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 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.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Baseball Skies

BROOKLYN, New York -- This has been a summer of transitions for me - moving to a new city (Brooklyn will now be my more or less permanent dateline), coping with life after graduate school, and looking for work in a tough economy. But there has been one constant throughout the summer: baseball.

I crisscrossed the nation between New York and Colorado three times this year, and on every trip, I made sure to stop at some of the hallowed sites of America's pastime - not the gleaming corporate cathedrals of the monopolistic MLB, but the minor league parks of America's small cities and the sites where baseball history was made.

Unlike most other popular American sports, baseball is played almost exclusively outside (and with the impending demise of Minnesota's Metrodome and Tampa's Tropicana Field, there will be no more indoor baseball in the major leagues) and during the most beautiful time of year. So, here I would like to share some of my pictures from the summer and the beautiful skies of America's ballparks.

Here were some of the other highlights of my travels:

Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, Louisville, KY: In addition to being home to the world's largest bat, the Louisville Slugger museum will teach you such interesting facts as how the two-tone bat was invented (it was a spare bat that we being used to stir paint) or how many bats a major leaguers uses in a season (over 100). One of the coolest things about the museum is that they have a batting cage where you can hit with a wide selection of wooden bats fresh off the factory floor.

Bob Feller Museum, Van Meter, IA: When Babe Ruth walked onto the field at Yankee Stadium for the last time on June 13, 1948, two months before throat cancer would take his life, he held a bat at his side to steady his ravaged body. That day the Cleveland Indians were in town, and the bat he grabbed off the rack belonged to future hall of famer Bob Feller. Today you can see that bat, signed by Ruth and Feller, on display in the pitcher's hometown museum.

Nemo's Kitchen, Detroit, MI: Located in the shadow of the now-demolished Tiger Stadium, Nemo's is as much a Tigers institution as Ty Cobb and gothic lettering. With the stadium gone, they have adapted to the times - where you could once walk down Michigan Avenue to a Tigers game, the bar now has a fleet of buses to shuttle patrons to games for a modest $3 (and parking around back is free). Anyone contemplating a trip to a Tigers game should make this a mandatory stop.

Collegiate Summer Baseball: When the college baseball season ends, players need a place to hone their skills and keep the scouts' attention - that's where the summer collegiate leagues come in. In small towns across America, players play for room and board, usually boarding with local families, and in the evenings they ply their trade for the crowds. It's not quite the big leagues, but the spectators treat the players like their adopted sons.

For future summer trips, I have put together a short wish list of baseball shrines I would like to visit:

Koshien High School Baseball Tournament, Japan: Though a bit far for a weekend road trip, the annual Koshien tournament is one of the most popular sporting events in Japan, eclipsing even the country's major leagues. 4,000 teams compete for the right to play in the tournament at historic Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, where more than a million fans show up to cheer on their hometown squads while millions more tune in at home. Japanese and American culture are very different, yet I find it remarkable that we both love such an idiosyncratic and arcane game as baseball; Koshien is one of those institutions that gets at the heart of the game - kids playing, not for money, but honor and glory. (The PBS program POV ran an excellent documentary on the tournament, a trailer is here.)

Esquina Caliente, Havana, Cuba - "The Hot Corner": Cuba is not known for its freedom of speech, but at this spot in Havana's Parque Central, people gather for heated debates - about baseball. Recently featured in the documentary about Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant's return to the island after 46 years of exile, The Lost Son of Havana, the Hot Corner is a sort of Speakers' Corner that American baseball fans should envy.

Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY: Now just a few hours drive from my front door, the Hall of Fame is near the top of my to do list.

Little League World Series, Williamsport, PA: As Kenny Mayne said, "The best entertainment, and the true spirit of any sport, can be found at any children's game." As an unmarried man with no children of my own, people give me strange looks when I show up at a random little league game, but the LLWS offers enough public spectacle that I could show up on my own to watch kids play without anyone calling the cops on me. Congratulations, by the way, to Chula Vista, California, who defeated Taoyuan, Taiwan 6-3 in Sunday's final.

Fenway Park, Boston, MA: Most people who know me are aghast when I tell them that I, a lifelong rabid Red Sox fan, have never been to a game at Fenway Park. I have traveled as far as Detroit and Baltimore just to see the Sox, but never to their home ballpark. Hopefully this fall I will get the chance to walk down Yawkey Way with a playoff ticket in hand.