Sunday, February 28, 2016

Fowl Mixing

As the Zika virus grabs headlines, we can see nature’s Malthusian containment strategy at work. There are seven plus billion folks on our planet, which has clearly been uncomfortable with population explosion for well over a century. Man has not been particular good for most of the other species or even for its own kind. Wars have posited man as embracing a containment system for a species that has no senior predators. None of it is very pretty, and with global climate change, we are clearly having to watch the migration of disease-carrying insects into our ever warmer states, slithering a concern over, for now anyway, a rise in dengue fever outbreaks. Just one example.
Investigative journalist, Sonja Shah, has expanded her curiosity of corporate power to a focus on the deadly explosion of recent epidemics and pandemics. Her book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, From Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, is scary reading. Recently, she wrote for the New York Times (February 5th) to drill down on one particular disease trend that is currently not at the top of medical headlines: avian influenza. It’s a category of disease, once unleashed, that often spreads easily and rapidly, often taking millions to their grave. Even the strains that travel slowly with more effort seem to kill with less mercy.
Viruses and bacteria are among nature’s most rapidly evolving and adapting creations. Nature’s inherent push to all life forms to change to survive and grow – or die – is nowhere more evident than in the world of such organisms. And man’s own ignorant agricultural practices, mixing with changing climate patterns, has most certainly accelerated the process.
Normally, a disease that attacks one species is ill-suited to take down other species. But given the correct environment, germs can slowly learn how to attack obvious neighbors. This natural proclivity is accelerated when concentrations of different species are raised for agricultural purposes in concentrated and filthy environments. Shah noted how many avian influenzas emanated from Asia… and asked “why?” She began a journey of exploration that took her into some pretty unhealthful farms and “live food” markets.
Shah writes: “It was a gray, damp January afternoon a few years back when I visited the Jiangfeng wholesale poultry market on the outskirts of Guangzhou, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. With its bleak wire enclosures and grid of cement paths, the place had the feel of a neglected 1970s-era urban zoo. And despite the comparatively narrow range of species there — chickens, geese, ducks, quails and partridges, mostly, with a smattering of rabbits and one large slumbering hog — it smelled like one, too. As I walked around, watched suspiciously by the market’s handsome young security guards, a slimy mix of bird droppings and decomposing feathers slowly crept up the heels of my clogs…
“Highly virulent and easily transmissible, these viruses emerge from open-air poultry farms and markets of the kind that stretch across Asia. Thanks to rising demand for chicken and other poultry, they’ve been surfacing at an accelerated clip, causing nearly 150 percent more outbreaks in 2015 than in 2014. And in late 2014, one strain managed to cross the ocean that had previously prevented its spread into the Americas, significantly expanding its reach across the globe.
“Novel avian influenza viruses are mongrels, born when the influenza viruses that live harmlessly inside the bodies of wild ducks, geese and other waterfowl mix with those of domesticated animals like the ones at Jiangfeng, especially poultry but also pigs. It’s possible to squelch their emergence. One way is to protect domesticated animals from the excreta of waterfowl, which can spread infection. But no such protections are in effect at markets such as Jiangfeng, which, like the rest of southern China’s booming poultry industry, lies within the East Asian flyway, one of the world’s most important waterbird migration routes.
“The poultry enclosures are open to the air. Droppings from the birds in cages as well as the birds flying overhead coat the floor. Stony-faced women with shovels push the mess into reeking, shoulder-height heaps of wet mush. Any virus that lurks in those piles can easily spread to the birds and the people who tend them. Up to 10 percent of poultry workers in Hong Kong, a study has found, have been exposed to bird flu. A fine dust of desiccated bird waste permeates the air. It settles on the leaves of the workers’ makeshift vegetable plots behind the cages and on the window panes of their nearby flats.
“These markets and the unique viral ecology they enable are not new, as Malik Peiris, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, points out. But ‘now the situation is very different,’ he said. ‘This is being done on a much bigger scale than it was years ago.’
