Weighing the History and Utility of the Death Penalty

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Legally sanctioned executions were taking place in the American colonies by the early 1600s. The first recorded execution in the colonies, for treason, took place in Virginia in 1608. Since those days, some 14,000 people have been legally executed in the United States. Most of these executions took place in the 20th century.  

In colonial days, application of capital punishment paralleled that in England, in which even minor offenses, such as theft, could be punishable by death. Into the 19th century in Great Britain, hundreds of offenses carried the possibility of punishment by death, and public hangings were community events that drew hundreds or thousands of spectators. 

Over the centuries both the United Kingdom and the United States became more “civilized,” taking executions of criminals out of the public square and behind prison walls, and clearing minor offenses from the list punishable by death. That left only first-degree murder, and for a time treason, on the books as a capital crime. 

Racial and social disparities 

There are currently about 2,500 prisoners on death row in the U.S. Of them, 41 percent are Black, 16 percent Latino, and 42 percent white. The racial disparities are obvious: Estimates from 2021 show the general population of the U.S. as just under 60 percent non-Hispanic white, about 13 percent Black, and about 19 percent Latino/Hispanic. 

Most of these death row inmates are poor or mentally disabled. Where states have the death penalty, those sentenced wait an average of 14 years, eight months between sentence and execution. 

Differing perspectives on opposition 

Some scholars point out disparities between opposition to the death penalty in the U.S. and in Europe. American death penalty abolitionists have tended to emphasize the unfairness of the policy: innocents unjustly executed; racial disparities in policing, sentencing, and execution; arbitrary procedures; and steeply rising costs to the state. European opponents more consistently point to the inhumaneness of capital punishment per se.  

But this wasn’t always the case. Scholars also point out that this moral division came about relatively recently: In the 1800s, death penalty abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic highlighted their opposition on both practical and purely ethical grounds, and in terms strikingly aligning with the concerns of human rights activists today. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ‘80s, as public discussion around the issue turned steadily more punitive, that American activists put practical points ahead of moral ones.  

Opposition to capital punishment began to gather force in the 19th century, in both Europe and the U.S. In the 1840s, Michigan abolished the death penalty, and Wisconsin achieved statehood without a death penalty on its books. The horrific mass deaths in the wars of the 20th century led to a groundswell of public opinion in opposition to capital punishment as just one more needless cruelty. 

But now, long after Canada and all the nations of the current European Union have done away with the death penalty, the U.S. remains the only developed nation to continue it. In 1983, the Council of Europe adopted Protocol Number 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which abolished the death penalty among member states. Canada had already abolished the death penalty in 1976, although not without strenuous opposition, even though it had not executed a prisoner since 1962.  

A nation divided 

Today, 24 U.S. states continue to permit the death penalty for first-degree murder. These include 10 of the 11 former states of the Confederacy. Three states—California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania—still maintain the death penalty as a legal option in their statues, but their governors have placed it under moratorium.  

In New York, state high court rulings in 1977 and 1984 effectively struck down the death penalty. But in 1995, Republican Governor George Pataki signed legislation reinstating it. Almost a decade later, the New York Court of Appeals found that legislation unconstitutional, and the last inmate on the state’s Death Row saw his sentence reduced to life in prison in 2007. Even during the years New York maintained a death penalty, no prisoner had been executed since 1963. 

Within five years, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, and Connecticut followed New York in abolishing capital punishment.  

Most recently, Colorado abolished its death penalty in 2020, and in 2021 Virginia became the first state of the Old Confederacy to do so.  

Costs, benefits, and ethics 

So, is it time for the country as a whole to just let the death penalty go? Proponents of this view cite, among other concerns, the cost of carrying out executions, which includes the cost of protracted appeals.  

In the estimation of the think tank Interrogating Justice, it costs about $37,500 annually to maintain a prisoner in the federal system. On the other hand, the cost of maintaining a death row inmate soars to $60,000 to $70,000 per year.  

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that the overall cost of the first five federal executions carried out in the year 2020 approached $4.7 million, exclusive of incarceration and pretrial expenditures. And the cost of the average execution in a federal prison is about $1 million.  

But does the death penalty deter homicides? Studies show, both historically and today, that murder rates actually trend lower in non-death penalty states than in those that do allow capital punishment. In the 1980s, experts also determined that abolition had not caused Canadian crime rates to rise.  

Most chilling to the moral sense, since 1973 about 190 people wrongfully convicted and sent to death row have been exonerated.  

Should we allow for capital punishment, though, in the case of certain especially heinous crimes, where there is no possible doubt as to the killer’s identity? School shootings, child murder, serial killings, and other crimes that put a perpetrator outside the normal range of what we think of as the human community? 

That may depend on whether you think someone who commits these brutal acts is capable of redemption, or not. There remains justified outrage that the Parkland school shooter in Florida received a sentence of life in prison due to a non-unanimous jury. Maybe we shouldn’t completely take the death penalty out of consideration. But there are plenty of ways we can make the criminal justice system more fair, more equitable, and more sensible. 

And that’s where every one of us has to really examine both the evidence and our moral compass. 

If the Death Penalty Doesn’t Apply to Mass Shooters, Then Who?

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If the Parkland shooter didn’t receive the death penalty, who should? 

On October 13, 2022, after a three-month-long trial that agonized the families of the 17 people he murdered, the Parkland school shooter received a sentence of life in prison. The death penalty was also a possible outcome, but three of the jurors voted against it. Without unanimity on the jury on the question of capital punishment, the shooter automatically got life without parole.  

Fred Guttenberg, father of 14-year-old murder victim Jaime Guttenberg, wrote on his Twitter account after the verdict, “I have been asked if I have closure. I do not.” There is nothing, this grieving father wrote, that can ever bring closure to the fact that the only way he can visit his daughter is “at the cemetery.” Guttenberg has become an eloquent voice of moral clarity in the fight for justice for the victims of gun violence, and for sensible gun control laws to protect all of us. 

