Tag: violence

School Choice Lowers Crime

New research by Harvard professor David J. Deming studied the crime rates of young adults who participated in a random lottery at the middle or high school level. The lotteries decided whether students were able to attend a school of their choice or whether they were forced to attend their assigned public school. Students who won the lottery committed significantly fewer crimes as young adults than those who lost it. So here is another in the long list of educational outcomes improved by market freedoms and incentives.

Send this to a friend who is still on the fence about the merits of educational freedom.

The New York Times on Anders Breivik

My Washington Examiner column this week looks at the rush to score partisan points over the horrific slaughter in Norway last Friday.

In it, I argue that blaming Al Gore for the Unabomber, Sarah Palin for Jared Loughner, or Bruce Bawer for Anders Breivik makes about as much sense as blaming Martin Scorcese and Jodie Foster for the actions of John Hinckley. In general, “invoking the ideological meanderings of psychopaths is a stalking horse for narrowing permissible dissent.”

And right on cue, here’s today’s New York Times editorial on Breivik, decrying “inflammatory political rhetoric” about Muslim immigration in Europe:

Individuals are responsible for their actions. But they are influenced by public debate and the extent to which that debate makes ideas acceptable — or not. Even mainstream politicians in Europe, including Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France have sown doubts about the ability or willingness of Europe to absorb newcomers. Multiculturalism “has failed, utterly failed,” Mrs. Merkel said last October.

Oh, Grey Lady: you had me at “individuals are responsible for their actions,” but you lost me after “but.”

Because, maybe there are, in fact, limits to the ability or willingness of Europe to absorb newcomers. And perhaps multiculturalism has failed. I don’t know—I don’t live in Europe, and I don’t follow its immigration debates closely. But contra the Times’ editorialists, it seems to me that these ideas are “acceptable,” in the sense that they might actually be true, and that you ought to be able to debate them without thereby becoming morally responsible for the actions of lone psychotics.

Virtually every European immigration skeptic manages to participate in that debate without resort to violence, just as vanishingly few hard-core environmentalists try to promote their ideas by means of armed assault. The actions of the deranged few don’t tell us much about what’s wrong with those political stances.

As others have pointed out, the notion that you should “watch what you say” in political debates amounts to giving a sort of “heckler’s veto” to the biggest nutjobs within earshot.

As a means of avoiding horrifying—but thankfully rare—events like mass shooting sprees, it doesn’t seem terribly promising. But it might help you temporarily intimidate your ideological opponents—which is why it’s a perennially popular tactic.

Finns Begin a Quixotic Quest for Prevention

In the aftermath of the Oslo terror attack, Finnish police—yes, Finnish—plan to increase their surveillance of the Internet:

Deputy police commissioner Robin Lardot said his forces will play closer attention to fragmented pieces of information—known as ‘weak signals’—in case they connect to a credible terrorist threat.

That is not the way forward. As I explored in a series of posts and a podcast after the Fort Hood shooting here in the United States, random violence (terrorist or otherwise) is not predictable and not “findable” in advance—not if a free society is to remain free, anyway. That’s bad news, but it’s important to understand.

In the days since the attack, many commentators have poured a lot of energy into interpretation of Oslo and U.S. media treatment of it while the assumption of an al Qaeda link melted before evidence that it was a nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic “cultural conservative.” Such commentary and interpretation is riveting to people who are looking to vindicate or decimate one ideology or another, but it doesn’t matter much in terms of security against future terrorism.

As former FBI agent (and current ACLU policy counsel) Mike German advises, any ideology can become a target of the government if the national security bureaucracy comes to use political opinion or activism as a proxy or precursor for crime and terrorism. Rather than blending crime control with mind control, the only thing to do is to watch ever-searchingly for genuine criminal planning and violence, and remember the Oslo dead as Lt. General Cone did Fort Hood’s: “The … community shares your sorrow as we move forward together in a spirit of resiliency.”

Measuring Progress on Violence against Union Members in Colombia

During a recent Congressional hearing on President Obama’s trade agenda, Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) stated his continued objections to the FTA with Colombia:

“Union worker violence in Colombia remains unacceptably high - if not the highest in the world. Limited progress is being made in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible. Additionally, reports indicate that threats against union workers and others have increased, and there has been little concrete action today to pursue these cases.” [Emphasis added].

