Wednesday, April 10, 2013

An Interview With Don Pesci: Sandy Hook And The Data Trap

Q: I’ve now read everything you’ve written about the Sandy Hook mass murders, quite a lot. I’ve noticed two things: You have not weighed in on what some people might consider the central legislative issues, the “should” questions – should certain weapons be banned, that sort of thing; and throughout your commentary, you manage to sound like a Jeremiah on what some grey heads in the journalism business use to call “freedom of information.” Is that a right reading of the main thrust of your commentary on Sandy Hook?

A: It’s a fair reading, yes.

Q: Why the emphases on the free flow of information?

A: Because what one does will always depend upon what one knows. It would be more accurate to say “the full and accurate flow of information.” Can I pick a bone with you on Jeremiah?

Q: Sure.

A: Jeremiah was repetitive because he had a positive genius for getting quickly to the decisive point and, of course, repeating it, much to the distress of the hypocritical whitened sepulchers in his audience. Someone – I think it might have been me – once said that journalism was 20 percent thought and 80 percent repetition. That is the nature of journalistic reporting and commentary. Some themes are dearer to you, because they are more important to you, than others, and so you inflict upon your readers the burden of repetition. I’d like to try out on you an answer to the second part of your question.

Q: Okay.

A: Legislators in the General Assembly are pretty much finished with their bills. [This interview occurred on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. Governor Dannel Malloy signed into law on Thursday, April 4, 2013 a bill containing, according to a New York Times report, “… sweeping new restrictions on weapons and ammunition magazines similar to the ones used by the man who fatally shot 20 children and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.”] Remarking on the missing data that should have driven their efforts, I said in one of the columns, all of which may be found on a site called “Connecticut Commentary: Red Notes From A Blue State,” [Here sorted by date] that the bills were premature because the criminal investigation report was not due to be completed until June. The General Assembly produced its bill – a bipartisan measure, we are reminded often enough by its architects – in the first week of April, about a month before the criminal investigation report was due to be completed. I think I quoted the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carol’s “Through the Looking Glass” in the course of that blog and column: “First the verdict,” said the imperious Queen, “then the trial.”

Q: Well yes, but people were impatient to get something done.

A: And their impatience had been stoked by politicians and others interested mostly in bum-rushing legislation before the data upon which that legislation should have rested was available. Why is that?

Q: You had the families of the 26 victims in Sandy Hook waiting patiently for legislation that would…

A: … insure that the slaughter at Sandy Hook would not be repeated. There are so many assurances on this point from state and national politicians, Democrats mostly, that it would be unnecessarily tedious to repeat them here. The two U.S. Senators in Connecticut most voluble on this point are Dick Blumenthal and Chris Murphy.  

Q: Okay.

A: And how can you write such bills if you do not know what happened at Sandy Hook? To be sure, there were reports in the media, many of which relied upon heavily edited information from sources that may or may not have been accurate. Some of the information in the polluted media stream was partial or inaccurate enough to give credence to absurd conspiracy theories. Very little of the information could be described as authoritative -- because much of the information was in the custody of criminal investigators who were determined to draw about the data an impenetrable iron curtain. Every time you approached a data master with a question, you were told, “Sorry Bud, that information is not available because of an ongoing criminal investigation.” To some commentators, myself among them, the criminal investigation seemed overblown, since the two people who might have been charged criminally, Adam Lanza and the mother he murdered, were both dead, as were most of the witnesses to the mass murder. Finally, as the General Assembly was on the point of emitting bills, the carefully guarded bucket sprung a leak. A New York Daily News reporter loosed upon the public some quarantined details that came to him from a source who had attended a police convention in New Orleans, after which it was decided to release police arrest warrants – be it noted, a full month or more before the final criminal report was due.

Q: Which means what?

A: It means that the data in the arrest warrant could have been release long before to legislators charged with shaping bills. Now, I may say – without, I hope, drifting into the bog of conspiracy theory – that, as a general rule, a political sequence occurs because politicians want things to happen in a certain sequence. Even the data included in the arrest warrant was by no means complete and definitive. Arrest warrants reveal only what police are looking for and what they have found at the beginning of an investigation. The General Assembly should have insisted, right from the get go, that all information in the custody of investigators pertinent to the bill or bills the legislators were constructing be made available to the relevant heads of legislative committees – in camera, if necessary. That did not happen. Connecticut’s very robust Freedom of Information [FOI] law means, if it means anything at all, that the only thing the general public need fear about the release of information is that information necessary to a well ordered Republic will NOT be released. But what happened in this instance goes far beyond FOI laws.

Q: You are not saying that people intentionally edited the data you think necessary so that bills could be constructed as they wished, are you?

A: Well, I do think there is a well-documented tendency among politicians to use available laws and processes to advance a preferred end. That’s politics. If the end they have in view is defective, or if the process leads ineluctably to an end the consequences of which are destructive, you must adjust the laws and processes. Politics, at its best, is the legislative art that conveys us to an end result that increases liberty and justice for all.

Q: But how much of what happened was purposeful?

