Saturday, November 22, 2014

Great Gunfights That Changed the Rules Episode II - Miami

That's it - the whole thing took place in a few minutes
Bill Matix and Michael Platt were on a roll. They were old friends - Matix served in the Marines while Platt found a love for combat in Vietnam as an Army Ranger. It was the spring of 1986, and any aversion they might have had to killing and stealing was long behind them. Both of them had former wives who died violently and suspiciously, and they had made the choice to relocate to Homestead Florida to make a living robbing banks. Early on, they found that local residents would go out to nearby quaries, called "rock pits", to shoot guns for recreation. Matix and Platt found that they could find these ad hoc shooting ranges, kill the people using them, and take their weapons and vehicles. As early as October of 1985 they killed Emelio Briel shooting in such a rock pit, and took his weapons and vehicle. His car would become a common thread.

Still in October, the pair botched an armored car heist at a Winn-Dixie supermarket. They shot a courier in the leg with a shotgun, but had to retreat under heavy fire from the armored car crew, jumping in their car and escaping with no money. A few weeks later they pulled two bank robberies in the space of two hours, escaping the second in Briel's car. On January 10th they robbed a Brinks truck, with both of them shooting holes in the Brinks courier and escaping, once again, in Briel's car. This time, a citizen followed them and saw them change cars to a white Ford pickup. In March they were back at the rock pit, where they forced target shooter Jose Collazo to wade out into the pond and shot him four times, leaving him for dead. They took his weapons, including a folding stock Ruger Mini 14 in .223. Unfortunatly for them, Collazo didn't die. Instead he walked three miles for help. A week later they used Collazo's car to rob the Barnet Bank in Homestead. Time was running out.

Matix and Platt had become a target of the local FBI. Unsure of where they would strike next, the Miami FBI office put together a "rolling stakeout" crew, fourteen agents in eight cars trying to at least engage the pair after their next robbery. It defies all probability, but on the morning of April 11th, Special Agents Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove spotted the target vehicle and initiated a felony traffic stop. Now, every FBI agent expected a gunfight - at least two of them drew their weapons prematurely and lost them in the course of the collisions to come - and Platt and Matix were also prepared to fight. This was no Newhall - nobody expected this confrontation to end peacefully. There were 14 law enforcement agents and two criminals - what could possibly go wrong? Well, the fight would occur in a clausterphobically tight space, surrounded by cars smashed together in the traffic stop. The handguns and shotguns the FBI Agents carried were underpowered, leaving the the Agents outgunned. And the criminals were trained infantrymen with combat experience, and knew exactly what to do in a gunfight.

Agent Grogan saw the Black Monte Carlo and called in the stakeout team. He then attempted to run the suspects off the road. Agent Mierles saw Platt aim a rifle from the passenger side and he rammed the Monte Carlo from behind, spinning both the suspects and the agents out of control. They ended up wedged together - the suspect car against a parked car on the right Agent Richard Manauzzi's car on the left, with another FBI car, occupied by Agent's Grogan and Dove slammed in behind. The rest of the FBI stakeout team arrived and left their vehicles across the street, leaving them one beat behind in the initial exchange of fire. But this is how it begins - Matix and Platt wedged in with FBI Agent Manauzzi on one side and Grogan and Dove behind. Supervisory Special Agent Gordon McNeill stopped next to Manauzzi, with Hanlon and Mierles and Orrantia and Risner across the street.

You really have to think about this - you have three cars literally in contact, and the occupants of those cars struggling to open fire. You have ten armed professionals - you can't assume that Matix and Platt are anything but the professional equivalent of the FBI as gunfighters - sitting in cars ten feet apart trying desperately to kill each other and survive. If there is a better description of a gunfight, I can't tell you what it is.

The Gunfight - 4 Minutes of Blood and Fire

The whole fight, in a single image

Michael Platt leaned across from the passenger side of the Monte Carlo and fired 13 rounds of .223 from the Mini-14 through the closed driver side window. These rounds would have been fired directly in front of Matix's face, and must have been painfully disorienting in an enclosed vehicle. Platt first fired on Manauzzi in the car beside them, then at McNeill as he approached in his car, and then at Mireles as he ran across the street towards the fight. One round hit McNeil in his gun hand, and another hit Mireles in the forearm, knocking him to the ground. Having laid down a vicious burst of suppressing fire, Platt leaned back to the passenger side. Matix then forced the driver side door open as far as he could with Manauzzi's car next to them and fired a single round of 12 guage #6 shot from the sitting position into the grille of Grogan's car. At the same time, Grogan returned fire with his Smith 9mm, hitting Matix in the forearm. Matix pulled back into the Monte Carlo. Agent McNeill was crouched next to Manauzzi's car, firing across the hood, when he was struck in the gun hand by one of Platt's rounds. He managed to continue to fire, emptying his revolver into the outlaw's car. Two of his rounds hit Matix in the head and neck, knocking him unconscious.

As Platt saw Matix take a round to the head and slump over, he knew he would have to get out of the Monte Carlo and try to get in one of the FBI cars. But since the car was slammed up against a parked Olds Cutlass, he had to climb out the passenger side window. With a rifle - even a short, folding stock rifle like the Mini-14, that was going to leave him exposed to a lot of incoming fire. As he began to climb out, Agent Dove opened fire with his Smith 9mm. One of his rounds passed through Platt's right biceps muscle, exited and entered his right lung. The autopsy revealed that this round killed Platt - the lung was collapsed and filled with almost one and half liters of blood - but it didn't stop him. After he got out of the Monte Carlo, Platt scrambled across the hood of the Cutlass. Dove continued to fire on him, hitting him in the thigh and again in the left foot. As he got on the ground in front of the Cutlass he took another round, a grazing hit from a .38 +p round from Orrantia's .357 revolver.

