Saturday, May 26, 2007

Fox Outfoxed In Falwell Death Debate?

The (ultra-)liberals and I think differently on many issues, but distaste for Sean Hannity types is not one of them. Hannity, for those who don't know about him, is the pompous and obnoxious host of "Hannity and Colmes" program on Fox News, who is the toast of the right-wingers, the narrow-minded, the Creationists, the Bushies and the Evangelicals (all these terms describe the same group of people. :-)) His sparring partner on the show is poor Alan Colmes who generally offers fairly weak rebuttals (by Fox design, I'm sure) meant to reflect the leftist view.

Well, following religious idealogue Falwell's recent death, the atheist Christopher Hitchens basically said "good riddance" about him and "Hannity and Colmes" brought him to defend such mean spirited comments. Hannity (like Bill O'Reilly, another Fox host) generally manages to beat down guests who hold views different from him. But Hitchens seems to have withstood his attacks quite well and land in some choice comments of his own. All without raising his voice like Hannity does.

My daughter Rubina sent me this link covering the exchange on YouTube. Hope you can see this before Fox compels YouTube to pull it.

By the way, Fox insists it is "Fair and Balanced" and not a right-wing / Bushy apparatchik. Then how do you explain or justify this show being called "Hannity and Colmes" when the names should be switched per alphabetic order?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Crime And (Low) Punishment

The Columbia Journalism graduation ceremony on May 16 was long as each of the 250 students walked up to receive their diplomas, and we had settled back into a kind of semi-stupor after our own Rubina was done.

The sudden loud applause and standing ovation of one student towards the end of the ceremony took us by surprise. Then I guessed who it was. Rubina later confirmed that this girl was indeed her friend (only four days apart in age and living a few blocks away from Rubina) who some weeks back had been brutally raped and tortured for 19 hours by an ex-convict. Among the horrible things he did to her (not all made public) was slitting her eyelids and leaving her to die by setting her apartment on fire (to cover up any clues) with her tied to her futon bed. The attacker's subsequent arrest was carried by many papers in follow up of the initial story.

This brave girl was hospitalized for weeks and we're glad she could attend her graduation. But note this - her attacker had spent just 8 years for nearly kiling a neighbor by shooting the victim four times. He had a long rapsheet even before that and was considered dangerous at the time he served his full sentence and had to be released. The reason for that paltry eight year sentence? That's the maximum penalty that can be imposed in New York for attempted murder.

While in prison this guy would throw his faeces at the guards and attack other inmates. Such activities could not be grounds for lengthening his sentence. All they did was prevent his release on parole. After he eight years he had to be turned loose, and even his activities could not be monitored, say by requiring him to disclose his whereabouts or wear an electronic ankle bracelet.

There are many similar stories - this is just one that affected Rubina's friend. New York laws seem particularly soft on offenders but I'd want tougher provisions across the country.

I differ from the liberals (many in my own family) who in my view over-emphasize reform and rehabilitation over meting out justice and having a criminal repay his debt to society. When we talk of (or hope for) rewarding good and punishing evil in the after-life, why not start here on earth? There are also deterrent effects of stiffer penalties though statistics can be presented either way by partisans to draw different conclusions on issues like capital punishment.

Here are some measures I'd support:

