Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Paradise for Opium

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times had a good piece on the return of Afghanistan to its globally dominant position in opium production. The article is about the somewhat pathetic attempt on the part of the US to train local counternarcotic police - pathetic because opium production stems from the economic and political structure of the post-Taliban state of the country and not from the absence of an Afghani DEA. "Structure" is a euphemism for "chaos," a gangland warlord country created by the U.S. invasion and not fixed by it. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan's poppy cultivation was about 20% of the world total. Last year, the country's share was 92%.

It's more and redundant evidence of the pointlessness of replacing law enforcement with military invasion. Law only works with a strong civil society and governing structure, plus the full and even enthusiastic cooperation of the population on the ground. War destroys all this. You don't get to law through war.

Monday, May 28, 2007

And Then There's the Ones Dead in No War

Grisly crimes alarming Japan
A series of killings in which the bodies were dismembered has unleashed a frenzy of self-examination.

By Bruce Wallace

TOKYO — It's not so much the news of a 17-year-old boy stabbing his mother to death that has shocked Japan, dominating chatter on tabloid TV for the last two weeks and sending shudders through a nation that prides itself on a low homicide rate.

The greater horror lies with what he did afterward. Having killed his mother as she slept, police say, the boy cut off her arm and head with a saw. Spray-painted her arm white and stuck it in a potted plant. Put her head in a sports bag and carried it with him to an Internet cafe, where he spent two hours watching rap music videos in a private booth.

He then took a taxi to a police station in his town in northern Japan, where he surrendered the head and told the officers, "It didn't matter who I killed."

Step by gruesome step, it's hard to imagine a more grisly crime.

Yet what unsettles many Japanese is that dismembering the body of a slaying victim, known here as barabara jiken or "scattered pieces incidents," no longer seems like such an aberration. Over the last several months, there has been a series of killings in which the bodies have been cut up or disposed of in sickening ways.

The disturbing crimes have unleashed a national frenzy of self-examination, with criminologists, politicians and anyone else with an opinion asking whether some macabre virus has infected contemporary Japanese society. It has given rise to suggestions that the killers were mimicking dismemberment scenes in best-selling novels and that the cause is the increasing divide between rich and poor in a society that once prided itself on egalitarianism.

These theories, based on little more than speculation but amplified by entranced media, have contributed to a sense that a country once bound by tight family and community ties is splintering into something alien.

"These recent murders are about self-validation: people murdering someone in order to fulfill an 'empty self,' " said Jinsuke Kageyama, a criminal psychologist. "The murderers recover their lost power by killing."

The recent savagery began in December, when a Tokyo woman confessed to killing her allegedly adulterous husband with a blow from a wine bottle and then cutting his body into pieces. The parts were found scattered across two city wards; his head was buried in a suburban park.

Less than a month later, a 21-year-old Tokyo man was accused of killing his younger sister. He claimed he lashed out violently after she belittled him for his failure to win acceptance to dental school. Police said he hacked her body into pieces and stuffed the parts into four garbage bags.

In March, the strangled body of a young, female English-language teacher from Britain was discovered buried in a sand-filled bathtub in a university student's Tokyo apartment. The suspect eluded a police raid and is still on the run.

The incident occurred around the time a verdict was reached in the trial of another Japanese man in the slaying of Lucie Blackman. The British woman, who was working as a Tokyo bar hostess, disappeared in July 2000. Authorities found her remains in 2001. The body had been dismembered and the head encased in concrete. Judges acquitted real estate developer Joji Obara in her death and dismemberment, saying there was no physical evidence linking him to Blackman's body.

And these aren't the only stories dominating media coverage. They have been accompanied by what seems to some a deluge of shocking crimes, from the random stabbing of a 2-year-old child by a woman in a Yokohama shopping mall, to a couple accused of dumping their toddler son's body on a mountainside after he suffocated in the helmet compartment of their motorcycle.

The recent mayhem in a country with a low homicide rate, which has been falling, has commentators scrambling for explanations. Some criminologists argue that socially dysfunctional students go unnoticed in a school system in which docility and acute shyness are regarded as normal.

