Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Stopping a Mass Shooter

cross-posted from Dagblog

Since the terrible and senseless murders in that Aurora movie theater, there's been a lot of talk about how to fight back against a mass shooter. It's become a standard talking point that more guns among the victims would have allowed someone to kill any mass shooter, basic tactical realities notwithstanding. And Houston's Department of Public Safety and Homeland Security has recently released an instructional video called "Run. Hide. Fight.," which offers basic tips on surviving "an active shooter event." The shortest, and best, takeaway from the video is that "run, hide, fight" is a list of the best options in order. Getting away is your best hope. Getting behind cover is the second-best hope. But if you can't do either, the grim question is what to do?

I'm not an expert, and won't pretend to be. I'm not in law enforcement. But a few years ago, after one very high-profile mass shooting, there was an anonymous threat to repeat that crime at my workplace on a specific date. Since I was going to be at work that day, in the building that where such a copycat shooting would take place, I thought fairly hard about the mechanics of these shootings, and especially of the specific incident mentioned in the threat. The would-be copycat never showed up, thank God, and now I pass the fruits of my obsessive worrying on to you.

Here's the basic fact: if you are attacked by a shooter in a public place, and if you ever get a chance to stop the shooter by force, you will get that chance when the shooter stops to reload. That is the best opportunity that you could possibly have. It also strengthens your chances if more than one person rushes the shooter, preferably from different directions. But unless the shooter needs to reload, even attacks from multiple directions means at least one person attacking him will get shot. The pause for reloading really is your best chance.

You are not guaranteed to get that chance, or any chance. You could be shot before he needs to reload. In the case that my copycat threatened to imitate, the shooter had worked out a method for protecting himself during reloading. (I have absolutely no interest in detailing that method.) And if the copycat attack had happened, I would most likely have been on the floor of a basketball arena, while the shooter could potentially have fired from an upper level. Shootings like this unfold randomly, and you're not guaranteed anything. This is one of the many reasons that "run" and "hide" are the go-to strategies.

If you did get a chance to attack the shooter, in that moment when he needs to reload, you would not need a gun to stop him. When he is temporarily unable to fire, he can be attacked with bare hands or hit with anything handy. And there are documented incidents where shooters have been stopped, and further killing prevented, in exactly this way.

On the other hand, if you happened to have a handgun on your person when the shooting started, it still wouldn't help much until the shooter had to reload. Most mass shooters are using semi- or fully-automatic weapons with a high rate of fire, designed to provide suppressing fire that makes it hard for anybody to fire back. That is what "assault rifle" means: it's a rifle designed to assault and overwhelm armed opponents through superior firepower.

The military designed weapons like these so that our soldiers and Marines could limit enemies' ability to fire back at them. And even a not-quite-fully-military versions can spray more than enough gunfire to hold off return fire from random civilians with handguns. Of course they can. They're designed to. The point of the assault-weapon ban in the 90s was to limit guns with enough firepower to overwhelm the police. My number one nightmare as a police brat was one of my family having to defend her- or himself with a handgun against someone with an automatic weapon. Even trained professionals who take regular handgun practice aren't properly equipped to fight back against an assault gun.

This is of course before we even consider that the shooter will almost always start shooting before anyone else draws. And having a gun doesn't keep you from taking bullets, or guarantee that you will be in any shape to fire back. Of course not. Carrying a gun does give many people an increased sense of safety, but this is purely psychological: in fact, just an illusion. And if you view carrying a gun as making you safer when you strap it on, you need to rethink things. Guns are not magic amulets. The placebo reassurance they can provide can even be dangerous if it keeps you from assessing risks properly.  And having a gun when you're attacked without warning by someone with much, much more firepower is not going to increase your safety a whole lot.

What matters most, then, is how many bullets the shooter has in each magazine. He should need to reload early and often. The fewer bullets he has in each clip, the more opportunities there will be to stop him, and the sooner they will come. Because the grim truth is that you have to concede the shooter his first magazine. Unless the gun jams, he will likely get off every bullet that he has in the clip when he starts shooting. If he has sixty rounds in that clip, he's likely going to get to fire sixty rounds. If he manages to reload, the window on stopping him has closed for another sixty rounds. If he only has ten rounds in each clip, then there's less damage he can do before the brief moment that he becomes vulnerable, and the more of those brief moments of opportunity there will be.

