Wednesday, December 30, 2009

6: I think this is the probably the best protest song I've ever heard...

Not excluding serveral good ones by Mr Dylan.


  1. I agree Andrew, this is quite stunning. I love the haunting modal folk melody (I am guessing it's in Dorian mode - I have a folk guitarist friend who is into all the musical side). Also the wonderful line "It's our turn now for some shock and awe".

    I wonder, however, if when you compare it to Bob Dylan's efforts, if it might be the case that the song has such an enormous impact for you and me because it relates to an event that we all lived through and remember vividly. And of course we still are living with the consequences of the events that started on 9/11/2001 and 7/7/2005, and the bungled shooting of an innocent man that the song describes so well - and still every day it is valid to question the response of the West, the war on terror. This song helps us to think about these things, and therefore it means much more to us, perhaps, than Dylan's protests, which were about events less immediate (though just as pressing in their day).

  2. You are right, of course: Hattie Carrol, Medger Evers, Rubin Carter and Emmet Tell are all pretty much just names to us our now, and can't have the impact that the songs did when they were newly written. (Or, even the first time you heard them: one can't be as shocked the 100th time you hear "handed out strongly for penalty and repentenance / William Zanzinger with a six month sentence" as you were the first time.)

    I don't have the musical vocabulary to know if it's Dorian or not, but I take it that he's partly reworking a traditional song ("Awake arise you drowsy sleeper..." is certainyl a traditioanl opening.) Mr. Zimmerman does that more often than you'd think, as well - I was disconcerted to come across a thing called "Lord Franklin's Lament" and realise that it was the source, kinda, for "Bob Dylan's Dream" ("Ten thousand pounds I would freely give/To know on earth, that my Franklin do live.")

  3. While it's certainly valid to question the response of the west, it's not helpful to do so frivolously or fashionably, nor to just assume that doing nothing would have been the wisest response. As for the bungled shooting, I can't claim to understand the reaction to it in the UK, but I'm sure the involved officers feel terrible, and primary responsibility for it should go to the terrorists who started the whole mess.

  4. ZZ:

    I'm not sure anyone was suggesting that the questioning of the West's response was in any way trivial, or indeed that to question was to assume that doing nothing was a better response.

    I think the beauty of the song is that it just tells the story of what happened, very clearly and very devastatingly, and leaves you to reflect on the tragedy.

    And an entirely valid response might well be to lay the blame on the terrorists for creating the air of paranoia that led to the bungled shooting.

    But it is equally valid to conclude that to shoot a man dead on scanty evidence, is absolutely terrible, and it really doesn't make much difference how terrible the officers involved felt after it. They were presumably acting on orders, and doubtless believed they were doing the right thing at the time.

  5. I'm sure the involved officers feel terrible...

    People always say this, but I see bugger-all evidence for the claim. Apparently, at least one of them returned to armed duties not very long after the incident, which doesn't suggest devastating contrition to me.

    I'd like to think that I'd feel terrible if I killed someone, however accidentally, but why should I assume that everyone feels like me about everything?

    (Personally, I think that any armed police officer who kills someone in the course of their duties should be automatically barred from ever carrying firearms on duty again, without prejudice to any assessment of blame or guilt. If they're morally fit for that job, they wouldn't want it.)

  6. Can't argue with a thing you say there Ian. Very thoughtful.

    Phil, your point seems to be that these officers were either rambunctiously looking to blow somebody away just for kicks, or that they are sociopathic monsters without conscience. Or perhaps killer robots programmed by the state. Am I wide of the mark?

  7. Honestly - I don't know. However, it seems to me that whenever police kill an innocent man, we hear the claim that "they must feel terrible about it". What I don't see is any actual evidence for this claim. Hence, until I do see such evidence, I'm liable to discount it as meaningless rhetorical noise.

  8. Phil,

    Yes, you do know. Anybody who lacks remorse over such a thing is, by definition, a sociopath or a monster. There are other possible explanations for the officers' silence, i.e. liability issues, or to avoid tainting the jury pool for any possible future trial. By merely gainsaying their silence without thought as to the reasons, you imply the former. I doubt that you actually believe this. The point is that meaningless rhetorical noise cuts both ways.

  9. Anybody who lacks remorse over such a thing is, by definition, a sociopath or a monster.

    Ah, no, not really. That's a pleasing modern conceit, but history is full of people killing other people and apparently sleeping at night afterwards - despite the fact that, yes, killing other human beings apparently isn't something that comes easy to a lot of modern people.

