Monday, December 22, 2014

Public Safety Must Eclipse Profits and Principles

Billboard promoting controversial movie.
The recent cancellation of the distribution of a movie has incited a storm of controversy and a wave of unsolicited public relations, in a business which repeatedly insists that any publicity is good publicity.
At another time, this entire set-up might make the basis for a hilarious film script a fictional, satirical movie about an actual satirical movie, mixed with international politics and terrorist intimidation. 
But, in this case, it’s real life and not very amusing.
When cyberterrorists threatened mayhem at theaters showing its film, Sony Pictures Entertainment shelved this week’s release of “The Interview,” a buddy comedy about journalists who assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, after several theater chains prudently announced they would not screen the movie. 
The satirical comedy is believed to be the motive behind the Thanksgiving Day hacking that leaked assorted sensitive internal Sony e-mails and documents. Last Friday, within hours after the FBI announced its investigation uncovered information that North Korea was responsible. The totalitarian state quickly denied the accusation, then, unexpectedly, offered to help in the inquiry, so the enigmatic dictatorship could prove it had nothing to do with the threats against Sony and moviegoers.
North Korea’s foreign minister denied the “groundless claims” that it was behind the hacking and added, “We have means to prove that this incident has nothing to do with us.” The spokesman also said there would be “grave consequences” if Washington refused to agree to the joint probe.
When I read that I ROFALMAO (rolled on the floor and laughed my ass off).
Talk about a conflict of interest! That’s like asking Wall Street to assist in a probe of alleged securities fraud or organized crime bosses asking to help investigate a mob hit.
Just a few days after Sony announced it would not release the $44 million film in any form, the entertainment conglomerate’s chief executive insisted the company did not capitulate and, to some extent, reversed its position saying it would seek alternative platforms to release “The Interview.”
According to a report in the New York Post, Sony plans to release the controversial comedy for free on Crackle, a streaming service it owns.
Perhaps the entertainment giant is reacting to the flood of criticism, but, the company may have also realized it needed offset some of the financial loss it will swallow by not releasing the movie.
Sony should have not cancelled the movie’s Christmas Day release, but it had little choice once several theater chains, which represent more than half the movie houses in the U.S., refused to screen the movie, due to threats of potential violence.
Christmas Day is customarily one of the most profitable dates of the year for movie companies, so the chains decided not to feature “The Interview” to reassure moviegoers that it was safe to attend other movies currently playing.
That seemed logical because any violence during a showing of “The Interview” could make the theater chains and Sony liable for resulting damages, even though the Department of Homeland Security said there was “no credible intelligence” to support the threats. However, profits and principles should be secondary when public safety is concerned.
Besides, it is somewhat hypocritical for any reporter, journalist or talking head to condemn Sony for pulling “The Interview.” When was the last time any American or Western media outlet published any kind of image of the Prophet Mohammed? They, too, fear threats — idle or otherwise — or violent retaliation from fanatical Islamists. When Comedy Central censored an image of Mohammed on a 2010 episode of “South Park,” the resulting criticism soon faded, but it was not as pervasive as that being mounted against Sony.
Another motive for withdrawing the film could be that Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. is the American subsidiary of the eponymous Japanese multinational technology and media conglomerate. Perhaps senior executives back home, whose nation is less than 700 miles to the southeast of North Korea, thought about possible revenge from a fanatical, unstable Asian dictator.
While actor/producer George Clooney called Sony “just insane” for allowing North Korea to dictate content to a Hollywood studio, he similarly condemned his peers when he didn’t get a single signature on a petition he circulated after the hacking incident that called for support for Sony and its honchos.
Clooney pointed out that his fellow actors, producers and Tinseltown executives were perhaps also intimidated, fearing they could subsequently be victims of a security breach.
 “The Interview” imbroglio began with a criminal act — the alleged theft of a Sony exec’s credentials, which allowed access to the company’s internal e-mails and products. Yet, the cancellation of “The Interview” has more to do with a threat — albeit remote — to public safety, which, if carried out even on a small scale, than it does with artistic freedom.
A cancelled sign of the times
Creating a ruckus that generates an international incident over a motion picture is bizarre. But what else should be expected when dealing with neophyte 21-year-old tyrant, notoriously known for his brutal tactics towards his own citizens and, who has an arsenal of nuclear weapons that he could unleash on a whim.
