Feb 08

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.

Also, we have a ton of thoughts on Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “Sheep, Sheepdogs and Wolves” analogy. To read the entire series, please click here.)

Before we started writing this series, I thought about the cops that I knew. For me--probably not Michael C--writing about cops felt a lot more personal than writing about soldiers. Our family knows a lot of police officers. Yes, obviously Michael and I know a lot of soldiers, but usually with the military, you can blame policy, politicians or officers for most problems. Writing about police shootings--or more accurately, blaming the police for excessive force, unaccountable killings and unjust practices that encourage and promote racial disparity--feels more personal. It feels like we’re blaming them personally.

So I got to thinking about the cops I knew. They’re good people, right? I believe they are. But as the police shootings kept mounting--or for me personally, seeing the video of the Walter Scott shooting--I couldn’t escape the conclusion: some cops are bad cops.

And then it hit me. I was getting close to reusing Grossman’s analogy about “wolves, sheep and sheepdogs” that we spent a lot of time on last year. (Click here and here for some background on this misleading analogy.) Basically, this simplistic analysis is used by some police officers and soldiers to divide the world into three groups: bad people like terrorists and criminals (“wolves”), the good people  who use violence to stop the wolves (glowingly described as “sheepdogs”), and those good people who disdain violence (insultingly dubbed “sheep”).

Unlike last year, I don’t want to keep bashing Grossman’s illogical analogy. In fact, I think it is actually instructive (in a few limited ways) in understanding and stopping police shootings.

Obviously there are some bad cops. (Unlike Grossman, we don’t believe joining the military or police automatically makes you a good person or a “sheepdog”.) So, if you assume that some police officers are sheepdogs (good cops) and some are wolves (bad cops), how do you tell them apart? Easy. Look at their behavior. In far too many police shootings, the shooters had dismal records of over-using force:

- Look at the Laquan McDonald shooting. Officer Van Dyke--the officer who shot McDonald and now faces murder charges--had 18 complaints filed against him.

- Or the shooting of John Crawford III at a WalMart. According to CNN and a federal lawsuit by Crawford’s family, “...Officer Sean C. Williams, who is also ‘involved in the only other fatal police shooting in the history of the Beavercreek Police Department,’ according to the lawsuit.” So one police officer accounts for both shootings in one police department’s history? Unlikely.

- Or Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death using an illegal police tactic, had been sued three times for misconduct.

- Michael Slager, who shot and then lied about shooting Walter Scott, had three complaints for use of excessive force.

- The city of Cleveland had to settle an excessive force lawsuit brought by citizens against Frank Garmback, one of the police officers who shot Tamir Rice.

Not all cops are bad, but some are. We can look at their records and dismiss the bad cops (wolves) preemptively. Even Grossman agrees with this, as he wrote, “the sheepdog must not, cannot and will not ever harm the sheep. Any sheepdog who intentionally harms the lowliest little lamb will be punished and removed. The world cannot work any other way, at least not in a representative democracy or a republic such as ours.”

Alas, this is not what happens.

How do too many good cops (sheepdogs) deal with bad cops? By doing nothing. Police officers are almost never convicted of killing civilians. We pointed out five different examples in a post last year of DAs and police departments ignoring allegations of abuse.

Of the police officers above, the officers who killed Tamir Rice, John Crawford III and Eric Garner received no punishment, as grand juries declined to indict the officers. The police officer who shot Tamir Rice wasn’t questioned until over six months after the shooting, and only had charges filed after video of the shooting became public. If Michael Slager is convicted, he’d be the first officer in five years in South Carolina.

Even worse than all of this looking the other way--for both excessive force complaints and questionable shootings--is when sheepdogs also cover up the crimes of the wolves in their midst.

In the case of Laquan McDonald, the Chicago Police Department intimidated witnesses into silence, according to reports from the family. And police officers lied, “...In reports to internal investigators, the other officers either corroborated his story or said that they hadn’t seen what happened. One said that she had been looking down and missed the whole thing.” And then the police department refused to release the tape of the shooting to the public to conceal what had happened.

