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Sunday 19 December 2004

The Creeping Police State

On Wednesday afternoon of last week, a high-school student in suburban Washington told another kid on the school bus that he had a bomb with him.

This remark was overheard by the bus driver, and, given the hysteria that grips authorities — particularly those having anything to do with minors — these days, the driver immediately pulled over and radioed for assistance.

It’s all here in this Washington Post story, published today.

Anyway, the bus pulls over, and police show up, according to a spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, “within minutes”. The school principal gets there “within 8 or 10 minutes” and finds that the situation “had been defused” — though there was nothing to literally defuse, as the student, of course, had no actual explosives.

“It was a pretty amazing response time,” Brewer [the school principal] said. “It was pretty unbelievable they had the capacity to get there as quick as they did and to get the students to safety as quick as they did.”

Me, I would have assumed that the kid was just an asshat and joking around, but I’m sure the school people have all sorts of guidelines and policies and procedures for avoiding liability, and that any random comment by a teenager must be allowed to bring everything grinding to a halt.

In any case it sounds like things were handled pretty expeditiously, with things being resolved within ten minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a multi-day standoff, with the student yelling, “I don’t actually have a bomb! I was kidding!” out the window, with the cops bullhorning back: “We need to know your demands! We have a 747 waiting at Dulles to take you and your comrades-in-arms to Havana, if you’ll only promise not to hurt any of the precious, precious children!”

So that didn’t happen. Good for everyone. But:

[Loudoun County Sherriff’s Office spokesman Kraig] Troxell said a half-mile stretch of Algonkian Parkway was closed for more than three hours during the investigation. Traffic backed up on nearby Route 7, slowing an already difficult holiday rush hour.

Brewer said that the parents of other students on the bus were notified quickly and that students were allowed to go home about two hours after the incident began.

So, for an incident where no one was hurt and where the controversy was settled within ten minutes, the police closed a half-mile stretch of a busy road for three hours, and held twenty students — who hadn’t been accused of anything — against their will for two hours.

algonkian-map.gif I am not sure why the police do this. Among other things, the cops are charged with keeping traffic flowing safely: this is ostensibly why they spend time writing speeding tickets. Whenever they have the opportunity, though, they are glad to block traffic and wreak havoc for quite a long time. I’m sure at least one collision occurred nearby while the road was closed — that area is a traffic horror when major roads aren’t closed — but that’s of little import to the police. (Incidentally, this is a picture of the intersection of Algonkian Parkway and Route 7, both mentioned in the Post article — it should give you an idea of the type of roads we’re talking about.) After all, when traffic is crawling, at least nobody’s going over the speed limit, which is the only traffic law that the cops seem to care about.

This is a police state, ladies and gentlemen. When the need of the police to ‘investigate’ a situation where all the facts are already known, where no one and no property were harmed or in fact ever even at any actual risk, and where the uncertainty was removed within ten minutes means delaying, for hours, thousands of people getting home, you’re living in a police state.

You won’t see an indignant editorial in the Washington Post about this (I’m guessing), or even in the local shopper newspaper. Nobody will complain that the police are acting irresponsibly, because the police (and the do-gooders) would fire back with sanctimonious statements about the need to ‘protect’ ‘children’, quietly ignoring the fact there was nothing that these ‘children’ needed to be protected from. It would be suggested that people complaining about the behavior of the police here had something wrong with them, that they were in favor of children being blown up in a bus explosion. Angry letters to the editor would ensue, so the papers will instead write editorials about the need for more money to be spent on public education — which is actually one of the Washington Post’s editorials today.

Usually police states come about with the excuse that the nation must be protected against some external enemy. Some people, particularly those who’ve just been through an airport, worry that this is happening today with the domestic, law-enforcement aspects of the War On Terror.

But I don’t think this is happening. My experience has actually been that the airport screening process has got better in many ways since before the W.O.T., because the security checkpoints are better-staffed now, and because the people staffing them are, at least, less unprofessional than they used to be.

Individual experiences vary, of course, and I’m sure that for many people, the airport screening is much worse these days. In any case, though, you can clearly see that an effort is being made to implement more-stringent screening while accommodating the travellers’ needs, which largely revolve around getting on an airplane in a reasonable amount of time.

Such accommodation from the police is not commonly seen elsewhere these days. Rather than the police serving society, society is expected to accommodate itself to the needs of the police: and where that’s the case, that’s a police state.

Posted by tino at 13:51 19.12.04
Thursday 16 December 2004

Why I Do Not Respect The Right

When I was in college, I used to summarize my dissatisfaction with the two major American political parties thus: The Democrats want to control your money, and the Republicans want to control everything else.

This was in the era of George Bush (the old one) complaining about The Simpsons, and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed complaining about just about everything else. I wasn’t exactly pleased by the Democrats’ policies back then, but I judged them to be the lesser of two evils.

