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Friday, November 14, 2014


An incident happened on the golf course the other day. A group of older men confronted a group of younger men about the pace of play. This often happens, especially on public courses. In this instance, it was serious. The four old men were white; the four young men they confronted were black.

The four older men were regulars on the course. Once a week, every week, on Wednesday or Thursday, they played the same course together. They were retired from a lifetime of toil so that they could play rapidly in the middle of the week rather than slowly on Sunday. They usually started at 8 o’clock and expected to finish by around noon. Sometimes, though, they were unable to secure their usual time, and had to begin an hour later. This often meant that the round would take up to an hour longer. This was because younger men usually began later and played more slowly.

You might think younger men would play more quickly than the older group, but that is usually not the case. For one thing, the older men, playing every week for years, are used to the course. They don’t hit the ball as far, and thus tend to avoid trouble. Younger men have work and other obligations that prevent them from practice and regular play, especially in mid-week.  So, when they get together with friends for a rare mid-week golf outing, they want to have fun. Being young, they can sometimes hit the ball longer — when they actually do make contact — but that usually means more trouble because they are bound to hit it with a “banana slice” or a “duck hook,” results that are as bad as they sound.   

Golf is a game that demands frequent practice. It will humble even the most talented and skilled. The dilettante cannot possibly hope to successfully navigate the course without frustration. He will spend precious time searching for lost balls. He will be forced to hack out of forests, dig out of sand traps, and slash through deep grass.

Young men, by their nature, will not accept these truths. They still retain the optimism and competitiveness that keeps them running the rat race of mid-life. When they play this game with their peers, who are roughly equal in their ineptitude, they will act like adolescent males. They will tease, challenge, and try to humiliate their friends. If one reaches the green in seven, and the other in eight, they will slow down to now seriously compete to see who can score lowest on the hole that the card says should be finished in four strokes.  

For the old men, waiting to hit every ball while the four ahead of them tacked from the rough on the left to the trees on the right, inching their way toward the distant green, and then waiting more while the four athletes measured three-footers for eight to win the hole and so better the chance to avoid paying for the beers, the wait was agonizing. Old men measure events in the amount of time remaining; they can’t spend precious time waiting for something to happen. They resent traffic jams, supermarket lines, and most of all, doctor’s offices. They cannot be placed “on hold.”

So, here’s what happened. On the very first tee, while the old men were waiting for the group of young men to begin, they noticed some things that they recognized immediately were going to slow the round. First, the young men insisted on playing from the tee that required the longest, straightest drives. This position should be restricted to the pros or best amateurs, but it is common for boys and young men, no matter the lack of skill, to want to get their money’s worth, which they think forces them to  swing as hard and as often as possible. Efficiency and economical preservation of effort are skills the older players have learned in order to survive in this game. The young, most of whom will soon abandon the game for marriage, children, work, and other games and less time consuming sports, are ignorant of this.   

The second item of concern was that three of the young men, when flubbing their first tries, played a second ball. This is known as a Mulligan and it is acceptable on the first tee, recognizing the natural nervousness of duffers to cause a stumble at the start. But to the old men, it was an “uh-oh” moment. The third issue the men observed with trepidation was the jocularity with which the young men faced the embarrassment of their fellows’ failures. Golf to the experienced older player, while still a social event, permitting good fellowship among old friends, is far more serious, once the round has begun. The experienced serious older golfer knows when to josh and when to shush.

That brings up an additional point that must be emphasized. Golf has lasted a few hundred years with some lasting traditions. It began as a gentleman’s game that required gentility and patience, but one invented by the irascible Scots whose temperaments were carved by their intemperate climate. They played the game against cruel nature; they played angry at the ground, the rain, the cold. To prevent homicides during the game, they carved out strict rules of conduct among players.

Play the ball as it lies, call a penalty on yourself even if no one is looking, and most of all, be considerate of others on the course. That means moving along at a decent pace, spend no more than five minutes searching for a lost ball. Many other rules are meant to encourage an orderly and more rapid completion of each hole. The old men knew and respected these traditions and appreciated their importance. The young men didn’t know the rules. The young are often contemptuous of tradition, assuming that any rules made by previous generations are stupid, and are probably designed to hamper their enjoyment of life. They feel it is their privilege, even their duty to break the rules and find pleasure in the mere act of doing so.

