Thursday, August 13, 2009

Video Games and Violence

How do our choices of amusements affect our behavior and, therefore, society? Whenever newer, more violent video games are released, some commentators inevitably call for government regulation because of studies linking video games and violence. This became an issue at the beginning of this year when some officials argued for federal labeling guidelines.

Some time ago, I heard part of a radio program in which the host and her guests discussed how music, movies, and video games affect people's behavior. I didn't get to listen to the entire program, but there were a couple of things said during the part I listened to that I found interesting.

First, the host asked whether the fact that someone is committing crimes vicariously in video games — for example, taking on the role of a criminal in Grand Theft Auto — impacts their real-world behavior.

Second, one of the guests questioned whether the physical activity people are getting by playing Nintendo Wii is really doing much good for their health. Legislation concerning what children and adults do with their free time is often supported by "expert" analysis along these lines. Thus, attempts to regulate video games will have important implications for our safety and liberty.

The effect of video games on crime is not as obvious as it is often suggested. The same guest mentioned that the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine school shootings were avid video game players and reported that, according to rumors, one of them had practiced for the raid by creating a mock-up of their school using a map editor from one of their favorite first-person shooters. Statistically, people who play violent video games are also those who are more likely to commit heinous crimes than others, and some experts infer from this correlation that violent video games encourage violence. On its face, the connection seems clear.

However, whether there is a real, causal relationship between video games and violence, or whether that relationship is correlation, is a deeper and more complex issue. For example, another plausible explanation is that the people who are likely to commit crimes are also likely to be attracted to violent video games. Therefore, what we observe is simply correlation, with both phenomena being explained by a common third factor.

The hypothesis that video games cause crime is further complicated by the idea that violent video games might actually serve as a substitute for violent crime — that is, people who are likely to commit violent crimes might be able to get their violence "fix" by playing video games instead of committing crimes. Regulating video games would thus treat a symptom of the disease, but not the disease itself. Moreover, if video games are indeed a substitute for real-life violence, regulating the games might even make violence worse.

Studies of the relationship between pornography and rape suggest that this thesis is more plausible than it might seem at first. Separate empirical studies by Winai Wongsurat and Todd Kendall have shown that increased access to pornography actually leads to reductions in the rates of divorce and rape.

Wongsurawat cites the availability of PO boxes, which increase access to pornographic magazines but do not have an independent effect on crime, to identify the effect of pornography on sex crimes and divorce. Kendall looks specifically at the diffusion of internet pornography and shows that access to the internet and (presumably) internet pornography is associated with reductions in sex crime. Kendall's hypothesis that this is a causal relationship is strengthened by the fact that the effect is strongest for crimes committed by the group whose consumption of pornography is most likely to be affected by access to the internet: young males who live with their parents.

I am not aware of any studies that use similar methods to analyze the effect of video games on crime. However, if people are going to advocate restrictions on liberty, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate that their hypothesized relationship is real and widespread enough to cause concern. For even if it is shown that violent video games lead to more crime, the case for government intervention is complicated by measurement issues, concerns over personal liberty and personal privacy, and the tendency for regulation to lead to ever more regulation.

Taking an "I-know-it-when-I-see-it" approach to identifying unacceptable video game violence — much like the standards currently used to define pornography — would introduce substantial uncertainty into production decisions, because there are no objective standards that define "acceptable" and "unacceptable." Politically made rules are also subject to political manipulation and a cat-and-mouse game of regulate-and-evade played by the regulators and the regulated. This will wastefully consume resources and lead to further encroachments on individual freedom as standards are contested.

Attempts to regulate cultural goods like video games may involve far more than considerations of personal liberties alone. Regulations that restrict access to pornography, for example, may actually increase the social problems they are intended to correct. Regulations restricting access to violent video games could do the same.


