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Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Of all the categories of murder, the lonely gunman rampage is probably the least preventable. Serial killers leave physical evidence at each of their crimes. Science, psychology, police, media and societal attention often leads to eventual capture, notwithstanding the notable anecdotal exceptions like “Jack The Ripper” and “The Zodiac,” both of whom probably stopped because of a combination of the narrowing search, their incarceration or death due to other crimes or mental illness.

But the sudden rampage killer is different. His explosion of violence comes from a place so deep in his psyche that before he strikes he seems not much different from many others in our society who are merely odd.

After the fact, his descriptors include words like loner, depressed, angry, outsider, sullen, friendless. He is often intelligent, shy, troubled. Almost invariably male, often spurned by an imagined lover, with low self-esteem, alienated from family. He is fascinated by weapons and violence, animal cruelty, and is seen to be wierd and creepy.

Whether the cause is a defect in nature or nurture, whether hormonal, chemical or genetic; whether blame can be laid on childhood abuse, lack of compassion, family, adult, societal, or peer group pressures; the truth is that his profile fits many who never act out so outrageously.

What may be the most interesting facet of Cho is that he was a functioning writer and poet. He finished a play, attended a college creative writing class. That his professor spotted in his writing and behavior a strangeness that was alarming to her and others in her class is not surprising. She desperately urged him to seek psychiatric help and urged her superiors to address his problems.

It appears that his wierdness in appearance and behavior was evident to many and he was subjected to intermittent instiutional attention for the obvious symptoms of "dangerous" mental illness.

It is tempting to cite these facts as evidence that the actions were foreseeable and therefore preventable and therefore to place blame on our system for the event. Our need to have faith that we can control our fates impels us to find causes, place blame, name a fall guy or a deficient policy. Institutional failure - government, education, family, society, values - something caused it, something that can be analyzed, tweaked, corrected.

But that is not necessarily the case.

Back in my PD days, a nut case who called himself The Alphabet Bomber was being tried. He had put a bomb in the LAX airport terminal that exploded the day after I flew out of there to go to Tokyo. He then bombed a bus terminal in a similar way. Two of my friends eventually were assigned to defend him and over the next few years his case clanked around the courts, trying to decide if he was “incompetent” and / or “insane” or was merely evil and clever, feigning craziness to "get away with murder."

One day I dropped into the court and watched the defendant on the witness stand trying to explain his actions. He had worked as a draftsman, and co-workers believed he was a mute because he never spoke a word for a year or more. in his spare time, he had assigned every letter in The Bible a number, and with mathematical logic had eventually concluded that he was The Massiah. Somehow he had also worked out that he had to set off bombs in certain places.

I watched him testify with the aid of a blackboard scrawled with names and superscribed numbers, computations. He was trying to prove that the judge and D.A. were conspirators of the devil. I restrained a laugh as the skeptical judge and D.A. tried to disprove the defendant’s theory by pointing to mathematical errors. I thought that was funny and looked to the spectator sitting next to me to see his reaction. He was busy copying the defendant’s writings into a notebook, faithfully recording every letter and number.

I saw then that I was in Wonderland and quickly escaped. It seemed that if this nutty scary murderer was a click less nutty and scary on the scale, he might have founded a new religion or at least written a book that would have established a cult. He was just the wrong side of Rasputin or Joseph Smith or maybe even Jesus. Charles Manson was in that sort of family tree. Jim Jones and David Koresh are out on another limb.

Madness is at the end of a continuum, a scale which includes not too far away eccentrics, ascetics, iconoclasts, independent imaginative artists, the Marquis de Sade, Van Gogh, Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, Poe and others whose imagination and perceptions of “reality” differed ninety degrees from the “norm.”

For every Cho there are thousands of his like who never commit the violence they fantasize. Why he did and others don’t is a mystery that may not be explainable.

In criminal cases, shrinks have sometimes claimed to be able to predict propensities for violence and have been called upon to do so. In death penalty cases, prosecutors have called “experts” to proclaim that the defendant should be executed because he is likely to kill again. In mental health cases, “experts” have measured the risk of release of inmates with mental illness or mere “sociopaths.”

