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Blog Archive November 2011

The Sacredness of Justice

Youíre in a foreign country. Thailand. The police stop you. They donít speak much English but they demand to search you. Now. They want your passport. But itís in your hotel room. Youíre caught off guard even though youíve done nothing wrong but the police insist you give them your bag. They take your bag and search it. They search your person. They go through your cell phone messages. They tell you that messages in violations of a law in Thailand known by the number 112 (reference to an article in the Criminal Code) have been sent from your cell phone and youíre in serious trouble. Youíve violated something called lese majeste and youíve never heard that term before. But you remember letting someone use your phone. You tell that to the cops. But you donít remember her name. You are told that the SMS came from your SIM card and your cell phone and that you must prove that you are innocent.

How do you prove that you didnít do something? Itís like proving there isnít an invisible elephant in the room.

What do you do? Who do you turn to?

There are parts of the world where this is a real, pressing set of questions.

When we think of criminal justice systems most of the time we are thinking of the system that is near, the one we grew up with, the system that we see in on TV, in the newspapers, online as restraining criminal conduct. The muggers, killers, car hijackers, white collar criminals all have one thing in common: they are presumed innocent. The cops must have probable cause to search them, and they must warn suspects that anything they say can be used against them.

Thatís home base (and even there, it can run into the ditch). Itís not abroad. At home most people accept the criminal justice system as the legitimate authority to prevent crime and catch criminals. A lawyerís smart ass cutting and dicing a fine point. But youíd be wrong. There are in a number of legal systems acts that are criminal that you take to be a universal right. In other words, when abroad, the print in the ways the locals write it matters. Try selling a Valentineís card in Saudi Arabia. Time for the religious police to throw your sentimental ass in the slammer.

Try doodling cartoons about sacred figures and see how far your claims of artistic license and freedom get you in the 100 meter shackled leg race in the prison courtyard. In Thailand there has been in recent years a dramatic increase of charges (conviction is almost always guaranteed) under lese majeste and computer crime laws. Warnings have been given by the authorities that this Thai law applies to everyone around the world. Press the Ďlikeí button on a Facebook page deemed to be in violation of Article 112 and the computer crime law, and youíve committed an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. In other words, youíd be in serious trouble and it is no defense that you did this outside of Thailand or didnít know that it was an offense. You still go to jail.

Such attitudes are more obvious (and better reported) in Middle Eastern countries. But youíd be wrong to think that is the only place where fundamental freedoms are absent. Thailand is an example where normative values about the sacredness are backed by stiff penalties against those who seek to question them. This is in contrast, to the Western Enlightenment idea of criticism as a positive and progressive value. We are taught the importance of give and take in political discussions. In the West, our normative values spotlight on justice, equity and fairness. But donít make the mistake of thinking this judgment is universally accepted. Itís not. In a system of sacredness no one is ever forced to resign no matter how zealous the enforcement. Such a legal system encourages the true believer to step forward and undertake communal action. Those who are less committed soon fall under a cloud of suspicion.

Ever since Oliver Stoneís Midnight Express hit the silver screen almost thirty years ago, weíve become familiar with chronicles of Westerns caught up in the nightmarish gulag of foreign criminal systems most people recoil at justice being meted out in ways that are transparent, fair, honest and unbiased. In short, there is a perception that if you find yourself caught in the vice of a foreign law enforcement investigation you will likely suffer an injustice. The recent case of the young Seattle university student who spent four years behind bars in Italy only to be acquired of the charge of murder reinforces the idea that a brush with the law in a foreign country can go sideways quickly.

The problem experienced by many Westerns is compound by complacency and ignorance. First letís deal with complacency. You are on holiday and want to relax. You buy drugs from a stranger who turns out to be an uncover cop. Your holiday ends along with your freedom. Most people are aware of that risk. But sometimes they forget that the local rules in an exotic place donít have holiday exemption clauses for foreigners. In those circumstances, no one blames the locals for enforcing their laws which in many ways arenít much different from their own laws at home.

Second on the list is ignorance. Let me be clear: most of us are ignorant on a vast number of subjects. Itís not a stigma not to know something. But if you are going on holiday to a foreign destination, you can equip yourself with basic knowledge about the laws and customs and act accordingly. You donít need to be a lawyer or legal scholar in the criminal justice system of a place but it is wise to learn if this travel destination has some laws quite unlike you are familiar with at home.

