The Unwarranted Demonization of Scot Peterson (6): Vengeance Is Theirs

Friday was the second anniversary of the tragic Parkland shooting. The shooting was remembered in an appropriate-enough way in the media, except for one (to me) conspicuous thing: the continued, thoughtless, fact-free demonization of Scot Peterson, the School Resource Officer universally blamed for not entering the building where the shooting took place. Almost without exception, journalism about Parkland continues to take for granted the unexamined dogmas that Peterson “failed” to enter Building 12 and “failed” to confront the shooter, that he knew where the shooter was but deliberately hid from danger, and that his malfeasance goes beyond cowardice to legally actionable neglect, and beyond civil wrong to outright criminality. Continue reading

Documenting a Police Detention (2): The Long and Short of It

All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as necessary. In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove that any falsification had taken place. –George Orwell, 1984

As readers of this blog know, on November 29, 2017, I was detained and interrogated for several hours by members of the Lodi Police Department and Bergen County Prosecutors Office on suspicion of being an “active shooter.” Though I was not formally charged with a crime, my detention was arguably tantamount to a full arrest: I was involuntarily transported from the original place of detention to a nearby police station, involuntarily held there for a few hours, and involuntarily questioned, despite repeated invocations of my Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. Eventually, I was released without further incident.

A few weeks ago, I sent Open Public Records Act requests to both agencies for documentation of my detention. The Lodi Police Department responded to my request with a 21 page document. The Bergen County Prosecutors Office responded with a one page letter. Both sets of documents are instructive, both for what they say and for what they omit.  Continue reading

Waco Revisited

Since the topic du jour is guns and shootings, it’s serendipitous that Paramount has recently been airing a mini-series called, “Waco.” I haven’t seen it myself (I guess I’d need to acquire a TV), but hope to do so in the near future. Meanwhile, I thought readers might be interested in Reason Papers’s July 2014 symposium, “Waco: Twenty Years Later.” Technically, I suppose, the symposium came out twenty-one years after the fact, as for a variety of reasons we were unable to publish it on time in 2013.

Symposium: Waco Twenty Years Later

I tried to invite commentators representing a relatively wide spectrum of views, in order to put the Waco controversy in its widest possible context. In retrospect, I wish I had invited (or successfully invited) a larger number and more diverse set of participants.  Continue reading

Questions about the Parkland Shooting (3): What If the Educator is the Shooter?

As everybody by now knows, it’s been proposed that we arm teachers–and give them a “bit of a bonus” for standing guard. Less frequently asked question: what if the educator is the shooter?

Yes, the armed teachers are going to be “vetted.” But immigrants are extensively vetted, and we’re deathly afraid of them. If we can’t vet immigrants so as to distinguish the peaceful ones from the budding terrorists, why assume that we can vet teachers so as to distinguish the “good guys” from the would-be “active shooters”? (Never mind the complications if the educator is an immigrant…) Does it take so much of a leap of imagination to imagine a disgruntled teacher or professor using his service weapon to wipe out a classroom of students? If it does, it shouldn’t.  Continue reading

Questions about the Parkland Shooting (2): The Premature Demonization of Scot Peterson

Here’s my second round of generally unasked questions about the Parkland shooting:

What legitimate purpose was served by branding Deputy Sheriff Scot Peterson a coward, thereby inducing his resignation and tarnishing his career, before the investigation into his performance had been completed (in fact, it had barely gotten underway), and (obviously) before all of the relevant facts were in?

I can think of a couple of patently illegitimate purposes:

  1. The demonization of Peterson facilitated some awe-inspiringly gratuitous virtue-signaling, the ne plus ultra of which was Donald Trump’s mind-blowingly idiotic claim (even for him) that he, Trump, would have gone in to confront the shooter with or without a weapon in hand. Unclear what this “act” of bravado would have accomplished, except to have put a bullet in Trump’s brainless head–not a bad outcome, I suppose, but not precisely the intended one. But let’s not stop with Trump: lesser versions of Trump’s grandstanding–or waking dreamwork–have now become ubiquitous. Apparently, we live in a country of bravehearts and tactical experts who know a coward-under-fire when they see one on video, or rather, read about the video on Facebook.
  2. The attacks on Peterson also reinforced the essentially Trumpian ethos of making personnel decisions a matter of mobocratic approbation or disapprobation, a la “The Apprentice.” Professionals are now being fired across the country and across professions (or else being induced to resign their positions), not for demonstrable violations of professionally-relevant standards, but for reasons of PR and image control: what looks bad is bad has become the axiom. The people acting on that axiom are now commonly hailed as “courageous” for firing helpless subordinates without a feasible means of challenging their higher-ups; its victims have become the scapegoats that everybody loves to hate. The inversion of virtue to vice, and subordination of reality to appearance, has become complete.