Depravity and a gun 

The crime for which the now-24-year-old perpetrator was convicted was especially cruel and vicious. Nineteen years old on Valentine’s Day in 2018, he entered the grounds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, near the close of the school day. He was armed with a legally purchased AK-15 rifle variant, additional ammunition, and smoke grenades. He pulled a fire alarm so students and teachers would pour out into the hallways. In the space of only a few minutes, he brutally shot 14 students and three adult instructors to death. His bullets injured 17 other people. 

In October 2021, the shooter entered a guilty plea to 17 counts of murder, along with 17 counts of attempted murder. The penalty phase of the trial began in summer 2022.  

Had the shooter been tried before 2016, he might have gotten the death penalty. That was the year Florida law stopped allowing judges to pronounce a death sentence, provided a majority of the jury concurred. For the past six years, a jury divided on whether a convicted murderer deserves to die automatically results in a sentence of life in prison without parole.  

Changed law brings agony 

After the Parkland decision, many of the victims’ family members publicly stated their disapproval of the jury’s failure to produce a unanimous death sentence, saying they felt their continuing pain and horror went unheard, despite their eloquent victim impact statements.  

Some Florida prosecutors are taking this side as well, saying they’d like to see the law revert to its pre-2016 status. If that were to happen, though, it would put Florida among only a handful of states to allow non-unanimous death sentences.  

Geography has a lot to do with sentencing 

There were a total of 1,363 victims killed in the 240 mass shootings of all types that took place in the United States from 2009 to 2021. In almost all of these incidents, the perpetrator was an adult male acting on his own. Across these 240 incidents, only 145 shooters were taken into custody, with the remainder dying by suicide, killed by police, or recorded as outcome unknown.  

The type of justice these perpetrators received depends in large part on where they committed their crimes.  

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization, published a study in 2021 that looked at exactly that issue. There are 23 states that have abolished the death penalty. But in the remaining 27, the researchers found that there are also wide disparities even from county to county.  

Tellingly, a person convicted of murder in a county where lynchings were common in the Jim Crow era is more likely to receive a death sentence today. The death penalty is also more likely where the victim was white. In addition, more populous counties are more likely to produce more death penalty verdicts just because of sheer numerical probability. And those with larger tax bases to support the cost of capital trials can more likely afford to mete out the death penalty.  

Common practice also enters into it. Although California has a death penalty on the books, Governor Gavin Newsom has called a moratorium on its enforcement. When a local prosecutor makes capital charges in California, the result of conviction is then typically life imprisonment. Even in Georgia, which we might assume to be quick to execute, has carried out the death sentence only once since 2015.  

In many cases, the most important deciding factors turn out to be the prosecutor and the precedent. Statistically speaking, every successful prosecutorial request for the death penalty makes it easier for prosecutors to file the next one. 

“What do we have the death penalty for?” 

The fact that capital punishment is applied so unevenly in this country makes it hard for many people to support the death penalty. But if it doesn’t apply in such a clear-cut case as that of the Parkland shooter, when does it apply? By all accounts, he remains unremorseful, and as a Florida Sun-Sentinel headline put it, filled with thoughts of “blood, murder, revenge.” 

After the verdict, Fred Guttenberg and other Parkland parents who spoke with the media expressed their justified disgust and anger.  

“What do we have the death penalty for?” asked one of the parents. Being spared a death sentence was “exactly what he wanted,” another wrote on social media, referring to the shooter.  

While they’ve shown more bravery and resilience than most of us will, we hope, ever have to muster, these families’ lives will never not be broken. At some point, we do have to ask ourselves as a country exactly what we have the death penalty for. 

Here Come the Midterms – Which Issues Are Most on Americans’ Minds?

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What are American voters worried about most as the 2022 congressional midterm elections approach? Here’s what the polls say.  

  1. The economy and inflation loom large 

As in most election years, the economy and the need to control inflation remain at the top of most voters’ wish lists. Gallup polls from September found this to be the case in answers to both open-ended and targeted questions asking respondents to discuss their top concerns. Approximately 80 percent of the American adults surveyed said they view the current economy as either “poor” or “only fair.” Some two-thirds think things in America are getting worse, economically speaking. 

Aside from an obvious low point in 2008, the Gallup Economic Confidence Index recently tanked to one of its lowest levels in the past three decades.  

Even so, about 70 percent of poll respondents think now is a good time to get a good job. That reading in itself is among the highest ever recorded for this particular question. 

So, with contradictions like these, even experts are having a hard time figuring out what Americans are hoping to see in terms of economic policy. 

The problem with inflation is that it’s felt far more acutely by working class people in this country. According to a Forbes article from July, the steep rise in the cost of food, housing, gas, and other basic needs is exacerbating the preexisting wealth gap, which was wide enough already. Working class Americans typically don’t own assets like stocks, real property, and other investments that can appreciate in value. Meanwhile, their salaries can’t keep up with the cost of living, and it becomes harder and harder to feed and house their families. 

Even those who are better off financially are feeling the pinch, with middle class households now looking at cutting back on travel and other discretionary spending.  

  1. Climate change versus immigration – it depends on who you ask 

But let’s not make the mistake of thinking the economy is the only issue on voters’ minds. Other recent surveys show about half of Americans noting climate change as among their most important concerns as they head to the midterms.  

Although it’s important to note that responses to questions about many non-economic issues depend on the respondent’s political persuasion, the fact that climate change has risen as a concern shows a greater sense of urgency overall. A lot of this is due to the undeniable extreme weather events seen across the country this year: devastating hurricanes, floods, soaring temperatures, and extended droughts.  

