Capital punishment, weapons, free speech, and stoicism, after another mass shooting

Given what happened this week on Broward County Florida (the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting), I wanted to get one topic that I haven’t taken up here before “out of the day”.  That is, capital punishment, the death penalty.

Hillary Clinton had said during the 2016 campaign that she believed that capital punishment should be reserved for the most extreme cases, namely terrorism, and for where there is no chance of wrongful conviction.  This event in Florida is domestic terrorism.

There is the Eight Amendment, and the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  And the data keeps coming in, that a painless event is no sure thing for the condemned (and total painlessness may not be necessary).  I won’t belabor the details, but here are three references, “Death Penalty Info”, the New York Times about a case in Oklahoma, and CNN.  It is getting harder for states to get the drugs for lethal injection.  Ironically, beheading, which was so horrific with ISIS, is probably more humane than any of the legal methods.   I do remember the film “Dead Man Walking” by Tim Robbins (with Dean Penn) back in 1995. Timothy McVeigh was executed exactly three months before 9/11.  John Allen Muhmmad was executed about seven years after his spree in Virginia, Maryland and DC.  Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death.  After Jack Ruby got the death penalty in 1964, Texas DA Henry Wade bragged about justice – Ruby would die of cancer early – as if the public really was getting retribution indirectly for Kennedy’s assassination.

The end of life is difficult in many circumstances.  When I was growing up, men often died of massive heart attacks.  We know now that these can be excruciating. Furthermore, we don’t know how time itself behaves at the end of life.  It may stretch out and prolong experience.

I won’t belabor what happened to the victims Valentines Day, but you can say that about all such incidents, including Las Vegas and Pulse.

The most obvious and glaring question is why, in Florida, as I understand it, you can buy an AR-15 at 18 but a handgun only at 21.  And it’s obvious there are gaping holes in our background check systems.

It’s pretty obvious that a civilian doesn’t need a military-style (“nuclear”) weapon for legitimate self-defense at home.  Well, the doomsday prepper crowd will disagree with that.  One of the problems with the extreme positions taken on the extreme Right with the NRA is that they imply a lack of confidence that society as we know it, with technology, law and order, can continue.  That itself is destabilizing. But there is a view, among a lot of combative people and with some enemies, that all civilians are potential soldiers (the whole draft and conscription mentality I grew up), and now this includes women. In that mindset, the obvious arguments for assault weapons bans (which Bill Clinton got passed [only to expire] and which I certainly supported in the 90s, even as I wrote about gays in the military) get weaker.

I need not dawdle over the damage done by an AR-15, but I do remember in the Army being told that the M-16 did a lot more physical damage than the M-14 that we were trained with in Basic.

Much of the civilized world is much less sympathetic to the existential right to self-defense than the US is, with moral implications for how personal risk-sharing is to happen.  Vox, for example, writes this about Australia.

A lot is made of the Florida suspect’s social media posts.  There is confusion as to whether he was an extreme Leftist or extreme Nazi-like radical, and whether he was sympathetic to ISIS.  He seems to have  had no consistent ideology but was disgruntled. (This the “horseshoe effect” in the ideology of political violence and authoritarianism). He reportedly admired both the Santa Barbara terrorists and Elliot Rodger.

I am concerned about the effect of social media on unstable people like the suspect, as a secondary trigger.  The day before the attacks I had, as a normal course, posted about the “Unabomber manifesto” in a discussion of violent people writing manifestos to be heard first.  That was linked by Blogger label to an earlier posting about Rodger.  What if police find he had just looked at  my postings before the rampage?  Very unlikely, but possible or imaginable and chilling.  Where does “personal responsibility” start?  This feeds into the “gratuitous speech” problem (Jan. 30).

There are demands from students and one parent in particular for people to “take action”.  A Vox editorial reduces this call (from one articulate student) to Congressional politics, removed from people.  Truth-Out makes this sound much more personal.  and seems to demand that introverted writers like me join up.

