Sunday, November 29, 2009

Further discussions about terrorism - by Judge Jim Gray

Quite a few people responded to last week’s column about whether the airport screening program is a good utilization of resources in fighting against terrorist acts.

As you who read the column will recall, I questioned whether, for example, taking off our shoes to board an airplane and other similar measures are worth the cost in both money spent and time wasted.

This is a particularly important question because any even semi-intelligent terrorist could, without too much difficulty, come up with many other ways to bring down a civilian airplane.

Here is one of the responses I received to that part of the column, which I will quote verbatim so that you can consider what the writer said first hand: “In response to your article (I work in airport operations at an international airport), it is all what we call ‘eye candy’ to make the public feel safer. Internally, we’ve said for years that if someone really wants to get an aircraft, they can. The checkpoints are not going to stop them.

“It’s like having locks on your front door. As a judge you know that’s only to keep the honest people out.

“The TSA has not made us any safer than the security companies before 9/11. They fail just as many tests, and have almost the same amount of turnover among personnel. They have created a whole lot of high paying jobs for some people.

“They don’t try to hire the best qualified personnel available, they restrict most jobs to people who are already in the agency (and who is going to take the low paying screener jobs to start with?).

“The TSA is just another bloated government agency. It’s kind of like watching Barney Fife (fumbling for his bullet) guarding the front door.

“Anyway, what you wrote is correct ... just wish more people would listen. But maybe this is what most people want, they don’t want to know the truth ... just give them the appearance of being more safe.”

Instead of spending so much money on the airport screening programs, last week’s column suggested that the two most effective ways of combating terrorism, in addition to a strong military, are effective intelligence and undercover activities, and using our insights to anticipate and protect society’s most vulnerable areas.

Another letter took me to task about the narrowness of those two suggested remedies, saying that, “Your supposed ‘solution’ is exactly what the U.S. is doing, it’s just not that easy! Also, I’m disappointed you seem so clueless about the REAL issues at hand fueling hatred of America: our meddling with foreign nations to control markets like oil, and our support of non-democratic nations like Saudi Arabia. The only enduring way to end the threats and hatred will be to support foreign education, infrastructure and health — no strings attached. It’s our secret — and not so secret — foreign agendas that keep the hatred so strong — and justified!”

Actually I agree in large part with that letter.

In fact, the last three paragraphs of my column last week that addressed issues like this were omitted because of an editing error. They were as follows:

“And third, we should reduce the perceived reasons that persuade terrorists to act against us in the first place. This can be done by showing in both our public and private actions that the lives and welfare of people from all around the world, including Afghans and Iraqis, really are important to us. Greg Mortenson did this in his efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan as discussed in his book ‘Three Cups of Tea.’ This is a powerful force against terrorism, and we should all be familiar with his story.

“It is no accident that terrorists condemn us as ‘The great Satan,’ whom they define as wealthy people who are attempting in ‘Pied Piper’ fashion to mislead their youth into our immoral, unprincipled and hedonist lifestyle. So if we could continue to deal with people as people by encouraging students and travelers to come to our country to see us as we really are, and by refusing to allow our civil liberties and freedoms to be eroded in misguided attempts to ensure our safety along the way, we will ultimately be successful in bringing about the peace that we all seek.

“Why is that the answer? Because the ultimate truth is that life is better here in the West, where we still have our freedoms, a less regulated economy, and equality for all people in their pursuit of happiness. And the more that people around the world are aware of that fundamental truth, the safer we all will be.”

To add to these thoughts, this past week I happened to hear Rush Limbaugh say on his radio program that President Obama (whom I did not vote for) continues to apologize for things our country has done over the years, and that he should “Stop apologizing for America!”

I disagree with that way of thinking. Years ago, young Anne Frank in her autobiography said something that will live with me forever.

She said that “A Quiet Conscience Makes One Strong,” and she is right. My wonderful parents taught me that if I made a mistake I should own up to it.

I have tried to invoke my quiet conscience and offer an apology in those situations, and our country should do the same thing.

Over the years our government has undisputedly done some things that are richly deserving of apologies, such as our policies of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the 40-year syphilis experiment in Tuskegee, Ala., that was conducted on 399 African Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and even the so-called war on drugs.

So it takes a country with a quiet conscience to own up to its misdeeds and tender an apology.

Appropriate and heartfelt apologies not only help both the mistaken parties as well as the recipient victims to feel better and be more able to get along with their lives, they also have other positive effects.

For example, I read that once a medical malpractice insurance company actually encouraged its insured doctors to apologize to their patients when the doctors made mistakes, and that those apologies actually resulted in a sizable reduction of claims filed in court for medical malpractice.