The good sheepdogs of Chicago tried to specifically protect a wolf in their midst. So much for sheepdogs being “punished and removed” for the sake of our democracy.

I don’t believe all cops are evil. I don’t believe they should be vilified. But I do believe they need to be criticized for working in and protecting a system that shields all cops from punishment, without differentiating the good cops from the bad, or at least trying to. It’s the police officers in New York who, feeling like they’re under attack, protest after their fellow officers choke a man to death for selling loose cigarettes.

The problem, hate to paraphrase a quote-behaving-badly, is sheepdogs doing nothing about the wolves in their midst, who let a broken system remain broken. I would hope that the police officers I know can at least agree on that.

Feb 01

(To read the rest of our coverage on the 2016 Presidential primaries, please click here.)

Let’s just start at the beginning, with the Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

That is the first line in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It’s really, really clear. If you claim to love the Constitution (and really people mean the Bill of Rights when they say they love the Constitution), it means loving the freedoms and liberties enshrined in it.

And the Founders started with religion.

The Constitution is only as strong as the people upholding its values. The Constitution can’t enforce itself. The Constitution doesn’t pass laws violating its principles; politicians do. During primary season, we’ve been reminded of this often unacknowledged fact.

So when numerous Republican candidates for president advocate unconstitutional proposals, you’d expect more protest from the party that carries mini-Constitutions, endorses original intent, and opens Congress by reading the Constitution from front to back (leaving out any sections the founders originally put in about 3/5th people).

If you had asked me before the election, I would have guessed that Republican candidates would have advocated violating the constitution when it comes to warrantless wiretapping. That’s hardly come up. Instead, candidates are advocating and proposing laws that would directly violate the First Amendment--by infringing on Muslim’s right to worship--by Republican candidates, most vocally Donald Trump followed by Ted Cruz. (This also applies to immigration, like Donald Trump’s opposition to the 14th Amendment.)

At his most extreme, Trump recommended creating a database of Muslims in America for intelligence agencies to watch/surveil/track. Summed up, simply for adhering to a religious belief (Islam), the government will track certain people. How can that not terrify anyone worried about government power or protecting civil liberties?

Other candidates called for using religion to screen immigrants. Still unconstitutional, other candidates including Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz joined Trump on this issue. Ted Cruz has also battled Donald Trump for which candidate can go the closest to outright Islamophobia, in some cases sounding like he endorses hate speech against Muslims.

In some ways, we can’t really blame Trump or Cruz, who are following the worst impulses of the people in the party they represent. As in all things politics, it’s a chicken and egg conundrum: Is the politician to blame for racist, unconstitutional views or the people showing up at his rallies? Of course, the people don’t just get riled up on their own. Conservative talk radio helps, and sometimes goes much farther than the politicians or people.

You can see this in the worst impulses of mobs of people. The first amendment says the federal and state governments cannot privilege any religion over another. So if a town allows a Catholic church and a Protestant church, it must also allow a Mosque. Yet that basic understanding of the Constitution doesn’t stop a mob of citizens in Virginia from protesting a renovation to an Islamic center. Whether through popular fiat or government regulation, they want to evict all Muslims. (This is similar to the people who wanted to ban a Mosque from opening near the World Trade Center.) This is the worst sort of populism the founders feared.

If you want absolute security, the Constitution is not for you. Too often the values that keep us free put us at risk. Civil libertarians (like myself) too often neglect this fact. Republican candidates probably do love the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution, but it seems like they love safety more. They are reflecting the sentiment of their base. And that base is scared. Pointlessly scared--the risk of dying is almost zero from Muslim terrorism--but still scared.

And scared people overreact. These overreactions do threaten our country: they threaten the Constitution. They threaten the Bill of Rights.

Responding to Donald Trump’s surprising political success, a lot of liberals have responded with jokes, not taking him seriously. As voting begins today in Iowa, serious issues are at stake, up to and including the sanctity of the Constitution.

