Sunday, November 27, 2005

Goblet of Dying Embers

The Triwizard Tournament that takes up the hippogryph’s share of screen time in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is in conception and effect so perverse, so cruel, so absurd, and so obviously of no consequence in and of itself, either within the worlds of the movies and books or as an aesthetic creation, that I began to think that Harry’s creator J.K. Rowling had gone over to the dark side herself and joined he who must not be named.

No, not Voldemort.

George Lucas.

The three prequels of the Star Wars saga are seriously flawed in many ways, but probably their greatest weakness is that Lucas keeps stopping his story dead in its tracks to insert elaborate commercials for the video game spinoffs. For long periods of time he doesn’t have to waste Lucas fills the screen with chaotic, senseless, and sadistic violence that doesn’t even have any aesthetic virtue to partially redeem it. The attack on the Death Star in the original Star Wars was visually enchanting. When Lucas repeated it in Return of the Jedi he cluttered up the screen and made just blowing up things the only source of excitement. The video game anti-aesthetic reaches its pinnacle in the rescue of Palpatine at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith. The two heroes, Obi-wan and Anakin, are only puppets of themselves, stick figures maneuvered through a randomly generated violence field doing nothing but escaping one implausible attack after another simply by moving forward at top speed.

The three challenges the young heroes face in Goblet of Fire are just like that. We see Harry fight off and outfly a dragon, fight off and outswim some water demons, and run helter-skelter through a maze, and there’s no real objective in any of them. The point and the strategy is to keep moving.

In the book, the challenges are unimaginative and senseless, but they are surrounded by the usual Hogwarts subplots—the clash of eccentrics among the teaching staff and the bickering of Harry, Ron, and Hermione that leads to their pulling together to triumph over a new threat—in Goblet of Fire the threat is adolescence, which comes over them like a dark wizard’s spell and almost ends their friendship—that it’s almost possible to skip the chapters detailing Harry’s adventures in the tournament.

The movie pares away most of the eccentricity. We catch only glimpses of Hagrid’s courtship of the giantess who’s headmistress of the visiting French school for witches. (Hogwarts is apparently the only co-ed academy in the world of witchcraft.) The appalling Rita Skeeter is reduced to a one off that Miranda Richardson milks for all its worth, adding a touch that I don’t think is in the book—Rita as a near child molester. She pulls Harry into a closet to interview him in private and then purrs at him about how cozy it is in there, charging the one line with more sexuality than most movies for grown ups manage in a hundred lines of dialogue. It’s fairly creepy. As is the scene where the ghost of Moaning Myrtle spies upon Harry in the bathtub. That’s creepy enough in the book because it’s the first time Rowling suggests that her main characters have genetalia and she does it with a goofy lack of adult restraint, as if she’s very keen on all of us imagining Harry naked. In the movie, it’s even creepier because the actress who plays Myrtle is 40 years old and despite her squeeky little girl’s voice looks like a grown woman trying to sneak a peak at a 14 year old boy’s goods.

And then the Harry, Ron, and Hermione scenes are about everything in their lives but the Triwizard tournament. Even when they talk about the tournament they are really talking about other, more important (to them) issues. The result is that the three of them seem completely uninterested in what is finally the plot of the movie. In fact, they are so removed from it that their scenes together seem to be taking place in an entirely separate movie.

So the challenges are left to stand on their own, and on their own they come across as just Lucas-esque video games.

But, thinking this over after re-reading parts of the book, I decided that the flaw isn’t due to Rowling’s giving in to Lucas-think. Rowling has, in fact, written an incisive critique of Star Wars into the Potter series. Harry started the series as an obvious parallel to Luke Skywalker who meets his own Obi-wan in the form of Dumbledore. But over time the parallels between the two characters have deepened in interesting and subtle ways and it’s even begun to look to me as though Rowland is moving towards having Harry face the sort of temptations that Anakin faced and failed to resist but which Luke only glanced at and shrugged off in a couple of scenes.

