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Police shootings: Finding answers among Seven Spanish Angels

15 Oct

seven-spanish-angels-2

There’s a song called “Seven Spanish Angels” that makes you feel sorry for the protagonist, who probably is a killer.

 

When you hear the song you don’t think of him as evil or bad. Instead, you sympathize with him.

 

The subject of the song is a Mexican outlaw. Alone with his woman, he is trying to make a stand against a posse and vows that this time he will not be taken back to Texas alive. As he battles on, Seven Spanish Angels at the Altar of the Sun wait to receive him once he is killed in the Valley of the Gun.  And he is killed, along with his woman, who points an empty pistol at the posse so they are sure to kill her, too

 

It’s tragic.

 

The love of the man for the woman, along with her devotion to him, and his weariness and his struggle, and the sympathy of the Spanish Angels, makes you believe that maybe he is innocent.

 

Perhaps you even think he is you.

 

willie-nelson-ray-charles

Willie Nelson recorded the song with Ray Charles and you can hear it here.  It’s a great tune, but it is not life. In life, we more often think the worst of people rather than the best. This is especially true if the people are not like us. Even in the song, it requires Spanish angels to look after a Hispanic, suggesting that Anglo angels don’t much care.

 

True understanding takes a rare kind of wisdom born of diverse experience.

 

A character in a French film, the name of which I’ve forgotten, has that kind of wisdom. He is a retired judge who befriends a young woman. In a melancholy moment, he tells her, “Many people have come before me in court, and many I’ve sent to prison. Yet in every case, had I been in their situation, I would have done the same as they did.”

 

Makes me wonder what I would do if I were among those who worry every time a police officer approaches, even if I’m just sitting on my front porch. If my life could be taken at any time by an officer of the law, and for no good reason, could I be silent and passive while waiting for change?

 

I tend to think I could not. My reaction would edge toward protest and revolt. I know there are people like me who would take up arms rather than submit to this kind of treatment.

 

But not actually being subject to it, and believing it can never happen to them, those who would arm themselves can’t comprehend how the real victims could possibly do the same.

 

When someone is not like us, we can’t see their humanness. Beyond that, we ascribe all sorts of sub-human qualities to them.

 

Not long ago, I met a former NFL assistant coach, a big, powerful man who came close to tears telling a story of someone who once didn’t think much of him.

 

In the story, the future coach is attending a small college where the typical student came from a small town or farming community. The coach was not typical. Relevant to the story are these facts: He is black, good at math and a frequent hand washer.

 

One semester he tutored math to a white student who fit the school’s rural profile. At their final session, the white student expressed sincere appreciation and said he had learned more than just math. He said he discovered that something taught to him all his life – that black people lack intelligence and are dirty – was just not true.

 

The coach, in telling the story, said that if people just got together more the walls of division and hate would crumple.

 

He makes a good point. But even with more mixing, there sometimes can be an element of protective posturing that confounds true understanding. We’ve got to break through that as well.

 

Which brings me to another song, a 1961 hit called “The Bristol Stomp.”

 

There really is a place called Bristol and the Stomp (a dance) was first done there. The song says, “The kids in Bristol are sharp as a pistol when they do the Bristol Stomp.” I grew up not too far from Bristol and I can tell you that in the early ‘60s the kids in Bristol weren’t just sharp, they were required by some unwritten code to be utterly and fantastically cool.

 

Even the older men – all the Italians and about half the Irish – thought they were Sinatra.

 

There was a walk and a talk; a way of standing and a way of dressing. Outer toughness was always present. My neighborhood was nothing like this.  Bristol was a kind of threat to us. If there was going to be a fight at a high school basketball game, we’d prefer it not be with Bristol. For lack of coolness, we would never think of dating their girls (although I once did and it was great).

 

They acted superior and we bought it.

 

Yet they were destined to end up working in the local steel mill and we were destined for college. Their defense mechanisms could only get them so far.

 

What surprised me was when, through a part-time job, I actually got to know a couple of kids from Bristol. Their veneer suddenly became transparent.  They weren’t much different from me. Fears, worries, hopes, dreams – all about the same. Some weren’t even tough – or cool.

I came to understand them, rather than fear them.

 

The Seven Spanish Angels looked after and rooted for their Mexican brother because they had something in common with him. They recognized the difficulty of his life and sympathized with him. But outside of songs, there are no Spanish angels. Angels have no nationality or culture. At the Altar of the Sun, there is only universal compassion. It is for everyone because everyone in the human brotherhood is deserving of it.

 

Down here in the Valley of the Gun, it is most important to learn the sameness of our species rather than the unimportant differences. It is much harder to aim a deadly weapon at someone when you can see yourself on the other side of the barrel.

