Blow, Kristof and Collins

In “Beyond the Courtroom” Mr. Blow says the George Zimmerman trial has produced a valuable dialogue about some important issues surrounding race and justice, fear and aggression, and legal guilt and moral culpability.  Mr. Kristof writes about “A Free Miracle Food!”  He says a stop in Mali on this year’s win-a-trip journey showed just how crucial it is to promote breast-feeding in poorer countries.  Ms. Collins says “New York Sizzles,” and that opportunities abound, people, in city politics thanks to the return of the men who never went away.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Whatever happens in the George Zimmerman trial, it has produced a valuable and profound dialogue in America about some important issues surrounding race and justice, fear and aggression, and legal guilt and moral culpability.

That conversation is about people’s right to feel suspicion and fear and whether those feelings need be justified to be real. It is about the degree to which suspicions and fears are culturally constructed, or at least culturally influenced, are innate or are born of personal experience.

More specifically, it is about how race, age and gender might influence our threat responses, and whether that is acceptable. For instance, as a thought experiment, reverse the race and ethnicities of Trayvon Martin and Zimmerman and see if that has any effect on your view of the night’s events. Now, go one step further and imagine that the teenager who was shot through the heart was not male but female and ask yourself again: does it have any effect on how you view the facts of this case?

Are we acculturated to grant some citizens the right to feel fear while systematically denying that right to others?

That conversation is about the particulars and vagaries of laws. It is about a law that allows an “aggressor” to legally use deadly force against a defender if the two become engaged in an altercation where the aggressor begins to “believe” he or she is in imminent danger of being seriously hurt or killed. Do we want our laws to be written in such a way? Should the “aggressor” pay no legal penalty for setting deadly events in motion? Should the idea of self-defense bounce back and forth between two people like a Ping-Pong ball?

The conversation is also about the legal realization that when you are killed, not only do you die but so does your version of the events that led to your death. It must be reconstructed — to the degree that it is possible — through the eyes of witnesses and the rigors of science, but when your body falls still, your voice falls silent.

Cases like this are about proving or disproving the story of the killer, the only story that survives. Were his actions justified or not?

This creates an automatic imbalance in which the survivor has the advantage. There is an African proverb that goes something like this: Until the lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.

So, by extension, the conversation is about whether each of us has a moral responsibility — laws notwithstanding — to do all we can to prevent a tragedy like the one that occurred in Sanford. Regardless of who initiated the physical altercation between Martin and Zimmerman, the two never had to come into close contact. If Zimmerman had stayed in his vehicle and not pursued the teenager, Martin would have made it home for the second half of the N.B.A. All-Star Game he had been watching and today he would be one year older.

Technically, only Zimmerman is on trial, but in the broader debate, particularly among people who think Zimmerman innocent, is Martin also on trial? And if so, does that mean that all teens who look and behave similarly to Martin are also on trial? What precedent, if any, would a not-guilty verdict set?

Even if you believe that the teenager at some point during the night’s events did something wrong — the defense contends that he “sucker punched” Zimmerman, banged his head on cement and pummeled his face — that teenager is now paying the ultimate price for those alleged mistakes. Does that mean that the person who shot him is guiltless and deserving of no legal punishment?

Should “not guilty” as charged (if that were to be the verdict) be read the same as “without guilt” in general? Is there some moral space in which Martin can, as the defense contends, be solely responsible for his own death?

The conversation is about people’s emotional investment in a version of events and a particular verdict, and why that investment has racial and ideological leanings. It’s about the likelihood of one verdict over another. The bar for finding of guilt is particularly high here. The defense doesn’t need the jury to see its client as completely innocent, just not completely guilty.

And the conversation is about how to respond responsibly to a verdict that many court watchers believe is likely to be less than second-degree murder, if in fact guilt is found at all.

There is quite a bit of talk — by local authorities, irresponsible individuals and institutions — about the possibility of rioting in the case of a not-guilty verdict. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office has produced a public service announcement urging any potential protesters to “raise your voice and not your hand.” Rush Limbaugh said last week that the media were “agitating for race riots” in the case. Sean Hannity had Mark Fuhrman, of O.J. Simpson trial infamy, on his Fox News show to discuss the possibility of riots. And The Washington Times conducted a poll recently asking, “Will there be riots in Florida if George Zimmerman receives a not-guilty verdict by a jury of his peers?” As of the publication of this column, three-quarters of respondents said “yes.”

