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One of these photos is Dorothea Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother,” from the 1930s. And two of these photos aren’t.

We live in a nation of laws, and it’s right that we enforce those laws. It is illegal, for example, to bomb houses of worship, and it is also illegal to shoot down airplanes, be they Air National Guard planes or other planes. Furthermore, it is illegal to purchase certain firearms or certain other weapons, and as the FBI correctly claims, albeit barely suppressing their gleeful excitement, it is also illegal to transport those illegally gotten items across state lines (“the defendants, at least one of whom traveled in and caused another to travel in interstate commerce in furtherance of the offense”). I am fortunate to live in a nation of laws, which provides institutions of justice for all. We sometimes find that one institution has taken pains to conduct an investigation, bring charges, and prosecute, whilst another institution takes equally great pains to find fault with that investigation, those charges, that prosecution, etc. This is as it should be.
The New York Times’s coverage of the alleged plot appears to cover all the angles: the arrests themselves (and the foiling of the attempted bombing!), assurances that the bombers acted alone, the impact that the attempted bombing has had in the quiet (reports stop just short of “bucolic”) Riverdale neighborhood, the role that an informant may have played in the plot, and — perhaps most importantly — a bit of personal history behind each of the alleged terrorists.
This story is rich, so perhaps it is not surprising that within two days, The Times had four stories out (and linked a fifth one on “<a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/22/nyregion/22nyc.html?ref=nyregion”>”Interfaith Understanding”</a> “winning” out while a bomb “plot” “loses”).
There’s no substitute for reading the articles themselves, or for checking out the actual criminal complaint (The Times <a href=”http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/nyregion/20090520-bomb-plot-arrests/complaint.pdf”>provides it</a>) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s press release (<a href=”http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/nyregion/20090520-bomb-plot-arrests/press-release.pdf”>also provided</a>).
In a May 22 article (<a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/23/nyregion/23informant.html?ref=nyregion”>Informer’s Role in Bombing Plot</a>), New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly is quoted as saying, “Any defense attorney worth his salt is going to argue entrapment,” but he goes on to say that, according to “the law,” one must be “otherwise not disposed to do the crime” in order to “successfully use the defense of entrapment.” And, presumably, because it will be simple to demonstrate that these suspects came up with the plan on their own before submitting to their informant-friend for his appraisal and approval, and because it will also be easy enough to demonstrate an anti-Semitic, anti-U.S.-military bent in what amounts to their guiding philosophy, at least according to Commissioner Kelly, entrapment can’t work.
There’s an unsettling aspect to the relationship between the informant and the accused, though. If it doesn’t rise to the level of entrapment, then maybe entrapment isn’t written broadly enough. Or maybe there’s something worse than entrapment.
The Times’s coverage notes that the four accused men “celebrated” once they had accumulated their weapons. They had skittishly traveled to the place their informant told them they could buy those weapons — a place in Connecticut, which necessitated crossing a state line — neatly adding one more important Federal charge to the complaint. They had feared being followed, drove around for hours, and succesfully brought their purchases safely home (back across the state border).
Of course, the warehouse they went to in Connecticut was wired, their storage facility was wired, and in all likelihood, their friend-informant was wired, so whether they were being followed in their car seems a relatively small point.
There’s a detail in this “celebration” that may be important. Why would four grown men, four serious men, with a mission of violence and hate, be celebrating such a relatively small “success” — they had no reason to believe it would be difficult to accomplish this part of the mission. The hard part, if it can even be called that, would be planting the bomb at an unsuspecting civilian target and shooting down an unsuspecting airplane. That’s the hard part, and even that seems pretty simple. So why celebrate?
