A New Englander’s view from Canada of the Tsarnaev hunt

It was just after midnight on Friday, April 19, that some friends and I arrived in Utica, New York, on our way to the Toronto area for the FilKONtario convention. We’d been driving for hours, and it was only then that we learned that an MIT campus patrol officer had been shot dead and a Mercedes had been carjacked in Cambridge. In the morning the news was even worse: Whole cities were in lockdown. It was widely proclaimed afterward that the instructions not to leave home were voluntary, but that wasn’t the impression I got from the news reports; and going by the pictures I saw of empty streets, it wasn’t the impression of the people living there. Harvard was closed, which affected the reporting of some work that I’m doing. A “voluntary lockdown” is a contradiction in terms. Cambridge, Belmont, Watertown, Newton, Brighton, and Allston were shut down tight. Brighton and Allston are parts of Boston; Belmont is officially a town and the other cities, but all are sizable municipalities.

The line we’re getting now is that hiding out in their houses was the most heroic thing residents could do, that it was necessary to leave “the police and Dzokhar Tsarnaev as the only pieces out on the board” — an expression which implies everyone else is just a pawn. Never mind that “giving the professionals room to work” failed, and it was only when people could get out again that one of those unprofessional pawns found the clues that led straight to a cowering would-be Joker (definitely not a G’Kar). Never mind that the vast quantity of photos provided by non-professionals at the Boston Marathon helped to build the trail of information. The only heroism ordinary people can aspire to is staying in their seats like good little boys and girls.

This was just one aspect of a campaign to inflate miserable murderers into rampaging, unstoppable monsters. What they (whether it was the Tsarnaevs or it ultimately turns out to be someone else) did was certainly vicious and horrible, but it’s not unprecedented. There have been many larger mass killings that didn’t prompt anything near the same reaction.

Dzokhar Tsarnaev has been charged with using a “weapon of mass destruction.” Seriously, a pressure cooker bomb is a WMD? I guess Saddam Hussein did have WMD’s after all, and they were lying in plain sight in Baghdad’s cafeteria kitchens. He wasn’t read his Miranda rights because that would somehow have endangered the public safety. Maybe they thought he had an implant triggered to the words of the warning? “You have the right to …” KABOOM! The only thing using absurd charges and breaking with due process can accomplish is to decrease the chances of getting a conviction and give his lawyers more issues to drag the trial out with.

The right thing to do is to investigate the Tsarnaevs’ actions impartially, find out as much as possible, and if there hasn’t been some spectacular error, to treat Dzokhar as the rotten criminal he is. Some members of Congress want him treated as an enemy combatant, which implies that the bombing in Boston was a military action. This gives them unearned glamor, glamor which may inspire some other frustrated bum to kill people spectacularly, just as the Boston bombers may have been feeding on the perverse glamor which the War on Terror has already built up. As an act of murder and maiming, it was horrible, but as an attack on America, it was pathetically feeble. Keeping a balance between these two perspectives is tricky. People anywhere close to the victims of any violent attack rightly regard it as a horrible thing, shattering their world; but it was no 9/11, no grand attack on America.

As I said before, the right thing is to mourn the dead, comfort the survivors (should have added that one the first time), find and punish the guilty, and continue with life.

After the Boston murders

Yesterday three people were killed near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and others are in critical condition as I’m writing this. CNN has declared this to be “terrorism,” even though there have been no reports of a suspect or an arrest and no proclamations of responsibility. Lots of people, including me, have pet theories, but we don’t know anything. It could be a politically motivated terrorist attack, but terrorists generally proclaim their grounds for killing, otherwise people won’t know what to be terrified of. It could be one person with an insane hatred of Boston, athletics, or anything else. About all we can confidently say is that it was deliberate murder and that the killer wasn’t particular about who died.

