Of Quakes and Cultures

Thank goodness there have been no reported injuries or deaths resulting from the east-coast earthquake earlier today. I haven’t checked in with anybody I know there, but I hope for the best. There has been some structural damage, apparently of a relatively minor sort.

As we breathe a sigh of relief that, apparently, the damage was limited, we may turn to some of the cultural implications of the quake.

1. I wonder how long it will take for Islamists to interpret the earthquate as Alah’s displeasure with the U.S.? Or how long it will take American evangelicals to see in the quake rumblings of God’s discontent?

2. An earthquake, indeed, any form of destruction, is seen as “stimulating” the economy, according to many of today’s Keynesians. (Witness Paul Krugman’s comments about the “stimulating” effects of a hypothetical alien invasion.) But the French economist Frederic Bastiat offered the correct economic analysis back in 1850. As common sense suggests, destruction harms economic productivity.

3. While environmentalists like to blame all sorts of natural catastrophes on human-caused “global warming,” the earthquake reminds us that the planet does a fine job of threatening human life and prosperity, all on its own. As people, we should produce wealth to keep us safe from the ravages of nature, not worship nature as some sort of god.

4. Hurray, capitalism! Because we’re so wealthy, we can afford to build quality structures that can withstand earthquakes.

5. I love how Americans use humor to maintain good spirits. The first image I saw of the “destruction” is this one, making light of the quake. (Of course, this is only appropriate because the quake wasn’t too destructive.) On Twitter, people joked about how the left would blame the right for the quake and vice versa. One guy joked that the quake is actually the Founders finally rolling in their graves. I enjoy this “We can’t be beat” attitude. (To take another example, recently David Letterman mocked the Islamist threats against him.)

So we’ll keep hoping we don’t hear of more substantial problems.

The Rise of Envy

Given the existence of “flash mob” riots, the continued rise of the massive welfare state (which threatens to push our nation off the economic cliff), and snarling calls to further loot “the rich,” I was enormously saddened to read Ayn Rand’s comment from her 1971 essay, “Don’t Let It Go:”

“Americans admire achievement; they know what it takes. Europeans regard achievement with cynical suspicion and envy. Envy is not a widespread emotion in America (not yet); it is an overwhelmingly dominant emotion in Europe.”

The Haitian Catastrophe

Right now, the most important thing we can do as average Americans is to donate to charitable relief organizations, budgets permitting. (Jennifer and I chose the Red Cross.) And we can offer our gratitude and support for Americans going to Haiti to help. The magnitude of destruction is overwhelming.

We must also denounce the lunacy of people like Pat Robertson, who said the earthquake was a result of a Haitian “pact to the devil.” (Mercifully, Rick Warren said on his Twitter feed, “Labeling any natural disaster as God’s judgment is nonsense.”)

Then, as the dust settles, the majority of us not directly involved in relief efforts should contemplate how to mitigate the harm of such disasters in the future.

The first obvious thing to note about Haiti is that its government is corrupt and its people oppressed. The Heritage Foundation ranks Haiti as “mostly unfree,” ranking 147 out of 179, behind Russia.

A second point to note is that the Haitian government knew the earthquake was coming and did little to prepare for it. As Cassie Rodenberg reports for Popular Mechanics:

Back in 2008, Eric Calais and Paul Mann, geophysicists who study fault lines in the Caribbean, predicted that Haiti would soon face such a devastating quake. …

Calais says that because Haiti poses safety concerns and a difficult work environment with a poor road access system, it’s been neglected by seismologists. …

But his research didn’t translate well enough to elicit safety precautions before the quake. Though Calais notes that earthquakes can’t be prevented, he says there was enough advance warning for the Haitian government to make preparations, and, in fact, his team alerted the government four to five years beforehand.

“We’ve told the Haitian government that the Enriquillo fault is a major player,” Calais says. “We’ve told them exactly where the fault is. We’ve told them how fast it was building up elastic energy, and we’ve told them that right now, if it was to go, it could produce a 7.2 in magnitude or larger event.”

