Biblical Justice

Shared responsibility, collective action, and intergenerational justice are core Biblical values. Certainly, moral concern for the least among us is as Christian as it gets. It’s strange how even most ‘conservative’ Christians, at least among American white Protestants, have come to embrace hyper-individualism such that they no longer recognize what traditional values look like.

It’s no accident that Black Lives Matter embraces this old time religion, as did the earlier Civil Rights movement. Blacks have higher religiosity rates than even conservative whites and, in a sense, take their religiosity more seriously as applied to their communities. American blacks have for centuries been steeped in the Biblical language of intergenerational justice, on earth as it is in heaven — the Promised Land!

This is one of the many ways that progressivism, liberalism, and leftism are more similar to premodern traditionalism. Conservatives, as reactionaries, are typically more concerned with the nostalgia of revisionist history and invented traditions; more than they are concerned with closely adhering to the actual traditional views and practices of the past. Reactionaries will attack all things leftist, even when they’re Biblically-based.

Still, among American whites who self-identify as conservative Christians, some do understand and so uphold the ancient commandment that the sins of our fathers (and mothers) do fall upon us, we the living generation. This is true of David Platt, “a bestselling author, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, and the pastor of McLean Bible Church (MBC), a huge and influential church located outside Washington, D.C.”

Platt has been preaching, as Jesus did, that we are morally responsible to others. But worse of all, along with pastor Mike Kelsey of the same church, he joined a Christian BLM march. The right-wing members of that church have lodged complaints and even sought state intervention into church affairs. These critics, however, don’t have the Bible on their side; even as they claim sola scriptura as their defense of conservative values. Platt stated:

“A disparity exists. We can’t deny this. These are not opinions—they’re facts. It matters in our country whether one is white or black. Now, we don’t want it to matter, which is why I think we try to convince ourselves it doesn’t matter. We think to ourselves, “I don’t hold prejudices toward black or white people, so racism is not my problem.” But this is where we need to see that racialization is our problem. It’s all of our problem. We subtly, almost unknowingly, contribute to it.”

We are responsible because we’ve inherited the privileges and oppressions, the benefits and harms. All of it is built into our social order and our institutions, including our churches, not to mention unconsciously internalized within our psyches and behavior (sins burned into our souls). We should act to make right what was done wrong simply because it is in our power to do so. And, if one is a Christian, one should also do it because God has commanded one to do it. The moral arc may eventually bend toward justice, one way or another, but we can align ourselves with moral righteousness and divine law or oppose it.

Of course, this can be understood in purely secular terms, as many of us do on the political left. But it is true that most Americans on the political left also were raised as Christians and still identify as Christians. It remains a largely Christian society all across the political spectrum. There might be a reason most younger Christians prefer the ‘progressive’ label. Maybe Christianity is finally returning to its Biblical roots.

* * *

This is an ongoing line of thought in this blog. There is something odd about the reactionary mind, particularly in its ability to co-opt anything (along with its ability to dismiss anything, so as to eliminate and erase what is inconvenient). That appears to be a defining feature of reaction. It’s not defined in and of itself but by what it opposes and excludes. And this antagonistic impulse defines everything about the reactionary mind.

This creates much confusion. The reactionary isn’t exactly or simplistically ideological in the conventional sense, although definitely ideological in the Althusserian leftist sense. The only core idea underlying it all is a demand for division and that always includes some form of rigid and entrenched hierarchy, either as already existing or as an aspiration (Corey Robin writes about this). It’s opposition to traditionalism is on this level for it has historically sought to replace traditional social order.

Yet conservatism, as a reactionary phenomenon, requires the legitimacy stolen from traditionalism. It does this by usurping the role of traditionalism, like fairies stealing human children by replacing them with fairies, or like a spectral cuckoo bird laying its eggs in the soft nesting material of the mind. So, it’s a form of indoctrination that gets people to internalize an alien and alienating ideology as a socio-cultural identity, to disconnect the dividual from lived somatic experience (related to Morris Berman’s thoughts in Coming to Our Senses).

This is far different from the organic ground-up development of traditionalism over centuries or millennia. Reactionary conservatism, instead, is an immediate response to a sense of existential crisis and societal breakdown. Yet it demands an appearance of continuity, in order to hide its true nature of reaction. This is because, in essence, it’s much more of a product of modernity than it would like to admit (see Karen Armstrong’s argument for fundamentalism as modern and often pseudo-scientific, whereas traditional religion often interpreted scripture less literally; i.e., more symbolically and imaginalistically).

The obfuscation and erasure of the past, of ancient tradition and intergenerational memory, of living organic culture. But, even if this impulse didn’t gain its full reactionary force until the modern age, an early form of it first appeared in the Axial Age (e.g., Plato as proto-reactionary). Much of this has to do with the living word of archaic authorization being replaced by literary scripture. Probably why this shows up in Protestantism to such an extent is because that is the first religion that embraced mass literacy, which of course happened in recent centuries.

Still, there is obviously something more to it than literacy, in spite of its key role. Consider the political left, specifically liberalism. Liberals probably have higher literacy rates than Protestants, along with a greater immersion in the literary experience of higher education and high culture. Yet liberalism, in being less reactionary, can be more accommodating to traditionalism by way of multiculturalism. This is also true in liberalism being able to tolerate conservatism in a way that conservatism can’t offer in return. Within the reactionary mind, there is a totalizing impetus. This is why conservatives typically espouse ideological realism in denying their own ideology is an ideology.

So, a reactionary conservative can never fully acknowledge as real or true that is different from their ideology. That would be involved with why they can’t respect traditionalism on its own terms but must force the idea of ‘traditionalism’ to serve non-traditional agendas and interests. The past can never merely be the past, within the reactionary mind. If a liberal opposes something about the past, they are open about it without quibbling (e.g., slavery). A reactionary-conservative, on the other hand, constantly dances around issues like historical racism. The essential potency of the reactionary mind is contained within what is hidden behind symbolic proxies. Traditionalism often serves this role of empty rhetoric, of scripted and staged culture war.

That said, all of modernity is reactionary to a large extent. One might go so far as to assert that the reactionary or the potential for it is inherent to post-bicameral consciousness, divided as it is against itself. So, yes, liberals too have the potential for becoming reactionary. The difference is that what we call a liberal is simply someone who doesn’t tend toward the reactionary, doesn’t fall into it as easily or strongly, and certainly doesn’t become stuck in it as their default mode. But the longer one remains within the reactionary attitude the more one will express the attributes of the reactionary mind:

Ideological realism, limited (or tightly scripted) moral imagination, restricted/narrow circle of empathy, tribalism (or rather pseudo-tribalism), groupthink, social conservatism (doesn’t necessarily or simplistically apply to economics), bigotry, chauvinism, xenophobia, hyper-patriotism, hyper-individualism, thick boundaries of ego-mind, divisiveness, dualistic thinking, dogmatism, symbolic literalism, authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, social Darwinism, elitism, inegalitarianism, stress, fear, anxiety, paranoia, purity-mindedness, etc. And, at the furthest extremes and in the most malignant form, there is the Dark Tetrad that overlaps much with the reactionary: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism.

One might note it is easier to get a liberal to become a conservative than the other way around. All that is required is continuous stress. Basically, one might argue, the reactionary is simply the unhealed traumatic scarring of stress overload. And in a highly dysfunctional and anxious society of high inequality, such as the United States, it’s not uncommon for Dr. Jekyll liberals and leftists to become Mr. Hyde conservatives and right-wingers. On a practical level, nearly everyone in the modern world is somewhere on the scale of the reactionary; all the more reason to respond with non-reactionary empathy and compassion.

Sadly. Amidst all the schizogenetic soul sickness, it admittedly is hard for traditionalism to be meaningfully appreciated. So, something like inter-generational justice becomes simply another political battlefield. If an Old Testament prophet or Jesus himself returned from the dead to preach a jeremiad about American moral failure, I’m fairly sure few conservative Christians would hear his words, much less heed them.

* * *

There is one major difficulty in all of this. Reactionaries, by nature, are chameleons. So, they can say or do something that completely contradicts what they’ve said or done before. And, if you try to pin them down, they might shapeshift on you. Just as they sometimes claim to be traditionalists they’ll also claim to be classical liberals, the real or original liberals, but at the same time they’ll assert they are conservatives and only those who agree with them are conservative. They can co-opt anything and everything. Making generalizations about them is fraught from the get-go.

One may make a convincing argument that reactionaries, in general, don’t grasp what traditionalism is all about. But that isn’t to say they won’t pick up pieces of traditionalism as convenient. And no doubt they are great mimics. It might not always be clear when one is dealing with a reactionary, at least not at first. But they eventually give the game away, if you’re paying close enough attention. The contradictions tend to become apparent quite quickly.

As the penultimate expression of schizoid modernity, the reactionary mind tends to operate in a state of unawareness. That is important to keep in mind. It’s not necessarily that those afflicted are necessarily being duplicitous and deceptive but that they genuinely can’t understand themselves or the reality tunnel they are trapped within. This is because their worldview and identity is defined by what they are reacting against, not defined by any principled beliefs and consistent ideas.

Words can take on a loose and shifting sense within the reactionary mind. Most conservatives, as reactionaries, may call themselves ‘traditionalists’ with total conviction and still not grasp what it means. Few modern people have ever had much, if any, experience of a traditional culture. That is because America, even in the colonial era, was never a traditional society. This social order and sociopolitical system is a modern invention of Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionaries. The traditionalist label simply becomes yet more rhetoric to be lobbed about.

Within this state of confusion, it’s not all that clear what reactionaries do or do not understand. If forced to be honest, most reactionaries on some level probably do get what is inter-generational justice and that it’s an ancient value, specifically within the Abrahamic tradition. But, like so many other moderns, they simultaneously know and don’t know many things. When it is self-serving (in applying to themselves or to those they identify with), they will strongly embrace intergenerational justice.

There are conservatives who still hold a grudge about the perceived injustice of how Southern whites were treated after the Civil War, as part of the Lost Cause mythos. And many reactionaries, mostly on the right but also some on the left, believe that inter-generational justice is a moral rationalization for Zionist Jews oppressing, persecuting, and killing Palestinians (mostly children) while stealing their land — all in the name of settler colonialism, apartheid, and genocide. For claims of such justice, blacks and Palestinians (or other low status groups) need not apply. This is inter-generational justice for me and mine but none for thee. The hypocrisy of it goes over their head.

That is a defining feature of the reactionary mind. Any of us who falls under the sway of this mentality is, for all intents and purposes, a reactionary. None of us is immune. The difference, though, for most of us is that, even if we temporarily go reactionary, we can pull ourselves out of that state and realize that isn’t a state we want to be permanently in. To be a reactionary proper is to lose the capacity to be anything else. It fully becomes one’s sense of self and reality. When that happens, one goes from one reaction to another. Listen to the constant fear-mongering of right-wing media and you’ll get an intuitive sense of what it would feel like to live in that worldview all the time.

* * *

Structural Racism Isn’t Wokeness, It’s Reality
Christians must not deny the full consequences of centuries of intentional, racist harm.

by David French

But on the core issues of American racism, Platt is biblically and historically right, and it’s his detractors who are biblically and historically wrong. These “conservatives” have placed a secular political frame around an issue with profound religious significance. They’ve thus not just abandoned the whole counsel of scripture, they’ve even contradicted a core component of the secular conservatism they claim to uphold. 

To understand the flaw in their argument, let’s first turn to biblical text. A pastor friend of mine recently reminded me of an intriguing and sobering story from 2 Samuel 21. During the reign of King David, Israel was afflicted with three years of famine. When David “sought the face of the Lord” regarding the crisis, God said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house.” (Saul had conducted a violent campaign against the Gibeonites, in violation of a covenant made with the Israelites many centuries before.)

Saul was king before David, and God was punishing Israel years after Saul’s regime because of Saul’s sin. It was the next king, David’s, responsibility to make things right. And so David turned to the remaining Gibeonites and said, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” 

The Gibeonites’ request was harsh—to hand over seven of Saul’s descendants for execution. David fulfilled their request, and “God responded to the plea for the land.” 

Note the underlying conception of justice here: Israel remained responsible for its former leader’s sins, and they were required to make amends. This is a consistent theme throughout scripture. I’ve referred to it before. In the book of 2 Kings, Josiah “tore his clothes” and “wept” when the high priest found the Book of the Law neglected in the temple. Why? Josiah said, “because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book.”

Josiah was far from alone. Daniel confessed the sins of Israel’s fathers. In the book of Nehemiah, the Israelites confessed the “sins and iniquities” of their fathers. In the book of Leviticus, God commanded the Israelites to “confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers.” 

The reason for this obligation of repentance and atonement is obvious. The death of the offending party does not remove the consequences of their sin. Those who’ve been victimized still suffer loss, and if the loss isn’t ameliorated in their lifetimes, that loss can linger for generations.

Let’s apply this more concretely, to the United States of America. Enforcing the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and passing the Civil Rights Act was (and is) necessary to end overt, legal discrimination, but it was hardly sufficient to ameliorate the effects of slavery and Jim Crow. These effects are so embedded in our system that powerful people often perpetuate those structures even when they lack any racist intent at all. […]

So how is a Christian to respond? First, let’s go back to scripture and recognize that the obligation to “act justly” is intergenerational. If there is injustice that predates our personal power, it is still our obligation to do what we can to set it right. Second, when you see these racist structures at work, you recognize that you need sociology, history, and economics to help understand not just their reality, but their remedy.

“Sola scriptura” doesn’t tell us how we should zone our communities, district our schools, or protect civil rights. Indeed, there’s an entire Christian doctrine of common grace that teaches us that truth can come from many sources. Even those “conservatives” who resist David Platt likely understand this in their daily lives. Is it the case that we can rely on non-Christian wisdom in, say, military strategy, trade policy, and law enforcement tactics, but when trying to untangle the effects of centuries of racial oppression, the Bible alone will be our guide? 