 

And so I add a few words to the conversation, one that will take a great deal more than words to resolve.

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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The Greek gods knew our shortcomings, especially how greed numbs the brain

25 Jan

zeus-greek-mythology

A new piece of furniture was coming in, so an old piece had to go out. It was a beat up bookshelf filled with dusty volumes. As I removed them, I noticed Homer’s “Odyssey,” which I had not read.

So I cracked it open, not knowing that a passage would foreshadow a later incident.

The early pages had much to offer, and I made these three observations:

  • It’s nice to live in a world where gods favor noble pursuits, but since even heroes can lose the favor of gods, Greek mythology really is no different from real life.
  • Odysseus had a son, whose teacher and counselor is named Mentor. Now I know where that word came from.
  • In one scene, the gods sit around complaining about humans. Zeus says, “Greed and folly double the suffering in the lot of man.”

Two days after reading this, I saw both ignoble qualities on vivid display.

They appeared in a news item about a woman whose acquaintance I had made and whose mansion I had visited. The article said she and her family had been arrested and charged with $20 million in insurance fraud.

According to the grand jury, their home had been set ablaze not once but three times. After the fires, and after four burglaries, the woman would claim loses of millions in jewels and other valuables.

That’s enough to draw suspicion. Nevertheless, 25 days before the last fire, the coverage on jewels in the home was increased to $11 million.

The news report said investigators seized six Ferraris, two Rolls Royces and millions in other assets. They also found jewels on which claims had been paid.

Now that’s folly.

Among those arrested were the woman’s daughter, who was a former district attorney, and her second husband, a former deputy sheriff. The first husband was a foreman of some sort. She apparently worked as a clerk in her daughter’s law office.

The lot of them must have given Zeus a headache.

I first met the matron at a charity event held at her house. It wasn’t one of those grand old houses. It was one of those incredibly large new houses. Snobs and old money, of course, cast aspersions at such dwellings, but it nevertheless was amazing to look at. The owner, not being the Katharine Hepburn-Philadelphia Story type, fit in with the place. She was a rough and tumble political type with a voice like Marge Simpson and hair so big it needed its own room.

I attended the event with a portrait artist. Our hostess took an interest in the artist and asked about commissioning a painting. It was explained that the portrait might cost between $10,000 and $15,000. The homeowner never followed up with this particular artist, but later hired someone to paint a ceiling mural that had family members looking down from a heavenly perch. I’m not sure what she paid for the mural, which burned, but insurance records show she sought to collect $950,000 on it.

I try to think the best of people but couldn’t resist speculating that when this woman talked about the portrait with the first artist, she had something in mind beside art. It could be that a portrait didn’t quite fill the unstated need. Indeed, upon reading the full story behind the arrests, one might conjecture that insurance fraud was at the root of everything this women did, that it was a firm mindset and an inescapable preoccupation.

As she found success in this preoccupation, did her inner levels of greed and folly increase?

Seems like they did. I might add that after each blaze, investigators found cans of flammable hairspray near the fire’s point of origin, and a security system showed the owner left the house shortly after each fire started.

Does greed also dull the imagination?

The artist and I actually saw this woman again shortly after one of the house fires. We felt so bad for her. We commiserated and consoled her. How unfortunate, we said.

Zeus must have been laughing, as well as planning the coming denouement to yet another sorry episode in humanhood.

Let’s end with Homer.

“Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Where did everyone go? “Baby Bust” affects both prison population and college enrollment

9 Nov

Prison

Someone once told me if you build a prison, it will fill up. Conversely, if a prison is full, criminals will be let out.

From this it is easy to conclude that a person who normally would be free might get locked up, and a person who normally would be jailed might go free.

Both are frightening thoughts. Neither says much about justice.

Prison pop worldMore frightening is the widely known but often ignored fact that the United States puts more people behind bars than any other nation. That figure is about 2 million.

The U.S. population has increased by about one-third since 1980, but the federal prison population has grown by about 800 percent.

Yet we still call ourselves the land of the free.

So it goes. I wish I understood why. I wish there was someone who could explain these problems and come up with a method to reverse them.

Well, sometimes things reverse themselves.

A recent story that was basically overlooked said that the federal prison population has declined by 4,800 inmates. This is the first decline in a decade. And it turns out that the populations in state and county lockups have been dropping for the past five years.

“Our new projections anticipate that the number of federal inmates will fall by just over 2,000 in the next 12 months — and by almost 10,000 in the year after,” said Attorney General Eric Holder “This is nothing less than historic.”

Fine, but no one explained why.