Levin warned that, despite signs of a more constructive approach to this issue from Colombia’s new president Juan Manuel Santos, “The only adequate measuring stick is progress on the ground.”

Rep. Levin should take a look at the Free Trade Bulletin that my colleague Dan Griswold and I published this week: “Trade Agreement Would Promote U.S. Exports and Colombian Civil Society.” When it comes to progress on the ground regarding violence against union members, Colombia already has a remarkable record. The number of assassinations of trade unionists has dropped 77% since its peak in 2001, compared to the total number of homicides in the country, which declined by 44% in the same period.

 

 

 Sources: National Union School (ENS) and Ministry of Social Protection (MPS).

If we look at the homicide rate as defined by the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the rate for union killings was 5.3 per 100,000 unionists in 2010, six times lower than the homicide rate for the overall population (33.9 per 100,000 inhabitants).

In our paper, we present evidence that shows that union members enjoy greater security than other vulnerable groups of Colombian civil society, such as teachers, councilmen and journalists. Also, we highlight research conducted by economists Daniel Mejía and María José Uribe of the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, which found no statistical evidence supporting the claim that trade unionists are targeted for their activities. Instead, their results show that “the violence against union members can be explained by the general level of violence and by low levels of economic development.”

As for Rep. Levin’s claim that there has been “little concrete action” to pursue crimes against trade unionists, once again the evidence says otherwise. In 2010 there were over 1,400 trade unionists under a government protection program—more than any other vulnerable group of Colombia’s civil society. In 2007, a special department was created in the Office of the Prosecutor General dedicated exclusively to solving crimes against union members and bringing the perpetrators to justice. Close to 85 percent of the sentences issued since 2000 for assassinations of trade unionists were issued after the creation of this department.

If Rep. Levin’s “adequate measuring stick is progress on the ground,” then he should recognize the tremendous achievements made by Colombia so far in reducing violence against trade unionists, and solving the crimes committed against them.

You can read the full paper here.

A Grimm Proceeding

On Tuesday — you may have missed this because of some political developments that day — the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association.  This case is a First Amendment challenge to a California law that prohibits selling violent video games to minors. 

Cato had filed a brief pointing out that, to paraphrase the Four Tops, it’s just the same ol’ song, but with a different meaning whenever a new form of entertainment comes along.  In other words, it is difficult to find any form of entertainment that did not once suffer the ire of parents’ groups, smoldering church bonfires, and would-be government protectors of children. From the Brothers Grimm, to “penny dreadful” novels, to comic books, to movies, to video games, each new entertainment medium was said to achieve innovative levels of mind control that corrupted children with flashing pictures, bright colors, or suggestive mental imagery.  

And it seems like the justices were listening.

Throughout a lively oral argument that primarily dealt with the vagueness of trying to define a “violent video game,” justices and counsel consistently discussed the rogues gallery of past entertainment industries that were said to corrupt our children. At one point Justice Scalia asked California’s attorney what “deviant violence” is, to which the attorney responded, “deviant would be departing from established norms.” Scalia asked incredulously, “There are established norms of violence?” The attorney began to say “Well, if we look back…” before Scalia cut him off with, “Some of the Grimm’s fairy tales are quite grim, to tell you the truth.” When California’s attorney said he would not advocate banning Grimm’s fairy tales, Justice Ginsburg came back, asking, “What’s the difference?…[I]f you are supposing a category of violent materials dangerous to children, then how do you cut it off at video games? What about films? What about comic books? Grimm’s fairy tales?”

Later in the argument, Paul Smith, attorney for the Entertainment Merchants Association, referenced Cato’s argument: “We do have a new medium here, Your Honor, but we have a history in this country of new mediums coming along and people vastly overreacting to them, thinking the sky is falling, our children are all going to be turned into criminals.”

Granted, these arguments could have been raised even without Cato’s brief, but exchanges like these demonstrate the value of amicus briefs. Along with novel legal arguments, they can supply the Court with historical, statistical, sociological, and other information that is relevant to deciding the case.

You can read the argument transcript here and the audio will be available tomorrow at this site.  Thanks to Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus for his continuing work on this case (including with this blogpost).

Violence and Institutional Chaos in Ecuador

Last Thursday I left home at 7:50am to do a radio interview. Little did I know that I would not be able to get back to work that day until 3:00pm because the national police would block the main avenues and bridges in my city, Guayaquil, Ecuador.

