Friday, November 01, 2002



We had a stupendous time last night taking Noah around for his first-ever Halloween trick-or-treat. From what I saw, with lots of accompanied kids out and about, with houses decorated, and nearly everyone being downright neighbourly, it is one of those community rituals make civilisation work. Still, there always has to be one spoil-sport, and I'm glad we didn't knock on this guys door:

A St. Charles man was taken into police custody early this morning, for allegedly shooting through his apartment door at trick-or-treaters who knocked on it....
Police said five children were with three adult women when they knocked on an apartment door, and someone inside the apartment fired five shots through the door.

Explain to me again how my freedom is enhanced by guys like this having easy access to guns. (Link via Tbogg).


BTW: My computer has been down most of the day with a keyboard problem. It seems to be okay now, but I haven't been able to answer emails, so apologies to those who have written - I will respond ASAP.


NASA is apparently paying someone to write a book to refute the it-never-happened, um, lunatics, who think the moon landing was faked. As if a book is going to convince them. If I were NASA, I'd work out who the most prominent conspiracy theorist was and I'd fly him to the moon. They could dream up some experiments to do to justify the cost, but it'd be worth it just so we never had to hear the stupid theory ever again. Still, the guy would probably claim he was drugged and taken to a film studio somewhere, so maybe it wouldn't work anyway. Then again, they could just leave him there............

(Links via Hot Buttered Death.)

Thursday, October 31, 2002



My son is so excited about his first Halloween that he was up even earlier than usual this morning - so early that I resemble your basic jack-o-lantern. His school is having a Halloween parade at lunchtime, so we had to dress him up in his Dracula outfit and speak in a funny accent all the way into class this morning. We were greeted at the front of the school by the headmaster suitably attired as a pirate, and nearly everyone else was decked out as well. Tonight we go door-to-door hassling the neighbours for sweets. It's fun and it's big and, as Will Vehr's points out, someone always whinges:

As always on Halloween, there's hand-wringing over folks like me who go all out to celebrate:

"The gravestones and people coming out of the ground are upsetting to some of our members," said Nancy Ruhe-Munch, executive director of Parents of Murdered Children. "I just think it's sad when we make a game or a costume out of death."

"I wouldn't allow my child to dress up as a junkie or a pimp or an AIDS victim," she said. "Why would I let him dress up as a murderer or a victim? We're sending the wrong message."

Will adds, and I couldn't agree more, "I think it's just as likely that Halloween helps kids deal with their fears." To put it slightly differently, such games give them a sense of control and order in their lives -- it's one of those moments when you, as a parent, take your hand off the rudder (or is it the tiller?) and, within the confines of the "ritual", let them make their own decisions. So while I'm willing to cut anyone from an organisation called Parents of Murdered Children a lot of slack (a lot), I just have to respectfully disagree with her assessment.


This is the first piece I have put up at Stand Down, the bipartisan no war blog.


At the moment, a number of senior members of the Australian government are in Washington D.C. (they go home tonight, actually) talking war and terror and cooperation with the Bush Administration:

Rumsfeld spoke to reporters at a State Department press conference along with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Defense Minister Robert Hill...."We've had excellent discussions on the war on terrorism and the situation in Asia, more broadly, the security environment there," the U.S. defense secretary noted...Australia "was one of the first countries to join with us" after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States, Rumsfeld remarked. Australian troops "fought shoulder-to-shoulder" with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and played an important role in ejecting the Taliban and al Qaeda from their former haven, he noted....In February, an Australian, Sgt. Andrew Russell, was the first non-American killed in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said, noting that Australia "has demonstrated a clear commitment to combating the evils of terrorism."...Rumsfeld praised Australia as "a steadfast and dependable ally and friend" of the United States of many decades.

This kind of back patting is par for the course, and Australian politicians from both major parties like nothing better than being indulged in it. Australians in general are happy to line up our interests with those of the United States, partly for pragmatic reasons, partly because we are signatories to a treaty, and partly because most of us basically accept that there are shared values between the two countries.

To the extent that anything is a given in modern politics, Australia's participation in a war against Iraq is a given. Our ability to provide much in the way of manpower or equipment is rather limited--and probably in any real sense, unnecessary--but if the only thing we could provide was freeze-packed Vegemite sandwiches, then we'd provide them (though, of course, for this to be truly effective it might be best to send them to the Iraqis rather than the Americans.)

Within certain sections of the left, such automatic aquiescence is considered to be servility of the highest order, but any real politik assessment suggests that an Australian government has little choice. At stake is not just the standing of Australia's elite amongst America's elite, as is sometimes suggested. The fact is, involvement in the odd war gives little Australia leverage that it would not otherwise have in other negotiations with Bruder Mouse across the Pacific. Such concessions as we got on the infamous US steel tariffs and that we hope to get in the form of a free trade agreement with the US are predicated on our willingness to be a "good ally". There is also the fact, generally accepted, that US involvement in our region is essential for Australian security. Again, the feeling is, if we were not to involve ourselves when the US requested it, the same might be true in reverse. Although this has been a staple of Australian foreign policy since at least WW II, it has particular resonance in a post-911, post-Kuta Beach world.

Australians recognise--and know from experience--that such leverage is limited and the US will do exactly what it wants at the end of the day; but they also know that it does count for something when it comes to negotiating access for our primary products or perhaps our steel. In fact, a tiny piece in yesterday's Washington Post shows the sort of thing that is at stake:

Australia and the United States signed an agreement on Australian participation in the $200 billion project to produce the Joint Strike Fighter, the world's most advanced combat plane. Australia, the eighth partner in the project, will invest $150 million in development costs, winning for Australian companies the right to compete for project contracts...."We think it's a very sound investment. It's going to be a fine aircraft that will serve us for a long period of time," said Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill, who signed and exchanged letters with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "It emphasizes the close relationship that we have in defense."

Involvement in such projects is simply not possible without a fair bit of acquiescence in other areas, such as the odd war with Iraq, and such projects are not to be treated lightly as they mean jobs for Australians, technology transfers and other substantial crumbs from the master's table. A left, or indeed a citizenry, that doesn't take account of such things is being indulgent.

