Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pain in the Web

While social media have, in one form or another, become “command and control” systems for raging rebel commanders in some of the most volatile regions in the world, as our connectivity can almost instantly produce thousands of angry protestors (rioters?) through digital linkage, hacking can shut down vital systems or expose sensitive personal information to those with criminal intent, there is a smaller pernicious force that attacks across the Web: digital cruelty.
“Anyone who has ever been online has witnessed, or been virtually walloped by, a mean comment. ‘If you’re going to be a blogger, if you’re going to tweet stuff, you better develop a tough skin,’ said John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University who specializes in what he refers to as cyberpsychology. Some 69 percent of adult social media users said they ‘have seen people being mean and cruel to others on social network sites,’ according to a 2011 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
“Posts run the gamut from barbs to sadistic antics by trolls who intentionally strive to distress or provoke. [In late August], Zelda Williams, the daughter of Robin Williams, said she was going off Twitter, possibly for good, after brutal tweets by trolls about her father’s death. Yet comments do not even have to be that malevolent to be hurtful. The author Anne Rice signed a petition a few months ago asking to ban anonymous reviews after experiencing ‘personal insults and harassing posts,’ as she put it on the site of the petition, Whether you’re a celebrity author or a mom with a d├ęcor blog, you’re fair game. Anyone with a Twitter account and a mean streak can try to parachute into your psyche.
“In the virtual world, anonymity and invisibility help us feel uninhibited. Some people are inspired to behave with greater kindness; others unleash their dark side. Trolls, who some researchers think could be mentally unbalanced, say the kinds of things that do not warrant deep introspection; their singular goal is to elicit pain. But then there are those people whose comments, while nasty, present an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.” Stehpanie Rosenbloom writing for the New York Times, August 23rd.
Understanding this willingness to attack online, people empowered by anonymity and not actually having to see the actual pain there are inflicting since they cannot actually witness the physical and emotional impact of their scathing attacks, is more complicated that one might think. Even as some states adapt laws against certain kinds of public ridicule – the kind of cyber-stalking or cyber-bullying that has led more than one young person to suicide or bans against posting online naked pictures of others without consent – there is this huge, unregulated mass of communications where total fabrications sit side-by-side with factual presentations, where malice sits atop curiosity and simple opinion.
Professor Suler wrote in 2004 in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior about a concept known as ‘the online disinhibition effect’ — the idea that ‘people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world.’ In the virtual realm, factors including anonymity, invisibility and lack of authority allow disinhibition to flourish. The result can be benign (‘unusual acts of kindness and generosity’), or it can be toxic: ‘rude language, harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats,’ as Professor Suler put it.
The latter is the realm of trolls. Some people think of their online life ‘as a kind of game with rules and norms that don’t apply to everyday living,’ he wrote, a game for which they do not feel responsible. If bloggers and people who use social networks keep this concept in mind, he said, ‘they will see the psychology’ of aggressors, and their comments may be easier to take — and possibly ignore. Sometimes it’s smart to do as Ms. Williams ultimately did: disconnect.” Rosenbloom. Or picture the mental state of the attacker, while reminding yourself of who you really are and what you really have accomplished. Getting into an active-mind “flow” in what you really do, keeping busy and not dwelling on the negative. Indeed some of these attacks are so awful, they are humorous, and humor is a terrific coping mechanism. Or just move on.
Or how about this approach: “Turns out they may be on to something. In the quest to quell the cruel, we often fail to savor the good. And there is, despite the meanies, much good whirring around cyberspace. Some 70 percent of Internet users said they ‘had been treated kindly or generously by others online,’ according to a Pew report early this year.” Rosenbloom. The times for serious damage control or legal action are rare, but once and a while a vicious rumor can destroy a business or a life, and it is time to seek professional assistance to put out that fire.
