Blow, Brooks, Cohen, Nocera and Bruni

In “The Whole System Failed” Mr. Blow says the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was the perfect wrenching coda to a story that illustrates how our justice system failed Trayvon Martin and his family.  Bobo has decided to ‘splain about “Men on the Threshold.”  He says “The Searchers,” a 1956 western starring John Wayne, provides a poignant motif for the challenge facing unemployed men today.  In “How Bosnia Heals” Mr. Cohen says Faruk, a Bosnian shot 17 years ago, finally managed to stand up for 30 seconds.  In “My Case Against Twitter” Mr. Nocera says poor Joe Nocera, the Yankees fan of Randolph, N.J., has been getting some pretty insulting Twitter messages. But they weren’t meant for him.  Yet another reason not to twitter-twat…  Mr. Bruni looks at “D.C.’s Pit of Despair” and says its appeal vastly dimmed, its chamber choked with partisanship, the Senate is a symbol of Washington gone wrong.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

In a way, the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for his killing of Trayvon Martin was more powerful than a guilty verdict could ever have been. It was the perfect wrenching coda to a story that illustrates just how utterly and completely our system of justice — both moral and legal — failed Martin and his family.

This is not to dispute the jury’s finding — one can intellectually rationalize the decision — as much as it is to howl at the moon, to yearn for a brighter reality for the politics around dark bodies, to raise a voice and say, this case is a rallying call, not a death dirge.

The system began to fail Martin long before that night.

The system failed him when Florida’s self-defense laws were written, allowing an aggressor to claim self-defense in the middle of an altercation — and to use deadly force in that defense — with no culpability for his role in the events that led to that point.

The system failed him because of the disproportionate force that he and the neighborhood watchman could legally bring to the altercation — Zimmerman could legally carry a concealed firearm, while Martin, who was only 17, could not.

The system failed him when the neighborhood watchman grafted on stereotypes the moment he saw him, ascribing motive and behavior and intent and criminal history to a boy who was just walking home.

The system failed him when the bullet ripped though his chest, and the man who shot him said he mounted him and stretched his arms out wide, preventing him from even clutching the spot that hurt.

The system failed him in those moments just after he was shot when he was surely aware that he was about to die, but before life’s light fully passed from his body — and no one came to comfort him or try to save him.

The system failed him when the slapdash Sanford police did a horrible job of collecting and preserving evidence.

The system failed him when those officers apparently didn’t even value his dead body enough to adequately canvass the complex to make sure that no one was missing a teen.

The system failed him when he was labeled a John Doe and his lifeless body spent the night alone and unclaimed.

The system failed him when the man who the police found standing over the body of a dead teenager, a man who admitted to shooting him and still had the weapon, was taken in for questioning and then allowed to walk out of the precinct without an arrest or even a charge, to go home after taking a life and take to his bed.

The system failed him when it took more than 40 days and an outpouring of national outrage to get an arrest.

The system failed him when a strangely homogenous jury — who may well have been Zimmerman’s peers but were certainly not the peers of the teenager, who was in effect being tried in absentia — was seated.

The system failed him when the prosecution put on a case for the Martin family that many court-watchers found wanting.

The system failed him when the discussion about bias became so reductive as to be either-or rather than about situational fluidity and the possibility of varying responses to varying levels of perceived threat.

The system failed him when everyone in the courtroom raised racial bias in roundabout ways, but almost never directly — for example, when the defense held up a picture of a shirtless Martin and told the jurors that this was the person Zimmerman encountered the night he shot him. But in fact it was not the way Zimmerman had seen Martin. Consciously or subconsciously, the defense played on an old racial trope: asking the all-female jury — mostly white — to fear the image of the glistening black buck, as Zimmerman had.

This case is not about an extraordinary death of an extraordinary person. Unfortunately, in America, people are lost to gun violence every day. Many of them look like Martin and have parents who presumably grieve for them. This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice: why was Martin deemed suspicious and why was his killer allowed to go home?

Sometimes people just need a focal point. Sometimes that focal point becomes a breaking point.

The idea of universal suspicion without individual evidence is what Americans find abhorrent and what black men in America must constantly fight. It is pervasive in policing policies — like stop-and-frisk, and in this case neighborhood watch — regardless of the collateral damage done to the majority of innocents. It’s like burning down a house to rid it of mice.