Studies have been done over time which have shown conclusively that these opinions are as reliable as coin tosses. The elements distinguishing violent actors from violent thinkers are so ephemeral and unpredictable that forecasts are useless. In fact, erring on the side of caution results in involuntary incarceration of many more innocent people who would never act violently toward others than is warranted by the actual risk.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jackie Robinson and the Age of Heroes

The Baseball industry is noting the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game as a Dodger, April 15, 1947. I was almost 4 years old, and don't remember it.

I remember as far back as 1950, when I was seven. I dimly remember watching on our little Crosley t.v. as the Dodgers lost to the Phillies of Robin Roberts, Curt Simmons and Richie Ashburn, the Whiz Kids. I remember names like Gene Shuba, Gene Hermanski, Rex Barney. I remember crying and my fifteen year old brother consoling me about the loss. There would be another year, he told me with his wisdom borne of the disappointments of his childhood. He remembered 1941, 1947, 1949, all years the Dodgers won pennants, and lost to the Yankees in World Series.

I bitterly remember the “next year”I had waited for, hearing the Bobby Thompson homer in 1951 on the radio coming from one of the apartments. I had run home from school to see the end of the game the Dodgers were winning, as I knew from reports all during the school day. But my mother was out shopping, and I couldn’t get into our apartment. So I sat in the dark hall alone, listening to the end and crying again. Once more, there would be more summers.

There were wonderful summers, when the Dodgers were always winners, and losing to the hated Yanks in the fall. Boyhood should be a time of superlatives, of legends, when every hero seems unbeatable. And they seemed to be.

There was Gil Hodges, who was so strong he could grind sawdust from the bat. Jackie, who drove pitchers crazy at first base, and always stole home. There was Furillo in right, the Reading Rifle, and his arm was strong enough to throw runners out at first on solid hits off the big wall in Ebbets right field. There was Campy behind the plate, a rock who runners crumbled into when sliding home. There was Pee Wee, Erskine, Labine, Newk.

And of course there was Duke, who roamed center field with a loping grace and whose golf swing powered so many homers. Was he really better than the legends to the north: Mays and Mantle?

I remember seeing the enemies who came to town: Musial, Klu, Aaron, and those who visited the Yanks on channel 11: Ted Williams, Rocky Colavito, Nellie Fox.

By the time I was fifteen, it was all over --my Dodgers and my childhood.

In my memory, even today, the events are mixed up, the cause and effect confused. Did the end of the Brooklyn Dodgers signal the end of my boyhood, or did the interests of adolescence end my belief in heroes?

Now I am old, far older than my father was when I was a boy. The old heroes are old men or gone. They are in the Hall of Fame, barely alive in record books, their numbers overtaken and forgotten. They are part of the legends of the game, alongside my father’s heroes.

None of this seems to matter to my son’s generation. Despite my faltering efforts to instill a feeling in him for the history of the game and the magic of the heroism, he feels nothing for the game.

Most of what we remember about the glorious past was attributable to the illusions of youth. I often look back at those days and wonder whether they really were heroic, or whether they merely seemed that way due to my naivete and the natural tendency of old men to deride the present. I suspect that the good old days usually were good only because we were young.

But sometimes I think that they were better days, when hope was high for a bright future. We saw the game as symbolic of something happening in society, and looking back over fifty years, I think it did represent something.

When Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers it was a symbol of something good for the progress of mankind, not just for a game or the business of baseball, or even for the amusement or entertainment of customers. It was a step in making America a better place, a place it always claimed to be but never was and never has become.

The American claim as a land of opportunity was that talent, ability, skill and hard work could permit any person to achieve success. Class, race, religion, or personal beliefs were irrelevant or at least could be overcome with those traits. But of course, it was not true.

When I was born, in 1943, in the midst of a war against fascism, the vaunted America dream was for only Christian white males. My uncle, a Jewish veteran, was rejected by medical schools because the “Jewish quota” for students was filled. It was an open and accepted fact of life. And for Negroes it was far worse. Segregation, Jim Crow laws, race riots, lynchings were commonplace aspects of American life.