  • All states should have the death penalty, even if it's only for the most heinous and vicious crimes/murders and when there is no doubt at all about guilt (not just "beyond reasonable doubt.") There should be an ultimate penalty for the likes of Dahmer and Bundy.
  • There should be truth in sentencing - not these provisions that allow a convict sentenced to "life" or hundreds of years to get out in twenty or less. And what's all this about "concurrent sentences" where the additional punishments are meaningless?
  • Convicts considered dangerous at the end of their sentences can be allowed to be monitored in their activities and the community informed about them. This can be done by laws analogous to those passed for sex offenders.
  • Inmate-on-inmate crimes should be vigorously investigated and offenders punished just as much or more than if they were committed outside prison. Why should the weaker prisoners be victims of things like prison rape while the worst offenders thrive at the top of the food chain? With modern technology it should be possible to monitor every move of every prisoner so these Oz-like goings on don't ever happen. And don't tell me this violates privacy.
  • Prisons are for punishment, not for coddling prisoners. They should earn their upkeep instead of limbering up in gyms and watching TV. Yes, the system should aim to rehabilitate as well and find honest jobs when convicts get out, but inmates should have a strong disincentive to return.
  • Don't use tender age as a basis for imposing lighter sentences unless the offender didn't fully grasp what he was doing. If a 16 year old brutally murders someone he should get the same sentence (including death) as a 30 year old. One can almost argue that if he has become such a monster at 16 he's likely to become worse later.
  • Same as above largely goes for mental retardation or childhood abuse.
  • Reform / abolish the system of trials by jury (more on this in a subsequent post.)
I probably disappoint those who lauded my reconciling with a former school bully. But simple bullying by adolescents is not comparable to the crimes I'm talking about here.
At the same time I'd like to see:
  • Strict gun control and stringent penalties for violations of such laws
  • Due process and safeguards for the accused. Those at Guantanamo for instance should certainly get legal representation and humane treatment. Also the innocent caught in the net should be speedily cleared, and generously and expeditiously compensated for their hardships.
A tough crime policy was a crucial plank that helped Bush Sr. beat Dukakis in 1988. Remember those Willie Horton Ads? Since then it has receded as an election issue. I wonder if it will resurface in 2008.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Graduate(s)

Yesterday my parents, Anita and I attended our younger daughter Rubina's graduation from the Columbia School of Journalism. Amidst the fun and revelry I found almost all of Rubina's classmates that we met to be remarkably pleasant and friendly. They were bright as I expected of Columbia students, and (from all the hugs enthusiastic hugs exchanged) had warm family ties.

Columbia may have done a good job profiling and selecting the right people into the program but is there also a self-selection dynamic at work here? Journalism is typically a tough career with lousy pay. So it may attract people for whom money is less important, and have a sense of idealism or a passion for sharing their news and views. So could such profession/schools attract more of the "nicer" types? This is analogous to the Anita's belief that school teachers tend to be nice people. Not that all journalists or media are ethical or objective by a long shot. Think Fox News. While in public service in India I saw a couple from The Indian Express (one of whom's now a bureau chief) who concocted news to make sensational headlines and try extorting favors.

So I do have some concerns about the type and nature of media coverage. But at least these graduating students show that many people of good caliber and outlook are entering and sustaining the profession in the US and abroad.

Here are some pictures of the graduation and related events (click left for more.) I'm glad my parents could attend this graduation ceremony - their first in the US. Rubina's in most of them, with a couple of our family (sans Sheena who is in Austin.)

Monday, May 14, 2007

See No Bullying, Hear No Bullying

Today I saw a post on the blog of my good friend, schoolmate and best selling author David about how and why there was no bullying in our own elementary-to-high school in Darjeeling:

I want to set the record straight from my first hand experience. But let me first say that David is an extraordinarily amiable and popular person so that's why he was neither the bully nor the victim. He also sees the bright side of everything and bullying often occurs covertly so he could miss seeing it. Finally he was two years behind me in school so his cohort may have had very different experiences, though somehow I doubt it.

Through my six years in this school I saw plenty of bullying. For me personally it worsened from the sixth grade till the tenth and then plateaued almost till I graduated. Segregating the students into three "divisions" as David mentions (the "primary", "lower" and "upper" divisions) doesn't really help much because bullying also occurs among peers. Plus, a 9th grader can still be targeted by an 11th grader, or a 6th grader by an 8th grader, and so on. Most US schools as well as those in other places are split completely into elementary, middle and high schools that mirror the divisions we had within our school. That hasn't stopped bullying here.

The boys in our school closely followed an "honor" code against "sneaking" and social ostracism followed for anyone breaking it. "Sneaking" (akin to snitching) meant reporting to the authorities (teachers or our "father" priests) anything improper done by a fellow student, whether it was breaking rules, or harming another student, including by bullying. I now see press coverage of a similar taboo against reporting anything to the police among large swathes of the US African American community, which exacerbates black on black crimes.

