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The Age of Dis-Consent

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Last week I was at a gathering, which included an American from Kentucky who was passing through Bangkok. He had stories about George Clooney and other famous people from his State. The conversation turned to what young people in the United States aspired to in life. The answer from the American guest was simple: “They want to be famous.”

In a celebrity driven culture that should come as no surprise. Fame is associated with the good life—wealth, status, prestige, and glory. The world is your oysters. You are mobbed in public by admiring strangers.

In the old days, fame was limited to movie stars or superstars in the sports world, but fame has metastasized into many new areas including authors in the world of books.

There have been famous contemporary writers since Charles Dickens. Authors like Georges Simenon and his reputed bedtime with ten thousand women. Martin Amis and his reputed dental surgery. Salman Rushdie whose Midnight’s Children saw him go into hiding from the mullahs for a decade. James Patterson multimillion-dollar making fiction factory. J.K. Rowling, a welfare mother turning words into a billion dollars. These authors are recent examples of the rewards and punishment of the literary famous. They have set the goal post for the wannabe literary famous.

There is a new class of writers looking to join their elite status. Self-published ebook authors. With the changes in the publishing, globalization, the internet and ebooks, the possibility of fame appears within the grasp of people who self-publish a book. Some of these new ebook authors have used the new digital channel to become wealthy. Have they also become famous? Not unless you confuse being well off with being famous. Most of the ebook self-published authors remain obscure and as poor as when they started their book. But dreams are hard to kill despite the reality fame rarely settles on the shoulders of most of us. And when it does, choosing to live with Simeon’s prostrate or Amis’ teeth, we’d be hard pressed to make a decision knowing it was going to be very public.

With millions chasing the holy grail of celebrity status, it is interesting when an author decides to take his or her career in just the opposite direction: to become invisible, a cipher, a shadow without substance except the body of work. There are the famous recluses like J.D. Salinger who wrote The Catcher in the Rye, whose fame rested on that book and his decision to shut himself away from the world.

Timothy Mo, another reclusive author, appears as if hatched fresh from a mysterious cobwebbed warehouse lined with coffins either in Hong Kong or Manila once a decade or so to launch a book before retreating back into the shadows. Pure, Mo’s latest book set in Thailand is already making noises in London. For me, the recluse author is a game plan to maintain fame in another more perverse way. There is no halfway house in the invisible author racket. An author either disappears or he doesn’t. That is how ‘pure’ works. Living underground like a Cicada and emerging with a loud song that drowns out the other insects every decade isn’t disappearing. That is clever advertising.

It is said that the Gone with the Wind, which won the author Margret Mitchell the Pulitzer Price in 1936, was the only novel ever written by Mitchell as the rest of her life was spent answering fan mail. That is one price to pay for fame—work to answer every inquiry from readers, reviewers, and journalists until they lower your cold, blue body into the grave.

What I find far more interesting is someone who was famous or near famous, erasing themselves from the public; no images, no email, no Facebook or Twitter account, and becoming anonymous. Fame isn’t for everyone. Having total strangers write you, stop you on the street, phone you, and write you with questions and advice is a great way to see the entire day of writing being put off until tomorrow.

I recently tried to look up an old friend in Vancouver who was a well-known screenwriter for TV, wrote some movies, a successful play, and had been activity in the affairs of the writing community, serving on a number of boards and committees. I’d known Michael for years but had lost contact. All I could find on Google was that he had died in Vancouver mid-year 2010. There was one small obit. I clicked on Google images. Zero. How could that be possible?

Michael wasn’t an obscure wannabe writer but a sought after, successful professional writer with many credits to his name. He was someone well known in Canada. He would have attended parties, conferences, been around on movie sets—all the places where people take pictures. I saw him at such events. In all of my moves, I am certain my photographs of him have long ago vanished. I last saw him and his wife in Vancouver in about 1985.

