Sunday, April 22, 2007

The failure of the state and national tragedies.

The carnage witnessed at Virginia Tech induces pain in all rational people, it causes us to reflect and rethink. We ask for explanations. Long ago it was suggested that the most likely explanation is the simplest. This horror was caused because a mentally unbalanced individual was able to find a large body of defenseless people and shoot them while all the governmental bodies established to protect those people failed miserably.

“No gun zones” have acted like magnets to crazed killers. And I certainly understand the motivation and logic behind the idea. But good intentions are not enough and the logic is flawed. The only people who obey the rule are the vast majority of law abiding gun owners not insane individuals intent on making a name for themselves through mass slaughter. These zones leave people within them helpless and reliant upon the various agencies of government to respond in a timely manner.

There are two problems. One is that government often does not respond in a timely manner. Two, even when it does respond quickly a few minutes is all it takes to snuff out the lives of dozens of people. If we are to have a government that can respond as quickly as armed citizens could then we must have one where the policing agents are as pervasive as honest gun owners. And that, quite simply, would mean a police state.

Left-wing gadfly Alexander Cockburn is often right on issues, hence the term gadfly. I think his record is less than perfect but it’s good enough to warrant considering what he has to say on issues. He tells his fellow progressives that they better rethink how they have dealt with crime. There is much justified outrage on the Left (and some on the Right as well) about the role of SWAT teams. The American police force has become militarized. And with their tanks and automatic weapons and body armour they have become a threat to the life, liberty and property of every citizen.

This blog, and others, has regularly reported how these paramilitary forces have acted as if they were in a war. No surprise, that is how they are trained. The net result is that they destroy and kill and far, far too often the people they destroy and kill are innocent people. One of the most absurd claims of the victim disarmament lobby has been the cry that if citizens are allowed to defend themselves they will make mistakes and we ought to trust the police.

The same people, when they calm down, breath deeply for a while and then are asked to talk about the police launch into similar tirades about the treat of paramilitary police forces. Trust the police when we disarm you and once you are disarmed you aren’t supposed to the trust the police. Okay, that makes sense! Not.

Cockburn suggests the Left consider how these two issues are related.

“The left complains about SWAT teams, but doesn’t see that the progressives bear a lot of responsibility for their rise. If you confer the task of social invigilation and protection to professional janissaries -- cops--and deny the right of self and social protection to ordinary citizens, you end up with crews of over-armed thugs running amok under official license, terrorizing the disarmed citizens. In the end you have the whole place run by the Army or the federalized National Guard, as is increasingly evident now with the overturning of the Posse Comitatus laws forbidding any role for the military in domestic law enforcement.”

Every time a crime of the magnitude of a Virginia Tech or Columbine takes place police agencies and government bureaucrats make a raw grab for expanding their power. America is evolving into a police state at a frightening pace. And these expanded powers will not be restricted to only the cases that warrant them. They will creep into more and more aspects of daily living. When SWAT teams were organized we were told it was for situations precisely like the one we just witnessed. In the 1980s they were called out about 3,000 times per year. Even then you can see their use was not that widely warranted. Now they turn up about 40,000 per year. As Radley Balko notes: “Most ‘call-outs’ were to serve warrants on nonviolent drug offenders.”

From an “elite” groups of cops on call for the unusual we are instead seeing these teams used for routine policing. Balko notes: “Armed with free surplus military gear from the Pentagon, SWAT teams have multiplied at a furious pace. Tactics once reserved for rare, volatile situations such as hostage takings, bank robberies and terrorist incidents increasingly are being used for routine police work.”

One of the most openly fascistic police officials in the US is Joe Arpaio, who likes to call himself the “toughest sheriff in America”. He sent out his SWAT team, in their tank, to raid a Phoenix home. They first fired tear gas into the home. Then they managed to set the house afire somehow. A puppy inside the house tried to escape the flames and the police officers chased it back inside where it perished. And the reason for the raid: they were were arresting someone for traffic tickets. Meanwhile while burning down houses and killing dogs the tank they had parked in front of the house was rolling down the hill. The Einsteins had forgot to set the brake.

It rolled directly into a car where a mother and her young child had been sitting. She saw the tank rolling toward them and grabbed the child and escaped with seconds to spare. Don’t believe me? Here’s the photo of the incident.

I am not a person of faith, that is I am not the least bit religious. So I honestly don’t understand the religious mentality of some fundamentalist types in the political Left who have an undying, unalterable faith in big government.

