Category Archives: Social Behavior

Rambles Vol. 1: Becoming Otaku

Rambles: Becoming Otaku


I have been watching a lot of anime lately. My general intuition insists that I should be embarrassed about this habit. My inner introvert delivers a counterpoint: If you enjoy them, who cares? Your time alone should come with a (reasonable) suspension of outside judgment. If you want to watch silly cartoons, do it. It’s your private time.

I am not tarring all anime with the same brush. The specific things that make anime embarrassing (which I won’t get into at this time) are present on a spectrum, which goes all the way to zero. In addition, many a series makes up for its foibles by delivering something special.

There is a certain sensibility that I appreciate as well – a skewed version of Japanese culture that nonetheless enchants and mystifies. And let’s not forget that one is essentially looking at beautiful artwork for twenty-odd minutes. Hearing voice actors speak a language I don’t understand for characters who are drawn allows me to suspend judgment about acting and performance. I don’t have to watch Hollywood phonies phonying around on some set for a paycheck. Instead I can just watch someone’s imagination take life on the screen.

Irregardless, I have lost the sanctimonious perch from which I previously judged those who sacrificed their hours at the altar of mediocre TV. For all intents and purposes of smug judgment, I might as well be watching Burn Notice.

Chihayafuru looked pretty questionable at first but soon became a must-watch. The show follows a group of high school students (they all do) as they enter the world of an arcane, historical card game in which classical Japanese poems are read aloud, signaling players to slap that particular poem-card away from an array of cards arranged before them and their opponent. Chihaya – the heroine of the series – is both endearing and admirable, possessing model good looks (her sister’s pursuit of a modeling career is a subplot), a deep lack of social skills (she calls her teammates demeaning nicknames, seeming not to notice their complaints at all), and the dedicated, tireless, obsessed heart of a champion. My favorite moment has Chihaya in school, filling out her all-important career survey. After some consternation she simply scrawls “Queen” (the highest-ranked woman Karuta player in Japan) on the paper. Afterward the adults in her life express concern about her. Second favorite: when Chihaya, hearing syllables almost before they are spoken, nearly becomes a god during competition.

…For you see, the very best animes are about transcending human limitations and approaching godhood. For example, in Neon Gene

During my last trip home to Ann Arbor, I went out for a drink with a very good friend of mine. Anime came up, and I mentioned Neon Genesis Evangelion. He had seen it! Alas, he didn’t much care for the show… the character of Shinji struck him as “a whiny little bitch.” He then suggested that Cowboy Bebop is the superior anime.

I took a swallow of beer and held my tongue. I had never seen Cowboy Bebop. I resolved to watch it with an open mind.

After watching all 26 episodes I can report that I DON’T KNOW WHAT ALL THE HUBBUB IS ABOUT.

Yes, the animation is gritty and gorgeous, the far-flung space colony settings are alive and seedy and varied, the characters are defined with subtle strokes yadda yadda….

Some of the early episodes are just so dumb. Spike literally dodges bullets every goddamn time (even while floating in space, with no method of changing his momentum) while smiling smugly, then follows up with crazy kinetic Kung Fu. Accompanied by Yoko Kanno’s hot jazz, complete pandemonium breaks out in crowded urban areas and all of the bystanders miraculously dodge, are missed by inches, or disappear in clouds of dust. Our man Spike always wins the battle, often with the help of the Bebop crew, but some clever coincidence or twist of fate always cheats the crew of their bounty.

Lather rinse repeat.

Over the course of the series there is some development, but it tends to work backwards – we explore the characters’ pasts, which are composed of decently dramatic genre fare. The characters, trapped in their pasts and monotonous present, become static, despite all their crazy adventures. Nothing too surprising happens, there are no existential threats or epiphanies worth chewing, and nobody transcends any limitations.

I can’t even put CB in the same category with NGE. The latter’s plot keeps building and escalating until the viewer is left in a state of ecstatic confusion. Instead of elastic characters who reset every week, NGE illustrates how repeated traumas and inexplicable phenomena deteriorate the mental health of the characters at the center of our giant robot drama. Gods are created. Differences of strategy arise in the execution of the apocalypse. Gigantic biomechs go berserk and strangle each other. A father praises his son and calls him by name…

Cowboy Bebop was fun to watch. The animation was perhaps the apex of a certain 90s aesthetic, but the adventures were too action-movie lazy (by this I mean protagonists cheating death, willful ignorance of damage and civilian cost, heavily favorable physics, goofy coincidences, deus ex machinas, overuse of dramatic timing, etc.) and the characters failed to evolve or fully interact. For the record Radical Edward was my favorite, and she just *Spoiler* [leaves the good ship Bebop at the end of the story, never to be heard from again].

Speaking of vaguely disappointing outer space narratives, I don’t know what I was expecting from The Last Jedi, but it made me miss both The Force Awakens and Rogue One in very acute ways. *Spoilers Follow* Awakens had a little more daring in spots, especially toward the beginning. We actually got to see the Stormtroopers Stormtroop, massacring civilians on planet My Lai as a number of our main characters watched. I enjoyed the early incarnations of the characters, and the ways in which they were established. Remember when the trailer came out and there was a shot of a black Stormtrooper running in the sand? I sure do. Finn’s whirlwind bromance with Poe Dameron was memorable if nothing else, and it was fun to see him not get along with Rey right away (a callback to earlier times, I know). Speaking of Rey, her difficult, thankless, lonely life as a junk scavenger was beautifully sketched. My favorite scene in the film is her adorable Rebel-pilot-fantasy dinnertime featuring beat-up helmet and hard-earned meal.

As the two main characters were swept into events, the complete changes to their ways of life were made properly palpable. Self-discovery followed, and had the cowards at Disney not shoehorned in a third death star, the film may well have been something special.

Jedi was not kind to Finn. It turned him into a toothless, slapstick, millennial everyman with no real purpose. The minority-sidequest-casino adventure he and Rose embark on is an utter disaster, wasting runtime, a novel setting, and interrupting/diluting the urgency of the main storyline. And wait! What the hell was that Princess Leia forcegrab thing? Wiping her away in a heartbeat would have been so goddamn gutsy and memorable – a reminder of the cruel speed of death… time cut short and no chance to say goodbye… art imitating life. Instead she survives the vacuum of space and now Rian Johnson is smiling all over the internet. Like a pleased little gerbil. “Oh I’m so glad Kathleen liked my contribution to the Star Wars Universe. It was so difficult to know if we were doing the right thing with Luke Skywalker, but I’m confident that what we decided was true to the character, who we all love of course. Oh I’m ever so happy for the opportunity to make my own trilogy…” In interviews Johnson often speaks as though portions of the story and film are beyond his purview and understanding. The hyperbole about direction by focus group is tragically apt.

If the entire film is set up as a doomed death-chase, why haven’t the writers borrowed liberally from Mad Max: Fury Road? As the finest film of the decade, it has many les

What I missed from Rogue One was the grit and the mistrust. The strange bedfellows created by the rebellion. The mistrust and tension and scarcity that comes with squashing people from across the universe into a tiny ship and telling them to accomplish a vital, deadly mission. The blind pseudo-Jedi monk fellow is by far the most interesting character to come out of this whole revival. The Last Jedi got Benicio Del Toro to stutter a few things on the way to the bank (art imitating life) and said good enough.

Adam Driver is great, though. His Kylo Ren is straight out of Scorsese – a tortured catholic questioning his lineage and his very soul. I must make an unconventional gripe here: Jedi’s millennial flavor – present mostly in the dialogue – irked me. Irked me because I can’t stand my generation (ironic, since I just praised Adam Driver, who was in Girls, which is perhaps the flagship media artifact of self-important millennial narcissism). Sometimes I feel like I’m aging out of my generation by falling behind (or opting out) on media, methods of media consumption, social media consumption, ways of talking about things, social movements, etc. Someday I will file an application for asylum in Generation X.

Speaking of subtle but essential distinctions between outwardly similar people, Blade Runner 2049 was cool (this post began as a review of only that movie). However! Denis Villeneuve’s strengths worked against him in noticeable ways.

Elegance. A sense of space and geography. Continuity. Cinematic composition. Controlled pacing… these are the qualities that were completely decimated by the bizarre cut-and-paste (and recut and re-release) futurist pastiche that was the first Blade Runner. Somehow during the remake these very qualities were resurrected – becoming the building blocks of the new film. This means there is no stylistic continuity from the original to the sequel. Big deal – they’re like 58 years apart. The issue is lack of boldness. Blade Runner dropped us in the rain getting shoved by Asians and made us yell “with noodles!” two times to make sure. We didn’t speak the language and we didn’t know who was a replicant. Future shock was real.

I said no stylistic continuity, but the aesthetic and societal continuity were almost 1:1. By that I mean 2049 did not bother to change where or how people lived. Only our viewpoint of Los Angeles changed. It was more deliberate, more consistent and aware of distance. 2049 was a good yarn. Humanity was questioned, new life forms fought for life. Our semi-hero worked at a mystery and finally solved it.

But the ending stunk, at least compared to the other one. Roy Batty’s poet-warrior shtick may have infringed on Kurtz, but it was effective. Poor Deckard left with his head spinning, not because of the violence of the replicant attack, but because he was ultimately saved by a skin-job. By contrast the climax of 2049 was just a lot of violent punching and water. Why exactly couldn’t they torture Deckard on Earth? Where did K get his flying cars from?

And boy did Villeneuve misunderstand the nature of bureaucracy! K’s boss is never busy or overloaded, and just gives him simple directives from behind a big desk in an elegant office. And what about the vindictive police state, how did that erode to the point where some replicant lady can just stroll in and kill LAPD employees whenever she wants?

Speaking of characters doing whatever they want, I am happy to report that K does not commit any acts of

Speaking of the nature of bureaucracy, it drives me crazy when Neon Genesis Evangelion fanboys (I am, of course, among their number), crow about Shin Godzilla being like “a live action manifestation of Evangelion,” when in fact the Hideaki Anno-directed monster movie most clearly resembles the bureaucracy-porn masterpiece Patlabor 2: The Movie. The similarities are manifold. First, we have an extraordinary crisis that stresses the existing systems of emergency response. Second, we are introduced to a bureaucrat whose responsibi

I took another trip to California, this time with the waifu (my girlfriend). Though the fierce and abundant nature of the place struck me the last time, this time I came to feel that all Californians must necessarily be in touch with it. The climates and landscapes of the Golden State are so clearly the work of large-scale geological forces that one simply cannot ignore the fact that there is a planet called Earth… and that it may soon kill us all. Here in flat, vaguely coastal Rhode Island (the Atlantic coast, north of Delaware and south of Maine at least, is vaguely fraudulent, industrialized, cold and homely – no more interesting than the shores of the Great Lakes), the only evidence of a wrathful weather god is the occasional big snow (“Bombogenesis” this year, a sort of windsome blizzard) or leftover hurric’ne wind ’n’ rain bl’win’ up fr’m dow’ the c’st.

In California however, sustained droughts hang in semi-permanence over daily life. Just during my visit, the draught was broken by a day’s steady rain – which subsequently caused mudslides that killed over a dozen people, and closed a major highway. This tragedy ensued because the landscape near Santa Barbara had recently been weakened by OUT OF CONTROL WILDFIRES. In the days before we arrived, an earthquake gently shook Berkeley, and in the following weeks other minor quakes followed.

Climate change and geological activity are not just abstract out there, like they would be at some factory in Ohio. Californians are distinctly living on the edge of disaster, on contoured lands not quite designed for sustained civilization. I believe this forms a large part of the state culture – greater appreciation of the magnificent beauty of nature, and its fearsome power, forever.

When I got back, my friend and bandmate hit me off with Netflix access, so now I’M ALL CAUGHT UP ON BLACK MIRROR. This the part where I’m supposed to feel something, correct? I am now a minimally informed member of the cultural zeitgeist! Retweet me!

It feels sometimes like the Netflixes and Hulus are the only forces preventing the entire generation from bursting apart due to the explosive forces of narcissism and large outbreaks of public phonestare. Oh and also the culture wars. Is social media still fun? People say facebook is no good, but people still use it. Instagram seems to be pretty low impact in terms of shame and suffering… but what do I know.

Anyway, Black Mirror is good. It feels a little too famous for its own good now – no longer a British curiosity, like Altoids, but rather a transatlantic zeitgeister high-expectations juggernaut, like David Beckham. My favorite episode from seasons 3 and 4 is “Men against Fire,” in which a platoon of soldiers (privately contracted? It seems that way) are *Spoiler* [fooled into committing eugenic genocide by performance enhancing implants]. A cynical part of me says that with the right messaging, training, and prestige, the implants wouldn’t be necessary at all. Anyhow, I thought that one was great – using brutal violence in smart ways, sketching a main character who we understand more intimately and sympathetically than the people around him (the Bigger Thomas effect is real), and deploying a really painful twist (of the knife, in flesh). Runner up goes to USS Callister, for the way the narrative is set up in elegant layers, and the way the plot action has to work in multiple layers as well, pushing up against well-defined constraints in each. Inception-esque, now that I think about it, but sleeker, with less hullabaloo.

In conclusion: Trump.