As this episode draws attention to the increasing vulnerability of the global information highway, it also demonstrates that in the culture of caution that has evolved since 9/11, public safety requires being cautious about discounting terrorist intimidation.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Oil’s Well with Drivers, But Not Consumer Prices

The law of gravity dictates that whatever goes up must come down. But, when it comes to consumer prices that rule seldom applies. Even so, for the time being, it is relevant. 
Local gas prices 12-18-2014
For weeks, drivers have received a premature holiday gift every time they fill their vehicle’s gas tank, as prices have dramatically dropped to the lowest level in years. According to some analysts, motorists are saving an estimated $270 million per day on gasoline compared to a year ago.
Almost seven years ago, a gallon of gas peaked at an all-time high of $4.11. Indeed, rising fuel costs were a campaign issue in 2008. Republicans labeled President Obama irresponsible when he called for an end to generous oil company tax breaks and subsidies, and vowed to re-direct those revenues to develop clean-energy fuels. Newt Gingrich, a contender for the GOP nomination, pledged to roll back prices to $2.50 a gallon — if he was elected.
Mercifully, Newt didn’t get elected, or even nominated. Yet, here we are, more than six years later, and a gallon of gasoline in Brooklyn, with our triple tier of federal, state and local taxes, is flirting with prices ranging from $2.65 to $2.85. Depending on your point of view, we should be grateful that we don’t live in Alaska or Hawaii where the price is more than $3.
Actually, as of Tuesday, in parts of thirteen states, the price-per-gallon dipped below $2.00.
In the weeks after Obama’s re-election, the average national price per gallon dropped to about $1.66. When it did, Americans — from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters (to borrow a lyric from folk legend Woody Guthrie) — rejoiced after months of shelling out $70-$100 to fill gas tanks. Prices were even projected to hit $5 that summer as the campaign heated up. But, fortunately, that plateau was never reached.
With gas prices currently plummeting, which benefits consumers, why did the stock market simultaneously fall? Shouldn’t lower pump prices give drivers a little more capital to spend at the retail level, which would boost the economy? But, on the other hand, the volatility of the stock market — typified by this week's sudden surges — depends on many factors, like the falling price of crude oil that affect the global economy, not just America’s.
According to an economist quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “…every one-cent drop in gas prices means a $1 billion annual decline in energy spending by Americans.”
Yet, it seems that this current boon for the consumer is not good for business. I guess that’s the price — and it’s often a heavy one — we pay for living in a free market, capitalist society.
Analysts and experts, who follow economic trends, credit several factors for lower gas prices, not the least of which is energy policies enacted by President Obama, including an increase in U.S. oil production. They also point to OPEC's recent decision not to cut production, more fuel efficient vehicles and dwindling demand, due to sluggish economies in Europe and Asia.
I get that falling prices adversely impacts oil-producing nations, which currently includes the U.S. Yet, it’s still baffling that as gas prices have been trending lower for a few months, there’s been no similar development at the supermarket where consumer prices have yet to budge and, in some cases, have actually risen. Aren’t fuel costs factored into many items that often drive up prices? But, the costs of food and dry goods have gone up, not fallen? Fresh meat, milk and milk products and eggs increased more than a month ago, and, so far, there’s been no reversal.
Accordingly, just when consumers get some relief at the gas pump and have a few extra dollars to spend during the holiday season shopping, businesses refuse to lower prices so they can mine profits to assure their bottom lines are not disrupted.
As consumers benefit from falling gas prices, in all likelihood, they forfeit that windfall after a trip to the supermarket when they’re apt to leave with just enough to pay for filling those stockings carefully hanging by the chimney.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Torture Should Not Be An American Way Of Justice


Our embassies were put on alert this week in anticipation of potential reprisals following the release of the Senate’s CIA torture report. In spite of the gruesome particulars, extremist factions rarely need an incentive to execute threats against the U.S. or other nations which they demonstrably detest.
Nonetheless and despite pockets of criticism that the report is partisan and flawed there’s been more than a little unease, especially since the photographs of abusive treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib were circulated a decade ago, that its findings are valid.
 But, to read about actual accounts of frequent waterboardings, extended periods of sleep deprivation and the humiliating “rectal rehydration” procedure, more commonly known as an enema, is dreadful and disturbing. 
It’s not too difficult to identify with the mindset of many Americans after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Revenge was the order of the day. A knee-jerk response to hunt, find and kill those responsible for the inexcusable slaughter of almost 3,000 innocent civilians.