The Constitution is a fragile thing after all.

Jan 29

(To read all of our posts on the 2016 election, check out the articles below:

- The Constitution is a Fragile Thing: Republicans Candidates and Religious Liberty

Don’t Worry about EMPs, WMDs or ISIS: Sorry, Republicans The World is Getting Safer

- ISIS, You Ain’t No Existential Threat, Bruv

Torture. Still Wrong.

Actually, the American Military is Y-uuuuge

- Obama isn't a Feckless Weakling

- What We Talk About When We Talk About Loosening ROE

- Let's Kill Women and Children: The Republicans on War Crimes)


With the U.S. presidential primaries less than a week away, we feel we need to write about them. We’ve got a few weeks worth of posts, analyzing the issues that On Violence focuses on, like foreign policy, the military and civil liberties. Those issues, though, are firmly global/international/foreign in nature. No taxes, economics, or social issues here.

Also, we’re going to tell you who we think you should vote for. Kind of. (During the last election, we just wrote about the candidates, and endorsed Obama without directly saying so.) 

Before we get into everything else, we need to disclose our politics, since those will, no doubt, shape who we think you should vote for. We’re going to put our cards on the table and say, “We’re Democrats.”

Michael C used to be a Republican. Or, at least, a moderate Republican (I mean, he grew up in California), the type of person the chattering classes endlessly praised as being the core of American politics ten or fifteen years ago. Even Eric C, an avowed socialist, could respect his balance on a number of issues, modeled after our father’s guidance that conservatism was rooted in “slow change”, a variation on Burke’s original conservative argument for tradition.

Eric C, on the other hand, went to college, and became an activist and a socialist.

It’s safe to say, we’re both firmly big D, Democrats now. For Eric C, this might be considered a moderating of his own beliefs--Thanks, Nader, for Florida in 2000!--based on electoral pragmatism. For Michael C, many of his positions haven’t changed, but really, the Republican party left him, or failed to change with the times with the rest of the country.

So take everything we have to say about the Republican candidates with that grain of salt. We still think readers will find it valuable to read our thoughts on which Republican candidate is actually the best on the (unique) issues we care about. So on the issues, which candidate do we support?

The On V Republican Endorsement is: Rand Paul

That’s right, we endorsed a candidate who has toyed with the Gold Standard. (Remember, as we wrote above, we’re not looking at domestic policy.)

To figure our endorsement, we first tried to identify any “no-Go’s”. If a candidate advocated for one of those, how could we endorse them? The one we could settle on was advocating war crimes. Being belligerent is one thing, advocating the slaughter of innocents is unconstitutional, unethical, immoral and just wrong. So Ted Cruz and Donald Trump were eliminated. (We’ll elaborate in a later post.)

The other values were as follows:

- Less war is better than more war.

- Strong civil liberties is better than hurting civil liberties. (In fact, we like the whole Constitution a bunch.)

- A smaller military and intelligence community is a good thing.

    - Diplomacy equals good.

    - Foreign aid is Grrrrr-eat!

Only the last criteria saw universal agreement between the Republican candidates. Even Rand Paul hates foreign aid.

But on the other points Paul takes issue with some of his fellow candidates. His opposition to warrantless surveillance in unparalleled. And while On Violence loves global integration, we hate war more. On that we agree with Rand Paul. (He opposes most wars; he also opposes diplomacy and international institutions too.)

The thing is, none of the candidates are international relations liberals. They are realists, or neo-cons or, in some cases, pseudo-imperialists. At least Rand Paul’s isolationism (a proper use of the term, though he disputes it) is the least harmful. In reality, we think he is a traditional foreign policy realist, which we respect. (Though his domestic policies are abysmal and terrifying, they're so unrealistic as to be non-threatening, kind of like Bernie Sanders’ stances.)

