Saturday, July 09, 2016

Weapons of Choice

Apropos my final comment in yesterday's post, President Obama talked about the role of the prevalence of guns in recent U.S. violence.  He said that more armed citizens contribute to tensions with police.  He noted that Texas is an open carry state, and some at the Dallas protest march were armed.  (This included a man who was photographed carrying a rifle, which is legal, but became a 'person of interest' as a result.  He was later released, but not before the photo was all over the Internet, leading to a steady stream of death threats.)

“Imagine if you are a police officer and you are trying to sort out who is shooting at you and there are a bunch of people who have got guns on them,” he added.

“We can’t just ignore that and pretend that’s somehow political or the president is pushing his policy agenda,” Obama said. “It is a contributing factor. Not the sole factor, but a contributing factor to the broader tensions that arise between police and the communities that they serve. And so we have to talk about that.”

What the President did not say is that scared cops with their finger on the trigger are also a contributing factor.  Maybe if citizens weren't as likely to be so well armed, police officers might not be compelled to draw their guns as easily.  But the ease and speed with which cops can fire multiple shots seems part of it all.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik posted an essay titled The Horrific, Predictable Result of a Widely Armed Citizenry.  It begins with the memory that immediately springs to the minds of many of a certain age when hearing the words "Dallas" and "shooting:"

"The killings in Dallas are one more reminder that guns are central, not accessory, to the American plague of violence. They were central fifty-plus years ago, when a troubled ex-Marine had only to send a coupon to a mail-order gun house in Chicago to get a military rifle with which to kill John F. Kennedy—that assassin-sniper also fired from a Dallas building onto a Dallas street. They are central now, when the increased fetishism of guns and carrying guns has made such horrors as last night’s not merely predictable but unsurprising. The one thing we can be sure of, after we have mourned the last massacre, is that there will be another. You wake up at three in the morning, check the news, and there it is."

Regarding the week's most publicized gun killings:

"A black man with a concealed weapon should be no more liable to be killed than a white man with one. But having a nation of men carrying concealed lethal weapons pretty much guarantees that there will be lethal results, an outcome only made worse by our toxic racial history. Last night’s tragedy was also the grotesque reductio ad absurdum of the claim that it takes a good guy with a gun to stop a bad guy with a gun. There were nothing but good guys and they had nothing but guns, and five died anyway, as helpless as the rest of us."

He concludes:

"Once again, the difference in policy views is clear, and can be coolly stated: those who insist on the right to concealed weapons, to the open carrying of firearms, to the availability of military weapons—to the essentially unlimited dissemination of guns—guarantee that the murders will continue. They have no plan to end them, except to return fire, with results we know. The people who don’t want the regulations that we know will help curb (not end) violent acts and help make them rare (not non-existent) have reconciled themselves to the mass murder of police officers, as well as of innocent men and women during traffic stops and of long, ghostly rows of harmless civilians and helpless children. The country is now clearly divided among those who want the killings and violence to stop and those who don’t. In the words of the old activist song, which side are you on?"

Friday, July 08, 2016

The Difference

Two articles today note the prevailing tone in response to the shooting in Dallas that claimed the lives of five police officers. Rare restraint in political reaction after police shootings was the headline to the Washington Post story.  Both presidential candidates cancelled their Friday events and condemned both the killings in Dallas, apparently by a black supremacist, and the killing of two black men by white police officers in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis this week.

Newt Gingrich even said that whites do not understand what it is like to be black in America.  Trump's statement, which bears the hallmarks of being constructed by someone else, was uncharacteristically sober, bland and even-handed.  The only element that suggested it came from Trump was a misstatement of fact.

There were cases of sensationalist provocation, as in the New York newspaper headline of "Civil War," and an attention-getting threat implying race war and attack on the black President by a rabid right former member of Congress. (He later retracted this implication, perhaps sensing an imminent visit from the Secret Service.)

While this guy (and other rabid righties) blamed President Obama, because he says that police violence against innocent black people is frequent and wrong, the other article makes a case that today's restraint and even-handedness is partly due to the persistent efforts of President Obama.

In his column, Jonathan Chiat begins by evoking Obama's famous "Yes, We Can" speech after the New Hampshire primary, in which he said--not for the last time, or really for the first--that America is not as divided as it seems.  Today's measured response, he writes, is "a vindication, also, of the vision of unity Obama had attempted to summon eight years before and never abandoned."

On this specific issue, President Obama did more than offer words.  Chiat notes Obama's statement from Poland, responding to the two shooting incidents (but the day before Dallas): "Last year, we put together a task force that was comprised of civil rights activists and community leaders, but also law enforcement officials -- police captains, sheriffs. And they sat around a table and they looked at the data and they looked at best practices, and they came up with specific recommendations and steps that could ensure that the trust between communities and police departments were rebuilt and incidents like this would be less likely to occur."