The government has worked with the team and listened to its foreboding reports, Calais says, but for the most part, Haiti has failed to implement emergency plans and restructure crucial buildings.

Economic liberty and a government constrained by the rule of just law is necessary for human life. Statism kills. Corrupt governments kill. Stifling economic development kills.

Michelle Malkin points to a post by Jim Roberts: “Long-term reforms for Haitian democracy and its economy are also badly overdue.” (I profoundly disagree with Roberts’s calls to violate economic liberty at home through forced wealth transfers in order to promote economic reform in Haiti.)

John Stossel refers to the excellent summary of the matter by economist Don Boudreaux:

The ultimate tragedy in Haiti isn’t the earthquake; it’s that country’s lack of economic freedom. The earthquake simply but catastrophically revealed the inhuman consequences of this fact.

Registering 7.0 on the Richter scale, the Haitian earthquake killed tens of thousands of people. But the quake that hit California’s Bay Area in 1989 was also of magnitude 7.0. It, though, killed only 63 people.

This difference is due chiefly to Americans’ greater wealth. With one of the freest economies in the world, Americans build stronger homes and buildings, and have better health-care and better search and rescue equipment. In contrast, burdened by one of the world’s least-free economies, Haitians cannot afford to build sturdy structures. Nor can they afford the health-care and emergency equipment that we take for granted here in the U.S.

These stark facts should be a lesson for those who insist that human habitats are made more dangerous, and human lives put in greater peril, by freedom of commerce and industry.

If you want to live, if you want to promote human life, you must advocate capitalism.

ARI on YouTube

The Ayn Rand Institute has released several videos on YouTube. Recent releases address the topic, “Reasons vs. Faith.”

In one video, a questioner asks, By what standard does one evaluate the concepts of right and wrong in the absence of a supernatural being?

Onkar Ghate answers, “The standard becomes your life and its requirements.” He goes on to explain some of those requirements and why they give rise to the need for morality in the first place. Finally, Ghate criticizes the notion that religion can offer legitimate moral absolutes. He offers the example of God commanding Abraham to kill Isaac. Such morality is actually a sort of “supernatural subjectivism,” akin to personal subjectivism.

Other videos address the Old Testament, the foundations of capitalism, the clash of Western civilization, and other topics, and they are uniformly excellent.

Demonic International Airport

The Denver Post hosts a photo and description of the giant new Mustang that now sits on the road to Denver International Airport. “Denver officials commissioned ‘Mustang’ from [sculptor Luis] Jimenez in 1992,” the Post reports.

My first reaction to the sculpture was that it’s “repugnant.” My wife said, “It looks like it’s possessed.”

My wife’s view seems to be a common one. On a separate blog post, the Post includes a number of comments about the piece that are almost entirely negative. Here are the highlights: “diabolical,” “hideous,” “a demon horse… melt it down,” “truly horrifying,” “looked better when it was wrapped in plastic,” “waste of tax payer money… beautiful if you are a satan follower,” “more appropriate in a horror type theme park,” “a debacle,” “an embarrasment to Colorado,” “likely to give children nightmares.”

Yesterday’s Hero

One difference between the recent shooting at the mall in Omaha and the religious facilities in Colorado is that, in Omaha, the murderer stopped himself (before the police could reach him). As Laura Bauer reports for the December 8 Kansas City Star, the murderer “opened fire at the mall, killing eight before taking his own life.”

Yesterday’s murderous rampage ended differently. Kieran Nicholson reports for today’s Denver Post:

The two killed at [New Life Church] are sisters Stephanie Works, 18, and Rachael Works, 16, police said. … Also shot at the church Sunday were David Works, 51, Judy Purcell, 40, and Larry Bourbannais, 59, police said. …

The shooter was shot and killed by a volunteer security guard at the church, said [Pastor Brady] Boyd.

Boyd said the security guard, a woman with a law enforcement background, and his personal bodyguard, encountered the gunman in a hallway at the church and fired on him, saving many lives.

“He had enough ammunition on him to cause a lot of damage,” Boyd said.

The security guard’s name has not yet been released.