I’m curious to know whether anyone can adduce good reasons for Peterson’s being treated the way he was. Naturally, the video that depicts Peterson’s supposed delinquency is not being released, because it’s part of an “ongoing” investigation (which didn’t stop the authorities from releasing confidential material on Cruz’s state of mental health). In other words, the video that is generating so much outrage is mostly invisible to the people undergoing the outrage, because the agency in custody of it is engaged in an “investigation” with an outcome they’ve already announced. It all gives new meaning to the old cliche, “Nothing to see here.” Continue reading

Questions About the Parkland Shooting (1): Whatever Happened to Patient Confidentiality?

The Parkland shooting seems to be one of those “tipping point” events that–like Ferguson in the case of the abuse of police power–may well change the trajectory of the debate over guns and gun control in the United States. At this point, it seems premature to come to any definite conclusions, whether about the shooting, or about what follows from its having happened the way it did. What seems more obvious to me is that far too many questions are going unasked. Here’s the first of several posts devoted to questions provoked by the shooting and the response to it–this first one provoked by the ease with which journalists seem to have gotten their hands on psychiatric or quasi-psychiatric reports having to do with the shooter’s state of mental health.

A question for people in social work/law enforcement: is there a legal/ethically legitimate way of getting hold of an adult welfare report by some equivalent of a Department of Children and Families as described in the article linked to just above? Or is journalistic reporting on the Florida DCF report on Nikolas Cruz based on a confidentiality-violative leak? Here’s some typical reporting on the release of the report, which is described as “confidential” in the same breath as it’s described as a matter of public record. Continue reading

Safe Haven Abu Dis

In catching up on the news from back home, I find myself reflecting on the number of people who, on hearing of my plans to spend another summer in Abu Dis, Palestine, worried out loud about my safety. As we all know, the West Bank is a dangerous place. Well, I’m perfectly safe. I just regret I didn’t ask my friends the same question regarding their plans to spend the summer in the United States.

The U.S. State Department “warns” Americans about the risks of traveling in Palestine, imposing a long list of regulations on travel by U.S. government employees stationed here. It’s not an amusing topic, and yet there seems something funny about it: a warning to Americans about the risks of violence in Palestine? Shouldn’t the State Department be warning those of us in Palestine about the risks involved in going home?

Feuer Frei! Thoughts on Guns and Policing (Updated)

Beneath the fold you’ll find a picture of me at Essex County College’s Public Safety Academy  in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, using the Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) there. (Is that click bait or what?)

Tasks accomplished tonight at the Academy:

  • I watched my friend and colleague Officer Bob Kish of the Bloomfield Police Department do his firearms certification, which he blew away, with a 93% rating (i.e., 56 out of 60 rounds he was required to fire under tightly timed conditions hit a randomly-appearing target at a distance of 1-25 yards; 80% is a passing score).
  • I shot a bunch of bad guys in the FATS. They died.
  • I learned that I am not a bad shot for a middle aged philosophy professor with a squint. I also learned that I am not a good shot for a police officer who has to operate in non-simulated circumstances.
  • I thought about the philosophical implications of it all (see below).
  • I mailed some letters.

Continue reading

Trigger Warning

A wonderful development, from Texas: concealed carry weapons now are permitted in the university classroom, with the predictable ass-covering maneuvers by university administrators, hoping in advance both to pre-empt the student who goes berserk when you “trigger” him by saying the wrong thing, and to cover the university’s ass in case the worst case scenario actually materializes (“we told you someone would go berserk and shoot you if you taught that controversial material”).

Continue reading

Handguns are made for killing: Tyeshia Obie, RIP

I was shocked and sickened today to discover that one of my students from last term had been murdered–shot to death this past January while sitting in her car on a street in East Orange, New Jersey. Her name was Tyeshia Obie, and she’s the third student of mine to have been murdered in the last decade. The other two were Stepha Henry and Imette St. Guillen, whom I taught (horribly and ironically enough) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; both Stepha and Imette were murdered, in separate incidents, in the mid-2000s. All three–Tyeshia, Stepha, and Imette–were young women in their early 20s.

Here’s a video tribute to Tyeshia:

I only managed to hear the news today, and am having some trouble processing it: I still have her emails in my inbox, and can see her sitting in my Phil 100 critical reasoning class–334 Kirby Hall, second row, second seat on the left. I didn’t know her well. I just remember that she was quiet and smiled a lot.

I know it’s quixotic, but these lines from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special” keep going obsessively through my head:

Handguns are made for killin’
They ain’t no good for nothing else
And if you like to drink your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself
So why don’t we dump em, people
To the bottom of the sea?
Before some old fool come around here
Wanna shoot either you or me?

