Thursday, August 03, 2006


While real criminals run riot

To the 12-year-old friends planning to build themselves a den, the cherry tree seemed an inviting source of material. But the afternoon adventure turned into a frightening ordeal for Sam Cannon, Amy Higgins and Katy Smith after they climbed into the 20ft tree - then found themselves hauled into a police station and locked in cells for up to two hours. Their shoes were removed and mugshots, DNA samples and mouth swabs were taken.

Officers told the children they had been seen damaging the tree which is in a wooded area of public land near their homes. Questioned by police, the scared friends admitted they had broken some loose branches because they had wanted to build a tree house, but said they did not realise what they had done was wrong. Officers considered charging the children with criminal damage but eventually decided a reprimand - the equivalent of a caution for juveniles - was sufficient. Although the reprimand does not amount to court action and the children do not have a criminal record, their details will be kept on file for up to five years.

The parents of the children, who all live in Halesowen, West Midlands, say they are angry with police for treating their children as hardened criminals and accused officers of over-reacting. The three, who have never been in trouble with the police before, were described as well-behaved and placid by their parents. Amy's mother, Jacqueline, said her daughter was left so traumatised by the police action last month she refused to sleep in her bed for a week. Miss Higgins, 37, an office manager, added: 'Amy was scared bucketloads to be locked up in a cell knowing murderers and rapists have been sat in the same cells. The police action was completely unbalanced. These were children playing in a tree. 'The information taken by the police will be held on record for five years and Amy is worried it could affect her going to college or university.'

Sam's father, Nicholas, 52, said: 'The children did not deserve to be treated in the way they were. A simple ticking-off by officers would have been sufficient. 'The children didn't realise they were doing anything wrong, they didn't deliberately set out to damage the tree. 'Sam's eyes were swollen and red when they let him out of the cell as he had been crying. He is a placid child and has never been in trouble before. 'When I got the phone call from the police to say Sam was in custody I thought he'd done something-like steal something from a shop. I couldn't believe it when he said all he had done was break some loose branches off a tree. 'To detain them, DNA them and treat them that way was simply cruel and an over-reaction by the police. Generations of children have played in that tree and my son and his friends won't be the first to have thought of building a tree den.' Mr Cannon, who said Sam had difficulty sleeping shortly after the incident, has written to the police to complain about the action taken.

Superintendent Stuart Johnson, operations manager at Halesowen police station, said: 'I support the actions of my officers who responded to complaints from the public about "kids destroying" an ornamental cherry tree by stripping every branch from it, in an area where there have been reports of anti-social behaviour. 'A boy and two girls were arrested and received a police reprimand for their behaviour. 'West Midlands Police deals robustly with anti-social behaviour. By targeting what may seem relatively low-level crime we aim to prevent it developing into more serious matters.'

Rod Morgan, chairman of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, said the police action appeared to be unnecessary. 'It's my opinion that too many children are being criminalised for behaviour that could be dealt with informally by ticking them off and speaking to their parents.'



By Jeff Jacoby

"It's touching that you're so concerned about the military in Iraq," a reader in Wyoming e-mails in response to one of my columns on the war. "But I have a suspicion you're a phony. So tell me, what's your combat record? Ever serve?"

You can expect a fair amount of that from the antiwar crowd if, like me, you support the war but have never seen combat yourself. That makes you a "chicken hawk" -- one of those, as Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, defending John Kerry from his critics, put it during the 2004 presidential campaign, who "shriek like a hawk, but have the backbone of a chicken." Kerry himself liked to play that card. "I'd like to know what it is Republicans who didn't serve in Vietnam have against those of us who did," he would sniff, casting himself as the victim of unmanly hypocrites who never wore the uniform, yet had the gall to criticize him, a decorated veteran, for his stance on the war.

"Chicken hawk" isn't an argument. It is a slur -- and a dishonest and incoherent slur at that. It is dishonest because those who invoke it don't really mean what they imply -- that only those with combat experience have the moral authority or the necessary understanding to advocate military force. After all, US foreign policy would likely be more hawkish, not less, if decisions about war and peace were left up to those who have been in the armed forces. Soldiers and ex-soldiers tend to be politically conservative, hard-nosed about national security, and confident that American arms make the world safer and freer. On the question of Iraq -- stay-the-course or bring-the-troops-home? -- I would be willing to trust their judgment. Would Cindy Sheehan and Howard Dean?

