Saturday, April 20, 2013

What Mattered This Week?

Ugh. What didn't matter this week?

I suppose a lot of this is in the we-don't-know-yet category. Of course, the events in Boston and in Texas certainly mattered to the people involved. Whether they matter beyond that...well, we'll be getting tighter security at sports events for a long while, at least. But we're yet to know any larger importance for the marathon bombings.

As for the Texas explosion, was it a sign of lax regulation and more to come unless there are changes? Or was it a freak event?

And then there was everything else that happened this week. To tell the truth, I'm still catching up, so I don't even know much about anything that wasn't in the headlines or in my particular radar.

So I'll leave it all to you. What do you think mattered this week?


  1. Here's one for the suggestion box: for weeks where the "What Matters?" is obvious, how about steal a page from the Dan Patrick show and ask "What did we learn this week?" instead.

    What is almost unfathomable about this week is that, by Wednesday, photos were all over the tubes of the crowd at the bomb site. The culprits were not circled in those photos, but they were identifiably "there".

    Particularly the younger brother, whose "disguise" consisted of nothing more than the same white baseball cap worn backwards (that associates have now claimed he wore all the time), the fact that they were so visible at the crime scene did not spark alarm that perhaps they should get out of town, lay low for a while.

    From which we conclude, chillingly, that you don't have to be much smarter than the Wilson brothers in Bottle Rocket (a funny movie, but probably too low-brow for this audience) to cause mass mayhem.

    1. I'm a big "Bottle Rocket" fan! A sly, actually quite sophisticated comedy. I hope you underestimate this audience. (I'm guessing I'm locking onto this aspect of your fine post simply because I'd rather not continue to contemplate this tense past week.)

  2. I think the Reinhart-Rogoff correction matters because of the opportune timing. Opinion was turning against austerity policies already, as seen for instance in the IMF's new criticisms of Osbornomics in the UK. Then a paper that people like Osborne and Paul Ryan have often cited favorably turns out to have a bunch of mistakes. As Krugman says, the fact that at least one of these is not even arguable, but is just a simple coding error -- a concept anyone can grasp -- is crystallizing the opposition, or, as he puts it, making austerity-skepticism socially acceptable. If another shoe drops, like the UK entering a third recession (unlikely but possible in the figures about to be released), the austerians could find that they don't have many friends in high places anymore. As I said in this space a few days ago, younger people and those not yet dug into their positions are not going to want to be the next Reinhart-Rogoff, the next George Osborne, or (I think, when all is said and done) the next Paul Ryan. That has big potential implications for future policymaking.

    1. I was going to list that too except I was going to say that should matter but won't because the motivations behind the push for austerity has nothing to do with economics and facts.

    2. That's true, Ron E., but if you understand the push for austerity as a struggle in which some are pushing for and others pushing against, what happened this week was that those pushing for were weakened and the people pushing against got the upper hand. It's not that Paul Ryan or George Osborne are going to change their minds, but that it's going to be harder for them to continue getting their way.

  3. The political developments in Italy matter, the fact that law enforcement can now ignore the Miranda decision if they want to also matters.

    1. Longwalkdownlyndale, I'm with you on the Miranda decision. What really matters about this is that if you asked most "average" Americans on the street about it they'd have no problem with the decision, and would not realize the implications for their own 5th Amendment rights. The larger question to come of this policy decision is what happens if the suspect knows his rights and refuses to answer questions. Does the justice department hold him indefinitely like an Al Qaeda suspect without charges? Let's remember that it was plain old police work and more importantly, actions by private citizens that led to the identity and capture of these suspects. If our system of justice is incapable of trying this guy and gathering the information to convict him, what does this say about the case and our notion of liberty and justice for all? Lest anyone think I'm sympathizing with this dirt bag, don't kid yourself you've missed the point.

    2. We don't negotiate with "terrorists", we just give them exactly what they want. In the immediate case, I have no idea - and wouldn't be surprised if the brothers themselves have no idea - of the motivations for their actions. But anyone who wishes the US harm would have to be absolutely thrilled by Lindsay Graham's response (echoed by others) that we have so little regard for the Constitution and the moral standing of the US that we will gladly rip both to shreds at the smallest provocation.

      The worst thing is that Graham knows he's wrong, and knows he's giving our enemies, whoever they are, a lovely gift. He thinks it's necessary in order for him to keep his job. I wonder if there's a word for someone who destroys institutions to achieve political goals.

    3. "I wonder if there's a word for someone who destroys institutions to achieve political goals."
      A closeted, no wait that's not right. A Judas? Whatever it is, it shows how evil can dress up in fancy clothes, be deemed a patriot and get elected to the U.S. Senate.

