What we have become.

Following the BART shooting, I've seen a lot of people ask why none of the civilian bystanders intervened. 

To me it would have been a big surprise if someone had intervened.

If there is one thing that we have been taught over the past 8 years, it is that you need to fear anyone in uniform.   If you so much as speak in a firm tone of voice to them, pointing out that they are in the wrong, you risk much unpleasantness -- from being physically subdued to, well, getting shot. The message that they can and will do as they please, has been so effectively driven home that the threshold for approaching them has become much higher.

By now, people also understand that there is a certain asymmetry to these situations.  If you put your hand on a police officer, there will be dire consequences.  If a police officer steps out of line and abuses his or her power, a proper disciplinary response of an appropriate magnitude generally does not seem to occur.

Not unless there is massive public outcry, serious injury, death or significant investment in legal muscle.

Injecting yourself into a tense situation with armed police would amount to stupidity on a scale where you are very actively competing for a Darwin Award.  This is more true now than it has been in a long time.   

And imagine what would have happened if the civilians on the train had managed some sort of concerted effort to stop what was happening.   It would most likely have resulted in a phenomenal number of deaths and it would only have made it easier for the police to justify shooting unarmed civilians.

And besides, why should the bystanders have intervened?  If you look at the videos: up until the moment when the shot was fired, nothing out of the ordinary was taking place.   Some men were being detained, albeit brutally so, but that is normal these days.  It is the norm accepted by society.  There was nothing, nothing, out of the ordinary about the situation. The bystanders had no way of knowing that one of the police officers was about to execute one of the men being detained.

The bystanders did not intervene exactly because we, as a society, do not want them to.  We accept that the police are held to a lower standard when it comes to being punished for their wrongdoing.  We accept that they are allowed to use excessive force.  We accept that if you do intervene, then force may be directed at you.  We accept that they are armed.  We accept that they can ruin our lives on a whim and terrorize us for no good reason.

We must have accepted all these things because we did have a choice.  It's a democracy.  It says so right there in the CIA world factbook -- it says that the US has a "strong democratic tradition".  If we didn't want this, we would have made sure we chose leaders who would address these issues.  But we didn't.

In this we are all bystanders and we all did nothing and we are all guilty of doing nothing.

Instruction manual for Life.

Religion and politics.

In the past months I have been reading up on various religious groups that are active within the US -- what they believe in, how membership in a particular religion affects their approach to life and the world around them etc.  My initial goal was to learn more about where politics and religion intersect and how one influences the other.

Trying to keep an objective mind when reading about prominent religions in the US isn't easy. Engaging in any sort of meaningful debate is even harder.  The world often views the middle east as the melting pot for aggressive manifestations of faith, but it is hard to ignore that there are often more frightening manifestations of the same in the US.

The types of religious directions I have been reading about almost always contain a very strong self-defense mechanism wherein even posing questions can be seen as a transgression.  It is hard to ask critical and important questions without being accused of hate speech -- which does look a bit odd since what you often end up being on the receiving end of is a mixture of hatred and fear being directed towards you should you attempt to engage in debate and ask difficult questions.

This, of course, does color what you read.  When trying to understand a debated topic, you need to ensure that you consume a balanced diet of writings from both sides.  

For instance, during the election I tried to follow news sources across the political spectrum to see if I was able to separate spin from fact. (Unfortunately, not all news sources are as easily available online).  It isn't always an easy thing to do -- especially when your own opinions seem to align with one side or the other.  We tend to trust those who confirm our biases and distrust sources propagating opposing views.   Of course, being aware of this and constantly asking yourself what your bias is helps, but it is easy to fool yourself.

Even worse, news media make a living entertaining us -- not necessarily informing us.  At the end of the day, revenue is what really matters.  News media aren't doing what they do out of kindness and concern for their fellow man. Their task is to dumb things down and present us with easily digestible tidbits of information that do not necessarily represent reality with any degree of accuracy.  Add to that political bias and political manipulation of the media, and you are faced with the task of dissecting what effectively becomes propaganda disguised as entertainment disguised as reporting.

I spent a lot of time trying to separate noise from signal, separating exaggerations and outright lies from truth, and to ensure that whenever I read about something I try to find what the opposing side has to say in the matter. And if possible, attempt to analyze my own bias, and how it affects my judgement of what I read.  

This is hard for politics.  

It is even harder for religion. 

I got a bit sidetracked from my original goal of reading up about the interactions between religion and politics as I spent more time trying to understand how, for instance, the mormon church works.  These were necessary detours.  But what I have read relevant to this topic is fairly scary.  There seems to be a great number of very unhealthy interactions between faith and the way leaders are chosen, empowered and enabled.  It would appear that any aspirations of the founding fathers to keep church and state separate have failed.

This amounts to a very fundamental failure of the US to uphold some of the core values on which it was founded. 

This not only constitutes a threat to democracy, but it also ends up being the enemy of religious freedom.