In the coming weeks, we’ll analyze most of the Republican candidates in the context of the major issues of On Violence--including ISIS, Syria, World is Getting Safer, ROE and more--mainly to show them wanting.

The On V Democratic Endorsement is: TBD

Remember, domestic policy and foreign policy rarely align. If you exclude domestic policy from this discussion--and as we said above, we are--in many ways Rand Paul is a better choice to lead our country than Hillary Clinton. (Believe me, this hurt Eric C just to type that.)

To sum up, in our view, Bernie Sanders is unelectable and has no foreign policy experience. No one knows who Martin O’Malley is. Hillary’s foreign policy is abysmal, for the exact opposite reasons Republicans say. She’ll likely intervene in places we don’t want and she doesn’t have a great record on civil liberties. It is unclear if she is an international relations liberal.

Arguably Sanders is the best choice, but it is debatable, since his track record on foreign policy is slim. (We do appreciate his focus on global warming as the largest threat facing humanity.)

So we’re not endorsing a Democrat. If you’re a Democrat, consider your choice, as far as foreign policy goes, basically moot.

That said, if this is still a race in March, we’ll consider endorsing someone.

Jan 26

If veterans appear in the news, it’s usually in a negative light. Unemployment. (California veterans have a 7% unemployment rate.) Suicide. (37% of veterans have contemplated suicide.) Homelessness. (10% of homeless are veterans in Los Angeles.) And worse, most veterans don’t know where to go to seek help.

Well, today I want to tell you a positive story about veterans.

Over the last year, a grassroots effort sprung up among veterans in Los Angeles to improve how the VA treats veterans. This movement shows how great things can happen when people, but especially veterans, take a role in their government.

A little background. In the late 19th century, several wealthy landowners donated land upon which now sits the West L.A. V.A. Campus. Over time, the VA took over control of the land--extremely valuable land in the middle of Los Angeles--and eventually entered into long-term leasing arrangements that didn’t serve the best interests of veterans.

Unfortunately, this land mismanagement couldn’t come at a worse time for veterans. According to a survey conducted by USC’s School of Social Work, after leaving the military, 51% of veterans don’t know where to get help. And the average wait time for veterans in Los Angeles is 176 days.

A few years ago, a group of veterans sued the V.A. to protest the problems in the VA and how the land--which was deeded to veterans--was being used. Another internal audit of the VA saw similar issues on the West L.A. VA Campus. So far this seems like the same bad news story you usually read without any bright spots.

That changed in January of last year. Secretary of the VA Bob McDonald agreed to settle the lawsuit and work with veterans to improve the West LA Campus. Secretary McDonald would present a new plan to renovate and revitalize the campus, and he would seek veteran input to do so. In two days, on January 28th, Secretary McDonald is set to sign off on this plan.

That’s where I got involved. (I served in the U.S. Army after graduating from UCLA from 2006 to 2011.) A group called Vets Advocacy started organizing veterans so we can make our voices heard. I didn’t have to attend meetings, analyze the VA proposal or submit personal comments. But like my fellow veterans, I felt compelled to not just watch as the VA makes policies but to help inform the policies to make the West LA Campus something great.

The energy of veterans in LA was inspiring. Hundreds of veterans met regularly to plan our course. Simply put, we achieved historic amounts of involvement. The West LA VA Campus renovation plan received over 1,000 comments, the highest number of comments in federal registrar history. Thousands more tweets and facebook messages were distributed by thousands of veterans to raise awareness of this issue.

The plan is not just historic for the amount of comments, but for what this represents. This plan represents the possibility to change the VA from being a hospital or housing shelter into a community that brings veterans together. The veteran leaders I’m working with don’t just want to make the VA function better, we want to build a community of veterans and work with the VA to improve the lives of the people who fought and sacrificed for our country.

Even better, we know that we are creating a model for the whole country. Our efforts in Los Angeles are providing a blueprint for other VA campuses around the country for how to to turn from being simply a hospital into a community.