Aside from the Article 112 cases, the ordinary run of the mill run in with the law in Thailand can become an ordeal. A couple of recent cases in Thailand raise issues about how the justice system works and how it is perceived to work. Often there is a wide gap between reality and rumor. First involved a case in Pattaya where a young Englishman (he is 25 years old) and his Thai girlfriend (aged 22 years old) is questioned in what appeared to be a failed suicide attempt by the girlfriend. She fell/jumped/stumbledĖwe donít really know what verb to insert from the press reportsĖfrom the seventh floor and managed and managed to survive. There has been no follow up report on her condition and what she told the authorities had happened. The point is that the Englishman was hauled in for questioning as a possible suspect. A number of foreigners complained that when a foreign falls off his condo or hotel room balcony, it is assumed to be suicide and his Thai girlfriend is given sympathy rather than the third degree.

There is a video series titled BigTrouble in Thailand. In the first one, jet-ski operators seek to shake down a customer for Ďdamageí to the rented equipment. Scams like this often surface like a bubble from a deep sea diver to the surface before disappearing.

These two cases are classic examples of the perception by foreigners that they are at a disadvantage. The larger fear is that the local thugs are presumed to have the police on their side in any dispute. Also there is a wide spread perception that a foreigner will be at the receiving end of unfair, unequal treatment by the police in circumstances where locals would not be questioned. There are many examples where foreigners are presumed to be in the wrong and in the local right, and the foreigner is presumed to owe compensation for damage based on the localís version of events. The fear, in other words, is there will be no even-handed justice. That the deck of cards are stacked in favor of the locals.

In Thailand that fear is also projected by the Thais when a request is made from extradition for a crime theyíre accused of committing when abroad.

An example is the recent case involving two mid-twenties Bangkok men who are alleged to have been involved in a murder in Australia. A Thai court has ordered their extradition to Australia to stand trial. This raises questions that are the opposite of the Pattaya attempted suicide case. Here the locals are doing everything in their power to resist justice in Australia. The Australian authorities introduced evidence sufficient to authorize an extradition. There is no indication the Thais wouldnít be given a fair trial. Young men from wealthy families in Thailand have been known to walk away free from murder cases. The Australian case raises the issue not about whether the men will receive justice but the underlying processes that accompany a criminal case in Thailand where the relative rank and status of the perpetrator and victim may outweigh other considerations.

Criminal justice isnít some universal, agreed upon set of abstract principles, procedures, and institutions that everyone agrees upon. They are built on local practice and custom, embedded with relics of tribal traditions, kinship, and lineage. In the West, societies are more pluralistic and that is reflected in how the criminal justice system is administered. Members of the elite are sentenced to prison in the West. Sure there are those who escape. But it isnít a given they will convince a cop, a prosecutor, court and jury that their status is their right to immunity. That Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card is a reality in other countries. People living in these countries have, in the past, accepted this state of affairs though this may be changing. Arab Spring.

If the prevailing consensus of the general population inside a country is that they belong to one single racial, religious, ethnic group, expect this will influence their notion of justice. Such a country has its own way of dealing with local crime and criminals. A foreigner who is an outsider should understand justice as applied to local and as applied to him will not likely match up. In such places, it is right to for the foreigner to experience anxiety over his or her fate, fearing law enforcement agents will resolve the conflict or confrontation in favor of the locals. Or in the absence of such conflict, apply such laws against foreigners while turning a blind eye when a local breaks the same law. The racial purity argument pulses through many different nationalities and ethnic groupings around the world. Mixing purity and justice is like mixing oil and water.

The danger is being caught out by the uniquely criminalized norms that youíd consider to be neutral if not actually virtues in your home country. Some countries have religious police. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia are three countries that come to mind. But other countries like China and Thailand have secular equivalents (computer literate volunteers) monitoring the Internet, Facebook pages, blogs, Twitter looking for insults to their notions of the scared. Prosecutors stand ready to arrest and imprison anyone (insider or outsider) who violate laws. This category of law is carefully patrolled and guarded, ensuring that local norms and taboos attached the sacred are strictly enforced. You should recognize that when you travel abroad the sensitive nature of local beliefs and faith are backed up by stringent laws with lengthy prison sentences imposed on violators. You may be unaware of the norms as they lack a direct counterpart in your culture. But ignorance wonít be a defense.

There are eyes and ears in the street that hear casual remarks that violate a taboo may be not just offensive but illegal. This is a category of crime that appears more often given the free ranging discussions that social media and the internet encourage. In the West, a lively exchange of opinion, criticism and argument is considered normal. Unlike murder, rape and robbery, thought crimes once they are given expression can land you in prison for periods as long as first degree murder sentence.