The most sensible policy, given these basic facts, is not to expand concealed-carry laws (which have at best a marginal effect on incidents like this and at worst a merely hypothetical one) but to limit the size of magazines. That won't prevent shootings like this, but will limit the number of people that a shooter can hurt and kill. A smaller magazine allows the killer fewer shots, creates more chances to stop him, and limits his ability to lay down the kind of suppressing fire that prevents people from shooting back at him. (A high-firepower attack eats ammunition fast.) Having a gun won't help you against someone who has dozens of bullets left and can spray them at you rapid-fire. On the other hand, you don't need a gun to stop someone whose gun is empty.

Limiting magazine sizes shouldn't sound like a radical step. We've done it before. The hundred-bullet drum that the Aurora shooter used was illegal just ten years ago. Making them legal again, as the gun lobby insisted, hasn't done a damn thing to prevent crime since then. But it made this crime a lot worse, and made it easier to kill people. If you want to stop people from killing large numbers of their fellow citizens, and I certainly do, it would be a big help to give people fewer shots. The Second Amendment might be complicated. But restricting the sale of large magazines shouldn't be complicated at all.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Batman Movie Shooting

Last night, twelve people died in senseless gun violence at a midnight showing of the new Batman movie.

Batman, of course, is a character who is a lunatic vigilante, and so some crazy people identify with that fantasy figure in the wrong way. Batman is also a character who has lost his parents to senseless gun violence. (They were killed on a family outing to the movies.) It's an authoritarian vigilante fantasy about stopping people from shooting each other.

The Batman character is a reflection of our country: its fascination with violence and lawlessness, but also its desire to escape from the bloodshed. What makes Batman most peculiar is that he, the ultimate American vigilante, wants absolutely nothing to do with guns.

Bruce Wayne is crazy. But not so crazy that he thinks guns make things better. And when it comes to guns, we're still not as rational as the fictional character who dresses up like a bat.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Bain for Dummies

cross-posted from Dagblog

Over the past week much of our national media, especially the national pundit corps, was consumed with two questions: Was the attack about when Mitt Romney left Bain Capital fair? and Would Romney choose Condoleeza Rice as his running mate? These are both silly questions. The correct answers are, "Yup," and "Of course not." That part of the press corps took the second question seriously at all, even for one day, shows how disconnected they are from reality. Their chatter about the Bain question is just as clueless.

The question many pundits asked themselves was whether it was accurate to claim that Romney did not leave Bain Capital in 1999, just because he was listed in SEC filings as the company's  "CEO, Chairman, President and sole stockholder" for another three years? Pundits asked themselves this question because only pundits would not know the answer. Of course, they also asked a number of GOP sources, for balance's sake.

The "Is it fair?" question follows the earlier concern-troll version of the question, "Will attacks on Romney over Bain backfire?" (In fact, you still get some of that.) That question, too, defies and denies the obvious. Mitt Romney has run against a Democratic opponent in exactly two elections. The Democrat who hit him on Bain, hard and early, beat him comfortably. That isn't the whole story of either election. But what part of that record says going after the Romney's work at Bain is a bad strategy?

The argument for the "fairness" of the attacks is on a complete lack of perspective. It takes for granted that what is "fair" is what is considered normal within a tiny sliver of America: the wealthiest and most powerful sliver. Romney's Bain arrangements between 1999 and 2002 were within accepted business practices among high-flying financiers. They were vetted by lawyers, and involved legal fictions that have become standard in Romney's slice of the business and social worlds. And so to people who are accustomed to moving in those worlds questioning Romney's complicated but perfectly routine and legally-vetted relationship to Bain seems somewhere between impolite and outrageous.