Expanding Double Jeopardy

Welcome to a new age of double jeopardy. The hate-crime statute just passed by Congress expands the potential for federal prosecutions to chilling new levels, and even creates the possibility of retrials for crimes that have already been ruled on by state courts. In one fell swoop, lawmakers have virtually ensured legal proceedings that obviously violate the Bill of Rights and this, for some reason, is being widely hailed as a triumph of justice.

The lack of rigorous debate over this policy is ominous. In the Senate, the hate-crime legislation was not even adopted as a stand-alone measure, but as an add-on to another bill. This relative stealth aside, the flourish of the president's signature pen will radically redraw the boundaries between state and federal jurisprudence.

States and the federal government are considered separate sovereigns. If someone has broken both state and federal laws, he can have a day in court in both systems. A counterfeiter can be charged for his funny money in federal court, for instance, and also face murder prosecution by a state if he has moved to eliminate his competition. A trial by a state does not rule out federal prosecution for the same crime, and this does threaten to thwart the Fifth Amendment's demand that no person suffer double jeopardy. In practice, however, this hasn't happened too often; until now, limited federal jurisdiction meant that Uncle Sam usually didn't have the ability to try or retry a state defendant.

That's what makes the new hate-crime law so remarkable. Its defining feature is not that it allows federal prosecution of crimes motivated by the race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability of the victim. What's significant is that it greatly expands the federal government's jurisdiction to prosecute cases that properly belong in a state court.

In legal terms, this law achieves its aims through federal authority over interstate commerce. If someone assaults you by throwing a cell phone at you, what Congress has done is enabled the prosecution of the thrower as a function of the fact that the cell phone was made in Japan, and therefore must have crossed state lines. To non-lawyers, that surely sounds absurd which is precisely why this law's drastic overreach is so stark. This is a sea change in the power of the government to reach into a state and define violence between two people as a federal matter, one traditionally handled by state laws and state prosecutors.

An equally striking feature of the law is that the federal power to prosecute is not dissipated even if the defendant is found guilty by the state. It explicitly says, in fact, that federal charges should be pursued if the state verdict "left demonstratively unvindicated the Federal interest in eradicating bias-motivated violence."

The term "demonstratively unvindicated" becomes downright Orwellian when applied to the kinds of cases that will inevitably invite public outcry. The crime of rape, for example, is already severely punished by every state but has brand-new implications as a hate crime because it is typically an offense based on gender. And are there any high-profile rape cases that do not produce amplified cries for vengeance?

The protection against double jeopardy was put in place to prevent retrying a politically unpopular but evidentially elusive defendant until he was found guilty. Congress apparently sees this as a glitch, rather than a virtue, in the American criminal-justice system.

The power to reprosecute is not one we should grant to any government, much less one with a politicized selection of who will be haled into court. For evidence, look no further than the Duke lacrosse non-rape case a few years ago. If the trial had gone to court and ended in acquittal, would we now be in federal court for a second round? The recent Department of Justice decision not to prosecute members of the New Black Panther Party who engaged in voter intimidation last November illustrates the flip side of this coin. Decisions to prosecute or not based on race undermine the rule of law.

Politically motivated prosecutions are sure to result from this statute. Attorney General Eric Holder saw fit to lecture America as a "nation of cowards" when it comes to race. He is now empowered with the new hate-crime authority to retry many high-profile cases that split political constituencies on hot-button issues. I have no desire to see what havoc his notions of "courage" will wreak upon fundamental American civil liberties.


Israel's self-inflicted woes


When foreign pressure mounts on Israel, Israelis, still an embattled people, tend rightly to criticize those applying the pressure. Yet they often neglect their own role in stimulating a climate of foreign pressure. The Oslo process greatly augmented this ruinous pattern.

Today, Israel is under pressure from the Obama administration to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and to proceed with the creation of a Palestinian state. Most ominously, the auguries are that the US will do little to nothing to stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons if Israel doesn't cooperate with dictates such as these.

