Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

September 26, 2016

Stop, Frisk, and Miss

By David K. Shipler

            On a warm night some summers ago, a wiry sergeant named G. G. Neill and his “power shift” of police officers pulled their four marked squad cars into a somber, impoverished block in Southeast Washington, D.C. Six cops got out, none of them undercover. They were in uniform because they wanted to see what young black men hanging out on a street corner would do when the law appeared. Neill believed that telltale reactions would often betray a person who was concealing a gun.
            The armed man’s buddies, hanging out, might all turn to look at him. He might walk quickly away. He might turn one side away from the cops, lean against a car, hold his girlfriend tightly on his weapon side, or repeatedly touch his waistband to be sure the gun is securely in place. His clothes might be too bulky for the weather, or an ill-fitting jacket would hang lopsided, as if weighed down by something heavy in a pocket.
            This time in this block, however, and in many others during the deep nights when I traveled parts of the nation’s capital with the unit, the young black men did nothing suspicious. That didn’t prevent them from being searched. Some were so used to the cops coming around that they pulled up their T-shirts, without being asked, to show they had nothing stuck in their belts. They were as casual as passengers removing their shoes at airport security. Others allowed themselves to be patted down with no overt objections except for the smoldering looks in their eyes. They raised their arms so the cops could run their hands up and down their bodies and between their legs, then squeeze their pockets.
            This is the sorry state of the Fourth Amendment in the nation’s heavily black neighborhoods. The Framers carefully crafted the protection of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” But that right, which is not to be overcome unless probable cause exists that evidence of a crime will be found, has been shredded by the war on drugs, the war on street violence, and most recently the war on terrorism. Wars, whether actual or metaphorical, do not comport well with individual liberties.
            That Donald Trump last week supported expanding “stop and frisk,” which a federal judge in New York has ruled unconstitutional, is no surprise. In no area of public policy has he demonstrated even a schoolboy’s understanding of the U.S. Constitution. His call for more widespread use of the tactic, while pretending to cater to minorities’ concerns about neighborhood violence, was surely aimed more precisely at his constituency of fearful whites.
            If cops ever stopped and frisked pedestrians in the white neighborhoods of Bedminster, NJ, where Trump has a house, or on the campus of Harvard or Princeton, or even a couple of miles away from from the impoverished areas where Sergeant Neill was operating—in mostly white, upscale Georgetown, for example—the uproar would be heard from there to the halls of Congress.
            But it doesn’t happen. “If I’m in Georgetown and the guy’s in a business suit,” a detective named Ali Ramadhan told a class of D.C. officers being trained in looking for guns, “I’m not gonna pat him down.” As Neill told me, no, his “power shift” didn’t operate in Georgetown, although he guessed that plenty of people there had illegal guns as well. The difference he explained this way: The rich folks in Georgetown weren’t using their weapons to murder each other.
            That is the pragmatic consideration. Where is the violence, and can it be reduced by searching people on the street? Sergeant Neill, who has since retired from the force, boasted that in the eight months before I’d joined him to ride along, his unit had confiscated 93 guns. Extrapolating from the numbers of pat-downs during the nights I accompanied him, the success rate would have been about 2 percent, leaving nearly 4,700 stops and frisks of innocent people during the eight months.
            Such searches operate with racial and ethnic bias. In New York, blacks and Hispanics, who constitute 50 percent of the population, made up 83 percent of the frisks from 2004 to 2012. And the rate of return was low. Of 4.5 million stops tracked under a 2008 lawsuit against the NYPD, only 6 percent produced arrests and another 6 percent summonses, leaving 88 percent of the pat-downs directed at innocents.
            Statistics don’t tell the whole story, though. Sergeant Neill argued that every gun he and his unit got off the street was one gun less that could be used in a murder. Furthermore, he believed that when residents knew his unit was operating in their neighborhood—and they always knew, because the squad was so deliberately visible—people would leave their guns at home. And if they left them at home and had to go get them after an angry argument, Neill reasoned, they’d have a few minutes to cool off before they could shoot anybody. It was an untested theory that seemed to make sense.
             Then comes the constitutional issue, the principle of individual security—not security from armed citizens in this case, but the right to be “secure” from government, from the state’s awesome power to search. As Justice Robert H. Jackson declared, “Uncontrolled search and seizure is one of the first and most effective weapons in the arsenal of every arbitrary government.” No wonder it appeals to Trump’s authoritarian impulses.
Pedestrian frisks are now permitted and restricted by a labyrinth of court rulings. Notwithstanding the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for a judge to find probable cause that evidence of a crime will be discovered, a lesser standard for potentially dangerous, fast-moving counters was established by the Supreme Court in 1968, in Terry v. Ohio. The Court permitted a frisk if the cop merely suspected that the person was armed. This nebulous rule eventually came to be labeled “reasonable suspicion,” and its imprecision has morphed into wide latitude. Today, even “reasonable suspicion” that someone has drugs—technically, has committed or is about to commit a crime—can be a legal basis for such a warrantless search. A key rationale is the pedestrian’s or the motorist’s ability to depart with whatever evidence he might have.
Justice William O. Douglas saw where the permissiveness of Terry v. Ohio was heading. “The term ‘probable cause’ rings a bell of certainty that is not sounded by phrases such as ‘reasonable suspicion,’” he warned as the lone dissenter. “If the individual is no longer to be sovereign, if the police can pick him up whenever they do not like the cut of his jib, if they can ‘seize’ and ‘search’ him in their discretion, we enter a new regime.”