But if you have reached the point where being "on leave," and CEO, and sole stockholder, and drawing a $100,000 salary, and having nothing to do with the operations of the business that pays you to be CEO, all seems normal to you, you are in the bubble. Part of the problem is that you have lost any sense of how most Americans would view these arrangements, and indeed any sense that the rest of the country does not share the perspective of private-equity managers or publishers of major newspapers. You have lost the basic understanding that your particular world view might not be shared by the whole universe.

Only someone in the bubble, for example, would think of Condi Rice as a great running mate. As hilarious as it would be to see Mitt Romney paired with someone stiffer and less natural on the campaign trail, it will never happen. There's a reason that Rice has always been appointed to office, and not elected. That reason is Condoleeza Rice. If you're used to seeing Rice on her home court, at Georgetown social events or government functions or press availabilities, you could lose sight of some basic things about her, like the stiffness. You might "realize", having spent more time around her, that she's not as stiff as she looks. But this "realization" is an illusion fostered by proximity, and only the tiny segment of the population that's spent a lot of time around Condoleeza Rice could fall prey to it. Seen from further away, Rice is revealed to be even stiffer than she initially looks, which is impressive. Also, seen from a greater distance, she looks uncannily like someone who downgraded the priority of fighting Al-Qaeda and then signed off on a disastrous and unpopular war, because that's who she is.  You can't send her to the Iowa State Fair and have her shake swing voters' hands. You also can't have her debate Joe Biden, who was in the War Room when bin Laden was killed. Either would be a disaster. If you can't see those things about her, the problem is that you're too close. You have lost perspective.

And once you lose touch with the fact that not everyone sees the world the way the people immediately around you do, you start to lose touch with basic reality. You can begin to accept absurd things as perfectly normal. You become unable to hear how silly, and how transparently dishonest, a phrase like "retired retroactively" sounds. Or, like Bob Woodward, you can go on Meet the Press and declare that "everyone knows that SEC filings are meaningless." That statement only makes any kind of sense at all if you have a very restricted sense of who "everyone" is. But the bigger problem is that if "everyone" knows SEC documents are just nonsense, then "everyone" has lost touch with basic moral realities. "Everyone" is corrupt and doesn't know it.

But once you get your head far enough outside the bubble to notice why saying "retroactively retired" insults other people's intelligence (if not your own), you might start to notice some other very strange things that are invisible inside the bubble.

For example, four years after crisis in the financial sector threw the country into this massive recession, the Republicans have nominated a guy from the financial sector for President. He claims that he can make everything okay again, by going back to the old policies from before 2008.

That may not sound odd to our investor class, or our politicians, or our mainstream journalists. But actually, it's really odd.

Not seeing why Bain is a problem is part of not seeing why nominating Romney was a problem in the first place. Not seeing why Romney is a problem is part of not seeing what's wrong with our financial class or our economy. And many influential people in our country are deeply committed to not seeing those things.

They are committed to not seeing why even modest new financial regulations are necessary. They are commttted to not seeing that the banking sector needs reform. They are committed to not understanding why Obama has been "so hard" on Wall Street, let alone seeing how soft Obama has actually been on Wall Street. They are committed, God help us, to not seeing why years of high unemployment would be bad for the economy. They are committed to not seeing even the most obvious solutions to America's economic problems, because they are passionately committed to not seeing the problems.

This election isn't just about America's future, and its economy, and basic questions of fairness and the American dream, although it's about all those things too. This election is about something even bigger than that: the reality principle. The next four months are going to be a bitter, dogged campaign to break down our ruling class's fundamental disconnection from real world. They aren't going to like it.  Not one bit. And that's why they're so upset over the Bain Capital attacks: because those attacks are true. And once this election begins to be about the truth, the truth is really, really going to start to hurt.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Affirmative Action for the Win

cross-posted from Dagblog

Father John Brooks died last week. He had been president of Holy Cross college in Massachusetts and been the prime mover of its affirmative action efforts, starting in 1968. He started recruiting African-American students before he became college president, on his own initiative and originally his own dime:

Father Brooks, a theology professor, began driving up and down the East Coast in search of qualified black high school students to recruit to the college, which the Jesuits founded in 1843. Initially he was on his own, paying his own expenses.

Then he got the college president's backing, and went on to become president himself and to begin admitting women to Holy Cross. If these were simply good deeds, Father Brooks did a great many of them.