However, a series of mid-2022 surveys conducted by the statistical news organization Five Thirty-Eight found climate change and immigration to be among the issues that showed the greatest split between self-identified Democrats and Republicans. Among the former, 36 percent consider climate change among the most serious problems facing the country, while only about 5 percent of Republicans agree.  

Concerns about the way the country handles immigration rose to the top in almost exactly the same percentages, but in reverse: About 38 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Democrats expressed immigration-related concerns.  

In this vein, it’s also interesting to note that the same surveys found more than 60 percent of respondents overall said they supported three specific proposals to combat climate change in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act: expanding the use of alternative energy sources, providing tax credits to companies that lower their emissions of carbon dioxide, and strengthening regulations designed to curb carbon emissions.  

It’s also noteworthy that, among Republicans, levels of concern about climate change in these polls tended to depend on how much personal experience respondents had with it. About 45 percent of Republicans who said they had personally been affected by extreme climate events over the previous five years expressed concerns about climate change.  

  1. Abortion drives voter registration among women 

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade in June, abortion for many Americans has become one of the most important issues. For many young women, it’s the most important.  

There’s been a surge of new voter registrations among women, particularly in battleground states like Arizona and Georgia, since the decision. This was also the case in deep-red Kansas, after a referendum rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have declared no right to an abortion. Some 70 percent of the newly registered voters in the state are women. 

  1. Making an issue of crime  

In an apparent effort to shift public focus away from abortion, Republican candidates have gone all-in on ads claiming Democrats are soft on crime. Some polls and pundits have found a corresponding surge in the number of voters who agree crime is a significant issue for the midterms. Others say there’s less interest despite the barrage of attack ads. Again, these results likely are influenced by the respondents being polled.  

An early October POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found about 75 percent of responding voters saying violent crime is a big problem in the U.S. But other surveys gauged less of a concern.  

  1. Is this the push we need for gun control? 

There does seem to be some nuance here, with 60 percent of the POLITICO/Morning Consult poll respondents saying gun policies would play a big part in their voting this year. More than 50 percent said the rise in crime statistics is due to “too many guns” available. And 62 percent said that they especially want to see legislation passed to reform the nation’s gun control laws. 

Republicans should be concerned about these figures. Let’s hope they hold up, and that we get a 118th Congress with the will and the courage to produce sensible legislation that will support a strong economy, keep all our communities safe, ensure action on climate change, and guarantee everyone’s right to make personal decisions for themselves and their bodies.  

Has the NFL Become More Progressive in the Last Four Decades?

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As the 2022 season moves forward, it’s probably worth taking a look back to see whether the National Football League, its leadership structures, and the fan culture that surrounds it have become any more progressive than they were 40 years ago.  

High school football hero lauded for silence 

In the early 1980s, football—high school, college, and the NFL—was as hugely popular as it is today, but its culture was also tied to some of the worst aspects of our country’s history: exclusion, bigotry, and racism.  

In 1980 Herschel Walker (the candidate for the United States Senate in the state of Georgia) was a high school senior who had already scored national fame for his extraordinary prowess on the football field and for his personal story of honing his athletic talent through grueling determination. For example, he would train by running barefoot down dirt roads with truck tires tied around his middle. 

That this most celebrated of high school football players chose the University of Georgia over more prestigious schools in more progressive states seemed to affirm the very culturally conservative football culture of his home state. The teenaged Walker also earned praise from his many white mentors and associates for his refusal to speak out on the numerous instances of bias and bigotry in Georgia, as well as in his rural hometown of Whitesville, where white people beat Black protesters, hoisted Confederate battle flags, and fired shots into the homes of Black families. This same neutrality—or passivity—in the face of so much hate also earned the antipathy of other Black students in his community.  

Social justice or whitewashing? 

Now that we’re in a post-Kaepernick age (free agent Colin Kaepernick still hasn’t been signed since 2016) has anything changed?  

For one thing, the NFL now sports a social justice initiative, working nationwide to inspire and facilitate “positive change” and “equal opportunity.” Created in the wake of Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem at a 49ers game, the Inspire Change program emerged out of discussions among a player-team owner group (a group that did not include Kaepernick).  

Kaepernick, along with fellow NFL player Eric Reid, filed a grievance in October 2017 against the NFL, claiming owners colluded to freeze them out of the league after their public acts of protest against racism and police brutality. That November, the NFL directed almost $90 million to the Players Coalition, the nonprofit from which Inspire Change emerged in early 2018. Kaepernick and Reid’s case wasn’t decided until 2019, when they reportedly received less than $10 million. 

Goodell speaks 

In summer 2020, players produced a video in which they confronted the NFL leadership over its hesitancy to issue meaningful condemnations of racism, requested a public declaration in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and called for the admission of bad-faith behavior regarding the concerns brought forward by players. At last, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did the right thing, noting that the NFL condemned racism and admitted its errors in not listening to players when they first tried to address societal racism and brutality. And, Goodell said, “Black lives matter.” 

In a later radio appearance, Goodell addressed Kaepernick directly: “I wish we had listened earlier, Kap.” Goodell went on to address the unfair way some members of the media and fans had mischaracterized Kaepernick’s protests as “unpatriotic” or “disloyal.” Kaepernick and other players who protested, Goodell said, were only trying to “exercise their right” to focus attention on problems that urgently required real solutions. 

So in some ways, we have come a long way from 1982, when such an admission from the NFL commissioner would have been unimaginable.  

“Conservative” vs. “liberal” – Fans are all over the field 

But where are the fans in all this? Many criticize what they see as too much “wokeness” in the NFL today. A Newsweek op-ed from September 2021 declared that, along with COVID restrictions, “social justice” advocacy had driven fans away from attending games. Having players take the field that season with chosen slogans on their helmets such as “End Racism” or “Stop Hate” was too much for the columnist, who further said that “the Left” had “weaponized” the death of George Floyd to promote hostility to traditional patriotic ideals.  