“As health-conscious consumers in the West cut beef out of their diets and newly affluent Asians add more meat to theirs, demand for bird flesh has skyrocketed. Global poultry production has more than quadrupled since 1970. And nowhere has the taste for poultry risen faster than in Asia, where chicken farming expanded by nearly 4.5 percent a year from 2000 to 2012. China now consumes more chicken than the United States. Tyson Foods aims to double production in China.” 
Temperature change is optimizing the petri dish for viral expansion. Further, consumption patterns – how we like to buy food – can amplify the risks. Americans love the antiseptic meat counters, with lots of individually-wrapped selections of meat, fish and poultry, sometimes frozen. Not so too many Asians who are obsessed with “fresh.”  “About half of China’s poultry trade traffics in live birds. That’s because many Chinese consumers, wary of the safety of frozen meats, prefer to buy their chickens while they’re still clucking. This creates a wealth of opportunities for new viral strains to spread and adapt to human bodies. Rather than visiting the sterile frozen-food aisles of grocery stores, shoppers crowd into poultry markets, exposing themselves to live birds and their viral-laden waste. And to serve the markets, more birds travel from farms into towns and cities, broadcasting viruses along the way.
“Most novel strains of avian influenza cannot infect humans. But some can, including three currently circulating strains: H5N1, a mash-up of viruses from geese and quail; H7N9, an amalgam of viruses from ducks, migratory birds and chickens; and H10N8, the product of viruses from wild birds, ducks and chickens. These viruses kill roughly 30 percent to 60 percent of their reported human victims. None can spread efficiently from one person to another, for example through sneezes and coughs, yet. But, given the opportunity, they will continue to evolve. And if they fine-tune their transmissibility among humans, the result will almost certainly be the kind of pandemic that epidemiologists most fear — one that could sicken a billion, kill 165 million and cost the global economy up to $3 trillion.” Shah in the NY Times.
What this means for the rest of us is that there are some immigrants that we cannot stop with a wall, killers that make even ISIS look like piker. We can stop agricultural imports, but it doesn’t take more than a few travelers – even American citizens traveling overseas – with latent symptoms to carry the malevolence forward. New strains of unchecked insects flowing northward with climate change add to the risks.
In short, we need more government research to create stoppers to these travelers of death, but Congress prefers to cut that research budget because our taxes are “too high” (fact: we are in the bottom one third of countries as to percentage of GDP paid as taxes) or we wish to privatize research, even though there is no comparable motivation in the private sector to foot that bill. We are smart enough to create solutions with leaders who have deprioritized the supporting preventative measures. When the strains do hit, it may well be too little, too late.  Growth, not medical health, environmental safety or human kindness, is Congress’ mantra… and it literally can kill way too many of us.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if we do not know about the risks, we cannot raise our voices to manage such risks to save even our own lives.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

We’ll Hack You between the Eyes

In my recent Terrorism On and Off Line blog, I showed how recent efforts against ISIS’ use of social media have just begun to show some progress. I noted that “owners of major social media sites have drilled down on take-down efforts to mute ISIS’ use of their platforms to spread their malevolent messages. Some efforts have amounted to little more than a whack-a-mole effort, where sophisticated and often automated ISIS programs restore or move ISIS messages to a new place in cyber space almost as quickly as they are removed. But there are clearly some encouraging signs that some of these terrorism counter-measures in cyber space just might be beginning to make a difference. Indeed, ISIS just might be losing its global media voice.
“For example, ‘Twitter recently announced that since mid-2015 it has suspended 125,000 accounts that were threatening or promoting terrorist acts, with many of those suspended accounts primarily related to the militant group ISIS… 
“‘Researchers at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism released a report showing that Islamic State's English-language reach on Twitter has leveled off dramatically since the start of the crackdown. In the report titled ‘The Islamic State’s Diminishing Returns on Twitter’ … the researchers studied a five-month period from June 2015 to October 2015 in which they discovered that Twitter’s increased suspensions of ISIS-related accounts held the size and reach of the overall ISIS Twitter propaganda network flat, while the reach of specific ISIS supporters had been devastated.”, February 19th.