I heard an older Black athlete say that Jackie Robinson’s importance was in providing a role model for young Black boys and men who could hope to attain greatness following his lead.

It occurred to me that in my boyhood I remember him as my hero, and was only dimly aware that he was a Black man. To me he was a Dodger, and such an exciting hero of the game that I did not much notice his blackness. There was Hodges, Robinson, Reese and Gilliam in the infield. There was Furillo, Snider and Pafko in the outfield. There was Newcombe, Erskine, Joe Black on the mound. There was Campanella behind the plate. They were the good guys.

In the realm of identifying with heroes, there was an oddly imaginative conversion in my consciousness. My Dodgers were not Black and White. If anything, they were Jewish while the Yankees were Gentiles; they were working people while the pin-striped Yanks were big business; they were Democrats while the Yanks were Republicans. Of course, I see now that they were just other young men trying their best.

But there was a difference and the difference was that the Yankees had no Black men. None. That was real. The Dodgers were good because of the experiment. And the experiment was due to one man.

Branch Rickey.

He was a hero in the classic sense, in the sense of Lincoln. And Oskar Schindler -- no, that's not too much of a stretch. He was not a saint. He had plenty of human faults. He was a clever dealer in men. He was cheap, kept his workers hungry while making himself rich. But when it came to the issue of whether Black men should be permitted to share the dream of success, he knew what was right. He was courageous. And he was smart. He knew that his own success could be assured by doing what was also right. So he took the risk, at no small jeopardy to himself. He would be threatened with danger, to his reputation, to his financial success, to his friendships.

Rickey opened the country’s eyes to the wastefulness of its racism. Ten per cent of the population had been ignored for much of our history. Rickey was an enlightened capitalist, an entrepeneur who saw the huge profits in cultivating the Negro athletes. He shrewdly gauged his times, sensing that the liberalism of twenty years of government and World War II had brought black heroes into the mainstream of American life. My father thought seeing Negroes in the major leagues was a great advancement.

But when I watched the Dodgers play and imitated their batting stances and pitching motions in my livingroom and tried to walk pidgeon-toed like Jackie, I wasn't aware of any of that social impact. I accepted it as normal.

And that was the impact. My generation, beginning as kids, saw no race in our heroes. And the Dodgers of my childhood will always be far more important than any other ball team in history because of it.

You could look it up.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Passover Revised

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950's, my world was pretty much a Jewish one. Not that we were religious in any great sense. Oh, I was sent to Hebrew School for a year to study for my Bar Mitzvah. And we “observed” the holidays. Observed is the right word, because we usually observed it from the sidelines, without doing very much about it. My grandfather and father dragged me to Shul a couple of times a year - Rosh Hashanah, maybe - and they fasted on Yom Kippur. When my grandmother died, 10 men with bad breath got together in our livingroom to pray each night for a week while my father “sat shiva.”

We got some chocolate wrapped in gold tin foil on Channukah and felt lousy around Christmas - guilty at enjoying the TV specials, the carols, “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Amahl And The Night Visitors,” which was a very confusing but moving Jewish experience. But mostly I took Jewishness for granted because most of my schoolmates were either Jewish or Italians, whose family life was almost identical to mine - nagging mothers pushing food, shared ridicule of religion based sex guilt, stuff like that. Actually, I think that when very young I thought of my Italian neighbors as just a sect of Jews. That made enjoyment of Christmas a bit more acceptable.

Politics and sports preferences were also presumed Jewish in my family. The Dodgers and Adlai Stevenson were Jewish, the Yankees, Eisenhower and McCarthy were Goyim. Labor: Jewish, management: definitely not.

From adolescence on (once the Bar Mitzvah ordeal was over - or maybe freed by the misery of it to exercise the free will of the promised Manhood - I got to question all these presumptions, became an agnostic and observed the defects in all religions, dropping the pretense of adherence to most of the rituals.