The fact remains, however, that a majority of Australians are against a war with Iraq. This is particularly striking in the wake of the the Bali bombings when Australians are feeling rightly vulnerable, but there it is. This has caused an otherwise gung-ho government--who were openly ready to go along with US plans--to pull back a little. Although it remains clear that they will support even a go-it-alone US approach, the rhetoric from the government has increasingly been couched in terms of requiring UN approval and a worldwide coalition of countries prepared to "regime change" Iraq.

In the face of government soft-peddaling in deference to public opinion, the hardline case for involvement has been left to the (largely) pro-war rightwing pundits in the press who haven't failed to trot out all the usual cliches of "freedom fighting", the usual labelling of "the left" as appeasers of tyranny, and, most ridiculously, the usual ill-informed attempts to tie Saddam Hussein to the al Qaeda terrorist network. In regard to this last point, this piece, which appeared in a conservative rightwing online journal, is fairly typical of the pro-war right and it is worth giving it some attention:

Where should Australia stand in all this? Well, like it or not, Australia has been pushed into the front line of the War Against Terror by an almost random act of terror. Like the September 11 attack the bombing does not seem to be linked to anything - Australia was considering joining the US in attacking Iraq before the bombing, but public opinion was shifting markedly against it. In fact, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the bombing was an act of pure hatred against Western Civilisation as such. Australian citizens happened to be in the way. Perhaps we did not want it, as a nation, but the Bali Bombing has given us sufficient reason to enlist in the US side in the War Against Terror. Our one regret about any action against Iraq is that it will be the last-easy military action of that war.

The problem with the "analysis", of course, is that it effortlessly runs together a war with Iraq with the "war on terrorism", suggesting a link between the murderous bombings in Bali and the regime of Saddam Hussein. In fact, I don't mind if people want to make a case for involvement in these actions separately, but it is patently dishonest to link them like this. Even the likes of Daniel Pipes, someone not noted for either his dovishness or his criticisms of American exceptionalism, recognises a war against Iraq is different from the war on terrorism and he said as much on Australian television:

JANA WENDT: We appear to be heading at the moment towards a confrontation with Iraq. Daniel Pipes, is this the right step in this war?

DANIEL PIPES: Well, it is the right step, but it's a different war. I think the main war, the war that began a year ago today, is the war on militant Islam, the one that we've been talking about until now - it so happens that Saddam Hussein lives in the same part of the world and is a nominal Muslim and so there is a tendency to see him as connected to this, but he's not. The problem of Saddam Hussein is a simple one. Here is an absolutely ruthless megalomaniac dictator, who is trying by all means possible to get his hands on nuclear weapons. He is close to achieving that. We must stop it. It's easy to do, easy to defeat him militarily, easy to get rid of him. There is no ideology. He has no cadre. There's no-one devoted to the thoughts of Saddam Hussein. He'll be gone and one can begin with a new Iraq and this will have enormously beneficial effects on all sorts of Middle Eastern and international issues. So it's urgent. Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons is the single most terrifying prospect in the world today. It needs to be done soon.

If the Australian left has to accept that there are actually pretty sound pragmatic reasons for lining ourselves up with the US, then the right has to accept that if it wants to make a case for involvement in Iraq it has to do so with more honesty than it is currently exhibiting.

The further disservice the right does to its own cause in linking the issues like this is that they are presuming that opposition to a war with the Iraq is the same thing as opposition to the "war on terrorism". By pretending they are the same, they are alienating support for one at the expense of the other. In fact, a perfectly decent argument can be made that, rather than each "war" being related, support for action in Iraq undermines our ability to be involved in the war on terrorism, and amongst those making such an argument, incredibly, is one of the most conservative organisations in the country, the RSL.

This sort of schism on the right is further evidence of how dubious the case for our automatic involvement really is. And I guess it is the automatic involvement that I object to most. I harbour no pacifist fantasies and don't wish to rule out a war with Iraq forever and ever. Iraq, the region and the world would be well-rid of Hussein. But as far as I can see, no compelling case currently exits for US pre-emption and even less for Australian involvement in it. If our relationship with the US is worth the blood it has been forged with, then it should be able to withstand this particular rain check.

Having said that, we should indulge in no fantasies that we will win some sort of grudging respect from the US for refusing their request. Somewhere along the line, we will be punished, and we will be frozen out. This will harm our interests somewhere, sometime. But if this is a war about values, as the pro-war right is always telling us, then we have to exercise some of those values, which include independent thought and action. There is no good case for the US declaring war on Iraq and there can be even less reason for Australia to be involved. To paraphrase a famous catch-cry from the last Australian election, we should decide who we go to war with and we should go at a time and place of our own choosing. The populist right, including the current Prime Minister, is always eager to tell us that the instincts of the Australian people are good. They should pay attention to those instincts now, instincts that are telling Australians that they shouldn't have a bar of this avoidable war. Not one Vegemite sandwich should be sent in anger, let alone a soldier.

Visitors over the last few days will have noticed that the comments facility has been down due to a system upgrade at Enetation. Apart from the obvious lack of comments, this has meant the site has been loading slowly as well. Apologies for that, but it looks like is everything is hunky dory again...what?...oh amongst yourselves.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002



What is going on at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra? This national landmark, a symbol of Indigenous struggles for the past thirty years, and which has survived concerted efforts to remove it, has come under its most serious threat in years, and it comes from another group of Indigenous people:

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was the scene of a dramatic confrontation yesterday after a rival Aboriginal group burned down a humpy and extinguished the ceremonial fire....The confrontation came as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission said it was considering a national conference to settle the embassy's future....Police and the fire brigade were called to the scene early yesterday after local Aboriginal leader Matilda House and supporters went to the site to "clean up", with the intention of removing all structures except the two sheds that comprised the original embassy....The group burned down a central humpy, extinguished the ceremonial fire and began dismantling tents before police negotiators arrived and, late in the day, persuaded them to leave....This morning, the Supreme Court will hear an application from tent embassy representative Jannette Phillips for an injunction to stop Ms House and others damaging the embassy.