Welcome to the new regime.

September 18, 2016

The Mirror Factory

By David K. Shipler

Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and
 put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take a long look in them.
--Granger, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

            A presidential election campaign is a mirror factory with a deception. We think we are looking at the candidates, but we are looking at ourselves. Our foibles and dreams are reflected back at us. The mirrors are unforgiving. They hide no blemishes. All we have to do is concentrate and watch through clear eyes.
            Yes, politicians are to blame. They give us what they think we want to see. And it turns out that many of us want to see fantasies: impossible promises, exaggerated caricatures, and utter illusions. We want to see demons. We yearn for enemies, both foreign and domestic, to purify complexity into enticing mirages of simplicity. Too many of us, with the help of certain politicians, conjure up monsters to blame and hate.
            We are charitable and we are selfish, we are peaceful and violent, accepting and bigoted. Amid all our vast variety, a large proportion of us look in the mirrors for tough guys. We don’t want to see softness or empathy in ourselves. We want to seem caring without being weak. We want hard edges. We want to look in the mirrors and see in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is, you-know-where-you-can-put-it, make-my-day belligerence to confront the whirlwind of self-pity, moral guilt, and learned helplessness to which we imagine once-great America has succumbed.
That part of us doesn’t want to see any acquiescence reflected back. If the half or more of us who will vote for Trump see our reflections honestly in the mirrors, we will see ourselves as torturers who wish to kill the wives and children of supposed terrorists, as war criminals who want to plunder (“take the oil”), as pugnacious bullies spoiling for a war with Iran, as unreliable allies who want turn our backs on our friends, as advocates for the jailing or assassination of the Democratic candidate in what we hail as the world’s leading democracy.
When we look straight into our reflections, we do not see temperate, steady deliberation. We see boiling, zealous impatience. When a voter can declare that a candidate “says what I think,” a remark heard frequently from Trump supporters especially, it’s a sign that the mirrors have been polished.

September 12, 2016

Hillary Clinton's Other Basket

By David K. Shipler

You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic . . . But that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. . . . Those are people we have to understand and empathize with.
--Hillary Clinton

            Nobody who wants to be president of all Americans has the luxury of being “grossly generalistic,” as Hillary Clinton confessed she was about to be when she told a fundraiser last week that half of Donald Trump’s supporters were “deplorables,” some “irredeemable.” Putting groups of people in a basket, like rotten fruit, is distasteful no matter how rancid their racial and social attitudes. And nobody is irredeemable.
Not that she’s wrong about Trump’s fueling bigotry. But it’s “that other basket of people,” those “we have to understand,” in Clinton’s words, who present her and the Democratic Party with a lesson in true failure—and therefore an opportunity for repair.
 Very little has been done by the Democrats over the last eight years to connect with the white, blue-collar citizens whose lives and hopes have been tossed into anxiety. While the government programs the Democrats have championed did help and would have helped more had they not been curbed by Republicans, the sense of commitment and concern at the top rarely filtered down to the grassroots. It’s a constituency the party has mostly lost in recent decades.
 Barack Obama, an excellent president in many ways, did not turn his considerable charm on those Americans. He did not work hard enough to engage the disaffected and the marginalized who had been displaced from jobs that had seemed durable, and from homes that had seemed secure, by the Great Recession precipitated largely by the Republicans.
Granted, his Affordable Care Act, his stimulus bill, his consumer protection measures and banking restrictions have all assisted people in that “basket.” But most of them don’t give him or the Democrats credit. He has not been able to translate those hard concrete measures into the soft engagement with personal hardship that gives a holistic contour to a presidency. His brilliant speeches notwithstanding, his aloof demeanor and his understandable focus on policy solutions have left a gap. And that gap has been exploited by the rightwing, thinly veiled racial propaganda of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other extremist media, which animated the nativist prejudices that regarded a black man as an undeserving, an alien, and a frightening specter in the White House. That diffuse bigotry—a backlash against having a black president—is part of what has propelled Trump to the verge of the presidency.