Now for a note about conservatism. I simply don’t grant that the dissenters’ objections to Platt are “conservative.” Right-wing, yes. Conservative? I object. Years ago, my friend Rod Dreher wrote that “the business of a conservatism with integrity is not to impose an idealistic ideological narrative on reality but rather to try to see the world as it is and respond to its challenges within the limits of what we know about human nature.”

I love that framing. Applied to race, it means that when we discern “the world as it is” (complete with understanding the structures that racists built) the policies a conservative might propose will be different than those of a progressive, in part because conservatives often (but not always) have a different view of human nature and human frailty than their friends on the left. 

In other words, a conservative might have a different conception of “what works.” Progressive-dominated institutions haven’t cracked the code. Can conservative ideas do any better?

Reckoning With Violence

The crime debate is another example of how the ruling elite is disconnected from the American majority. Most Americans support rehabilitation, rather than punishment. This support is even stronger among victims of crimes because they understand how tough-on-crime policies have destroyed their communities and harmed the people they care about.

But the ruling elite make massive profits from the privatized prisons and, if nothing else, it is highly effective social control in keeping the population in a permanent state of anxiety and fear. The purpose was never to make the world a better place or to help the average American, much less those struggling near the bottom.

The system works perfectly for its intended purpose. The problem is its intended purpose is psychopathic and evil. And I might add, the ruling elite promoting it is bipartisan. It’s time that we the American people demand justice for our families and communities and refuse anything less from those who attempt to get in our way. Let’s save our righteous wrath for those most deserving of it.

* * *

Reckoning With Violence
by Michelle Alexander

As Ms. [Danielle] Sered explains in her book [Until We Reckon], drawing on her experience working with hundreds of survivors and perpetrators of violence in Brooklyn and the Bronx, imprisonment isn’t just an inadequate tool; it’s often enormously counterproductive — leaving survivors and their communities worse off.

Survivors themselves know this. That’s why fully 90 percent of survivors in New York City, when given the chance to choose whether they want the person who harmed them incarcerated or in a restorative justice process — one that offers support to survivors while empowering them to help decide how perpetrators of violence can repair the damage they’ve done — choose the latter and opt to use the services of Ms. Sered’s nonprofit organization, Common Justice. […]

Ninety percent is a stunning figure considering everything we’ve been led to believe that survivors actually want. For years, we’ve been told that victims of violence want nothing more than for the people who hurt them to be locked up and treated harshly. It is true that some survivors do want revenge or retribution, especially in the immediate aftermath of the crime. Ms. Sered is emphatic that rage is not pathological and a desire for revenge is not blameworthy; both are normal and can be important to the healing process, much as denial and anger are normal stages of grief.

But she also stresses that the number of people who are interested only in revenge or punishment is greatly exaggerated. After all, survivors are almost never offered real choices. Usually when we ask victims “Do you want incarceration?” what we’re really asking is “Do you want something or nothing?” And when any of us are hurt, and when our families and communities are hurting, we want something rather than nothing. In many oppressed communities, drug treatment, good schools, economic investment, job training, trauma and grief support are not available options. Restorative justice is not an option. The only thing on offer is prisons, prosecutors and police.

But what happens, Ms. Sered wondered, if instead of asking, “Do you want something or nothing?” we started asking “Do you want this intervention or that prison?” It turns out, when given a real choice, very few survivors choose prison as their preferred response.

This is not because survivors, as a group, are especially merciful. To the contrary, they’re pragmatic. They know the criminal justice system will almost certainly fail to deliver what they want and need most to overcome their pain and trauma. More than 95 percent of cases end in plea bargains negotiated by lawyers behind the scenes. Given the system’s design, survivors know the system cannot be trusted to validate their suffering, give them answers or even a meaningful opportunity to be heard. Nor can it be trusted to keep them or others safe.

In fact, many victims find that incarceration actually makes them feel less safe. They worry that others will be angry with them for reporting the crime and retaliate, or fear what will happen when the person eventually returns home. Many believe, for good reason, that incarceration will likely make the person worse, not better — a frightening prospect when they’re likely to encounter the person again when they’re back in the neighborhood. […]

A growing body of research strongly supports the anecdotal evidence that restorative justice programs increase the odds of safety, reduce recidivism and alleviate trauma. “Until We Reckon” cites studies showing that survivors report 80 to 90 percent rates of satisfaction with restorative processes, as compared to 30 percent for traditional court systems.

Common Justice’s success rate is high: Only 7 percent of responsible parties have been terminated from the program for a new crime. And it’s not alone in successfully applying restorative justice principles. Numerous organizations — such as Community Justice for Youth Institute and Project NIA in Chicago; the Insight Prison Project in San Quentin; the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore; and Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth — are doing so in communities, schools, and criminal justice settings from coast-to-coast.

In 2016, the Alliance for Safety and Justice conducted the first national poll of crime survivors and the results are consistent with the emerging trend toward restorative justice. The majority said they “believe that time in prison makes people more likely to commit another crime rather than less likely.” Sixty-nine percent preferred holding people accountable through options beyond prison, such as mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, rehabilitation, community supervision and public service. Survivors’ support for alternatives to incarceration was even higher than among the general public.

Survivors are right to question incarceration as a strategy for violence reduction. Violence is driven by shame, exposure to violence, isolation and an inability to meet one’s economic needs — all of which are core features of imprisonment. Perhaps most importantly, according to Ms. Sered, “Nearly everyone who has committed violence first survived it,” and studies indicate that experiencing violence is the greater predictor of committing it. Caging and isolating a person who’s already been damaged by violence is hardly a recipe for positive transformation.

The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1

This is about public opinion and public perception as it relates to public policy (see previous posts). I also include some analyses of the opinions of politicians as it relates to public opinion or rather their perception of what they think or want to believe about the public (for background, see here and here).

I’ll begin with a problematic example of a poll. Here is an article that someone offered as proving the public supports tough-on-crime policies:

There were stunning findings in a new poll released Monday on crime in New York City. Keeping crime down is way more important to voters than reforming the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk program…

a new Quinnipiac University poll…reveals that public safety is uppermost on the minds of voters…

Asked which was more important, keeping crime rates down or reforming stop and frisk, 62 percent said keeping crime rates low and 30 percent said reforming stop and frisk.

The article itself isn’t important. There are thousands like it, but I wanted to use it for the polling data it was using.

I don’t know of any bias from Quinnipiac, beyond a basic mainstream bias, and so maybe the wording of the question was simply intellectual laziness. It was phrased as a forced choice question that implied choosing one negated the possibility of the other and it implied those were the only choices for public policy.

I looked further into data related to stop and frisk. It isn’t as simple as the forced choice presents it. For one, a number of studies don’t show that stop and frisk actually keeps crime rates low, as the question assumes. Secondly, when given more information and more options, Americans tend to support funding programs that either help prevent crime or help rehabilitate criminals.

The general public will favor punishment, when no other good choices are offered them. Still, that doesn’t say much about the fundamental values of most Americans. I’m not just interested in the answers given, but also the questions asked, how they are framed and how they are worded.

The Court of Public Opinion: Part 2

I’ll highlight one issue. It is a chicken or the egg scenario.

The political elites are fairly clueless about the views of the general public, including their own constituents. At the same time, the average American is clueless about what those in government are actually doing. This disconnection is what one expects from a society built on a class-based hierarchy with growing extremes of inequality. In countries that have lower inequality, there is far less disconnection between political elites and the citizenry.

It isn’t clear who is leading who. How could politicians simply be doing what the public wants when they don’t know what the public wants? So, what impact does public opinion even have? There is strong evidence that public opinion might simply be following elite opinion and reacting to the rhetoric heard on the MSM.

Populations are easily manipulated by propaganda, as history shows. That seems to be the case with the United States as well.

As such, it isn’t clear how punitive most Americans actually are. When given more and better information, when given more and better options, most Americans tend to focus away from straightforward punitive policies. Imagine what the public might support if we ever had an open and honest debate based on the facts.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Even

Here is a nice thought about walking off anger. It’s a poem by Rosemerry at A Hundred Falling Veils blog. The title is “I’m Not Saying We Shouldn’t Be Angry.”

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be angry.
Anger seems reasonable. But perhaps
we will do what I’ve heard the Inuit do—
spend the emotion on walking, walk a line
until all the anger has left our bodies.

There is truth to that. Physical exertion does help an individual to release stress. There are biological reasons one could give, if one wanted to be scientific about it. But the advice stands alone and can be verified in one’s experience. Maybe that relates to a main problem with the internet, too much inactivity. For reasons of mental and physical health, people should get up once in a while to physically move around, which probably is a good prevention for the buildup of anxiousness and frustration that can lead to bad moods.

I’m a curious person, though. The anthropological angle interests me for its own sake. I was wondering about the source that is the basis of the poem. I came across two references to it. In Overlay, Lucy R. Lippard writes that, An Eskimo custom offers an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system in a straight line across the landscape; the point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.” And here is something from the UAB Department of Anthropology“When conflicts do arise, people often express their feelings with hints. Anger occasionally erupts, but when it does the angry person simply walks away. The community may ostracize people who develop a tendency to anger, though that would be done subtly, with the people doing the ostracizing acting more nurturing and warmer than ever.”

It almost makes one want to sing a round of “Kumbaya My Lord, Kumbaya.” Or maybe belt out an old Unity Church favorite, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” I can feel the love already. I grew up with New Age spirituality. I dig it. But… there is always a ‘but’…

There is something in me (cynicism? contrarianism?) that can’t help noting a related piece of info. The Inuit weren’t hippy pacifists. Humans have to be as tough as the frozen tundra to survive in such icy bleakness. They didn’t express their anger because they didn’t tolerate anyone expressing their anger. Walking it off was an act of suppression. Don’t come back until you either are in a better mood or regained enough self-control to pretend to be in a better mood. There wasn’t much room for tolerance of misbehavior and deviance of any sort: betraying community values and social norms, taking advantage and harming others. The Inuit rule was to keep your problems to yourself or else. And you didn’t want to find out what ‘or else’ might mean. Individuals who failed to play by the rules and be members in good standing… well, those people were taken care of, one way or another. As Barbara Oakley explained (Evil Genes, p. 265):

Prior to the advent of agriculture, human groups were small — perhaps made up of fifty or fewer, and perfectly capable of “voting with their feet” to escape unfair treatment. Psychopathic or self-serving Machiavellian behavior would be obvious in such a restricted environment and would be difficult to tolerate long-term. There is evidence that when such behavior arose in those small, ancestral nomadic groups, it was eliminated in straightforward fashion. Harvard anthropologist Jane Murphy, for example, notes that the Yupic-speaking Eskimos of northwest Alaska have a word, kunlangeta, which means “his mind knows what to do but he does not do it.” This word

might be applied to a man who, for example, repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and does not go hunting and, when the other men are out of the village, takes sexual advantage of many women — someone who does not pay attention to reprimands and who is always being brought to the elders for punishment. One Eskimo among 499 on their island was called kunlangeta. When asked what would have happened to such a person traditionally, an Eskimo said that probably “somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking.”

Murphy goes on to describe a similar word, arankan, used by Yorubas of Africa. It is applied to a person who always goes his own way regardless of others, who is uncooperative, full of malice, and bullheaded. Interestingly, neither kunlangeta nor arankan were thought to be curable by native healers. Psychopathy is rare in those settings, notes psychologists David Cooke, who has studied psychopathy across cultures.

They didn’t get lost in anger. Instead, they took direct action to solve the problem or eliminate the cause of their anger. Walking it off was just the first step. Don’t act in anger. But be sure to take action. The problem still needs to be solved.

Consider the ancient Japanese story of the Samurai. His master was murdered and it was his duty to seek vengeance. Having tracked down the assassin and with sword aloft, the cornered man spit in the Samurai’s face. Anger having taken hold of his mind, he immediately stopped and sheathed his sword. It would have been dishonorable to have killed the man out of anger. His act of righteousness needed to be an act of dispassionate duty, not of personal emotion. So, he left the killer there and walked away. My friend who told me this story gave it a different ending that I prefer. In his version, after the Samurai calmed down and regained composure, he once again tracked down the evildoer. With a calm heart and a clear mind, he honorably slayed the guilty party and justice was done.

This has been carried forward into nonviolent practice in the modern world. Gandhi is famous for his advocacy and effective application of nonviolence, but nonetheless he suggested that violence was preferable to injustice. Don’t get mad. Get even. It is ancient wisdom.

* * *

To further demonstrate this principle, let’s place it in the framework of Buddhist useful means. Acting in anger and vengeance would incur karma, as would murder. But sometimes compassion, as self-sacrifice, might elicit a response of preventing harm by taking karma onto oneself. The following is from a sutra about one of the Buddha’s earlier lives as a bodhissatva:

Story of the Compassionate Ship’s Captain

Murder with Skill in Means: The story of the Compassionate Ship’s Captain

132. Then the Lord again addressed the Bodhisattva Jnanottara:

“Son of the family: Once a upon a time, long before the Thus-come-one, the Worthy, the fully perfected Buddha Dipamkara, there were five hundred merchants who set sail on the high seas in search of wealth. Among the company was a doer of dark deeds, a doer of evil deeds, a robber well-trained in the art of weaponry, who had come on board that very ship to attack them.

He thought, “I will kill all these merchants when they have achieved their aims and done what they set out to do, take all possessions and go to Jambu Continent.”

“Son of the family: then the merchants achieved their aims and set about to depart. No sooner had they done so, than that deceitful person thought:

“Now I will kill all these merchants, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent. The time has come.”