Prison poulation-WikiIt is doubtful our government has the ability to stop crime. Government can take credit for it, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. After crime dropped years ago, improvements in law enforcement were credited. Later, under the category of Freakanomics, it was determined that the drop in crime occurred about 18 years after the legalization of abortion. This means that there was was less crime because fewer criminals were born.

It was that simple.

Abortion may not be behind these new figures, but fewer criminals being born may be.
A running demographic trend called the “baby bust” has now caused a decline in the number of young adults, the same people who commit most crimes. A bad economy, it seems, affects childbirth, and the economy hasn’t been good for quite some time. It is said that the recession of 2008 alone resulted in a half million fewer births.

I’m familiar with the baby bust because I’ve seen its impact on higher education. With fewer students of college age, enrollments are declining at colleges and universities across the nation.

“They can’t go to college if they haven’t been born,” one educator explained.

Birth ratesIn 1900, Mark Twain looked for some linkage between crime and education and said, “Every time you close a school, you have to build a jail.” While the reserve could be true, new colleges aren’t needed right now because of the enrollment decline. But because of the savings from the decline in prison population – the feds spend $80 billion a year on incarceration — money could be available to help students with tuition.

What a great nation ours would be if, like some others, we made it easy and cheap for young people to get an education. But we still would have the empty prisons and we’ll need to figure out what to do with them.

Maybe we can just let them rot. They can become sad displays of a culture that with a blind eye created and nourished the darker side of humanity. But a demographic bump doesn’t permanently correct a problem. So a better idea might be to turn the prisons into factories, which will improve the economy, which will increase the birth rate, which will create more crime, which will require more prisons. At that point, we can close the factories, open the prisons, and wait for economy to go bad and the birth rate to drop again.

That sounds so right it has got to be wrong. But I’m not hearing much better from the experts. Do you think we can put a little pressure on them? Or should we just wait until everything fixes itself? Actually, this seems much more likely.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Goldman Sachs: Altruism for a profit

27 May

goldman-sachs,jpg

Investment powerhouse Goldman Sachs has made money with schemes that were ingenious, inventive, complex, arcane, morally vacant and, some might say, criminal. Now it hopes to make money by exploiting the dysfunctions of government.

 

Goldman has long mastered the art of generating cash without actually producing a product. Its techniques include:

 

  • Using influence to rig a trading system in its favor.
  • Finding a market where it can buy low and then finding a second market where it can sell high.
  • Identifying gross inefficiencies that are costing someone or something money and offering to fix them.

 

Goldman’s new plan is along the lines of the third. The firm is financing crime reduction measures in Massachusetts in exchange for a percent of what is saved by not having to incarcerate thugs.

 

Ingenious, inventive, complex.

 

New profit center for investors

New profit center for investors

This type of investment carries an extra dividend: It makes Goldman Sachs – a villain in the eyes of the Occupy movement – look like a Good Guy. Indeed, the investment vehicle designed to reduce crime is called a social impact bond, or in Wall Street parlance, an SIB.

 

Some view these investments as a marriage between capitalism and charity, but capitalism is the strong, dominant partner.

 

Bloomberg Businessweek reported on Goldman and the SIBs in early May. Writer Esme E. Deprez cites a prediction by the Rockefeller Foundation that the market for SIBs is growing and by 2015 will reach $500 million.

 

That’s a lot of social impact, enough to give government the idea that it no longer is responsible for maintaining order and structure in society. Or has it already decided that?

 

According to the Businessweek article, Goldman is investing $9 million and betting that crime will go down – or more accurately that young men will spend fewer days in jail.

 

The bonds help fund a program called the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative. In that program, a non-profit agency called Roca works with young adult males on probation. The agency provides outreach, therapy and training. After two years, participants are supposed to leave, take a steady job and lead a crime-free life.

 

If a graduate stays out of jail for a year, Massachusetts saves $12,400. If the state is able to reduce crime enough to close a 300-person prison, it saves $47,500 per inmate.

 

This is how the SIBs and Goldman get paid off.

 

In this particular case, Goldman has partnered with other investors who financed an additional $12 million in bonds, making the total $21 million.

 

The bonds earn 5 percent no matter what, but pay nothing else until the men in the program manage to spend 22 percent fewer days in jail. There’s a sliding scale for payment, with a maximum of $27 million being paid to bond holders if jail time is reduced by 70 percent.

 

It’s a risk, like a junk bond, but $27 million for a $21 million investment is pretty good money (28 percent profit) and worthy of the risk.

 

Roca had been working with 375 men. With the SIB money, it can handle 550.