Some would argue that President Trump is somehow a worse president than George W. Bush. He’s openly xenophobic they say He’s costing us our standing in the world. I beg to differ. I believe there may be some “What you see is all there is” happening here (go read Thinking Fast and Slow, it’s wonderful). Are there standard metrics for this kind of comparison? I’m ignoring them. To phrase things in Rumsfeldian terms, there are inept-actions and inept-inactions. Where Bush was the master of the inept-action, the defining characteristic of Trump’s chaotic reign has been the inability to establish a functioning, effective executive branch. Trump’s first year in office has been marked by sustained and repeated inept-inaction. Yes, he has managed to hurt people by means of executive order. The travel bans, the transgender military ban (if you ask me, no one should be allowed to serve in the military) and a bunch of other stuff aimed at kicking the non-white and unfortunate, the vulnerable and the different. However, in many cases cooler heads have prevailed and ameliorated. The court system has stymied many of Trump’s most pernicious initiatives, while the “adults” in the cabinet (Mattis and Tillerson) have sought to soften a few of the other imperial decrees. Perhaps the most painfully, Trump has let ICE off the chain, but Obama was no angel on deportation either.

I don’t believe American society is significantly more nightmarish under Trump than it was under Obama. Few of the current goings-on troubling the liberal conscience are brand new – the difference with Trump is that he has come out in brazen support of them. This as opposed to Obama’s approach – pointing out wrongs, then being unable to do anything really meaningful about them. Examples: Guantanamo Bay, Carbon Emissions, Oil Pipelines, Killings of unarmed Black People by Police, White Supremacists, Underperforming Schools, Campus Sexual Assault, Financial Shenanigans, etc.

Bush used a portfolio of carefully prepared lies to start a war that killed over one million Iraqis. The other war he started is still going strong 17 years later, with a resilient, defiant Taliban pulling their most depraved stunts yet. A report recently came to light, establishing that US actors (military advisors, I believe) in the region turned a blind eye to Bacha Bazi (PBS made a great, horrific documentary on the practice) in order to keep things going smooth with our allies. While many of Bush’s actions may have been inept-actions in his case, they often represented the execution of ept-actions orchestrated by Dick Cheney, the actual president of the United States from 2000-2004.

Under Cheney’s rule the government started two wars and legalized torture while the whole country looked on. They also let pollution-happy fossil fuel companies write the national energy policy, built JSOC into a commando team that could murder any human being on the planet without consequence, established the killer drone program that Obama later fell madly in love with, and so on. If you value human life and want to understand how Prez Cheney, then Prez Bush, then Prez Obama completely denigrated that value, read Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars. It’ll give you nightmares.

America is building a wall and dropping the torch. China is taking over the mantle. Nuclear war with North Korea is inevitable. The sky falling! The sky is falling! Sorry, but most of this stuff strikes me as noise. Trump likes to bellow and tweet and responsible people feel responsible when they respond to the dangers that are latent in his words. LOTS OF SMOKE, but as of yet, how much new fire? Inept-inactions.

Bush said nice things about Muslims, then assiduously created the conditions for sectarian civil war and ISIS. Inept-actions.

Cheney didn’t bellow, or say nice things. He did his work quietly and thanks to his efforts on faraway continents whole families died in their bedrooms.


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A Birthday Poem


T’was not the career I expected

But it will serve

In good stead it will serve

I know crank and seatstay


Hydraulic disc and PowerLink

I once set sag

For a Brazilian man

Who was like putty in my hands

Respectable to strangers’ ears

A paved path toward friendship

If you can leave the bike with me

The proper adjustments can be made


There is too much change

And too little change

My heart still craves

One thing

(At least I believe it does

Though I have neglected

To sit still for long enough

To really suss out the truth)

A rare confluence of

Time and space

Necessity and culture

Resulting in the

Sublime appearance

Of the perfect solitude

All else is distraction

All else is suffering

Torments endured patiently

On the journey to the goal

The further I beat along the path

The more exorbitant the toll


I hear the cruelties

Coming through the wall again

Hard lullabies in which

I struggle to find the tune


I’m not playing!

Retarded kids do that!

You’re smart now?

Don’t fuck with me!

Get up off the floor!

I will admit that I am sensitive

That I find it hard to take

But much harder

Were I a two year old

With no prospect of escape




Master of the fief!

Did you get the audio I sent?

Did you hear the child

Scream aloud

As her guardian hemmed in?

That warning you admonished

Did you hear it didn’t take?

Those hinges you installed last fall

Has she slammed them ‘til they break?

When she said she was embarrassed

You believed her, I can tell

Her child must have

Had some karma

To be rebirthed to such a hell


I have made eyes at the Buddha

I prayed to him one night

(The other night, a tired night

When the neighbor’s abuses

Were unbearable

And my anxiety came on)

It was a halfhearted prayer

Neither fervent nor devoted

But I try to see the

Emptiness in things

And to have compassion

Where I can

I mingle the Dharma with Don Juan

Until the mixture suits my taste

So long, self-importance

Death, advise me

A practical knowledge of


At any given moment

But alas

Someday soon

My mind will panic and cringe

My thoughts like vermin scrabbling

My mood a blood blister darkening

My heart set to self-destructing

When “reality” comes calling


Fantastical voyage

That no one can predict

Twists and turns beyond catalogue

Every joy a precedent

Each experience unique

The fulfillment is the journey

Not the goal we seek


Tired climb and endless slog

From tedium to disappointment

All the way

Then back again

All life is suffering

The simplest day’s desire

Will be crushed by stupid luck

Exploded on the roadside

Willfully ignored

By passers by


This is not to say I’ve given up

Or reconformed to pattern

But answer me this,

O World

Answer me this

Shall I dig my hooks and hold to dreams

Prepare to stand and fight?

Or sever ties and loose my grip

For Bodhisattva flight?


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A Traffic Stop with RobotCop – Author’s Note

I had my first real taste of writer’s rejection recently, with my “short” story A Traffic Stop with RobotCop. As you can see, I’ve decided to just post the 16,000 word beast on my blog (and on Medium). I understand that this is sort of a no-no in the writing subculture, as it represents a thin-skinned response, a lack of resolve, a devaluation of one’s hard work yadda yadda…

The thing is that I want the story to be readily available, in the record, and off my desk, even if very few people actually end up reading it. Apparently the U.S. Supreme Court decided very recently that illegal stops (by cops) can still yield admissible evidence. Justice Sotomayor wrote a scorching dissent and her obvious outrage, frustration and compassion made me remember how I tried to distill my insignificant howl at the power structure into a document that is incisive, enjoyable and has some ring of truth to it.

So I submit my story to the blog-o-sphere. I’m going to reprint the note I included with my first email submission, because I think it still adequately expresses how I feel about this story:

I won’t be coy: RobotCop is my response to the recent media attention surrounding the killing of civilians, mostly of color, by police officers. However, my intention for the story is not for it to function as a screed or polemic. There is plenty of shouting going on in the media already, and besides, I know all too well the feeling of reading or hearing something I agree with fundamentally, yet feeling repulsion due to the author or speaker’s clumsy expression or interpretation of the facts and ideas in question. So I wanted to explore these issues with a light touch. The question that prompted me was essentially this: what if someone designed a robotic police officer, but he refused or was unable to take part in even the smallest acts of corruption? The opportunity for a dark, gritty tale was evident, but with that approach, bitterness seemed a foregone outcome. So I designed RobotCop with a humor circuit, and added a few zany touches to the narrative. I cast Rombus and Argyle as archetypes, but attempted to humanize them both – populating their thoughts with noble ideals, yet having their actions play out in sometimes ugly ways, and at cross-purposes. I hope that I’ve come up with something that makes its point without being heavy-handed, and I hope you, the editors, will be interested enough to request the full story.


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A Traffic Stop with RobotCop



“So today’s the big day huh? First time on the beat. Wow… no offense, but I never thought I’d see the day.”

My voice recognition circuit makes a preliminary identification of the speaker. The most probable match is Officer Giuseppe Vincenzo, at 89.61%. My rear optics engage my facial recognition circuit and the identity is confirmed. I turn around to face the officer. He is correct. Today, Wednesday April 1st, is the day that has been chosen for my initial patrol.

“I am looking forward to it, Officer Vincenzo,” I say. “Everyone I know has been building me up for this.”

Though my statement was intended to be humorous, Officer Vincenzo does not laugh. His face registers a low to moderate level of uncertainty.

“Have I pronounced your name incorrectly, officer?”

“Well… yeah. It’s Vin-chen-zo, or Veen-chen-zo if you wanna get fancy, but you can just call me Vinny. Everybody else does.”

My humor circuit prepares a response. My cultural sensitivity circuit makes the assessment that the response will be highly unlikely to offend Officer Vincenzo. My decision engine proceeds.

“Aaaaay, Vinny,” I say, spreading my arms in an exaggerated gesture. “Fuggeddabout it!”

Officer Vincenzo grins. “Hey RobotCop, you’re a real funny guy. You might just be alright.”

My optics recognize that Vincenzo is wearing a non-regulation badge on the left breast of his patrol uniform. “May I inquire about your badge?” I ask.

“Ahh, you’ve got a keen eye. That’s good. Observation is paramount out there.” He slips his left hand into his pants pocket. “I’m not sure if they, uh, programmed you to know about the significance of April 1st, but uh… well here goes nothing.” There is a motion in Vincenzo’s pocket and a jet of liquid sprays from a nozzle in the center of the badge, striking me in the facial region.

“Oh god, I haven’t been waterproofed yet! I exclaim, while executing a number of jerky, but carefully circumscribed motions. “I was approximately eleven-point-five-six-hours away from becoming a real officer!”

My body language and expression circuits register alarm in the reaction of Officer Vincenzo, and in the reaction of Officer Pamela Kinderson, who suspends her trajectory through the corridor to observe me from approximately 10.20 feet away.

“That thing alright!?” inquires Officer Kinderson, her body language registering alarm.

“Uh… why don’t you ask him?” replies Officer Vincenzo.

Officer Kinderson walks 3.00 steps closer and looks at my facial region.  I cease my motions and return to attention, facing her. She looks at Officer Vincenzo, then at me again, then fixes her attention in the direction of her original trajectory.

“Too weird,” she says. She shakes her head and resumes walking.

“Tough crowd,” says Officer Vincenzo.

I turn to face Officer Vincenzo. “I am actually fully functional and undamaged. My initial inference is that April 1st is a day in which harmless pranks are permissible in public life and in the workplace.”

Vincenzo grins again. “You got it, Tin Man. You catch on fast, and you had me going for a second there. Just between you and me, I thought you could be a liability out there, but you’re pretty damn sharp.” Vincenzo pauses, then looks at the plastic storage container held under his right armpit. His expression changes, registering concern. “Whoops. Evidence,” he says. “Well, I need to get this to the courtroom ASAP. But we’ll catch up later. Good luck out there, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

He pats my shoulder as he passes. Before rounding a corner he turns and shouts. “Oh yeah, it’s called April Fools’ Day, but I don’t think you’re gonna be anybody’s fool today, RobotCop.”


I navigate toward the portable facility where I will be given a round of final tests and outfitted with field equipment before my initial patrol. The city government and the police department have agreed that said equipment should not be installed permanently on my person or left in my custody until I demonstrate repeatable success in several categories of police work.

I encounter Detective Washington on the elevator. We are the only passengers.

“A lot of eyes on you today, a lot of scrutiny,” he says, looking straight ahead at the elevator command buttons. He pauses briefly, then continues. “I wouldn’t want to be under that kind of pressure during my first patrol.”

Detective Washington is referring to the legal conditions of my deployment, which entail extensive monitoring. My optical and audio sensors will transmit audiovisual data to the police station, as will a body camera, worn by my partner. The police cruiser’s dashboard camera will relay data as well. The feed will be monitored by a multidisciplinary team of police officials and elected officials, as well as representatives from the private companies and academic establishments responsible for my fabrication and programming. Also present will be lawyers representing several groups, a representative from the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, independent robotics experts, artificial intelligence experts, a small group of journalists, and 6.00 observers from the public, chosen through a process designed to ensure the inclusion of individuals with diverse viewpoints, representative of the larger population.

There are legal conditions surrounding the monitoring of my actions. After a period of litigation lasting 38.73 days, a judge determined that the police department’s argument–that officers of the law are unable to operate effectively under total transparency–had appreciable merit. The audiovisual feed broadcast to the multidisciplinary team will be subject to a five-minute delay. The chief of police and the deputy chief of police will monitor the live version of the feed. They have the ability to censor audio, video or both components of the feed in real time. If their judgment leads them to believe that the department’s operational capabilities or the public safety could be compromised by the feed, they can shut it off entirely. Any censored portions will be considered classified. Those seeking access to the data will be required to submit an application form, in accordance with a request process determined during the 38.73-day litigation period.

However, the multidisciplinary team will have uninterrupted access to a real-time set of diagnostics detailing the status of my electrical, mechanical and computer systems.

“I am designed to withstand up to one thousand pounds per square inch,” I say to Officer Washington.

Detective Washington emits a single chuckle that does not register as relating to mirth. “You know what I mean. I know you do. Sometimes an officer needs room to work.”

“The field actions of a police officer should always be ethical, legal and transparent,” I respond. There is a 4.59-second period of relative silence.

“So they gave you Mackenzie huh?” Washington says abruptly. The elevator door opens and we attempt to step out at the same time.

“Age before luster,” I say, allowing him through. Once we are both in the hallway, it becomes apparent that we are traveling in the same direction.

Detective Washington is correct. I have been assigned to a partnership of indeterminate length with Officer Thomas Mackenzie, a 17-year veteran of the Municipal Police Department. We were introduced two weeks ago. At that time, Mackenzie was given paper copies of a number of documents detailing my physical specifications, as well as a moderately detailed overview of my programming structure and its real-world applications. Mackenzie was also given network access to electronic versions of these files, as well as files–such as 3D models and raw code–that would have been impractical to print. In addition, Mackenzie was required to attend a mandatory three-day intensive instruction course detailing my operating principles.

