter ID in five 64-bit fields, and that we want to get a GPS fix every 10 seconds for all 309 million Americans, that works out to about 99,000 gigabytes per day, or 3 million gigabytes per month, equivalent to the data bandwidth used by 11 million iPhones. Using prices from Amazon Web Services, I estimated that it will cost $150,000 per month to transfer the data, and if we to retain the data for a year, that will cost 36.3 million gigabytes, the storage rental will eat another $2 million per month.

Computing cost is harder to estimate because it depends on what sort of data processing we’re planning, but assuming that a large Amazon server instance can process 1000 samples per second, we’ll need 30,900 running server instances, which will cost us $8.9 million per month. Now that’s a heck of a lot of servers, but it’s not unheard of. Large sites like Yahoo and Facebook are probably using that many servers, and Google is widely estimated to operate 900,000 servers.

Retrieving the full year of data for any single person would probably take a minute or two (mostly transfer time) and with that many servers, we could retrieve tens of thousands of records simultaneously. If you want to be able to answer geographic questions  — “Who was within 500 yards of the crime scene on the day in question?” — you’d probably need twice as much storage for the geospatial index. On the other hand, you could also save space by eliminating duplicate GPS data from when people aren’t moving. Call it a wash.

There are lots of other costs, including programming and management, but I think we can safely say that the cost of handing the data would be less than $150 million dollars per year. And if we cut our sample rate from every 10 seconds to every minute, the cost scales down to only $25 million per year. The government could contract this out, and depending how you classified the work, it might be considered a small business.

The thing is, my datacenter calculations are just a diversion, because if Etzioni had given it a little thought, he’d realize we already have a working example. When you call a mobile phone, the cellular network has to know which antenna to use to connect to it, and since the network can’t know in advance when the next call will come, it has to be constantly tracking every phone. So at this very moment our national cellular phone networks are using 250,000 cellular antenna sites to track over 300 million mobile phones in real time. It’s not as accurate as GPS, but it’s just as much data, and it’s fast, cheap, and reliable.

At the same time, the police should be required to file reports after the fact about their use of GPS trackers. If it turns out that they are employed too often or to track people who are, say, political activists, the police should be reprimanded and if they persist, elected officials (say, a city council) should set limits on the use of this and other crime-fighting technologies and punish those who abuse them.

Or, we could set the limits and punish the abusers right now. Keep in mind, the argument isn’t about whether the police should be able to track bad guys with GPS, it’s only about whether they should be able to do so without a signed warrant from a judge.

If the data ran the other way — if most criminals were neutralized and we did not have to be concerned about terrorists — reasonable people who seek to deny the police the use of GPS trackers without probable cause might have a much stronger case.

“If the data ran the other way”? What data is he talking about? There is no data. The only data he presents is the low clearance rate. He offers no evidence that any part of this low clearance rate is due to the inability of police to use GPS trackers without a warrant. He simply takes the police at their word that this is a tool they need.

Personally, I’m against this kind of big-brother system even if it would produce a substantial increase in clearance rates, because I think the government would use it to do more harm than good. But even if you don’t agree with me, don’t you think we should make the police prove they need this power before we give it to them? Make them gather statistics about how many bad guys got away without GPS tracking that would have been caught with it. Make them show us the math. My guess is, they can’t.

The Conspiracy to Silence Lindsay Beyerstein

I’ve got to get the word out about Lindsay Beyerstein.

I first encountered Lindsay a few years ago at Magikthise, her original personal blog. (That name sounds like one of the lesser-known Bond girls, but it’s actually a geek reference to a character — a philosopher, your basic working thinker — in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) Lindsay is a liberal, not a libertarian, so I don’t always agree with what she has to say, but I like the way she says it. She’s smart, she’s intellectually honest, and she’s a good writer.

Recently, however, I’ve made the disturbing discovery that Lindsay is the victim of a widespread campaign to wipe her presence off the internet. Surprisingly, the campaign is not the work of the nefarious Koch brothers, as you might expect. It’s much more insidious than that. The conspiracy to silence Lindsay is orchestrated by none other than her own publishers!

It all started with Focal Point, Lindsay’s brilliantly-named blog at big think. Ever since this new blog came online, the original Magikthise home page has redirected to it. Fortunately, this first attempt was not completely successful, and Lindsay’s classic Magikthise posts can still be found at the Magikthise archives.

