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The Age of Dis-Consent

The Age of Dis-Consent

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There is something Alice in Wonderland like about asking whether a corporation is a person. It is unclear whether the United States Supreme Court might be taking a page out the Mad Hatter’s book of logic when it comes to corporate ‘personhood.’

“Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “What’s the answer?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.

Corporations are legal constructs. Abstractions that arise because a law allows people to create them, run them, profit from them, and defend them. No one will ever walk into a bar and find Microsoft or Apple sipping a glass of beer. People who work to advance the interest of the company are the ones at the bar drinking.

Corporations also have a long historical reputation for being a popular vehicle for colonial expansion. Read that as meaning raising armies, launching wars of conquest, killing and enslaving indigenous populations, looting treasure, plundering natural resources, and corrupting the local legal system.

The United States Supreme Court not long ago (Citizens United) decided that corporations were to be treated as a ‘person’ for purposes of political expression. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Now that decision has come back like a bad penny. Can the corporation be a ‘person’ for political expression and not a ‘person’ when it comes to paying compensation when it is implicated in third-world countries that engage in human rights violations such as murder, extracting natural resources without caring too much about the environment.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of the East India Company (not to forget the Dutch West India Company) will know that if corporations were people that had vast monopolies, controlled vast estates, wielded political power, and you never had to look too far to find a lot of blood dripping from the hands of the flesh-and-blood people who ran them. Did I mention that they also did a lively business running the slave trade? That’s unlikely the image they wish to be viewed taking into account their current corporate TV ads or corporate brochures.

Corporations from the 17th through the 19th century were the vanguard of organized crimes, raising armies, selling weapons, drugs, beating, torturing, imprisoning or murdering the locals who raised a voice in protest.  If you’ve read along this far, and you’re saying, yes, that is all true. But didn’t all of those terrible things happened a very long time ago? There are no more colonies. Independent states run their own affairs. The United Nations has mandates about human rights and the environment. And that means, corporations are no longer evil polluters, looters, pillagers, and murderers, right? When a dog gets the taste of raw eggs it’s hard to keep him out of the hen house even though the house looks different from the old days.

The Royal Dutch Petroleum Company has found itself a defendant in an American case that has reached the United States Supreme Court. So you thought all of that nasty business of colonial plunder and murder was behind us? Let’s take a brief look at the Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum case. To do that, put your mind back to Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, to the space and time that reappears as officials of the Royal Dutch Shell worked along side officials of the Nigerian government to arrest, torture, and murder environmental activists, members of the Ogoni, in the Niger Delta, protesting the adverse health and environment fall out that resulted from unregulated drilling and extraction of oil from that region.

No one is apparently arguing whether the corporation through its officers and employees was complicit in the human rights violations that occurred in the 1990s. The argument instead is whether the victims who otherwise have no connection with the United States can pursue legal remedies against Royal Dutch Petroleum in the American judicial system. To do so the victims need to convince the high court that the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company is a ‘person’ under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute. If they are a ‘person’ then the victims of the faraway crime can sue them in an American federal court. In an earlier case, the Court established that an individual, who was a foreigner but who did business or had assets in the United States could be successfully sued for wrongful acts such as torture and murder carried out against another foreigner abroad.

It comes as no surprise who has filed briefs in support of the Royal Dutch Shell claim that the case should be thrown out. Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany—the countries with a rich colonial past, which means they know a thing or two about using corporations to keep a teach a lesson to the restless natives while enslaving the rest to extract natural resources from their lands. Funds limited to paying off he elites and profits for the shareholders. That’s pretty much sums up how the old corporate system operated and, despite the TV commercials about their responsibility to the environment and community, continues to operate in many ‘foreign’ countries.

The United States filed a brief in support of the victims right to bring the lawsuit. Who are the judges going to support? The Europeans with their corporations harvesting profits that come from valuable resources extracted from the mines, wells, pits and forest of the third-world. The American government may have decided that exposing foreign corporations to the full radiation of the American justice might cause such corporations to make a correction in their activities that have in the past led to the most ghastly abuses. And after paying out on a few lawsuits would take away some of the competitive edge gained through such exploitation by making compensation for third-world murder based on the American scale.

Assessing American styled civil damages against a foreign corporation operating in foreign lands against foreigners is a revoluntionary and clever way of reckoning the true cost of running the international resource business. That’s a novel scary enough idea to get three ex-colonial European governments to come down to rescue the Royal Dutch Shell. Come to think of it, I also wonder why the China and Russian hadn’t filed a brief support of Royal Dutch Shell. The potential countries involved are a cozy club of mutual self-interested resource extractors. Perhaps no one hasn’t anyone explained to them what is potentially at stake in this case should Royal Dutch Shell be conferred with ‘personhood’. Knighthoods for the CEOs, but no personhood for the company, thank you very much. They know where to draw the line in the sand.

The Supreme Court Justices at oral argument on the case have revealed their thinking about allowing these foreigners to use the American court system to chase down the wrongdoers and bring them to account.

John Bellinger in Lawfare reported on this exchange during the oral arguments:

Justice Kennedy said:  “But, counsel, for me, the case turns in large part on this:  page 17 of the red brief.  It says, “International law does not recognize corporate responsibility for the alleged offenses here.  And the — one of the — the amicus brief for Chevron [written by Jack Goldsmith, a former Kennedy clerk] says, “No other nation in the world permits its court to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over alleged extraterritorial human rights abuses to which the nation has no connection.  And in reading through your briefs, I was trying to find the best authority you have to refute that proposition, or are you going to say it is irrelevant?”

Justices Roberts and Alito showed their hand, too:

Justice Alito:  “Well there’s no particular connection between the events here and the United States.  So, I think the question is whether there’s any other country in the world where these plaintiffs could have brought these claims against the Respondents.”

Chief Justice Roberts:  “If — if there is no other country where this suit could have been brought, regardless of what American domestic law provides, isn’t it a legitimate concern that allowing the suit itself contravenes international law?”

Human rights and environment rights are detailed in standards by the United Nations. That’s wonderful. But corporations understand that the United Nations doesn’t operate a judicial system that can hold them to account. They know the place of the crime is on their side and no effective legal remedy is available to the victims. The question before the Supreme Court is whether to open American courts as a venue to reign in corporate terror.

A majority of the Supreme Court  justices decided in an earlier case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)  that corporations were persons with the same right to freedom of expression as an individual. Meaning corporations could fund political campaign ads that advanced their political agenda just as an individual. Having put themselves in the business of bringing individual rights to corporations, whether it will take the next step is to apply civil remedies to a foreign corporation implicated in murder and torture. Or someone might whisper in the court’s collective ear that the case isn’t really about the murder and abuse of victims’ human rights, it’s about the unfair competition that violence assisted in allowing certain corporations a large cost cutting advantage not shared by their more ethical competitors. And we can teach those foreigners a thing or two about punitive damages to claw back some of that advantage.

On chasing that rabbit down the hole, the court enters Alice in Wonderland, where nothing is quite as it seems. In that world the successors of the East India Company and the Dutch West India Company are filing their briefs to carry on their business in the tradition of the 17th century. Big time crime syndicates called corporations, and the big time criminals who work for them artfully dodge and dart like a virtual particle in physics between separate states: being an individual when it suits their political agenda, and an abstract legal entity when it engages in plunder, looting and murder.

The Supreme Court can’t put Royal Dutch Shell Corporation into the Large Hadron Collider and settle the question once and for all. But the physics of justice isn’t scientific. The justices aren’t searching for the judicial equivalent of the Higgs Boson. Court decisions are hardnosed, practical, messy, contradictory, and never, ever above the politics and economic interest that make the world a duplicate copy of what it has always been. In the future if the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation and other ‘foreign’ companies like them may find themselves entangled in the spider web of defending damage claims in an American civil action.

We will be left wondering if the advancing the economic interest of the Americans was the real reason behind the decision. Making a corporation a person is a good cover story and it also comes with the added bonus of making the court look consistent with its earlier ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

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Posted: 3/1/2012 7:55:48 PM 

 

Crime stories are both universal and local. A murder in New York, Vancouver, London or Bangkok is universally seen as a crime, one deserving of punishment of the wrongdoer and assistance to the family of the victim. In reality, we tend to focus on the crime that is on our doorstep. Murders close to home cause people to sit up and pay attention. This is especially true if the victim has any kind of public profile, the murder is bizarre, or the relationship between the killer and victim unusual.

The success of a crime fiction novel is connected with the ability of the author to convey the internal life of the characters—their thoughts, fears, doubts, and desires—and to convincingly show how the relationship between the characters can spiral into the death of one character at the hands of another.

In the world of noir fiction, murders are a natural outcome of an overarching political and social system that itself tolerates, justifies or condones certain murders. Law enforcement institutions designed to protect security and safety breakdown inside the noir world. The wrong person is convicted of a crime. Or the killer gets away with murder.

Where does a writer look for ideas and inspiration when writing about crime?

This is where research comes into planning a book. The Internet is your friend in tracking down crime stories. One site that is an example of the kind of material you can find is Violent Crime News.

The mission of this blog is to establish the importance of authenticity in crime fiction. Getting the facts right matters. If that were the only issue, then writing crime fiction would be a snap. The art of the novel is to take the authentic and find a way to tell a compelling, emotionally satisfying and memorable story. In crime fiction that often starts with a murder.

For a crime writer and reader, not all murders work well as a novel. There are three categories of murder that produce a lot of contemporary fiction.

Domestic murder, sex related murder and professional murderers are common  in crime fiction. Below are examples of cases available to anyone with an Internet connection.

The Domestic murder

A husband kills his wife, or the wife kills the husband. A parent kills a child, or a child kills a parent. Families are a place of potential violence. A death row inmate appeals for clemency on the grounds a stranger set the fire that killed his three-year-old son.  A woman is accused of killing her newborn twins and hiding the bodies in the boot of her car.  Or the thirteen year who shoots and kills his father.

A large percentage of murders fall within this category. The domestic murder is also a staple of crime fiction.

Sex Related Murder

When the murder has a sex angle that attracts a great deal of attention. When the police investigate into the violent death of prostitutes, the news especially if it is an old, ongoing case and new technology leads to a break through. Here’s an example from Vancouver

By Jeff Nagel – The Tri-City News Published: January 30, 2012 5:00 PM Police so strongly suspected Robert Pickton might be killing prostitutes in the late 1990s they tried using infrared photography on the hunch he had an underground dungeon beneath the Port Coquitlam farm.

Authorities believe that Pickton was responsible for dozens of killings in British Columbia. He was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Adding murder and sex is a surefire way to attract attention as a crime writer.

Murder by Professional Criminals

Professional criminals are a staple of crime fiction. Richard Stark’s Parker series is a good example. The crime news follows the fate of hitmen and mafia snitches and there is a considerable audience for such news. Ever since the Godfather movies and books, crime readers have supported this genre.

Here are a couple of examples of the kind of real life cases that work their way into fiction (sooner or later). Professional criminals also move inside a subculture that attracts curiosity not only among law enforcement professionals but by ordinary citizens whose ordinary day-to-day lives, by comparison, lacks the edge, danger and risk.

In New York a mobster turned and testified against a mob boss and escaped a life sentence for a couple of murder. He was sentenced to ten years for bringing down the big guy.  The Today Show reported:

“A former New York mobster who turned against the Mafia and helped convict Vincent “Vinny Gorgeous” Basciano, then acting boss of the Bonanno crime family, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Monday despite being involved in multiple murders.”

AP carried a story about a hitman with a consciousness and heart of gold. His testimony is about to spring an accused who despite being blind in one eye and suffering from a learning disability from going to prison for a murder that he didn’t commit (though he confessed to it).

“A Detroit hitman in prison for eight murders said he’s willing to publicly take responsibility for four more to help clear a young man who claims he’s innocent of the slayings and confessed at age 14 only to satisfy police.

Vincent Smothers’ testimony would be the most crucial evidence yet to try to persuade a judge to throw out Davontae Sanford’s guilty plea and free him from a nearly 40-year prison sentence. In an interview with The Associated Press, Smothers declared: “He’s not guilty. He didn’t do it.”

