June 2008


Relatives of three young people lost to car accidents and a brazen shooting over the weekend — a promising model, an aspiring attorney and a rapper hoping for a big break — struggled Monday to make sense of their tragedies.

Gunshots fired at Lord Carter killed the 21-year-old Westbury man whose grandfather said Monday that his grandson may have sensed he would be targeted before a gunman trained a pistol on him.

“Maybe he felt something was going to happen,” said Henry Brim, 62, of Roosevelt, who raised Carter from the time he was about 8 years old.

Brim said Carter sat in Brim’s Roosevelt kitchen Saturday and told him that he appreciated how Brim, an old-fashioned disciplinarian, had raised Carter and his brothers, Carter saying his grandfather was the “greatest man he ever knew.

“He may have figured if he didn’t tell me now, he might not get a chance to tell me,” Brim said, adding that he found puzzling Carter’s resolve in giving thanks at that moment only to die on a Roosevelt street later that day. “It just lifted me up. I ain’t never going to forget that until the day I die.”

Hours after that conversation, someone shot Carter at least twice outside a house party on East Fulton Avenue.


On Monday, police asked for help in finding Carter’s killer, urging people to call CrimeStoppers at 800-244-TIPS with information.

For Dawn Leslie’s loved ones, Wednesday will be a day to mourn rather than celebrate.

Leslie, 18, recognized as the student of the month for June at Syosset High School, was killed late Saturday when she was hit by a car while crossing a street in Oyster Bay Cove on her way to a graduation party.

The accident happened four days before she was to graduate from Syosset with a Regents diploma. Leslie had planned to attend Tiffin University in Ohio to pursue a degree in criminal law.

She had aspired to work as a police officer, Syosset High School Principal Jorge Schneider said Monday.

“She was a very likable young lady,” Schneider said. “Everybody is devastated.”

At about 11:10 p.m. Saturday, a 2003 Toyota Avalon traveling east along Route 25A hit Leslie as she walked across the roadway, police said. No charges have been filed against the driver who hit her, police said.

Leslie’s teachers recognized her this month as a student of the month, exhibiting positive character traits in addition to academic rigor, Schneider said.

Jenna Levere said she had planned to sit next to Leslie at their graduation.

“Any person that got to knew her loved her,” Levere said. “She had a smile that would make anyone smile, and the most contagious laugh. I just planned on being her friend forever.”

A funeral will be held 11 a.m. Thursday at Wagner Funeral Home at 125 W. Old Country Rd. in Hicksville.

In another crash, Desiree Mesolella, 19, of Lincoln, R.I., was killed in an alleged drunken driving accident Sunday morning in Port Washington.

The Adelphi University student and model was the daughter of a former Rhode Island politician.

Mesolella was the passenger in a 2007 Honda Civic whose driver crossed over into oncoming traffic and struck a car, Nassau police said. The driver, Ansaf G. Ibrahim, 21, of Port Washington, was charged with manslaughter and driving while intoxicated, among other charges, police said.

Mesolella, a sophomore at Adelphi, majored in art, said university officials. She is the daughter of former Rhode Island state Rep. Vincent Mesolella, a real estate developer, said a spokeswoman for the Narragansett Bay Commission, which Vincent Mesolella chairs.

In 2005, Mesolella competed in the Miss Rhode Island Teen USA pageant.

* BY ZACHARY R. DOWDY AND JOSEPH MALLIA (Newsday,June 24, 2008)


Judges and jurors who must decide whether sexually explicit material is obscene are asked to use a local yardstick: does the material violate community standards?

That is often a tricky question because there is no simple, concrete way to gauge a community’s tastes and values.

The Internet may be changing that. In a novel approach, the defense in an obscenity trial in Florida plans to use publicly accessible Google search data to try to persuade jurors that their neighbors have broader interests than they might have thought.
In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.”

The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. But the defense lawyer, Lawrence Walters, is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.

It is not clear that the approach will succeed. The Florida state prosecutor in the case, which is scheduled for trial July 1, said the search data may not be relevant because the volume of Internet searches is not necessarily an indication of, or proxy for, a community’s values.
But the tactic is another example of the value of data collected by Internet companies like Google, both from a commercial standpoint and as a window into the thoughts, interests and desires of their users.
“Time and time again you’ll have jurors sitting on a jury panel who will condemn material that they routinely consume in private,” said Mr. Walters, the defense lawyer. Using the Internet data, “we can show how people really think and feel and act in their own homes, which, parenthetically, is where this material was intended to be viewed,” he added.
Mr. Walters last week also served Google with a subpoena seeking more specific search data, including the number of searches for certain sexual topics done by local residents. A Google spokesman said the company was reviewing the subpoena.
Mr. Walters is defending Clinton Raymond McCowen, who is facing charges that he created and distributed obscene material through a Web site based in Florida. The charges include racketeering and prostitution, but Mr. Walters said the prosecution’s case fundamentally relies on proving that the material on the site is obscene.

Such cases are a relative rarity this decade. In the last eight years, the Justice Department has brought roughly 15 obscenity cases that have not involved child pornography, compared with 75 during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, according to Jeffrey J. Douglas, chairman emeritus of the First Amendment Lawyers Association. (There have been hundreds involving child pornography.) Prosecutions at the state level have followed a similar arc.

The question of what constitutes obscenity relies on a three-part test established in a 1973 decision by the Supreme Court. Essential to the test has been whether the material in question is patently offensive or appeals to a prurient interest in sex — definitions that are based on “contemporary community standards.”

Lawyers in obscenity cases have tried to demonstrate community standards by, for example, showing the range of sexually explicit magazines and movies available locally. A better barometer, Mr. Douglas said, would be mail-order statistics, because they show what people consume in private. But that information is hard to obtain.

“All you had to go on is what was available for public consumption, and that was a very crude tool,” Mr. Douglas said. “The prospect of having measurement of Internet traffic brings a more objective component than we’ve ever seen before.”

In a federal obscenity case heard this month, Mr. Douglas defended another Florida pornographer. In the trial, Mr. Douglas set up a computer in the courtroom and did Internet searches for sexually explicit terms to show the jury that there were millions of Web pages discussing such material. He then searched for other topics, like the University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, to demonstrate that there were not nearly as many related Web sites.

The jury was evidently not swayed, as his client was convicted on all counts.
The case Mr. Walters is defending takes the tactic to another level. Rather than showing broad availability of sex-related Web sites, he is trying to show both accessibility and interest in the material within the jurisdiction of the First Circuit Court for Santa Rosa County, where the trial is taking place.

The search data he is using is available through a service called Google Trends (trends.google.com). It allows users to compare search trends in a given area, showing, for instance, that residents of Pensacola are more likely to search for sexual terms than some more wholesome ones.