Many police departments are in the process of institutionalizing these recommendations--  but “a whole bunch that have not.” Change takes time. (This is another Obama belief.) as Chiat put it.  But it's more than a belief.  With our single-image view of history, we miss how long things take, and the bigger they are, most often the longer they take.

Chiat concludes:

If there is a single premise dividing Obama from his critics on both the left and the right, it is that intractable conflict is irrational rather than rational. The promise of reasoned, evidence-based progress is gains for all, not merely for one group at the necessary expense of others.

Obama’s placid vision is obviously not a panacea. There are murderers, racists, and hysterics afoot who will not calmly gather around the table for a data-based discussion of reforms. There is an element of struggle to his vision — a contest to maintain calm, to impose order over chaos and reason over passion. The dissidents to Obama’s vision, by necessity and by definition, are loud and conspicuous. They capture our attention. But they are not the majority, and they are not bound to prevail.

Although this assessment may appear "placid," President Obama has also expressed strong emotion in response to both the Dallas shooting and a long litany of shootings with black victims.  NPR lists some of these responses.

It is also worth noting that guns--the police fear of guns, the easy recourse by police to lethal force with their guns--dramatically make these situations worse. (WAPost correlates gun culture and police shootings, and the LA Times looks at whether the bombastic "second amendment rights" apply to blacks.)  And now we apparently have a first--a lethal robot, armed with a bomb.  What could possibly go wrong?

Monday, July 04, 2016

A First on the Fourth

"We just did the hardest thing NASA's ever done," said participant Scott Bolton, as the spacecraft Juno confirmed that after a five year journey it had successfully gone into orbit around Jupiter.

The space age commenced with Sputnik, often described as about the size of a basketball.  Juno is a sophisticated, heavy shielded research vehicle that is the size of a basketball court.

Jupiter is in one of the most dangerous places in the solar system, due in part to the heavy radiation of this massive world.  Jupiter is also the first planet in the solar system to be formed, and so Juno's observations may shed light on obscure cosmic history.

In addition to all the scientific instruments, there is a camera, the JunoCam, that is reserved for public use.  As this New Yorker article notes: "Freed from the burden of scientific responsibility, amateurs and enthusiasts will be able to vote online to determine where JunoCam points and which features it captures. “It will provide the very first views of Jupiter’s poles, and the most incredible close-up views of the planet ever seen,” Bolton said. “I expect we will probably discover some new moons, too. But it’s really a public camera.” Already, JunoCam’s discussion boards are alight: six-year-old Bee wants more photos of the red spot, while Hogarth-11 is voting for a closer look at greenish dots near Jupiter’s equator."

Update: Washington Post expands on the science to come during this mission, and adds this about Jupiter: "Jupiter is so massive that it's heftier than everything else in the solar system (except for the sun) put together. More than 1,000 Earths could fit inside it. It's a mystery wrapped in an enigma — both its raging surface storms, which include the Great Red Spot, and its hidden core remain largely unknown to science — and learning more about the strange planet could help us understand the building blocks of life on our own planet and beyond."

NASA also extended the working lives of 9 ongoing spacecraft missions.  As Carl Sagan pointed out in the final episode of Cosmos--which by coincidence I watched again tonight, in its digital restoration--it was by studying other planets that scientists here discovered the ozone layer (recently showing signs of healing, thanks to efforts begun decades ago) and the likely phenomenon of nuclear winter.  Even earlier, James Lovelock began formulating his Gaia theory based on studies of Mars.

Recent observations by the Curiosity Rover suggest more strongly that Mars was once much like the Earth, with an atmosphere and watery oceans. What went wrong?  Venus is another cautionary tale, for it seems to be a lifeless victim of runaway greenhouse heating.  These planetary neighbors are reminders of how fragile is our purchase on this planet, with its wisp of an atmosphere as our life-giving protection.

Sagan remains a touchstone for the ethics of space exploration.  For him (unlike, say, the makers of the film Interstellar) it's not an either/or proposition.  Space exploration and care of the Earth must coexist, and the Earth always comes first.

The New Yorker article notes that several other space missions came to fruition on July 4.  This July 4 also happens to coincide with Earth's Aphelion, or the farthest point from the sun it reaches in its orbit.  (As this piece points out, that distance has a lot less to do with our surface temperature than the planet's tilt that determines the seasons, but it is thought to be related to periodical Ice Ages.)

These jostle with the other significant anniversaries on this date, such as the Declaration of Independence, the death of its author, Thomas Jefferson as well as John Adams, the birthday of George M. Cohan and--the 18th birthday of Malia Obama, whose father led the singing of Happy Birthday at a White House event.