This is the digital age, I told myself. He’s bound to have enough photographs to fill a moving van. Wrong. I couldn’t find a single photograph of him on the internet. Knowing Michael, I can only think he worked to achieve this goal. He must have planned to ‘disappear’ from the planet, leaving no trace of his image in the public domain. I have asked a number of people and still haven’t found anyone who can explain to me how Michael could have erased his images from every website on the internet.  He lived well into the digital age. But in Michael’s case, there isn’t even an image on IMDB though all of his TV and movie credits are listed.

Michael’s successful disappearance into a visual blank screen is an accomplishment. I smile when I think of him vanishing like a magician. Fame wasn’t anything that ever concerned him. He didn’t drink from that well of public recognition; he never got drunk on that strong brew of being a public figure. That drink which nourishes the narcissistic personality disorder never passed his lips. I admired Michael years ago, and I admire his way of leaving the stage empty except for his work.

His way of going isn’t mainstream. The current obsession with fame is further evidence of something more disturbing. The desire for fame is another symptom to be added to long list of symptoms that define the narcissistic personality.

  • Reacts to criticism with anger, shame, or humiliation
  • May take advantage of others to reach his or her own goal
  • Tends to exaggerate their own importance, achievements, and talents
  • Imagines unrealistic fantasies of success, beauty, power, intelligence, or romance
  • Requires constant attention and positive reinforcement from others
  • Easily becomes jealous
  • Lacks empathy and disregards the feelings of others
  • Obsessed with oneself
  • Mainly pursues selfish goals
  • Trouble keeping healthy relationships
  • Is easily hurt and rejected
  • Sets unrealistic goals
  • Wants “the best” of everything
  • Appears as tough-minded or unemotional

My personal literary hero is H.F. Saint, the author of Memoirs of an Invisible Man. The author had worked on Wall Street. The novel was his first and only. He must have written it at night after selling crappy bonds to people who wanted to become rich and famous. Everyone has the dream of going home and writing the novel that makes them rich. And famous.

Saint not only finished his novel; he hit big time, like a walk on to the New York Yankees who hits a homerun with the bases loaded his first time at the plate. The crowd roars. Memoirs of an Invisible Man was made into a successful movie and H.F. Saint received a large amount of money—the Fuck You Amount—from the movie deal that allowed him to become invisible. And that’s what happened. Saint resigned from his Wall Street job, left New York and moved to France, and as far as anyone knows, he never wrote another book.

He had hit that freak home run, ran the bases and kept on running out of the stadium and disappeared through the parking lot never to be seen again. Like Michael, my friend from Vancouver, you’ll find very little about H.F. Saint, who became the invisible man. No photographs. No interviews or profiles.  No life as a famous recluse railing against the publishing industry. Just a long silence.

The author of Memoirs of an Invisible Man chose to cast aside fame for the luxury of an anonymous life, one without strangers stopping him on the street, writing him, or inviting him to this party or a talking engagement. H.F. Saint escaped all of that because he chose to do so.  On Wikipedia, in the place reserved for the author’s photograph, is a painting of a suit and tie with no head. A perfect testament to the book and author.

My fear is that one-day a reality film crew flush with cash and a broadcast contract will ambush Saint on some country lane in France and will have footage of the author, dragging him back into the public domain. I hope that these filmmakers fail. H.F. Saint who is the D.B. Cooper of the literary world should continue to remain an enigma. We should preserve his mystery for the same reason we preserve historical buildings. The past without a mystery or two isn’t a foreign country worth visiting.

We need our invisible men to stay invisible as the whole world is already rendering everyone far too visible. They are our small reserve of mystery against the day when everyone’s information is accessible to anyone else. That’s not exactly the same as becoming famous. But it blurs the line between what we now think of public and private lives.

While the American from Kentucky who talked about the American youths embracing of fame as their goal, I would offer an alternative role model. The one H.F. Saint showed was possible. The one my friend Michael opted for as well. The best life is lived beneath the radar. They must have known in their bones that the fame seekers carried the very symptoms that are anti-life, that destroy the creative process, the psychological damage that no amount of been celebrated can repair. In being invisible they found something far more important than fame, they found freedom. That is hitting the ball out of the park.