As the old men watched the preceding group as they scrambled along, the pace met their expectations. They had anticipated the delays, but by the twelfth hole, they had had enough. While on that green, they noticed the foursome ahead of them to be standing on the next tee. The fairway ahead of them was vacant, meaning that the preceding group was not a cause for delay. Protocol required that the group should tee off as soon as they can safely do so. Things slow down when some players who are unfamiliar with the course or with their own lack of skill, delude themselves that they might reach the faraway golfers ahead of them. They wait, and wait. When they finally strike the ball, they dribble it a few yards forward or worse, many yards sideways.

This group was even more egregious. They not only waited far too long. They were talking to each other so vigorously that they did not notice the vast space ahead of them. They were having fun socializing. The men on the green behind them were not. They anticipated another long wait. They were furious at the inconsiderate antisocial behavior of the group. When they finally got to the tee, the others had just departed. By the time they had finished their work on the next green, the old men who were again waiting in the fairway were grumbling to each other about the criminality of the conduct. It was time for action.

In this particular situation, the generation gap was not the only problem. The other was the cultural attitude separating the races. I need to emphasize the point that if race was not involved — let’s say, if the foursomes were all white — the old men would still have been fuming, and a confrontation might have taken place anyway. But the added element of race — as always in America — complicated the issue immensely.  

At this point, I have to make what may seem to be a strange reference. Do you remember the movie, Deliverance? In my memory, it is about man’s nature as a hunter, an instinct that is suppressed beneath civilization’s veneer, but which when released can lead to dramatic consequences. The four characters who experience the event in the movie all act differently. For one, played by Burt Reynolds, it is a challenge to his manhood. Violent sport sparks his competitive soul.

Among the group of old men, one saw himself as Burt Reynolds in Deliverance. He was long past his prime as an athlete, but deep within, the tiny little fire still glowed. He had played high school football at what he remembered was a high level. He had been a lawyer, proud of his aggressive defense tactics, and now, at seventy, he clung to this self-image. And at this moment, to mix a movie metaphor, he was mad as hell and was not going to take it anymore. He raced his cart forward to the green and challenged the group for their lassitude.  

From the vantage of about 150 yards away, the confrontation went this way. The old man drove his cart up to the tee where the four young African American men had just teed off and were walking back to their carts. After a pause, the old man stood near his cart. A man in an orange shirt looked back to him, and words seemed to be exchanged. Then the man in orange walked quickly toward the old man and they stood face to face, like umpire and manager in a baseball dispute. A few seconds later a second African American man began to walk up. He took his friend’s arm and they retreated to their cart, which drove off.

When the three other old men reached the green, the first man was still excited. He related his story to the others. He had told the men that they were too far behind. The man in orange denied this. The old man had insisted; the young man then became angry, called him a bitch and challenged him. “He expected me to back off, but I didn’t. Then his friend said, ‘Okay, we’ll speed up.’” Eventually the old man’s pulse slowed. “When he threatened me, I was going to say, ‘If you do, I’ll own you!”
He meant that if he was assaulted, he would sue him. But the old man had wisely held his tongue, realizing that to an African-American, the words, “I’ll own you” had a completely different connotation that might have provoked far more violence.

This leads to other aspects of this incident. The four old men had been reluctant to press the issue of the bad behavior for more hours than they would have, had the transgressors been four young white men — and that reluctance was caused in great part by fear. White men are afraid to confront African American men because of a prejudgment based on the reputation for unreasonable violence. Rationally, the old men knew that golfing African Americans were not the same as gangsters on the corner in a ‘hood or riding in a black Escalade playing hip hop that reverbs until your teeth rattle. The old men were influenced by racial stereotypes that supports profiling.

Another aspect is the history these old men have lived through. Men now seventy or so grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when race relations were a central topic of debate. These men happened to be of the part of their generation that was sympathetic to the civil rights movement, especially in its earlier, peaceful iteration. They remembered fondly Dr. King and the marches, the fight for integration, and supported the passage of voting rights laws. They praised the concept of diversity and denounced the idea of discrimination. They admired Mohammed Ali, Hank Aaron, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter, and (three out of the four) Barack Obama.

But they had been worried by the ghetto riots of the late 60’s, the Black Panthers, and the rage of Malcolm X. They each had experienced friction at school with African American students, either in sports, lunchrooms, hallways, or playgrounds. They were ambivalent about affirmative action in colleges and work, and had sent their children to private schools as the public education system they had survived now degraded and appeared to be biased in favor of the poor who were predominately of colors other than white.