 I’m Peter Dekom, and putting yourself out there, day after day, is simply not a world of constant smooth sailing in calm waters.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Congress that is Planning to Move to Enhanced Gridlock

So much of Washington today is about negativity. Reversing policies. Blocking bills that have already been passed by defunding them in the budget. Demanding pushbacks at the expense of shutting down the government and defaulting on our national debt if need be. Despite the lowest Congressional approval ratings in recent memory, the “nattering nabobs of negativism” (I salute you Spiro!) are committed to have their way even if it creates a job-killing, economy decimating and spirit crushing shuttering of government. If we cannot get our way through the legislative approval process, say senior Republicans, we will hold every American ransom until we get it through the back door.
Here is a verbatim restatement of a recording of GOP Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell (above), telling a conservative group assembled by the legendary Koch brothers what the GOP will do when, it arrogantly assumes, it wins control of both houses of Congress in the fall elections: “‘In the House and Senate, we own the budget,’ he said, explaining that the initial blueprint on taxes and spending does not require the president’s signature. ‘So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board. All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.’” New York Times, August 27th.
There are still “little things” like the filibuster rules that would require a 60-seat GOP in the Senate, an unlikely event even if control shifts to the Republicans. For Democrats, struggling against bad odds, such statements are like manna from heaven. You couldn’t pay for a more self-destructive statement than the one above. The election approaches, and the tilt is still in favor of the GOP, but perhaps those words will resonate with voters who actually want their government to do positive things. Tank the environment and let corporate tax dodger and Wall Street side-step paying taxes, all the while shipping more jobs overseas, and perhaps voters will be scared.
If these above policies can be implemented, for terrified Democrats picturing two years of living hell until the 2016 Presidential and next set of Congressional elections, the only silver lining to them is an infuriated electorate that could easily hand the Presidency and both houses of Congress back to them… to screw up in their own way. Whatever happened to horse-trading democracy? Oh, I am dating myself. That hasn’t happened in… well, a very, very long time. Compromise has long since left the building.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it is deeply sad that politicians really do not seem to care what damage they inflict on the rest of us to stick to their uber-polarizing agendas.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Shaker Heights, a Not So Quiet Reminder

It happened in a relatively small Northern California town, not particularly heavily populated, but one littered with picturesque older buildings in an agricultural region that draws millions of tourists every year. It’s wine country with the some of best vintages and the finest restaurants in the land. But at 3:30 in the morning on August 24th, a 6.1 earthquake slammed into this area, wreaking havoc across the region, hitting particularly hard in the little city of Napa.
Napa County alone pumps about $13 billion into California’s economy every year, while producing only about 4% of the state’s wine output. But it’s the good stuff! Facing the worst shaker experienced in Northern California in a quarter of a century, the total damage has yet to be calculated. It will be over a billion dollars. Over two hundred injuries, some of them very serious. Power outages, about 100 burst water mains, and over 50 buildings getting the dreaded red-tag (uninhabitable). Inventories of really expensive wine, some in barrels yet to be bottled and some in thousands of bottles crashing to the floor, some producing expensive “flood” damage within winery buildings… recorded really serious damage to many small local businesses. Really fine olive oil inventories for some businesses totally gone.
Large sections of the United States are finding out that earthquakes are not relegated to the West Coast. And fracking has introduced quakes with magnitudes over 4.0 to communities in oil-producing Oklahoma. While the “Big One” – the San Andreas fault which created the spectacular Bay Area harbor – seems to get all the headlines, the entire West Coast is situated on that tectonic plate that marks the Pacific “Ring of Fire.” The Pacific Plate has separated Baja California from the rest of Mexico, and rises up through that San Andreas Fault, exiting North America at the split it caused in San Francisco Bay. But the edge of that volatile plate continues up the coast and wraps around southern Alaska, where massive earthquakes are well within recent memory: the 1964 9.2 Alaska quake was the second biggest shaker in recorded history, with 139 fatalities in the relatively lightly populated Anchorage area.
When an earthquake really hits, the damage to structures, infrastructure and human lives can be horrifically huge. But strangely, Americans are woefully under-insured (and where they carry coverage, 10% deductibles and designated exclusions make even covered folks bleed to pay for a post-quake fix). “Some homeowners who suffered damage are in for a further shock when they learn they have to pay for their rebuilding costs out of their own pockets: Only about 12 percent of California homeowners have earthquake insurance coverage. In areas hardest hit by Sunday’s quake, such as Napa, fewer than 6 percent of homeowners have earthquake coverage, according to the most recent data from the California Earthquake Authority. 