Surely, there has been riot talk on social media, and local law enforcement should plan for all possibilities, but media speculation and predictions about it can start to sound like desire rather than defusion.

I can’t think of a more fruitless and self-destructive exercise than rioting. Protests have power, but rioting drains that power away. Justice is sometimes a journey. It doesn’t always lead to where you think it should.

The case may produce a verdict some people don’t agree with. But it has also produced a conversation that has weight and merit. All energy — even anger — should be funneled into extending that conversation and focusing on the factors that necessitated the case in the first place.

Violence took Martin’s life. We shouldn’t let violence also mar his memory in death.

Oh, Mr. Blow, the media are probably salivating over the prospect of riots after the verdict…  Here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Mopti, Mali:

Can you name a miracle food that is universally available, free and can save children’s lives and maybe even make them smarter?

That’s not a trick question. There really is such a substance, now routinely squandered, that global health experts believe could save more than 800,000 lives annually. While you’re puzzling over the answer, let me tell you how I just saw it save a life here in West Africa.

I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student along with me so we can report on global poverty. The winner, Erin Luhmann of the University of Wisconsin, and I randomly stopped in a village near the Malian town of Mopti to ask about food shortages.

Then we spotted a baby boy who was starving to death. The infant, only 3 weeks old, was wizened from severe malnutrition and had the empty, unresponsive face of a child shutting down everything else to keep his organs functioning.

The teenage mother, Seyda Allaye, said that she didn’t have much milk and that the baby wasn’t nursing well. She saw that he was dying and that morning had invested in cow’s milk in hopes of saving him.

Erin and I had a vehicle, so we offered to take her and her son to a hospital to see if doctors could save his life. At the hospital, a doctor examined the baby, asked his mother to try to nurse him and immediately diagnosed the problem.

“The mother doesn’t know how to breast-feed properly,” said the doctor, Amidou Traoré. “We see lots of cases of child mortality like this.”

Dr. Traoré repositioned Seyda Allaye’s arm, helped the infant latch on to her breast, and the baby came alive. And there’s the answer to my opening question. The miracle food that could save so many lives is: breast milk.

The latest nutritional survey from The Lancet estimates that suboptimal breast-feeding claims the lives of 804,000 children annually. That’s more than the World Health Organization’s estimate of malaria deaths each year.

Look, I realize that there’s something patronizing about a man griping about poor breast-feeding practices, and, in the West, the issue is linked to maternity leaves and other work practices. But, if we want to save hundreds of thousands of lives, maybe a step forward is to offer more support to moms in poor counties trying to nurse their babies.

Nursing a baby might seem instinctive, but plenty goes wrong. In some parts of the world, a problem has been predatory marketing by formula manufacturers, but, in the poorest countries, the main concern is that moms delay breast-feeding for a day or two after birth and then give babies water or food in the first six months. The World Health Organization strongly recommends a diet of exclusively breast milk for that first half year.

In a village in Mali, Erin and I watched a woman wash a baby — and then pour handfuls of bath water down his mouth. “It makes the baby strong,” a midwife explained.

On hot days, African moms routinely give babies water to drink. In fact, breast milk is all infants need, and the water is sometimes drawn from unsanitary puddles.

Here in Mali, fewer than one-quarter of women breast-feed exclusively for six months. In Niger, where Erin and I are also traveling on this win-a-trip journey, it’s 8 percent. In our third country, Chad, it’s only 2 percent.

This isn’t just an issue in poor countries. In the United States, 16 percent of children are exclusively breast-fed for six months. Then again, in the United States, the child’s life does not normally hang in the balance.

Several studies highlight other advantages of breast-feeding, including increases of several points in a child’s I.Q. and improved development of areas of the brain associated with language and planning.

While many moms think they don’t produce enough milk, nutritionists say that that’s rare. Even when moms are malnourished, the baby’s frantic suckling will stimulate more milk.

Erin and I traveled partway on this trip with Shawn Baker, a public health expert with Helen Keller International. One day we asked him where he would invest a billion dollars if he had it.

“To me, the next big win in saving kids’ lives is breast-feeding promotion,” he said. “It’s absolutely unacceptable that more than 800,000 kids are dying annually of suboptimal breast-feeding.”

Ghana is a model of a country that has successfully used public health campaigns to raise rates of exclusive breast-feeding very significantly.