So it is OK — and even patriotic — to employ a quiet conscience to think and talk about things like the effectiveness of airport screening and various other government programs. And it is also OK, patriotic and even desirable for people and governments to apologize for their mistakes when appropriate.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How to combat terrorism successfully - by Judge Jim Gray

Recently, as I was going through airport security screening at Los Angeles International Airport, the issue of how we can best keep terrorist attacks on civilians to a minimum once again went through my mind.

Fortunately, there has not really been a successful attack by foreigners since Sept. 11, 2001. Has that been due at least in part to airport screenings? Should this screening be increased, decreased or maintained as it is?

Preliminarily, we must recognize that the pressure on our president, whether it is George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or anyone else, to keep such an attack from re-occurring must be crushing! Consequently, the incentives to continue or even strengthen actions to keep us safe understandably cannot be minimized. Why? Because if perceived protections were to be decreased and an attack were to occur, the political recriminations would be enormous and unrelenting — even if the absence of particular safety measures would not have made any difference. This once again reinforces the fact that in politics, reality itself is irrelevant. It is only the appearance of reality that matters!

But do any of these airport security measures actually do anything more than appear to keep us safer? Of course, I do not have any particular access to information to help us answer that question. But most knowledgeable people in the area of aircraft security said that the most effective thing we could do after 9/11 was to strengthen the cockpit doors to make it impossible to force them open — and then to state publicly that the doors would be kept locked while in flight regardless of anything going on in the cabin. This has already been done, and has probably contributed a great deal to aircraft safety.

Otherwise, the government bureaucracy always seems to be fighting yesterday’s battles — and sometimes in a stupid fashion.

I remember a few years ago going through airport security twice before boarding an airplane to come home from a trip to Turkey in which the security personnel seized fingernail clippers and small pocket knives from passengers. Then once the plane took off and reached altitude, the flight crew handed out stainless steel forks and knives to use for dinner that were far more dangerous than anything that had been confiscated.

I also once observed airport security personnel require an elderly lady to get out of her wheelchair and walk through a metal detector, while her attendant was allowed to push her wheelchair completely around the metal detector so that neither the wheelchair nor the attendant were screened at all. That is government bureaucracy in action.

I also noted with dismay that once when my elderly and frail mother, who was the widow of a federal judge and literally a “little old lady from Pasadena,” flew with me to go north to see my sister, she was forced to spread her legs and arms for additional security screening. As a result of the indignity, hassle and physical ordeal of this experience, she chose never to fly again.

A good friend of mine says that since 9/11, he believes that hundreds of thousands of Americans have actually been killed by terrorists. What does he mean by that? The man-hours lost waiting to board airplanes, which become man-years, and man-lives. Those idly waiting to board are losing parts of their lives.

So in a cost-benefit analysis, does taking our shoes off as a requirement for us to board an airplane really make us safer? I truly doubt it.

Should we have an “express lane” at airports for people who have been previously screened to be truly low security risks? This would reduce wasted time and money for everyone. Actually there is such a program available in concept, but it has not really been put into effect. We spend lots of money to slow people down, but very little to speed things up.

And how much does this “cottage industry” of airport security screening actually cost? It adds about a $10 charge to every airplane ticket.

When I boarded my plane recently, I counted 21 Transportation Security Administration personnel just at the American Airlines Terminal alone who were involved with the screening process. This has to be really expensive. Are we getting our money’s worth? It’s hard to believe that we are.

In that regard, everyone must understand that there is no such thing as absolute safety in a free society, or anywhere else. If someone really wants to engage in wanton or terrorist acts, it would not be too hard to be successful. So what I am about to say may get my name on a list somewhere, or even get me investigated, but I anticipate that any semi-intelligent and creative mind could think up at least 10 viable ways to bring down a civilian airplane that do not include shoes or boxcutters. They might very well die themselves along the way, but it could be done. These people may be radicals and extremists, but most of their leaders are not dumb.

And that is only addressing the vulnerability of civilian airplanes, which actually are probably yesterday’s tragedies. How can we possible protect against such wanton acts in every train or bus station, theater, or sports stadium?

So we and our government must not naively think, much less say, that our safety in today’s world can be guaranteed. That is not at all to say we should let down our guard. But instead of taking off our shoes, we should spend our preventive resources on things that actually work, and fewer upon those that just appear to work, like airport security. So when we ask the government to protect us from potential terrorist acts, “just helping us to feel safer” is not an effective usage of resources.

What are the things that have the best chance to be successful? In addition to a strong military, the most effective are intelligence and undercover activities that allow us to learn in advance who are our biggest threats and what those people are doing. Second is to use insights to anticipate society’s biggest vulnerabilities, and employing monitors, safety measures and procedures that can best reduce the chances of harm.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

Sunday, November 15, 2009

‘You can’t fake reality’ forever - by Judge Jim Gray

Quotes from two books I have read just seem to stay with me. One is from Pearl Buck’s “The Three Daughters of Madame Liang,” which says that “Freedom is the only air we artists can breathe, and wherever in the world the air is still free, that is our country.” The second is from Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” which is that “You can’t fake reality.”