Kneeling behind the right front tire of the Cutlass, Platt drew his own .357 revolver and opened fire on Orrantia and Risner, who were firing on him from across the street. Then, when Platt turned to put fire on Grogan, Dove and Hanlon, one of Risner's rounds hit him in the right forearm, shattering the bone and causing him to drop his revolver. At nearly the same moment, another round hit Platt in the upper right arm. Somehow, despite all the damage, Platt was able to load a fresh magazine in the Mini-14, brace it against his shoulder with his uninjured left hand and work the trigger with his right, despite having been shot three times in the right arm. From cover behind the Cutlass, he fired three rounds. The first shattered the steering wheel of Orrantia's car, spraying him with shrapnel and debris. One of the next two hit McNeill in the neck, temporarily paralyzing him. Amazingly, McNeill has stated that he could see Platt smiling as he fired.

Due to Platt's training, he knew that he could not win a gunfight from cover, that he had to move, and he had to attack. He moved around behind the Cutlass and advanced on Grogan, Dove and Hanlon who were behind Grogan's car. In response, Dove moved around to the other (driver's) side of the car, but one of Platt's .223 rounds hit his Smith 459 pistol, damaging it so that it was inoperable. Grogan moved in behind Dove at the rear fender. Hanlon was reloading his .38 behind the passenger side rear fender when another of Platt's rounds hit him in the right hand, making it impossible to complete the reload. Hanlon fell back to the ground behind the car. From that position he could see Platt's feet as he walked up to the passenger side of the car. He heard Grogan yell "Oh my god!" as Platt killed him with a single round to the chest. As he moved around the rear of the car, Platt saw Hanlon and shot him - the round hit him in the groin. Hanlon rolled into a fetal position, expecting to be shot again, but Platt kept moving, turning and firing two rounds into Dove's head, killing him instantly. He then turned and fired on Orrantia and Risner. The crime scene report includes the detail that there was a great deal of Platt's blood on Grogan's car, both smears and arterial spurts. The fact that you can kill someone and they can kill you before they stop moving is the salient point of this entire exercise. Platt knew tactics, and he knew that to win you have to attack, close with and destroy your enemy. The fact that he maintained an advantage in firepower allowed him to offset his huge numerical disadvantage. But ultimately he should not have been able to continue to fight.

Platt came back around to the driver's side of Grogan's car and started to get in. Mireles opened fire with his Remington 12 Gauge shotgun, hitting Platt in both feet with 00 buckshot. While all this was going on, Matix had regained consciousness and climbed out the same window that Platt had, and now came out into the street to get in the passenger side of Grogan's car. At this point Platt could no longer operate the rifle. He took Matix's .357 revolver, took a few steps into the street and fired three shots at Mireles and McNeil. When he got back into the car, he was unable to use his right hand to turn the key - to whatever extent he was capable with his wounds, Matix was trying to help get the car started. Agent Mireles drew his .357, moved down the street until he was opposite Grogan's car, and advanced on the outlaws while firing. His first round hit the seat back. His second round hit the window post, with a fragment tearing Platt's scalp. Platt flopped down into the seat to get below the window level, with his head in Matix's lap. Mireles' next three rounds hit Matix in the face, killing him. Now Mireles' assault had brought him right up to the car. He extended his revolver through the window and shot Platt in the heart.  In a moment of stunning silence, the fight was over.


Firepower Advantage
250 agonizing seconds. 145 rounds fired. All inside of ten meters. Ten combatants - four dead, five wounded - only one man, Agent Risner, came out the fight unscathed. The important lesson that must occasionally be relearned at great cost is that handguns are not powerful weapons. They are portable, concealable weapons. But that comes with a major compromise. They are not effective in killing 200 pound mammals, whether they are deer or other men. There's an old line you'll hear from old gunfighters at old shooting ranges - the only purpose for a handgun is to fight your way to your rifle.

In the wake of the Miami shootout there were investigations, and they all led to the same conclusion. The .38s and 9mms the FBI was issuing their agents were insufficient to the task of ending a gunfight, and while they could be confident they could kill an adversary, they had no reason to believe they could stop that adversary from killing them. This became the practical consideration - how could a law enforcement officer best end a gunfight as quickly as possible, with the minimal rounds fired?

And the FBI made a fairly quick, and somewhat rash decision. In the late 80s, firearms designers had developed a new cartridge. The 10mm auto was designed to have the terminal ballistics of a .357 Magnum in the form factor of a modern automatic pistol. The FBI selected the Smith & Wesson 1076 10mm auto as their issue handgun, and immediately began running into problems. (As a side note, the big iconic silver pistol used by Sonny Crockett in the first two seasons of Miami Vice was a Bren Ten, an early iteration of a 10mm auto using non-standard bottleneck 10mm cases.) The problems were simply that as a round that performed like the .357 Magnum, the full power 10mm developed the same blast and recoil of a .357, and many of their women and smaller framed agents couldn't use the 1076 effectively. But during that period, FBI armorers had developed a training/practice round, a downloaded 10mm they called 10mm FBI. Everybody looked at each other in a moment of epiphany, and the FBI recalled their 10mm autos and issued what became known as the .40 S&W.  A 155 grain hollow point at 1200 feet per second, it was just about as ferocious as an organization as broad and diverse as the FBI could hope to issue. The creeping problem is that the firearms companies built these .40 caliber handguns on their existing 9mm frames, something they couldn't do with the beefier 10mm chamberings. And those guns, gobbled up by law enforcement organizations all over the globe, are falling apart well before their anticipated end of life. Because you can build a 10mm auto on a 9mm frame, but you're going to have to anticipate accelerated wear cycles, and that means poorly timed failures.