I think Rowling both appreciates Lucas’s story and understands that Lucas never took the implications of his theme seriously. Which is to say that Rowling appreciates how attractive evil and power and fear are. To Lucas, not giving in to the Dark Side is a matter of just saying no. Rowling, I think, wants to show that it’s a matter of sorting out the Dark Side from the Light and finding a reason to resist. When Voldemort seemed on the point of complete victory and almost every witch and wizard had either joined him or gone into hiding, Peter Pettigrew’s decision to join up with him would have appeared more sensible than Lily and James Potter’s and Sirius Black’s decisions to resist and risk death.

In Goblet of Fire, Dumbledore tells Harry that the time is coming when everyone will have to choose between what is easy and what is right. Dumbledore and Rowling know, as Lucas doesn’t seem to, that most people choose easy without even knowing they’ve made a choice or had one.

But Rowling still seems reluctant to allow evil to make its own case.

The Triwizard Tournament is not a result of Rowling wanting to be like Lucas. It’s a result of her not finding a way to stop being Rowling.

Part of Rowling’s success is that she struck on a winning formula in her first book and stuck with it. Every Harry Potter book follows the same pattern set down in The Sorcerer’s Stone. And a chief feature of the pattern is that the stories are told exclusively from Harry’s point of view.

This limiting of the novels’ narrative possibilities worked fine for the first three books, which were essentially mystery novels. Harry is given a puzzle to solve at the beginning of each, he collects clues along the way, makes wrong guesses, and stumbles into the mystery’s dangerous conclusion still in the dark, then he solves the mystery in the nick of time, saving himself and his friends at the last minute by finally coming up with the right answer.

But Goblet of Fire is a transition in the saga. The subplot of the first three, Voldemort’s struggle to return to power, breaks through to become the what will be the main plot of the final three novels. This is as it has to be. But it’s no longer a mystery novel. It’s a revenge drama.

Voldemort’s revenge.

The problem is that Voldemort has been and continues to be working his magic off stage (and offscreen). Harry and he have up until Goblet never met face to face since their first and nearly fatal for Voldemort encounter when Harry was a baby. In the first two books and movies, Harry fights off avatars of Voldemort. In the third, Prisoner of Azkaban, he thinks he’s threatened by another representative of the dark wizard.

In Goblet of Fire Rowland has Voldemort’s proxy disguised so well that nobody even suspects foul deeds are afoot. Harry has no clue. And because we only know what Harry knows, we have no clue either. Harry, and his audience and readers, are blind to what is in fact the main plot of the story, Voldemort regaining his power and setting out to destroy Harry.

With the main plot taking place out of Harry’s sight (except for little bits he glimpses in dreams whose significance he doesn’t grasp), Rowling uses the Triwizard Tournament as a substitute. It’s meant to provide all the action and suspense and visual thrills.

It’s a giant red herring.

Rowling would have been better off breaking away from the limited first person point of view and following other characters on their adventures, one of those characters being Peter Pettigrew who takes part in two murders and a kidnapping offstage, and who spends a lot of time in the company of Voldemort.

Critics, but not young fans of the novels, complained that the first two movies hewed too closely to the books. They were faithful to the point of turning themselves into dynamic illustrations for the novels, like the moving paintings that line the hallways at Hogwarts. Prisoner of Azkaban broke free of the book only by adopting a brand new visual style, grittier, more gothic, and yet more realistic. Otherwise it stayed faithful to the novel.

Goblet of Fire is the first of the movies to make substantive changes to the storyline. But that’s a relative statement. Mostly it’s a matter of having one secondary character do in the movie what a different secondary character did in the book.

Director Mike Newell and screenwriter push at the narrative outline, stretching it where they can, rearranging some plot points, but they don’t break away from it significantly, except to leave out as much exposition as they feel they can afford to leave out, which turns out to be a bit too much, their judgment on how much the audience can pick up on the fly or fill in from their memories of the book being a little too optimistic.

If only they had thought to dramatize what gets explained hurriedly at the end and given us some scenes with the delightfully cringing and rattishly disgusting Timothy Spall as Pettigrew/Wormtail and Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, who I expect will be terrific in the next movie, Order of the Phoenix, but who in this one is given no chance to develop his character. He literally explodes onto the scene on the attack and his only dialogue is the usual talking villain stuff of too many action movies. He starts monologuing, as they say in The Incredibles, yakking about his motivations when he should just act on them and kill Harry straight off.