Smothers said he never used a 14-year-old accomplice – blind in one eye and learning disabled – to carry out his paid hits, mostly victims tied to Detroit’s drug trade. Ironically, there’s no dispute that Smothers confessed to the so-called Runyon Street slayings when he was captured in 2008, but prosecutors have never charged him and never explained why.”

The lesson for a crime author is to keep an eye out for violent crimes wherever they occur. What happens in real life is often much stranger than fiction. At the same time, there is a lot to be learned from the profile of the killer, the victims, the cops, prosecutors, defense counsel and judges in such cases. And of course the use of the latest technology alongside some of the medieval techniques that produce convictions.

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Posted: 2/2/2012 7:55:53 PM 

 

Sometimes a novel is ahead of its time, seeming to write about events that predict the future. In Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, the idea of precognition allows the police to know in advance about future criminal activity and to stop it before it happens.

The future is that strange, unknowable terrain over the horizon. In the mind’s eye, we speculate on what awaits us on the other side of the present. But speculation is not the same as what actually will transpire. Novelists also speculate about the future. Sometimes they predict the general pattern of what the future will bring; other times they strike gold by predicting an actual event.

From our vantage point in the present, we can read books that appear to predict what will happen.  A large number of speculative books about the future fall into the category of science fiction. Jules Verne predicted moon shots from Florida. That sounds impressive until you remember that Jules Verne’s launch vehicle was an astronaut shot from a cannon.

Arthur C. Clark foresaw satellite communication systems. George Orwell’s 1984 predicted a future of surveillance cameras, newspeak, perpetual hate campaigns. William Gibson’s Neuromancer anticipated cyberspace and virtual reality. H.G. Wells predicted the importance of planes in warfare, bombing raids by planes, and the atom bomb.

Morgan Robertson’s Futility was a book written fourteen years before the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, about a ship called Titan that hit an iceberg on the starboard side and sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The sinking was in April. In other words, many of the details in Robertson’s novel tracked the actual details surrounding the sinking of the Titanic.

William Gibson’s take on predicting the future is clear: he can’t. No one can. If he possessed such precognition, Gibson says, he would have written about Facebook, incorporating it into one of his novels years before it came into being.

Science fiction and crime novels can overlap. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, where three mutants can predict future criminal activity, is an example. In Minority Report, precognition creates paradoxes. A cop receives precognition about murdering a person he’s never met. If precognition of crime is a possibility, then our notion of free will need to undergo a major transformation.

In Michel Houellebecq’s The Platform, there is a terrorist bombing in Phuket in which two hundred people are killed. After the novel was published to great acclaim, the Bali terrorist bombing killed over two hundred people.

In my recently released novel, The Wisdom of Beer, there is a warehouse heist. The warehouse is filled with weapons destined for terrorists groups. Last week, when The Wisdom of Beer appeared in bookstores in Thailand, the police uncovered a rental premise filled with materials for bombs and the theory of the police is that those materials were being readied for export to possible terrorists organizations outside of Thailand.

Does that mean Michel Houellebecq in The Platform and my The Wisdom of Beer predicted the future? In reality, neither novel predicts the actual place but does come close to predicting the nature of the occurrence of the criminal activity.

Novelists share with the police and others in the law enforcement system an ability to reason based on probability analysis. Predicting the dangerous is about assessing the probability of people, ideologies, politics and opportunities collating over time to create an incident. The future of dangerousness is less crystal ball-gazing than statistical analysis of vast amounts of data, cultural and historical trends, and personalities.

What novelists often do is employ pattern recognition to a vast amount of information, taking into account trends, prior cases, and probabilities. We take the temperature of the body politic and look at whether the patient has a fever and then make a case as to the possible outcome. Modern crime novelists are cultural profilers. We mine the source material and our own experiences in order to create narratives that are plausible outcomes for the reader. To the extent that the profiling works, it seems that we have predicted the future. But, in fact, we have gauged the probability of events correctly. No magic. No voodoo. No precognition. Just an ability to combine ingredients from the past and to present those elements and bake the cake we subsequently recognize as the future.

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Posted: 1/26/2012 7:57:21 PM 

 

Last light as night falls in Rangoon. Shwedagon Pagoda framed against the twilight. It is like watching a great diva knowing in less than a generation she will be reduced to a walk on role. But that is the future. At this moment such a command performance can only leave you in awe. Our world has lost something. And I am witnessing what is front of me and remembering what we’ve left behind with a sense of joy and regret.

From my balcony the Shwedagon Pagoda is on a hill enveloped in a forest of trees. One way to understand a place is to move beyond the iconic view and into the region of folk tales, proverbs, and legends. Buried in these narratives are the treasures that define a people, their morality, ethics, and worldview. As you will have gathered from the news headlines over the past couple of weeks, Burma is a society undergoing important political changes.

The people of Burma are like travelers who have been on a dusty road for a long time and are able to enjoy a simple meal.

There is a Burmese folktale* about a weary traveler who stopped along the road to eat his lunch. The traveler was poor and his meal was a meager helping of rice and vegetables. Nearby a food vendor was selling fried fish and fish cakes. The stall owner watched the traveler eating as she fried fish. The smell of the fish drifting toward the traveler who squatted alone, lost in his own thoughts.

As the traveler finished his meal and was about to depart, the woman from the food stalls shouted at him, stopping him in his tracks: “You owe me a silver quarter for the price of one fried fish.”

“But madam, I did not eat one of your fried fish.”

“You are a cheater,” she replied. “A person who takes without paying for what he takes.”

“But, madam, I’ve taken nothing from you. I have not come within five feet from your stall.”

“Ah, ha. And you’re a liar to boot. I have many witnesses who will testify that they saw you enjoying the smell of my fried fish as you ate your meal. You would not have been able to eat that disgusting mush of rice and vegetable without taking in the sweet aroma of my fish frying. So pay me the silver quarter and don’t make any more trouble for yourself.”

The confrontation soon drew a crowd around the traveler and the fried fish seller. She plays to the crowd who had to agree that indeed the traveler had availed himself of the smell of the fish frying. Even the traveler could not deny he had smelled the fish frying. But he insisted that he had no duty to pay for that privilege.

The matter was taken to a royal judge who heard the evidence. The judge deliberated on the matter in a courthouse nestled under the shade of a coconut tree, chickens pecking for grain along the road. Several minutes passed before he announced to the parties and the crowd who had accompanied them as to his verdict.

The judge found the basic facts weren’t in dispute. The traveler had indeed enhanced the enjoyment of his meal because of the pleasant smell of the fish frying. He had received a benefit. But what was the value of that benefit? The fish seller said the price for a plate of fish was a silver quarter. The judge ordered the parties to leave the courthouse and to walk out into the sun. The traveler was then to hold out a silver quarter and allow the fish vendor to grasp the shadow made by the silver quarter. The judge reasoned if the plate of fish cost one silver quarter, then the exchange value for the smell of the fish was the shadow of one silver quarter.

As the gold rush of investors are jumping headlong into the newly opened Burma, they might be reminded that so far the Burmese, like the traveler, have only had a whiff of the frying fish called freedom and democracy. Whether they will be left only with a scent or will be allowed to enjoy the full plate, remains to be seen. The future will tell whether the price of freedom 60 million travelers’ benefit will be judged to be payable silver or a mere shadow of silver.

*Story adapted from Maung Htin Aung’s Folk Tales of Burma.

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Posted: 1/19/2012 8:08:59 PM 

 

9 January 2012

Bangkok

I am editing a new anthology titled The Orwell Brigade. On a twist to the usual noir collection of short stories, this anthology will feature non-fiction essays by a number of leading international novelists. The response to the venture has been overwhelmingly positive and there is a reason: George Orwell.

Orwell, who is remembered for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, was also one of the great essayists of the twentieth century.

Orwell’s essays about colonial rule in Burma, the Spanish Civil War and World War II used plain language to discuss in everyday words a set of universal values that were under political attack. Orwell introduced into our daily conversation the ideas of “Big Brother,” “doublethink” and “newspeak” — terms that continue to be used today.

Timothy Garton-Ash in The New York Review of Books, 22 October 1998, wrote, “Orwell is the most influential political writer of the twentieth century.”

What is Orwell’s legacy? And why should we care more than sixty years after his death?

The simple answer is that Orwell’s worldview transcended his time. His essays remain relevant for us and those around us. Finding a way to revive the tradition of a novelist/essayist in the Orwell tradition is a way of keeping those in power honest, accountable, and actionable. Lying is a not just a way of political life; it is a way to control people’s interests, desires, motives and memories.

A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant are incredible firsthand essays. They are personal accounts of Orwell’s time as a petty colonial official during the British administration of Burma. Here was a writer who wrote about what he had experienced, shaped and honed, and refined the emotions of the day of both the hanging and shooting: the condemned man being led to the gallows and being mindful not to step in a puddle on the way to his death.

In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell drew upon his six months of fighting in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. In that book, Orwell wrote: “It was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies — unless one counts journalists.”

What troubled him most, having been at the front of the street battles in Barcelona, was how the British press had used falsehood, rumors, and distortions to describe the events in Barcelona in a fashion that pandered to the left wing in England. Anyone who has ever been a witness to violence at or near a frontline and later reads the press reports and statements from officials who were far removed from the action, will understand Orwell’s anger.

The lies and duplicity that once shocked Orwell may no longer shock us. With scandals like the phone hacking by reporters at the News of The World, we have become cynical about “facts,” “reality” and “truth telling.” We are less innocent about the way the media and others use images and words to “sell” a position and as a collateral obligation to describe what happened on the ground. We read or watch media that mirrors our prejudices rather than confronts them. Experience has been downgraded to below junk bond grade. This is our world. But every generation has to claim the world back for truth telling. It doesn’t happen on autopilot. And Orwell was a very experienced “pilot.”

In 1984, Orwell described the country of Oceania as founded on rewriting the past. It was the power to control what people were told had happened that was most disturbing to Orwell. Governments uploading memories and pretending they had a counterpart in reality was the nightmare, the horror of 1984.

Orwell found a voice that allowed him a way to turn politics into literature. His use of metaphor and cleverly invented new terms to describe oppressive power captured the plight of the powerless. He handed down a warning for our time, perhaps for all times: “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Clive James in The New Yorker wrote, “It wasn’t just the amount of truth he told but the way he told it, in prose transmuted to poetry by the pressure of his dedication.”

Orwell’s personal history may also suggest why more writers have not followed his path. Timothy Garton-Ash tells us that Homage to Catalonia sold only around 50 copies a year during Orwell’s lifetime (it now sells more than 10,000 copies a year).

When Timothy Ash-Garton and Clive James were writing about Orwell’s legacy, we still hadn’t entered the age of the Internet, a full-blown 24/7 information machine where false information, lies and manipulation battle to secure territorial rights over our memory and thinking.

In The Orwell Brigade, I’ve gathered a group of modern truth tellers, writers who write fiction, but also share a vision that writers should reach with their words to contemporary political issues in the form of an essay. Their passion and experience will use plain words to shape politics into the words normally reserved for literature, drawing upon some of the great Orwellian themes of our times:

The economic collapse in America and Europe, a trend for capitalism and totalitarian elites to find common ground, anti-rational/science populists who use religion to push back the Enlightenment, the growing inequalities among people in the same country and the rise of technological means of control, surveillance and destruction.

Ministries of Truth roam the Internet on behalf of governments in a way that Orwell would never have guessed.

In 1984, Winston Smith is taken to the dreaded Room 101 for memory replacement: 2 + 2 = 5. Room 101 is a metaphor for the final destination for all of us who fail to speak plainly about the distortions in the relationship between those who cling to power and those who hunger to replace them, and the rest of us wedged in the war zone, caught in between.

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Posted: 1/12/2012 8:17:11 PM 

 

A prediction for 2012

It is claimed the Mayans left behind a prophecy that the world is doomed to end in 2012. But, like many prophecies, hundreds if not thousands of years separate the prophet from his prediction. When the prophet is long dead, we shrug it off when the event doesn’t come to pass.