As a parent, particularly a parent of black teenage boys, I am left with the question, “Now, what do I tell my boys?”

We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly.

So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?

And can they ever stop walking away, or running away, and simply stand their ground? Can they become righteously indignant without being fatally wounded?

Is there anyplace safe enough, or any cargo innocent enough, for a black man in this country? Martin was where he was supposed to be — in a gated community — carrying candy and a canned drink.

The whole system failed Martin. What prevents it from failing my children, or yours?

I feel that I must tell my boys that, but I can’t. It’s stuck in my throat. It’s an impossibly heartbreaking conversation to have. So, I sit and watch in silence, and occasionally mouth the word, “breathe,” because I keep forgetting to.

Next up, alas, is Bobo:

As every discerning person knows, “The Searchers” is the greatest movie ever made. It is loosely based on the real story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted from her East Texas home in 1836 when she was 9 years old by Comanche raiders, who then raised her and kept her for 24 years.

John Ford’s 1956 movie focuses not on the abducted girl but on her uncle and adopted brother, who, in that telling, spend seven years tracking her and her abductors down.

The center of the movie is Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne. He is as morally ambiguous a figure as movies can produce, at once brave, loyal, caring and honest, but also vengeful, hateful, dangerous and tainted by racism. As Glenn Frankel notes in “The Searchers,” his recent book on the movie, Edwards spends much of the film in pursuit of an old-fashioned honor killing. At least at first, he doesn’t want to rescue his niece; he wants to find her and kill her to enforce his brand of racial and sexual purity.

Classics can be interpreted in different ways. These days, “The Searchers” can be profitably seen as a story about men who are caught on the wrong side of a historical transition.

The movie’s West was a wild, lawless place, requiring a certain sort of person to tame it. As the University of Virginia literary critic Paul Cantor has pointed out, that person had prepolitical virtues, a willingness to seek revenge, to mete out justice on his own. That kind of person, the hero of most westerns, is hard, confrontational, raw and tough to control.

But, as this sort of classic western hero tames the West, he makes himself obsolete. Once the western towns have been pacified, there’s no need for his capacity for violence, nor his righteous fury.

As Cantor notes, “The Searchers” is about this moment of transition. Civilization is coming. New sorts of people are bringing education, refinement, marriage and institutionalized justice. Crimes are no longer to be punished by the righteous gunfighter but by law.

Ethan Edwards made this world possible, but he is unfit to live in it. At the end of the movie, after seven years of effort, he brings the abducted young woman home. The girl is ushered inside, but, in one of the iconic images in Hollywood history, Edwards can’t cross the threshold. Because he is tainted by violence, he can’t be part of domestic joy he made possible. He is framed by the doorway and eventually walks away.

That image of the man outside the doorway is germane today, in a different and even more tragic manner. Over the past few decades, millions of men have been caught on the wrong side of a historic transition, unable to cross the threshold into the new economy.

Their plight is captured in the labor statistics. Male labor force participation has been in steady decline for generations. In addition, as Floyd Norris noted in The Times on Saturday, all the private sector jobs lost by women during the Great Recession have been recaptured, but men still have a long way to go.

In 1954, 96 percent of American men between 25 and 54 years old worked. Today, 80 percent do. One-fifth of men in their prime working ages are out of the labor force.

As Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has put it, “The situation here is basically a disaster, a crisis far worse than most commentators and policy makers seem to recognize, and with no clear prospects for appreciable improvement over the near-term horizon.”

The definitive explanation for this catastrophe has yet to be written. Some of the problem clearly has to do with changes in family structure. Work by David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that men raised in fatherless homes, without as many immediate masculine role models, do worse in the labor force. Some of the problem probably has to do with a mismatch between boy culture and school culture, especially in the early years.

But, surely, there has been some ineffable shift in the definition of dignity. Many men were raised with a certain image of male dignity, which emphasized autonomy, reticence, ruggedness, invulnerability and the competitive virtues. Now, thanks to a communications economy, they find themselves in a world that values expressiveness, interpersonal ease, vulnerability and the cooperative virtues.