The police went on a national strike burning tires and openly disobeying the government. Grocery stores, drugstores, banks and other shops were sacked for most of the day as a result.  Some disgruntled members of the air force, who sympathized with the police and are in charge of running airports, shut down a few airports including the one in Quito, the capital.

President Rafael Correa was quick to call this a coup d’état attempt. But it was not. All of the military high command expressly supported the President from the beginning. It was a police strike that got out of hand mostly because the authorities with the power to have toned down the situation did the opposite. The policemen were demanding the repeal or reform of a law that reduced their compensation. The President or his ministers could have offered to negotiate the controversial provisions within that law. But the President went to the police barracks and provoked the policemen yelling “If you want to kill the president…here he is … kill him now!”

The policemen physically assaulted the President, throwing a teargas bomb at him among other objects, and he went across the street to the police hospital. There he received treatment and visits from his ministers and top aides, gave cell phone interviews and was at all times protected by his security team. Mary O`Grady in today’s Wall Street Journal and others credibly point out that the president was never kidnapped as he claims.

The political crisis that led to the police strike did not begin on Thursday. Ecuador has lived in constant political tension since before the year 2000, a situation that only intensified with the arrival of Rafael Correa’s government in January 2007. That year, his government was behind the forcible and illegal removal of the democratically elected opposition in Congress in order to approve a constitutional referendum that would give Correa more power. The press then discovered Correa’s Minister of Government holding a secret meeting with alternate congressmen, who serve in place of elected congressmen in case these cannot serve. After this meeting, with the support of the alternate congressmen, Correa got a majority in Congress that he did not have before.

When the Constitutional Court reinstated the opposition in Congress, Correa encouraged his followers to make the Constitutional Court “understand” the popular will and he ordered the police not to provide security to the Constitutional Court. An angry mob then physically assaulted the members of the court. Nevermind, Correa’s new majority in Congress removed the members of the Constitutional Court as they were in the way of a referendum that was clearly unconstitutional. The referendum asked if Ecuadorians wanted to hold a Constitutional Assembly of “unlimited powers” to draft a new constitution. A sizeable majority voted ‘yes’ and Correa’s majority at the Constitutional Assembly began its use of unlimited power by dissolving Congress in 2008.

After regularly disregarding the Constitution and the law for almost 4 years, it should come as no surprise that the policemen woke up one day thinking that, they too, could disobey the law and demand changes by force.

The 30th of September was a sad day for Ecuadorian democracy. The government ordered all media to broadcast state TV programming. We Ecuadorians were forced to watch government officials and sympathizers most of the day until two TV stations disobeyed the order at 9:00pm to show our military opening fire against our policemen, and rescuing a supposedly “kidnapped” President from the hospital. That day there were almost 300 wounded persons and 8 deaths that, most likely, could have been avoided.

There is nothing to celebrate. There is still no rule of law in Ecuador. While the President was celebrating a “victory for democracy” from the government palace’s balcony, the shooting between the military and policemen continued for 20 more minutes and the order to broadcast state TV was still in force. Naturally, state TV was only showing Correa’s address.

The damage is great. We have lost respect of our policemen and our government authorities, who act as if their power has no limits. The Ecuadorians of my generation have never seen this level of violence. We have also never been subjected to such an extreme state control of information, as we were that day.

The Organization of American States was quick to denounce the police uprising and express its support of democracy. But where have the OAS and other supposed defenders of democracy been when Correa has systematically violated the rule of law and undermined democratic institutions?

The institutional vacuum created by Correa’s government has led our society to unacceptable levels of violence. We hoped that the violent toll of the events on Thursday would have made the government change its authoritarian ways. So far, all evidence points to a radicalization of the government, which was already stigmatizing the opposition and harassing the independent press, and now seems set to exploit the day’s events to further undermine democracy.

What will it take for the OAS to denounce violations of the rule of law under Correa’s government?

Talking about Terrorism

Terrorists are named after an emotion for a reason. They use violence to produce widespread fear for a political purpose. The number of those they kill or injure will always be a small fraction of those they frighten. This creates problems for leaders, and even analysts, when they talk publicly about terrorism. On one hand, leaders need to convince the public that they are on the case in protecting them, or else they won’t be leaders for long. On the other hand, good leaders try to minimize unwarranted fear.