 

A skeptic might look at all this and ask:

 

  • Why doesn’t Massachusetts put up the $21 million itself and forego the $6 million payout to investors?

 

  • Why doesn’t society as a whole recognize that employed people from stable families commit fewer crimes?

 

  • Why does the nation exclude million of people from an otherwise viable system of commerce, education and opportunity and allow the existence of acres and acres of urban decay that breed crime and insanity?

 

There are clear answers to these questions. I won’t go into them because our preference is to ignore them, deny them and maintain a monstrous blind spot in spite of religious teachings, well-intended laws and glorious, inclusive rhetoric.

 

But as a culture, we have reached an all-time low when we allow things to get so bad

that Goldman Sachs can make money off our failures. The promise of money, more so than altruism or mere brotherhood, does seem to get things done. Perhaps we can turn the VA hospitals over to Goldman. With all those returning vets, there’s got to be a profit in there somewhere.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

In some lives, comfort and peace are luxuries

6 Apr

 

Margaret Smith -- from the New York Times

Margaret Smith — from the New York Times

A story today in the New York Times by Dan Barry tells how an 89-year-old Delaware woman was kidnapped, placed in the trunk of her car for two days, them dumped in an overgrown cemetery of weeds and sand. No food, no water. The dramatic part is how she crawled out of that cemetery on bloodied hands and knees.

“I’d stop for a few minutes, then start crawling again,” said Margaret E. Smith.

Author Eudora Welty

Author Eudora Welty

The woman, who has a heart problem, survived to calmly tell her story.

In many ways, the incident reminds me of a short piece of fiction by Eudora Welty called, “The Worn Path.” Written in 1941 and first published in the Atlantic, this classic piece is about the all-day journey of an elderly woman who walks through a forest, up and down hills, across a creek on a log, through barbed wire and through thorns.

As she walked, she’d talk to herself.

“I in the thorny bush,” she said. “Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass—no, sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush.”

Only in the end do you learn it was a regular walk to town for her grandson’s medicine, and she had no money to pay for it.

Quite a moving tale and, I’ll bet, based on a true person, a person like Margaret E. Smith, who comes from a town called Slaughter Neck, something right out of a Eudora Welty story.I only recent read “A Worn Path.” I picked up an anthology and there it was. I would suggest you read it. It’s a lesson in determination and hard living, and how for many people routine is nothing more than the everyday torture of life.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The lives we lead are not our own: Why privacy is valued

14 Mar

 

Privacy

Aton Chekhov, in one of his most famous stories, pauses from character development to discuss privacy.

The passage comes in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” about a young woman and an older man having an adulterous affair that they have kept secret.

“The personal life of every individual,” he wrote, “is based on secrecy, and perhaps it is partly for that reason that civilized man is so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.”

That was written in 1899, long before the act of “liking” something would send data on your habits and behavior to thousands of marketers. The Internet has become a place where we share its wonders and benefits in exchange for our privacy. We do so either without complaint, or else unknowingly.

Chekhov didn’t have to worry about such things. Nevertheless, he studied the nature of the private life and believed “every man led his real, most interesting life under cover of secrecy as under cover of night,” and that everything in the open was false.

A person who, for career or avocation, looks closely at something will share this notion. For as they investigate one thing they invariably see other things not meant to be seen.  Investigate the assassination of President Kennedy and find that there is a cult in Texas wearing underwear made of aluminum foil. I made that up. Real examples would be stranger.

Last night I read the Chekhov passage on privacy. This morning in the newspaper I noticed stories about:

  • A “cannibal cop” convicted of conspiracy to abduct, roast and eat women.
  • An ex-principal charged with possessing child porn.
  • A bookkeeper who stole nearly $650,000 from her employer over several years.

This was just one section in one newspaper in one day.

I agree with the Russian writer that we don’t project much truth in our daily comportment, but it is a little frightening to think that people we consider normal  harbor great inner darkness. Perhaps it’s the complexity of our DNA and the innumerable variations of its structure that produce humans destined to act or think in so many different ways that there is no normal and that everything imaginable – and unimaginable – gets covered.

We are going to be learning a lot more about this, what with cameras everywhere now and odd folks freely indulging themselves on the never private Internet.

All of us are bound to long for the days when those phony exteriors Chekhov spoke of hid the harsh truth of our species.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Murder under my nose: How I made an innocent man look guilty

26 Feb

Justice

One afternoon last week a coworker sat down next to me and I focused on his shirt.

“Were you wearing that this morning?” I asked.

“I was,” he said.

This innocuous exchange revived in me a memory of murder. It brought back a decades-old crime and thoughts of an innocent man I wanted to put behind bars because someone said he changed his pants at lunch.