But trust me, ISIS hasn’t exactly folded up its tent and gone away. Instead, that malignant organization has counter-attacked and is pledging death and destruction against those who have interfered with their social media recruiting and communications efforts. “A group of ISIS hackers calling themselves ‘the sons of the Caliphate army’ released a video on [February 24th] claiming to show them hacking Facebook and Twitter accounts by changing profile pictures and posting ISIS materials and propaganda on the platforms, Vocativ found [online news site,].
“The 25-minute video, titled the ‘Flames of The Supporters,’ also includes images of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, with bullet holes defacing the pictures of their faces. At the end of the video, ISIS claims it has hacked more than 10,000 Facebook accounts, more than 150 Facebook groups and more than 5,000 accounts on Twitter. ‘Many of these accounts have been given to supporters,’ it said.
“The final clip threatens Zuckerberg and Dorsey directly: ‘You announce daily that you suspend many of our accounts, and to you we say: Is that all you can do? You are not in our league,’ text in the final video clip reads. ‘If you close one account we will take 10 in return and soon your names will be erased after we delete your sites, Allah willing, and will know that we say is true.’…
Over the last several months, ISIS supporters have responded to efforts to minimize its Twitter reach by moving to other platforms such as the messaging app Telegram. In the past, dating back to at least September 2014, ISIS supporters have called on ‘lone wolves’ to target Twitter employees and even kill Twitter co-founder Dorsey.”, February 24th.
Whack-a-mole might be the least of our concerns as CEOs and corporate facilities of the biggest social media companies may become direct targets of terrorism. We must prepare for unpleasant hacks of sensitive data, personal information leaked on a mass scale and the cooption of financial and media accounts of both the wealthy and the unfortunate.
I’m Peter Dekom, and we are fighting both a form of government and a technological assault on a scale never before witnessed in our history.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Teaching Climate Change in America

While 95%+ of the relevant scientific community has sustained that man-impacted climate change is real, as hard facts from government sources (NASA, NOAA, etc.) confirm a steady rise in average global temperatures and natural phenomena/disasters confirm the nasty results of such temperature rises, about half of adult Americans still doubt that human activity is the relevant cause. This level of skepticism is the highest among twenty nations polled (as reported in Science Magazine, February 16th), making what should be a technologically advanced nation like the United States seem to be substantially out of touch with global scientific sensibilities in the general public. Why?
Strong religious beliefs (unlike most non-U.S. Evangelical movements and the Catholic Church which accept the notion, American Evangelicals remain man-induced climate change skeptics). And Tea Party Evangelicals seem to be calling the shots these days across the entire GOP. The fact that school districts are highly politicized (whether elected or appointed). That gerrymandering has awarded political control to Republican climate change deniers in a majority of states. But how does this reduce to classroom practices?
So Science Magazine decided to mount an objective study of how climate change is taught in our public schools. According to the U.S. Census, we have over 14,000 separate public school districts. How objective was the study? “We undertook the first nationally representative survey of science teachers focused on climate change. Working from a commercial database of 3.9 million teachers, we drew a stratified probability sample of 5000 names and implemented a multiple-contact paper and Web survey protocol during academic year 2014–15. We collected data from 1500 public middle- and high-school science teachers from all 50 U.S. states, representative of the population of science teachers in terms of school size, student socioeconomic status, and community economic and political characteristics.” Visit the article if you want to see the specific numbers, but the general results are below.
