Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Man-Dog Case: The Life of a Stray in Russia

BROOKLYN, New York -- I was a member of the debate team in college, competing in an extemporaneous style known as American Parliamentary debate. We competed in tournaments around the northeast, and we had rather limited success (limited, really, to a single moment, when we bested one of the top teams in North America by successfully defending the right of professional basketball players to use performance-enhancing drugs). When we entered the final round of a weekend tournament, and it was clear that we had no chance of making the playoff rounds (know as the "break" in debater parlance), we would often debate topics that were absurd or funny because the outcome didn't really matter. One such joke case was a particular favorite, and it was known as "The Man-Dog Case." In the scenario of this debate, you find yourself transformed overnight into a dog, and the question up for debate is this: do you stay at home and become a docile, domesticated dog, or do you choose to roam the streets as a stray?

Inevitably, the debate regresses into a discussion about the pleasures of dog sex, whether trash is tastier than kibble, and how hard it really is to evade dog catchers. This was certainly not the highest level of discourse possible, but during my time living and traveling in Russia, this debate stuck with me. The country is crawling with stray dogs nearly everywhere you go, from the center of Moscow to remote Siberian villages. When I saw these dogs huddled in great masses at my local subway station, or chasing children on dirt roads outside Irkutsk, I thought to myself, is it good to be a stray in Russia? Russian strays have been in the news a lot lately, so I decided to have a debate based on these stories as well as my own work as an amateur canine biologist. So let's do some debate!

In support of the resolution, it is better to live as a stray in Russia than live in a home.

Contention #1: You might get sent into space.

This is the dream of all stray dogs. All the dogs of the early Soviet space missions were female strays picked up off the streets of Moscow. Of the 11 sent into space, six returned to earth safely, including Strelka, who would later give birth to Pushinka, a puppy that was given as a gift by Nikita Khrushchev to the Kennedy family. From the streets of Moscow to the space program to the White House in one generation – now that's what I call the American Dream. You will also get your portrait hung in an obscure museum in Los Angeles, as a bonus.

Contention #2: You will have free reign of the Moscow subway.

Back in April, Moscow's subway-riding canines became a bit of an Internet sensation, as blogs and news sites latched on to this latest meme. These dogs are not news, and I had I been diligent with my blog posting, I could have "scooped" all these sites with my personal knowledge of Russian strays. Regardless, dogs freely ride the subway in Moscow, often sacking out on benches or taking over whole sections of cars. They cannot read Russian or understand the announcements (much like your average tourist), nor can they count or read a map, so to find their desired stop, they quickly hop off the train, look around to see if they recognize the station, and then either get off or jump back on the train before the doors close. Perhaps their most amazing feat is their ability to coolly ride the gargantuan escalators, which would easily spook your average American house pet. Riding the subway has also given Moscow strays an evolutionary advantage, as they have become smarter and developed advanced behaviors never before seen in other dogs (Metrodog.ru is no longer actively updated, but it is a great archive of these canine behaviors).

Contention #3: There are career opportunities in advertising.

Advertisers abhor blank space, and stray dogs are really just underutilized billboards. So, in 2002 in the city of Penza, a local business began employing the beasts for advertising. After being snared by means of an enticing meatball, the dogs then had stencil advertisements spray-painted across their bodies and were then released unharmed back into the streets to unknowingly flog the wares of a number of different brands, including the country's largest oil producer, Lukoil.

And opposing the resolution.

Contention #1: You might get sent into space.

While some space dogs went onto lives of fame and fortune, Laika and four other less fortunate hounds never got the chance to enjoy their notoriety, as they ran out of oxygen and their capsules burned up in the atmosphere.

Contention #2: You might get poisoned and turn green.

Stray dogs have become masters at tracking down the most delicious detritus of human civilization, and they will travel across the city, and even make several subway transfers, to feast on discarded shawarma. But even for a dog, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In Yekaterinburg, a pack of about 20 dogs has reportedly turned green after scavenging in a local dump. Officials believe that the color change is due to the dogs consuming chemicals that were illegally dumped at the site. It was probably no worse than being spray-painted by an advertising company, but eating trash, poisoned or otherwise, probably sucks pretty bad.

Contention #3: People will try to castrate and kill you.

Last year the Moscow city government announced plans to spay and neuter nearly half of the city's estimated 100,000 strays. This program was coupled with a plan to erect several shelters around the city to house homeless dogs, but these facilities are horribly mismanaged. Rather than sterilize the dogs and house them during their recovery, as the city program intended, most shelters just kill the animals, keeping them in appalling conditions before putting them down while pocketing the cash from the city. At least dogs do not have to worry about the police so much anymore – until 2002, police officers were authorized to shoot any stray dogs on the street, a policy which likely endangered far more people with wild gunfire than it saved from marauding strays. Now Russian dog catchers use tranquilizers to subdue animals.

So, would you choose the life of a tramp, endlessly riding the underground rails in search of your next meal, or would you choose a cozy life in a Moscow high-rise? I'm still undecided, but I think all that we have learned from this debate is that while Russian strays are some of the most resilient, resourceful, and adorable creatures on earth, being pretty much anything in Russia, man or beast, is quite a terrible proposition.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Whistleblowers in Russian Police Turn to Youtube, But Real Reform Still Unlikely

BROOKLYN, New York -- Several days ago, Alexei Dymovsky, a police major in the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, released a series of Youtube videos that have caused a stir across the country. In the three videos, Dymovsky launches an assault on the country's law enforcement agencies, accusing them of corruption, incompetence, and abuse of junior officers. Throughout his monologue, he appeals to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to tackle these problems.

These videos have become an Internet sensation, drawing more than one million hits and sparking some measure of debate about the state of law enforcement in Russia. In very uncharacteristic fashion, Russia's Interior Ministry, which controls the country's police forces, has launched an investigation into police corruption, though the Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, denied that it has any connection to Dymovsky's allegations. Nurgaliyev claimed that it was part of a normal review process, yet he ordered that Dymovsky be suspended until the review is completed. Nonetheless, the major's employers in Novorossiysk were less impressed; despite the order from the minister to merely suspend him, he has been fired from the police force for slander. The local police chief, Valery Medvedev, has also asked prosecutors to file criminal charges against him for libel. Following the release of the videos, Dymovsky traveled to Moscow to address the news media - he claims that law enforcement officials attempted to prevent him from leaving Novorossiysk, forcing him to make the journey by car.