As it turns out, with the Triwizard Tournament being meaningless and the main plot happening out of sight and the adult eccentrics reduced to quick sketches of their formerly detailed Dickensian caricatures, the heart and soul of the movie is the relationship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

The three are as much in transition as the plot of their novel. Ron is struggling to break free from his role as Harry’s sidekick. Hermione is struggling to break free of her role as nerdy tom-boy chum. She wants to become a romantic heroine in her own right. And Harry, who previously has been incredibly generous in his regard for both of them and depended on their work as a team, is asserting his own hero’s ego.

In short, their story is all about hurt feelings and the sort of painful misunderstandings that occur when friends who used to take each other’s love and support for granted discover that they are isolated individuals, strangers to each other at the core. We can guess that this bodes well for Ron and Hermione who need to get to know each other all over again as a young man and a young woman.

What it means for Harry though is likely a future loneliness. Heroes do not make good friends. They can’t be there for you because they have to be there for everybody.

I don’t know if Rowling intends to take things that far, if by the end of the last book Harry will be estranged permanently from Ron and Hermione. But that possibility certainly seems to have meant more to Mike Newell than the magical side of the story.

Not surprisingly then, the most gut-wrenching scene in the movie isn’t the death of an important and likeable character. It’s a single scene at the Yule Ball. Harry and Ron are sitting sulkily in a corner away from the dance floor, taking out their own hurt feelings on their dates, hardly acknowledging either girl’s presence except to refuse to dance any more with them.

The scene ends with a shot of several girls, abandoned or insulted by their dates, crying and comforting each other, with our heroes walking off.

It’s a painful moment and Newell holds it, as if he wants his young audience to take notes. The lesson of the day is that even in a world full of dark wizards, fire-breathing dragons, Death Eaters, dementors, and water demons, sometimes the worst hurts are those we inflict on each other through small acts of selfishness, spite, and misplaced pride.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Spenser fights to save Western Civilization

(Part two. Part one is here.)

Probably shouldn't be trying to draw lessons in political philosophy from a better than the last one but really not up to his best genre novel by a once very good mystery writer who's been writing too much and too fast the last decade or so and has stopped being careful so that any ideas that get raised are half-baked at best and possibly not even sincere but just there to connect Plot Point A to Plot Point B or save him the trouble of actually fleshing out a character. But although he does it in a rush and a bit sloppily, I think Robert Parker is struggling with an important question in his newest Spenser mystery, School Days.

To what degree do we hold individuals responsible for their actions?

Law and Order conservatives---most conservatives, in fact---would be quick to answer that one, "To the n-th degree!

Or at least to the m-th.

No less than the l-th, anyway, at the outside.

Go below that and you're just a bleeding heart.

Conservatives are in love with the myth of the self-made man. It's flattering to their vanity, for one thing. But it's also a convenient argument for kicking over the ladder once you've reached the top. What do you need unions for? What do you need Big Government social programs for? Are you weak? Are you a baby? This country was built on self-reliance. Be a man! Be a self-made man!

But in a liberal civilization, where we keep order by encouraging everybody to be responsible for one another and to one another, we recognize that while individuals can fail to keep their responsibilities to others, that is to society at large, society can fail to keep its side of the bargain too.

That's why we temper justice with mercy and charity and allow for forgiveness.

Like I said yesterday, totalitarian civilizations don't care beans about individual responsibility. They're only interested in keeping order. It doesn't matter to them why an individuals break the rules. That's why punishment is swift, certain, and totally without mercy, charity, or even justice.

In a liberal society we don't believe that no one is ever at fault, as some Conservatives claim many Liberals think. But we do believe in mitigation and we do believe that there are some people who cannot be blamed because they cannot control their own actions and others who might have had more control had society not failed them.

Think of a woman who kills the ex-husband who beats her and who has been unable to get the police to enforce the restraining order.

I know some people thinking of that woman are thinking tough petunias for her. She had options, she had choices, she did the crime, now let her do the time.

A lot of conservatives are perfect Shylocks when they want their pound of flesh, but put them in the dock with their own chests bared to the knife and listen to them plead and scream for the intercession of a Portia dropping mercy like a gentle rain.

