Monday, October 21, 2013

Redskins on the Warpath

Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder insists he is not going to change the team’s name. In the face of mounting criticism of the time-honored nickname, which many insist is a racial slur, Snyder refuses to budge, saying the name is not intended to be offensive and has decades of tradition behind it.

I’m surprised it has taken this long for the debate to catch up with the Redskins; most college teams with Indian-themed names and emblems were ambushed by this years ago. Colleges, which are of course hotbeds of fervent political correctness, have often caved in to the pressure, with Stanford leading the way in 1972 by ditching the relatively respectful “Indians” for “Cardinals” and subsequently the singular and baffling “Cardinal.” It is, they say, a color, and that’s something we can all root for without fear of offending.

I tend to roll my eyes when the ethnic dignity fanatics get going; I think too much can be made of what is intended to be a compliment, if a playful one. After all, you don’t call your team the Vikings because Nordic raiders were known for fainting at times of stress. To most of us, the American Indians, whatever other baggage they carry, represent ferocity, courage and endurance, qualities we hope our teams can at least fake.

However, like Charles Krauthammer, I’m not totally insensitive to the feelings of the people whose names get appropriated. In the first place, it’s interesting that we only adopt mascots when they are no longer threatening, i.e. when they are defeated. I don’t think too many Texas high schoolers thought Indians were cute when the Comanches were still cutting up settlers just over the rise, and I don’t think the good citizens of Havana would have named a baseball team the Pirates when Henry Morgan was still ravaging the Cuban coast. Can you imagine an Israeli soccer team called the Fedayeen? Somehow I don’t think we’re going to see that for a while. By the time a group gets adopted as a team symbol, they’re pretty much finished as an active fighting force. And maybe if you’re the one who got defeated, you see that adoption, however intended, as just rubbing it in.

I don’t think it’s necessarily racist to adopt Indian themes for sports teams, but I do think you have to be aware of history. And I think that if you are going to let a bunch of suburban white kids (or professional athletes) pretend to be Indians, you have to at least have a little respect. And Redskins... boy, I don’t know. Just change the damn name to the Washington Warriors, keep the logo (which, to be fair, is a lot more respectful than that silly cartoon Cleveland Indian) and be done with it. The diehards can keep calling them the Redskins the way Canadiens fans talk about the Habs and Pirates fans talk about the Bucs, but it won’t be the official name. Everybody will be happy.

But OK, Daniel Snyder doesn’t want to change it, and he’s the boss. Let’s take him at his word: nobody intends “Redskins” to be offensive. I’m willing to let him and all the fans keep the name if they show their respect in other ways, and here’s what I propose.

The Washington Redskins made $104.3 million last year. That’s income minus expenses, i.e. profit. Meanwhile, out on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota nation, alcoholism is an existential threat for the defeated people we call the Sioux and mythologize as a great tribe of warriors. Anpetu Luta Otipi is an alcohol and drug treatment center at Pine Ridge that gratefully accepts donations of clothing, bedclothes and toiletries. What percentage of the Washington Redskins’ annual profit would it take to assure that Anpetu Luta Otipi doesn’t have to go begging for basic necessities for its patients? Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota serves 1,800 students, mostly from Pine Ridge. It’s not exactly Harvard, and its endowment is somewhat smaller, but it trains teachers, nurses, social workers and technicians in an attempt, as its motto says, to “rebuild the Lakota nation through education.” What percentage of the Washington Redskins’ profits would it take to meet the needs of the nursing department for one year? Or fund a few fellowships for promising graduates to go on for advanced degrees?

I say let Daniel Snyder call his team whatever he wants, as long as he shows a little concern for the real people who have lent his business their image. Putting some of his money where his mouth is would go a long way toward co-opting the opposition. Of course, my suspicion is that the closer Daniel Snyder got to real redskins the less comfortable he would be with the name of his football team. And then maybe even people at Pine Ridge would cheer for the Washington Warriors.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, October 6, 2013


I’m disgusted with our political scene these days, so disgusted it’s hard even to think about it let alone write about it, but I do have two casual thoughts on the current government shutdown and the tussle over Obamacare:

1. When Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators walked out back in 2011 to prevent a vote on a bill they opposed, turning the state capitol in Madison over to either mob rule or a stirring people’s protest movement, depending on your point of view, I called them on it. I said if they didn’t like the bill, even if they didn’t like the Republican governor’s tactics, the thing to do was to show up and cast their votes and then constitute a principled and tenacious opposition until they could persuade the electorate to give them a majority. That’s how it’s done in a democracy. You don’t retain the high moral ground by running away or by playing obstructionist games.

The shoe is on the other foot now, and I have the same message for the Republicans in Congress: if you don’t like Obamacare, you have to wait until the electorate gives you the votes you need in both houses to repeal it. Until then, it’s the law of the land, and you don’t retain the high moral ground by holding the whole machinery of state hostage in an attempt to starve it to death. If the Affordable Care Act is as bad as you say, the voters will get tired of it soon enough and you’ll have a chance to mend it or even end it then. Right now, you’re just making people all over the world wonder if you’re responsible enough to govern the world’s greatest power. Give it up.

