Bullet Proof

A few years ago, I wrote about a forensic pathologist (and more) who was caught fabricating evidence for capital cases in the U.S. In several cases, her testimony resulted in suspects being convicted and sentenced to death.  (And on fingerprint evidence)

Recently, in Ontario, a forensic pathologist, Dr. Smith, was found to have contributed to at least 12 convictions through his incompetent or erroneous autopsies of children who died under suspicious circumstances.

The latest? Remember all those court cases dating back to the JFK assassination in which the prosecution “proved” that the fatal bullet could only have come from the same batch as the one found in possession of the suspect? 60 Minutes and The Washington Post have discovered that there is no scientific basis for such comparisons. Bullets within a single batch often vary wildly, and “identical” bullets (with lead with similar chemical compositions) can be discovered in random batches.

The FBI, bless their little hearts, recently discovered this fact. Well, no they didn’t. Is it in their interest to check to see that evidence it had presented at earlier trials was accurate? That no one was convicted as a result of their mistakes? I guess not. A curious retired metallurgist named William Tobin, who had worked in the FBI’s crime lab, decided one day to check to see if there was any real scientific basis for the evidence his department was routinely supplying to juries all over the U.S.

Surprise. He found that there was no scientific basis for this evidence– that the chemical composition of a particular bullet could prove that it came from one particular batch of bullets.

He notified his superiors who immediately called every District Attorney in the U.S. and advised them that any cases in which such testimony may have proved decisive should be reviewed.

Ha ha! Had you there, didn’t I? No, no– the FBI merely informed police forces around the country that they would no longer supply that kind of testimony because it was “problematical”.

I suppose an alert police officer might have wondered about previous cases…. but that’s not really his job, is it? I suppose it occurred to the FBI that many District Attorneys and police detectives would be less than thrilled to find out that some of their past triumphs should be called into question.

And I wonder how much of our criminal justice system relies on hunches and feelings and appearances and innuendo and suspicion and the desire to gratify the public urge to punish someone, anyone– and how much is really concerned with truth and justice?

Canadian Songwriter Hall of Fame

I didn’t know this until recently, but there is a Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. It’s purpose is “to honour, celebrate, and educate Canadians about the outstanding accomplishments of Canadian popular music songwriters and those who have contributed significantly to their legacy.”

I’m not sure what the distinction is between “outstanding accomplishments” and those who made contributions to “their legacy”. How could you make a contribution to a “legacy” unless you were a great songwriter who would be worthy, therefore, of inclusion, for your “outstanding accomplishments”? More words=more important. More better.

Unless… don’t tell me they are going to honor promoters and agents and producers? Oh no… they probably are. That would be more than a shame: it would be ridiculous. There is already a music hall of fame for the hucksters and the promoters: leave the songwriters alone.

But then…

This year’s entries: “Sugar Sugar”, recorded by the Archies in 1969, and “Far Away Places” (recorded by the immortal Ray Conniff and his orchestra), and “Clap Your Hands”– all “outstanding accomplishments”?

Yes, these stunning lyrics are now immortalized in the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame:

Sugar Sugar
Honey Honey
You are my candy girl
And you got me wanting you.

I’m not making those words up. “You got me wanting you”. The raw authenticity of that unrestrained emotion must have impressed the judges or Board of Directors or whoever it is gets to stand in front of a group of solemn reporters and music executives and explain why “Sugar Sugar” deserves to be immortalized in this awesome way. My question is this: how did they manage to get into the Hall of Fame ahead of Gino Vanelli and Corey Hart?

Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman are in. So is Gordon Lightfoot, and Leonard Cohen. Does that mean all of their songs are in? I see “Sugar Sugar” listed but not “Suzanne”. “Four Strong Winds” and “Universal Soldier” but not “You Were on My Mind” or Buffy Sainte Marie. No Poppy Family yet even though Susan Jacks had the loveliest midriff of any singer-songwriter blonde singer chick ever, of that era.

Okay, so there is a list of the songs which, I presume, earned the song-writer entry into these hallowed corridors.