The process by which Mackenzie was chosen as my partner for the patrol was not shared with me. The duration of the partnership has not been made apparent to me either. When I inquired with Lieutenant Jerikian about both matters, he replied “Let’s see how that first patrol goes first, huh RobotCop?”

“Officer Mackenzie is a venerable and respected member of the Municipal Police force,” I respond.

“I worked with Mackenzie once,” Washington says. He does not make a follow-up statement.

I indicate that I will be turning left at the next hallway intersection. Washington and I stop at the juncture to exchange goodbyes. “I won’t say too much here, but I think you have a very difficult job ahead of you,” he says.

“To protect the serve the citizens of the municipality is never an easy-”

“Don’t be dense with me.”

“The average density of my fabrication materials is roughly 3.26 grams-”

“Alright, alright. I get it.” Washington rolls his eyes. “Maybe you really don’t understand what I’m getting at–about the difficulty.” Washington looks directly into my facial optics without speaking for 5.62 seconds. He looks around the intersecting hallways, as if scanning for other people. “Well anyway, Godspeed RobotCop. Make us proud,” he says loudly, shaking my hand and smiling in a manner that my facial recognition and body language circuits register as inconclusive.


I am driving the police cruiser. Officer Mackenzie is in the passenger seat. In the weeks leading up to my initial patrol, I satisfactorily completed a set of basic driving tests at the Municipal Motor Pool. Afterward, I completed a set of strenuous driving tests at a track and obstacle course maintained by the State Police Department. I have completed 78.46 hours of driving on public roads and highways, accompanied at all times by a police driving instructor and a motion software expert.

On March 27th I received an official state driver’s license from Mayor Vincent P. Chamernik in a semi-public ceremony. “This picture looks nothing like me,” I said to the mayor, prompted by my humor circuit. Both the mayor and the audience laughed.

At the first red light we encounter, 1.00 city blocks away from the Municipal Police Station, Mackenzie addresses me. “What are you doing?” he asks. I turn my head and optics toward him. He is facing forward. My body language circuit detects annoyance.

“I am waiting for the traffic signal to change to green, signaling ‘Go,’ ” I reply.

“Sheesh,” Mackenzie says, lifting his arms and rolling his head in an exaggerated gesture that registers high levels of impatience and frustration. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna play it by the books on everything. This intersection’s clear, so let’s go. We’re here to protect and we can’t afford to waste time. Flash the lights and sirens if you need to satisfy your protocols or whatever.”

“I am programmed to obey as well as enforce all applicable traffic laws in non-emergency situations.”

Officer Mackenzie rubs one of his hands down his face. My audio sensors pick up the scraping sound generated by the rough skin of Mackenzie’s hand and his short facial hairs. The traffic signal indicates green and I accelerate the police cruiser. When I stop at the next red light, Mackenzie groans, then speaks. “Pull into that McDonald’s over there. I’m driving.”

I reply with a verbal “Affirmative” and acquiesce to Officer Mackenzie’s command. Mackenzie is a veteran and a superior within the organization. I am programmed to earn my authority in the department through consistent performance in the line of duty and quality police work–the same way that any other officer would. I have no verifiable evidence that Mackenzie is planning to break local traffic laws. Because of this, my public safety circuit does not factor into my decision to pull over at McDonald’s.

I pull the cruiser into the parking lot and exit the car in order to exchange seats with Officer Mackenzie. The ambient temperature is 58 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is partially cloudy, with a 15% chance of precipitation within the next 3.15 hours. Though I am constructed to function in harsh environmental conditions, the current favorable conditions increase my likelihood of trouble-free operation.

“Do you want anything while we’re here?” Mackenzie asks when we are both standing outside. Though my humor circuit immediately identifies the joke, my body language and tone recognition circuits both detect a low level of aggression.

“Does the McDonald’s restaurant chain serve a motor oil smoothie?” I reply, leaving my voice and body language uninflected in an attempt to present an appearance of robotic obliviousness.

“Har har. Maybe you are alright RobotCop,” Mackenzie replies. However, his body language registers only minimal warmth and friendliness. We pass each other carefully behind the cruiser.


Officer Mackenzie’s operating imperative appears to be preventing the cruiser from ever coming to a complete stop. He uses the headlights, overhead lights, siren and horn to signal other motorists. He also uses the position and motion of the car to signal dominance and aggression to motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. As soon as Mackenzie breaks the first traffic law, my public safety circuit engages. I will notify Mackenzie if his driving stays above my programmed threshold for unsafe non-emergency driving for more than 3.00 consecutive seconds. If Mackenzie stays above the threshold for more than 10.00 seconds I will reprimand him and demand that he return below the threshold. If he does not obey, my public safety circuit will calculate the safest and most effective way for me to gain control of the car and return it to safe operation. I will also attempt to gain control of the car if my physics circuit detects a kinetic situation in which human reaction time and judgment are less than X% likely to avert a collision. The X value is a variable. Its value is instantaneously determined based on the potential severity of the potential collision. This aspect of my programming was provided to Mackenzie in the package he received one week before our patrol, and therefore he should be aware of it.

Mackenzie speaks. His eyes stay focused on the road. “I hope you’re a learning computer, because your job’s gonna be impossible if you don’t pick up a few tricks. Every second we spend at a red light is taxpayer money going down the drain. It’s our duty to do our job as efficiently as possible, even if we have to disregard a few small courtesies.”

My logic circuit evaluates his statement. It is not convincing enough for me to flag the section of my code that he is challenging. “I am programmed to enforce the laws of this jurisdiction while keeping my conduct within the bounds of all applicable police procedures,” I say.

“Yeah yeah. Hey look, I don’t know if this is registering in there, but you’re gonna find yourself on desk duty pretty quick if the brothers on the force don’t feel they can fully trust you,” Mackenzie says. “It’s like a family, and family is always supportive ya know? Willing to allow family members their minor trespasses as long as their hearts are in the right place.” Mackenzie pauses and looks at my facial region. “Well maybe you don’t know. But what I’m saying is keep your programming open buddy. I’ll try and teach you a few things today about how things work where the rubber meets the road.”

He turns his eyes back to the windshield. “Here’s lesson one: the numero uno, primary thing is to look out for your fellow officers, and keep your relationships with them strong, because without them, you’ll be all alone–completely alone–with no one to trust, in a very cold and dangerous world.”




I am in the auditorium with the “multidisciplinary team,” monitoring RobotCop’s first patrol. I really wish I had taken an aisle seat, because I feel–with a fairly high level of certainty–that I am going to lose my composure and vomit. I didn’t expect this experience to be so nerve-wracking, but it is turning out to be nearly unbearable. Watching all my hard work–my life’s work more or less, at this point–playing out on that screen, subject to all the chaotic randomness of the world, vulnerable to million failures big and small, and five minutes behind to boot… it feels like I’m watching my own child run across an endless battlefield, under bombardment from artillery, choked with poison gas, full of land mines and whizzing bullets…

It’s not that I don’t trust RobotCop. I know RobotCop far better than I know myself, or anyone I’ve ever known, really. He’s a fixed actor. His actions are, in a sense, predetermined. Sure, he makes decisions, but these are only a simulacrum of free will. RobotCop always makes the rational choice, because his decision engine weighs every factor, and emotions and self-interest do not impact his process.

Really, it’s us I mistrust–this group of strange bedfellows, ranging from slouched, light-sensitive computer nerds to hard, militaristic SWAT team veterans. We are a team of rivals, and the game board where our ideas battled was given legs and weapons and sent out amongst the public.

Every time RobotCop speaks I wonder how all the contradicting principles can co-exist. Sparks should be shooting out of his neck. He’s a robot–more than that, a synthetic persona–divided against himself, and I wonder how long he can stand.

Mackenzie and RobotCop receive a call. A man has been accused of stealing from a convenience store. The alleged thief denies any wrongdoing, and is so vehement about his innocence that he is actually waiting for the police to arrive, so that he can make his case.

My stomach turns and I let out a distressed, gurgly belch. The journalist sitting to the left of me gives a wide-eyed look and switches his nice-looking DSLR camera to the side opposite me. I rise and begin the squeeze of shame in the other direction. I just can’t watch this sitting down.

I take a position against the wall, switching my attention between the two active projection screens–RobotCop and Mackenzie’s perspectives. As it turns out, the convenience store clerk and robbery suspect are both white males in their mid-30s. Mackenzie keeps his cool, and both the clerk and the suspect are so impressed by RobotCop that they work out the misunderstanding right away, mostly so they can goggle and gape at the future of law enforcement. RobotCop gives a little speech introducing himself and hands each man one of his stainless steel business cards. The numbers machined out of the card are all ones and zeros, and the men notice this and laugh. We are still in the honeymoon phase.

In one sense I am relieved, but in another the moment feels anticlimactic. I want to see RobotCop face a moral test, but Jesus Christ and Mother Mary am I terrified of what will happen if he fails it, or if his answers are… too correct.

“Cute. Real cute.” I turn to my left to see who it is. My stomach twists again and this time begins to ascend into my throat. It’s Louis Argyle, the head of the Policeman’s Benevolent Association, a woefully misnamed organization if I’ve ever heard one.

“Hello Louis,” I say drily, hoping he’ll leave me alone.

“He’s a real charmer. Gilly really outdid himself,” Argyle begins, referring with a nickname of his own invention to Guillermo Parras, the coder and moonlight stand-up comedian who designed RobotCop’s humor circuit. “I’m just glad to know that when shit actually hits the fan, he’ll know which side he’s on,” Argyle continues, with emphasis on the final clause.

Lou Argyle was also nominally on the team. He’s too much of an old-world fossil to understand computer programming, so he wasn’t at the design sessions much, but he still found ways to keep his fingers in the pie. He brought in a small team of contract coders to massage RobotCop’s protocols in the direction of certain unwritten but well-understood police principles–blind loyalty, situation control, omertà, profiling, et cetera. As a member of the American Civil Liberties Union’s technology department, and more importantly, as an ethical member of the human community, I felt it was my duty to counteract Argyle’s influence wherever I could. It was a delicate process. The code was all transparent, and under constant review by a panel of three judges, who had the code translated for them by the most neutral, disinterested programming experts they could find.

“He’s on the people’s side,” I quip with tenuous bravado. “That’s who he works for. That’s who he serves and protects.” Even in the dim light of the ad hoc auditorium I can see Argyle’s nostrils flare. He wants to make me squirm, but in this moment he has less control than he is accustomed to. RobotCop is an almost entirely self-contained unit. His programming cannot be adjusted remotely. The fix is in, and all we can really do is watch.

“Just remember, if your bullshit, bleeding-heart programming gets an officer hurt, it’s on you.” This sounds dramatic, especially with Argyle’s little finger-point gesture behind it, but it is patently untrue–at least in the legal sense. RobotCop’s development and activation was approved by a public ballot initiative in a past election. Once the final code package was approved by the judges and their independent technology consultants, everyone was indemnified by the police department. There is an anonymous private benefactor who agreed to take on financial risk–damage, damages or settlements–above a certain, generously low threshold. So unless he or she is here, no one in the room technically has much of anything to lose.

Financially at least. I look around the room and see a number of hard faces looking back at me. I have a moment of panic. Every officer in the room knows who I am, and it’s not hard to imagine how they’ll react if events develop in a certain way.

I want to step outside for a second, just to get away, but then I remember, glumly, that there is an anti-RobotCop protest march scheduled for today, and that it will be sweeping by the Municipal Police Station any minute now. Some of my coworkers will be in the ranks. Also friends, former lovers, classmates, mentors. I was invited via social media and clicked “Maybe.” Most of them don’t know how involved I am with the RobotCop project. The few that do have been kind enough to help me perpetuate a general vagueness about it. Right now the hideous misunderstandings waiting outside seem somehow worse than being in here, at the mercy of Argyle and the police.

I decide that I should call my wife Tess soon, but with all the dangers lurking near and far, I’m pretty much paralyzed. I’ll stick with the feed unless I really do become ill. Maybe I can watch from somewhere in the back though, and send Tess a reassuring text.

Argyle is still nearby, pretending to watch the feed, but really just watching me. My skin crawls for a long minute, but soon I start to feel a creeping defiance. We did have a vision, some of us, a vision of impartial justice. We worked hard to shelter the seed of it, and we wrote the programming that would make it grow. Now it’s out there for goodness sake, walking and talking and operating, and for that, I really should be proud.

But I am in the lion’s den, no mistake, and what RobotCop does out there could very well determine what happens in here–to me.




I leave the ACLU weakling stewing in his own sweat against the wall. Pathetic. It’s in-fucking-conceivable that this sad-sack has any say, direct or no, over the actions of a peace officer in the field. Dangerous… Goddamned dangerous is what it is.

Just the thought of it is making my saliva sour, so I go looking for O’Flannery. On the way I refill my mug with coffee, and what the hell, I grab a donut too, something to bite and chew, a little sugar to push back the bile.

What’s that pencil-neck’s name again? Some geometry thing… equal sides… Rombus, yeah, Daniel Rombus. He’s been a presence here–a fucking annoying one–for years. I can’t even remember if he’s a real lawyer or just some slimy bureaucrat trying to stick a thumb in our eye. Rombus, always mincing in with thugs in velour tracksuits and those stupid baseball caps with the sticker still on them, leading them by the hand and holding the door for them so they can file their frivolous fucking complaints, clogging up the pipes and keeping any real policework from getting done.

