Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games: Dystopia or History?

We saw "The Hunger Games" Friday night.  My girls really liked it.  I appreciated the film but the setting provoked a visceral reaction from me.  I had to sit still and try to wait out the adrenaline spike that the scenes in Capitol evoked.

I thought the director did a great job of giving us a thumbnail sketch of the society of Panem.  I haven't read the novels so I don't have a great deal of context.  Prior to seeing the film I did read several reviews and comment threads where people argued whether the film's anti-tyranny message was aimed at Republicans or Democrats.  I can take a stab at answering that.

The people in District 12 live an existence straight out of the late nineteenth century rural America.  The men go to work in dangerous coal mines while the women try to feed the family on rations barely above starvation-level.  Hunting is apparently illegal so unsurprisingly a brisk black market trade exists in small game.  From a passing comment I learned that additional rations are available to young people if they are willing to enter their name additional times for the annual Reaping.

The inhabitants may not leave the confines of their District upon pain of electrocution from the border fences or capture and death from the security forces.  Technology is deliberately kept at pre-electronics levels with the exception of media controlled by the state.

Meanwhile, the citizens of the Capitol live a sybaritic lifestyle with all of the wealth and advanced technology available to an advanced society.  Consumption is conspicuous and flamboyant personal fashion is the norm for the elite.  The working stiffs in Capitol have to make do with white jumpsuits and hair in colors that nature intended.

Sounds like something right out of the Roaring Twenties, right?  Rockefeller Republicans living large while the proletariat huddles in the dark, starving.  The parallels are there, but what is missing is the iron fist of the state carefully tending to the status quo.  For that, you have to have to go to the other side of the globe.

The world of Panem bears a striking similarity to the former Soviet Union.  Travel controls, deliberate starvation of the peasantry, the unavailability of modern luxuries to all but the social elite, it's all there.  Even The Reaping is a shadowy reflection of universal conscription into a military that places absolutely no value on the lives or health of the conscripts.

The games themselves are reality TV mixed with spectacle that would have been immediately familiar to Emperor Trajan.  Bread and circuses have been with humans for thousands of years and reflect a darker aspect of our natures that enjoys seeing arterial blood on the sand.  But what I saw in "The Hunger Games" seemed to go deeper than that.  I saw a segment of a society so jaded by their sybaritic lifestyle that nothing short of child murder could elicit a genuine emotional reaction.  Perfectly coiffed plastic faces that respond like trained seals to the clumsy emotional manipulation of a master of ceremonies.  People going through the motions of human behavior that can't actually feel anything because nothing is truly real anymore.

One of the things that bothers me about so-called "reality TV" is the artless creation of artificial "drama" which inevitably manifests as interpersonal conflict.  Whether it is cliques ostracizing the goat, screaming matches over who used the last of the dish soap, or media-whoring executives barking "You're fired!" the result is the same.  The audience experiencing a frission of glee at "real people" fighting for their entertainment.

I am impressed that Suzanne Collins was able to take the complex themes above and integrate them into teen fiction aimed specifically at young women.  I took my daughters to see the film, despite the awful content of children murdering children, because I thought the meta-themes of individual human decency and the importance of resisting peer pressure to give in to our darker natures.  Empathy is what makes us human, and that transcends monkey politics. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Self Defense and the Law

One night back in 2000 I was awoken in the middle of the night by a scratching sound coming from the bedroom window.  I opened my eyes and saw a man silhouetted against the moonlight.  To get there he had to squeeze between the apartment building and the five-foot tall hedges planted a few inches away.

My wife and infant daughter were in the next room.  I rolled out of bed and keyed the combination into the small safe next to the bed.  It only took a couple of seconds to retrieve the Glock semiautomatic pistol stored inside the safe.  As I pointed the muzzle at the man on the other side of the window I remember noticing how brightly the tritium sights glowed in the darkness.

“This is it”, I thought to myself, “If he breaks the glass I’m going to shoot him.”  I remember feeling almost nauseated, even though my hands were steady.  I’m lucky in that way, I always get the shakes after the emergency is over.  Fortunately for the both of us, the man moved away from the window.  As I lowered the pistol I finally noticed the loud shouting coming through the interior walls from the unit next to us, including threats of violence.  I did what every rational person should do, I called the police.

I’m fairly certain the man in the window was another tenant of the apartment trying to figure out where the shouting was coming from by squeezing along the building until he found the right window.  I never saw his face and I don’t believe he saw me pointing a gun at him.  He was stupid and almost paid for his stupidity with his life.

I bring this up in light of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, FL.  The local PD initially ruled it a justifiable homicide, based upon Florida’s “stand your ground” statute.  Further investigation revealed troubling details about Mr. Zimmerman’s actions just prior to the shooting that cast doubt upon the justifiable nature of the homicide.  Mr. Zimmerman has not yet been arrested or charged but I wouldn’t be surprised to see an indictment for at least second degree murder.

It appears to me that Mr. Zimmerman validated the axiom that people who go looking for trouble can usually find it.  He ignored three fundamental pieces of common law that determine whether a homicide is justified or murder.

1)     Standard of care:  The law recognizes that citizens who decide to go armed should be held to a higher standard of care in their personal behavior.  If I instigate or escalate a confrontation that results in me using deadly force against another, I have forfeited the mantle of innocence for my motivation.  The “stand your ground” law does not mitigate this.  The defender must be completely innocent of responsibility for whatever attack led to the use of deadly force.  This means the defender cannot respond to insults with insults or vulgarity and cannot lose his or her temper during the confrontation.