Anyway, this anti-"sneaking" code made it very easy for bullies to thrive without detection by our well-intentioned authorities. I was a good target because I was (a) thin and nerdy, so not good at defending myself, (b) tall, so a bully did not seem to be picking on someone smaller, and (c) neither very submissive, nor pleasant like David. The "headboys" or "prefects" had no punitive role. They'd at most stop something happening under their noses so bullies simply operated elsewhere.

Bullies came in various shades and stripes. In my 10th class a particular classmate came almost every day to step on my toes and grind his heels into them, daring me to retaliate. He also took pleasure in bending my fingers back from the knuckles till they were injured enough to make it hard for me to write - for days. Others sometimes noticed what was happening but didn't want to get involved since he was a "tough" guy. The couple of times I tried to fight back ended in disaster (picture the comic character Sad Sack getting pounded by the Sarge.)

Two years after high school I finally hit my post-pubertic stride, gained 50lbs and became a "big ape" in classmate (now wife) Anita's words. (Why didn't that happen 4 years earlier?) But my past experiences affected my attitude to this day. As a college upper-classman I opposed the then-brutal practice of physical "ragging" or "hazing" of incoming freshmen. In my days as a law enforcer in the IAS I had the local "gundas" or tough guys booked or "processed" by the police with an intensity that surprised those around me. I saw them as extensions of our own school bullies. I'm still apt to look for bullying behavior and counter it if I can.

I recounted my experiences to a couple of ex-schoolmates recently and half-jokingly referred to my school tormentor of yore as "Biff" from "Back To The Future." Happily though, when this person and I re-established contact some years ago, my notions of getting even with him vanished (slowly!) and we maintain friendly contact.

We NorthPointers have a wonderful school that we're very proud and happy to be part of. I have a lasting bond with it and fellow alumni. But bullying is widespread and no place is immune from it. It can occur close to us without our being aware of it. And here I haven't even talked of bullying through mental abuse (like in "Mean Girls") that is even more pervasive. All of us should be looking out for it and preventing it (yes, including the current authorities at our school.)

Mothers Gone Wild

The phone rings off the hook in our home today as it is Mother's Day. Mother's day wishes come pouring in for my wife and mom (happily for us my parents are staying with us at this time.) But neither my mom nor we have two dozen children. It is just that Mother's Day (and Father's Day) has gone beyond a time for kids to express appreciation for their parents to a time when everyone is expected to wish people close to them for being parents.

The campaign has probably exceeded all expectations of Hallmark, which is rumored to have started this day to boost their business and now has all sorts of cards for "third party" senders. Am I one of the few who thinks this has mutated to an over-generalized practice (isn't that what Christmas and New Year greetings are for?)

But at least I find this preferable to those automated birthday greetings via email. Here a general request goes from a sender to all people on the address list to enter their birthdays and contact particulars into a data card so that those people can get this "birthday" spam on their birthday and then be expected to individually thank the sender for her/his automated greetings. I consider filling up such requests as an invitation to dig your own grave so you can be shot and buried in such birthday spam. So if anyone who has sent such a request to me has been bothered that I haven't responded, please understand that I (and others like me) are equal opportunity decliners. Much as I may love and care for you I've never filled such a request.

Talking of this increase in the number of special days I was joking with someone who thinks as I do. We're wondering if it will be a good idea to have a Kid's Day so that we can all congratulate each other for having a mother and a father (till cloning makes this a less universal process.)

But back to Mother's and Father's Day. Can we take back the day and have it restricted to a special child-to-own-parent communication? Probably not as these ritualizations tend to have a momentum of their own. I just returned a call today to a business associate. After the initial hello's the first words out of my mouth were good wishes to his wife (whom I've met once) for Mother's Day...

Friday, May 11, 2007

In Defence Of Hillary From Two Criticisms

This last weekend we were dining out with friends and the talk turned to why one of them, a Democrat / Independent so disliked Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. She said she not only found Hillary to be "calculating" but more than that she couldn't forgive her for sticking with "that creep" Bill Clinton after what he did with Monica. I happen to like the creep but that's beside the point. I'll just talk about these two observations without any broader discussion of preferences regarding the candidates.