2. Joan Walsh, in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune the other day, claimed that the principal force behind Republican opposition to Obamacare (and the rest of Obama’s agenda) is racism. She says that the Republican party has been working for fifty years to inflame white fears and equate liberal policies with special breaks for blacks. Now, with a black president in the White House, the strategy has come to a head.

I have no doubt that many of Obama’s opponents are motivated, overtly or covertly, by racial prejudice. I also have no doubt that the Republicans are happy to have those people on board; politicians aren’t especially picky about where their votes come from. But I take issue with the attempt to equate Republican policies with racism; that looks to me like an attempt to dodge argument on the issues. If you can smear your opponents with an accusation of moral infirmity which undermines legitimacy (and racism is just about the only moral infirmity left that serves that purpose), then you don’t have to talk about policies. It saves time and trouble and homework.

There are legitimate objections to various aspects of Obamacare and, for that matter, legitimate objections to any number of policies touted by the Democratic party. Now, if you don’t like what our first black president is doing, you have to be able to give a better reason than that you don’t like the color of his skin. And if on the other hand you support Obama you ought to be able to say why you think his approach is better than the alternatives; you can’t just say the only reason people oppose him is because he’s black. The policies are the point, and black politicians should not be insulated from criticism because some of their opponents are motivated by racial hatred. A racist attack speaks for itself and needs no refutation; a reasoned critique of Obama’s policies can be debated on its merits, and the motivations of the people who present it are irrelevant as long as the argument is sound.

When people on both sides of the aisle are ready to play by the rules and engage in rational discussion of the problems facing us, we’ll start making headway on some of our problems. Until then, I’m going back in my shell.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, August 4, 2013

War and Peace in Pakistan

Of all the countries in crisis across the broad arc of the Muslim world, Pakistan may be the most important. For one thing, while Iran is working feverishly to get nuclear weapons, Pakistan already has them. And Pakistan has nervous relations with its next-door neighbor, which also happens to armed with nukes. That alone qualifies it as an accident waiting to happen.

Pakistan also is the key to the future of Afghanistan, where a decade’s worth of American blood and treasure risks being spent in vain if the country reverts to a Taliban death camp or, more likely, merely slides into murderous anarchy.

So I was glad to see Secretary of State John Kerry making a rapid visit to Islamabad last week to sit down with Pakistani leaders. Meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz, Kerry discussed Pakistani grievances (drone strikes) and American irritations (jihadist sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas). He invited them to Washington to meet with President Obama and issued the usual platitudes about partnership in a press conference.

I think this was long overdue, about twelve years overdue in fact. Hindsight is a wonderful resource not available to crisis managers, but I have to say that if I had been at the helm in late 2001 or early 2002, looking at the wreckage and deciding which countries were most likely to promote further attacks on the U.S., Iraq would have been way down my list. I’d have sent the Special Forces into Afghanistan, and then I’d have devoted a whole lot of resources to engaging the ramshackle mess that is Pakistan.

Pakistan has never been a stable and healthy polity; cobbled together in the wake of the British exit from India in 1947, it grouped together a grab bag of ethnicities with little in common but the Muslim religion and incorporated a conflict between local communities and a massive influx of refugees fleeing Hindu-majority India. Consequently unstable from the start, Pakistan has been a military dictatorship, more or less overtly, for most of its history, and the main concern of the Pakistani military has always been the threat of a war with India. This is what has driven Pakistan’s alliance with China, its acquisition of nukes, and its support for Afghan jihadists as a counterweight to feared Indian encirclement.

An American president concerned with eliminating terrorist havens in South Asia has to look at the big picture. If Pakistan and India can be brought to resolve their differences and coexist as the peaceful neighbors their shared history says they ought to be, a number of favorable consequences could follow. Pakistan would become less focused on external threats and could reestablish the rule of law in its anarchic tribal areas, relieving pressure on Afghanistan. The military could lose clout, democratization could progress and the country could tackle its enormous problems of corruption and incompetent governance.

There’s a limit to what outsiders can do, of course, but the U.S. has leverage with both countries and could bring them to the table. The main source of conflict is Kashmir, the Muslim-majority region which became part of India in 1947 and has caused three wars between the two countries. Pakistani support for terrorists and brutal Indian repression have kept the region on the boil. We should be devoting as much effort to resolving this conflict as we are to the one between Israel and the Palestinians. We should press for concessions from both sides leading to a resolution of Kashmir’s status and a firm and lasting peace between Pakistan and India. When Pakistan feels secure it will be a more willing ally in the fight against jihadism.

Prime Minister Sharif has moved to revive Pakistan-India peace talks, and the U.S. should make clear its support for the peace process. Had an American president concentrated on this geostrategic problem in 2003 instead of launching a disastrous adventure in Iraq, it’s possible that the past decade would have been far less bloody and turbulent in the Middle East and South Asia.

Sam Reaves

Monday, July 22, 2013


I don’t want to write about Trayvon Martin; I really don’t. First of all, I wasn’t there when it happened and I didn’t take notes on the trial, so I have no particular expertise to offer, and secondly just about everybody else is already writing, talking or shouting about the case. Most of all, I know that whatever I say, somebody will object to it. But people keep asking me what I think, and failing to answer can be construed as cowardice, so here goes.

Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have gotten killed; I think that’s one thing we can all agree on. The case is a tragedy any way you look at it. But nobody’s arguing about that. The arguments are about whether or not justice was done and what if anything the case proves about American society.

I tend to think that no single court case proves much of anything about American society; you need to look at big sample sizes to draw conclusions. But I was challenged on that recently by someone who thought it was obvious that the case was one more piece of evidence that white prejudice continues to hamper the prospects of African-Americans, and that if I questioned the significance of the case I must be in denial or perhaps harboring some of that prejudice.

I still don’t think one court case is enough to hang big generalizations on, but I understand that a high-profile case is enough to hang a narrative on, and narratives are very powerful. Furthermore, they’re necessary; they help societies organize their thinking about problems and they can contribute to their solutions. But it’s also true that narratives can be manipulated and they can be inaccurate; if they get too entrenched they can help us shut out new information and experiences.

Just to be clear, I don’t question that a young black man bears a burden of suspicion in everyday life that a young white man doesn’t. That is not entirely due to white perfidy; a lot of violent crime is committed by young black men and it’s rational to notice. But based on fact or not (and of course not all of it is), that burden of suspicion is undiscriminating and tiresome (or worse) to black Americans. I don’t have any trouble believing that what happened to Trayvon Martin was a result of that reflex of suspicion. What I question is the rush to claim the outcome of the case (or any single case) as proof of favored narratives.

It’s possible that George Zimmerman went after Trayvon Martin out of pure racial animosity. There’s a lot of it around. It’s possible that he provoked the whole thing with malice aforethought. But it’s also possible he was just being officious and overly zealous in his role as watchman and that he panicked and overreacted when Martin got mad. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know George Zimmerman, so I don’t know which of those is the case, and I marvel at the confidence of those who claim they do.

If this case makes me want to question anything, it’s the Stand Your Ground laws that several states, including Florida, have passed in recent years. I support the right to self-defense, but it has to be subject to legal constraints, and it seems to me that Stand Your Ground weakens those constraints. I oppose attempts to ban private ownership of guns, but I’m a big fan of training and licensing. Panic and overreaction can get real ugly real fast when you have a gun in your hand. So given that the unarmed kid got killed, it’s hard to say justice was done.

But I think some of the narratives that are being peddled are false. I don’t think the Trayvon Martin case proves that young black men are routinely in danger from angry white men; I think they are far more routinely in danger from other young black men. I don’t think the Trayvon Martin case proves that the judicial system is biased against blacks; I think it proves that prosecutorial overreach is a good way to lose a case. And before you accuse me of naivety, let me say that I think there are other cases that better illustrate systemic unfairness to African-Americans, such as the disparity in sentencing for drug crimes.

The main thing this case proves to me is that emotions run high when racial injustice is invoked. And that’s a pity, because emotion clouds vision. I’d love it if we could all sit down and discuss the complex aftereffects of slavery and Jim Crow dispassionately, but that’s not going to happen. The best I can do is state what I think and let people take their shots.

So here’s what I think: The United States has a hideous history of slavery, segregation and lynching. But it also has a history of abolitionist agitation, freedom marches, federal intervention against segregation, lively opposition to discrimination and collective soul-searching. The record, in short, is mixed, like human society. A narrative that recounted only the afflictions suffered by black people without noting the legal, social, educational and economic progress of the African-American community over the past decades would be incomplete.

In short, I’m an optimist when it comes to race relations in the United States. Why don’t I just get on board along with all the right-thinking people and support the narrative of implacable, endless racism? First because I think it’s false, and secondly because I think that the worst thing that could happen to the African American community would be succumb to despair. Tell people that there is no hope of progress and they will withdraw into fortified ethnic camps. Tell them that in spite of setbacks and derailments they live in a society that is capable of responding to their legitimate grievances and they will buy into that society. And that’s what we need.

That doesn’t mean I’m in denial or willfully ignorant of the problems that remain. It means I’m aware of what’s possible in imperfectible human societies. I look around the world and see ethnic conflicts turning lethal in countries that don’t have our mechanisms for noisy debate, messy political fixes and slow but inexorable cultural and institutional change. Our racial conflicts have deep roots, but so does our vocation for reform.

If you’re Trayvon Martin’s parents, you’re not ready to hear that, and who can blame you? But it’s true. There is a risk that high-profile heater cases like Trayvon Martin’s can distract us from the big picture. And the big picture is that African Americans have made heroic gains in the face of opposition that lessens with each generation. That’s a narrative I believe will survive a painful and contentious criminal case in Florida.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Egypt and Legitimacy

Egypt is testing all our notions about democracy and legitimacy. The military has stepped in to oust Mohammed Morsi, the elected president, setting up an interim government pending new elections. The generals were responding to a deteriorating security situation and a rising tide of protest against Morsi's inadequate attempts to solve Egypt's many problems while strengthening his Muslim Brotherhood's hold on the levers of power. If you oppose the Islamization of Egypt you are probably in favor of the coup; if you favor it you're outraged at the nullification of an electoral result. If you are just rooting for the development of a responsive and effective democracy in Egypt, like me, you're probably conflicted.

