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September 24, 2007

Villains in the House

I have come to conclude there is no activity vile or heinous enough that some politicians will not attempt to exploit for their own benefit. In the aftermath of the Petit murders in Cheshire, nothing in my 30-plus years in journalism prepared me for the level of pandering I’ve heard in the last few weeks by some conservatives and knee-jerk talk-show hosts about a “three strikes you’re out” law.

What happened to the Petit family was obscene. What is being suggested in the aftermath of that heinous crime is obnoxious.

There is a curious parallel between how conservatives and loud-mouth talk-show hosts take on the issue of inmate recidivism, judicial restraint and of all things, flag burning. Ready? Hang on.

With the regularity of the swallows returning to Capistrano and the buzzards to Hinkley, Ohio, every two years the Republican conservatives in Washington introduce a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution. To hear them tell it, flags are being burned at every street corner. Flag burning is a national emergency.

“We must protect the flag,” they wail, for the fate of the republic is in jeopardy. Ripping a page from their “to hell with the Constitution” handbook, they call for protecting the flag and the American people by making flag burning illegal.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I read about or saw pictures of someone burning a flag. Maybe it is happening in that other democracy just over the hill.

So, when was the last time you heard of a triple or even double murder here in Connecticut caused by a recently paroled felon? I’m sure felons get out of jail every day and commit no small number of heinous crimes but the most recent report from the FBI states that in ALL of Connecticut there were 100 murders and that number is down by almost 60 from 1996.

Admittedly, one is too many but that isn’t the point. Murder represents 1 percent of all reported crimes in Connecticut yet to hear some legislators talk, Connecticut is about to become the Wild West. We have to protect ourselves from these paroled felons who are going to rob our houses, steal our cars and rape and kill our sons and daughters.


These self-serving bats in the belfry aren’t looking to improve the criminal justice system or to make our streets safer. It is just a chance for some pols and their buddies to get some free face time and make it appear as though they are doing something about crime. Nice try.

Let’s face it, there are no words that I or anyone else can write or say that can make up for the indisputable harm caused by Mr. Komisarjevsky and Mr. Hayes. Theirs were despicable acts for which there is no rehabilitation, only retribution.

Unfortunately, we must also come face to face with an annoying reality: bad things happen to good people and reacting just to say you did something is never good enough. Mandatory sentencing has never been a good idea. We have judges to ensure that the punishment fits the crime, and if we have legislators deciding what the punishment will be instead of judges then we don’t need judges, just file clerks to fill out the forms.

What we do need is to fix some badly designed systems and to truly hold some people accountable for their actions or the lack thereof. Since 1997, prosecutors have been required to provide sentencing transcripts to parole boards, but it has never happened. The excuse? The prosecutors and the parole board can’t decide who would pay for the copies.

You gotta be kidding. A state with a $14-plus billion annual budget and we have two state agencies spitting at each other over a $45,000 annual copying cost based on an interdepartmental “charge” of 95 cents a page? Are they nuts? We should fire everyone who allowed that incompetence to go on for a decade.

The unfortunate news is that whether or not the state adopts a harsher “three strikes” law, we’re probably going to have to build another prison. Cost? About $110 million. Right now our prison system, designed to hold 17,000 inmates, currently holds 19,000. End parole and transitional supervision and you would have God-only-knows how many more.

And you and I both know what happens the day after the governor announces where the state will build the next correctional facility. You’ll hear the roar from legislators and townspeople that “you can’t build a jail in MY town.” Those will probably be most of the same folks who screamed the loudest for putting and keeping more people in the state’s correctional facilities.

You want more people in jail? Volunteer your town to host the next one.

Steve Kalb is a freelance reporter and TV news talent coach. He is also an adjunct professor of  broadcast journalism at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)

September 10, 2007

What We Gave Up to Do Iraq

Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the United States. This was by no means the first time Osama Bin Laden attacked this country. I have no doubt he and his evil followers are trying to figure out a way to do it again.

So, on this sixth-year anniversary I thought it appropriate to take a look back to where we were and where we are now.

Along with others, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Connecticut’s junior Sen. Joe Lieberman will tell you the most pressing issue of our time is the war in Iraq. Nothing, they say, could be more important. Nonsense. What could be more important than the death of almost 4,000 American troops in a pointless war?

How about the erosion of democracy in this land of democracy?

In our rush to protect ourselves and our democracy in the aftermath of 9/11, we have given the government an unparalleled and unfettered right to peek into our e-mail, our bank records -- in short, our lives. We have been stripped bare of our “right to privacy.” The Bush Administration has laid waste to the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights has become a Bill of Hopes. Almost without challenge, the government can find out what we read, where we have gone, what we have bought, to whom we have written and called, and (if it wants to) what we have said.

The “Patriot Act” should be more appropriately called the “Dictatorship Act,” as many of the “protections” in place mirror those in the regime of Saddam Hussein. We don’t have “secret police,” even though we hold so-called “enemy combatants” in U.S. jails and abroad and deny them the right to trial and counsel. We look the other way when they are tortured. We should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing a few to use fear and intimidation to force us into giving up our rights and protections under the Constitution.