Surely, part of the situation is that many men simply do not want to put themselves in positions they find humiliating. A high school student doesn’t want to persist in a school where he feels looked down on. A guy in his 50s doesn’t want to find work in a place where he’ll be told what to do by savvy young things.

There are millions of men on the threshold. They can see through the doorway to what’s inside. But they’re unable or unwilling to come across.

Men as victims…  We women never tire of hearing all about that, Bobo.  Now here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Sarajevo:

It is quiet here in the Bosnian capital. The hills are beautiful now, no longer synonymous with death. Driving up into them is easy, not an endless journey of uncertain outcome across the lines. Stores do a brisk business in souvenir maps of Sarajevo under siege. Japanese groups pile into tourist buses. It is tranquil in the tapering valley.

For 16 years, after I finished my book on Yugoslavia’s bloody unraveling, I could not come back to Bosnia, could not face another Balkan history lesson or the ignorance of well-meaning people.

It is good to be back. Good to hear complaints about abject governance, rampant corruption, the unworkable architecture of Dayton, political parties still drawn on ethnic lines, joblessness, drift, a dysfunctional judicial system, the pettiness of sectarianism — hear all this without the flat boom of another shell’s impact in deserted streets where lives and limbs are cut.

I find myself by chance with Tarik Sabanovic, the younger brother of Faruk, whom I wrote about during the war after he was shot in front of the Holiday Inn in 1995. Tarik recalls what happened on Nov. 9, 1993, when he was nine.

“I was in school with my Mickey Mouse backpack waiting for the bell to go home and I heard the shell cutting through the air. We already had 18 months of war so I knew what to do and threw myself to the ground. When I got up there was a classmate in front of me. I saw he did not have his right eye. I looked to my right and saw Sahir Kapo, he had a gaping wound in his right upper arm. I looked to my left where my best friend, Vedad Kujkanovic, who lived in my building, had been. I could not see him. He had been blown to pieces. Then I looked to where my teacher, Fatima Gunic, was. Her head was on her desk. The blackboard behind her had shrapnel holes in it. Her hair was coming out of the holes.”

Tarik ran. Near his home he found Faruk, who was still walking then. Faruk carried him to the family apartment. Later Tarik saw Vedad’s mother in tears. She had not been able to find a spot on her son’s body to plant a farewell kiss. All that a Serb shell had left of him was his teeth.

Later we meet up with Faruk. It is an emotional reunion. He is still in his wheelchair, beard now flecked with gray. He was 20 when I found him in Sarajevo’s Kosevo hospital in 1995 watching a video of his shooting as a United Nations soldier looked on and did nothing: The Western paralysis that abetted genocide against Bosnian Muslims and produced Srebrenica.

Doctors in New York took an interest in Faruk after the article. He was flown there. “After the candlelight and darkness in Sarajevo I was like a fly in a heaven of lights in Manhattan. It was a bath of light. I was in Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn with a huge window looking over Manhattan, like a postcard with the Twin Towers. And then the doctors told me the news that I would never walk and the whole city went dark.”

He returned. He studied. He fell in love and got married. He divorced. He started making music videos and commercials — “and realized I was selling my gems for detergent makers’ lies.” He wanted to make a movie that told his story. What was his story?

Last year Faruk trained hard and after six months stood up for 30 seconds, the first time in 17 years. He says, “I kind of fight against hope all the time. It is always a difficult moment when I get hope because I hear of some new chip, so I try to ignore it.” He is a Bosnian, a survivor, someone who “lives and shares with everybody.” Beauty and peace interest him, not the war.

The movie he is directing is called “Birds Like Us,” based on the work of the 13th century Sufi poet, Farid al-Din Attar. Faruk wrote the script, Tarik is also involved. It is a 3D animation feature using high-end technology. The birds travel far and wide but find in the end the life-unlocking secret they seek lies in themselves.

It was hard to find qualified people in Sarajevo to work. Two who had the technological skills were Serbs from Pale, the headquarters during the war of the nationalist forces that bombarded Sarajevo. Perhaps one had fired the shell that shattered Tarik’s classroom. Perhaps the other was the sniper who paralyzed Faruk.

Faruk hired them in 2010. They talked a lot about the war. Later one of the Serbs was killed in a car crash. At the funeral near Pale there was talk of how he had made the mistake of working for Muslims.