Today I judge the Republicans to be the lesser evil, but I do this only by giving the GOP the benefit of the doubt. The GOP has a ‘Republican Oath’, a kind of political catechism, on their website. I think this is a good idea for political parties, lest they lose track of just what it is they’re trying to so. The Republican Oath reads as follows:

I BELIEVE the strength of our nation lies with the individual and that each person’s dignity, freedom, ability and responsibility must be honored.

I BELIEVE in equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity for all, regardless of race, creed, sex, age or disability.

I BELIEVE free enterprise and encouraging individual initiative have brought this nation opportunity, economic growth and prosperity.

I BELIEVE government must practice fiscal responsibility and allow individuals to keep more of the money they earn.

I BELIEVE the proper role of government is to provide for the people only those critical functions that cannot be performed by individuals or private organizations and that the best government is that which governs least.

I BELIEVE the most effective, responsible and responsive government is government closest to the people.

I BELIEVE Americans must retain the principles that have made us strong while developing new and innovative ideas to meet the challenges of changing times.

I BELIEVE Americans value and should preserve our national strength and pride while working to extend peace, freedom and human rights throughout the world.

FINALLY, I believe the Republican Party is the best vehicle for translating these ideals into positive and successful principles of government.

Golly. I can get behind all of that: I guess this means I’m a Republican. I even think that a guarantee of equal rights, justice, and opportunity for all means equality for homosexuals: after all, a woman who wants to marry a woman and who is denied that opportunity is being turned away solely because she’s not a man. OMG! The Homosexual Lobby has infiltrated teh GOP!!11

But as it happens, of course, I’m not a Republican, because there are too many unwritten exceptions to that oath. Every single item there should really contain another few clauses that disclaim this elegant philosophy whenever . One of them would be “except, of course, whether DRUGS!!1 are involved in any way.”

I BELIEVE the strength of our nation lies with the individual and that each person’s dignity, freedom, ability and responsibility must be honored — unless, of course, DRUGS!!1 are involved in any way.

I BELIEVE the proper role of government is to provide for the people only those critical functions that cannot be performed by individuals or private organizations and that the best government is that which governs least — except, of course, when it comes to DRUGS!!1, in which case the answer is clearly more and more spending, regulation, and interference from Washington.

I BELIEVE the most effective, responsible and responsive government is government closest to the people — unless, of course, that government closest to the people does not toe the line on DRUGS!!1.

Replace ‘DRUGS!!1’ with any number of hot-button issues and it’s just as applicable. Interestingly, I don’t think that ‘ABORTION!!1’ or ‘TERRORISM!!1’ necessarily qualify, but those are topics for another time.

It’s not as if the Democrats are not just as idiotic when it comes to drugs policy: but then the Democrats have not pledged themselves (with an Oath, no less!) to individual liberty and federalism. There’s no similar official ‘Democratic Oath’ on the Dems’ website, and ‘democratic’ and ‘oath’ both appear in so many documents that searching for an unofficial one is difficult at best.

There’s something to be said for consistency, even when I disagree with it. Today, the Democrats still want to control your money — and a lot of other things besides — but it’s hard to say in advance just what the Republicans want to control.

Posted by tino at 10:52 16.12.04
Thursday 09 December 2004

Why I Do Not Respect The Left

I enjoy reading BoingBoing, by and large, but I am on the verge of giving up on it. BoingBoing is written by a number of very clever and interesting people who happen to have political and cultural values that are, to put it mildly, left of center. That’s fine, but lately I have been noticing more and more… nastiness from these people.

I’m using BoingBoing here as a proxy for the entire Left because of two things I found there this morning.

First, they link to the story of Rachel Buchmann, a WHYY reporter who’s in hot water (and who has resigned her position) because of a nasty voice-mail message she left for the operators of Laptoplobbyist.com, a conservative website. BoingBoing’s comment is ‘I hear you, Rachel’.

What is it that they hear? Here’s a transcript of the message she left, made from the recording on Laptop Lobbyist’s website:

Hi. My name is Rachel, and my telephone number is (215) 351-2057. I wanted to tell you that you’re evil, horrible people. You are awful people, you represent horrible ideas, God hates you, and he wants to kill your children. You should all burn in hell. Bye.

Ms. Buchmann, writing here, blames this message on ‘spam rage’; she says that she was getting spam from the people at Laptop Lobbyist, and that this was what drove her to such distraction. You will note, however, that she does not mention spam in the message, though.

BoingBoing’s comment on this message wishing ill on others’ children, I remind you, was: ‘I hear you’.

Second, BoingBoing today also has an article about some posters that the Department of Justice has recently created to instruct cops (presumably) how to deal with Muslim and Sikh head coverings. In Western culture, a hat is a particularly impersonal garment: asking someone to take it off is less of a big deal than asking them to take off their coat. In some other cultures, however, the hat-analogue is quite personal; asking someone to take off his or her turban or hijab in public just isn’t done. So the DOJ, on both posters, recommends:

  • Show respect.
  • Explain why you need to conduct search.
  • Offer private room for search, if available.
  • Searches should be done by members of the same sex.
  • Review applicable policies and procedures for more information.

