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Misevaluated murders

There have been several recent murders in which the media have vigorously propagated something that seems as unjustifiable prejudices right now.

In Toulouse, France, they've been witnesses of shootings. Eight people died in total. The casualties in the Jewish school were discussed most frequently.

Most of the media – and I am really talking about more than a thousand of news stories – immediately concluded that the perpetrators had to be Breivik-like "neo-Nazis" and indeed, a couple of ex-soldiers with these ideological leaning were investigated.

I had no idea what the truth was – because I had no solid data – but I decided that the "neo-Nazi" story was extremely unlikely once I saw this cute 8-year-old girl, a victim. She may have been Jewish but she does look nearly perfectly Aryan, too. I don't claim to be able to understand all the reasoning that goes through neo-Nazi skulls but I simply find it implausible that a neo-Nazi would shoot such a girl for her non-Aryan biology. How would such a neo-Nazi murderer have to look like in order to claim a "sufficient racial advantage" according to their own rules?

And of course, the actual killer was Mohammed Merah. Some readers may notice that Mohammed doesn't belong among the most frequent first names of the French neo-Nazis. But even when the media learned about their mistake, it didn't inhibit the spin they wanted to sell. So various news sources were telling us that Merah had the face of an archangel (an obsolete word for a Chairperson of God's P.R. Department).

This guy of Algerian descent probably doesn't belong to the most obvious organized terror groups. Still, he represents some threats naturally connected with the Islamic anticivilization and its problems that will be getting increasingly frequent in France as the composition of the population shifts towards the Middle East's favor. The media love to invent and propagate lots of scary stories for the future but those that are actually likely to occur – like the gradual decomposition of the European civilization due to the demographic shifts – aren't among them. They're much closer to a taboo.

Trayvon Martin

One month ago, in the U.S., a black teenager called Trayvon Martin was killed on the street. The man responsible for this radical change in Martin's life was George Zimmermann, a son of a white father and a Hispanic mother who was a boss in the volunteers' neighborhood watch.

Now, Martin may have been described as a handsome guy, probably more so than Zimmermann. But mainly because of the unusually elevated influence that the black community and its interests has on the public perception in the U.S., Martin started to be treated as a martyr. His death surely shows that there is an infinite amount of racism and all the police procedures are completely failing, and so on.

Barack Obama whose career was built mainly by the media and who reacts to every change of the wind in the media happily correlated himself with the positive emotions towards Trayvon Martin. If Malia Ann or Natasha had more testosterone in their blood, Barack Obama mentioned, they would look just like Trayvon Martin.

It took one whole month for everyone to learn that Trayvon had been dissed from the Miami school system because of an empty bag that was previously used for marijuana. And it took one month for some media to at least consider the possibility that George Zimmermann's version of the story was just right.

Zimmermann says that it was self-defense. Martin approached him from the back and asked Zimmermann: "Do you have a problem?" Zimmermann answered: "No." But Martin responded as well: "Now you have one." And he began to punch him and smash Zimmermann's head against the sidewalk several times. When Zimmermann found out that Martin was trying to acquire Zimmermann's gun, Zimmermann decided it was time to push the trigger.

Now, at least one witness is supporting Zimmermann's version of the story. And the number of such witnesses may be higher.

I don't have a magic indisputable proof, of course. But what I can say is that the amount of evidence presented by the media that would imply that this murder was racially motivated is exactly zero. The only "evidence" that the media actually offer us is that Martin was black and Zimmermann wasn't black so it "had to be" a racial murder. Give me a break. Give me a break.

A vast majority of highly awkward situations into which black teenagers get is a result of their behavior that is either illegal or understandably viewed as as dangerous for others. By this statistics, it's vastly more likely that Zimmermann had some good reason to shoot. To inhale the atmosphere in which every black who gets shot (or arrested) is an angel who became a victim of racism means to deny 99% of reality.