Most of us are surrounded by prophets of one sort, predicting stock markets, the collapse of the euro, that you will meet that bright, attractive, hot counterpart if you show up at high noon at Little Harry’s Bar and sit on the third seat from the door. What prophets have in common is that they claim to have a direct mystical pipeline to the future. In other words, it ain’t science.

I had a look at my horoscope in the Bangkok Post for Wednesday, 4 January 2012, and was told, “Indulge in industriousness. Put the finishing touches on projects, but don’t initiate anything new. A small delay with a check or a contract could cause worry, but everything will turn out fine.”

A long-time journalist friend once told me that, when he worked for one of the wires, he was given the task of writing the horoscopes. He made them up. He gave his sign all kinds of positive, upbeat and uplifting predictions, while handing out dire predictions of life in the gutter, neck and shoulder pus-filled boils and inoperative hernias under the zodiac signs of his enemies.

Religious texts, including The Bible are riddled with stories of prophets who predicted all matter of things. Believers take those predictions to heart, particularly the ones about the afterlife. Prophets prove that you can’t have even a half-baked religion unless you have a good recipe that blends supernatural, superstition, and woo-woo in general.

The problem starts when a prophet starts spouting off predictions about specific events to specific public structures. He then has crossed an invisible line, at least, it seems, in Thailand where there is a high ratio of fortunetellers to population. A partial list of clients would include office workers, politicians, military, police, housewives, husbands, boyfriends, maids, CEOs, tuk-tuk and taxi drivers, school teachers and street vendors. Some Thai fortunetellers have legendary followings.

Recently, in Tak province, a 73-year-old fortuneteller got himself in hot water over a failed prediction about a dam bursting. Thongbai Khamsi predicted that a large provincial dam in Tak would crumple on New Year’s Eve. After dawn arose on New Year’s Day in Tak, it didn’t take long for the locals to figure out that the dam, despite Thongbai’s prophecy, was still working just like a dam should, by holding back the water and generating electricity.

That apparently upset some of the local authorities. A number of people complained that they had sold their land at fire sale prices to get what they could before the dam burst. And even more damaging, tourism to Tak dropped by ninety percent. leaving a 400-million-baht hole in the local economy. If you made a bad real estate decision and your tourist numbers are down, all of this bad luck has to be laid off on someone. Why not Thongbai, the false prophet? The authorities, seeing which way the local wind was blowing, decided that Tongbai got the nomination as a false prophet, the man who had caused substantial public damage.

It would be unfair to say this kind of magical thinking followed by an angry populace howling for blood only happens in Thailand.  Deuteronomy 13:1–5 counsels: “Prophets and dreamers are to be executed if they say or dream the wrong things.” I’ve never heard of anything comparable said in Buddhism. In this case, it seems the Thai local authorities are acting quite Christian-like in their zeal.

Tongbai has his own explanation of how he came about this prophecy. It came from his son, Pla Bu, before his son died. That son had quite a track record in the prophecy game, having predicted his own death 15 days before he died, along with having predicted both 9.11 before it happened in 2001 and the tsunami prior to 26 December 2004. He was channeling a dead son and that could be part of the problem. It is better to stick with talking to God. Like Pat Robertson who says God has already told him who the next President of the United States will be. If it all goes wrong, the come back is: “God is testing our faith.”

There is a hint that the charges by the authorities resulted as much from a loss of face as anything. They held a big New Year Countdown Party at the dam.

There is no word on whether Tongbai has predicted whether he will be convicted, and, if convicted, sent to the big house to serve time with murderers, rapists, arsonist, and armed robbers. He might teach a course in astrology to inmates or tell the guards’ and warden’s fortunes in order to get time off for good behavior. Just a piece of advice: he should avoid predictions about the durability of prison walls and stay on the more vague, abstract side, following the example of the newspaper astrologers.

Alternatively. he might switch to doomsday predictions because there is far less risk as long as sufficiently projected in the future, and, as  predictions go, these ones are much more fun. No one ever thinks of charging a doomsday prophet with a crime. Perhaps what makes their false prophesies more acceptable to authorities is, unlike the dam, if the whole world is going to disappear, then there’s no possible buyer for all of that real estate anyway and what’s the point of going on holiday? No one really loses, and when the all-clear signal is given to celebrate and everyone who was terrified can turn around and laugh at what a fool the prophet was, he, if history is any guide, simply kicks the ball into the future again.

What worries authorities and has them reaching for the handcuffs are dire predictions of doom that cause large public panic. In 1669, a group of Russians, called “The Old Believersconvinced themselves the world would end that year. Rather than hanging around to see if that happened, about twenty thousand of these believers set themselves on fire to protect themselves against the Antichrist. I’ve not found a record of any prophet taking the rap for that failed prophesy. He might have gone up in smoke.

I have a few prophecies of my own to make in this first essay of the year. In the short term, the charges against Tongbai (who has yet to turn himself in to the police) will chill the prophecy business in Thailand well into February 2012; afterwards, it will be totally forgotten to ever have happened. If using criminal law is found effective against this false prophet, I predict it will be vastly expanded to round up many more of this ilk. In that case, I recommend you buy into companies that maintain a connection to the jail-building business in Thailand, as these companies will enter boom times. Look for promotion of government officials who meet their quotas in identifying and exposing gurus, prophets, seers, fortunetellers, and pundits. The era of hunting terrorists has run its course.

As we enter the new dawn of finding, charging, trying and punishing the false prophets, all of us can take pride is working together to weed them out before their false prediction overrun the garden of our common humanity (and makes us sell our houses at stupid prices).

Let this be the year of visiting Thailand, where no bad prophet goes unpunished. And to be on the safe side, leave your predictions about the future at home.

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Posted: 1/5/2012 8:09:10 PM 

 

In Asia, the idea of face is not unlike the concept in the West of dignity or respect or honor. Add guns to the torque of argument, honor and liquor and the probability of shots fired rise dramatically. Pinker concludes in The Better Angels of our Nature, page 99, that: “The essence of a culture of honor is that it does not sanction predatory or instrumental violence, but only retaliation after an insult or other mistreatment.” The issue of fitting the culture of guns with the culture of honor raises a number of issues, such as how available guns should be, the kind of weapons that should be allowed in civilian hands, and the role of the government in regulating guns in places where an insult to honor is avenged with violence.

In Thailand, on 27th December, a policeman in the southern province of Phatthalung pulled his gun and killed six other police officers. The gunman and his fellow officers had been engaged in a drinking session in the border patrol police camp canteen. Someone must have said something that didn’t go down well. The gunman then walked 200 meters outside the canteen and turned his assault rifle on himself. The investigators’ theory is that a ‘personal conflict’ led to the shootings. That is a Thai code phrase for an insult to honor.

Police are trained (in theory) in the psychology of diffusing personal conflicts, and convincing someone with a gun to drop it.  Using lethal force is restricted in Thailand, as in most places.

The point is that Thai cops are products of their culture, and a face culture is an honor culture. Is this true for other cops around the world? Their attitude toward guns, threats, violence, insults and honor differ according to tradition, history and attitude. When the cork flies out of the bottle in an honor culture, it is best the man this happens to does not have a weapon. When cops are involved in an insult to honor, supposedly their training kicks in and they exercise more self-control. That training has its limits.  Cops inside an honor culture have same human emotions that flare up during drinking sessions. An insult, a slight, a roll of the eyes may be all that is needed to trigger the lethal response. Without guns having been present, it is highly doubtful anyone in that canteen would have died.

No one suggests after such a massacre that the police should be disarmed. Notably, in England most of the police are not armed, and the murder rate is significantly lower than places like Thailand where the police are armed. Yet, a fairly significant number of the population there also carry guns.

More difficult is the private citizen in an honor culture who is allowed by law to carry a handgun. The Americans are undergoing a debate about expanding the right to carry concealed weapons, and to allow someone with a gun permit to carry that weapon anywhere in the United States. More than 3.5 million Americans in 40 States have permits to carry concealed firearms. Keep in mind there are approximately 100 million guns owned by Americans. Remember that on your next visit to the States only a small percentage of them have anywhere near the experience of my fellow blogger Jim Thompson with a handling guns. The overwhelming number of gun owners are like pilots who’ve logged a couple of hours in a small plane seated next to an experienced instructor and think that experience makes them Ace fighter pilots.

Some states have more lax gun permit regulations and even more lax rules to revoke a permit if the gun owner has committed a crime. The New York Times reports about a cyclist in Asheville, North Carolina, who had an argument with a motorist. Words were exchanged and Diez, the gun holder, pulled his licensed handgun and shot at the cyclist. The bullet slammed through the cyclist’s helmet. Diez later pleaded guilty to a felony count of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. Pinker also notes the Southern United States has had a long tradition of an honor culture and self-help justice.

The proponents who argue for expanding the right for civilians to arm themselves with concealed weapons say it will allow the ordinary law-abiding citizen to protect herself or himself. The idea is that the bad guys are armed and the innocent are not; that, if the bad guys had knowledge that the innocent person might have a concealed weapon, they’d think twice about committing a crime against them. Also, they point out, an armed citizenry is the first line of defense against tyranny in government.

That is the deterrence argument that propels many to support legislation authorizing widespread gun ownership. There are a couple of problems with defending this position.

First, America is one of the few places where there is no historical consensus that the monopoly of violent force should be exclusively reserved to officers of the state. Unlike Europeans, the United States never succeeded in disarming its citizens before the citizens took over the government. Most of other countries in the West (they are democracies, too) do not sanction widespread gun ownership among the civilian population. They have a different history and tradition of gun ownership. And, in European countries, fewer people die of gunshot wounds than in America.

Second, it conflates democracy with gun ownership; that armed citizens are the best defense against a State turning rogue against its citizens. Americans have a culture of distrust of government that is closer to the attitudes found in Third World countries run by dictators. The reality is that guns are artifacts from the analog past. Modern governments have multiple digital tools to oppress and repress their citizens and these weapons of intimidation are more widespread and potent than guns. CCTV cameras, predators (soon to appear in your neighborhood), data mining your email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, acquiring your health, financial and education records. A population armed with handguns is no match for the arsenal that the world of 1984 brings.

Third, the idea of “protection” against the bad guys is always one that has everyone nodding their heads in agreement. However, the statistics show that the self-defense theory is not a solid argument, especially in an honor culture. The reality is that human beings are emotional creatures who are quick to anger. Alcohol and drugs makes them unstable. Diez, the fireman from North Carolina who almost killed the cyclist, is not uncommon. The cyclist wasn’t a bad guy. He didn’t threaten Diez. He had an argument. Diez felt insulted, his ego was bruised and he tried to kill a man over “honor.”

I’d be willing to bet that if you graphed the percentage of people who have used a handgun to protect themselves against a criminal (the self-defense claim), it would be a much smaller percentage than the percentage of people who used a gun because they felt a slight to their honor. By increasing gun ownership, I would anticipate a rise in the number of homicides where the underlying motive was to avenge the loss of face, the slur, personal argument, or the insult. People kill each other over honor. Give them licenses to carry handguns and Diez-type cases will increase. Diez lacked self-control in this situation. This is not abnormal. Expand gun ownership and that will be a good test of exactly how normal the Diez case will prove to be.

Thailand has more than double the United States’ annual death by firearms rate.

Anyone who has looked at the debate on gun ownership understands that statistics are often unreliable, and are often used inappropriately, such as failing to compare like with like conditions, traditions, histories and omitting crucial variables that make for complexity. Scholars have cautioned against concluding that widespread gun ownership causes higher murder rates. Russia, for example, has stringent gun control laws yet, between 1998 and 2004, its gun-related murder rate was four times that of the United States. Could an entrenched honor culture in Russia offer insight into the higher murder rate by firearms? The same scholars insist there is no correlation between the strength of gun laws, availability of guns and the homicide rate. Let’s admit that evidence of such correlation isn’t available. What is left unaddressed is the role of the honor culture.

Another killing in Thailand this week bears an emotionally twisted thread that links it to the Diez type of case. An arrest warrant was issued for a member of parliament, Khanchit Thapsuwan, who allegedly followed a rival politician into the toilet of a petrol station and shot him in the head eight times. He left ten .40 caliber casings scattered on the floor of the restroom where the shooting took place. There also were witnesses. Given this is Thailand, the police issued a statement, “If we knew his hideout, we would arrest him without heeding his social status.”