Others, likely, wanted justice at any cost, even if it meant putting our basic values on hold. But, when justice wasn’t swift and a resolution uncertain, a clandestine program to find and interrogate anyone who might have information or a connection to the fanatical bastards was evidently initiated. And one aspect, as the report outlines, was to obtain information from prisoners by any means possible, including sadistic procedures.
Bits and pieces of that secret operation have leaked out over the years. It made banner headlines when photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib was disseminated and culminates with this Senate torture report that confirms the worst fears of individuals with a sense of decency.
Among the report’s most disturbing findings include the absence of valuable intelligence, even after extended periods of torture; confinement conditions for detainees were harsher than the agency provided to government overseers; the CIA continuously lied to Congress about its Detention and Interrogation policies; in its attempt to keep their hands clean, the CIA began to outsource torture and interrogation operations in 2005; the spy agency never evaluated the program to determine its effectiveness, and the CIA regularly impeded any oversight by its own Office of Inspector General.
Indeed, there are still some Americans, blinded by retribution, who feel the tactics used to extract information are justified, regardless of the means or the results. On the other hand, there are those whose inherent ethics are repulsed by such methods.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was likely one of the architects of the plan for retribution, claims that reports of the rogue torture program are “hooey” and were authorized by the Justice Department. Surely, Justice was pressured by the White House to certify those extreme interrogation methods.
Cheney also said that program produced valuable, timely intelligence, which is at odds from details in the report. There’s little doubt Cheney is evading the facts, just as the CIA did when it lied about the program to the Department of Justice’s legal counsel.
The report indicates the CIA effectively ended its Detention and Interrogation program in 2006, after concerns about legal repercussions arose following unauthorized media leaks, in addition to reduced assistance from once-cooperative allies.
President Obama, in an effort to restore confidence and reassure “enhanced interrogation” would not be repeated, he ordered the CIA to discontinue their use of such brutal tactics when he took office nearly six years ago.
The history of United States is stained by shameful episodes, with slavery and the genocide of Native Americans being the most prominent. For the moment, torture’s not far behind those atrocious events.
Republican Senator John McCain, who was a torture victim as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, praised the release of the report, noting, “Torture damaged our security interests, as well as a reputation for good in the world.”
He added, “The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. The American people are entitled to it nonetheless. They must be able to make judgments about whether these policies…were justified...”
When the U.S. discovers that our adversaries or other governments use severe methods and brutal forms of abuse on prisoners, we’re quick to denounce them. Accordingly, even in the grip of fury and fear following unprovoked aggression, we should never compromise our ethics and our humanity for the sake of national security. When that occurs, we not only sink to the depraved level of fanatical oppressors we’re trying to defeat, we also devalue the basic principles we’ve struggled to uphold for the last 238 years.

Monday, December 1, 2014

New York Anxiously Awaits Another Grand Jury Decision

December 8th cover
illustration by Bob Staake.
Life is nothing like “Law & Order” or any other televised police/judicial procedural enjoyed by millions. Those stories may be promoted as “ripped-from-the-headlines,” but dramatic license commonly makes them appealing and engaging.
Besides, comparable true life scenarios tend to be more alarming and distressing and rarely have satisfying conclusions.
That is what recently occurred in Ferguson, Missouri. That story is still in progress and, if there’s an alternate ending somewhere down the road, it is likely to be as frustrating and divisive as last week’s grand jury results.
According to published accounts, the St. Louis report contains conflicting testimony from Police Officer Darren Wilson, which contradicts what the prosecutor told the media at last week’s news conference about how inconsistent eyewitness accounts led to the non-indictment. To those disappointed by that conclusion, it appears the officer’s inconsistent account was adequate, while eyewitnesses were not.
Consequently, the grand jury’s failure to indict is flawed.
One particular portion of the testimony reveals that a sergeant told Wilson to leave the scene of the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and wait at the police station. Upon arriving, Wilson testified, he went into the bathroom and washed Brown’s blood off of both his hands and placed his recently fired pistol into an evidence bag himself. According to his attorney, Wilson cleaned his hands because the blood was “was getting sticky and uncomfortable.”
Those actions, according to experts and Justice Department documents, violate the standard procedure for handling a crime scene and securing evidence.
 After the Ferguson ruling, President Obama stated, “We are a nation built on the rule of law.” Grand juries indict, or not, in accordance with the facts presented. But, too often, when it comes to police altercations with unarmed suspects that rule of law seems to favor law enforcement.