The first question asked was whether teaching climate change was even an important part of public school curricula? Results: “Three in four science teachers allocate at least an hour to discussing recent global warming in their formal lesson plans, including 70% of middle-school science teachers and 87% of high school biology teachers... Because virtually all students take middle-school science and 97% enroll in a general biology class…, the likelihood of any student missing instruction in climate change altogether is low—on the order of 3 to 4%. Most teachers reported covering the greenhouse effect (66%), the carbon cycle (63%), and four or more observable consequences, such as sea-level rise, or changes in seasonal patterns, like the flowering of plants and animal migrations. Teachers also discuss responses to climate change and careers addressing the challenges it poses.
“Although most students will hear something about climate change in a science class, the median teacher devotes only 1 to 2 hours to the topic…, inconsistent with guidance from leading science and education bodies.” Science Magazine. So on average, students are virtually all exposed to the subject, albeit not with sufficient time needed. Got it. The next issue is, of course, what is being taught and how accurate (a quality assessment) is the average lesson?
Here what the survey tells is actually taught: “Notably, 30% of teachers emphasize that recent global warming ‘is likely due to natural causes,’ and 12% do not emphasize human causes (half of whom do not emphasize any explanation and thereby avoid the topic altogether). Of teachers who teach climate change, 31% report sending explicitly contradictory messages, emphasizing both the scientific consensus that recent global warming is due to human activity and that many scientists believe recent increases in temperature are due to natural causes (see the first chart). Why might this be the case? Some teachers may wish to teach ‘both sides’ to accommodate values and perspectives that students bring to the classroom... Beyond that, the survey data allow us to evaluate three explanations.
And, of course, the most interesting questions revolve around why science teachers do not remotely align with the scientific community on the issue. The Science Magazine survey numbers tell us: “First, teachers might experience overt pressure from parents, community leaders, or school administrators not to teach climate change. Only 4.4% of teachers reported such pressure (6.1% reported pressure to teach it, mostly from fellow teachers). This is less than the 15% reporting pressure in Wise's pioneering study…, and far less than biology teachers reported in a survey on teaching evolution...
“Second, teachers also may not be very knowledgeable about a wide range of evidence—e.g., CO2 measurements from ice cores and from direct measures at Mauna Loa—and how climate models work. Given the relative novelty of the topic in classrooms, instructional materials, and preservice training, this would not be surprising, and nearly 50% said that they would prioritize one or more unrelated topics (e.g., pesticides, ozone layer, or impacts of rocket launches)…
“Third, many teachers are unaware of the extent of scientific agreement. This is critical because we might expect that, with limited technical mastery, teachers may defer to scientific expertise. Yet, when asked ‘what proportion of climate scientists think that global warming is caused mostly by human activities?’—only 30% of middle-school and 45% of high-school science teachers selected the correct option of ‘81 to 100%.’ Even among teachers who agree that human activities are the main cause of global warming (a large majority of all science teachers), only 52% know the percentage of scientists who share their view. If a majority of science teachers believe that more than 20% of climate scientist disagree that human activities are the primary cause, it is understandable that many would teach ‘both sides,’ by conveying to students that there is legitimate scientific debate instead of deep consensus.
“The combination of limited training and uncertainty about the scientific consensus affects teachers' acceptance of anthropogenic climate change. Although only 2% of teachers personally denied that recent global warming is happening, almost one-sixth (15%) believe that it is mostly driven by natural causes, and another one-sixth thought that human and natural causes are equally important. Indeed, teachers' assessment of the scientific consensus is intertwined with their personal conclusions about global warming and its causes.”  
For many folks on the east coast recently slammed by some of the coldest temperatures in decades, the notion of global warming seems absurd, but in fact the redirection of the Gulf Stream to slant downwards, bringing frigid Arctic air to lower reaches, is actually a product of global warming itself. “Arctic warming is leading to declines in sea ice and increased snowmelt on land. Because ice and snow are bright, they reflect sunlight back into space. When they melt, more solar energy can be absorbed by the Arctic.” (Huffington Post, 1/23/14). This results in warming in the north, creating high pressure zones which push a weakened Gulf Stream south, which brings that Arctic Vortex to regions unused to such levels of cold.