“The percentage of homeowners who have purchased earthquake insurance has declined over the years, both in California and across the nation. Data from the Insurance Information Institute show that only seven percent of homeowners nationwide have earthquake insurance, down from 10 percent last year. In the West, 10 percent of homeowners have the coverage, a drop from 22 percent last year.
“In California, 30 percent of homeowners had earthquake insurance after the 1994 Northridge earthquake killed several dozen people and caused about $44 billion in damage. The disaster taught many people the value of earthquake insurance, said Robert P. Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute… But 20 years later, ‘people decided to roll the dice and not to buy the coverage,’ Hartwig said.” Washington Post, August 26th. We need to stand together to help our fellow citizens cope with this disaster. We have also received a painful reminded to prepare for natural disasters, power and communications failures and… to get the right kinds of insurance for the disasters that face so many American communities.
I’m Peter Dekom, and what happened in Napa should be a wake-up call to the rest of us to get ready for... whatever your neck of the woods threatens!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Elaborate Social Identity Model

Psychology is filled with studies about how individual human beings react when they are part of a crowd. Emotions rise and fall, decisions are often made in the context of everything around them, laced with aggregated individual characteristics. The complexity of the variables involved may have led our political leaders to miss a very big point. As powerful as an armored personnel carrier, military weapons and tactics, body armor and rapid response teams (SWAT to riot to…) might be to grapple with that elusive “terrorist” or “cartel” threat, having a militarized police force has a negative self-fulfilling psychological impact on both gathered crowds… and the soldiers… er… often under-trained, over-armed police force itself.
Think about it. Who exactly is training those… officers… to use that equipment, particularly in small towns? Little things that you learn in the armed forces… like never point your gun at anyone unless you intend to use it. Look at the photographs in Ferguson and count how many times that little military rule appears to be either ignored or perhaps not even known by the local military-dressed and equipped cops. Listen to the epithets from supposedly well-trained officers who should be trained to remain neutral and professional in their duties, men who apparently feel that they have now been imbued with the God-like power of the massive forces that stand beside them and the special weapons and equipment that they have at their disposal. How willing are such over-armed, under-trained forces to engage in physical attack?
Now let’s look at the crowd themselves. The title above is a field of study/model that examines crowds precisely in such high stress situations. “Science writer Vaughan Bell gave a great hypothetical example of this behavioral model during the U.K. riots in 2011. Picture yourself on a bus with lots of strangers. Technically, you all share a common goal of reaching your destination safely. But you each have a social identity that doesn't necessarily overlap: the old people, the commuters, the annoyingly loud teenagers. If the bus suddenly comes under attack, however, those various identities are united by a single goal: defend against the outside force. ‘You didn't lose your identity,’ writes Bell, ‘you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.’
“Here's where the militarization of local police becomes so problematic. Officers in full-on riot gear give all the individuals in a protest crowd a common enemy. It's not that everyone in the protest crowd suddenly assumes the identity of a violent jerk--it's that the many peaceful protestors feel a sort of kinship with the violent jerks against the aggressive police. Despite their differences, they're united by a single goal: defend against the outside force.
“Psychologist Clifford Stott surveyed the latest evidence on crowd behavior in a 2009 report for British officials. Stott explained that an aggressive approach by authorities leads ‘directly to a change in the nature of the crowd's social identity,’ a shift from me and you into us and them. The result is a self-fulfilling cycle: As the crowd gains a sense of unity, the authorities become more aggressive against the unified mob they initially feared, which in turn enhances the crowd's sense of unity. Any rioting that results will be perceived as an inevitable outcome of bad crowd behavior, writes Stott, when in fact that behavior was ‘largely and inadvertently initiated by police tactical responses.’
“This insight has led to a new set of best practices by crowd police (much of it outlined by Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces). The key is establishing a ‘graded’ intervention approach that only escalates if absolutely necessary. The first grade deploys low-visibility officers--those in standard uniforms rather than those with helmets, shields, and batons--who integrate with the crowd and establish legitimacy. Another grade of targeted interventions of isolated troublemakers can follow. Yet another with police in paramilitary gear can remain nearby but out of sight, as a last resort.”, August 27th.