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Posted: 4/5/2012 9:42:43 PM 

 

In the Vincent Calvino series, the novels are divided between crimes that are domestic in nature—though an expat might be involved—and those with and cross-border connection. The distinction between international crime and domestic crime often blurs once cash enters the picture. Mountains of cash from illegal activity make for strange bedfellows inside the world of crime.

In a globalized economy, crime has been at the vanguard of moving money, people, and products around the world. Criminals have an incentive. They don’t want to get caught and sent to prison. So they put money,  thought and time into avoiding risks. In the shadowy world of illegality world, the basic business skills are largely the same. But there is an important difference.

First, the criminal is relying on gaps, flaws or holes in the system, and similar gaps and flaws in the moral and ethical values of those who run the system. They exploit both. Second, criminals use threats, guns and violence if things go pear shape. Rather than recourse to the police or courts to redress breaches, criminals have their own methods of settling disputes. It’s called intimidation and violence. Legal businessmen delegate the intimidation and violence to entities of the State. They have less need to get blood on their hands.

Law enforcement has traditionally been a local affair in most countries because most crimes have been local in nature. The criminal and victim were from the same city, province, county and/or country. A case can be made that organized crime kicked started globalization. The British Opium Wars in the early 19th century is a good example of a legitimate business becoming a crime syndicate (looting and pillaging by merchants/warriors/politicians has a longer history).

As part of its empire and trade-expansion imperial policies, Britain lent military assistance to The East India Trading Company (which became drug dealers but they weren’t called that) who used guns and canon to force open the domestic market in China to sell massive quantities of opium to the Chinese. The British were able (because of the opium business) to cut their trade deficit. Fiscal and monetary policy had different moral dimensions in the 19th century.

Organized drug gangs continue to operate but they no longer have the overt support of a government, which supplies them military muscle, tax benefits and place their officers on the annual Honors List.  There will be readers who will cite examples of contemporary thugs who have received a gong before eventually finding their way to a prison. All of that is true but beside the point. I am speaking about a change in the general arc of history. There has been a shift—led by technological innovations—that continues to weaken the link between organized illegal activities and government officers.

Not all the forces inside governments are working to change the analog cash system. You would expect eliminating corruptions to be a priority but that lofty goal also means the breaking of many rice bowls that have been inside the system for generations. Giving up easy money is harder than kicking a drug habit. Reformers are put on committees to write reports and show the way. But nothing much happens at the grassroots level, at the end of the money pipeline where the rural school teacher, hospital worker, prison guard, cop and migrant worker are waiting for pay day.  That is money raked off inside the government system by officials skimming money from the low-level beneficiaries.

The other unofficial source of revenue for government officials is generated from illegal activities such as drug trafficking, logging, prostitution, gambling, and smuggling. Let’s have a look at opium. A big, profitable market that despite law enforcement efforts shows no sign of slowing down in Southeast Asia.

The current opium production in Southeast Asia is on schedule to record a bumper crop year. That means a couple of things: (1) moving the product across borders; and (2) laundering mountains of cash.

When the opium finds its way into the international market, how do governments in the region enforce the law? The poppies are grown in one place. The processing of the poppies into opium paste takes place in another place. The storage and transportation are likely in other locations. And the flow of money crosses multiple borders, going through numerous bank accounts. Some of that money is paid as bribes to politicians, cops, military personnel, customs inspectors, and others in the chain of security, protection and enforcement. Organized crime is highly profitable because it has the ability to patch together a makeshift set of mutually beneficial relationships that thrives on secrecy, non-traceability, and the sanctity of borders.