In a few words, the president also underscored the status quo of America’s race relations, when he said, “…the frustrations that we’ve seen are not just about a particular incident. They have deep roots in many communities of color who have a sense that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly or fairly.”
The anger and frustration following the November 24th announcement may have been triggered by this case, but it has been gradually mounting for some time. The F.B.I. reported 461 homicides by police officers last year, the most in two decades. Young black men are 21 times more likely to be among that number than young white men, according to ProPublica (an independent news organization whose mission is “to produce investigative journalism in the public interest”). But even when innocent suspects are killed, officers are seldom charged.
Does the infrequency with which police officers are held criminally liable in shootings show they are held to a lower standard, or do they face too much criticism in such events?
As protestors rioted in Ferguson, following the prosecutor’s announcement, the Brown family admonished those who committed senseless violence and vandalism. Beyond Ferguson, opponents of the non-indictment vented their rage, desperation and yearning for justice with mostly peaceful marches, including a few in Manhattan. However, some protests got out of hand when they were reportedly supplemented by external agitators and troublemakers. 
While I empathize with the anger and frustration of those who dispute the St. Louis decision, it baffles me why some demonstrators destroy and vandalize local businesses and property that have nothing whatsoever to do with the escalating fury.
A week after the grand jury decision, and the weekend resignation of Officer Wilson, protests continue to plague Ferguson and the nation.
Like Ferguson, Missouri, New York City has had its share of headlines involving unarmed black men killed, unjustly treated or targeted by overzealous police officers. Seventeen years ago, Abner Louima was mistaken for someone who’d punched a police officer outside a Brooklyn nightclub. He was arrested, beaten with fists, as well as with police radios, flashlights, and night sticks, and then sexually assaulted with a wooden object inside a precinct bathroom. In 1999, Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, was killed in a hail of forty-one shots. He was hit by 19 of them, as he retrieved his wallet from his pocket. A year later, Patrick Dorismond died trying to convince undercover cops he was not a drug dealer. The day of his wedding, in 2006, Sean Bell was killed in his car, which police officers shot at fifty times.
It would seem that after so many of these types of incidents, police procedures and protocols deserve scrutiny and, possibly, changes in dealing with unarmed suspects. Perhaps, in some situations, the use of a Taser, not a deadly weapon, would be sufficient to subdue a suspect and save a life.
New York City awaits the conclusion of an investigation into the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died of a heart attack, last July, while an NYPD officer had him in a chokehold after he was stopped for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. We can only hope that decision is more objective than the one for Michael Brown, because, if it isn’t, the consequences for this city could be dreadful.
NYPD officers subdue Eric Garner.AP photos by John Minchillo
Though many may not fully understand the intricacies of the criminal justice system, the conclusion in St. Louis, nonetheless, challenges the American conception and preconceived notion of justice. And, after reading bits of the testimony and the evidence presented to the St. Louis grand jury, the outcome seems to be flush with flaws.
This holiday season, there’s little about events in Ferguson  from the killing of Michael Brown to the controversial grand jury decision  for which we can be thankful.
With holiday shopping on many New Yorkers’ minds, others anxiously await the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case. Let’s hope the fury of Ferguson doesn’t become the shame of Staten Island and sidetrack us from seasonal good will.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Conservatives Out of Tune On Springsteen's Vet Concert Performance

Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and Zack Brown
at Veterans Day concert. (AP Photo by Carol Kaster)
Since Bruce Springsteen’s Veteran’s Day Concert for Valor performance — with Dave Grohl and Zack Brown — of John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son” in Washington, DC, the singer has remained silent over the uncalled-for ruckus it raised with some conservative voices.
Those who nitpicked about the three-minute segment, and questioned Springsteen’s sensitivity and good taste, are evidently blinded by the right — not to mention red, white and blue.
It is unnecessary for the New Jersey native to defend his song selection, since his crabby conservative critics are obviously uninformed about the extraordinary support that Bruce Springsteen has provided to veterans and related causes throughout his career.
Moreover, the song is an anti-war — NOT anti-troops — message that soundly condemns the process that sent soldiers off to an unpopular war. It does not impugn veterans, but, instead, attacks the undemocratic military draft that compelled many to serve overseas, while “fortunate sons” dodged the prospect of combat or played weekend warriors for a few years.
At the top of that elite heap are such right wing advocates as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and George Romney, who obtained deferments or exercised their religion to avoid possibly serving in Vietnam.