The lessons of Miami resonate down to today, and will continue to drive law enforcement tactical doctrine for decades to come. Marksmanship is clearly not a problem - FBI Agents have demonstrated the ability to put fire on target even under extreme duress. But technology has to improve both guns and bullets, making deadly force effective in stopping a fight, rather than fueling a gunfight. Today, a combination of evolved tactics, more powerful weapons and ballistic body armor make the likelihood of a gunfight like Miami vanishingly unlikely. Criminals know they don't have a path to escape - if they are trapped in a fight they're going to lose, due to the overwhelming power of the opposition.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mexico - Ticking Time Bomb on America's Border

Welcome to Hell
We're used to hearing about failed states, insurgencies and civil wars. And what they have in common is they all happen on other continents. Between the Mid East, Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia and South America, there's a lot of dysfunctional and non-functional nations busily engaged in tearing themselves to pieces. And make no mistake, failed states represent the primary danger to global peace and stability in the 21st century. They are a breeding ground and a launching pad for all the activities that destabilize nations, initiate insurgencies, spread extremism and start civil wars. Failed states give operating room and oxygen to tribal, ethnic, sectarian and nationalist interests that are all unwilling to compromise and live side-by-side. They produce the kinds of conflicts that we've seen from Sudan to Syria, from Afghanistan to Nigeria that are waged with the most inhuman brutality and savage disregard for basic human norms.

And speaking of savagery, in late September 43 teaching students went to the Mexican town of Iguala to protest government hiring practices in the education system. Now, here in America where we long ago legalized political corruption, it's hard for us to understand just how toxic the systems of local governance in Mexico have become. But at some point, that sense of entitlement, that belief that as political leaders they are above the law, at some point the grotesque arrogance of unfettered power results in something that cannot be swallowed. So it was that night in September in Iguala, Mexico.

The Iguala Mayor,  José Luis Abarca Velázquez, goaded by his horrifically arrogant wife María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, was infuriated by this challenge to the authority they had bought and paid for and expected to wield for the extent of their term. After ordering local law enforcement to open fire on the student protesters, 43 of them were taken into custody by Iguala police. And that's when it got truly ugly.

The police turned these 43 innocent children over to the local narcotraffico gang, Guerreros Unidos. It's fairly clear that the instructions given to the gangsters were unequivocal - they executed all forty three kids, burned the bodies and crushed the remains so they would never be found. To be clear, they crushed the burned remains by stomping on them until there was nothing larger than gravel to be investigated. Does anyone doubt that was part of the instructions issued by the Mayor and his lovely wife?

But that's the backstory. Today is the outcome. The Mayor and his wife are in custody. And let's be honest - they are a symptom, not the disease. The question is how much will it take for the Mexican people to go into full revolt? In Tunisia, in Libya, in Egypt, in Syria the people refused to back down even as they were shot down, arrested and tortured. The Mexican people are no less committed to their rights, and their hopes and aspirations for their future, and their children's future. The influence of America weighs heavy on any hopes for real resistance, but at some point the inequality, the unfairness, the corruption and the brutality will generate a sustainable resistance. We may very well see the birth of that tomorrow.

But the idea of a failed state, a long term civil war on America's southern border is a frightening one, and one that tends to focus the mind. One can imagine a number of scenarios that include an 'invitation' to the US military to occupy Northern Mexico and establish "stability". In a worst case scenario, a million refugees would flood Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and very likely result in more violence and inhumanity. Considering the lawlessness, violence and brutality that has suffused Mexico even with a quasi-functional government, it's painfully easy to imagine the horrors that we would see in large swaths of ungoverned and ungovernable Mexico. We can expect to see warlords, with private armies built out of military and law enforcement deserters, holding enclaves against marauding gangs and attacks from fellow warlords, while the rebels break into various factions, simultaneously fighting the rump Mexican government and each other.

The 'failed state' is rapidly becoming the hallmark of 21st century geopolitics, with Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria closely followed by Nigeria, Sudan, Mali, even Pakistan. With its endemic poverty, corruption and criminal culture, would any of us be surprised to see Mexico collapse into a similar state of chaos? And how would it affect the US, both in terms of the direct impact of refugees, violence and increased criminality and in diplomatic relations with other nations that seek to benefit from the collapse - primarily China and Russia?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Net Neutrality - Looking for Monopolists in All the Wrong Places

Consider this a PSA
The net neutrality argument heated up again this week when President Obama came out unequivocally in favor of reclassifying ISPs as utilities under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Of course, the FCC is an independent government agency, not part of the Presidents administration, and Chairman Thomas Wheeler is in no way bound to act on the President's preferred policy, but it was nonetheless one of the clearest statements the government has made on net neutrality to date.

Net neutrality, along with things like freedom of speech, often leaves people a little unclear on what it actually means. But it's a very simple concept. It's the TCP/IP equivalent of 'Justice is Blind' - the internet doesn't care what a packet is, it treats them all exactly the same. It reads the routing information in the packet header and sends it on toward its next destination - that's the whole job of the internet and the definition of a neutral network. In contrast, a network that is not neutral would assign priority rankings to different packet types and sources and and give higher priority traffic a preferred status. In fact, that's the way most networks work, and indeed, there is a QoS (Quality of Service) functionality in modern routers to support exactly that kind of traffic prioritization.

But the internet is not 'most networks', and there are fairness and social justice questions that apply. But the way we use the internet continues to evolve, and the most important piece of that evolution was the explosive growth of streaming video. Netflix now accounts for more than one third of all internet traffic - add in YouTube and just those two sources account for more than half the packets on the wire. This is not your fathers internet. So there is no doubt that the major ISPs have had to invest heavily in capacity to keep up with demand being generated by two companies who had absolutely no part in actually delivering their product to their customers. So the big ISPs would like to be able to make very large upstream sources pay extra for the additional capacity they are demanding.

 And that would not be so bad. But it would also mean the net neutrality genie was out of the bottle. The same prerogative that would allow premium users to be charged premium prices could also allow for some nefarious acts, from slowing the packets of small sites to delaying delivery or degrading performance of competitor's data streams. Everyone is screaming that without net neutrality it's the end of the internet as we know it. So why am I not worried?