I've written about democracy before; I've said that mere majority rule cannot be our highest political value. Majority rule can be just as tyrannical as any other kind; if fifty-one percent of the electorate votes to send the Jews to the ovens, we can't just shrug and say "that's democracy". True democracy is more than just a set of electoral arrangements; it is a culture comprising such elements as a commitment to the rule of law, a free press, an impartial judiciary, a tradition of rational debate and responsible opposition, and guarantees of citizens' rights that do not depend on electoral ups and downs.

So Morsi's electoral win alone doesn't make him a democratic paragon. True, Morsi came to power in circumstances that would have challenged the purest of heart and the steadiest of hand; he inherited a deeply polarized country with severe problems in all the areas that affect the quality of daily life: economics, the environment, public services and basic security. All of this was on top of a dysfunctional political system that had gone from ossified dictatorship to who's in charge today under the pressure of massive public protests. And just after Morsi's election, the military council tenuously presiding over the country stripped the presidency of several important powers, reserving them to itself.

It would have taken a lot of luck and a lot of skill for anyone to make progress against those odds, and Morsi's high-handed moves, unilaterally claiming far-reaching powers, can arguably be seen as fighting his side of a tug-of-war with his equally autocratic military foes. Who defines legitimacy when the political rule book has been torn up?

Legitimacy is the central question in any political system. Legitimacy means that the ruled recognize the ruler's right to rule. For centuries legitimacy meant only that the ruling monarch had come to the throne according to the proper rules of hereditary succession. In the modern world we require a little more; we want power to be the product of a fair election and to obey the constraints that are supposed to protect us from tyranny. People will sacrifice to defend a government they view as legitimate; they will grow cynical and indifferent or hostile to one they see as illegitimate. Legitimacy rests on electoral success, but it requires more than that; a legitimate government cannot outrage the sensibilities of a majority or even a substantial minority of its citizens. A genuine mandate rests on electoral success plus an expectation that the electoral winner will follow widely accepted rules.

What's happening in Egypt is that two opposing views of legitimacy are going head-to-head. Those that think Islam is the fount of political legitimacy are on Morsi's side and are understandably angered that he has been deposed by a military establishment they see as the basis of the old kleptocratic regime. Their opponents are adamant that religion and the state are best kept separate. For them the electoral result alone does not justify Morsi's attempts to Islamize the state. Their view of legitimacy is akin to the one prevailing in the Western world. This is a fundamental conflict that goes beyond Egypt.

The idea that religion is the best foundation on which to organize society is still very current in the Islamic world. It used to be current in the West as well: Europe had to undergo a Reformation and a traumatic Thirty Years' War to settle the idea that matters of religion are best left to the individual conscience. Islam has not had its Reformation. Further, the failure of two imported development models, the Western capitalist one and the Communist one, to bring prosperity and good government to the Islamic world has opened the way to those who claim that only a return to Islamic values can lift these populations out of distress.

I make no secret of which side I'm rooting for: I'm for a secular state with religion left to the individual conscience. I believe that is the best model for human progress. But I'm also aware that this notion can't be imposed, either by foreign invasion or domestic military fiat. All those Morsi partisans out in the streets have rights, too, and if I disagree with their world view I sympathize with their aspirations for stability and prosperity. The notion that a secular state is preferable will have to emerge through protracted debate and no small measure of trial and error as Islamic societies confront modernity. I truly hope that Islam's Reformation will be less costly than Christianity's was. But I think it's starting.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Stars and Stripes

It's the Fourth of July and the flag is flying from my front porch again. I put it out there on national holidays, unless it slips my mind, and I try to remember to bring it in at night or when it rains. I like seeing it out there. I like the fact that the flags come out on the Fourth of July, to add to the handful of homes on our block where the flag is always flying, year round. They don't come out on every house, of course; some people, most in fact, don't participate. And that's OK. I have no axe to grind about it; I just like putting it out there.

I'm not entirely sure why. When I was a kid, my father never hung a flag from our porch. He was a World War Two veteran, but he never made a fuss about patriotism. I don't recall ever discussing it with him. If he had any, his was a quiet and reflective kind of patriotism. And that's probably the best kind. Ostentatious patriotism is no better than ostentatious anything else.

And then I went off to college and came of age in a time when patriotism was devalued and unfashionable, and it would never have occurred to me to put out a flag on the Fourth of July. That was for the silent majority types, the hard hats and the red-baiters and the rednecks. A famous photograph of an appalling incident, with a white protester stabbing at a black man with an American flag on a staff, cemented the idea in many people's minds that waving the flag was equivalent to benighted, reactionary thinking. Intellectuals and sophisticates like me sneered at such things.

And then some years later, when I had a house and a couple of young children, my grade-school age son asked me why we didn't get a flag to put out on the porch on holidays. And I went out and got one. I didn't really think about it much; I just felt like doing it. I was over feeling superior to the hard hats and the rednecks and the silent majority, and damn it, the flag looked good out there fluttering in the breeze.

My politics had moderated over the years, of course, like a lot of people's, but it wasn't really about politics. When I tried to put my finger on it, the best I could do was this: Putting the flag out on my front porch is an invitation to anybody passing by to consider me part of the family, an invitation to acknowledge kinship and shared interests. That's what it boils down to; a healthy patriotism is akin to a recognition of family ties. You don't approve of everything your ne'er-do-well brother does, but you stick up for him in a fight. You roll your eyes when Grandpa launches into one of his rants, but you help him up the stairs.