And now— Paul Anka. I think it is fair to say that the Canadian Songwriter Hall of Fame and Paul Anka were made for each other.

And I would like to start a movement. I would like to organize a petition drive to keep Neil Young out of the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.

Furthermore, I think we need to form a musical commando squad to parachute into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and excise Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot before they find out that someone has decided that their life’s work is at least as good as “What a Friend we Have in Jesus” and “Aint Nobody Here but Us Chickens”.

A Taser is an Electronic Fist

The police love their tasers. They all want them. They want to carry them on their sides like six-guns, ready to whip them out at the slightest indication of agitation or disobedience. Even after a confused Polish man at the Vancouver airport was tasered to death, Fabulous Fantino, Commissar of the Ontario Provincial Police, decreed that we shouldn’t hasten to restrain them based on one little incident.

Robert Dziekanski died after RCMP officers, four of them– big guys– arrived on the scene and took a whole 25 seconds to decide that lives were in danger and this guy needed to be electrocuted. After all, he had hurled a computer keyboard to the ground. And even though he stopped when a woman asked him to… well, who knows what might have happened next. Perhaps he would have run away. And unlike American air marshals, we don’t just shoot guys like that. We taser them.

The police want you to wait and wait and wait. You haven’t heard the whole story. The video is only one piece of evidence. The other pieces of evidence, I presume, will come from the testimony of the four police officers who will all amazingly agree that Dziekanski was actually moving away from the police officers only so that he could hurl himself at them in a frenzy of deadly karate chops and whirling elbows and leg kicks, and that’s why they had to pile onto him and electrocute a man, without even attempting to arrest him.

If charges are ever laid, their lawyers will file motion after motion after motion to delay proceedings as long as possible. (The police officers involved haven’t even been suspended as of yet. When they are suspended– if ever– it will be with pay.) They will delay and obfuscate and seek all manner of reprieve until, they hope, we will have been refreshed with other scandals, or some new scare story about a potential viral epidemic that never seems to come, or a new threat from Al Qaeda, and we will once again flee willingly into their electric arms.

Eighteen people have died after being tasered in Canada so far. More than 280 have died in the U.S. That’s not an insignificant number.

The odd thing about the taser is that the police seem to believe– or want the public to believe– that they are harmless. Fabulous Fantino asks, would you rather be shot or tasered? Gosh, yes, please taser me then. The CBC was tediously compliant and didn’t bother to rephrase the question: Mr. Fantino, if you were upset with something, would you rather be electrocuted or approached cautiously and asked, “what’s the problem?” How much time would you give yourself? 30 Seconds?

The CBC should have very forcefully asked Mr. Fantino: are you saying the police should offer us a choice of being shot or tasered? 

The police present the issue as gun versus taser. Well, by all means, let’s use the taser, because, in most cases, it doesn’t kill. It’s nice to know the police go out there expecting to either shoot or taser people. If you were to believe part of what Fantino says, we really should take away all of the guns and only arm the police with tasers. Think they will go for that?

No one should forget or minimize the fact that the police in Vancouver lied about the circumstances of Robert Dziekanski’s death. They lied. Yes, they lied. They described him as violent and threatening and stated that even after he had been tasered, he continued to threaten the officers. The video shows the opposite. They show him backing away. They show him helpless on the ground when they tasered him a second time. They show four large, strong, officers clad in bulletproof vests aggressively assaulting a man who gave the appearance of being confused and frustrated but who had not made any threatening gestures to any person before or after the police arrived.

So how is the taser different from a fist? Suppose the officers had arrived without tasers and simply jumped the man and started punching and kicking him? That is what a taser does: it electronically punches and kicks its victim. It causes excruciating, debilitating pain. It’s supposed to be temporary, but there have always been questions about what it might do to an individual with known or unknown heart condition.