I had read about this last criticism (mainly by women) in news articles but it remains beyond me why Hillary's act of forgiveness is held against her. The critics say she isn't doing it for love but out of convenience or to further her ambitions. How do we know? A person wronged has to weigh all the factors before deciding what to do, but since when do we supplant sympathy with scorn for her? Aren't commitment to marriage and forgiveness supposed to be virtues? Few would ascribe Hillary's "failure to act" at that time as a result of a weak will - she's proved herself plenty tough in that department. I personally think better of her for having faced all the pain and public humiliation with grace and dignity, and recovering from it all.

The other criticism about Hillary's "calculating" nature was also echoed by our younger daughter recently. I find nothing wrong with a leader (or person) being calculating if that means coolly assessing what can work best and considering all the odds and options before deciding how to proceed. It does not mean being unscrupulous or throwing away one's values or changing course only out of expediency. I don't believe Hillary is guilty of any of these last three. Yes, Hillary may well act with her head, but why should that be considered to preclude her from having a good heart? Here's a post from last night of a Hearst columnist that says a lot of things for me aside from commenting on the most recent polls showing an uptick for Hillary after the first Presidential debate (though polls of course keep changing and it's way too early):

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Indian Courts - Gere'd For Change

Here's an aspect of the Gere drama that I haven't seen covered anywhere. What can be done to prevent a bigoted or incompetent or just plain publicity hungry judicial official among thousands in one part of India from hassling celebrities in any other part of the country?

When protests and demonstrations were staged following Richard Gere's playfully tangling with Shilpa Shetty at an AIDs awareness gathering, I was embarassed as an Indian but not particularly bothered. After all there will always be the ultra conservatives and whackos in a country of a billion plus. Their right to free speech even if distasteful to me and contrary to majority view is an affirmation of our democratic values.

But it is very different when one magistrate (or subordinate judge) sitting in Jaipur issues arrest warrants and initiates proceedings for something that occurred in Delhi. The merits of the action aside just because media footage is aired in some place should not give the local judiciary the authority to summon or proceed against people who were never within their physical jurisdiction. For interstate occurrences there should be a clear single jurisdiction court. That way you need to only depend on the good sense and judgement of that court instead of being hostage to the whims or shenanigans of any one of the thousands of courts.

The required long term remedy needs legislative action by Parliament perhaps in consultation with the Judiciary and they should get to it. They can include some other pressing reforms like rolling back this rash of public interest litigation into this effort - but that's for a separate discussion.

Meanwhile, the additional chief judicial magistrate who acted against Gere and Shetty is Dinesh Gupta who has since been transferred out of Jaipur to a small little town.

That is a good step but - as we were repeatedly told in government while I was part of it - a transfer should not be taken as any punishment. There should be some official proceedings to discipline this judge and affect his career and service records, That will deter similar actions by others. But the judiciary tends to be protective of its own and I wouldn't hold my breath on this happening.

The superior courts should also take "suo motto" (on their own) notice and quash the groundless proceedings without requiring the defendants to jump through further procedural hoops.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

NRA: Give benefit of doubt - and guns - to terror suspects

This news item about NRA opposing a proposed ban on sale of guns to terror suspects initially surprised me:

But then I began to understand their logic. Simply because someone is a suspected or would-be terrorist is no reason to deny him something as essential as an assault weapon or hand gun. One should be considered innocent till proven guilty, say, by actually committing a rampage a la Cho Seung or offering other compelling evidence.

Simply appealing a refusal and clearing one's name before a terror suspect is allowed to buys firearm would cause so much hardship. Imagine living for some time without having a firearm for target practice or shooting deer, rabbits, or pesky anti-terrorism agents who come snooping around to investigate your involvement in terror activities. A day without guns is one day too many, as compared to lives lost to protect the second amendment.

NRA urges you not to overreact to the VA Tech or other campus shootings. Or to the study ( that found that guns kept in the home for self-protection are 43 times more likely to kill a family member or friend than to kill in self-defense. I don't know what the NRA stand would be on the authorities being alerted the moment a terrorism suspect buys or tries to buy a firearm. I won't be surprised if they cite the gunowner's right to privacy to oppose such notifications.