One reason is that we shouldn’t give terrorists what they want. Another is that fear is a real social harm, particularly when it is exaggerated. Stress from fear harms health. It causes bad decisions. For example, if people avoid flying and drive instead the number of added fatalities on the road will quickly surpass the dead from a typical terrorist attack. Most important, excessive fear causes policy responses that often damage the economy without much added safety. Measured in lives on dollars, reactions to terrorism often cost more than the attack themselves.

If leaders talk only about the danger of terrorism and everything they are doing to fight it, without putting danger in context, they may be on safe political ground, but they risk causing or prolonging groundless fear and encouraging all sorts of harmful overreactions. That is the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism record, in a nutshell. If leaders just say “calm down and worry about something more likely to harm you,” they will be butchered politically.

So a reasonable approach is to sound concerned but reassuring. You want to convince people that they are mostly safe without appearing complacent. I don’t like many of this administration’s counterterrorism policies, starting with Afghanistan, but thus far its communication about terrorism is far more sensible than the last administration’s. That includes the aftermath of this attempted Christmas Day attack.

The administration made it clear that it is unacceptable that a guy we just got warned about got onto a plane wearing explosives. But the President also said Americans should be generally confident in their safety from terrorism. He didn’t act as if this incident was the most important thing on his schedule this year or compare the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen to the Third Reich or what have you, exaggerating their capability and power. I wish he had gone further and said that detonating explosives smuggled on to a plane is tricky and that flying remains incredibly safe. (Jim Harper will soon have more to say here on the security failures and how to talk about them.)

In a different political universe, the President could describe the terrorist threat honestly. He would say that recent attempted terrorist attacks in the United States show more amateurism and failure than skill and success. He could add that we are fortunate that our greatest enemy, al Qaeda and its fellow-travelers, are scattered and weak compared the sorts of enemies we historically faced. He would sound more like Michael Bloomberg, who told New Yorkers that they had a better chance of being struck by lightening than killed by terrorists, after a particularly inept terrorist plot on JFK airport was uncovered. He could even quote Nate Silver, who calculates that in the last decade of US flights, there was one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. It’s true, as Kip Viscusi demonstrates, that people don’t think like actuaries. They rightly value different sorts of deaths in different ways, and want more protection against terrorism than other dangers. But knowing the odds is still important in weighing the appropriate amount of concern and forming policy preferences. The president could also have treated voters like grown-ups and pointed out that whatever flaws in airline security that this attempted attack reveals, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and sooner or later even the finest security systems fail.

I also disagree with the argument that the trouble with our airline security or national security policy-making in general is insufficient presidential attention. Overall, we could do with a little more masterly inactivity in security policy, to use an old British phrase. Aviation security is another matter, but I struggle to see how presidential involvement would have fixed this problem. The 9-11 Commission did claim that September 11 occurred because leaders failed to pay sufficient attention to al Qaeda, but there, as in other matters, the Commission is wrong. At least in the executive branch, the attention paid to the threat in the 1990s was quite substantial, as you can see in this essay by Josh Rovner or in my contribution to this book. The historical record shows that the threat was well understood by security officials and the reading public. Time, for example, called Osama bin Laden the most wanted man in the world when they interviewed him in 1998. The trouble, in my opinion, was not misperception but our policies and the difficult and unprecedented nature of problem–a terrorist group ensconced in hostile country that refused to do anything about it.

Getting the line between confidence and vigilance right is not easy, but it starts with acknowledgment that there is such a thing as overreaction. That subject will be the on the agenda for our January 13 counterterrorism forum with James Fallows, State Department Counterterrorism Coordinator Daniel Benjamin, Paul Pillar and others.

*My attempts to explain this stuff to Politico yesterday resulted in some confused and inaccurate uses of my quotes in this story by Carol E. Lee, which unconvincingly compares the Obama’s response to this terrorist attempt to his silly involvement in the Henry Louis Gates arrest fiasco. First, Lee absurdly uses me as example of “predictable” attacks from the right on Obama, when I said I was glad that the President said Americans should feel confident but that I’d have preferred if he’d done it more forcefully by saying flying remains safe and al Qaeda weak. That is more or less the opposite of the predictable take on the right. Then, she says that my views on the President’s response to the attacks referred to his post-press conference golf outing. I was talking about his overall response, or lack thereof, over the last several days. I can’t decipher the meaning of presidential golf.

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