Think Scooter Libby. Think Karl Rove when his turn comes.

Or just think of the loudmouth at work going on and on about how the cops need to come down harder on them suddenly turning into both an anarchist and a bleeding heart (his heart bleeding only for himself, of course) when he's got a two hundred dollar traffic ticket to pay.

"Your honor, the radar gun didn't work! The sign was hidden by the trees! The cop had it in for me! My speedometer doesn't work! My grandmother's sick and I was rushing to see her! A freak tail wind came up behind me and pushed me through that stop light! It wasn't my fault!"

And the judge says, "Son, all those things are no doubt true. But civilizations must act as if individuals are responsible for what individuals do."

When Robert Parker has Rita Fiore head off any doubts that Spenser might be planting in her head about whether or not his mentally and emotionally retarded client's truly guilty by saying, "whatever the psychological reality might be, civilizations have to act as if the individual is responsible for what the individual does," she sounds more Shylock than Portia to me, and more like the Conservative prosecutor she once was and not the brilliant Liberal defense attorney she's become.

Again, as I was saying yesterday, I suspect Parker's felt he had to protect himself from accusations that he was letting the Columbine shooters---or any of the kids who have gone on murder sprees in their school hallways---off the hook. By having the open-minded to almost a fault Rita make that statement before the usual representatives of law and order chime in, Parker made it a position we're expected to sympathize with. Spenser himself is skeptical, but that's in character, and he doesn't argue with Rita or with anyone else who espouses it, so Parker leaves it unchallenged to stand or fall on its own, although I think he expects it will stand.

I don't think it does. Totalitarian civilizations don't care about individual responsibility and in fact do everything they can to take away from their citizens any opportunity for responsible action. People do what they are told not what they know to be right. Liberal civilizations don't see individuals as being capable of that much responsibility for themselves, and in the courtroom, which is where Rita, being a lawyer, is picturing civilization at work, liberal civilizations show themselves to be liberal by often acting the other way entirely.

This is why we have categories of murder and manslaughter, degrees of felonies. This is why we use phrases like "diminished capacity," "temporary insanity," and "crime of passion." This is why there's such things as probation and parole and why governors and Presidents are given the power to pardon.

This is why we have juvenile court.

Rita Fiore would all about this better than I do.

I'm assuming that Rita, and Parker, mean what Rita says though.

But it's possible that Parker means Rita to mean what she would more likely have said, "That the legal system [not civilizations] has to act as if individuals are responsible for what individuals do."

If that's what Parker means her to mean, then Rita is still sounding more like a prosecutor than a defense attorney, but since she used to be a prosecutor, maybe that's in character.

And if that's what Parker means her to mean, then I agree.

Our legal system is a tool of liberal civilization. Our liberal civilization may understand that invididuals have a lot less say in who they are than our ancestors believed. Cassius insisted the fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves, but he didn't know that our selves are things we do the best we can to invent after accidents of genetics and circumstances assemble the raw material and sometimes that material is close to useless to work with.

But while our civilization has learned enough for all of us to know that what looks like the worst kind of evil is often the most virulent form of insanity and we can feel sorry, at least on an abstract level, for a person so crazy he can't resist his most violent impulses, when we get him inside a courtroom we will still treat him as if he's a very devil.

We do this because liberal civilizations have promised to free all of us from the the temptation to act out of pure self-interest by freeing us from want...and by freeing us from fear.

End of part two.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A footnote in the wrong place

In the post below I didn't want to go off on a tangent so I didn't bother to make the distinction between liberal civilizations and the Liberal forms of governments liberal civilizations adopt.

Liberal civilizations free their citizens to act decently by freeing them from the need to act out of pure self-preservation. But there are many ways to do this. One way is to adopt a socialist government that takes care of everything. Another way is to leave the taking care to an unregulated free market, trusting that the flow of money and increased opportunities for people to get hold of that money will result in decent, mutually responsible citizens.

This is why, I think, some political philosphers contend that there are no real conservatives in the United States, there are two factions of liberals, one of which calls itself conservative and often finds itself in uneasy alliance with reactionaries and authoritarians.