133. At the same time, among the company on board was a captain named Great Compassionate. While Captain Great Compassionate slept on one occasion, the deities who dwelt in that ocean showed him in a dream:

‘’’Among this ship’s company is a person named so and so, of such and such sort of physique, of such and such, garb, complex, and shape—a robber mischievous, a thief of others’ property. He is thinking,” I will kill all these merchants, take all their possessions and go to Jambu Continent.” To kill these merchants would create formidable evil karma for that person. Why so? These five hundred merchants are all progressing toward supreme, right and full awakening; they are each irreversible from awakening. If he should kill these Bodhisattvas, the fault—the obstacle caused by the deed—would cause him to burn in the great hells for as long as it take each one of these Bodhisattva to achieve supreme, right and full awakening, consecutively. Therefore, Captain, think of some skill in means to prevent this person from killing the five hundred merchants and going to the great hells because of the deed.

134. “Son of the family: Then the captain Great Compassionate awoke. He considered what means there might be to prevent that person from killing the five hundred merchants and going to the great hells. Seven days passed with a wind averse to sailing to Jambu Continent. Without wind during those seven days he plunged deep into thought, not speaking to anyone.

“He thought, “There is no means to prevent this from slaying the merchants and going to the great hells but to kill him.’

“And he thought, ‘if I were to report this to the merchants, they would kill and slay him with angry thoughts and all go to the great hells themselves.’

“And he thought, ‘if I were to kill this person, I would likewise burn in the great hells for one hundred-thousand eons because of it. Yet I can bear to experience the pain of the great hells, that this person not slay these five hundred merchants and develop so much evil karma. I will kill this person myself.

135. Son of the family: Accordingly, the captain Great Compassionate protected those five hundred merchants and protected that person from going to the great hells, by deliberately stabbing and slaying that person who was a robber with a spear, with great compassion and skill in means. And all among the company achieved their aims and each went to his own city.

136. “Son of the family. At that time, in that life I was none other than the Captain Great Compassionate. Have no second thought or doubt on this point. The five hundred merchants on board the five hundred Bodhisattvas who are to niranize to supreme, right and full awakening in hits auspicious eon.

“Son of the family: For me, Samsara was curtailed for one hundred-thousand eons because of that skill in means and great compassion. And the robber died to be reborn in a world of paradise. The five hundred merchants on board are the hundred future Buddhas of the auspicious eon.

137. “Son fo the family, what do you think of this? Can curtailing birth and death for one hundred-thousand eons with that skill in means and that great compassion with gnosis of skill in means be regarded as the Bodhisattva’s obstacle caused by past deeds? Do not view it in that way. That should be regarded as his very skill in means.

—quoted from Mark Tatz’ Skill in Means Sutra, pp. 73-74

A Divide in Justice, a Divide in the Mind

I got sidetracked into reading some of Matt Taibbi’s just released new book, The Divide. A review of it in the Wall Street Journal of all places caught my attention. It was a surprisingly good, although short, review by Matt Welch. The reviewer ended with this damning conclusion:

“Though Mr. Taibbi doesn’t couch it in these terms, his warning is all about moral hazard, in two senses of the phrase. When swindlers know that their risks will be subsidized, and their potential crimes will be punishable only through negotiated corporate settlements, they will surely commit more crimes. And when most of the population either does not know or does not care that the lowest socioeconomic classes live in something akin to a police state, we should be greatly concerned for the moral health of our society.”

If that conclusion is correct and the Wall Street Journal was doing its job, that should have been front page news. Instead, I found it printed in a small corner of a back page of the newspaper. I guess one should be thankful that a review like this gets published at all in the mainstream media, however hidden away it remains.

This hiding in plain sight demonstrates a point made by Taibbi, maybe the central point of the entire book. His conclusion is that wealth disparities are causing unequal and unfair end results in the US justice system. But that is more just the ‘what’ of his argument, the evidence in support of a more probing insight. It is the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ that is the real issue of concern.

Taibbi speaks of implicit knowledge, that anyone who is paying attention knows all of this and yet it remains in the background. This is the key to understanding his argument. He introduces and emphasizes this perspective of implicit knowledge in his introduction. It appears he offers it as the foundation for building his analysis throughout the rest of the book. It is the sad fact that this knowledge is implicit, rather than explicit, that allows and encourages the growth of this divide.

Near the beginning of the introduction, he presents his case and puts it into context (Kindle Locations 67-75):

“The other thing here is an idea that being that poor means you should naturally give up any ideas you might have about privacy or dignity. The welfare applicant is less of a person for being financially dependent (and a generally unwelcome immigrant from a poor country to boot), so she naturally has fewer rights.

“No matter how offensive the image is, it has a weird logic that’s irresistible to many if not most Americans . Even if we don’t agree with it, we all get it.

“And that’s the interesting part, the part where we all get it. More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who is entitled to what rights, and who is not. It’s not as simple as saying everyone is the same under the law anymore. We all know there’s another layer to it now.”

Taibbi doesn’t pull his punches. He goes straight to the tender weak point in American pride by making a comparison to Soviet Russia (Kindle Locations 76-86):

“As a very young man, I studied the Russian language in Leningrad, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. One of the first things I noticed about that dysfunctional wreck of a lunatic country was that it had two sets of laws, one written and one unwritten. The written laws were meaningless, unless you violated one of the unwritten laws, at which point they became all-important.

“So, for instance, possessing dollars or any kind of hard currency was technically forbidden , yet I never met a Soviet citizen who didn’t have them. The state just happened to be very selective about enforcing its anticommerce laws. So the teenage farsovshik (black market trader) who sold rabbit hats in exchange for blue jeans outside my dorm could be arrested for having three dollars in his pocket, but a city official could openly walk down Nevsky Avenue with a brand-new Savile Row suit on his back, and nothing would happen.

“Everyone understood this hypocrisy implicitly, almost at a cellular level, far beneath thought. For a Russian in Soviet times, navigating every moment of citizenship involved countless silent calculations of this type. But the instant people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, it was like the whole country woke up from a dream , and the system fell apart in a matter of months . That happened before my eyes in 1990 and 1991, and I never forgot it.

“Now I feel like I’m living that process in reverse, watching my own country fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets once woke up from one. People are beginning to become disturbingly comfortable with a kind of official hypocrisy. Bizarrely, for instance, we’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.”

The example of Russia is an apt comparison. Like the Soviet Russia, the United States is in a precarious situation. We have immense power (or rather our government does) while at the same time having a population that is immensely deluded. Many American citizens have become disconnected from certain realities. Most Americans simply aren’t paying attention to what matters or not paying attention at all. But some Americans do notice, as the author acknowledges (Kindle Locations 95-101):

“This is obviously an outrage, and the few Americans who paid close attention to news stories like the deferred prosecution of HSBC for laundering drug money, or the nonprosecution of the Swiss bank UBS for fixing interest rates, were beside themselves with anger over the unfairness of it all.

“But the truly dark thing about those stories is that somewhere far beneath the intellect, on a gut level, those who were paying attention understood why those stories panned out the way they did. Just as we very quickly learned to accept the idea that America now tortures and assassinates certain foreigners (and perhaps the odd American or three) as a matter of routine, and have stopped marching on Washington to protest the fact that these things are done in our names, we’ve also learned to accept the implicit idea that some people have simply more rights than others. Some people go to jail, and others just don’t. And we all get it.”

This systemic and institutionalized injustice has become normal to us. We rarely think to even question it. Even when we do give it more than a passing thought, we typically accept it as the way the world operates, maybe inevitably. There are just those on the bottom of society as there are those at the top.

We see these problems and yet we don’t really see them. We never look at them head on. We never think about them carefully and talk about them openly. We live in social isolation and our minds are trapped within media bubbles. We don’t see the larger view (Kindle Locations 154-160):

“Most people understand this on some level, but they don’t really know how bad it has gotten, because they live entirely on one side of the equation. If you grew up well off, you probably don’t know how easy it is for poor people to end up in jail, often for the same dumb things you yourself did as a kid.

“And if you’re broke and have limited experience in the world, you probably have no idea of the sheer scale of the awesome criminal capers that the powerful and politically connected can get away with, right under the noses of the rich-people police.

“This is a story that doesn’t need to be argued . You just need to see it, and it speaks for itself. Only we’ve arranged things so that the problem is basically invisible to most people, unless you go looking for it.”

In our society, there is an implicit knowledge that is rarely ever overtly discussed publicly. I came across this same idea of implicit knowledge in a number of other books (and have written about this previously). The phrasing I kept coming across was to “know and don’t know”, a truth so dangerous that even to acknowledge it is frightening. What are we to do with such information? It makes us uncomfortable because it puts the lie to so many of our shared beliefs and assumptions, our collective self-image.

To know and not know. It is, at a fundamental level, a psychological dissociation, a splitting of the self based on a splintering of awareness. What we know in one context is separate from what we know in another context. We know and yet the full knowledge never gets our full attention, the different truths never quite connecting to help us see a greater truth that threatens our contentment and certainty.

There is a direct link between a disconnection of awareness and the social disparity of justice and wealth. The class and racial divide is part of the divide of ideological rhetoric, of political narrative, of media reporting, of public debate. There is a disconnection between what so many of us know on some level and what gets spoken in public forums and what gets implemented in public policy.

Reading a book like The Divide can be depressing. That was my initial response. The author, however, ends on a note of optimism. The divide was created and so can be changed. Going by the last examples in the book, it appears that changes are happening. “As this book goes to press,” Taibbi writes at the end of his concluding chapter (Kindle Locations 6405-6422),

“the Justice Department is sending signals that it’s beginning to realize its mistakes. Eric Holder is reportedly thinking of nominating a tough prosecutor, Leslie Caldwell, to permanently fill Lanny Breuer’s vacated post. Holder also talked about raising the statute of limitations on Wall Street cases, to give themselves another shot at all the crimes they ignored in the last five years, warning that those who committed crimes are “not out of the woods yet.” Hedge fund villain Stevie Cohen is being put out of business. As this book goes to press, criminal cases are reportedly coming against the megabank Chase for the “London Whale” episode and perhaps other misdeeds, including some related to its status as Bernie Madoff’s banker.

“At the very least, on the federal level, officials seem to recognize the political necessity of saying these things out loud, and this has to be in very large part due to the public outrage over the lack of Wall Street prosecutions. Decisions like the HSBC settlement were blunt bureaucratic calculations , where the risk of losing and/ or disrupting the economy was weighed against the benefit of receiving $ 1.9 billion in settlement money. But these new moves by Holder & Co. show that public outrage sometimes can change the calculus.

Exactly! Public outrage can make a difference. But public outrage requires public awareness. We are at an interesting moment in history that resonates with that moment when Russian society was awakening. With the rise of alternative media, Americans are becoming better informed in a way not seen before in my life.

Also, a large part of this shift comes from books like this written by Taibbi. It isn’t just the general public that is starting to question and doubt. More importantly, comfortably well-off mainstream media types such as Taibbi are beginning to look to new information and perspectives. And Taibbi isn’t alone. Many books like this one have been coming out recently and they are being read by all Americans, all across the economic spectrum:

“At the same time that Eric Holder was experimenting with a public change of mind, a federal judge named Shira Scheindlin handed down a ruling against New York’s stop-and-frisk policies. This was late in the summer of 2013. Scheindlin , among other things, cited a popular new book, The New Jim Crow, in her ruling and noted that since 2004 more blacks and Latinos have been accosted by police than actually live in the city. The ruling came at the end of a long and well-coordinated campaign by groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the NAACP.”

I liked the mention of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. That is another important book. It is surprising that Taibbi only mentions it right at the end and doesn’t even include the author’s name.  Alexander’s book goes into great detail about the data of inequality and injustice. The case made in The Divide could have been strengthened by Alexander’s analysis of data.

In his very last thoughts, Taibbi makes clear the power of public pressure and the necessity of more of it:

“Of course, a federal judge striking down stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional doesn’t mean the practice will end anytime soon. “You’re not going to see any change in tactics overnight,” promised Mayor Mike Bloomberg. But the fact that Bloomberg was put in the position of having to fight back— and that his successor, Bill de Blasio, won in part by running against those tactics— shows that public pressure can work . Just trying to do the right thing legitimizes the entire system. We don’t do it often enough.”

That is where the author leaves us.

A book is just a book. A writer can’t cause change merely through the act of being published. The only influence a book has is through those who read it and by what they choose to do with what a book offers. This may just be yet another book or it may be the start of a public discussion that we’ve needed for far too long.

We are on the edge of a historical shift. No one knows where this shift might take us or how it will happen. No one knows precisely when it will happen. But, one way or another, it will happen. We are close to the tipping point. Almost anything might push our society over the edge.

What is Fair? Who Decides? Why Should We Care?

What is Fair?

“Funny thing is, for a word that most of us are very familiar with, many of us would be hard pressed to define fair in a way that others would readily agree with, though we can spot it in an instant when we see it!  Also, regardless of your definition, many people would probably agree that the world is not filled with nearly as many examples of fair as most of us would like.  Friendships have been soured, fortunes lost, needless lives taken, and countries throughout history have, and continue, to go to war over disagreements concerning what is considered fair.  All of this, over a deceptively simple word that really has no universally agreed upon definition…

“When we talk about what is fair, the conversations are sometimes loud, can be emotionally charged, and, as mentioned above, may result in disagreements with negative outcomes for one or more parties.  The disagreements can involve anything from how observations of details are perceived to questions about how others would feel if they were on the receiving end of a situation, or decision, that is not fair.  Regardless, conversations about what is fair are often not pleasant to have, though certainly necessary, at times, if we are to be true to ourselves and what we each understand to be right!