While it is stupid (not to mention insulting) in the extreme to expect that, just because a group is a minority within a society that everyone within that minority will hold the same opinions on everything, it does seem that this recent confrontation is not doing anyone except the government and other embassy opponents any good. If the Embassy goes under such circumstances the legitimacy of much Aboriginal activism will go with it.


Max Sawicky and some others have opened a new site dedicated to voicing opposition to a war with Iraq - Stand Down. It could be an interesting experiment as well as good source of material in that its contributors are drawn from the left and right of the political spectrum. My name is down to be an occasional contributor, and I'll tend to concentrate on Australian attitudes and Australian involvement in any action taken against Iraq. The idea is that we post our pieces on the new blog as well as our own blogs, but clearly Stand Down will be your one stop shop for this important debate. In part, the Unity Statement says this:

The members of Stand Down hold a wide variety of different and, indeed, conflicting political positions, but all are in agreement on a single proposition: that the use of military force to effect "regime change" in Iraq is ill advised and unjustified. We do not deny that the current Iraqi regime is monstrous, but we hold, following John Adams, that the United States need not go "abroad in search of monsters to destroy" unless they pose a clear and direct threat to American national security.

The high costs of invasion in the form of the death of innocents, the destabilization of the region, and the swelling of the ranks of terrorists as anti-American sentiment is inflamed, require that the decision to go to war not be taken lightly. In the absence of clear evidence that Saddam Hussein is so suicidal as to have undertaken or planned attacks against the United States, we hold that the wise and moral course is to pursue, by a variety of means, the strategies of deterrence and containment that have effectively shielded the U.S. from attack by nuclear-armed adversaries for the past 50 years.

As I say, apart from being a good source of material, it is an interesting experiment in blogging, with ideological opposites united around a common cause. I wonder if this "unity" will necessarily force a more considered response from the usual suspects who would normally be expected to dump all over such a site? In this sense, it is the right-of-centre contributors who are taking the biggest risk and I takes me hat off to 'em.

There's a comments facility, so go and have a look and maybe have a say.


Apart from a comment by Gert in the post below about Halloween, this article also puts right my incorrect attribution of Halloween to some form of paganism. I knew it coincided with All Saint's Day, a Christian celebration, but I also thought it had roots in European harvest festivals (everything has roots in European harvest festival it sometimes seems). Actually, I wasn't entirely wrong, but the story is more complex than you might think. Here's some extracts:

Halloween has been creeping up on Christmas to become the second biggest annual bonanza for U.S. retailers, a Grim Reaper that harvests $6.8 billion per year in exchange for candy, costumes, cards and party supplies. That success sets it up for the kind of debunking that Christmas has endured recently, as historians have shown that what we think of as time-honored Yuletide traditions are actually only about 100 years old. Likewise, as two new books document, the seemingly ancient customs of Halloween turn out to be recent embellishments to a holiday that used to be a pretty low-key affair. And forget those Transylvanian villagers and superstitious medieval peasants -- Halloween is as American as the Fourth of July.........

It's often said that Halloween originates with the Celtic festival of Samhain (show off your pagan cred by correctly pronouncing it as "sow-an"), but it's hard to recognize the modern world's gleefully ghoulish festivities in what one scholar called "an old pastoral and agricultural festival" that marked the beginning of winter. Rogers, whose book is at its best when digging up the anthropological forerunners of the holiday, says that "there is no hard evidence that Samhain was specifically devoted to the dead or to ancestor worship," although in Ireland it was thought to be a time when mischievous spirits were particularly frisky. (The ancient Celts are rumored to have engaged in human sacrifice in some of their rites -- not Samhain specifically -- but those reports came from the conquering Romans and may have been propaganda.) Samhain was a time of reckoning when livestock were slaughtered for the winter stores and the days became short, cold and gloomy.

Despite the fact that conservative Christians in America have protested the "pagan" revelry of Halloween, the holiday owes its name and many of its trappings to Christianity. "Halloween" derives from All Hallows Even, the night before All Saints' Day (Nov. 1), which is in turn followed by All Souls' Day (Nov. 2), an occasion for praying for and visiting with the dead........

One of the reasons Halloween, the American holiday, seems so un-Christian is that it appears to have been primarily brought over by Protestant Scots who had abandoned the religious element of the day while hanging on to its assorted folk traditions. Skal, in his cultural history, writes that when the fledgling greeting card industry of the 19th century first started churning out Halloween cards, they featured such Scottish motifs as "tartan plaid borders, thistles and heather, messages like 'Auld Lang Syne,' and the like." (The Scottish connection was cemented by the fact that one of the richest surviving sources of 18th-century Halloween lore is Robert Burns' long poem "Halloween.")......

The jack-o'-lantern, now an indispensable Halloween motif, didn't emerge until the first decade of the 20th century, although the Scots had a folk tradition of carving lanterns out of turnips -- a much harder job with a much smaller vegetable. Those lanterns were linked to a legendary figure named Jack who was so incorrigible that neither Heaven nor Hell would have him, and so he was condemned to walk the earth until Judgment Day, toting his turnip lamp. Like the Will-o-the-Wisp (aka marsh gas) he liked to use his lantern to lure passersby to their doom in swamps and bogs. He wasn't particularly linked to Halloween until the dawn of the 20th century, and no one seems to know how pumpkins came to replace turnips.

Well, at least I can help them on that last point - ever tried to hollow out a turnip and stick a candle in it? Anyway, there's plenty more in the article and it's quite fascinating.


When market solutions don't work, I guess the next best thing is to criminalise behaviour. This seems to be the approach of many US governments according to a Washington Post article:

SAN FRANCISCO -- Fed up with growing hordes of homeless people begging and sleeping on their streets, cities across the country have begun taking desperate new steps to restrict their behavior, or to run them out of town....The same exasperation is evident nationwide. In Philadelphia, officials just launched an advertising campaign urging downtown workers and tourists not to give spare change to panhandlers. In Orlando, the city council recently voted to jail people caught lying or sitting on downtown sidewalks. Authorities in New Orleans have gone to the point of removing all the benches in historic Jackson Square to stop the homeless from sleeping there...."We are definitely seeing a rise in the number of places criminalizing homeless people," said Donald Whitehead, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "The problem is getting bigger, and people are losing patience."