In the end, just looking at the United States without reference to the massive related problems elsewhere, we are going to be faced with trillions of dollars of additional costs to pay for the damage caused by newly migrating diseases, storm surges eroding coastal land, food-growing droughts that decimate farmer and consumer alike, growing fire storms, flooding in other regions, etc., etc., etc.  All from climate change. This will slam homeowners and businesses, kill jobs, destroy infrastructure, sap government treasuries and push insurance rates through the roof. So maybe having another generation of climate change skeptics, unwilling to take the steps to prevent these massive losses, just might be one of the most expensive mistakes our nation can make. 
I’m Peter Dekom, and human history is replete with societies that have slowly died or declined because they simply were unwilling (unable) to recognize the patterns of serial damage they have inflicted on their own environments… and we may be next.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Popular Poppies Pay Petulant Poisonous Politicians

According to Transparency International, an NGO dedicated to tracking and measuring corruption nation-by-nation, among the 176 countries that it analyzes, Afghanistan has been either the second or third most corrupt nation on earth for the past few years. Yup, that same government we put in power when we deposed the Taliban a decade and a half ago. Fortunately, that government only controls capital Kabul and its environs plus the occasional region that it invades and holds until its soldiers move on to another province. Unfortunately, the land not controlled by the Kabul-based government is under the jurisdiction of either a regional warlord, or, more probably, the Taliban. Where the government does hang onto distant holdings, you can bet your bottom dollar that the region is rich in opium poppies.
Every political power group depends on the opium trade for cash, whether for Swiss bank accounts and a luxurious lifestyle, or to buy weapons to use to expand their control. And most (over 70%) of the world’s opium – which is usually converted to heroin – comes from Afghanistan. Crop yields have risen in recent years.
“The United States spent more than $7 billion in the past 14 years to fight the runaway poppy production that has made Afghan opium the world’s biggest brand. Tens of billions more went to governance programs to stem corruption and train a credible police force. Countless more dollars and thousands of lives were lost on the main thrust of the war: to put the Afghan government in charge of district centers and to instill rule of law.
“But here [in Garmsir, in southern Afghanistan] in one of the only corners of Helmand Province that is peaceful and in firm government control, the green stalks and swollen bulbs of opium were growing thick and high within eyeshot of official buildings during the past poppy season — signs of a local narco-state administered directly by government officials.
“In the district of Garmsir, not only is poppy cultivation tolerated, the local government depends on it. Officials have imposed a tax on farmers practically identical to the one the Taliban uses in places they control. Some of the revenue is kicked up the chain, all the way to officials in Kabul, the capital, ensuring that the local authorities maintain support from higher-ups and keeping the opium growing. And Garmsir is just one example of official involvement in the drug trade…
“More than ever, Afghan government officials have become directly involved in the opium trade, expanding their competition with the Taliban beyond politics and into a struggle for control of the drug traffic and revenue. At the local level, the fight itself can often look like a turf war between drug gangs, even as American troops are being pulled back into the battle on the government’s behalf, particularly in Helmand, in southern Afghanistan…
The administration of President Ashraf Ghani has made fighting corruption a central promise. A spokesman for his government, asked about official involvement in opium trafficking, including in Garmsir, insisted that there was ‘zero tolerance’ for such behavior. ‘The president has been decisive in acting on information that indicates involvement of government officials in illegal acts, including taxation of opium,’ said the spokesman, Sayed Zafar Hashemi. [Wink, wink!]
“But in Garmsir and other places in the Helmand opium belt, the system is firmly in place and remarkably consistent… It relies on a network of village leaders and people employed by farmers to manage the water supply, men known as mirabs. These men survey the land under cultivation and collect money on behalf of officials, both in district-level government and in Kabul.