“Given the importance of what we believe to be fair, and the obvious impact that it has on our lives, both positive and negative, I find it truly odd that these aspects of it have not received more widespread attention.  Granted conversations about it do happen, mostly in college ethics courses, and I have no doubt that it is written about in low circulation scholarly journals, but those are limited in scope and appear to do little to add to the greater conversation and understanding.  I wonder;  is that truly fair?”

There are three aspects of fairness that I can think of.

First, there is the philosophical debate of fairness.

On that level, there is much disagreement about what it even means or how it applies to real life. It’s easy to have an ideal of fairness, but applying it is obviously difficult. The ironic part is that one person’s ideal of fairness would seem unfair to others, even if it could be effectively applied.

I would throw in religion along with this for philosophizing about fairness would inevitably lead to theological issues. Also, religion plays a major role in either ensuring more fairness such as in helping the disadvantaged or assuaging the negative emotions related to living in an unfair world, although religion probably ends up doing more assuaging than actually helping. Whether philosophical or theological, our beliefs to a large part determine our sense of fairness.

However, our beliefs about fairness can just as easily be used to rationalize unfairness. A belief in fairness isn’t the same thing as a sensitivity to fairness. Something like religion can be used to defend or challenge unfairness. And the best way to defend unfairness is by trying to control the perception of unfairness which is why beliefs, especially collective beliefs such as religious doctrines, are often a battleground. The conflict is that almost everyone has a belief about fairness and yet few people probably have a strong personal sense of fairness. A sense of fairness can never be limited to a belief and will often contradict beliefs. Shared beliefs exist to constrain the personal moral sense to a colletive worldview.

Second, I don’t think fairness is just an abstraction or just a personal belief.

Fairness definitely relates to a shared human nature. There are certain situations that most humans will judge as being fair or unfair. So it isn’t merely subjective or rather it is a subjective sense that is shared by most. However, some people are born with a stronger sense of fairness (I suspect that research on thin boundary types would show a correlation to a sense of fairness, and of course such conditions as sociopathy and psychopathy would show the opposite correlation).

The cynical side of me predicts that people sensitive to fairness tend to not gain much power and wealth for having more than others would probably seem unfair to someone with a strong sensitivity to fairness. What this would mean is that we’d be ruled mostly by people with weak senses of fairness which would go a long way to explain the behavior seen in politics and big business.

On the other hand, fairness isn’t just something we are born with or not. Fairness could be fit into various models of psychological and spiritual development. There are many different factors in life that will determine the probability of our developing a strong sense of fairness and unfairness. But it isn’t a simple accomplishment for if it were society would be a much more fair place.

Third, the personal component is very clear.

Our preferences (our likes and dislikes) often determine what we judge as fair and unfair. We tend to get used to life being a certain way which creates in us a sense of privilege in that we think things should continue in the way that we’ve become comfortable with.

This would relate to my previous comment about wealth and power. We all gain a certain sense of privilege in what we come to expect as normal, but some people obviously have more privilege than others. This fits an observation that I’ve had and I’m sure many others have had. Those with more privilege (more control over their own lives and over the lives of others) tend to believe life is fair (that they deserve what they have because of hard work, talent, good genetics, good upbringing, etc). And those with less privilege tend to believe life is unfair.

When those with less privilege seek to gain a more equal share of privilege, those with more privilege perceive that as being unfair. Since privilege is often seen as a zero sum game, fairness itself can be seen as a zero sum game. Many people believe life can’t be fair or not fair for everyone and so they seek to gain or maintain their own sense of fairness for themselves, even if at the cost of fairness for others.

So, those who benefit from the status quo will typically see the world as fair and those who are harmed (or at least not helped) by the status quo will typically see the world as unfair. This is why the upper classes, including the middle class, often speak of a meritocracy even when facts are shown to them that income inequality is growing and economic mobility is shrinking, even when facts are shown that racial prejudice still persists and still has massive impact on people’s lives. This is why poor whites, what little privilege they have because of race, will tend to see the world as relatively more fair than how poor minorities will tend to see it.

Those who fight to make society more fair usually come from underprivileged and disadvantaged demographics. Growing up experiencing poverty or hunger, unemployment or homelessness, racism or oppression will tend to create an acute sense of what is and isn’t fair. It also usually takes someone who perceives themselves as having less to lose to fight for greater fairness for all. So don’t ask a fat man about the fairness of the access and availability of food.

I’m of the opinion that fairness isn’t just an opinion. It can be measured (through government records and scientific research). Economic inequality can be measured. Economic and social mobility can be measured. Racism and other forms of prejudice can be measured. In fact, we already have measured these factors. We know the world isn’t fair. That isn’t an opinion. That is a fact.

The question at hand is simple: How far are we willing to go to fight unfairness? What are we willing to do or even sacrifice in order to guarantee greater fairness for all? I’m willing to be most people don’t think we are doing enough as a society.

I would, though, add a cautionary note. I pointed out that the world is more unfair that most privileged people realize, but the opposite would also be true. Those who have experienced a lot of unfairness directed at them personally are likely to assume that society is more unfair than it actually is. There is a difference about the fairness in any given circumstance and the overall fairness. Also, just because the average person experiences or perceives relative fairness, that doesn’t disprove that there aren’t specific demographics that are still being treated unfairly. Generalizing based on personal experience can be the opposite of helpful which is why objective data should be given more credence than beliefs and opinions.

The complication of all this can’t be denied. Nonetheless, that complicatedness just confirms the importance of the issue for the issue of fairness includes every aspect of society.

“Another interesting thing about fair, is that when we focus on it the discourse is mostly about a lack of it rather than an overabundance of it.  I mean how many times have you heard someone, anyone, opine that something was really very fair!  Granted it does happen, but those conversations, or comments, are more the exception than the rule. Why is that?  If fair is so important, as it appears to be, why do we not pay more attention to it when it is present?  Is what we believe to be fair so fundamental to us that, like air or water, it is simply taken for granted generally, but felt deeply the instant we perceive it to be lost?”

I think this is inevitable. We must start from an awareness of a lack of fairness for fairness isn’t something that is found in nature like a rock that can be seen and touched. Fairness, first and foremost, is about relationships between people and relationships aren’t tangible things. Fairness impacts the tangible world and can take on tangible forms, but it begins in the intangible which isn’t to say it’s just an idea.

Fairness is built into our DNA. As social animals, as mammals with complex emotional experience, as higher primates with a moral sense, fairness is built into our very sense of reality. We embody fairness or the potential for it. The awarenss of fairness begins with the awareness of unfairness just as awareness itself begins with unawareness.

However, as evolved creatures, our moral sense evolved in relationship to the larger world. Fairness isn’t separate from the world we inhabit for we are part of the world, co-evolution. Humans are far from being the only animal with a sense of fairness.

It seems to me that fairness is a perfectly natural experience. It isn’t just an idea or belief that humans are forcing onto the world. However, the main problem modern humans face is that we have created a social system (i.e., civilization) that is very different from the natural environment within which human nature evolved. So, our sense of fairness might not perfectly fit the social system we’ve created. This might be another way of explaining our beginning with a sense of the lack of fairness. On a fundamental and often unconscious level, maybe we realize that civilization is an imperfect expression of our inborn moral nature and as civilized humans we feel an inner division, a basic wrongness, a social conflict (something that religion tries to pinpoint with ideas such as Original Sin and Karma).

This brings to my mind the writings of Thomas Paine. In Agrarian Justice, Paine argues that unfairness (in terms of social injustice and economic inequality) isn’t natural, even if it is the apparent beginning point of modern Western society. The following is how Paine explains it:

“Whether that state that is proudly, perhaps erroneously, called civilization, has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man is a question that may be strongly contested. On one side, the spectator is dazzled by splendid appearances; on the other, he is shocked by extremes of wretchedness; both of which it has erected. The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.

“To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.

“Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures.

“The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization, therefore, or that which is so-called, has operated two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.”

Going by this argument, humans in their more ‘natural’ state (i.e., simpler social structure) experience a basic fairness in that there is less opportunity for vast inequalities. It isn’t clear that the poorest of the poor are better off in civilization than they would be as hunter-gatherers. Either way, the richest of the rich certainly gain/take the vast majority of the benefit created by modern society. Among the billions of people on the planet, almost all of the wealth and land in the world is owned by a handful of individuals and families. A person couldn’t honestly and morally claim that to be fair.

So, in the civilization we are born into, unfairness is the beginning point for all of us. What many have argued is that this shouldn’t be the beginning point, that we shouldn’t accept unfairness as normal and inevitable.

A Lesson I’m Trying To Unlearn: Punishment vs Forgiveness

I was thinking about forgiveness lately. Maybe it’s that end-of-the-year mentality causing me to consider the failures of the past. I came across a very personal article from the Guardian which shows how difficult it can be to either seek or offer forgiveness.

In my life, I’ve come to realize I’m in certain ways not a forgiving person. I don’t become angry easily and I try to not worry about the small stuff. However, there is one category of behavior that is hard for me let go of: betrayal of trust. This isn’t an issue most of the time for there are few people I trust enough ever to feel betrayed.

As for those I do trust to a great extent, my attitude is very different. If a relationship is important to me, I’ll put a lot of effort and commitment into it. My willingness to forgive will go far, but after some p0int too much just is beyond my normal capacity for forgiveness. I have these very clear boundaries, lines in the sand. Other people may not realize they are there, but they will know of them when they cross them. If you recognize I’m angry or upset or even just highly annoyed, the only good response is to back off. You really don’t want to test me.

This is an issue in my family. I’m very much my mother’s son and my mother’s family is known for holding grudges for years. I suspect it is genetic because I’ve inherited this ability to a lesser degree, despite my not having grown up around my mom’s family. For me, my grudges tend to be based on a desire to communicate. If I feel a failure of communication, I tend to lose hope… and if it lasts too long, I lose the connection with that person that made me care in the first place. Not being able to make myself understood frustrates me to no end. On the other hand, to be able to express myself and in turn to understand the other’s perspective can sooth the worst of conflicts.

In thinking about forgiveness, I was reminded of something my parents taught me as a child… and I began to feel resentful, wishing they hadn’t taught me such a lesson. Here it is: During a difficult time in my childhood, I was struggling in school and generally sad about social changes with leaving elementatry school. I just wanted to escape or at least avoid my problems, and so I would sometimes lie. What my parents taught me was that once trust is lost it can take a long time to be earned back.

That seems like a responsible thing for a parent to teach a child. However, the more I thought about it, I came to see the dark shadow it casts. The implied morality behind it is hardly uplifting. Let me break it down.

First, there is the message that transgressions must be punished. Those who hurt you must be taught a lesson. To forgive people right away would simply give them an easy way out. The guilty person must fully feel their guilt, must suffer under the scowl of judgment, and only long after may repentance lead to the harmed party deigning to forgive the unworthy transgressor.

Second, forgiveness isn’t something given freely. It must be earned. The harm caused must be paid back in some form. It’s close to an eye for an eye sense of justice. Maybe the person doesn’t have to pay back with their own eye but at least something equivalent. The parent who loses their trust in their child then punishes the child by losing a sense of trust. No one is allowed to fully trust the other until recompensation is achieved.

My parents weren’t bad parents, but they definitely believed in the ‘goodness’ or at least the effectiveness of punishment. I sometimes feel an urge to hit my cats when they do something wrong, not hit them hard but just swat their butts. I realize I feel this urge because this is how I was raised. Even though my parents weren’t abusive, they did make clear that we kids were to obey without being told twice. I don’t like that I’ve inherited this aggressive dominance style of authority. I don’t want to be that kind of person toward others. I don’t want to be that way toward my cats and I would hate myself if I had children and treated them that way.

It’s a thorny issue. I don’t know what I think about all of this. I understand why parents swat their children. I’m of course against kids being abused, but a light swat to the butt isn’t the same as being beaten. As I’m not a parent, it’s hard for me to judge others and it’s hard for me to know what kind of parent I would be. Anyway, it isn’t the physical part of punishment that I’m concerned with here.

Is punishment, especially the psychological or social component, the only or best ‘solution’ to transgression or conflict? Why should punishment come before forgiveness? I would agree justice should accompany forgiveness, whether before or after, but vengeance and justice aren’t the same thing. This is particularly clear when dealing with more personal relationships.

My parents occasionally cross a line and it really pisses me off. A somewhat recent incident led me to not talk to my mom for an extended period of time. She crossed a line she shouldn’t have crossed and she wouldn’t acknowledge how wrong her action was. What made it worse was that she simply refused to try to communicate. She instead left it to my dad to repair the broken relationship. If my mom had been willing to apologize sincerely and fully right away, the incident would have blown over without much further tension. For me, communication is everything.

It seems my mom saw my ‘grudge’ as being irrational or not her problem, that she would just let me get over it on my own. She was treating me in the way she treats her brother when he holds grudges against her. She sees other people’s grudges as the failure or weakness of the other person. This isn’t an entirely unfair or irrational position to take in certain situations, but it can be used as a way to avoid taking responsibility and an unwillingness to take an emotional risk in opening up to the other person.

The problem in my mom’s response is that I was operating under the lesson she had helped instill in me. I was refusing to trust her until she earned back my trust and she was refusing to earn back my trust. What earning back my trust would have meant was simply a willingness to communicate with me and understand why I was so upset. I thought that was a simple expectation, but apparently I was expecting too much.

Contemplating this incident, I’ve come to realize how faulty is this lesson. If we desire to ensure people are punished enough and force them to earn forgiveness, then we can find ourselves waiting a long time. So, I’m in the odd position of also trying to forgive my parents for teaching me to not forgive easily. Fortunately, my parents (my dad in particular) have demonstrated a willingness to communicate even when it is difficult… and there is a type of forgiveness in this attitude. I realize that blaming my parents isn’t helpful in all of this, certainly not helpful in becoming more forgiving. In general toward all people, I deeply want to be forgiving. The corrolary desire for communication ultimately comes down to a desire for understanding. I’ve been attracted to the idea that the best way to be understood is to seek to understand others. I’ve practiced this well at times, but not often enough.