You carry on. You believe, even if it takes 17 years to stand upright for 30 seconds. Each healing act counts. “Hiring guys from the other side was the ultimate victory.” Tarik says.

And now we come to Mr. Nocera’s problems:

The first thing you notice when you arrive at the home of the other Joe Nocera is the New York Yankees’ flag that hangs from his porch. Joe, 46, who lives with his family in Randolph, N.J., has rooted for the Yankees for as long as he can remember. A regional manager for a big fast-food franchisee, Joe is as passionate about the Bronx Bombers today as he was growing up in Queens. So passionate that, a few years ago, he decided to start writing about the Yankees on Twitter. His handle — is that what you call it? — is @joenocera.

I first heard about the other Joe Nocera from my daughter Kate. A Washington journalist, she has been a regular on Twitter for a couple years, first at Politico and now at BuzzFeed, where she covers Congress. She has long urged me to join her in Twitter-land, which I’ve resisted.

Anyway, Kate started noticing that whenever I wrote a column that inflamed certain constituencies, the other Joe Nocera would get some highly insulting tweets. “A smug tendentious column,” wrote @philipturner, in one of the more publishable responses to my support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Jeffrey Reynolds, a Second Amendment advocate, took to Twitter to boast that the articles on his blog “are FAR more professional” than mine, after I quoted him in a column about guns. “Care to publish an accurate quote?” he sneered.

Not being a tweeter, I had no idea I was being dissed in the Twittersphere. It was like the question about the tree falling in the forest: If you are mocked on Twitter and you don’t know it, have you really been insulted?

I understand the case for Twitter; I really do. It can be used to spread knowledge by sharing photos or articles you’ve been impressed with. Paul Kedrosky, who used to write a terrific blog about business and finance, now confines himself to using Twitter to link to things that interest him. (“Blogs still exist?” he tweeted a few months ago.)

Twitter can serve, in the words of Jacob Weisberg, the chairman of Slate, as “a personalized news engine” that allows you to follow issues that matter to you. Kate says that she started tweeting in Washington because “you felt like you were missing out on a conversation if you didn’t.” At BuzzFeed, it is essentially a job requirement. Twitter drives traffic to Web sites, which is not unimportant. And it was hard not to be impressed with how Twitter “covered” the Boston Marathon bombing in real time.

But to me, at least — and, yes, I acknowledge I’m at the age where I’m losing the battle to keep up with technology — the negatives outweigh the positives. So much on Twitter is frivolous or self-promotional. It can bury you in information. Because people often use Twitter to react to events instantly, they can say some awfully stupid things, as Roddy White, the Atlanta Falcons receiver, did after the George Zimmerman verdict, suggesting in a tweet that the jurors “should go home and kill themselves.”

With its 140-character limit, Twitter exacerbates our society-wide attention deficit disorder: Nothing can be allowed to take more than a few seconds to write or read. Kedrosky may prefer Twitter, but I really miss his thoughtful blog. I recently heard Dick Costolo, Twitter’s chief executive, bragging that the pope now has a Twitter account. Once, popes wrote encyclicals; now they tweet.

What I object to most of all is that, like other forms of social media, Twitter can be so hateful. It can bring out the worst in people, giving them license to tweet things they would never say in real life. For several years, Douglas Kass, the investor and CNBC commentator, regularly tweeted his investment thoughts; with 63,000 followers, he was one of the most popular investment gurus on Twitter. Recently, however, he decided to stop because he had received so many inexplicably nasty messages. People who opposed his investment views denounced him in the foulest language imaginable. “I received several life-threating tweets,” he told me. “I concluded it wasn’t worth navigating the sharks to find the good fish,” he added.

When I had lunch with the other Joe Nocera recently, he told me that he tweeted purely for fun. Sometimes he sent tweets to sports announcers or players to see if they would respond (sometimes they did). Mostly, he simply offered up his thoughts about his beloved Yankees. Tweeting, he told me, helped relieve the stress of his day job.

I couldn’t argue with that. The only downside is that now that we’re friends, the other Joe Nocera sends me e-mails with the nasty tweets that were intended for me.

Sigh. Ignorance was bliss.