Politically, there are plenty of teams whose fan base largely identifies as liberal. One 2017 study reported that 31 percent of Houston Texans fans said they were “very liberal,” and 39 percent of both Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints fans said the same. Fans of the San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers also skewed heavily “liberal.”  

On the other side of the ledger, you have the New England Patriots, 18 percent of whose fans identified themselves as “very conservative.” The Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, and Tennessee Titans also posted fair numbers of “very conservative” fans, but none of these measures reached the high percentages as shown for the “very liberal” fans of the other teams.  

Conservative outrage over Kaepernick notwithstanding, this maybe doesn’t indicate so much an overwhelming fan base of ultra-conservatives for the game as a whole as it does an overwhelmingly vocal base.  

Like anything else, it looks like we’re taking two baby steps forward and one backward as we try to inch toward a truly inclusive game, one in which all players are valued and equal. 

For a Healthier World, You and Your Pet Should Be Vaccinated 

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In almost every state in the union, pets are required to be vaccinated against rabies, and owners are required to keep those vaccinations current. Other state and local jurisdictions require additional types of vaccination for pets, and veterinarians recommend a core set of immunizations to keep pets healthy. These include canine hepatitis, canine parvovirus, and distemper for dogs, and feline panleukopenia (FPV), feline calicivirus (FCV), and feline rhinotracheitis virus/herpesvirus 1 (FVR/FHV-1) for cats. 

Smart, caring pet owners make sure their animal family members receive the full schedules of immunizations recommended by their veterinarians, depending on each animal’s exposure risk and individual health needs.  

Vaccine hesitancy infects pet owners 

Like the vaccinations that have reduced the risk of death and disability for humans exponentially over the past few generations, vaccinating pets used to be an easy decision. But now that many people are developing vaccine hesitancy not only about COVID-19 immunizations but about vaccination in general, some owners are vaccine hesitant when it comes to their pets. 

Even pre-COVID-19, “anti-vaxxers” in the United States and other countries were already making inroads into the vaccination rates for both humans and animals. The lies that anti-vax groups disseminate include false warnings that dogs can develop autism after required vaccinations. (Veterinarians point out that “canine autism” simply does not exist.) Non-vaccination rates for pet cats and rabbits have increased as well. 

Of course, we’ve also heard how ill-informed celebrities and parents’ group social media influencers falsely attribute autism in children to vaccines, stoking widespread hesitancy. In some areas of the US, anti-vaxxers have even pushed for the loosening of laws mandating vaccinations for pets.  

Meanwhile, a 2018 report by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals showed that in the United Kingdom, about one-quarter of dogs had not completed their recommended vaccinations. Asked why, about 20 percent of the owners who refused said the shots were simply unnecessary. 

Experts say that the drop in pet immunization rates is running parallel with the decrease in human vaccinations, and the entire phenomenon is fueled by blatantly inaccurate propaganda. 

Vaccines are safe, and they work 

We know that vaccines work and that the vaccines in circulation in the Western world today are safe. Vaccination has eradicated smallpox, once one of the most horrific diseases ever to befall humanity. Vaccination has produced dramatic reductions in cases of measles, polio, and other diseases now considered almost eliminated throughout the developed world.  

The mRNA vaccines developed to fight COVID-19 were built at lightning speed based on knowledge developed over decades about how coronaviruses work in the body. All the data we have show that these vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID-19 and blunting its most destructive manifestations in the vast majority of people.  

Vaccine hesitancy makes measles rise from its grave 

But now, even people who might be willing to vaccinate their pets don’t want to vaccinate themselves or their children. This has led to measles and other previously close-to-conquered diseases making a comeback. Worldwide reported measles cases increased by almost 80 percent over the first two months of 2022, compared to the same period the previous year. This is one of many signs that conditions are ripe for resurgences of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

In 2019 the WHO listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the 10 major factors threatening global public health. WHO officials cited inconvenience with accessing vaccines, patient complacency, and general low confidence as the reasons behind the problem. Experts also point to a lack of trust in government authorities as another major reason driving the irrational response.  

With an ongoing pandemic, the fact that so many people in the US and across the developed world are fearful about vaccine safety continues to pose a threat not only to individual families but to their communities—and all of us as a human community. There are also plenty of bad-faith politicians, grifters, and dangerously misinformative social media accounts amplifying incorrect information.  

Counter with facts and empathy 

It’s not that easy to bring proponents back down to earth. Experts note that most people won’t change their minds when confronted with facts. 

To combat the flood of incorrect anti-vax information, professionals need to know their patient communities, use trusted messengers to deliver hard facts, and build bonds of trust in good times that will sustain rational and productive community conversations through the bad times.  

What can we as individuals do when confronted with anti-vax positions? Most experts point to a few ways to better engage if you’re comfortable doing that: 

  • Understand that not everyone who hasn’t vaccinated themselves, their child, or their pet is in the “hard” anti-vax camp.  
  • Build trust with the person you’re talking with, based on where the person is at that moment with their concerns. 
  • Learn about cognitive bias and how it fuels a very human desire to short-cut the processing of complex information in favor of quick, emotion-based conclusions. Confirmation bias plays an especially big role in vaccine hesitancy, causing us to only accept information that fits our existing beliefs. 
  • Offer facts and authoritative sources that counter the twisting of scientific evidence to fit preconceived ends. 
  • Use real people’s stories to make an impact on the heart that data cannot.  

If we as a society can successfully push back on vaccine hesitancy, we all win.  

Salman Rushdie – An Eloquent Voice of Conscience and Courage 

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A week after being viciously assaulted on August 12, 2022, Salman Rushdie remained hospitalized with severe injuries he sustained during the stabbing, but appeared to be regaining strength daily. 