Circumstance, no matter how incriminating, should never be mistaken for truth. This I have learned.

The incident occurred at a newspaper where I was an editor. Our building was adjacent a large parking lot. At the far end of the lot, away from the building, was a patch of grass and some picnic tables.

No one but Janice used them.

Janice was a 26-year-old secretary who would sunbathe at lunch, lying on one of the tables.  Her meal would be a salad from the Burger King across the street. She’d drive over there, get the salad, then come back and park her car near the picnic tables.  The keys were left in the car and the sound system was turned up so she could hear it while taking in the sun.

A guy she was dating worked in the advertising department of the newspaper, but word was their relationship was coming undone. Janice planned to head north that weekend to visit a Canadian football player friend. But on Friday, before she left, she planned to talk with the old boyfriend and explain things.

She never did because she went missing. After a few days her body was found in the woods near a river. She had been stabbed about 40 times. Bloodstains were found on the parking lot near the picnic tables.

When word got out, everyone at work huddle together to cry, grieve, commiserate and ask why. I was the editor on the story and had to put aside personal feelings. I informed my coworkers that reporters would be interviewing them to find out if they had witnessed anything odd in the past few days and to learn what they knew about Janice.

The boyfriend was there. He looked terrible. He hadn’t slept or shaved for days. He seemed a wreck. Normally, his hair was perfectly coiffed in what could be called “disco” style. Now it was all mussed.

He took me aside and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t talk to you about Janice. I just can’t.” He shook as he spoke.

I told him it was his decision to talk or not talk, but I asked him what he meant by “can’t talk.”

He was quiet for a moment then said, “Let’s go into an office.”

We did, and he shut the door.

“The thing is,” he said nervously. “The thing is . . . if I talk about Janice, if I tell you the story of Janice … the real story … she’ll come off looking like” – and he paused – “the devil.”

At that exact moment I decided I was alone in a locked room with a murderer.

Over the next few days, the reporters and editors worked feverishly to find Janice’s killer. The boyfriend is always a suspect and much of our findings were pushing us toward him.

The jealousy motive was clearly present. But there was more. A colleague told us that on the day of the murder the boyfriend had been wearing a pair of brown pants in the morning and in the afternoon had change to black.

Witnesses from outside the paper were coming forward. One was a hairdresser who said she had been driving past our building around the time of the murder and saw a man and a woman at the end of the parking lot. The man was raising and lowering his arm in the direction of the woman, she said. Being a hairdresser, she said she couldn’t help notice the man’s hair. She said it was neat and styled, like the hair of men who frequented discos.

When we spoke to the police, they suggested we could be onto something. It was odd, however, that they never wrote down anything we said.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend found it difficult to come to work. Janice had been well liked. This was not true of him. Now, popularity was a moot issue. He was being looked upon as the most horrid of creatures.

That did not change, although it should have.

Everyone at the paper, me more than anyone, was stunned when police arrested a 16-year-old high school dropout and charged him with the murder.

The boy, who hung out at the Burger King, recently got his driver’s license and wanted his parents to buy him a car. They refused. He liked Janice’s car, a hot black number that he’d see when she drove in to buy her salads. He decided he wanted it and followed her on foot to the newspaper parking lot across the street.

While she was on the table sunning, he got in the open car and was preparing to take it. She challenged him. He pulled the knife and stabbed her repeatedly. He put the body in the trunk and drove away with his prize.

All this happened in broad daylight, on a heavily traveled road, outside a building that employed hundreds of people, including journalists trained to observe and photograph news.

I don’t think any of us ever apologized to the boyfriend. In the face of rock solid evidence to the contrary, a few continued to believe he committed the crime.

Not long after the arrest, the largest fire in the area’s history broke out. A Kmart warehouse the size of several football fields was fully engulfed in flames and smoke. It was massive. The scene looked like World War II. The newspaper sent someone up in an airplane to shoot the fire, and the dramatic photo ran across six columns in the paper.

A copy of that day’s paper with the huge fire picture was on my desk when I arrived at work. There was a note attached. It was note I’ll never forget; a very short note that was very long on black humor; a note full of hurt.  Somewhere I must have it in my archives, but I’m not sure where. It was from the boyfriend, and this is what it said:

“Honest to God. I didn’t do this.”

The boyfriend eventually resigned from the newspaper. Years later, on Valentine’s Day, the murderer hanged himself in prison.

The whole episode is something I think about from time to time, especially when a colleague has innocently and maybe for no good reason changed an article of clothing in the middle of the day, or at least I or someone else thought he did.

 By Lanny Morgnanesi

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