Here’s a piece by French Canadian Umarie Haque, “Why is America the Rich World’s Most Ultraviolent Society?”  He describes a personal value system based on “stoicism”.  I would call it existentialism.  I recognize that this attitude, if not addressed at some very personal levels within every community, can invite or justify political authoritarianism in time, which may be one reason for the political problems we have had since 2016. After a tragedy life goes on for the remaining (maybe “The Leftovers”). I don’t like to personalize or honor victimhood, and I would not want this done for me if my end came in a violent act, all the more if even partially politically motivated.  I do give to a victim’s fund through a trust, but I let the fund decide who to help, and privately, rather than make a (possible public on social media) choice myself of whom to “remember”.

(Posted: Friday, February 16, 2018 at 2:30 PM)

Retail chains have policies forbidding employees to resist crime: is this a good idea?


Many retail chains have employment policies requiring clerks to abstain from resisting robbery attempts at their premises.  Most will terminate employees who do so.  The policies have a lot to do with liability lawyers and insurance companies, who point out that a clerk who resists could put customers in jeopardy and other employees.


There was an incident recently in Frederick, MD where a clerk was fired after successfully disarming a violent intruder, but then, because of popular support, reinstated.  Jeremy Arias has a story in a local newspaper (paywall).


It’s a good question, too, how consumers should behave if encountering such a situation.  There was a spectacular incident in De Soto, TX, south of Dallas, where a consumer shot an armed robber (story by Tom Steele).  The government has generally refrained from issuing specific advice.  Maybe that’s a good thing, because of a consumer’s behavior is unpredictable (if he is a “good guy with a gun”) that might help act as a deterrent.  That’s also true about policies for employees.  There is a community, herd effect beyond a franchise owner’s understandable desire to avoid liability exposure. If some clerks are armed and able to protect the premises and unpredictably so, some criminals might be deferred from trying.  I think Ben Carson made that point in one of the early Republican debates.

Many minimum wage or low paying jobs expose workers to danger from crime.  Think about it.  What would it be like to deliver newspapers by car in the wee hours of the morning in bad neighborhoods.

I have my own  short fuse on this sort of thing.  One time I quit a “telemarketing” job in late 2003 after someone I called after 9 PM threatened to sue me personally – zero tolerance.  I have said that if I am caught in public in a hostage situation, my own life, as an individual cannot be bargained for against someone else’s (policy ).  But even that, if widespread, could open a door to some kinds of attacks.

I write this returning home from a mountain day trip, as Donald Trump finishes his dark-toned speech about law and order.


(Published: Thursday, July 21, 2016, 11:55 PM EDT)

Two major shootings by police, protests nationwide, and then snipers attack police in downtown Dallas, call it terrorism


The problem of police profiling of African Americans and sometimes shooting them with little provocation during arrests, has exploded today.

After the cases (#AltonSterling in Baton Rouge, LA and #PhilandoDastile near St. Paul, MN), peaceful protests developed spontaneously this evening in many cities, including Washington and New York, and Dallas.

The fiancé in St. Paul recorded much of the incident for Facebook, with much coverage in the Star Tribune.

The protest in Dallas has turned violent with at least two officers wounded and at least one shooter at large, reportedly armed with an AR15, story.    WFAA continuing coverage.

Trey Yingst, whom I met one time at a WJLA-7 “Your Voice Your Future” forum, is covering this on Twitter right now.


My most obvious reaction is that police (mis)conduct can seriously undermine law enforcement in the case of foreign or external threats, including enemy states or groups like Al Qaeda or ISIS or even other domestic groups. It’s possible at this point that the Dallas situation could be that risk happening.   There are reports of up to 50 rounds, others wounded (including DART police officers), and two men in custody.  (Latest:  at least three officers dead, 10 shot, by two “snipers”.  One hotel guest downtown reports seeing shooter.)

On the other hand, as compelling as the story and video of Diamond Reynolds sounds, we don’t know what the version of the police officer is yet.

Governor Mark Dayton of Minnesota said that he did not believe this would have happened with a white person stopped.

Charles Blow of the New York Times said on CNN tonight that parents of black children have to “clip their kids wings” in telling their kids how to behave around police.