Co-operation between various levels of law enforcement and security officials complicates the risk factor for organized crime. By allowing co-operation across the borders, the sharing of technology and information, the cost to organized crime bosses increases dramatically. It is like insurance premiums. If that huge, devastating flood only occurs once every hundred years, the cost of insurance is relatively low. But if the hundred-year flood level happens every six months, the cost of insurance skyrockets to the point no one can afford to buy insurance.  Successful co-operation is a real threat to transnational crime.

Everyone sees the part of the elephant standing in their district but don’t see the overall dimensions of the beast.  According to the Bangkok Post, 43 Thai cops traveled to Hong Kong to meet their police counterparts. The idea was to establish co-operation between the two police forces. They can exchange information about finances and training, for example. Hong Kong and Thai authorities have promised to enter a memorandum of understanding on the nature and scope of their co-operation. What crimes and in what circumstances co-operation will occur remains to be hammered out. Whether anything tangible will arise from this arrangement is impossible to know at this stage. It is hard enough to get people within in the same department to co-operate. Extending co-operation across borders with different traditions, languages, and customs is what is called a ‘challenge’.

In this part of the world the problem is often not lack of co-operation but that there is too much co-operation between law enforcement, civil servants and politicians and the organized big league crime ventures. A glimpse of that organized crime world of powerful insiders using thuggish methods to drive out competition was revealed recently in China. In this ‘business’ model the local government ran the organized crime business through their friends and associates and those who tried to compete found themselves beaten and tortured and driven out of the country.

The Chinese government released information about Bo Xilai, the Chonguing party chief who recently lost his job in a power struggle. The New York Times reported:

Once hailed as a pioneering effort to wipe out corruption, critics now say it depicts a security apparatus run amok: framing victims, extracting confessions through torture, extorting business empires and visiting retribution on the political rivals of Mr. Bo and his friends while protecting those with better connections.

How best to approach the problem of corruption and organized crime in league with government officials? Follow the money. The pain criminals feel the most is when their traditional money routes are closed down. Big, organized crime is a headache because it is largely a ‘cash’ business. How does the criminal with bags of bank notes work the cash through the financial system? Brokers arise whenever there is a market. Cash is a market and brokers create an informal banking system to launder the illegal funds.

Money laundering legislation has slowed down but not stopped the Amazon River flow of cash. This is particularly true in less developed countries where there are few banks and almost no one has a bank account. Cash in hand systems are vulnerable to corruption. Every time money stops at someone’s desk on the journey from the person who sent it and the person who will eventually receive it, someone is taking a piece of the action. This rent seeking happens in the underground economy as well as in banks in legal economy and we call these fees. In the underground world, we call this corruption if the person exacting a fee is a government official.

In Afghanistan, payrolls for the ordinary cop and low-level officers were first distributed by higher-level officers, who took their cut before passing the cash down the line. A Vodafone program, first created for payments in microfinance operations in Kenya, was adapted to pay the Afghan police directly through their cell phones. That computer program caused mixed feelings. The high command hated the innovation. But low-level police thought they’d receive a raise. It was the first time they’d received a payroll without someone above skimming off the top. They loved the new system. In a country where very few people have bank accounts and there are a handful of ATM machines, banking through a cell phone is a mini-revolution. It is also an effective way to reduce corruption or, to use the lovely term, ‘money leakage’.

One frustrated commander demanded that his officers turn over their phones and PINs and attempted to collect their salaries from an M-Paisa agent.

India is examining the new technology to increase the reach of electronic transfers as a way to reduce government corruption. Argentina used electronic voucher cards as part of a successful campaign to beat corruption.

Money as a physical object is so much a part of our experience that it is difficult to believe there were long stretches of history when our ancestors didn’t use coins or paper money. We are going to a financial system that is digital. The knock-on effect means that electronic money transfers will continue to reduce the role of physical money passing through many sticky fingers.

Organized crime works at the municipal, county, provincial and national levels in many countries because corruption is difficult to root out. The technology is available to largely eliminate corruption. But those who benefit the most from the current cash and carry and skim system are not likely to step forward as willing first adopters. One would expect those with vested interest to subvert attempts to bypass the original channels in which cash flows.