I don't know what it says about the issues raised by Jason Soon in this post speculating about comparisons between the US and Australia, but it is interesting to note that on the same day I saw the WaPo article, I stumbled onto this brief note in an Australian paper:

An alliance of welfare and legal groups is calling on the State Government to decriminalise begging....The alliance has written to Attorney-General Rob Hulls urging him to repeal the Vagrancy Act....Mr Hulls said yesterday that a parliamentary committee had recently recommended an investigation into the links between begging and homelessness, drug use and poverty....He said the government would respond by March, but his personal view was that treating beggars like criminals did not tackle the causes of begging. He said beggars could act aggressively but there were laws other than the Vagrancy Act to deal with such behaviour.

Bloody socialists.

My favourite line was this from a spokesman for Madison Wisconsin Mayor, Susan Bauman. "If you don't feed them, they'll go away."

True enough.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002



It seems the biggest single stuff up in the hunt for the Washington-area sniper/s was the centrality given to the existence of a "white van." Jim Henley is rightly annoyed about this too and quotes this Newsweek article:

As it turned out, a witness had reported seeing a Caprice driving slowly with its lights off near the scene of the Oct. 3 shooting in northeast D.C. But in the dark, the witness remembered the car’s color as burgundy, not blue, and the lead was lost in the chatter over white vehicles. A witness outside the Fredericksburg, Va., Michaels craft store, scene of a shooting on Oct. 4, reported a “dark-colored vehicle with New Jersey tags” leaving the scene. A woman calling the tip line on Oct. 7 said she had spotted a black man crouching beneath the dashboard in a dark Chevy Caprice. The woman was struck by the intensity of the man’s stare. The agent on the tip line brushed her off. “We’re looking for a white truck,” she said.

Amazing and disturbing if true. I must admit, however, to some degree of confusion about one aspect of it: how exactly do you see someone crouched beneath the dashboard of a car, and be close enough to be struck by the look in their eyes? At the very least it suggests she must have very close to the car, in which case you'd think she might have heard the gun fire as well. I know you could construct a scenario that fits this description, but it just doesn't quite ring true.

Still, the emphasis on a white van was a major error.


The blog dedicated to keeping the Australian national broadcaster honest (or at least, right), ABC Watch, doesn't seem to have picked up on this latest bit of ABC outrageousness:

It was a corker of a day after 774 ABC Melbourne toppled 3AW as the top talk station for the first time in 10 years.

Presenters Red Symons, Jon Faine, Derek Guille and Virginia Trioli recorded strong increases in the AC Nielsen radio survey released yesterday and propelled the station to number two overall behind Fox FM.

The public braodcaster number one in talk in the second largest city in the country and number two overall.

In fact, none of the zealous ABC watchers amongst the righwing bloggers have picked up this story as far as I can see. Funny really, given their usual dedication.


I could make a full time job out of blogging misleading things said about Australia in regard to gun laws (hang on, I have.) Don Arthur points out this loo-loo from Patrick Goodenough Pacific Rim Bureau Chief.

For a start he says this: Left-leaning parties and firearm control campaigners in Australia pushed Tuesday for gun laws to be tightened after two students were killed in a shooting at a Melbourne university.

This is just crap, as the push came directly from the Prime Minister, a man with a left-wing pedigree that goes all the way back to Attila the Hun. The truly funny bit in the article, however, is this:

The Australian Democrats, the third-largest party in the Senate, said it planned to introduce a bill to close what it sees as loopholes relating to the use and availability of handguns.

To characterise the Australian Democrats as the third-largest party in the Senate is like saying Anna Nicole Smith is the third smartest person in the room after Einstein and John Nash.


After a remark I made in a post below about the true identity of rightwing Australian blogger Professor Bunyip, alternatively known as Stanley Gudgeon, some in the comments box have suggested that the man behind the dual pseudonyms might be well-known Australian commentator, Imre Salusinszky.

I have no idea if this is true or not, but I doubt it. Although I'm no big fan of Salusinszky, I would suggest that there is a certain integrity about the man and his work that doesn't fit with the sort of stuff churned out by the pseudonymous blogger. I sincerely doubt that Salusinszky would hide behind a false identity and lurk in the marginal world of bloggers in order to tip buckets on his peers and dish out the sort of invective the Bunyip character specialises in.

On the sort of logic that some use to suggest Salusinszky, you could equally suggest the likes of PP McGuinness or a pile of other people from the Quadrant set including, say, Peter Ryan, Peter Coleman, Christopher Pearson etc etc. How about Miranda Devine?

In fact, I doubt if it is anyone with the sort of achievements those on this list have would risk indulging themselves in this way, and Bunyip is more likely a disaffected retired academic. I don't really care. Bunyip has his fans and they seem pretty happy with what he does which is probably all that matters. I'm not rushing to the defence of Salusinszky, but I think he is above this sort of accusation.


This is the best of the Doonsebury cartoons on blogging, and reminded me of exactly how some people reacted to postmodernism.


Every time I go to a big bookshop these days I remember a cartoon from the New Yorker some years back: Man at the sales desk: "No caffe latte! What kind of a bookshop is this?" I just bought (apart from a latte) Lawrence Lessig's, The Future of Ideas, which I hope to read this week. Also saw a book called, Feng Shui for Dummies. Isn't that a tautology?


Here is the summary of the Washington sniper incident I'd previously promised. I try and explain my reaction to the event itself and some of the issues it raised.


I was alerted to the sniper attacks by a guy at my wife's work who rang to tell me about it. "Someone is shooting people near where you live; it's all over the TV; maybe they've caught whoever did it; you shouldn't be concerned." At that moment I wasn't concerned; I was oblivious. Then I turned on the television to see what he was talking about, and three weeks later, I finally got to turn it off again.