September 4, 2016

On National Anthems

By David K. Shipler

            One day in the summer of 1960, just 15 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, a tour bus of Americans, driving through the Netherlands, broke into song, led by a seminary student in the group. It was an old Methodist hymn, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, in a beautiful Haydn melody.
            Suddenly the driver, a Dutchman named Jerry, shouted at us to stop, please stop. He had to pull over, he was so upset. We fell silent, baffled, until he explained that we were singing the melody of the German national anthem, whose lyrics in Weimar and then Nazi times began, “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles/ Uber alles in der Welt,” (“Germany, Germany above all/ Above everything in the world”). Jerry had seen the German tanks and troops roll into Amsterdam. He had seen people hanged from lampposts. By singing that tune, even as a hymn, we were unwittingly sweeping him back into the war.
             For me, at 17, this was a moment of clarity about the innocence of my parochialism, the indelible memories of suffering, and the power of patriotic music. It was a sudden education in the vast symbolic force of national anthems. Like the pieces of colored cloth sewn together into national flags of fierce identity, the arrangements of notes and words can compute into something far greater than the sum of their parts.
So it is that we now see Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, reviled and applauded as he stays seated or takes a knee instead of standing for The Star Spangled Banner. He is protesting what all good citizens should: police shootings of unarmed black men and the country’s stubborn scourge of racism. If he had only made a speech, fine. But failing to respect the national anthem, well, that’s heresy!

August 21, 2016

What Trump is Teaching Children

By David K. Shipler

We’ve seen Donald Trump behave like a 12-year-old,
and now we’re seeing 12-year-olds behave like Donald Trump.
--Richard Cohen, president, Southern Poverty Law Center

            The new school year begins with an opportunity and a challenging risk for teachers: whether to use the presidential campaign as they usually do, as a teaching tool about American democracy, or to treat the brutish campaign of Donald Trump as they would some bloody mass rape and massacre, reported gruesomely on the news but typically avoided in the classroom.
            Teachers are divided, according to about 2,000 responses to an online survey last spring by the Southern Poverty Law Center. For 40 percent of the respondents, the emotional divide whipped up by Trump’s ugly rhetoric was making the election too hot to handle. A teacher in Pennsylvania bars Trump’s name from the classroom. “It feels like it makes it an unsafe place for my students of color.”
Other teachers, though, are eager to put the campaign on the agenda, because students have been so intensely engaged. The problem for each teacher is how, and whether, to maintain the customary neutrality.
            It’s usually a school policy and a mark of professionalism for teachers not to betray their political preferences while leading discussions, and especially not to endorse one candidate over another. But Trump’s bigotry, which has been emulated in student behavior and comments, has driven some minority students to plead for support from teachers, and some teachers say they have felt compelled to offer comfort by denouncing him.

August 16, 2016

Does Putin Want Trump? Really?

By David K. Shipler

            Of all the odd things that have happened on the way to the presidential election, the weirdest is the spectacle of Republicans, once the fist-pounding party of national security, shrugging off Donald Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and for Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Further, to turn normalcy completely upside down, the Democrats, once the party of internationalism, are pointing fingers at the specter of treacherous foreign influence subverting American democracy.
            With some exceptions, the right has been indifferent and the left has been apoplectic over Trump’s embrace of Moscow’s perspectives. He has spoken admiringly of Putin, and Putin has returned the favor. The Republican candidate has accepted Russia’s annexation of Crimea, deleted a call for lethal arms to Ukraine from the Republican Party’s platform, brushed off the suspicious murders of nonconforming Russian journalists, and questioned whether NATO members such as the Baltics should be defended in accordance with the treaty’s obligations.
            Presumably to help Trump, two of Russia’s intelligence services hacked the email files of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, with mildly embarrassing releases so far and, surely, more serious disclosures to come. Meanwhile, Trump receives favored coverage and commentary by the Kremlin’s Russia Today television broadcasts in the U.S.
            The question is whether Putin, who is reputed to be a canny manipulator, really thinks that Russia would be well served by having a crackpot in the White House. Maybe so, if he’s as short-sighted as his KGB training taught him to be.

