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In Iraq, I raided insurgents. In Virginia, the police raided me.

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Alex Horton, 30, poses in the hallway outside his apartment on Thursday July 16, 2015 in Alexandria, VA. An Iraq War veteran, Horton was recently awoken by a police raid as he slept. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post) (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

By Alex Horton July 24

I got home from the bar and fell into bed soon after Saturday night bled into Sunday morning. I didn’t wake up until three police officers barged into my apartment, barking their presence at my door. They sped down the hallway to my bedroom, their service pistols drawn and leveled at me.

It was just past 9 a.m., and I was still under the covers. The only visible target was my head.

In the shouting and commotion, I felt an instant familiarity. I’d been here before. This was a raid.

I had done this a few dozen times myself, 6,000 miles away from my Alexandria, Va., apartment. As an Army infantryman in Iraq, I’d always been on the trigger side of the weapon. Now that I was on the barrel side, I recalled basic training’s most important firearm rule: Aim only at something you intend to kill.

I had conducted the same kind of raid on suspected bombmakers and high-value insurgents. But the Fairfax County officers in my apartment were aiming their weapons at a target whose rap sheet consisted only of parking tickets and an overdue library book.

My situation was terrifying. Lying facedown in bed, I knew that any move I made could be viewed as a threat. Instinct told me to get up and protect myself. Training told me that if I did, these officers would shoot me dead.

In a panic, I asked the officers what was going on but got no immediate answer. Their tactics were similar to the ones I used to clear rooms during the height of guerilla warfare in Iraq. I could almost admire it — their fluid sweep from the bedroom doorway to the distant corner. They stayed clear of one another’s lines of fire in case they needed to empty their Sig Sauer .40-caliber pistols into me.

They were well-trained, their supervisor later told me. But I knew that means little when adrenaline governs an imminent-danger scenario, real or imagined. Triggers are pulled. Mistakes are made.

I spread my arms out to either side. An officer jumped onto my bed and locked handcuffs onto my wrists. The officers rolled me from side to side, searching my boxers for weapons, then yanked me up to sit on the edge of the bed.

At first, I was stunned. I searched my memory for any incident that would justify a police raid. Then it clicked.

Earlier in the week, the managers of my apartment complex moved me to a model unit while a crew repaired a leak in my dishwasher. But they hadn’t informed my temporary neighbors. So when one resident noticed the door slightly cracked open to what he presumed was an unoccupied apartment, he looked in, saw me sleeping and called the police to report a squatter.

Sitting on the edge of the bed dressed only in underwear, I laughed. The situation was ludicrous and embarrassing. My only mistake had been failing to make sure the apartment door was completely closed before I threw myself into bed the night before.

I told the officers to check my driver’s license, nodding toward my khaki pants on the floor. It showed my address at a unit in the same complex. As the fog of their chaotic entry lifted, the officers realized it had been an unfortunate error. They walked me into the living room and removed the cuffs, though two continued to stand over me as the third contacted management to confirm my story. Once they were satisfied, they left.

When I later visited the Fairfax County police station to gather details about what went wrong, I met the shift commander, Lt. Erik Rhoads. I asked why his officers hadn’t contacted management before they raided the apartment. Why did they classify the incident as a forced entry, when the information they had suggested something innocuous? Why not evaluate the situation before escalating it?

Rhoads defended the procedure, calling the officers’ actions “on point.” It’s not standard to conduct investigations beforehand because that delays the apprehension of suspects, he told me.

I noted that the officers could have sought information from the apartment complex’s security guard that would have resolved the matter without violence. But he played down the importance of such information: “It doesn’t matter whatsoever what was said or not said at the security booth.”

This is where Rhoads is wrong. We’ve seen this troubling approach to law enforcement nationwide, in militarized police responses to nonviolent protesters and in fatal police shootings of unarmed citizens. The culture that encourages police officers to engage their weapons before gathering information promotes the mind-set that nothing, including citizen safety, is more important than officers’ personal security. That approach has caused public trust in law enforcement to deteriorate.

It’s the same culture that characterized the early phases of the Iraq war, in which I served a 15-month tour in 2006 and 2007. Soldiers left their sprawling bases in armored vehicles, leveling buildings with missile strikes and shooting up entire blocks during gun battles with insurgents, only to return to their protected bases and do it all again hours later.

The short-sighted notion that we should always protect ourselves endangered us more in the long term. It was a flawed strategy that could often create more insurgents than it stopped and inspired some Iraqis to hate us rather than help us.

In one instance in Baghdad, a stray round landed in a compound that our unit was building. An overzealous officer decided that we were under attack and ordered machine guns and grenade launchers to shoot at distant rooftops. A row of buildings caught fire, and we left our compound on foot, seeking to capture any injured fighters by entering structures choked with flames.

Instead, we found a man frantically pulling his furniture out of his house. “Thank you for your security!” he yelled in perfect English. He pointed to the billowing smoke. “This is what you call security?”

We didn’t find any insurgents. There weren’t any. But it was easy to imagine that we forged some in that fire. Similarly, when U.S. police officers use excessive force to control nonviolent citizens or respond to minor incidents, they lose supporters and public trust.

That’s a problem, because law enforcement officers need the cooperation of the communities they patrol in order to do their jobs effectively. In the early stages of the war, the U.S. military overlooked that reality as well. Leaders defined success as increasing military hold on geographic terrain, while the human terrain was the real battle. For example, when our platoon entered Iraq’s volatile Diyala province in early 2007, children at a school plugged their ears just before an IED exploded beneath one of our vehicles. The kids knew what was coming, but they saw no reason to warn us. Instead, they watched us drive right into the ambush. One of our men died, and in the subsequent crossfire, several insurgents and children were killed. We saw Iraqis cheering and dancing at the blast crater as we left the area hours later.

With the U.S. effort in Iraq faltering, Gen. David Petraeus unveiled a new counterinsurgency strategy that year. He believed that showing more restraint during gunfights would help foster Iraqis’ trust in U.S. forces and that forming better relationships with civilians would improve our intelligence-gathering. We refined our warrior mentality — the one that directed us to protect ourselves above all else — with a community-building component.

My unit began to patrol on foot almost exclusively, which was exceptionally more dangerous than staying inside our armored vehicles. We relinquished much of our personal security by entering dimly lit homes in insurgent strongholds. We didn’t know if the hand we would shake at each door held a detonator to a suicide vest or a small glass of hot, sugary tea.

But as a result, we better understood our environment and earned the allegiance of some people in it. The benefits quickly became clear. One day during that bloody summer, insurgents loaded a car with hundreds of pounds of explosives and parked it by a school. They knew we searched every building for hidden weapons caches, and they waited for us to gather near the car. But as we turned the corner to head toward the school, several Iraqis told us about the danger. We evacuated civilians from the area and called in a helicopter gunship to fire at the vehicle.

The resulting explosion pulverized half the building and blasted the car’s engine block through two cement walls. Shrapnel dropped like jagged hail as far as a quarter-mile away.

If we had not risked our safety by patrolling the neighborhood on foot, trusting our sources and gathering intelligence, it would have been a massacre. But no one was hurt in the blast.

Domestic police forces would benefit from a similar change in strategy. Instead of relying on aggression, they should rely more on relationships. Rather than responding to a squatter call with guns raised, they should knock on the door and extend a hand. But unfortunately, my encounter with officers is just one in a stream of recent examples of police placing their own safety ahead of those they’re sworn to serve and protect.

Rhoads, the Fairfax County police lieutenant, was upfront about this mind-set. He explained that it was standard procedure to point guns at suspects in many cases to protect the lives of police officers. Their firearm rules were different from mine; they aimed not to kill but to intimidate. According to reporting by The Washington Post, those rules are established in police training, which often emphasizes a violent response over deescalation. Recruits spend an average of eight hours learning how to neutralize tense situations; they spend more than seven times as many hours at the weapons range.

Of course, officers’ safety is vital, and they’re entitled to defend themselves and the communities they serve. But they’re failing to see the connection between their aggressive postures and the hostility they’ve encountered in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and other communities. When you level assault rifles at protesters, you create animosity. When you kill an unarmed man on his own property while his hands are raised — as Fairfax County police did in 2013 — you sow distrust. And when you threaten to Taser a woman during a routine traffic stop (as happened to 28-year-old Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail this month), you cultivate a fear of police. This makes policing more dangerous for everyone.

I understood the risks of war when I enlisted as an infantryman. Police officers should understand the risks in their jobs when they enroll in the academy, as well. That means knowing that personal safety can’t always come first. That is why it’s service. That’s why it’s sacrifice.

Twitter: @AlexHortonTX

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2533 days ago
Perth, Australia
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2532 days ago
2538 days ago
Thinking in absolutes is always dangerous but it's particularly bad in this area because the tactics adopted in the name of protecting officers actively endanger everyone else and there's no way to protect yourself. Even being a harmless infant in a crib isn't a protection, much less anyone who could in any way be misconstrued as a threat in any way.

The only way for civilians to be safe is for the police to accept less than complete control, either by avoiding escalation or accepting more risk, and that would be a big cultural shift.
Washington, DC

13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR

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The methodology described in a recent study, a peer-reviewed paper on animal behavior — in which biologists Tina Peckmezian and Phillip W. Taylor of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, worked with 56 female jumping spiders — is fascinating.

Here's what the biologists did:

First, the spiders were transferred from their cages to a refrigerator where they were "cooled until quiescent," as Peckmezian and Taylor put it, and placed on a chilled granite block. Then, small magnets were "gently affixed" to the spiders using a bit of dental cement, "taking care not to cover the eyes."

After a 24-hour period of recovery, the spiders were then "gently" lifted, using special equipment, onto a 3D-printed spherical treadmill that was positioned in front of a display screen, where the spiders were held in place by their magnets.

Next, the biologists projected a virtual-reality (VR) environment onto the screen that the spiders could walk through. (Not quite The Matrix or Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" that Marcelo wrote about last month, but an arachnid equivalent.)

And, here's the best part of all: It was a closed loop VR, meaning a VR environment in which the spiders' own movements caused contingent changes in what happened on the screen. (Previous experiments with jumping spiders occurred using an open loop system in which stimuli are presented independent of the animals' responses, which decreases the "reality" aspect of virtual reality.) The closed-loop projected scenes were set against a flat ground plane that was in texture and color meant to resemble tree bark.

Now, if you're like me, you have to be asking: "Why?"

Why put spiders on little treadmills in VR worlds?

The immediate goal of this research was to see if the spiders' behavioral tendencies and learning transferred from RW (the real world) to VR. The result was clear: They did. In one experiment, spiders encountered either an empty virtual world or one with 18 pillars randomly placed within it. Spiders in the empty condition were significantly less active than those in the more complex environment. The spiders' individual tendencies for spontaneous locomotion and other behavioral preferences were conserved in VR compared to RW.

In another experiment, spiders in RW encountered one of two conditions: either a beacon (a red pillar or green cross) placed behind their nest site or no beacon. Once put in VR, the spiders with beacon experience made more visits to the beacons — positioned in the same place relative to their own orientation as had been the case in RW — and spent more time near the beacons than spiders who hadn't first learned about beacons in RW. A learned association between beacons and nest sites had, in other words, transferred successfully across the two types of environments, just like spiders' individual tendencies had done.

These results are fun to know about in themselves, but important primarily because they validate that the VR environment will be a useful tool for the researchers' long-term goals: Peckmezian and Taylor seek new ways of studying visually mediated cognition in invertebrates.

As it turns out, jumping spiders are the perfect candidate for this endeavor because, unlike insects with their compound eyes, they have four pairs of specialized eyes, each with a single lens. Jumping spiders see the world with depth perception, color vision and, as the researchers write in their article, "a retina with spatial acuity that greatly exceeds that of any other animal with eyes of comparable size."

Earlier this week, I asked Tina Peckmezian by email if she could expand a little bit on the significance of their research plans. She responded in part:

"I can appreciate that the idea of spiders wandering around through virtual space may sound like science fiction, but virtual reality technology has been an incredible tool in the behavioral and neurosciences. A common goal for animal behavior researchers is to find a middle ground between providing realistic, ecologically relevant experimental conditions [and] conditions that can be precisely controlled and reproduced across trials.