A: All of it -- I hope. To suppose otherwise would be to suppose that our legislators are either stupid or mad. You would have to go to a different planet to find a convocation of reporters and commentators who did NOT think that Democratic lawmakers and some Republicans wanted gun restrictions, whatever the data suggested. The data trap in Connecticut eased their way. But bad data – or, worse, sequestered data – makes for bad laws. If Republicans in Connecticut were not a bunch of spineless go-alongs hanging by their torn fingernails to increasingly disappearing legislative seats, they would insist on bills that break down Berlin Walls intended to prevent the liberating and free flow of data. But look what is happening: As a result of Sandy Hook, we now have before the General Assembly a bill that would restrict information on death certificates. Why? Because we wish to spare the stricken parents of young children murdered in Sandy Hook the resulting publicity that might occur should FOI laws be rigorously enforced. Really? Death certificates, available for centuries to the public, contain only general information. The certificate requires a review of the cause of death by a medical examiner to determine the presence or absence of foul play indicating that a murder may have been committed.  How can the general public know that authorities responsible for apprehending and convicting murderers are doing a proper job if information of this kind is not made available to them? Who are the political beneficiaries of such a bill? Why, dear me, can’t we say it plainly? The bill would largely benefit propagandist politicians whose efforts would be furthered any restriction that data-traps inconvenient truths and prevents the free flow of information. You control the messenger – there are still in Connecticut some alert reporters, a few brave Jonahs who have managed to escape the maw of Leviathan – by controlling data. In history, the upward progress of politicians has always been paved by the careful editing of information. In constitutional republics, some subtlety that veils naked political purposes may be necessary to sell such anti-democratic measures to an increasingly apathetic public. Do we wish to further wound stricken victims? How could we be so heartless? This is how the liberties of free men disappear, not through honest battles waged on an open field but with a flick of the serpent’s tongue.

Q: Are you satisfied with the final bill [recently signed into law by Mr. Malloy]?

A: No. the legislative product was shamelessly oversold by demagogues. The passage of the bill here in Connecticut marked the boundary of overheated rhetoric. Before passage, Connecticut politicians, mostly Democrats driven by a script that bore the watermark of Washington D.C., were telling us that the measures they preferred would make school children across the state safe from the Adam Lanzas of the world. Suffering parents in Sandy Hook, perhaps traumatized by the slaughter of their children, were used to prop up an improbable theory: namely, that restrictions imposed on certain weapons – indeed, the most popular and bestselling long rifle in the United States, the AR15 – would render schoolchildren safe from attack. Even town administrators in Newtown dramatically spurned that theory when the town fathers voted to appropriate money to place armed guards in all their schools, including the three private schools in town [Sandy Hook is a section of Newtown]. They knew from direct experience that unarmed interveners, however brave, could not stop a determined shooter. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School stopped when armed first responders appeared in the school. After the bill in Connecticut had passed, U.S. Senators Dick Blumenthal and Chris Murphy and Governor Dannel Malloy took their show to Washington D.C., where a national gun bill, much more pallid that the Connecticut version, was up for consideration. Here at home, legislators who had championed “the toughest gun laws in the nation,” perhaps with a cautious eye focused on reality, began a tactical retreat from their overblown rhetoric: True, the bill wasn’t perfect, but we should never allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Vice President Joe Biden said at one point that if national gun legislation saved but one life, it would be worth it, which is simply another way of saying that Mr. Biden regards human life as precious. Well, of course he does. All the old canards were trotted out and dangled before an aroused but doubtful public. A rhetorical mountain had been made of a mole hill, and now politicians were concerned with reducing their overinflated mountain of promises so that, when lives once again were lost in what should properly be regarded for purposes of punishment as a terrorist act, politicians who had overpromised in their legislation would not be held to account. Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Murphy both come from a state that had recently abolished a death penalty following a horrific multiple murder in Cheshire committed by two newly released prisoners on parole. Their crime was spectacularly heinous. They broke into a house, beat the male householder with a bat, tied him up in the basement, assaulted three women in the house upstairs, forced a mother to go to a bank and withdraw money, raped two daughters and set fire to the house, killing all the women. That incident sparked massive purchases of guns in Connecticut, especially in rural areas, where the response time from police is necessarily longer. Now, if Adam Lanza had survived his attack on Sandy Hook Elementary school, he could not have been executed in Connecticut for having murdered his mother, 20 children and 6 brave faculty members of the school because – largely owing to politicians like Mr. Blumenthal and Mr. Murphy – the state, for humane reasons, had deprived itself of a punishment tool. Had Mr. Lanza survived, the political play we are now witnessing would not be the same. We have to begin to focus on the criminal misuse of weapons. In the week prior to passage of the gun restriction law in Connecticut, Managing Editor of the Journal Inquirer Chris Powell noted in one of his columns, there were three handgun murders in Hartford alone. “Some of the shots fired there,” Mr. Powell wrote, “may have been audible from the Capitol grounds, at least with those with ears to hear. No one in authority seems to know what to do about such murders, and over the course of a year, such murders in Connecticut’s disintegrating cities will be far more numerous than the murders in Newtown, but nobody has to know or even pretend to know because that part of Connecticut – the part where mayhem is ordinary and daily, not a freak event such as Newtown – can be written off politically. Murder victims in the cities long ago ceased being cute.” Unfortunately, not as many people are like to have read Mr. Powell’s column as those who read Mr. Murphy’s maiden speech in the U.S. Senate on gun violence in the course of which Mr. Murphy pointed out, quite correctly, that guns in the hands of criminals are more lethal than knives. He might have done a valuable service for his constituents had he read Mr. Powell’s column into the legislative record.   

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