Gay and black CNN host Don Lemon (recently featured in DC’s “Metro Times”) said today, “I comply with police to stay alive.”  Lemon says he has never been in trouble with the law but feels as vulnerable to police as anyone.

Back in the mid 1990s, in the workplace in Arlington VA, an African American co-worker told me he was teaching his son to deal with discrimination and profiling.  That was during the time of the OJ trial.

I lived in Minneapolis from 1997 to 2003, and in Dallas from 1979 to 1988.

Some of the violence in Dallas happened near El Centro college downtown.  I actually took an “open door to Spanish” course there on Saturday mornings during the Cuban refugee situation in  1980.

This incident in Dallas seems to have been planned right in expectation of a protest gathering.  CNN coverage continues.

Update: Friday, July 8, 2 PM

ABC News has an up-to-date story.  The primary suspect, now dead, apparently was not motivated by foreign ideology, but indeed by “race”. But this is still domestic terrorism.

And would you believe, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called protestors and implictly even some bloggers or social media users “hypocrites” who endanger long term public safety and invite terrorism, AP and New York Times story here (Friday PM).

(Published: Thursday, July 7, 2016 at 11:5 PM EDT)

Updates: July 13

CNN publishes a piece “What Black Men of Dallas Need You to Know” by Mallory Simon.

CNN also published new details on the Castile case in Minnesota, by Rosa Flores and Catherine Soichet.  Police say that the officer thought Castile matched the description of a suspect.

Gun control: what happens when civilians are confronted with war at home?


The attack on a gay club in Orlando, FL by Omar Mateen brings up emotional controversies connected to sexual identity, religion, and various fundamental rights, as well as this year’s elections.  Let us not forget there was a shooting in a straight club of a singer the night before in Orlando.  I think it is most helpful to lay aside the identity politics for a while and talk about fundamental issues, and the most obvious issue is gun control, perceived as adversarial to a Second Amendment right to bear arms.


I can backtrack in my own mind to June 1995, to a convention of the Libertarian Party of Virginia in Richmond, where the biggest topic on the agenda that Saturday was “guns”.

One of the most shocking aspects of the Pulse attack was the apparent use of military grade automatic weapons, apparently in execution style.  But these weapons can also maim survivors much more than ordinary rounds, leaving them handicapped, disfigured and an emotional challenge for those in relationships with them.  Although the effect of the weapons was well-known during the Vietnam war, the use of them in attacks on civilians seems to a determination to make the attacks as personal as possible.  This bears on “resilience” (May 9).  This seems to have been a factor in the Boston Marathon pressure-cooker shrapnel bombings, with the amputations that resulted among those who survived.

One obvious question, then, is why not renew Bill Clinton’s assault weapon’s ban?  CNN legal consultant Mark O’Mara, as it happens, lives a few blocks from the Pulse in Orlando, and argues the case here.  Indeed, it’s hard for me to imagine a legitimate lawful use of military style weapons by civilians.  However, as Brad Plummer of the Washington Post notes in the video below, the ban was limited (partly by a grandfathering clause) in real effectiveness.

Vox has a good discussion by Libby Nelson of the common assault weapons like the AR-15 or Sig Sauer MCX, and notes that, despite minor differences from the M16 (of the Vietnam era) which is much harder to get, they are both almost as deadly as standard Army infantry weapons familiar to some of us from 1968.

It is true that banning possession of anything can go down a legal slippery slope. Donald Trump, for example, has proposed sledge-hammer solutions to societal risks that could lead to banning most user-generated content on the Web as we know it today, because of the idea that it is gratuitous and not obviously economically “productive” in employing people.  So, you ban possession of “useless” drugs (the marijuana debate), or you ban possession of weapons that people really don’t need.  At the risk of sounding circular, one breakpoint would be whether the item or capability being banned has a legal use.  It’s hard to imagine a legal use for the weapons Mateen was carrying. You can reasonably say, we usually don’t allow civilians to possess most radioactive materials, so we can say they shouldn’t have military assault weapons that can function as WMD’s in closed spaces.