It sounds like I’m making a New Year’s resolution. I’m not sure about forgiveness, but I think I could manage trying to be more understanding.

Cheney Charged With Bribery, Criminal Conspiracy

This is the happiest news I’ve heard in a long time. I know it’s just Nigeria, but as Cenk says it’s just a beginning.

This will be a true test of justice. Where will other countries stand on this issue? INTERPOL put Assange on their wanted list merely based on unsubstantiated accusations. Cheney has a real charge being put against him and a charge that is far worse than a rape accusation. If INTERPOL represents justice rather than mere power, then obviously Cheney should be on their wanted list.

Anyone who was paying attention knew that Cheney was probably guilty of many things, but it’s nice to see some official authority finally pointing out his guilt. I know he’ll never get punished. Nonetheless, the tide is changing. With Wikileaks revelations (especially in relation to diplomats) among other things (such as Bush admitting to a war crime), the US government has had it’s respectability tarnished and it’s moral high ground undermined. One of these days, a US politician or other official might be actually tried for any number of crimes. US military imperialism can’t protect the wealthy elite in this country forever.

Death of Millions is a Statistic

“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

An examination of jury verdicts over the past decade involving people charged for exposing others to toxic substances, has revealed that the more victims are involved in a case, the less harshly the perpetrator of the crime is penalized.

The study, which also included two experiments in the lab, is the first to show that the bias toward feeling empathy for a single individual versus many — known as the identifiable victim bias — causes people to make judgments based on emotion that are disproportionate to the severity of a crime.

“The inspiration for the study was the observation that we tend to focus an extraordinary amount of attention and resources to crimes that have a really small number of victims, and have a harder time remaining engaged to larger scale kinds of crime,” said psychologist Loran Nordgren of Northwestern University, lead author of the paper Aug. 25 in Social Psychological and Personality Science (.pdf).

The bias, which the researchers named the scope-severity paradox, has implications for a wide variety of fields, including the politics and media coverage of large-scale issues such as climate change or mass genocide.

“It fits well with a line of research that shows that as the number of people who are victims of some problem — whether it’s a crime or a famine — the responsiveness to it, and the likelihood of taking action to reduce the problem, decreases,” said psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon, who was not involved in the study.

– – –

This reminds me of two things.

First, classism and racism go hand in hand. Most of the people committing large-scale crimes are disproportionately white. And yet blacks, even when the same crime has been committed as whites, are disproportionately incarcerated.

Second, this study explains perfectly why anarchism, especially anarcho-capitalism, fails in a globalized world. Human nature evolved in small communities and so humans have little capacity for moral accountability on the large-scale. Those in power understand this and use it to control the population. Those in power understand they can get away with almost anything just as long as they do it on the large-scale.

God on Trial

Here is a concluding speech from the BBC movie “God on Trial” where a Rabbi finally speaks only to explain why God isn’t good.

It appears that the whole movie is available on Youtube and I highly recommend it.  “God on Trial” is probably the best movie I’ve seen about the Nazi concentration camps.  I think the reason is because the subject is suffering and doubt which are universal to all humans.  The script writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, wrote about this in The Guardian article Losing my Religion.

Although the subject of the guilt of God is universal, when it came to writing I confined myself to imagining this particular trial: the problems of setting up a court in a blockhouse, the kind of arguments that those men might have advanced. I focused on the Covenant, God’s special deal with the Jewish people. I thought I was doing this to keep faith with the story – but maybe I was also doing it to distance it from my own spiritual life. The magic of stories, though, is that the more specific you are, the more universal they seem to get. The Covenant turned out to be a really good way of talking about anyone who expects anything from God.

The script writer is a Christian and if you pay close attention you can notice some subtle apologetics.  This would’ve been a different speech if written by a Jew.  Even so, it’s very powerful and I think it applies to Christianity as much as to Judaism.  The script writer says that the research he did challenged his faith, but it became stronger in the end and he remains a Catholic.  I feel that he didn’t take his own speech seriously enough.  Here is what he wrote:

After they find God guilty, one of the rabbis says: “So what do we do now?” The reply is: “Let us pray.” Is this a wry story about Jewish stoicism? Is it about a failure of moral courage? Or what? For me, it’s about faith. Faith has had a bad press of late. It’s been used by politicians as a rationale for going to war without reason, because it “feels right”. That is not faith – that’s a hunch, plus vanity.

I’d argue that almost all organized religion is “a hunch, plus vanity.”  If faith is genuine, religion is superfluous.  Religion is fine as a social institution for comfort and reassurance, for companionship and sense of belonging, for reinforcement of cultural mores and social order… but those are only at best indirectly related to faith.  What I mean is that faith isn’t dependent on those factors, and organized religion is portentially a danger to faith.

Here is where the apologetics comes in.  The script writer talks about a Monotheistic God as being a good idea that the Jews came up with, but then the Christians came up with an even better idea.  Implicit in this argument is the fact that some group will always come along with another better idea that helps organize people in an even more effective manner.  But the goodness of such ideas doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with moral goodness.

Monotheism is good because it justifies the oppression of a large group of people by a centralized government.  As the Rabbi points out, this leads to atrocious results.  Power isn’t the same thing as goodness.  According to Jewish history, God made a covenant with the Jews and the Jews committed genocide against the people God deemed unworthy.  But if genocide is then being committed against the Jews, what became of the covenant?  By the logic of Jewish scripture, God has broken his covenant with the Jews and decided to side with the Nazis.

This is an ancient idea that claims that God sides with the victorious or that the side that won did so because they sided with the correct God (righteous morality and ruthless power being identified with eachother).  As a theological explanation, it’s a blatant form of self-righteous power-mongering.  As a moral justification, it’s just plain sad and pathetic.  It represents a deeply cynical view of life.  It’s basically a religious form of social darwinism.  Even so, it’s the very starting point of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition and represents the Judeo-Christian God’s most primal nature.  Many Jews and Christians today still believe in this tyrranical God.

As such, the supposedly better idea that the Christians had was at best only marginally better.  But, in actuality, it wasn’t all that different.  Anyone who wants to follow the rules, can become either a Jew or a Christian as neither are closed religions.  That is what a covenant means (replace the word covenant with whatever cultural term is appropriate such as “being saved” or whatever).  And God only likes those who follows his rules, but which are his rules?  Does it matter?  Any covenant is as bad as the next.  Covenants aren’t about belonging but about excluding.

It all comes down to my God is bigger than your god.  My God can kick your god’s ass.  Bow down to the meanest, toughest divine tyrant or else!  I’d love to have front row seats to watch these deities fight it out, but it doesn’t matter which one wins.  They’re all bullies who aren’t worthy of worship.  If your God doesn’t threaten you with punishment and torture, there is absolutely no reason to create an organized religion.  Without fear, all of the world would be a church and every church would be a blasphemy.  But if you want to worship a god of fear, then at least be honest about it.

Let me conclude with a response to the screen writers own conclusion of faith, of a faith that transcends reason.  I can accept that, but as I see it anyone who belongs to an organized religion doesn’t fully accept such a faith.  All organized religions are based on the claim that a specific group has God figured out.  They have the answer.  They hold the key to heaven.  I say bullshit.  They can’t have it both ways.  If they have God figured out, then they have to accept that God is a cruel tyrant.  If they wish to have faith in a God who is inscrutible to the human mind, then they can’t claim to have God figured out and they certainly can’t claim to have the market cornered.  Organized religion is a fraud.

So, if you want to follow the example of Jesus Christ, then do so.  But please realize that the main example Jesus set was that he came to challenge organized religion.  Jesus preached outside of all organized religions and he preached about kingdom being in heaven, not on earth.  For this reason, of all organized religions, Christianity is the most fraudulent of them all.

John Bior Deng: R.I.P.

John Bior Deng (source for image: Gazette Online)

Recently in my local town of Iowa City, there was an altercation that led to a death.  The man who died was a Sudanese refugee (see Wikipedia article about Lost Boys of Sudan) which just makes his death all the more tragic.  Even when you move to an entirely new place, trauma from your past has a way of catching up with you.

 – – –

Shooting victim was refugee from Sudan by Lee Hermiston

Police said Thursday the man fatally shot by a Johnson County deputy last Friday was a Sudanese refugee. Investigators initially had difficulty finding family members of transient John Bior Deng, 26. But many people offered suggestions, leads and conducted their own research after police made a plea for help. Iowa City Police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said investigators learned after locating surviving family in Omaha that Deng was likely one of the “lost boys of Sudan,” a group of more 27,000 who were orphaned or displaced during the second Sudanese civil war. That war lasted from 1983 to 2002 and killed an estimated 2 million people.

[…] “That goes along with what little we did know about John Deng,” he said. Police found a Texas identification card on Deng. Kelsay said two surviving family members traveled to Iowa City on Wednesday to identify Deng’s body. He said they were not parents or siblings. Police said the family members told them that they last spoke with Deng in June. They were under the belief that Deng at some point had a job and a place to sleep, and they were unaware that he had been homeless, Kelsay said.

“They were distraught for a lot of reasons,” Kelsay said. “I think they genuinely would have helped if they had known.”

Transient by Peter Small

And how could you not be?

See full size imageWhen all around the settled world

lay burned to the ground

by the men on horseback with the guns.

You had to flee all that you knew:

mother, father, hut, playmates, herd of goats,

to join on foot

See full size imagewith the little boys lost

remnants along the salvaged road

carrying rags, hunger and memories

accompanied by snakes and death and soldiers

all the way to Ethiopia and beyond.

 * * *

The death of John Bior Deng was investigated and deemed justified (by rightly or wrongly dismissing the 2 or 3 contradictory eye witness accounts).  The scenario isn’t precisely clear because of these differing eye witness accounts and because of a generally confusing scenario that escalated quickly.  As I see it, the justification of the killing is highly suspect… by which I mean that there are too many unanswered questions to allow for an absolute conclusion.

 – – –

Deng killing was justified, report says by Lee Hermiston

Johnson County Deputy Terry Stotler was justified in shooting and killing John Deng, according to an Iowa Attorney General’s report released by the Johnson County Attorney’s office on Friday.

However, at a news conference, at least a half dozen members of the public appeared to be largely dissatisfied with the report’s findings.
Watch KCRG video reporting the incident
Watch KCRG video interviews with friends and family at funeral
Watch KCRG video of Attorney General publicly stating the conclusion of the investigation
Watch KGAN CBS 2 reporting of incident

 * * *

 Survivors of the unspeakable,

See full size imagethe pieces of the dismembered village

scattered to Texas, Minnesota, Iowa

like fallen seeds awaiting some new harvest.

You here among us

continued along your trail

to salvage our remnants —

cans and bottles

each for a nickel.

 * * *

My Initial Analysis:

For some reason, the information about this case has been hard to find online, but the city has made all of it available on 2 disks which can be purchased for 15 dollars per disk.  Why do I have to pay 30 bucks (which isn’t cheap) for the investigation data that my tax money paid for?  Why not release all of the data (911 calls, on-car police video, crime scene photos, the unedited transcripts of eye witness reports including the contradictory ones, etc.) so that the public can decide for themselves?  It would be easy to do.  They could post it on the city website.

Also, all of this was made available to the media and yet I haven’t seen much of it being presented in the media.  Why?  Instead, I’ve mostly had to rely on secondary sources (i.e., newspaper articles).  I’m forced to trust that the authors of these secondary sources have seen and fully analyzed all of the data and objectively reported on it (which, considering the rampant bias in this case, is hard to determine).

So far, I’ve only been able to find the 911 calls and the official report.  If any further data or media is available online, please tell me about it.

To the best of my understanding, the following is the scenario according to all of the eye witness accounts.  My only overt bias is that I included all of the eye witness accounts instead of dismissing the ones that were inconvenient.  As an outside observer, I can’t determine the validity (or not) of any of the details of any of the accounts.  As Fox News says: “We Report, You Decide!”

John Bohnenkamp, a “respectable” older white man employed by the University of Iowa, was leaving a local bar (Hawkeye Hideaway) a little after 7 pm on Friday July 24th (it’s highly probable he was intoxicated and as far as I know he hasn’t denied such being the case) when he noticed John Deng, a homeless black man (oddly, Deng was referred to in the media as a “transient” even though he had lived in town for 2 years having even been employed in the past).  Deng was collecting recyclable bottles and cans, and had accidentally dropped some while crossing the street or the parking lot.  Bohnenkamp, instead of trying to help Deng pick up his recyclables, aggressively approaches Deng while yelling at him (when exactly he became openly confrontational towards Deng is unclear, but one account supposedly claims he was already acting confrontational even while some distance away).

It’s unclear the order of events, but Bohnenkamp at some point started beating on Deng and Deng at some point stabbed Bohnenkamp.  Either Bohnenkamp started punching first or Deng stabbed first.  The investigation, according to one article, concluded that Deng stabbed in self-defense after being attacked by Bohnenkamp (although I don’t think the official report used the term “self-defense” in describing Deng’s actions), but other articles seemed to want to paint the picture that Deng stabbed before being physically attacked or at least they were being unfairly hazy on the issue (the official report doesn’t offer many details other than a 911 caller mentioning someone having a knife before the shot).  What is absolutely clear is that Bohnenkamp started the fight and intentionally escalated it.  To add to the confusion, a crowd formed around the two.

