Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Absence of Justice, Part One

Jerome Murdough was not a criminal. At least not in the way you think of criminals.

In his 56 years, he never robbed, mugged, beat, raped, or killed anyone. His life was not oriented toward plunder and criminality.

After graduating from high school he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, which suggests that he had physical courage.

After completing his service, which included a tour in Okinawa, he earned an honorable discharge. This suggests that he had good character.

But Murdough was also afflicted by mental illnesses that became manifest in his late twenties and on into his thirties. Chief among them was schizophrenia, but he also suffered from bipolar disorder -- a cruel double whammy of diseases that makes me think of that haunting lyric by Pink Floyd: "The wolves ate into his brain."

Illnesses like Murdough's are tough to treat in the first place, but they are triply tough to treat when the sufferer lacks health insurance and a steady job...And of course, the presence of such illness often leads directly to the lack of a steady job, which in turn leads to lack of insurance...And people who are in the throes of such illness are unlikely to be aware of, much less take advantage of, whatever public assistance might be available to them...And on top of that, people with mental disease are more prone to problems with drugs and alcohol, and less likely to get addiction care for the same reasons they are less likely to get treatment for their underlying psychiatric illnesses...This is, in many ways, the most vicious of vicious cycles.

*     *     *     *     *

When the wolves ate into Murdough's brain, his life took a sadly predictable course and he was arrested roughly a dozen times over the course of 20 or so years. The arrests had nothing to do with "victimful crime," if you will, but with things like public intoxication and drug possession. The most serious blot on his record was for trespassing.

Once upon a time, if someone with Murdough's problems was found circling the drain like he was, that person would have been housed in a mental health facility and treated appropriately. Maybe he would have recovered and been returned free and functioning to society; or if not, maybe he would spend much of his life in one of those facilities. But either way he would be under appropriate care and receiving what was best for him.

Unfortunately, those days disappeared back when the arbiters of good taste started to believe that it was stigmatizing to take people who are mentally ill and place them in mental health facilities. That belief led to a wholesale change of public policy and closing of facilities starting in the 1960's, and as a result, human beings like Murdough now get cast back on the street with no money and no prospects. In this respect, his life represents a failure of policy.

*     *     *     *     *

But in another respect, his life -- or more precisely, the end of his life -- represents a failure of that hydra known as the "American justice system." It is a failure so reprehensible that the word "failure" does not cut it.

On February 7th of this year, with New York experiencing one of the harshest winters on record, Murdough was homeless on the streets of Harlem. Desperate to keep from freezing to death, he entered a housing project and holed up in a stairwell, where he was arrested for trespassing.

From there he was hauled off to the infamous Rikers Island Jail, in the middle of the East River, and locked up alone in a cinderblock cell with bail set at an unattainable $2,500.00. Because jail authorities were aware of his mental condition, protocol dictated that he be checked on every 15 minutes.

But the checks did not happen, and a faulty climate control system (which was already known to be faulty) caused the temperature in Murdough's cell to skyrocket to the point that he was baked to death. By the time somebody finally bothered to look in on him, he had been dead for hours.

To make matters even worse, jail authorities waited days to notify Murdough's public defender.

And to make matters borderline (if not outright) evil, they never notified his family. Murdough's mother learned of her son's passing when a reporter called to ask her what she thought about it.

*     *     *     *     *

It might seem easy to chalk this up as one tragic event that resulted from a bewildering, can't-happen-twice series of snafus, but I think it would be wrong to chalk it up as that. After all, Rikers Island was already known to have criminals on both sides of the bars, in the inimitable words of Kevin Williamson, which you can go here to read about.

It is not at all clear that the Gulag mentality of Rikers Island authorities is unusual in our nation's jails and prisons.

The number of trifling, nobody-would-ever-think-twice acts that have been redefined as "crimes," even "felonies," is shocking.

And the percentage of the "charged" population that gets convicted is so high we would view it as proof of corruption if it existed elsewhere.

In short, the hydra I mentioned earlier, the "American justice system," is often anything but. In many respects, it has become a moral rot that works against our founding ideals and is decaying the goodness that makes our nation great. And the most frightening thing is that most Americans are oblivious to this.