There are many ways to save lives, some involving dazzling technologies. But maybe in our sophistication we’ve overlooked a way to ease childhood malnutrition that is sustainable, scalable, free — and so straightforward that all hungry newborns cry for it.

And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Positive aspects of New York City’s Weiner-Spitzer summer:

1) Opportunities for invigorating dinner conversations over who would be worse to have as a major city official. Personally, I think Eliot Spitzer is behaving as if he’s much crazier. But it’s true that you can never look at Anthony Weiner without imagining his underwear.

2) Opportunities to discuss what would happen if we got both. It could be pretty exciting. The entire city would come to a halt as the two staffs fired rocket launchers at each other. The movie version would be in 3-D and star Channing Tatum as Eliot Spitzer.

3) Opportunities to bring up New York sex scandals of the past, beginning with Grover Cleveland and ending with the time that Mayor Rudy Giuliani announced his separation plans at a press conference before telling his wife.

But about our current situation. Disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner is, as you know, running for mayor in the Democratic primary this September. We had just sort of gotten used to that when Eliot Spitzer jumped into the city comptroller race this week.

Spitzer resigned as governor in 2008 after the world discovered our law-and-order chief executive was a patron of high-priced prostitution services. When he left, he vowed to try “outside of politics, to serve the common good.”

Then, suddenly, this week, he was back inside politics! Announcing that he was going to run for office again because, as he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “I believe in service.”

Time after time, we hear a scandal-tarred politician vow to go away and make amends. Time after time, we envision a stint as a missionary or a hospital volunteer. Time after time, we are disappointed.

Consider the example of former Congressman Steve Driehaus of Cincinnati, a person who, I should point out immediately, did not do anything wrong whatsoever except lose a race for re-election in 2010. He then packed up his family and went off to join the Peace Corps in Swaziland. “He’s working with folks with H.I.V./AIDS. He loves it,” reported his sister, Denise.

In this week’s TV tour, Spitzer failed to address the question of why he was not in Swaziland. He said on “Morning Joe” that during his five years in exile, “I’ve tried to do things that matter in a small, quiet way.” This seemed like a strange way to describe multiple stints hosting political talk shows.

His late-breaking campaign entry had an unplanned, semi-hysterical air. He seemed to have no staff or organization, and he announced just four days before the deadline for turning in nominating petitions. This is one of the many quaint parts of the New York democratic tradition, which are intended to make it difficult for people who are not incumbent officeholders to get on the ballot.

Nobody knows what drove Spitzer to jump in. Did Weiner’s entry trigger a case of disgraced-politician competitiveness? Is he bored? Did the fact that he’s run through every possible cable news show option send him into a panic?

He said that people were always coming up to him on the street and urging him to get back in the game. This is sort of true. A few years back, I had breakfast with him in a little diner and a couple of people did approach, unprompted, to say that they thought he got a raw deal.

“They wouldn’t have made you quit in Europe,” one said.

“Maybe I should move to Europe,” Spitzer responded cheerfully.

People like to be able to go home and tell their families that they met a celebrity, even a disgraced one. Actually, more particularly a disgraced one. (You could get a lot more mileage by describing your encounter with former Gov. Eliot Spitzer than former Gov. George Pataki.) And when you’re looking for a celebrity conversation starter, “I hope you run for something again” goes a lot farther than “Why are you still here?”

In his re-entry interview with Jonathan Van Meter in The Times Magazine, Anthony Weiner said people were always coming up to him saying he should run. (Although some, Weiner added, also said: “Spitzer! You’re Governor Spitzer!”) New York is a liberal place, but can there be that much hunger for sex-scandal-scarred candidates?

Meanwhile, people are coming up to Scott Stringer, the other Democratic candidate for comptroller, and saying things like, “You gotta beat Eliot Weiner.”

Stringer, the current Manhattan borough president, was stunned when the news about Spitzer broke on Sunday night. “I’m 53, and I got more calls and texts than I think I’d gotten in my entire life,” Stringer said. “Thank God I have the unlimited plan.”

A poll conducted by Marist for The Wall Street Journal and NBC 4 New York, showed Spitzer ahead, 42 percent to 33 percent. It might just be name recognition. But if this guy wins, all hopes of getting errant politicians to do penance anywhere but a CNN studio is gone forever.


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