Typically, there is a trade-off; you can test animals in their natural environment but can't control the environmental variables present on a particular day; or you can present a series of automated stimuli, but these don't provide important feedback information to the responding animal. VR lets you do both. You can create immersive, highly realistic 3D virtual environments that update in real time as the animal moves through them, and, since animals are typically restrained, can couple these with neurophysiological recordings."

So, now we know: Jumping spiders navigate VR worlds with arachnid aplomb.

Even as you read these words, more jumping spiders may be chilling in refrigerators, ready to take their places on the little treadmills. As they do, scientists will learn more about invertebrate perception and neurophysiology.

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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2536 days ago
Perth, Australia
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The unknown story of Cornelia Rau: Often she cried. Sometimes she screamed. She begun at Baxter in what was called Blue Compound. She was quickly sent to Red One

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In May 1998, while taking a four-month holiday from her job at Qantas, with time on her hands and showing the first signs of mental illness, Cornelia Rau had the misfortune of becoming involved with a Sydney sect called Kenja. This marked the turning point in her life, the disaster from which all else flowed. No one can know whether disaster would have come anyhow, some other way.

Cornelia was the younger daughter of Edgar and Veronika, a solid middle-class German couple from the Baltic city of Hamburg. Edgar Rau first brought his family to Sydney in 1967 to establish an Australian branch office of the pharmaceutical company for which he worked. In 1979 the family returned to Hamburg. After two years Edgar took his wife and Cornelia, by now in her mid-teens, on company business to Indonesia. In 1983, after Edgar left the company, the Raus settled, this time permanently, in Sydney. Cornelia was a warm and vivacious but troubled and restless young woman. She completed a diploma in leisure and recreation and began work as a flight attendant in 1993. She remained close to the family.

The sect which attracted Cornelia was established in 1982 by a charismatic World War II veteran, Ken Dyers, and a failed actress, Jan Hamilton. Kenja was formed from the first letters of their Christian names; they later discovered that in Japanese it meant wisdom. At the core of Kenja was a piece of Scientology-derived pseudo-psychological hocus-pocus called Energy Conversion. It embraced the idea of combating inner blockages to spontaneity through participation, on a regular basis and at a considerable cost (presently $130 a session), in two-way meditations. Dyers, or a “meditation consultant”, would lock into prolonged eye contact with a client – called “holding a person still” – and, after listening to their secrets, supposedly reach and unwrap the deepest recesses of the soul. In addition to the Energy Conversion sessions, members were expected to attend expensive workshops (about $50). They took part in eisteddfods and sporting events, in singing, dancing and – in order to renew contact with the spirit of the innocent child in all of us – what Jan called Klowning.

Kenja created for its members an ersatz community. The state of mind to which all aspired was called “havingness”. Nothing said in Kenja was confidential; information was centrally controlled. Those who left were thought of as failures and known as “security risks”. Inside Kenja, despite the leader’s occasional bursts of rage and his mania for control, Ken Dyers’ wisdom, authority and goodness were the unquestionable postulates. No one dared ask where the money went.

By the time of Cornelia’s involvement, Kenja had already attained considerable notoriety. In Nov-ember 1992, a Liberal parliamentarian in the New South Wales upper house, Stephen Mutch, brought the sect to public attention after two constituents came to him with the story of their daughter’s recruitment. Mutch described Kenja as “a sinister organisation designed to fill the pockets and stroke the egos” of Dyers and Hamilton. Kenja promised to offer its followers “unique insights into the meaning of life”. Dyers claimed, Mutch said, to possess “God-like knowledge”. In reality he was a “seedy conman” and “a liar, a cheat and a bully”. Having raised the question of Kenja in the NSW parliament, Mutch now became the recipient of a great deal of testimony about Kenja from the already long list of its victims. In April 1993 he returned to his theme, on this occasion speaking for more than three hours.

Mutch claimed that “recruits are required to confess and write down their darkest secrets” which were later “used to blackmail them if they attempt to leave the group”. He claimed that former Kenja members saw Dyers as a threatening presence who “promotes himself as [an] … expert in the use of violence”. The sect, he claimed, preyed upon psychologically vulnerable young people, especially from the educated middle class. He read into Hansard written evidence from former members who claimed that Kenja deliberately and systematically severed links between members and their families and required them to deliver sizeable parts of their income to the sect. One former member described the one-on-one Energy Conversion sessions like this: “His eyes would be looking into your eyes … you’d think he’s reading your mind and he knows what your thoughts are.” Several wrote about the unhealthy dependency relationship that had developed with “Ken”.

One young man, Michael Beaver, who had been inside Kenja between 1988 and 1990, informed Mutch that he was now “a diagnosed schizophrenic who had been hospitalised five times due to Kenja”. Beaver had heard of four other people who suffered severe psychological difficulties following time inside. “What right has this unqualified man, Ken Dyers, got to screw people’s minds up the way he does?” Shortly after writing this letter Beaver killed himself. A number of ex-Kenja women spoke of Dyers’ sexual predations. Bev Garlick sent Mutch a diary entry containing details of Dyers’ fondling of breasts during a collective workshop. Another anonymous informant wrote of her seduction. “During our weekly sessions, Ken became more and more interested in exploring the sexual hang-ups he felt I had. This involved more touching in the genital area, mutually … This escalated to oral sex on my part …” Dyers suggested Energy Conversion lying down. “This led to sex and he thanked me for it.”

Shortly after Mutch had presented his evidence, Dyers was charged with sexual offences against four girls between the ages of eight and 15, including unlawful sexual intercourse and digital penetration. At his first trial – where one of the accusers claimed Dyers had offered her cough lollies after oral sex to destroy the germs, and another that he had offered to solve the problem of her virginity – he was acquitted of some charges while others remained unresolved. At his second trial he was found guilty of indecent assault. An appeal in 2000 failed. A second appeal to the High Court in 2002 succeeded on technical grounds. The director of public prosecutions decided against a third trial. By now the case had dragged through the courts for almost ten years.

It seems clear that some of those involved with Kenja were equipped to survive the mind games, the creation of dependency, the undertone of violence and the sometimes sexually charged meditation therapy. It is equally clear that others, including Cornelia Rau, were not.

Cornelia was closely involved with Kenja for five months in 1998. During that time her family watched Cornelia grow both moody and remote. As her sister Christine explained to me, their parents became increasingly concerned about the amount of time Cornelia was spending with Kenja and the money it cost. Kenja members moved into Cornelia’s flat. Cornelia became infatuated with a Kenja man, Michael. She became obsessed about the threat to her wellbeing posed by a female friend of Michael’s known as Alison. (Four years later Cornelia actually moved out of her Rose Bay flat to get away from the evil spirit Alison had cast.) Cornelia attended a Kenja eisteddfod held in Melbourne on October 3 and 4. On October 6 she was picked up in Sydney by the police, driving erratically. She was taken to a hospital where the first diagnosis of psychosis was made. When the family visited her in hospital a physical scuffle took place. Cornelia tried to flush her mother’s handbag down the toilet.

What precisely had taken place inside Kenja and on that fateful Melbourne weekend of October 1998? In April 2005, when the case of Cornelia Rau had moved from the privacy of family tragedy to the centre of the national stage, an anonymous letter was sent to a large number of interested parties. It was written by a well-informed former senior member of Kenja, who had witnessed Cornelia’s experiences at first hand.

On arrival at Kenja, Cornelia was, according to the anonymous correspondent, “a functioning human being with difficulties”. On departure, she was “a seriously troubled non-functioning human being”. At first she was afforded “special attention and plenty of acknowledgment”. Like all others she participated in Kenja’s meditation sessions. At this time Cornelia was also deeply affected by the courtship of a young man, which she took to be a love affair and which led her to believe in the existence of a “three-way love tryst”. The courtship was, the correspondent claimed, standard Kenja technique, designed to keep sexually insecure and romantically lonely young people coming back. For the
typical recruit, such as Cornelia, who lacked what was called “self-validation”, all this attention was like a “fairy tale”. It bound her to the group. It “intoxicated” her with the feeling of “importance”. Cornelia, at this stage, did not know how the fairy tale would end.

Another standard Kenja technique was known as the “confront”. These “confronts” involved “unveiling an individual’s innermost secrets and feelings in a public forum without prior warning”. The purpose was to make the member even more psychologically reliant on the approval of the leader or the group. At Melbourne, on the basis of the secrets he had discovered during the one-on-one meditation sessions, Dyers “publicly berated her for failing to come up to his expectations”. Others remembered that she was described as artistically untalented, for Cornelia a particularly bitter blow, or burdened by an evil spirit. It was during this “confront” that Cornelia’s mind broke apart. “After the humiliation she actually walked out of her life. Over the following day she became an embarrassment to the leadership as she was talking incoherently and staring into middle space. On the evening of the ballroom dancing night, she was transported to an airplane at Tullamarine … and told not to come back to Kenja … She was found driving on the wrong side of the road three days later in Sydney.”

This is the most persuasive narrative I have seen about the psychic breakdown of Cornelia Rau. Those who spoke to her six years later, even after her ordeal at the hands of the Australian government as a suspected illegal immigrant, were aware of how obsessed she still was with Kenja. Cornelia repeatedly claimed that she had been sexually assaulted while at Kenja. When 60 Minutes asked her why she had refused to give her real name to immigration authorities, she spoke of her fear of being captured by the sect. In an email, Christine describes the impact of her sister’s Kenja experience like this: “In Cornelia’s case they managed to focus on a few cracks in her psyche and split them wide open, leaving her defenceless.” She has in her mind the image of a stonemason’s chisel.

Cornelia never recovered. At first she was diagnosed with “bipolar disorder”, later with “schizo affective bipolar”, finally with “chronic schizophrenia”. In February 1999, after the first psychosis, she tried to resume work with Qantas. But her career slowly collapsed. In September, on arrival back in Australia from a crisis-filled trip to Europe, Cornelia’s parents managed to convince Queensland authorities to apprehend her at Brisbane airport before she boarded a flight to Indonesia. Cornelia assaulted and bit members of the federal police. She was committed to a mental hospital for four weeks. On a later occasion she was apprehended after leaping from a moving train in Italy. On another the family had to ask Hamburg police for help. Throughout these years she passed from one medical crisis to another. Cornelia resisted drugs and hospitalisation. She frequently went missing. “Over the past seven years,” Christine wrote in February 2005, “we and our parents, Eddie and Veronika, have helplessly watched Cornelia deteriorate into a secretive, suspicious, frightened and unpredictable person whose behaviour was at times bizarre.” The sense of chaos, pain, fear and anger that the Raus experienced during these tempestuous years will be unsurprising to the thousands of families who have battled with the serious mental illness of one of their members.

During 2003 Cornelia began careful plans to escape from Australia and the hospitalisation and medicalisation she detested. In July 2003 she attempted to obtain a German passport under a false identity. The attempt failed. At the beginning of 2004 the family arranged for her placement in a psychiatric hospital. Due to the scarcity of beds, Cornelia moved between Royal North Shore and Manly. On February 19, following a hearing at the Magistrate’s Court, from which she demanded that her parents be absent, Cornelia was required to stay in Manly Hospital for the next six weeks. She seems now to have resumed preparations for her escape. On March 1 she was issued with a European passport. On March 17, one day before she was due to be released from Manly Hospital on a community treatment order requiring fortnightly appearances at a clinic for injected medications, and after almost clearing out her bank account, she absconded. Shortly after, accompanied by an unknown older man, Cornelia was spotted at Coffs Harbour by an old Qantas colleague, David Livingstone. He noticed her blank stare.

On March 29, now alone, Cornelia was observed in Hann River at Cape York, Queensland, sitting by the side of the road. Next day she got a lift to Coen, where she was offered a free bed for the night. The Coen constable, James Foy, was called. Cornelia told him she was a German tourist, alternatively Anna Brotmeyer or Anna Schmidt. Foy contacted the Department of Immigration (DIMIA) compliance officer at Cairns, John Wisegibber. He could discover no record of Anna’s arrival in Australia. On the following morning, when she was already 15 kilometres out of Coen and walking north, Cornelia was invited, as they say, to accompany Constable Foy to the police station. Anna continued with inconsistent stories about both her name and the length of time she had been in Australia – either two weeks or, alternatively, two years. She produced a Norwegian passport she had stolen and a wallet containing $2,300. Foy received instructions from DIMIA to exercise the power accorded him under the Migration Act and to detain Anna as a suspected unlawful non-citizen. He was instructed to drive her to the Cairns watch-house.