“The connections run deeply into the national government, officials acknowledge privately. In some cases, the money is passed up to senators or assembly members with regional connections. In others, employees in the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, the agency that oversees provincial and district governments, pocket the payoffs, officials said. Some of the most important regional police and security commanders, including allies of American military and intelligence officials, are closely identified with the opium trade.” New York Times, February 15th. Former President Hamid Karzai wasn’t given much of a salary during his tenure, but he is a very rich man. He always told the world how he was fighting the heroin trade too. Is Ghani following in his footsteps?
Again, our recent stupid invasions seem to be the “gifts” (note in German, ‘das Gift’ means ‘the poison’!) that just keep on giving… or we could recommit hundreds of thousands of troops for an indefinite (but lengthy) period… and find yet another way to sap our economy and make us even more unpopular with the Islamic world. Why not just paint a bull’s eye our backs and enjoy what we have sown? Your tax dollars at work!!!
I’m Peter Dekom, and I love the vast difference between what the politicians who made these fateful decisions promised… and what we got and will have deal with for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Terrorism On and Off Line

ISIS is a lean, mean, media recruitment machine. Their ranks are filled with young, tech-savvy operatives, able to embrace the cutting edge digital and social media to access their constituency and their potential-constituency in 20 languages, slick, well-produced content that has obviously resonated fairly well with too many.
Back on November 30th (The Recruitment Priority at ISIS), I wrote: “With a heavy participation of ‘foreign fighters’ from all over the world, including lots of people with prior experience in mainstream media, ISIS considers its media division to be an essential part of their global conquest agenda. Cameramen, field producers, reporters and their coordinating bosses are accorded senior military ranks that mark their power and prestige within the overall hierarchy.
“Senior media operatives are treated as ‘emirs’ of equal rank to their military counterparts. They are directly involved in decisions on strategy and territory. They preside over hundreds of videographers, producers and editors who form a privileged, professional class with status, salaries and living arrangements that are the envy of ordinary fighters.
“‘It is a whole army of media personnel,’ said Abu Abdullah al Maghribi, a… defector who served in the Islamic State’s security ranks but had extensive involvement with its propaganda teams… ‘The media people are more important than the soldiers,’ he said. ‘Their monthly income is higher. They have better cars. They have the power to encourage those inside to fight and the power to bring more recruits to the Islamic State.’” Washington Post, November 20th.”
On February 16th, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with a gathering of Hollywood studio and media executives on how to use our creative skills to create a new message, content focused on countering the ISIS (also “Daesh” - an acronym for the Arabic phrase “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil Iraq wa al-Sham”): “The meeting was held at Universal Studios, and lasted about 90 minutes… One attendee who was there said that the executives also exchanged ideas and observations about studio worldwide marketing of movies and TV shows, a way of showing how narrative storytelling can cross cultures. The attendee described part of the gathering as a ‘brainstorming session,’ including how to involve storytellers in regions afflicted or threatened by ISIS, as a way to counter the narratives promulgated by the terrorist organization. ‘Let’s figure out how to involve people who are there,’ the attendee said.”, February 16th.
Meanwhile, the owners of major social media sites have drilled down on take-down efforts to mute ISIS’ use of their platforms to spread their malevolent messages. Some efforts have amounted to little more than a whack-a-mole effort, where sophisticated and often automated ISIS programs restore or move ISIS messages to a new place in cyber space almost as quickly as they are removed. But there are clearly some encouraging signs that some of these terrorism counter-measures in cyber space just might be beginning to make a difference. Indeed, ISIS just might be losing its global media voice.
For example, “Twitter recently announced that since mid-2015 it has suspended 125,000 accounts that were threatening or promoting terrorist acts, with many of those suspended accounts primarily related to the militant group ISIS… 
“Researchers at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism released a report showing that Islamic State's English-language reach on Twitter has leveled off dramatically since the start of the crackdown. In the report titled ‘The Islamic State’s Diminishing Returns on Twitter’ … the researchers studied a five-month period from June 2015 to October 2015 in which they discovered that Twitter’s increased suspensions of ISIS-related accounts held the size and reach of the overall ISIS Twitter propaganda network flat, while the reach of specific ISIS supporters had been devastated.