On Sept. 12, 2001, the world was at our side. In the days that followed, the president made it clear we would find Osama Bin Laden and others responsible for 9/11 and punish them to the fullest extent of the law. Within months we attacked Afghanistan, dislodged the Taliban and went looking for terrorists. The world cheered. The United States could seemingly do no wrong.

And then our president flushed it all away.

Awash in all of that “good karma” from dislodging the Taliban and freeing a nation, we left. Sure, there are troops left in Afghanistan, but obviously so few that in six years we haven’t been able to find Osama Bin Laden. America decided to go find invisible and imagined weapons of mass destruction and plant democracy (as if it were a seed) in Iraq. Almost 4,000 American troops have been killed and 27,000 wounded, about half seriously.

And for what? Published reports now make it all too clear that we always knew there were no WMD and that the last thing Saddam Hussein wanted to do was have anything to do with Osama Bin Laden. As for finding Bin Laden, the individual responsible for 9/11? He is still running around Pakistan or Afghanistan thumbing his nose at the United States.

We blew it and we have Messrs. Bush and Cheney and Lieberman to thank for it. But we should also blame ourselves, for there are those who continue to believe that we have to “win” in Iraq as if we haven’t already lost. There was never a legitimate reason to be there and what is winning? Continuing to prop up a new corrupt government, not supported by the people, to replace the old corrupt dictator? How about just getting out alive? These days that might be as good as any definition of winning in Iraq.

So as we acknowledge the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the United States, we should ask ourselves one question: How many of our so-called inalienable rights did we give up in order to “protect democracy,” invade a foreign country, lie to the American people, lay waste to our armed forces, including the National Guard, and be responsible for the deaths of 100s of thousands of Iraqi civilians?

Steve Kalb is a freelance reporter and TV news talent coach. He is also an adjunct professor of  broadcast journalism at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)

August 27, 2007

Flawed Responsibility

Life beats fiction anytime. You just can’t make this stuff up.

From Saturday’s Hartford Courant:

“A Stafford man arrested three times in two weeks on drunken driving charges was arraigned Friday in Superior Court in Rockville.

Roland G. Gilbranson, 40, was also charged early Friday with driving while under license suspension and making an improper lane change.

Judge Terence A. Sullivan set Gilbranson's bail at $5,000 and also made it clear that if he drove again he'd be jailed without bond.”

How is it that this irresponsible mental midget isn’t in jail now, as he is a danger to all of us? What does he have to do? Drive headlong into a bus full of kids or nuns before we lock him away for our own protection? I’m afraid to ask how he got to court. Probably drove.

I’ve never been arrested for DUI. I have a brain in my head. It would never dawn on me to have a few belts at the bar and then slide behind the wheel of my car. Last year a lot of people in Connecticut did, however, and some were killed in car accidents as a result.

To that I say, “Terrific.” Your efforts will eventually improve the gene pool since you are obviously a moron. Just please don’t take anyone else with you.

Now before you stop reading, deeming me a cold-hearted lout, continue on a couple more paragraphs. You might wind up agreeing with me.

Once again this year, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (the new and improved millennial version of Carrie Nation and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union) and some well-meaning legislators are out to prevent kids from drinking and driving. In and of itself, this is nothing new. MADD has been trying to serve as our collective mother for years.

As someone who interacts with teenagers and young adults at the collegiate level, let me tell you something: Fellas, you got it all backwards. You can put up all the checkpoints and write all the laws you want but young adults are going to find a way to drink. You did, your parents did and your kids will. Gravity is. And young adults will drink.

And then there is the law of unintended consequences. In the United States, we raised the drinking age in order to make it harder for Johnny and Jane to drink and drive. Oopsy. Now they have to buy booze illegally and find a place to drink. Since they have no place to go, what do they wind up doing? They drive around drinking that six-pack of beer or fifth of “fermented in the bag” hooch. There’s a good plan. We tossed kids out of bars where responsible adults could watch and limit their drinking (and maybe even call them a cab) and put them in cars.

A few facts to muddy up the emotional “we have to save our children from themselves” waters: At 16 most kids can get married. In New Hampshire you can be as young as 13, and not to be outdone, in West Virginia there can be “special provisions” for an underage girl who is pregnant. In all 50, an 18-year-old can enlist in the armed forces and go off to kill people and break things. They can sign a contract and be held liable for their actions. At 18, they are adults.

But apparently at 18 they are not yet mature enough to know when to stop drinking. Let me say this out loud again just to make sure. They can get married, go up to their eyeballs in debt, can kill and be killed -- but they can’t drink. Say that out loud five or six times and remind me again how that makes sense.

And here is the real rub. Raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 in the misguided belief that it would cut down on alcohol-related driving fatalities did nothing. Drivers 21-24 have the highest percentage of alcohol-related deaths. Johnny and Jane got older but remained just as stupid. Yeah, I know, sometimes you just can’t fix stupid.

So what is the answer? More laws, more roadblocks, more wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth and more money spent on educating our young as to the alleged insidious nature of demon rum?