Our fight isn’t finished. Veterans are going to keep fighting to ensure that plan puts the interests of veterans first and foremost, builds a community for all veterans and provides a model for the VA nationwide. We’re going to demand accountability and ensure the VA lives up to the promises it has made to veterans.

Knowing my fellow veterans--some of the most energetic, passionate and hard-working people in America--I know we won’t stop here. That is a great news story about our veterans.

Go to the website VATheRightWay.org to learn more about this effort. As we wrote above, this Thursday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald will address veterans about the future of the West LA VA campus and sign the new master plan for the campus.

Here are the details:

When: 28 January, 2016 at 9:30 AM

Where: Building 209 Courtyard, 11301 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA

What: Introducing the new West LA VA Campus master plan.

Who: VA Secretary Bob McDonald.

Jan 20

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

As Michael C wrote about last week, the problems with police shootings are incredibly similar to the problems America faced fighting counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Editing that post, we realized we had at least three more connections between policing in America and counterinsurgency theory abroad.

1. Poor Community Relations

To bluntly summarize a major disagreement we had with the mainstream criticism of population-centric counterinsurgency: nation building works, but America (and its military) never really tried it.

Framing it simply, if you rebuild infrastructure (roads, power, cell phones, etc), provide healthcare, and stimulate the economy, the local population will have a really hard time hating you. If you’re a potential insurgent, you’re probably not going to hate the country or military that got you a job, cured your son’s club foot, and modernized your nation. But America and its military never committed to that strategy or vision of COIN. Most of the money that was spent was wasted or stolen, and way more money was spent on our soldiers’ welfare than on the local populations. (For example, Caesar salad and steak Fridays on Michael C’s base in Iraq.)

Same with local cities and municipalities in regards to poor communities. Again, probably summarizing too simply, in response to conservative pushes for lower taxes, many cities began using poor communities as a source of income to make up for lost tax revenue. (Instead of rebuilding infrastructure--a la Flint’s current water crisis--or providing quality education.) This includes cities that make citizens pay for their own legal proceedings, including being represented by a public defender, which is a constitutional right.

They then added fines on top of fines. Add to that the rise in plea bargaining instead of trials, and you have a system designed to make money at the expense of disadvantaged communities. For an anecdote, just look at Ferguson, Missouri, who went, “so far as to anticipate decreasing sales tax revenues and urging the police force to make up for the shortfall by ticketing more people.”

We haven't even mentioned civil forfeiture.

The COIN connection is pretty simple: relationships between poor, minority communities and police couldn’t be worse, and these policies explain why.

2. Night Raids

If you ask the door kickers in JSOC and SOCOM, one of the most effective tools of counter-terrorism is “night raids”. Using the advantage of darkness (because of our night vision goggles), our elite forces raid houses of suspected terrorists at night, without warning.

If you ask the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the least effective tools of counter-insurgency is “night raids”. Why? Because when a raid goes poorly, the civilians inside usually die. As Frontline reported on it in their episode “Kill/Capture”, “botched raids and harrowing accounts from Afghan citizens have sparked protests and raised serious questions about whether the raids are alienating the local population in ways that fuel the insurgency’”. The episode features several emotionally jarring stories of innocent people being killed in fights with JSOC forces. Unfortunately, night raids have resumed in Afghanistan. (It's the opposite of above; you'd have a hard time supporting a country or government that just killed your family.)

In the US, the clearest equivalent to night raids is the “no-knock warrant”. Once a non-existent tactic just 20 years ago, then a special tactic only for extreme circumstances, police around America now conduct 20,000 to 40,000 no-knock raids a year. Radley Balko’s book Rise of the Warrior Cop has several examples of completely unneeded no-knock raids that resulted in dead (sometimes unarmed) citizens and the ACLU released a report in 2014.

This isn’t limited to just these SWAT raids. A lot of the policies that police use to keep safe--the same way night raids keep special operators safe or no-knock raids keep SWAT safe--escalate the danger in the long run. I’m thinking of stop and frisk, police militarization and warrantless searches. They also terrify the population.