Patriotism doesn't mean mindlessly signing off on anything the government says we should do; it might even mean opposing a disastrous initiative like an ill-advised foreign war. Patriotism doesn't mean contempt for other nations; it concedes the right of all people to value their family ties. If patriotism is a virtue, it's a quiet virtue. And frankly, patriotism has to be a few places below the top of our value system; things like respect for the truth and striving to define and achieve justice have to rank higher. If you don't like the word patriotism, call it something else. Call it neighborliness and extend the concept to this whole continent-sized neighborhood we live in.

We need things to unite us in this huge, unruly, fractious country of ours. We are polarized and divided by genuine differences of interest and differing views of justice and the right path to take. We're never going to be all on the same page. But we have the great advantage that our nation was founded on a set of ideas rather than an ethnicity. That's what the flag represents: those ideas. The founders gave a great deal of thought to how a fractious population can best organize its communal affairs. They may not have gotten everything right; ideas may need revision as society evolves. But they gave it a pretty good shot, and that's what I'm celebrating when I put out the flag.

I have friends who are baffled by it; they don't get it. The political left has conceded the flag to the political right, just as the political right has conceded the human rights organizations to the left. Liberals don't fly the flag; conservatives don't join the ACLU. That's too bad; there's no philosophical reason why left and right couldn't agree on both human rights and the virtues of a quiet patriotism.

So if you go by my house and see the flag, don't make assumptions about my politics. All I'm doing is inviting you to join me in being glad that we live in what is still, for all its faults, the most powerful and most promising democracy on earth.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Stop and frisk

It’s not something I ever lose sleep over; as a middle-aged white guy I’m not very likely to get braced and patted down by a cop on the lookout for guns or drugs. It’s notorious, however, that if I were younger, darker and with lower-slung jeans, I’d have had to get used to the experience. And I imagine I would be just as irked as all the black and Latin kids who complain of harassment at the hands of police officers sweeping through their neighborhoods.

New York City is currently awaiting a federal judge’s ruling in a class-action suit calling into question the NYPD’s aggressive stop-and-frisk policy, to which the mayor and the police commissioner attribute much of the city’s spectacular reduction in crime over the past couple of decades. There’s no question that New York is a safer place now, by far, than it was twenty years ago. The question is how much stop-and-frisk has to do with that, and whether it burdens certain demographic groups disproportionately.

I think stop-and-frisk certainly has something to do with the falling crime rate; human beings respond to deterrents, and if you think you’re likely to get thrown on the wall and patted down on your way to the store, you’re a lot less likely to carry that nine-millimeter you bought off your cousin around in your jacket pocket. That means you’re also less likely to whip it out and loose off a couple of shots the next time somebody cuts you off in traffic or insults your sister. So I would imagine that stop-and-frisk has reduced by some non-negligible percentage the amount of violence on New York City streets.

But I also think that it’s probably not the principal element in reducing crime, since so few of the people who get stopped and frisked (around ten percent) are subsequently arrested for a crime. Now, ten percent is non-negligible, and I’m glad that those ten percent got nabbed for whatever they were doing or had done. But you always have to do a cost-benefit analysis, and if you’re making enemies out there in the community, you have to ask yourself if the cost is too high.

I think the main factor in reducing crime in New York was indeed better police work, but I’m not referring to stop-and-frisk. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that the principal factor was the felony arrest rate, meaning the percentage of offenders tracked down and arrested after the crime was committed. A rise in that rate means an increased deterrent to criminal activity, and that rise can be attributed to more cops on the job (NYPD numbers went up by 35% in the nineties). We’ve always relied on deterrence rather than preventive measures to keep crime down in this country. We’ve recognized that we can’t eliminate crime and hoped that punishing it as consistently as possible will keep it at an acceptable level. Stop-and-frisk is a preventive measure, and you probably are in favor of it until it starts happening to you a lot.

The aspect of stop-and-frisk most often cited as objectionable, of course, is its racial imbalance. The accusation of racial profiling is the main temperature-raiser on this issue. The great majority of people targeted by stop-and-frisk are young minority males. And as I said before, I’m sure I’d be annoyed, too, if I was getting routinely patted down while minding my own business. But racial profiling is a slippery concept, and it’s hard to see how some kind of profiling can be avoided. Profiling is what we call applying hard-won experience in an attempt to anticipate, and that’s what a good cop does, every minute of every shift. Now, profiling can be smart or it can be stupid, and the concern for a police department should be to make it as smart as possible. Skin color can become a shortcut for a lazy cop or one with a chip on his shoulder. But as even the federal judge in the trial pointed out, if a majority of the population in a high-crime area is black, you’d sort of expect the majority of people getting stopped and frisked there to be black, too. And where else would you expect the police to carry out its most aggressive interventions?

The question to ask about stop-and-frisk is whether the police have the right to stop anybody, black, white or whatever, and search them just because they think they might be up to no good. The Supreme Court recognized in Terry vs. Ohio in 1968 that sometimes cops have to take the initiative; if a police officer believes “that his safety or that of others is endangered, he may make a reasonable search for weapons of the person believed by him to be armed and dangerous.” I think we can all concede that there are times when cops need to be aggressive. But one of the primary benefits of living in a free country is that you can walk around minding your own business without worrying about passing policemen. And if a whole lot of people are saying that they’re tired of worrying about passing policemen, maybe it’s time to take a close look at the policies that led to that. Maybe it’s time to tighten the strictures on stop-and-frisk, not because we’re soft on crime but because we recognize the tug-of-war between costs and benefits.