How did they ever allow him on the project? The dweeb has probably never held a gun in his life, much less had one pointed at him, and yet here he is–programming the thing what’s supposed to keep our city safe. At the start things seemed so promising. An officer designed to protect officers, to be the vanguard on the most dangerous drug raids, always watchful for developing threats, never sleeping, the least susceptible to distractions and deceitful sob stories and fallen women and all the other shit that can make an officer’s job so tiresome and discouraging. Then came Rombus. Oh maybe he didn’t singlehandedly compromise the whole shebang, but he set a tone, and all the meetings and oversight and judges that followed eventually queered the deal.

I spot Detective Washington passing close by and give him a nod.

“I miss anything?” he asks, a smile playing at the corners of his lips. Washington never lets me get too close. He keeps his nose clean though, very clean, so I’m always cordial.

“Just a dispute over who drives. I’ve had plenty of those myself. Oh, and a little tiff at a corner store that came to nothing. Otherwise just as dull as any other patrol.”

“Well, no news is good news sometimes, huh?” Washington says, filling his coffee mug. “I’m going to sit down. Enjoy the show.” And before I can say anything he’s striding away.

I look back at Rombus and see him wobbling there, like he’s about to fall over. If anything, we as a force have too much in common with him, too much congenital weakness and pity, and that’s why we need RobotCop. Let the robot deal to the harsh letter of the law with the junkies and the welfare moms and the weed dealers. Hell, everyone would be better for it: less stress on the flesh and blood officers, and less softness shown toward the indigents. He wouldn’t feel those pangs, or the disgust and rage. He’d just uphold the law. My officers could spend less time breaking up fights between baby-mommas and their gold-grilled boyfriends and more time solving murders, rapes and arsons. More time building strong relationships with the people who actually pay the taxes.

But that dream is pretty much dead now. It blew over like a house of cards once that democratic senator and that activist judge swept in. Carpetbaggers, turning the whole thing into some kinda humanitarian farce. Why not just send RobotCop to Lesotho and have it till the fields, milk the goats and carry the water for Christ’s sake? I like the job Gilly did, but that’s pretty much all that’s left. The RobotCop I’m watching now is a clown, toothless, a semi-living lesson in how soft power doesn’t work on hard streets. That’s how I see it happening. I hope something comes along to make me feel otherwise.

As long as none my officers are put in the position to get hurt.

Mackenzie and RobotCop are getting a call.

Something’s happening now. Mackenzie and RobotCop are on foot, preparing to engage a suspect. A real big black guy somebody called in for selling loosies not twenty feet from the door of a convenience store. Brilliant. Mackenzie wants to call for backup because the guy’s so huge, but RobotCop talks him out of it, stepping away from the car and doing some Hulk Hogan poses. I smile despite myself. He does have a good curbside manner. I was a real prick when I was a rookie, and it came back on me more than a couple times, once during a real delicate situation. Still, I never got too soft, because that’s when you become susceptible to mental slips–like taking a perp’s word over a fellow officer’s. Errors like those can easily get somebody killed. Even the small ones can snowball, and destroy the effectiveness of a whole department.

RobotCop gets the big guy’s ID and keeps him company while Mackenzie runs it on the cruiser’s computer. I get tense seeing an officer alone with such a menacing figure, but this is all part of the test. The big guy is agitated, but not aggressive, blowing air and leaning back toward the wall. He doesn’t even seem to notice that he’s looking at a robot police officer. I guess we all look the same to them.

Mackenzie comes back and RobotCop starts the questioning. The first question he asks is about last night’s basketball game. Mackenzie looks miffed, and the suspect does too. “Yeah, I watched with my sons,” he answers, hesitantly, and soon he and RobotCop are talking about playoff matchups and the celebrities that attend the home games. By the time RobotCop asks about the cigarettes the guy is confessing and trying to make amends. RobotCop prints a $20 infraction out of his chest–the darnedest thing–complete with a court date, and it looks like the matter is settled.

I don’t know what to think. “Was somebody reading that thing Dale Carnegie before bed?” I ask out loud. The closest guy to me–a skinny Indian-looking guy with big serial-killer glasses and a mop of curly hair–turns and gives me a look. This usually holy place is turning into some kinda wired-up hippie commune today, and I don’t like it one bit.

“Actually, yes,” the longhair replies, before opening up a tiny laptop and looking down his nose at a set of readouts.

I’m speechless. I’m willing to grant that they got lucky this time, the hearts and minds cabal, but I don’t like the precedent. What if the suspect went berserk and needed to be taken down? There should have been more officers present. I also need to find out if that citation was accurate. I can’t shake the feeling that there should have been an arrest.

Maybe I’m biting off a bit too much here, worrying. I try to keep my finger on the pulse, but my days as an active member of the force are long behind me. O’Flannery will know all about this stuff. I need to talk with him anyway, about RobotCop’s potential membership in the union, and about who’s making that decision.

I finish the donut and lick my fingers. I take a sip of the coffee, which could use a little freshening up. I look over at Rombus again. He’s biting his nails, hardly the touchdown dance I expected. Maybe at the end of the patrol I’ll end up shaking his hand… or wringing his neck. Time will tell.

I head toward the back of the room, looking for O’Flannery.




I observe as the green Honda sedan makes an illegal right turn on red. A quick scan indicates that Mackenzie has witnessed the act as well. He engages the cruiser’s lightbar and pursues the Honda around the corner. There is no emergency lane on the two-lane road. The Honda drives at a low rate of speed and signals a right turn. It pulls over into the parking lot of a chain casual dining restaurant. Officer Mackenzie stops the cruiser behind the Honda then reports the traffic stop to dispatch. He runs a database check on the car’s license plate. There are no notifications attached to the vehicle, and no outstanding arrest warrants, open probations or outstanding traffic violations attached to the vehicle owner, one Chantelle Braddock. Mackenzie cues up the template for an illegal turn, pending identification, registration and insurance information.

“An illegal turn like this is small change, barely worth stopping for, but I have a feeling about this one.” Mackenzie says. “You learn to tell by how the car is maintained, little things… I’ll go into detail after, but I think we’ll be able to do better than a dinky little traffic ticket here. Watch me.”

Mackenzie exits the vehicle and signals me to do the same. Mackenzie walks to the driver side window. I walk to the passenger side and stand several feet from the front door. There are two young men in the car. Both driver and passenger roll down their windows. According to my age estimation circuit, the car’s occupants are likely aged 17-25. My ethnic recognition circuit, which has a limited and well-documented number of interface points with my decision engine, informs me that the passenger and driver are dark-skinned, and likely both African-American.

“You boys know why I stopped you today?” Mackenzie begins. My cultural sensitivity circuit registers that the word “boys” may carry derogatory racial connotations. Due to the probable ages of the occupants however, the circuit determines that the phrasing is only slightly likely to be considered offensive. No prospective words or actions are forwarded to my decision engine.

“Nope,” says the driver. Mackenzie’s face registers surprise and anger.

“Can’t you even read the goddamn sign that says ‘NO TURN ON RED’?” Mackenzie’s body language indicates a level of agitation out of proportion with the driver’s reply, and with the overall situation.

“Didn’t see it.” The driver replies. His body language is calm. However, my audio sensors detect a tremor in his speech. It is consistent with moderate emotional agitation.

“I’m giving you one last chance.”

“I didn’t see the sign, off-fi-cer.”

“You know what?” Mackenzie says. He leans toward the window, then back again. He stands up straight. “I smell marijuana,” he says. “Step out of the car now, both of you.”

My atmospheric analysis sensor registers molecular content consistent with marijuana, but at levels significantly below the range of human detection. There is a 99.78% probability that Officer Mackenzie does not smell marijuana.

“There is no human-detectable marijuana odor present,” I say.

Mackenzie looks at me over the roof of the car. “Oh yeah smart guy? You know what that ‘dro smells like? These goons are probably driving impaired, and endangering every other motorist on the road. There might be more pot in the car. We’ll find out when we do a search.”

My legal circuit reacts immediately. “There is no procedural reason to conduct a search of the car or of the suspects. The evidence and the situation warrant that we serve these gentlemen the citation for the traffic violation and continue our patrol. You may administer a sobriety test if you believe that the driver is legitimately impaired.”

“You telling me what I can and can’t do?”

The passenger looks at me from inside the car. His expression initially registers mild surprise, then amazement. “Whoa, are you that RobotCop? I saw about it- uh, you on the news, but I thought that shit was an April Fool’s joke. Do you really have like, artificial intelligence?”

“I am an automated law enforcement officer. I exist to protect and serve, like every officer on the municipal police force.” My humor circuit instructs me to pose heroically, but my situational awareness circuit warns me that this may agitate Officer Mackenzie further. My decision engine receives a compromise directive. I rotate my head so that the passenger sees me in profile, and face upward in a dramatic fashion for one full second. I turn and face Officer Mackenzie again.

His glare registers high levels of restrained aggression. “Stand down RobotCop,” he says. “We’re here to keep the road safe, not make friends. These fake-ass thugs are driving stoned and we need to search the car.”

“Man, we ain’t smoked nothing. Just chill out and listen to the robot, he knows what’s up. Just give us the ticket and let it go,” says the passenger.

“Chill out and listen to the robot,” Mackenzie says quietly. “Alright, get the fuck out of the car.” He pulls on the driver-side door handle. My visuals indicate that the door is locked. Mackenzie realizes this and reaches through the window to manually unlock it.

“Hey, what are you doing?” says the driver. “This is messed up. I don’t want trouble. Just gimme the ticket and I’ll pay.”

“Oh you’ll pay alright,” says Mackenzie. He opens the door and reaches across the driver, pressing the seat belt release mechanism. My situational analysis circuit recognizes that Officer Mackenzie has made himself vulnerable by initiating contact with a suspect without first securing proper coverage from his partner. He has also given the suspect the opportunity to seize his sidearm, Taser and mace, as well as other important items in his equipment belt.

“Man, get off me!” cries the driver. He offers minimal resistance however, and Mackenzie pulls him from the car. Mackenzie moves several feet away and unholsters his service pistol, holding it at his side.

“Put your hands on the vehicle,” commands Mackenzie.

“Man, help us,” says the seated passenger, quietly. He is looking directly into my facial optics.

“Officer Mackenzie, you are escalating the situation without probable cause,” I say. “You are in danger of violating the suspect’s 4th Amendment rights by initiating an unreasonable search and or seizure.”

“Oh can it, you self-righteous pile of bolts,” Mackenzie says, before motioning at the passenger with the muzzle of his gun. “Get the fuck outta the car now. RobotCop, make yourself useful and search that asshole when he gets out.”

The passenger emerges as Mackenzie begins reaching into the driver’s pockets with his free hand. “Anything sharp in here asshole? Am I going to cut–A-ha!” Mackenzie shouts, pulling a plastic bag from the driver’s pocket and holding it up. My visual and atmospheric sensors indicate that it is likely marijuana. The amount appears to be less than 0.125 ounces.

“I told you I smelled that Kush, and I knew you were lying to me, homeboy. Now we can all take a ride back to the station and get you guys booked up.”

My legal circuit takes precedence. “Officer Mackenzie, the evidence you are holding was obtained through an illegal search. It is invalid and inadmissible according to the principle of the exclusionary rule.”

“What are you, RobotLawyer now? Let the DA worry about that. Get that goon’s ID and put him in cuffs.” Officer Mackenzie is attempting to place handcuffs on the driver without holstering his gun. The driver moves his wrists away in an isolated manner.

Mackenzie jabs the muzzle of his service pistol into the base of the driver’s neck. “You want resisting arrest as well, homey?” The driver goes still. Mackenzie maneuvers him closer to the car, then slams his upper body onto the hood of the green Honda.

My legal circuit is making recommendations to my decision engine. My misconduct circuit is active. I walk around the Honda and stand approximately 5.27 feet behind Officer Mackenzie. “I am programmed to eliminate inefficiencies in the municipal legal system. This is an unlawful arrest based on inadmissible evidence from an unconstitutional search. Officer Mackenzie, please release the suspect and serve him with the traffic citation.” My police psychology circuit informs me that Officer Mackenzie will be unlikely to acquiesce to my request immediately. My diplomacy circuit begins to compile persuasive strategies for accomplishing my legal circuit’s imperative.

Mackenzie turns toward me. His body language indicates rage and disbelief. “You fucking piece of junk! How dare you tell me how to do my job? I’ve been keeping this city safe since you were a bunch of chips being soldered to a board in fucking Taiwan.” The driver and passenger are both still, their attention focused on Mackenzie.

“How could you ever know what it’s like to worry about crime?” he continues. “I let Lil Boosie here go, and I become the responsible party–like if he gets fuckin’ faded, runs a red and kills somebody’s daughter on his way to KFC. Even better, Who’s responsible if him and his homeboys shoot up the wrong house and kill a taxpayer?” He moves over and slams the driver onto the hood again for emphasis. The driver makes a quiet sound of distress. “I am. And I take that seriously. You don’t know anything about family, you don’t know anything about crime. You’re just gears and sensors, running on some bullshit code written by eggheads who wouldn’t know a serial rapist from their own mother.”