Mr. Walters chose Pensacola because it is the only city in the court’s jurisdiction that is large enough to be singled out in the service’s data.
“We tried to come up with comparison search terms that would embody typical American values,” Mr. Walters said. “What is more American than apple pie?” But according to the search service, he said, “people are at least as interested in group sex and orgies as they are in apple pie.”

The Google service does, however, show the relative strength of many mainstream queries in Pensacola: “Nascar,” “surfing” and “Nintendo” all beat “orgy.”
Chris Hansen, a staff lawyer for the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the tactic clever and novel, but said it underscored the power of the Internet to reveal personal preferences — something that raises concerns about the collection of personal information.

“That’s why a lot of people are nervous about Google or Yahoo having all this data,” he said.
One question is whether the judge in the case will admit the data as evidence; it was given only in a deposition this month. Mr. Walters said he was confident the information would be allowable given that there has been a growing reliance on such data.

Russ Edgar, the Florida state prosecutor, said he was still assessing whether he would try to block the search data’s use in court. He declined to discuss the case’s specifics, but said that the popularity of sex-related Web sites had no bearing on whether Mr. Edgar was in violation of community standards.
“How many times you do something doesn’t necessarily speak to standards and values,” he said.

 

* By MATT RICHTEL, NYT, June 24, 2008

Some comments:
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The Supreme Court test has always been flawed. Community is not, and never has been, a geographic limitation- your church may draw only from a three block radius, your union from a county, and your magazine subscriptions from around the nation. The Internet just expands the meaning of community into a two-way global conversation.
The question must NOT hinge on banning behavior which violates some local moral standard, nor trying to protect people from inadvertent encounters with ideas or images they dislike- or we will devolve to protect the least common denominator of taste and intellectual freedom. Healthy societies can absorb and thrive off differences and debate.
The law should require three tests. Fist, can exposure to the pornographic material be reasonably avoided (e.g. no pornographic billboards in town, but pornographic ads on your web site are ok). Second, no profiting from illegal activity (e.g. no pornography filmed with underage models or depicting actual rape). And third, specific kinds of pornography can be banned only if it can be shown they are overwhelmingly likely to cause dangerous or illegal behavior in people who would otherwise not break the law.
And finally, “equal protection under the law” requires a fair test survive replacing the word “pornography” with “religious belief” or “political opinion” or “cultural traditions”…..
— gregb, NJ

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For the Bible Belt hypocrites, there is a better statute that can cited: “Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone”. Congratulations on ridding your supposedly squeaky clean communities of these evil pornographers. When you are alone in your den by the computer later tonight, try not to feel too guilty about who you put in jail and why, hypocrites. Point of fact: if you think it is right to prosecute and jail pornographers, you have zero moral authority. What you have is merely a lack of self-awareness, because you indulge in the products they produce, and have the same thoughts. Simply because you are a human being, which has a sexual existence. There’s nothing wrong with that. Except in your eyes. Sex makes you feel dirty, huh? So lets throw people in jail, huh? Feel better now? In your zeal and your prosecution of consenting adults, you commit a greater sin in the eyes of God than anything a pornographer does.
— BR, times square
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The crux of the problem is contained in the prosecutor’s concluding comment: “How many times you do something doesn’t necessarily speak to standards and values,” he said.
Wait a minute, buster: If you do something repeatedly, continuously, frequently over time, that DOES indicate your standards and values! When people tell Arizona anthropologist Bill Rathje’s group that they always eat healthy and never waste food — but then his “Garbage Project” sees that their diet is 80% processed junk and they throw out gallons of uneaten food weekly — the gap between their public “image” and their private truth is laid bare.
This prosecutor can honestly pursue that line of reasoning only if he asks that “community” standard be redefined as “public pretense” — as opposed to private reality.
Otherwise this is simply more of the hypocrisy of Americans, many of whom consume porn at home while banning it in public, pay for sex while prosecuting prostitutes (hello, ex-gov. Spitzer), ban liquor while buying it in the next county over, denounce gambling when not going to Vegas, and crusade against obscenity while having active sex lives.
The google stats will make clear that Pensacolans spend a lot of time thinking about sex and seeking out porn. That’s as clear an expression of values as looking at what people eat and drink every day, instead of simply letting them claim what sounds good. The question here is not what the community’s standards are — thanks to the Internet records of which online interests are pursued most often, those values are pretty clear!
The question is, will the judge in this case instruct the jurors to be honest? Or encourage them to lie in order to continue perpetrating the public fraud of moral “purity”? Given the region and the U.S. pursuit of pornography as a way to avoid dealing with real problems like global deaths from our militarism, our failures in health care and education, and our leading role in destruction of the planet’s environmental support system… my bet is that this judge and jury collude in another witch hunt to avoid facing the real work that democracy requires — like being honest with others, and ideally, with ourselves.
Signed, “no interest in orgies, but like the majority, an adult who’s checked out porn at least once.”
— CH, Idaho
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I posit cutting-out the middle man; how fun would it be to directly subpeona the cookies and search results of the jurors themselves–or, better yet, the prosecutor!
Let us address the central questions that define this case: in answer to the question “What’s more American than apple pie?” one of the many answers would be “pornography.” If Americans consumed apple pies with the same feverish zeal they consume pornography the average life expectancy in this country would likely hover somewhere around 28.
In answer to the question “What’s obscene?” I hardly know where to begin. A brief laundry list: the war in Iraq; 8 years of Bush; the economy; global warming; the acquittal of corporate criminals; et. al., et. al., et. al., et. al…..
— Jonathan, Buffalo

The people who created this country built a moral structure around money. The Puritan legacy inhibited luxury and self-indulgence.

Benjamin Franklin spread a practical gospel that emphasized hard work, temperance and frugality. Millions of parents, preachers, newspaper editors and teachers expounded the message. The result was quite remarkable.

The United States has been an affluent nation since its founding. But the country was, by and large, not corrupted by wealth. For centuries, it remained industrious, ambitious and frugal.

Over the past 30 years, much of that has been shredded. The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined. The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened. The country’s moral guardians are forever looking for decadence out of Hollywood and reality TV. But the most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money.

Sixty-two scholars have signed on to a report by the Institute for American Values and other think tanks called, “For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture,” examining the results of all this. This may be damning with faint praise, but it’s one of the most important think-tank reports you’ll read this year.

The deterioration of financial mores has meant two things. First, it’s meant an explosion of debt that inhibits social mobility and ruins lives. Between 1989 and 2001, credit-card debt nearly tripled, soaring from $238 billion to $692 billion. By last year, it was up to $937 billion, the report said.

Second, the transformation has led to a stark financial polarization. On the one hand, there is what the report calls the investor class. It has tax-deferred savings plans, as well as an army of financial advisers. On the other hand, there is the lottery class, people with little access to 401(k)’s or financial planning but plenty of access to payday lenders, credit cards and lottery agents.