2)     Duty to retreat:  Prior to the passage of “stand your ground” there was an expectation that the defender was required to retreat from the attacker, assuming that such a retreat did not compromise the safety of the defender or another innocent party.  The classic example of the duty to retreat is the driver stopped at a red light or stop sign who is assaulted by a man with a knife or a baseball bat.  If the driver could drive away without putting himself at risk, the law expected him to do so.

“Stand your ground” laws came about because unethical prosecutors applied an unreasonable standard to the duty to retreat and prosecuted innocent people who were only trying to defend themselves.  Now we have the opposite problem; people using the color of law to avoid the consequences of committing murder.  Mr. Zimmerman chose to exit his car prior to the shooting and this placed him in close proximity to Mr. Martin.  Even if Mr. Zimmerman’s claims are true, his decision was tactically and ethically stupid.  Unlike a sworn police officer, he was under no requirement to challenge Mr. Martin even if the young man had been committing a crime.  He chose to place himself in the confrontation under circumstances that cast doubt upon his motivations.

Mr. Zimmerman will probably get to be a test case to the degree of immunity from prosecution that the law provides.  I’m betting he won’t like the answer.

3)     Reasonable degree of force:  I’m a large man and I would probably have difficulty justifying using a gun to defend myself against the unarmed attacks of another man my size or smaller.  If I were a tiny woman, that equation would change.  Justifiable use of deadly force requires that the defender reasonably believe that he, she, or another is in immediate danger of death or serious injury.  This is a sliding scale that factors in the capabilities of the attacker and the capabilities of the defender.  It also factors in what the defender could reasonably believe at the time of the attack.

In my story if the man had stumbled and fell against the window, breaking the glass, I probably would have been justified in shooting him.  Even though he did not intend to harm me or my family, I could not know that at the time and my perception of a midnight home invasion would have been reasonable under the circumstances.

There is no evidence that Mr. Martin was armed at the time of the attack.  So according to Mr. Zimmerman we have a situation where a lone unarmed man attacked him.  Mr. Zimmerman apparently felt confident enough in his ability to protect himself to take on the role of captain of his neighborhood watch.  I don’t know if he equipped himself with a less-than-lethal means of self-defense, but the reasonableness of his decision to open fire appears problematic to me.

I’ve been lawfully armed in public for almost twenty years.  The incident at the bedroom window is the only time I have ever pointed a loaded gun at another person.  I have made it a point to obtain training in the justifiable use of deadly force.  I exercise a great degree of care in avoiding situations that could result in confrontations not because I am afraid of the people around me but because I recognize that my actions will be judged in the harsh light of perfect hindsight by people who can only guess at my state of mind and intentions.  I still carry a large general liability insurance policy because I recognize that circumstances may result in that bullet costing me and my family hundreds of thousands of dollars even if no criminal charges are levied.

I accept the responsibilities that my decision to go armed entails.  It is a social compact that I make with legal system and I personally believe that it is a duty of citizenship.  I don’t consider myself to be a vigilante or some sort of volunteer police officer.  I think the concept of a citizen’s arrest is extremely dangerous and best left alone.  So it pisses me off to see people like Mr. Zimmerman appear to cavalierly dismiss the duties that going armed require.  I refuse to be associated with people like that and I hope that the legal system works as it should in these cases.  If a jury acquits Mr. Zimmerman then I will accept that as a decision of those better informed than I am of the details.  But I do not believe that Mr. Zimmerman acted under the color of the law when he shot Mr. Martin.

/rant off/        

Friday, March 16, 2012

When All Hell Breaks Loose

No, this isn't a rant about electoral dysfunction.  It's a thumbnail review of a great book that could literally save your life!  Anyone who has seen The Discovery Channel's program "Dual Survival" will recognize Cody Lundin.   He is the braided, barefoot "Bush Hippy" half of the duo.  Cody is an expert on primitive living and outdoor survival skills.  He may look like a Hobbit that went to Woodstock, but his creativity and effective use of applied physical science deeply impressed me.
Cody is an author of multiple books, including the one I'd like to discuss here, "When All Hell Breaks Loose:  Stuff You Need To Survive When Disaster Strikes".  This isn't a how-to manual for surviving a zombie apocalypse or an invasion of blue-helmeted peacekeepers.  It is a series of chapters on how to use materials that are probably already in your home to meet the basic survival needs:  shelter, water, food, hygiene/sanitation, illumination, cooking, first-aid, communications, etc.  There is even a brief chapter on self-defense.

The first twenty percent of the book is devoted to mindset; the mental strength and perspectives necessary to prevail when the basic infrastructure that most of us depend upon is unavailable.  From there he discusses each of the previously mentioned topics in a thorough but easy-to-read style.  Cody is not a gear-whore.  He will recommend good equipment, but he is an expert at utilizing common household items in surprising ways.  Some examples: 

How to pasteurize contaminated water using only clear plastic soft drink bottles and direct sunlight.

How to use clear plastic sheeting to build a surprisingly warm shelter.

How to construct an efficient sleeping bag from trash bags, duct tape, and newspapers.

How to safely build a latrine that won't kill everyone around from typhus.

The point of this book is to help you get through whatever disaster has broken down our comfortable utilities safely and in good health.  I encourage everyone to at least read this book once.  It costs less than having a pizza delivered and having it in your home could save you a lot of grief when that hurricane or that ice storm leaves you without power or running water for a week straight.

Buy it.  Read it.  Be prepared, not scared.