In Cairns, interviewed by Wisegibber and other DIMIA people, Anna first provided two separate names and two variations, then settled on Anna Schmidt, the daughter of Veronika and Siegfried. She explained that the money was given to her by her parents three years ago. She had not seen them since. The Brotmeyers, it turned out, were “friends from overseas”. Anna now recalled that she had been in Australia for 18 months or two years. The DIMIA officers called upon the honorary German consul in Cairns, Iris Indorato, to help. She spoke to Anna for two hours in German and discovered that she had made it to Australia by walking across China, hiring a Russian people smuggler for 1,000 euros, then being delivered by boat from Indonesia to a place near Darwin off the Australian coast. She might just as well have claimed she had come from Mars. Not surprisingly, Indorato formed the impression that she was not at all well. On April 4 Anna was given one last chance by DIMIA at Cairns to provide reliable information. When that failed she was flown to Brisbane and, because there is no immigration detention centre in Queensland, conveyed to the women’s prison at Wacol.

I have seen vivid eyewitness testimony of Anna’s induction. She was brought into the prison by two officers of a wonderfully named company called Global Expertise in Outsourcing. One was male and one was female. Anna was staring into space, hugging herself. When told she would have to wear prison clothes she protested. Part of the conversation of the male escort to the prison clerk was overheard. “She’s not all there that one. She has some mental issues we think. Good luck.” What was self-evident to two escort guards would remain obscure to scores of public servants, doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists over the following ten months.

We arrive now at the overwhelming question. How did a mentally ill Australian resident, who had provided police and immigration officials with a series of false names and fanciful tales about the circumstances surrounding her arrival in Australia as a German tourist, end up, within a week of her apprehension, in detention in a Brisbane jail? The pre-liminary legal answer, supported by the Commonwealth
government, goes something like this. Section 189 of the Migration Act obliges the officers it empowers to detain anyone about whom they entertain what is called a “reasonable suspicion” that she is an “unlawful non-citizen”. How, then, explain that this woman was destined to spend six months in this jail and a further four months in a special-purpose detention centre? The government’s preliminary answer continues like this. Section 196 says that unlawful non-citizens can only be released from detention after being granted a valid visa or in the course of removal or deportation from Australia. During the course of the ten months no grounds arose to grant a visa; no circumstances that permitted deportation. How long, then, could this woman be detained?

Here the preliminary answer is clear. On the basis of a High Court decision of 2003, in the al-Kateb case, even if Cornelia Rau was willing to leave Australia – as indeed she most certainly was – in the absence of a country willing to offer her a visa she could be lawfully detained for the remainder of her life. Or, as the government solicitor put it in the relevant case, until Hell itself froze over. Although the government’s thinking was full of legal holes, it was the combination of sections 189 and 196 of the Migration Act and the government’s victory in the al-Kateb case that provided the foundation for Cornelia’s ten-month detention.

The strange truth is that if Cornelia Rau had been picked up in north Queensland on suspicion of a serious criminal offence, rather than as a suspected unlawful non-citizen, she would have been afforded far greater protection. As a suspected serious criminal, facing long-term imprisonment, she would have become entangled at once in a thicket of laws and legal procedures, some going back several hundred years – habeas corpus; presumption of innocence; intricate rules of evidence; the right to an appearance in a court; the right to legal representation; the right to silence; the right to a trial before a jury of peers; the right to plead innocence on grounds of mental health; the right to appeal, and so on. As a suspected non-citizen, Cornelia was, by contrast, almost a non-juridical being, with virtually no legal protections or legal rights. In order for her to be incarcerated, in theory for the remainder of her life, all the law required was that a junior official with authority under the Migration Act form a reasonable suspicion that Cornelia had no right to be on Australian soil. Even though the officer might be ignorant of the law or generally untrained, there was no system or process for the decision to be overseen by a court or ever to be reviewed. At one point the astonished official investigator into this case, Mick Palmer, broke out of his customary sobriety and spoke momentarily from the heart. “Cornelia Rau might have been considered a non-citizen but she was not a non-person.”

The strangeness of the circumstance surrounding Cornelia’s detention in April 2004 is not exhausted yet. There is no department of the Australian government where suspicion of the stories people tell about themselves is more pervasive than it is in DIMIA. Because DIMIA is predisposed to suspect all those who want to stay in Australia of telling lies, the officers of its onshore protection branch routinely subject the stories of asylum seekers to the most rigorous of tests. Even the smallest inconsistency can prove lethal to a claim. And yet when it came to the case of Cornelia, her inconsistencies and her fantasy tales do not appear to have caused the DIMIA officials who dealt with her in Cairns or Brisbane the smallest doubt that she was telling the truth about the unlawfulness of her presence in Australia. Why? The answer to this puzzle is simple. Distrust of asylum seekers’ stories is almost universal in DIMIA because the asylum seekers hope to stay. Trust of Anna proved easy because she hoped to leave, and because the only consequence of that trust was to deprive her of her liberty.

When Anna was moved into the Brisbane women’s prison she went, as did all new inmates, into a medium-level security area known as Secure 1. It is possible to re-construct her behaviour and her state of mind from the secret notes delivered to the Palmer inquiry by the Queensland government – which I have been able to read – and, even more importantly, from the detailed eyewitness accounts of three fellow prisoners whose testimony I have seen.

Anna struck all those who encountered her in prison as both troubled and extremely odd. She had two main sources of entertainment. One was to pace around a tennis court, literally for hours on end. Sometimes when she got into trouble with the guards they would forbid her going there. She would then pace around the small enclosed prison yard, which drove her fellow inmates crazy. Anna’s other source of entertainment was the daily newspaper, which she would pore over for hours. One of her first serious run-ins with authority occurred when she refused to return to her area of the prison while begging some prisoners in a separate section for a paper. Her cell was strewn with papers and pictures she cut out, especially of members of the royal family. When the female guard most hostile to her cleaned the papers out of her cell, Anna retrieved them from the bin. For her defiance, she was locked in her cell.

Defiance was, in fact, extremely common. At the daily name call Anna would refuse to answer to the name of Brotmeyer, insisting that her real name was Schmidt. To get her off the tennis court or into or out of her cell, physical force was almost routinely applied. On one occasion she was chased off the tennis court by a passing riot squad. On three occasions she was “breached” on disciplinary grounds. The longer she was in prison the more time she spent in virtual solitary confinement in a Detention Unit cell.

Anna’s relations with fellow prisoners were often tense. The most common complaints about Anna concerned her bodily hygiene. She was incontinent, a clear warning sign of mental illness. After several weeks in prison she began to refuse to shower. On June 4 a member of the nursing staff came to Anna to discuss these delicate matters, without much noticeable effect. For some reason Anna hoarded food in her cell. Once, putrid sandwich meat was discovered under her mattress. An even greater threat arose when the prisoners observed the way she handled food during the period of her menstruation. On September 19 she was returned for the fourth time to the punitive Detention Unit of the prison for her protection. Anna was observed sobbing inconsolably, completely unaware of what she had done to deserve treatment such as this.

Often Anna’s defiance of the prison guards would inconvenience her fellow inmates. She would, for example, deny everyone access to the designated toilet cell by locking herself in. On occasions she would stare vacantly at prisoners whom she sat near, or even follow them round obsessively. Her mood would shift uncertainly from sweetness to ominous blackness. At best she irritated other prisoners; at worst they felt unsettled or threatened by her presence. There were frequent scuffles involving Anna. In her illness, she was simply incapable of gauging her effect on others or of understanding the prison culture. As a consequence, she was at risk of serious harm. Among the inmates there was talk of knifing her. In the environment into which she had been thrown, Anna clearly needed physical protection. Luckily, one of her fellow inmates took Anna under her wing. She was strongly encouraged to do so by the guards. As they explained, if anything untoward were to happen to an immigration prisoner everyone would be “in deep shit”.

For the first four months of her imprisonment, the doctors and psychologists who examined her from time to time thought Anna was behaving oddly but did not believe her to be mentally ill. It was only in late July that her case was taken up by two sympathetic members of the Prison Mental Health Unit, Tamara Smith and Robert Pedley. They concluded that Anna’s behaviour had deteriorated noticeably since an earlier assessment of May 19. On August 10 Anna was seen by the visiting prison psychiatrist, Dr Dominique Hannah. Anna’s behaviour seemed to her so bizarre that she thought it likely she was suffering “psychotic disorder”. A thorough assessment at Princess Alexandra Hospital was arranged. Accompanied by two immigration officers, Anna was involuntarily dispatched there between August 20 and 26. She was seen by four separate psychiatrists. The doctors did not receive prison file notes. Two were under the impression that following their assessment Anna would be deported to Germany. During her time in hospital Anna remained “well groomed”. To try to avoid medication she pretended to be pregnant. The final verdict came from a Dr Schneider: “Ms Brotmeyer was displaying some odd behaviour [but] she did not fulfil any diagnostic criteria for a mental illness.” Anna was returned to prison. From her point of view she had, once more, escaped.

I asked Debbie Kilroy, the remarkable founder of a Brisbane women’s prison support network called Sisters Inside, whether she was surprised by Dr Schneider’s assessment. She almost laughed. Prisoners were almost never assigned the rare treasure of a psychiatric bed. Prisons were full of people far more mentally disturbed than Anna. The worst cases were taken to a place where Anna never went, the prison’s Crisis Support Unit. To reveal to me the kind of cases housed there, she told me the story of a woman who had slashed her abdomen in order to remove her bowel.

What was going on in Anna’s mind during her time in the Brisbane jail? She was obviously distressed about her imprisonment, explaining to anyone who would listen that she had done nothing wrong. She was even more obviously distressed about being sent to the punishment cells of the Detention Unit. Prison notes record her there as tearful, aggressive and bewildered. There is clear evidence that while she was in the Brisbane prison Anna was fully aware of her true identity. On one occasion she told a fellow inmate, in strictest confidence, that her name was Cornelia Rau. It must have been obvious to her that in order to be released all she had to do was tell the authorities her true name. But, as she understood, to reveal her identity would lead her back to mental hospital and to a life of medicalisation. It was to avoid precisely such a fate that, some months before, she had made her carefully planned escape from Sydney.

In some ways it is more difficult to reconstruct the thinking of Anna’s case officer during her six-month imprisonment in Brisbane, Ben Stonely, than it is to reconstruct hers. Virtually all the clearly written instructions for the protection of unlawful non-citizens in a situation like Anna’s were ignored. According to the Migration Series Instruction 244, because of the risks to the “personal security” of unlawful non-citizens if detained in a jail, such detention was to be regarded as “a last resort”, used only “until alternative arrangements are made”. There is absolutely no evidence that these instructions were even understood, let alone followed. Anna Brotmeyer alias Schmidt languished in the Brisbane prison for a full six months, altogether undisturbed. The same instruction makes clear that it is the duty of the DIMIA officer in charge of a detainee’s case to maintain weekly contact with the prison and to visit the detainee at least once a month. There is no written record to show that Stonely spoke to the prison about Anna at all. Mick Palmer concluded that Stonely was not even aware that Anna had been placed in the Detention Unit on five separate occasions. Between the date of her admission and the date of her removal, Stonely visited Anna only three times.

There was in fact an even more serious dereliction of duty than this. Migration Instruction Series 234 requires that “officers should regularly review the need for continued detention, and for maintaining the form of detention”. Throughout the period of Anna’s six-month incarceration in Brisbane her case was never reviewed. After the initial imprisonment, Stonely never again considered whether Anna’s detention was necessary. According to Palmer, the case never even came to the attention of his direct superior. On one occasion, on July 19, it did come, as a matter of routine after the lapse of 30 days, to the so-called Detention Review Committee in Canberra. Palmer was again astonished when he learned that, despite its name, it was not at all the purpose of this committee to decide whether continued detention was lawful or appropriate, much less whether it was humane or just. The committee’s job was merely to discover why deportation had not yet occurred.

The only interest DIMIA showed in Anna’s case was over the question of her identity and the circumstances preventing her deportation. Yet even interest in this was half-hearted at best. Although a woman who had not been charged with committing a crime was languishing in prison, it took Stonely three weeks before he got round to making contact with the Queensland Police Missing Persons Unit, and ten weeks before he brought the case to the attention of the DIMIA officer at the Australian embassy in Berlin, requesting that they approach the German government for any information it might have on the whereabouts of a missing German citizen named either Anna Brotmeyer or Anna Schmidt. He never stirred his stumps with requests for information from other Queensland government agencies.

As early as April 2004 checks had revealed that no Anna Brotmeyer or Schmidt had entered Australia. By July checks had revealed that Germany had no record of any Anna Brotmeyer or Anna Schmidt unaccounted for. Everyone who was interested knew that Anna was extremely unwell. Everyone who spoke with her knew that her command of English was excellent. And yet the thought that she might not be who she said she was – an overstaying German tourist – seems never to have crossed anyone’s mind.

How is the disparity between the seriousness of Anna’s situation – indefinite imprisonment – and the indifference and thoughtlessness of the DIMIA officials in charge of her case to be explained? The answer is not complex. Ever since 1992, but especially since 1999, the incarceration for months or years of thousands of innocent people seeking asylum in Australia had been, for DIMIA officers, the most mundane work. As Mick Palmer understood it, the wrongful imprisonment of Cornelia Rau was not the responsibility of junior officials like Ben Stonely. Instead he blamed something he called the DIMIA culture. Cultures, however, do not arise by magic. Palmer presumably believed his terms of reference did not allow him to investigate why such a culture had formed or where true responsibility for it lay.

In late September, DIMIA decided to move Anna from prison to the Baxter Immigration Detention Centre in the South Australian desert, managed by a private corporation called Global Solutions. Her deportation had proved more difficult than DIMIA had hoped. She had now to be regarded as a long-term detainee. In the Brisbane women’s prison something peculiar occurred. Anna was informed that she was about to be deported to Germany. In preparation for this deportation, she was moved from the Detention Unit to the Health Centre. Anna was clearly very excited. The handwritten prison note for September 28 records her buoyant mood: “0330 hrs. Awoke & dressed & was ready to leave. Requesting door opened. Says ‘My time is up. It’s time to go. People are waiting outside for me.’ Either sat on end of bed or @ door, repeatedly requesting above.” Her escape plan, it seemed, had worked.

As it turned out, the news was false. Anna was returned to the Detention Unit in despair. On September 30, Stonely dropped off the paperwork for her transfer to Baxter. Anna refused to sign the papers. On October 6, sedated and under restraint, she was transported to the aircraft that flew her onto Baxter.

For several years, before Anna arrived at Baxter, the responsible ministers in the Howard government had been in denial on the question of detainees and mental health. In August 2001 secret film of a six-year-old Iranian, Shayan Badraie, in a state of catatonia, was shown on national TV. The boy had witnessed horrifying scenes in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre. Philip Ruddock, the then immigration minister, claimed that his condition might as easily be explained by the fact that his father had remarried when he was young. Time and again, Ruddock denied that detainees were suffering unusual levels of depression. If they experienced difficulties, he explained, their pre-detention experiences were just as likely the cause. And anyhow, for the tiny minority who did suffer psychological problems, more than adequate professional services were at hand.

Following the case of Shayan, an Alliance of Health Professionals – including Professor Derek Silove, Dr Louise Newman, Dr Michael Dudley and Zachary Steele – was formed. Although the government did not permit studies of the mental health of detainees, and did not conduct any study of its own, this group was determined that some forms of research would nevertheless be pursued. Observation pieces were written. Studies were conducted among former detainees. Most ingeniously, a method for assessing the impact of long-term detention on almost an entire cohort of families of a single ethnic group in the same desert camp was devised. As one of the authors, Zachary Steele, explained to me, the standard questionnaire had to be smuggled into and out of the camp. Follow-up interviews had to be conducted by phone. Research methods like this are usually needed only in a police state.

In October 2004 Baxter held almost all Australia’s long-term detainees, among them the 140 or so asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq whose refugee claims had failed. These people had been imprisoned in detention centres in Australia for several years. Almost all were by now profoundly depressed. As the DIMIA manager at Baxter, Kay Kannis, revealed to the Federal Court in early 2005, the majority of them took powerful anti-depressant medications. Some had completely lost their minds. The recently retired Baxter psychiatrist, Dr Howard Gorton, told Four Corners: “The people I saw and treated at Baxter were the most damaged people I’ve seen in my whole psychiatric career. Up until that time, I’d never met an adult-onset bed-wetter. I’d never met someone with psychological blindness. And there were also a few physically crippled people who believed they were unable to walk, and this was probably psychological too.”

Independent psychiatrists were effectively prohibited from seeing Baxter detainees except in one special situation – if an opinion was required in a legal case. The independent psychiatrist with most experience of Baxter inmates is Dr Jon Jureidini, who reckons he has seen between 15 and 25. To many of these people he administered the standard test for measuring depression, the Hamilton Rating Scale. When we met, he explained to me that a patient scoring 24 was thought to be suffering from severe depression. Every Baxter detainee he had seen scored 39 or higher.

To try to explain the severity of the situation at Baxter and the level of officially sanctioned neglect, Jureidini told me a story of a woman he had visited some time before. “She hadn’t walked for two months. Her husband carried her to the shower and she crawled to the toilet … When I went to see her, from the moment she stirred and knew I was there, she started to scream and she screamed for the whole time I was in there. It was only about ten minutes because I couldn’t stand it any longer and I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop her. And then she screamed for another ten or 15 minutes afterwards … We eventually got her transferred down to Glenside [a psychiatric hospital] and she had fractures of her ribs from osteoporosis, from malnutrition. She was anaemic and the physician who saw her said she was lucky she wasn’t dead. She hadn’t been in the light for six months. She had a baby. Initially she wouldn’t let the baby away from her. It was dazzled by the light … And this was somebody who’d been judged by the psychologist or health services as being in the right place and as being adequately managed.”

It was into such a world that Anna came. Even though severe mental illness was commonplace, her condition stood out. At Baxter the long-term detainees suffered mainly from profound depression. They were tired of life; they could barely sleep and had vivid nightmares when they did; their bodies shook; they experienced uncontrollable fits of rage and terrifying panic attacks. By contrast, Anna was in the grip of a florid psychosis. She paced frantically; she stared blankly; she sat in the dirt; she had dispensed with personal hygiene; she had lost all inhibition and modesty; often she cried; sometimes she screamed; she was gentle with fellow detainees but often verbally and physically aggressive with the guards. Most inmates and regular visitors to Baxter recognised, almost at a glance, that there was something very seriously wrong with Anna.

This was not, at first, the official view. After her two initial meetings with the Baxter psychologist, Adam Micallef, on October 6 and 14, Anna was assessed as having “behavioural problems” and “a personality disorder” but not to be mentally ill. Such a view was soon popular among most of the Baxter guards. They believed she was “playing up”. To explain her strangeness, a story quickly took hold among this group: before arriving at Baxter she had lived with Aborigines in north Queensland, sniffing petrol.

The brand new, hi-tech detention centre where Anna now found herself was an almost perfect fulfilment of Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” dream. Baxter had more than 70 surveillance cameras. As Kay Kannis explained, she could sit in her office, flick between three video screens and take in almost the entire scene. For the better management of its inmates, Baxter was divided into three types of residency. Well-behaved detainees lived in what was called the Blue Compound. Ill-behaved detainees were sent to what was called the Management Unit, which comprised bare cells where the inmates were confined for up to 20 hours, sleeping on a mattress on a concrete floor under the gaze of a surveillance camera and under a dim light that was switched on 24 hours a day. Between the Blue Compound and the Management Unit was an intermediate form of residency known as Red Gum, or Red One, which was organised according to the psychological principles of behavioural modification.

The philosophy of Red One was expressed officially like this: “Consistent good behaviour is rewarded by progression onto further stages of opportunity, with the goal being the return to normal compound routine.” On their moral journey to Blue Compound, Red One residents had to pass through four stages. In the first stage detainees were permitted four hours out of their cell per day, one outgoing telephone call and two changes of clothing, but no stereo or TV. By the time they reached stage four, they were allowed out of their cells between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m., permitted five changes of clothing, unlimited phone calls, one electric item and a stereo with eight CDs. From stage three detainees could win “merit points”. Merit points were awarded for participation in what was called “Meaningful Activity” – but only “if the meaningful activity is completed to an acceptable standard”. I have met some of the highly intelligent and fiercely proud men who have languished in Baxter. Nothing was more humiliating to their dignity than Global Solution’s Red One “behavioural realignment” plan.

Anna began at Baxter in Blue Compound. She lasted there only ten days. Because she wandered into the rooms of other detainees, made sexual advances to males and appeared at her window naked, she was quickly sent to Red One on a behavioural plan. Unsurprisingly for someone in her condition, it failed to work. Apart from two miserable stretches in the near solitary confinement of the Management Unit, Anna was in Red One for most of her time at Baxter. The sweetness of her spirit was obvious to many of the detainees, who looked after her as best they could. Some of the guards were friendly. One, who was devastated by the experience of Baxter, told a young Australian woman, in a Port Augusta pub, that after every shift he sought to bring Anna’s plight to the attention of his superiors. Other guards treated her with studied cruelty and mocking contempt. A Tanzanian detainee, Kasian Wilolo, told me that because no one ever visited or phoned Anna she became a kind of non-person in their eyes. Both physically and verbally, Anna often fought back. When I visited Baxter, a number of detainees claimed that certain guards spied on Anna through the eye-hole into the cell when she was naked or taking a shower.

How is it possible that a woman as obviously mentally ill as Anna was left in prison-like conditions for four months? The company that ran Baxter employed one psychiatrist, under contract. During the entire time Anna was in Baxter, Dr Andrew Frukacz visited the detention centre only once, on November 6. Frukacz thought she might be suffering from schizophrenia. He recommended outside assessment. Over the next ten days the Baxter psychologist, Micallef, made a fitful attempt for this to be arranged. No sense of urgency was communicated. On November 12, after a chat with Micallef, a Glenside psychiatrist formed the view that Anna’s problems were probably behavioural. On November 17, without informing Baxter, Anna’s name was removed from the Glenside assessment waiting list. For the next six weeks the issue of Anna’s mental health was not raised.

What efforts, then, were made to solve the mystery of her identity? Moving forward at what Mick Palmer described as its characteristically glacial pace, DIMIA asked through the German consulate in Melbourne that another check be made for a missing German citizen, either Anna Brotmeyer or Anna Schmidt. Anna’s photo was sent. DIMIA did not manage to meet the consulate’s request for Anna’s fingerprints. Nothing was discovered. On January 20, the German consulate told DIMIA that in their opinion Anna was, most likely, a longstanding Australian resident who had migrated with her parents as a child. Four days later they advised DIMIA that as there was no ground for believing Anna to be a German citizen, under international law they must formally withdraw from the case.

It was not only the German consulate that believed Anna to be an Australian. On October 20 a DIMIA public servant asked her the question point blank. Anna did not respond. More importantly, on November 24, a DIMIA official at Baxter, Troy Sokoloff, sent his colleagues a memorandum concerning the situation of those detainees presently in Management Unit. Wedged between the discussions of one detainee who claimed he wanted to stay in Management Unit for ten years, and of another who had tried to strangle himself with an electric cord, Sokoloff wrote: “GSL Case Management also suggested that they believe Anna may be an Australian citizen and they recommend that missing persons be checked with the AFP and other investigations be made to check this.” The memorandum was circulated to the DIMIA manager, Kay Kannis, and to Annette Keenan at DIMIA in Canberra. At the time the memo was sent a nationwide missing person search for Cornelia Rau was underway. It is not impossible that Anna’s case manager had read the description of Cornelia published in the latest edition of Adelaide’s Sunday Mail. Perhaps the penny had dropped.

How, then, did DIMIA at Baxter and in Canberra respond to the memorandum suggesting that they had been responsible for locking up an Australian citizen for the past eight months? It seems scarcely credible, and yet it seems to be true, that the memorandum was not regarded as sufficiently serious to prompt action of any kind.

For the past five years the indefinite detention of unlawful non-citizens not guilty of any crime had been one of DIMIA’s more routine tasks. Among the department’s public servants a condition of moral inertia had set in. It is possible that the memorandum of November 24 was deliberately covered up. It is far more likely, however, that it was quickly perused by a number of bored public servants and then quietly filed away. Even if Baxter inmate No. BX8311 was an Australian citizen or resident, so what?

In early December 2004, three Iranian asylum seekers who had been detained in Australia for four years or more climbed onto the roof of the gymnasium at the Baxter detention centre and refused to come down. The men were burned by the sun, froze at night and experienced a torrential thunderstorm. Other long-term detainees sewed their lips together or joined a hunger strike. Australian public opinion had become so accustomed to scenes like this that the strike was barely reported. On December 18 the three men were persuaded to come down.

Two Adelaide women, a lawyer and a migration agent, were by now fighting for the release of the mentally ill Baxter detainees. The lawyer, Claire O’Connor, began an action in the Federal Court merely to compel DIMIA to have one of the most disturbed Iranians, Abdoul Hamidi, given appropriate psychiatric care. The Commonwealth vigorously opposed; the action was unsuccessful. At the same time the migration agent, Libby Hogarth, was attempting to secure visas for nine of her clients. She arranged for two psychiatrists, Louise Newman and Michael Dudley, and Adelaide GP Malcolm Richards to visit Baxter to prepare independent reports. The three arrived at the end of December. Although the paperwork had been approved by a junior office worker, when the purpose of their visit became clear obstacles emerged.

Despite this, Newman and Dudley were able to conduct detailed interviews. I have been shown two of the reports. They are of the men who had been on the Baxter roof. Both were suffering from what was called severe major depression. One man, who had recently tried to cut his neck and had recurrent nightmares about killing his sister, felt as if “he was split into two people with one watching what the other
is doing”. The other, who was devoid of all energy or interest in life, displayed clear psychotic symptoms. “He feels that
everything in his life is like a film, and often touches things to see if they are real … He feels that the TV and the radio speak to him … and that people are out to harm him. He hears voices outside his head in his ears. One tells him that he is worthless and should end his life, and another tells him not to do it.”

In the course of the interviews, three of the men asked Louise Newman if she was going to see someone they called Anna. “They told me she had been totally out of control, screaming incoherently, rolling around on the ground, eating dirt, smearing faeces and totally disturbed.” But as Anna was in no fit state to ask for legal help, she was not on Libby Hogarth’s list.

Between them Newman and Dudley interviewed eight men. There was some reluctance to allow them to see the ninth. Eventually, however, he was produced. Michael Dudley told me that when he saw this man he was shocked. He was “totally immobile – mute and rocking and catatonic”. The doctors were so alarmed that they decided to commit the man – who was given the name “John Williams” – to Glenside psychiatric hospital at once. Even though the one Baxter psychiatrist had not visited since November 6 and was not due again until mid-February; even though the three doctors had met eight very seriously mentally ill detainees inside an environment they regarded as “toxic”; even though they had seen one detainee who was completely catatonic – DIMIA was now furious, not with GSL for its mismanagement, but with the three doctors for their interference and their impudence. The department sent fierce letters to the relevant associations complaining about the unprofessional conduct of Newman, Dudley and Richards.

Four days after the doctors’ visit, and after six weeks of neglect, Adam Micallef returned to the case of Anna. He asked Glenside for advice. He said the case was urgent. The Baxter GP offered him support. He expressed the view that Anna might be suffering from schizophrenia. At Glenside there was strong resistance to the idea of treating Baxter patients. It was not only that beds were scarce. Patients arriving in wards accompanied by uniformed guards were generally regarded as harmful and disruptive. The Glenside psychiatrist advised against committal.

It was not long before stories about Anna reached no less a figure than the director of South Australian Mental Health, Dr Jonathan Phillips. He was furious with what he heard. On January 24 he threatened that unless something was done soon he would go to Baxter himself to see Anna and conduct his own assessment. It was now the turn of the director of South Australia’s Rural and Remote Mental Health Service, Dr Fiona Kelly, to be angry. In January she recommended dealing with the case of Anna according to established procedures. A week of muddle now ensued. Anna was, not surprisingly, unhelpful. Two phone meetings between the Baxter GP and a Glenside psychiatrist fell through. By February 2 a final decision to commit Anna to Glenside for assessment had not yet been made.

Since November 2004 one of the more active of the asylum seeker advocates, Pamela Curr, had become increasingly alarmed at the stories she heard about the desperately ill young German woman, Anna. Curr contacted the German consulate, DIMIA, the ombudsman, the Immigration Detention Advisory Group – anyone she could think of – demanding action. She circulated information about Anna on the asylum seeker websites. A Fairfax journalist, Andra Jackson, became curious. On January 31, in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, the strange story of Anna finally reached the press.

For ten months DIMIA had not bothered to enlist the media’s help in the search for Anna’s identity. DIMIA had not even circulated her photo. Yet, as it turned out, one newspaper article was all that was required. In early February the Raus were on holiday. A family friend sent them the article. Could the mysterious young German woman be Cornelia? At 2 p.m. on February 3, Veronika Rau contacted the Manly police. They contacted Baxter. A photo of Anna was emailed to the police and by them to the Raus. It was Cornelia. After 6 p.m. Veronika spoke to Kay Kannis. She was told there was no need to visit Baxter. Her daughter would be released at once and flown to Adelaide by the Royal Flying Doctor Service the following day. At 4 p.m. the papers for the committal of Anna to Glenside had been signed. The signature followed hard upon the Manly police request for a photo of Anna.

After four months of lethargy on the Anna front, there was now a sudden urgency. Baxter guards entered Anna’s cell while she was showering. They threw a sheet over her and dragged her out, kicking and screaming. Five months later, Cornelia Rau described what happened to her like this. “I was suddenly transported to a mental institution and the circumstances were very strange. About five people in large clothing came into my room at night while I was having a shower and I hardly had a chance to turn off the tap. I was nude and hardly could get something on to cover myself. They were harsh and forceful. Then they slipped me onto an ambulance stretcher-bed. It was so foul. I didn’t know what was going on …”

What was the urgency about? The answer seems clear. The next day’s media was certain to report on the strange case of Cornelia Rau. When that happened, it was vital that she be “a former detainee”.

The wrongful ten-month incarceration of Cornelia Rau was instantly a big media story. Even some of the Howard government’s most reliable defenders were straining at the leash. On February 11 Alan Jones told his TV audience: “We end the week with the nation surely reeling in the wake of the Cornelia Rau fiasco.” John Howard is the master of conceding just enough but not too much. And three days after Cornelia’s release from Baxter, Howard announced that a former head of the federal police, Mick Palmer, would conduct an independent but non-judicial inquiry.

In the six months following the liberation of Cornelia Rau the moral legitimacy of Australia’s policy of mandatory detention was shaken. In the Federal Court in May, in a case brought on by Claire O’Connor, Justice Finn found that the Commonwealth had failed comprehensively to fulfil its duty of care with regard to two mentally ill detainees at Baxter. At the same time a federal Liberal backbencher, Petro Georgiou, mounted a skilful and successful revolt which obliged the prime minister to promise that all children would be released from detention and that at the end of two years – two years – all cases of continuing detention would be subject to review by the Commonwealth ombudsman. Two hundred cases of wrongful detention were now belatedly discovered. In one, a crippled Australian citizen, Vivian Solon, had been brutally deported to the Philippines. During these months most of the long-term detainees – including the seven-year record-holder Peter Qasim – were quietly released. And in late July, an inquiry announced that in 2004 five detainees being transported from Maribyrnong had suffered serious human rights abuse at the hands of their GSL guards, and that following the abuse two senior GSL managers hadblatantly lied.

In politics, the precise relationship between cause and effect is usually unclear. Some of the things that happened in the six months following the release of Cornelia Rau would certainly have happened anyway. Some, most likely, would not. What is clear, however, is that the case of Cornelia Rau shaped public opinion about the treatment of asylum seekers in a way no previous episode had. The Cornelia Rau affair taught the public that the lazy trust it had placed in government – not to inflict on innocents serious harm – was unwarranted. It was able to do this, as almost everyone immediately understood, because the person who had suffered false imprisonment and neglect was not a swarthy, dark-skinned, Islamic outsider. She was “one of us”. If, in February 2005, it had been discovered that a mentally ill Australian woman of Iranian descent had been wrongfully imprisoned, the transformative effect on public opinion would almost certainly have been immeasurably less.

The most important political consequence of the Cornelia Rau affair was the report of the Palmer inquiry itself. According to Palmer, the two main sections of the immigration department that had been responsible in recent years for depriving thousands of people of their liberty – detention and compliance – were staffed by basically untrained officers ignorant even of their own department’s instructions and rules. The detention and compliance sections were dominated by what Palmer called an “assumption culture”. If someone was locked up it was assumed their incarceration remained legal. If someone showed signs of deep depression it was assumed that was normal. If someone criticised policies or practices it was assumed they were driven by political agendas and ought to be ignored. Even though the department deprived people of their liberty it had no sense of urgency. Officers were not encouraged to use “common sense”. Routinised procedures had in all circumstances to be obeyed. The department was, as a consequence, “process rich and outcome poor”. No one took responsibility for individual cases. Everyone saw themselves as a “bit player”. In the face of criticism, the instinct was to be “self-protective and defensive”. The department was incapable of “self-criticism”. Its culture was one of “denial and self-justification”. Such problems were by no means found only in the lower ranks. The rot began at the top.

In the history of the Australian Commonwealth, there has never been a more devastating assessment of the work of a major department of state than the one contained in the Palmer report.

Only two elements were odd. The responsibility in this mess of the immigration minister, Amanda Vanstone, was not discussed. For the department’s failings only its secretary Bill Farmer, before being moved sideways to the Indonesian ambassadorship, formally shouldered blame. Upon the release of the Palmer report, the prime minister rejected calls for the replacement of Vanstone. Apparently, in our system of government, a minister does not have to resign even when systemic and disastrous failings in the department for which they are responsible are revealed. In the constitutional history of Australia, the Howard government’s behaviour following the Palmer inquiry will be seen to mark the formal end of the Westminster principle of ministerial responsibility.

An even odder feature of the Palmer report was its failure to discuss the relationship between the diseased culture of the immigration department and the policy which had given rise to the disease – mandatory, unreviewable and indefinite detention of asylum seekers, whose only crime was to have appealed to Australia for help. It was as if, to deploy an admittedly extreme analogy, an independent inquiry into the Gulag Archipelago should have criticised fiercely the “culture” of the Ministry of the Interior without mentioning that this same culture had some connection with the policy of turning supposed class enemies of the revolution into slave labourers of the Soviet state.

There was one person for whom the findings of the Palmer inquiry seemed entirely irrelevant: Cornelia Rau. Public opinion saw her movement from the Baxter detention centre to the Glenside psychiatric hospital as the righting of a wrong. Cornelia saw it merely as the continuation of her oppression. Five months after her transfer to Glenside, she sent a rambling 15-page handwritten letter to two journalists at the Adelaide Advertiser. The letter is dominated by a single question. How can the continued incarceration of a healthy and fun-loving woman be justified or explained? Locked inside the prison of her illness, Cornelia could not understand that the people who loved her most were those who were most insistent that she remain under psychiatric care and take the medicines prescribed.

Mental illness should never be sentimentalised. It is frightening and uncharming. Yet the humanity of the afflicted must also never be forgotten. Towards the end of Cornelia’s letter a passage concerning freedom takes us to the very heart of her private tragedy. “If I had a pet,” she writes, “I’d like a possum that lives outside and just pops into the garden every now and then.” She simply did not understand why, like her imagined possum, she could not be free.

Read the whole story
2576 days ago
A terrifying story about what can happen in a system where guilt is presumed.

This article is almost ten years old. The Australian immigration detention system is even more opaque and by all accounts even more brutal now.
Perth, Australia
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Chat Wars | Issue 19

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In the summer of 1998 I graduated from college and went to work as a programmer at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington. I was put on the group that was building MSN Messenger Service, Microsoft’s instant messaging app. The terrible name came from Marketing, which had become something of a joke for always picking the clunkiest and least imaginative product names. Buddy List? C U C Me? MSN Messenger? No, MSN Messenger Service. I’ll call it Messenger for short.

At the time the big players in instant messaging were AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), Yahoo, and ICQ. AIM had tens of millions of users; AOL had become the country’s biggest dial-up provider in the mid-’90s by blitzing everyone’s mailboxes with CD-ROMs, and all AOL users instantly became AIM users. Yahoo and ICQ each had millions of users. Those were big numbers for the 1990s.

It was a large project: on the desktop program (“client”), we had to create a sleek user interface to let people see their buddies when they came online, allow them to change the color of the font in a cool way, and so on. That is, we had to create a program that would do everything the other chat programs could, then add a few wrinkles of our own. The server-side team had to notify users about the comings and goings of other users, so that if your buddy Gordon logged on, the server would tell your client that he was there (we, on the client side, had to take the notification and display it to the user properly). The server side also had to integrate our functionality with Hotmail, which had tens of millions of users and which Microsoft had acquired in 1997. It was imperative that every Hotmail user be able to log on to Messenger with a Hotmail address and password as seamlessly as possible. This was not simple.

The initial team consisted of about ten people, though it gradually expanded to several times that size. On the client side we’d meet to discuss what needed to be done, what kinds of features we wanted, what we could do and couldn’t do. Then we’d go and do it. I was 20 years old, the youngest person on the team, and very green. I was given little chunks of the project to work on at first, then bigger ones. I worked on the instant messaging windows: the “type your message here” window and the “transcript” window above it. I added better font control and helped make the client work with non-Latin character sets like Chinese/Japanese/Korean, Indic, Hebrew/Arabic (right-to-left, a particular pain). I managed when the windows would pop up, how they could be moved around, and how scrolling worked in them (scroll bars were very buggy in Windows!). Handling shutdown was a pain, making sure the windows closed down neatly and all the program’s resources were cleaned up properly without the program crashing.

After we finished the user part of the program, we had some downtime while waiting for the server team to finish the Hotmail integration. We fixed every bug we could find, and then I added another little feature just for fun. One of the problems Microsoft foresaw was getting new users to join Messenger when so many people already used the other chat programs. The trouble was that the programs, then as now, didn’t talk to one another; AOL didn’t talk to Yahoo, which didn’t talk to ICQ, and none of them, of course, would talk to Messenger. AOL had the largest user base, so we discussed the possibility of adding code to allow Messenger to log in to two servers simultaneously, Microsoft’s and AOL’s, so that you could see your Messenger and AIM buddies on a single list and talk to AIM buddies via Messenger. We called it “interop.”

This wasn’t elegant, but it wasn’t that complicated, either. A program talks to a server using a well-defined protocol, which is a set of coded instructions sent to and from the server. HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol), used to request and transmit web pages, is one of the most common protocols in existence. It is built on top of TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/internet protocol), the underlying protocol of the internet itself. Internet companies run servers that speak these and other protocols. Some protocols, like HTTP and TCP/IP, are public, documented, and spoken by everyone, but some are private/proprietary and undocumented. AIM’s protocol, known as OSCAR (for Open System for CommunicAtion in Realtime), was in the latter group. I didn’t have the “key” to decode it. But what my boss and I could do was sign up for an AIM account and then watch the communications between the AIM client and the server using a network monitor, a development tool used to track network communications in and out of a computer. That way we could see the protocol that AIM was using. A sample message looked like this, with the hexadecimal representation of the binary on the left and the ASCII character translation of the binary on the right:

2A 02 EE FA 00 B0 00 0E 00 06 00 00 9B 7D BD 28  *............}.(

33 41 35 36 35 43 38 37 00 03 00 03 00 28 0D 52  3A565C87.....(.R

45 41 4C 52 65 67 72 65 73 73 6F 72 00 00 00 03  EALRegressor....

00 01 00 02 00 10 00 0F 00 04 00 00 00 18 00 03  ................

00 04 3E 4C BE 8C 00 01 00 00 00 05 00 68 00 02  ..>L.........h..

00 08 75 73 2D 61 73 63 69 69 00 03 00 02 65 6E  ..us-ascii....en

00 01 00 48 69 2E 2E 20 41 6E 79 62 6F 64 79 3F  ...Hi.. Anybody?

Much of the message was opaque, but in the middle was one of my text messages. “Hi… Anybody?” I would write into my AIM chat box and press return, and then on my network trace I would see my “Hi… Anybody?” Some of the protocol was always changing, but some was always the same. Our client took the surrounding boilerplate and packaged up text messages in it, then sent it to the AOL servers. Did AOL notice that there were some odd messages heading their way from Redmond? Probably not. They had a hundred million users, and after all I was using their own protocol. I didn’t even send that many messages. My program manager and I thought this little stunt would be deemed too dubious by management and taken out of the product before it shipped. But management liked the feature. On July 22, 1999, Microsoft entered the chat markets with MSN Messenger Service. Our AOL “interop” was in it.

As people downloaded the client to try it out, they thought it was cool: everything worked, it had better international support, it integrated with Hotmail, and, look at this, you could use two services with one program and still talk to your AOL chat buddies! Our lark was paying off.

Of course no one had warned AOL, and they weren’t happy. They pretty quickly started blocking Messenger from connecting to their servers; they’d disconnect the user and pop up an instant message saying, “Use an authorized AOL client at this link: [web URL].” But AOL could only block Messenger if they could figure out that the user was using Messenger and not AIM. As long as Messenger sent exactly the same protocol messages to the AOL servers, AOL wouldn’t be able to detect that Messenger was an impostor. So I took the AIM client and checked for differences in what it was sending, then changed our client to mimic it once again. They’d switch it up again; they knew their client, and they knew what it was coded to do and what obscure messages it would respond to in what ways. Every day it’d be something new. At one point they threw in a new protocol wrinkle but cleverly excepted users logging on from Microsoft headquarters, so that while all other Messenger users were getting an error message, we were sitting at Microsoft and not getting it. After an hour or two of scratching our heads, we figured it out.

Microsoft and AOL were both, obviously, giant companies, and soon the press got hold of the story. On July 24, the New York Times put it on the front page: “In Cyberspace, Rivals Skirmish Over Messaging.” It was like reading about a boxing match that you yourself were in. AOL kept blocking us, wrote the paper of record. “But Microsoft refused to roll over. Late Friday, the software giant said it had revised its MSN Messenger program to circumvent America Online’s roadblock. Within hours, America Online answered that challenge with a new block.”

I framed the article. My name wasn’t in it, but it didn’t matter. That was me!

This was, as I say, 1999. Just two decades after launching MS-DOS, its first operating system, Microsoft was one of the biggest companies in the world. We had 30,000 employees worldwide, about 10,000 of them in Redmond. The campus was about the same size as Yale.

What was Microsoft’s secret? They were, and are, essentially a software company. While hobbyists in the 1970s were trying to figure out how to build a computer small enough to fit in your home, Bill Gates and his partner Paul Allen were figuring out how to write software for when the hobbyists finally figured it out. In 1980, they partnered with IBM to make an operating system, MS-DOS (for Microsoft Disk Operating System), for the first mass-manufactured personal computer. A few years later they partnered with Apple to give early Apple PC users functioning programs, including Microsoft Word. Gates and Allen’s insight was simply that PCs were going to be a big deal, and people would want software for the new machines.

By licensing Microsoft to provide the operating system for PCs, IBM essentially handed them a license to print money. The margins on software were far greater than on hardware, because the physical manufacturing process was negligible—producing disks was cheap and trivial next to microprocessors and peripherals. And since Microsoft was the only company producing the operating system needed to run, ultimately, all software on PCs in the 1980s, it had a lock on guaranteed sales of the ballooning PC industry. IBM wasn’t the only hardware maker in town—far from it—but Microsoft was the only MS-DOS maker.

Microsoft’s rise did not go unnoticed or uncontested. In 1984, Apple debuted the Macintosh. After the Lisa, which came out the year before and cost $10,000, the Mac was the first PC to use an operating system with a graphical user interface (GUI), building on research done at Xerox PARC and elsewhere. The company bought ad time during the Super Bowl to trumpet this revolution in computing, and in truth they weren’t exaggerating. Until the Macintosh, almost everything had been text; now you could see a visual representation of the inside of the computer—a “metaphorical desktop,” as it was called. When I saw it at age 7, I found it dazzling, but at the time computers weren’t quite powerful enough to make the GUI necessary. I used PCs myself back then and was perfectly fine with typing at the MS-DOS command prompt. But toward the end of the ’80s, home computers became fast enough to make multitasking (running more than one program simultaneously) increasingly valuable, and it was clear that GUIs promised far more user-friendliness than text command lines.

Microsoft thought so too, and in 1985 they released the first iteration of Windows (with, importantly, some elements licensed from Apple). It was basically a clickable list version of the files on the computer, resembling today’s Windows Explorer, plus some other “windows” displaying executable files (a calculator, for example). It was an improvement over the MS-DOS command prompt, but a far cry from the different folders displayed so elegantly on the Macintosh. In 1987, Microsoft released Windows 2.0. This was still clunky, but already better, with overlapping windows and some other useful functions. Apple could see which way things were headed, and in 1988 they sued Microsoft for copyright infringement.

The suit failed. Windows was similar to the Mac operating system, but hardly identical. The appeals court wrote, “Almost all the similarities spring either from the license [for the initial Windows] or from basic ideas and their obvious expression. . . . Illicit copying could occur only if the works as a whole are virtually identical.”

The initial decision came down in 1992 and was affirmed on appeal in 1994. It was a serious blow to Apple during its Steve Jobs–less slump. Hampered by poor management, overpriced computers, and a protectionist attitude toward the Macintosh brand, maintaining that only Apple could make Macintosh hardware, the company saw its market share decline throughout the decade, eventually prompting the return of the exiled Jobs and setting the stage for Apple’s resurgence. Windows, of course, conquered the world, never attaining the elegance or unification of Mac OS, but working well enough that the Macintosh premium was more than most wanted to pay. In Windows 95, the first post-lawsuit release of the operating system, Microsoft went ahead and incorporated Apple’s famous trash can, impishly refashioned as a “recycle bin.” For a good long while, Windows could not be stopped.

Gates and Allen were skilled coders, but the history of software is littered with people just as smart or smarter who did not end up as billionaires. Their strength was on the business side. For years they remained a small company, but you didn’t need to be big to make software back then. The programs were simple, and they were all that was available, so you could charge a premium for them. The amount of person-hours that goes into a $50 piece of software today dwarfs that of a $50 item of software thirty years ago. In 1983, a word processor so primitive it advised users to put little stickers on their keyboards so they’d know which functions correlated to which keys retailed for $289. For this price it offered a tiny fraction of what most freeware can do today. It was a different world.

In this world, Microsoft stood out. They worked fast, they were aggressive, and they were very cagey. Their strength was never in innovation per se, but in appropriation, improvement, and integration. One slogan that you would hear at the company was that Microsoft made “best-in-class” products. A less charitable way to put this would be to say that upon entering a market, Microsoft would make a product that was better enough than the best out there, and then take over the market. So the quality of Microsoft’s offerings closely tracked the quality of existing offerings.

Lotus’s spreadsheet software 1-2-3 was a good product in the 1980s and early 1990s; consequently Microsoft Excel, which debuted in 1985, became the standout of Microsoft’s nascent Office suite. Word processors like WordPerfect and WordStar were less formidable; as a result, Microsoft Word was considerably less stellar than Excel. And in the absence of any dominant email programs, Microsoft Outlook was buggy and slow, and remained that way well into the early 2000s. Microsoft was far too efficient to waste time improving a project beyond what was needed to defeat their competitors. In the late ’90s I got a chance to tour the legendary Massachusetts computer company Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC, later bought by Compaq), and the difference in culture was remarkable. There were people at DEC who had been working on threading (the manner in which operating systems manage concurrent sets of linear processor instructions) for twenty years. Half the people had PhDs in their areas of specialty. Corners were never cut to release something earlier.

Ah, I thought. This is why Microsoft won.

Microsoft certainly tried to innovate with new products from time to time. Clippy, the little paper clip that popped up occasionally in Microsoft Word, was an innovation. Microsoft Bob, a yellow dog in dark glasses who showed up in Windows 95 to see if you needed help, was an innovation. Cairo, the “revolutionary” new operating system from the 1990s, would have been an innovation had it ever shipped. But as a whole the company was more comfortable entering existing markets and besting competitors. And in the absence of a clear target, planning could become fuzzy and tentative. You see this in the reticence to engage wholeheartedly with the internet in the 1990s: no one was making gobs of money yet, so who was Microsoft to follow? It wasn’t as if Microsoft (and everyone else) didn’t see that there was money to be made; Microsoft just wasn’t about to create the mechanism to do so on its own.1

By 1999, Microsoft was poised between financial security and an obscure future. The Windows and Office behemoths ensured the company’s dominance of the desktop operating system and business applications markets for as long as the PC remained a going concern. Even when the US v. Microsoft antitrust trial was at its peak, in 1999–2000, it was hard to see how a feasible antitrust remedy could actually address the problems. Sure enough, the plan to split Microsoft into two monopolies, one for Windows and one for Office, wouldn’t have helped a bit, even if it made it past the appellate court that overturned the initial judge’s ruling and attacked him for trashing Microsoft to the press. The whole case ended up a bizarre and political sideshow, which I’m not sure had more than a negligible impact on the state of the tech industry—other than ensuring that future tech companies kept a far larger battery of lawyers and lobbyists close by.

One interesting thing did emerge (at least for me, as an employee of the company) in the antitrust discovery process: I learned that before I arrived, a war over the future took place at the highest levels of Microsoft, between the “doves” and the “hawks.” The “doves” wanted to embrace other internet companies, like Netscape (which had the best early browser) and even AOL to an extent, and share power with them; the “hawks” wanted to clamp down and try to make Microsoft the provider of internet services. The real bone of contention was Windows: here was the most profitable thing in the history of computers. But a truly aggressive internet strategy would have meant thinking about a world without Windows. This was too difficult. “I don’t want to be remembered as the guy who destroyed one of the most amazing businesses in history,” one senior executive wrote of Windows during this argument. In the end the hawks won and most of the doves left Microsoft. Then the hawks lost.

To understand what happened next in the Messenger war it may be helpful to have some sense of how computers and computer programs work.

Computers are best seen as a series of abstraction layers, one on top of the other. Each layer is more complicated than the next down, and assembles the previous layer’s pieces into more complex, high-level structures. At the bottom you have the hardware itself: the central processing unit (CPU). The CPU consists of more than a billion transistors arranged to execute a particular “assembly” code that is native to that CPU. Assembly is the lowest layer of coding, where you are telling the CPU exactly what to do. And what you can tell it to do is often pretty limited: store this number here, retrieve this number from there, add or subtract these two numbers, and branch to different bits of code depending on some condition or other. In different contexts, these operations can take on different meanings, such as printing text onto a screen or sending something across a network, but the overall level of structure is very primitive. Analyzing and manipulating data is extremely tedious in Assembler.

In the early days of PCs, many programmers did code directly in Assembler. Programs were small enough and performance was critical enough that one needed to micromanage everything at that level. But as computers got larger and more complex, it became unfeasible to code in assembly. And needing to learn a different assembly language for every computer (Apple II, Macintosh, PC) was horrendously inefficient. Better to use a higher-level, CPU-independent language. All the languages you read about today, from C++ to Java to Ruby to Perl, are higher-level languages. They have far more instructional “primitives” that allow you to designate pieces of code as “functions” and abstract over them through “interfaces.” A program called a compiler then takes the code written in these languages and translates it into the assembly code for a particular specified processor, so you can have C++ code that compiles for the PC, or for Linux, or for the Macintosh.

Here’s some assembly for a “Hello world!” program (one that just displays “Hello world!” and exits) in MS-DOS PC assembly, which I’ve borrowed from Wikipedia:

.model small
.stack 100h
msg   db    ‘Hello world!$’
mov   ah, 09h   ; Display the message
lea   dx, msg
int   21h
mov   ax, 4C00h  ; Terminate the executable
int   21h
end start

And here it is in C:

int main() {
printf(“Hello world!\n”);
return 0

Having a compiler turn the C into assembly, as you might expect, saves a programmer a vast amount of time. It also allows for far greater levels of code reuse, since you can parameterize functions to take different inputs and handle them accordingly. But you lose some control with a higher-level language. Assembly lets you know exactly where every bit of information is going. As you go up the great chain of languages, you lose more and more control over the management of the guts of the computer, which is taken over by compilers, interpreters, and virtual machines. These programs are exceedingly good at managing things automatically, and they don’t make mistakes (unlike humans), but they have their limits. They do not know the overall intent of a program. If you pile on too many abstraction layers, performance can suffer. The downfall of Microsoft’s Vista operating system, which needed to be restarted almost from scratch in order to ship three years late, came because it was written in a new language of Microsoft’s own design, called C#, that did not offer sufficient micromanagement to make Vista run quickly enough. Like Java, C# was considerably higher level than C or C++, and the code responsible for taking care of the lower-level nastiness just couldn’t perform optimally. So they scrapped the C# code and started over in C++. Lesson learned.

A “language” like C++, Java, or Python consists of a certain number of commands, not more than a few hundred, and a certain number of numerical and logical operators, like + and && (for logical AND). Many languages offer the same basic functionality sets; where they differ is in the methods they provide for structuring programs, as well as the amount of abstraction they provide from the underlying computer fundamentals.

So what was Messenger? It was about a hundred thousand lines of code, in C++, implementing everything from pop-up notifications when a buddy logged in, to uninstallation code to remove the program if people hated it, to code to allow you to save IM windows as text files for later, to code to talk to the Messenger servers (and, for a while, the AOL servers). In its early years, it was a small, efficient, lean little program.

I no longer have access to the Messenger code, which remains the private intellectual property of Microsoft. So instead, here is a piece of the open-source C code for the chat program Pidgin. This function, update_typing_icon, is called when the program needs to update the “typing indicator” that tells you whether your buddy is currently typing a message or not.

static void

update_typing_icon(PidginConversation *gtkconv)


PurpleConvIm *im = NULL;

PurpleConversation *conv = gtkconv->active_conv;

char *message = NULL;

if (purple_conversation_get_type(conv) PURPLE_CONV_TYPE_IM)

im = PURPLE_CONV_IM(conv);

if (im NULL)


if (purple_conv_im_get_typing_state(im) PURPLE_NOT_TYPING) {

update_typing_message(gtkconv, NULL);



if (purple_conv_im_get_typing_state(im) PURPLE_TYPING) {

message = g_strdup_printf(_("\n%s is typing…"),


} else {


message = g_strdup_printf(_("\n%s has stopped typing"),



update_typing_message(gtkconv, message);



The function takes a parameter called gtkconv that contains information about the chat session (PidginConversation) being updated. The italicized portion of the code is the most important. It calls a function called purple_conv_im_get_typing_state, passing it to the chat session in question. That function then returns one of three possible values: PURPLE_NOT_TYPING, PURPLE_TYPING, or PURPLE_TYPED. A user interface function, update_typing_message, is then called to change what message is displayed on the screen. In the case of PURPLE_TYPING, a message with “[Buddy name] is typing” is shown. If PURPLE_TYPED, meaning that text has been entered but your buddy hasn’t typed anything for a bit, “[Buddy name] has stopped typing” is shown. And if no text has been entered and the buddy isn’t typing (PURPLE_NOT_TYPING), then no message is shown at all.

Most of the other functions that this function calls are also part of the Pidgin program, separated into modular chunks so that each can be isolated, tested, and perhaps reused. One exception is the g_strdup_printf function, which creates the string containing the message to be displayed. g_strdup_printf is part of the open-source GNOME user interface library; because what it does is sufficiently generic, it was considered helpful to include in a popular package of generic user interface code.

All this C code is compiled into assembly by a C compiler, which can then run natively on the processor for which the compiler was designed.

The messenger war was a rush. Coming in each morning to see whether the client still worked with AOL was thrilling. I’d look through reams of protocol messages to figure out what had changed, fix the client, and try to get an update out the same day. I felt that I was in an Olympic showdown with some unnamed developers over at AOL. I had no idea who my adversaries were, but I had been challenged and I wanted to win.

AOL tried different tactics. At one point they seemed to be identifying the Microsoft client because it wasn’t downloading a huge chunk of advertising that the AOL client downloaded. So I changed our client to download it all (and then throw it away). They put in mysterious messages that didn’t seem to affect their client but broke ours because we weren’t expecting them. One day, I came in to see this embedded in a message from the AOL server: “HI. –MARK.” It was a little communication from engineer to engineer, underneath the corporate, media, and PR worlds that were arguing over us. I felt some solidarity with him even though we were on opposing sides.

AOL was putting out absurd propaganda about how Microsoft was behaving like an evil hacker by asking for your AOL password. This wasn’t true, but we weren’t allowed to respond except through our PR department. My team was completely sealed off from the outside world—except for our code, of course.

And then AOL stopped blocking us. It was strange to encounter sudden silence, and while I wanted to believe we’d won, AOL had been too loud and obstreperous to give up without a word.

Maybe a week after the blocks had stopped, I came in to work to find that Messenger had been blocked again, but this time it was different. The AOL server was sending a huge chunk of new gobbledygook that I could not understand. It looked approximately like this:


00000040 2A 02 77 9C 01 28 00 01 ........*.w..(..

00000050  00 13 00 00 80 0E A6 1B 00 FF 00 0B 01 18 83 C4 ................

00000060  10 4F 8D 94 24 E4 FE FF FF 8B EC 03 AA F8 00 00 .O..$...........

00000070  00 90 90 90 90 8B 82 F0 00 00 00 8B 00 89 82 4E ...............N

00000080  00 00 00 8B 4D 04 03 8A F4 00 00 00 8D 82 42 00 ....M.........B.

00000090  00 00 89 45 10 B8 10 00 00 00 89 45 0C C9 FF E1 ...E.......E....

000000A0  00 01 00 20 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 04 00 00 00 00 ................

000000B0  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................

000000C0  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................

000000D0  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................

000000E0  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................

000000F0  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................

00000100  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................

00000110  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................

00000120  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................

00000130  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 ................

00000140  00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 19 10 ................

00000150  08 11 29 EC FF FF 44 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 FF 00 ..)...D.........

00000160  00 00 08 01 00 00 00 00 00 00 90 47 40 00 F8 E9 ...........G@...

00000170  EA FE FF FF 00 00

The first couple of lines here are the standard AOL instant message protocol header, but starting with that “90 90 90 90” bit, it became incomprehensible, bearing no relation to anything the AOL servers had ever sent their client or our client. The vast expanse of double zeros in the middle was also very mysterious, since a bunch of zeros couldn’t contain much meaning.

Our client just ignored it, but the AOL client responded to this gobbledygook with a shorter version of the same gobbledygook. I didn’t know what it was. It was maddening. After staring at it for half a day, I went over to Jonathan, a brilliant server engineer on our team, and asked what he thought. He looked at it for a few minutes and said, “This is code.” As in, actual x86 assembly code. The repeated 90s were what tipped him off: they signify an empty instruction in x86 Assembler.

The pieces then came together. Normally, these protocol messages sent from the server to the client are read and understood as data, not as code. But AOL’s client had a security bug in it, called a buffer overflow. The buffer is a place where a program temporarily stores data while running some operation. However, it’s all too easy in lower-level languages to allow in more input than the buffer can actually accommodate. In this case, very large protocol messages could flood it, overwriting the client code and arbitrarily controlling the functioning of the client program—this is why it’s called a buffer overflow, and it’s a huge security hole, since it gives the server control of the client PC. In the wrong hands, the server can choose to shut down or corrupt or do other terrible things to your computer. AOL knew about this bug in their program and now they were exploiting it! That was what all those double zeros were for—they were just filling up space in the program’s buffer until they hit the end of the AOL client’s buffer and started overwriting executable code with the remainder of the protocol message. AOL was causing the client to look up a particular address in memory and send it back to the server. This was tricky, vastly trickier than anything they’d done so far. It was also a bit outside the realm of fair play: exploiting a security hole in their own client that our client didn’t have!

If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have given up, but I was out of my depth, and I told the team that I wasn’t sure how to get around this, at least not without a fair bit more time and resources.

Someone had the bright idea of telling the press about the buffer overflow, figuring that if people knew that AOL’s client could and in fact was executing whatever a server sent to it, AOL would be forced to patch their client and could no longer use it to determine that Messenger was an impostor.