Tightening the strictures doesn’t mean doing away with smart aggressive policing; there’s a balance to be struck somewhere. A lot of New Yorkers remember the bad old days and don’t want them to come back. Getting mugged isn’t any more fun than getting stopped and frisked, and if we constrain the police too much there will be a different reason why we can’t walk around minding our own business. But it should be possible to strike that balance. The deterrent effect of high arrest and conviction rates should be enough to keep our streets safe without turning whole sectors of the population against the police.

Sam Reaves

Friday, May 24, 2013


Terrorism polarizes people, whether you’re talking about the acts themselves or just fighting over the word. President Obama was on television last night trying to set out a coherent and defensible strategy for the U.S. to follow in its endless confrontation with jihadism, hard on the heels of the gruesome slaying of an off-duty British soldier on a London street by two men who shouted Allahu akbar as they hacked and slashed him to death and then stood with bloodied weapons in hand, haranguing witnesses in justification of the act. Muslim organizations rushed to condemn the crime while the polemics heated up in the media.

In a commentary in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald questioned the use of the word terrorism, asking, "How can one create a definition of "terrorism" that includes Wednesday's London attack on this British soldier without including many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners?" and asserting that "… the term [terrorism] at this point seems to have no function other than propagandistically and legally legitimizing the violence of western states against Muslims while delegitimizing any and all violence done in return to those states."

You have to deal with these issues, even if it angers you that people like Greenwald are rude enough to raise them at a time when all you feel is horror and outrage. Most of us are aware that the ethical issues involved in warfare are tangled and uncomfortable, but faced with savagery like this, we need to have our outrage validated before we can have a civil discussion. We are entitled to our outrage, aren't we?

I'd say that we are, but I'd also say that outrage isn't a policy, and we need to confront the issues Greenwald raises if we're going to come up with a policy in response to the deep-rooted hostility to the West that seems to prevail among Muslims. So let's try to make some distinctions that will answer Greenwald's question and point to an approach that might help President Obama steer us out of the impasse we seem to be in.

I don't propose to waste a lot of time arguing about the meaning of the word "terrorism." Like other emotionally loaded words, such as “racism”, it denotes something real but is often used as an incantation in an attempt to short-circuit debate. It’s a trump card that is supposed to ace any argument you may have. It's not much of a guide in making policy. The question to ask in a moral or political debate is not whether a certain action conforms to a contested definition but whether that action is justified.

So let's ask: is there any way of justifying the killing of Lee Rigby? He was, it is true, a British soldier. He was not, however, in uniform or engaged in a military operation; he was unarmed. His attackers wore no distinctive uniform or emblem, as required by the 1949 Geneva Convention, which also, incidentally, prohibits the infliction of “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds” on “persons taking no active part in the hostilities.” If you’re going to call what happened to Lee Rigby an act of war, then I’m going to call it a war crime.

But it’s not clear whether the laws of war apply in the struggle against terrorists, however defined; the so-called War on Terror is taking place in a legal gray area which is tying the lawyers in knots. Barack Obama found out how hard these issues are when he became President and actually had to take charge of the thing; his prosecution of the war by drone strikes and his failure to close the prison at Guantánamo are evidence of the difficulties he has encountered in balancing our security with the rule of law.

A better guide for most of us than legal theories is simple moral intuition. At the level of common usage we know what people mean by terrorism: intentionally targeting defenseless people in order to advance a political agenda. The defenseless part is important; we know that when a heavily armed American unit on patrol is shot at by Iraqi or Afghani insurgents, that’s war, not terrorism. If a man is willing to expose himself to enemy fire, he’s not a terrorist. The element of cowardice in terrorism is definitive: terrorists know their targets are not going to shoot back. There’s a reason Lee Rigby’s attackers didn’t pull their knives on armed sentries at the gate of a British military base.

And we know there’s no justification for the killing of defenseless people, even if we sympathize with the cause for which the act is committed. A person of sound moral intuition cringes when a cause he favors is “supported” by an act of terrorism. Sound moral intuition has a way of being smothered by emotion, and emotions run high in violent conflicts. But moral integrity requires that we condemn the killing of defenseless people whenever and however it occurs.

Which brings us to the next point: none of the above is to justify the “many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners” that Glenn Greewald decries. The people under the rubble of shocked and awed Baghdad were just as dead as the people under the wreckage of the World Trade Center. But there are distinctions to be made if we are to find our way through the fog of ideological war to reasonable policies that will protect us without victimizing others. The grounds on which we condemn an action matter in shaping policies to prevent its repetition.

The actions I presume Greenwald is referring to are not terrorism but, rather, either war crimes or what is delicately called “collateral damage.” The distinction matters because it clarifies how these offenses are to be remedied. You can argue till you drop about the definition of terrorism, but there is a legal definition of war crimes and a procedure for prosecuting them. Let’s call things by their names: the dead children in My Lai were victims of a war crime. And even if not enough war crimes are duly punished, they are recognized as crimes. The U.S. Army is not proud of My Lai. And the U.S. Army is currently prosecuting a sergeant who carried out a massacre of unarmed combatants in Kandahar province in Afghanistan. Terrorists do not prosecute themselves; only legitimate powers do that.