Fogerty’s lyrics make particular references to the draft’s inequitable playing field. Specifically: Some folks are born silver spoon in hand/Lord, don’t they help themselves.
In retrospect, the Vietnam War was a hopeless quagmire that is generally acknowledged as an abysmal blunder shaped by the government’s irresponsible policy.
Incidentally, earlier this year, the “Fortunate Son” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Not long after the concert, a Fox News talking head criticized Springsteen — but failed to refer to his singing partners. On the network’s site, “The Five” co-host Eric Bolling posted a patriotic rant calling Springsteen a fool “for singing an anti-war anthem” that “degrades” an audience made up mostly of vets, who “fight for our freedom,” and their families.
Fox News anchor Anna Kooiman called the performance “almost a slap in the face” to veterans. She then brought up another Bruce Springsteen-related misunderstanding. “… (He) has a history of doing this. If you think about ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ you think, ‘that's got to be an American anthem, right?’ Well, really, it’s critical of Vietnam.”
While campaigning for reelection, President Ronald Reagan mistook “Born in the USA,” the title song of his 1984 album, as a patriotic boost. The right wing idol was subsequently chastised by Springsteen for the misinterpretation. The song actually recounts the lack of economic and social opportunity for a disillusioned Vietnam veteran.
When the Veterans Day concert segment ended, the audience reaction was positive and lacked any perceptible jeering. The only disapproval came from conservatives, who were not at the show, but may have seen the live HBO simulcast or clips of the trio’s performance.
Springsteen’s critics’ heads are buried so deep in the sands of conservatism, they probably didn’t know that a week before the concert, the Friars Club Foundation announced it would present him with their first-ever “Entertainer Award.” In January, the veteran rocker will be among ten recipients to be honored with a Lincoln Award being bestowed “to those who improve the lives of veterans and their families.”
Whether or not you’re a Springsteen fan or don’t appreciate his music, you’ve have to admire the guy for his dogged support for the nation’s veterans, as well as other charitable causes he continues to support.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Updating Pot Laws Won’t Create Reefer Madness

(Revised version of column first published in 2002)
“…Legalize it, yeah yeah, that's the best thing you can do" – Peter Tosh, “Legalize It,” 1975
Start spreading the news — the times they are a-changing and New Yorkers will soon be a little less anxious about getting high with a little help from their friends.
After more than 40 years, the winds of change have a distinct hint of marijuana blowing across the nation with legalization and decriminalization slowly taking effect. Though federal legalization is still a pipedream — soundly opposed by diverse pockets of resistance — on Election Day, Oregon and Alaska became the third and fourth states to legalize and regulate the commercial production and sale of marijuana for adults. What's more, voters in the nation's capital and in several cities nationwide decided to eliminate marijuana possession penalties.
New York City is set to join the expanding list of municipalities liberalizing archaic drug laws, which could end most arrests for low-level marijuana possession, with police officers directed to issue summonses without detaining the suspect.
As a matter of fact, New York City will now conform to the state’s 1977 Marijuana Reform Act, signed into law by then-governor Hugh Carey. The statute calls for possession of up to 25 grams of pot as a violation, punishable up to a $100 fine for the first offense.
New York is actually one of eighteen states, including a few Republican strongholds like Nebraska and Ohio that have decriminalized marijuana possession with no prison time or a criminal record for first-time possession of small amounts for personal consumption.
After 37 years, New York City cops will be directed not to exploit a segment of the act specifying the weed must be in public view to qualify as a violation. (Under the controversial stop and frisk policy, NYPD officers routinely demanded individuals empty their pockets. When they saw a joint, the concealed pot was suddenly “in public,” and, therefore, a crime.)
A substantial majority of baby boomers have either smoked or sampled pot. It could also be taken for granted that some of that generation’s politicians did a doobie now and then. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former New York State Governor George Pataki, former New Jersey Senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to name a few, have admitted smoking pot in their youth. Former President Bill Clinton did, too, but, without a smirk or a wink, noted he never inhaled.
One presumption hostile to legalization is that marijuana, which is much more intoxicating today than when it was the choice of trendy young adults years ago, leads to harder drugs. That’s as preposterous as proclaiming regularly consuming beer may lead to drinking more potent potables!