3. De-escalation

Running through many, but not all, of the police shootings caught on tape in the last two years is the idea that the shootings were avoidable. In many cases, the police officers never attempted to deescalate the situation.

Take the John Crawford III shooting in a Wal-mart in Ohio. Police officers storm the Wal-mart after reports a man is waving the gun around. They don’t confirm the reports. They didn’t evacuate the people. They don’t even try to make contact with him. They just fired.

It is mind-boggling the police officers didn’t try to deescalate the situation. At no point do they try to avoid violence. If anything, they assume it is happening and try to preempt it. The result is a dead citizen. And in the John Crawford III situation (or Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and others), the path to de-escalation was so simple. A recent investigation by The Week shows that a majority of police departments don’t require officers to minimize violence or deescalate the situation.

The analogy to COIN is again obvious, but harder to implement during deployment. In counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, one of the common pieces of advice I heard was to act tough. I was told something like, “the toughest [expletive] doesn’t get messed with”. Basically, US forces had to strike fear in everyone so no one dared to attack us. This basically meant some units were escalating every situation they encountered. Including driving civilians off roads, raiding houses, zip tying innocent people, arresting innocent people and more.

Did it work in the long run? Of course not, but it kept units safe in the short term.

Jan 20

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", please click here.)

Toward the end of December, the Cleveland DA failed to secure a grand jury verdict in the tragic Tamir Rice shooting. (Summary, a boy playing with a toy gun was shot by police officers within seconds of them arriving on scene.) Radley Balko in the Washington Post and German Lopez on Vox both pleaded with fellow media members to distinguish between things that are “legal” and “things as they should be”. Ideally, those two things are aligned. In the case of police shootings, they aren’t.

The police officers in Cleveland were (maybe) legally justified. It doesn’t mean they should have fired their weapons.

I can’t help but read that distinction about policing and see a connection to counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on my experience in and studying those two countries. For deployed soldiers, there was a wide gap between what was legal and what we should be doing. As I wrote quite a bit when we launched the blog, a lot of the techniques, tactics and procedures units used on the ground directly undermined the mission...but they kept troops safe. Like police shooting, those tactics were legal (under UCMJ).

But the connection to COIN goes beyond the “what’s legal versus what’s right” distinction. Really policing and counterinsurgency are different stops on the same spectrum. Take Jamelle Bouie’s article on Tamir Rice. It screams counter-insurgency rights and wrongs. Here is his analysis of police officers putting their lives at risk:

“Part of policing is risk. Not just the inevitable risk of the unknown, but voluntary risk. We ask police to “serve and protect” the broad public, which--at times--means accepting risk when necessary to defuse dangerous situations and protect lives, innocent or otherwise. It’s why we give them weapons and the authority to use them; why we compensate them with decent salaries and generous pensions; why we hold them in high esteem and why we give them wide berth in procedure and practice.”

How does that sentence differ from a paragraph I would have written about soldiers deploying to Afghanistan at the height of the war? One of the inspirations of this blog was the amazing contradiction at the heart of being a soldier, “Mission First, People Always”. Soldiers deploy and care more about returning home safely than fighting to win the war. This is a perfectly natural feeling, but it probably says more about whether we should have fought a war in Iraq than anything else.

The difference between policing and COIN is we have to have police officers. It isn’t optional. And we need cops to serve in high-crime areas. That said, accepting risk as opposed to hurting innocent civilians is a prerequisite of the job.

But that leads into the last COIN connection. The policies that keep officers safe in the short term endanger them in the long run. Just like Afghanistan and Iraq. And I’m not just writing about the failed war on drugs (that most police departments support because it comes with tons of federal funding). As Bouie continued in his Slate piece:

“One last point: Changing this is in the best interest of police officers. Yes, abandoning “safety at all costs” means accepting additional risk. But it also means an emphasis on de-escalation in policing, which—in communities that need good policing—engenders more trust for police departments. With more trust comes more community cooperation and more resources for solving crime. The same is true for more and greater accountability. In the long run, both create safer environments for citizens and police.”