The next attempt to silence Lindsay was much more effective. It came when the progressive magazine In These Times set her up with a new blog called Duly Noted. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Her posts would be appearing alongside those of key progressive figures such as Noam Chomsky. What could possibly be wrong with that?

It was only when I tried to add Duly Noted to my feed reader that I tumbled to their clever plot. You see, the feed link on the Duly Noted home page doesn’t link to Lindsay’s blog feed at all. Instead, it subscribes me to the main In These Times feed, and the main In These Times feed doesn’t include Lindsay’s posts. It was a fiendish trick. A nefarious rip-off. A blatant bait-and-switch to hide Lindsay’s writing from the world.

Finally, just yesterday I uncovered yet another attempt to suppress Lindsay’s voice. She wrote a piece about how and why unemployment is a feminist issue, and it’s gong to be the cover story of the Fall 2011 issue of Ms. magazine. As we’ve seen before, this at first sounds like a terrific career milestone for Lindsay: A chance for her work to appear in the magazine of the feminist movement.

But once again, Lindsay has fallen into trap, as you can see for yourself at the preview page for the next issue of Ms. Lindsay’s story “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” is featured prominently in the image of the magazine’s cover, but it doesn’t name Lindsay as the author. Next, check out the table of contents below. The article is listed, but Lindsay’s name appears nowhere on the page. Most baffling of all, clicking on the name of the article in the table of contents doesn’t take you to Lindsay’s article.

Admittedly, there may be an alternative explanation. If you explore the Ms. magazine table of contents more thoroughly, you will soon discover a shocking truth: None of the article titles are linked to articles. The entire page is nothing but dead text.

This invites us to consider the possibility that there is no conspiracy to silence Lindsay Beyerstein’s promising young progressive voice. Perhaps it’s just another case of the sort of tragic ineptitude that results when old media publications like In These Times and Ms. try to make use of that new interweb thing all the kids are talking about.

I’m not sure which would be worse for Lindsay.

Update: Lindsay’s Duly Noted blog now has its own proper RSS feed.

PSA – Vaccines v.s. Candy From Strangers

I’m pretty sure the anti-vaccination crowd is seriously deluded. Some of them are so scared of vaccines that they prefer to give their children immunity to diseases the old fashioned way: By giving them the disease itself.

The usual way to do that is with a “pox party”: Wait until one child in your circle of anti-vax fanatics gets the chicken pox, and then bring all your kids over so they’ll be infected too. It’s okay, you know, because it’s natural.

But what if you don’t have any friends who have the disease? Via Radley Balko, the AP’s Erik Shelzig reports:

Parents fearful of vaccinations are being warned by a federal prosecutor that making a deal with a stranger who promises to mail them lollipops licked by children with chickenpox isn’t just a bad idea, it’s against the law.

Jerry Martin, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, said he was spurred by reports this week by KPHO-TV in Phoenix and WSMV-TV in Nashville about people turning to Facebook to find lollipops, spit or other items from children who have chickenpox.

“Can you imagine getting a package in the mail from this complete stranger that you know from Facebook because you joined a group, and say here, drink this purported spit from some other kid?” Martin told The Associated Press.

If you’re thinking this might be a good idea, let me see if I can change your mind. Maybe you’re not daunted by the fact that it’s illegal. (It’s a crime to send chickenpox through the U.S. mail for the same reason it’s a crime to send anthrax through the U.S. mail.) And maybe it doesn’t bother you to intentionally infect your child with a disease. And maybe you’re not going to concern yourself about other people who might catch the disease from your deliberately disease-ridden child. Heck, maybe you don’t even mind the fact that doctors say it won’t work — after all, they’re the ones who wanted to vaccinate your kids, right?

In that case, let me see if I can still head you off by telling you what I think the U.S. Attorney is hinting at when he dropped the word “purported” into that sentence: When a stranger on the internet sends you lollipops so that your child will lick them, it’s because he jerked off all over them. And now he’s jerking off at the thought of your child licking them.

I know that’s a disgusting thought, and probably only a handful of perverts are sick enough to get off on something like that. But by now, every single one of them has a website offering free lollipops.

Jana Svrzo and the Zebras

At about the time that Brittany Norwood was beating and stabbing Jayna Murray to death inside a store in a shopping mall, two employees in the Apple store next door heard sounds of the struggle coming through the wall.

The Apple Store employees were closing up for the night. One of them heard strange sounds from the other side of the wall: grunts, thuds, hysterical screams.