Sometime during all of this, the plainclothes (wearing shorts and a t-shirt) Johnson County Deputy Terry Stotler saw the altercation and tried to stop the fight but neither Bonenkamp nor Deng would back off.  Some eye witnesses claim that the deputy announced who he was and announced he had a gun, other eye witnesses claim he didn’t, and still other eye witnesses as far as I can tell made no claim either asserting or denying either of these other claims.  Also, some eye witnesses claimed Deng was still holding the knife and others claimed he wasn’t.

What is known is that both Bohnenkamp and Deng were focused on each other and there is no evidence at this time that either of them noticed or heard the deputy.   At some point, Deputy Stotler tried to step in between them or somehow get them to separate.  The Deputy claimed to see the knife still in Deng’s hand and so this is the justified reason for the Deputy having his gun pointed at Deng (the argument is that his pointing the gun at the poor black guy had nothing to do with racial or class prejudices).  Bohnenkamp had knocked Deng down when he was beating on him (supposedly after the Deputy announced his presence and had his gun drawn). Deputy Stotler told Deng to stay down and the he told Bohnenkamp to leave the scene (“Run! Get out of here”), but either they didn’t hear him or intentionally ignored his commands.  They were solely focused on each other and on continuing the fight.

In particular, it’s possible that Deng didn’t even notice Deputy Stotler (or recognize him as a Deputy) considering his limited comprehension of the English language (some bystanders claimed Deng spoke to the deputy in English, but even if this were true it wouldn’t prove Deng knew the man was a Deputy nor that he understood what the Deputy had said) along with being slightly intoxicated and defending himself against a severely aggressive man who wouldn’t back away.  Also, Deng was a man who had escaped a violent and traumatic past.  He was living alone and homeless in a foreign land.  Here he was being beaten up by a white man while surrounded by a screaming crowd of white people.  His mind surely was in a state of complete fear.  Even if he did notice the deputy with a gun, it was just another white guy threatening him.  He was in a fight for his life, and obviously he was correct.

As Deputy Stotler was warning Deng, the crowd was yelling for the deputy to shoot (one article stated the report said that Bohnenkamp himself had yelled at the Deputy to shoot).  The Deputy claimed he saw Deng tense as if he were going to stab again (which is specifically what certain eye witnesses disagree with) and so shot him somewhere in the mass of his body (abdomen or chest).  Deng died soon after.

If you prefer, I noticed an article on the Iowa City Press Citizen which offers MP3 format of the 911 audio from the shooting of John Deng:

The first audio file is a recording of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office contacting Iowa City Police, advising them that “Fifty-two eight” (Deputy Terry Stotler) is on the scene of a fight on Prentiss Street.

The next audio file is of two witnesses calling in to 911. Shots can be heard partway through the first call.

Two more witnesses call in. Shots can be heard almost immediately on the first call. The second call comes in after the shooting.

The last file is of Deputy Terry Stotler calling in the shooting to Iowa City Police.

The declaration of the killing’s justification was based on Deng wielding a knife which is probably the case but was never proven (I haven’t even seen how they determined it was Deng’s knife other than the Deputy claiming he was holding it at one point).  Besides Deng’s death by gun, the only fact that is absolutely clear is that Bohnenkamp was the initial and primary cause of the altercation.  However, Deng’s blood was tested for alcohol and yet Bohnenkamp was never tested (even though Bohnenkamp went directly to the hospital where it would’ve been easy to have drawn blood).  Bohnenkamp started a fight which is against the law and so it would’ve been legal to have arrested him.  In fact, not only would’ve it been legal but it would’ve been moral and just to have arrested him.

Is it a mere coincidence that a homeless black foreigner gets killed while the respectable white local guy gets to go home even though his actions led to someone’s death?  If Bohnenkamp or any other respectable looking white guy had been holding a knife, would Deputy Stotler have been so quick to shoot to kill?  Probably not.

Deputy Stotler was within his rights to shoot, but he didn’t have to.  Besides trying to intervene in some other manner, he didn’t have to go for a kill shot.  A gun has multiple bullets and shots can be taken very quickly.  He could’ve first shot at a non-fatal location of the body such as the arm or leg, but instead he chose to shoot at the center of Deng’s “mass”.  Couldn’t he have spared a bullet or two in trying to disable Deng before going for the kill shot?  The official explanation is that deputies are trained to shoot to stop which means shoot to kill no matter what the situation  Another question that came up is why don’t deputies carry non-lethal weapons which have proven to be extremely effective in most situations.  The report stated he wears (was wearing?) a fanny pack in which he keeps his gun and badge.  They make fanny packs of a large enough size to carry a non-lethal weapon, but for unstated reasons apparently “civil deputies” aren’t issued non-lethal weapons.  This line of questioning has never been answered.  Apparently, the only choice the deputy had was to ask them to stop fighting or shoot to kill.  Shouldn’t there be some other options?

In some countries (such as the UK), the police don’t carry guns.  I would assume that knife fights happen in these other countries.  How do they intervene with non-lethal force?  Obviously, lethal force isn’t the only answer.

Anyways, this justification is what goes for justice in our society.  Either this investigation was biased or simply bungled, but either way it was far from being satisfactory.  I assume that Deputy Stotler had the best of intentions in mind (and so, in that sense, his actions were justified), but some of his own admissions could be interpreted as demonstrating a bias in how he treated the two men differently.  The official report, of course, ignored any possibility of bias which implies a potential bias in the investigation itself.

Whatever is the case, we’ll never get to hear Deng’s side of the story.

 – – –

Official Investigation Report: Quotes and Comments

The  following is a more detailed response to what is specifically said in the report.  Just as a quick note, I’ll say the investigators do seem to have tried to be fair to an extent and much of the analysis is evenhanded.  I commend them in being somewhat open about the process… but, of course, I have some strong criticisms.

 John Bior Deng death investigation (official report)

As one would expect, these eleven reports are inconsistent in many details.  They are consistent, however, in all important respects.  None of them contradict Depuy Stotler’s account in any significant matter.

None dispute, and most specifically observed, that (1) Deng and Bohnenkamp were fighting, (2) Deng displayed a knife, (3) Deng stabbed Bohnenkamp, (4) Deputy Stotler arrived, displayed his handgun and repeatedly identified himself as a deputy sheriff, (5) Stotler ordered the two to desist, (6) The two failed to obey Stotler and kept fighting, (7) Stotler attempted to intervene between the two, (8) Stotler ordered Deng to drop his knife, (9) Deng refused Stotler’s order.

One or more also verify, and none dispute, that (10) the three were within a few feet of one another, and (11) Deng was holding a knife and moving forward when Stotler shot him.

Although the investigators did consider the contradictory witness accounts, they ended up dismissing them entirely.  That aspect of the bias in the report was obvious, but I noticed what appears to be some other biases which are more subtle.  The report is slanted by what data is emphasized and in how it’s presented.

I’ll have to read the report more carefully, but this particular passage seems unclear in its conclusions.  It may be true that “None dispute, and most specifically observed”.  Even assuming this is correct, how many specifically observed and how similar or dissimilar were those observations (details are more important than generalized declarations).  Furthermore, weren’t the dismissed witness accounts disputing some of these observations?

Even more importantly, the last paragraph states “One or more also verify” which seems to imply that it was a minority of the witnesses who claimed that the three were close to each other and that Deng was holding a knife while move forward (towards Bohnenkamp?).

Beyond all of that, there is a further problem in the report with how Bohnenkamp is treated.  I’m glad they gave more info about his actions.  My criticism is that they mostly treat him like a central witness rather than as the instigator of a fight that led to the death of the person he attacked.  There are those who demand that Bohnenkamp be investigated, but there are also those who question why Deputy Stotler told him to flee a crime scene after the Deputy witnessed him beating up Deng. 

Continued from official report:

The fact that Deng was displaying a knife at the time he was shot is also evidenced by the audiotape of a 911 call made by one of the witnesses during the incident.  On this tape, the caller’s mention of a knife is heard seconds before the gunshot.

This supposed fact isn’t proven simply because someone mentions a knife.  There was a knife that was present.  That isn’t disputed.  The caller said, “He had a knife” before the shot.  But the caller doesn’t identify who had the knife or where it came from.  From this caller’s statement, nothing can be determined with absolute certainty.  What is stated in the report is just speculation (which is in disagreement with several of the witness accounts).  Even accepting that it’s a probable conjecture, it’s still different from a proven fact.  I keep wondering how they even know it was Deng’s knife (as far as conjectures go, maybe the knife was Bohnenkamp’s and Deng wrestled it from him… just conjecture of course).  I also wonder at what point can everyone agree they first saw Deng holding the knife (among the witnesses, there may be a majority but there isn’t a concensus that Deng was holding it when he was shot).

This is where audio from the scene would be helpful, but I don’t know if the cameras on the police cars also pick up audio.  I’d like to hear what the police said and asked of the witnesses.  For instance, how do we know one or more other officers didn’t ask some leading questions or make statements that would bias what the witnesses wrote down?

The problem is that the facts are limited and the accounts are contradictory which forces speculation.  On the Iowa City Press Citizen website, commenters who were defending the shooting kept complaining about the speculative questions of critics of the shooting.  However, even the investigators have no choice other than to speculate because without speculation they couldn’t absolutely conclude it was justified.  One way or another, the investigators are going to twist the facts and slant the accounts in order to make a case for justification.  They’re the authorities and so of course they’re going to try to defend the actions of the deputy.

Here is some evidence that the results of the investigation were possibly a foregone conclusion:

KGAN CBS 2 article

After the shooting, Deputy Stotler was put on paid administrative leave while DCI and Iowa City Police investigated the situation. Johnson County Sheriffs Department says he returned to work several weeks ago though, before the investigation report was finished and submitted to the Iowa Attorney Generals Office.

“We understood the situation. We didn’t have all the facts but we felt it was appropriate to bring Deputy Stotler back to work,” says Sheriff Pulkrabek.

CBS 2 asked Sheriff Pulkrabek twice why Deputy Stotler was able to return to work before the report was finished. Both times he simply said the decision was up to him and he believed Deputy Stotler did everything right the night the homeless man was shot.

This is what I’d expect.  If you’re in a position of authority, you’ll tend to believe the opinion of someone else who is in a position of authority.  It’s human nature to defend those you feel identified with.  The question is whether it’s morally just considering that the investigation was ongoing.

There is a further interesting comment from the article:

“Law enforcement is trained to stop the threat. Stop the threat is to shoot at the center mass that’s how we train, says Pulkrabek. He continued saying, when aiming for the torso there is always a chance the shot will kill. However, aiming anywhere else or firing warning shots is too dangerous to any bystanders.

This is a rational for a general statement, but I would prefer to know the factors of Deputy Stotler’s decision in this specific situation.  So, aiming anywhere besides Deng’s mass would potentially be dangerous to bystanders.  That is reasonable considering the purpose of shooting Deng was to protect the other people nearby (Bohnenkamp in particular).  However, I haven’t seen it stated that any bystanders were behind Deng from where Deputy Stotler was standing.  If such were the case, then it’s a point that should be clarified.

The following is a key section of the official report:

Bohnenkamp struck Deng on the side of the head with his fist, knocking Deng to the ground.  Deputy Stotler stepped between Bohnenkamp and Deng, pointed his handgun at Deng and again ordered Bohnenkamp to leave.  Bohnenkamp did not leave.

Deputy Stotler admits that he told the assailant to flee the scene of the crime directly after Bohnenkamp had punched Deng so hard as to knock him to the ground.  Why would a Deputy tell an assailant to flee the scene of the crime?  Furthermore, why does he point the gun at Deng when it’s Bohnenkamp who is acting directly aggressive in that moment?

I did appreciate that they gave Deng’s background as I think it’s important that he isn’t dehumanized simply for being homeless.

John Deng’s license indicates a birthday of January 1, 1983, but in all likelihood, he did not know his actual birth date.  He is one of a group of South Sudanese Dinka tribesman known as “The Lost Boys of Sudan,” who suffered extraordinary mortality and hardship in their odyssey to America, which they began as child orphan victims of tribal and religious genocide during the 1980s.  He entered the United States in 2001 under refugee status, initially residing in Fort Worth, Texas.

According to compatriots in Omaha, Deng had reduced contact with them in recent years.  He had numerous alcohol-related contacts with Iowa City law enforcement beginning in June, 2007.  At the time of his death he was residing in a transient camp near the old Iowa City animal shelter at Kirkwood and Clinton Streets.

  The next paragraph in the report bothers me:

A person is justified in use of deadly force to defend against the use of deadly force against himself or another.  A knife, when used as a weapon to stab another person, creating a sustantial risk of death, permanent disfigurement, or protracted impairment of bodily member or organ, is deadly force.

Yes, this is true.  Then again, beating someone so hard that you knock them to the pavement is also deadly force as defined here.

Maybe Deng was going to stab Bohnenkamp again, but maybe Bohnenkamp was going to beat on Deng some more.  Did Deputy Stotler happen to notice whether Bohnenkamp’s fist was clenching?  I doubt it.

Anyways, why did Deputy Stotler shoot at Deng to protect Bohnenkamp who started the fight and wanted to continue it?  If Bohnenkamp wasn’t worried about being stabbed, then why was Deputy Stotler?  Going by the witness accounts, it seems Bohnenkamp had the advantage as he was beating up Deng despite the knife.

Plus, it’s important to note that it isn’t illegal (as far as I know) to defend oneself (with or without a weapon) when being physically attacked.  It wasn’t illegal for Deng to threaten to stab or even to stab someone who was physically attacking him (and you most definitely can kill someone simply by beating on them enough).  In Iowa, it’s legal to carry a pocket knife and the report didn’t make any claims of it being an illegal size.  The only thing that Deng did that was illegal was to not obey the Deputy, but Bohnenkamp wasn’t obeying the Deputy either.

One other detail from the report brings questions to my mind.