Here is the first of the videos, with English subtitles (here are the second and third, without translations):

Dymovsky’s videos have caused other police officers to come forward with stories of corruption and misconduct. One such whistleblower is Mikhail Yevseyev, who worked for the police department in the northern city of Ukhta, where in 2005 a firebombing of a shopping center killed 25 people. Yevseyev claims that the case against the two young men who were convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison in 2008 was entirely fabricated, and following the verdict, he resigned from the department in protest. Soon after Yevseyev’s video was released, Grigory Chekalin, who formerly worked in the Ukhta procurator’s office, posted a video describing how his office fabricated the evidence in the bombing case. Dymovsky has spawned a whole new genre of Youtube videos in Russia, and even a Moscow traffic cop has gotten in on the action.

This story has been picked up by news outlets all over the world, but what does the case of Maj. Dymovsky really tell us about Russian law enforcement? Frankly, not very much that we did not know already.

The fact that the public has embraced Dymovsky simply underlines the high levels of distrust of the police and other public institutions in Russia. According to a survey conducted by the Levada Center in 2005, only 12% of Russians expressed trust the police. Sadly, this ranked higher than many democratic institutions - the federal legislative bodies, the State Duma and the Federation Council, garnered only 10% trust, while political parties managed only 5%. According to a 2007 poll, 65% of respondents believed that efforts of police are "mainly devoted to their own interests," while only 21% believed they were "devoted to the security of the population of the country." Researchers Theodore Gerber and Sarah Mendelson concluded that policing in Russia was fundamentally “predatory”; that is, rather than serving a useful societal function, the police use their coercive power to extract wealth from the “prey” population.

For some, the quick reaction of Kremlin authorities was suspicious - one political analyst hypothesized that the entire affair was fabricated by the Interior Ministry, perhaps to draw attention away from other public scandals - principally, the murderous rampage of police officer Denis Yevsyukov, who killed three people in a Moscow supermarket in April. He, like many other officers guilty of heinous crimes, has somehow avoided prosecution. I think that this public relations conspiracy is unlikely, but what makes these whistleblowers somewhat convenient for the Kremlin is that they attack some degree of systemic corruption, but they do not challenge the foundation of Russia’s security apparatus. Dymovsky appeals directly to Vladimir Putin, as if he can sweep away his corrupt underlings with his purity and sobriety; what the major fails to understand is that this former KGB stooge is at the very center of the country’s systemic police corruption. He derives his power from the predatory state.

One of Dymovsky’s most important criticisms is of the quota system. This was one of the superficial policing reforms that Russia has undertaken in recent years. These quotas are so rigidly enforced that officers are in effect encouraged to make bogus arrests and fabricate cases to meet their absurd targets. Rather than improving professionalism and accountability, this system has had the perverse effect of retrenching the predatory policing model. Rather than tackle this substantive issue, it is more likely that the government will find scapegoats. This is a tried and true method of giving the appearance of making reforms while avoiding real change. During perestroika and the early years of the Yeltsin administration, some people were brought to justice for the excesses of Soviet oppression, but these were usually low-ranking officials. One would expect that the current investigation will result in some very public firings of regional officials but no concrete changes in policy or practice. Dymovsky actually gave the Kremlin the perfect scapegoats, blaming his superior officers in the local police force - the least-connected brass will make perfect sacrificial lambs.

Corruption has always been a popular target of reform because it is an issue that impacts many ordinary citizens’ daily lives, but focusing on the corruption and misconduct of individual officers distracts attention from the philosophical foundations of the Russian police state. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, reforms to the Russian security services have been superficial and ineffective. The Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB - formerly the KGB) remain largely unchanged in structure and function from the Soviet period. “Law enforcement” is a misnomer in Russia - you must have the rule of law in order for it to be enforced, which Russia lacks. The police forces (called the militsia in Russian, sometimes referred to as “militia” in English) may resemble those you would encounter in a Western democracy, but they differ in fundamental ways. Louise Shelley, an expert on policing in Russia and the Soviet Union, described the difference like this in her book Policing Soviet Society:
A superficial glance at the militia’s patrols, safe houses and covert techniques might suggest that the Soviet militia differed little from the police of western societies. Such superficial similarities, however, masked fundamental differences. Without procedural guarantees of the rights of citizens, the law remained on the side of the Soviet militia, which readily imposed its will on both criminals and law-abiding citizens.
This fact remains largely unchanged in Russia today. In the US and other democracies, most people (I will grant that there are those who disagree, and most justifiably) believe the job of the police is to protect the public against crime and disorder. In Russia, their job is protect the state from the public. As long as that fact remains true, and believers in this philosophy continue to hold power, not amount of Youtube videos will change the practice of policing there.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

20 Years After the Fall: Progress for Some, Repression for Others

BROOKLYN, New York -- As we approach the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, commemorations of those momentous events of 1989 are all around us. I'm marking the occasion by reading The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia, Past, Present and Future.

The book was published soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and author Yevgenia Albats, an investigative reporter who currently hosts a radio program on the independent station Echo Moskva, recounts the rise of the KGB and its terrifying hold on Russian society from the early days of the Revolution to the nascent Russian democracy of the early 1990's. She began her work as a journalist in the 1980's during perestroika, when a small degree of openness allowed her to investigate the depravities of the KGB.

Russia has changed a great deal in the 15 years since this book was written, but what Albats wrote in 1994 - that the state was still in effect run by the KGB, as it always had been since the state security apparatus was erected soon after the October Revolution - is even truer today. During the 1990's, Yeltsin made half-hearted attempts to curb the influence of the security services, but they were in vain. There is no more KGB, but its successor, the FSB, remains largely unreformed, with the same institutional structure and personnel in place as in the Soviet Union. A KGB agent rose to the presidency, and he remains entrenched in power, surrounded by a coterie of stooges who are all veterans of the secret police. These torturers and assassins have traded epaulets for business suits, yet they still wield the power of a violently repressive state.

The problem is that Russia, unlike most of its neighbors in Eastern Europe, has never come to terms with its past. There were no Nuremberg trials for the tens of millions butchered by the Soviet state. Almost no one has ever been held to task for the crimes of the KGB; the few that have were merely the pawns of power struggles within the organization (for example, Beria was executed not for ordering extrajudicial killings, as his indictment stated, but for opposing Khrushchev). Even today, chekists, as agents of the secret police are known, are protected from prosecution (and not just protected - Andrei Lugovoi, the alleged murderer of dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London, is currently a member of the Russian parliament.)

Who wants to come to terms with anything? Putin's rule has reinscribed Soviet-era thinking among the people - democracy and free markets are a trick by the West to impoverish Russia, and the state must remain strong, even if that means resorting to violent repression. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 58% of Russians view the collapse of the Soviet Union as a "great misfortune." Since 1991, support for nationalist views and imperial expansion has increased, while support for multiparty democracy and free market capitalism has declined. History is written by the winners, and contrary to what the events of 20 years ago may have indicated, in Russia at least, the winners were not the democrats; they were the communist stooges who have always run the country, and they are writing a history that glorifies Stalin, demeans the victims of Soviet atrocities, and legitimizes state repression.