But the real shocker is how his first class of recruits to Holy Cross did:

Among the 20 students Father Brooks recruited that year were Clarence Thomas, the future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court; Edward P. Jones, who would win the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction; Theodore Wells, who would become a successful defense lawyer; and Ed Jenkins Jr., who wears a Super Bowl ring that he won as a player for the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins team before going on to become the chief civil rights officer for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.  

That would be a terrific haul of alumni for any admitted class. Having a future Supreme Court justice and a future Pulitzer Prize winner start school the same fall would be a huge success for any college. Having those two students in the same batch of twenty is just phenomenal. And again, those are just the results from Father Brooks's first year.

Father Brooks did Thomas, Jones, Wells, Jenkins, and their classmates a good turn when he recruited them for Holy Cross. But he also did Holy Cross a good turn, too. Those aren't just some of the most successful black alumni at Holy Cross. Those are some of Holy Cross's most successful alumni, period.

But this just illustrates, in a particularly focused way, what affirmative action at colleges and universities have always been about. They often get discussed as charity programs. But these programs, like all university admissions policies, are very much in the schools' self-interest.

Colleges and universities do not look favorably on qualified minority applicants because they are do-gooders ready to sacrifice a bit of the institution's prosperity on the altar of political correctness. They seek out minority applicants because they believe, on the basis of actual evidence, that those applicants will help their schools prosper. It is not so much charity as strategy.

I don't have time to get into the reasons in detail, but there are at least two basic explanations. First, many minority students have more raw academic talent than might appear on their record. A hypothetical white kid who grew up speaking standard English in a middle-class home but whose academic qualifications looked identical to Clarence Thomas's would not be as smart as the actual Thomas, who had grown up speaking a dialect called Gullah and had some serious outside pressures on his education. Second, if the goal of selective college admissions is to select a group of students who will become leaders some day, the people likely to become leaders of various ethnic groups certainly count. Admitting a student who will someday be a leading African-American businesswoman makes sense for the same reason that admitting a prep-school WASP born to influence does; colleges want to have prominent alums in both groups. And every nationally-ranked American university has always emphasized geographical diversity in their admissions, because if you want to have successful alumni in Boise and  Tallahassee and Omaha, you'd better make sure you admit some students from Boise, Tallahassee and Omaha.

If the Clarence Thomas example is not to your liking, consider Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Valedictorian of a Catholic high school in the Bronx, admitted to Princeton when admitting kids from Catholic schools in the Bronx, let alone Latinas, was not yet really Princeton's thing. Sotomayor not only goes to graduate summa cum laude, but to win the Pyne Prize, Princeton's top award for a graduating senior. I'd say Princeton did itself a solid right there: going outside their traditional admissions comfort zone got them the top student in that year's class. And frankly, any summa cum laude student you admit looks like a big win to me. (But of course, I'm faculty, not development office, and naturally tend to focus on classroom success.) If Sotomayor just gone on to be a well-respected federal judge, affirmative action worked out pretty well for Princeton in that case. When she got tapped for the Supreme Court, their affirmative action bet turned into a jackpot.

Colleges and universities look for minority students for the same reason they look for athletes, legacies, and budding cellists. They believe that it serves the school's interest to do so. Admitting those students isn't alms for the poor. It's an investment, just like every admissions decision is. And successful American colleges make those investments very shrewdly.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Thanks, Lafayette! Happy Fourth of July

cross-posted from Dagblog

I've come back from a month overseas in time for the Glorious Fourth. I'm happy to have spent it back in my native land, in my own back yard, grilling a holiday meal. It would have felt a bit odd to extend my European adventure past Independence Day, or to celebrate it outside America. There's only one day a year when cooking a burger feels like an act of national solidarity, and only one day when listening to John Philip Sousa feels like a pleasure. I like spending that day in the States. And spending it anywhere else feels slightly unpatriotic.