There was an unsubstantiated anecdote circulating in the freewheeling 60s that a major American university had conducted research in which lab rats were fed their body weight in marijuana over a 30-day period. Consequently, the drugged rodents showed a multitude of problems, leading to the conclusion that cannabis could result in similar effects to humans. The research seems scientifically questionable and patently unrealistic. Nonetheless, anyone capable of smoking their body weight in marijuana in a month would experience a relentless case of the munchies, not to mention likely turn acutely sick and impaired!
Anyone consuming their body weight of anything in a brief period, whether it’s water, broccoli, tofu, potato chips or Twinkies, would probably risk adverse side effects.
I’m not aware of any conclusive research asserting that smoking an occasional joint does more harm to the human body than a daily shot of liquor. Nonetheless, marijuana is criminalized, while alcohol supports multi-billion dollar businesses, from agricultural to advertising to your local saloon. On the plus side, if pot were legal, it could be a major source of sorely-needed revenue at all levels of government.
Even when comprehensive marijuana legalization was a long shot in the early 1970s, American tobacco companies supposedly seized an opportunity that was too good to miss. Big tobacco reportedly registered a bunch of brand names, such as “Acapulco Gold” and other pot-related monikers, so, if and when the substance was legalized, they’d be set to commence production.
More than a decade ago, a national substance abuse group reported that underage drinking accounted for one-fourth of all alcohol consumed in this country. Predictably, the alcohol industry rejected that estimate as “absolutely wrong.”
While continuing to preach “No” to illegal drugs, that message should similarly repudiate any addictive substance, including prescription drugs. After all, excessive abuse, in any form, is irresponsible behavior. 
It is also time to admit the “war on drugs” was a disaster that was mostly waged domestically. Fighting the cartels that transport illegal substances to our communities may seem effective, every now and then, when there’s a major bust, but, by and large, the drug pipeline has scarcely been clogged. It has also damaged countless lives, overtaxed the criminal justice system and led to numerous incidents of corrupt law enforcement agents, excessive police tactics and exploitation of civil forfeiture laws.
Besides, you don‘t need a sociology degree to grasp that criminal enforcement has disproportionately targeted minorities and low income neighborhoods. 
According to NYPD statistics, 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession through August 2014, were black or Latino. Yet, the 2010 census indicated those ethnic groups just comprise over 60 percent of the city’s population.
After the repeal of prohibition, America didn’t turn into a country of alcoholics. Consequently, modernizing marijuana laws would not result in nationwide reefer madness. On the other hand, it would end the inequitable imprisonment of tens of thousands for a minor offense, as well as boost federal, state and local treasuries.
With that in mind, toke ‘em, if you got ‘em. Roll another one, but, don’t Bogart that joint.

Monday, November 10, 2014

After Years of Separation, It’s All Relative

Three Friedmans (Eric, Gwen, Michael & me) and a baby. 
It’s been almost two weeks since I “met” my nephews, niece-in-law and grandniece. And, I must admit, I‘m still somewhat euphoric.
For more than 20 years, I was cut off from my three nephews not long after the sudden death of my brother, Mark, from an asthma attack in 1988. Subsequently, due to a strained (more like strange) relationship with my sister-in-law, even a distant association with them diminished, since I was unwilling to put up with her attitude toward my parents. After attending my middle nephew Eric’s bar mitzvah in Phoenix 23 years ago, I steadily forfeited any opportunity to be part of their lives.
A year ago that abruptly changed. Social media is often condemned as invasive and frivolous, but sometimes it offers the prospect to revive dormant friendships and distant family contacts, which is what happened.
Out of the blue, I received a lengthy Facebook message from my youngest nephew. Now 34, Michael explained that he reached out to find out if the criticism about my family that had been indoctrinated in him and his brothers, by their mother, was justified. He also revealed that he had recently severed relations with his mother when she failed to accept his homosexuality, a decade after he acknowledged it. Furthermore, in a vile e-mail, she also referred to him with a common homosexual slur, which she also uttered to his face.
I was happy to reconnect, yet not too surprised — although appalled — about his mother’s disapproval. His brother Eric unequivocally supports him, but their older brother, Adam, defends their mother. Subsequently, I stayed in touch with Michael and Eric via e-mails, Facebook and an occasional telephone call. Last February, Eric’s wife, Heather, gave birth to a baby girl, Gwen, whose progress I’ve kept up with through almost daily Facebook updates. That’s another positive social media aspect when long distances separate family members.
Being single, with no children, I am now a proud great uncle. (How “great,” pardon the pun, remains to be seen.)