The one that lingered longest was Passover, the event that America seemed to embrace as a secondary Thanksgiving. Cecil B. De Mille, the most sanctimonious of all Hollywood mythmakers, sanctioned the Americanization of this issue with his movie “The Ten Commandments” in 1956. Charlton Heston as Moses vs. Yul Brynner as a scowling Pharaoh became an annual TV ritual like “The Wizard Of Oz” and “Its A Wonderful Life.” They all taught lessons to children as powerful as Grimm’s fairy tales must have been to German kinder: “there’s no place like home” ... “no man is a failure who has friends” ... and “Let my people go.”

The Exodus Story became an American liberal icon, a brief against slavery and for Self-Determination against Imperialists and tyrants, quickly adopted by the Civil Rights Movement as an paradigm. The movie “Exodus” (1960) solidified the concept and associated it with the establishment of Israel. The survivors of The Holocaust were the underdogs fighting the pompous powerful Colonial Establishment and the neo-Pharaohs of the Arab world, winning because of determination and rightness ... just like the Dodgers and the Negroes.

By the time I had a son, I had moved away from Brooklyn and was living in L.A. which, despite its Jewish population (second only to NY in the US), was not Jewish the way Brooklyn was. The LA Dodgers were definitely NOT Jewish, Sandy Koufax aside.

So when the opportunity arose to give my child a private school Jewish education, I acquiesced. Though most of the holidays and rituals he was immersed in seemed rather contrived to me (Purim, Sukkoth, Simchat Torah, etc) Passover was one I thought was a lesson worth maintaining.

In order to keep up with his schooling, I felt compelled to brush up on my Judaica. Learned a little Hebrew, the new versions of prayers my grandfather “davened” which were now intoned with chic Israeli pronunciation - you can spot any New Yorker when he says “Shabbas” instead of “Shabbat” - and I didn’t want to be embarrassed in the company of the other parents all of whom seemed to be able to fake it better than I could at the childrens’ services.

So one day at the bookstore I ran across a Torah that looked interesting. “The Torah: The Five Books Of Moses ... A new translation of The Holy Scriptures according to the traditional Hebrew text” published by The Jewish Publication Society Of America.

I began to read it like a novel for the first time as an adult. Jumping quickly to Exodus, I came upon the following passage:
And the Lord said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put in your power. I, however,will stiffen his heart so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, “Let My son go, that he may worship Me,” yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.’”
That quote was typical. Pharaoh wasn’t acting from free will. The Lord was pulling his strings. After every plague - locusts, frogs, lice ... Pharaoh relented, agreed to “let Israel go,” but each time, the Lord “hardened” or “stiffened” Pharaoh’s heart. Why did God do this if his goal was to the free His people from slavery?

The answer was very clear from the sequence of the plot. When Moses first enters Pharaoh’s court, he performs some tricks: turning a stick into a snake and the Nile to blood, which Pharaoh’s magician’s duplicate. With every miracle, Pharaoh is impressed with the power of the Hebrew God, but that is not enough for God. His goal is for Pharaoh to recognize Him as the One True God.

Historians give credit to the Hebrews as the originators of Monotheism, which formed the basis of Western religious thought from then onward and was claimed to be a powerful impetus to Western dominance of world culture. That claim is arguable, but what is not is that the God of the Hebrews freed His people so that they could worship Him, and did it in a way that forced all other people to acknowledge Him as the Only God, not just one that was powerful or fearsome.

The point is proved later on when He gives Moses the Laws of human behavior to relay to the people. The first five of the so-called “ten commandments” are about honoring God.

The only reference to slavery in the first ten Laws lies in the order that “your male and female slaves” must also keep the Sabbath.

Of course, there were more than just ten laws. Another one ordered:
“When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. If he came single, he shall leave single; if he had a wife, his wife shall leave with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master, and he shall leave alone. But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; he he shall them remain his slave for life... (Exodus: 21)
Modern apologists for God argue that these concepts were an advancement in thought for their time, a step in the liberalization of Man's imagining of his relationship with God. For the first time, God is shown providing rational laws and covenants based on a sense of justice rather than arbitrary and capricious whims that previous ideas of Gods has allowed.

Okay, but you gotta admit that He had a pretty healthy ego.