The media has been presenting the story as an obvious one. George Zimmermann surely has to be a racist bigot and natural killer. I've mentioned there's no evidence for that. But just try to think rationally. Based on the fact that Zimmermann managed to become the local head of the volunteers' neighborhood watch alone and no other data, infer and describe the hypothetical relationship that exists between Zimmermann and racist murders. This is silly, right? Why would a random person and especially a semi-cop would be the person who should be expected to murder blacks without a reason?

Many things are plausible but the likelihood seems very low to me. These considerations aren't enough to close the case by declaring Zimmermann innocent; but they're surely enough to force every honest person to at least consider the possibility that Zimmermann's account is simply true. If the media are creating a discourse in which it's taboo to even consider this possibility, it's just extremely bad. It's a distorting pressure against the courts and everyone who talks or interacts with this affair.

I have even read stories claiming that it's bad that someone revealed and published the fact that Martin was dissed out of the school system. I can't believe this is possible. In my opinion, it is absolutely scandalous that this elementary fact had been hidden from the public's eyes for a whole month. This fact and similar facts, if they exist, are needed for a sensible investigator – and any person who is interested in those issues – to create a more reality-based opinion on whether or not Zimmermann may be right when he says that Martin was the aggressor. And of course that Martin's drug possession and his elimination from the school system increases the probability that Zimmermann's description is accurate.

Of course, I don't claim and I would never claim that the system in which such investigations are made by police and decisions are made by courts and judges is infallible. It's clearly not infallible. But it's much perfect than a system in which rallies on the street cooperating with the media that copy sexy claims from each other make the verdict. If it were better for the society and justice to eliminate police and courts and replace them with votes on the street or in the redundant media, a nation would already have switched to this "modern" system of justice. Such a nation would most likely be in chaos as of now, too.

Škoda Yeti kind of passes Jeremy Clarkson's tests involving tattooists, fire, and landing helicopter on the roof. See the full 17 minutes on the best car in the world (Feb 2011).

Hilsner Affair

I feel that the French and American media are not careful about unsubstantiated accusations. In this respect, I believe that the Czech media are much better these days. Similar mass-produced mistakes wouldn't occur here. We have some experience with the errors in the public perception and most of the sensible Czech folks take the lessons very seriously.

There have obviously been many murders that remain shrouded in mystery. However, the most famous historical case is still the Hilsner Affair. On April 1st, 1899, a 19-year-old girl Ms Anežka Hrůzová was found. She was murdered 3 days earlier and she was still a virgin. The public opinion immediately decided that a homeless Jew, Mr Leopold Hilsner, was guilty of a ritual murder. He was actually convicted to execution; the punishment was reduced by our compassionate last king, Charles I of Austria, to the life in prison.

But right after the murder, Prof Thomas Masaryk, later the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, didn't hesitate to go against the public mood. He declared the ritual murder to be a superstition, one that was powered by anti-Semitism. It seems very likely these days that he was right.

It wasn't the only case in which Masaryk defended the answer that look scientifically more plausible independently of the public opinion. In 1817, two pieces of beautiful old Czech literature were found in Bohemia: the Manuscript of Dvůr Králové (Eastern Bohemia) and Zelená Hora (25 miles South of Pilsen), respectively. Those manuscripts were "proving" that the Czech nation had a glorious literature that was as old as the oldest French or German literature, 1,000 years or so. People clearly wanted to believe it.

In reality, the Czech literature began about 200 years later. In the early 14th century, the literature written in Czech kind of exploded. And every sensible person should be able to live with this apparent historical fact: our cultural sources aren't as old as the French ones. They're still 6+ centuries older than those of many nations born in the modern era. And even the French ancient literature is thousands of years younger than the counterparts from ancient civilizations. Things just have a different timing. Those are no reasons to believe contrived or impossible stories about a history that differed from the real one.

Demolition of a fancy villa

I've said that I was relatively satisfied with the way how the Czech media and maybe even the Czech public approach things like murders that are not fully demystified yet. So let me mention an example in which I find the approach of the public counterproductive.

Click for a gallery

Mr Miloš Holeček, an entrepreneur in Eastern Bohemia, built this unusual villa. It obviously had to be expensive and so on. Not that I care too much but it also has the best materials guaranteeing the state-of-the-art energy efficiency and other things. The problem is that he built it at a place which was about 10 meters from the place reserved to construction of houses (it's on his land, of course). Mr Holeček says that some officials verbally promised him to change the territorial plan under the house in exchange for something he would do for them etc.