Things are not so grim everywhere in Eastern Europe. Nearly all the Soviet satellites have become democracies and joined the European Union. Even as we are disheartened by the lack of progress in Russia, we can celebrate the liberation of millions of people elsewhere on the continent. So, if you are looking for a more uplifting way to celebrate the fall of communism than reading about torture in Moscow's Lubyanka Prison, over the next four months, New York will be host to Performing Revolution in Eastern Europe, a festival of music, theater, film and art.

To kick off the festival, this weekend (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village is hosting the Rebel Waltz music festival. The two-night event features bands from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Poland, all of whom found themselves at some point on the wrong side of the communist censors. In The State Within a State, Albats writes about the efforts of Soviet authorities to curb the deleterious effects of rock 'n' roll music. She quotes Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB general who became a strong critic of the Russian security services. He was convicted in absentia in Russia for espionage in 2002, though his real crime was airing too much of the KGB's dirty laundry; he currently lives in exile in the United States:
"When Leningrad's stages began to fill up with rock-oriented musicians, a rock club was formed at the KGB's initiative to keep the rock movement manageable and under control."
Unfortunately, the censorship in Russia continues. DDT, a Russian rock band formed in the early 1980's that remains one of the country's most popular groups, has been unable to perform or record in Russia a song critical of Vladimir Putin, "When the Oil Runs Out." We now offer a recording from a concert in Lithuania, and with it a sincere hope that more tyrants will fall and criminals will be brought to justice twenty years on from the "fall" of communism:

And how would any celebration of the Berlin Wall coming down be complete without David Hasselhoff?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Canada Shores Up Arctic Claims With Olympic Flame

BROOKLYN, New York -- The torch relay for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver began on Friday. The Olympic flame started its Canadian journey in Victoria, British Columbia, and over the course of 106 days, it will travel 28,000 miles to hundreds of Canadian towns and cities, arriving back in Vancouver for the opening ceremonies on February 12.

One of the communities the torch will visit is Alert, which sits on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in the province of Nunavut. Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place on earth, located just 507 miles from the North Pole. The torch will be flown more than 1,700 miles from Churchill, Manitoba just so it can briefly touch down and greet the five permanent inhabitants of Alert, all members of the Canadian military who man the signals and weather stations there. Alert will not be the only stop north of the Arctic Circle - on its way back south, the torch will stop in Ausuittuq (also known as Grise Fiord) and Qausuittuq (Resolute) in Nunavut. It will also make stops in Kugluktuk (Coppermine), Nunavut, Inuvit, Northwest Territories and Old Crow, Yukon Territory.

This arctic leg of the relay is particularly interesting because it has obvious geopolitical overtones. In recent years, Canada has increased its military presence in the north in an attempt to shore up sovereignty that it sees as increasingly under threat. The region is gaining geostrategic importance. As ocean temperatures rise and sea ice retreats, the Northwest Passage through Canada’s vast northern archipelago may become a viable year-round shipping lane. The arctic also holds vast untapped supplies of natural resources, especially oil and gas, that may become accessible in the near future.

The main competitors for these arctic treasures are the United States and Russia. The US refuses to recognize Canada’s claim that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway, asserting that it is international waters that foreign ships can ply without Canada’s approval. Russia, meanwhile, has claimed that its own territorial waters - and therefore its claims to undersea resources - extended to the North Pole and beyond, setting its maritime boundaries uncomfortably close to Canada. In 2007, in an apparent attempt to legitimize this claim, Russia sent a submarine to the bottom of the ocean at the Pole to plant a small Russian flag on the sea floor (they appear to be unaware that flag-planting ceased to be a legitimate way to make territorial claims sometime in the 17th century).

Now Canada is using the Olympics to further shore up its claims to the arctic, and the torch can be used to enhance sovereignty both externally and internally. Externally, the torch’s arrival in Alert signals to the world that Canada considers these far-flung regions as integral parts of their national territory. Internally, it binds these remote communities to the national center - Canadians who live in the arctic, or who are members of the First Nations minority, are just as much a part of the national celebration as the metropolitan south or Anglo-, French- or any other type of Canadian (the weekly television show Hockey Night in Canada plays a similar role).

Canada is not unique in doing this. Most host countries carry the torch through every one of their constituent regions. At the last Olympics, the Chinese government used the torch relay to reaffirm its territorial integrity, carrying it across the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang and even to the top of Mt. Everest (the Himalayan region has long been at the center of territorial disputes between China, India and Pakistan). Much of the torch relay in 2008 was besieged by protesters in foreign countries who spoke out against the Chinese government’s oppressive policies in Tibet and elsewhere, but once the flame reached China proper, it was met mostly with celebration of the Olympics as a symbol of Chinese global power and national unity.

During this march to Beijing, the American news media rediscovered the origins of the torch relay in the 1936 Berlin Games and spoke breathlessly about “Hitler’s Olympics” and the parallels with Red China and their nationalist spectacle. Chinese nationalism can be a terrifying and dangerous thing, and the government has shown a great deal of recklessness and a great lack of control whenever it unleashes nationalist anger. Nonetheless, the point here is that no one is above using sport, especially the Olympics, for promoting nationalism. The 1936 Olympics created many iconic images that linked sport to fascism, militarism, and racial prejudice. We like to think that instead we have inherited the mantle of Jesse Owens, who embarrassed the Master Race, but Berlin lives on at every Olympics. China was chided for its global torch tour, but no other country has shied away from the practice because of its Nazi origins. The International Olympic Committee has long been run by fascists, from Nazi sympathizer Avery Brundage to Francoist Juan Antonio Samaranch. The current body is filled by corrupt sycophants and apologists who hand the Olympics to the highest bidder, even if it is an oppressive dictatorship like China or Russia. We would all be better off if we just did away with the Olympics entirely - the institution is too corrupt and too compromised to even approach any of the lofty goals it aspires to.

Canada is using the Olympics, albeit in a tiny, insignificant way, to further its geopolitical agenda, but so does every other country that hosts the Olympics. When Russia inherits the Olympic flame in 2014 for the Winter Games in Sochi, it will undoubtedly be used for far more aggressive and chauvinistic nationalist purposes. It will likely make stops in Georgia's breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but I bet that it will also be taken to the North Pole, either undersea or over ice.

Friday, October 9, 2009

How Obama Can Earn His Nobel Peace Prize

BROOKLYN, New York -- President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday. It is not entirely clear why he deserved this award. The Nobel Committee seemed to award him the prize for his tone and aspirations rather than any concrete accomplishments.