Whatever else can and will be said about the murders, that woman, the volunteer security guard, is a true, courageous hero who deserves our thanks and praise.

I’m also impressed that Nicholson and the Post fairly reported the facts. However, it is odd that Nicholson refers to the murderer as “gunman,” but she does not refer to the security guard as a “gunwoman.” (Indeed, while the media are filled with references to “gunmen,” I do not remember every reading the term, “gunwoman.”) Bauer also refers to “a gunman.” But the relevant fact is not that the man carried a gun, but that he used it to murder people. Thus, he is properly called a killer or a murderer. The bare fact that a man carries a gun — is a “gunman” — is legally and morally neutral. Police officers, security guards, and numerous civilians, both male and female, carry guns legally and responsibly.

But of course the means of murder is the minor issue. The big question is this: why are moral monsters running around murdering innocent people they don’t even know? Any murder is a heinous crime, the ultimate evil. But a murder of strangers adds an additional level of senselessness. Some will find symbolism in the fact that the murderer attacked a church; they will see the murders as a symptom of our (allegedly) Godless culture (though religion is on the rise). The religionists are correct that the murders are a symptom of cultural nihilism, the destruction of human reason, values, and morality. But the antidote to nihilism is not religion, which sacrifices human reason to faith and human values to the whims of a mythological being. A culture of human reason, values, and morality rejects both nihilism and religion.

Sales of Atlas Shrugged

In a previous post, I mentioned estimated sales of Ayn Rand’s books. Now I have a better estimate for sales of Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s most important work.

In a letter dated November 12, Yaron Brook, president and executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), reports, “More than six million copies of Atlas have been sold since 1957. Over the past five years, bookstore sales of Atlas have averaged more than 130,000 copies per year.” Brook’s letter is reproduced at ARI’s web page; it discusses the organization’s “Atlas Shrugged Initiative,” a set of activities that capitalize on the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication and its continued success. I am continually impressed by ARI’s programs and publications.

Layout of the Denver Shootout

The Denver Post published a photo that adds some detail to the story about the recent Denver shootout.

While the Post does not explain the photo, which shows the layout of the restaurant where the confrontation took place, the general idea seems clear. The circles marked “O” appear to be the officers, while the circles marked “C” appear to be customers. That would make “X” the bad guy.

Previously, I theorized that one of the officers may have shot a bystander in the ankle because the officer shot prematurely because he had his finger on the trigger too early. The distance between the officer and the bystander was about 30 feet, and the hight of a gun in a normal stance is about 5 feet. That makes the downward angle from the gun to the ankle about 10 degrees. My wife held a string that ran from her gun position past me (standing at point “X” relatively) to approximately point “C;” the string passed my thigh. (That squares with the geometric calculations.) So the officer definitely shot low.

Why is this? I can think of three possible reasons. First, the officer shot prematurely because his finger was on the trigger as he brought his gun up. Second, the officer lowered the gun after the recoil from a previous shot. Third, the officer shot after suffering “shards of glass in his eye,” making his aim low. Denver Police Chief Gerry Whitman said, “That officer was shooting and was being shot at, almost simultaneously,” according to the Post. However, there’s a lot I don’t know here, such as the positions from which the officers fired and which officer shot the bystander in the ankle.

But the photo brings up another obvious point: the officers were shooting directly in the direction of five innocent bystanders. Obviously, that is extremely dangerous. Such action is justified only in the most dire circumstances. However, the criminal “was pointing the shotgun at restaurant patrons and two plainclothes officers in an attempt to rob them.” I don’t know what he said or how he acted. But, obviously, he posed an extreme danger himself. Whitman said that two of the bystanders who were shot were “very supportive of the officers’ actions.” Here’s another point: the officers may not have been able to comply with the robber’s commands without revealing their identity as officers. And the bystanders probably weren’t able to duck for cover without drawing the attention of the criminal. I for one am not in a position to second-guess the officers’ decision in that very messy, very dangerous situation. Even if, in light of more complete information, the officers were judged to have acted rashly, that wouldn’t change the fact that the ultimate responsibility for the danger and for the injuries rests with the criminal.