The failed policies of providing local police with provocative weapons and tactics were generated from our reaction to the events of 9/11/2001 and our mega-colossal failed “war on drugs.” Not only do we generate “us vs. them” reactions during peaceful protests countered by paramilitary police, but entire communities have aggregated that reaction to their local police force in general: cops that seldom protect the community but often enter it to intimidate and enforce laws against the locals. They see the police as violent and aggressive enemies, never to be trusted.
Add the newly-justified “closet racism” (some of it not so well-closeted) – disguised as legislators voting against immigration reform but quite willing to disenfranchise voters with gerrymandering and voter qualification laws that somehow seem to apply heavily to minorities – and you see a multiplier of the “us vs. them” effect. If you truly believe that our country is heading in the right direction with these changes, then you probably won’t be disappointed with escalating conflict and a global view of the United States as a gun crazy nation where paramilitary “banana republic” police tactics are the norm.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we generally reap what we sow.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Economic Seesaw: Housing vs. Growth

After World War II, the United States witnessed a massive internal migration of its citizens to sunny California where economic opportunities were exploding: manufacturing jobs, particularly in what became the aerospace industry, real estate development and an entirely new trading connection with the Far East. The entire west coast benefited from this transitional moment. The automotive industry also benefited as returning soldiers found great jobs in Detroit and the surrounding neighborhoods and states.
But the world slowly changed. Foreign competition slammed many of the hard manufacturing industries, and while the tech industry seemed to save California from suffering too much in the “rust belt decline,” the newfound wealth created another massive problem for Californians in the big “cool” cities: the cost of housing skyrocketed. San Francisco and the Silicon Valley are among the most expensive cities in the world right now. In fact, the City of San Francisco just passed the $1 million average home price sales threshold (enjoy the 800 square feet it can buy you!). Wall Street and corporate America pushed New York housing costs through the roof as well.
But the conservative South has been touting that its low taxes and pro-business stance, its aversion to regulation, has been the “job creation” driving force in the next “new” migration from North to the warmer and seemingly friendlier South. But as New York Times columnist, economist Paul Krugman notes, the job picture in the South is hardly rosy; it is not false “job creation” policies but the cost of housing seems to be the real driver. The jobs in the South tend to be a source of cheap labor for companies not particularly concerned with anything more than a bottom line with reduced costs.
“It turns out, however, that wages in the places within the United States attracting the most migrants are typically lower than in the places those migrants come from, suggesting that the places Americans are leaving actually have higher productivity and more job opportunities than the places they’re going. The average job in greater Houston pays 12 percent less than the average job in greater New York; the average job in greater Atlanta pays 22 percent less.

“So why are people moving to these relatively low-wage areas? Because living there is cheaper, basically because of housing. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, rents (including the equivalent rent involved in buying a house) in metropolitan New York are about 60 percent higher than in Houston, 70 percent higher than in Atlanta.” New York Times, August 24th.

Krugman argues that if we want strong job growth in a people-friendly community, the emphasis has to be a very clear focus on encouraging massive new affordable housing. The next time you visit high cost cities like New York or San Francisco, ask yourself how and where the lower echelon of the workforce lives? Clerks. Secretaries. Cooks. Construction workers. Cab drivers. Etc. Public housing? Where it exists. Distant communities where commuting is a bitch? Sharing rentals, stacked like sardines? Living in closet-sized apartments?  
Unless and until expensive communities deal with the lack of affordable housing in their communities, they can expect to see a continued exodus of the worker bees to friendlier regions. The cost of local services will continue to soar in those expensive communities. Restaurants will cost more. Hotels will cost more. Local transportation will rise far faster than the national cost of living increases. Etc. Etc.