My diplomacy circuit suggests I attempt to calm Officer Mackenzie by legitimizing his concerns. It instructs me to induce the passenger and driver to validate him as well, if possible. “Officer Mackenzie, your concerns are my concerns, inasmuch as I am an officer of the law. The perspective you possess in your dual role as both citizen and peace officer is indeed beyond my comprehension. Your knowledge and experience are invaluable. However, I do not believe that it is inconsistent with your principles to serve justice today by confiscating the illegal drugs found here, delivering a traffic citation and a sobriety test to the violators and resuming our patrol. These young men have demonstrated no violent behavior, and their actions today have indicated no criminal intent than a mild, but possibly willful disregard for the technicalities of traffic law. I am ninety-nine point three one percent certain that these young men value your service in an unconscious way, if not a-”

“You are not a person. So shut. The fuck. Up. Be silent and take a good look at this, because this is how we do things. This is how we’ve always done things. Don’t think you can just boot up your little operating system and change the way we keep law and order. Stand the fuck down RobotCop. We’re not letting this scum get off with a wrist slap just cause your imaginary rookie conscience is bothering you.” Mackenzie moves back over and slams the driver onto the hood again, with more force than the previous instances. My heat sensor indicates a small irregularity, and my optics pick up data from the same region. The driver has urinated slightly onto his pants.

The passenger begins running away. I turn my main optics toward him. My motion circuit calculates the vectors I will follow in order to apprehend the suspect.

“I will apprehend the passenger,” I say. However, as I begin to actuate, my sensors pick up movement from Mackenzie. I focus on him and see him raise a weapon. Within 3.50 milliseconds I identify it as his police-issue Taser.

Mackenzie fires, and the electrodes attach to the passenger. He stumbles, emitting a yelp, then falls to the ground. Mackenzie and I both move toward the prone passenger.

“The citizen is incapacitated,” I report. “Please release the trigger and stop the flow of current, Officer Mackenzie.”

Mackenzie does not say anything. My sensors indicate a high level of current flowing through the electrodes. The passenger is writhing on the ground in pain. My medical circuit indicates that he is at severe risk of lasting physical harm if the current is not stopped immediately.

“The fuck you doing man?!” the handcuffed driver shouts, struggling to lift himself upright from the hood. “You piece of shit. He didn’t fuckin’ do nothing. You’re killing him.”

“Release the trigger Mackenzie. This man is in danger,” I say. While I am shielded from a specified level of electrical current, the amount flowing through the Taser wires could seriously damage both my physical and computerized systems. I can do little to help the passenger directly.

“You’d like that wouldn’t you, RobotCop?” Mackenzie says, switching hands so that his pistol is in his right hand, and the Taser is in his left. “Pay attention! Sometimes you gotta show em that we don’t back down. Every year they try to file down our teeth, but deep down they know we’re really all that’s there, the thin blue fucking line, the only barrier between society and the savages outside it.”

My public safety circuit has overridden the others. An emergency course of action has been prepared and submitted to my decision engine. Initial vectors have been calculated, and alternate sequences have been prepared in preparation for contingencies.

“This is your last warning, Mackenzie.”

“You’re warning me? That’s rich. You know, you really are-”

I execute the course of action.




“Somebody wanna tell me why the fuck we decided to pick Officer Thomas G. Mackenzie to be our public face, in this delicate task we’ve chosen to undertake? Jesus Lord God, we coulda picked somebody fresh-faced and clean cut. Somebody still young and idealistic, noble. Overstreet would be perfect, Chang would be steady, even Rodriguez–mean streak and all–at least has charisma.”

O’Flannery rests his elbows on the desk and bows his head. He runs his hands through his bright orange hair, which looks unusually oily and thin under the fluorescent office lights. “Mackenzie’s seen too much, he’s done too much, he doesn’t smile or make pleasantries, and frankly–and I said this to them, in no uncertain terms–he’s too cor-”

“You know we don’t use the C-word here.” I interrupt.

O’Flannery fixes me with a glare. Despite the puffiness of his eyes, the effect is piercing. “Fine,” he says, “In my professional opinion Officer Mackenzie is too… worldly to pair with RobotCop. It’s obvious he’s trying to teach him too much ‘street knowledge’ off the bat, and in front of every journalist and academic in the tri-state area. If you think they aren’t squirming in their seats right now–the civilians and our officers both–you’re on another planet.”

“Mackenzie’s a stalwart. He’s seen this department through tough times. And Jesus, O’Flannery, remember Lieutenant Mackenzie? He was your equal–until he jumped on that grenade to save those other guys. He never once complained, even when he was back shadowing second-years on their street patrols.”

“I’ve never said this aloud Lou, but I think he was like a caged animal behind that insignia, and more than anything he wanted to run in the wild again. He’s got an appetite–an appetite for-”

The phone that O’Flannery hung up not three minutes ago rings again. He scoops it up swiftly and listens for a few seconds.

“We’ve gotta move Lou, now,” he says.

O’Flannery’s face looks grey as he sets the phone in its cradle. He turns off his computer, rises from his desk, picks up his holstered gun, puts on his hat and opens the door, holding it for me as we exit the glass cube of his office. He locks up and we step out into the temporary auditorium. Mackenzie is saying “I smell marijuana,” then the video and audio suddenly cut out. There are a few seconds of silence and darkness, then a set of readouts fills the screen and people begin to murmur. I recognize the display as the same one that the Indian prick was looking at earlier.

“We’re probably gonna have to shut him down,” O’Flannery says. The urgency of his tone sets me on edge and I put a hand on my gun.

“It,” I say. “RobotCop is an it. Not a fucking person.”

There is confusion in the auditorium. Everybody is looking at each other and babbling. They are looking around the room as if they expect to the answers to suddenly materialize. Sergeant Delvecchio steps up to a podium under the screen and once the mic is live, tells the crowd that “We are experiencing technical difficulties.” This is the correct lie, but many of the audience see right through it. A shouting match develops, and Delvecchio quickly gives up the mic.

O’Flannery and I are already jogging for the elevators, our heels clicking on the marble. It’s setting in now and I feel rage and adrenaline coming to a boil in my stomach. If that traitorous fucking pile of scrap hurt Mackenzie I’ll dismantle it myself, piece by piece.

“What?” O’Flannery says.

“If that traitorous fucking pile of scrap hurt Mackenzie I’ll dismantle it myself, piece by piece,” I shout, apparently for the second time, meaning it just as much as the first.

While Chief Brockton and Deputy Chief Gottfried have power over the feed, only the judge can shut down RobotCop. Brockton and Gottfried are in a viewing room upstairs. I can’t remember where the judge is… does O’ Flannery know?

“We go straight for the municipal courtroom and the judge, but diplomatically,” he says, as if able to hear my thoughts. “Chief and Gottfried probably won’t wait for us.”

As we get into the elevator, I hear footsteps echoing on the tiles behind us. I poke my head out and see Rombus and some other guy moving fast toward the elevator bank. The door is closing, and there’s nothing to be done. If we see them upstairs though, they are fair game.

I remove my gun from its holster.

“What are you doing?” O’Flannery asks.

“Not for the judge… We’re being followed.”

“You mean those pencil-dick programmers? Shite man, what the fuck are they gonna do?”

I don’t answer. I begin to wonder if maybe I’ve been outfoxed, not just me–all of us. There was some block of code in that machine that we didn’t know about, some liberal revenge fantasy that manifested as one of my officers being hung out to dry.

O’Flannery takes a deep breath as the elevator rises. “You know what Lou? I’m creating an atmosphere of panic, and I apologize,” he says, “We all reviewed the operating code together, remember? We took months going through every contingency. So let’s not lose our heads and jump to conclusions. It could be something as stupid as Mackenzie saying something un-PC, and they don’t want the journalists to hear it. We’ll drop in on Gottfried and Chief first. Hell, they could even be putting the feed back on right now.”




I need to find out what happened.

Five minutes. So much can happen in five minutes.

All my intuition is telling me that it will be a race to the judge, so I’m on my feet and moving as the murmur begins. I’m thankful that I chose an aisle seat the second time. I spot my friend Wei Cooper-Zhang–a real scrupulous, earnest-hearted reporter for the Courier–leaning against the wall and sidle up to him.

“I’m going to the judge. Come with me now, or play dumb and get out of here. Things are going to get serious.”

Wei seems a little surprised by my urgency, but nods and falls in alongside. The judge’s viewing room is not technically in the police station, but in the adjacent legal building, which houses a small municipal courtroom–one generally used for minor infractions and misdemeanor cases. The judge is the only person authorized to execute a hard shutdown on RobotCop. He is viewing in a sequestered environment to avoid any undue influence. He has a trusted bailiff posted at the door and that’s it.

For whatever reason the shutdown procedures were kept secret from the architects of the project, but a journalist friend of mine explained it to me over cocktails last week. It literally requires a metal key, but the lock is built into a housing that plugs into a computer by USB – hybrid style. Apparently a string of characters wouldn’t cut it; they felt the actual key was necessary.

I’m almost sure that right after the feed cut out, my programming saw a real fucking test. I was naïve, all of us were really, to think that the conflict between police brotherhood and public ethics wouldn’t come to a head this soon. I just wish we could have all watched it unfold together, in a more neutral environment. It would have been like watching the last play of the Super Bowl.

“Last play? The game is still on,” Wei says. I realize I must have said the last part aloud. He’s right though, the game is still on, and only the judge can call it early.


As we jog toward the elevators, I see another pair of men moving ahead of us, trenchcoats billowing, shoes clacking sharply against the cream marble floor. I recognize Argyle right away. The other guy I don’t recognize–probably some higher up in the department, if official-looking hats are a reliable indicator of rank.

“They’re probably thinking judge too huh?” Wei says.

“The one on the right is Lou Argyle.”


“Yeah. He’s dangerous, and he hates me, with a passion.”

“I’m not high on his friends list either. Remember the Ice Cream Truck Scandal?”

“We’re in the belly of the beast here,” I say. “And if shit goes down, our word means nothing.”

The men get in the elevator. Argyle pops his head back out and stares at me until the door almost closes on it. There’s a wild look in his eyes that I don’t like. Paranoid, a little insane.

“Let’s take the stairs then, or go around outside,” Wei suggests. I stop to think. If we take the stairs they’ll hear us coming up and ambush us. If we go outside they could lock us out.

“We need eyes, ears. If we go after them alone they’ll just beat the shit out of us–or worse,” I say. “Here, follow me.”

Wei sees me starting to turn back. “Daniel. You need to go ahead, or I do. Someone has to get there before they tamper with the footage, or strong-arm the judge into deleting it.” He fixes me with a look. “One of us can rally the press and the observers. They want answers and we can make this into a protest scene pretty quick.”

“Protest scene… There should already be one outside.”

Wei looks confused, then smiles. “I can’t believe I forgot about that. Yes, that should simplify things.”

“Simplify?” I say under my breath.

Wei has heard me. “Control is their thing. Chaos favors us.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be neutral…? Wait, don’t answer that.” I think for a moment. “The dispatcher, radios, communications. Disrupt that and they won’t be able to organize or call for backup. They’ll have a harder time converging on RobotCop too, poor guy.”

Wei gives me a funny look.

“I think the comm room is in the northeast corner of this building,” I say, trying to recover.

Wei’s already leaning toward the auditorium. He turns back to me for a quick, firm handshake, then we dash our separate ways.

I take the stairs, but quietly. I try to stifle my panting at the top, but this proves to be difficult. The first floor’s high ceiling makes the second floor more like the third, and I’m hardly in great shape. I open the stairwell door a crack and peer through. Silence. An empty corridor. They must have gone ahead. I make my way down the hallway, shoes in hand. I hear a movement and I freeze.

The four of them file out of the room and move away in a hurry. They don’t even look in my direction or close the door behind them. I realize almost instantly that the door will lock once it shuts. I have to get in there. I begin a desperate lunge on slippery stocking feet, praying to whatever gods will listen that the men don’t turn around and spot me. The door is closing slowly, the damper hissing–but the distance is great, and in their big coats with big guns underneath, the men’s backs are like a mountain range…

I slip in and freeze, waiting for the door to close. Nothing from outside but shoe-clack, receding. The door shuts and I hear the mechanism slide home. Safe, for the moment.

Unless one of them forgot something in their haste. I look around frantically for badges, guns, Tasers, documents, anything that would send any of them back into the room. I don’t see any personal objects, but I still scan for a potential hiding place.

There isn’t much. The room seems to be a surveillance room, quite modern in fact, with a medium-sized console and array of flatscreen monitors at the front of the room and some blinking equipment behind the locked grate of a tall A/V rack to the left, opposite the door. Folding tables are set up against the side walls at the rear of the room, each with a couple folding chairs tucked into them.

As the thudding of my heart subsides I realize that the feed is still on here, with sound. I approach the console with some trepidation.

I am expecting the worst: the suspects handcuffed and prone, blood drying on their waxy grey faces, or a static shot of the sky, clouds slipping behind the foregrounded grin of Officer Mackenzie, kneeling in triumph over the incapacitated RobotCop.

It is Mackenzie I see on the screen, but he is holding a bleeding hand and screaming curses at the camera. “You fuck! I’ll fucking kill you!” He kneels suddenly and begins scrabbling in the tall grass at the side of the road. The camera moves toward him–RobotCop’s perspective–then rotates away. A robotic hand emerges to pick up a pistol from a cluster of tall grass. RobotCop places it somewhere on or in his body, then turns away and goes to the driver, who appears grey and shaken.

“What is your name?” RobotCop asks, his voice clear and calm, carrying over the raving, cursing Mackenzie.

“J-Jeremy,” the driver says.

“Jeremy, I am taking you into protective custody. My partner, Officer Mackenzie, may seek to cause you physical harm. It is not safe for you to leave the scene unprotected.”