Let's get one thing clear right now. While the US doesn't have anywhere near the best internet performance or bandwidth there is, net neutrality is alive and well. Sure, I can watch Netflix, but that's not having any impact on me when I want to look at Thunder's butterflies or listen to the latest musical selections of my favorite un-dead DJ. In other words, there is currently capacity commensurate with demand, and even if large upstream data sources are having to pay extra for the bandwidth they are consuming, it's clearly not having a negative impact on the rest of the internet. And that should debunk the worst of the liberal fear-mongering - that small, startup sites might find their bandwidth throttled, that they might run slower, with delivery and performance issues that wealthier, more established sites can avoid by paying for full speed delivery. As the young man tells the crazy lady with the hammer in the commercial "That's not how it works - that's not how ANY of this works." HTTP traffic is very small. It doesn't require even a small fraction of the available capacity. If a site resolves in 80 milliseconds instead of 40, you are NOT going to notice. Again, whenever we are talking about bandwidth constraints and capacity limitations on the modern internet, we talking exclusively about video. Streaming sites and BitTorrent sites. That's where the bottleneck is, and that's the terrain being argued over in terms of net neutrality.

But here's the main reason there's very little to fear. The people who want to end net neutrality are some very large, powerful corporations - companies like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner. And it's true that they are rapacious organizations looking to increase their profits, with no interest in the well-being of the consumer. But this is that rare case where consumers are not all alone. Indeed, arrayed against the ISPs in this fight are even bigger names - names like Google and Microsoft and Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few. They depend on the internet being a useful, central part of their customer's lives, and if the ISPs start to degrade that model then there is nothing to stop these deep pocketed internet companies from setting up their own ISP businesses and bypassing the incumbents entirely. See, it used to be that the incumbent ISPs had leverage due to a trillion dollar investment in fiber in the ground. There was no quick way to roll out enough broadband capacity to compete with them. But now we've got a number of wireless broadband options, from satellites to long endurance drones to a metropolitan system based on terrestrial towers, that could begin pulling customers from ISPs within a year.

Believe me, the ISPs know the kind of money and resources they're up against. While they have no compunction in gouging customers for every dime they can, they are going to behave very carefully around the big boys who, if provoked, could put an end to the gravy train forever.  So while there might be no explicit guarantees of net neutrality, the practical economic reality is that as long as people want to use the internet and organizations are making billions offering web-based products and solutions, nobody is going to be permitted to interfere with their easy access.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Profiles in Pointlessness - Keystone Edition

Or, we could just use a lot of trains
The political saga of the Keystone XL Pipeline has been a steady narrative of stupidity, pointless waste of resources and poorly chosen fights. I realize common sense does not regularly rear it's head in the political realm, but the entire debate is structured on a set of assumptions and contentions so badly informed, and so disingenuous that it calls to mind the worst of Tammany Hall or the Mississippi Democratic machine of the 1930s. When it comes to real debate, the Republicans long ago abandoned the field, mindlessly defending anything their energy company benefactors ordered them to do. When you have a political system as broadly and deeply corrupt as the modern US system, this should come as a surprise to no one. But the Democrats are feckless here too, torn between local and regional economic interests and national environmental policies.

But while the Republicans are predictable in their blatant corruption, there has to be some serious questions asked of the liberal environmentalists that are driving the resistance to Keystone. To wit: What are you hoping to accomplish? We know that the oil from the tar sands is dirtier in a toxic sense, dirtier in a pollution sense and dirtier in a carbon emissions sense. But let me ask a single question: If the pipeline is not build, how much Canadian tar sands oil would not be shipped? And the answer, of course, is zero. It would merely be shipped by rail to ports on the east and gulf coasts. One tanker car at a time, on poorly maintained track, every train and every car a potential toxic disaster.

So that's where we find ourselves. It was dumb to invest the Keystone XL Pipeline with the gravitas of the entire political environmental struggle, when a reasonable person might wonder if winning the battle meant losing the war. But now the Democrats find themselves in the minority in the Senate, and in yet another desperate and pointless political move around the Keystone pipeline, they now are letting their Louisiana Senate hopeful Mary Landrieu lead a vote to pass the pipeline. Without condition, without quid pro quo, without any horsetrading at all. In a doomed effort to save one seat in a Senate already lost.

Frankly - and ironically in the worst kind of rain-on-your-wedding-day fashion - the Keystone Pipeline is environmentally favorable when considered against shipping the same volume of tar sands oil by rail. Resistance to the pipeline only made sense to the extent it would limit the amount of oil that went to market - as soon as the answer to that question was 'zero', the pipeline made sense for every concerned party. But years of political leverage had been built up, and to just hand that over without extracting some consideration from the Republicans - food stamps, unemployment extensions, infrastructure investment, SOMETHING - reveals a Democratic party so inept, so unable to manage its caucus and its agenda that one can only wonder how they've won any arguments at all.

Now, there is some indication that President Obama will veto the bill approving construction of the Keystone Pipeline. And that would be precisely the right answer to this cobbled - together kindergarten strategy. Let 'the adult in the room' force some kind of concession out of a Republican caucus desperate to get the pipeline built.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Great Gunfights That Changed the Rules Episode I - Newhall

Fast and Hard - You can NEVER give up the initiative
One thing you can always count on people to do is fight. And very often, they resort to using weapons, and the fights get a lot deadlier. In modern times, the peak expression of individual combat is the gunfight. Now, there are a number of different kinds of gunfights, but outside of a war zone, most of them tend to be between armed criminals and law enforcement, for no other reason than that combination brings together armed individuals with opposing goals and strong incentives. Because the goal of the criminal faction is (usually) to escape, a lot of these events are less interesting because they take place as part of a car chase.

The ultimate manifestation of the gunfight is two heavily armed factions fighting at eyeball ranges. These are fast, furious, terrifying and it is rare that any participant escapes unwounded. They are a test of weapons and tactics, to be sure, but ultimately they are a test of courage and will. Often it is the side that refuses to retreat, the side that stays on the attack, that wins the day. And it should never be overlooked that he who shoots first has the upper hand.

For law enforcement, institutional doctrine isn't something that changes readily. Rather, procedures evolve as the result of lessons learned on the streets. And in the modern era, law enforcement doctrine has had to face some very hard truths about what's on the other side of a 'Black Swan' event. How street cops go into a routine contact determines to a large degree how they are going to come out when that contact suddenly becomes anything but routine. In the last fifty years, there have been a few events that forced law enforcement as a profession to examine their institutional doctrines, and think about using rigorous training to make certain street cops would handle these events in the same way every time, with an eye to surviving a few seconds of blood and fire.