Suddenly, no official admits such a verbal commitment. Some courts and other organs decided that this house has to be demolished – well, they have to deconstruct it in a very complicated, slow manner. And most of the public seems to celebrate that. I think that most of the folks are just happy if they see a rich guy who is being screwed but the official justification most people use is that "the law must apply to everyone".

While I agree that the "law has to apply to everyone", I still think that the law and/or individual who liquidates a multi-million-dollar villa just because it clashes with some ad hoc plan that some bureaucrat randomly drew on the map sometime in the past is just a stupid law and the people who uncritically worship such a law are barbarians. It seems obvious that there exist better solutions from the viewpoint of the society's overall interests. Just make him pay a fine that may be substantial but much smaller than the money he's invested to build the villa so that every sensible person is happy.

My point is that the villa doesn't really harm anyone else. The rule of law is important but the purposes of laws is ultimately to make people happy according to some objectively defined balances that say who has the right to be more happy in a given situation. But if the laws are uncritically worshiped and used to harm an entrepreneur who has done something cool and who hasn't harmed anyone, we're really adopting the "Islamic" approach to the law. It was written by an idiot in the 7th century that a man or woman who does [something innocent] has to be stoned to death, so we must obey the law whoever is the culprit!

In my opinion, that's not the civilized understanding of the law. Laws shouldn't "guarantee" the destruction of a huge property in cases when there exists no objectively justifiable and comparably "valued" interest of another party that prefers the destruction. And I actually believe that it's not "guaranteed" by the law that the villa has to be torn down; just some bureaucrats that no one dares to criticize decided that they have the right to order demolition and the jealous public opinion will be happy about it.

Of course, this debate has an environmental content, too. The villa is near a park. More generally, people say "if this villa were allowed to stand, people could also start to build such villas in the national parks". Well, I admit that my opinion about the villa affair is different because I actually have a different opinion about the national park gedanken experiment, too. There's a lot of pretty much untouched nature around us in the national parks etc. If people like Mr Holeček were allowed to build similar sensitive, fancy villas at some places that belong e.g. to the National Park Šumava, I think that the quality of the environment would be improved. I think that the humans are capable of maintaining the landscape in a way that's better than the natural state of affairs and richer and cultural nations have "cultivated" big parts of the landscape that used to be wild.

More generally, I have some doubts about the amount of restrictions that prevent people from using their land, among other things.

Pavel Bém and eavesdropping

One more story shows that the public hysteria doesn't avoid Czechia. A businessman and lobbyist named Mr Janoušek (who was a villain in a nasty traffic accident last Friday, but that has almost nothing to do with the story that follows) had relatively friendly relations with the ex-mayor of Prague, Dr Pavel Bém, the guy who's been to Mount Everest. Someone recorded their telephone conversation which was friendly, informal, and in which they discussed what would happen with some not too important company I had never heard of after its previous owner died and who could become a director of a branch of an insurance company or whatever.

The language is as informal as one could expect in private conversations and the topics don't even seem too important for the mayor of Prague. But what the media have made out of it – and how many people even outside the media interpret it – is kind of incredible. So the lobbyist was immediately rebranded as the hidden dictator of Prague and Dr Bém was the guy who allowed him to rule out capital. Everyone thinks it's all about corruption and many other things. Dr Bém was asked to commit harakiri or at least leave the public life for good – even by his colleagues from the Civic Democratic Party.

I find it amazing because the amount of evidence in favor of wrongdoing on his side is, once again, zero. It seems totally obvious to me that folks like the mayor of Prague have contacts with entrepreneurs and some of them are informal enough so that they may use friendly childish names for each other. And they solve some topics on the telephone, too. There's no evidence that the topics they discussed were even "top importance" items. I don't think it's possible for people who work as mayors of capital cities and in similar jobs to terminate all their relationships with the folks outside "politics". The people who suggest that this cutting of all the links is what the laws demands or should demand are crazy because the politician simply couldn't efficiently operate.