The latter type have been presumed to want the same sort of ordered, moral, and relatively free Liberal civilization as the first faction, the one known as Liberalism. The trouble has always been that because the second faction, the free market Liberalism known as Conservativism, relies on the flow of money to create opportunity and relieve wants, when the money dries up for any reason and for any length of time, things become very shaky, which scares the Conservatives, who then are tempted to maintain order through force. Hence, their regular alliances with reactionaries and authoritarians.

And lately, over the last 40 years or so, their influence over the reactionaries and authoritarians has waned. This is partly due to so many of them being absorbed into the Democratic Party. We talk a lot about all the reactionary and authoritarains who have been absorbed into the Republican Party, but many people who would have been Republicans 60 and 50 years ago are now Democrats because the Democratic Party is the more fiscally responsible and successful and they themselves have learned from history that a totally unregulated free market fails to maintain a liberal society. Whether this has been good or bad for the Democrats is debatable and a subject for another time.

At the same time, the free market Liberals who have remained with the Republicans have seemed less and less concerned with whether or not everybody gets a piece of the pie, and even outright hostile to the possibility, and more and more comfortable with the notion of keeping order through force, thus becoming less and less distinguishable from reactionaries and authoritarians.

My point, finally, is that a Liberal government isn't necessary to a liberal civilization, nor is it necessary to be either a Liberal or a Democrat to believe in, work toward, and help bring about a liberal civilization.

What is necessary is a recognition that we are all in this together and that the best way to maintain order and freedom is for us not to leave each other alone to fend for ourselves.

Civilization and its dis, mal, non, and ill contents

From Robert B. Parker's newest Spenser novel, School Days:

"God, what a way to live," Rita said.

"It's the way he's got," I said.

"You saying he had no choice?"

I smiled and shook my head.

"I'm not navigating the nature/nurture shoals with you again," I said, "I got no idea."

"You know as well as I do," Rita said, "that whatever the psychological reality might be, civilizations have to act as if the individual is responsible for what the individual does."

Spenser's talking over his latest case with sultry defense attorney Rita Fiore. His client's the grandmother of a teenager who along with another kid supposedly shot up their prep school Columbine style. The shooters wore masks and one of them escaped from the locked down school before the police burst in. The kid who was caught on the spot fingered the grandson. When the cops picked him up, he confessed. Looks open and shut, but the grandmother is convinced her grandson wouldn't have done anything so monstrous. Spenser's investigations have him not so sure the grandmother's right. But along the way he's learned that the grandson is mildly retarded but no one noticed it. His parents were in denial, his teachers were only concerned with his grades, which were good enough, and his classmates thought him a geeky loner who just wanted to be left to himself so they left him to himself.

On top of this it's beginning to look as though the kid was being used as a tool by other adults who should have been looking out for him but instead saw him as an opportunity.

The other kid, who we know did shoot down teachers and students in the hallways that awful day, is a snotty jerk, a poor excuse for a tough guy, who attached himself to all kinds of bad characters before becoming a killer himself. But Spenser has discovered that this kid's the product of miserable parenting. His mother---there's no father; she went to a sperm bank---had him to give herself somebody to love her unconditionally and had expected that the kid would grow up grateful for the opportunity to show his devotion by being essentially a mini-her. When it turned out early that what she'd given birth to was a boy with a personality and needs and wishes of his own, she turned cold on him, and left him to his own devices, using every time he got into trouble while wandering wild as another excuse to step back farther from him and another justification for her coldness and neglect.

Spenser's client's grandson was the product of a different sort of bad parenting, a kind that looks like devotion, but which is actually laziness. His parents refused to recognize his disability because if they had admitted it they'd have had to deal with it and him and become involved to a degree they were too busy and narcissistic to become. So they indulged him, covered for him, and made excuses, pretending that his failure to grow emotionally were just peculiarities of his personality.

So, having established that the representatives of civilization, the ones who were supposed to civilize them, had failed both boys, Robert Parker finds he has written himself into a corner.

Because of how closely he had their crime parallel the Columbine shootings, he can't forgive or fail to blame the boys or it would seem that he was forgiving and failing to blame Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

But by going to great pains to show the "psychological reality" that Rita Fiore mentions so dismissively, Parker can't suddenly turn around and decide the boys are the usual sort of sociopaths and psychopaths Spenser tangles with and dispenses with by the half dozen in every book.