The tension of the situation was not one-sided. The African-American men brought with them to the golf course their own set of prejudices. To begin with, they were fully aware of the history of the game as a white man’s domain. Even though this particular course was by no means a country club, it was a public course in the heart of the white (or at least mostly white) part of the city. Well brought up young men can tire of their parents’ reminders to behave themselves in company so as to not discredit their families. Some old men remembered a time when the warnings included the impression they might give of their People — Jews, the Irish, Italians, or other identifiable attachments. Young black men can easily tire of the reminder to represent.

In the final analysis, the incident does permit a glimmer of hope for the future. From the perspective of the old white men, the incident was a success. No one was shot, and the rest of the round proceeded at an acceptable pace. The old man who had braved the threat felt vindicated, and has something over his more timid friends forever. The other three had benefitted from their friend’s reckless risk taking behavior (aka courage). As one of the men said afterwards, “It is like that in every war; most stay safe in their foxholes while the few dare to charge the enemy!”

The final cause for optimism lies in my realization that the incident provided statistical proof of progress. Only 25% of the African American men wished to be combative, while 75% were conciliatory. The exact same percentages applied to the old white men.

That is an interesting coincidence, don’t you think?

Monday, September 08, 2014

"Compassionate Capital Punishment" Oxymoronic doublethink

The Ethicist column of The New York Times recently contained the following question under the headline “Compassionate Capital Punishment.”

Is it ethical for a physician to participate in capital punishment in order to provide a less painful execution than would otherwise be performed? 

A physician who oversees a state’s lethal injection program argues that these “patients” are going to be executed anyway. His professional responsibility is to see that it is done humanely.

Chuck Klosterman, who writes the column, had some trouble with the issue. He opined that if the doctor believed capital punishment as a principle was ethical, then it was arguably acceptable for him to feel ethically bound to help make its conduct more humane.

However, if the doctor’s position is that he believes capital punishment is ethically wrong, but he knows it will still happen regardless of his involvement, the issue remains whether his participation might then be justified because if these people will die anyway, isn’t it ethical to use your medical ability to make the inevitable less painful?

Klosterman concludes, with some equivocation, that participation in an unethical practice on the grounds that it will happen anyway over your objection is wrong. 

He never mentions similar ethical situations physicians have historically faced. 

The most common is assisted suicide and the closely associated compromise of allowing a terminally ill patient to expire without “heroic” medical interference with the natural progression of death. 

While the traditional strict view was that a physician was bound to make every effort to preserve any and all living human beings, the modern view is that when the “quality of life” has so diminished,  at some point — and the consensus at least considers the clearly terminal crisis to be that point — ethics permit, and indeed may require the cessation of measures to preserve life. 

The doctor’s duty then is to provide relief from pain, even if that relief through increasing doses of powerful drugs, shortens “life.” 

For most contemporary medical ethicists, this issue is separate from that of assisted suicide.  But for many others, the additional question of assisted suicide, which is the next short step, is also entering the mainstream as an arguably permissible ethical choice. 

Capital punishment is dissimilar from the plight of a “terminal” patient in at least one important way. From a medical standpoint, the subject is not “terminal.” There is no illness or injury that would lead to an imminent or even an inevitable death. In fact, the “patient” for whom the physician is providing the “humane” death is not ill or injured. He or she is an otherwise healthy person who, if not executed by order of the state, might live many more years without physical pain. 

The emotional pain of guilt and remorse is another issue entirely. Some may believe that it is merciful to relieve criminals from the angst of living with such guilt by terminating their lives in a “humane” manner. Considering the large number of suicides on death rows there may be some merit to this argument, but it is certainly not the law’s purpose nor is it at the mainstream of the arguments supporting physician assisted executions. 

Another example from history is the role of medical personnel in the Holocaust. Many of those who participated in the mass executions of millions in the gas chambers argued (at least retroactively) that they were assisting already doomed people to die “peacefully” — that is, without “excessive violence” or “anxiety.” Physicians, scientists, guards, and collaborators within the camps later made this argument when confronted with their culpability. 

Physicians who performed gruesome experiments on prisoners rationalized their actions by saying that these people were doomed and their “sacrifice” might save future lives. 