Others see a copycat syndrome, pointing to novels such as the 1998 bestseller "Out," in which a wife kills her abusive husband and then conscripts three female co-workers to help dismember the body for easier disposal.

Corporate restructuring that ended the jobs-for-life era also has been cited as a possible cause. So too the tunnel vision produced by playing violent video games. Some ruling party politicians said the burst of gore underscored the legitimacy of their campaign to restore what they say are lost Japanese values: love of family and love of country.

"We are witnessing the deterioration of Japanese society," lawmaker Tsuneo Suzuki told parliament. "We must stem this appalling destruction of family and community morals."

Yet the record shows that dismembering bodies is neither unique to Japan nor a newly arrived phenomenon. Dismemberment took place in the Edo period (1603-1868), said Mark Schreiber, an American who is a longtime resident of Japan and the author of two books on the history of sensational crime in the country. He said random slashings of innocent passersby occurred regularly during the Showa era (1926-89) and that the Taisho period (1912-26) had its record of sadistic, gory crimes.

Even the national tabloid-induced panic is nothing new. Ten years ago, a 14-year-old killer deposited the severed head of an 11-year-old child at the gates of an elementary school in Kobe, and taunted police and citizens with threats to kill again before he was finally caught.

Nor is dismemberment unknown outside Japan. The savage 1947 slaying of Elizabeth Short in Los Angeles, the Black Dahlia case, remains one of America's most infamous, and both Canada and Britain were scandalized by multiple dismemberment killings in the 1990s.

The conflict in the Middle East also has produced a numbing abundance of political and religiously inspired beheadings, many recorded and available for viewing on the Internet.

"There's a lot of mindless mayhem out there all over the world, and I don't know what you can really read into it," Schreiber said. "People are just freaking out. And they are using whatever they can get their hands on that's lethal."

Individual motives in the recent Japanese killings vary widely. The British teacher appears to have been stalked and her killer was trying to hide the evidence of his crime. The 17-year-old who killed his mother allegedly claimed any victim would do, and made no attempt to evade capture. The Tokyo wife told police that her husband was abusing her; she cut up his body, the media reported, because she simply couldn't physically dispose of him all at once.

Even if culture was the cause, the fault may not rest solely with Japan. Violence and sadism are not unique to this nation: American pop culture, from Bret Easton Ellis to "The Sopranos," also includes scenes of dismemberment.

"Sure you have Japanese kids who pour themselves into the fantasies of their computers," said Jimmy Sakoda, 71, a former Los Angeles Police Department homicide investigator who had close ties to Japanese police during his career. "But because of the Internet, these kids are just as likely to be influenced by American movies or rap lyrics as by homegrown stuff."

That's why many observers are reluctant to lay blame for such extreme cases on Japan's social ills.

"When someone dismembers a body, that's total hatred," Sakoda said. "That's when killing's not enough. It's hate beyond reason."



Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Princess of Burundi

This is a crime novel by Kjell Eriksson that appeared in Sweden in 2006. There are lots of good things to say about it, starting with its great psychology of everyday life. At one point the cops are sitting around trying to figure out of two murder cases are actually connected, and one of them, named Berglund, says this about an older working-class guy, Oskar Pettersson, he's just been talking with:
"There is a kind of culturedness that exists apart from the kind transmitted by schools and universities, and Oskar Pettersson represents this educated culture. Once upon a time I think this kind of culture flourished in the neighborhood where Little John grew up, and it helped to stem the flow of today's lawlessness. Of course, there were scum in the fifties and sixties, but there was also a social resistance that is lacking today."
"What kind of resistance?" Sammy asked.
"Something upheld by normal people, but also by the authorities."
"Sweden isn't how it was," Riis agreed. "There's a lot of new folk now, that's bound to lead to trouble."
Berglund turned his head and looked at Riis.
"I know you don't like immigrants, but both Little John and Vincent Hahn are products of Swedish social democratic policy, our so-called People's Home. I think it is the isolation of individuals in our country that breaks them. The gap between people's dreams and the potential to get off track is too large. What was it we once dreamed of, what did Oskar Petterson dream of?"