There's a way out of this that has probably already occured to you, especially if you're a regular reader of mysteries and thrillers, but I'm not going to tell you if Paker uses it or uses it in the way you're imagining.

But I don't think it's spoiling anything to tell you that Parker helps himself out in another way, too, by adopting what Rita says about civilizations needing to act as if individuals have autonomy as one of the book's themes. Every righteous character Spenser deals with after that scene tells him a variation of the same thing. Spenser, to his credit, remains skeptical, but he doesn't argue the point.

I happen to think that Rita's got it all wrong. I think civilizations are based on the idea that individuals can't be left to be responsible for their own behavior because they can't be trusted to act responsibly.

Yep, you're right. I'm not a Libertarian.

There is a way of describing a liberal, as opposed to Libertarian, civilization as one that allows individuals the most autonomy. But I think that a liberal civilization is one that saves individuals from having to act autonomously. We don't leave people to fend for themselves. The less fending they do, the less temptation they face to take responsibility for their own survival---acts of self-preservation are rarely civilized when it's a case of me versus you, us against them, winner take all.

Totalitarian civilizations save their citizens from having to take responsibility by controlling their every move. They don't provide their citizens with much except the choice between acting civilized---following all the rules---and not surviving.

Liberal civilizations survive by not making their citizens have to choose between following the rules and self-preservation. By taking care of people's wants and making it easier for them to achieve their desires, or at least some of their most reasonable desires, liberal civilizations allow their people to go about their lives as if they were autonomous.

Totalitarian civilizations maintain order by making their people behave by force. Liberal civilizations maintain order by giving their people few if any reasons to misbehave and by making everybody see that it is in their self-interest to help each other behave by taking away the need for individuals to worry about their self-preservation.

Instead of making individuals responsible for themselves, liberal civilizations encourage people to be responsible for each other.

Therefore in a liberal civilization crime---threats to the public order---has a moral judgment attached to it that isn't a simple matter of right versus wrong. In a totalitarian civilization crime is just a matter of breaking the rules. In a liberal civilization crime is failure to take care of one's fellow citizens.

This is why liberal civilizations when deciding questions of guilt and punishment are obliged to take into account the individual's capacity to act responsibly. And it's not just a question of asking if the individual charged with a crime understands the difference between Right and Wrong. The individual has to understand what right and wrong mean.

In sentencing the question of the guilty individual's remorse is allowed to play a part. But remorse is only possible when you understand that what you did hurt other people.

The system, then, recognizes that some people understand this better than others and it allows for a lesser punishment for those who show remorse on the grounds that the remorseful individual is far less likely to hurt anyone else in that way again.

And it makes sense to inflict harsher punishment on sociopaths and psychopaths, not because we must punish evil, but because they will always be a danger to other individuals and to the public order. The better job we do of making sure they are kept away from the rest of us for a long, long time, the safer we are, that's all.

But a liberal civilization ought to also recognize the difference between people who don't know what right and wrong mean and those who don't care what it means, and among the former between those who don't know because they just haven't bothered to know and those who don't know because they are incapable.

The second kid in the story, the one we know did murder people, was failed by his mother and to lesser degrees by the other adults who had direct responsibility for him and who should have taught him what what right and wrong mean.

But he was capable of teaching himself. At 17 he could be expected to look around him, see what civilization requires of people, and direct his thinking and action accordingly.

Spenser's client's grandson, on the other hand, wasn't capable at 17 of seeing what he needed to see or of directing his own thinking and action to the degree a 17 year old should be able to.

He can't be expected to be responsible because he couldn't be responsible.

But Rita Fiore is saying that even if that's so, our civilization has to act as if the boy could be.

And this happens to be the way our civilization does act.

When the system gets hold of someone who is retarded or mentally ill to the point of not being capable of understanding what right and wrong mean, you would think that we would show some understanding toward them and realize that they shouldn't be punished in the same way or to the same degree as people who have the capacity.

Instead, we often come down harder on them.