In Thailand the gunman’s social status is a significant factor that in some cases trumps the evidence of murder. But, in Khanchit’s case, with the social status of shooter and victim being approximately equal, the gunman is in deep trouble. What is the theory of why Khanchit shot the victim? They were political rivals and according to the Bangkok Post, “Whenever the two met, they were often heard making sarcastic remarks against each other.”

Two days after the killing, MP Khanchit showed up for a session in the Thai Parliament. A decision has yet to be made on the question of whether parliamentary immunity will be waived.

The final consideration in the argument to expand gun ownership is the costs. Gunshot victims place a significant burden on the health care resources of a country. One scholar, Phillip J. Cook, estimated that gun violence costs Americans alone $100 billion annually.” That would fund a lot of schools, clinics, bridges, roads and student loan programs. With that kind of money, a decent health care system could be universally available to all citizens.

Honor. Face. Dignity. Governments would do well to closely study the correlation of these cultural factors and how they factor into gun-related homicides before they go about authorizing the carrying of guns in the larger civilian population. Dismantling the culture of honor might, in the long run, be the best way to reduce gun-related murder rates. But that approach wouldn’t sell to voters. Arming voters does sell for those standing for election. Politics is a clash over “honor” and sometimes, as with the aforementioned recent murder in Thailand allegedly by an MP, the end result is the delivery of eight rounds to the head.

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Posted: 12/29/2011 8:02:46 PM 

 

THERE may have never been one list. We don’t have to enter that debate. We can start by acknowledging that we live in an age of list of junkies. We are all guilty; we are all addicted. Top ten lists are catchy, fun and most of all require a short attention span. They are like intellectual popcorn. David Letterman made his reputation by reading clever Top Ten Lists written by his staff writers.  And I also love reading and writing a good mystery. What better mystery than tracking the whereabouts of fugitives on the run from the law? In reality most of those on the most wanted list are more elusive than the Higgs Boson.

Think of the Modern Top Ten Criminal lists as the way law enforcement officials try to build the equivalent of the particle collider. Most of the data is inclusive. The main difference is the criminals exist in reality and are simply very hard to find, and the jury is out whether Higgs Boson is non-existent or just hard to find.

The idea of Top Ten Criminals has been around longer than crime fiction. In the case of criminal justice systems, the entertainment value of announcing Top Ten Most Wanted Lists has caught the attention of law enforcement agencies in most countries. The media love lists. Newspapers, blogs, TV news all love list with pictures. These list which used to be taped to post office walls has gone digital. We now spend most of our lives in front of one sort of screen or another looking at photographs. The digital world is tailor-made from the list of bad guys. We can visualize the criminal but nothing satisfied as much as seeing an actual picture. Law enforcement officials no longer need to describe what the criminal fugitives on the run look like. Show their pictures on the Internet. Let the public study their features and image the evil lurking inside that caused them to turn to a life of crime. Let the public become the private eye who can nail a bad guy and collect a million dollar bounty.

But there is a slight problem with digital volunteer bounty hunters. Our resources as individuals are completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of top ten criminal lists. Every city, county, province, and country has a top ten list of most wanted criminals. If that isn’t enough, within each of these political divisions are cops who are further divided into a multitude of separate but overlapping turfs. There is a 10 Most Wanted in the World List.

If you are a crime writer wondering who would make a good villain for your next novel, you might want to scroll through the latest list of international gangsters, gunrunners, revolutionaries and cartel kingpins of the lam from justice; go straight to the Top Ten Criminals on the Planet List.

How about the Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List? City of Vancouver has a list. The FBI has perhaps the most famous of Top Ten lists going back to 1950. The FBI has refined its lists by categories. So if you want to know the Top Ten Most Wanted White Collar Criminals, they have a list. Interpol has a list. Is there any political subdivision on the planet without a list? If you could speed read 24 hours a day it would take 572 years to go through the images returned by Google for each of these lists.

Here’s a little game to play on Christmas Day after eating all of that turkey. Gather the family around with their electronic devices. Ask them to Google “Thailand’s ten most wanted criminals.” Then ask them to click on ‘images’ and the number that comes up is 53,900,000. Given them ten minutes to assemble their top ten images. Compare selections. An extra helping of pumpkin pie to the winner.

The Thai population is 65 million puts in perspective the 53 million faces that the Thai Top Ten criminal list returns in Google images. Such a high return of famous criminals to ratio of population might qualify as the most egalitarian feature of Thai society. Of course, the Google image search return has thoughtfully included: a human-like gnarl in a tree, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Dick Cheney, Sandra Bullock and Steve Jobs—a fairly wide number of individuals, some of whom are dead, have been selected as candidates for the top ten of criminals on the run in the Land of Smiles. There are several problems. First, there are too many foreigners. Second, the law enforcement agencies will use this issue to vastly increase their budget request for 2012/2013. Third, co-operation between international law enforcement agencies will likely collapse as too many influential politicians are on the Thai image list. And there are doubts whether those names—such as mentioned above—are all criminals.

Perhaps this explains the difficulty of making a Top Ten List of Criminals in the digital age. AI development being in the relative infancy means that algorithms pick up a huge number of false positives when assembling images.  We can have more sympathy for law enforcement officials on the ground. Finding a needle in a haystack is easier than shifting through millions of these images. Institutional caution and careerism means that no one whose image comes up from such a search can be excluded as a possibility. There must be someone who will take responsibility for deleting one of the images. And if he or she is wrong—say, indeed Dick Cheney proved to be on the Top Ten List of Criminals in Thailand, they could be shuttled off to a desk in North Dakota to catch rabbit poachers.

As you contemplate 2012, remember the Maya Legend about how the earth would end in 2012 might actually have been a warning that by 2012 our ability to discern reality from fiction may have collapsed under the weight of just far too many distractions, images, and associations. The evidence of brain shutdown explains a lot of what we are reading in news reports. Soon everyone’s picture will appear on a top-ten wanted list somewhere.  I expect that in the far future, there will be final news report will profile this vast gulag, and featuring the last free person on the planet. Heads will roll as someone, somewhere will have to take responsibility for this oversight, to explain how this person fell between the cracks, was excluded and left out of some list. There will be hell to pay.

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Posted: 12/22/2011 8:04:46 PM 

 

Punishment is the term often used by lawyers, judges, prosecutors and the police to describe a sentence ordered by the State on someone found guilty of committing a crime. The idea of proportionality is that the amount of punishment inflicted should be measured against the damage or injury caused by the wrongdoer. The gravity of the punishment should fit the gravity of the crime. We don’t sanction the death penalty for shoplifters even such a penalty might have the support of retailers, shopping mall owners, Walmart and the rest. Even though it might indeed be an effective deterrent to shoplifting, no Western country would enact such a law.

We shouldn’t think that modern sensibilities and normative values have always defined what punishment is proportional to a crime. Our ancestors had much more capacity for the State spilling the blood of its citizens. For long periods of history, a high level of State violence was normal.

In 18th century England there were 220 ‘crimes’ for which the convicted felon was hanged. Robbery, burglary as well as murder invited the hangman’s rope. Britain no longer has a death penalty. From the gradual dwindling of capital crimes from 220 to zero is a political and social development that indicates the majority of the population accepts the idea that capital punishment is disproportionate to any crime. Ninety-five countries have abolished capital punishment. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_of_capital_punishment_by_country

In places like China, North Korean, Yemen, Iran and the United States capital punishment remains a penalty imposed by the State against its citizens convicted of certain crimes.

The BBC carried a story from Saudi Arabia of the beheading of a ‘witch’.  Fortunetellers and faith healers once risked the death penalty in the West. In Europe and elsewhere, heretics and blasphemers were burnt at the stake, nailed to crosses, torn apart on wheels, drown and no one—at least no one who had any real voice—thought these methods were cruel or unusual. Capital punishment often came after the person was tortured. We shudder when thinking about such public demonstration of cruelty. But we’d be wrong to think that human nature has largely overcome its capacity to inflict horrific violence if the stakes are deemed high enough.

What you need to have done to be burnt at the stake is one issue, the other is burning people at the stake for any crime. What we find is that how a State carries out capital punishment also has changed over time. The electric chair and hanging have given way to lethal injection giving a quasi-medical procedure appearance to the sentence. Our modern sensibilities no longer accept state sanctioned death by beheading, hanging, shooting and stoning. In 2010 there were ten women and four men who remained under sentence of death by stoning in Nigeria, Pakistan and Iran. And along with the more graphic, cruel means of death, the idea of using torture on citizens has moved from commonly accepted to the category of a taboo. That is why in the Bush Administration convoluted arguments were made that ‘water-boarding’ was an enhanced interrogation technique rather than torture. Much the same could have been said about the medieval rack.

Notions of universal fairness and equality also define proportionality. A punishment that is disproportionate to the crime raises issues of legitimacy of the State. In other words, the State in maintaining law and order is considered to be under constraint in how it inflicts punishment on its citizens.  People in the West would be shocked if a faith healer as a convicted witch were beheaded in a public square in London or New York because the sentiment about what conduct is criminalized changed long ago. Similarly the State is required to control the rage and anger a vast majority of people may have toward an ethnic group or a class of people.

In 2003 the Thai government policy to invoke a war against drugs led to the extrajudicial killing of at least 2,500 ‘suspected’ drug dealers. The campaign had overwhelming public support. Even though there was evidence a large number of these people were not drug dealers, the campaign was deemed a success. Given the nature of the crime and the extrajudicial punishment inflicted the concept of proportionality was violated.

The idea of severity in terms of matching punishment to a crime shifts from one culture to another. Iran hangs children. The nature of what is a crime is fluid as well. And of course, there are the ‘victimless’ crimes such as gambling, prostitution and drug use where the State seeks to regulate and control a range of behavior they believe are adverse to the public interest, immoral, or violate a social norm.

So far I’ve looked at individuals who have committed acts that have harmed other individuals. Part of the function of a State is to stop revenge and feuds arising to settle the score. The Goldilocks Principle of not too hot or not too cold is a measured why to satisfy the victim and his/her family and to deter others from committing the same crime. But proportionality also applies, as a principle, to actions by the State against foreigners in the case of war and against its own citizens in the case of suppression of certain kinds of conduct.

In the case of war, the armed combatants are under a duty to tailor their military actions to cause minimal damage to civilian populations. There is a vast literature detailing what amounts to the transgression of proportionality rule in the time of war. The main message is that States waging war can’t ignore the damage caused to civilian populations in their quest for military victory. The current UN war crime trial in Phnom Penh where three members of the Khmer Rouge leadership are in the dock for crimes against humanity, a crime that enshrines the notion of disproportional violence against a civilian population.

Historically the institutions of State have reacted with disproportionate violence against its own citizens who have challenged its legitimacy, authority, sanctity, or rulers. Threats, real or perceived, by the State as being against its own interests can easily descend into repression. Imprisoning people for political or religious opinions contrary to the myths, legends, or official positions has a long history. Often the punishment in these cases is swift, severe and serves as a warning to others to fall into line with the official position.

When people fail or refuse to do so, we see the State intervene to preserve its authority, to suppress those challenging authority. Recent examples include police actions against OWS demonstrators in the United States, the use of the military to repress demonstrators in what is called the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and the use of harsh penalties in Thailand to restrict political expression.

The reaction to the security services in these countries has highlighted, that when the elites of a State feel an existential threat, the first casualty is proportionality in striking back. The modern State has been credited as civilizing the general population, reducing dramatically citizen-on-citizen acts of violence. The UN has sought to play the role as the civilizing influence on States themselves when they use violence against their own citizen.

The reality is the UN can use war crime trials such as the one going on in Cambodia is a warning about the limits on State violence. But does it actually deter the action of the State? From the action of many State players in modern times, the leaders have concluded that a lot of violence can be employed against citizens before they are hauled off to a UN war crime tribunal. These players don’t think of themselves as ‘criminals’ and that is part of the problem. Institutions that believe in the legitimacy of their action under law are carrying out the excess of violence.