That phone call was an early indication that most of us thought the five shootings of that first day would be the sum total of the event, that someone would be caught, or found dead, and that would be that. The first post I wrote (typos and all) said this:

This is the cliche come to life. The local news is currently providing blanket coverage of the fact that two men are driving around the area where I live (within a 3-mile radius) shooting people. Five people are dead. People have been advised not to drive and to stay in doors. The schools have been locked down. I just spoke to the office at my son's school and was told that children would not be let out for the time being and that all the schools doors were bolted shut. They said to ring back at 2pm (one hour) for more info, but what are the chances of getting through when every parent rings at the same time? Looking out the window I can see women with prams rushing home, having obviously just heard the news. My natural reaction is to go to the school and get Noah, but I guess he'll be safer where he is.


As that first post suggests, my experience of the whole event was strongly affected by the fact that I had a son at school in the area. My own and my wife's vulnerability was one thing, but for both of us it was Noah's safety that kept us on edge. I noticed an article in The Washington Post the other day that was most dismissive of such concerns:

The sniper's reign of terror was without doubt a rational cause for fear, and I don't fault any of those who took precautions to protect themselves or their loved ones. But over the past week our public reactions to the killings -- the media coverage, the poses of the authorities charged with ensuring our safety, the language in which we talked about the mystery man or men who held us in suspense -- crossed an invisible but palpable line into social hysteria. The sniper was "holding the region hostage." An AP report had us "paralyzed by fear." Parents faced "an agonizing choice" about whether to send their children to school.

The author is right to note that there was hyperbole, but the article both misstates and understates what it has been like for some of us in the Washington D.C. area.

My experience was that, in fact, no line was crossed into hysteria. No-one was paralysed by fear, though IMHO there was good cause for it. As to that final point, many parents actually did face an "agonizing choice" about sending their kids to school. Most of us went right ahead and did it, but it was only after some pretty tough calculations about relative levels of safety and concern for not alarming our kids and tring to keep life as normal as possible.

Will Vehrs wrote a fantastic piece about such choices, and although I basically disagreed with his conclusions, well, it was a great piece:

The Beltway Killer has changed life more profoundly for Central Virginia children and their parents than Osama bin Laden and the War on Terror could have envisioned.

There are no Bellicose Woman Brigades or "Hawks" rising up to battle this killer the way such individuals and groups rose up to stand tall against shadowy foes in foreign lands. We're not so bellicose or committed to "normal lives" when our children are threatened where we live.........

....I feel for school administrators. They have had tough calls to make and are under tremendous pressure from parents worried about their children's safety. I would not have closed the schools. I would not have put the schools in lockdown. I would have been fired.

A killer operating over a 100 mile stretch has shot 13 people. One was a student at a school in Maryland, a student who thankfully has survived this viscious crime. The killer has a pattern of setting up from a distance, often in a tree line, firing one shot at a person who is alone or with only one person near. The killer has issued a warning that children are not safe, regardless of where they are. There is no indication that the killer will deviate from his sniper-like attacks, unless police are not telling us everything.

What would I do? Assign a police cruiser to each school and give that officer school staff or volunteers in sufficient numbers to constantly walk the 1-300 meter boundry between the school and all wooded or other areas where someone could set up and fire a shot before and during school. I would react to the threat, not change everything about the school experience.

I fear that the way we have reacted to this threat--a very limited threat, in many statistical ways--will come back to haunt us as cretins and creeps of all kinds see the power of random violence and chilling threats.

Personally, I was happy for the schools to be locked down. In fact, if they weren't, Noah wouldn't have gone to school. As it turns out, had it not been for the shooting of the school boy in Bowie, maybe the lock down wouldn't have happened. I dropped Noah at school that day and heard about the schoolboy shooting on the way home. I rang Noah's school to see what measures were in place and they hadn't even heard of the (then) latest shooting. In fact, the woman I spoke to told me it was "a normal day." In other words, although the sniper was still on the loose, there were no plans to lock the school down.

Let's remember, this was still early in the piece, five people had been killed in a single spree the previous week, so who was to say another spree wasn't possible? The fact that one school kid had been shot made it fairly reasonable to assume that others might be targeted, maybe in another spree-type killing. It was only later--in fact after this--that the killer got into a sort of one-every-couple-of-days routine that we became familiar with.

Thus homolies on the statistical probability of being shot fail even on their own terms. People were shot in shopping centres, gas stations and schools. Do you're calculations on how many of those there are and the odds drop substantially.

In other words the calculation is less, gosh there's about 5 million people around here so I've got a one in five million chance of being a victim, and are more like, he's after school kids and there's only a few hundred schools. This might be irrational and mathematically unsound, but it more closely resembles the not-too-ridiculous thought processes people have. Besides, to tell you the truth, I don't really know what inputs to provide for the mathematical formula that has a bullet in my son's chest after the equal's sign.

So I don't think we did live in fear, though I know from talking to people that many adjusted their behaviour, not going out if they thought they didn't really need to. This wasn't panic; this was prudence.

Let's also not forget that a lot of the kids themselves were pretty scared. Friends with eight and ten year old daughters going to a school in Virginia that backs onto a wooded area report that their younger daughter was genuinely scared and on occasion couldn't sleep at nights.


Some have complained about the blanket coverage the sniper case got and I'm vaguely sympathetic. It did drown out other equally important news and discussion, and some of the discussion it generated was the worst sort of tabloid bilge imaginable.

Still, I was glad for most it and even related a bit to the media's addiction. I found the same thing myself on the blog, where news of the sniper and related matters shouldered out virtually everything else I might have written.

The fact is, it did dominate my thoughts and it was sort of--not therapeutic--but calming to be able "talk" about it. There was also the fact--which I'm sure spurred the media on--that you always thought you were on the verge of new information, whether it be another killing or perhaps an arrest, a clue, a breakthrough, so you didn't want to stop following it.

The simple fact is, knowledge, however tangential, was a sort of power; it offered a modicum of control in a uncontrollable situation and I was pleased to able to turn on the TV at any time and know I would instantly hear the latest.


I can say with some confidence that nearly everything I guessed about the sniper was wrong. I thought he was most likely a white guy with something approaching a gun fetish and a pretty dysfunctional background. Well, maybe I wasn't that far off.