“Among flatlining reach on Twitter among ISIS supporters, the report also found that:
·         The number of readily discoverable English-speaking ISIS supporters on Twitter is relatively small, usually fewer than 1,000 accounts.
·         ISIS English-language social networks are extremely insular, meaning users mostly follow and interact with each other.
·         The average number of Twitter followers any given ISIS supporter could expect was 300 to 400. Average follower counts were periodically reduced by aggressive waves of suspensions.
·         Over time, individual users who repeatedly created new accounts after being suspended suffered devastating reductions in their follower counts.
·         Network and individual declines persisted even when suspension pressure eased, suggesting that suspensions diminish activity in ways that extend beyond the simple removal of accounts.
·         Average tweets per day (over the lifetime of an account) declined during the period monitored, with a peak of approximately 14.5 tweets per day in June, and a low of 5.5 tweets per day at the end of the study period.
“The researchers’ findings will be welcome news to White House and security agency officials, who in January met with tech executives to discuss combating terrorism online. The government has become increasingly worried over how adept ISIS is at using social media to recruit members online, while becoming frustrated with tech companies, who they say could do more to combat terrorist propaganda.”, February 19th.
It’s a slow and frustrating battle, both military and in the “hearts and minds” of the vulnerable. American expeditions in the Middle East have made many enemies. Our military efforts and the words of some of our major political figures have provided vivid images and messages that ISIS has used to their advantage. But there is a path to degrading ISIS’ messages and pushing them back. Remembering that most of ISIS victims are themselves Muslim, those who ultimately will pull down this ugly terrorist force, we can and must begin being at least a smart as ISIS propagandists are in reversing their gains.
I’m Peter Dekom, and applying intelligence in lieu of knee-jerk sloganeering and ineffective countermeasures clearly form a path that needs to be prioritized.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The New Big Shot on Campus

Many say that the efforts of gun control advocates over the years have created an off-setting overreaction, one that rapidly became a social movement with major political overtones, enabling the National Rifle Association to become the most powerful lobby in the United States. Few politicians survive its focused attacks, and no GOP candidate can resist embracing the NRA’s entire policy without sacrificing his or her political career.
Well-funded from its loyal membership and America’s gun manufacturers, the NRA’s distorted interpretation of the Second Amendment – one that completely ignores the “well regulated militia” phrase in that Constitutional provision – has become a most basic plank of the GOP. There have been many laws enacted of late that expand the rights of residents to carry and use weapons. From “stand your ground” to the ability to carry a concealed weapon. The latest mass killings were just this past February 20thas eight people were randomly gunned down (six killed) in Kalamazoo, Michigan and four family members shot to death in Phoenix, Arizona on February 23rd. No real sense of outrage, really. Serial killing as usual, it seems. We’ve become inured to such horrific events.
Assault weapons, oversized magazines and even silencers have become a “fundamental right.” Even as 300 million guns are scattered about the country, weapons bought and sold at unregulated gun shows have been funneled to drug cartels, and serial killings/mass shootings (many involving schools and children) have increased in recent years. After each one of these deadly events, gun sales have skyrocketed in anticipation of strong gun control legislation that never comes. President Obama’s executive orders attempted to force background checks into the loopholes have been met with GOP pledges to undo these efforts the second a Republican president were to take office.
Some rural conservative states, like recalcitrant teenagers testing the limits of parental authority, have even moved to allow their citizens the right to carry their guns in some very strange public places. “A new Texas law requires public colleges and universities to adopt policies that will generally allow concealed carry, which has been prohibited on the flagship Austin campus. The law allows private schools to keep their prohibitions, and the most prominent among them, including Rice, Baylor and Southern Methodist, have said they will do so, but public universities were not given a choice.