Good questions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Dead Boyfriend from Hell

From today's Los Angeles Times:

A man tried to kill his girlfriend Monday by parking their car in front of a speeding Metrolink commuter train, but instead died when debris from the crash struck him after he had been ejected from the car, police said.

His girlfriend, who was in the car when the train slammed into the vehicle's passenger side, was seriously injured but is expected to survive.

Homicide detectives said they were trying to determine the motive of the man, who was identified late Monday as Brandon Julius Funches, 21, of South Los Angeles. They said they believe he was trying to kill the 23-year-old woman, whose name was not released, and they were unsure whether he also intended to commit suicide.

Los Angeles Police Department officers and Metrolink officials said they were amazed that no one else was hurt in the crash, which occurred at a crossing in Pacoima.

The incident began just after noon as the gate arm dropped at the rail crossing at San Fernando Road and Branford Street, Los Angeles Police Sgt. Lee Sands said.

Witnesses told police that they saw the couple shouting at each other inside a 2005 Dodge Magnum that was waiting at the crossing for the oncoming Lancaster-bound train, which was filled with about 125 passengers, to pass. Suddenly, Sands said, the man pulled his car into the opposing lane of traffic, sped past two other waiting cars and the crossing gate, and parked on the tracks.

Some witnesses told police that Funches appeared to have jumped out of the Dodge just as the train hit the vehicle. But police believe that he was ejected from the car when the train hit it — perhaps while trying to leave the vehicle. The impact sent metal debris flying, with some of the pieces fatally wounding Funches as he was running away, Sands said.

Detectives believe that Funches placed the car on the tracks with the passenger side facing the train in hopes of killing his girlfriend.

The train did not derail, and no one on board was injured, authorities said.

But the Dodge was so mangled, they said, that they could not immediately determine the make or model.

Officials said the force of the crash sent pieces of metal flying as far as a block away. Pieces penetrated cars and disabled a truck by tearing through the engine, LAPD officials said.

Denise Tyrell, a Metrolink spokeswoman, said its trains in that area go through crossings at up to 79 mph. She said the agency was treating the case as a "deliberate act" and was checking the train's black box recording device for data.

"It is very rare for you to survive being hit by a train in your car," she said. "A train is massive — 450 tons. Your car is to a train what a soda can is to your car."

The crash occurred about 15 miles from where a man deliberately parked in front of an oncoming Metrolink train two years earlier near Glendale. Eleven people died and nearly 200 others were injured Jan. 26, 2005, when the train smashed into the man's SUV, setting off a violent chain reaction that caused a commuter train coming from the opposite direction to crash and derail. One train also smashed into a freight train parked on adjacent tracks.

After that crash, Metrolink and other agencies looked at ways to better protect passengers. Among the measures was the removal of some tables on the trains that studies showed could cause injuries.

Little is known about the couple involved in Monday's incident.

Firefighters used special rescue equipment to extract the woman from the car. She was taken to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, where she was listed in serious condition.

"We wish the woman the best and hope for her recovery," Tyrrell said.



Monday, May 21, 2007

Gangsters and Reformed Gangbangers

A couple of interesting crime bits today:

  • the best overview of Hollywood's "Mr. Fix-It" in trouble with the law, complete with an excellent chart of the relationships
  • a good story about gang members joining construction unions, reminding you of the great social function well-paid blue-collar work used to play and perhaps still could

Monday, May 14, 2007

Pretty Goddam Sad

Lots of bad stories in the heartless city. Here's one of the worst. It's from the LA Times Homicide blog, which tries to tell the story of every single murder victim in LA. Check out who they actually are.

The Right will focus on the victim's pregnant girlfriend, Latreyna Jones, having a 5 dollar car wash to pay for the burial. The Right should go to more of their own funerals.

I'd like to live in an America where the paper didn't feature weeping and bereft black folks every damn day of the week.