There is also the idea of strengthening the background checks, to exclude more people on watch lists (like the no-fly list) from buying weapons (as supported by Hillary Clinton).  The problem with all administrative (non-judicial or “Article 15”) exclusion lists is the likely abuse of due process. But a ban on one’s flying based on less “process” may be more constitutionally acceptable than a ban on one’s owning a firearm because the latter is (arguably) explicitly protected by the Second Amendment, whereas the right to move around (physical mobility) is not so well protected (unless one somehow brings in the Fourteenth Amendment, perhaps).  Congress could offer more administrative “due process” for both travel watch lists and gun purchases as a possibly acceptable compromise.

There are some stories on the Web that explain how difficult it would have been to stop Mateen with existing laws, including a piece by Russell Berman in the Atlantic, and Logan Churchwell’s piece on Breitbart calling Mateen the most “gun control compliant shooter in history”.


I still see conservative to libertarian opinions claiming that if the customers at the bar had been armed they could have defended themselves, such as Mary Ruwart’s.  The Pulse is small and crowded (I was there in 2015).  Imagine everyone being armed during dirty dancing on a large disco.  (Maybe in a Hollywood comedy.)  Even the NRA admits that people probably should not have guns with them when drinking alcohol in an enclosed space.  Almost no owner of a sports stadium, shopping mall, theater chain, or disco wants to allow weapons on the premises.  In fact, some are at least starting bag checks (or banning backpacks and bags) and larger facilities will have to start installing magnetometers for access.  It is appropriate and necessary for businesses to have properly licensed armed guards on the premises during events.  It may be appropriate for public schools to do this, and to require that some teaching positions have firearms certification.

In fact, looking back to that LPVA meeting in Richmond, I remember some people saw capacity for self-defense as a moral duty. In a home, with a manual weapon, maybe yes.  But a smaller weapon might not be sufficient against very determined attackers or home invaders or targeting enemies, and so this takes us back into another area, why some “preppers” believe they need to be well-armed indeed. At some point, you need to have a discussion about how people share common perils in a community from outside forces.

That idea even takes me back to the subject of conscription (the recent debate over requiring women to register for Selective Service) and the solution that the Swiss have (where every male or family is armed sensibly and has a weapon at home).  It also leads me to the way Britain and Australia, and other western countries, have approached the problem by banning most civilian gun ownership outright, something Piers Morgan used to talk about.  That approach may reduce ordinary street and domestic crime and ordinary burglary, while increasing the vulnerability of a population to very determined enemy terrorists (and hence, the attacks in Paris and Brussels). With gun control, there is a “herd effect” where the safety of an individual person may be compromised or enhanced according to interactions of different circumstances.


The ”conscription” idea reminds me of something else.  Depending on how you interpret some details of the Pulse attack (the contents of Mateen’s 911 call, for example), one could argue that the disco patrons had been made into combatants, against their will – in a sense, conscripted, because of US foreign policy.  They had been selected to make the personal sacrifices, just as drafted soldiers did in Vietnam.  Wikipedia would characterize this as “fourth generation warfare“. That is how I would process it.  In my mind, there is some validity to Donald Trump’s claim that we have an “enemy without a uniform” stalking and pouncing on us.  (I’m somewhere with both sides Cruz or Trump v. Obama, Clinton and Sanders — on using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” in public, but that’s a whole different debate; President Obama did make his points well today.)  I have advocated ending Selective Service as unnecessary, but at least having it reminds us all of the latent but always lingering possibility of having to step up personally to challenges imposed on us by unforeseeable natural disasters (and I’m also insisting that a lot of them we can prevent and prepare for), or enemies that we have made.  When civilians are attacked in a military style, then there is a good case for extending a 9/11-style compensation fund to re-insure or otherwise cover medical treatments and employment and property losses.  Congress would have to do this (and would include San Bernadino and maybe Boston).  It’s also obvious that the services of active duty military combat surgeons and rehab medicine from the Armed Forces need to be made available to the casualties.  I’m not one who likes to talk about victimhood as something special or honorable, but we need to treat conflict brought to American soil for what it is – warfare.  Sebasian Junger covered this in his recent book “Tribe”.