I soon grew eager to turn our electronic bond into an up-close-and-personal one, so two weeks ago I traveled to Phoenix and spent three days with family — a term I rarely used in recent years. On my first meeting with Michael, we firmly embraced and whatever anxiety I felt promptly vanished. That reaction recurred the following day when I met Eric, Heather and eight-month-old Gwen.
A generation after my brother and parents passed in a ten-year period, I again have family. Mind you, I have relatives — aunts, uncles and cousins — scattered near and far, but, at best, we’ve have minimal contact. My closest and oldest friends have always treated me like family, but that is certainly superseded by blood kin.
My grandniece Gwen and me.
My nephews were obliging and drove long distances to chauffer me around. For my stay I selected a hotel close to Eric, who resides in a distant suburb of Phoenix, knowing I’d spend as much time as possible with him, Heather and Gwen.
I took over 100 photos of Michael, Eric, Heather and Gwen, which, after posting, have gotten generous comments and “likes” from Facebook friends.
Due to the distance, I won’t see them as much I’d prefer, but having a family again makes me feel more complete than I have in quite a while.
Reuniting with my nephews and putting an end to our unsolicited separation was beyond my expectations and initiated a new chapter in the autumn of my life. Nonetheless, the Book of Life has unexpected twists and turns.
Moreover, when it comes to relatives, it’s all in the family.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Speed Kills — 25 MPH Can Make You Absolutely Lethargic

This Friday, New York City motorists, and anyone passing through the jurisdiction, will have to drive at a leisurely 25 miles per hour on most streets or face the consequences. It’s even slower — though more fitting — at 20 mph near schools.
Kinda brings to mind the opening line from the Simon and Garfunkel song, “Feelin’ Groovy”: Slow down, you move too fast.
I’m a safety proponent, especially when I’m behind the wheel of a 2,000-pound vehicle. I drive more cautiously as I age, as I’m fully aware my response time has correspondingly diminished. Yet, I regularly see drivers carelessly and, occasionally, recklessly motoring along local streets, which is likely the principal intention for the speed limit reduction. And, ultimately, to save the lives of pedestrians and motorists.
Speed and carelessness, like a vehicle with a driver’s foot on the gas pedal, tend to accelerate on highways, where the rate is 50 mph or higher. Fortunately, reasonable officers, who patrol those thoroughfares, often allow a 5-10 mph leeway, if one’s not maneuvering irresponsibly.
However, moving along city streets at five fewer miles an hour than the previous limit of 30, which most drivers exceed anyway, is painstakingly lethargic.
Last Sunday, the elite runners in the New York City marathon almost attained that speed. It’s estimated that select marathoners can exceed speeds of 12 mph. Imagine driving and seeing a runner almost keeping pace with you?
Every now and then, in the weeks leading up to the change, I road tested myself and slowed to 25 when there were few cars near me. It was a striking adjustment and felt sluggish. Of course, despite the light traffic in my vicinity, more than a few drivers let me know their horns were in working order. Wonder if honking fines are going to surge after Friday. Increased driver frustrations are almost guaranteed.
The incentive to lower the speed limit is clear. As the city’s murder rate consistently fell over the last decade, traffic deaths had an upward trajectory. According to Department of Motor Vehicle statistics, the city had 176 pedestrian deaths last year, which Governor Cuomo alluded to when he signed the legislation to implement the reduced speed limit last summer. He called the triple digit number “a frightening statistic,” and said a reduction of even 5 mph “cuts in half the likelihood of being killed.”
As long as the NYPD enforces the lower speed limit, let’s hope precinct commanders remind officers to properly apply the mayor’s “Vision Zero” program, which is expected to enhance pedestrian and motorist safety, and issue jaywalking fines to the menu, as that violation seems to have slackened off since earlier this year. Officers in patrol cars or walking neighborhood streets should also keep an eye out for pedestrians and bicyclists, who must uniformly be penalized for breaking traffic laws. And let’s not forget distracted drivers, especially those who can’t seem to, or don’t bother to, wear a hands-free device when they’re at the wheel.
Call me an old coot, but teenagers, as well as adults, take risks when they jaywalk or cross at mid-block, not at intersections. On occasion, when I approach an intersection I have to control my patience while pedestrians saunter across the street without a care in the world. I see people with canes moving faster!