Siblings torn apart by gunfire

Lavonne and Eric Mandeville, raised in foster care, couldn't have tried any harder to beat the odds and start a new life. And still Eric is dead.
By Jill Leovy
Times Staff Writer

May 13, 2007

This dispatch is adapted from The Homicide Report, an online project by Times staff writer Jill Leovy to report on every homicide victim in Los Angeles County, including the many whose deaths go unmarked in any other public forum or medium.


"Soft-spoken and quiet-like," is how a friend described Eric Omar Mandeville, 20, killed April 22 in Long Beach. At his funeral last week, a scattered family reunited to mourn the young man, who was shot to death late one night on his way to the local grocery mart.

The slaying is one of more than 335 in Los Angeles County since Jan. 1, a rate of a little less than three a day.

By an overwhelming margin, the victims, like Eric, were black or Latino young men.

Eric had tried hard to beat these statistics.

He earned $6.80 an hour working part time at a McDonald's in Long Beach. He and his sister Lavonne lived off his paychecks and the wages she earned as a nursing assistant.

The siblings had been raised in foster care. They didn't know where their father was, said Lavonne, Eric's elder by five years. Their mother had drug problems, and they grew up without her; for years, Lavonne thought she was dead.

As soon as Lavonne was emancipated from foster care, at age 18, she took her brother out of the system. The two survived however they could, sometimes relying on motel vouchers from homeless shelters to stay off the streets.

They went to school. They worked. Eventually, they were able to afford a small apartment off an alley in North Long Beach. In front, men drank out of cans in paper bags and music boomed from car stereos. But it was an improvement on where they'd been.

Eric would start getting ready for work two hours before he had to leave. He shaved so closely that his neck was peppered with little nicks. He toiled over his shirts, which always looked crisply ironed. He put on his McDonald's apron and his hat. His sister marveled that he wasn't embarrassed to wear them on the bus.

"Am I down?" he would ask her, worried that some part of him still did not look groomed. Then he set off, always forgetting to turn off the iron.

His co-workers and bosses knew nothing of his history. He was a well-liked employee — quiet, earnest, clean-cut. He greeted an older Latina at the restaurant every day in Spanish — he had learned a few phrases just for her.

He would often ask his bosses how he was doing, how he could get better, said McDonald's supervisor Don Cunnane. "I still can't believe it. Such a good kid," he said.

He and Lavonne had plans. They were going to move out of the county and open a group home for foster children like themselves.

He was shot at 1872 Locust Ave. about 2 a.m. Later that morning, bosses at McDonald's noticed Eric hadn't shown up for work. Cunnane was so concerned that he came out to the crime scene when he heard. The killing is still under investigation.

In the days after, Lavonne cried on the floor and had visions of Eric. She thought he was trying to tell her who had killed him.

It took her three days to track down their mother out of state. Lavonne, over the years, had managed to reassemble somewhat the family she and Eric had lost in childhood. By the time the funeral was held, she was surrounded by relatives and friends, including a brother who had been raised separately. But Eric remained the core.

"It was just me and him," she said. "He was all I had left."


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Iraq as PTSD Factory

For everyone, particularly the entire population of Iraq itself. But the Pentagon has done a study of the effects of extended and repeated tours in Iraq. As reported in the LA Times for May 5th, their report "found that 28% of those involved in high levels of combat experienced acute stress, compared with 6% involved in low levels of combat." In addition, "the new report showed that 27% of soldiers who had been on multiple tours experienced mental health problems, compared with 17% who were serving in Iraq for the first time. I would say those numbers are low, but at least the effects of combat are being studied. This is in fact the fourth Pentagon survey of mental health since the Iraq war began four years ago.

PTSD might take forms other than stress - hostility towards others, for example. "Fewer than half of the service members questioned agreed with the statement 'All noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect.' Forty-four percent of Marines and 41% of soldiers said torture should be allowed if it would save the life of a fellow service member."

To cheer yourself up, check out the daily coverage of the Phil Specter murder trial, or coverage of Paris Hilton being denied the glamour slammer and going to jail for 45 days for drunk driving.