The best piece of advice you will ever receive is this: when you travel outside the cone of the Enlightenment steer clear of all discussions of politics and religion, and refrain from making any negative comments on local customs and culture. Stick to discussions about fashion, food, shopping and the weather and youíll be safe. Smile and ask for another one of those tall drinks with a happy little umbrella, sit back in your beach chair, and look at the sea. Tell yourself this is the good life. You have earned this piece of paradise. But remember, too, paradise has its prisons ready for for those who stray from that beach chair and mingle with the locals under the delusion that the free-ranging intellectual tradition of open discussion of the European coffee houses are welcome. They are not. You will be talking your way through a field of thought land mines, and if you trip over one, say goodbye to your freedom. And there will be absolutely nothing your embassy, your lawyer, your mother or your best friend can do to help. You will be another casualty of the war to protect the sacred.

Posted: 12/8/2011 8:09:26 PM 

 

Thatís Where the Money Is

When Willie Sutton, the American bank robber, was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, ďThatís where the money is.Ē Brooklyn born Slick Willie was on to something. The economic aspect of crime is vastly underrated. Extending Carl von Clausewitzís war is politics by other means we glimpse the reality that crime is business by other means. We begin to understand the similar impulse between those who rob banks and investment bankers selling hedge funds stuffed with worthless mortgages.

If Willie Sutton were alive today, he might rethink his assumption that banks are where the money is. At least in places like Thailand. Not that there arenít many banks stuffed with cash. There are. The money is in vaults and hard to get into. And with Bangkok traffic, once the heist is done, getting away is also a challenge. Besides, the big money isnít in banks. Itís kept inside houses of the class of people who must report their holdings, cash, money, jewels and so on. These people are politicians, senior civil servants, military and police big shots. The idea is to prevent the people at the center of power from profiting from their official position.

Transparency International ranks Thailand #78 on the Corruption Perception Index for 2010Ė squeezed between Serbia and Malawi.

What do corrupt officials do with their cash? If there is a huge amount, it is difficult to spend without attracting attention. Not to mention that a new villa or an airplane has to be reported on the list of assets and the money for it must be accounted for.

They could bank it. But then there is a paper trail and they have to report it in Thailand, and someone might raise an eyebrow over the odd ten million dollar deposit by an official who on paper makes about $2,000 a month. Or the official might put the money in the name of his maid or driver, a best friend or distant kin. All of those alternatives have their own set of risk. Mainly a maid with ten million in an offshore account might ask for a raise or two.

The other alternative is to bag the cash, and keep it at home. Thatís a safe place, right? The problem is a lot of cash takes a lot of room. It can fill an entire room.

Servants working in such a house notice these things. Open a door to a room and find wall to wall stacks of bank notes makes dusting a delight. You wouldnít want another job. In fact you might brag to your friends. And may be some of your friends know people who are criminals and before you know someone is planning a heist.

A manís home is his castle by English tradition. As far as Iíve been able to determine English tradition is little followed in this part of the world. But a recent case involving a senior civil servant, suggests that for some Thais home banking has an entirely new meaning.

The permanent secretary at the Transport Ministry Mr. Supoj Saplom, who also serves on the board of directors of Thai Airways International and Mass Rapid Transit Authority, has found himself in the public limelight. On the evening of 12th November, robbers rolled up to his house while he and his wife were away.

The crew of robbers apparently forced their way inside and made off with cash. Hereís where things get interesting. Mr. Supoj apparently talked with the police and reported the robbery once he arrived back home to find his maid tied up. He had little choice as his maid spilled the bean to the cops as the house was broken in. Itís likely that Supoj must have called the police to downplay the cash amount. His wife also asked to the media not to make a big fuss about the heist.

The senior civil servant initially told the police the robbers had made off with one million baht. There are unconfirmed reports (that hasnít stop the local press from reporting them or me from blogging about them), that he phoned back and said, it was three million baht and finally called again saying it was five million baht that had been lost. You have this vision of a man trying to estimate what was taken and finding it hard to come up with a firm number.

Since this is an important VIP the police immediately set out after the thieves. The CCTV camera had caught their images (though they were disguised) and their vehicle. Soon enough the first couple of robbers were arrested. People who steal from VIPs almost always get caught, and it makes you wonder why they continue to defy such odds. Clearly these guys were in a different class from Willie Sutton who would have evaded police for at least another 48 hours.