When Deng was approximately five feet away from Bohnenkamp, Stotler saw Deng “tensing up, getting ready to stick him again.”  At that point, Deputy Stotler fired one round at Deng.

So, Bohnenkamp was some distance away.  Taking into account Deng being intoxicated and just having been beat to the ground, he wasn’t likely to cover that distance very quickly.  Bohnenkamp had plenty of opportunity to remove himself from danger if he so desired.  Who was Deputy Stotler trying protect and why?

 – – –


(1) I think the alternative witness accounts should be considered more seriously.

(2) Even dismissing the alternative witness accounts, I think Deputy Stotler’s actions should be analyzed more carefully for potential bias.

(3) Even if Deputy Stotler is given the benefit of the doubt, Bohnenkamp’s actions are unforgivable and he should be investigated (along with an investigation of why his blood alcohol level was never tested).

(4) Whatever the judgments made of the individuals involved, it’s sad and the case should be studied to see if there are ways to prevent this in the future.

 – – –

Further comments on Prejudice and Profiling:

I wrote some extensive comments and so I posted it separately.

John Bior Deng: Racism, Classism

 – – –

Newspaper Articles:

Here are some various articles about the Deng case.  I quote extensively from them to present some of the questions, criticism, and alternative views.  My purpose is to show that many people share my concerns and there are good reasons for those concerns.

Shooting justified, AG’s office concludes by Lee Hermiston

Deputy Attorney General Thomas H. Miller, complied the final report, which is based on investigation completed by the Iowa City Police Department, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Attorney General’s office. Thomas said there were essentially 16 people encompassed in the investigation – Deng, Bohnenkamp and his wife, nine witnesses interviewed at the scene and three people who were later subpoenaed after comments they made about the shooting were published in an area media outlet.

The statements of those three men, which were contradictory to statements made by the other nine witnesses, are largely discredited in Miller’s report.The men reported Deng did not have a knife and Stotler did not identify himself as a deputy.


Homeless man did not threaten deputy, 2 witnesses say by Adam Belz

 Two men who watched a Johnson County deputy shoot a homeless man to death Friday night tell a story that’s sharply different from the account police have so far provided.

The 26-year-old homeless man was not wielding a knife and did not lunge at the deputy before the deputy fired, said Brock Brones and Mike Tibbetts, both of Iowa City.

“There was no knife, there was no lunging,” Tibbetts said. “I saw a cop shoot a guy in cold blood.”

Brones, 22, and Tibbetts, 40, who both work for a telecommunications company in Iowa City, got off work at 7 p.m. Friday and drove with another co-worker to Old Capitol Brew Works to have a drink. As their vehicle was coming out of the alley next to City Electric, which was blocked by bags of cans and bottles and some broken glass, they saw the episode unfolding to their left and turned off the radio so they could hear what was going on.

A skinny black man was lying on the pavement with his head against the tire of a car about 40 feet away. He was missing teeth, his clothes were dirty and he had blood on his torso. The deputy, wearing civilian clothes, had a gun pointed at the man, and a third man — whose side was covered in blood — was standing next to the deputy telling him to shoot, Brones and Tibbetts said.

The homeless man on the ground appeared to be drunk, they said. The deputy told him not to get up, or he would shoot, Brones and Tibbetts said.

“I don’t give a f—,” the homeless man responded.

The deputy repeated the threat, and ordered the man to stay down. Again, the homeless man said he didn’t care. Then he stood up, spread his arms, and stumbled a few feet to the side before the deputy shot him in the chest from about 15 feet away, Brones and Tibbetts said.

The two men insisted the homeless man had no knife when he was shot.

In fact, Brones said, the homeless man was wobbling, and, though he disobeyed the deputy, he never made a threatening move.

“It wasn’t aggressive,” Brones said. “He was just drunk.” 


Our View – Justifying the shooting raises more questions

HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another — the classification is for advantage of the lawyers. — Ambrose Bierce, “The Devil’s Dictionary” (1911).

[…]But the report raised a number of new questions when it stated that, after Stotler had arrived on the scene and had his gun pointed at Deng, Bohnenkamp allegedly refused to follow Stotler’s command to flee. Instead, the report states, Bohnenkamp allegedly punched Deng in the head so hard that the man fell down. Nor did Bohnenkamp, according to the report, follow Stotler’s repeated orders to flee even after Deng stood up and eventually made what Stotler considered a threatening move.

Because Bohnenkamp has offered no comment on the incident — and because Deng can’t comment — we still don’t know what all was said between the two men. The report states that Bohnenkamp initiated the confrontation when he yelled at Deng for dropping some bottles, but we don’t know why the confrontation seemed to escalate so quickly or why Bohnenkamp didn’t flee when given a chance.

Nor do we know how much (if any) Bohnenkamp had been drinking before the incident. Although Bohnenkamp had just come out of a bar, investigators did not measure the 63-year-old’s blood-alcohol content — despite Bohnenkamp having been taken to the hospital where a blood sample presumably could have been procured easily.


Questions still remain in Deng death by Michael Dale-Stein

Why in his right mind would Bohnenkamp care, let alone confront, a man who accidentally spilled his means of income? My first thought is that by consuming alcohol, Bohnenkamp’s inhibitions and judgment were to the point that he felt persuaded to do so. We’ve all seen the homeless people carrying garbage bags full of cans, but I have found no good reason to clash with them.

Although the police investigation tested Deng’s blood-alcohol content and found it to be .295 percent, they did not find it necessary to test Bohnenkamp’s. It is unacceptable for the police not to test the alcohol level of a man leaving a bar who was involved for the death of another, whether it was in self-defense
or not.

I say responsible for a good reason.

When Stotler identified himself and drew his gun after Deng stabbed Bohnenkamp, the deputy specifically yelled “Run! Get out of here” to Bohnenkamp, according to the official report. Instead of fleeing the situation, Bohnenkamp escalated it by striking Deng in the head, which prompted Deng to charge with the knife. Then Stotler discharged his weapon.


Deng and race relations by Cliff Missen

This privilege was apparent at Friday’s news conference, particularly in the comfort with which members of the all-white panel were able to justify the actions of the white belligerent in the case. John Bohnenkamp, a white 63-year-old facilities worker at the University of Iowa, had, according to most witnesses, felt obliged to harass and physically assault Deng, a black man, because Deng had spilled bottles he had collected for recycling. Not once during the proceedings did our white leaders question this act.

So this is the kind of community we are building: One in which 60-year-old white guys, upon leaving a bar, are deputized to monitor inebriated young black guys and make sure — using physical force if necessary — they clean up their litter?

From all the accounts we have, it appears that the white man was determined to cause a ruckus — despite his wife screaming at him to leave. The white man physically assaulted the black man before being stabbed with a pocket knife. The white man disobeyed an officer’s instructions several times, continuing to attack the black man.

Yet after the shooting the white man was not arrested. He did not have his blood alcohol tested. His role in causing the tragic event was not investigated.

Switching positions

The report states that the white officer displayed his badge, identified himself as a deputy and drew his gun and pointed it at the black man. He ordered the two men to move away from each other. The white man then hauled off and slugged the black man in the head hard enough to send him sprawling onto the ground. The white officer kept his gun pointed at the black man and then coached the white man to run away.

Imagine yourself in Deng’s shoes at this moment. You’re a young, intoxicated Sudanese refugee with middling English skills. You’ve been physically assaulted by an enraged old white man. You’re trying to defend yourself. Another white man shows up in street clothes and points a gun at you. The first white man delivers a powerful punch to your head that sends you flying off of your feet. The white guy with the gun is still pointing it at you and telling the other guy to run away.

Now let’s stop the camera for a moment and switch positions. If the white police officer had identified himself, ordered the combatants to part and then watched a black man slam a white man in the head, I’m fairly confident that the same group of white community leaders would have stood before us on Friday and assured us that the white officer was justified in shooting the black man.

But in real life, the white officer did not point the gun at the white man after witnessing the blow to the black man’s head. He did not try to arrest him. He did not demand that he lie on the ground. He did not do or say anything to assure the black man that he was not in greater danger.

Bohnenkamp, who is probably more responsible for the tragedy than anyone else, is given a pass. It’s the white man’s privilege. The white police, who did not follow up on the case, are given a pass. The white county attorney, who said she sees nothing wrong with the lack of an investigation so far, is given a pass.

Deng, who probably died a frightened man who thought he was defending himself against a raging drunk, is buried.


The ongoing controversy of John Deng by DI Editorial Staff

Before the incident took place, Bohnenkamp and his wife were inside the Hawkeye Hideaway, a tavern on Prentiss Street. At the time they exited the bar, Deng was crossing the street carrying bags of bottles, one of which spilled its contents. Bohnenkamp then confronted Deng, ordering the Sudanese man to pick up the bottles. Why in his right mind would Bohnenkamp care, let alone confront, a man who accidentally spilled his means of income? My first thought is that by consuming alcohol, Bohnenkamp’s inhibitions and judgment were to the point that he felt persuaded to do so. We’ve all seen the homeless people carrying garbage bags full of cans, but I have found no good reason to clash with them. 

Although the police investigation tested Deng’s blood-alcohol content and found it to be .295 percent, they did not find it necessary to test Bohnenkamp’s. It is unacceptable for the police not to test the alcohol level of a man leaving a bar who was primarily involved — and somewhat responsible — for the death of another, whether it was in self-defense or not.

I say responsible for a good reason.

When Stotler identified himself and drew his gun after Deng stabbed Bohnenkamp, the deputy specifically yelled “Run! Get out of here” to Bohnenkamp, according to the official report. Instead of fleeing the situation, Bohnenkamp escalated it by striking Deng in the head, which prompted Deng to charge with the knife. Then Stotler discharged his weapon.

 – – –

Did authorities conduct a complete investigation? 

No.It seems John Bohnenkamp was partially responsibly for John Deng’s death and should be charged for being involved in the altercation.

 33% (18)

No. They should have checked Bohnenkamp’s blood-alcohol concentration.

 20% (11)

Yes. They used what resources were available to them.

 13% (7)

Yes. It’s over and done with.

  35% (19)


In whose interest, safety?  by Vershawn Ashanti Young

First, everyone knows that Stotler has been absolved of any misjudgment, mishandling or wrongdoing in his shooting of Deng. But any citizen who can read should be alarmed by his own account of the events.

In the report given to the public, Stotler says he arrived at the scene where John Bohnenkamp had instigated an altercation with Deng. Stotler writes that he immediately told Bohnenkamp to “run, get out of here,” without trying to find out what had taken place beforehand.

Bohnenkamp did not leave the scene but instead became emboldened and hit Deng so hard that Deng fell to the ground. Instead of apprehending Bohnenkamp, Stotler said he again told Bohnenkamp to leave the scene. Bohnenkamp refused.

Deng begins to get up and perhaps stumbles or perhaps makes a move toward Bohnenkamp — no two statements agree on which — and the officer shoots him because Deng refuses to drop a small knife!

I asked the officials at the meeting if Deng had been a pregnant woman, would Stotler had allowed Bohnenkamp to hit her and knock her to the ground and then encourage Bohnenkamp to leave the crime scene.

I was not exactly posing a hypothetical scenario as much as I wanted to take attention off Stotler/Deng and ask about proper protocols. What should an officer do when a person clearly assaults someone in the officer’s face? Encourage the offender to run or handcuff him?

It’s a huge problem that Stotler by his very own admission repeatedly encouraged the only assailant he witnessed commit a crime to leave the crime scene. And, it’s an even bigger problem that Stotler shoots the victim of battery because he maybe made a threatening move, maybe made a move in self-defense.

I ask you, reader, if you were involved in an altercation that you didn’t start, and the police arrive and allow the perpetrator to continue not only to berate you but beat you, knocking you to the ground, would you drop your knife?


Citizens for social justice by Vershawn Ashanti Young

In May, in a conversation with Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson, I predicted that a black man would be killed this summer by a local police officer, probably under unclear circumstances. I also said that the citizens of Iowa City would probably be insufficiently enraged.

I was right about the first prediction. According to local media reports, John Bior Deng, a 26-year-old black man, was killed Friday by Terry Stotler, a plainclothes civil deputy for the Johnson County Sheriff’s department. And the circumstances are unclear: There are conflicting reports from the officer and some eyewitnesses. The officer says the man was threatening another civilian with a knife. Two people who said they witnessed the event told another local media outlet that there was no weapon and that the officer shot him “in cold blood.”

I hope I’m wrong about the second prediction. Concerned citizens of Iowa City should expect a full disclosure of the details about the actions that lead to Deng’s death, about the investigation and about what, if any, actions the police department, city and state will take.

Each citizen’s concern should stem from both personal and community interest. We respect our police, depend on their sound judgment for our personal safety and well-being, as well as promoting a safe environment in our city.

We also expect that the police will protect all people — middle-class ones and homeless ones alike — and are well-trained to handle complicated circumstances that seek to sustain people’s lives. We should expect police to protect their own lives as well as any and all those involved in any activities they’re investigating.

This case, as reported, has big and serious questions. One is: Why is that 26-year-old homeless man dead? We don’t know all the facts yet. But we should certainly want to, especially given the contradictory reports.

One of my own concerns is about the way Deng is being represented as a trouble-maker — a criminal, a nuisance to our town — as if that somehow justifies his killing and alleviates others involved from responsibility. Homeless or not, unpleasant or not, drunk or not, this man, like everyone else in the city, had rights. Were those rights protected, respected?

Because the summer breeds more trouble than winter, just as night is scarier than day, and because of the unfair way I perceive some media and some city residents represent black men, I raised the prediction with Charis-Carlson. There is a tendency, I think, to associate what some say is an increasing crime problem with blacks — blacks that many say are ruining Iowa City.