In the modern era, there were three gunfights that had a profound impact, not just on law enforcement doctrine, but on society as a whole. Newhall was where the police learned that they needed to develop effective, rational, repeatable policies and procedures for things like traffic stops and field interviews. Later, Miami was where they learned that handguns are not terribly effective firearms, so it was a worthwhile effort to at least make sure the handguns law enforcement personnel did carry were the most effective possible. And then, in North Hollywood, the world discovered the true nature of living in a second amendment world, and nothing was ever the same after that.

On the evening of April 11, 1970, Bobby Davis was driving in Newhall, just north of Los Angeles in Southern California. Shortly after dark, he was involved in a traffic altercation, and was confronted by people whose car he nearly hit. Faced with superior numbers, Bobby didn't hesitate. A career criminal, he was always armed, and he pulled his revolver, backed down his would-be attackers and drove away. The aggrieved parties were unsatisfied with this outcome, so they called the police. Meanwhile, Bobby Davis picked up his friend, fellow lifelong violent criminal Jack Twinning. Just before midnight they were pulled over by rookie California Highway Patrol officers Officers Walt Frago and Robert Gore. Initially Twinning and Davis were cooperative, with Davis getting out of the drivers side of the vehicle and approaching Officer Gore at the rear of the car. As Officer Frago approached the passenger side with his shotgun muzzle high, Twinning exited the vehicle and shot him twice with a .357 magnum revolver, and the fight was on. Gore fired on Twinning with his service revolver, in the heat of the moment (apparently) forgetting all about Bobby Davis. Davis stepped quickly behind and to Gore's left, pulled his .38 Smith from his waistband and fired two rounds point blank into his head.

In a few seconds, the first phase of the gunfight was over. By seizing the initiative and acting with overwhelming force, Davis and Twinning had killed the two officers and sustained no wounds of their own. In order to leverage their advantage, they needed to escape the area immediately. But CHP doctrine was to dispatch a cover unit when another unit initiated a felony stop. And before the newly minted killers could get in their car, that second CHP unit arrived on the scene.

The backup CHP unit, containing CHP officers George Alleyn and James Pence, pulled into the parking lot where the traffic stop had occurred, and that's where a simple, violent ambush turned to tactical chaos. Both Davis and Twinning fired on the CHP cruiser, quickly emptying their revolvers. That should have been the end of the fight, but the career criminals had been planning an armored car robbery, and had been collecting weapons. The back seat of their Pontiac was a veritable arsenal. It's worth mentioning that most gunfighters don't have an endless supply of loaded weapons, but it is tactically more efficient to switch weapons than it is to reload a gun run dry. If there was one thing that would determine the outcome of this fight, that might be it.

With their revolvers empty, the felons dove back in there car - not to escape, but rather to re-arm. Twinning emerged from the passenger side with a .45 auto, while Davis came up with a short barreled shotgun. Twinning's .45 jammed after a single round, and he dove back in the car for another. Meanwhile, Officer Alleyn came out of the CHP car with the issue Remington 870 12 gauge pump shotgun, and began excitedly firing at the Pontiac. He fired so fast that he actually ejected a live round. But even so, Twinning was struck with a single pellet of 00 buckshot, in his forehead. It failed to penetrate his skull, and was nothing more than a superficial injury. When his shotgun was empty, Officer Alleyn dropped it, drew his .357 service revolver and continued firing, this time at Davis. Davis returned fire with his shotgun, killing Alleyn while sustaining no wounds of his own.

At this point an ex-Marine by the name of Gary Kness happened to be driving by. In the glare of the CHP headlights, in the gunsmoke and with the bodies down, it was clear that there was a desperate fight underway. Kness stopped his car and waded in. He ran over and grabbed Officer Alleyn, who was dying on the asphalt, and tried to drag him to cover. He couldn't move him, and he looked up and saw Davis toss away the now empty shotgun. Still operating on the principle that a fresh gun is faster than a reloaded gun, Davis grabbed the shotgun dropped by Frago, but didn't realize there was a live round in the chamber. He couldn't work the action, as it was locked on a live round, and he ended up accidently firing that round into the air. Confused and frustrated, Davis tossed the shotgun aside and pulled Frago's service .357 from his holster.

While this was going on, Pence exited the CHP car, and from the other side of the vehicle fired six rounds of .357 at Twinning, missing with every one. Twinning, whether he was a better shot or just luckier we'll never know, fired back with his fresh .45 and hit Pence in the chest and both legs. Pence dropped to the ground, and started to reload his revolver.

Now, reloading a revolver can be slow and difficult, depending on training and equipment. In 1970, the CHP issued what was called a 'drop box' that was worn on the officer's Sam Brown belt rig. A drop box was simply a leather box that held a stack of .357 rounds, retained to the belt by velcro. The officer would pull the box away from the belt, it would pivot from the bottom and the six rounds would drop into his hand. The good news is that they would all be oriented in the same direction, the bad news was that they still had to be indexed and loaded one at a time.

While Officer Pence struggled to reload his sidearm, Gary Kness was still trying to find a way to get into the fight. He grabbed the shotgun that had been dropped by Alleyn, but quickly discovered it was empty. Davis began firing at Kness with Frago's revolver, and Kness quickly returned fire with Alleyn's .357. The rounds pounded into the Pontiac, and a fragment hit Davis in the chest, but it didn't slow him down. In the chaos, with Pence wounded and trying to reload, Twinning moved around the CHP car and killed Pence with two shots to the head. Kness ran out of ammunition and retreated across the parking lot to a drainage ditch, just as a third CHP unit arrived at the now bloody scene. A few rounds were exchanged and Davis and Twinning grabbed the officers weapons and ran off into the darkness on foot.

The outcome was banal, anticlimactic. Davis was arrested, sentenced to death, and ultimately killed himself in his cell in 2009. Twinning was trapped in a house with hostages shortly after the gunfight, and killed himself rather than being arrested.