The best way to respond is to mourn the dead, find and punish the guilty, and continue with life. If, say, negligence had let a bridge collapse producing equivalent suffering, we’d know how to do this. In the present case, we’re already seeing opportunistic conclusions drawn and fingers pointed without evidence, and it won’t be long before politicians exploit people’s fear and sympathy with new power grabs.

It’s important to keep the event in perspective. Last year there were 58 homicides in Boston. Yesterday’s were particularly gruesome and public, but the killing of people is an ongoing concern.

We’ve also seen numerous stories of people who offered help in an emergency. Certainly every act to reduce human suffering must have disappointed the murderer.

A blog worth reading

This morning I came upon a blog called The Skeptical Libertarian.” From the reading I’ve done so far, it looks like one that’s worth following. Since I posted recently on the Ron Paul Curriculum, this article on the Ron Paul Curriculum especially interested me. The links to Gary North’s website confirm that North ties Biblical teaching and homeschooling together, which is exactly what I hoped the “Ron Paul Curriculum” would avoid. The article claims that the “‘Paleo-Libertarian’ Taliban” is behind the RPC. This isn’t much of an exaggeration. North admits in an article in Christianity and Civilization that advocacy of religious liberty is just a tactic for gaining theocratic Christian power. His aim is that “the new social order will return to the doctrine of Christian liberty set forth in the Old Testament.” (And you always thought the Old Testament was Jewish!) He means it too. A number of websites quote him as writing, “Clearly, cursing God (blasphemy) is a comparable crime, and is therefore a capital crime (Lev. 24:16).” Update: Here’s a link to The Sinai Strategy, where that quote is found. The book is a horror, showing that North is about as libertarian as Hitler.

When I started writing this post I was trying to be skeptical myself about that comparison to the Taliban. There are many Christians who claim to believe in every passage of the Bible yet don’t support its long list of capital crimes. But it’s clear that if North had his way, I’d be put to death for the things I’ve said about religion. The major differences between North and the Taliban are that he doesn’t advocate violent revolution — and that he doesn’t currently have the power to kill the people he’d like killed.

If the Skeptical Libertarian never does anything else, it’s already proven its worth by letting me catch myself on this error.

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Brandeis’s metal-detector searches

Last fall I wrote about the outrage of Brandeis Univeristy’s making campus visitors go through metal detectors. Since then I’ve found some information indicating that Brandeis has been ignoring its own policy and thereby depriving visitors of protection against theft by guards. The Brandeis Leadership Handbook (PDF) makes it clear that when metal detectors are used, Waltham police must be present: “Waltham Police is required for events using metal detectors or serving alcohol.” I didn’t see any police presence. Without police, there’s little to stop guards from pinching a bit of change as campus visitors have to empty their pockets. One of the guards took my stuff off into a corner, where he could easily have pocketed some of my change without anyone’s noticing, and he made noises about taking my Swiss Army knife.

I recently wrote to the Waltham Police to ask if they had assigned a police officer to Lyman Ballroom on November 5, 2012, and if having one was a legal requirement. The reply that I received said only:

I am in receipt of your letter of complaint regarding your experience at Brandeis University on November 5, 2012.

The Waltham Police Department does not have jurisdiction nor the authority to investigage allegations of an unlawful search on their private property or investigate the University for allegedly violating their own policy. Jurisdiction lies with Brandeis University or possibly with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

The reply addressed only my request to look into whether Brandeis is conducting illegal searches. This is probably just normal bureaucratic evasiveness, but it leaves me with no more reason than before to think that there was an officer whom I didn’t notice present. At the same time, I haven’t found any indication that a police presence is legally required; a Web search hasn’t turned up any mention of such a requirement.

This indicates that Brandeis’s unsupervised searches of visitors are probably legal, but they’re in violation of an implied promise of protection. It might actually be worse if a cop were there; the police might arrest people for vaguely suspicious things found in their pockets, and by “voluntarily” accepting the search as a condition of attending an event they’ve already paid for or having an important meeting, visitors very likely give up their Fourth Amendment rights. I’d rather have loose change or even a pocket knife stolen than be arrested.