All people who live their lives well are artists in one form or another, and they use the time they have on this earth to do the best they can with the resources available to them. We can pretend that it is the government or some other benevolent group that best promotes everyone’s welfare, but it really is promoted by the individual artists, in whatever form they take. Some of those artists certainly can be in government, but fundamentally society is better because of the productivity of private and free individuals, and that is a reality that cannot be faked.

Unfortunately, our country and our state have for decades been plunging headlong into a reliance upon government to address and fix most issues, instead of relying upon what has made us great in the first place, which is private property rights, the free-enterprise system and the labor and creativity of our artists.

For example, we have fallen into the mindset that whenever we face yet another problem, we simply should respond by passing another law. Well, we have plenty of laws. In fact we have too many, to the extent that we would be far better off to repeal two existing laws for every new one passed.

For example, we really don’t need to have so-called “hate crime” laws on the books.

Why in concept should an assault upon one person, regardless of that person’s ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, etc. be automatically considered worse than a similar assault upon a person who is not in one of those categories?

Assaults are and should be against the law, and prosecutors and judges will bring charges and punish offenders based upon the seriousness of the offenses, the background of the offenders, and the overall harm done. So although passing these additional laws might make legislators feel like they have done something positive, the laws are not necessary, and could even be seen as demeaning to the victims and everybody else.

Furthermore, California would actually be well advised to follow the Texas’ lead and have our legislature in session only every other year, when it can pass a two-year budget. But otherwise, not only do we not need the legislature to be in session each year, we really can’t even afford it! Remember that government does not create wealth. Instead it only takes wealth away from others, keeps a great deal of it for its own expenses, and then distributes what remains to others.

So most productive people will tend to gravitate toward places that have lower taxes and less government interference, and most non-productive people will tend to gravitate toward places where there are larger hand-outs. Thus California, which has state and local expenditures of about $10,070 per person and is 10th from the highest in overall taxes, has an average of 3,247 more people moving out of the state than moving in every year. And Texas, which has state and local expenditures of $6,858 per person and is 38th from the highest in overall taxes, has an average of 1,544 people moving in state every year. And, of course, it is the productive people who are mostly leaving our state, and the non-productive who are moving in. No surprise there.

So how do we reduce the size of government spending so we can in turn reduce the need for such high taxes?

The first place to look is who we hire in the public sector, and how much we pay them, both in salary and in benefits. I have worked in the public sector for almost all of my professional life as a Navy lawyer, federal prosecutor and a judge, and I fully knew and expected that my salary would not match what I could have earned in the private sector. That is appropriate, and should be expected.

But we have too many people on the public payroll who should not be there at all. Much of the work they do should be done by workers in the private sector, who could provide the same services on low bid contract to the government.

For example, if we put the work done by Caltrans out for private bid, we would not only save money on the particular work itself, but also not be required to pay for the health care, retirement and other benefits these public employees receive. That would save real money to the taxpayer, and without a loss of services!

The same thing is true for other public employees who are mechanics, plumbers, electricians, computer support staff and many other technicians who work for various government agencies.

It is not just the cost of what these employees do that is close to bankrupting our governments, it is paying for their benefits. I know that I risk the wrath of many good and loyal public employees by saying these things, but they are true!

And now I am going to risk the further wrath of many other people by saying that we simply must revisit the holdings of Proposition 13.

Obviously there was a dire need for this measure originally to be passed, due to the mindless, irresponsible and never-ending public spending by government officials. In fact that really cannot be denied. But the reality is that the major beneficiaries of Proposition 13 have been companies that have large landholdings, like the Edison Co. In addition, this measure has truly been inequitable for our children, who are trying to break into first-time home ownership, but face much larger property taxes as they do so.

This fact was brought home to me several years ago when I purchased a double-lot home in north Santa Ana, and ended up paying more than twice the property taxes than my pre-Proposition 13 neighbor and friend who had a triple-lot home.

It is true that people on a fixed income need the security that Proposition 13 has given them, and we also need protections against runaway property taxes, but there must be a way for that security to remain without making the system so thoroughly inequitable for the more recent home buyers.

So help me look for ways to encourage more individualism and implement less government expense and interference in our lives. Your thoughts and insights can really help in this area.

In reality, there are lots of ways we can recapture our strength as a country and our security as free artists, and this strength cannot be obtained by continuing to rely upon bigger government. And we cannot continue successfully to fake these realities forever.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

Monday, November 2, 2009

Exploring new worlds: the Peace Corps - by Judge Jim Gray

Between graduating from college in 1966 and entering law school in 1968, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica.