    The usual trick seems to be to dehumanise "the other"; killing members of the NonPeople over the hill isn't really killing "human beings" as such you know. (Armies are pretty good at this, though it's probably a delicate balancing act. Some of the tabloids had a pretty good stab at dehumanising Brazilian electricians back in 2005.) But I suspect that there are a whole range of adjustments and self-deceptions possible for some people if they need them. Anyone can finesse away a few moments of thoughtlessness or selfishness - it's how any of us sleep at night - and some people seem to be able to shrug their way through some fairly horrible behaviour. If the far end of the scale is getting over killing an innocent man "in the heat of the moment", I wouldn't be terribly surprised.

  10. So rather than being heartless attack dogs, the officers were merely average Joes who made a mistake like we all do, albeit with more far-reaching consequences, and probably did their best to get on with their lives afterward? Very well, I accept your conclusion.

    I'm curious, however, as to why you think average people are morally unfit to be policemen. And how would we vette applicants for their level of moral fitness, anyway? I'm really missing he grand moral lesson here, other than "everybody should try to be nicer than average",. which is impossible in the long term anyway as the average would keep rising.

    I can't believe how civil you people are, BTW. If this was an American blog we would have descended into death threats by now.

  11. ZZ: I appreciate your comments about civility - I had noticed it too, having recently resigned in disgust from an American listserv (or Christians to boot), where the political insults being hurled around made me realise it wasn't a place for reasoned discussion. In fact the moderators shut down the list over the Christmas break as it was getting just too bad. (Though it has to be said there weren't any death threats!)

    However, I think I read what Phil said somewhat differently from you. It's certainly not the case that ordinary people are not morally fit to be policemen, and I didn't get that from what he wrote.

    What he did say (and I agree entirely) is that all of us are capable of, indulging in self-deception from time to time. In fact I believe it has been argued by an evolutionary biologist somewhere (think I read it on Wikipedia so it MUST be true!) {irony mode off}, that self-deception is an important part of our survival as a species - if we were all brutally honest all the time, despair and depression would be the inevitable result.

    However, in the case when as an armed police officer you've killed someone in the course of duty, in the heat of the moment, then I think Phil is arguing, perhaps for that person's own sanity, that they should be taken off armed service, lest the self-deception they used the first time to justify what they did becomes too easy, and they do descend into being a sociopath, because killing becomes too easy.

  12. Iain,

    Hmmm... I'm not quite there with you. We have armed cops walking around all over the place here, and contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, It's extremely rare for one of them to go nuts and become a supervillian, no matter how beat-hardened they are.

    It's an entirely different discussion of course, but one benefit of having armed police is that everybody starts behaving nice and civil whenever they see them hanging around.

    One disadvantage, as you'll probably point out, is that this also results in about one incident per year in every mid-to-large sized city where somebody is hit in a crossfire during an arrest. But we, as a society, have decided that's a reasonable price to pay for the added security (real or imagined).

    Heck, how else would we keep the Apaches and the King of England our of our faces?

  13. I still don't see what we "know" about those policemen and their psychology. Maybe they sincerely regret what they did, but the fact that at least one of them went back on armed duty very quickly after the event makes me cynical; as Iain says, the logic of "this will be a traumatic experience for any non-psychopath" suggests that they should get a different assignment, whatever, for either their own sakes or everyone else's. Or maybe coppers who volunteer for that duty are good at self-justification and rationalisation (or in dehumanisation), or are effectively indoctrinated in the process, to a degree which should worry everyone else even if they aren't actually psychotic. Or maybe the Met channels a few borderline psychos into that duty, on the grounds that at least they can be watched and controlled there, and they can be trusted to pull the trigger when it's deemed necessary.

    Like I said, we don't seem to know. (And I'm not going to claim to know the best way to handle recruitment for armed duties. That's clearly a complex question.) But that means that we don't know how those officers felt. At all. So I'm going to object whenever anyone says that "they must feel terrible", because it's just not true.

    Incidentally, my understanding is that even American police officers only draw their guns very rarely, and use them even less often - I seem to recall numbers like "once a year or so" for the former, though I can't track does sources right now, and most go through their careers without shooting anyone. Comparing ordinary American cops with the specialist "anti-terrorist" types involved in this case just isn't comparing like with like. (I also understand that any American cop who does actually fire his gun is likely to get pulled to desk duty until the formal investigation is over, and may be required to get counselling.)


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