The loosening of financial inhibition has meant more options for the well-educated but more temptation and chaos for the most vulnerable. Social norms, the invisible threads that guide behavior, have deteriorated.

Over the past years, Americans have been more socially conscious about protecting the environment and inhaling tobacco. They have become less socially conscious about money and debt.
The agents of destruction are many. State governments have played a role. They aggressively hawk their lottery products, which some people call a tax on stupidity.

Twenty percent of Americans are frequent players, spending about $60 billion a year.

The spending is starkly regressive. A household with income under $13,000 spends, on average, $645 a year on lottery tickets, about 9 percent of all income. Aside from the financial toll, the moral toll is comprehensive. Here is the government, the guardian of order, telling people that they don’t have to work to build for the future. They can strike it rich for nothing.

Payday lenders have also played a role. They seductively offer fast cash — at absurd interest rates — to 15 million people every month.
Credit card companies have played a role. Instead of targeting the financially astute, who pay off their debts, they’ve found that they can make money off the young and vulnerable. Fifty-six percent of students in their final year of college carry four or more credit cards.

Congress and the White House have played a role. The nation’s leaders have always had an incentive to shove costs for current promises onto the backs of future generations. It’s only now become respectable to do so.

Wall Street has played a role. Bill Gates built a socially useful product to make his fortune. But what message do the compensation packages that hedge fund managers get send across the country?

The list could go on. But the report, which is nicely summarized by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in The American Interest (available free online), also has some recommendations. First, raise public consciousness about debt the way the anti-smoking activists did with their campaign. Second, create institutions that encourage thrift.

Foundations and churches could issue short-term loans to cut into the payday lenders’ business. Public and private programs could give the poor and middle class access to financial planners. Usury laws could be enforced and strengthened. Colleges could reduce credit card advertising on campus. KidSave accounts would encourage savings from a young age. The tax code should tax consumption, not income, and in the meantime, it should do more to encourage savings up and down the income ladder.

There are dozens of things that could be done. But the most important is to shift values. Franklin made it prestigious to embrace certain bourgeois virtues. Now it’s socially acceptable to undermine those virtues. It’s considered normal to play the debt game and imagine that decisions made today will have no consequences for the future.

* By DAVID BROOKS (June 10, 2008)

For the last three decades, Camilo Jose Vergara have photographed abandoned filling stations, mostly in American ghettos. For me, they evoked the vision of the end of a gas-based world. In the beginning, this vision was largely confined to disadvantaged neighborhoods. Not anymore. Today, with gasoline prices at record levels, the fragility of a lifestyle, economy and culture dependent on fossil fuel is sensed by everyone, even the most comfortable among us.
Take a look next photos:


South Broadway at Lester Terrace, Camden, N.J., 2007.


South Broadway at Chelton Avenue, Camden, N.J., 2003.


Sweet Kingdom Annex, Chene and Superior Streets, Detroit, 1993.


Former Delta Gas Station, 2914 E. Warren Avenue, Detroit, 2001.


East Lanvale Street at North Gay Street, Baltimore, 1999.


Sykes & Son Tire Repair, Grand River Avenue at Mendota Street, Detroit, 2002.

* Photo: Camilo José Vergara

CHICAGO — Addressing a packed congregation at one of the city’s largest black churches, Senator Barack Obama on Sunday invoked his own absent father to deliver a sharp message to black men, saying “we need fathers to recognize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception.”

In an address that was striking for its bluntness and where he chose to give it, Mr. Obama directly addressed one of the most delicate topics confronting black leaders: how much responsibility absent fathers bear for some of the intractable problems afflicting black Americans. Mr. Obama noted that “more than half of all black children live in single-parent households,” a number that he said had doubled since his own childhood.

“Too many fathers are M.I.A., too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes,” Mr. Obama said to a chorus of approving murmurs from the audience. “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

Accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and his daughters, Malia and Sasha, who sat in the front pew, Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, laid out his case in stark terms that would be difficult for a white candidate to make, telling the mostly black audience not to “just sit in the house watching ‘SportsCenter,’ ” and to stop praising themselves for mediocre accomplishments.

“Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation,” he said, bringing many members of the congregation to their feet, applauding. “You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.”
His themes have also been sounded by the comedian Bill Cosby, who has stirred debate among black Americans by bluntly speaking about an epidemic of fatherlessness in African-American families while suggesting that some blacks use racism as a crutch to explain the lack of economic progress.

Mr. Obama did not take his Father’s Day message to Trinity United Church of Christ, where he resigned as a member in May after a series of disputes over controversial remarks by the church’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Instead, he chose the 20,000-member Apostolic Church of God, a vast brick structure on the South Side near Lake Michigan. The church’s pastor, Byron Brazier, is an Obama supporter.

The address was not Mr. Obama’s first foray into the issue. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama has frequently returned to the topic of parenting and personal responsibility, particularly for low-income black families. Speaking in Texas in February, Mr. Obama told the mostly black audience to take responsibility for the education and nutrition of their children, and lectured them for feeding their children “cold Popeyes” for breakfast.

“I know how hard it is to get kids to eat properly,” Mr. Obama said at the time.
The remarks Sunday were Mr. Obama’s first since he claimed the nomination that have addressed the problems confronting blacks in a comprehensive and straightforward way. While Mr. Obama’s remarks were directed at a black, churchgoing audience, his campaign hopes they resonate among white social conservatives in a race where these voters may be up for grabs.

On Friday, Mr. Obama said he would co-sponsor a bill, with Senator Evan Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, that his campaign said would address the “national epidemic of absentee fathers.” If passed, the legislation would increase enforcement of child support payments and strengthen services for domestic violence prevention.

“We need families to raise our children,” he said at the service on Sunday. “We need fathers to recognize that responsibility doesn’t just end at conception. That doesn’t just make you a father. What makes you a man is not the ability to have a child. Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”

Mr. Obama spoke of the burden that single parenthood placed on his mother, who raised him with the help of his maternal grandparents.
“I know the toll it took on me, not having a father in the house,” he continued. “The hole in your heart when you don’t have a male figure in the home who can guide you and lead you. So I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle — that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father to my children.”

But Mr. Obama also acknowledged his own flaws as a father, citing the breakneck schedule of the campaign and the rare days he spends with his children.

“I say this knowing that I have been an imperfect father,” he said, “knowing that I have made mistakes and I’ll continue to make more, wishing that I could be home for my girls and my wife more than I am right now.”

Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and an Obama supporter, said he welcomed not only the message the speech sent to black Americans, but also how it laid bare Mr. Obama’s own struggles growing up and, now, as the father of two children.
“I have been saying for some time now that he needs to talk more about his life experiences and what it means to be raised by a single mother,” Mr. Clyburn said. “He opened up.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton called the remarks on absent black fathers “courageous and important,” but cautioned that Mr. Obama’s words would not be embraced by all segments of the black community.
“There are a lot of those who will say that he should not be airing dirty laundry, those that will say he’s beating up on the victims,” Mr. Sharpton said in a telephone interview. “This will not be something that will be unanimously applauded, but I think that not discussing it is not going to make it go away.”