    4. I thought that the public safety exception to Miranda was very well established, with significant restrictions. Whatever they learn from questioning the younger brother will not be used against him in court.

      Given that the eyewitness lived, and they had a firefight with the cops that included pipe bombs and a pressure cooker bomb, the cops are probably content with not using the information that they get from him in court.

  4. Related to the above comment and what also mattered this week is that you didn't hear much,if any, questioning by the media regarding how and where these bomber suspects got their weapons. (Charlie Rose asked on CBS This Morning, and was greeted with stone silence by his panel.) During Gov. Patrick's press conference on day one, the first question posed was a false flag, "is the government using this as an excuse to take away citizens guns." Then, the US Senate failed to pass the background check provisions in the gun control reform legislation. What a lucky break for opponents of reasonable measures on purchasing weapons like the ones used after the bombings by the suspects.

  5. I sympathize with the pro-Miranda crowd for libertarian reasons, but I think that argument obscures something important about combating terrorism: our legal culture is not well designed for fighting terrorism.

    Suppose this kid is smart. I argued above he's an idiot, but sake of argument, let's say he's smart. His future looks grim, with a life in prison complicated by the double-whammy of "Muslim terrorist" and "child murderer". On top of that are the chronic impacts of whatever injuries he suffered over the past 72 hours. He has only one asset: the identities of those in this (apparent) sleeper cell all over the news.

    From his perspective, the optimal way to manage his info is to cough up the sleeper cell exactly five minutes before someone else rats them out, extracting as many concessions as possible in the meantime. Quite obviously, that's not in our interest. Unfortunately, if he exercises his Miranda rights, and we don't use EI, there's not a whole lot we can do to stop him from maximizing his interest and minimizing ours.

    Just from watching Law & Order he probably knows his Miranda rights anyway, and so this is in general a problem with interrogating suspected terrorists, especially when they are citizens and EI is not an option. A pretty big problem, actually.

    Maybe not reading him his Miranda rights won't solve this problem. But - in the context of the particular problem discussed in this post - it can't hurt.

    1. Everybody always jumps to the conclusions that (1) it's difficult to get terrorists to talk and (2) torture is a faster and more effective way to get information out of them than other interrogation techniques. Neither is necessarily true. Ali Soufan of the FBI says that Abu Zubaydah stopped talking when the CIA showed up with their enhanced interrogation techniques, not the other way around. And some of the things that were "elicited" from Khalid Shaykh Muhammad were already available in interviews he had given newspapers in Pakistan.

    2. Come on,CSH, this kid grew up in the US where "Law and Order" is on two channels 24 hours a day. He's heard his Miranda rights thousands of times already.

      Are you wishing that torture was an option? I have to wonder if Lindsay Graham is thinking that. Considering how quickly people want to resort to torture (though they phrase it differently), it's a damn good thing that we have the "cruel and usual punishments" clause in the amendments.

    3. Thanks for the comments guys - I do agree that he must know about his Miranda rights - and no I'm not advocating for torture.

      I do think, though, that this is an unusual situation that (unfortunately) favors the suspect: he has something we want, and the combination of Miranda plus prohibition of EI means there's no particularly simple way to get it, and time is an issue.

      I don't have a good answer, I just disagree that this decision is an overreaction to a non-problem. The asymetry of needs - between suspect and investigator, and in favor of the suspect - is certainly a problem, it seems to me.

    4. Why is this suddenly a problem in this case? Lots of violent criminals have had useful information about other violent criminals, and yeah, they bargain with it -- that's our system. Prosecutors make deals to flip one guy against another. They've done it with the Mafia, they've done it with drug lords, they've done it with street gangs, they've done it in thousands of cases where lives were on the line because the people they still want to catch are capable of murder. Why is "terrorism" different -- because the guy in custody has a possible political motivation? Because the weapons are homemade bombs, which are somehow scarier than precision-engineered guns? I don't understand what we're wringing our hands about here.

    5. Jeff, there are at least two key differences between the Mafia and a sleeper cell:

      1) time, and
      2) scale

      Would you compromise your principles because one or two people may face danger at some point in the vague future?

      Would you compromise your principles because a million people plausibly face imminent death in a nuclear attack?

      The answers to those two questions are pretty obviously not the same, it seems to me.

    6. Jeff, I'd add one more - the nature of the victims.

      Maybe this isn't right, but the wholesale killing of young kids and old ladies, a feature of terrorist plots, just gets people twisted up in their knickers the way the neutralization of a mob informant never does.

      Maybe that's just our twisted priorities. But that's the way it is.