Just like in Afghanistan and Iraq, police forces can’t do it alone. Force alone does not cow a population. And unjust force or unfair laws make a society unstable. So stopping “suspicious individuals” may find drugs or weapons, but if those things are done without probable cause, then you are creating an aura of hostility.

The future of policing isn’t better weapons, more aggression or body cameras. It is about police departments that work within and with their communities. It isn’t about staying safe, but deescalating situations to keep everyone safe, both the police and the communities they protect.

Jan 13

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2015: Police Shootings", check out the articles below...

- Learnings from Kunar: Police Shootings and the Lessons of Counterinsurgency

- Winning the Battle but Losing the Crime War: Three More Connections to COIN and Police Shootings

- Wolves, Sheepdogs and the Cops I Know

Starting today, we’ll be writing about our most thought-provoking event of the year. Judging by media coverage, three issues dominated 2015: ISIS, mass shootings and police shootings. And the winner is...

Police shootings.

(Yeah, it’s not really a singular event, though our choices rarely are, like the Green Revolution in Iran (2009), Wikileaks (2010), the Arab Spring (2011), Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks (2013), and Iraq re-descending into chaos (2014) last year. Our 2012 picks (Petraeus and Benghazi) were singular events, then we paired them together.)

First off, focusing on terrorism or mass shootings would be, in some ways, a disservice to our readers. Both events remain incredibly rare, statistically. Gun violence, overall, is down in America and your chances of dying from a terrorist attack remain infinitesimally small. In short, you can’t decry buying a ticket for the Powerball and worry about terrorism...they have the same likelihood. Yet both will probably remain a part of society for a long time. Crazy people will keep using guns or bombs to scare the rest of society for political purposes (terrorists) or gain fame (mass shooters).

Ironically, as well, if we focus on those events, though we’d be telling people not to be scared, it may still have the opposite effect. On the Media explains:

“Scholarship has made more than clear, that even when the media try to debunk a rumor, that the very process of debunking tends to cement the misinformation in the minds of people who don't necessarily want the debunkitude.”

More importantly, for the “Most thought-provoking event of the year”, neither ISIS nor mass shootings inspired a lot of fresh ideas. Hence, the “thought-provoking” part. Here’s our take on the Paris attacks:

- 138 people is a very small number, statistically. That may sound cold, but it’s true. France has a population of over 60 million, and Paris over 2 million. The chances of being killed by terrorism is tiny.

- Disagree with what I wrote above? Am I being hyperbolic? Not as hyperbolic as conservatives who say, citing the deaths of 138 people out of 60 million, that ISIS is an existential threat to America.

- Our (America’s, Europe’s) reaction to this attack was a massive over-reaction. France suspended their Constitution (including a free press) and issued mass arrests.

- Then, of course, ironically, this over-reaction alienates more Muslims. Did you know that Muslims make up 70% of French prisons, but only 8% of the population?

Yeah. Covered that issue. Here’s our take mass shootings: get rid of guns. Sure, we could write a lot more proving this, but reading all the studies, more guns equals more gun deaths. Here’s our only original take: when terrorists start using lax American gun laws to attack Americans, well, that’s probably the end of gun rights. (Unless we make laws that selectively target Muslims for gun control, and well, that’s the end of religious liberty.)

But with police shootings, we have tons to say and write about. They represent something bigger, the way the state--which should have a monopoly on violence--uses that monopoly. But no other thoughts are more important than this one:

The coverage of police shootings actually represents a positive step forward for America.

The issue around police shootings (and really this goes back to 2014 with the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown) isn’t that police are shooting civilians at a higher rate. We actually don’t know if unjustified police shootings are going up or down. Law enforcement doesn’t keep good records. But what we do know, thanks to the rise in cell phone cameras, is that they’re being filmed and broadcast to the world. Technology is holding police officers accountable. It is no longer one man’s word against the dead.