Whether you run the risk of arbitrary arrest or of petty theft, the basic problem is the contempt which Brandeis shows for its visitors’ personal privacy.

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The Ron Paul Curriculum

Update: My optimism about this project was completely misplaced. Please read this post.

Ron Paul has launched a project to promote an online homeschooling curriculum. The site says: “Here, you and your children can get an education in liberty like no other. I invite parents to take courses and participate on forums — to get the education they never had. Parents do not pay for the individual courses that they purchase for their children.” (Further on that strange-looking last statement is clarified: “What if you want to take a course on your own? It will cost you $50. But if you have paid for one of your children to take it, it’s free to you for the full year of the course.”)

The idea is an interesting one. Education is more important than politics in the long term; people who can think are the best defense for liberty. They’re currently charging $25 for enrollment until September 2, which is when serious content will go on line and the enrollment charge will go up to $250. (The $25 enrollment expires then.) The K-5 curriculum will be free.

The idea is good; it remains to see how good the execution will be. I’m a bit disappointed not to see a specific mention of training in logic or critical thinking, and the FAQ is an embarrassment. An article by Gary North stresses teaching with images, claiming that “if a person comes up with the right image, he can’t be fooled easily.” It’s necessary to be rooted in concretes, but concepts, not just images, are needed for critical thinking.

On the positive side, the emphasis on long-term goals and time management are good. I’m thinking of giving them $25 to sample the materials they offer and express my support. I certainly hope it’s worth it; good homeschooling options are a very valuable thing.

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Spohr’s Third Symphony

I’m a fan of Louis Spohr, a nineteenth-century composer who was famous in his time but is obscure today. Recordings of many of his works are available, but he’s rarely heard in concert halls. I don’t expect anything I write here will create a Spohr revival, but offering some notes on his works will at least make them available on the Internet for others who might be interested. I may do an occasional blog post highlighting his works, and to start things off, I’ll write here about his Third Symphony.

Spohr published nine symphonies, and he wrote and withdrew a Tenth Symphony, which survives but generally isn’t considered part of his canon. His inspiration declined in the latter part of his life, and I find his Third, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies to be his best ones. For this post I’ll give some brief “program notes” on my favorite, the Third in C minor. The recording I have is by the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, available as an MP3 download or CD from Classics Online.

The first movement is in sonata form with a dark slow introduction, with nice use of pianissimo horns toward the end. The main body is in 6/8 time, starting in an agitated C minor. With the shift to E-flat for the second theme, things brighten up, with the woodwinds tossing around a dancing figure that answering the strings. Instead of a development section, we have a reprise of the introduction, now at the Allegro tempo. In the recapitulation there isn’t a lot of change; the second theme is in C major. The coda gets darker again, with a bit of the receding-storm sound that’s characteristic of Spohr, but C major prevails at the end.

The second movement is a quiet piece in 9/8 time in F major. The basses put in a bit of doubt with a repeated ascending minor scale and the horns contribute warning notes, but they’re pushed aside by the broad second theme. This is followed by a melancholy discussion between the strings and woodwinds. In parts of this movement Spohr uses the winds in a way that puts me in mind of Dvořák.

We’re roused from the quiet ending by the scherzo, which brings back all the agitation from the first movement. It transitions smoothly into the lighter trio, where the flute keeps coming back with a syncopated tune. The first part returns as expected and ends with a firm cadence in C minor.

The last movement opens with a figure that’s reminiscent of the finale of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. It starts off in unison, but we quickly find we’re in C major. A syncopated descending scale soon appears, and both of these motifs are combined in the second theme, which lifts the music’s spirits still higher. For the development, Spohr builds a short but spirited fugue on the opening motif. There aren’t any surprises in the reprise, and the coda carries the piece to a joyful finish.

This is music that should be heard more than it is.

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