The Obama campaign added the speech to Mr. Obama’s schedule on Saturday, when he returned to Chicago after a campaign swing through Pennsylvania and Ohio. Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, took the day off from campaigning, but met privately in Washington with Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister.
The church did not publicize Mr. Obama’s visit in advance, and carried no mention of it on the its Web site.

But word had clearly gotten out, and by 11 a.m., as a musician warmed up on the timpani, thousands of people had filed through metal detectors at the church entrance and filled the pews, saving seats for latecomers with pocketbooks and hymnals. Even those who arrived an hour before the service milled around the church searching for empty seats.

Mr. Obama sprinkled his roughly 30-minute address with moments of levity. He said that when he asked his wife why Mother’s Day produced so much more “hoopla” than Father’s Day, she reminded him of his special status.
“She said, ‘Let me tell you, every day is Father’s Day,’ ” he said. “ ‘Every day you’re getting away with something. You’re running for president.’ ”

* By JULIE BOSMAN June 16, 2008
Michael Falcone contributed reporting from Washington.

Darius McCollum knows the New York City Transit system well. Perhaps too well. For about a quarter of a century, he has taken trains and buses for joy rides and impersonated Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers, racking up 23 transit-related arrests.

The first came in 1981, after he drove the E train to the World Trade Center. He was last in the news in 2006, when he was charged with criminal impersonation.

Mr. McCollum, 43, of East Elmhurst, Queens, was arrested again on Saturday after he tried to pass himself off as a subway worker, the police said.

When he was arrested, just after 2 a.m. on the platform at the 59th Street/Columbus Circle subway station, he was wearing navy blue clothes similar to a transit uniform, and had a hard hat, transit-logo gloves, a knapsack and documents related to the transit system in his possession, the police said.

He faces charges of criminal trespass, criminal impersonation and possession of burglary tools, the police said. Five of his previous arrests included stealing buses, the police said.

His latest journey into handcuffs started in Queens, when he boarded the No. 7 train at the 103rd Street station and rode it — as a normal passenger — into Manhattan, debarking at a Times Square station, the police said.

There, his history caught up with him. Officers spotted him posing as an employee and recognized that, despite his blue outfit, he was not a genuine transit worker.

They followed him when he got on a northbound No. 1 train. When he debarked at the Columbus Circle station and entered an area sealed off to the public, the police took him into custody.

Speaking from the station, Officer Martin Brown, a police spokesman, said that he was wearing transit clothes to make people think he was an employee.

Mr. McCollum did not speak to reporters while he was being placed into a black car by detectives. A large man, he hung his bald head low and shuffled forward, his hands cuffed behind his back.

Mr. McCollum’s mother, Elizabeth, 82, said her son had Asperger’s syndrome and had a lifelong obsession with trains.

She said she had last heard from her son three days ago, when he told her he would arrive at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Thursday, taking a Greyhound bus from New York City. But he never showed up.
She said he had been living in Queens with her niece and had told her that he was working in a warehouse.

“They arrest him every time if he has got on anything that looks like transit clothes,” she said by telephone.

She said she and her husband, Samuel, had tried many times over the years to keep Mr. McCollum, who is their only child, from being arrested again by trying to persuade him to stay with them in North Carolina. But to no avail. He slips away and returns to New York City.

“He just loves New York,” she said. “He knows the people in Transportation. And he goes up there to be around them.”
His mother said that she had been telling him that “he has got to learn,” and added that hiring lawyers for him over the years had put her in debt.
But she said he needed help.

“With all these kids who are autistic, they slip behind the cracks, but nobody is trying to help him at all,” she said. “I tried when I lived in New York. Every time he was arrested he wasn’t hurting anybody, and nobody could figure out what is his problem.”

She said that sometimes, when he was younger and they were living in Jamaica, Queens, she did not know where he was and people would tell her he was in the subway. “I used to call them and go down there and look for him,” she said.

She said that he would put together model trains and other toys with ease: “We had all kinds of toys, like trains and monorails, and different kinds of things when he was growing up. And he went on to bigger and better things.”

* By CHRISTINE HAUSER and SHARON OTTERMAN June 15, 2008

One thing you can say about the copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s book “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” (“On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”), on sale next week at Christie’s auction house, is that it looks and feels old.

Its cover is dented and stained. The pages are warped. You could easily imagine that this book had sat out half a dozen revolutions hidden in various dank basements in Europe.

In fact this book, published in 1543, was the revolution. It was here that the Polish astronomer laid out his theory that the Earth and other planets go around the Sun, contravening a millennium of church dogma that the Earth was the center of the universe and launching a frenzy of free thought and scientific inquiry.

The party, known as the Enlightenment, is still going strong. It was a thrill to hold Copernicus in my hands on a recent visit to the back rooms of Christie’s and flip through its hallowed pages as if it were my personal invitation to the Enlightenment. No serious library should be without one. Just in case you are missing your own copy, you can pick up this one for about the price of a Manhattan apartment next Tuesday, according to the Christie’s catalog, which estimates its value at $900,000 to $1.2 million.

The Copernicus is a cornerstone in the collection of a retired physician and amateur astronomer, Richard Green of Long Island, that constitutes pretty much a history of science and Western thought. Among the others in Dr. Green’s library are works by Galileo, who was tried for heresy in 1633 and sentenced to house arrest for his admiration of Copernicus and for portraying the pope as a fool, as well as by Darwin, Descartes, Newton, Freud, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Malthus and even Karl Marx.

One lot includes Albert Einstein’s collection of reprints of his scientific papers, including his first one on relativity. Another is a staggeringly beautiful star atlas, Harmonia Macrocosmica, by the 17th-century Dutch-German cartographer Andreas Cellarius, with double-truck hand-colored plates.

Pawing through these jaw droppers, I found my attention being drawn again and again to a small white book, barely more than a pamphlet, a time machine that took me back to a more recent revolution. It was the directory for world’s first commercial phone system, Volume 1, No. 1, published in New Haven by the Connecticut District Telephone Company in November 1878, future issues to be published “from time to time, as the nature of the service requires.”

Two things struck me. As an aging veteran of the current rewiring of the human condition, I wondered whether there might be lessons from that first great rewiring of our collective nervous system.

Another was a shock of recognition — that people were already talking on the phone a year before Einstein was born. In fact, just two years later Einstein’s father went into the nascent business himself. Einstein grew up among the rudiments of phones and other electrical devices like magnets and coils, from which he drew part of the inspiration for relativity. It would not be until 1897, after people had already made fortunes exploiting electricity, that the English scientist J. J. Thomson discovered what it actually was: the flow of tiny negatively charged corpuscles of matter called electrons.

