Ugly Americans

A recent discussion of employment discrimination led into a discussion of racial politics in Boston, and that led to a discussion of the chaos surrounding Boston’s court-ordered school-desegregation. This is ancient history for the students involved, having occurred a decade before most of them were born, and they know little about it. The quickest way to convey a sense of Boston circa 1974-1976 is through a photograph most of them have never seen, Stanley J. Forman’s 1976 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of anti-busing demonstrators attacking Boston attorney Ted Landsmark with the American flag on City Hall Plaza. It can be seen here on the Boston Press Photographers Association’s website. This is the largest copy of the image I could find. If anyone locates a larger copy please let me know and I’ll add a link to it.

UPDATE:  Here’s a link to a larger image: (Thanks to JS)

Second Amendment

In a recent post about the Virginia Tech shootings I wrote “[d]epending on which side of the gun debate you listen to, either Cho obtained his weapons because it is too easy to buy guns or Cho’s violence claimed so many victims because not enough people carry guns to defend themselves.” A few people have suggested that I conjured up that last position. I did not imagine this argument, as these quotations show:

  • “This is exactly the situation where one armed student, faculty, or staff could have cut this short.” (1)
  • “Communities that recognize and grant Second Amendment rights to responsible adults have a significantly lower incidence of violent crime than those that do not.” (2)
  • “Had I been on campus today, and otherwise been entitled to carry firearms for protection and been deprived of that, I don’t think words can describe how I would have felt, knowing I could have stopped something like this.” (3)
  • “How many other people like Cho are out there . . . Nobody knows, and it is because of that clear and present danger that Americans should not be browbeaten or bullied into surrendering their civil right to have a firearm for personal protection. (4)
    1. Bryan Fischer, Second Amendment: designed for Virginia Tech,
    2. Fred Thompson, Signs of Intelligence, (yes Law & Order fans, this is that Fred Thompson)
    3. WorldNetDaily, State quashed bill allowing handguns on campuses,
    4. Second Amendment Foundation, SAF Says Virginia Tech Case Underscores Importance of Second Amendment Right,

Authenticity Matters

Having made fun of John Edwards’ vanity once I have to comment on his $400 haircuts. When in the 2004 campaign a Bush aid calls you the “Breck Girl of politics,” when you are the subject of a video posted on YouTube that shows you fussing with your hair for two minutes to the tune of “I Feel Pretty,” and when “two Americas,” the divide between rich and poor, has been your campaign theme, then paying $400 for a Beverly Hills haircut is, to be charitable, tone deaf and stupid. It reeks of Kerry-esque inauthenticity.

It is a mistake if democrats (e.g., this Huffington Post entry) belittle this story as another substance-less right-wing Fox-inspired character assassination. Democratic candidates need to offer something beyond “I’m not George Bush.” Running smart campaigns would be a good place to start.

Sense and Senselessness

I’ve resisted writing about the Virginia Tech shootings. They provoked shock, horror, incredulity, and profound sadness. My attempts to record my reactions were inadequate and I scrapped them, along with my initial comments about the university’s response. Had I known what the university’s administrators knew when they knew it, I cannot say I would have done anything differently. I was humbled into silence by my own high-horse hindsight, knowing it would take time for me to start to get my arms around these murders and their aftermath.

One word contains what I believe is the truth of these crimes: senseless. A Google search for <"Virginia Tech" senseless> yields 541,000 website hits and almost 2,600 articles. Sphere It reports over 16,000 blog posts containing these words. We acknowledge the killings are senseless and then we try to explain them, to impose order and reason on chaos. These killings are beyond rational explanation. Seung-Hui Cho’s alienation, rage, and sense of persecution were grotesquely magnified a thousand-fold by his mental illness into a perfect storm of violence. Thousands of people are bullied, alienated, shy, lonely, disconnected, and they don’t kill. These killings are the violently irrational product of a profoundly disturbed human being.

I submit that we are incapable of understanding and preventing similar acts. Mine is an unpopular, uncomfortable position. We struggle to explain horrific events because, we say, we have to do something to prevent them from happening again. “Doing something” becomes the rallying cry, proving that we are not powerless and vulnerable. We are doing something, yet that something often bears no relationship to the event that set it in motion. To fight terrorism we ban water bottles on airplanes. There is no reason to ban water bottles yet we do because it satisfies our need for a response. It means we are doing something.

We respond to these murders by identifying a cause. People are appropriating them to prove a link between violence and (take your pick) Korean martial arts films, graphic novels, video games, uninvolved or ineffective parents, bullying, and godless liberal secularism. Depending on which side of the gun debate you listen to, either Cho obtained his weapons because it is too easy to buy guns or Cho’s violence claimed so many victims because not enough people carry guns to defend themselves. The murders are a slate on which we write our explanatory narrative.