"It was unavoidable to give the prize to the man who has improved the international climate and emphasized negotiations and dialogue," Thorbjoern Jagland, the chair of the Nobel Committee, said, as quoted in GlobalPost. In effect, he was given the award for not being George W. Bush.

George Packer made a good case for refusing the award, noting on his New Yorker blog, "The prize should be awarded for achievement, not aspiration, and so far Obama’s main achievement has been getting elected President, which is in a different category."

I wholeheartedly agree. He was already elected President of the United States - how much more validation does he need? Will this prize suddenly cause the North Koreans to surrender their nuclear weapons, the Russians to abandon their claimed sphere of influence, or the Palestinians and Israelis to get serious about peace? Certainly not. While it may affirm the Europeans' love affair with Obama, it does little to improve his position or prestige when he gets to the negotiating table.

I will give credit to Obama for staking out one particularly bold position: to rid the world of nuclear weapons. As he has stated, this goal will probably not be achieved either during his presidency or his lifetime. This marks another distinct departure from the policies of the Bush administration, as well as nearly every other administration before it.

George W. Bush did have some accomplishments in the field of nuclear non-proliferation. The nuclear smuggling ring led by Pakistan's A.Q. Khan was broken, and Libya was persuaded to abandon its weapons of mass destruction. But Bush's marks were quite poor overall. The nuclear club has expanded, not shrunk. North Korea is now in possession of the bomb, and Iran continues to make strides toward it. In addition to withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and continuing America's refusal to join the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (in force since 1996), Bush also supported the development and use of tactical nuclear weapons, specifically to deter the nuclear efforts of Iran.

No past president has ever made it his stated goal to make the world free of nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, Philip Taubman described in the New York Times why this goal is so ambitious and daunting, offering this analogy: "To fully grasp the political and military implications, consider what would have been involved had the great powers of the 19th century decided to abolish gunpowder." Perhaps Obama is acting more like Superman in Superman IV: The Quest for Peace than a human president. He can't gather up all the world's fissile material and throw it into the sun, but his goal is admirable, and should he go even part of the way to achieving it, his Nobel Prize will be well deserved.

To mark the president's award, I would like to share with you the 1939 cartoon Peace on Earth. This MGM short directed by Hugh Harman has been incorrectly credited with a Nobel Peace Prize nomination; nonetheless, it offers a noble aspiration of peace, and that is worthy of something, if not the Prize itself.

Finally, if you think that nuclear weapons are not scary things, or if you don't believe that just two decades ago, the world teetered on the brink of utter destruction, this recent news about the Soviet doomsday device - Dr. Strangelove for real - should terrify you. Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece is certainly a powerful piece of anti-nuclear cinema, but if you would like to be scared shitless of atomic warfare, I suggest that you watch the 1964 film Fail-Safe, starring Henry Fonda.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Borders and Migration: Erecting Fences On the Canadian Border

BROOKLYN, New York -- Borders are never as straight and bright as they appear on maps. They are messy. They are uneven. Due to a whole lot of messiness - in the form of the drug trade, illegal immigration, arms smuggling, and a vicious war between drug cartels and the government - a lot of attention is being paid to the US-Mexico border. But changes are also taking place along America's northern frontier, and they deserve attention and concern.

Earlier this week, authorities erected gates along the border in the towns of Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec. The two towns are essentially one - due to an incorrect survey, the American town was founded north of the 45th parallel. When the border was corrected, nobody saw the need to move the town, so the border line runs through homes and streets, and even through the town's lone public library. American authorities decided last year to clean up the warren of streets that crisscross the border by erecting these gates which will force travelers to move through designated border crossings.

This summer I visited Derby Line, and I went poking around the border to see what changes had been made. The library was closed that day, so I could not go and see the border line painted on the floor, but I did see some shiny new signs advising me to turn back and go through the crossing. When I did turn my car around, I was bombarded by sirens from the border post. When I pulled over, the visibly angry American agent accused me of illegally crossing from Canada and threatened me with a $5,000 fine. When I told him I had made a wrong turn, he lectured me some more and then directed me to the Canadian border crossing, where I continued on my way to Quebec City.

Apparently, turning a small, remote Vermont town into Belfast or Nicosia is what we must endure to be safe from terrorists. While some increased security measures may be necessary along the Canadian border, the problem is that the logic of these changes focuses entirely on security without acknowledging the other impacts of the border. Rather than a zone of interaction, the border is seen as a barrier to keep people out of the United States, thus completely ignoring trans-border social and economic relations.

Fear mongers in the Bush administration like former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff pushed for draconian border measures, even suggesting that British citizens of Pakistani origin should be subjected to stricter passport controls than other Britons. The new DHS chief, Janet Napolitano, has not softened the line when it comes to the US-Canadian border. She has repeatedly stated that she wants the border with Canada treated like the border with Mexico: hardened, strengthened, and more closely monitored.

This has had dire economic impacts, especially along the highest-traffic section of the border, that between Michigan and Ontario. Over the past few decades, the American Big Three automakers have have built up networks of production facilities and suppliers that capitalize on certain cost advantages on both sides of the border. NAFTA only accelerated this trend, and last year, Ontario surpassed Michigan as the world's largest auto producing region. Stricter border controls have hampered this model, and this has been a contributing factor to the uncompetitiveness of North American-built cars; the result has been that the recession and unemployment have cut deepest in these two regions. Here's one example of this impact from the Economist last year:
Now the stickier border is adding to the troubles of Detroit's uncompetitive carmakers. A ship carrying 4,000 cars from Asia landing on the west coast of the United States undergoes just one inspection; the components in a car made in North America will, all told, have gone through thousands, notes Jayson Myers of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, an industry body.
Conservatives harp on the point (listen to Bill Kristol's points here) that President Obama's positions on many issues related to national security have been and will remain largely unchanged from the policies of the previous president. They see this as a vindication of the their beliefs and proof that history will look kindly upon the Bush presidency. What this opinion fails to acknowledge is that security policy is more often driven by inertia and fear than by reason. It is always easier build a border fence than to tear one down, for fear of accusations of being "soft" on crime or terrorism or illegal immigration. Dick Cheney repeats this line over and over again, maintaining that illegal renditions, vicious torture, and various other war crimes keep us all safe at night. Add to this list the requirement that Americans and Canadians carry passports to cross the border. It is impossible to know how Barack Obama would have reacted had he been president on September 11, 2001, but it is patently absurd to claim that the Bush administration took the best course of action given the circumstances.