It is sad that Jerome Murdough's life ended as it did. It is sad that a man who had so much promise in his youth could end up being a poster child for wasted lives.

But perhaps the most decent way to honor him is to make sure that people know about his plight. Perhaps widespread knowledge of Murdough's fate can inspire people to raise their voices and spur America to live up to its ideals.

In other words, perhaps making Jerome Murdough a poster child is the right thing to do for his own memory and for the sake of posterity.

Over the coming months I will be writing a series of posts about the problems I perceive in the American justice system. The series will not be consecutive, by which I mean that I will write about other things in between many of the posts, but I believe this topic is crucial for the future and I hope you take the time to read it -- and to voice your disagreement if you think I am wrong.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Bolts, Part Two (Deux)

That's two, as in: "Well, since my April 13th post rang in the playoffs by trumpeting the Tampa Bay Lightning, I had better not ignore their inglorious exit from the postseason a mere nine days later."

And deux, as in: "Frenchie refs, f--- you!"

Not that I'm being ethnocentric or anything. Provence Quebec has produced some of my favorite hockey players and I like the way French names roll off the tongue.

And let me be very, very, very clear about something: Tampa Bay did not lose the opening round series to Montreal because of officiating. The Bolts lost because they simply were not up to the task. If any of my fellow Tampa Bay partisans beg to differ, they will need to beg hard because over the course of four full games and one overtime, there were fewer than four minutes of game time during which the Bolts had a lead.

After the Lightning scored the first goal of the series, they watched the Habs tie them up 19 seconds later.

In Game One, Montreal goalie Carey Price had the worst game I've ever seen him play, yet the Lightning still couldn't win.

Throughout the series the Habs attacked the Lightning zone like a swarm of killer bees, their passes crisp, their speed deadly, their scoring chances legit. Conversely, the Lightning spent about two-thirds of every game looking like they were skating in cement.

The Lightning constantly turned the puck over at the most inopportune of times.

Their lack of quality defensemen (other than Victor Hedman) was painfully obvious as they always seemed to leave their slot exposed (insert double entendre here).

With starting goalie Ben Bishop sidelined by injury, Anders Lindback played as good as can be expected of a backup and gave his team a chance to win. But his teammates did not take advantage of the chance, and by failing to clear out rebounds, they frequently hung him out to dry.

Montreal had nearly twice as many players with playoff experience as Tampa Bay, and it was obvious.

So with all that being said, why is it that I'm complaining about the officiating? Because it really was atrocious, and it really did ensure that the Lightning's chances of winning were "zero" instead of "small," and it really, really smacked of the kind of favoritism that can cause palpable harm to a sports league.

If you are not familiar with hockey, just think of the Habs -- that is, the Montreal Canadiens -- as the New York Yankees or Notre Dame Fighting Irish. You know how when the game is tied in the ninth, the Yankees runner is always called safe at home even when the catcher obviously tags him out? You know how with 10 seconds left and Notre Dame leading by four and the opponent snapping the ball on 4th and goal, the opposing running back always breaks the plane yet the refs always claim he didn't? Well, that is the Montreal Canadiens.

It's not as if they haven't earned an exalted place in the hockey world, as franchises go. They have won far more Stanley Cups (24) than any other franchise (Toronto comes in second with 13, the most recent of which was 47 years ago). But still, games and series are supposed to be won. They are not supposed to be bestowed and are not supposed to result from the kind of grease-skidding that tarnishes the accomplishment. And grease-skidding is precisely what happened.

With Game Three tied and the Lightning seizing momentum, the Lightning scored to take the lead. Only to have the goal disallowed for an alleged goaltender interference that no neutral observers thought was interference. Given a second breath, Montreal won and took a commanding 3-0 series lead. Otherwise they probably (though not definitely) would have lost and found themselves in a dogfight with the series at 2-1.

Then, with Game Four tied and 2:11 left before overtime, Lightning centerman Cedric Paquette was called for tripping on a tic tac move that was away from, and had no impact on, the play. This gave Montreal a power play for the remainder of regulation, which they converted when Max Pacioretty chipped in the winning goal with 30 seconds left.