Collateral damage is harder to assess morally, but we have to make the effort. Most everyone recognizes that warfare is a messy business and that non-combatants will occasionally be caught in the fray. Allied bombing killed seventy thousand French civilians in the wake of the Normandy invasion, and nobody considers the Allied campaign against Hitler to have been delegitimized as a result. But even a single civilian death is too many, and a consistent pattern of civilian deaths has to call into question the strategy that produces it. Here is where our moral intuition has to kick in. To object to civilian deaths as a result of military action is not to concede any moral equivalence between legitimate powers and jihadist cutthroats. It is merely to recognize that an Afghan farmer whose child has been killed by an American missile has suffered as much as Lee Rigby’s loved ones. Some collateral damage may be inevitable in warfare, but carelessness toward collateral damage is indistinguishable from malice.

President Obama appears to be aware of this, and we should support him in his efforts to make the struggle against jihadism more just and less wasteful of innocent life. We are entitled to be horrified and angered by the killing of Lee Rigby, but we should also be outraged any time American munitions kill non-combatants, intentionally or not.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Losing Syria

Wars in far-away places usually take place at a safe remove, our awareness of them filtered through terse casualty reports in the paper at breakfast or snatches of jerky video, smoke rising from a jumbled cityscape, distant wails just audible beneath the reporter’s commentary. Most of us can’t find these places on a map, and unless there are American troops out there we really don’t care about them. We can’t afford to; there’s too much bloodshed in the world to exercise a lot of empathy and expend a lot of grief about every conflict.

And then there are the ones that hit home because we’ve been there. I made a short visit to Syria many years ago, and I brought home impressions that make that country’s excruciating suicide hard to shrug off. I’m as jaded as as anybody by the constant turmoil in that part of the world, but unlike most Americans I have sweated under that sun and brushed that dust off my shoes. It’s real to me. The people are real, too: I’ve bargained with shopkeepers, bantered with street urchins and been taken home for dinner by strangers. I’ve looked them in the eye; I know they bleed and suffer.

In 1985 I had a few days in Damascus and Aleppo at the tail end of a summer spent mostly in Jordan, studying Arabic. I had a contact in a household of Jordanian students at Damascus University, who were kind enough to put me up and show me around, including a quick jaunt up to Aleppo on the train for an overnight visit. Syria was mysterious and forbidding, a Soviet ally and a major sponsor of terrorism, oppressed by the sinister personality cult of Hafez al-Assad, whose portrait, sometimes in multiple copies, loomed prominently in virtually every public space. Armed men were everywhere, a good many of them in civilian clothes, which was ominous. You like to think that a man with an AK-47 is subject to military discipline and a clear chain of command. In Syria they weren’t always: Assad’s regime famously featured at least five separate bodies of secret police. Syria was the archetype of the brutal Middle Eastern dictatorship.

It was also, I found, a society of great complexity and considerable graciousness. In both Damascus and Aleppo, many layers of history had left a dense and visually enthralling urban core, Islamic exoticism overlaid by French colonial rationality (and the occasional eruption of brutal Soviet functionalism). There were streets where you could stretch out your arms and touch the walls on either side; there were tree-lined boulevards and vast shady public gardens. The Hamidiyeh souk in Damascus and Al-Medinah in Aleppo were labyrinthine and endlessly fascinating.

All of it, of course, was teeming with people: the Syrians were a diverse and cosmopolitan bunch. There were divisions; Christians and Muslims lived in separate neighborhoods and the regime was dominated by the minority Alawites. But they all rubbed elbows in the streets and I didn’t hear any complaining about privilege or the perfidy of other religions. They’d all been urbanized for millennia and were supremely social. Strangers were polite and helpful, friendships quick to form. My less-than-perfect Arabic was complimented. After the heat of the day the cool evenings were spent on the balcony with tea and backgammon, or on a stroll down to the ice cream shop or the café, my companions trading covert smiles with the extraordinarily beautiful Syrian girls passing in flocks.

It was all slightly disorienting. Evidence of the regime’s malevolent omnipotence was plentiful. This was a famously anti-Western state, the backbone of Arab rejectionist belligerence towards Israel and the U.S. And yet the people I met didn’t seem to hold anything against me or to hate much of anybody. They seemed to be getting on with their lives, to have the same needs and aspirations as anybody else. They were saddled with a toxic regime but they were pretty much like you and me. There are a lot of people in this world in the same boat.

When the Arab Spring reached Syria and the first outbreaks of violence challenged the regime of Hafez’s more presentable but equally ruthless son Bashar, I had a moment of foolish optimism. I thought maybe Syria would go quickly, the way Tunisia did, with minimal bloodshed and the emergence of a revitalized civil society from that age-old comspopolitan stew, some first steps on the bumpy road to an open society. I should have known better.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Britain, France and the U.S. declined to aid the beleaguered Spanish Republic, opting for a supposedly principled neutrality that let Hitler and Mussolini pour in troops to aid Franco’s insurgents, dooming the Republic. In 1991 the United Nations imposed an arms embargo on all parties in the quickly fragmenting Yugoslavia, thus assuring that the Serbs, who dominated the Yugoslav military, would get all the heavy weapons. The people in Sarajevo and Srbenica paid the price for the diplomats’ high-mindedness.