When you strip people of the right to defend themselves the only protection they have left is government. But what happens when it is government from whom people need protection? Today the people of Zimbabwe need protection from the government, ditto the people of North Korea, Cuba, and still, China. Ditto for the people of Russia, most Islamic states and much of Africa. And, increasingly this applies to people in the US and England as well. Governments run amok, they do it all the time.

But let us pretend that never happens. Let us fantasize a world of benevolent, happy police agents on every corner. Still they fail to protect people well. In dangerous situations these SWAT teams set up a perimeter and tend to sit there and wait. Cockburn wrote:

When the mass murder session began in the engineering building the police cowered behind their cruisers till Cho Seung-Hui finished off the last batch of his 32 victims, then killed himself. Then the police bravely rushed in, started sticking their guns in the faces of the traumatized students, screaming at them to freeze or be shot. Similar timidity was on display in Columbine, where Harris and Klebold killed students in the library over a period of 15 minutes and then committed suicide. The police finally mustered up the nerve to enter the library over two hours late

Government is very good a waiting when situations are dangerous. I lived in San Francisco during the “big one” (1989 not 1906). When the Cypress viaduct of Interstate Highway 880 pancaked, trapping dozens of people and killing many, the government set up a perimeter and sat there debating what to do. People were dying and bureaucrats were discussing the costs and benefits of saving them. Private citizens were rescuing people, bureaucrats were having donuts and coffee and debating the issue.

The residents of the impoverished neighborhood surrounding the viaduct improvised ladders and climbed up to the trapped people. One by one they saved lives. The professionals turned up and halted this sort of “vigilante” rescues. They ordered the people to go home and let them “do their job” and then they did nothing! Angry residents sneaked around to the other side of the highway and continued their rescues surreptitiously.

Over and over, at times of national crisis we see the inertia of bureaucracy drag whatever good intentions exist down in a stagnancy that is deadly. The paranoid delusions of conspiracists aside the reading of the 9/11 Commission Report is a long discourse on ineptness and bureaucratic bungling. From the investigation of the terrorists, from security at the airports, to the response of the government during the hijackings we witnessed a lumbering dinosaur trying to respond to quick moving events. It couldn’t cope.

Who did respond? Who learned the lessons of that day quickly? The passengers of United Airlines Flight 93. They were the only ones who successfully stopped a hijacked plane from reaching its target.

Katrina was a perfect opportunity for government to prove it could efficiently and effectively save lives during a disaster. Few other disasters come with such advanced warning. Tracking a hurricane begins days, sometimes weeks before it hits land. And everyone knew Katrina was coming. And government failed miserably. Bureaucrats couldn’t offer protection to people left behind but ran around disarming law abiding people. Government couldn’t get aid and supplies to the victims but it made sure that no one else helped them either. It closed down and stifled every private relief effort it could find.

Government always wants to monopolize response to itself. And it always does a shitty job of responding.

The Virginia Tech massacre was a textbook example of the failure of government. The killer was a deranged individual. People who dealt with him were terrified of him. He was reported to campus police several times. Professors reported him, students reported him, and the government bureaucrats who run the school said there was nothing they could do. They were stifled by regulations and rules at every turn.

They couldn’t tell the parents of the killer, that would violate regulations on privacy. They basically couldn’t do very much. The killer was sent to a mental institution by a judge. But the school had to let him back on campus, regulations you know. Regulations did exist to forbid firearms on campus. That disarmed the victims not the killer. Lot of good that did.

Government regulations clearly say that someone who has been hospitalized for mental instability is not qualified to buy a weapon. And they have bureaucrats to make sure that doesn’t happen. If you pass a background check then you can buy a weapon. If it is shown you did time in the loony bin you don’t get the gun. The killer got his gun. Why? Well, it seems that the one bureaucracy that incarcerated the killer didn’t bother to tell the other bureaucracy, that does the background checks, that this man had mental problems.

We had government police who knew for several hours in advance that a killer was on the campus of Virginia Tech. They supposed he had left. They had no evidence he left, they just supposed it. Thirty of the victims died that day after the police arrived on campus. We had a university bureaucracy which took hours to send out an e-mail warning to the student body.

Over and over government failed to protect the people it had disarmed. And yet the faithful, with their hymns of praise, light their candles before the shrine of the state and call the supplicants to prayer. “Oh, mighty State, ye who we worship and adore, we beseech thee to bless thy servants and bestow thy hand of protection upon us.” And as so often is the case with this deity, it is deaf to their pleas.

There may well be some things that government can do, and do fairly well. Quick response is not one of them. What we have seen is that the agents created for quick response are poor at responding to those situations but good at killing unarmed, non-violent individuals. And what does the victim disarmament lobby want: more of the same!

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