It's very important for the laws to be much more subtle in the list of acts that it prohibits and renders illegal. If the law were like an elephant in china that makes everything illegal, the institutions would be dysfunctional. So much like ex-mayor of Prague and President Klaus, I am much more concerned about the fact that it was possible to record private telephone calls of the mayor of Prague. The people who think that Dr Bém is a villain just because he's the first guy whose informal private conversation was publicized are brainwashed sheep who are detached from the reality. I am kind of scared of such folks because they are easily manipulated by whoever is able to eavesdrop and publicize the recorded private talks whenever he or she finds it convenient.

Still, Dr Bém suspended his membership in the ODS party. I think it's unfortunate that he was forced to do so without any tangible justification. The actual "justification" behind this hysteria is the opinion held by tons of people that the politicians and entrepreneurs have to be constantly kicked into their buttocks because they're richer or more powerful than the average Joe. That's why this average Joe has no problem with the penetration of unknown structures into the private life of every citizen who is not an ordinary Joe; the implicit assumption is that no one cares about what the average Joe does in his private life because the average Joe is irrelevant, as he knows himself. I am scared of his mode of reasoning which I find totalitarian in nature.

And that's the memo.

Bonus: Mies and Google's Doogle

Today, Google remembers Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a Prussian/German architect who later moved to America. Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Moravia, Czechia (completed 1930, protected by UNESCO) is usually presented as his second most famous piece.

As you can see, it is a clear prototype of modern architecture. He was a great guy, don't get me wrong, but I just don't like it. Even though many of his similar works cover America, I would use the term "socialist architecture" for buildings of this type. The house above doesn't seem to belong to 1930; he was clearly a pioneer, indeed. ;-)

The author of "less is more" and "God is in the details" has obviously made a huge impact on architecture; he dreamed about developing something that would be a counterpart of the classical or Gothic architecture in their respective eras. And he managed to succeed. I am afraid that if I had to choose the winner, both classical architecture and Gothic architecture would end up above modernism. If every human activity has peaked or is bound to peak, I am afraid that the aesthetic values in architecture have peaked before modernism.

If I were in charge of construction and architecture, I would hire lots of architects who would cover the Western civilization's continents with modern variation of Classical, Baroque, or Gothic buildings. Apologies to Mies. Less may sometimes be more but it's usually not the case of beautiful architecture.

Mariana Trench

If you haven't seen some video of James Cameron during his visit to the deepest trench in the ocean, click. It's a nontrivial technical achievement to resist the pressure etc. On the other hand, it's kind of boring and dark over there... On the third hand because the number of hands is usually three, it's amazing that something lives over there at all.

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snail feedback (2) :

reader DonGateley said...

Imagine that you are a 17 year old black kid in (moderately racist) Florida being stalked by a fat white man with a gun who wears no uniform. Imagine further that at 6'2" you have confidence in your physical prowess relative to your stalker. You decide to confront and disarm the man so you circle behind him in the dark and jump him. In the attempt to disarm him you are shot and killed. What exactly did you do wrong? I don't mean stupid, I mean wrong in a moral sense. What exactly did the stalker do wrong?

It is the kid who stood his ground in self defense. Lock his stalker and ultimate murderer up.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Don,

in my opinion, the 17-year-old kid in your (hypothetical?) story did nothing morally wrong. He was rightfully killed for being breathtakingly stupid (near the levels of the Darwin Award) while the neighborhood watch guy - who has a concealed weapon permit - still acted in self-defense and he must be declared innocent.

Maybe teenagers who are at risk of a low intelligence should be explicitly taught at school that they should never try to disarm armed men while they're unarmed themselves. ;-) And maybe your comment indicates that you are among those who should return to the kindergarten and repeat this elementary education. One of the reasons why people carry guns is that they gain an authority that guarantees that other intelligent or moderately intelligent people won't dare to physically assault them.

What's good about your story is that there is at least a reason - stupidity - for the death. Many people die even though they're neither immoral nor stupid.