(Published on Tuesday, June 14, 2016, at 3 PM EDT)



Muriel Bowser, at a service in Washington DC on June 15, 2016 at an Interfaith Prayer Service for the People of Orlando and for Peace, says “I hate guns” and makes her case against assault weapons simple:

She also talked about gangs, street crime, and domestic violence in conjunction with the easy availability of guns.

CNN’s Philppa Strum offers an interesting perspective on the Second Amendment, arguing that the founding fathers presumed a right to basic individual and familial self-defense, it not even needing to be enumerated, but saying the wording does apply to militia and implies that states and Congress can regulate weapons purchases reasonably. This may be in contrast to what Justice Scalia and others ruled.

Vox has an explainer by Alvin Chang showing that too much is made of the supposed lesser risk of handguns. And Jon Stokes, also for Vox, minimizes the distinction between military and civilian use of weapons in this piece on the AR-15, and idea motivates this entire posting.

Update: Thursday, June 23, 2016.

Here’s an account on CNN of the Democrats’s theatrical (but sometimes off camera) “sit-in” on gun control at the House of Representatives in Washington, just ended.

“Resilience” is an important component of personal moral compass


Back in Fifth Grade (the spring of 1954), we studied “The Pioneers” as a unit of social studies, and made little dioramas and projects, and assembled scrapbooks with little handwritten “reports” and drawings.  One time the teacher, Miss Craft, got mad at us and threatened to cancel the unit, saying we should study “courtesy” instead.

I used to enjoy western shows (in black and white) as a kid, just after we got TV in 1950 – those four-act programs where there would occur a climactic stage wreck (or maybe a train wreck) in the last act.  I once wrote a letter to a TV channel saying Gene Autry should have a horseback race with Roy Rogers.

I would enjoy Walt Disney’s idea of FrontierLand (as well as TomorrowLand and AdventureLand, much more than FantasyLand) and recall the movie “The Great Locomotive Chase” with Fess Parker. (Sorry, I also enjoyed “Howdy Doody” (even Clarabelle and Mr. Bluster) and I even rejoiced in the opening of a fictitious town “Doodyville” back in the summer of 1955, beamed onto BW TV during a summer on an Ohio farm.)  Those we the not-so-good old days of “I Like Ike”.

In 2007. Director Andrew Dominik and Warner Brothers gave us the western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”.  There’s a scene where a passenger train, around 1880 or so, is hijacked (by James and company) and all the passengers are robbed somewhere in the Dakotas.  In a way, people were vulnerable to catastrophic “terrorism” then just as we are now.  Smallpox was used as a biological weapon as early as the French and Indian Wars, all the way back in the world of James Fenimore Cooper.


“Pioneer values” seem uniquely American, or at least North American. Normally, a man saw his land (farm or ranch) and land, once settled, in combination with his family (extended) as the source of psychological identity.  The law (the town or county sheriff) mattered, but there was an element of life that transcended the “system”.  On  the frontier, you took care of yourself and your own family. If a disaster like a wildfire or tornado happened (or if you were overrun by outlaws or native Americans), you rebuilt yourself.  You did things with your hands.


I guess anyone can tell where I am headed – justifying the Second Amendment, gun ownership, self-defense and the life.  Libertarians sometimes say that the ability to defend oneself and neighbors ought to be seen as a moral obligation.  Switzerland believes this, and escaped the Nazis.  I could digress into the area of bad karma, too:  Americans, in westward expansion, took land away from natives, creating the horrible reservation system we have today, with the diabetes and poverty.  Having lived in Minnesota from 1997-2003, I’ve driven through some reservations in the northern part of the state and in South Dakota.  We also have a system of casinos and gaming that makes some natives rich.  I enjoyed visits to Mystic Lake on Highway 169, SW of Minneapolis, during that period, as the LPMN often had its conventions there.

I do understand the view of people who want the absolute right to defend their own rural strongholds.  But I want to get to a tangential or related issue.  How much should we count on “the system” to be there for us?