I put it to you that this celebration may actually have been one of the happiest moments in these men’s lives. Especially the guy who is apparently schizophrenic and collects his own urine in jars. These men wanted to be happy. To have accomplished something — anything. Especially if it went toward a broader ideal — something noble. These are the aspirations that we all have, and that make us human. The particular aspirations of these men are ugly because they’ve been thwarted. They’re a sick bonsai tree instead of a Sycamore, and the men themselves are not entirely to blame for this condition.
All four are ex-cons, and they don’t have much else in common, except perhaps that they are Black men from poor families. Safe, then, to assume that they have not been given the same opportunities as those afforded their White peers from the suburbs. They may not feel as though they are listened to, or that their society sees in them any particular value. Their invisibility has been proven real in all systems except that of criminal justice, where they are, of course, all too visible.
So when a seemingly important member of society — a brother Muslim in a stereotype-mobile of a black Mercedes shows up at their Mosque — wants to talk to them, they might be particularly susceptible to the allure of that attention. While other members of the Mosque — members, perhaps, with families, with long-standing ties to the communities, with support systems that go beyond a handful of ex-convicts, but stretch back to an ethnic bond or a home-country — tend to ignore the flashy Mercedes man (even assuming that he is a government informant, probably because he seems to have driven straight over from central casting…), these guys listen up.
Their new friend says he has ties to terror organizations. He offers them jobs. But more importantly, as the criminal complaint details, he listens to them. They get to talk to him the way they talk to each other, but for the first time, they’re talking to someone who’s not already in their club, and he’s paying attention.
So they want him to approve. He becomes their benign authority figure – the father who, in each of their cases, they never had.
The allegation is that buying rockets and explosives was their idea. But why was it their idea? It’s carefully constructed so as not to be entrapment, at least as according to Commissioner Kelly.
But it’s worse, because it cynically plays on a deep-seated psychological need that anyone could have predicted these guys would have. And it’s worse still because a failing education system, urban decay, and a virulent underlying strain of societal racism are all behind the conditions that created that deep psychological need (the need to be listened to, to be approved of, to matter….).
So while it’s deplorable and cynical that we may be using our FBI informants to create hapless would-be terrorists out of erstwhile crackheads (instead of finding actual, pre-existing terrorists, and instead, too, of treating these crackheads to the kind of rehab and re-entry that we provide to every athlete and politician with a drug or sex addiction), and while it seems doubly wrong to be setting up these stings in places where we’re most likely to nab the weakest, most disenfranchised members of our community (as opposed to wealthy suburban high schools where we might actually find some evil lurking in broad daylight), it seems especially important to consider whether entrapment is sufficiently defined.
My cousin lives in a building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where, because of the Jewish Sabbath, some residents will not press the buttons of the elevator because that constitutes “work.” Instead, they stand in the elevator and say, “It would be very nice if this elevator would stop on the seventh floor.” And someone else — someone who is allowed to do “work” on the Sabbath, will press the button. It’s not entrapment.
If I know you want something from me, and I want you to do something for me, I don’t always have to come right out and ask you to do it. I can simply let you know how nice it would be if the thing I want you to do could get done. Then, if you think doing that thing might help you get the thing you want from me, you’ll do it. And then you’ll be in federal prison for fifteen years.
Which, by the way, is where the informant-friend would’ve been if he hadn’t agreed to start driving a black Mercedes and pretending to be just exactly like the bad guys in 24.