150 seconds. 60 rounds expended across three cars in a restaurant parking lot. Eyeball range, muzzle flash, the sound of bullets hitting metal and meat, and the gasps and moans of the dying. This was the lesson that had to be learned the hard way - it almost never happens, but when it does it's too fast and too chaotic to think your way through. You need to already know what to do tactically, and you need to have a minimally functional set of equipment. None of the CHP officers were wearing ballistic vests - that would change as the quality and usability of body armor improved. The CHP would continue to issue .357 revolvers, but they would issue .38 special ammunition - the blast and recoil of the magnum rounds were hard for the Officers to control. Hitting the target with lighter rounds was deemed to be better than missing with high power magnum rounds. And finally, that dropbox was quickly replaced with the ubiquitous HKS speedloader, giving an officer a chance to quickly reload his revolver, even in the dark in the midst of a gunfight.

But the primary lesson law enforcement slowly had to accept after Newhall was that the police NEVER want to have an even fight. Two on two when you don't know who you're dealing with is bad doctrine. If Alleyn and Frago had just waited until the second CHP car arrived, and dealt with Davis and Twinning in such a way as to prevent them from being able to fight, the situation would have turned out differently. Today, doctrine around traffic stops makes it much harder - not impossible, mind you, just much harder - to take the initiative and ambush the police. And just about everything you see them do has its roots in that bloody night in Newhall.

Monday, November 10, 2014

An Effective Political Strategy

Well, yeah, but who knew it
would work out this well?
Republicans won the 2014 mid-terms in overwhelming fashion. As a result, there is a tremendous amount of thought, speculation and agonizing over the reasons for this victory, and what Democrats might have done differently to achieve better outcomes.

I'd say two things. First, Congressional races are fundamentally different from national races. They involve much smaller constituencies, and those voter populations are arranged in a much different manner. The Obsolete American electoral system was originally designed to balance political power between the rural farmers and those in the cities. This has, over time, resulted in a deep imbalance in representation, with the smaller rural and exurban populations having a greater voice than the larger, more diverse urban populations.

But the main thing to think about isn't structural politics, or Democratic political strategies. It's more important to realize how successful Republican political strategy was, and to think about what that means for American democratic political system in the future. It has always been a temptation to the party out of power. Obstruct everything. Do everything you can to make sure that government can't solve any of the nation's problems, and intervene at every level to be certain that government doesn't help anyone or accomplish anything good. Use political power to trash the economy and then roll back unemployment benefits. It's tempting, but no party ever adopted it as an organizing strategy because the assumption was that voters would punish the party for making things worse.

Then came Mitch McConnell, and his post-election epiphany. After Obama's election, McConnell took the position that if they obstructed everything the new President tried to do, and prevented him from improving the economy or making anyone's lives better, the public would blame HIM - and by extension, the Democrats - for their unhappiness with the political leadership. And sure enough, that's exactly what happened. The result of six years of sabotage and vandalism on a grand political scale is the Republicans find themselves in their most powerful position in decades. They know they are unpopular, but their actions as the minority party in divided government made the status quo even more unpopular, and while everyone in the US is well aware of who the President is, surprisingly few of them know which party controls the houses of Congress, or even what Congress has the power to do.

Much of what has allowed the wealthy and the corporations to take complete control of the electoral and political system can be attributed to that alone. Americans are the ultimate low-information voters. They don't read, they have no understanding of how their own system is supposed to work, and they are very often simply misinformed by media outlets that can't or won't tell the truth. So they believe that the president has substantially more power than he does, and they hold him responsible for "not getting things done". The Republican party exploited this fundamental weakness, intentionally breaking the system of governance and then reaping the political benefits when the people predictably misdirected their anger.

Of course, the genie's well and truly out of the bottle now. The practical experiment in cynical, destructive politics has been run, and the results are there for all to see. Now, faced as we are with at least another decade of divided government, if one assumes the Democrats learn the lesson on offer, the chances for improvement in American quality of life are essentially null. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have a choice to make. Should they 'turn the other cheek', accept the role of the 'adult in the room' and try to govern within the constraints of what the Republican majority deems acceptable, or should they emulate the 'McConnell Doctrine' and just block, interfere, cripple and obstruct everything the Republican congressional leadership tries to do?

That question leads to another - if the Democrats lend support to whatever legislation can be passed that Obama might sign, will those same voters then see it as a revitalized Democratic President working with congress, or would they instead see it as the Republicans providing political and governmental leadership in a vacuum left by feckless Democrats? What you'd like to see mostly depends on what you believe is good for the country - my great concern is that Obama will sign odious Republican legislation in the name of 'governing' - so a robust Democratic minority obstructionist regime seems like the right approach to me.

But the real lesson is don't listen to the conventional wisdom, and don't listen to the media, who live in an alternative reality where the Republicans aren't barking mad anarchists, vandals and neo-fascists. Think about what you want, what you can get and what might be just a couple years away. You're going to have to live with a system that is broken at a fundamental level, and any effective political strategy is going to have to work within that framework.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Free World's Strong Right Arm

Oh yeah. They used them in The Troubles too
In the years before the First Persian Gulf War in 1990, the world was organized somewhat differently from what we have grown used to today.  The overarching organizing principles for geopolitical relations were shaped by the US vs. Soviet bipolar "Cold War" on the one hand, and centuries of colonial rule on the other.  Particularly as the colonies began to resist their (mostly) European masters and seek, and ultimately achieve, independence, the end of the colonial era provided a fruitful geography for proxy wars.  So much of the cold war conflict in the English, French, German and Portuguese colonies and former colonies came down to which super power was providing the necessary resources for rebellion - mostly money, weapons and ammunition.

Recognizing that these indigenous forces were largely illiterate and unfamiliar with modern technology, the weapons and tactics were limited to the most basic options.  For the Soviet proxies, that was easy. The SKS rifle and AK-47 assault rifle were ubiquitous. They were simple, robust, cheap and deadly, utilizing the 7.65x39 cartridge which simplified and streamlined logistics.  So what would the western democracies use to stand against this tidal wave of Russian firepower?