The most heated discussion I’ve faced concerned publication of portions of Cho’s manifesto by NBC and of the picture of Cho brandishing weapons by The New York Times and other newspapers. The coverage deeply offended and angered one of my friends. I defended their publication and off we went. He argued that these images would provoke copy-cat killings and should have been squelched. I argued two things. First, that they would surface someplace, if not on NBC or in the Times then on YouTube and the hundreds of Internet sites devoted to graphic images of violence and hatred, in which they would not have the context of news. Second, and more important, I don’t believe that images such as these create copycat killings. A killer may fire a pistol in each hand, find a manifesto in Helter Skelter, or take orders from his dog, but these do not make John Woo, the Beatles, or the the pound responsible for his crimes. Correlation is not causation. We rarely understand human motivation for ostensibly rational behavior. Understanding mental illness that lies beneath acts of random violence against strangers is beyond our comprehension. Trying to draw a direct line between the publication of Cho’s picture above the fold of a daily paper and the next act of senseless violence reduces senselessness to two dimensions.

A Familiar Face

There was a funny moment in one of yesterday’s classes that passed unnoticed by everyone save me and the person involved. While making a point a few minutes into the class I was surveying the 50-odd faces to see who was there. I was looking in particular for my former business partner who is in town for the week and said he might drop in to the class. I thought I would have noticed right away if he was present because he’s 30 years older than my students, but I rushed into the classroom just before the start time and it was possible I might have missed him. I scanned the back row, passed over a face, and did a double take. I did have a visitor, but not the one I expected. Sitting in his old seat, with his same old wise-ass smirk on his face, was a former student and regular email and Google chat correspondent who graduated last year and was–I thought–working in London. I smiled, he smiled, and I went on with the class. Later in the class he raised his hand and I called on him with some trepidation, anticipating that he would throw some intellectual challenge onto the floor. He made a good observation and I sighed in relief. We caught up after class; he is back in the states to begin an investment banking rotation today in New York. His unexpected appearance was a pleasure.

Big Dig Litigation Update

I’ve written a couple of times (here and here) about the possibility of litigation arising from last July’s collapse of a portion of the ceiling of the Ted Williams Tunnel. To date the litigation includes a civil suit for negligence filed by the family of Milena del Valle, who was killed in the collapse, and the specter of criminal charges for negligent homicide and fraud. The Boston Globe reported recently that the legal actions involve–so far–over “100 attorneys, 17 companies, and dozens of engineers and workers.” The various defendants have filed 172 cross-claims against each other seeking indemnification for any civil damages. A Globe graphic captures these cross-claims in a Death Star, a colorful spider’s web of liability. What it likely means is years of courtroom maneuvering, tens of millions of dollars in legal fees, the sacrifice of thousands of trees, and a long wait for answers on how this stupendously expensive project could go so wrong.

The Ides of April

April 15 is the anniversary of three events with far-reaching consequences in American history. On this day-

  • Two men were murdered in South Braintree, MA in 1920, murders for which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tried, convicted, and executed Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti against a backdrop of anti-immigrant hostility,
  • Jackie Robinson played his first major league baseball game in 1947, and
  • Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald’s restaurant in 1955.

Think of April 15 the next time you masticate a Big Mac and argue whether the U.S. should erect a fence across the Mexican border while on the TV David Ortiz drives in another run.

Oh, and federal income taxes are due today. Since it is Sunday and post offices are closed all U.S. taxpayers get an extension until tomorrow. Since tomorrow is Patriots’ Day, a Massachusetts state holiday–you know, “one if by land,” Paul Revere’s ride, Concord and Lexington, the shot heard ’round the world–we get an extra day’s extension.


The post above reflects my Massachusetts-centrism. All taxpayers, not just Massachusetts taxpayers, have until April 17th to file tax returns this year. Tomorrow the District of Columbia celebrates Emancipation Day, commemorating the official end of slavery in the U.S. That celebration pushes back the filing deadline for the entire country by one day.

Speaking of pushing back deadlines, a research and writing assignment for one of my classes was originally due on Tuesday, a due date a student described “cruel and unusual punishment” because of the Patriots’ Day holiday on Monday. It’s not that Boston University students are especially patriotic. The paper deadline bumped up against day-long revels whose ostensible purpose is cheering on runners in the Boston Marathon, held every year on Patriots’ Day. Acknowledging that there was no pedagogical purpose behind the original due date I pushed it back to Thursday, to applause and cheers.  It may be the moment they remember most about this class.

One for the Passengers

It’s a dog-bites-man tale, saying that air travel has become a horrible experience. Still, it could be worse. If Jean-Paul Sartre wrote No Exit today he’d set it on a crowded passenger jet (is there any other kind?) in mid-flight, with every passenger talking on a mobile phone. At least for a while that experience will stay in the realm of fiction. The FCC released an order last week deep-sixing use of cell phones in flight.

Next time I fly I’ll remember: this isn’t as bad as it could be.