This is not to discount the fact that suspects who were plotting terrorist attacks have been apprehended while trying cross the border from Canada, the most notable being Ahmed Ressam, the so-called Millenium Bomber, who was arrested in Washington state in December 1999. However, I believe that many of these border policies are driven by a piece of mythology about the September 11 attacks. In the days and weeks following the attacks, reports began circulating that some of the hijackers had entered the US from Canada. As it turned out, the two men who flew from Portland, Maine to Boston and then hijacked the Los Angeles-bound Flight 11, crashing it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center - Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari - had long been residing in the United States. None of the hijackers sneaked across a land border; they all traveled here by air and entered the country legally. Nonetheless, the mystique of this erroneous report remains, and it contributed greatly towards transforming our land borders, both literally and rhetorically, into front lines in the Global War on Terror.

For a good portion of America's history, the border with Canada has been an area of conflict and division. In addition to the American Revolution and the War of 1812, when Americans twice invaded Canada, the two countries have fought a number of other small conflicts, including the Aroostook War, the Pig War and the Fenian Raids. In hindsight, these incidents seem preposterous, but we are continuing to move on a path towards greater division and securitization of a region that should be a zone of interaction and cooperation between our two countries. Unfortunately, border policy is formulated and implemented at a national scale, directed from Washington, and successive administrations have shown an inability to consider the local-scale impacts of a tightened border. Maybe we should start listening to the residents of Derby Line instead of Dick Cheney.

Well, not this resident. Nobody should listen to him:

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Paramilitary Force Takes Over Montana Town, Onion Story Becomes True

BROOKLYN, New York -- Everybody knows that the government sucks at everything, and private enterprise will solve all of our problems. Do you know what the government especially sucks at? Operating police departments and prisons.

The war in Iraq has clearly demonstrated that well-paid mercenaries with ill-defined rules of engagement are much better at fighting and keeping the peace than those dumbasses in the US Army. And everybody knows that shopping malls, which are almost exclusively patrolled by private security forces, are the safest, most awesome places in America.

The town of Hardin, Montana has learned these lessons well, which is why they have employed the services of the generically-named American Police Forces. Hardin made national headlines earlier this year when they offered their recently constructed and deeply indebted town jail to the federal government to house detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. Well, that offer is now off the table, because APF has stepped in to not only take over the jail, but also the town's police force.

Yesterday Gawker did a rundown of all the various reasons why this whole deal is incredibly suspect and troubling. The California-based company has links to other more established private military contractors, but the exact web of relationships has yet to be unraveled. This whole thing may be some kind of scam, but one fact is certain - there are three SUVs filled with armed men driving around this town claiming to be the police department.

American Police Forces and their associated company, Defense Product Solutions, both have very slick websites, but there is one bizarre detail: APF's logo is actually the coat of arms of Serbia.

During the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election the Onion ran the headline, "Serbia Deploys Peacekeeping Forces to U.S." Could this joke have finally come true? Is the Serbian military now roaming the streets of Montana? Or does this company just have the world's worst corporate branding? Either way, I think it is probably time for the Montana State Police to step in and throw everybody involved into the still-vacant Hardin jail while they try and sort this mess out.

The Bill Sparkman Murder: The Past and Present of Resistance to the Census

BROOKLYN, New York -- For most Americans, the decennial census is a mundane exercise that goes largely unnoticed. You receive a form in the mail, and occasionally you see census workers walking around with clipboards and knocking on doors. It is only slightly more exciting for researchers and academics, because a few months after the final count, we get a raft of brand new data about the US population with which to tinker and model.

For a narrow slice of the population, mostly those people located far to the right on America's political spectrum and far from the country's urban centers, the census is a favorite boogeyman. For mainline conservatives, the census is regarded with suspicion because every 10 years, the ranks of minorities who don't vote Republican continue to grow; Republicans would rather that it was harder to find and count these poorer, urban populations. For the lunatic fringe, the census is an invasion into their private lives by the hated federal government.

There is now evidence that these two views are converging. The grisly murder of census worker Bill Sparkman in rural Kentucky three weeks ago shows us that despite more than three centuries of census taking in America, suspicions remain. Rather than being driven deeper into the backwoods, this virulent fear of the census - and of government in general - is gaining traction in national politics. No one has condoned this dreadful murder, but certain public figures have chosen to use misinformation about the census to stoke Americans' fears, just as they used lies about the president's citizenship and the so-called "death panels." These conspiracy theories are aired every night by Glenn Beck and repeated continuously in the halls of Congress.

A look back at the history of the census in America, and resistance to it, may be instructive to understand how we reached this place.

The earliest opposition to the census had a religious foundation. Enumerating the population was referred to as the "Sin of David," a reference to the biblical King David's order to count the people of Israel, in defiance of God's will. In some parts of the world, enumerations are still rejected on religious grounds - in 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church opposed a government plan to issue tax ID numbers to the entire population; some members of the clergy called them the "number of the beast." In America today, certain strains of religious fervor drive general resistance to government authority, but few cite King David's hubris.

The first federal census was launched in 1790. In the preceding century, the 13 colonies had each conducted more than 30 censuses, but a single national effort to count every person from Georgia to Maine had never been undertaken. Many were skeptical that it could be done accurately, but few doubted the necessity of a census, especially since America was embarking on an experiment of representative government. No taxation without representation was the battle cry of the Revolution, but there could be no representation without enumeration.

It is important to remember that the census is not an exercise carried out by a faceless state bureaucracy. Mr. Sparkman was one of the thousands of Americans who work part-time and full-time to complete the census. America's first census was carried out by a few hundred individuals; they were poorly paid, had little or no training, and they often had to provide their own materials and transportation. One such person was Edward Carrington, the marshal for the district of Virginia in 1790, who was responsible for the commonwealth's census returns. In March of that year, he wrote a letter to the US Department of Justice outlining his plans for the census; in it he also noted the importance of the census to democracy, and the dangers of misinformation about the undertaking:
When it is considered that this measure is to ascertain the proportions of representation of the several states in the Federal Government, and that the due weight to which this state is entitles therein, depends on the faithful execution of the act of Congress, it is hoped that gentlemen will be careful in their recommendations, and that all the good citizens of Virginia, will be ready to aid a full and fair enumeration of the inhabitants thereof.
Later that year, he also wrote to James Madison, the most ardent supporter of the census, and predicted that there would be active campaigns against the project:
The Assistants [census takers] may compel every one he called on to make him a return by means of the penalty [a small fine levied for non-compliance], but it is not probable he will be able to discover any concealments of parts of families and there is no doubt but that many evil disposed persons will endeavour to impress upon the minds of the people, ideas that their future taxes will be governed by the numbers that shall now return.
In early America, resistance to the census was strongest on the frontier. A healthy distrust of government is what led many into the wilderness in the first place. Most of the people who had settled beyond the Appalachians had done so without the consent of the British or American governments, so they had no proper title to the land they occupied - these squatters feared that any contact with government agents was a precursor to the loss of their property rights. This suspicion, combined with the difficulty of reaching remote populations in places like Kentucky, Vermont, and western Pennsylvania, conspired to make these people undercounted, and thus underrepresented in the first Congress. A report on the first census in the remote areas along Lake Champlain in Vermont described this situation:
Due to inexperience, imagination by the inhabitants that some scheme for increasing taxation was involved, difficulties of no roads, bridges, unsettled wilderness and isolated locations of the early settlers, opposition on religious grounds, all delayed the final enumeration a full year.
It is likely that Mr. Sparkman faced some similar challenges in Clay County, Kentucky. Driving on bad roads to reach isolated populations with little support or supervision, like the census takers before him, he worked to help people be counted so that they could collect what was theirs from the national stock. In return for his service, he was lynched and branded. His killer (or killers) is still at large, and though we have no definitive explanation for this horrible crime, the fact that the word "FED" was inscribed across his chest is a chilling reminder of how deep anti-government sentiment continues to run in many parts of the country.