    7. What on earth leads anyone to think that the Boston bombing has anything to do with a million people being killed? Are Chechens massing on the border now? Is there a way to make a nuclear device out of a pressure cooker? Because if so, I'm missing that chapter in my copy of The Anarchist's Handbook.

      Are we talking about cases like this one, or some entirely different hypothetical future case?

    8. Also, as a resident of LA for 25 years, I recall hearing any number of times about innocent bystanders, including children, getting killed in the crossfire of gang wars. There were some creative legal responses to this, like injunctions designed to keep gang members off the streets, but I don't recall anyone demanding that Miranda be suspended so we could nab all the drive-by shooters. Again, what's the difference?

    9. At question here is whether acknowledgement of Miranda rights should be suspended during that period in which investigators attempt to ascertain who's in that cell and what they soon plan to do. This would be an example of discriminatory police/legal practice for utilitarian ends.

      Another example of discriminatory police/legal practice for utilitarian ends would be the issuance of targeted injunctions not tied to crime suspicion but rather gang membership suspicion.

      I understand from your last post that there's some obvious distinction between the two; for the life of me, I can't figure out what that might be.

    10. I'm saying that even when authorities were thinking outside the box, looking for legal end-runs, they didn't come up with a "Miranda exception" for the purpose of protecting innocent bystanders in the Latino neighborhoods of LA. Maybe those killings didn't get people twisted up enough?

      The point is, I'm not getting what's suddenly so different about this case. Anyone who's ever planted a bomb -- McVeigh, for example -- might also have planted another one. When did that theoretical possibility become the basis of a "public safety exception" to Miranda? I'd never heard of such a thing before.

      And again, a million people? What's the theory of the crime here? That an extremely dangerous terrorist cell is operaing in the US, has somehow acquired WMDs and is prepared to use them..... but instead of just blowing up a city, or using the threat of this to extort something from the government, it decides to send out the Brothers McGoo as an advance team, armed with a couple of homemade IEDs, no disguises, no escape plan and an excellent chance of getting caught. Is that what we're thinking? Because if so, we need to call in Jerry Bruckheimer for a rewrite or something. Those are awfully thin grounds on which to base some entirely new legal doctrine.

    11. A million people - stream of consciousness, extemporaneous writing, so much of it is hyperbole. If I'd blurted out a 9/11-ish 3,000 instead, would it be okay to continue the argument?

      I take your word for it that the LA authorities did not consider a Miranda exception when dealing with the public safety danger from uncontrollable gang activity. No Miranda exception, but an injunction exception.

      Apparently, the injunction exception is understandable, and the Miranda exception is anathema.

      There must be some reason for the distinction, again, I've no idea what it might be.

    12. You're reading too much into my comments here, CSH. I brought up the LA example in response to what you said about the special horror people feel at the killing of random innocents. I mentioned the gang injunctions (which I think are also dubious) by way of noting that creative legal exceptions are not a new tactic. And yet, even so, I've never heard of a "public-safety Miranda exception." I find it surprising, that's all. So naturally I'm wondering how it's justified.

      So far, the proposed answers seem to be:

      > Random attacks on innocents are exceptionally horrifying. They are, but they're not new.

      > The ticking nuke. Again, an interesting basis for a discussion about when we should compromise our principles. Just doesn't have anything to do with this case that I can see. If they had nukes, or dirty bombs, or anything else that could cause mass casualties, Goofus and Doofus Tsarnaev here wouldn't have been blowing up pressure cookers.

      > The fact that authorities need information that a suspect might have. Yeah, that's a problem for them. Has been for decades, which is why the law on it was apparently well settled, and why police and prosecutors had regular routines for dealing with it. I'm unclear on when or why these stopped being good enough. Is the Bush-Cheney "1% doctrine" leaking over into ordinary domestic law enforcement now? That's what it sounds like.

    13. First, its difficult to have this discussion with reference to the particular case of the Tsarnaev's. They are, indeed, idiots. (The latest, for me: the double amputee who made eye contact with the surviving idiot. So to recap: you blow up a marathon, three people die, a small boy and two young women. You make eye contact with a middle-aged man as you were placing the bomb, wearing your signature white cap. Again, you're not fleeing based on that fact pattern...why?).

    14. (sorry, didn't mean to publish)...the question, though, is whether terrorism in general makes you rethink Miranda. I think it does, and I think its not just the ticking time bomb.

      The key difference between terrorism and, say, mafia crime is that both the interviewee and the inquisitor understand that the information sought is far more urgent and far more deadly in its scale and impact, assuming indeed we are talking about a mass casualty plot. This dynamic should necessarily result in the captured plotter being more hesitant to talk (assuming he is not an absolute moron like a Tsarnaev), because he has something of high value - urgent information about a catastrophic event - and therefore he should not trade it on the cheap.