According to his agent, the 75-year-old author sustained liver and nerve damage. Moreover, doctors feared that he would lose an eye. But within 48 hours of being seriously injured, Rushdie was already off a ventilator, addressing investigators’ questions and even joking. 

A 30-Year-Old Threat Almost Fulfilled 

Rushdie had just been about to speak at the Chautauqua Institution in Upstate New York when a 24-year-old man rushed the stage and struck him multiple times about the head and upper body with a knife. Audience members threw themselves upon and subdued the attacker and rendered first aid to Rushdie until authorities took over. 

Indicted by a grand jury, the alleged attacker, a New Jersey resident and the American-born son of Lebanese parents, has entered a plea of not guilty. His mother has indicated that he may have absorbed radical ideas on a 2018 visit to his estranged father in a part of Lebanon dominated by the Iran-supporting extremist group Hezbollah. 

The young man in question almost achieved what numerous others have aspired to for more than 30 years, namely, to carry out the 1989 death sentence imposed on Rushdie by The Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Khomeini for the “blasphemous” content of his critically acclaimed novel, The Satanic Verses. Because the fatwa has never officially been lifted, a $3 million price on the author’s head remains. Iran’s current rulers have denied any direct knowledge of Rushdie’s attacker. 

As the horrifying situation unfolded, fellow artists, leaders, and readers from all over the world condemned the attack in print and on social media while praising Rushdie for his extraordinary gifts as a writer and unceasing championship of freedom of speech. 

Looking for Light in the Shadows 

Shortly after the fatwa’s issuance, Rushdie became a global cause celebre and went into near-complete isolation for several years. His whereabouts near London were a closely guarded secret, and he had round-the-clock protection and communication with Scotland Yard. 

Rushdie’s whole life, wrote PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel after the attack, has been “an act of defiance.” At the time of the Chautauqua attack, he had just reached out to Nossel hoping to get help for Ukrainian writers. 

Born to a well-to-do Muslim family in Mumbai in 1947, Rushdie was educated in the United Kingdom. He has created lyrical, expansive, surrealistic novels exploring serious philosophical and political issues. In 1981, he won the prestigious Booker Prize with the publication of Midnight’s Children, which deals with the early days of an India free from colonial rule, and in 1983, he went on to write Shame, a novel about political life in Pakistan. 

Then, The Satanic Verses came out, and Rushdie’s life changed forever. Issuing the fatwa, the Ayatollah called the book “an affront to Islam.” Riots took place in Muslim communities everywhere, with people burning copies of the book and effigies of Rushdie. “Rushdie, you are dead,” read a handmade poster at one protest. 

In 1990, Rushdie told 60 Minutes interviewer Mike Wallace that, though the book had become an international bestseller, he would trade his new fame and fortune for his old life. 

Even with so much violent rhetoric directed at him, Rushdie said he did not think the problem lay in Islam per se. The vast majority of his family and friends were Muslims. “What created this,” he told Wallace, “was a specific event in one country.” 

Despite his longstanding atheism, Rushdie said, “I’m not an enemy of Muslims.” What he claimed for himself was simply the right to write as his imagination and conscience dictated. Answering the question, “What is freedom of expression?” he said, on behalf of himself and other writers, “Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” 

“If I felt that I couldn’t write as myself, I would stop writing,” he continued. 

  

In the 1990 interview, Rushdie became visibly emotional talking about being forced to live in isolation away from his 11-year-old son. His first book written from that exile was the children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The main characters are a storyteller, his son, and the Prince of Silence, who attempts to keep the storyteller from telling his stories. The book, said Rushdie, expressed a “war between language and silence,” “light and dark.” 

A Life Celebrating Freedom and Creativity 

In recent years, Rushdie has appeared to enjoy the normal life of a celebrated writer, apparently without tight security. His more recent books include The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), and The Enchantress of Florence (2008). Shalimar the Clown (2005) delves into the subject of terrorism in North India. Joseph Anton (2012) is a pseudonymous memoir about his life in hiding, referencing the alias he used during that time. 

Page Break 

Rushdie’s life had recently become so near-normal that probably neither he nor anyone else around him thought an ordinary literary event at a quiet artists’ retreat like Chautauqua could possibly pose any danger. But the attempt on his life shows that those who fear and hate freedom of expression can’t ever be dismissed. 

Rushdie, along with other writers of courage and conscience, and organizations like PEN America that champion the right to write, read, and speak freely, deserve our support. One way to show it is simply to read writers like Rushdie and to stand up for and cherish our freedom to do so. 

Spotlight on the Safe Schools of the Future

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There’s a company in Florida offering what it says is the best response to school shootings in the United States: bullet-proof steel enclosures. “Guns are here to stay,” said a company executive, seemingly in resignation to an intractable issue. 

These “pods” are designed to safely shelter an entire classroom of students and their teachers in the event of an active shooter. The design incorporates “military-grade steel,” heat-treated to be resistant to gunfire even from semi-automatic assault-style weapons. The pods are marketed as shelters from both shooters and tornadoes. 

In this concept, there would be one of these pods in every classroom, kids and teachers could enter their pod within one minute, and the pod would be securely lockable from the inside. 

The company, along with other advocates of in-classroom secure shelters, points to a federal government report calling for “secure spaces within classrooms” for students to shelter in. (It’s worth noting that this report was prepared under the former Trump administration, and is now under review due to policies not currently advocated by key federal departments.) 

This is just one response to recent calls to “harden” schools with series of physical barriers, booby traps, shelters, surveillance cameras, a school police presence, and armed teachers. Maybe these fortresses will be safer, but no one has convincingly proven that yet. But they are certainly more forbidding and depressing to look at, let alone go into every day and try to learn. 

One aspect of school “hardening” that’s especially troubling is the criminalization of Black and brown students for normal youthful unruliness or perceived defiance. Studies have shown that school resource officers as a group tend to disproportionately target students of color, escalating minor infractions and sometimes brutally assaulting them. 