Jeremy eyes RobotCop, terrified. “Th-This shit is crazy man. I saw what you did. How do I know-”

“There’s no time,” RobotCop interrupts. “Come with me if you want to live.”

Above the dull roar of passing traffic, the sound of sirens becomes apparent. RobotCop puts out his hand. Jeremy reaches out and shakes it.

RobotCop turns toward Mackenzie. “Those monitoring my feed have witnessed what transpired. I have no doubt that municipal officers are heading this way. I have no doubt that medical first-responders are en route as well,” RobotCop says. “However, as an additional safety measure, I have called an ambulance on your behalf. If you would like me to administer first aid to your injured hand, please say ‘First aid.’ ”

“Go fuck yourself!” Mackenzie howls, charging like an enraged bear. He attempts to strike RobotCop. The camera shakes and Mackenzie is on the ground again. The camera tilts to Mackenzie’s feet and RobotCop’s hands execute a series of rapid motions. He steps back. He has tied Mackenzie’s shoelaces together.

RobotCop and Jeremy get into the police cruiser. “We will attempt to pick up your friend,” RobotCop says. “Shout from the window as we approach, to let him know that it is safe.”

“Where are you taking us?” Jeremy asks.

“I have contacted a local television news program. You will be able to stay in their studios until the matter is resolved. I have also contacted several local civil rights groups and they have agreed to send representatives to meet you there. The combination of media attention and legal representation should prevent police elements from seeking retribution in a heavy-handed manner. If they attempt to, their actions will be subject to very intense scrutiny. I will testify on your behalf in any later proceedings if I am able.”

“You’re not staying with us?”

“My presence would only make the situation unsafe.”

I take an involuntary step away from the screens. I wonder if I am the only person who has seen this, other than the judge. Did the bigwigs really all take off without posting someone to monitor this?

And wait! What is RobotCop going to do next? Is he coming here?

I suppose I should know, I programmed him, after all. If I was a robotic police officer who just went rogue and injured my partner, the script I would execute would be…

Then it hits me. I realize that more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my entire life, more than wanting to meet Santa Claus when I was six years old, more than becoming an astronaut, I want RobotCop to come here, and I want to watch all hell break loose, even if it ends up being the last thing I do.

I put my shoes on and I text Tess, saying that I love her. She wanted to be here too, but she couldn’t get the credentials. I wanted her to be here. RobotCop was supposed to be a proud moment for me, for us. Now I don’t know what it is. As much as one touch from Tess would give me all the courage in the world, I’m glad she isn’t here. It would kill me to put her in danger.

The hallway is deeply silent. I make my way through the above-ground tunnel to the judicial building. As I descend the wide staircase to the lobby I hear noise from outside. Apparently the wide bank of doors at the entrance is locked, because someone is pounding on them, violently. I reach the floor and see that there is some sort of melee going on outside, way out of proportion with the “multidisciplinary team” that was assembled in the auditorium.

I move closer to the doors. It looks like Wei was effective. Some of the police have riot gear on, and a thin haze of tear gas is hanging over the parking lot. I don’t see Wei, but I do see at least one person lying motionless on the pavement.

One of the cops is pounding on a door with a large black baton. He turns his helmeted head and seems to notice me. He swings his baton once more and the shatter-proof glass pane before him blossoms instantaneously. I turn toward the courtroom.

I push through the heavy wooden door. What I see chills my blood. The bailiff is dazed and bleeding, handcuffed to the witness stand. Judge Dorothy Marshall is up on the bench in full robes, eyes blazing and gavel raised. A laptop is open in front of her and it dawns on me that her gavel is poised over RobotCop’s emergency shutdown lock.

Marshall is quaking with defiance. This is because Argyle and the same redheaded guy he was with earlier are in front of the prosecutor’s table, aiming their pistols at her. Judge Marshall is not the judge who oversaw the development of RobotCop. That was Judge Geoffrey Brookstone. Judge Marshall was brought in afterward, anonymously, to impartially monitor RobotCop’s initial patrol. She is the final arbiter of whether his actions are legal or illegal, and whether his compliance with public safety and the law are sufficient for him to remain in operation.

How did a strong-minded black woman end up as the judge on this? Isn’t the system set up to prevent things like this from happening? I want to shout because it’s too good to believe–but then… it really was too good, and now Judge Marshall has two guns pointed at her, each with a white man behind it.

Chief Brockton and Deputy Chief Gottfried are at the defendant’s table, their hands empty and entreating, having a back and forth with the judge. It’s always good cop, bad cop with them. Good cop, bad cop… RobotCop.

Marshall notices my presence and meets my eye, but her glance flits away almost instantly. The others have their backs turned and have not noticed my entry to the courtroom.

I once argued a jury case before Judge Marshall in defense of an alleged shoplifter. He claimed that he was racially profiled in an aggressive and threatening manner as he shopped at a store at the mall, and that he inadvertently walked out with a piece of very expensive merchandise in hand due to the stress, agitation and embarrassment of the experience. Despite the odds and the perjurious testimony of the store’s security staff, I won the case and kept the kid out of the system. It was an important victory for me–a cornerstone for my formative years.

A few years later, Jameel wrote me a letter from college. Also in the envelope was a photo of him and Cornel West, both smiling broadly, arms thrown over each other’s shoulders. I brought it to Judge Marshall during lunch recess one day. She gripped my arm tight with one hand, and wiped tears away from her eyes with the other. I thought her reaction was a little out of sorts, but I didn’t say anything. Finally, still gripping my arm, she used her free hand to turn a photo on her desk toward me. Melvin Van Peebles, smiles, arms around shoulders. The resemblance was uncanny. “Your son?” I asked. She nodded, and I understood.

“Back up!” Marshall shouts, pointing her gavel at Argyle and the redhead. “Do you understand your actions? How dare you come into my courtroom and point those filthy guns at me!”

“Listen Marshall! We got officers in danger out there,” Brockton bellows. “You wanna be responsible for the death of an officer? Shut it down, shut it down now before it hurts somebody else.”

“I’ll do no such thing! I’m well within my authority and if you don’t put those guns away now…”

“Not gonna happen lady,” Gottfried shouts. “We asked you real nice, but we can’t afford to keep wasting time. Hand it over, we’ll shut it down, then we’ll all calm down and talk it over.”

At this Judge Marshall begins to sag, as if her robes have sprung a leak. She slowly reaches for the laptop with her free hand. “Well gentlemen, I can see that I’m outnumbered and outgunned today. I suppose sometimes might really does make-”

She twists suddenly and the gavel is whistling through the air. I recall the time she told me about her track and field days in college. Javelin–the javelin throw was her best event. She said she even competed in the Commonwealth Games once, Edinburgh, 1986, for her native Canada.

The redhead flinches away, but to no avail. The gavel strikes him in the temple and his hat flutters crazily off his head. He crumples to the floor. Argyle, who has recoiled himself off balance, roars and fires a wild shot. I look back at Marshall and see something glint in the space between us. I instinctively put my hands out to catch it, and once it lands in my palms, I realize what it is.




“Fucking Hell!” Chief Brockton shouts. I glance at him, then I remember O’ Flannery. He’s down and out. I check his pulse. Steady. His breathing is too. I see the gavel there, right next to his unconscious body.

“Activist bitch!” I growl, grabbing the gavel and whipping it as hard as I can toward the bench. The judge ducks and it hits the corner of her laptop with a loud crack, then careens away. I’m about to head up there myself when Gottfried shouts.

“Lou! He’s got the key. Stop him.”

“The fuck are you standing there for then?” I reluctantly peel my eyes away from the bench, only to see a skinny guy in business casual opening the courtroom door in a hurry. It’s him again.

“Rombus,” I say, unholstering.

I fire once, wide left. I fire again as he’s slipping through the door. High and to the right. God dammit I’m rusty.

“What in God’s name are you doing, Argyle?” Brockton this time.

“You do something then, chief! He’s got the key. He drops it down the sewer and that robot’s gonna be terrorizing us forever. Three days on a single charge, and who’s to say some lefty support network don’t spring up around him?”

“Our entire comm system is going in and out. We can’t-”

I wave an impatient hand. I’m disappointed; I wouldn’t have expected such a weak string of excuses from Chief Brockton. “Take care of O’ Flannery!” I yell, and I’m down the aisle. I get out into the lobby just as some officers are crashing in. I see riot gear and all kinds of noise is coming in from outside. What the fuck has been going on since we left the auditorium?

I realize the riot squad must be making for the judge. “There’s nothing in there!” I shout, a few times for good measure, but nobody seems to hear me. One officer–who looks like Voorhies, but I can’t tell for sure because of the riot helmet–points at his ear, then the radio mouthpiece on his upper chest, then gestures as if to say “The piece of shit ain’t working.”

“He’s got it. Go after him.” I gesture away from the courtroom and toward Rombus, who is darting like a rabbit for a side door. A couple guys get my drift, but they are too heavy in their armor to do much of anything. If you want something done right…

Pushing through the door, I’m almost blinded by the sun. I round the corner and as my eyes adjust I can see him running along the edge of the parking lot. Jesus, there’s some kinda riot going on here. A couple parking curbs are smashed up and people are throwing pieces of them at my officers. I knew there was a protest planned, but my research guys assured me it was the usual white liberals. College professors and the farmer’s market crowd. Lotsa women and children. Whoever it is now, somebody has them fired up, violently. I wouldn’t put it past the journalists.

We’re to blame for some of this; we were naïve to think we could allow so many social fucking justice crusaders to gather here, so much dry fuel on both sides of the door, and not have a fire break out.

It looks like Rombus is trying to run and talk on the phone now. Time to put this fool and his pet robot out of their misery. I drop to a knee and aim the pistol with both hands.

As I’m lining up the sights over him I remember the only time I ever shot a man. I watched his body jerk as my bullets passed through him–all four of us did. A red mist hung in the air as he fell to the pavement. We had our reasons. He refused to drop the knife, and when D’Antoni broke protocol and tried to take it from him with mace and a baton, the savage slashed his arm pretty bad. The toxicology report turned up those “bath salts” and some alcohol. When the dust settled we had strong justification and a couple good witnesses. As a result, the department never asked us any questions we couldn’t answer with clean consciences.

But I still had nightmares. I’d wake up in the night sweating and wheezing and fully convinced I was having a heart attack. After a couple of fruitless trips to the hospital, my wife–ex-wife now–would just lead me into the living room and make me drink chamomile tea. After the panic subsided all I felt was disappointment–disappointment that I wasn’t the warrior I thought I would be–that even killing a violent, drug-addled criminal gave me real qualms somewhere down deep.

As a young man I used to imagine myself heading up a SWAT team–kicking down doors, throwing flash grenades, shootouts, dogs, helicopters, chases over fences and across abandoned steel yards, the whole nine yards. After each mission we would survey the battlefield and stand in armor over the bodies of our vanquished foes. I had the whole thing painted in bright colors, but in the end I just didn’t have it in me. Now I’m pretty much a glorified administrator. I spend most of my time judo-chopping malicious paperwork before it tangles itself around my officers.

In the end you don’t choose your soul any more than you choose your body. All you can do is try to perfect it over time.

I aim slightly down and to the right.

A half-second later he keels over. I might have hit him in the leg, but I can’t be sure. From the way he’s moving around I can tell the wound shouldn’t be fatal. I get up and run a little closer. If he stays down I’ll just run up, stick the gun in his face and take the key. From there, the chief will be able to fire up a computer and…

Shit. He’s up again, and limping away from the station toward the street. He’s not moving fast, but he’s moving. His car could be parked anywhere around here. I run after him, shouting him a last warning–sincerely hoping he hears me and stops. I fire a one-handed warning shot above his head.

I really loathe Daniel Rombus, but I don’t want it to go down this way. I imagine it coming up in my final review with the man upstairs. Even with the mitigating circumstances, shooting him from behind like this would be a hell of a thing to explain.

But then, what about the people in the path of that RobotCop? What would I tell the widows and fatherless kids–once proud law enforcement families destroyed by mechanized liberal arrogance? Small consolation my moral victory would be to them. My sworn duty is to protect my officers, not to sleep easy at night.

I square up and get Rombus in my sights. Down and to the left this time.

I’m pulling the trigger when something knocks into me, hard. The shot flies up into the sky. I land on my back and try to scramble for my feet, but I’m still in my long coat and there’s loose gravel under my hands and feet. I settle on my back and aim the gun between my legs at where I was standing, ready to blow away who or whatever hit me.

I find myself looking up at the dark, glowering figure of Detective Washington.

“You son of a bitch!” I howl.

“Are we shooting unarmed men in the back now? Is that the policy? I must have missed the union vote on that.”

I rise and back up, with the gun pointed at him. The look on his face is hard, and I know he’s not backing down. He made a big mistake though–he isn’t even armed.

I fire a couple around his feet, to show I mean business. He takes a few reluctant steps back. “Don’t follow me,” I say, raising my aim to his chest. I turn and take off after Rombus.

There is a black Lincoln Town Car parked on the side of the lot. One of the back doors is open and two men are standing there talking. One of them is that rat bastard Rombus, bloody, sagging slightly, and the other is…

Lovely, it’s Vincent P. Chamernik, the goddamned mayor.

I holster the gun as I approach. “Mayor Chamernik! Stop him, don’t let him get away.”

“What on God’s green earth is going on here?”

“He’s got the key to that robot what assaulted Mackenzie. He’s trying to keep us from shutting it down.”