The Thai robbers had there own version of how much cash they stole ranging from 9 million to 200 million baht. To make it really interesting one of the robbers said they hadnít made much of a dent in the bags of cash they found. The robbers estimated there was between 700 million to one billion baht in cash inside the house. What it comes down to is no one is sure how much the robbers stole,whether the amount recover by the cops is all or just part of what they stole, or how much cash was in the house.

A couple of days ago a Thai language newspaper reported that16 million was recovered and the police confirmed at least 100 million was stolen. On Thursday 24th November, the Bangkok Post said the robbers ran off with at least 50 million baht. One heads swims with large numbers. It may be that the robbers, cops and Supoj havenít yet found out the exact scope of the robbery, who was behind the heist and how much loot was left behind.

Cases like this one raise enough questions to keep film makers, pundits, novelists, scholars, bankers, political scientists, security operations personnel, prosecutors, investigators, independent agencies and politicians in business for years. Mr. Supoj has been transferred to an inactive position in the Prime Ministerís Office (itís confusing, I know, but trust me this is where most of these cases end).

The lesson from the Supoj caper wonít be lost on a globalized world of criminals. Forget about what Willie Sutton taught all those years before. Get a copy of the latest Transparency International Index Report, find a country with nice beaches, good climate that is reasonably corrupt. Get a list of the senior politicians and civil servants. Figure out the lay out of their luxury villas. Search on Google maps for the ones with little or no security. That means a stakeout. Locate the surveillance cameras, know how to disable them without letting those who watch them know theyíve been tampered with. Wait until the boss and his family are away for a wedding, funeral or holiday, disable the cameras and other security devices, tie up the maid and steal the cash. Chances are the victim wonít make Mr. Supojís mistake and call the police. They can see that approach is bound to backfire. But it would be a good idea to get out of the country as soon as possible.

Perhaps the only way to combat corruption is to give the modern day Willie Suttons a green light to strip away the ill-gotten gains of the corrupt. Let the bank robbers clean up government by cleaning out the corrupt. At least with crooks like Willie Sutton you have an admirable degree of honesty as to what they do and why they do it.

Police interrogation of the initial set of robbers indicated they had been carefully planning the heist. They had rented a nearby apartment and went on stakeout.  They said, Mr. Supoj was ďunusually rich,Ē so he must have taken it ďfrom the people.Ē But they were more Willie Suttons than Robin Hoods, as their is no evidence they were handing out cash to the poor.

There are thieves and then there are thieves and sometimes it is difficult to tell the good guys from the bad one. In this neck of the global woods, honestly rarely extends to the class of politicians and civil servants gorging at the expense of the public.

We can kill two birds with one stone. We make it much more dangerous to be corrupt and we allow professional thieves to retire and leave the rest of us alone. Of course, the corrupt wonít take this lightly. Iíd recommend buying shares in international security agencies that advise the ultra rich how to protect themselves, property and cash from the likes of the Willie Suttons of the world. In that case, you as a shareholder make off with the cash that a wannabe Willies would otherwise take.

Posted: 11/24/2011 8:18:24 PM 

 

Crime Fiction: How we write about violence

No one opens a crime novel unless they are looking to dance with violence. Murder, assault, and rape are on the dance card. The larger question is whether crime fiction authors understand the nature of violence and accurately write about how violence occurs in reality, or how to protect oneself against an act of violence. Crime fiction authors also by the very act of writing novels about crime are making statements about the prevalence of violence in society, how society protects itself against violent offenders, and how we can defend ourselves when the target of violence.

Steven Pinkerís The Better Side of Angels is a chronicle on how weíve tangoed with violence over deep time. Part of Pinkerís thesis supported by a lot of historical data, is that the past was a far more dangerous, violent place. The chances of being murdered 700 years ago were around 50 times greater than it is today. One statistic that stands out in the review of the long period of peace from 1950 to the present (no Great Powers have gone to war against each other) is that during this period there were two wars involving the Americans. The Korean War with losses around 38,000 killed and Vietnam with over 58,000 killed. Even if the numbers of those killed in these two wars were added to the numbers of the ďsmallerĒ war in Iraq and elsewhere, the absolute number still pales in comparison with the number of murders in the United States over that same time frame: 1,000,000 murders.

And still we are far safer than our ancient ancestors were in meeting a violent death.

People are far more mindful of security today. They are more concerned about violent deaths. We tend to believe that the Ďpresentí is the way things always have been. That is demonstratively false. The obsession about crime has created, at least in the United States, a massive prison system with over two million people locked up. Most of them havenít committed a violent crime.