We never learn. President Obama’s reluctance to intervene directly in Syria may be understandable, given our experiences of the past decade. But if the price of involvement is high now, it’s because he has let it rise inexorably, to the point where he is now unwilling even to back up his ultimatum about the use of chemical weapons. Effective aid to the Syrian rebels early in the conflict, falling far short of direct intervention, could have made a crucial difference. Turkey would have provided cover for some discreet shipments of arms; imposition of a no-fly zone would have been more drastic but fully defensible on the same terms as our intervention in Libya. And early aid might have consolidated the power of the most liberal elements in the Syrian opposition, before the jihadists of Al-Nusra came to the fore. Now, of course, Obama can point to the danger of weapons falling into the wrong hands to justify inaction.

Meanwhile, a quarter of the Syrian population is languishing in vast squalid camps, the death toll climbs by triple figures every day, and what’s left of society is splitting along sectarian lines. There will be a bitter fight to the end. When they finally clear the rubble out of the streets, it’s going to take a while before the old neighborly grace of those Damascus evenings returns.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Death in Chicago

Just when you think Chicago’s murder epidemic has peaked, a new outrage reminds you that things can always get worse. The death of a six-month-old baby last week, hit by the usual stray bullet when her father was the apparent target, has produced the all-too-familiar heartbreak and helpless anger.

The murder rate in Chicago’s black neighborhoods has spiked in the last couple of years, and people are calling for action. The problem is that there’s no consensus on what kind of action is needed. Some people blame the easy availability of guns; others fault the Chicago Police Department, which is scrambling to adjust strategies to keep the lid on a situation that seems to be out of control. Some of the current chaos is an unintended consequence of two policies touted as successful: the dispersal of housing projects (bringing gang members into new neighborhoods) and the decapitation of drug gangs (leading to succession struggles). And of course there are always the root causes that need attention, whether you think it’s the economic distress of the black community or its social disintegration that’s at the heart of the problem.

So what do you do? I don’t think I’ll get much of an argument if I say that all of the above are factors in the crisis. The argument starts when you try to come up with public policies that will make things better. There’s no doubt that guns are to violence what gasoline is to fire, an accelerant that can turn a spark into a conflagration. The problem is that you can’t just wish guns away; they’re here to stay. If forty years of the Drug War haven’t rid our streets of drugs, I don’t think doubling down on firearms bans is going to make all the guns vanish. It might be smarter to concentrate on regulating behavior rather than objects.

As for the police, they’re short-handed and contending with mistrust from the community, some of which they have admittedly brought on themselves. But even if you don’t like cops, they’re all you’ve got; you can insist on better police performance but you can’t promote a “no snitching” culture in your community and expect the situation to improve.

The economic distress and the social disintegration are the toughest; those are long-term projects and are partly a matter of public policy and partly a matter of cultural changes that will only happen when enough people want them to happen. They will be with us for a long time.

If you’re feeling hopeless, it might be useful to take a look at history. It’s easy to forget that Chicago has always had crime, and sometimes it’s been worse than it is now. An instructive book is a volume by Herbert Asbury originally published in 1940 as Gem of the Prairie and re-issued as The Gangs of Chicago (echoing Asbury’s more famous The Gangs of New York) by Basic Books. Asbury detailed the long and sordid history of crime in Chicago, which was a wide-open town with weak and corrupt law enforcement from the beginning. Consider this account of a schoolboy gang war in the Maxwell Street area in the late 19th century: “For years the boys carried knives and revolvers to school, and occasionally slashed and took pot shots at each other in the class-rooms, and fought desperate and often bloody battles in the streets and playgrounds. The last of the gun-fights occurred in December 1905…” Chicago has seen this before.

And yet, things have not always been that bad. Crime waxes and wanes. Prohibition made the twenties a nightmare in Chicago, but by the fifties the streets were largely safe. Then things got bad again with the vast social changes of the sixties and seventies before improving substantially in the nineties. When crime is waning, it’s often because the police response improves, as when Captain Simon O’Donnell reduced crime in the Maxwell Street district “by literally clubbing the underworld into submission,” as Asbury says.

Tough policing can help, as New York City’s experience shows. We have to recognize that at the most basic level, brute force is needed to deter crime. We have to make sure our police force is adequately staffed and funded and supported, while insisting that police conduct be rule-governed and fair. In addition, I’d love to see us reconsider the modern equivalent of Prohibition, the futile and destructive War on Drugs. It’s the geyser of illicit drug cash that triggers the disputes and buys the guns in Chicago’s gang wars.

It’s a multi-front war. The other things have to happen as well, the social and economic improvements and the community consensus that helps restrain anti-social behavior. Part of it is public policy and part of it is minding your own back yard and making sure your kids know right from wrong. There’s no magic bullet, and what you (or I) think is the main problem is probably only one of them. But history shows that societies can improve; I’ve seen it in my lifetime. Start by holding yourself accountable and then let your elected officials know that they are accountable, too.

Sam Reaves