To be fair, Pacquette's move was tripping and the call was technically accurate. But it was the kind of call that the refs had been studiously sure not to make all night up until then, in keeping with the well-established playoff etiquette of officials allowing players to decide outcomes by not blowing their whistles unless a penalty actually affects the play at hand and/or is egregious.

It just so happens that the same referee made both of those calls, and his name is, rather conspicuously, Francois St. Laurent.

My grumbling is not that of a bitter and ignorant man from Florida. Ok, maybe I'm a bitter man from Florida right now, but I'm not an ignorant one. I now that many people from north of the 48th parallel share my frustration, and I know that many people from places like Ottawa and Hamilton and Edmonton harbor an intense resentment of the ice-titling favoritism always given to Montreal. 

Considering the Habs' well-earned reputation for being on the blessed end of officiating bias, the NHL should seriously consider not allowing any Quebec-born refs to officiate Montreal playoff games. After all, the ridiculous favoritism shown to Michael Jordan damaged the NBA's credibility so severely that it still hasn't recovered it, since everyone knows that league has one set of rules for stars and another set for all the other players.

For now, however, I will retreat from my soap box and focus on the positive, for as disappointing as the Lightning's quick exit was, this team has an abundance of potential and we fans could not ask for any more reasons to be optimistic about the future.

Steven Stamkos is just 24 years old, and proved during this series that he has the mettle to be a leader and champion.

Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are two of the three finalists for the Calder Trophy, aka the NHL Rookie of the Year Award.

In two abbreviated appearances in relief of Lindback, Kristers Gudlevskis played fantastic and increased my previously expressed conviction that he might become one of the NHL's best goaltenders.

Jon Cooper comes off as the level-headed "adult in the room," the kind of person you want coaching your team in clutch times. Think Tony Dungy, on ice instead of gridiron.

And can you say resiliency? This team, despite its youth and inexperience, swatted down one obstacle after another during the regular season. And while they came up short in the postseason, they also never gave up and never stopped grinding.

I have faith that they will take their experiences from this year and learn from them, and use them as a stepping stone to greater things.

Go Bolts!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Red Letter Dates

The hours from tonight through tomorrow morning mark the 239th anniversary of Paul Revere’s “midnight ride” and the battles that ensued. It is one of the most significant anniversaries in American history -- perhaps the most significant, because it can be argued that if not for the events that took place on April 18th and 19th, 1775, the United States might never have come to be.

Tensions between American colonists and their British rulers were running high in those days, and while this was true in all of the colonies that would become our first 13 states, it was especially true in MassachusettsBritain had effectively shut Boston off from the world by blockading its port and quartering large numbers of soldiers within the city.

It was believed that Britain would invade the colony en masse, so residents in surrounding towns had been stockpiling munitions to defend themselves. The British targeted Lexington because revolutionaries John Hancock and Samuel Adams were thought to be there. They targeted Concord, the next town west of Lexington, because it was rumored to have a huge stash of munitions (which they wanted to confiscate) and because it had hosted the Provincial Congress.

When British forces were detected sneaking from Boston under cover of darkness on April 18th, Paul Revere and William Dawes mounted their horses and galloped into the countryside to warn their fellow citizens. Revere departed from Charlestown, across the Charles River from Boston proper, while Dawes left directly from the city. Revere’s route was the shortest to Lexington and Concord, and thus he was the first to warn their occupants of what was coming.

The next morning, Lexington’s village green was the site of the first skirmish between the British forces known as redcoats and the citizen militia known as minutemen. The latter took the worst of it, with eight dead and ten wounded compared to just a single wounded redcoat.

The British then marched on to their primary goal of Concord. After arriving and crossing the North Bridge, nearly half of them went about securing the bridge while the rest searched for weapons. When wooden cannon mounts were found, they were set afire and before long the flames engulfed a church.

Positioned on Punkatasset Hill some 300 yards from the bridge, Concord’s minutemen had been joined by minutemen from neighboring towns, giving them a numerical advantage the redcoats did not anticipate. When they saw the rising smoke, they believed their homes were being destroyed and responded by advancing.