Here’s another important part of the story reported by the Post:

The gunman, Phuong Van Dang, 26, was a halfway-house inmate who had served a portion of a prison sentence for assault with a deadly weapon, court documents revealed.

Dang was convicted of the felony charge in Jefferson County in 1998 and sentenced to 18 years, according to Colorado court records. But he was released from prison and placed in a community corrections program. …

Dang, 26, was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon in Jefferson County in 1998 and sentenced to 18 years. The conviction was for shooting a victim in the back at the Penny Lane Arcade.

At that time, he was awaiting trial for robbing a fellow high school student at gunpoint in 1997. He received a 10-year sentence for robbery.

The Rocky Mountain News adds that Dang, age 16 when he shot “an arcade worker in the back,” “was in a violent gang, facing multiple felonies.”

I’m all for encouraging people who commit less-serious crimes to rehabilitate themselves. But when you threaten people with guns and then shoot somebody in the back, you have demonstrated that you are incapable of living in civilized society. The perpetrator’s actions certainly do not bolster the case for leniency for highly violent minors of sufficient age to know better.

What Happens When Victims Fight Back

John C. Ensslin, Jeff Kass, and Alan Gathright wrote an article for the Rocky Mountain News November 14 about a Denver shooting.

A masked man with a high-caliber, long-barreled gun and really bad timing picked the wrong Denver Vietnamese restaurant to try and rob over Wednesday’s lunch hour.

With his car parked in the back alley, the suspect barged in through the back door of Ha Noi restaurant at 1033 S. Federal Blvd. and ordered the cook to lie on the floor.

What he didn’t know was that just outside the kitchen door two plainclothes Denver undercover narcotics officers had stopped by to grab some lunch.

Within seconds, bullets and shards of glass were flying over the green vinyl chairs. …

When the shooting stopped, five people were wounded. The suspect, slumped in the front doorway, was critically injured. Three people who were caught in the crossfire, a middle-aged couple and their adult son, were also injured.

And one of the officers was cut around his eyes by the shards of glass.

The article clarifies, “One of the bystanders also underwent surgery. A third person remained in the hospital in fair condition. The officer and the third bystander were treated and released.”

Now, if it’s obvious that somebody with a weapon is only after cash and nothing else, the situation is highly dangerous, but in many circumstances the best bet is to hand over the money so that the criminal will leave as soon as possible. But, in this case, when a masked man with a rifle barges into a restaurant, it’s reasonable to suspect the worst. So, from the limited details available, its seems like the officers — “Sgt. John Pindar and Det. Jesse Avendano.” — made the right call.

The article reports that Denver Police spokesman Sonny Jackson said of the officers, “Having them in there may have saved people’s lives today… I think we were fortunate these two officers were there.”

(Incidentally, the reporters don’t mention how they know the caliber of the gun, but, judging from the photo that accompanies the article, it doesn’t look like a very high caliber to me, though it’s hard to tell from the photo. Nor does the Denver Post article shed light on that matter. Instead, the Post reports that “an automatic weapon could be seen inside the restaurant, Jackson said,” which I highly doubt, as automatics are rare and very expensive.)

Yes, a man used a gun to injure several people. And two men with guns stopped the criminal. It appears that the criminal sustained the most serious injuries. If “we were fortunate” that those two armed men were there, if “they may have saved people’s lives,” then wouldn’t it be even better if more responsible, trained people carried concealed weapons in public places?

Craig Biddle Coming to CO for Atlas Shrugged Talk

I just got this announcement: Craig Biddle, author of Loving Life and editor of The Objective Standard, will speak in Boulder on November 15.

“In this talk, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Atlas Shrugged, Craig Biddle presents the basic principles of rational egoism, contrasts them with the alternatives, and shows why everyone who wants to live happily and freely needs to understand and embrace them.”

Thursday, November 15 2007, 6:30pm – 7:30pm
Wittemyer Courtroom, Wolf Law Building, University of Colorado at Boulder (Campus Map)