The New Haven switchboard opened in January 1878, only two years after Alexander Graham Bell, in nearby Boston, spoke the immortal words “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.” It was the first commercial system that allowed many customers to connect with one another, for $22 a year, payable in advance.

The first directory consisted of a single sheet listing the names of 50 subscribers, according to lore. By November, the network had grown to 391 subscribers, identified by name and address — phone numbers did not yet exist. And the phone book, although skimpy, had already taken the form in which it would become the fat doorstop of today, with advertisements and listings of businesses in the back — 22 physicians and 22 carriage manufacturers, among others.

Customers were limited to three minutes a call and no more than two calls an hour without permission from the central office.
Besides rules, the embryonic phone book also featured pages of tips on placing calls — pick up the receiver and tell the operator whom you want — and how to talk on this gadget. Having a real conversation, for example, required rapidly transferring the telephone between mouth and ear.

“When you are not speaking, you should be listening,” it says at one point.
You should begin by saying, “Hulloa,” and when done talking, the book says, you should say, “That is all.”

The other person should respond, “O.K.”
Because anybody could be on the line at any time, customers should not pick up the telephone unless they want to make a call, and they should be careful about what others might hear.

“Any person using profane or otherwise improper language should be reported at this office immediately,” the company said.
If only they could hear us now. On second thought, maybe it’s better they can’t. Today we are all on a party line, and your most virulent thoughts are just a forward button away from being broadcast to the universe. Would it have killed the founders of the Internet to give us a little warning here?
Near the back of the book is an essay on another promising new wonder that “has attracted renewed attention both in this country and in Europe.”

Many of the streets and shops of Paris, it is reported, are now illuminated by electric lights, placed on posts. “People seated before the cafes read their papers by the aid of lights on the opposite side of the way, and yet the most delicate complexions and softest tints in fabrics do not suffer in the white glare of the lamps. Every stone in the road is plainly visible, and the horses move swiftly along as if confident of their footing,” the book says.
It makes you wonder what could come next. Oh yes, those horses. No revolution is ever done.
That is all.

 

* By DENNIS OVERBYE June 10, 2008

A hushed group of people, nearly four dozen strong, slipped into the American Museum of Natural History early Monday, ahead of the crowds. Their cheeks were smeared with rust-colored dye, red and white woven bands encircled their heads, the men wore ceremonial vests and the women were wrapped in shawls, fringed with red.

They were at the end of a roughly 3,000-mile journey that has, in its way, taken years. Unlike the thousands of fidgety schoolchildren and harried parents that filled the museum’s halls to view its storied exhibits on Monday, these 46 visitors were there for an altogether different purpose: to take their ancestors home.
“Our people are humans; we aren’t tokens,” said Chief Vern Jacks, who heads the Tseycum First Nation, a tiny native tribe from northern Vancouver Island, in British Columbia.

With the museum’s full consent, the Tseycum tribe will be repatriating the remains of 55 of their ancestors to Canada this week. On Monday morning, in a quiet first-floor auditorium away from the museum’s crowds, tribe members performed an emotionally charged private ceremony over the 15 sturdy plastic boxes that contained the remains.

The ceremony lasted two and a half hours, and the tribe members and elders from related tribes prayed, spoke, wept and sang, saying they wanted to soothe their ancestors’ spirits and prepare them for a return trip from a journey that, the tribe leaders say, should never have happened at all.

“And then we said, ‘Now we’re going to take you home,’ ” Chief Jacks said, moments after the ceremony ended. “These people we are taking here have knowledge, respect, wisdom,” he added. “We live by today’s society, but our history walks with us.”

The remains, guessed to be at least 2,000 years old, have been at the museum for about 100 years but have almost certainly never been on display, said Steve Reichl, a museum spokesman. The museum has repatriated other remains to Canada at least once before, in 2002, according to Mr. Reichl, and remains have also been returned numerous times to American Indians.

Mr. Reichl said the museum worked to streamline the Tseycums’ trip. “The end result was a successful visit,” he said, “and a moving ceremony.”

For the Tseycum people, Monday’s events marked a singular culmination of years of painstaking, and painful, detective work.
The tribe’s quest to reclaim their ancestors began seven years ago, when Chief Jacks’s wife, Cora Jacks, found documents and papers relaying the life story of a 19th- and early 20th-century archaeologist, Harlan Ingersoll Smith. Ms. Jacks said she learned that Mr. Smith had robbed the graves of Tseycum ancestors, who were buried on Vancouver Island under giant boulders, and sold them to major American museums, and most likely others worldwide.

Mrs. Jacks grew nearly obsessed with tracking down the remains, Chief Jacks said, poring over books, researching government archives and spending late nights searching for clues online.

Mr. Smith’s selling price, said Chief Jacks, was $5 a skull, $10 for a body.
“He dug our people up and sold them to museums on all four corners of the earth,” said Chief Jacks, 63, who is hoping that the Canadian government will help defray the costs of the trip. “What happened to ‘rest in peace’?”

In 2004, Mrs. Jacks wrote to both the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where she believes the remains of 70 ancestors who are from Coast Salish, a designation for tribes in the Pacific Northwest, are also being stored. In 2005, Mrs. Jacks and Chief Jacks’s son, Vern Jacks Jr., visited both museums, and then began the arduous, paperwork-heavy process for repatriating remains, first from New York.

In 2006, tribe members began raising money to cover their trip. They held fund-raisers, auctioned art and gathered donations for their quest, which they called “Our Journey Home,” and the tribe contributed $55,000.

(Helen Robbins, the repatriation director at the Field Museum, said the tribe had yet to begin the required process in Chicago. Mrs. Jacks said they planned to begin that effort next, after more money is raised.)
Finally, in November 2007, Mrs. Jacks said, she received the good news from the American Museum of Natural History. “They told us we could now come to New York and get our ancestors,” she said. Then the tribe began the process of speaking to elders and leaders in the Tseycum tribe, which has just 150 members, and other area tribes.
“And then we waited for better weather in New York,” said Mrs. Jacks, 52. “We didn’t want to be here in the snow.”

In the end, Chief Jacks said, the entire trip cost $150,000, with 46 people from the Tseycum and related tribes making it.
Chief Jacks flew into Kennedy Airport on June 4, with seven other tribe members. The rest of the group arrived on Saturday. They were staying in the Holiday Inn on West 57th Street, where they booked 24 rooms.
In addition to preparing for Monday’s ceremony, Chief Jacks said tribe members visited the Statue of Liberty and took double-decker bus tours of the city.