In reality, the census is not mundane. Embodied within this power to count and catalog the population is the power of the modern state to function. Even if we strip down the government to its most basic activities, as Ron Paul would have us do, an accurate count of the population is necessary for apportioning representatives to Congress, levying taxes, and raising an army. The framers of the Constitution understood this, which is why the census is essential to the operation of the federal government. But it does not represent an immanent threat of tyranny. We do not need Republican congressmen and backwoods survivalists to protect us from the depravities of enumeration. But the Economist described the often ambiguous position of the census like this:
Nowadays, a census is part of the standard equipment of a functioning state. In 1995 the UN called for all member nations to hold a census in the following decade. Yet counting people remains a sensitive business for two reasons, connected with the ambiguous character of government. Where government is oppressive, people want to keep out of censuses, lest information they provide is misused. Where government provides, people want to be in censuses, and to boost their numbers, in order to claim a larger share of the goodies.
As an unambiguously democratic government, America should debate the merits of collecting certain types of information about the population, and how we deploy that information to better the lives of our citizens. In doing so, we should ensure that "gentlemen will be careful in their recommendations" and not whip people into a paranoid, anti-government frenzy in order to gain political advantage or improve television ratings.

Brief bibliography:

American Antiquarian Society. Early American Imprints.

Anderson, Margo J. (2008). "The Census, Audiences, and Publics." Social Science History 32(1): 1-18.

"Census sensitivity" (2007). The Economist, Dec 19.

Hobson, Charles F. and Robert A. Rutland, eds. (1981). The Papers of James Madison, vol. 13. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.

Onuf, Peter (1987). Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Scott, Ann Herbert (1966). Census, U.S.A.: Fact Finding for the American People, 1790-1970. New York: Seabury Press.

Strelchik, Yevgeny (2006). “Nelzya pronumerovat chelovecheskuyu lichnost” (“You can’t replace a person’s identity with a number”). Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 5.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Special Commentary: Don't Be Stubborn, Scrap the Interceptors

Today at the Walter Duranty Report, we are publishing a special commentary from our friend Mac Broderick on the Obama administration's decision to cancel the ballistic missile interceptor program in Eastern Europe. We encourage our friends and readers to contribute any articles or commentary they find interesting or relevant to the wide range of topics we discuss here on our site, and as always, feel free to add your comments about anything you read here.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When analyzing the Obama administration’s decision to scrap missile defense bases in the Czech Republic and Poland, one characterization seems to have trumped all others: “It is a system that doesn’t work, designed to counter a threat that doesn’t exist, designed for a people that don’t want it.” Analysts and politicians should keep this variation on former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s original description of the proposed system in mind while debating the merits of the system.

First and foremost, the system did not work, nor did it show the promise of working anytime soon. Second, neither the Western Europeans the system was designed to protect, nor the Eastern Europeans who would be hosting it, seemed particularly enthused about it. Third, Iranian missiles do not currently have the ability to reach Western Europe, and probably will not until 2018, according to most estimates. These circumstances gave the Obama administration more than enough reason to cancel the Czech and Polish interceptor stations.

So why was the decision so contentious? The reactions provide a microcosm of the political attitudes towards Russia. Those opposing the administration's decision, the “Russia hawks”, cite two arguments: 1) Demonstrating our commitment to our Eastern European allies, and 2) The notion that we need to “get tough on Russia.” The first point is a valid one. Examples abound of Russia’s belligerence towards its neighbors. At best, it can be described as an irritable neighbor with a tendency to overreact to the most petty slights. In an area where concrete actions carry more currency than diplomatic gestures, NATO would be wise to reaffirm its commitment to the defense of Poland and its neighbors in some manner other than speeches. The deployment of the Patriot missile battery originally planned to defend the missile installations would be a good start. Moreover, several politicians in the region, especially on the Polish side, have staked considerable political capital on supporting the system, and should not be punished for their decision to do so. The Obama administration’s communication of the decision did not show any sensitivity to the situations of Poles and Czechs; hopefully its further actions will demonstrate otherwise. However, this commitment to our allies does not require the US to spend irrationally on projects with little ability to confront temporal problems; rather, a pragmatic approach to the security, integrity, and stability of Eastern Europe will serve not only our allies, but ourselves well in the long term.

As for the idea of getting tough on Russia, this has become the national security equivalent of being tough on crime: it’s the low hanging fruit for establishing your national security bona fides. There is no lobby to contend with, you appear to bask in some sort of Reagan-esque glow, and you may convince a few people that you have some grasp of international politics. Unfortunately, Russia bashing is too often the result of knee-jerk politics, as opposed to a carefully thought-out decision on how to deal with this country.

This does not mean to minimize the Putin administration’s lack of respect for democracy or the sovereignty of its neighbors. However, Putin and Medvedev’s actions do not mean that opposing Russia for the sake of opposition should be the US’ default position. This is especially true when the leaders in question have a tendency to foment nationalist sentiment for domestic benefit. Careful engagement, complemented by constructive reinforcement of our allies and the clear delineation of how we expect Russia to act if it would like to be treated as a valuable member of the international community, should bear more fruit. Let’s leave stubborn petulance to the Russians.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Washington Post, Daily Telegraph Shilling for Russian Government

BROOKLYN, New York -- Everyone knows the sorry state of affairs of America's newspaper business and its derelict advertising revenue models, but I didn't think that one of the nation's most prestigious newspapers would sink to this.

Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves - I totally did think they could sink to this, but I'm still disappointed that they have. Earlier this summer, my compatriot Itchy forwarded me a link to an advertising supplement on washingtonpost.com titled "Russia Now." I had thought that it was a one-off insert, but I have now realized that the Post is making this a regular monthly feature in its newspaper.

The segment is filled with articles lauding Russia's political leaders and celebrating its business-friendliness. But more troubling than the propaganda is that while the Post does rightly place the words "A Paid Supplement to The Washington Post" at the top of the Russia Now webpage, nowhere on the site does it say who is actually paying for it. On its website, it bills the supplement as an "Advertorial," a chilling new word which suggests that the paper's own editorial content may be up for sale (and a word, I was saddened to learn, that has entered the dictionary, alongside the likes of "edutainment" and "celebutante.")

Much of the content of Russia Now appears to be original, with hard-hitting articles like "How to Register Your Stay and Stay [With?] Friends" (it's a simple matter of going to the post office, apparently). The rest is press pickups from other news agencies, most of them owned by the Russian government - for example, there is a great interview by RIA-Novosti with South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, who speaks unchallenged about the "thousands" of civilian deaths as the result of "Georgian crimes."

Another participant in this scheme, Britain's Daily Telegraph, is a bit more forthcoming, advising: "This online supplement is produced and published by Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russia), which takes sole responsibility for the content." More honest, however, would be to point out that not only is Rossiyskaya Gazeta wholly owned by the Russian government, it is in fact the official mouthpiece of the government, as it is the paper of record for all decrees and legislation. In addition to the Post and the Telegraph, the supplement is also printed by Indian newspaper The Economic Times, Bulgaria's Duma and Brazil's Journal do Brasil. Russia Now is also produced by The Voice of Russia, an answer to America's similarly-named government broadcaster. Russia Now can also be found as a stand-alone English-language website called "Russia Beyond the Headlines."

The pages of newspapers are filled with advertisements from private businesses, multi-national corporations, and even sovereign governments who are trying to sell you something. Newspapers regularly print advertising inserts imploring readers to visit Ireland or not to be racist. They even sometimes print ads that look like news stories right next to real articles, as the Los Angeles Times did earlier this year on their front page, or the New York Times does on its website every day.

The difference here as that the drivel printed and broadcast by the likes of RIA-Novosti, Russia Today, or Rossiyskaya Gazeta, and here reprinted by Russia Now, is regarded as legitimate news in the completely unfree Russian news media market. The Russian government is paying money to foreign media to reprint its sham news - news which it foists on its own citizens on a daily basis, and which is rightfully disregarded by the legitimate independent press. Is this the state of America's newspapers then? Accepting money from foreign governments to reprint their vile propaganda? So much is being made of the advertisers fleeing Glenn Beck's program on Fox News for his outrageous demagoguery; I think it is time that the news media start turning away certain advertisers, especially one that poses as large a danger to the legitimate news as the Russian government.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Future of Russia's Automotive Industry: Toys

BROOKLYN, New York -- Togliatti, the home of Russia's largest carmaker, AvtoVAZ, has not weathered the global recession well. Car sales in Russia have plummeted this year, and factories are promising huge layoffs.

Luckily, the Russian Industry and Trade Ministry has a plan: let them make toys.

In an effort to revive the fortunes of this beleaguered region, where tens of thousands are already unemployed or underemployed in the colossally inefficient auto plants, and thousands more may be laid off soon, the government announced plans Tuesday to create a special economic zone designed to attract manufacturers of toys and games.

The government plans to provide incentives to both foreign and domestic producers to locate production and development facilities in the region around Togliatti. According to the minister, Stanislav Naumov, the special zone would be centered around a design and production facility proposed by Hong Kong-based toy company Grand Toys. The company manufactures products for several well known companies, including Mattel, Hasbro and Nintendo. It was not immediately clear how many jobs this program would create.

In addition to preserving manufacturing jobs, the ministry cited several advantages of the program, though none of them seemed to make much sense. For example, the government believes that this will reduce the price of toys in Russia - I don't think that this is a very big problem, nor do I see how relocating production from China to Russia could possibly reduce the price. Also, this plan would reportedly reduce Russia's dependence on foreign imports, despite the fact that the import substitution model does not have a stellar track record, and there is no reason to prop up such an insignificant industry as toy production.

Needless to say, a few jobs molding plastic toys are unlikely to turn around the fortunes of this city. In late July, AvtoVAZ announced plans for 27,000 layoffs at its plants in Togliatti, which currently employ around 100,000 workers. Despite their astonishing Soviet scale, these plants produced a paltry 140,000 cars in the first six months of this year, making them some of the least efficient in the world. The government has already plowed US$750 million into the company to keep it afloat, but those efforts appear to be in vain.

In a related story, the New York Times ran a piece on Saturday about Moscow's famous "Detsky Mir" toy store. The building is undergoing a huge renovation, and many preservationists fear that, like so many other buildings in the city, its architectural integrity is being compromised. You can read the full report on threatened architecture in Moscow from the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (MAPS) here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Nantucket Overrun By Deer, Ticks, and Idiots

BROOKLYN, New York -- Over the weekend, the New York Times ran an article about the accelerating spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses on Nantucket. We have blogged about this disease in the past, and its (alleged) origin in an offshore military research laboratory. Most people I tell this story to are incredulous and don't believe any of the links between Lyme disease and Plum Island, but I again implore you to read Michael C. Carroll's Lab 257.

Personally, I think that deer should be eradicated from the island. They are not native to Nantucket, but were introduced in 1922, a time when deer were quite rare in the northeast. Now we have no shortage of deer, and an aggressive culling and birth control program would do wonders to reduce the danger of tick-borne illness to the island's human residents. Nobody needs to go around blasting the island to pieces killing 2,500 deer, but the visitors have outlived their usefulness.

Other islands have experienced a similar deer tick menace, such as Fire Island, off the coast of Long Island, which has "the highest concentration of deer ticks of any National Park area in the Eastern United States." This problem is often exacerbated by people feeding deer (as insane as that sounds). Said one Nantucket resident who opposes efforts to control the deer population, "I really love the deer, and I can’t help it. My mother took me to see ‘Bambi’ when I was little." Well, my mother took me to see "Lady and the Tramp," but that does not make it okay for me to spread garbage all over my front lawn to attract stray dogs, which I also really love.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Execution of the Innocent: Cameron Willingham and the Case Against the Death Penalty

BROOKLYN, New York -- In the September 7th issue of The New Yorker, reporter David Grann wrote a piece about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed in Texas in 2004 for the murder of his three young daughters. Willingham's case has been much heralded as a clear-cut example of the execution of an innocent man. In the article, Grann cites a 2006 Supreme Court decision, Kansas v. Marsh, in which Antonin Scalia stated:
It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.
Many people believe that the Willingham case is that “rooftop” moment, Grann included, who concludes his article by stating:
There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person."
However, I will argue that it is not this moment, as much as I would like to put an end to the death penalty, for three main reasons. First, it is highly unlikely that anyone in Texas will admit that Willingham was innocent, due to the type of evidence used to both convict and potentially exonerate him. Second, Scalia's statement is wildly misinformed, as there have been many cases in which a clearly innocent person has been executed, yet these names have not become celebrated causes or toppled capital punishment in America. Finally, even if the state does admit that Willingham was wrongfully executed, it will make a good liberal rallying cry, but I do not believe that it will have the effect of dramatically shifting public opinion against the death penalty.