End of part one. Part two is here.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

If it weren't for stupidity, the jails would be empty

Guy robbed a bank in Syracuse the other day. Walked in wearing a big fake ZZ Top beard as his only disguise, with his hand inside his jacket in a suggestive manner he made his demands known to the tellers, ran out with a 2000 dollar emergency withdrawl in his hands---couldn't be bothered to bring a bag---dropped the dye pack on the sidewalk, stopped and went back to pick it up, and got to the parking lot where he'd left his car before the dye pack exploded.

Needless to say a guy in a stupidly obvious fake beard turning suddenly red in a spray of dye attracted the attention of passersby who noted the make of his car and the license plate which they were able to relate to the arriving police.

This happened a few days after another guy robbed another bank and had his dye pack explode on him as he ran down an alley behind the bank to catch a cab.

Yes, he hailed a cab. Why not? He had the money.

This one made the evening news.

First guy, ZZ Top, must not watch TV.

Our old friend, Chris the Cop, likes to say, "If it wasn't for stupidity, the jails would be empty."

Sometimes he varies the sentiment and says, "Thank God for stupidity or we wouldn't catch anybody."

Nancy Nall linked to a story last week about a thief who was tripped up by his fashion sense. That is, while he was fleeing from the scene of his crime the gangsta style baggy pants he was stylin' in when he pocketed a bunch of CDs from a record store and ran fell the whole way off his butt to his ankles and he went sprawling.

Nance, who can always be counted on for news of the weird and the dumb, having a good eye for spotting humans at their less than best, also tells the story about a crook who wore sneakers that lit up on the job and then tried running from police in the dark.

As Chris the Cop would say, "Thank God for stupidity..."

Which reminds me that Chris once had to chase down a suspect he only caught because this kid, like the thief tripped by his pants, was wearing baggy pants that dropped on him at an inopportune moment too.

What was different was this kid hadn't actually committed a crime.

Chris was on patrol one day and got a call about a stolen car. This appeared to be an easy case. Guy who reported his car stolen also reported the name and address of the person who stole it. Chris happened to be close to the address so he drove over, arriving just as the stolen car pulled up into the driveway.

The driver got out of the stolen car. Chris got out of his cruiser. Chris said, "Can I talk to you for a minute?" The driver ran.

Chris said something the cops on TV don't usually say even on NYPD Blue and gave chase.

Chris keeps himself in shape, but he was 40 and the kid was 20something and had a good head start. Chris followed him across some backyards but was giving up hope of catching the kid when the kid forgot what he was wearing and let go of the waistband of his baggies.

Chris reached him and put a knee on his back and had him cuffed while he was still lying flat on his face, stunned, probably less from his fall than with disbelief at his own stupidity.

But when he got his breath back he said to Chris with apparently sincere bafflement, "What'd I do?"

Chris reminded him. "You stole a car."

"What car?"

"The car you were driving."

"I didn't steal that car!"


"Who told you I stole that car?"

"The owner, who do you think?"

"The owner told you I stole his car?"


"Wasn't the owner told you."

"It wasn't."

"Couldn't a been."

"Why not?"

"My cousin owns that car. I borrowed it from him."

This conversation took place as Chris was hauling the kid back to his cruiser. When Chris had the kid in the back he radioed the cops who had responded to the original call and who were still with the owner, taking his statement.

Chris told him what the kid had just said.

The other cops told the owner.

The owner said, "Um."

Turns out the owner was the kid's cousin and he had loaned the car to the kid, but the kid hadn't brought it back soon enough to suit his cousin, so the cousin did what he insisted anybody would do in his position. He called the cops.

The police frown on people making false accusations.

They frown harder on people who do this when they have outstanding warrants on themselves when they do it.

The cousin was arrested.

Meanwhile, Chris having been told the whole story, uncuffed the kid and apologized, but he had to ask him.

"If you didn't do anything, why did you run?"

The kid was surprised at the question. To him the answer was obvious.

"You got a gun, man."

Chris patiently explained that this was in fact the reason not to run. The kid shook his head. To most people, the significant fact about Chris would have been the badge on his chest. To this kid it was what Chris wore on his hip.

"You got a gun, man!"

Chris and his family are visiting us this weekend. I'll steal as many stories as I can.