In this state of anxiety over personal safety, our inflated sense of risk demands that we not just rely on the police to protect us against violence but that we are prepared to defend ourselves. This brings up the discussion of guns. There is a sense that being armed to defend oneself is a natural and normal response to violence. Others would argue that a Ďguní isnít the best defense. Violent people are the product of a defective self-control mechanism. They canít handle anger. Push the wrong button on such a person and a violent reaction is often the automatic response.

Then what is the best way to defend oneself confronted with a person who may use violence? Prevent the escalation of violence is the simple answer. As one writer on violence puts it, distinguish between fear management and danger management.

Violence falls into a couple of categories. A violent confrontation with someone you know, or a confrontation with a stranger. The vast majority of violence falls in the first category. The perpetrator and the victim know each other. In the second case, violence emerges through a different dynamic. If it is a robbery, the robber doesnít have anything personal against you. He only wants your money or other valuables. You might do something to make him react violently but that isnít the intention going into the robbery.

Sam Harris in an Essay titled ďTruth About ViolenceĒ  has made a case that the best defense is to understand the psychology of what fuels it. A great deal of violence is committed by young males. Violence is part of the status seeking and retaining mission which defines the personís worth to other young males. Violence is also part domination ritual, where the stronger seek to exert power over the weaker, less brave and able. Historically violence was used in conquest, taking land, treasure and resources from others. One of the most effective ways to abort an act of violence is for the Ďpotential victimí to not challenge the person making the insult, intentionally bumping into you, glaring at you across the room. The advice: donít react, just move on.

We are hardwired to react emotionally at just the time when we should be the most cool hearted. In those seconds when our ape brain urges us to return the insult, the shove, the glare, we should be moving out of range. If you think that is cowardly, then youíre wrong. Standing your ground and allowing escalation is never self-defense. It is a fight. And the chances are you will get hurt, or hurt the other guy and end up going to jail. Anyone who has been in a fight will tell you they were defending themselves. Prisons are filled with people who lost that argument. They werenít defending their physical person from an actual attack, they were seeking to redeem their Ďhonor.í And honor redemption will put you in jail or hospital. Either way, whatever honor youíve redeemed wonít fix the overall loss that you are likely to suffer.

First rule: stay away from dangerous people and the places those kinds of people gather. Dark alleys at 3.00 a.m. Neighborhoods infested with bikers and street gangs. If you avoid these people and the places they go, you greatly reduce your exposure. Walking on the wild side is fun until itís not. If you are in a fun zone and you are confronted by a violent person, never add fuel to an angry, potentially violent personís fire. Turn and walk away. Remember if you trace your ancestors back to the beginning, most of them followed that course of action. You can be sure of it. Otherwise, you wouldnít be reading this blog. You wouldnít be here because some hot head in your lineage decided fighting for family honor was of greater value than escaping. Light a candle for the escapers in your lineage tonight. You owe them your life.

Second rule from Sam Harris donít ever value property to the point you are willing to risk your life to defend it or take the life of someone seeking to take or destroy it. When a teenager snatches your cell phone or your new MacBook Pro, let it go. If you are packing a gun, are you going to draw down and shoot him in the back as heís running away? Not a good idea. Let it go.

Lastly,Sam Harris considers the situation where youíve done everything you can to avoid the confrontation, but the person intent on committing violence against you is trying to gain control over you. Such a person may well hurt or kill you. Your best plan isnít the fancy karate kick or pulling a gun, your best hope is to not give into the attempt to control you. If you give the mugger you wallet, turn and run. Chances are he wonít shoot you. He wanted the wallet. If he is going to shoot you in the back, heíd likely shoot you standing eye ball to eye ball and a running, moving target is harder to hit. And whatís he going to do with the body?

Hollywood and TV adds to the misinformation about dealing with violence. Ever notice in a film when someone gets shot, they drop like a rock, stone dead. In real life, you shoot someone and the chances are highly likely they will return fire within the next 90 seconds. If you are in the way of that fire, youíre going to be as dead as them. Only a few seconds later. But youíve read about the martial arts program that will allow you to defend yourself against the violent thug. Unless youíre going to Navy Seal training, what you will learn may give you a sense of protection and it will also likely get you killed. The dangerous illusion is a gun, a knife or martial arts works immediately. It doesnít stop the violent person from inflicting death or injury on you.

The recommendation of the experts is you need to remain cool under the threat, find a way to break out of your situation and that may require one of a handful of physical plays that are intended to give you a window of time to escape. Not to hurt or kill the other person but to create enough problems and confusion for him that opens an escape hatch for you to leave the scene.

Posted: 11/10/2011 8:41:51 PM 

 

 

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