Seeing them approach in such numbers, the redcoats retreated back across the bridge. A shot soon rang out, though no one knows who fired it, and within minutes a full-blown battle had transpired in which half the British officers were wounded.

Disoriented, the redcoats fled back toward Boston. Along the way, they fell under fire from minutemen who had arrived from elsewhere and were hiding behind fences and walls. By the time they returned to the city, they had sustained more than 200 casualties.

It was an indisputable defeat for the world’s most powerful military, delivered by ordinary people seeking simply to defend themselves against royal oppression. The example set by those people ignited the fuse of the American Revolution in such a way that it would not be extinguished. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Bolts

The Stanley Cup Playoffs start this week, so I am tempted to opine about the most rigorous and passionate and glorious-slash-devastating postseason in all of sports...but I have done that before, and to do it again would probably descend into a trotting-out of cliches and a recycling of the adjectives used earlier in this sentence.

On the other hand, this year marks the 10th anniversary of my Tampa Bay Lightning winning their first Stanley Cup, and it also marks their return to the playoffs after a two-year my fingers are itching to opine about this year's squad while looking back to the champions that took the NHL by storm a decade ago.

From the perspective of a Tampa Bay hockey fan, what better way is there to herald the arrival of the playoffs?

And from a continental perspective, what more unique way is there to herald the arrival? (Don't say "national perspective," because as you certainly know, NHL teams come from two countries, not one!)

*     *     *     *     *

The 2003-04 Lightning were no flash in the pan. Nor were they one of those teams that pulls off an improbable run by getting carried on the back of a hot goalie while being outclassed everywhere else on the ice.

Team captain Dave Andreychuk holds the NHL record for most power play goals in a career, and is almost certain to make the Hall of Fame. He was 40 years old when the Bolts won it all and he accounted for 14 points during those playoffs.

Three other forwards from that team (Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, and Brad Richards) will receive serious consideration for Hall of Fame induction because of their stellar and lengthy careers.

St. Louis won that season's Hart Memorial Trophy as the league's most valuable player...and the Lester B. Pearson Award as the league's most outstanding player...and the Art Ross Trophy for leading the league in points (a feat he also accomplished last year at the age of 38).

Meanwhile, Nikolai Khabibulin is one of the greatest Russian-born goaltenders in history, widely considered to be second only to the legendary Vladislav Tretiak.

Dan Boyle has been one of the league's most dependable defensemen for more than a decade now, and Pavel Kubina is "in the conversation" about which player is the best Czech-born defenseman to ever play the game.

And John Tortorella became the first American to win the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year.

*     *     *     *     *

Of course, no team can win a championship if it does not have selfless players who fill their roles without getting headline publicity, and the 2003-04 Bolts had plenty of them.

With a lumberjack's work ethic and an uncanny nose for the puck, Fredrik Modin was the prototypical Swede. It was he who scored the winning goal in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, and it is worth noting that two years later he helped lead Team Sweden to its first gold medal of the Olympics' "NHL Era."

Although Ruslan Fedotenko wound up with just one 20-goal season during his 12-year career, he had a knack for putting the puck in the net when it mattered most. It was he who scored both goals in the the ring-clinching, 2-1 victory in Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals, and he is the only player from Ukraine ever to get his name engraved on the Cup.

Then there was Tim Taylor, a gritty third-liner who was in the twilight of his career and already had a Cup to his name from his days in Detroit. He provided valuable locker room leadership by playing through pain and imparting wisdom from his prior experiences.

And there was Chris Dingman, who enjoyed doing the dirty work and didn't care who got the "front-page bold-type." Dingman is now an Emmy Award-winning broadcaster who co-hosts the best sports radio show in the Tampa Bay market and contributes commentary and interviews to Lightning telecasts on Sun Sports Network.

Plus, there was defenseman Darryl Sydor, who had won a Cup five years earlier with Dallas and was acquired at the trade deadline for the specific purpose of adding championship experience to Tampa Bay's blue line. Needless to say, he proved to be the shrewdest late-season acquisition in franchise history.