“Talk to me. Don’t do this,” a voice said. “Talk to me. What’s going on?”

“At that point, there was some more sounds, kind of, screams, yelps, yells,” Jana Svrzo, a manager at the Apple Store in Bethesda, said Friday, testifying on the third day of Brittany Norwood’s murder trial in the killing of her Lululemon Athletica co-worker.

The screams faded. Then Svrzo heard low, quiet tones.

“God help me,” Svrzo recalled hearing. “Please help me.”

After hearing all that, Svrzo and the other employee, Ricardo Rios, didn’t do anything about it. They neither called the police nor investigated it themselves.

I heard about all this from Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, who has this to say about it:

We need to agree on the proper treatment for people like this — self-centered, fearful slugs who can’t summon the fortitude and decency to help a fellow human being in peril even when it only requires a phone call. They are not quite criminals, but they are significant contributors to the evil in the world, the kind of citizens who accept the benefits of society but won’t lift a finger to contribute to it.

I don’t want to hire someone like Svrzo. I don’t want her as a neighbor or a friend. If I’m an independent service provider, I don’t want her business; if I’m a banker, I don’t think she’s trustworthy enough to get a loan. Her conduct is unacceptable in a cooperative society, and the one constructive thing she can do now is to serve as a living lesson to others that there are minimum standards to participating in civilization, and consequences of failing to meet them.

That would have been my reaction too, except that I’ve seen stories like this before, and I’ve learned to be skeptical. I can’t rule out evil as an explanation for her behavior; it’s entirely possible that Jana Svrzo is exactly the kind of psychopath who wouldn’t bother to help a woman being beaten to death. However, given what I’ve read so far, I feel the need to point out that you don’t have to make that assumption to explain what happened. Inaction that at first seems inexplicably callous sometimes turns out to be rather ordinarily human.

My guess is that the most critical factor in explaining her inaction is this: Until that day, I’m pretty sure that Jana Svrzo had never heard someone being beaten to death before. In fact, I’m willing to bet that she had never even seen a serious fight. And now we’re supposed to assume that she should have been able to figure out what was going on just by how it sounded? Through a wall?

That doesn’t sound possible. At least not unless she had reason to be familiar with the sounds of close-in personal brutality, perhaps from growing up in a violent family. Otherwise, all she heard was some strange sounds.

Well, then, what about the cry for help? According to the news story, she heard a variety of noises — variously described as grunts, squealing, and screams — and while this was going on, she heard someone say “Talk to me. Don’t do this,” and then “Talk to me. What’s going on?” And later she heard a different voice say “God help me,” and “Please help me.”

Again, knowing what we know now, it’s pretty obvious that something bad had happened. But it’s not hard to imagine other scenarios which Svrzo would have had to consider. She heard two people in a room, some noise, and one of them asked for help. Isn’t it possible that she was asking the other person for help? If you’ve never witnessed a violent crime before, what would be your first guess?

It’s really easy to misunderstand novel situations like this and make a dangerous mistake. About 20 years ago, I was in my kitchen, and I happened to glance out into the parking lot, where I noticed one of the other residents of our condo was kneeling next to her car, like she’d dropped her keys and they’d skittered underneath it. A few minutes later, I happened to glance out again, and she was still there, and I wondered what the heck that silly woman was up to…and then I put it together: She was elderly, she was overweight, it was winter, and the ground looked wet. She had slipped on the glare ice and couldn’t get up.

I didn’t realize what had happened the first time because she wasn’t lying down like an injured person — in fact, she wasn’t injured at all, she simply didn’t have the strength to pull herself up by her arms when her feet had no grip on the pavement. This was many years before I had to help take care of my parents (and my own knees still worked like they’re supposed to), so I’d had no experience with people who had infirmities. I had no way of recognizing what had happened from one brief glance.

Once I saw her again and realized she probably wasn’t in that position voluntarily, my wife and I went down to help her. She was fine. No big deal.

But had I not glanced down at her a second time, things might have ended less happily. She was down on the ground between two cars where it was hard for someone to see her, so she could have been stuck for long time in the freezing cold. She might even have died from exposure. And if I told people that I’d seen her there on the ground, they’d think I had let her die on purpose.

One of the things that affects how people react to a situation is their observation of how everyone else is reacting. I used to work across the street from a housing project, and whenever there was a loud bang, I’d look to the reactions of the residents to determine if it was a gunshot or something harmless, because they could tell the difference.