My question is whether the “Ethicist” would consider the actions of these doctors acceptable as long as they really believed that the genocide was ethical “in principle.” In other words, a committed Nazi such as Dr. Mengele might be, under this reasoning, acting ethically, by “euthanizing” the disabled, mentally ill, or others condemned as “subhumans” according to Nazi medical theory that doing so was beneficial to the “race.” As long as their terminating was done in a “humane” way, of course.

When it comes to the issue of doctors participating in capital punishment today, my next question is whether, by using their skills to reduce the pain of the execution for the condemned prisoner, they are deceiving themselves into believing that their actions are “humane.” 

It brings into question the whole concept of the “painless” execution. A judge recently wrote that the search for the mixture of lethal drugs that will kill without pain is wrongheaded. The goal of  the death penalty is to punish, and to deter. 

It is by nature a brutal act which the society decrees is in its best interest to commit because of the brutality of the crime for which it is designed to punish. 

Thus, why shouldn’t it be painful? The Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments” was clearly intended by the Enlightenment Era Founders to include traditional unenlightened practices of torture and other forms of execution (drawing and quartering, keelhauling, disemboweling, etc.) which intentionally prolonged agony as a punishment to the condemned and a lesson to others. 

Hanging was the commonly accepted “humane” form of the time and was followed by the technological advance of electrocution and later the gas chamber and now, lethal injection. The appellate courts have pointed to those changes as efforts to spare the condemned from cruelty which they equated with prolonged infliction of pain, even if unintended. 

In reality, the pain of the condemned, though it is the constitutional rationale, is really less critical for many than the squeamish sensibilities of witnesses, the media, and the public. 

When public hangings were a form of mass entertainment, frequent miscalculations regarding physics principles regarding the weight vs distance of fall resulted in bodies writhing for ages before suffocating or the more gruesome alternative: the loud snap of the spinal cord and complete or partial decapitation. Either event turned stomachs in crowds so that they could not enjoy the treats that were being sold. Hangings were thus moved into the enclosed yards of jails and conducted at dawn — to reduce the embarrassment of officials. 

Electrocutions were always performed in relative privacy, behind the walls of prisons, and before a select group of witnesses who were banned from photographing the often grisly event. Popping eyeballs, bleeding orifices, steam and smoke rising, the smell of burning flesh, the writhing of dying bodies, all were commonly reported by the appalled witnesses. 

Death in the gas chamber was described often in terms that might have pleased Edgar Allen Poe or Alfred Hitchcock. The gas pellet dropped into the acid, the fumes rise, the condemned tries to hold his breath, but eventually inhales, writhes, turns green, shudders, faints, awakens, moans, stops. 

And now lethal injection is proven to be no less gruesome — for the witness as much as for the condemned. 

European pharmaceutical companies have balked at providing their products to be used for this purpose. Whether their ethics or business senses are offended by it is a separate question. Some might consider the association of the concept of ethics with drug companies as foreign. 

My concern is with the doctors who deem it their ethical duty to administer the lethal doses in such a system. How many would agree to be state executioner if they discovered afterward that the person they killed was shown to have been innocent. 

This has now happened often enough that it is not merely hypothetical.  

Thursday, July 24, 2014


The latest botched execution elicited a modest proposal from Circuit Court Judge Alex Kozinski for using other methods: firing squad or guillotine as an admission that the penalty is in fact society’s brutal response to a violent crime. 

I have another proposal which I explained in this post a long time ago. Maybe it is time to reconsider televising executions. My pitch was to combine the Kardashians with American Idol — the public votes for the an eye for an eye method or other more deserving manner of death. The victim’s family can be the executioners (for closure). Alex Trebek as emcee? Working title: “Final-Final Jeopardy!” 

Friday, June 20, 2014


In the First World War, the Ottoman Empire, having taken the wrong side, collapsed. The British army marched into Jerusalem, Damascus and Baghdad. Britain and France divided the post war control over the middle east between them. Baghdad was the center of the area which historically had been known as Mesopotamia. The vast amorphous section included the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which had seen the earliest agricultural civilizations rise: cities, culture, writing, law – all had begun in this area. Empires had come and gone: Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian. Now, it was to be stitched together as a nation the British would create, called Iraq.

In his book, “A Peace To End All Peace: The Fall of The Ottoman Empire And The Creation of the Modern Middle East,” David Fromkin writes that idealistic post war principles espoused by Woodrow Wilson that demanded “national self-determination” trumped the British colonial predisposition. Against their better judgment, the British proceeded to create a nation although it “opened up other possibilities which were regarded almost universally with anxiety, ... gave opportunity for political intrigue to the less stable and more fanatical elements.” 