You might find it difficult to believe, but the US had very little to say about this. In the immediate postwar years the world found itself awash with weapons, including American M1 and M2 carbines and BARs, but as the Russians and their manufacturing partners began to pour the more modern and effective AKs and SKSs into Africa and Asia, the West realized it needed to provide something comparable.  In the 1960s, the US was transitioning from the full power M-14 to the modern 1st generation intermediate power M-16. The M-14 was inappropriate for use in the colonial wars, and the M-16 was brand new, and was years away from being available for distribution to third world proxy armies.

Enter the Bloody Belgians. While the US and NATO countries were struggling to develop and adopt a modern infantry rifle, the Belgian arms manufacturer Fabrique Nationale had been producing the FAL since 1954. It was a modern, select fire full power battle rifle, firing the 7.62x54 NATO cartridge that was similar in performance to the American .30-06 and the British .303 rounds used in WWII. Because of the recoil of the big NATO .30 caliber round, the FAL was less effective in full automatic fire than the the less powerful Russian intermediate cartridge, but to many it made up for that with much greater range, penetration and stopping power.

It's not something that has made its way into the American historical gestalt, but around the world the FAL was the iconic arm of the colonial powers in thousands of post-colonial proxy conflicts, large and small, around the globe.  At its peak, the FAL was in use by 90 countries around the world. But that wasn't all.  The British adopted the FAL, re-engineered to an "inch pattern", as the L1A1 Self-Loading rifle and issued it to Commonwealth troops until its replacement by the L85A1 in the late 1980s.

Americans tend to see the world from the inside looking out, so their understanding of cold-war era proxy conflicts sort of begins and ends with Vietnam.  And so they see the iconic weapons as M-16 vs. AK-47.  But in the rest of the world they know about Congo, and Eritria, and Biafra, and Angola, and Suez and the Indo-Pakistan war of '71. And while you'd see the SKS and the AKs in those bloody fights so few remember, what you also saw was the FN FAL chugging out those big, heavy bullets, drowning out the sharp bark of the smaller Russian rounds in desperate fights that made the world what it is today.

Roland might have been a Thompson Gunner, but when he ran out of .45 ACP I guarantee you he had an FAL near to hand.

Ultimately, the world left big, powerful battle rifles behind. Oh, there's still some out there - the Marines and special forces community are busily restoring old M-14s into something called a Designated Marksman Rifle and issuing them at the squad level to increase the effective range and firepower over the 5.56 the rest are carrying.  But before it fades out of modern memory, we need to recognize that millions depended on the "Free World's Strong Right Arm" the FN FAL, to defend a million nameless bridges, crossroads and villages. There are untold graves holding those who never knew that there was a bigger stick than the AK.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Actually, it IS Rocket Science

Chincoteague, we have a problem
So last week we saw two spectacular, if unrelated, failures in the commercial spaceflight realm. What's the deal? One was a routine cargo flight to the ISS in low earth orbit, and the other was an atmospheric test of a commercial sub-orbital spacecraft being developed to serve the space tourism market. We've been doing this kind of thing for well over forty years now. Don't we have it mostly figured out at this point?

The fact is that both of these accidents represent the kinds of catastrophic failures were going to continue to see in spaceflight forever, no matter how mature the technologies and routine the processes become. In the case of the Orbital Sciences Antares launch vehicle, it was very likely a failure of the liquid fueled rocket engines used in the first stage, and in the case of SpaceShip 2 it appears to be either a pilot or systems error in the deployment of an experimental set of aerodynamic surfaces intended to facilitate deceleration and control upon re-entry.

Much has been made of the fact that the Antares first stage used the Aerojet AJ-26 bipropellant ligquid fueled rocket engine, which is a refurbished Soviet era NK-33 rocket originally designed and built for the Soviet manned lunar program. But that's unfair. These engines (with one significant exception we'll get to in a moment) are mature, thoroughly tested designs that have been successfully employed for decades. Rocket engines are very hard to get right, and both liquid and solid fueled engines have their own complexities. But large liquid fueled rockets are notorious - they are essentially huge, highly sensitive bombs that are - if all goes well - detonated in a controlled fashion, generating lift based on Newton's third law.

The NK-33 is a staged combustion design, using Liquid Oxygen to oxidize a high grade kerosene called RP-1. In the preburner stage above the turbopumps, it uses an unusually oxygen rich fuel to drive the turbopumps. Most rocket designers have shied away from that approach, as the oxygen rich fuel is highly destructive to metal, and can result in burn-through. We don't know if this is what happened with CRS Orb-3, as the Soviet metallurgists have historically successfully prevented it, but it is worth consideration. Also worth noting is the use of the Castor 30XL second stage for the first time on an Antares launch vehicle. While there's no reason to initially suspect the second stage in the loss of thrust event that resulted in the destruction of the spacecraft, it certainly contributed a great deal of powerful fuel to the explosion.

For the loss of SpaceShip 2, the cause may be even more prosaic. The spacecraft uses a deployable set of aerodynamic surfaces as part of its re-entry process. For some reason, the pilots released the lock and the system, called 'Feathering' deployed during powered climb rather than later, on unpowered descent. This may have rendered the craft uncontrollable and led to the crash.

But the key takeaway from last weeks catastrophes is that chemical rockets are very hard to design, build and operate, and that space travel will never be 'safe'. The very idea that you could consider yourself safe sitting on top of a giant bomb intended to shoot you out of earth's atmosphere, and then somehow returning that hyper-velocity craft to the surface in one piece is kind of delusional. But that's ok - people who seek safety and people who seek adventure are never the same people, and before you get where you're going you have to expect some pretty tough setbacks. I hate it when we lose good people, but I'm glad there are people willing to work on these problems despite the costs.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Words Have Meanings Episode XXII - "Job Creation"

Odd. Didn't we see that same sign back about
a hundred miles?
Both sides of the ideological spectrum have seized on the concept of 'job creation' ever since the collapse of the US economy in 2008. Now it has become a phrase that is tossed off to mean the same thing as 'lowering the unemployment rate'. But is that what it actually means? Is the primary solution to unemployment the creation of new, heretofore nonexistent jobs? And what forces and dynamics can be brought to bear to accomplish such a task?