*     *     *     *     *

The Bolts' playoff run was a mix of everything that goes into championships, as they dominated the first two rounds against the Islanders and Canadiens, then went all the way to seventh games in the final two rounds against the Flyers and Flames. The fact that they played both Game Sevens on home ice proved how significant it was that they finished the regular season with the league's best record.

There were both blowouts and nail-biters along the way, but as is usually the case at hockey's summit, nail-biters were far more common. The fine line between victory and defeat was evident even during the Lightning's second-round sweep of Montreal, for with 17 seconds remaining in Game Three it looked like Montreal was going to win and pull within 2-1 in the series.

Then Vinny Lecavalier tied it up with the best goal I have ever seen, lifting his stick backwards between his legs and tipping Andreychuk's shot past Jose Theodore to force overtime. Then, a mere 1:05 into the extra session, Brad Richards circled behind Montreal's goal and ended the game by intentionally banking a shot off of Theodore's skate and into the net. Just like that, what was about to be a close series became transformed into a rout. (And on an interesting side note, it is one of only two times in history that the sport's most storied franchise has been swept out of the playoffs at home.)

Moving forward, the Lightning had to survive an elimination game in the Cup Finals, when, trailing the series 3-2, they traveled to Calgary for Game Six before an eardrum-piercing crowd in the Saddledome. It went deep into double overtime before Martin St. Louis scored on a breakaway to send the series back to Tampa for the decisive Game Seven.

*     *     *     *     *

When it comes to this year's Lightning, I am under no illusions that they have more than a slugger's chance of repeating the glories of that squad from a decade ago.

The 2003-04 Bolts had the best record in the NHL; a perfect blend of young guns and graybeards; a proven clutch goaltender; and a head coach who was not a newbie to the NHL.

On the other hand, the 2013-14 Bolts are extremely young; led by a rookie coach; and have shown an alarming tendency to turn the puck over in their own zone...not to mention the fact that the Boston Bruins, who eliminated Tampa Bay during its last playoff appearance, look damn near invincible.

Still, there is something very special about this team and I know they have what it takes to be a major factor in the playoffs. These Bolts have shown a ton of character in the way they have overcome adversity, some of which was self-inflicted and some of which was not (for example, I have never seen a team so continuously rise above the untimely goals-against that result from the turnovers I mentioned above).

It has been a treat to watch such a young roster keep its nose to the grindstone and find ways to win despite the departures of franchise cornerstones Lecavalier and St. Louis -- and despite the recent injury to starting goalie Ben Bishop, who is in the running for the Vezina Trophy after setting the franchise record for wins in a season.

The way the Lightning's rookies and veterans alike have embraced the guidance of first-year NHL Coach Jon Cooper shows they are focused on winning and not prone to whining.

Perhaps most importantly, going back to the matter of Bishop's recent and apparently significant "upper body injury," it is worth noting how the Lightning's goaltending is suddenly a strength after having been a glaring weakness for most of the years since Khabibulin departed.

Backup Anders Lindback was a victim of bad luck and poor defensive support in many of his appearances earlier this season, but in his three games since Bishop's injury he has given up just two goals -- and just as important, the team has rallied in front of him.

To occupy the roster spot behind Lindback, the Lightning called up Kristers Gudlevskis, a 21-year-old from Latvia who made waves in the recent Olympics when he stopped 55 of 57 shots against Team Canada -- a performance that almost resulted in a Latvia-over-Canada outcome that might have been the biggest upset in Olympic history.

When brought across the ocean this week by the Lightning, Gudlevskis responded by stopping 36 of 38 shots and defeating playoff-bound Columbus in his first-ever NHL game.

*     *     *     *     *

In short, not only do I think that the Lightning's goaltending corps has what it takes to make an impact in the playoffs -- I actually expect it to make an impact.

As much as I love Bishop and the fact he is an American, a certain part of me believes it is Gudlevskis who is destined for greatness. Can he become our Brodeur, or Roy, or Plante? It is way too early to know, but I have an inexplicable kind of faith that he will become something special for us.

Of course, not everything is hunky dory in Boltsville. Ryan Malone was arrested for DUI early Saturday morning and cops found a bag of cocaine in his pocket.