Perhaps some of this true. I’m uncertain about that. But what I know for sure is that no group of people should be vilified as a group. No group of people should be made to feel as if they can’t live in a town or that they somehow have less rights or concern than other citizens.

This kind of belief, when it’s shared and spoken, leads to ambivalence regarding the lives of the group. We don’t care as much about them. But we should. When we don’t, it contributes to a disregard for them. And that disregard is represented in how we much concern we show in cases like the dead homeless man’s.

 * * *

And we seemed so green and settled here,

could you find a life, a wife?

But kind strangers do not suffice

when inside howls a whirlwind

as loud as burning houses.

And our own quiet houses

which you pass by on your daily sojourn

are none of them as settled as they seem.

 * * *

John Bior Deng – Friend, Family, Human Being:

I was glad to see a few articles that describe who John Deng was as a person.

Two views of John Dengby Diane Finnerty

Iowa City resident John Bior Deng, 26, died of injuries from a single gunshot wound on July 24. Deng was well-loved by his Iowa City friends and was described as a kind, generous man who would always say “God bless you” as he passed you on the street.

Deng was originally from the Sudan and came to the U.S. as a refugee who overcame many horrendous struggles, including having survived brutal experiences in his home country where his people were ravished by a civil war between 1983 and 2002.

Deng was only 26 when all of the struggles of his life brought him to Prentiss Street the evening on July 24, where he was killed by a white police officer after getting in a fight with a white man who yelled at him for breaking bottles on the street. Friends who knew Deng say that the account of him “throwing bottles” onto the street would be unlikely, given that the bottles were Deng’s income.

Friends are very glad that the man whom Deng stabbed, John Bohnenkamp, is still alive, and they are very confused at what might have happened to enrage the person they otherwise knew as gentle and kind to stab another person. It is yet to be determined what the other Iowa City resident said to Deng and how it was said, but some eyewitness accounts tell a different story than, as yet to date, has been reported in the newspaper.

The Iowa City Sudanese community mourns the loss of their young brother, as well as the loss of their community’s nascent sense of safety in their new homeland far from the brutal violence they experienced in Sudan. 

 * * *

We heard later you found some peace

with the players of the drums whose hands,

beat with the time of the heart,

with the voices of a father, a mother and cousins.

“I so happy,” you said.

 * * *

He wasn’t just some homeless transient passing through.  He had lived in Iowa City for a few years and even had been employed for part of that time.  He was just a guy with a troubled past that finally caught up with him.  He was an alcoholic which is a common way to deal with trauma.

Even so, he was just a person like the rest of us… just trying to get by in life.  But his life wasn’t simply a thing of misery.  He had friends and family.  And he apparently had some very happy moments here in Iowa City.  I liked the description of him involved in the drum circle.  I’ve spent much time in the ped mall and I’m very familiar with that drum circle.  As I live and work downtown, I’m sure I had seen Deng around in the past.

Some note different side of John Deng by Abe Tekippe

Canganelli, who said she was not defending any of Deng’s alleged actions, acknowledged that while “there were a lot of issues he was dealing with,” the person Shelter House staff was familiar with was “quite personable,” “quiet,” and “even-tempered.”

Others in the community who had encountered Deng agreed.

“He didn’t have a lot of English under his belt,” said Cliff Missen, the coordinator of Yahoo Drummers, a group that plays on the Pedestrian Mall on Monday nights. “He had a good sense of rhythm, though; I know that much.”

In the weeks prior to his death, Deng had joined the drummers downtown, said Missen, who is also an associate director of the UI School of Library and Information Science.

He said he didn’t even know Deng’s name prior to the shooting, because they spent most of their time drumming, not talking.

“We were looking forward to seeing him on Monday,” Missen said.

Just before Missen went to the Pedestrian Mall on Monday, he found out Deng was the man who had been shot over the weekend, prompting the group of drummers to play a slow, mournful song in his honor.

Though he had only met Deng a few weeks before his death and he admitted he didn’t know him very well, Missen said his memories of the 26-year-old have resonated.

“My last vision of him was standing behind the drums [July 20],” he said. “He just had this grin from ear to ear. He said in his broken English, ‘This is happy, this is so happy.’ It gives us a little comfort that he had those moments of joy.”

 – – –

For various reasons besides his death, thinking about Deng saddens me.  I assume he probably lost family in Sudan and certainly lost his home, and so I was surpised to learn he did have some extended family members also in the US.  However, this saddens me as well.  It seems he wasn’t in close contact with them.  His family didn’t even know he was having troubles.  I suppose Deng felt ashamed.  He was dealing with problems that were just too large.

In Memory of John Deng by Gark

His uncle Peter from Houston, Texas related to the overflowing crowd that while Deng was considered by many to be “homeless”, in the Sudanese community, if you have family, you have a home. He was saddened that Deng did not let others know what his situation was. Others explained that in Sudan, many members of the family would share their plates, their huts, and so on. His cousin from Michigan described their childhood in the Sudan and how all of them had come to the United States for the freedom they could not have in their war torn country. His cousin from Nebraska encouraged anyone who may have witnessed his death to step forward and help them to understand the killing of a young man they and many others knew to be peace loving.

A cook at the Salvation Army described her conversations with Deng as uplifting and that he was very sensitive to offending her, offering “five minute apologies” if he suspected he said anything that might have made her uncomfortable. Another woman explained how he would bring her a chicken sandwich and cherry cola when he’d see her in the Ped Mall. Another told of how he helped to deliver chairs from the UI Surplus with a smile.

Many reflected that the newspaper accounts of the events leading to Deng’s death made him a person they did not recognize and wanted people to know the Deng they remembered. 

 * * *

But we have guns here too, and knives

and angry words and nighttime and confusion.

And the bullet you had fled for so long

found you here in this green, quiet place

(we may never know all the what or why).

 * * *

Davey Collins, of Iowa City, beats his drum during the funeral service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at Lensing's Oak Hill in Coralville on Saturday, August 8, 2009. Deng played in Collins' drum circle on occasion. Deng was shot and killed by a Johnson County sheriff's deputy outside an Iowa City bar July 24. (Chris Mackler/The Gazette). Davey Collins, of Iowa City, beats his drum during the funeral service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at Lensing’s Oak Hill in Coralville on Saturday, August 8, 2009. Deng played in Collins’ drum circle on occasion.  (Source for image: Gazette Online

Lost Boys – Related Issues of Deng’s Past:

John Deng’s death brings up many issues.  There are the basic issues of poverty, homelessness, class, and race.  But there is the issue of immigration and refugees.  In particular, refugees such as the Lost Boys of Sudan pose a problem for this country, but also for the world at large.  It brings up issues of morality and there is no simple resolution.  The people who need the most help are those who for that very reason are the hardest to help.

Deng having survived the Sudanese genocide was no small feat.  He had the opportunity to start a new life, but trauma has a way of haunting a person and one never forgets it (technically known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).  Many would claim that the problems of refugees from other countries aren’t our problems and we shouldn’t be allowing them into our country.  This is not only cold-hearted, but it’s also a fatalistic view of human nature.  Many Lost Boys have become productive citizens, but many have had continued problems adjusting.

On top of the trauma itself, there is the stress and challenge of adapting to an entirely different culture and way of life.  For example, I think I saw an article report that Deng had missing teeth which would be common for the Lost Boys because the removal of teeth was part of their tribal initiations, but in America missing teeth have a very negative connotation.  These young orphans sometimes lacked education (or lacked the proof of their education) and there difficulties most definitely didn’t end with coming to America.  Basically, they had everything going against them.  They stuck close together because they all shared a history of loss.

The question is how did Deng end up here in Iowa City.  There is a Sudanese population here, but Deng didn’t begin his new life in Iowa (a KCRG article — Family of Homeless Iowa City Man Shot by Deputy Grieve and Ask for Answers— did mention he had some family in Iowa and one family member (Tiir): “Deng’s death isn’t the first family death they’ve had involving law enforcement. He said another cousin died in a Des Moines jail, but didn’t elaborate.”).  According to the official report, he was “initially residing in Fort Worth, Texas.”  This fact is eery in that, as reported in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, another Lost Boy recently stabbed someone in Fort Worth.  Fortunately, no one died in that case.

Stabbing suspect is ‘Lost Boys’ refugee by Elizabeth Zavala

FORT WORTH — A man shot by police Monday after they said he repeatedly stabbed a UPS driver on her delivery route was one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” refugees who came to Fort Worth this decade, a minister said Tuesday.

Police identified the suspect as James Panchol, 32. Panchol was in critical condition Tuesday and was scheduled for surgery at John Peter Smith Hospital, said Sgt. Pedro Criado, a police spokesman.

A hospital spokeswoman said Tuesday that she had no information on the man, but Gatjang Deng, a friend of Panchol’s, said he was in critical condition with gunshot wounds to his neck, left arm and chest.

Wichieng Wetnyangran, associate pastor of African Immigrant Ministries at Peace Lutheran Church in Hurst, said Panchol was part of the group of about 40 Lost Boys who came to Tarrant County in 2001. More than 4 million refugees came to the United States to escape years of civil war and famine in their country.

“It’s absolutely a shock,” Wetnyangran said of reports that Panchol is a suspect in the stabbing. “That was a part of the life they ran away from. They were hoping their lives would change.”

Wetnyangran, who had a similar role at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Fort Worth when the refugees arrived, recalls that Panchol had to undergo treatment for mental illness but does not remember the specifics.

Deng, also a Sudanese refugee, said Panchol was prescribed medication a few years ago for a mental condition but was unsure whether Panchol was still taking it.

According to Texas Department of Public Safety records, Panchol pleaded guilty in Tarrant County in 2002 to a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest.

During Monday’s incident, officers were called about 12:30 p.m. to a reported stabbing at the Bent Tree apartments on Randall Way in west Fort Worth. Witnesses told police that the man approached the UPS driver and repeatedly stabbed her in the back, according to reports.

The driver apparently broke free and ran, police and witnesses said. The man was chasing the woman when police arrived. He was ordered twice by officers to drop the knife and refused each time, police said. When one of the officers fired a Taser at the man, he charged her, police said, and the other officer shot the suspect with his weapon.

“They told me the Taser did work, but the suspect pulled the probes out of his body,” Criado said. The officer who deployed the Taser was treated for minor injuries and is on paid administrative leave.

The UPS driver, whose name has not been released, is 50. She was treated for stab wounds Monday at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, was listed in good condition and was expected to be released Monday night, Criado said.

The suspect and the driver did not know each other, he said.

 – – –

I was doing some web research on the Lost Boys of Sudan.  There are plenty of success stories.  Some went onto college or became active in helping their fellow Sudanese (in the US and in Sudan).  What I was struck by is there desire to accomplish their goals on their own and they supposedly haven’t accepted much government assistance (although some church communities offered help when they first arrived).  One thing that can be said about these Lost Boys is that they are survivors and they can take care of themselves (which, however, has obvious downsides as some problems can’t be solved by one self).

A New Life for a ‘Lost Boy’ of Sudan (NPR)

‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ Finally Find a Home (NPR)

‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ Reunion (NPR)

Revisiting Sudan’s Haunted ‘Lost Boys’ (NPR)

Lost in America (

Are the Lost Boys still lost? (Seattle Weekly)

Stress issues still plague ‘Lost Boys’ of Sudan (

Sudanese “Lost Boys” in the United States:Adjustment after Six Months (BRYCS)

The Lost Boys of Sudan: Ambiguous Loss, Search forFamily, and Reestablishing RelationshipsWith Family Members (Family Relations Journal)

Resettling the ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’ in the United States: BU medical researchers find family, community engagement may mediate traumatic reaction (Science Blog)

The “Lost Boys of Sudan”: Functional and Behavioral Health of Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Resettled in the United States (Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine)

It’s a sad fact that there are a number of examples of Lost Boys who have lived troubled lives and in some cases died violently.  For those like Deng, life didn’t work out so well.  Even for those who are successful, the trauma of their past (and the still occurring violence in Sudan) isn’t easily forgotten.

This is extremely sad because it’s unnecessary.  Idealistically speaking, violence is unnecessary as a general rule, but that isn’t what I mean.  There was an attitude after the Nazi death camps of WWII.  Many people thought we had fought the good fight and we had won.  Never again, was the collective declaration.  Yet, genocides keep happening and some of them have been far worse than anything experienced by the Jewish community.

Between imperialistic colonizing and the World Wars, 20th century Africa was left in endless conflict.  The many genocides that have occurred there were caused by Western interference in local cultures which gave favor to particular groups.  Even America, which isn’t generally considered imperialistic in the traditional sense, was built upon the slave trade coming out of Africa as it was being colonized.  The race clashes in the US have their origins in the history of colonized Africa.  African-American slaves saw more trauma than even the Lost Boys, and it was upon this collective trauma that the African-American community was built.  Colonization, exploitation, slavery, cultural destruction, World Wars, genocide… all of the modern world is built on collective trauma.  The Lost Boys are just a sign of the times.

John Deng may now be dead, but this deep-seated conflict in the world remains.  People who think they can isolate themselves and their communities from these problems are being very naive.  Besides, too many Americans forget that their own ancestors were also refugees escaping persecution and ended up spreading their trauma to every other culture they met (be it Africans or Native Americans).  None of us are innocent, but all of us are deserving compassion.

 * * *

You were laid here to rest

so you could settle at last in the earth,

where your village rejoined around you

their prayers burning with sorrow and memories.

And we are none of us so settled,

not so settled

as we seem.

Mourners gather as the casket is lowered during the burial service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Iowa City on Saturday, August 8, 2009. (Chris Mackler/The Gazette). Mourners gather as the casket is lowered during the burial service for John Deng, 26, of Iowa City, held at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Iowa City on Saturday, August 8, 2009. (Chris Mackler/The Gazette).  (Source for image: Gazette Online)