We live in a nation of laws, and it’s right that we enforce those laws. It is illegal, for example, to bomb houses of worship, and it is also illegal to shoot down airplanes, be they Air National Guard planes or other planes. Furthermore, it is illegal to purchase certain firearms or certain other weapons, and as the FBI correctly claims, albeit barely suppressing their gleeful excitement, it is illegal to transport those illegally gotten items across state lines (“the defendants, at least one of whom traveled in and caused another to travel in interstate commerce in furtherance of the offense”). We are lucky to live in a nation of laws.

The New York Times’s coverage of the alleged plot appears to cover all the angles: the arrests themselves (and the foiling of the attempted bombing!), assurances that the bombers acted alone, the impact that the attempted bombing has had in the quiet (reports stop just short of “bucolic”) Riverdale neighborhood, the role that an informant may have played in the plot, and — perhaps most importantly — a bit of personal history behind each of the alleged terrorists.

This story is rich, so perhaps it is not surprising that within two days, The Times had four stories out (and linked a fifth one on “Interfaith Understanding” “winning” out while a bomb “plot” “loses”).

There’s no substitute for reading the articles themselves, or for checking out the actual criminal complaint (The Times provides it) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s press release (also provided).

In a May 22 article (Informer’s Role in Bombing Plot), New York City Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly is quoted as saying, “Any defense attorney worth his salt is going to argue entrapment,” but he goes on to say that, according to “the law,” one must be “otherwise not disposed to do the crime” in order to “successfully use the defense of entrapment.” And, presumably, because it will be simple to demonstrate that these suspects came up with the plan on their own before submitting to their informant-friend for his appraisal and approval, and because it will also be easy enough to demonstrate an anti-Semitic, anti-U.S.-military bent in what amounts to their guiding philosophy, at least according to Commissioner Kelly, entrapment can’t work. (Why even have a trial, one wonders?)

There’s an unsettling aspect to the relationship between the informant and the accused, though. If it doesn’t rise to the level of entrapment, then maybe entrapment isn’t written broadly enough. Or maybe there’s something worse than entrapment.

The Times’s coverage notes that the four accused men “celebrated” once they had accumulated their weapons. They had skittishly traveled to the place their informant told them they could buy those weapons — a place in Connecticut, which necessitated crossing a state line — neatly adding one more important Federal charge to the complaint. They had feared being followed, drove around for hours, and succesfully brought their purchases safely home (back across the state border).

Of course, the warehouse they went to in Connecticut was wired, their storage facility was wired, and in all likelihood, their friend-informant was wired, so whether they were being followed in their car seems a relatively small point.

There’s a detail in this “celebration” that may be important. Why would four grown men, four serious men, with a mission of violence and hate, be celebrating such a relatively small “success” — they had no reason to believe it would be difficult to accomplish this part of the mission. The hard part, if it can even be called that, would be planting the bomb at an unsuspecting civilian target and shooting down an unsuspecting airplane. That’s the hard part, and even that seems pretty simple. So why celebrate?

This celebration may actually have been one of the happiest moments in these men’s lives. Especially the guy who is apparently schizophrenic and collects his own urine in jars. These men wanted to be happy, to have accomplished something — anything. Especially if it went toward a broader ideal — something noble. These are the aspirations that we all have, and that make us human. The particular aspirations of these men are ugly at least in part because they’ve been thwarted. They’re a sick, warped Bonsai instead of an upstanding Sycamore, and the men themselves are not entirely to blame for this condition. (It is a cruel twist that “aspirational” in this case also means, in terms of law enforcement, that the suspects “wanted to do something but had no weapons or explosives.”)

All four are ex-cons, and they don’t have much else in common, except perhaps that they are Black men from poor families. Safe, then, to assume that they have not been given the same opportunities as those afforded their White peers from the suburbs. They may not feel as though they are listened to, or that their society sees in them any particularly high value. Their invisibility has been proven real in many systems with the notable exception of the criminal justice system, where they are, of course, all too visible.

So when a seemingly important member of society — a brother Muslim in a stereotype-mobile of a black Mercedes shows up at their Mosque — wants to talk to them, they might be particularly susceptible to the allure of that attention. While other members of the Mosque — members, perhaps, with families, with long-standing ties to the communities, with support systems that go beyond a handful of ex-convicts, but stretch back to an ethnic bond or a home-country — tend to ignore the flashy Mercedes man (even assuming that he is a government informant, probably because he seems to have driven straight over from central casting…), these guys listen up.

Their new friend says he has ties to terror organizations. He offers them jobs. But more importantly, as the criminal complaint details, he listens to them. They get to talk to him the way they talk to each other, but for the first time, they’re talking to someone who’s not already in their club, and he’s paying attention.

So they want him to approve. He becomes their benign authority figure – the father who, in each of their cases, they never had.