The cry of "chicken hawk" is dishonest for another reason: It is never aimed at those who oppose military action. But there is no difference, in terms of the background and judgment required, between deciding to go to war and deciding not to. If only those who served in uniform during wartime have the moral standing and experience to back a war, then only they have the moral standing and experience to oppose a war. Those who mock the views of "chicken hawks" ought to be just as dismissive of "chicken doves."

In any case, the whole premise of the "chicken hawk" attack -- that military experience is a prerequisite for making sound pronouncements on foreign policy -- is illogical and ahistorical. "There is no evidence that generals as a class make wiser national security policymakers than civilians," notes Eliot A. Cohen, a leading scholar of military and strategic affairs at Johns Hopkins University. "George C. Marshall, our greatest soldier-statesman after George Washington, opposed shipping arms to Britain in 1940. His boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, with nary a day in uniform, thought otherwise. Whose judgment looks better?"

Some combat veterans display great sagacity when it comes to matters of state and strategy. Some display none at all. General George B. McLellan had a distinguished military career, eventually rising to general in chief of the Union armies; Abraham Lincoln served but a few weeks in a militia unit that saw no action. Who proved more farsighted during the terrible years of the Civil War -- the military man who was hypercautious about sending men into battle, or the "chicken hawk" president who pressed aggressively for military action that he himself had never experienced?

The founders of the American republic were unambiguous in rejecting any hint of military supremacy. Under the Constitution, military leaders take their orders from civilian leaders, who are subject in turn to the judgment of ordinary voters. Those who wear the uniform in wartime are entitled to their countrymen's esteem and lasting gratitude. But for well over two centuries, Americans have insisted that when it comes to the debating and shaping of security and defense policy, soldiers and veterans get no more of a say than anyone else.

You don't need medical training to express an opinion on health care legislation. You don't have to be a police officer to comment on matters of law and order. You don't have to be a parent or a teacher or a graduate to be heard on the educational controversies of the day. You don't have to be a journalist to comment on this or any other column.

And whether you have fought for your country or never had that honor, you have the right every citizen has to weigh in on questions of war and peace. Those who cackle "Chicken hawk!" are not making an argument. They are merely trying to stifle one, and deserve to be ignored.

Huck Finn and the Nuremberg Rally

Some of the most frightening images from Nazi Germany can be seen in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the cinematic record of the 1934 week-long party rally held in Nuremberg . In scene after scene, the metronomic synchronization of marching feet, arms angling upward in Nazi salutes, and thunderous "Sieg Heils" document the transformation of 200,000 individual hearts and minds into an ant heap or termite mound - a vast, unified collective whose submission to a diseased racialist nationalism led to history's most gruesome crimes.

We would do well to remember these images of collective evil, particularly given the fashionable complaints about "rootless individualism" that continue to dominate much of our cultural conversation, from sociology to art. This indictment of individualism holds that modern, free-market, technologically sophisticated, liberal democratic societies have reduced people to insignificant "atoms" bereft of the traditional, nurturing, humane ties of "organic" communities. Certainly, Nazi ideology played on this theme, constructing a mythic Germanic Volk unified by mystic racial solidarity. This unity, the Nazis said, was threatened by the cold, fragmenting forces of modernity as embodied in the rootless Jew, who had mastered the economic mechanisms that eroded the nationalist spirit and fraternal bonds of the people.

Yet this complaint is inspired as well by communist ideology. Throughout the twentieth century, Marxian cultural criticism exploited the sort of Romantic dissatisfactions with modernity expressed as early as 1802 in the Preface to Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. No matter that the next two centuries saw remarkable improvements in material existence wrought by capitalism and science, and saw individual freedom extended to millions by liberal democracy, these modern cultural critics exaggerated and dramatized the social costs of such benefits. They contrasted life in industrialized capitalist societies with a mythic golden age of pre-capitalist communal life in which the "alienation" fostered by capitalism didn't exist and the individual was nurtured in a warm collective cocoon. Indeed, according to Marx and his followers, this communal paradise also lies at the end of history: once private property is abolished, capitalism and the state have withered away, and people are once again united into an organic, mutually supportive whole, the needs and desires of the individual will be identical with those of the community.