We live in a time when officials who are responsible for violence don’t believe that proportionality doesn’t apply to them or their actions. The next great awakening in criminal justice will be that State actors can’t be trusted to use measured responses when they feel threatened. Who will civilize the State? And who will punish the State? We are still in the 18th century when it comes to addressing those questions. It may take another 200 years before the answers appear. The way forward will be to bring the proportionality principle as the first line will be to define more clearly how to monitor what justifies a State from using its armories to inflict violence against its own people.

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Posted: 12/15/2011 8:13:28 PM 

 

You’re in a foreign country. Thailand. The police stop you. They don’t speak much English but they demand to search you. Now. They want your passport. But it’s in your hotel room. You’re caught off guard even though you’ve 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 you’re in serious trouble. You’ve violated something called lese majeste and you’ve never heard that term before. But you remember letting someone use your phone. You tell that to the cops. But you don’t 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 didn’t do something? It’s like proving there isn’t 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.

That’s home base (and even there, it can run into the ditch). It’s not abroad. At home most people accept the criminal justice system as the legitimate authority to prevent crime and catch criminals. A lawyer’s smart ass cutting and dicing a fine point. But you’d 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 Valentine’s 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 ‘like’ button on a Facebook page deemed to be in violation of Article 112 and the computer crime law, and you’ve committed an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. In other words, you’d be in serious trouble and it is no defense that you did this outside of Thailand or didn’t know that it was an offense. You still go to jail.

Such attitudes are more obvious (and better reported) in Middle Eastern countries. But you’d 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 don’t make the mistake of thinking this judgment is universally accepted. It’s 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 Stone’s Midnight Express hit the silver screen almost thirty years ago, we’ve 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 let’s 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 don’t have holiday exemption clauses for foreigners. In those circumstances, no one blames the locals for enforcing their laws which in many ways aren’t 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. It’s 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 don’t 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/stumbled–we don’t really know what verb to insert from the press reports–from 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 ‘damage’ 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 local’s 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 they’re 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 wouldn’t 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 isn’t 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 isn’t 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 you’d 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 won’t 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 you’ll 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.

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Posted: 12/8/2011 8:09:26 PM 

 

When Willie Sutton, the American bank robber, was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “That’s where the money is.” Brooklyn born Slick Willie was on to something. The economic aspect of crime is vastly underrated. Extending Carl von Clausewitz’s 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 aren’t 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 isn’t in banks. It’s 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 2010– 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. That’s 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 wouldn’t 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 man’s home is his castle by English tradition. As far as I’ve 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. Here’s 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. It’s 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 hasn’t 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 hadn’t 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 haven’t 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 Minister’s Office (it’s confusing, I know, but trust me this is where most of these cases end).

The lesson from the Supoj caper won’t 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 they’ve 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 won’t make Mr. Supoj’s 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 “unusually rich,” so he must have taken it “from the people.” 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 won’t take this lightly. I’d 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.

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Posted: 11/24/2011 8:18:24 PM 

 

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 Pinker’s The Better Side of Angels is a chronicle on how we’ve tangoed with violence over deep time. Part of Pinker’s 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 “smaller” 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 ‘present’ 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 haven’t 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 ‘gun’ isn’t the best defense. Violent people are the product of a defective self-control mechanism. They can’t 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 doesn’t have anything personal against you. He only wants your money or other valuables. You might do something to make him react violently but that isn’t the intention going into the robbery.

Sam Harris in an Essay titled “Truth About Violence”  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 person’s 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 ‘potential victim’ to not challenge the person making the insult, intentionally bumping into you, glaring at you across the room. The advice: don’t 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 you’re 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 weren’t defending their physical person from an actual attack, they were seeking to redeem their ‘honor.’ And honor redemption will put you in jail or hospital. Either way, whatever honor you’ve redeemed won’t 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 it’s not. If you are in a fun zone and you are confronted by a violent person, never add fuel to an angry, potentially violent person’s 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 wouldn’t be reading this blog. You wouldn’t 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 don’t 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 he’s running away? Not a good idea. Let it go.

Lastly,Sam Harris considers the situation where you’ve 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 isn’t 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 won’t shoot you. He wanted the wallet. If he is going to shoot you in the back, he’d likely shoot you standing eye ball to eye ball and a running, moving target is harder to hit. And what’s 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, you’re going to be as dead as them. Only a few seconds later. But you’ve read about the martial arts program that will allow you to defend yourself against the violent thug. Unless you’re 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 doesn’t 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.

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Posted: 11/10/2011 8:41:51 PM 

 

Last week Margie Orford posted a link to an article about a morgue in Scotland that was soliciting bids in a competition among a list of famous crime fiction authors. The winner’s to name will be affixed to the new morgue. Whether having a morgue named after a crime author is about the highest honor we can aspire to raises a host of questions. One that is open for debate. But the Scottish morgue’s solicitation does raise an interesting question in the world of commerce in which business owners use authors’ names to brand their product.

The University of Dundee launched a campaign to raise £1 million for the new facilities at its Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification.

Hotels are another good example of author name branding. The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok has upmarket suites costing a thousand dollar a night to stay at the Noel Coward, Joseph Conrad, Gore Vidal or Somerset Maugham suite (there are other authors, too).  A guest who stayed at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, left this comment “I really loved the F. Scott Fitzgerald room, it was funky/shabby/30′s chic, and yet so clean.” And a search on Google will reveal many hotels advertising rooms named after authors.

How about having a genus of butterflies named after you? Vladimir Nabokov has one. Nabokov may be the only writer to ever have a butterfly and an asteroid named after him.  Some government agencies also use authors’ names.

Take the board that runs the New Jersey Turnpike. They’ve named rest areas after Walt Whitman, James Fenimore Cooper and Joyce Kilmer.

In Michigan, Rudyard Kipling has two postage stamp sized towns (a few hundred people each) named after him. One Rudyard, Michigan, and the other Kipling, Michigan. In England, Kipling has a lake and a small village named after him, too.

There is a stout beer after Shakespeare. I suspect there are lots of stuff that carry the bard’s name. Poets aren’t left out. See: Shipyard Longfellow Winter Ale. Playwrights are also represented in the beer and ale business. The Mighty Oak Brewery’s Oscar Wilde Mild has distinguished itself: “Oscar Wilde, A dark mild, again a winner of numerous awards including Champion Beer of East Anglia 2005, Champion Mild of Great Britain 2006, Champion Mild of East Anglia 2010, and Supreme Champion Beer of Britain 2011 at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival.”

This naming business can sometimes backfire. Take Gary Larson of The Far Side comic fame. Entomologists named a blood-sucking owl louse after him — strigiphilus garylarsoni. And I thought scientists were our friends.

Some places are less friendly to naming things after writers. For instance, it has been reported that English Canada has no places named after Canadian writers, artists or their works. Unlike the Australians which have at least Darwin, Northern TerritoryCharles Darwin. Russia and the former Republics are filled with places named after poets, writers, and playwrights. The French have places named after DescartesRené Descartes and Voltaire

As the naming business has as much to do with the quest for immortality as it does from the profits of a successful brand, authors are well advised to look to outer space where there are many objects from asteroids, to stars and moons pleading for a name along with the usual scientific number. There are dozens and dozens of authors with a capital A, novelists (those with a small case ‘n’), poets, and playwrights who have their names attached to heavenly bodies. I’ll stick to some examples of novelists who are out there at night twinkling in a cloudless sky.

Frankly, I’d settle for an Omelette Vincent Calvino. Of course this has already been done with the Omelette André Theuriet – the French novelist and poet André Theuriet (1833–1907) which is an omelette with truffles and asparagus named for him. Another Omelette author combination is the  Omelette Arnold Bennett. Wiki describes it as “an unfolded omelette with smoked haddock” and it was created at the Savoy Hotel for the writer Arnold Bennett The Omelette Vincent Calvino lavishly stuffed with thinly sliced onions, fresh black olives and a healthy dose of Omega-3.

Let’s move along to lunch for a Salad à la DumasAlexandre Dumas, père (1802–1870), the noted French author. That leaves dinner. For a starter, say go with the Bisque of shrimps à la Melville named after American author Herman Melville (1819–1891). For the main course, I’d recommend going with the Lamb chops Victor Hugo after French author, Victor Hugo (1802–1885).

For a late night snack, I’d recommend Pizza Bangkok Noir—mushrooms, green olives, and salmon. It’s not on the menu at Queen’s Victoria Pub over on Soi 23, Sukhumvit Road, but I am working on it. Meanwhile, returning to the cosmos, there remains a great deal of space for authors’ names in the future. It’s not like we are going to run out of stars. And that might be the problem. When it becomes ordinary to attach an author’s name to an object, doesn’t it lose the magic of being special?

For special, we’d do better to limit ourselves to the space junk in the form of dead satellites and assorted man made junk that remains unnamed. It might inspire a new literary award system given annually to the author whose work mostly closely recreates the feeling of dangerous pieces of space junk crashing through the roof of your house. Come to think of it, those objects ought to be reserved for financial high rollers: the top 400 in America. After those 400 names are exhausted move onto the Wall Street Banksters and their pet politicians. There’s a lot of junk circling the planet. The chance to name it shouldn’t be wasted. The Occupy Wall Street crowd ought to draw up a list of candidates whose name will be attached to a particular piece of space junk. We could all vote online. Now that would be democracy in action.

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Posted: 11/3/2011 9:01:55 PM 

 

The idea of a criminal as an outsider is a well-established character in modern crime fiction. Ever since Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment published in 1866, we’ve been familiar with the morally superior killer who feels he’s committed no crime. Raskolnikov, the central character, an ex-student from St. Petersburg murders a pawnbroker. His purpose is to end the life of a worthless person and use the money for worthy charitable purposes. The act of using the money to help others cleanses the murder in his eyes. What makes the novel of modern interest is the killer’s belief in that his higher purpose and his personal assessment of the value of another’s life justifies murder.

Raskolnikov’s crime is one that reveals an attitude about the killer’s view of his right to judge, and his calculation that his judgement elevates him above others whose lives are not absolutely secure but conditionally lived according to a moral judgement of value and worth.

This line of reasoning has echoes through modern society. An argument can be made, that drone attacks are a testament to the Raskolnikov’s view of life. Like a pawnbroker, those on the receiving end are thought to have forfeited the right to live by others making a moral judgment. A counter argument is the old pawnbroker in Crime and Punishment wasn’t waging a campaign to contain terrorism or protect the lives of non-combatants. The purpose of drone attacks is to kill people targeted as terrorists or those who are leaders or supporters of terrorism. In the case of drone attacks, a government is carrying out the policy. It isn’t an individual’s morality but a societal higher purpose that comes into play. War is collectivized murder and justified as it is sanctioned by the state. But a state might also sanction the extra-judicial murder of drug dealers, or sending illegal immigrants to sea without supplies knowing they will likely die. The line suddenly blurs very quickly once politics and murder are mixed.

The TV series Dexter features a central character who kills serial killers. Raskolnikov’s game is upped by making the victims morally repugnant, vile, dangerous predators that the criminal justice fails to apprehend, put on trial, convict and sentence. Is Dexter in a higher moral position than Raskolnkov given the difference in the profile of the victim? In other words, do we judge the wrongfulness of murder according to the extra-judicial act of killing by a private individual against the moral worthiness of the victim? This was the dilemma that Dostoyevsky asked us to face.

Richard Stark (A.K.A. Donald Westlake) in his Parker series of novels has a professional thief who kills those who have betrayed him or shown disloyalty. He has no first name. Stark refers to him only as Parker. The novels are brilliant studies of a criminal who plans robberies with military precision, assembles a reliable crew, and inevitably finds something goes sideways along the way.

Parker’s code of criminal conduct is to demand honor among the crews he puts together for a heist. When a member tries a double cross, Parker’s morality is clear. That person must die because he violated Parker’s code.  Parker has no sense of remorse or sentimentality in these circumstances. As crime fiction writers, there comes a point in writing about a character where the author must make a decision. When is it justifiable to take another’s life? What are some of the large implications of Parker’s worldview that betrayal justifies a death sentence? And are they in the same category as Raskolnkov, Dexter, and Parker?