Meanwhile co-operation between police forces across borders makes for a good study trip to another country, the hotel buffets, the sightseeing, and making of new friends. But let’s be honest. The problem isn’t lack of co-operation, as the officials often co-operate a bit too much. The problem is finding a direct way to make payments that avoids pushing bags of cash down the old traditional ramps in a world where the most powerful porters drive Benzes and live in mansions.

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Posted: 3/29/2012 8:53:51 PM 

 

You never see a ‘company’ handcuffed and paraded before the press. But in this part of the world, pictures of flesh and blood criminals often appear in the newspaper or on TV.  Mostly, they are low-level criminals who were caught holding the illegal goods. Holding the bag so to speak.

They are presented at press conference with rows of uniformed officers looking on as the accused sits in front of desk loaded with parcels containing contraband. Most of the time the parcels contain drugs.

Next time you look at a drug suspect sitting handcuffed as kilos of drugs are displayed, remember this deliveryman was paid to deliver a product.

Now and again a missing piece of the story pops up in the press.

The accused at the table is the tip of iceberg but what sunk the Titanic laid underneath and it was huge. Organized crime is the forces that build this force of criminal nature. It creates, operates, manages and controls a chain of supply; a chain of distribution, and it has operational chiefs, people of influence and status, as well as significant financial and legal talent. In many ways, it is like many other businesses. All of this chain is to source, process, and distribute without undue risk to the principals who earn windfall products from a product that is illegal. Meth possession will likely land the end user in prison.

The end user is at the same level as the delivery guy, the poor mule, who sits alone. Those are the two faces you see over and over. What about the others? Isn’t it time for at least a show of looking inside the organization part of organized crime?

The recent case of 30 Thai hospital and clinics supposedly implicated in buying and selling pills with the active ingredient called pseudoephedrine, an essential chemical compounded needed to make meth—one extremely nasty, ugly drug—is a rare look at a hidden part of the chain. Let’s get out of the way a couple of things that you should know about meth and crystal meth before we get to the hospitals and clinics. These drugs put people in the hospital or the grave. Here are some of the short term and long-term effects: panic and psychosis, convulsions, seizures, permanent damage to blood vessels of the heart and brain, liver, kidney and lung damage. That’s enough. You don’t have to examine every last body to know when you are in the presence of a massacre either.

Last year the Guardian reported: “The number of methamphetamine users in Thailand will reach 1.1 million this year, the head of the country’s anti-drug police told the Guardian – equivalent to one in every 60 citizens.”

That’s a big, profitable market.

According to the Bangkok Post, police found a senior pharmacist at Udon Thani Hospital had a role in diverting some 65,000 cold and allergy pills out of the hospital. Another pharmacist at a hospital in Uttaradit is implicated in using his hospital to launder 975,000 pseudoephedrine-based pills. The upcountry hospitals are under investigation. The reported number of pills from various hospitals and clinics no matter how many times you read them simply don’t add up in the story. They rarely do in such cases as it seems math and journalistic skills rarely come together in one person in Thailand. The upshot is that a huge quantity of the pills with the essential ingredient to make meth was being sold out of the backdoor of hospitals and clinics.

There was no report of any arrest being made of anyone from a hospital or clinic.

The story about how a vast hospital and clinic chain pumped millions of pills into the meth chain of production wasn’t discussed. As a classic case of how the free market model of capitalism really runs when left without adult supervision, is itself illuminating. As this was a story about hospitals and clinics, you gather they’d run a photograph of such a building. That didn’t happen.

Would you like to guess what ran picture the newspaper ran with this story instead… give up? Three delivery people at a table surrounded by a platoon of cops and right in front of them were 2.5 million speed pills and 50 kilos of crystal meth.

