Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Kokor Hekkus

Today's title is the cognomen of the titular villain in a Jack Vance novel. As we eventually learn, It means "Killing Machine" in the language of a secret world far out Beyond; the novel is correspondingly entitled The Killing Machine.

Set phasers to stun

If only it were that easy with tasers. The reports of deaths owing to tasering are become legion; whether such incidents, which naturally grab headlines, are a substantial fraction of all taser uses or only a small minority, it remains clear that death is not a wildly unlikely possibility. Despite that fact, now almost universally known, taser use by police officers seems virtually epidemic.

The latest (as I write--these things seem to come in almost hourly) hot-potato incident, out of Utah, didn't involve serious injury, but can serve as a model of what's wrong here. In this one, we have the benefit of the trooper's own in-car video recorder showing the entire affair.

It helps to recall why tasers were developed in the first place: to serve as a non-lethal alternative to firearms. Too often, police officers were in situations in which a subject had to be stopped either from escaping or from attacking the officer or a bystander, but in which death or serious injury seemed--was--a grossly disproportionate punishment for the suspected (or known) activity. Tasering was not, is not, never will be the neat, clean, good-guy "stun" of Star Trek: a taser is a weapon with clear and definite dangers. But tasering is, very obviously, a better idea than shooting someone.

The problem is that because tasers are seen as "harmless", at least by comparison with firearms, police officers are now apparently using them almost routinely to coerce behaviors: do this or I'll taser you. That's not what tasers are for. They are, again, for use when the subject's actions are uncontrollable by ordinary means and those actions either involve escape by someone who plausibly seems involved with a serious crime or who realistically and immediately threatens an officer or bystander with harm.

Putting it in a simple rule of thumb that all police officers should be able to easily understand (and have no dispute with): Don't draw a taser unless the only alternative would be to draw a gun.

I don't gotta show you no stinkin' charges

Bilal Hussein has for many years been an Associated Press news photographer based in his native Iraq; one of his pictures was part of a Pulitzer-prize winning AP package. Hussein has been in a military slammer now for over a year and a half. Why? Well, that's the question, isn't it? It seems a basic premise of incarceration that to lock someone up, you need to have clear ideas of what he is supposed to have done wrong, and some evidence that he did it. And you should, if you are the "forces of freedom", be willing and able, after 19 months, to list those charges and produce your evidence.

The AP sent a lawyer over to look into the matter. After what the AP describes as an "intensive" investigation, their conclusion is that the allegations are "false or meaningless". They may also, in part, have been faked up:

The report rejected the military's contention that Hussein possessed bomb-making materials. Gardephe [the AP investigator] said this allegation appeared to be based solely on the fact that Hussein, after being arrested at his Ramadi apartment, was taken to an electrician's shop on the ground floor and photographed next to equipment and broken appliances.

"There is no evidence that Hussein had any access to or connection with that shop and storage room; the doors of both were locked before the USM (U.S. military) smashed them in," the report said. "Both the owner of the building and Hussein himself told us that the shop was owned and operated by an electrician who had left Ramadi six months to a year earlier."

"The USM conceded that the 'evidence' concerning most of the allegations against Hussein was quite weak," Gardephe wrote. . . . The USM refused to share any evidence concerning these two allegations [the chief points] with me, however, on the grounds that the proof was 'classified.'"
Nineteen months. Nineteen months.

Ho hum. Another day of advancing freedom in Iraq.

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