How nuclear fears played out in schools 

In the 1950s and ‘60s, parents were panicking over a different threat: nuclear annihilation. And they also demanded action from schools. 

There are Americans alive today who remember being children lying sleepless at night during the Cold War for fear of a nuclear attack striking their homes. After the explosions of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, everyone knew from the horrifying footage of destruction that only agony and horror would follow. There were children who prayed for a quick death, instead of slow poisoning from radiation sickness. 

While some—mostly white and middle-class—Americans have memories of an idyllic time, those fears still permeated daily life. The federal government urged the building of backyard fallout shelters, and school safety drills included the useless “Duck and Cover” series of “educational” films, where cartoon characters showed kids how to dive under their desks in case of nuclear attack. 

Those very real fears of nuclear annihilation continued throughout the Cold War. In 1983, American adults watched the TV movie The Day After, a fictionalized look at what could happen to an ordinary community during and after a nuclear attack. A lot of their kids watched it, too, even if they only caught snippets of the film after sneaking out of bed. 

What happens to an 8- or 10-year-old exposed to such a highly dramatic rendition of absolute destruction of everything important to them? The now-adults who glimpsed the apocalypse in The Day After have written of the anxiety it provoked. They mentally mapped out their own escape routes just in case. They wondered whether the attack would come at night or during the day, and how they would react: Maybe they’d bravely rescue their whole families, or maybe they’d be turned to a pile of chemical ash before they knew what happened. 

Real concerns, extreme responses 

The panic surrounding school shootings shows similarities. We’re talking about two very real and terrifying types of events. An estimated 200,000 people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, hundreds of people have lost their lives in school shootings in the United States. Nuclear war and school shootings deserve the full weight of seriousness that adults can bring to creating solutions.  

But with school shootings, we’re also seeing the same type of irrational fears, fear-mongering, profiteering, political posturing, and well-meaning non-solutions that accompanied the Cold War nuclear panic. 

In a recent survey, more than 60 percent of parents expressed fears that their child would be involved in a school shooting. Yet experts and statisticians know the odds are very small. A Northwestern University criminologist noted in 2022 that the probability of any particular American being killed in any type of mass shooting approaches 10 million to 1. 

Choosing common sense and community 

In the case of potential nuclear war, there were—and are—so many complex geopolitical factors at work beyond the ability of any parent to solve. In the case of guns, it’s much easier to make a positive, practical difference. We can make choices here and now that keep kids safer while not saddling them with the anxiety and trauma that comes with constant fear and hyper-vigilance. 

Students going to school in communities of color have been over-policed and over-surveilled for years. So now, instead of dismantling that unjust and ineffective system, we’re going to extend it to everyone? 

The problem isn’t just letting our own fears get out of control. It also lies in the increasing proliferation of guns, and easy access to them. President Biden signed the first major gun safety bill into law in June 2022, and there are things it gets right: expanding background checks, closing loopholes on gun purchases by people who shouldn’t have them, incentivizing states to pass “red-flag” legislation that removes weapons from people who pose a threat to others or themselves. The legislation also includes support for related school safety and mental health services. 

The most common background of a school shooting: A young person or group experiencing a mix of anger, depression, or suicidal thoughts, plus access to guns. 

Young people under 21 are disproportionately involved in acts of gun violence, as perpetrators and victims. So it’s imperative that we strengthen legislation to keep guns out of their hands. 

There are other badly needed, and expert-recommended, means of addressing school violence: Create networks of support to systematically reduce student social isolation and everyday aggression. Close existing gaps in mental health services. Build a school community centered on communication, respect, and dialogue. 

What will schools look like in our future? They can become steel-reinforced, hyper-policed, trauma-inducing fallout shelters in a chaotic world where 18-year-olds can carry AK-47s in their backpacks. Or we can equip our schools with effective, realistic security plans within a strong school community that shows respect and support for all, supported by common-sense gun control measures. 

The choice is ours. 

Will Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan be Home for Christmas?

Athletics, politics, Sports

On August 4, 2022, what friends, family, and fans of Brittney Griner feared would happen, did indeed happen.  

The WNBA Phoenix Mercury All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist received a sentence of nine-and-a-half years in a Russian penal colony for alleged drug possession and smuggling. She pled guilty in July, after being held in jail in Russia since her arrest in February. Although Griner and her Russian legal representatives insisted she had unknowingly carried the cannabis oil officials found in her luggage, the judge decided she had done so intentionally and handed down the harsh prison sentence, along with a 1 million-ruble fine (about $16,700). 

It all went down as expected. While the sentence is harsh even by Russian standards, many weren’t surprised to find that a Black, openly queer American woman, regardless of her fame on the basketball court, received no leniency during a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the United States.  

President Joe Biden called the sentence “unacceptable.” His government officially declared Griner wrongfully detained in May, and appears to be working steadily, and increasingly publicly, for her release.  

Griner’s Russian defense team said the judge ignored evidence they presented that should have weighed in Griner’s favor. Additionally, the fact of her guilty plea should have led to a more lenient sentence. They have also filed an appeal.  

Griner was expressionless as the judge spoke her sentence. As she was led from the courtroom, she simply said, “I love my family.”  

A sentence that could be a solution 

But diplomatic experts stress that her sentence is the only hope that remains to Griner for returning home. Without it, negotiations with Russia for any potential prisoner swap could not proceed. It was also the only reasonable move strategically: Less than 1 percent of criminal defendants in Russia receive acquittals. And, in the Russian justice system, even an acquittal can later be overturned. The odds that an acquitted Griner could avoid rearrest in the country seemed small. 