I considered the terrorist connection and although I didn't dismiss it entirely, I thought it low down the list of probabilities. I got pretty fed up with those who absolutely insisted from the very beginning that it was Middle Eastern terrorism. Why? Well, because the evidence for it was scant, to say the least, and there was an air blame-shifting in many pundit’s insistence on a Islamic terrorist connection – an unhealthy willingness to pin it on foreign weirdos and ignore the possibility of a homegrown ratbag.

It seems no coincidence that many of those who insisted most loudly that this was Islamic terrorism were also the ones who had an ideological stake in shifting attention from any blame that might be placed upon lax gun laws and some sort of “gun culture”.

I was wrong about other things too.

All the way along I thought the guy was a psychopath (in the clinical sense), in it for the thrill of the kill and a sense of power, but I'm more inclined to say now that it was mainly a plan to get some money. I'd say there was also something like professional pride in Muhammad's approach to his task, and a sort egotistical belief that at some stage he had become invulnerable.

But the planning associated with the killings--the modified car, the scouting of sites--suggest that there was always a definite goal, and the note reveals that goal to be a sack load of money.

Towards the end, too, I had sort of convinced myself that the murders were being carried out by an official of some sort, most likely a cop, but maybe an a paramedic or the like.

My logic was two-fold: the perpetrator needed to have been well disciplined and to be “invisible” at the crime scene. I was reasonably perplexed by the way that he got away from each scene undetected, so there was a certain logic in thinking he didn't leave at all and just blended in with the other officials when they showed up. I guess I knew it wasn't that likely as I never mentioned it in any of my posts, but I did think it.


I didn't shy away from this one, though I only mentioned it in the first place in a sort of disbelief at the way gun advocates made their case. As an outsider, I'd heard how passionate US gun advocates were for their position, but really, I had no idea. And although I can accept the sincerity of many of these people, judging by some of the emails I got, I sincerely doubt the sanity of others.

I'm not sympathetic at all to most of the arguments gun advocates make, but I can see the sense of those who argue that America has reached the point of no return in terms of significantly reducing the number of guns in circulation and there is therefore some sort of sense in the self-defence argument. But as I said at one stage: this is less an argument than an admission of defeat.

Still, most of the bloggers I argued with on this point were very civil and I think I returned the courtesy. The one time where perhaps I crossed a line was when I said something to effect that on the wider issue of gun control Americans should just shut up.

My point was that they were arguing from inside the peculiarities of the American gun experience which they tended to universalise by quoting circumstances in other countries that they didn't understand. Thus I wrote a longer piece about the differences between American and Australian approaches to the idea of government to suggest that this was one area of historical divergence that led to completely different approaches. I was trying to make the point that American gun practice shouldn't and couldn't be taken as a norm, couldn't be universalised, and that maybe if advocates genuinely listened to alternative approaches they might learn something.

Still, the way I expressed it got up a few noses. I know it upset Patrick Nielsen Hayden from Electrolite--a blog I like a lot--and I think it even cost me a link on his site. All I can say is that I still maintain that position, but accept I could have expressed it differently.


Truly, it was a horrible three weeks. Walking Noah in and out of school every day, keeping him close, with a police car parked out the front, and knowing that everyone was studiously avoiding talking about the one thing they all were thinking about was disturbing. How people live in war zones or places where there is always the threat of this sort of injury is almost beyond me. I’m sure you adjust, but I’m not sure you should.

Now that Muhammad and Malvo are in custody, speculation continues as to their motives, and it looks like they were responsible for quite a crime spree in the lead up to their final act. I’ll follow all this lightly as I have really lost interest. Already the arguments over which jurisdiction will get to execute them are wearing thin, as are the endless interviews with people who sold them coffee or watched them work out in a gym.

As to whether they should get the death penalty, well, my opinion hasn’t changed. I’m against capital punishment and if I happened to be on their jury I would vote against it. If they get it, I’m hardly going to shed a tear, but I fail to see what purpose it will serve, even in the greater scheme of things.

A lot of people have asked me if it has changed my feelings about America. The answer is that it hasn’t, not in any profound way. I certainly don’t think any less of the place and still am very pleased to have the opportunity to live here.

It does strike me that Americans are way too tolerant of such occurrences, and that perhaps there are strands in the freedom, liberty, role-of-government arguments that need to be unravelled and reconsidered. I’m not trying to link the homicidal tendencies of two criminals with an entire country’s culture, but all such arguments here really do seem caught in well-worn ruts that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to get out of.

I’m also seriously thinking of joining a shooting club and learning something about guns; not out of any particular fear arising from these events or because of a desire to be armed, but simply to gain some insight into the attraction. Because, whatever else it is that causes people to argue so passionately about gun ownership, attraction to the implements themselves seems to be part of it. More broadly, I just want to know from the inside what I’m talking about.

I picked Noah up from school last Friday, the day after the arrests, and I asked him if they had played outside during recess. “Yes we did,” he said and then ran off ahead of me across the basketball court. I lunged instinctively, but pulled myself back and let him go. He ran to the other end of the court and turned around and did a little dance at the top of the key, poked out his tongue and ran away again. I ran after him, but not too fast, letting him stay well ahead of me, as dads do, not catching up.

Twenty feet between us across a school playground: that was the difference between yesterday and today.

Monday, October 28, 2002



My arguments about gun control have always acknowledged that different circumstances apply in different countries. Although I've said that in any wider debate, American gun advocates should just shut up--for instance, stop trying to get some form the US second amendment written into international law--I of course have no problem with them arguing the toss about US circmstances. However, in these debates, American advocates continue to cite practice in Australia which they neither understand nor attempt to understand.

The latest is example is Cathy Young in The Boston Globe:

Since 1996, Australia has implemented some of the world's toughest gun laws and a sweeping buyback program. Yet just this month, it has witnessed two shocking incidents. On Oct. 14, South Australia's mental health chief, Margaret Tobin, was shot dead by an assailant outside her office in Adelaide. A few days later, a gunman opened fire in a classroom at Monash University in Melbourne, killing two.

Editorials in the Australian press responded by calling for even more gun restrictions. Yet they offered little evidence that such measures would have prevented these tragedies, and conceded that criminals were finding ways to circumvent the laws such as smuggling in gun parts from Southeast Asia and assembling them into lethal weapons.