“‘I do not believe handguns belong on a university campus, so this decision has been the greatest challenge of my presidency to date,’ the university president [UT, Austin], Gregory L. Fenves, said in an open letter announcing the policy. ‘I empathize with the many faculty members, staffers, students and parents of students who signed petitions, sent emails and letters, and organized to ban guns from campus and especially classrooms. As a professor, I understand the deep concerns raised by so many.’” New York Times, February 17th. But state law required even the prestigious University of Texas to toe the line. The law kicks in on August 1st.
The vision of heated intellectual debates, often found in the classrooms at the best colleges and universities in the land, punctuated with gun fire, is scary, to say the least. The very notion of college-level tenure was created to make sure that professors be free to speak and challenge conventional thoughts and theories. But worrying about a possible concealed weapon or looking at a gun slightly protruding from an student who is obviously not pleased at any statements that might conflict with his or her preconceived beliefs (justified or not) would seem to be a strong a deterrent to articulating contrary theories and beliefs. Whether from a fellow student or a professor. I cannot think of a more chilling threat to free speech.
“Faculty and student groups had called on the university to develop a policy that would comply with the law, generally allowing concealed carry, while prohibiting weapons in classrooms… But Dr. Fenves, like the panel he appointed to draft the policy, concluded that it could not be done. ‘I cannot adopt a policy that has the general effect of excluding licensed concealed handguns from campus,’ he wrote, and ‘a classroom exclusion would have this effect.’
“A national group called Students for Concealed Carry, which advocates allowing guns on campus, said the university had gone too far, violating the intent of the law. The group said it would go to court to challenge parts of the new policy, particularly a passage allowing university employees to ban guns from their offices, and another one requiring that a semiautomatic handgun be carried without a round in the firing chamber… ‘President Gregory Fenves chose to punt the issue to the courts rather than stand up to a cabal of fear-mongering professors,’ the group said in a statement.
“About 5 percent of Texans older than 21 are licensed to carry concealed handguns, but Gary Susswein, a university spokesman, said the university had no way of knowing what the numbers were for staff or students. ‘Under state law, we’re not allowed to ask people if they have concealed carry licenses,’ he said.
“Texas, like most states, allows ‘open carry’ — that is, not concealed — of firearms. But the state law allowing open carry, which went into effect this year, prohibits the practice on college and university campuses.” NY Times.
The world looks at the United States as a nation of gun-crazy cowboys, generally reducing our political credibility on the global stage. But unlike Europe, where neighboring nations have been on-again, off-again friends and then enemies, we live fairly isolated from the rest of the world, sharing a common border with two traditionally friendly nations. This isolation, combined with the pioneer rebellious values of the 18th and 19th centuries when our gun laws were born, has generated a notion of “self-defense” and a right to resist authority with violence found nowhere else in the Western world.
Here’s where UT sits now, according to the Times: “In some cases, the policy reiterates what is already in state law, barring concealed carry in bars, polling places and sporting events.
In other places, it outlines restrictions specific to the campus, that gun-carriers will have to learn and work around.
No guns in dormitories, with a few exceptions. This is less significant than it appears: More than 80 percent of the universitys students live off-campus, and a person must be 21 or older to get a concealed carry license in Texas, so most undergraduates would be excluded, anyway.
Concealed firearms will be allowed in common areas of dorms like dining halls and lounges.
Concealed carry will be banned in staff or student disciplinary hearings; in laboratories with dangerous chemicals, biological agents or anything explosive; in any laboratory or other facility that houses animals; and in any facilities that provide patient care, including mental health counseling.
People who work in campus programs for children younger than college age will be prohibited from carrying handguns while taking part in those programs.”
Strangely, I don’t even think a series of shootings on campus will reverse this law, and I suspect that even some of these minimal rules will be challenged in court. How do you feel about this law?
I’m Peter Dekom, and it is morbidly fascinating how obsessed so many of us have become with having a handy way to kill our fellow man at our side at all times.