They were taken off guard by the heat wave. “But I can’t complain,” Chief Jacks said, shrugging. “It won’t do any good to complain.”
The tribe planned to fly back to Victoria on Vancouver Island on Wednesday with their ancestors’ remains. Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, Chief Jacks said, the remains will be transported by van to Kennedy Airport and flown in the cargo hull back to Victoria. “A lot of our people will be waiting there,” he said.
And then the remains will be driven in the back of two pickup trucks to Tseycum land on Vancouver Island, transferred into 55 plain cedar boxes and reburied on native land, this time, the tribe vows, for good.

* By CARA BUCKLEY June 10, 2008

Sunday was Father’s Day, but when I called my father to wish him a happy one, he was bereft. He had just finished watching the special edition of “Meet the Press” that was broadcast to honor its host, Tim Russert, who died Friday.
“I was in tears halfway through,” he said.

I am sure that, heaven forbid, should I die before my father does, he would feel terrible. I’m hoping he would feel almost as bad as he did about Mr. Russert.
“I feel miserable. I feel like I know him, that I really knew him. And now he’s gone, just like that,” he said. A middle-pew Catholic with a deep interest in Democratic politics, my father always suspected that he and Mr. Russert were of a single mind even if Mr. Russert, a former Democratic Senate staff member, did not wear those beliefs in plain view.

A lot of people felt they had something in common with Mr. Russert. His unexpected death at 58, after a heart attack Friday afternoon, prompted thousands of comments on blogs, a flowered memorial in front of his office in Washington, and rare newspaper encomiums here and elsewhere.

The rhetoric and remembrance deployed on his behalf — the flags in his hometown of Buffalo flew at half-staff — brought to mind the death of a beloved religious figure. On the broadcast wake Sunday, during what would have been his weekly hour on “Meet the Press,” Tom Brokaw and others referred to him variously as a priest, a cardinal and even, in the words of his friend Mike Barnicle, a pope.

Which he sort of was, by the way. To many Americans, politics may seem a festering culvert rife with self-dealing and egos, and with very little of real value. But there is a smaller, intense demographic that experienced the political narrative as a kind of civic religion. Those people assign a kind of nobility and greater purpose to the calling. And to those people, Mr. Russert was the high priest, the one above all others, so much so that my dad scheduled his Sunday Mass around the show. (His fan base was pretty diverse. When he was in Rome last week, Mr. Russert was received by the pope.)

Part of the response is a reflex toward very public Kaddish now baked into American culture. When the actor Heath Ledger died, his death took on sudden importance not reflected in his accomplished, but short, career. But this feels different, deeper. Career journalists and politicians have been talking about how hard it will be to carry on, to finish out the election, without him.

Amid all the laurels, they spoke as if he were taking a way of life with him. And he may be. It is a credit to Mr. Russert’s relentlessness that people feel that way. The dynamics of the Democratic primary weren’t driven by the mainstream media — more on that later — but it was Mr. Russert, after all, who got the whole party started by nudging the previously coy Senator Barack Obama to admit that he was interested in running for president. And on May 7, Mr. Russert declared — almost Cronkite-like — that the race for the Democratic nomination was over, that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had lost.

A former aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mr. Russert had a knack for making big-time politicians come to him. He had a face that seemed to be carved out of potatoes, but he worked on television by working harder than your average talking head, making the calls and pulling the levers of power with an alacrity few possessed.

At the same time, he reinforced his lunch-bucket credentials, coming up with a best-selling book about his father, “Big Russ and Me,” that turned a chip on his shoulder about his humble roots and lack of Ivy League pedigree into a franchise.

He was, in a phrase, old school, perhaps not in precisely the way he played on television — everyone on television has a schtick, and his was that as the son of a Buffalo sanitation worker, he didn’t need one. But inside the Beltway, he parsed approbation and legitimacy as he saw fit. (A recent profile of Chris Matthews in The New York Times Magazine spilled a fair amount of ink over Mr. Matthews’s desire for Mr. Russert’s acceptance.)

To have passed through the door from political partisan to major media figure is a remarkable accomplishment, but it does not fully explain why people are beside themselves over Mr. Russert’s death. Perhaps, in their bones, they are worried that if the king is gone, the kingdom will soon follow.

For decades, American national politics has been the province of a meritocracy, a self-nominated, self-important bunch who choose to be part of the media-political apparatus because it is a bloody sport for very high stakes. And it has historically pivoted around a rather tidy triangle defined by the parlors of Georgetown, the lobbyists on K Street and lunches at The Palm. And once a week, hierarchy is assigned and tribute is paid on the Sunday morning shows, with “Meet the Press” long being the more equal of equals.

You won’t hear this on a Sunday morning show — not this week and not any — but this political season suggests politics don’t work that way any more. As media platforms have multiplied and coverage has become ubiquitous, custody of the political narrative has left the Beltway.
Not many people know who Mayhill Fowler is — she’s a citizen journalist on The Huffington Post who works for no money and couldn’t find The Palm without Google Maps — but twice this year she has altered the campaign, first by catching Senator Obama sounding awfully elitist about the working class — “they cling to guns or religion” — and second by catching Bill Clinton coming off as if he had lost his mind.

The Obama insurgency in particular tilted the version of Washington that Mr. Russert knew off its axis. Who are all these people? Where did all this money come from? And when we made those speeches about youth voting, we didn’t expect that they would actually have a role in deciding who the candidate is.

Mr. Russert’s colleagues talked Sunday about his competitiveness — how he measured his success by the ability to drive the news cycle. In this election, he became one more aspect in a burgeoning ecosystem, an environment where consumer interest is constantly deciding what the story is and a new species of blogs, social networks and YouTube clips are there to satisfy that interest.

Mr. Russert’s own death provided an object lesson in how much things have changed. More than an hour before his death was announced by Tom Brokaw on NBC, his Wikipedia page was edited to reflect that he had just died.

The day that Mr. Russert died, I was in a press room for Bonnaroo, a music festival in Tennessee. When I got an alert that Mr. Russert had died, I announced it to the room and for a minute, no one said anything. And then finally, a woman down the table said, “Wasn’t he on TV?”
You could assign the lack of political interest to the context, but Bonnaroo is a very political space, with lots of youth voting organizations and a big Obama campaign presence. About 50,000 people listened rapt as Chris Rock riffed on the campaign and more than that as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam spoke urgently about the need for immediate change. Mr. Russert, a huge music fan — Bruce Springsteen was his second-favorite deity — would have loved the spectacle of it, but Bonnaroo carries with it a reminder that politics is being dispersed and re-democratized.

The people who run campaigns, newspapers and networks will head to the conventions this summer convinced that the future of the country remains in their hands. But there are clear signs that game is changing. My dad may not ever believe it, but Sunday could end up being just another day of the week.

* By DAVID CARR June 16, 2008

Israeli leaders spent last week talking tough about Iran and threatening possible military action. The United States and the other major powers need to address Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but with more assertive diplomacy — including greater financial pressures — not more threats or war planning.

The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who is bedeviled by a corruption scandal that could drive him from office, led the charge. “The Iranian threat must be stopped by all possible means,” he said in Washington, a day before meeting President Bush at the White House.