And this publicity is leading to all sorts of smart, long-term positive changes to law enforcement, including body cameras for police, a rise in the prosecution of bad cops, the push to document police shootings, and the release of personnel records in police departments across America. This will change the country for the better.

And we have a lot more ideas. We’ll hit on long-running On V themes, like whether cops are wolves or sheepdogs. We’ll relate this discussion to counter-insurgency. We’ll talk about the ironies of race and gun rights. We’ll write about the philosophy of violence. Most importantly, we’ll offer solutions.

So stay tuned.

Jan 11

On Wednesday, Michael C wrote about the best news stories of 2015, highlighting the great news from last year. (Especially the story people didn’t hear about, the success of the Millennium Development Goals and the ratification of the new Sustainable Development Goals.) The world is getting better, even if most people don’t realize it.

But we weren’t the only writers with this hot (but needed) take. Here’s a collection of some other people who wrote on this same theme:

John Cassidy in the New Yorker

John Cassidy opens his collection of six good news stories basically explaining our thesis about the media and pessimism:

“But 2015, believe it or not, was also a year of positive developments, many of which were underreported. Generally speaking, good-news stories aren’t as dramatic or as salient as bad news, so journalists and news organizations tend to give them short shrift. I’m as guilty of this as anybody else. So here, as penance for my sins of omission, are some thoughts on six uplifting developments from the past twelve months.”

Agreed on all point, except we could do with a resolution trying to change going forward. He cited many of the same good news stories we did, but also hit on the successful eradications efforts of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. We’ll be using this example in the coming weeks of a news story that grabbed headlines when things were going bad, then was ignored when the problem was solved.

Charles Kenny in the Atlantic

To close the year, Charles Kenny added another collection of the massively good news for humanity, compared to the past. For example, did you know, in spite of the mass shootings...

“The latest FBI statistics, reported this September, suggested that the trend toward lower rates of violent crime in the United States that began in the early 1990s continued at least through 2014: There were nearly 3,000 fewer violent crimes that year than the year before and more than 600,000 fewer than in 1995—that’s a 35 percent decline over the period. The latest data from the UN suggests that this is part of a global trend—to take one category of violent crime, homicide rates have dropped by an estimated 6 percent in the countries for which data was available between 2000 and 2012.”

And he points out how unlikely terrorism is. We love articles that collect good news like this one. It is an especially good addition to the small “World is getting better” canon, because it rebuts the terrifying headlines that dominated the news in 2015.

Slate’s Year of Good News

Not to be out done, Slate collected a good news story for every day last year. While many of their good news stories are less substantial than Cassidy’s or not focused on long-term trends like Charles Kenny, they do reaffirm that good things happen everyday. We just don’t hear about them.

Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe

Jeff Jacoby pushes back against the notion that the world is getting worse, citing an especially silly AP article from 2008 with the headline, “Everything Seemingly Is Spinning Out of Control.” Jacoby hits many of the same issues as we did, including Ebola and the decline of crime in America. He, for instance, pointed out the rise in female literacy from the 1970s (40% globally) to 2015 (93%). He also called out all the peaceful democratic transfers of power last year:

"Thugs with weapons wrought undisputed horrors in places like Syria and Libya, yet there were democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power too — in countries ranging from Nigeria to Argentina to Myanmar to Burkina Faso. And Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for proving that democracy and pluralism could be nurtured even in the Arab world’s stony soil."

Lesley Hazleton in The Accidental Theologist

Finally, friend of the blog Don Gomez of Carrying the Gun sent this post on Twitter which has the wonderful thesis:

“In end-of-the-year phone calls from friends near and far, many express despair at the state of the world. I fully understand why, but I don’t accept their despair. In fact I can make a strong argument against it. Because what has changed is not so much the world itself, but our awareness of it.”

In 2016, let’s try to remember that thesis every day, not just at the end.