Start spreading the news. To reword a recent phrase by Daily News columnist Denis Hamill,  Mayor de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” program is gonna transform New York from “the city that never sleeps” to “the city that never speeds” with street traffic around the five boroughs moving along just a little bit faster than the Belt Parkway at rush hour.
For the foreseeable future, as drivers pump their brakes to stay under 25 mph, you can bet the city’s treasury is going to get pumped up due to the anticipated increase in moving violations that will likely result until motorists get accustomed to moving at a snail-like pace.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Congress Dawdles As Gun Violence Continues

Amid efforts to quell panic about the Ebola crisis, last Friday morning’s school shooting story didn’t reap the customary media spotlight it warranted. The first news that two were dead and four wounded after a student opened fire in a Washington state high school cafeteria, incited shock, sorrow and, certainly, a lot of heads filled with, “Oh, no, not again” thinking. But within days, the story was pretty much an afterthought.
Anxiety over the virus is imperative and it calls for extensive awareness to facilitate control of the deadly disease, but this recent gun violence also merits equal consideration, not a back seat to the health issue.
Statistics estimate that, on average, almost 100 people are killed by guns each day in America. Gun violence is a disorder that, regrettably, only engrosses the national spotlight when it occurs at an educational institution, like the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in 2011, or the one in Littleton, Colorado fifteen years ago.
Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, I’ve written a number of columns about America’s obsession with guns and my disgust with indifferent lawmakers, who continue to bow to National Rifle Association pressure, and, for the most part, never face relatives of gun violence victims. Below are revised portions of my 1999 article, as well as fresh thoughts on the matter.
One thing was crystal clear in the outcome of the violent events in Littleton, Colorado, and it’s echoed in Stephen Stills’ lyrics to “For What It’s Worth”: “There’s somethin’ happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there, tellin’ me I got beware…”
No one could have predicted that an ordinary April school day in 1999 would end so tragically. But it did, when two heavily armed students casually walked into their high school, assuring April would be the cruelest month for that community.
The depraved twosome outfitted in long, black coats, camouflage pants, combat boots and carrying a variety of weapons and ammunition, were more suitably prepared for a heavy assault, or a Quentin Tarantino movie, than a day in school.
When the pair’s bloody mission was over, they committed suicide, but not before killing thirteen students and wounding almost two dozen others.
Shock rapidly mushroomed into outrage as TV viewers, glued to the breaking the news, watched police lead frightened students and teachers to safety as the latest fatal chapter unfolded in the habitually serene bosom of suburbia, that has become a common narrative executed by a small segment of anti-social youth.
We’re beyond head scratching, soul searching and prayers when it comes to those who commit such brutal acts. Those types, whose behavior recalls the untamed Wild West, will always be lurking in society’s nooks and crannies to strike again.
Up to and including Columbine there were at least ten shooting incidents in eight small-town schools in a little over two years with more than 30 killed. Two of the most notorious episodes since then occurred at Virginia Tech and Newtown, CT.
There’s no remedy to eliminate the disease that results in gun violence, but, perhaps, a saner path to contain it is to enact stronger and more inflexible gun laws, as well as introduce tougher background checks to make it more challenging to obtain an instrument with a single function to kill.
In 2005, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives undeniably nudged by the NRA confirmed that it legislates more for gun manufacturers than it does for the well-being and safety of Americans. The House overwhelmingly approved legislation that granted immunity to gun makers and distributors from being sued by gun violence victims, which created a blanket protection not provided to any other business. A few months earlier, the Senate passed a similar bill. President Bush subsequently signed the bill into law.
The argument that the Second Amendment ultimately protects us from a tyrannical government is 18th century thinking. Article 1, Section of the Constitution suggests the need for “a well-regulated militia,” NOT a gun for every household.
We have limited speech in the name of political correctness, so as not offend.
Our Fourth Amendment rights have been curtailed in the name of National Security since 9/11/01.
Privacy has been curbed with the expansion of public cameras, in the name of safety.
Eminent Domain gives the government the right to limit private property rights when it favors the public interest.
Consequently, in the interest of the public good, we must limit gun ownership solely to militias, government organized law enforcement units and, in some cases, restricted to selected private owners who conscientiously register their weapons. 
As grief and sadness haunt the Marysville school community near Seattle, it should stir the collective national conscience to demand, once and for all, that Congress end its submissive mind-set toward the NRA and support practical modifications to ambiguous gun laws to deter the violence that continues to plague our schools, our cities and validates America’s exclusive obsession with guns.