Then Israel’s transportation minister, Shaul Mofaz, who is jockeying to replace Mr. Olmert as head of the ruling Kadima Party if the prime minister is forced to resign, declared that an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites looks “unavoidable.”

We don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors in Washington — or what Mr. Olmert heard from Mr. Bush. But saber-rattling is not a strategy. And an attack on Iran by either country would be disastrous.

Unlike in 1981, when Israel destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak, there is no single target. A sustained bombing campaign would end up killing many civilians and still might not cripple Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran also has many frightening ways to retaliate. And even Arab states who fear Iran shudder at the thought of America, or its ally Israel, bombing another Muslim country and the backlash that that could provoke.

Mr. Olmert may be trying to divert attention from his political troubles. Still, there is no denying a growing and understandable sense of urgency in Israel, which Iran’s president has threatened with elimination. A recent report by United Nations inspectors on Iran’s nuclear progress, and worrisome links to military programs, has only fanned those fears.

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, is scheduled to visit Tehran later this month to discuss, in more detail, an incentives package first offered in 2006 by the United States and other major powers. It is likely to fall far short — both in incentives and punishments — of what is needed to get Tehran’s attention.

There is no indication it will contain tougher sanctions — including a broader ban on doing business with Iranian banks and bans on arms sales and new investments. It also needs a stronger commitment from Washington to lift sanctions and to fully engage Iran if it abandons its nuclear efforts. The United States is the only major power not sending a diplomat with Mr. Solana.

Senators Barack Obama and John McCain disagree on holding direct talks with Iran (Mr. Obama would; Mr. McCain would not). But last week, both endorsed enhanced sanctions, including limiting gasoline exports to Iran. That is an idea well worth exploring. Iran relies on a half-dozen companies for 40 percent of its gasoline imports. The United Nations Security Council is unlikely to authorize a squeeze, but quiet American and European appeals might persuade some companies to slow deliveries, and it would grab Tehran’s attention.

On his trip to Europe this week, President Bush is expected to press the Europeans to further reduce Iran-related export credits and cut ties with Iran’s financial institutions. He also must make clear that America will do its part on incentives. We wish he had the will and the skill to propose a grand bargain — and to send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to deliver it. Unfortunately, there’s no sign of that. At a minimum, he should send a senior official with Mr. Solana to Tehran.

If sanctions and incentives cannot be made to work, the voices arguing for military action will only get louder. No matter what aides may be telling Mr. Bush and Mr. Olmert — or what they may be telling each other — an attack on Iran would be a disaster.

 

* Editorial NYT, June 10, 2008

 

Police recruits and veteran officers could benefit from more frequent firearms training and a wider use of Taser stun guns, according to a study of the New York Police Department’s shooting habits released on Monday.

The study, by the RAND Corporation, was commissioned in January 2007, about seven weeks after a Queens man, Sean Bell, died in a hail of 50 police bullets. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at the time that questions about the department’s effectiveness and training required an independent review.

RAND researchers raised the phenomenon of “reflexive shooting,” or contagious shooting, in which one officer’s gunshots spur a fusillade of bullets by others in the area.


Though they could not say whether the phenomenon occurred more often than in the past, they recommended that the department add “reflexive shooting scenarios that include a stimulus or the sound of gunfire, to sensitize officers to cues that may not be reliable, and to teach them that such cues may generate unwanted responses.”


In addition to training, the RAND group studied how the department conducts internal reviews of police shootings.
It studied 455 shootings that were adjudicated in 2004, 2005 and 2006 by the department’s Firearms Discharge Review Board. The study found that while the board had “exemplary procedures,” and a record of producing quick and fact-filled reports with an eye toward the legalities of those shootings, it could benefit from more analysis of the tactics used so that lessons could be learned.


In 25 of the 455 shootings, the RAND group found that officers might have been able to end confrontations more quickly by using a less lethal device — like a Taser, which uses jolts of electricity to disable an assailant — before those encounters escalated to a point where more deadly force was necessary. The police killed someone in 3 of the 25 cases.


The authors of the 114-page study suggested the department carry out a pilot program in selected precincts to expand the availability of Taser guns with a goal of decreasing civilian or officer casualties.


At a news conference to outline the findings, Mr. Kelly strongly suggested that he would embrace the recommendation for a pilot program for the Taser devices, though he said he still had to distribute the report, and its “well over a hundred recommendations,” to those in his senior command.


He said he was aware that critics had assailed the use of Tasers, saying some officers tended to use them overzealously.
But he said that by Wednesday, roughly 520 new Tasers — which are not a substitute for a handgun — would be available to about 3,500 sergeants on patrol, a shift from having them kept in certain patrol vehicles and in the hands of officers in the elite Emergency Service Unit.


“This was a study that’s focused on what we can do,” Mr. Kelly said. “It was not a panacea; it wasn’t going to solve all issues as far as shootings are concerned.”


The report also called for expanding hands-on, scenario-based training, said Bernard D. Rostker, a senior fellow at RAND, who presented the findings at 1 Police Plaza. The Police Academy now offers two six-month programs annually for thousands of officers. Mr. Rostker said, “It would be better” if more frequent and smaller classes were held.


On requalification for officers on the job, Mr. Rostker said New York’s officers requalified twice a year, as was the national standard, but suggested that one of the sessions include more “street-oriented” and real-life situations. He did add that the restraint used by New York officers was noteworthy compared with that of other departments nationally.


Mr. Kelly said the department’s antiquated police academy would be replaced by a more comprehensive center in College Point, Queens. Construction is expected to begin by the fall of 2009. It would include the ability for computer simulations and “tactical village” training, and various firing range simulations.
“It all sounds good to me, but as far as I can think, we have all presented such things before,” said John C. Cerar, a retired deputy inspector who was the commander of the Police Department’s firearms training section and who said he had not yet read the report. “I wish the department could give a little bit more to training.”
But he acknowledged the department’s hurdles. “With the facilities that the department has, it is limited because of the significant number of personnel they have to train,” he said.


Christopher T. Dunn, the associate legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the report represented a lost opportunity for the Police Department and the city.
“This report does nothing to answer the major questions that many New Yorkers were asking after the Bell shooting, including why officers are firing so many shots at civilians and why blacks and Latinos seem to be such a target for police shootings,” Mr. Dunn said. “Simply put, this is a major disappointment.”
The RAND analysts — who studied only shootings adjudicated by the internal board — did not study the Bell shooting. Federal officials have asked the Police Department to wait before conducting an internal inquiry of the matter.
Mr. Rostker said that data from police departments in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago, among others, was compared with data from New York. However, he acknowledged that the races and ethnicities of those involved in police shootings were not a part of this study.