July 22, 2016

Trump's Dystopian America

By David K. Shipler


In Soviet times, Russians used to tell the joke about the man who went into a Moscow clinic to ask for an eye and ear doctor.
“We don’t have an eye and ear doctor,” said the receptionist. “We have an eye doctor, and we have an ear doctor. You’ll have to get an appointment with one and then the other.”
“No,” the man insisted. “I need an eye and ear doctor.”
“Why?”
“Because I keep hearing one thing and seeing another.”
Listening to Donald Trump and his Republican enablers is like hearing the fictions of communist propaganda inverted, not to glorify the country as in the Soviet Union but to picture America as having fallen into the dark abyss of violence, helplessness, and “humiliation,” a word Trump favored in his acceptance speech. This portrait is essential as a prelude to autocracy. A country does not move in that direction without fear, anger and despair, which has to be generated and heightened as the population is presented with a savior.
Moreover, an earlier American utopia existed, according to the bizarre Trumpist vision, and it can be restored by one man alone, who first has to convince enough citizens that they live today in dystopia. Trump’s declarations contain no legislators, no political pluralism, and no legitimate competing interests in a diverse society. “I alone can fix it,” he actually said as he described a broken system during his address to the Republican convention. The blustering promises of the Republican candidate for president suggest that he is entirely unfamiliar with the American constitutional system of checks and balances, the separation of powers. Indeed, as the rabble he has mobilized chanted at the convention for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment, history was being made: it might have been the first time that one American political party has called for the jailing of its opponent for president.

July 11, 2016

Recollections: Three Stories About Sydney Schanberg

By David K. Shipler

            The word “great” is overused in this age of superlatives, but it’s no exaggeration when applied to Syd Schanberg, whose coverage of Cambodia during its 1970s war has been remembered almost reverently, since he died last week, by those who worked with him. Here are three vignettes:

            One evening in Phnom Penh, as we were about to take Syd’s favorite government censor to a French restaurant for rich food and copious amounts of wine—standard practice to lubricate the “approved” stamp on controversial copy—Syd told me of a run-in with a different Cambodian censor three years earlier. It had been 1970, as ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia were being attacked and imprisoned by the government and civilians. Syd wrote of Vietnamese being placed in “internment camps.” The censor, whose English was passable but not colloquial, said (as I recall Syd recalling the quote), “Mr. Schanberg, the phrase ‘internment camps’ is not correct. We are not imprisoning them. We are just bringing them together for their own protection. We are concentrating them. You should say, ‘concentration camps.’” That wouldn’t be such a good idea, Syd told the censor. In the story, I believe, it came out just plain “camps.”

Syd had a towering sense of justice—some might call it self-righteousness, and he could be prickly about it. He had a keen eye, and his indignation flared over incidents that less sensitive people would have considered insignificant. One day, when he and I were walking into some government compound with Dith Pran—the storied Cambodian interpreter and fixer whose trials and ultimate escape after the Khmer Rouge takeover were dramatized in the film, “Killing Fields”—the Cambodian guard at the gate called Pran over for a pat-down but was about to let us two Americans pass without a check. Syd raised an angry protest, practically shouting at the guard that if he was going to frisk Pran he was damned well going to frisk us as well. The guard, clearly confused by this unique American who eschewed the privilege of being American, obediently gave us both perfunctory pat-downs.