Such pressure, misguided and hostile as it is, has its origin in Israel's own errors. In return for having legitimized Yasser Arafat and his Fatah movement in 1993, logic and prudence dictated that Israel obtain strict Palestinian adherence to the Oslo agreements, protest violations as these occurred, and even break off negotiations if compliance was not forthcoming.

YET BIG gambles often lead to further gambles and matters proceeded very differently. Although the late Yitzhak Rabin spoke of rolling back the Palestinian Authority if it violated the trust Israel had placed in it, this proved an empty resolution. Once Oslo had been signed, Israeli governments preferred not to notice the fact that the PA was building up terrorist militias and radicalizing the Palestinian public for jihad. Merely to point this out was to earn official umbrage as an opponent of peace.

The truth, of course, was diametrically opposite: The only possibility of peace lay with the Palestinians fulfilling their agreements, not ignoring their violations of them.

Supporters of Oslo often contended that it would improve Israel's standing in the world. The opposite has been true. Even before Oslo's collapse in 2000, Western governments ended up accepting the logic implicit in dealing with the Arafat-controlled PA: that the Palestinians must be seeking just ends like statehood alongside Israel, not Israel's elimination, and that concessions from Israel were therefore the key to peace.

As a result, rather than ostracizing the PA in 2000 for its resort to a war after it rebuffed president Bill Clinton's peace proposals, much of the world merely concluded that Israel had not offered enough. Anti-Israel boycotts and divestment campaigns became commonplace, especially at universities raising tomorrow's leaders. Anti-Semitic activity in Europe has risen steeply since 1993, according to all statistical data.

Ariel Sharon was elected in 2001 after Oslo had foundered in bloodshed and produced a new Palestinian terror wave. He spoke frequently of the PA as not warranting Israeli concessions due to its continued promotion of terrorism and incitement. Yet he too ended up recommencing talks with Mahmoud Abbas and agreeing to the 2003 road map, without the PA having done anything to justify those huge steps.

Previously, Palestinian compliance had been theoretically necessary, but practically ignored: Each new agreement simply reiterated Palestinians obligations that had been dishonored since the last signing ceremony. Now, the road map discarded even the need for the appearance of compliance. It called for major Israeli concessions in advance of Palestinian compliance with past agreements.

Israel accepted the road map with 14 reservations relating, among other things, to unfulfilled Palestinian obligations, but the US never seriously took note of these. Again, the conclusion was drawn: If Israel was prepared to negotiate with the PA, it should make further concessions. In other words, continued negotiations undercut Israel's ability to insist on Palestinian compliance.

PEACE NOW pioneer Amos Oz had once prophesied that Oslo would make Israel justifiably tough on all Palestinian violations. This too was a delusion: PA atlases and textbooks continue to pretend that Israel doesn't exist, and Fatah's constitution remains unchanged in its call for Israel's destruction and the use of terrorism. Terrorists like George Habash and Samir Kuntar were personally lauded by Abbas; and terror acts like the slaughter of eight students in a Jerusalem seminary in March 2008 were considered acts of martyrdom, the perpetrators praised in Abbas's publications.

The result of ignoring Palestinian malfeasance has been that today, the unreconstructed PA continues to get handouts from the international community (more than $900 million this year from the US alone), while Israel comes under relentless pressure to make concessions in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Palestinians regard this as happy division of labor: Recently, Abbas told The Washington Post that "I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements... Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality... the people are living a normal life." That much of the world, including the Obama administration, ignores Palestinian incitement, terror and rejection of Israel while blaming Jews living in the West Bank and Jerusalem as the cause of the impasse was not inevitable. Oslo - which no one imposed on Israel - paved the way.


Britain: It’s not hard to spot the children really at risk

Concentrate on the ferals and stop harassing resprectable families over minor infractions

We know the factors common to most cases of abuse. Let’s cut through the complexity that stops them being identified. As the gruesome details of Baby Peter’s short life return to the headlines, most readers find it hard to comprehend that social workers visiting his home in Haringey were willing to accept his mother’s explanations of his injuries. Why did they not notice the 15st live-in boyfriend, whose hobbies included skinning small animals alive? Or that of his brother? Surely there was enough evidence of chaos and neglect to set alarm bells ringing?