RAND officials said later that the group was not asked to look at personal characteristics like race and age of perpetrators or victims in police shootings.
“We did not, explicitly, in 455 cases, line it up in terms of ethnicity,” Mr. Rostker said.

 

 

* By AL BAKER , NYT, June 10, 2008

The operation in the private clinic off the Champs-Élysées involved one semicircular cut, 10 dissolving stitches and a discounted fee of $2,900.

But for the patient, a 23-year-old French student of Moroccan descent from Montpellier, the 30-minute procedure represented the key to a new life: the illusion of virginity.

Like an increasing number of Muslim women in Europe, she had a hymenoplasty, a restoration of her hymen, the vaginal membrane that normally breaks in the first act of intercourse.

“In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said the student, perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery on Thursday. “Right now, virginity is more important to me than life.”
As Europe’s Muslim population grows, many young Muslim women are caught between the freedoms that European society affords and the deep-rooted traditions of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
Gynecologists say that in the past few years, more Muslim women are seeking certificates of virginity to provide proof to others. That in turn has created a demand among cosmetic surgeons for hymen replacements, which, if done properly, they say, will not be detected and will produce tell-tale vaginal bleeding on the wedding night. The service is widely advertised on the Internet; medical tourism packages are available to countries like Tunisia where it is less expensive.
“If you’re a Muslim woman growing up in more open societies in Europe, you can easily end up having sex before marriage,” said Dr. Hicham Mouallem, who is based in London and performs the operation. “So if you’re looking to marry a Muslim and don’t want to have problems, you’ll try to recapture your virginity.”
No reliable statistics are available, because the procedure is mostly done in private clinics and in most cases not covered by tax-financed insurance plans.

But hymen repair is talked about so much that it is the subject of a film comedy that opens in Italy this week. “Women’s Hearts,” as the film’s title is translated in English, tells the story of a Moroccan-born woman living in Italy who goes to Casablanca for the operation.
One character jokes that she wants to bring her odometer count back down to “zero.”

“We realized that what we thought was a sporadic practice was actually pretty common,” said Davide Sordella, the film’s director. “These women can live in Italy, adopt our mentality and wear jeans. But in the moments that matter, they don’t always have the strength to go against their culture.”
The issue has been particularly charged in France, where a renewed and fierce debate has occurred about a prejudice that was supposed to have been buried with the country’s sexual revolution 40 years ago: the importance of a woman’s virginity.
The furor followed the revelation two weeks ago that a court in Lille, in northern France, had annulled the 2006 marriage of two French Muslims because the groom found his bride was not the virgin she had claimed to be.
The domestic drama has gripped France. The groom, an unidentified engineer in his 30s, left the nuptial bed and announced to the still partying wedding guests that his bride had lied. She was delivered that night to her parents’ doorstep.
The next day, he approached a lawyer about annulling the marriage. The bride, then a nursing student in her 20s, confessed and agreed to an annulment.
The court ruling did not mention religion. Rather, it cited breach of contract, concluding that the engineer had married her after “she was presented to him as single and chaste.” In secular, republican France, the case touches on several delicate subjects: the intrusion of religion into daily life; the grounds for dissolution of a marriage; and the equality of the sexes.
There were calls in Parliament this week for the resignation of Rachida Dati, France’s justice minister, after she initially upheld the ruling. Ms. Dati, who is a Muslim, backed down and ordered an appeal.
Some feminists, lawyers and doctors warned that the court’s acceptance of the centrality of virginity in marriage would encourage more Frenchwomen from Arab and African Muslim backgrounds to have their hymens restored. But there is much debate about whether the procedure is an act of liberation or repression.
“The judgment was a betrayal of France’s Muslim women,” said Elisabeth Badinter, the feminist writer. “It sends these women a message of despair by saying that virginity is important in the eyes of the law. More women are going to say to themselves, ‘My God, I’m not going to take that risk. I’ll recreate my virginity.’ ”
The plight of the rejected bride persuaded the Montpellier student to have the operation.
She insisted that she had never had intercourse and only discovered her hymen was torn when she tried to obtain a certificate of virginity to present to her boyfriend and his family. She says she bled after an accident on a horse when she was 10.
The trauma from realizing that she could not prove her virginity was so intense, she said, that she quietly borrowed money to pay for the procedure.
“All of a sudden, virginity is important in France,” she said. “I realized that I could be seen like that woman everyone is talking about on television.”
Those who perform the procedure say they are empowering patients by giving them a viable future and preventing them from being abused — or even killed — by their fathers or brothers.
“Who am I to judge?” asked Dr. Marc Abecassis, who restored the Montpellier student’s hymen. “I have colleagues in the United States whose patients do this as a Valentine’s present to their husbands. What I do is different. This is not for amusement. My patients don’t have a choice if they want to find serenity — and husbands.”
A specialist in what he calls “intimate” surgery, including penile enhancement, Dr. Abecassis says he performs two to four hymen restorations per week.
The French College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians opposes the procedure on moral, cultural and health grounds.
“We had a revolution in France to win equality; we had a sexual revolution in 1968 when women fought for contraception and abortion,” said Dr. Jacques Lansac, the group’s leader. “Attaching so much importance to the hymen is regression, submission to the intolerance of the past.”
But the stories of the women who have had the surgery convey the complexity and raw emotion behind their decisions.
One Muslim born in Macedonia said she opted for the operation to avoid being punished by her father after an eight-year relationship with her boyfriend.
“I was afraid that my father would take me to a doctor and see whether I was still a virgin,” said the woman, 32, who owns a small business and lives on her own in Frankfurt. “He told me, ‘I will forgive everything but not if you have thrown dirt on my honor.’ I wasn’t afraid he would kill me, but I was sure he would have beaten me.”


In other cases, the woman and her partner decide for her to have the operation. A 26-year-old French woman of Moroccan descent said she lost her virginity four years ago when she fell in love with the man she now plans to marry. But she and her fiancé decided to share the cost of her $3,400 operation in Paris.
She said his conservative extended family in Morocco was requiring that a gynecologist — and family friend — there examine her for proof of virginity before the wedding.
“It doesn’t matter for my fiancé that I am not a virgin — but it would pose a huge problem for his family,” she said. “They know that you can pour blood on the sheets on the wedding night, so I have to have better proof.”
The lives of the French couple whose marriage was annulled are on hold. The Justice Ministry has sought an appeal, arguing that the decision has “provoked a heated social debate” that “touched all citizens of our country and especially women.”
At the Islamic Center of Roubaix, the Lille suburb where the wedding took place, there is sympathy for the woman.
“The man is the biggest of all the donkeys,” said Abdelkibir Errami, the center’s vice president. “Even if the woman was no longer a virgin, he had no right to expose her honor. This is not what Islam teaches. It teaches forgiveness.”

By ELAINE SCIOLINO and SOUAD MEKHENNET, NYT, June 11, 2008
Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting from Paris, and Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome.

 

 

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