We should answer the question of police use of tasers exactly the same as we would answer the question of police use of fists and boots. In fact, if we take away their tasers I have a feeling we will see more fists and boots. There is never any point in making something that is illegal more illegal. That’s not the problem. The problem is attitude. The problem was perfectly defined in that Freudian moment when Mayor Richard Daley informed the media that the police, in Chicago in 1968, were not there to cause disorder: they were there to preserve disorder. The police approached Robert Dziekanski as someone to be subdued, not someone to be assisted. Fabulous Fantino would tell you that the police need to take control of the situation before they even understand what is happening. No they don’t– because the police definition of “control” includes the idea of occasionally electrocuting someone they think might be “out of control”.

I suppose the police might argue that some day a man looking like Robert Dziekanski did on October 14th at the Vancouver airport might actually have a gun. Do you think the police are going to try to use the taser on a man who really does have a gun? Do you think the police even believe that a man with a gun should be confronted with a mere taser?

What we really need to do is figure out why the police can be so monumentally stupid and aggressive in situations that call for calm and measured, thoughtful strategies. Then we need to make sure there are real consequences when the police lie about what happened.

The taser is probably useless in situations where the police argue it might actually save the life of a cop: when a suspect has a gun, or a car, and is fleeing police custody, or is holed up in a bank with hostages. The police are going to use it primarily to subdue people they just happen to get angry with, whether they are a real threat or not.


Pat Pimps Giuliani

Wouldn’t it be nice some day to wake up and find out that the a well-known leader of the “Christian” right in America did something noble and pure and decent, something that was not, in any respect, almost completely self-serving.

In your dreams. There are lots of honest, authentic, spiritually-driven Christians in American– they just don’t get on the news very often.

Pat Robertson’s endorsement of Giuliani makes remarkably clear a few facts about Robertson and his ilk.

1. It never was about God. If it was, Pat would be endorsing Mike Huckabee, who is a Baptist preacher, or John McCain, who used to have ethical principles. It’s about power. I suspect it’s about getting to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom and having your picture taken with the President of the United States, and if you think that Pat Robertson is a spiritual person, you need to re-examine your concept of spirituality. Giuliani wants to bomb Iran. That’s spiritual. Robertson is playing realpolitik.

2. Giuliani is several times divorced; he is in favor of gay rights– but not gay marriage– and abortion rights. He has been married three times and he has cheated on his wife. But he is more electable– at this point– against any of the three leading Democratic contenders than any other Republican prospect. Robertson wants, more than anything else, for his political party to win. It was never about God.

3. Is there a religious right in America? No. There are these snake-charmers and charlatans and hucksters and pimps. There are sincere religious people in America, but not on TV.


Giuliani the crime-fighter? The graph (From Wikipedia) shows that the crime rate in Newark, Los Angeles, and Nationally all dropped at similar rates to New York’s during Giuliani’s tenure.

4. Giuliani is the most over-rated politician in America, next to, perhaps, Hillary Clinton. Almost every effect he takes credit for, in New York, was the result of the actions of other men or general, nation-wide trends, especially the reduction in crime. He fired the police chief widely credited with improving police services in New York, and hired Bernard Kerik, who was later charged with corruption.

He had a brief, shining moment on television on 9/11. His skill-set consisted entirely of looking serious in front of a camera. Other than that, what did he achieve?

For that, he deserves a brief, shiny moment in the primaries.

5. Giuliani’s role in 9/11? He failed to ensure that the Firefighters acquired functional radios in the 8 years preceding the attacks, after it was made clear that the analog system repeatedly failed. Giuliani insisted on locating New York’s Emergency Response headquarters in the World Trade Centre, against recommendations of Jerome Hauer, the Director of Emergency Management for New York City. Then he appeared to lie about the fact, even when confronted with a memo by journalist Chris Wallace.

After 9/11, Giuliani demonstrated remarkable efficiency– at raising his own net worth, collecting more than $10 million in speaker’s fees.

Time Magazine named him “man of the year”, but, well, that’s Time Magazine. Whatever it was, it was certainly a slap in the face of George W., and a mockery of the idea of “significance”, and, indeed, a mockery of the very idea of seemliness.