The Russian government has confirmed its strong interest in a prisoner exchange that would free notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, currently serving out a 25-year sentence in the U.S. for conspiring to kill Americans. Russian officials have stated that they are working with their American counterparts behind the scenes to reach an agreement. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly said that his government is prepared to offer a “substantial proposal,” and will “pursue” a prisoner swap. 

The most likely exchange involves Griner, ideally together with her fellow imprisoned American Paul Whelan.  

Paul Whelan’s ordeal 

Whelan, a former Marine and most recently an international advisor on security issues, was arrested in Russia on New Year’s Eve in 2018 on charges of espionage. He has consistently said he traveled to Russia simply to attend a friend’s wedding, and he and his family have strenuously denied the allegation of spying. After a brief, and completely closed-door trial, he was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison. He remains in a harsh Russian labor camp about an eight hours’ drive from Moscow, alongside murderers and thieves.  

Whelan has told media that at the very beginning of his detention, the Russians were telling him the plan was to use him in a prisoner swap. He heard two names consistently: Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot imprisoned in the U.S. after a conviction for drug smuggling, and Viktor Bout. In April 2022, a deal with the Americans led to Yaroshenko’s release in exchange for Trevor Reed, another American ex-Marine imprisoned in Russia.  

Political pawns 

It’s likely, according to many informed observers, that Griner’s severe sentence was also a calculated move by Russia to use her as yet another political pawn to secure Bout’s freedom. 

Now, after months of wondering why he wasn’t also freed in exchange for Yaroshenko, Whelan has to be hoping he’ll be released alongside Griner in exchange for Bout. 

Russian prisons and penal colonies are grim places. Prisoners often receive harsh, physically and emotionally abusive treatment from guards, and have access to only the most basic food and sanitary conditions. They typically work for long hours at forced labor. In the case of Griner, who speaks no Russian, the social and cultural isolation has been especially demoralizing. 

Holiday celebrations in 2022? 

By the first part of August, the U.S. had already been waiting weeks for a definitive answer from Russia after laying down Blinken’s “substantial proposal.” On August 11, Russia did publicly confirm its interest in a swap that would give them Bout for Griner and Whelan. 

Both prisoners’ loved ones have been working steadily toward their release and are trying to stay positive. 

Whelan family members have expressed that they are “cautiously optimistic,” his brother, David, said. But David Whelan also expressed a well-earned skepticism. He is afraid that any deal freeing Griner would again leave Paul Whelan behind, either due to “Russia’s bad faith” or to the chance of “the U.S.’s bad hand.”  

Here’s to hoping the U.S. this time has a good hand and plays it well. 

Why Do We Hate Each Other? Abortion Rights and Civility in Politics

Politics

The first inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009 celebrated America’s unity in diversity. Activists from the Civil Rights era were among the honored guests, and his inaugural speech won praise from Republicans and Democrats alike. Obama’s emphasis on unity was a constant theme that echoed throughout his political career and into his post-presidency work. In particular, he highlighted the civic duties and obligations that Americans owe to one another.

It was a moment to honor the hard-fought legacy of civil rights that had helped bring Obama to the presidency at a critical low moment in American history. It was also a moment in which Obama hoped to bring the entire country together after a bitterly divisive campaign. Obama consistently tried to evoke the common bonds that hold Americans together as a means of softening the political, cultural, and ethnic animosities that had flared up around his candidacy and election.

The Loss of Civility and Nuance in Politics

Obama’s successor was his opposite in many ways, particularly with regards to his rhetoric. In his inauguration speech in 2017, Donald Trump talked about “American carnage,” painting a bleak and terrifying picture of the state of the country. Far from “making America great again,” Trump’s presidency may have taken America farther down the road to lawlessness, corruption, violence, and hatred than we have ever been. We are more divided than ever.

The “carnage” didn’t stop with Trump himself, his administration, or any specific politician in today’s Republican Party. It continues to morph and metastasize among a relatively small, but increasingly grievance-filled, raucous, and influential group of fellow citizens. 

At no time is the divide more apparent than when the issue of abortion comes up. 

A Formerly Bipartisan Issue Has Become Divisive

The 7-2 majority that decided Roe in 1973 was heavily influenced by Republican appointees on the Court. And in deciding 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed the core principles of Roe, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—a Ronald Reagan appointee—wrote that, regardless of any jurist’s personal views, there is a necessity to “define the liberty of all,” rather than attempt to legislate one’s “own moral code.”

However, Trump supported the defunding of Planned Parenthood and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And, while he later tried to walk the statement back, in early 2016 he told interviewer Chris Matthews that he supported “some form of punishment” for women who have abortions. His supporters, buoyed by the violent imagery consistently present in his rhetoric on a multitude of issues, are now acting in ways that threaten the lives of women, girls, other people with uteruses, and pregnant people across a big swath of the country. 

Trump’s legacy has deeply impacted social policy through the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe. The three justices he appointed—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—formed the core of the 5-4 majority that voted to overturn the precedent of protecting privacy and bodily autonomy enshrined by Roe half a century ago. 

The Decision’s Impact Is Already Being Felt

From members of Congress being influenced by conspiracy theories to local and state officials with extremist positions, the rhetoric around abortion is now turned up well past the boiling point. A number of states have already passed draconian anti-choice legislation that has resulted in needless tragedies. “Bounty” laws in Texas and Oklahoma encourage bystanders to collect money by suing fellow citizens suspected of even “aiding” an abortion.

In Ohio, all abortions, even when pregnancy results from rape or incest, are now banned after six weeks. When a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim had to travel to Indiana to obtain an abortion, the story became fodder for a vicious disinformation campaign that attempted to discredit the journalists who reported it and the Indiana doctor who treated her. The doctor has received threats that made them fear for themselves and their family’s safety.