Yet as disturbing as that is, and as distracting as it could be, I think the rest of the team will use the incident as another opportunity to prove its "rise above" character.

My first thought when I heard of Malone's arrest was: How the hell could you fuck up like that, now of all times!

But my second thought was: Well, maybe that explains why he's been kind of a no-show this year.

And it was followed by the thought that the team will be even better because a problem has been identified so it can be dealt with.

I do hope that Malone overcomes whatever demons put him in a jail cell, and I would be happy if he overcomes them while playing and producing during this postseason. But when it comes to this team, when I think about the resolve its players have collectively shown, I just believe in my soul that Malone's issues will not make a difference.

Go Bolts!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

et ceteras

Some Sowell
Those who have "talked issues" with me know how much I respect Thomas Sowell. When there is something important that you know intuitively but can't quite express, it's a safe bet that Sowell will find the words that escape you. It's also a safe bet that he will frame the topic succinctly and in a way that can not be misunderstood.

In a column this week, he did it again with a single 17-word sentence: "Those unfamiliar with political rhetoric may not know that 'special interests' mean people who support your opponents." To read the whole column, go here.

And while you're at it, I recommend reading this piece that he published earlier today. It's about a man I never heard of until now, but wish I had.

Back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Arsenio Hall used to talk about "things that make you go 'hmmm.'" On Sunday, Erika and I took the kids out to pick strawberries because that's one of the things our people like to do, and while we were (cough) laboring in the field (cough) I experienced a sight that literally did make me go "hmmm."

At the bottom of the field's gradual slope, near the edge of the property, stood several rows of featureless rectangular buildings that obviously serve as housing for the farm workers. In this country, it is considered a given that such workers are migratory and barely paid and probably here illegally; and at first glance, those buildings did nothing to dissuade anyone from believing the stereotype, because they brought to mind the kind of one-room, weekly-rental studio apartments you might get stuck living in at some point during your college years.

What made me go "hmmm" was not the housing. Nor was it the air-drying laundry hanging on clotheslines. Nor was it the nearby handful of plants that I am certain provide a food source for the workers and their kin.

No, what made me go "hmmm" were the cars, for parked in front of the bare bones housing was an eye-catching array of late model SUV's and sedans, most of which were shiny clean and many of which cost more than the Camry and Elantra that Erika and I own.

Don't get me wrong. I know we have it better than those farmhands. I am far from envious and would not trade my "station in life" for theirs, but the disconnect from the housing to the cars, and from the stereotype to the cars, was so stark that I find myself thinking there is something the media is not reporting about agricultural economics. I find myself thinking there is something the media is not reporting about the relationship between farm owners and their often illegal employees. I just don't know what it is.

America invaded?
If a foreign military (say, Mexico's) had a habit of crossing into the USA, and if in doing so it occasionally engaged in armed stand-offs with the United States Border Patrol, wouldn't you find that to be newsworthy? Wouldn't you expect that to be the kind of thing that earns banner headlines in our newspapers and draws major coverage on our news shows?

Of course you would, but you would be wrong.

Kudos to the Los Angeles Times for reporting about frequent incursions onto U.S. soil by the Mexican military, and disgrace to the rest of the MSM for not reporting the incursions yet being happy to tell us about Justin Bieber drag racing and various athletes coming out as gay.

I encourage you to read the Times article in its entirety. To be fair, the Mexican government did give a plausible explanation for the most recent incursion (namely, that the soldiers were chasing drug smugglers and got lost) but that explanation was not given until after the Mexican government was caught lying about whether the incursion happened in the first place.

More reading
This "et ceteras" has offered lots of links, so why not end it with some more?

Go here to see why we should be happy with Kirsten Dunst and offer her our support.

Go here to read why an avowed atheist deserves the unconditional support of those of us on the American Right.

Even if you are not in Florida, go here in the hope that you might save a five-month-old girl -- because really, she could be anywhere.

And finally, go here to read about why Eric Holder can not be trusted as the steward of our God-given and constitutionally-guaranteed right to bear arms.

Until next time...
...may life be bright and good despite its struggles and contradictions.