Another Republican chicken hawk: Giuliani could have served during the Viet Nam War, had this rabid militarist decided to put his money where his mouth was. Instead, he pulled strings, even persuading District Judge Judge Lloyd MacMahon to request a deferment for him as an “essential” employee.

Al Capp Auditions

In an interview, Goldie Hawn, recounted that Al Capp, the creator of “Li’l Abner”, the comic strip– yes, the one that did a rather savage parody of Joan Baez in the 1960’s (calling her “Phony Joany”)–once arranged an “audition” for her for a movie he claimed was going to be made from his comic strip. At the audition, he demanded sex with her. When she refused, he told her she would never work in “this town” because that’s just the way things are done.

Apparently, she was not the only actress to be auditioned by Al Capp.

I feel better having this reason to dislike Capp, since his tasteless parodies of Baez, of course, were political in nature.

He also flew up to Montreal and took on John Lennon and Yoko Ono, in person, at their “bed-in for peace”.  Lennon eventually found him tiresome and asked him to leave.

But then, all good satire– I mean, really good satire– is subtle and nuanced and suggestive, and his parodies of Joan Baez were none of these things.

Now It’s Legal!

I don’t think I’ve read anything in the past five years quite so infuriating as the op-ed piece by John Ashcroft in the November 5, 2007 New York Times. Ashcroft is addressing the legislation introduced by Congress to grant immunity to Telecoms who, obeying the Bush Administration, turned over private telecommunications records to the government without seeing any kind of warrant or court authorization.

Ashcroft says:

Longstanding principles of law hold that an American corporation is entitled to rely on assurances of legality from officials responsible for government activities. The public officials in question might be right or wrong about the advisability or legality of what they are doing, but it is their responsibility, not the company’s, to deal with the consequences if they are wrong.

To deny immunity under these circumstances would be extraordinarily unfair to any cooperating carriers. By what principle of justice should anyone face potentially ruinous liability for cooperating with intelligence activities that are authorized by the president and whose legality has been reviewed and approved by our most senior legal officials?

My God. John Ashcroft has just asserted that the president has the right to require corporations to commit illegal acts whenever he feels like it, without any regard for the law, the courts, or the congress, just because the people he appointed to high public office, did what he told them to do. Because, it is clearly implied, whatever the president does is legal.

Please notice, if you will, the amazing, magical words missing from that last line: “and the courts”. The Telecoms should obey the President not because a judge or a court has legally issue a writ or warrant on the basis of actual evidence that someone might be committing or has committed a crime— oh no! But just because the President and the officials he appointed (and can fire at will) have decided that they would like to have a look. At your phone records.

If the legality of the Executive’s directives to the FBI and CIA have been “reviewed and approved” by our most “senior legal officials”– then there is no need for the immunity legislation. The courts will recognize the legality of the Executive’s actions and the civil actions will be dismissed.

(Has anybody noticed, by the way, that this kind of argument is not accepted by the courts for any other kinds of illegal activity? “A government official said I could.” So how does that change the law? Nor is the argument that any level of government can tell you what is legal accepted by the Federal Government itself: the Bush Administration Justice Department continues to go after marijuana dealers in California even though the State government has made it legal for medical use and allows dealers to operate.)

So if the FBI or the CIA goes to a phone company and says, we’d like to tap a certain individuals telephone, it is no longer incumbent upon the phone company to ask, “and do you have a warrant?” or even, “is this legal”. As long as our “most” senior legal officials– not “some” legal officials, but our “most” senior officials– say it is legal, it is legal.

The trick here, that Mr. Ashcroft wants you to be dazzled by, is the old bait and switch technique of applying one legal principle– that corporations must obey the law– to an action that really has nothing to do with it: the will of the Federal Government– of the Executive Branch, really– to spy on people without having to trouble themselves about getting a warrant and proving they have a legitimate reason to spy.