But it shouldn't. The Founders spent a lot of their time abroad, and the Revolution would never have succeeded and the early Republic would not have thrived without the time that the Founders spent lobbying in foreign capitals. Ben Franklin's Big European adventure was indispensable to the cause; we would never have made it without such a skilled diplomat in Paris. And frankly, we would never have made it without French help: French money, French troops, and the French fleet that finally bottled up Cornwallis at Yorktown. Washington didn't go abroad during the war, for obvious reasons, but France came to him, most notably in the form of Lafayette.

The story of American independence is the story of underdog frontiersman standing up to a great empire, and Americans are justly proud of that. But it was never quite a story of those underdog colonists doing it all by themselves, and we do the Revolutionary generation an injustice when we distort the history. Independence does not mean some kind of survivalist self-reliance. We would not have achieved independence without allies.

Some latter-day fans of the American Revolution use it to point to dubious virtues that the Continental Army did not share: a belief in never accepting outside aid, a nationalism that verges on xenophobia, a reflexive contempt for "Old Europe." But none of those "Tea Party" values were values of the actual Founders. They were patriots, but not parochial, colonists but also surprisingly cosmopolitan. Jefferson and Franklin might have been the icons of the Virginian countryside and of burgeoning Philadelphia, but they were very much at home in Paris, a city that loved them and received their love.

So, today I'd like to give a few thoughts for American internationalism: a part of our oldest national heritage, and a value without which our nation would have no heritage. God bless America, and God bless her many friends abroad. And merci beaucoup to Lafayette, our Founding Ally.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Balotelli e Io, Balotelli and Me

cross-posted from Dagblog

I've spent the last month or so in Rome; our last night in the city happily coincides with the 2012 Euro Cup final, with the hometown Italia Azzuri taking on defending champion Spain. (And that's a happy coincidence, too: a rematch of each team's first game of the tournament.) Naturally, we're going out to watch the match. And just as naturally, I bought a game jersey (from a pile at my neighborhood supermarket). Tonight I'll be wearing Mario Balotelli's number.

It might look funny to the Romani; in fact it certainly will. Balotelli is black, born in Palermo to immigrant parents from Ghana. I am so pale that it's faintly ludicrous, born from generations of Italian-American intermarriage with fairer, blonder spouses. His hair color is closer to mine now that he's bleached his mohawk, but it doesn't really further the resemblance. And of course, neither of us looks "Italian." Our names don't go with our faces.

If you ask some people, of course, Balotelli isn't Italian. Simply because he was born here and grew up speaking Italian as his native tongue, simply because he was adopted as an infant by the Italian parents whose family name he took when he was eighteen and because he became an official Italian citizen as soon as he reached adulthood, that doesn't make him Italian to everyone's satisfaction. For some he can never be Italian, because he's black. And certainly, Balotelli gets more than enough reminding of that.

But that's why I like him best. Because Balotelli stands for all the other things that make a national identity: loyalty, affinity, personal upbringing, rearing. He is Italian, in part, because he chooses to be, and the act of choosing his nation, declaring his loyalty as an adult, makes him more rather than less fully Italian. Balotelli is a volunteer. He wouldn't change if you asked him. If that makes him less "naturally" Italian, Italy has never had any natural, spontaneous national identity. "Italy" has always been a conscious choice and an effort of the will. Being Italian has always meant having to volunteer a little. Ask Garibaldi.

And of course Balotelli's decision wasn't just a choice. It was a recognition of a truth that can't be changed. Balotelli grew up an Italian. He lived an Italian childhood, with Italian experiences. Declaring that he doesn't belong, that he is "really" from some other country where he was not born or raised, does not give Balotelli another history or another childhood. He is who he is. And when he goes to Britain to play for his club team, he's a black Italian in the UK. There's no going back. Balotelli, without trying to, asks his fellow Italians to move forward with their own history, to think about an Italianita' for the global age, not grounded in race or skin color but in something greater: an Italianita' of the heart and the soul.

I don't know who will win the final tonight. I don't know whether Balotelli, who is brilliant but volatile on the pitch, will have a triumph or end up a goat. But I won't wait for my verdict on Balotelli himself, win or lose. E' genio. He's my guy. He's brilliant. Viva Italia, and Viva Balotelli. Balotelli, sono io.