Rombus is hiding behind the mayor’s skirts, but I close in on him.

“Cough it up. There’s an officer down!” I say, grabbing for him.

“You shot me in the back, you bastard,” he croaks, and holds up a hand covered in blood. I must have got him through the side or the ass. Must have missed all the important stuff too, or he wouldn’t be moving around like this. Struggling to grab this slippery worm, I’m beginning to regret my previous mercy.

“Is this true?” The mayor’s eyes are big and his face is getting red. He maneuvers between us, seeming not to care that blood is getting all over his nice grey wool coat. The car door is still open and Rombus retreats inside.

“That robot is out there doing God knows what. Then this creep took the emergency shutdown key from that black bitch and ran. It could be out there harming more officers as we speak.”

“I hope you aren’t referring to the honorable Judge Dorothy Marshall, when you say ‘that black bitch,’ ” Chamernik says quietly.

“Let him get to the part where he fired a gun at her. Judge Marshall gave me the key because Mr. Argyle here was threatening her life.” He looks at Chamernik for a second, then back at me. “Besides, he reviewed the programming, he knows exactly what happened. RobotCop was doing what he was meant to do–protect our citizens from harm.”

“Don’t listen to him Mayor Chamernik, he’s delirious. And I didn’t fire out of turn–that was self-defense from when that woman nearly killed O’Flannery with a projectile. He’s just trying to cover up for the goddamn riot he started, which is to distract us from the real task of shutting down that rogue machine-”

“Bullshit! Your department’s an authoritarian mena-” Rombus coughs, then spits a bloody wad out onto the pavement.

“First I’m hearing this automaton shot an officer,” the mayor begins. Cords are standing out in his neck and his eyes are bugging out. “Then two black kids are giving a live TV interview saying RobotCop saved them from… RacistCop. After that I’m hearing a police official admit he fired a gun at a sitting judge, then I’m witnessing a full-blown riot at the police station.” He lifts his hands to his head, elbows out. “I don’t know what to goddamn believe!”

Chamernik is furious, but there is too much confusion. He doesn’t know where to direct his rage. This means he’s still open to suasion. “That’s why we need to shut it down,” I say. “It’ll give us time to regain control and sort things out. Come on Rombus, give it up. We’ll put the robot away, get you to a hospital, and figure out just where exactly you fucked up.”

“I fucked up? Shut him down? What, so you can shoot me again, Argyle? So your thugs can suppress the whole thing and beat the shit out of the press and the public?” He points with a red, dripping hand at the fracas in the parking lot. I see a woman tangling with an officer, then swinging a sign at him, until another officer sneaks up and hits her in the back of the neck with a baton. She goes down like a rag doll. Things seem to be improving over there, at least.

“Listen Mayor Chamernik, RobotCop didn’t do anything wrong. What he did was right. We can’t shut him down, because we need him. He’s the only reliable witness to whatever happened today. They get their hands on him they’ll wipe every shred of evidence-”

“You kiddin’ me! Enough!” I lunge around the mayor and make a grab for Rombus.

“Hold on you son of a bitch,” says Chamernik, but I ignore him. Rombus slides back into the car and wiggles his way across the back seat. I grab for him, but the goddamn mayor is holding me back. I manage to work my way out of the coat, and the mayor’s grip, but by the time I’m free Rombus has popped the door on the other side and slithered out. The mayor grabs me again and I hold still for a moment, planning my next move and staring at the shiny slick of blood on the black leather upholstery.




Jeremy’s mother, Chantelle Braddock, embraces me. I return the embrace with a suitable amount of force, careful to minimize pinch points. “Oh god thank you so much for saving my son, I wish all police were like you. Thankyouthankyouthankyou.”

“I was simply fulfilling my duties as a peace officer of the municipality,” I say, attempting to extricate myself from Ms. Braddock’s grasp. “Please, I must go. It will be safer for you, your son and Denarius if I am not here.”

One of the local news hosts, Jake Billington, moves to my right side and speaks softly. “I just want to ask one last time–you’re sure there’s no chance of us getting that footage?”

“Negative,” I say, still in Ms. Braddock’s grip. “That portion of the audiovisual record is classified data. If you would like to initiate an official request-”

“Alright, alright. I tried.” Billington heads back toward the news desk.

I finally dislodge myself from Ms. Braddock. “The metropolitan police are gathered outside. I must leave the building to prevent their entry.” I have not attempted to disable or modify my tracking hardware or software. I have been emitting the same signal since the beginning of my patrol. Staff members at the studio have updated me on the buildup of forces.

“Okay sweetie. But if you’re ever in the neighborhood, you have to come by and see us. We’ll cook you up a big, uh… Well, just come by and see us.” She hands me a piece of paper with an address and phone number written on it. I take it and hand her the citation for the illegal turn. “Please deliver this to your son. In light of the circumstances, it will likely be dismissed,” I say.

“Okay.” Ms. Braddock’s face registers mild confusion and disappointment.

“I cannot overlook this citation. It is a characteristic of my programming.”

“I understand honey, we all have our job to do.”

Denarius, the passenger of the green Honda, is seated on a gurney, approximately 25.50 feet away from the brightly-lit news desk. He is receiving care from a nurse and a paramedic. A group of 5.00 lawyers and civil rights advocates stand conversing about 8.63 feet away from him.

Denarius suffered moderate to severe burns in the area of the electrodes, as well as negative physical effects from the electric shock. Despite this, he was unwavering in his determination to take part in a special interview conducted by Jake Billington and Rachel Strackmore for WRWX 8 local news. Denarius is receiving medical attention during a break in the broadcast. Jeremy is seated at the news desk with the interviewers. I refused to be interviewed, as active duty police officers in this municipality are not allowed to speak to the media without express written permission from the chief of police.

“How do you feel?” I ask Denarius.

“Shitty,” he says, “Like I had the flu, then got hit by a car.”

“The medical personnel are optimistic that you avoided major organ damage.”

“Barely,” scoffs the paramedic.

“This close,” says the nurse, holding up two fingers with a gap of 0.56 inches between them.

“You’re the one who avoided it dude,” Denarius says. “I owe you a lot. You saved me from that fuckin’ psychopath partner of yours.”

“I believe our partnership has been… terminated,” I say, then continue in a loud, resonant voice. “I was only doing what I was designed and programmed to do: protect and serve the citizens of the municipality.” I turn my head and adopt a heroic upward look, this time for a full 7.00 seconds, with my arms akimbo.

“You’re a trip man,” says Denarius. His body language and expression indicate both laughter and an attempt to conceal pain.

“Take care of yourself.” I say, then walk toward the studio exit.

On the way, one of the civil rights activists breaks away from his circle and approaches me. He hands me a card. It is the size and shape of a credit card, but has no magnetic stripe or information on it. Both sides of the card are divided into three equal bands of red, black and green.

“I wanted to give you this,” the man says. “It’s your membership card.”

“Membership card for what group?” I ask.

“Black people,” he says, with a laugh. “Seriously though, you deserve it. Hey, are you going back to the police station?”

“That is my intent, but I cannot guarantee my arrival.”

“Hmm. We’ve got some people there right now. Taking a beating, but fighting the good fight. I’ll tell them to keep an eye out for you. Thanks again for doing the right thing today. Truly.”

“I was merely-” I begin, but the man begins emitting loud, non-word verbalizations, interrupting me. He smiles, pats me on the shoulder and walks back to the group.


There is a large police detail waiting for me outside the studio. “Kneel down on the ground and place your hands behind your head,” says an amplified voice. I comply. Before my hands cover my rear optics, I register several faces behind the glass of the studio façade, including those of Jeremy, Denarius, Chantelle Braddock, Jake Billington, and Rachel Strackmore. I also observe a studio cameraman filming from an open exit door. Two helicopters circle overhead. A crowd has also gathered behind the police barricades set up around the studio.

A number of armored officers approach me. They immobilize my hands and legs using several plastic restraints and multiple pairs of hand cuffs.

“Alright, let’s zap this piece of shit,” says one of the officers, readying a high powered Taser device. Three other officers also ready their Tasers.

“Wait, hold your fire,” says an amplified voice. My voice recognition circuit makes a preliminary identification of the speaker. The most probable match is Officer Giuseppe Vincenzo, at 84.38%. Officer Vincenzo appears. “Gimme the goddamn keys,” he says to an officer, who complies. “You two ride with me,” he says, pointing to two more nearby officers. “You other guys help me get him in the van.”


“Why did you do it, RobotCop? You broke my fuckin’ heart. You broke all our hearts,” Vincenzo says, from the driver’s seat of the police van. His voice echoes slightly in the rear chamber of the vehicle, where I am restrained.

“You really expect to get a satisfactory answer out of this shitheap?” says Officer Jameson. He resets his grip on the Taser he is aiming at my torso through a window in the vehicle’s internal partition.

“I executed my duties according to my programming, prioritizing public safety above-”

“But did you have to shoot him?” asks Vincenzo. “You took off a finger, and they’re saying he might lose one or two more. Things blew up at HQ, we’ve got people hurt. The press is kicking up a fuckin’ shitstorm. This city’s gonna be torn apart RobotCop, all because of you.”

“I acted according to my programming. I will accept the consequences of my actions.”

“Oh, you will,” says Jameson. We’re gonna burn you out at the steelworks, and the whole department’s gonna line up to piss on your corpse.”

“Michael, please,” says Vincenzo. His tone registers weariness and sorrow. “I’m really disappointed RobotCop. I thought you coulda done a lotta great things for this department–but I guess I was just being naïve.”

I do not verbalize a reply.

A call comes over the vehicle’s radio. “APB. APB. Argyle here. Immediate assistance required at the Municipal Police Station. Attempting shutdown of the robot, but I am encountering–give it up! Stop running!–some resistance. Requesting immediate assistance at the Municipal Station, and if the robot is secured bring it back here to confirm shutdown. Repeat, Argyle here at the MPS, requesting any available officers for assistance executing shutdown of the robot. And the robot itself if secured.”

“Looks like we’re heading back to base,” Vincenzo says. His voice registers uncertainty.

“I hear they’re really cracking skulls out there,” Jameson says.

“Please clarify,” I say.

Jameson looks at my main optics. “I mean they–we are giving those lowlife protesters exactly what they deserve. Beating the shit outta them and making them say thank you at tax time.” Jameson seems unaware of the fact that he is reporting the in-progress crime of excessive force to an active duty police officer.

Jameson turns to Officer Ramirez, who is seated across from me in the rear of the vehicle, in full armor, aiming a Taser at my chestplate. “You ever work crowd control, Ramirez?

“No. Not yet.”

“Students are the best, and feminists. Most of the idiots don’t even wear bras. You can go straight for the hardbodies and toss ‘em around, put a boot in their ass, grab titty all day long. They complain afterward, but you just say it was a chaotic situation, and that they were resisting arrest.”

“Are you sure…”

“Oh what’s he gonna do? He’s headed for the scrap heap. And don’t act so goddamn concerned, the fancy ones have money for bail and lawyers already set aside. Their bourgie asses don’t want anything on their spotless white records, so they let it go if the judge does. And the black and Mexican chicks, well, they’re already used to getting fucked over.”

There is a 12.38-second period of relative silence.

Vincenzo speaks next. “Say RobotCop, can you… can you at least set the record straight? None of us have actually seen the footage.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” says Jameson.

“Actually, I want to hear it too,” says Ramirez.

“Go on,” says Vincenzo.

I relate the pertinent events to the officers.

“A little extreme, RobotCop, firing on a fellow officer,” Vincenzo says, his tone indicating grave concern. “But the part about the shoelaces…”

“Jesus fucking Christ!” exclaims Jameson. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Hey, Michael, look at me,” Vincenzo says, turning in his seat. There is a 2.13 second pause. A jet of water sprays from Vincenzo’s false badge into Jameson’s face.

“That’s it you motherfucker. You can’t take this shit seriously, so I will. Pull over and get the fuck out.”

The two men begin to struggle in the front seat. The vehicle is still in motion, and the disturbance causes it to swerve from side to side.

“Hey, guys, come on!” shouts Ramirez, lowering his Taser and moving toward the partition.

My public safety circuit has already determined that the activity at the municipal headquarters represents a clear and present danger to innocent citizens. My decision engine chooses this moment to act.

“Would you like to hear a song?” I ask, prompted by my humor circuit.


I engage my high-volume noise generator and release a canister of tear gas. I use my head-mounted laser and internal ratcheting mechanism to loosen the restraints on my left arm, which contains my rotary multi-tool. Once I am unrestrained, I make an incision in the vehicle wall and peel it open. The vehicle slows to a halt. I exit through the incision as Vincenzo and Jameson exit through the front doors. I partially close the incision behind me.

The convoy of escorting police vehicles has also stopped. A number of officers emerge from their respective vehicles and aim their guns in my direction, but the proximities of Vincenzo and Jameson to my body prevents them from opening fire. I climb into the driver’s seat and disengage my high-volume noise generator. My front optics recognize Ramirez in the side view mirror, attempting unsuccessfully to exit through the incision. I put my facial optics out of the window and they confirm the earlier analysis, with a small amendment. Officer Ramirez is closer than he previously appeared.

“Please keep your arms, legs and head inside the vehicle.” I say. I begin driving toward the Municipal Police Station.




I’ve lost a lot of blood and I’m becoming very weak. For what felt like an eternity, each step I took sent a jolt of truly nauseating pain through my stomach, then out to my limbs and head, but that sensation is fading away now.