This is a load of crap. Why does Ashcroft imagine a company like AT&T, Verizon or Bellsouth is too stupid to ask whoever the government sends to their offices: “and where is your warrant? Where is your court order? What judge authorized this breech of personal privacy?”

Which is what one of the telecoms did. Qwest consulted their lawyers who told them that what the government was asking them to do was a felony. Qwest told the government to buzz off. The government, knowing they didn’t have a leg to stand on, did just that. They didn’t arrest Qwest’s chief executive for “breaking the law”. They didn’t seek an injunction from a court (duh!). They went away.

What makes this doubly infuriating is this phrase at the beginning of the quote above: “longstanding principles of law…. ” So Ashcroft is saying that Bush’s actions are already legal. Then why the hell does Congress need to grant anybody immunity! They don’t need it.

If there are lawsuits, they only need to tell the judge: “agents of the Executive Branch of Federal Government told us to do it. That means it’s legal.” And the judge will say, “Oh. If the government did it, that means it’s legal? Let me check the constitution for a minute…”

I think Mr. Ashcroft knows about this problem. Just as Bush is beginning to realize that all the waterboarding… .the torture… the renditions… GEEZ. WHAT IF WE LIVED IN A COUNTRY THAT HAD RULE OF LAW, AND COURTS, AND A JUSTICE SYSTEM… WE COULD BE ARRESTED.

Do you think Rumsveld ever worries? Cheney? Gonzales? I think they do. I think they might just be starting to realize that once the state-induced hysteria is over with and people come to their senses they are going to ask themselves why government officials were authorizing torture and extraordinary renditions and warrant-less surveillance.

The biggest trick here? John Ashcroft knows very, very will that shifting the liability to “senior” (most or not) legal officials will effectively inoculate the Bush administration from any liability at all: I guarantee you that Bush will make lavish, lavish use of the Presidential Pardon in January 2009. He won’t give a damn anymore. There never was any reason to give a damn. There was never the slightest reason to think that accusations of hypocrisy or viciousness would ever detract from that folksy, all-American, evangelistic charm: we are the boys. We handle things. We win.

Someone else will come along and clean all that up. Cash in now, while you have the chance.

In the meantime, John Ashcroft is, hilariously, asking the government to make something legal because it is already legal. He wants it to make it more legal.

If this isn’t disturbing enough, consider the fact that there is some evidence that the Bush Administration initiated at least some illegal surveillance before 9/11. Check this out.

While Ashcroft advises corporations to do whatever the government tells them to do, without question, without regard for the law or morality– Congress chastises Yahoo for turning information over to the Chinese government about the activities of dissident journalist Shi Tao!

2022-05-07:  even more infuriating: the Obama Administration, fearful of provoking a Republican backlash and crying fit, backed away from prosecuting anyone for these crimes.   This, unfortunately, is part of Obama’s legacy: gutlessness.


Up is down and right is left and water-boarding is not torture.

And we have this from the White House:

Dana M. Perino, the White House press secretary, said Democrats were “playing politics” with the waterboarding issue, noting that Mr. Mukasey had not been briefed on classified interrogation methods. “I can’t imagine the Democrats would want to hold back his nomination just because he is a thoughtful, careful thinker who looks at all the facts before he makes a judgment,” Ms. Perino said.
– New York Times, October 31, 2007.

Ah! If only Mr. Mukasey were briefed on the facts, he would be able to render an intelligent opinion on the subject of torture. But until he gets that briefing, he’s not too sure. Did any Democrat think to ask him how he felt about truncheons or cattle prods? Would he have said, “well, I personally would find it unpleasant to zap a prisoner in the genitals with a cattle prod, but I can’t say whether it would actually be illegal or not until I have all the facts.” So once Mr. Cheney assures him that this bad guy has important information that can save American lives– by golly, give me that cattle prod, I’ll do the deed myself.

I refuse to waste even a single punctuation mark on the question of whether or not torture of any kind is morally wrong. I refuse to accept that we have entered an era– only 60 years after the defeat of the Nazis– in which such questions are seriously debated.