It's true that the American workforce is expanding due to population growth. The economy must add about 90,000 jobs overall every month to keep pace with this growth in available workers. So what causes job growth? Well, if we assume that existing companies are fairly careful to keep their workforces in line with their ongoing production requirements, then it is going to largely be new companies, new divisions, new technologies, new kinds of production and transactions that produce new jobs. And that's where it can get dicey. One of the technology-driven growth success stories we're seeing now is in the realm of 3D printing. And certainly, companies are ramping up their 3D printing design, production and marketing teams. But the people who are buying that kind of technology - along with the vast explosion of various CNC manufacturing equipment vendors - are using it to replace workers with automated production solutions. Just as in the last twenty years a number of companies have enjoyed explosive growth building industrial automation robots, their customers are using those products to reduce workforce headcount.

And therein lies the fundamental problem that nobody ever seems to want to discuss. The high unemployment rate is the result of lost jobs.  The way to reduce the unemployment rate would be for demand to return to previous levels and those people who lost their jobs to simply return to work. There is no possibility that the creation of new jobs can ever have a significant impact on the unemployment rate. And sure enough, unemployment has stayed stubbornly high because the US consumer economic demand simply hasn't returned to pre-recession levels. So you have a condition where jobs were eliminated when the economy collapsed, and due to rising worker productivity and workplace automation, have never needed to be re-filled. What you see instead is a steady decrease in workforce participation rates, as every month a few more workers come to the wistful realization that they will never hold another job.

Demand cannot increase until there is more disposable income in people's pockets. And with the top 10% hoovering up all the wage and income gains, consumers don't have the money to spend that would fuel demand growth. It's really very simple - every time a poor or middle class person spends a dollar, some portion of it is redirected to the wealthy, where it goes into investments or bank accounts rather than back into the economy.

So the net outcome is jobs are NOT being created in any significant numbers. A few hundred thousand jobs are FILLED every month, while a few tens of thousands of workers drop out of the workforce. There's no upward pressure on wages, no upward pressure on inflation, and no new technology poised to drive a new spurt of economic growth. All while coroporate profits and valuations are at all time highs. There's nothing that can improve America's economy, and any decent sized global demand shock will trash it again.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Over at the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a piece about the frayed and rapidly unraveling diplomatic relations between the Netanyahu and Obama governments, and saw dire consequences. Many of us have seen the pompous, self-serving and brutal Netanyahu as the greatest threat to the well being of Israel for years, but the sudden frantic sounding of the alarms isn't the part of Goldberg's reporting that has gotten the lions share of attention. Instead, it's a quote from an unnamed but clearly high ranking Obama administration official, in which he used the term 'chickenshit' to describe PM Netanyahu, in such a way to indicate it was conventional wisdom in Washington.

The quotes used the term to describe Bibi in a number of contexts - one of which was the complete conviction that he will never accept the risks of starting a war with Iran, a conviction that gives Washington the freedom of movement to negotiate Iran's nuclear program over the spittle-flecked bluster of the Netanyahu administration - but the clear focus was within the wholly unsurprising context of Israeli domestic politics. As quoted in Goldberg's article:

“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, expanding the definition of what a chickenshit Israeli prime minister looks like. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not [Yitzhak] Rabin, he’s not [Ariel] Sharon, he’s certainly no [Menachem] Begin. He’s got no guts.”

Now, to be fair this kind of risk-averse politics is not unusual in western democracies.  It's hard to think of a modern politician on the global stage who might NOT fairly be labeled a 'chickenshit'. It's just that in order to hold his political coalition together Netanyahu must implement a series of increasingly despicable and inhuman policies while repeatedly derailing a peace process, that while it could cement his place in history, would certainly cost him any future role in the Israeli political leadership.

But the deeper question is not about political leaders sacrificing statesmanship on the alter of craven politics, but what the practical manifestation of those craven politics might be. We could talk about the lies, the murders all over the globe, the lack of loyalty to his very best friends and supporters, the alliances of convenience with the worst despotic regimes, the war crimes and the ongoing brutal occupation. But for now, lets consider how having a leader who is such a grotesque chickenshit is affecting Israel herself. The Israeli political right continues to demand more and more. It was bad enough to appoint the noted genocidal racist Avigdor Lieberman to head the Foreign Ministry. Then it was worse to continue to authorize more and more settlements on the West Bank, in spite of the fact that they are an unquestionable violation of international law. The steaming pile of crimes got even deeper with each new episode of collective punishment, when entire neighborhoods of civilians were slaughtered in response to a few specific provocations.

So, flush with a decade of increased deference from the Netanyahu government, the political and religious right has now set their sights on East Jerusalem, and the Dome of the Rock. There would be no greater victory for them than to ethnically cleanse East Jerusalem of Arabs and Muslims and bring in the bulldozers to once and for all desecrate the Muslim Holy Sites. And while the West Bank smolders and teeters on the brink of a third intifada, something is different this time. This time the world has had enough. Enough of the murders, enough of the bigotry and random, mindless violence, enough of the stateless, helpless population living out hopeless lives under brutal occupation. It may just be that this time around, Chickenshit Bibi may find that he's damned if he does continue to kowtow to the demands of the racist right wing, and he's damned if he doesn't.

If it becomes clear that either course will cost him his job, which way will he turn? It's interesting to note that just yesterday the UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the latest West Bank settlements, which means the US delegation did not veto that statement. A few days before that, Sweden became the first major EU nation to recognize the State of Palestine. Relations with the Obama Administration are very tense. If the West Bank goes up in flames again this winter, the world's reaction will be much different than it has been in the past.

Israel is not at risk. They are the regional military and economic powerhouse. But that doesn't mean that international isolation will go un-noticed. The Israeli government is facing some very hard choices very soon, and it doesn't bode well for them that those choices will have to be made by a leader who has an international reputation for being a chickenshit.