My sense is that it is difficult to wean us off the idea that the state doesn’t have an absolute monopoly on high ground where a decision is made about killing. The current discontent exhibited by Occupy Wall Street showing a growing feeling government does not serve the higher purposes of society, but represent an elite segment who justify repression and killing in a manner oddly similar to Raskolnkov. Self-help fills such a vacuum. Citizens claim a moral high ground above their governments. Not only does moral clarity evaporate, people begin to believe they now are the true carriers of the moral purpose.

Like an expanding stain, though, such ideas have a tendency to grow outward, cover more ground, until everyone has their own ‘higher’ purpose and that makes it right for  them to play judge and executioner. We live in world where the Raskolnkovs, Dexters, and Parkers snuff out lives because it serves a higher purpose. It is a short step to view higher purposes with the passion of true believers, where action heroes act like gods. Rather than feeling appalled at such conduct, we find ourselves satisfied that the Judge Dredd’s of society are removing the parasites, the worthless, the morally bankrupt, and the dangerous.

When someone put a bullet into Colonel Gaddafi, an overwhelming number of people around the world cheered. An evil man. Good riddance, they said. They said a higher purpose was achieved in avoiding a trial. One that might have dragged on and inflamed tribal hatred. The point is that in such circumstances, there is always a higher purpose given for the killing. This is a slippery slope that ends in grief.

Collectively we do have higher moral purposes. They are written into laws. Not everyone agrees with all of them (e.g., abortion, gun control, etc). The fabric of society rests on agreeing that the laws and institutions that administer them. Murder for higher moral purpose can never be elevated above those laws and institutions. We vest a criminal justice system with the mission of carrying seeing that these purpose serve society. The problem is less the moral high ground but who stands on that high ground. When individuals claim they have the right to murder, that their murders are morally right, they are taking a page out of Crime and Punishment. Like Raskolnkovs they have committed no crime but added to the moral goodness of the world.

In their warped moral space, the terrorist bomber and the killer of the abortion clinic doctors converge. They kill for a higher good, and by doing so diminish any notion of secure, civilized society. We are rarely tested by the good. Our tests comes when dealing with the most loathsome actors like Gaddafi. The matter of his death, in the end, showed that for many there was no real line of difference between him and them.

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Posted: 10/27/2011 8:41:41 PM 

 

Each society defines what conduct makes a person a criminal. Therein lies a great power. This power is projected through an official processing of the criminal who is walked through a series of decisions, which determines his or her fate. We are still at a relative early stage in the development of a justice system.

Only a couple of hundred years Western states sanctioned the use of judicial torture. Torture was both a means of determining guilt and as well as a means of punishment. In this era, the distinction between guilt and punished lacked the bright line edge as officials of the state inflicted upon the accused and guilty alike the wheel to break their bodies, burnt them at the stake, sawed them in half, and impaled them. This way of treating those subject to the ‘justice system’ wasn’t carried out by aliens. These judges were our ancestors. We carry their DNA, our brain chemistry is the same and effect by the same kind of external and internal drives and factors. Deep down, I suspect that the core mentality that guided our ancestors also guides modern day crown counsel, judges, and others who are part of the criminal justice system.

Our default for handing out a sentence is not, I suspect, that different. In most modern societies judges approach the sentencing phase of a prosecution by applying their experience and training, legal knowledge, modern objective standards of justice mixed together with their subjective moods, attitudes, values, and cultural indoctrination. Something as simple as the timing of judge’s last meal can have a considerable impact on his decision. A recent study 1,000 parole decisions by judges in Israel, for example, showed that it is better to judged after a snack or lunch break rather than by a judge on an empty stomach. When considered by hungry judges the suspect received far less favourable treatment than his counterpart with a nearly identical record received from a well fed one.

In our century, we pride ourselves at the great improvements that science and technology have delivered to the criminal justice process. Anyone who has watched CSI has a glimpse of how modern crime fighters evaluate evidence by using the scientific method. Rather than judicial torture to extract a confession, evidence must be scientifically tested, reviewed, explained and justified by those seeking to use it for a conviction.

All of that science to determine guilt threatens to come undone because a judge’s stomach is churning from hunger at the sentencing phase. Or the guilt of a criminal becomes secondary to a larger political objective as in the case of the release of over a thousand Palestinians prisoners jailed in Israel in exchange for one Israeli solider. Guilt is a snapshot in time. The meaning, validity and scope of the original sentencing remains open-ended, subject to periodic review or other external interventions. The uncertainty of this process creates a space for debate on how we sentence, who is sentenced, when it is legitimate to pardon or parole or exchange prisoners, and the distinction between the safeguards that surrounded guilt and how they are different from the ones around sentencing.

A trial to determine guilt now is guided by a scientific hand. Both sides use experts to support their narrative as to the story the evidence tells. Once the verdict is guilty, a second phase of the proceedings begins: sentencing. There is no DNA test to guide the judge who must decide what sentence is appropriate to the crime and the person who has been found guilty of committing it. We find that great developments in science and technology have caused a divergence between the guilt and sentencing phase. That leaves the suspect with one foot in the current century and the other foot in much earlier time. Sentencing needs to be refined into two parts: (1) the range of sentences available to be imposed; and (2) the standards used by judges (or juries) to impose a particular sentence.

As for the first part, in a recent essay on The Edge,  Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard University, reminds us that during 18th century England there were 222 capital offenses on the books, including poaching, counterfeiting, robbing a rabbit warren, being in the company of gypsies, and ‘strong evidence of malice in a child seven to 14 years of age.’”

What is remarkable is that a century later the number of capital crimes in England had been reduced down to four.

During the 17th and 18th century in the United States the majority of people hanged had committed a non-homicide offense such as “theft, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, concealing birth, slave revolt, counterfeiting, and horse theft.” The widespread sentiment in favor of capital punishment for a broad range of crimes seems rooted in the distant past. Today capital punishment is reserved for capital offenses in the USA, and has been abolished in England and throughout Europe.

An important distinction between the past and the present are the number of judge like officials. Handling down orders and decrees to punish offenders isn’t restricted to the courts. Administrative agencies and committees and regulatory boards often have the authority to impose a penalty on wrongdoers that fall within their jurisdiction. In modern times there has been a rapid proliferation of officials who have judge like powers.

One of the original purposes of vesting a centralized state and its officials with a monopoly over determining guilt and punishment was to reduce the cycle of revenge that tribal societies used when one of its members was harmed. As Pinker points out, the evidence is overwhelming that this purpose has been largely achieved by a 50-fold reduction in homicides in places like England. Part of what keeps revenge at bay is the sense that the state will punish the wrongdoer and that punishment is mostly less than killing him. Pinker’s point in assessing the way society controls violence while important needs to be placed in a wider context of consensus about laws, crimes, and punishment that run through society.

What I am suggesting is the state having achieved the goal of creating a largely docile population no longer bent on killing each other, the mechanism of judging has been fine tuned to advance the interest of those who comprise the state. While the mission creep is done in the name of security and stability, which is just another way of saying the State is carrying out the business of violence deterrence, this is a subterfuge. As Pinker’s essay shows, we have reached diminishing returns on what the State can do to deter the small and likely irreducible amount of violence that continues inside any political system. That hasn’t stopped modern States from inventing and using external and internal threats of violence to convince citizens of the need for additional restrictions on their freedoms and rights. The possibility of violence has always been the best friend of a repressive State or one that wants to get into the repression game.

Perhaps as science comes closer to unlocking the mystery of consciousness and determine at a quantum level the elements that make some people more likely to commit crimes, attitudes to sentencing will also be transferred to the realm of science. But that day is some in the future.  We live in an age where in parts of the world a thief may have his hand cut off, a woman convicted of adultery stoned by villagers, or ‘honour killings’ of females who marry without the permission of family and elders. How we treat a convicted wrongdoer is more of a mirror of the culture than all of the poetry, paintings, novels and religious texts combined. Punishment is a graphic illustration of attitudes toward life, power distribution and arrangements, deterrence, rehabilitation, responsibility, forgiveness, and security.

At the international level there are UN conventions defining Human Rights. This is the lofty intellectual level where principles are objectively applied to all societies. In reality, the belly of the judge may override a convention. The political agenda of a society may give priority to laws, which primarily function to maintain long-standing power structures, social status, and economic cartels. Human rights will almost always take a backseat to the extent such rights conflict with interest of the powerful. It’s not just the hunger of the judges that causes a less enlightened, compassioned view of a ‘suspect,’ it is the hunger of the less powerful for a fair share of the pie who have been told that they can never have a piece that exceeds a specific size.

Resistance to this message combined with modern technology, has allowed them to organize and take to the streets of streets in cities throughout the world. This is one of the undercurrents to movements like Occupy Wall Street. People feel they have been arbitrarily sentenced to a life without parole at the whim of hungry judges, reinforced by the military and police, who act as the puppets of the unaccountable and powerful. Judges are seen as a class who automatically rule in favor of those who own the banquet halls, from which are excluded all but close friends and family.

The larger concept behind sentencing has escaped the narrow confines of criminal justice. The implications of the social and economic aspects that influence the political system raise legitimacy issues. To be sentenced means those doing the decision-making must have a consensus they are acting on behalf of the whole society and not a small privileged segment. Many people around the world are asking hard questions about benefits, privileges and power of the one-percent who have walled themselves off behind a shield of laws that no longer break bodies on a wheel, but are designed to break their spirit through repression and fear.

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Posted: 10/20/2011 8:53:30 PM 

 

Most of the time prosecutors will tell you the suspect voluntarily admit that he/she committed to the crime alleged by the police. There is no trial to establish guilt. It is human nature to confess. And sometimes the police help human nature along with threats, intimidation, torture, and promises. The good cop, bad cop routine has been done in hundreds of TV shows and films. When the suspect maintains his innocence, the Crown carries the burden of establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Science has helped providing tools to assist the Crown in proving guilt. From fingerprints to DNA evidence, a case can be built that the suspect committed the alleged crime. Often a jury will convict based on such evidence. By attaching the word ‘scientific’ to an assessment of crime evidence, is to markedly increase the credibility of the link of such evidence to the accused.

Recently the Houston police department was in the news concerning its crime lab results between the years 1987 to 2002. Three death penalty cases were thrown into doubt as a result of the review. The independent review concluded that reviewing “about 2,700 cases originally analyzed by the lab’s six forensic departments. So far, 1,100 cases have been reviewed. Nearly 40 percent of DNA cases and 23 percent of blood evidence cases had major problems, the report found.”  Link: http://smithforensic.blogspot.com/2011/10/houston-crime-lab-disturbing-findings.html

The Report concluded, “Our work to date in reviewing cases analyzed by these sections reflects a level of performance completely unacceptable in a forensic science laboratory providing critical support to the criminal justice system.”

The questions raised by the Report are more basic in Asia. Would the Thai police department authorize such an independent analysis of crime lab results? Police forces have their own cultures and turfs to protect. Outsiders are rarely welcome to walk in and look over the operation, study the process and techniques, and produce a critical analysis from the research. The transition from a policing culture that is self-contained and largely beyond the process of periodic outsider review is a difficult one. It takes political will to foster such change. And it takes pressure from the public to demand political action to begin with.

Crimes don’t come in a single size that fits all. Most of the time we think of crime as the thief, the robber, rapist, burglar, killer or mugger. The popular press in Thailand regularly reports on the latest crime in this category.

A recent example reported in Pattaya People documents a refrigerator theft in Sriracha. The thief was heisting the fridge from the home of Mr. Chit who happened to be 84-year-old, well armed and caught the thief in the act. Mr. Chit set after the burglar with his gun, firing it in the air. The thief took flight, dumping Mr. Chit’s fridge in a nearby bushy area. The 84-year-old didn’t get a good look at the thief but suspected it was the same guy who a couple of days earlier had run off with his water pump and gas cooker. After that theft, Mr. Chit decided to arm himself. The police are conducting an investigation.