On the other hand, the depressing fact is that many Democrats– not most, and not all, but many– have voted in favor of legislative fig leaves to cover the potential liability of high ranking government officials should a future administration actually come to the shocking, devastating, astounding conclusion that torture should be illegal.

On the other hand, be it noted that the Department of Defense has issued an official directive (in the Army Field Manual) that instructs soldiers not to use water-boarding, and the CIA has apparently asked Bush for permission to not have to use it. Why? Did these officials suddenly acquire a smidgeon of decency and humanity? Or did they suddenly realize that a new administration may some day start investigating crimes committed by officials of a previous administration?

It must be acknowledged– hallelujah– that Republicans John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and John Warner, have publicly expressed the wish that Mr. Mukasey will, after confirmed, declare water-boarding illegal. If he does, there will be a lot of itchy hemorrhoids in the Bush Administration. But then, isn’t that what presidential pardons are all about? Just wait for it– that last month before leaving office– Rumsveld, Cheney, Bolten, Wolfowitz– everybody gets pardons for crimes they may or may not have committed.

And maybe this is why John McCain scored at the bottom of the straw poll taken by “Values Voters”, sponsored by Family Research Council. These “Christians” think that God is more concerned with gay marriage than torture. McCain was also high on campaign finance reform– something Jesus was distinctly against, don’t you know.

What happened to soldiers accused of water-boarding in Viet Nam?

In 1947, a Japanese Officer was convicted by a War Crimes tribunal of using water-boarding– torture– against a U.S. soldier.

Amazingly, when threatened with physical torture, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed to numerous crimes. Wow. That’s efficient and effective. Let’s use it all the time. We’ll get more truth that way.

Vice President Dick Cheney says that using water-boarding is a “no-brainer”. In his case, that’s exactly right.


Just for a moment, assume that there really are aliens out there and some of them are flying spacecraft around, maybe scouting the earth for the prospects of future colonization. And you see one. And the government knows you saw one. It knows you are a witness.

Why would the government need to cover up the possible existence of UFO’s? Go into work tomorrow and tell everyone in the office that you saw a UFO last night. What do you think? You are now the best friend of any government that wants to convince people not to take UFO sightings seriously. You can’t help but acknowledge the inherent absurdity of what you are saying, and the more you know that, the more you are likely to giggle, or become demonstrative or excited, which makes you look crazy, of course.

Suppose instead that you don’t believe in UFOs and then you see one. You would not have seen one, because you will not believe what you have seen. Contrary to the movies, in which spontaneous revelation happens all the time, you will simply not believe what you have seen. You will tell people, I saw something that looked almost like a UFO. But actually, it was obviously some kind of civilian aircraft, or a helicopter, or an optical illusion. It couldn’t have been a UFO.

Even if you could produce a UFO, you would explain that it is some kind of advanced experimental aircraft, probably, that the government is trying to keep secret. With hairless bulbous monkeys inside.

There is absolutely no proof that UFO’s do not exist. There is a lot of proof that no matter what people actually see or hear, certain smart people will never, ever believe it was a genuine UFO.

I am thinking of three cases in particular. The sightings over Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia on October 4, 1967; the one over Lebanon, Illinois on January 5, 2000, and the one near Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, December 9, 1965.

In each case, numerous reasonable and otherwise reliable individuals reported seeing an object in the sky that did not appear to resemble any other known type of aircraft. In each case, you have to grant the possibility of numerous whacky people all agreeing to tell ridiculous stories to the media for personal reasons we will never understand.

All right. I realized as soon as I typed “numerous reasonable and reliable” that maybe I’m asking too much of any random sampling of individuals who happen to be in the same general area at any given time. And at different periods of history, “numerous reasonable and reliable” people concluded that there were witches, communists, and terrorists everywhere around us. “Numerous reasonable and reliable” people think that nuclear power plants are less safe than coal-fired power plants. “Numerous reasonable and reliable” people think that ethanol can help save us from the energy crisis. Numerous “reasonable and reliable” people think the Leafs have a shot at making the playoffs.