Svrzo called over co-worker Ricardo Rios, but according to his testimony, he couldn’t make out much of what he was hearing. So both of them heard something strange, but each of them saw that the other wasn’t too alarmed. They reinforced each other’s decision to do nothing.

If my wife had glanced out the window at our fallen neighbor and decided that she was just fiddling with something on her car, she might have laughed at my ridiculous concerns, and she might have convinced me. Later, when our neighbor’s lifeless body was discovered, we’d both look like callous psychopaths to people who hadn’t been there.

I think there’s a fair chance that Svrzo also thought that if something was really wrong, someone else would provide help. After all, how often do any of us find ourselves in a situation where we have the opportunity to save someone from serious injury or death? (In 47 years, it’s only happened to me once that I know of, and I’m not sure anything bad would have happened if I hadn’t been there.) The noises Svrzo was hearing were coming from another store in the mall. Surely if anything bad had happened, another person in the store would have helped, right?

There’s a saying — I’ve seen it used with respect to medical diagnostics: “When you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.”

The point is that when faced with a mystery, the most likely explanation is probably going the correct explanation. When a patient presents with flu-like symptoms, your best bet is to assume he has the flu, at least until you learn more.

Based on Svrzo’s actions, she obviously knew something wasn’t right, but what are the chances that anything in her life experience could have prepared her for this? You and I and everyone we know will probably go through our whole lives without hearing anyone being murdered. I’m assuming she’s no different in that respect. So on that terrible night, she heard some strange hoof beats, and she decided it was probably just horses. Because, really, what else could it be?

By now, some of you are probably sputtering that I’m just making stuff up. That I can’t possibly know what was going through her head. That I wasn’t there.

True enough. But then again, neither was anyone else who is criticizing her. They read the accounts of what happened, and they consider the facts, and they reach the only conclusion that makes sense: That she’s a callous narcissist.

What I’m trying to do is point out that there may be another way to fit the facts to the known range of human behavior. Of course, in doing so, I might be making the same horse-or-zebra mistake that I think Svrzo made. Psychopaths are pretty rare, but the ordinary failures of human cognition are not, so I’m guessing this is an ordinary failure. But I could be wrong.

I decided to write this post for a couple of reasons. First of all, there are a couple of lessons we could learn, the most important one being: If you need help from strangers in a strange situation, don’t just ask for help. Tell them you’ve been attacked and tell them what you want them to do. Be very specific. Not “Help me!” but “Help! I’ve been stabbed! Get me an ambulance! Somebody get me an ambulance!”

No, I’m not blaming the victim. Jayna Murray was severely wounded and probably had no idea anyone could hear her. I’m just saying that if you or I ever find ourselves in need of emergency medical help, it’s something we would do well to remember.

(Here’s another example of the kind of thing I’m talking about: Somewhere I read about an incident in which a doctor choked to death in the middle of a medical conference dinner, surrounded by dozens of other doctors. It sounds at first like gross incompetence, but really, how many doctors have ever seen someone actually choking to death before? This is why if you’re ever unable to breath because you’re choking on something, you should make sure you put your hands to your neck and make a face like you’re gagging, so people understand what you need.)

Another lesson is that if nobody else is taking charge of the situation, it may be that you’re the one who has to take charge. If my speculation here is correct, then Jana Svrzo is not the villain that some people have made her out to be. But if something different had triggered in her brain, if she had decided that, you know, maybe she should call the police, just to be safe…then Jana Svrzo might have been a hero. And Jayna Murray might still be alive.

Wouldn’t it be cool to be the hero? You can’t be one though, unless you take action.

Finally, Jack Marshall had this to say:

…the societal condemnation of individuals who allow another human being to be harmed when they have it in their power to summon assistance is appropriate, and should occur informally, like most enforcement of social behavioral norms.

Well, there’s some evidence that people may be taking things much further than Jack intends. I Googled Jana Svrzo, and I find a blocked Twitter page, a missing LinkedIn page, an inactive flickr stream, a missing Facebook page and, well, you get the idea. There seems to be only one Jana Svrzo out there, and she seems to be hiding from something.

I’m guessing that people are harassing her. If she’s the narcissistic bitch that some people think she is, then in a sense she has it coming. (Although, really, if she’s that narcissistic, she’s not going to be the least bit bothered by what other people think.)

But if she’s just an ordinary person who made an understandable mistake under terrible circumstances…let’s not make this any worse than it already is.