We get the message. The story is about the role of hospitals and clinics in the meth production in Thailand. But none of those people wanted their picture in the newspaper. The pool of photography subjects is pretty obvious from the arrested mules. These are the human livestock of the drug business. The same class of people who were hunted down and some 2,500 killed some years ago during the last ‘war on drugs’ in Thailand.

Not that we really need a lesson in the obvious.  Yet we have come to not question the lesson any more. We assume those in the picture are those in the story. Even though we’d likely never find a factory worker’s picture in a story about he CEO of Ford or Shell Oil. In the illegal drug business, it is the employees, the working class, those who drive the truck who become the face of the problem, who get all the press coverage.

It is unlikely to happen during the lifetime of anyone now alive that your descendants will open an electric screen and look at faces of high-level officials from the private and public sector sitting at a table handcuffed for their role in the drug trade. Things don’t work like that at the present time in most places. Getting a piece of the chain in the illegal drug business is a guaranteed way to getting your hands of some of the massive profits.

Life is good when you’re rich.  Unfortunate for a few mules lost along the way. But as Darwin taught us we inhabit a world of survival of the fittest. And a degree in pharmacology also helps.

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Posted: 3/22/2012 9:17:40 PM 

 

It’s not only you who’s looking to high-tech to solve all of your problems. Repressive and not-to-date-so-repressive governments are taking notice of new weapon technology.

If you are a protester or demonstrator your future will likely include being made mute or stuttering uncontrollably and throwing up. These weapons are currently in development and in some cases are operationally ready. Welcome to the Brave New World of high-tech equipped security forces. Controlling people is something governments have traditionally sought to achieve.

There is a long history of political demonstrations and most of it is violent, repressive and bloody. Power instinctively seeks to stamp out challengers. Thumbs screws, the rack, beheadings, chopping off hands, arms, legs, and burning at the stake often drew large crowds who found that sort of thing highly entertaining.

Except for a few places, we don’t live in that world any more. Our world is one of modern technology that has rapidly added new weapons to the arsenal of governments. CCTV surveillance cameras, monitoring phone, computers and emails are already in place. The newest technology makes the life of demonstrators move in the range between difficult and miserable.

We’ve entered an age of mass demonstrations with news reports from many countries around the world. The powerful would like a neat way to cause people in such crowds and their speakers to be either unable to speak or to vomit and feel dizzy. Speech may be free but those who insist on exercising their right can be made to pay a high fee.

Police forces in America and many other countries have become militarized. Fighting crimes is more warlike than ever before. The new weapons on the ground and those patrolling the skies such as predators, give the cop/soldier hybrids better information, firepower, and protection against return fire. It is better to think of the cops and soldiers as one unified security force which share weapons, intelligence and tactics to marginalize common enemies. That includes demonstrators.

A number of the new high tech toys fall in the category of ‘shock and awe’ firepower, stealth capability, and protective gear for the cop/soldier. That means the bank robber, car thief, and mugger will find it increasingly more dangerous to carry out their self-employment. They won’t be missed.

What governments wish us to believe is that dangerous, violent criminals when they aren’t robbing banks, stealing cars or handbags are attending political rallies and demonstrations. The cops/soldiers (the security forces) are finding the general public is less inclined to support their decision to order their security forces to shoot demonstrators in the streets. Even repressive governments have come to understand that slaughtering demonstrators is bad public relations. And it invites charges of crimes against humanity and genocide and a public trial in Geneva.

The Chinese label demonstrators in Tibet as ‘outcasts, criminals and mentally ill’ people. This description of demonstrators, with a few local variations, pops up on the lips of politicians in many countries once activists and protesters accumulate in crowds, and demonstrators challenge the central authority. How best to stop demonstrators has been the work of some creative scientific minds. The first goal is to disperse a crowd. Second, weapons are needed to discourage, demoralize or disable people who demonstrate against the government. These are government goals in many places.