      I'm not suggesting that the capture of low-level operative Vinny Gonzanzanno will lead to indifference about trading him up for the head of the family; I'm just saying that neither Vinny nor the feds regard that deal with anything like the urgency of an imminent mass casualty event. As a result, we might expect Vinny to sing somewhat more readily; after all, he doesn't possess something of anywhere near the same value as his mass-terrorism plotting counterpart.

    15. The younger Tsarnaev is not a hardened criminal, or a hardened jihadist. I really doubt that he won't give up tons of useful information, even if all they do is ask nicely. His true danger is being released in a general prison population with a significant number of Boston residents.

    16. Yes, OK, these are hard questions, I agree. I'd like to be a Bill of Rights of absolutist, but I'm also aware that constitutional rights depend on a functioning social order, which depends on the authorities having the power to keep crime to a reasonable minimum, especially crimes that terrify and terrorize the public. Plus, Miranda isn't itself a constitutional provision, it's an operational rule inferred from one and meant to help make it effective. So is the hearsay rule, but if I remember correctly, there are something like 17 exceptions where hearsay can be used, and it's hard not to see that some or most are necessary and commonsensical if the rule is to make practical sense. So I'm not saying no exceptions, ever, although I reserve judgment on this particular one.

      I suppose I would just add that the aforesaid functioning social order also depends on enlightened policies like respect for constitutional rights. For one thing, criminals are more likely to surrender and cooperate with authorities when they understand the authorities to be non-totalitarian, rule-bound and (broadly) benevolent. If they expect to be dealing with the Gestapo, it changes things in all kinds of ways. Regimes that run their affairs that way end up being nightmares of mutual social distrust in which everyone is informing on everyone else, underground resistance movements develop, prosecutors and judges are targeted for assassination and so forth. Ultimately that doesn't work either. Constitutional rights didn't appear on earth because the Founders or some other enlightened souls just felt like giving them a try. They appeared because centuries of historical experience have discredited the alternatives.

      And one P.S.: Nothing has captured the surreal ineptitude of our Boston bomber friends, CSH, as well your phrase "wearing your signature white cap." I don't want to make light of any of this -- it was an appalling crime -- but honestly, that one made me laugh. This follows by a few weeks the guy who beat up a woman in the NY subway, in full view of security cameras, while wearing a cap with his "handle" and a sweatshirt with his fraternity letters (IIRC). Also the guy who stole somebody's cell phone and used it to take a picture of himself, not realizing it was set to auto-upload all photos to the owner's Facebook page. What is it with all these criminals seeming to go out of their way to invite identification? How on earth do you spend quality time plotting a big crime and not think for even one second that maybe you should, y'know, change your bright white cap that everyone who knows you would instantly recognize? I don't know, these kids today..... they're such a disappointment.

  6. I've spent the night in three hotels that were bombed (when I wasn't there): the Islamabad Marriott, the Jakarta Marriott and Jakarta Ritz-Carlton. When I lived in Jakarta, the Philippine Ambassador's residence, the Jakarta Stock Exchange, Sari's nightclub in Bali and the beachside restaurants on Jimbaran Beach were bombed. The first Jakarta Marriott bombing (there were two) was three days after I had eaten lunch there. A few co-workers were there, and fortunately weren't seriously injured. The office I worked in for three years before moving to an office a few miles away, overlooking the courtyard of the Australian Embassy, was seriously damaged when the embassy was bombed.

    True story. A couple of years after I arrived in Jakarta (after the first Bali and first Marriott bombing) they were introducing a new guy around the office, moving to Jakarta from Karachi. He said "I guess it's pretty dicey here." "Here?! It's not nearly as bad as Karachi!" "Karachi?! Safe as houses, most of the time."

    Thereby hangs a lesson, I think. Despite the bombs, the soldiers with machine guns who surrounded both offices I worked in, all day, every day, the searches outside every grocery store, restaurant and mall we patronized, and the calls from the "warden" telling us to hunker down when something seemed afoot, I was never afraid. I didn't know anyone who was. When you're in it, it just doesn't seem that bad.

    After the London 7/7 bombings, CNN-International (much, much better than CNN - we never saw Wolf Blitzer or any of the other idiots) and BBC World ran wall-to-wall coverage, as you would imagine. But CNN-I kept up the wall-to-wall for a couple of days longer than BBC-W did. It may be that the only way to get used to terrorism is to live with it day-to-day, and if that's the case, I guess I hope that the US never gets used to it. Even so, I wish we weren't such damn fraidy-cats.


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