Many times since my return, people have told me that they always had wanted to be in the Peace Corps.

My response almost always has been, well it was a great experience, and it’s not too late for you to do it now.

But invariable the people then come up with some sort of explanation as to why they can’t do it, at least not now.

Well, in 2011, the Peace Corps will be celebrating its 50th birthday, and it is continuing to do good work. In fact, according to its website, the number of applicants grew by 18% more than a year ago, although I recognize that the economy might have had something to do with it.

The mission statement is in three parts: 1) Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; 2) Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served; and 3) Helping promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.

Obviously, the Peace Corps is certainly not for everyone. In fact, if you even have to ask why someone would want to be involved in such a thing “for two whole years,” you probably would never understand. People either have an intuitive understanding about what it is to be a volunteer, or they don’t.

When I went to Costa Rica, I requested the smallest town in the country that had a high school, and they gave it to me.

The reason was in part that it was completely inconsistent with my vision of a Peace Corps experience to take a bus to work, like some of my colleagues did in the capital city.

My town of Palmar Norte was on the Inter-American Highway, about half way from the point south of the capital city of San Jose where the paving on the highway ended, and the Panamanian border, where it resumed.

It is amazing to me that Costa Rica is now a tourist destination, because when I was there people were mostly ignorant of even where it was — often confusing it with Puerto Rico.

But I was a “profesor de educación física” in the high school, and I also taught physical education in the local elementary schools, as well as general health and community recreation in my extended community.

In fact, I probably still hold the world’s record for brushing my teeth in front of more elementary school classes than anyone else in history.

My biggest tangible success sometimes seemed to be teaching some of the elementary school students to take turns while “up at bat” in our kickball games, because mostly everyone was first in line, all of the time.

But actually, my most general success probably was being able to show the people in my small community that North Americans could work hard at a project, perspire and get dirty.

Clearly my biggest failure was my inability to establish the practice with most families of boiling their drinking water.

When I was there, Costa Rica was believed by many actually to lead the world in birth rates per capita. Nevertheless, their population generally was not expending because of the high infant mortality rate.

And the reason for that mostly was the parasites in their drinking water.

Thus, it was not unusual for me to see a funeral service for an infant in an open casket, in which the mother or someone else had to brush aside the worms that were crawling out of the mouth and nose of the deceased child (I am sorry if this offends, but it’s true — and I grieve about it).

I also tried to spread information about natural birth control to the adults in my town by handing out literature, and encouraging the female home economics teacher in our high school to help me with the discussions.

But that was right at the time that the Papal Encyclical was issued that forbid Catholics even from discussing this subject.

So after this was issued, Padre Samuel Stewart, who was our community’s Catholic priest and a friend of mine, told me that if I didn’t stop, he would take the pulpit against me. What could a Peace Corps volunteer do against a force like that? So I stopped.

By the time my two-year term was completed, I think I was able to make a contribution in keeping with the mission statement.

I helped our Peace Corps group teach a clinic in San Jose that was able to pass along some needed skills and approaches to virtually all of the physical education professors in the country; I led some of my students into various careers that they might not otherwise have pursued; and I became friends and colleagues to quite a few Costa Ricans, with whom I communicated for decades.

For my part, I believe that I learned more from the Costa Ricans than they did from me.

And I also learned to speak a second language, such that years later as a judge I was able to try some of my small claims court cases in Spanish.

And you should have seen the eyes of some of the litigants grow large when this gringo started talking Spanish.

Since the Peace Corps began, about 195,000 volunteers have served in 139 host countries.

But over time the Peace Corps has changed substantially. When I was involved, there was a virtual prohibition against a volunteer being married, and if those who were married ever were expecting children, they were sent home immediately. In addition, most of the volunteers were like me: recent college liberal arts graduates who had lots of idealism, but few skills.

And most of our assignments were either to teach English, or to be involved in “community development.”

So look at it this way: Most of us were young, without real practical skills, not adept in the local language or really understanding the local culture or history, and were being sent down to other people’s countries to help them “develop their communities.” So all of this was a bit arrogant of us back then, if you think of it in that context.

Fortunately, many of those things have changed over time, because more older and wiser volunteers are being recruited, and are serving. And these are people who not only have more life skills, but they also can pass along much of their practical experience, maturity, and demonstrated abilities to the locals.

So if you are one of those people who have frequently thought to yourself that you would like to join the Peace Corps, or a similar domestic program like Teach for America, give some serious thought about doing it now. And if you are married or even if you have children, so much the better.

From my own personal experience, I can tell you that it is one of the most gratifying experiences that you could ever have.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .