Friday, June 20, 2008

Two crime stories;_ylt=Am.DG83fS4AbgFP9HNUc2ONbIwgF

A Michigan man on trial for murdering two women, and suspected of many more, claims to be innocent. A line in the article alludes to DNA evidence, but doesn't go into detail about the case. One family member of a victim says they hoped to see remorse from the killer, which, to anyone who has studied these types of offenders, is asking way too much. It's understandable for someone grieving to want the killer to grieve too, but these killers have no sense of empathy for their victims. That's how they're able to kill again and again. Most of us, who do feel at least a shred of empathy for others, could never do what killers like this do. The suspect reportedly stabbed one woman and beat another to death with a toilet tank lid. That's a new one. It could indicate an impulse killing; the suspect didn't intend to kill the victim, but got angry and used whatever was available in a fit of rage.;_ylt=AtrG9MnEF6QE0lJDAYoVE7FbIwgF

Over in New Hampshire, a woman who killed two boyfriends has pleaded insanity, a plea rejected by the jury. The defense claimed that their client had a delusion where she judged all men to be pedophiles, and was told by God to kill them. If that's true, why did she date them before killing them? Insanity pleas are rarely successful, especially since the defendant was seen burning the remains of her victims, indicating an awareness of the possible consequences. But even Richard Trenton Chase, the so-called "Vampire of Sacramento," a confirmed paranoid schizophrenic, was judged sane and fit for the electric chair. One victim's mother went off on a tirade, calling the woman "evil" and other victims' rights buzzwords, saying she "took advantage" of a poor, innocent man. I know it's considered poor form to speak ill of the dead, but why are the victims of violent crimes always the nicest, greatest people in the world, according to those who knew them? Why aren't bitches and assholes ever the victims of serial killers? Maybe the deaths, and the often gruesome circumstances, make the family members feel they have to show the victim in the best possible light, for whatever reason.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Bound's DJ Panic was among the performers at Artomatic's goth/fetish show last night, as well as Wormcult (whose set I unfortunately missed), Madame Klawdya Rothschild and Dharmata101. One of the best parts of the show was, since the only bathrooms on the first floor were at the Electric Stage, tourists and other yuppie types coming through and witnessing something they hadn't expected. It almost could have been part of the show. Klawdya and two cohorts did a piece that could only be described as bondage ballet, a representation of a wedding ceremony with literal knots. Panic kept the atmosphere going between acts, and Dharmata101 sounded better than ever. One of their best shows, at least of the few that I've seen. It's a shame more people weren't there to see it. Klawdya will be at the Erotic Art showcase in Baltimore July 18-19, along with Julie Simone and the legendary Annie Sprinkle, and I hope to be there.
I also had time to go to some of the other exhibits at Artomatic. Adrienne Lynee Harris' series of quiet moments captured in photographs stood out, as did Vincent M. Faravharson's paintings and photography exhibits by Serge Batyrshin and Kate McGovern. Other artists that made an impression were MJ Volpe, Brett Davis, Kelly Guerrero, Pat Flynn, Paul Seegars, Bryanna Millis, Gregory Watson, Ericca Riccardelli, the "Tiny Ghosts," Paivi Salonen, Scott Speck, Angela Kleis and Jack Whitsitt. And there's so much more there that I have yet to explore. And it's closing after this weekend.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Stalin's Russia seen from two sides