This is misleading on a number of levels. First, and most generally, to link the first two sentences with the word "yet" is to obviously suggest that gun laws are ineffective. No such conclusion can be drawn and it is simply dishonest to juxtapose the information in this way. In fact, as she herself goes on to suggest, there is evidence of their effectiveness at a number of levels. More broadly, there is an implication that because there are subsequent shootings, we shouldn't bother with regulation at all. The thrust of this is that those who support strict gun laws are somehow implying that they will stop all future shootings. In other words, the gun laws are held to the ridiculous standard of one hundred percent effectiveness, and in the absence of it, they are dismissed as having failed. In fact, no-one in support of gun control argues that they will be completely effective, and this sort of implication is one of the slimier interpretations that advocates like Young like to slip in.

Nonetheless, on one level, people in Australia have taken subsequent shootings, particularly those at Monash University, as a sign of the failure of the gun laws, but certainly not in the way that Young implies. All the Monash shooting has done is cause a sweeping call for more gun control, not less. So Young's comment about editorials calling for gun control is completely deceptive. It suggests that calls for stricter gun control are somehow limited to newspapers whereas in fact, they were coming from virtually every political party in the country, from the vast majority of citizens and, in fact, were being endorsed by the major shooters' associations.

And this is the main point that the many US gun advocates who cite the Australian example completely fail to acknowledge: Australians want gun control. The issue of "confiscation" simply does not arise as very few people think of the buy-back as confiscation. It is simply a laura norder measure where citizens have insisted the government remove as many guns as possible from the community. Until pro-gun American commentators get this simple fact through their heads, I guess they will continue to misrepresent the Australian situation.

(And surprise, surprise: look who is happily linking the Young article, and specifically quoting the stuff about Australia.)


While there are some interesting points in Don Arthur's post about political cynicism, I wonder if he's being careful enough to make the points he wishes to make. So, the things he says about the tendency for the media to see the political process as a simplistic competition are well taken; but stuff like this needs more attention:

In the US political scientists Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson have written about the 'spiral of cynicism' which infects media coverage of politics. Stories focus on political strategy and emphasize the self interested pursuit of power, status, and influence. Policy debate gets lost in the contest and voters are encouraged to interpret policy statements as just one more tool in a machiavellian game of factional advantage and vote buying.

And if politicians can't be trusted to look after the public interest - if all they'll do is take your money and use it to promote their own ambitions for power and status - then why wouldn't we want to scale back the state and keep our taxes for ourselves and our families? Nobody trust politicians anymore. Not those on the right, and not those on the left.

For a start, the concept of "the public interest" is fraught, and while I'd happily argue for its centrality in political considerations, I accept that a legitimate case can be made about its irrelevance, basically along the lines of "society" being nothing more than an aggregation of individual preferences. As well, this criticism can't be sheeted home to the media alone: politicians themselves are very good at arguing about the evils of "government"--thus the expression that no politicians gets elected without running against the government--and we saw plenty of examples of it, say, during the Republican referendum in Australia a few years back.

It varies from country to country, but basically I'd say politicians of the left are less likely to vilify the concept of government, though to the extent that parties like the Australian Labor Party have adopted neo-liberal economic prescriptions, I guess you could say it is true. But then again, even amongst the most fundamentalist members of the party in this respect (people like Mark Latham), there is an acknowledgement and language of government that is not seen so often on the right.

Then Don says this (and I'm not sure if he summarising someone else or expressing his own opinion, a problem I often have with Don's writing):

Without understanding what it was doing the radical left managed to join forces with the radical libertarian right and undermine faith in government. The intellectualized cynicism of public choice theorists was matched only by the conspiratorial cynicism of the new left who saw the state as nothing but the 'executive committee of the bourgeoisie.'

The radical left joined the radical libertarian right? Well, maybe. But the left has always had its anarchist wing, so it's wrong to think this is something they've just picked up from the right. And let's not forget that old Karl suggested that the state would simply "melt away". As for the charge that the left sees government as the 'executive committee of the bourgeoisie' there is some truth in this charge but it is misleading in the way it is presented here. The left argues that governments tend to be dominated by elite interests, but this is not necessarily an "anti-government" position. It is simply a critique of actual practice and a million miles away from the "libertarian right" position of the best government is that government that governs least. Nor is such a position cynicism: a pretty good case can be made that governments tend to be run by and mainly serve elite interests and to point it out is more in the line of truth telling than cynicism. Of course, there are paranoid versions of it, but to dismiss all such criticism as cynical is incredibly simplistic.

The same issue arises with this section of Don's post:

On the radical left Chomkyite analyses of the media and politics undermine confidence in the idea that politicians can be trusted to tell the truth or pursue the public interest:

." is the job of politicians to act as a buffer between populace and power, to distract us from real issues, from real obstacles to democracy. If necessary, a politician like Nixon can be sacrificed and the myth promulgated that the one 'bad apple' has been purged from an essentially good 'barrel'. Politicians are representatives, not of the people to be sure, but of corporations. They are functionaries who have to abide by the basic rules or are out."

This sounds a little too much like confusing cause and effect, or blaming the messenger. Is the critic who points out what he sees as a failure in the system to be blamed for undermining confidence in that system, or is confidence actually undermined by the very fault he mentions? The question is ultimately not whether such an analysis "undermines confidence" in the political process but whether or not it is true. That's where the argument should be had and that's where the likes of "radical left Chomkyite analyses" are useful, if not essential to any process of informed discussion. Again, to reduce this to cynicism is simply wrong. Ultimately, it is necessary to show where and why he is wrong, not dismiss the charges with the single word "cynical". Surely that in itself is, well, cynical?

Don's summary, including his rather hand-wringing questions therefore sound like a by-pass of the very process he seems to be arguing in favour of, namely, engaged debate:

And if this is how things really are then why bother with electoral politics? Why bother reading newspapers or engaging in debates over policy? Anyone who gets sucked into taking the game seriously is a mug. So just trot along to protest meetings, publish web sites telling people how to defraud the social security system, and give Tim Blair and Imre Salusinszky something to write about every week. You've no idea how grateful they are.