The allegation is that buying rockets and explosives was their idea. But why was it their idea? It’s carefully constructed so as not to be entrapment, at least as according to Commissioner Kelly.

But it’s worse, because it cynically plays on a deep-seated psychological need that anyone could have predicted these guys would have. And it’s worse still because a failing education system, urban decay, and a virulent underlying strain of societal racism are all behind the conditions that created that deep psychological need (the need to be listened to, to be approved of, to matter….).

So while it’s deplorable and cynical that we may be using our FBI informants to create hapless would-be terrorists out of erstwhile crackheads (instead of finding actual, pre-existing terrorists, and instead, too, of treating these crackheads to the kind of rehab and re-entry that we provide to every athlete and politician with a drug or sex addiction), and while it seems doubly wrong to be setting up these stings in places where we’re most likely to nab the weakest, most disenfranchised members of our community (as opposed to wealthy suburban high schools where we might actually find some evil lurking in broad daylight), it seems especially important to consider whether entrapment is sufficiently defined.

My cousin lives in a building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side where, because of the Jewish Sabbath, some residents will not press the buttons of the elevator because that constitutes “work.” Instead, they stand in the elevator and say, “It would be very nice if this elevator would stop on the seventh floor.” And someone else — someone who is allowed to do “work” on the Sabbath, will press the button. It’s not entrapment.

If I know you want something from me, and I want you to do something for me, I don’t always have to come right out and ask you to do it. I can simply let you know how nice it would be if the thing I want you to do could get done. Then, if you think doing that thing might help you get the thing you want from me, you’ll do it. And then you’ll be in federal prison for fifteen years.

Which, by the way, is where the informant-friend would’ve been if he hadn’t agreed to start driving a black Mercedes and pretending to be just exactly like the bad guys in 24.

The world this past few weeks is too rich in material for a half-assed writer with the attention span of a person with a very short attention span to write a “weekly” omnibus post that covers current events in some cursory way for the readers of, in this case, a blog that is read primarily by robots.

The Obama White House will see a dog, finally, at long last. It’s not a mutt, it’s not really a rescue, and it’s not what any kid who’s been promised a pet in November would consider timely. But it’s not quite just-another-politician’s-broken-promise. It’s been orchestrated to be arguably the thing it purported to be — not a rescued mutt, but not exactly a brand new pure-bred, since there was one previous owner who gave it a name even. And, while it is related to royalty, it has been rejected at least once, and therefore, the WH folks seem to be saying, can’t we just move on, please? Yes. We can.

The economy continues to suck (that’s official language. More of it can be found on BeckerPosner and Reich and everywhere else you turn.), although there may be glimmers of hope. Most of those glimmers, it has been well-noted, have to do with things still sucking, but just not sucking as badly as we might have expected them to. So that’s cool. (To wit, on a personal note: I’ll get a tax refund this year, which doesn’t suck. But the reason I’ll get a refund is that I had funds withheld from January through October at a rate that supposed I would continue to have a job through December, and instead of that happening, I lost my job in October. We’ll talk about that at some point, but in the meantime, you see past the shadow of that which doesn’t suck — a refund — to the hulking thing behind it, which does most definitely suck.)

There’s a great deal to be written about some of the momentum here in San Francisco around California’s famously, horribly, inhumanely, unconscionably broken corrections system, and as I dip some toes into the issues, there are some players who are going to have a huge and positive impact from whom I’m eager to learn much, much more. But for now, we’ll skip over that (it’s a human rights issue that is literally more important than almost anything else that The State (writ large, by the way) does, because it deprives people unfairly of rights, and does so on a basis that is far and away disproportionately disadvantageous to African Americans and Latinos), but I’m leaving it for another time, so we’re moving on now to something timely but incredibly, infinitely less important to human welfare, and much, much more important to a different part of one’s brain.

On the 50th anniversary of the book Elements of Style (by strunk, and then by white, so by strunkandwhite, which is what most people say these days), there’s a bit of chatter this week. The chatter is all worth reading because it is, for once, by about and for grammar and grammarians, but it includes one notable curmudgeonly take, making a surprising assertion about Strunk and E. B. White and their puny little book.