In the bad old days the security forces used rubber bullets, tear gas and water canons. These low-tech responses to demonstrations only partially worked. In a large political demonstration of 50,000 people a high tech response is needed. What’s the latest way for the political class to mess with the rest of us?

LRAD

One answer is the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device). This little baby will blast 95 plus decibels of sound—heavy metal music or a cat in heat—at the crowd. That’s loud, and later models will likely burst eardrums. Though at this stage of development, I am not certain a crowd in Thailand would notice 95 decibels of sound as anything other than normal. But that is another matter.

Scientists are working to increase the range of the LRAD and combine it with other features. Like scent. These good scientists have done research on what smells induce uncontrolled vomiting, inability to maintain balance, and reduced sensory capability. The political demonstration starts to look like an alliance of binge eaters, acidheads, and disabled lap dancers with everyone bumping into each other on their rubbery legs. Some of the Bangkok klong water will at last find a market, as it could be bottled and sold to the manufacturers of the new LRAD for ammo. The slogan will be along the lines: ‘KlongBomb: Smells worse than shit’, and ‘Knocks out a skunk’. Politicians will claim that Bangkok is a LRAD ammo ‘hub.’

SPEECH JAMMERS

The problem for the security forces are the leaders who hold their ground and the smell of shit only seems to fire them up. For these people, the scientists have come up with a speech jammer. The Japanese came up with this wonderful idea. Who wouldn’t want their own jammer for use against the loud, rude talkers who always manage to get a table next to yours at a restaurant, the seat next to you on the subway, cinema or lecture?

But do you want your government using them on you when you beg to disagree?

Here’s how the speech jammer works. It delays a speaker’s words for a couple hundred milliseconds and blast the words back at the speaker. The technical term is ‘auditory feedback.’ What this means is the device messes with out brain’s cognitive processes. In non-technical terms it makes you stutter. Apparently these jammers were originally developed to help people who stutter to overcome this disability. Of course the security forces of the world often see a golden lining in such developments and wondered if it cures stuttering, can we tweak it to make people stutter. The answer is, “yes, general, you can turn this baby on the speaker on the stage and turn him or her into an incoherent, jabbering fool.” And when you label the leader of the demonstration an incoherent, jabbering fool, you can replay the words from his or her latest speech as Exhibit A.

Shut up or I’ll jam you into a stuttering retard. That is an improvement on stop or I’ll shoot you. This is only the beta model. Ten, twenty years down the road, the implant versions will be ready and demonstration leaders will have sentences handed down that include insertion of such devices.

We have eight more years left in this decade. By the time 2020 rolls around, the security forces will have effectively curtailed public demonstrations as they will have their squares and streets ringed with high-tech weapons that make such protest impossible. We are just at the start of the civilian repression that lies ahead. It’s not just a pre-Enlightenment dark age that threats all of us, it is that cone of silence when we are left to our own thoughts and those too are on the high-tech drawing board for the post-2020 world.

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Posted: 3/8/2012 7:58:55 PM 

 

Imagine if your brother, son, husband went out to cover a war -  to tell the truth of what was happening to innocent bystanders who cannot affect any change to the situation they are in - and while covering that war they disappeared.
Never to be heard of again.
Nothing for 41 years.

This is what happened in Cambodia in the early 70's.
Five years of war, four years of Pol Pot, ten years of Vietnamese occupation and then a landscape littered in land mines and UXO's, meant that the missing media have disappeared from our thoughts - but not from the thoughts of their families and loved ones.

Tim Page has returned dozens of times to Indochina trying to learn their fate.  He has done this on his own dime and his own time.
Now he needs help to get back.  this is not a search for remains but for the last living memories of the people that saw them, helped them and that possibly know their fate.
Please watch the trailer and if you feel moved to help, please make a pledge.

And please pass it on…..


 

….. a search for the last living memories, their recollections of our lost brothers and the imprint they left behind …….


http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/111709504/lost-brothers?ref=card

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Posted: 3/5/2012 10:23:38 PM 

 

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 

 

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