Two recent books, Martin Amis' novel House of Meetings and Pete Early's account of conversations with a former KGB spy Comrade J, tell two very different stories from inside the Soviet Union. The central character of Amis' novel is a gulag prisoner, forced into a labor camp for "fascist" views, or dissent from the Communist party line. Amis describes the excruciatingly cruel conditions in which these prisoners were forced to live for many years of their lives. Many of the prisoners were there because of "Western sympathies" or other forms of challenges to the Communist state. But I read House of Meetings while also reading Comrade J, where Sergei Tretakov (the name is probably misspelled since I don't currently have the book in front of me) details his life as an elite member of the KGB and SVR, the new name given to the KGB after the fall of Communism. Tretakov describes the living and working conditions of KGB operatives, which were much better that those of ordinary Russians and included access to Western luxury goods, a blatant hypocrisy that was never questioned. While reading about the suffering of gulag inmates under Stalinism, I also read about the special treatment given to the spies and secret police dedicated to keeping conditions dour for the Russian people. It's hardly surprising that Soviet officials were such self-serving hypocrites, but reading about it next to accounts of the gulags makes it all the more glaring and unforgiveable.
Tretakov also reveals the duplicitous and often cruel training that every KGB hopeful had to endure. In several interviews, his loyalty to the Soviet Union is tested, as well as his personal conduct. One interviewer tries to engage him in friendly discussion about "French girls" (make of that what you want) and mocks Sergei when he says he's married and has no experience in that area. Sergei also, in keeping with his loyalty to the state, backs up a recent controversial diplomatic move and is again mocked by his superior. Thinking he has blown the interview, Sergei later hears that the superiors were actually very happy with his performance. This is only a minor example of what KGB spies had to go through, including meticulous background checks and covert missions that potentially involved turning over friends and family to Soviet officials. Sergei was praised for lying to colleagues and ratting them out, which Amis' Russian protagonist describes as a characteristic unique to Russian criminals, in that they don't see betrayal as a crime. The fact that Amis includes future president Vladimir Putin with "Russian criminals" is likely why Amis joked that if he went to Russia, he'd end up getting a dose of polonium like the unfortunate Alexander Litvenenko.
As a member of the SVR, Sergei was sent to America to find state secrets to send back to Russia. During this time, Sergei became a double agent, also giving Russian secrets to the US government. After his retirement, he contacted true crime writer Pete Early to tell his story. Early was skeptical about Sergei's motives, but since the US government had taken care of him and his family financially, it wasn't about money. Sergei said that the reason he came forward, knowing that it could lead to his death, was to warn Americans that just because the Soviet Union has fallen doesn't mean that Russia is now their friend. The KGB still exists under a different name, and has infiltrated American soil. Sergei Tretakov is a skilled liar and double agent, so his motives may not be entirely honorable. But still, he tells an intriguing and often frightening story.
One of Sergei's best stories is his shock at discovering that Vladimir Putin had become president of Russia. Putin was a low-ranking member of the KGB who had never distinguished himself in a remarkable way. Even after serving as a member of Boris Yeltsin's cabinet, he was not a favorite to win the upcoming election. Until an attack on a Russian state building that was blamed on Chechan rebels (I really need to look into this story further, so it's not as complete in this post as I'd like). Putin vowed swift justice on the perpetrators, which made his popularity among Russian voters skyrocket. It's all a bit suspicious, and would set the course for more suspicious acts to come. Included in Comrade J is a collection of photos, such as one of Sergei Tretakov with other Russian spies, one who would later become Vladimir Putin's chief of private security.
In House of Meetings, the protagonist, looking back on his time in the gulags, has one wish: an apology for how he and millions of other prisoners were treated by Stalin and his minions. The damage can't be undone, but for the officials to acknowledge their wrongdoing might make his suffering a little easier to take. In the mess that the Bush administration has made, again the damage has already been done, but somehow I feel that an admission of guilt, an acknowledgment that mistakes had been made, might make it slightly easier to forgive them. But the League of Evil has refused to admit any mistakes in Iraq, the economy, 9/11, or anything. Condeleeza Rice tried, during a visit to England when she said that the administration had made "thousands" of mistakes in Iraq, but she and/or her co-conspirators promptly ate her words and tried to convince the world and themselves that they had been right all along. Backing down and admitting defeat isn't always a sign of weakness. Sometimes that's what takes true strength. I've learned that myself, that it's often hardest, but best in the long run, to admit that I've made a mistake and to learn how to fix it and avoid the same behavior in the future.
In a side note to my last post: Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert Kennedy, was a Palestinian radical who objected to the US's support of Israel and thought that he could somehow start a revolution (or something) by shooting an American politician. It may not have mattered to Sirhan who he shot, as long as it was an American public figure.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Remembering Bobby Kennedy

Forty years ago today, Robert F. Kennedy died after being hit with an assassin's bullet. He didn't have the opportunity to fulfill his political promise, but he won many admirers for his stance against the Vietnam War, against poverty and the imbalance of wealth, and for equal rights for all Americans. That Kennedy, a popular figure in the black community for his support of the civil rights movement, was killed shortly after Martin Luther King illustrates the status of black Americans forty years ago. Back then, a politician saying he or she supported civil rights for blacks was like a politician today coming out in favor of gay rights; it was a very polarizing issue. I can only hope that in another forty years, rights for gays will have reached the status of civil rights for blacks, as a right that no hopeful leader would dare question without committing political suicide. Robert Kennedy was ahead of the curve, aligning himself with the civil rights movement and the efforts of leaders like Martin Luther King, and he was killed for it. Kennedy was only human, and he was far from perfect, but at least he tried to make a difference.
On the subject of assassinating political figures, it always seems to have the opposite effect the assassin intended. With the exception of John Hinckley, who had no personal beef with Ronald Reagan and would have shot anyone who happened to be President at that time, Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray, John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald (or whoever you happen to think killed JFK) and anyone else who killed or attempted to kill a public figure probably hoped to enact a counter-revolution by killing the revolutionary figure of their choosing. But that's never what happens. All the assassins do is turn their victims into martyrs for the cause, giving them an aura of near-saintliness that they may not have been able to hold had they lived out their lives in full. Assassinating the perceived enemy doesn't achieve anything but giving the murderer a brief feeling of satisfaction, and public notoriety. It rarely, if ever, helps the assassin's cause.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Scott McClellan and the psychology of dissent

There was nothing in former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's comments about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq that didn't just confirm suspicions I already had. They were lying to the American people about the reasons to go to war, Karl Rove is an amoral opportunist (honestly, who didn't already know that?) and the whole administration is a corrupt mess. But now the Bushites are left to do damage control, and their first instinct was to call McClellan a bitter former employee. I don't know the circumstances of McClellan's exit from Bush's league of evil, but since I already had an inkling of what he said happened behind the league's closed doors, I'm inclined to at least listen to what he says.
The "he's just bitter" argument was also leveled against Mark Felt, the former Number Two in the FBI recently revealed as Woodward and Bernstein's informer Deep Throat. Supposedly, according to the Nixon faithful, Felt had a grudge against Nixon for passing him over as head of the FBI, and wanted to take him down. With both Felt and McClellan, I feel that while they had personal conflicts with the powers that they spoke out against, they ultimately broke their silences because of a crisis of conscience. Having that information about the powers that be screwing the people they're supposed to serve grated on their minds. McClellan could have spoken out sooner, but at least he did. McClellan and Felt may or may not have been trying to exact revenge on their former bosses, but their personal problems with them probably made their decisions to come forward easier, that any thought that they might be hurting those they accused vanished with the knowledge that the bosses had committed terrible wrongs, and that they they themselves had felt betrayed.
As illustrated in Putin's Russia, dissent sometimes comes with a heavy price. Alexander Litvenenko, a former KGB spy who had accused other KGB officials, including future president Vladimir Putin, of corruption, was poisoned with polonium, and the top suspect, another former KGB spy named along with Putin in Litvenenko's testimony, has been hiding out under the protection of the Kremlin ever since.