You bother because you're not happy with the situation as described. Since when would dissatisfaction with something necessarily lead to disengagement? Being bothered arises precisely from such analysis. To reduce all such concerns to mere cynicism is to play the very game you claim not to want to play. To then suggest that protest against any perceived faults is simply to play into the hands of the comedians of official punditry is to,,,play into the hands of the comedians of official punditry. In fact, if anyone is to be accused of cynicism it is the likes of those rightwing castigators Don names who generally have nothing more to offer than a quick put-down, a facetious attack, or some sharp (and sometimes funny) ad hominen jibe.


In a funny post, John Quiggin notes that he and I often seem to anticipate each other in our choice of topics to blog and I must say, I thought he was going to say that. He wonders if I ever find that he has already blogged on a topic that I was about to cover and I can report that it happens all the time. Even today I note he has something to say about postmodernism which I swear I was set to comment upon (prompted by responses to the Richard Glover article). Also, his comments about the American vs Australian definition of bloggers was something I was going to expand on having hinted at it at bit in the post below that mentions Blair and Bunyip. This sort of thing must be fairly common amongst basically like-minded bloggers, but in this case it does seem to happen at an above-average rate. Which reminds me, I was going to say something about...well, just click on John's site to read all about it.


It's Halloween on Thursday night, a tradition we don't have back in Australia. I knew from American movies etc that it was a big thing here, but I was a bit surprised at how big. It seems to be second only to Christmas in terms of visibility and availability of merchandise. The streets around us have been filling up with carved pumpkins, dangling skeletons, scarecrows, witches, door wreaths and the like for the past couple of weeks and it seems odd in this overtly religious country to see all these secular--indeed, pagan--images hanging from trees, stuck to windows and poked into lawns.

So when in Rome: we drove some miles out of DC on Saturday to a farmlet where you can pick your own pumpkins from your actual pumpkin patch, and buy other homemade accessories from a stall, and we came back home with two whopping great orange vegetables as well as a witch on a broomstick to hang on the front door. Son Noah, aged 6, loved the adventure and spent Sunday morning "helping" his mum carve shapes in the pumpkins. She did a pretty good job too, coming up with the traditional triangle-eyed monster design on one, and a rather spectacular cat arching its back on the other. We inserted the candles last night and fired them up and they looked great.

Noah is extremely excited about the whole thing, has picked out and modelled his Dracula outfit for the big night, and has lined up a trick-or-treat date with a bunch of friends for Thursday night. BTW: You want to know another reason the region is sighing with relief that the snipers have been caught - Halloween is it. No-one I know was particularly thrilled at the prospect of their kids wandering around in the dark with those two murderers still out there.

Perhaps its the novelty of the whole thing for a foreigner like me, but I'm finding Halloween a much more pleasant festival than Christmas. You don't have to agonise over gifts, you just hand out lollies (candy); it's much more oriented towards children, though adults seems to get into as well; you don't have to cook a turkey (though we are going to Halloween dinner on the night); it is secular, which appeals to the godless types like me; and there is an aura of authenticity about it brought about by the pumpkin factor: it's such a plain and simple thing to use, and even though you can buy plug-in plastic ones the same way you can buy plastic Christmas trees, the real things still seem to dominate - even if you can't be bothered carving them, you can just plonk them down on the front step to show you're getting into the spirit of thing. They're cheap too, and will go nicely with the lamb roast come Sunday lunchtime.

It just seems a much less fraught and more fun sort of event all round.


In a move completely unrelated to my post directly below, no doubt, I note that Bunyip has a new template and a sad but brave attempt to add some links. As I said, I thoroughly relate to his lack of expertise with coding and give him full marks for effort. Will be interesting to see what the final list looks like - looking awfully American right at the moment. BTW: the comments box for the post below contains a brave suggestion as to the Professor's real identity. Why do I suspect a closet door is about to be voluntarily opened?

Sunday, October 27, 2002



Scott Wickstein's new blog address meant I had to change his URL in the template, so I took the opportunity to update the Australian list in general. How appropriate that my links list is on the right-hand side of the page!

Most of these sites don't link to me, but that's never been my criteria for linking (I'm not sure what is). Still, I find it passing strange that those champions of all things Australian, Bunyip and Blair, who will place their blog boot across the throat of anyone who dares criticise, say, Australia's approach to asylum seekers, and revel in their self-appointed role as champions of Oz, don't link to any Australian blogs. Bunyip, I understand, hasn't figured out how to code, which I can relate to, but I'm not sure what Tim's reason is. In fact, it is interesting to note that he does link to some of the bigger US blogs. I suspect that if some lefty Australian did this, he would characterise the practice as brown-nosing and unpatriotic.

BTW: Like John Quiggin, I think I know who the Bunyip really is, but if he wants to stay hidden in the blog closet, that's okay. Still, given his vitriolic style and his willingness to stick it to anyone who transgresses his strictly policed understanding of correct thinking, he might want to reconsider. It would give his criticisms more bite, I reckon, if he presented them under his own name rather than from behind the safety of dual psuedonyms.

I've added Angela Bell, who I like to read, and ABC Watch who I think is funny - and let's face it, there simply wasn't enough rightwing attention being paid to the ABC anyway. Classic rightwing Steynwaller James Morrow is in, as is Jon Ray, a person with the dubious distinction of characterising Hitler as left wing and me as right wing. David Morgan is still a bit intermittent but is there anyway, and I've added Patrick McCauliffe, though I've only just started looking in there.

This makes my Australian listings a little more complete. If I've left anyone else off, let me know.


I've just come across Gary Sauer-Thompson's blog Public Opinion, which I'm also pleased to add to the Australian list. Some good, meaty posts there.

Also added--and what an oversight on my part--is Neale Talbot's Wrongwaygoback. Apart from the interesting content, here is a blogger who knows how the bloody things work from a technical angle! He even has a feature where you can change the look (skin) of his blog if you don't like it - almost a Scott Wickstein wet dream, I 'd guess. Neale was also good enough to fix up the persistent java script error that has been haunting my blog virtually since I started. I am SO grateful.