According to Wes Cuell, of the NSPCC, there may be grounds for excusing this oversight because there are “thousands of similar situations” in Britain today. Simon Barnes, of the British Association of Social Workers, defended his members with the more surprising assertion that dealing with child cruelty is “not about common sense”, pleading the complexity of the situations in which they find themselves working.

So how prevalent are households like Baby Peter’s? Across England and Wales, we know that there are nearly 30,000 children — out of a child population of around 11 million — whose circumstances generate sufficient concern for them to be placed on the child protection register that requires regular monitoring by local social services.

Insofar as the circumstances of Baby Peter’s home can be captured by raw data, they were typical of the average “at risk” child. It is clear that his home set-up is repeated across thousands of households in the UK, and will be most concentrated in areas of material deprivation. There are background factors common to children on the register: having a mother who was a teenage lone parent, the presence of an unrelated male in the household, a history of domestic violence, a parent with a criminal record or a history of mental illness and substance abuse.

But how many more children not yet registered as at risk are likely to fall into these categories. In 2007 nearly 45,000 children were born to teenage mothers. More than 3 million children live in lone parent households; 1.2 million of these live in homes with no adult in work. One tenth of children live at present in step-parent households.

The majority of lone-parent and step-parent households quite clearly do not fall into the category of potential child abusers, but where these factors combine with, for example, drug or alcohol abuse, the risks to children rise sharply. Home Office estimates suggest that there are at least 300,000 children of drug addicts in the UK at present. It is hard to see why children of addicts are not automatically referred for child protection, since the ability of their parents to reconcile their addiction with their duty of care towards their children must be severely in doubt.

There is other evidence to suggest that the child protection register should be expanded. A recent Channel 4 documentary on child homicide revealed that more than 90 per cent of children who died in the past five years at the hands of a parent or parent-substitute were not on the register. Yet many of the common factors described above were present in those cases.

It is not therefore surprising that social workers complain of heavy caseloads. They are also increasingly burdened by bureaucracy, with 80-90 per cent of their working day spent at their desks rather than visiting families. But this burden is exacerbated by a wilfully complex approach by government to the problem of child protection.

Since the first Laming report, after the death of Victoria Climbi√©, the emphasis on integrating children’s services within every local authority has created a complex web of reporting structures. At the top of those structures, as in Haringey, where Baby P lived, will be a director of children’s services whose background is nearly always in education, not child protection. Protecting children at risk has become part of a continuum of services to children and families, the assumption being that every child will have some needs that must be met by the State, and that distinctions between categories of children are potentially stigmatising.

Hence the introduction of Contactpoint, the universal database that carries information about all children in England and Wales. Indeed, the concept of the child protection register was officially abolished last year when the children on that register were transferred to the “integrated children’s system”.

The danger in this approach is that resources are drawn away from children most in need. Last autumn the Audit Commission reviewed the work of local authority children’s trusts and found that the lack of clear direction and accountability of these bodies, and the confusion about their role, meant that they were hampered in their ability to protect children. By insisting on a non-stigmatising approach, the Government has, in effect, institutionalised the complexity of which Mr Barnes complains.

Common sense tells us that the majority of the 11 million children growing up in this country will not experience neglect or abuse and are therefore not in need of safeguarding. But where welfare dependency combines with young lone motherhood, transient relationships and a history of domestic violence or addiction, social services must be much more ready to intervene — and less inclined to give parents the benefit of the doubt. Here, the application of common sense can easily be reconciled with what the data tells us about family dysfunction.

There are certainly more than 30,000 children in this country at risk of neglect, and the figure is probably closer to half a million. Attending to the needs of those children is a big task — but it will not be helped by attempting to pretend they are no different from the other 10.5 million.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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