Mr. Chit’s fridge inspected by authorities

In the second category of crimes, the ‘suspects’, ‘victims’, and ‘state authorities’ clash as part of in a political crisis that has spun out of control. You don’t have to look far around the world to find one of those in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, or America. Most of us remember the recent riots and looting in London. And much the same happened in Vancouver after the Stanley Cup match ended in defeat for the Canadian team.

On the photo above you can zoom in to identify the individual faces in the crowd. An example of how technology makes it very difficult to hide in a crowd.

What role does forensics play when the scale of violence ramps up into the hundreds or thousands of people who are committing ‘criminal acts’ in full public view? Cultural, political and social factors guarantee that there will be no one answer as one reviews the reaction of authorities from country to country.

Ultimately the professionalism of a police force is linked to its ability to adapt to the modern scientific methods used to solve crimes. When crimes may have a political component, the science part of the equation is under threat. Thailand had gone through a difficult period since 2010 when the line between politics and crime blurred, overlapped, leaving many unanswered questions as to culpability and responsibility for deaths and injuries.

Science offers a methodology for assessing evidence and linking it to suspected wrongdoers, but such methods run political consequences. So long as the fear of such consequences outweigh the results of scientific evaluation by independent assessors, science will take a backseat to politically forces divided over the fundamental issue over government reach and action where agents of the state may have committed the crime.

We can smile when 84-year-old Mr. Chit sets after a local thief, fridge in his arms, with his gun in hand in hot pursuit. But the smile fades quickly when the state authorities are the ones doing the shooting and they are not necessarily firing in the air.

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Posted: 10/13/2011 8:57:04 PM 

 

There was a recent court case in England involving a murder conviction based on expert witness testimony premised on Bayes’ Theorem. That theory, of course you will recall, comes from an 18th century English mathematician whose name coincidentally was named Bayes. Actually the theory is intended to give a mathematical probability that given one event has happened suggests the relationship with a related event. Often it has been suggested that Bayes’ Theorem supplies the math to demonstrate what our common sense, logical mind tells us is the connection between things related in time.

For example, the cop pulls over someone who has run a red light and the driver has alcohol on his breath. The cop asked, “Sir, have you been drinking?” The driver slurs his words, “Not a drop, officer.” The driver smells of beer and there is an open bottle of beer on the passengers seat that is half empty. You don’t need to be a mathematician to draw a conclusion that the probability is high that the driver is lying and that indeed he has been drinking.

But a recent UK court decision threw out a murder conviction on the basis the footwear expert’s faulty calculations and poor explanations concerning footprints left behind by the murderer. The evidence came down to whether the accused had worn the Nike running shoes that had left tracks at the murder scene. If the judgment had been left that the expert had got it all wrong, then Bayes’ Theorem would remain in an expert’s arsenal and effective weapon at that. But court attacked the theory!

As the Guardian reported,  “In the shoeprint murder case, for example, it meant figuring out the chance that the print at the crime scene came from the same pair of Nike trainers as those found at the suspect’s house, given how common those kinds of shoes are, the size of the shoe, how the sole had been worn down and any damage to it. Between 1996 and 2006, for example, Nike distributed 786,000 pairs of trainers. This might suggest a match doesn’t mean very much. But if you take into account that there are 1,200 different sole patterns of Nike trainers and around 42 million pairs of sports shoes sold every year, a matching pair becomes more significant.”

The problem was the expert couldn’t testify as to the precise number of the type of Nike trainers had been sold in England. He relied on what the Guardian called “rough national estimates.” The judge decided that unless the underlying statistics were “firm” the Nike shoeprint evidence wasn’t reliable enough to justify a murder conviction.

The analysis of the court has led others to conclude that there is a misunderstanding between judges, prosecutors and lawyers on the one hand, and mathematicians on the other. Many criminal cases are based on circumstantial evidence. The question is how to assess such evidence, and place it in a context that ranks the odds of the evidence pointing to the guilt of the accused. Bayes’ Theorem can never provide a certain, fixed connection. It can only give the odds of such a connection.

Something like Bayes’ Theorem is a likely companion for law enforcement agencies. Profiling has a Bayes’ Theorem backbone, suggesting that the odds of catching a bomber increases in the presence of certain age, gender, racial and other personal characteristics. This is why at airports you are told the searches are ‘random’ because many people are uncomfortable with the idea of being profiled. Though from a Bayes’ Theorem point of view, calculating the odds by taking into account such factors may increase the odds of catching a bomber before he/she has set off the bomb.

On Tuesday, I was riding the BTS from Chidlom Station to Asoke Station. I had been to meet a friend for lunch, and afterwards, I stopped to buy 18 bagels for a friend who lives in Chiang Mai. The bagels were put in a brown bag and the brown bag slipped into a clear plastic bag, which I carried. On the train, I noticed two police officers had cornered a black man on the Nana Station platform. One of the cops flipping through what looked like a passport. I figured the cops had profiled him: black, T-shirt, jeans, young and in the Nana area of Sukhumvit Road.

When I got off the train at Asoke, I walked toward the MRT (the underground train in Bangkok) only to be immediately joined by a uniformed Thai cop. He saddled up beside me. “What’s in your bag?” he said. “Bagels.” He looked at me. I asked him, “Do you know what a bagel is?” Apparently not wanting to admit he didn’t, he said, “Bagels.” I said, “Bagels.” Then he reached toward my bag and started squeezing the bagels. Not once, but two or three times. The top, the middle and close to the bottom of the bag. It was bagels all the way down.

In Thai cop school there must be a class where the resident Bayesian expert teaches street cops that bagels have a certain squeeze identification factor that increases the odds that indeed they are bagels as opposed to drugs, a bomb, pirated CDs, body parts, or any number of things that cops think that foreigners traveling between the BTS and MRT might be transporting.

Then he asked (in English) where I was from. “Canada,” I said. And I asked where he was from. “The South,” he said. He asked where I was going. I told him my soi number. Then I asked where he was going. He shrugged. The policeman didn’t seem to have any place in mind as to where he was going next.

Having had a good squeeze of bagels, he looked slightly disappointed. He said that he was from the South of Thailand. If there was one place, where a good theory based on Bayes’ Theorem ought be used, it was in the South, where daily bombing and assassination is an odds on certainty. I left him watching as I walked through the scanner frame to the MRT and the security were waiting. I took off my backpack, which has multiple zipper pockets, unzipped one of the smaller ones, the security guard, glanced, turned away and I walked through. He had no interest in my bagels. Didn’t ask to look. Didn’t request a squeeze. Come to think of it, the cop never asked me to open my backpack.

When you come to Bangkok, you need to understand that Bayes’ Theorum is colored by local culture and what might seem odds on a bag of bagels to you, is something quite sinister to a Thai cop who by the way didn’t seem to know where I could buy lox and cream cheese.

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Posted: 10/6/2011 9:07:52 PM 

 

In advance of publication, Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes has been getting stellar reviews. The Guardian’s David Runciman has weighed in with such a review. The premise of the new book is that until the Enlightenment, the world was an exceptionally violent place.

Murder was common. Violence was the usual result of strangers meeting. Torture was widely practiced. As David Runciman noted in his review of Pinker’s book, murder was often a spectator sport. A victim might be stuffed inside a ‘hollow brass cow’ and roasted alive over a raging fire. The brass cow had an open mouth to amplify the screams of the person cooking inside, providing entertainment to those in attendance: a primitive jukebox broadcasting the lyrics of a victim being roasted alive. Remember: these people, both victim and audience, were our ancestors (may be not the victims unless they had reproduced prior to entering the brass cow). We come from this heritage. Historically our species killed each other on an epic level. We watched and were entertained by the slow death of others. Next time someone tells you they wish to return to the glorious past, mention to them what they thought about the ‘brass cow.’

The obvious question by the person in the back of the classroom, “Professor Pinker, What about all the people killed in the two world wars in the 20th century?” He’s well-prepared for that one. Those wars and the slaughter only revealed what amateurs we are in the murder business. The killing was small change compared to the past. Also we tend to pay more attention to events closer to our own life times and invest that knowledge as having a privileged position.

What I’d like to find out when I finally have my copy of the new book is whether Pinker addresses killings that take place on the high seas. I’m prepared to accept that most of the slaughter racked up by our collective ancestors likely occurred on the ground, in forest, mountains, pastures, and the like. But I also have a hunch, and it is only that, the killing that happened offshore in many parts of the world remains locked in the old ‘brass cow’ cycle.

Thailand’s fishing industry, which is heavily reliant on use of Burmese and Cambodian immigrant workers for crew is a case in point. The BBC reported Thai fishing boat captains workplace consisted of drugs put into drinks, routine beatings and random acts of violence. Burmese crews worked under these conditions 20-hours a day for weeks and months, some even years. The BBC also reported an eyewitness who saw three of his fellow Burmese crewmembers killed on a Thai fishing boat.

The Bangkok Post quoted Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, who wrote the report, saying “marine police in one Thai coastal area told him they found up to 10 bodies a month washed up on the shore.” That leaves unanswered how many more crewmembers were killed and their bodies have been recovered.

It’s not only the Burmese who get a bullet in the head for displeasing the captain on a Thai fishing boat. The Cambodians who are impressed into working as crewmembers on Thai fishing boats report receive similar treatment. The Bangkok Post reported, “In a 2009 study, more than half of Cambodian migrants trafficked onto Thai boats surveyed by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) said they had seen their captains killing one of their colleagues.”

The eyewitness accounts are difficult if not impossible to independently verify. And that is a major part of the problem. A fishing boat offshore is an island into itself. What happens on the boat though seems to indicate a page out of Lord of the Flies. There are no authorities around. There are no bystanders who heard the shot. The bodies are found in the street or alley. This is starting to look like ancient life before civilization took root.

While Thai fishing industry spokesman have said it is ‘impossible’ to have forced labour on the fishing boats, and Burmese and Cambodian crewmembers who found their way onto boats through brokers have ‘volunteered’ for the job. NGOs dispute the Thai fishing industry position saying that thousands of people have been trafficked onto boats over the last decade. The reality of their employment conditions however they got onto a fishing boat it turns out wasn’t exactly what they had in mind. No one told them once they left dry land they had entered the domain of the ‘brass cow’ which roam the open seas. The US has placed Thailand on a ‘watch list’ for the past two years due to the problem of human trafficking.

The Thai government has acknowledged a problem. It has done what governments normally do when faced with a difficult problem: they set up a commission to study the problem.

If the land under our feet has generally become far less dangerous, the planks under the feet of immigrant workers on Thai fishing boats are a reversion to that dangerous world us land lovers no longer experience.

How does one go about bringing the law of the land to the fleets of fishing boats? While Thailand has an acknowledged problem, it might be reasonable to assume in the competitive world of fishing, other countries may have fishing fleets that are floating ‘brass cows.’ Part of the problem is that the smaller fishing boats can stay at sea for months, delivering their catch and receiving supplies (and fresh crew) from a mother boat. Once someone is on such a boat, there is no telling when he will ever see land again. Workers on fishing boats outside of Thai waters are exempt from labor protection under Thai law. The brass hard cold reality is they are exempt from all laws.

Would an industry regulation requiring CCTV camera monitoring on fishing boats reduce the problem? Some would say it’s not practical, or too expensive, and unless a camera covers every angle and has night vision, the captain would find a way to dispatch a crewmember with a bullet in the head. If cameras don’t work, then why not use Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology? The workers have electronic tags that use radio waives to identify and track their movements. If we can use RIFD to track hotel linen or our pet dogs and cats, why not require fishing industry workers to have such a means of identification, for their protection? The problem is the chip needs an external GPS device to work. Such a device might be disguised as a key chain, watch, or bracelet. Those could be easily removed and thrown away by the captain, and even if undetected, the battery life on a ship that might be on the seas for months wouldn’t be sufficient. Sanctions or boycotts are unlikely to work either. Changes in government policy in places like Burma and Thailand extending protection to migrant workers is possible, but enforceability remains a real issue.

Until there is either a technological break through that allows offshore monitoring of fishing boat crews, or an incentive given to captains as a bounty not to kill members of his crew, it is likely that bodies of Burmese and Cambodian fishing crewmembers will continue to wash up on the shore and many other bodies will be lost and forgotten. Somalia pirates have shown the world a picture of how vulnerable others are on the high seas. Thai fishing boats have demonstrated the perils of cheap, bonded labour. I have a feeling this is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reach of law to the high seas where kidnapping and murder is a profitable business model.