In my column last Tuesday, I described Patrick Juneau, the administrator of the claims stemming from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as a plaintiff’s lawyer.  I was wrong. He is a defense lawyer.

Just a teeny, tiny little mistake that may or may not turn your whole column’s premise on its head…  Last but not least we get to Mr. Bruni:

There are countless oddities in the way Washington works, but few as mystifying as lawmakers’ definition of the word “friend.”

In other, saner walks of life, it means someone you yearn to see. In the Senate, it can also mean someone you yearn to see under the wheels of your sport utility vehicle, writhing in agony and wheezing surrender.

I assume this was the usage that Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, had in mind when he called Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, “my friend” during a closely watched speech on Monday. After all, everything else about Reid’s remarks and the furious days leading up to them reflected a state of play between the two parties, and the two men, that no conventional dictionary would ever describe as amicable.

Right now, “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” as the Senate has been called, looks a whole lot more like the set of “The Jerry Springer Show.” Is it any wonder that so many prominent pols are taking a pass on membership in the club? The one who most recently did so was Brian Schweitzer, the former governor of Montana, who announced his decision not to run for the Senate over the weekend.

“I kicked the tires,” Schweitzer, a Democrat, told The Associated Press, meaning he had mulled the idea. “I walked to the edge and looked over.” And saw what? A pit of bottomless despair? Ted Cruz ranting into the wee hours? Rand Paul filibustering like there’s no tomorrow?

Schweitzer had previously commented, “I am not goofy enough to be in the House, and I’m not senile enough to be in the Senate.” In years past, he might have been referring to the advanced age of many senators. In our grim present, he seemed to be saying that a person must be of bedraggled mind to court an assignment so acrimonious.

As potential newcomers say no, old-timers say goodbye, in numbers greater than before. Olympia Snowe, Ben Nelson, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Kent Conrad, among other senators, retired at the end of 2012. Carl Levin, Max Baucus, Tom Harkin, Tim Johnson, Mike Johanns and Saxby Chambliss have all announced that they won’t seek re-election in 2014. The reasons vary, but the take-away is clear. The Senate doesn’t exert the pull it once did.

It’s an arena of petty gamesmanship and pointless gridlock, which are engines of Reid’s understandable ire and reasons he’s pushing a reconsideration of filibuster rules this week. The current Republican minority has been an epically obstructionist one.

On top of which, the gerrymandering of House districts means that when the Senate indeed manages to get something accomplished, the legislation is frequently “torn apart, ignored completely or dead on arrival” on the other side of the Capitol, said Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 2010 and used words like “frustrating” and “disheartening” to describe his experience since. In the Senate these days, the blush fades quickly from the rose.

Coons told me that while most of his Republican colleagues are “personable and collegial,” the exceptions hold inordinate sway, and that much of the time the chamber “is either empty of any senators or one is giving a partisan screed to the cameras only.”

Thanks to the voracious appetite of blogs and cable news and to all journalists’ tropism toward tantrums, the screed givers get more attention than the worker bees.

As for respect, well, that’s gone the way of the dodo. You could at this point fill an entire book with pundits’ and politicians’ efforts at witty similes and metaphors for how low Americans’ opinion of Congress has sunk.

Referring to the oath of office that every lawmaker takes, Bob Kerrey said to me, “The moment your hand comes off the Bible, you’re in a profession where the approval rating is down there with waterboarding.” I told him that he vastly underestimated the esteem for waterboarding.

Kerrey, a Democrat, served Nebraska in the senate from 1989 to 2001. In 2012 he ran again (and lost). I asked him why he’d bothered. He said that just as our country needs people “to go down in a coal mine,” we need people to brave the toxic realms of Congress. Coal mining and the Senate in one breath: that says it all.

If the Senate is this troubled, what hope exists for the federal government all in all? For its ability to solve problems, its appeal to high-minded individuals?

On Monday, in a voice of surprising sadness, Reid declared the Senate “broken.” He looked weary, beaten down: a mirror of Americans, whose faith in Washington has ebbed. When we look toward the Potomac, we see posturing in lieu of cooperation, tribalism in place of collaboration. And that’s not what friends are for.

Well, Frank, it’s much more polite to say “my friend” than it is to say “that drooling, sniveling, knuckle-walking moron” don’t you think?


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