I’m Peter Dekom, and if we want our highest value-creation communities to continue to attract solid workers and prosper, we really have to deal with the elephant in the room: affordable housing.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Facts and Factions in the Middle East

When I was a young teenager, living as the son of an American diplomat, in Beirut, Lebanon, expectations of a better “Western-style” life rippled across the Middle East. American and British movies were everywhere, Western style was in vogue, and even those 1960s black and white TV sets often showed American and Western television programs. Iran was a bastion of bubbling modernity. Beirut was heavily Westernized. Cairo was grappling with growth in a sea of distracted poverty. Sunnis and Shiites seem to have put aside their centuries-old feud – Sunnis believe in the literal reading of the Qur’an while Shiites see it as a mystical tome that can only be read in interpreted by the most senior clerics – to live peacefully, side-by-side.
Leaders – like pan-Arabist Gamal Abul Nasser – found value in keeping Palestinians from assimilating into local Arab countries. He needed a bogyman to distract his constituents from his failed policies and abysmal poverty. By keeping Palestinians in their “refugee” camps – with powdered milk, open sewers and lots of barbed wire – he could blame Israel for just about anything he wanted. Palestinians were encouraged to rail and rage at Israel, to train their sons to “recapture the homeland or die,” and the anti-Israeli mantra kept more than one failed Arab leader in power for far longer than anyone might have guessed. We are today living with “blowback” from those serious miscalculations.
Mired in this mess was the harsh reality of power elites siphoning billions and billions (make that trillions) of dollars – money that could have been used to build schools, hospitals and massive new businesses that really could have solved the underlying economic problems – either because of the nature of the political structure (monarchs tending their wealth) or, more frequently, raw corruption that has seen money vaporize into well-protected Swiss (or other “banking secrecy”) accounts. During the Cold War, leaders accepted financial largesse from Soviet and Western pockets, playing each side against the other. Corruption crushed hope.
Slowly, many local Arabs and Persians began to realize that the promise of a better “Western” style life simply wasn’t going to happen. The West seemed content to push wealth into the hands of the few, ignoring the rest, if the leadership would simply embrace Western political policies. Most of the people now knew they were going to remain poor.
A new, rising level of both Shiite and Sunni fundamentalism drilled down on this notion of “nothing but poverty in this world.” In 1979, the modernist Iranian Shah was toppled and replaced with a Shiite Islamic Republic. New radical Muslims raised their voices across the entire Middle East. Saudi and Qatari (as well as other regional powers’) “guilt” money funded some of them. Rich regional leaders sought to buy peace from these nascent and increasingly powerful extremists. The radicals extolled the nobility of poverty, explaining that a failing pursuit of Western values was simply a distraction that would prevent the faithful from achieving passage to the afterlife. Madrasa schools created both literacy and hatred of things Western. A rising tide aimed at pushing out Western values to embrace this new Islamic explanation of life began to dominate the Middle East. You can even see this concept in the names of some of the new terrorist groups. Boko Haram (Nigeria) literally means “forbidden Western education and values.”
The situation has been exacerbated by the Great Recession and further slammed by global warming droughts that have rendered once rich farmland into desert dust. Millions of angry and further impoverished farmers have shunted their anger into the new fundamentalist tide that has swept the entire region. The Arab Spring, the rebellion in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, the re-empowerment of the Taliban in Central and South Asia and even the “nothing left to lose” vile attacks on Israel emanating from Hama-controlled Gaza (notwithstanding the most recent “permanent ceasefire”) are all evidence of this macro-trend: a new clash of civilizations.
And as much as these rising tides of religious zealots terrify us in the West, as we are deeply repelled by beheading and genocide, many of the incumbent leaders in nations in and around the Middle East are more immediately threatened. Virtually every one of these militarist Islamic terrorist groups is focused on removing these incumbent leaders and replacing them with religious “republics.” As horrific as life in a repressed community might be, to many, the resultant stability and “ceasefire” is a whole lot better, in their eyes, than dire poverty with no hope or choice, literally under the boot of some corrupt “elected” or “monarchical” leader.