Pinker’s ‘long peace’ post-1945 might just need a footnote: onshore peace. Offshore the murdering seems to continue just like in the good old days on land, in that distant mist, the place where those who fear the future wish they could return. But as Pinker suggests going back in a time machine, we’d find ourselves in a place not unlike the deck of a Thai fishing boat.

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Posted: 9/29/2011 9:06:47 PM 

 

Most people are aware of the presence of CCTV cameras in major cities. Bangkok is no exception. There are apparently 10,000 of these eyes tracking your every move. CCTV cameras play the modern role of medieval gargoyles, staring down, watchful, vigilant as you go along your way. Looking to keep you safe, out of trouble, and like a good Nanny ever mindful of your welfare. CCTV cameras have become that Orwellian eye that will never let you out of sight once you step into the street.

Let’s put this way, some Nannies are better sighted than others.

The news of 500 fake CCTV cameras has local officials scrambling for an explanation. This is the tentative number. Like many round numbers it may well balloon as the investigation continues. And as one would expect, some of the explanations sound as real as the cameras. One official did what you would probably do: pass the buck to the Traffic and Transportation Department telling them to address the problem and explain to the public about the fake cameras.

Sure enough the department complied, saying that fake cameras were set up near hospitals, schools and areas where political rallies were normally held. Those are exactly the areas I’d choose to put fake cameras. If you can fool anyone, it’s got to be the ill, students and demonstrators. These people see a camera and believe it is watching them hobbling down the broken pavement on crutches, or clutching schoolbooks, or carrying banners and hand clappers.

As with many of these stories, the more they explain the more you wonder if the real cameras ought to be inside the office of the official explainers. We are told that those who had been a victim of a crime had asked for footage. Something that might be useful to identify the wrongdoer. The crime victims were told the cameras were ‘broken. The original story surfaced on Pantip website and the mass media seeing blood in the water dove in. Nothing better than a story about ‘fakes’ in Bangkok to start a feeding frenzy.

In a broad definition (remember Clinton’s definition of ‘sex’?) the CCTV cameras were indeed broken. But it is a bit like saying the life scale dummy of a police officer at a busy intersection can’t testify as a witness to a road accident because he’s lifeless.

Officials have said that many dummy cameras can be found on Ratchadamnoen road along with real CCTV cameras. Makes one wonder whether there are any casinos along that road? Just politely asking.

“I’m sorry for the people who asked police for footage and images from security cameras for evidence against suspects but the BMA told them that the cameras were broken when the in fact they were dummy cameras.”

Dummy cameras they are admitted to be, but “don’t call them fakes,” says the Bangkok Governor MR. Sukhumbhand Baribatra.

Resisting the word ‘fake’ in favor of the word ‘dummy’ is a slippery slope. If it were a story about a ‘fake’ cop would the good Governor counsel that the press should refer to the person as a ‘dummy’ cop? Given this is Bangkok, it is understandable the desire to avoid the word ‘fake’ as that does draw a lot of international attention that authorities would wish to avoid.

A great cartoon appeared in the Thai-language popular daily ThaiRath :

The poster (with the image of MR. Sukhumbhand on the lower left) reads: “Prepared to take care of Bangkokians for life”

The caption (on the upper right corner) reads: “Taking Care… In Fake Style”

But Bangkok citizens have been assured by the city authorities of their commitment to replace the fake cameras with the real ones. We don’t exactly have a timetable when this will happen but I am certain in six months someone will pop the question as to whatever happened to those ‘fake’ I mean ‘dummy’ CCTV cameras, and I will yet have more material for another blog.

The Bangkok Post reports:

“Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said on Tuesday the fake cameras were intended to help scare off criminal activity. Later, when City Hall, had the budget funding, it installed real ones.” The Governor has watched over the installation of 10,000 CCTV cameras, and promises another 10,000 will be installed on his watch.

What remains to be released by authorities is the cost of the fake cameras. Did they get a discount from the price of the real cameras? And how did the workers installing them know whether a camera was a fake or not? Were they told? Could the workers have mixed them up? Is there someone assigned to go around and test the camera? Will that test distinguish the real and fake cameras? Would some owners pay to keep the fake cameras in place? What will they do with the fake cameras? Auction them? Burn them? This could get quite interesting.

Fake CCTV camera need to be placed in context. There is a bit of a history to recall. Bangkok watchers will remember the GT200 devices (from the UK) purchased in large quantity and at major expense for soldiers to use in detecting and clearing roadside bombs in the South. The company making the GT200 got into hot water in England after it was disclosed the devices couldn’t distinguish a frog or banana from a bomb.

What was the reaction in Thailand when it was discovered there was no science at work inside the GT200? Denial. First thing to remember is all of GT200s were ‘fake’ in the sense that they didn’t work. Only they weren’t bought as ‘fake’ devices but as the real thing. But apparently the fakes did give ‘comfort’ much like an amulet gives comfort. Officials at the time said they many soldiers had ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ in GT200 devices as assisting them in finding unexploded roadside bombs. That seemed to close the debate down.

So far no Thai official has come out and said they had ‘faith’ that the CCTV fake cameras worked, but apparently officials had ‘faith’ the fakes would fool the public. Indeed Apriak the prior Governor, and M.R. Sukhumband, the current Governor, have taken the position that the dummies who live in Bangkok were deterred by the fake, I mean dummy, CCTV cameras.

Now that it is disclosed there is (at least) a one in twenty chance that the CCTV camera watching over your illegal casino is fake, you can play the odds. Take a flutter. Big Brother might just be faking it. He’s not really watching you. But there is a nice symmetry at work: Fake cameras watching over roadside vendors selling fake Rolex watches, fake Viagra, and fake perfume to a number of fake tourists who are really ‘brand’ agents seeking evidence for a bust.

What do we hear from City Hall about the fate of the fake cameras?

The Bangkok Post,   “We’ll replace the dummy cameras with actual CCTV cameras as soon as possible,” said Mr Suthon.

He added that 10,000 CCTV cameras under the Pracha Wiwat scheme were operational and 20,000 more cameras will be installed in the capital within next year.

“Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra said on Tuesday the fake cameras were intended to help scare off criminal activity. Later, when City Hall, had the budget funding, it installed real ones.”

If it turns out that one out of twenty of those beautiful Thai smiles are also fake, that’s probably a better ratio than in most other countries. Still it is a worry for the Tourist Authority of Thailand, which may have to go back to the drawing boards for a new campaign to bring travelers to the Land of Smiles. “Thailand Mostly Real” or “Enjoy! You’re Safe with Our Dummies.”

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Posted: 9/22/2011 8:57:26 PM 

 

I have a Twitter account under the name “Bangkok007.” Exhibit A in a future trial to prove my maturity stalled like a glider in a sudden updraft. Every so often I find a notice in my email inbox that someone has decided to ‘follow’ me. As I rarely tweet anything, I wonder why anyone would bother. I suspect there are lists that people choose names from like one of those Sukhumvit Road buffets: olives, imported cheese, bread sticks, mashed carrots, lamb—you get the idea. There’s always room on the plate for a tab of @Bangkok007 as he’s pretty quiet and the name and number looks rather nice between the salad and meat dishes.

Yesterday I received a notice of a new follower David Harry who has written two novels set on S. Padre island which I gather is somewhere in the hurricane path off Texas. One of his titles, The Padre Puzzle, is the top selling book on the island. If every man is an island, then every island needs a writer to record the toiling of the bell. I can’t promise David Harry much by way of “twitter wisdom.” A term that sounds vaguely as if belongs in the same category as military intelligence. Today I received yet another follower who describes herself as an “eBook novelists of historical thrillers & foreign intrigue.” These two new Twitter followers may be the beginning of a trend for Bangkok007, and trend or not are a good enough reason to fulfill my Friday blog commitment.

When a writer decides to set a series of crime fiction on an island (Britain and Australia being exceptions) there is a risk of a local bestseller but one that doesn’t bring in droves off non-islanders to queue at the local bookstore (if one still exists in the readers’ neighborhood). The same kind of problem I faced when determined against all market research to set my fiction in exotic foreign locales such as Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia (you start to see an emerging pattern: Bangkok007, exotic locations, no long queues at the bookstore, and not enough imagination to pick an island).

The hardcore reality is that while people love to dream about a holiday on an island with one of those funny red drinks with a tiny bamboo umbrella and staring at the sea, or in visiting different countries with unusual languages, customs, food and elephant polo matches, their armchair interest isn’t necessarily matched with their armchair reading interest in crime fiction.

Crime fiction really has no middle. The body is absent. But it has two long tails. Crime fiction is basically the skinny tail and the fat tail. That makes for a funny looking snake. But there it is. What biology can’t contemplate, capitalism creates out of pure imagination. One end of that tail (the under-nourished, shivered-up end) sells loads of books to the locals who can’t wait to read about each other, places they know, and crimes and lapses of morality that have happened in spitting distance from their old high school. The problem is there are only a handful of locals and most of them borrow books or buy them secondhand. The other end of the tail (where the champagne and Cuban cigars wait) is the bestselling crime fiction authors who continue to mine ore from the old coalfaces in London, Edinburgh, New York, and Los Angeles. Lesser cities trail like vapor from these fast moving city super jets. You almost never find them writing about islands.

There is, however, a wild card. Like a lottery winner who is your neighbor and know longer talks to you. This happens in fiction, too. That parochial crime novel with its local setting and local story ignites an international imagination. It rattles like a freight train with the brakeman dead and the dead man’s throttle malfunctioning. Everything in its path—reviewers, readers, postman, and booksellers—become a series of railway ties on the way to the bank. Read the press and you find how these elements of the book trade spread themselves out on the tracks. They celebrate in a unified voice how glad that this postage stamp of a place has become an irreplaceable part of their literary lives.

Then Alexander McCall Smith comes along with a series set in remote dusty village in southern African village and sells millions of copies. Or Stieg Larsson is buried just as his Swedish crime fiction set in a remote town in Sweden hits like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking millions of dollars from the pockets of readers around the world. How these writers mutated from skinny tail to fat and rich cat tail remains an evolutionary mystery. They are examples of how the long tail at the extremely profitable end of crime fiction is a creature sprung from the jaws of the quantum uncertainty principle.

If David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity, which is not a crime fiction novel) is right, then somewhere in the infinite multiverse you are selling crime fiction as if you were Alexander McCall Smith or Stieg Larsson, and they are selling fiction to audiences like that of David Harry, myself, and a thousand other skinny tailed crime authors. The beautiful thing about David Deutsch’s theory of the multiverse is you don’t have to do the hard work of actually writing that crime fiction novel, you only have to think about writing it and imagine yourself a bestseller, with complimentary fruit baskets and flowers in your hotel suite, groupies hounding you for autographs, and a waiting limo to take you for a guest appearance on the Daily Show. That is already happening to one of your “you’s” in one of the infinite multiverses. The Padre Puzzle has been Number 1 on The New York Times Bestseller list for 638 weeks in one of those places, and so is yours.

Now we’ve established that crime fiction publishing is really about monsters that suddenly appear out of the shoals without warning, raise their heads and sink their teeth into your wallet. Don’t resist. Fork out the fee for being bitten. Read the book. Or at least the 50 first pages. We can relax as writers, readers, reviewers, publishers and the rest of those interested in crime fiction because somewhere in one of the universes, your monster has just washed up on a big shore and is devouring readers like killer whales feeding on shrill.

As a novelist you’ll find your choices are limited to one of two classes: the killer whale or a shrill, depending on which universe you find yourself. Get use to the fact that because you’re a shrill in a huge cloud of fellow shrills fleeing the mouth of a killer whale, and in that other universe invisible at the end of your fingertips you are that killer whale. Take that piece of wisdom and reduce it to 140 characters. And remember Bangkok007 doesn’t ever tweet much about anything and that’s why he continues to attract legions of new followers who are bestsellers somewhere in the multiverse.

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Posted: 9/15/2011 9:04:03 PM 

 

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