It’s true, we usually look at good, prudent, and “moral” behavior in terms of following the rules of the game, especially with the financial system that we have set up to live by. That system can be enriched in speculative but probably, in the long run, beneficial ways (like bitcoin or digital currencies).  And while I don’t follow the extreme positions of some gurus like Porter Stansberry (whom Ron Paul now supports) I think the possibility of future major crashes is very real, partly because debt keeps increasing, and our country (as shown by testing the brinks with the several debt ceiling crises recently) is not absolutely committed to stopping them.  As with we know from Puerto Rico and Greece, we can’t count on being paid back what we’re owed 100% of the time.  Donald Trump has been running around predicting a huge crash and saying only he can save us (read about his latest theories on solvency on Vox here).

So, an individual needs to pay some heed to the idea that the “rules” can change radically in the future, or that law and order could disintegrate, and he or she will still be morally accountable for personal actions, and their putative effect on others, in a much more uncertain environment, t the mercy of external forces.  Coercion does not absolve the need for moral accountability.

The world has been much more stable than it might have been for my adult life. At the outset (when I was 19 and a “patient” at NIH) we dodge the Cuban Missile Crisis (would Nixon have gotten us out of it?_  We’ve reversed the energy crisis and oil embargoes of the 1970s, as well as urban financial crises (at least for NYC when I lived there, but not Detroit).  In the 1980s, AIDS and HIV became an existential threat not only to lives like mine but to the future of “gay rights” as we knew it (an odd away to prioritize things) but became politically and medically manageable with technology.

The biggest before-after moment for a lot of us was 9/11, and so far the worst (in terms of big events) has not happened in the US.  But the danger of asymmetry increases, as ISIS, its internet recruiting of a mass movement, and the attacks in Europe show.  Right now, we can imagine extreme social and economic disruption that could result from dirty bombs (as with news reports after the Brussels attack), bioterror, or even electromagnetic pulse or small nuclear devices, even if the actual likelihood of these seems very small because of (fortunately) the practical difficulty in amateurs’ making them.

Still, our western values, which provoke hidden dependencies and weak karma, may have created a world that seems meaningless to a lot of young men, who seek belonging, an odd sense of sexual power, and revenge.  Furthermore, many people live in parts of the world much more vulnerable to natural catastrophes than others do (including me).  The prospect that people could recover, even group recovery means giving up a lot of personal agendas, itself helps provide some security and deterrence to enemies, and long term stability.  So, reliance matters, even as a personal moral value.


While the libertarian and sometimes evangelical right sees resilience almost through the lens of a doomsday prepper, there is a very personal side, too, having to do with relationships.  Recently, Ryan McMaken, anticipating a similar subsequent piece by Ron Paul, in criticizing conscription, actually said that being maimed in war is a kind of “tax” that keeps a person from ever being a desirable sexual partner.  But one of the ideas of “conservative” moral thinking has been reserving sexuality for marriage so that if people are faced with sudden physical challenges (even those that affect appearance as well as function) they can still form and keep relationships.  This is an idea related to resilience.  Collectively, it seems to make a whole culture safer (and able to continue itself even if severely challenged by nature or very combative enemies).  That’s one reason why social conservatives want to limit sexual speech and experience to special, socially managed spaces, and resist some retaliatory speech from people who like me who have trouble dealing with their social expectations.

Response to bullying bears on resilience.  In my own thoughts, I’ve detected in recent years a sense that there is no honor in victimhood. But simply disappearing could inspire more bullying of others.  Many “enemies” see bullying not so much as a matter of disagreeing with the values of others as a way to maintain power and control for its own sake. It’s important to note international “bullying” that can affect ordinary civilians (maybe less in the U.S. than Europe), as the disturbing Wall Street Journal article on p. A3 on May 11, 2016, by Perviaz Shallwani and Devlin Barrett.

Emotional aloofness and ostrich-like proclivity to “hunker down” may keep individuals (like me) out of trouble in many circumstances. But that personal strategy is not good for the resilience of the larger group.

(Published: Monday, May 9, 2016, 2:45 PM EDT)