So pervasive are these critical analyses that they have become received ideas found throughout social commentary and popular culture alike. In 1995, Robert Putnam made a splash with his "bowling alone" essay, which was expanded into a bestselling book of the same name. His thesis is that "the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs." Contrasted with the Golden Age of the PTAs, bowling leagues, and the Rotary Clubs, contemporary middle-class Americans, trapped in their isolating suburbs, are cut off from each other - mere atoms bearing the whole weight of life and meaning on their own narrow shoulders. A similar thesis dominated the 1999 movie American Beauty, which won five Oscars, though its banal anti-bourgeois prejudices were stale 150 years ago when Gustave Flaubert explored them in Madame Bovary.

It is hard to judge the accuracy of Putnam's generalizations, based as they are on notoriously unreliable polling data and raw statistics on organization membership. And given that such complaints are as old as the poetry of Wordsworth and the novels of Flaubert, it is even more imperative that we view them with suspicion. When Putnam's essay first came out, I had two children in grade school, and I remember thinking that my problem wasn't a lack of "community" but too damned much of it. I was spending seemingly endless amounts of time with school, sports, and church, and with the committees of tiresome busybodies that typically dominate these activities.

In their zeal to strain out the gnat of individualism's flaws, the idealizers of lost community swallow any number of communitarian camels. They forget the deadening conformity and petty tyranny that frequently characterize so-called "organic" communities, typically based on castes and classes that subordinate individuals to the group. Few of our modern "communitarians" really want to return to a world of invidious gossip, invasive surveillance, and oppressive conformity - a world without privacy, personal liberty, or opportunities to escape the restrictions of one's community and the dead hand of unexamined traditions and pointless customs.

For Americans particularly, the individualism that so frets the communitarian idealizers is central to the American character. Of course, groups such as the Puritans are also important for American history and identity. But increasingly, over the last two centuries, the unique individual who pursues his own vision of the good life and his identity has defined the American character. That's why the cowboy, that icon of individualism par excellence, occupies such an important place in our national mythology.

But long before the invention of the cowboy in the late nineteenth century, American literature was filled with characters who embodied this essential attribute of Americanism. Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo is an early embodiment of the American individualist who finds on the frontier the freedom and autonomy that are stifled by the dull routines of the village and town. But this theme is perhaps best embodied in Mark Twain's Huck Finn, that outcast from respectable community who relies on his own energy and personal values to seek meaning in his life. Indeed, through his friendship with the runaway slave Jim, Huck ultimately challenges antebellum Southern society over one of its most fundamental beliefs: the superiority of the white race and the justice of slavery.

Along the way, of course, Huck has to resist the well-meaning but stifling forces of conformity. These are embodied most memorably in the Widder Douglas, who keeps trying to "sivilize" Huck - which is to say, restrict his individualism and autonomy and make both conform to the mediocre norms of the larger community. Huck succeeds in escaping the Widder's efforts, finally "lighting out for the territories," the frontier to the west where the individual has the space to pursue his own vision of the good, free from the herd that seeks to compromise his autonomy.

Huck thus is one of the great embodiments of American individualism, that force of innovation, creativity, freedom, and progress that accounts for the spectacular success of American civilization. Yet like much of the American character, this individualism has been demonized of late by no end of Widder Douglases. They wish to tame the energies of individual freedom in order to fit people into some larger vision of communal good, some utopia of perfect equality and justice, always to be challenged by the quirky, unique individual.

Hence the ideology of "communitarianism," which gains traction by obsessing over the trade-offs and costs that necessarily follow when each person possesses his own freedom and autonomy. Yet these costs are more than outweighed by the benefits resulting from freeing the imaginations and minds of millions from the stultifying shackles of group norms and herd mentalities.

And whatever these costs, they are as nothing compared to the mountains of corpses created by the various ideologies that dissolve the individual and personal responsibility in the aims and needs of the collective. After all, you'd never get 200,000 Huck Finns to goose-step and "Sieg Heil" with the mindless, robotic fervor of those Germans in Triumph of the Will.


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