I’m clutching at straws here. I know it’s all more complicated than a Lynyrd Skynyrd song: I’ve said so myself. But sometimes I shake my head at the violence around me–the ease with which fools acquire firearms and prove their “manhood” by putting a bullet through another person’s life–and wish it were as simple as dumping em all “to the bottom of the sea.”

There don’t seem words adequate to capture the waste of of human potential involved, except perhaps Goya’s: el sueno de razon produce monstruos–“the sleep of reason produces monsters.” To which, I suppose, the only fitting response is Freud’s, from the Future of an Illusion:

The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing. Ultimately, after endlessly repeated rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points in which it may be optimistic about the future of mankind, but in itself it signifies not a little.

He was talking about organized religion, but it applies to the worship of violence as well.

Rest in peace, Tyeshia.

Postscript, February 12, 2015: No sooner do I mention one senseless shooting, but another one materializes. I’m referring to the shooting of three Muslims in an apartment complex near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In reflecting on the facts that have been made public so far in this case, I find it remarkable that so many people have jumped to the conclusion that the shooting must be a “hate crime” in the current, narrowly skewed understanding of that phrase: a murder motivated by specifically ethnic or religious or ethno-religious bigotry. Perhaps it was, but as of this writing, there’s no evidence in the public domain to suggest that it was, over and above the fact that the victims were Muslims, and the alleged shooter was not.

Why not, for a change, take the available facts at face value and pursue them? At face value, what we have here is a dispute over noise and parking. The shooter alleges that the victims repeatedly made noise and parked in his parking spaces. He had in the past threatened them over this with a gun. We’re told that they, the victims, didn’t report his threats to the police; we’re not told whether he ever reported them to the police before threatening them (a crucial omission, as I see it). Why exactly is it so implausible to imagine that Craig Stephen Hicks shot his neighbors because (a) they kept parking in what he regarded as his spots, (b) they kept making noise when he didn’t want them to, and (c) he had a gun and they didn’t?

That he hated religion and that they were conspicuously Muslim doesn’t necessarily enter–or have to be factored into–the explanatory equation. Maybe this former-auto-parts-salesman- studying-to-be-a-paralegal-at-a-technical-college was just really disaffected, maladjusted, and full of hatred of the ordinary, non-legal-element-of-a-hate-crimes-statute variety. Maybe what enters the explanatory equation is not ethno-national bigotry but competing conceptions of entitlement and/or envy. Or maybe Hicks, the atheist hater-of-God, had trouble understanding why he, the brave atheist in touch with reality, was more gripped by inner turmoil than those young, slim, cheerful sartorially conspicuous submitters-to-Allah across the way who seemed to be so well-liked and well-adjusted to the world. Envy, provocation, and a gun: why isn’t that enough to motivate murder? Religion might well enter the equation, not as Islamophobia but in a different and more subtle guise.

I don’t know, of course; I’m just speculating out loud. But so is everyone else. What I find remarkable about our discourse is the impoverished character of our explanatory speculations. Three Muslims die at the hands of a non-Muslim, and we immediately default to a dialogue of the deaf between partisans of “#muslimlivesmatter” on the one side, and “let’s talk about Kayla Mueller, ISIS, and Obama’s offending Christians by bringing up the Crusades instead” on the other. The father of one of the victims is quoted as questioning the premise that a parking dispute could lead to a shooting. With all due respect, that premise itself is what needs to be questioned. If there’s such a thing as road rage, or people going “postal” in a bureaucratic office, why is it so hard to imagine one deranged person shooting someone over a parking space?

Some commentators on the right have had relatively sensible things to say, but even so, a diluted version of the underlying problem remains. To grasp the nature of the specifically right-wing version of that problem, go back and consider the now-forgotten Armanious family killings in Jersey City in 2005. For years, anti-Islamist ideologues like Daniel Pipes and Robert Spencer insisted that the case was a sharia-inspired murder. The case was brought to trial, and resulted in one ordinary felony murder conviction (of a non-Muslim named Edward McDonald). The obvious problem with the case was the paucity of evidence involved. Rational people are reticient  or at least cautious when the evidence is sparse. Not our right-wing ideologues: lack of evidence hasn’t stopped Daniel Pipes, author of the 1997 book Conspiracy,  from exploiting anti-Islamic sentiment to generate a conspiracy theory about the case (a decade after the fact) to “demonstrate” the power of sharia in America. He does it because he knows, cynically, that there’s a hunger for it on the part of people willing to believe what they want to believe regardless of how the evidence sits. We have William James to thank for the legitimization of willing to believe, but we have years of debased discourse on religion and ethnicity to blame for the hunger that motivates it. It’s time to try something else.