Here I only know what happened from the outside, since this wasn’t my department. According to security expert Richard M. Smith, a certain “Phil Bucking” of “Bucking Consulting” sent him a message, alerting him to the buffer overflow in the AOL client:

Mr. Smith,

I am a developer who has been working on a revolutionary new instant messaging client that should be released later this year. Because of that, I have followed with interest the battle between AOL and Microsoft and have been trying to understand exactly what AOL is doing to block MS and how MS is getting around the blocks, etc. Up until very recently, it’s been pretty standard stuff, but now I fear AOL has gone too far.

It appears that the AIM client has a buffer overflow bug. By itself this might not be the end of the world, as MS surely has had its share. But AOL is now *exploiting their own buffer overflow bug* to help in its efforts to block MS Instant Messenger.

And so on. Getting the name of MSN Messenger Service wrong was a nice touch, but the rest of it is embarrassingly inept. This developer of a revolutionary new app takes time out from his coding not to promote his app but to take sides in the Microsoft-AOL war? Really? The email also includes a trace of the buffer overflow message itself, which I still remember vividly from the hours I spent staring at it, but the recipient paid more attention to the human language than the protocol messages. And if Phil Bucking’s text wasn’t suspicious enough, he’d also sent the message (via a Yahoo account, ha ha) from one of Microsoft’s computers at a Microsoft IP address, and the IP address showed up in the email headers. In geekspeak, this is what’s called a face-palm.

Smith immediately accused Microsoft of sending the email. Microsoft fessed up. So the news story didn’t become the buffer overflow (a tough sell, probably), but Microsoft’s attempt to bad-mouth AOL under a fake identity (an easier sell). People on various security forums ascertained that the buffer overflow was real and inveighed further against AOL, but the press wasn’t paying attention. The buffer overflow persisted into several later versions of AOL’s client.

So we gave up. I licked my wounds and proceeded on to far more dreary years on MSN Messenger Service, eventually getting buried so deeply in internal company politics that I was no longer able to do anything resembling useful work. The writing was on the wall when I heard one team manager scream, “I have the worst morale scores in the company and I don’t give a shit, because they can only go up!”

Those were the years of Microsoft’s long, slow decline, which continues to this day. The number of things wrong with the company was extraordinary, but they can be summed up by the word bureaucracy. Early on at Microsoft—and even later, when we first started Messenger—you could just do things. You had a good idea, you ran it by your boss, you tried it, and if it worked, in it went. After a while, you had to run everything by a hundred people, and at some point the ball would get dropped—and you’d never hear back. There was the infamous internal review system called “stack rank” that pitted teams against one another and people within each team against one another, too. There was an incredible thirst for “headcount” within a department, so managers would lobby aggressively for independent groups to come under their control. Thus the burgeoning NetDocs, which was intended to be an internet-based document-editing suite, gobbled up a number of small groups in the late ’90s. But NetDocs got eaten by Office, which then proceeded to kill it, thus leaving the door open for Google to debut Google Docs in the mid-2000s. And on it went. Multiyear projects with hundreds of engineers died without the public ever hearing a word. It continues.

I left for Google, but not without making one last mistake. I told my boss at Microsoft I was leaving to work for our direct competitor, and he threatened to sue me. I packed up my things in a box and quit the same day, without saying goodbye to my coworkers. At least Steve Ballmer didn’t throw a chair across the room, as he did when Windows architect Mark Lucovsky told Ballmer that he was leaving for Google. Microsoft was hemorrhaging hundreds of top engineers to Google at the time, and the combination of the talent loss plus the insult to the executives’ egos made for very bad blood. Still, they didn’t sue me.

Despite my ignominious defeat at the hands of AOL’s diabolical mastermind of chat, Messenger did pretty well. We acquired tens of millions of users, millions online at any one time. At some point we put ads into the client, which made some money. I don’t think we turned a profit, but we weren’t a big group, so we weren’t costing Microsoft much either. I added emoticons to the client in 2000—it was the first American chat program to turn a colon and a close-parenthesis into an actual smiley face (I say first American because the South Koreans, who loved chat more than anyone, may have preceded us)—and people loved it. We added internet phone calls to the client, which was cool and raised a bit of revenue on international calls. After I went over to the server side, I helped redesign the server architecture with a very sharp development lead who taught me a lot, as had my original mentor on the client.

Messenger puttered along for many years in limbo. It was unusual in being unkillable (because of all its users) and unassimilable by Windows or Office (because it was part of Microsoft’s internet strategy), which led, I believe, to it never amounting to anything. Taken on its own, it was a success, but a success on which Microsoft was unable to capitalize. Attempts to integrate it with other projects either fell prey to internecine executive warfare or else collapsed into consumer indifference. Despite Microsoft’s purchase of Skype, Messenger is still going today, a little Methuselah wandering in the Microsoft product mausoleum.

Years later at a party I met one of the AOL engineers who’d worked against me. We had a huge laugh over it. He’d left AOL just as I’d left Microsoft, and I complimented him on the genius of the buffer-overrun exploit, even as I bemoaned my loss. It had been a great game, I said. He agreed.

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2591 days ago
Perth, Australia
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Freddie Gray Is Only the Latest Apparent Victim of Baltimore Police Violence

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In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.

What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.   

I include myself.  

Despite actively reading and commenting on police misconduct for many years, I was unaware until yesterday that the Baltimore Sun published a searing 2014 article documenting recent abuses that are national scandals in their own rights.

A grandmother's bones were broken. A pregnant woman was violently thrown to the ground. Millions of dollars were paid out to numerous victims of police brutality.

And almost none of us noticed!

So I join all who say that protests in Baltimore should remain peaceful, and I will continue to withhold judgment about Gray's death until more facts are known.

But I also insist that Baltimore protests are appropriate regardless of what happened to Freddie Gray, as is more federal scrutiny and intervention. Although much was rightly made of Ferguson's racially unrepresentative local leadership, the presence of a black mayor and a diverse city council has not solved Baltimore's police problem, partly because the DOJ responded to revelations of epidemic brutality with less than the full-scale civil rights probe that some residents requested and because Maryland pols have thwarted reform bills urged by city leaders.

There are so many good reasons for locals to be outraged.

The Baltimore Sun's article shows why in detail. And a few choice excerpts are the best beginning in this attempt to contextualize the ongoing protests within recent history.

Let's start with the money.

$5.7 million is the amount the city paid to victims of brutality between 2011 and 2014. And as huge as that figure is, the more staggering number in the article is this one: "Over the past four years, more than 100 people have won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil-rights violations." What tiny percentage of the unjustly beaten win formal legal judgments?

If you're imagining that they were all men in their twenties, think again:

Victims include a 15-year-old boy riding a dirt bike, a 26-year-old pregnant accountant who had witnessed a beating, a 50-year-old woman selling church raffle tickets, a 65-year-old church deacon rolling a cigarette and an 87-year-old grandmother aiding her wounded grandson. Those cases detail a frightful human toll. Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones — jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles — head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement.

The 87-year-old grandmother was named Venus Green. A former teacher with two college degrees, she spent her retirement years as a foster parent for needy children. She was on her porch one day when her grandson ran up crying for an ambulance.

He'd been shot.

The article goes on to tell her story from a legal document in her successful lawsuit:

Paramedics and police responded to the emergency call, but the white officer became hostile. “What happened? Who shot you?” Green recalled the officer saying to her grandson, according to an 11-page letter in which she detailed the incident for her lawyer. Excerpts from the letter were included in her lawsuit. “You’re lying. You know you were shot inside that house. We ain’t going to help you because you are lying.”

“Mister, he isn’t lying,” replied Green, who had no criminal record. “He came from down that way running, calling me to call the ambulance.”

The officer, who is not identified in the lawsuit, wanted to go into the basement, but Green demanded a warrant. Her grandson kept two dogs downstairs and she feared they would attack. The officer unhooked the lock, but Green latched it. He shoved Green against the wall.

She hit the wooden floor. “Bitch, you ain’t no better than any of the other old black bitches I have locked up,” Green recalled the officer saying as he stood over her. “He pulled me up, pushed me in the dining room over the couch, put his knees in my back, twisted my arms and wrist and put handcuffs on my hands and threw me face down on the couch.”

After pulling Green to her feet, the officer told her she was under arrest. Green complained of pain. “My neck and shoulder are hurting,” Green told him. “Please take these handcuffs off.” An African-American officer then walked in the house, saw her sobbing and asked that the handcuffs be removed since Green wasn’t violent. The cuffs came off, and Green didn’t face any charges. But a broken shoulder tormented her for months.

When pondering the fact that Baltimore paid out $5.7 million in brutality settlements over four years, consider that the payout in this case was just $95,000. (For the story of the pregnant woman and many others, the full article is here.)

Lest anyone imagine that this investigation was the only tipoff of egregious misconduct among Baltimore police, more context is useful. The period covered in the brutality investigation came immediately after the FBI caught 51 Baltimore police officers in a scheme that resulted in at least 12 extortion convictions.

Shortly after the investigation was published this happened on a Baltimore street:

This year a detective who retired from the police force last year demonstrated a violent streak—he allegedly took part in a motorcycle-club brawl that left a man hospitalized. Also in 2014, "a city police officer was charged with felony assault after he stormed into a home in full uniform Monday and threatened to kill his wife with his service weapon." And Baltimore police tased a hospitalized meningitis patient 5 times in the course of ten minutes. He died soon after. Prosecutors did not file charges.

Another cop was charged with an assault on a 14-year-old boy.

Even animals couldn't escape the brutality of the Baltimore police last year. In July, "Officer Thomas Schmidt, a 24-year veteran assigned to the Emergency Services unit, was placed on paid administrative leave after police say he held down a Shar-Pei while a fellow officer, Jeffrey Bolger, slit the dog's throat." A month later, a Baltimore police officer plead guilty "to a felony animal cruelty charge after he fatally beat and choked his girlfriend's Jack Russell terrier," an August 5 article noted. The very same year, even one of Baltimore's good cops couldn't escape the horror show of dead animals: "Four investigators from agencies outside Baltimore are working to determine who left a dead rat on the car windshield of an officer who was cooperating with prosecutors on a police brutality case."

What about the prior year?

There was a murder-suicide, with a policeman killing a firefighter, his girlfriend, and himself. There was a different officer who killed himself in jail after being charged with killing his fiancée. In yet another case, "Abdul Salaam, 36, says he was beaten in July 2013 after a traffic stop by officers Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz and that he never got a response to his complaint filed with internal affairs," The Sun reported. "Those officers would be implicated less than three weeks later in the death of 44-year-old Tyrone West while he was in police custody." Also in 2013, a jury acquitted an off-duty police officer on manslaughter charges after he chased down and killed a 17-year-old boy who may or may not have thrown a rock that thumped harmlessly into his front door. And that's not even getting into serious corruption that wasn't brutality.

I could go on, but I've long since started to skim past stories like "Baltimore police officer pimps out his own wife" and thinking, meh, I've seen worse from cops there. The cop who shot himself and lied about it to get worker's comp benefits? Meh, at least he didn't shoot someone else and then lie about what happened. There is just a staggering level of dysfunction in the department, and residents of Baltimore, a city that could use a professional crime-fighting force if ever there was one, have suffered under it year after year after year. Pick one. (Take 2008! A Baltimore cop shot a man twice in the back. He was acquitted, too.)

There is so much I haven't included (example), and I've just trawled through the archives of The Baltimore Sun for a two-year period. They cover most police-involved deaths, but no newspaper covers more than a minuscule subset of use-of-force incidents.

So no wonder protestors are out in Baltimore after this latest death.

No wonder that a meeting on police brutality this week had to be moved to a bigger venue because so many Baltimore residents are concerned enough to come out in person. "Dozens of residents—most of them black—inundated federal officials with their assertions that city police have been brutalizing residents with impunity," a just-published Baltimore Sun article reports. It includes a quote from a 35-year-old who asked the feds, "When are you all going to help us?"

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2625 days ago
Perth, Australia
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Orion Magazine | Defending Darwin

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James J. Krupa has won several national and state teaching awards, as well as every major teaching award at the University of Kentucky, where he is a tenured professor of biology.

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2656 days ago
Great essay on teaching evolution at the University of Kentucky.
Perth, Australia
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