July 9, 2016

The Killers Among Us

By David K. Shipler

There are racial killers among us. They are armed and dangerous, and they are hiding in plain sight. Some wear the camouflage of police uniforms and are hard to pick out from the ranks of law-abiding law enforcement officers. Others are civilians in street clothes. They act alone, or so it seems, outside any conspiracy or organization—so far. Yet they act in a context. They have their sympathizers and rhetorical enablers in America’s deep traditions of bigotry.
The police officers are vested by government with the authority to kill, and when they use that license wantonly, they are rarely punished, although a pageant of due process is often performed for the spectators in the streets. The victims usually have skin darker than the killers’.
Civilian murderers are allowed to arm themselves under a perverse political calculation by the Republican Party and a twisting of the Constitution’s Second Amendment by the conservative justices of the Supreme Court. The right to bear arms has become a malignancy in the healthy body of the rights that keep us free—the rights to speech, to religion, to peaceful assembly, to a free press, to counsel, to jury trial, and against forced confession and cruel and unusual punishment. The country is awash in lethal weapons, easily acquired. Cops are not wrong to assume that one or another citizen they encounter is armed.
Therefore, the events of the last few days have been both shocking and predictable. It should be no surprise that the spate of police shootings of black men, despite all the protests they have generated, has been followed by more shootings by police—in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Anthony, Minnesota. This is likely to continue until two things happen: the officers start being put in jail and police departments nationwide scrub themselves from top to bottom of the racial stereotypes picturing blacks as inherently violent and threatening.
That image of danger, one of the most prominent in the array of racial caricatures, heightens the wariness of some cops when they face black men. That can happen with black cops, too, who are not immune from the society’s messages about African-Americans. And when cops then become targets in retaliation, as they did in the Dallas sniper attack on Thursday night, officers’ fears are stoked further, and the trigger fingers get jittery. The black sniper told a police negotiator that he was out to get white officers; he killed five and wounded seven.
Ironically, Dallas is a police department that has worked hard to heal relations with minority communities. Many other departments across the country have done little to combat the racial stereotyping that many cops bring with them to the job, and which is reinforced by the comments of fellow officers, not to mention the society at large. It would be illuminating to learn whether cops who have killed unarmed blacks have visited racist web sites. It would be interesting to know whether they like what they hear when Donald Trump tells crowds of supporters to beat up a black protestor or to fear and exclude Muslims.
Trump has fueled a lust to assess people by their racial and ethnic groupings, and the measure of his success can be heard in the ugly roars of the crowds at his rallies. When he denounced the judge hearing the civil suit against Trump University for his Mexican heritage, he said, “I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump . . . His name is Gonzalo Curiel.” At the sound of the judge’s name, the mob erupted in a primitive, angry sound that will echo throughout the country long after Trump has disappeared.
Far from heralding the arrival of a post-racial society, Barak Obama’s election as the first black president has facilitated the eruption of online racist caricatures, web sites, T-shirts, even baby clothes. After decades of building an elaborate superstructure of inhibitions to curtail the expression of bigotry, American culture sees the structure eroding. Prejudice is voiced with increasing vigor and conviction. Using justifiable criticism of a president as a cover, many right-wingers have woven racial stereotyping into their arguments against Obama, and so have cracked the veneer of courtesy and decency that has developed since the civil rights movement. That veneer has masked virulent racist attitudes beneath, to be sure, but they are now loosened with greater ease. It is impossible for all police officers to resist the flows of toxic attitudes.
So, this will continue. The logic of vengeance dictates that the spate of shootings by police should be followed by shootings of police. It is significant that officials first believed that three or four snipers were involved in Dallas, carefully positioned to triangulate their targets. It would be an alarming escalation but entirely expected. The disciples of hatred find one another eventually, and they conspire. Furthermore, on the other side, the outraged and aggrieved include the legions of gun-toting white supremacists who have felt empowered by the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Given the broad context, it is not enough to point only to the shooters. The observation of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel comes to mind: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

July 1, 2016

The Republican Party's Core Principles on Poverty

By David K. Shipler

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan is busily issuing paper after paper on his party’s “core principles” regarding poverty, health care, national security, the tax code, and the like. These are meant to be serious proposals for reform, and they should be taken seriously, for some of them pose serious threats to less fortunate Americans.
That is especially so with Ryan’s anti-poverty plan entitled “A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America.” The 35-page document is heavily punitive, advocating sanctions against the poor if they do not achieve employment. If the plan were implemented by a Republican Congress under a Trump administration, it would further shred the safety net that now protects numerous innocent children from hunger and homelessness.
The damage would be done in two ways: first, by requiring heads of poor households to get jobs or lose their food stamps and housing subsidies—in effect, adding to those essential benefits the work requirements that currently limit cash welfare checks through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). In other words, if you don’t get a job, no help getting food for your kids and keeping a roof over your family’s head.
Second, Ryan would decentralize accountability by cutting most strings that are attached by the federal government to state and local expenditures of federal funds. So, recipients of grants would have pretty free rein to spend the money as they wish. Unfortunately, not all states care much about poor people, as we’ve seen in the Republican-led states that have rejected Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, even though the cost is borne almost entirely by Washington.