As Israel responds to Hamas attacks with powerful and devastating counter-attacked, the silence of the regions’ most powerful Arab leaders, the lack of criticizing Israel, is deeply significant. Israel is no longer the big threat. Americans are even talking about cooperating with the murderous Syrian Assad regime to defeat the vicious Islamic State. As Muslim fundamentalists (operating under an alliance labeled as the “Libya Dawn”) have captured airports and major cities in Libya, the response of some of the regional players has been even more pronounced, perhaps even embarrassing to U.S. policy-makers.
“Twice in … seven days [in late August], Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist-allied militias battling for control of Tripoli, Libya, four senior American officials said, in a major escalation of a regional power struggle set off by Arab Spring revolts.
“The United States, the officials said, was caught by surprise: Egypt and the Emirates, both close allies and military partners, acted without informing Washington, leaving the Obama administration on the sidelines. Egyptian officials explicitly denied to American diplomats that their military played any role in the operation, the officials said, in what appeared a new blow to already strained relations between Washington and Cairo.
“The strikes in Tripoli are another salvo in a power struggle defined by Arab autocrats battling Islamist movements seeking to overturn the old order. Since the military ouster of the Islamist president in Egypt last year, the new government and its backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have launched a campaign across the region — in the news media, in politics and diplomacy, and by arming local proxies — to roll back what they see as an existential threat to their authority posed by Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.” New York Times, August 25th.
This is just the beginning. Will there be 9/11-style attacks against Western targets? Most certainly these cannot be ruled out. Dirty bombs or gas? Who knows? Is locking down our border with Mexico the answer? How about the vast unwatched stretched of our border with Canada? How about U.S. and U.K. citizens who are joining ranks with the Islamic State? Can we avoid putting our own boots on the ground in a new, joint effort to crush the Islamic State? Maybe not. We wasted our military credibility on stupid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps even fomenting that Islamic State, but we are now facing a much more real threat than what we fabricated in our excuse to invade Iraq. This regional powder keg will test American strategists like nothing they have seen before.
            I’m Peter Dekom, and as voters we need to familiarize ourselves with the real issues in the Middle East that may well define our own survival.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Grave Accusation

The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is good guy with a gun. National Rifle Association Executive Vice President, Wayne LaPierre, after the 2012 serial killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is a most interesting sentence. Even if you accept the notion of a “bad guy” as a diabolical felon, there’s a whole lot more in that sentence that merits examination in light of the Ferguson, Missouri police-killing and subsequent riot-control methods applied by the “good guy” police.
Good guys, armed with military hardware and armored personnel carriers, arresting journalists, slamming heads against the glass store windows, basically resulting in the Governor of Missouri taking alarming steps to rein in a mostly white police force that many have seen as having gone rogue in what is mostly an African American community. “To the rest of the world, the images of explosions, billowing tear gas and armored vehicles made this city look as if it belonged in a chaos-stricken corner of Eastern Europe, not the heart of the American Midwest. As a result, a broad call came from across the political spectrum for America’s police forces to be demilitarized…
“‘At a time when we must seek to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the local community,’ Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said, ‘I am deeply concerned that the deployment of military equipment and vehicles sends a conflicting message.’…” New York Times, August 14th.  Even in socially conservative Missouri, the Ferguson police excess became a public relations nightmare that had to be contained. “Good guys” who seemed out of control.
“The Missouri State Highway Patrol will take over the supervision of security in the St. Louis suburb that's been the scene of violent protests since a police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, the governor announced [August 14th].
“Gov. Jay Nixon said security will be overseen by Capt. Ron Johnson of the Highway Patrol. Johnson, who is black, said he grew up in the community and ‘it means a lot to me personally that we break this cycle of violence…. Ferguson will not be defined as a community that was torn apart by violence but will be known as a community that pulled together to overcome it’…" Huffington Post, August 15th.
But if the cops are not necessarily the “good guys,” how in the world are we going to trust civilians to make life and death decisions under what seem to be a new, unbelievably subjective and individual perceptions-driven “feelings” that now constitute “justifiable homicide”? The “stand your ground” statutes and egregious “open carry laws,” which bring guns into almost every nook and cranny of public life with a very loosey-goosy right to use them, have accelerated questionable deaths across the land.