Sir Arnold Wilson was the British civil commissioner in Baghdad from 1918-1920.  
The British Cabinet tasked Arnold Wilson to “ask the peoples of Mesopotamia what states or governments they would like to see established. . . .” He told them that there was no way to gauge public opinion.

“While he was prepared to administer the provinces of Basra and Baghdad, and also the province of Mosul (which, with Clemenceau’s [the French P.M.] consent, Lloyd George [the British P.M.] had detached from the French sphere and intended to withhold from Turkey), he did not believe that they formed a coherent entity. 

“Iraq (an Arab term that the British used increasingly to denote the Mesopotamian lands) seemed to him too splintered for that to be possible. Mosul’s strategic importance made it seem a necessary addition to Iraq, and the strong probability that it contained valuable oilfields made it a desirable one, but it was part of what was supposed to have been Kurdistan; and Arnold Wilson argued that the warlike Kurds who had been brought under his administration ‘numbering half a million will never accept an Arab ruler.’”

“A fundamental problem, as Wilson saw it, was that almost two million Shi’ite Moslems . . . would not accept domination by the minority Sunni Moslem community, yet ‘no form of Government has yet been envisaged, which does not involve Sunni domination.’ The bitterness between the two communities was highlighted when each produced a rival Arab nationalist society. ... Seventy-five percent of the population of Iraq was tribal, Wilson told London, ‘with no previous tradition of obedience to any government.’”

Another expert of the time was Gertrude Bell, a British writer who had traveled widely and understood its history, religion, culture, and politics. She was respected by her government and advised on mid-east policy in this period. Along with T.E. Lawrence, Bell tried to forge a unified and independent Iraq, and opposed the policies of her superior, Arnold Wilson, who was skeptical of Iraqi nationhood. 

According to Fromkin, Bell was also warned “by an American missionary that she was ignoring rooted historical realities in doing so. ‘You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a political entity! Assyria always looked to the west and east and north, and Babylonia to the south. They have never been an independent unit. You’ve got to take time to get them integrated, it must be done gradually. They have no conception of nationhood yet.’” 

During the British occupation, while they were nation building, discontent and sectarian violence began to brew. Over the course of months, British soldiers began to die, in pairs, then in groups. The culprits were varied: former “officers who had served in the Hejaz forces with Lawrence had been forbidden to return home as suspected potential troublemakers . . . [now] had slipped back into the country.” British officers were killed in Kurdistan. 

“In June [1920] the tribes suddenly rose in full revolt. . . a nationalist reign of terror. . . .  For one reason or another—the revolts had a number of causes and the various rebels pursued different goals—virtually the whole area rose against Britain. . . A Holy War was proclaimed against Britain in the Shi’ite Moslem holy city of Karbalah.”

After the assassination of a high British official, the London Times asked:

“how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endevour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?” 

The revolt was not considered put down until after February, 1921, after Britain suffered almost 2,000 casualties. 

The British searched for causes of the revolt, blaming supporters of Feisal, in Turkey, Standard Oil, and other countries including the Bolsheviks who now controlled England’s traditional enemy in the area, Russia. Arnold Wilson told London that “there was no real desire in Mesopotamia for an Arab government, that the Arabs would appreciate British rule.” To explain the uprising, he concluded, “what we are up against is anarchy plus fanaticism. There is little or no Nationalism.” 

“The tribesman, he said, were ‘out against government as such’ and had no notion what they were fighting for.’”

The fact was that everywhere in the region the status quo was unstable. Kemal, the revolutionary post Ottomon leader of Turkey defied the Allies. King Hussein, who had been installed by Britain, was unpopular in Arabia. Egypt was bridling at British control. The Afghans were “conspiring with the Russians.” Arabs were rioting in Palestine and rebelling in Iraq. All the while, England’s post-war economy was in shambles, and the expenses of middle east adventure mounted. (In England, blame for the mess was variously ascribed to all of the above, and one more faction, one that should not be surprising, given our knowledge of history — the Jews. There were significant Jewish populations in Baghdad — as well as Christians— and in Palestine, and as usual, Jewish influence was sometimes disproportionately greater than their numbers.)

How things have NOT changed in a hundred years!