In a combination of reinstating a 1925 law and creating new legislation, Texas has made it almost impossible to obtain an abortion. One woman told reporters how she lost an desired pregnancy after experiencing a premature rupture of membranes. Although there was almost no chance the fetus would survive, the hospital forced her to continue to continue the pregnancy because her doctor detected fetal cardiac activity. Only after the infection came close to killing her and she insisted a medical ethics panel review her case, did the state allow her to have the abortion that likely saved her life.

Are We Going To Uphold Essential Freedoms Or Destroy Them?

Barack Obama immediately denounced the Court’s overturning of Roe, saying it represented an assault on “essential freedoms” that people have come to rely on. In remarks that echo Sandra Day O’Connor, he said the ruling subjected the “most intensely personal decision” anyone can face to the “whims of politicians and ideologues.” When and if grassroots activism and local, state, or federal legislators will eventually restore these basic human rights remains to be seen.

How to Improve Your Heat Wave Commute

Uncategorized

It’s hot in America these days, and it’s getting hotter. In early July 2022, some 50 million people were under alert or advisory due to excessive heat, and weather forecasters labeled a big swath of land from Georgia to Texas “hot and humid” on their maps. 

In cities like New Orleans and Houston, temperatures were edging over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity through the roof. That’s the kind of weather that becomes especially unsafe for senior adults, and for people living with heart disease and other chronic conditions that suppress their bodies’ ability to adapt to the heat.  

By the second week in July, the dangerous “heat dome” was sweeping out of the South and into the Southern Plains and the Southwest. By then, it was already getting to well over 110 degrees in Phoenix. Even places as far north as Ohio have seen temperatures in the triple digits. 

The transportation Catch-22

Commuting isn’t fun for most of us at any time, and now the heat has put many in an even more untenable situation. 

If you are fortunate enough to have a car to get you to work, you’re paying a lot more for gas than you were even six months ago. Although gas prices have started to fall, the national average on July 9 was $4.68, more than $1.50 over the same date in 2021. That’s not all: According to AAA, triple-digit temps can actually damage your vehicle, causing nearly all its parts to have to work harder in order to achieve the same performance.

Bike to work to save gas and the environment? In many places, it’s too hot. Make the commute without a car? Many cities’ public transit systems are not equipped with air conditioning. And that’s not all: In June, a Bay Area BART train derailed when the extreme heat warped the tracks, sending one passenger to the hospital. 

As you weigh the pros and cons of your own heat wave commute, Here are a few of the ways car-free commuters across the country are attempting to beat the heat: 

Elevating carpooling

Carpooling is one increasingly recommended way to beat the heat and save the planet during your commute. State and local governments like it because it keeps pollution down and highways less congested. 

Los Angeles County has advised residents to carpool, take public transit, or drive less, simply to help address the smog, which is worsened by the heat. Elsewhere, in Allen County, Ohio, officials similarly asked residents to carpool or bike to work to help lower ozone levels. In southeastern Michigan, there’s a program called Commuter Connect that aims to encourage carpooling by matching people commuting in the same direction. Many other cities have such services. 

In addition to the structured Michigan model, there’s also casual carpooling. Commuters traveling from the suburbs into the city gather at designated locations to hop into someone else’s vehicle, giving the driver the benefit of using the faster carpool lanes on the freeway.

Taking the sting out of public transit

Public transit offers a similar benefit for those who don’t mind crowds. To avoid getting stuck straphanging in a heat wave, though, you could try catching a bus or train before rush hour. See if there’s a good coffee shop or gym open near your office so you can relax or work out before you’re on the clock. 

Getting real about biking to work

If you’re set on biking to work in a heat wave, make sure to put your well-being first. Like your car, your body is going to have to work harder during any kind of physical exertion in the heat. Hot weather makes it more likely you’ll get dehydrated, fatigued, or even become ill. Dehydration reduces your blood volume, forcing your heart to overwork itself and making it more difficult to regulate body temperature. 

Make sure before setting out that you have enough water with you, and mentally prepare for where you’ll stop for a refill if necessary. The best advice is to drink a little bit of water at a time, and to do it often, when biking. Remember to drink even if you’re not thirsty. It’s common for someone on a long bike ride to consume two full bottles of water. A Camelbak or other hydration backpack is a great investment here. 

You might also want to try drinks containing electrolytes to replace those lost due to sweating, and to put ice cubes into your water bottle. 

The expert bike-to-work crowd recommends adding either panniers or a rear rack to your bike. That way, you won’t be weighed down by your backpack in the heat, keeping you less sweaty and much more comfortable.

Cyclists should also never be without sunscreen in a heat wave. Make sure you use one with a broad-spectrum SPF that’s high enough for your skin. A sunscreen with zinc oxide is best for blocking the most UVA and UVB rays.

The best advice for dressing for the heat is to wear clothing that’s loose enough not to cling, while snug enough not to interfere with bike safety. Light colors absorb less heat. Long sleeves may sound counter-intuitive, but keeping more of your body covered will actually keep your skin cooler.  

If your climate isn’t humid, you can get away with light synthetic blends. If you’re in a muggy climate, you might even want to consider wool. Yes, wool. It’s great at wicking away moisture, and it breathes like cotton while being quicker to dry. In general, natural fabrics like cotton and linen allow for better air circulation.

If your company offers a shower room, bring travel-size body wash and a fast-drying towel. If it doesn’t, your best bet is to keep some dry shampoo and a pack of wet wipes in your desk drawer.

The long-range view

No matter the weather, commuting to work can be the worst part of anyone’s day. One study showed that, if a person’s commute were lengthened by 20 minutes, it would produce a level of dissatisfaction equivalent to a $19,000 pay cut. 

So, now might also be a good time to take stock of your priorities. Maybe you can move close enough to walk to work. Or maybe there’s another job or a different role in your current one that would keep you closer to home. Depending on your role, you can also ask about working from home one or more days a week. Most studies on the topic have found that remote workers are, on the whole, more productive than those in the office.