Here is a novel thought. How about treating young adults as young adults, not 4-year-olds? How about teaching them something about “responsible” drinking?
It doesn’t take much of an IQ to figure out that students binge drink because they are afraid of getting caught. You remember taking long drags on that cigarette in the bathroom between classes in high school ’cause you only had two minutes before someone might catch you. Same thing, except in this case it is Captain Morgan not the Marlboro Man.

And while we are at it, how about making our drinking-and-driving laws more transparent, stricter and easier to enforce?

In Belgium, the fine for DUI can be as high as $11,000. In Denmark, the fines and imprisonment are based on blood-alcohol level. You can expect to get your license shredded and possibly go to jail for up to 2.5 years for a first offense. In Germany, a first-time offense could be construed as criminal with penalties of up to five years in jail and tens of thousands of dollars in fines. In Norway, your license is shredded and you are disqualified from having another one.
Tell any teenager or adult that driving while under the influence could mean going to jail for years, paying hefty fines and losing driving privileges for life and we might get lots of drunk drivers off the road.

It sure makes a lot more sense than trying to tell that 18-year-old soldier shooting at insurgents with his M-16 over in Iraq, that he isn’t old enough to have a beer.

Steve Kalb is a freelance reporter and TV news talent coach. He is also an adjunct professor of  broadcast journalism at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)

August 13, 2007

Why is the Worst-Ever Prez Still in Office?

There are some things for which I have little to no understanding. The particle theory and why some people like asparagus are two that come to mind.  I’m more apt to want to know about particle theory than asparagus, but that comes from decades of hating asparagus and I haven’t been confused by particle theory for nearly that long.

If I have no understanding as to why people like asparagus I have even less understanding why articles of impeachment haven’t been drawn against President Bush. Clearly an intern did not perform a sexual act on him in the Oval Office (reminder: President Clinton said on more than one occasion that he didn’t have sex with “that woman”) and then lied about it. But given all that has transpired in the last five years, I can think of only two reasons this president has not been impeached.

The first is obvious. The standard for impeachment was falsely applied by Republicans to Mr. Clinton. The second? That the current collection of house members has failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect the Constitution, the office of the presidency and the nation.

My guess is probably a little bit of both. President Clinton shouldn’t have lied to the nation. Clearly a dumb move. But his lies never took us to war and cost the lives of thousands of Americans and hundreds of millions of Iraqi citizens. The same cannot be said for President Bush.

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors. - - ARTICLE II, SECTION 4 OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

So the question becomes, Is this president guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors? Some might argue his actions have been treasonous although I’m not sure I can make that case. But I can for the others. To wit:

1. Instituting a secret and illegal wiretapping program against citizens of the United States in direct defiance of the U.S. Constitution.
2. Threatening the independence and sovereignty of Iraq.  Remember, we invaded them. We changed their government by force and assaulted Iraq in a war of aggression. Saddam Hussein may not have been a nice guy but he wasn’t alone, and many of the not-so-nice guys of the world are still our allies and friends.
3. Ordering the illegal detention of citizens and non-citizens for an indefinite period of time all the while refusing to grant those individuals access to legal counsel. Continued refusal to identify those taken.
4. Authorizing, ordering and condoning assassinations, summary executions, kidnappings, secret and other illegal detentions of individuals, torture and physical and psychological coercion of prisoners either directly or through third parties.

There is a host of others but you get the picture. This is the kind of stuff we accused Hussein and his thugs of doing, and yet here we are doing the same thing. No wonder the world loves us.

So how is it that no one even says the “I” word publicly? Unfortunately the answer is the Republicans and Bill Clinton.  Still fuming that he somehow won against “their man” George Bush Sr., conservative Republicans went digging for anything and everything that would undermine Clinton. If you were looking for treasonous individuals you needed to look no further than most of (but not all) of the Republican Party and a few of its friends like Joe Lieberman. With the notable exception of Lieberman, the goal of so-called “patriots” was to strip Clinton of his legitimacy to hold office.

And then Bill played right into their hands, had sex with an intern, and the rest is history.

But that moment in time devalued the meaning of the term and the importance of impeachment. Americans, and more specifically Congress, are terrified of impeaching Mr. Bush, not out of respect or admiration for him but out of fear that some might suggest that if Americans don’t like a president they impeach him. How silly.

We impeached Nixon for high crimes and misdemeanors.  We should have impeached Reagan for selling arms to the Iranians and using the money to fund rebels in Nicaragua. Reagan and/or his henchmen like Oliver North didn’t believe a little thing like the rule of law and the will of Congress (which represents the American people) should stop them.

So 20 years from now, our kids will wonder why we impeached a guy for lying to us about having sex in the Oval Office but failed to impeach a guy who caused us to imprison our own people illegally and invade another country.
Doesn’t make me wonder. Much.

Steve Kalb is a freelance reporter and TV news talent coach. He is also an adjunct professor of  broadcast journalism at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. You can reach him at sdkalb@gmail.com. (Note: The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Hamden Daily News.)


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