Well, a BoingBoing reader has created, and BoingBoing has linked to, a parody poster titled ‘Common Redneck Head Coverings’, ostensibly for ‘South Asian shopkeepers in rural areas’. The text of this poster really deserves to be reproduced in full here:

Redneckism is a sub-culture that originated in the American south during the 19th century and is distinct from both patriotism and common sense. For dietary reasons, practicing Rednecks are often obese and reek of cheap domestic beer. Some Redneck men meticulously groom the top of their head, and let the back fully develop to produce a mullet effect (see photo a). Redneck “athletes” may fashion a NASCAR trucker cap (photo b). Redneck “activists” may don a white, cone-shaped hood (photo c); hoever, many opt to just be Toby Keith (photo d).

Points to Keep in Mind when servicing customers wearing a Redneck Head Covering:
Whistle “Dixie”
Explain that health dept. requires customers to wear shoes inthe store.
Offer pro wrestling, monster truck and hunting magazines.
Customers should be services by members of the same race.
Review applicable policies and procedures for more information.

Get it? Ha ha ha ha ha, let’s all laugh at the funny joke. The DOJ has produced some admittedly idiotic posters, both of which are solely about showing proper respect for people from other cultures, and for their habits.

The leftist response? To make a poster making fun of people from another culture, and accusing them of being racists. What does it matter, anyway? Those people are ‘awful’ and represent ‘terrible ideas’.

They’re free to believe whatever they like, of course, and in the grand scheme of things these are hardly horrible offenses. But you can hardly expect anyone to listen to you when you talk about ‘tolerance’ and ‘multiculturalism’ and then behave like this toward a culture that you do not happen to embrace.

Posted by tino at 11:57 9.12.04
Monday 06 December 2004

Monster Attack

I think that this year’s Domo Christmas Cookies are the best yet.

Posted by tino at 00:48 6.12.04
Wednesday 01 December 2004

Just Say No To Government Networks

Today’s Washington Post ‘Filter’ column is headlined ‘Telecoms Winning the WiFi War’. It’s about the whole conflict between the city of Philadelphia and — the media would have you believe — Verizon.

Philadelphia wants to deploy a wireless network that would make free or low-cost high-speed Internet access available to everyone in the city. In principle, I applaud Philadelphia. The phone companies have been dragging their feet for years now on providing high-speed Internet access, and there’s no reason to believe that there’s any real hope that, say, Verizon will deploy a low-cost wireless network in Philadelphia (or anywhere else) any time soon.

In practice, though, I am horrified at the idea of the city owning the network, and I cannot believe that nobody but Tino seems to be rooting for Verizon — though I’m holding my nose — in this one. I’ve written before about the hazards of ‘free’ networks. Does anyone really think that a ‘free’ network run by the government would be very useful at all?

Leaving aside the fact that the government operating a communications network would raise all sorts of sticky free-speech issues, consider for a moment this phrase:

“We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that people can —-”

This phrase comes up a lot when people debate what should and shouldn’t be available on networks in public libraries:

We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that people can jerk off — so porn would be filtered.

We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that people can steal copyrighted works — so file-sharing systems would be blocked.

We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that a few people can hog more than their ‘fair share’ of bandwidth by downloading legitimate content — so even legal downloads of large files would likely be blocked.

We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that other people can make money — so you’d find lots of online shopping blocked.

We shouldn’t be spending tax money so that people can advocate violence — so Indymedia would be blocked.

Et cetera et cetera et cetera. And remember, the software that attempts to block all this stuff is incredibly crude, so a lot of even those few categories of content that everyone agrees are okay would be blocked. Never mind what it would cost to build this network (a lot): the technology costs would be dwarfed by the costs of defending the city against all the first-amendment and restraint-of-trade suits that would result. And as a user, you’d likely not have a choice, because as reluctant as private enterprise is to invest in large-area wireless networks now, I don’t think that their deployment would be speeded if they had to compete against free.

Furthermore, I’m not entirely certain that I would want to use a network whose operator has the power to put you in jail for terms-of-service violations.

So tell me, once again, what the people of Philadelphia would gain from this kind of service? The people in poor neighborhoods, the ones that private operators are likely to never offer service in, would have wireless network access. I think that universal service is important — hey, it’s a network, of course it benefits from the network effect — but I don’t think that the government can possibly operate it. Because blowhards and pressure groups — not the network’s users — would almost certainly dictate network policies, it’s not likely to be as useful as everyone assumes it would be.

You will notice that I assume here that the government is competent and that it means well, two things that are not always the case. The challenges of having a democratic government in today’s social climate attempting to operate something like this would be so great, and the problems from it so paralyzing, that actual technical problems wouldn’t even be noticed.

Posted by tino at 21:19 1.12.04

WSJ Editors Wanted

Dead or Alive.

Seriously. These people get paid big money, and today on page B1 you find this sentence standing alone as the second paragraph of a story:

When Wal-Mart lets down its guard, the competition came out swinging.

Professional journalism, ladies and gentlemen! It took four people to write this story, and presumably there was at least one copy editor involved: but nobody noticed this, it would seem.

Posted by tino at 18:10 1.12.04