Interestingly (or not), Geoffrey K. Pullum, who is by no means the first to attack strunkandwhite, takes the tack that neither strunknorwhite knew much about grammar. To grapple with the truth or untruth of that statement would seem a bore of the highest magnitude, but it’s of interest because the grammar part (as opposed to the “style” part, which takes up about half the small-but-apparently-potent volume. To wit, Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe) is the part that people usually ignore when they criticize the book. That’s because the “style” part has plenty to complain about, too. so, for example, here’s writer Ben Yagoda, from his totally-worth-reading “The Sound on the Page,” on the topic of strunkandwhite, and in particular on the removing-your-own-voice, less-is-more mantra that runs through not only Elements, but, according to Yagoda also through so many other prose-help books like Zinsser’s On Writing Well (Zinsser would not agree, judging by his version of why he wrote his bestselling book, which was intended in part to help writers hold the interest, and not only the respect, of the reader), Barzun’s Simple & Direct or Peter Richardson’s Style: A Pragmatic Approach:

Each time, it’s the same minimalist and impersonal doctrine. But this is a chimera based on a fallacy. Perhaps transparency is possible, or at least a useful metaphor, when one is composing an instruction manual …. But in communicating ideas, opinions, impressions — indeed, in any attempt to describe or imagine the wide world — content does not exist separate from the words in which it is expressed. Each one depends on the other. When you remove the wrapping of the language, you see that the box is empty.

Yagoda’s book is worth it for that passage alone, but it really pays you back in the next few paragraphs, when Harold Bloom manages link strunkandwhite to a kind of Puritanical, inhuman, holier-than-thou New England repressive “Gentile tradition.” Seriously, the extended quotes from Harold Bloom, along with Yagoda’s writing, which pretends to aspire to pith but actually hammers you with perfect, complex thoughts and ideas expressed beautifully, is worth reading.

But I digress (slightly). The point is, while some folks have surely taken aim at the fact that strunkandwhite seems about as anti-author as it can be while still allowing for writing to occur in some sense, critics don’t tangle much on the grammar part. (Even the great Bloom, as you’ll see when you buy the book and read it, finds no fault in the grammar bits.)

Grouch Pullum takes special aim at strunkandwhite’s failure to correctly identify the passive voice in their extended warrant for its arrest. And the irascible Pullum also blames strunkandwhite for the proliferation of their poor or flat-out wrong examples all over the Internet.

Pullum’s is a crabby, and presumably a lonely view, but it’s got more heart than it’s quarry (not hard to do, of course), and it expresses a heartening and sad devotion to a human enterprise that is, as all are, fleeting and ever changing (“English syntax is a deep and interesting subject,” writes the old grump in his conclusion. Huzzah!).

Concluding question, for Easter: Is it passive to say “He is risen”?

A diagram of an outline of a person falling into a canyon.

A diagram of an outline of a person falling into a canyon.

I’m considering, I’m considering, reviving this blog, reviving this blog. I’m considering ….

Thinking once a week isn’t too much to ask of myself. A chance to lasso up the funnest things I’ve read over the course of the week, point to the good works of friends, and basically chart my recovery from the last few years. One note, related to this dead-or-dying blog — there is a graveyard of would-be posts sitting in draft form, each of which seems to call out a different aspect of the bizarre and now-finally-over saga of the company for which I worked for the past few years. I doubt I’ll ever be able to edit those old drafts to a point where they aren’t at least prone to accusations of libel, even though, Mary McCarthy fan that I am, I’d probably relish the prospect of defending every claim. I won’t provide a link for that right now, because I’m lazy, but just know that if you search on Mary and Lillian Hellman, and throw in Dick Cavett for good measure, you’ll be in for a treat.

Anyway, we won’t be looking back at that time. We will be looking ahead. Onward, errant so-and-so!