On August 15th, the relatively neutral American Bar Association (and yes, I am a member), through its ABA National Task Force on Stand Your Ground Laws issued a report, summarized in the ABA Journal (August 15th), on the obvious. Here are some of those findings:
“Stand-your-ground laws are currently in effect in some form in 33 states. [See above map] The stand-your-ground laws eliminate the duty to retreat if individuals reasonably believe they are facing an imminent threat of bodily harm, and allow them to use force-including deadly force-without being found criminally liable. Some states also provide civil immunity to people who act pursuant to stand-your-ground laws. The terminology entered the mainstream lexicon when George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Florida. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder in July 2013.
 “The task force conducted five regional hearings throughout 2013; performed a 50-state survey; and cited empirical and statistical evidence gleaned from four different studies conducted around the country.
“Task force member David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, pointed to a 2012 Texas A&M study by Mark Hoesktra and Cheng Cheng which found that in states that had enacted a stand-your-ground law, homicides actually increased by eight percent…
“States that had stand-your-ground laws also often applied them inconsistently, according to their findings. Task force member Joshu Harris, an assistant district attorney at the Norfolk County District Attorney's Office, cited numerous cases where individuals not only stood their ground but actively pursued and shot other individuals, even if there was no threat of imminent harm. ‘Prosecutors and victim rights advocates in our hearings confirmed the assertion that most [people who were killed in stand-your-ground cases] were unarmed,’ said Joshu Harris.
“Stand-your-ground laws vary greatly among states, and the task force found that police officers and prosecutors uniformly expressed confusion over how to enforce these laws. Harris noted that some laws define ‘imminent threat’ differently from others, while some states have different rules and requirements depending on where the altercation took place. Another task force member, Joseph J. Vince, a former officer in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, stated that there was widespread opposition from law enforcement personnel towards stand-your-ground laws.
“‘Instead of encouraging peaceful resolution through the rule of law, stand-your-ground laws encourage violent actions," said Vince. "They place police officers at risk and give criminals an automatic defense.’…
“The task force recommended that states either repeal stand-your-ground laws or refuse to enact them. Additionally, it encouraged the ABA to adopt an educational initiative to provide accurate information about these laws, as well as to correct the misconception that these laws provide carte blanche for people to use deadly force in public areas.
“‘We've heard nothing good about stand-your-ground laws,’ said [task force co-chair Jack Middleton. ‘In fact, the more you look at them, the more problems you find. It's our hope that the ABA as a whole will take a position against these laws." Effectively, we’ve created a giant hole in the definition of murder. And in situations where there are no real witnesses, convicting a person relying on the “stand your ground” defense becomes really difficult. Facts can be recreated after the fact, and who will be the wiser? Most professional law enforcement professionals severely oppose these new statutes; it makes their work a whole lot more difficult.
Why do we trust these individual decisions instead of relying on a much more legally defensible history of what constitutes justifiable homicide? Other than crazies who cherish guns over human lives, enjoying twisting and distorting the obvious plain meaning of the Second Amendment, and the politicians who owe their political lives to that constituency, what exactly is the benefit to creating additional justification to what used to be down and dirty “murder”? There are people (and they’re neither cops nor military) out there with legally-purchased assault rifles and large-capacity magazines, walking around with their weapons in intimidatingly plain view. In stores, restaurants, government buildings, universities, etc.
When we think that the NRA of just a few decades ago stood as the benevolent force to insure gun safety and proper gun-use training has become the malevolent mouthpiece, distorter of the Second Amendment, lobbyist and sales representative for the U.S. gun manufacturing industry that provides so much of their financial support, it should make our stomachs turn. Since the days of the wild, wild West, it has never been easier to kill someone in the United States and legally get away with it. So many of these deaths are directly attributable to policies fomented by the NRA. And let’s get back to another word in Mr. La Pierre’s statement. “Only.” No other ways, eh? Think about a society that really applies that philosophy! Really? But try and get real with gun laws… and watch even liberal elected officials run for the hills, avoiding the wrath of a gun-industry lobby with seemingly more force than Congress itself!

I’m Peter Dekom, and somehow we are becoming the most violent nation in the developed world and getting worse by the day.