The evidence for and against Willingham

Just before Christmas in 1992, a fire raged through the Willingham home. Cameron, who was home at the time, managed to escape the fire, but the blaze killed the family's one-year-old twins and two-year-old daughter. Fire investigators quickly concluded that the fire had been intentionally set, leading to Willingham's arrest and trial for murder. Despite the lack of a clear motive, his history of domestic abuse and the expert testimony of the arson investigators convinced the jury that he was guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to death in 1993.

Willingham maintained his innocence throughout, claiming that a space heater in the children's room must have started the fire. Shortly before he was executed in 2004, his case came to the attention of outside fire experts, who concluded that every piece of evidence pointing to arson in Willingham's case was invalid. This report was sent to clemency officials in Texas in hopes of earning a stay to investigate the case further. The stay was denied, and Willingham was put to death February 17, 2004.

Willingham is dead, but his case has sparked an investigation in Texas into the practices of forensic scientists. When this commission releases its report next year, there is a chance that they could conclude that the investigation into this case was flawed, though a complete admission of wrongdoing is highly unlikely. And even if the fire evidence is brought into question, that does not mean that any judicial authority will exonerate Willingham – a flawed investigation is not ironclad proof of innocence, prosecutors will argue.

This case was built on eyewitness accounts and expert testimony, and these things, it can be argued, are always subjective. Prosecutors use this subjectivity to their advantage to get convictions at trial, and after the trial – or in this case, after the execution – they can use that subjectivity to cast a shadow of a doubt on Willingham's innocence. There is no irrefutable evidence in this case, like DNA, and even that is subject to endless questioning and posturing by lawyers.

As Scalia himself stated in the 2006 Kansas opinion, correctly this time, there has never been a case in which DNA evidence proved the innocence of an executed inmate. Now, there are a lot of reasons for this. For one, most inmates spend an average of 12 years on death row. Many of those currently incarcerated or recently executed were tried and convicted before the advent of DNA technology, meaning samples that could now prove their innocence were never collected or analyzed. Most importantly, though, once someone is executed, there is little reason to reopen the case, so DNA evidence is usually not preserved after the execution.

Names we should already be shouting

Willingham's case is indeed tragic, but not unique, despite Justice Scalia's protestations. In their article “The Execution of the Innocent” (published in Acker et al., America's Experiment with Capital Punishment, 2003) Michael Radelet and Hugo Bedau argue that while “never in the twentieth century has a government official in this country admintted that an execution carried out under his/her authority, or that of a predecessor, took the life of an innocent victim” (326), the execution of the innocent is neither rare nor unlikely.

In an earlier book, In Spite of Innocence: Erroneous Convictions in Capital Cases (1987, with Constance Putnam) these authors identified 23 cases in which likely innocent people were put to death just in the twentieth century. Many of the names would be familiar to any high school student, like Joe Hill, a labor organizer allegedly framed for murder in 1915, and Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants convicted of murder in Massachusetts in 1920 (the complete list, with unhelpful commentary from a third party, can be found here). But you don't have to be completely innocent to be wrongfully executed. In addition to these cases in which the executed inmates probably had nothing to do with the crimes, the authors have identified several classes of cases in which the defendant was involved in the victim's death, but this did not rise to the level of capital murder, such as accidental killings, homicides in self-defense, homicides by the mentally ill, and non-capital murders (Radelet and Bedau 2003).

Some argue that many of the failings of capital punishment have been fixed since the Supreme Court struck down all existing capital statutes in the 1972 Furman v. Georgia decision, and admittedly, only one of the 23 cases occurred after the death penalty was reinstated in 1974 (that of James Randall Adams). However, since the Radelet and Bedau study was conducted, more names have been added to the list – in Grinn's article, he adds the cases of Ruben Cantu and Larry Griffin. Furthermore, death row inmates continue to be exonerated, suggesting that people are still wrongfully convicted. According to Radelet and Bedau:
If the history of the last twenty years is any guide to the future, an average of three death row inmates per year will continue to be vindicated and released. How many equally innocent death row inmates will be unsuccessful in obtaining relief is impossible to know, but the number is most certainly not zero (2003, 334).
Since 1973, 135 people have been exonerated and released from death row. Some people point to this fact as evidence that the system worked – despite a wrongful conclusion of their trials, the appeals process eventually led to the truth. But we must assume that the appeals process works as imperfectly as trials; just as certain people are convicted because of insufficient resources, ineffective counsel or misconduct, those same barriers exist – and are in fact greater – for defendants seeking a reversal on appeal.

Does Willingham's innocence even matter?

As stated earlier, I am a staunch opponent of capital punishment, and the case made here may sound cynical and defeatist. Willingham's case was an enormous miscarriage of justice, and I do not want to see any defendant, guilty or innocent, face that same fate.

But nonetheless, an admission of wrongdoing in this case will not turn the tide against capital punishment. As Justice Thurgood Marshall pointed out, most Americans are completely ignorant about the death penalty; they support it or oppose it on emotional, not evidentiary grounds. As for active proponents of capital punishment, many acknowledge that innocent people will be put to death, but they are willing to accept that in exchange for the retributive and deterrent benefits, which likely do not even exist. Ernest van den Haag likened the death penalty to any other activity in society which carries inherent risks: "Despite precautions, nearly all human activities, such as trucking, lighting, or construction, cost the lives of some innocent bystanders. We do not give up these activities, because the advantages, moral or material, outweigh the unintended losses."

This does represent a victory, however, for death penalty abolitionists, as Radelet and Bedau point out at the conclusion of their 2003 paper:
One of the amazing things that has happened in the fifteen years since our research was first released to the public is that those who defend the death penalty now concede the inevitability of executing the innocent ... We know of no defender of capital punishment who, prior to 1987, was willing to make such a concession in public.
Despite this concession, a majority of Americans continue to support capital punishment, and it remains the law of the land in 35 states. So shout Cameron Todd Willingham's name from the rooftops; just don't forget to add his name to the others that have fallen on deaf ears.