I’m losing touch with the ground. One moment I feel like I’m floating, the next it’s like Earth’s gravity has doubled and the pavement is reaching up to hit me in the face. I can’t hear my own footsteps, just a high-pitched whine and the occasional weak thud of my heartbeat.

I don’t think I have much further to go. I desperately want to see my Tess again, to say goodbye at least, but that farewell has been taken away.

Taken away by Argyle and Mackenzie and the rest of those blue-suited thugs.

I feel something like a sharpening, a last burst of lucidity. Cold air on my face and in my lungs. I’ve got the shutdown key in my hand. If I can drop it down a storm drain, or hide it somewhere good, I can at least give RobotCop a fighting chance.

Or if I can hand it off, give it to someone trustworthy. Then I can find a find a place to lie down, because I’m tired. So tired.

I find myself doubling back. Toward the moving shapes and colors. Shambling, stumbling, but staying upright–upright long enough to find Wei or someone like him. I’m getting closer and can hear the shouts and smell the gas. I’m brushing against human shapes, croaking “Wei,” but I don’t hear anything back.

Something seems to move aside and I’m looking at trees and grass. It looks splendid and bright, sharper than the rest, peaceful and inviting. It’s the little green patch in front of the police station, where I used to eat lunch when I wanted a little quiet and fresh air. Right now it looks like the perfect place to just stretch out and rest…

The world tumbles over and my body hits the pavement. Something heavy is on top of me.

“I don’t know how you got this far in your condition, Rombus,” a voice says. “Maybe you have more grit than I gave you credit for. Look, just cough it up right now and I’ll go get you some help. Do the right thing here and you’ll get to see that cute wife of yours again.”

“Argyle? How do you know Tess?”

“Quit squirming and give me the key. The jig is up.”

I can feel footsteps approaching, the murmur of voices. A blow catches me across the face.

“Back up! All of you. This is official police business! Anyone makes a move and I will shoot.”

Argyle is in his tough cop element, controlling everyone around him. It’s all so exhausting and meaningless, all this meanness, selfishness, misplaced loyalty, injustice… but who would I be if I didn’t fight it to the last? Try to make things a little better for those who won’t be following me anytime soon.

I arch my neck and try to look around. There’s a big ring of people or shapes, but nobody is close enough to hand the key to. I don’t want to just throw it out there–Argyle might start shooting. I put my remaining strength into making a tight fist. Let him pry it out of my cold dead hand.

I feel a bigger rumble, like a vehicle or several. Probably more riot police, more of Argyle’s cronies. The jig really is up. I close my eyes.

There is a commotion. I hear people shouting “Let him through, let him through,” but I don’t know who they are talking about. Then they’re shouting “Keep them out, keep them out.” and there’s a lot of vibration. The weight lifts off me and I’m just lying there.

“You.” Argyle again. “Stand down, that’s an order, an official police order.”

“I’m sorry Louis. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

“One more step and I shoot!”

“There are unarmed people surrounding us. Do not discharge your weapon.”

“You ruined everything you Moth-argggh!”

The rumbling continues, but it feels nice. My eyes are closed and the most peaceful sleep I could ever imagine is coming on. I want to go there. I reach my hand up and open it. Whoever wants the thing can have it. I’m no longer concerned.

Fingers brush my palm and take the key away. “Thank you, Daniel Rombus,” a voice says. There’s something familiar about it. Different and familiar. Suddenly I’m being jostled. There is stinging pain and nausea. I feel my body again, and it is heavy, wet and disgusting.

“Aw come on, I was trying to sleep.”

There are sharp jabs, constrictions and other awful sensations coming in rapid succession. I’m being manipulated like a dummy, feeling worse and worse by the minute. “Just let me rest,” I say, waving an arm. It doesn’t stop, so I just tune it out.

It actually works–the pain drifts further away and my thoughts become hazy. I’m going somewhere warm, and quiet, and bright…

“But your wife Tess is here, and she wants to say hello.”

I can barely hear the words, but they seem important somehow.


“Your wife, Tess, she’s here.”

“Tess? Tess, are you there?” I open my eyes.

I find myself looking at a profoundly alien shape. I can see its head and torso, which are both dark and splattered with blood. Its arms are opened up and strange tools protrude from within. They are moving in the area of my right hip. It takes me a moment to recognize that I’m looking at RobotCop. I look behind him and see what looks like Argyle, sprawled out and struggling weakly in plastic hand restraints. I don’t see anyone else I recognize.

“Where’s my wife? You said she was here,” I say, confused.

RobotCop’s arms stop moving and close back up. His lenses turn to my face, and I feel something like… eye contact. “I may have exceeded the parameters of the annual provision,” he says.

“What? What are you talking about?”

“April fools,” he says. His motors whirr and he lifts me smoothly from the ground.

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Two Poems



His smile alone
Brought about
Another round of reforms








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Film Review – Up in the Air

I have arrived at a conflict of format, and as a result I am bringing home inferior films. Though my local library has a selection of DVDs that is voluminous and fascinating, the vastly superior picture of Blu-Ray discs almost always trumps this consideration. Aaaand so in a moment of weakness I selected Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air and removed it from the shelf. “This is a good movie,” said the librarian at checkout, ominously reminding me of my questionable choice. In addition, when I was handed the Blu-Ray case, it contained not just the disc, but also the sentence “From the Director of Juno.” The die was cast, and there was no turning back.

I thought the movie wasn’t very good. Too much quirkiness shoehorned in. Too much “whipsmart” dialogue. Too many distracting pseudo-cameos from popular comedians. Too much fancy editing. Too much facile sympathizing with the newly-unemployed. Up in the Air felt like a Wes Anderson feature, but a poor man’s version, lacking the masterful moments needed to mitigate all the directorial indulgences.

But that wasn’t what truly bothered me; there was another level to my rejection of the film. Upon reflection, I realized that Up in the Air is a cultural statement, reinforcing one life ideal as superior, while fooling audiences into believing that the dissenting ideal has made a full counter-argument. I felt that the film unfairly – and in my opinion, insidiously – denigrated the solitary lifestyle. Two things in particular stood out to me, the first being that


I: George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham is simply a straw man, upon which the film and its characters foist their “correct” philosophy of living.

This isn’t clear at the beginning of the film, where Bingham is shown as an expert traveler, via lots of snappy jump cuts and rhythmic montages. Yea, here is a man on the move, completely comfortable in constant motion (almost like… a shark). Bingham is handsome, good at what he does, and he always travels light. Amazing, considering that his job is to travel from business to business and fire people as a hired proxy.

It is a deliberate process, but the entire mission of the film is to slowly grind Bingham down, expose weaknesses in his lifestyle and force him to realize that when all is said and done THE SETTLED FAMILY LIFE IS INHERENTLY AND INCONTROVERTABLY SUPERIOR TO A LIFE OF TRANSIENT SOLITUDE.

The film is insistent in how it goes about this. First it puts Bingham’s way of life in peril by means of obsolescence. The bringer of doom in this case is Anna Kendrick’s Natalie Keener – a technocrat fresh out of college who plans to use SINISTER MILLENNIAL TECHNOLOGY TO END THE OLD AND PROPER WAYS OF DOING THINGS. However, when Keener becomes Bingham’s sidekick, she is quickly re-purposed as a naïve cartoon character, a fawn stumbling through the woods, full of raw intelligence and theory, but completely bereft of adult wisdom. This doesn’t mean however that she can’t attempt to become Bingham’s personal judge, jury and conscience. She belittles his genuine interest in aviation, makes him out to be the villain in his exhilarating, city-to-city relationship with Vera Farmiga’s Alex (Bingham’s mirror image – “just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina,” she says), and ultimately pronounces that his entire life is an avoidance mechanism, and an infantile one at that. This despite the fact that Keener’s own monogamous relationship has just abruptly ended, exposing her obsession with finding the ideal (for millennials, “ideal” means a sufficient number of checked boxes – duh) mate at a young age.

Bingham’s sister Hara is the other tool used to chip away at his existence. Despite her own marriage falling apart during the film, she tells Bingham that he barely exists (she would know, right?), and that his absence from the family is corrosive and harmful. She guilts him into performing a number of irksome tasks for the sake of their younger sister Julie’s wedding, including a big one that will be mentioned later on.

Well maybe these people are right! Maybe Bingham is just an asshole who is avoiding the things he should be confronting, and he needs to be pulled back down to earth! After all, the supporting characters are real, and relatable. They have personal and interpersonal struggles, hopes, dreams, joys and disappointments. Not like that Bingham, who just jets from place to place in business class, driving fancy rental cars and staying at nice hotels, between sessions of callously firing hardworking people!

I could have accepted this if director/co-writer Jason Reitman and Co. could have made a convincing case. However, they dropped the ball, perhaps intentionally, in one essential place, and that place is Ryan Bingham’s character. Specifically that


II: Conceived with a woefully underdeveloped philosophy, and set adrift without any deep conviction in his way of living, Bingham is left defenseless against the film’s onslaught of cultural hegemony.

Bingham’s philosophy only goes skin deep. This despite the fact that he actively offers motivational seminars, using the symbol of a backpack to illustrate the heaviness of possessions and emotional commitments – and the lightness that comes with removing them… And that is the extent of the teachings we are privy to.

I’m glad Jason Reitman spent a lot of time on this!

So I recently read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which is a sort of loose, alternate imagining of Buddhist ideals. The book follows the life of a man, Siddhartha, who initially rejects everything on his quest for enlightenment, believing that no one can teach it to him – that he must find it on his own. Our hero Siddhartha does eventually find something resembling enlightenment. He accomplishes this through living his life and reflecting on it, but the final stages of understanding call for a very simple life of semi-solitude. Many of the lessons within the novel contain a certain beauty, relating to the larger volume of wisdom contained within Buddhism, which stress meditation, simplicity, inner peace, acceptance, living in the moment, and so on.

Why wasn’t Ryan Bingham familiar with any of these ideas? What man can live in self-imposed aloneness for many years and not at least borrow one concept from Buddhism? If not Buddhism, than another school of thought? Bingham’s seminars revolved around emptiness, yet he seemed to have no deep thoughts on the matter. Where is the scene in which he gives young Keener his dog-eared copy of Letters to a Young Poet, or The Dharma Bums, or any significant work lauding the solitary, unconstrained lifestyle, and the appreciation of the present moment?

…An Anthony Bourdain DVD!? Anything!?!

Ryan Bingham should have been a happy shramana, passing from place to place, carrying and leaving nothing, severing others from their conditions of serfdom without judgment, buoyed by the freedom of movement and the comfort of solitude and self-love.

Instead, as the other characters assert time and again, Ryan Bingham is not a responsible man making an informed life choice, but a scared boy, running away from responsibility!

HBO’s True Detective also presents a determined loner as a central character. However, Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is an iconoclast, and as such, has a very robust philosophy. The years-long war of ideas between Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart – a man who theoretically values family above all – generates unique motive force, lending vitality to a hackneyed detective-story format. Cohle’s ideals are hardly bulletproof, but he values his (somewhat esoteric) code, and takes the defeats right alongside the victories – without complaint. In one scene, Cohle is chided because guys like him don’t “give things chances” (meaning romantic love). In response, he delivers a statement of purpose for the ages, declaring “That’s because we know what we want, and we don’t mind being alone.”

Bingham never speaks this assertively about his choices. In fact, he’s kind of a punching bag. Where is the scene where he paints togetherness as desperate clinging, motivated by social conformity and the fear of confrontation with the unrealized self? Instead he idealizes a silly travel mile benchmark that rings hollow when he finally achieves it (…in a dreamlike scene with Sam Elliott’s mustache – happily reminiscent of the Orson Welles scene from Ed Wood).

In what passes for an emotional turning point late in the film, Bingham must save his sister’s wedding day by pep-talking Danny McBride’s Jim back into the marriage. Sure, it’s a nifty device to have Bingham play devil’s advocate to his own views, but to watch him unravel the motivation behind the past several years of his life with the weak line “Life’s better with company,” is bad. Watching him seem to take this banal, Hallmark-card advice to heart afterward… is truly painful.

If Bingham was just coasting along before, is his return to personal relationships even worth making a movie about? Why doesn’t he offer any real resistance? Everyone just wears him down until he submits, and the result is like watching a boxing match where one fighter refuses to hit back.

By the end of the film Ryan Bingham has suffered a crisis of confidence and lifestyle. The incessant, insecure nagging of the people around him has convinced him that the conceptual framework behind his way of life was nothing but a house of cards. However, a severe disappointment and the vicissitudes of business conspire to send him back UP IN THE AIR!

This could have been a powerful story if Reitman and Co. hadn’t so blatantly rigged the contest. If Bingham had gone down swinging we might have had a meditation on the fascinating, eternal push and pull between solitude and society, between the sufficient self and the loving family. Instead we have a propaganda piece exalting modern corporate employment (none of the fired react with relief, a desire for independence, or a sense of optimism – they all want to keep their jobs) and monogamous nuclear family love. THESE ARE THE SOCIAL MORES THAT MAKE UP OUR CULTURAL HEGEMONY.

The lessons are clear. People who are alone don’t know what they want. What they really want is romantic love and an eventual family – they just don’t know it yet. Our duty as responsible friends, family and acquaintances is to project our own insecurities and inadequacies onto them, questioning their life decisions and making them feel bad, until they fall into compliance with our cultural norm. ALONENESS BAD. FAMILY GOOD. THE END.

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The Race Files – (N) Bombs Over Black Man / Calling Out a Friend


I don’t want them hip white people coming up to me calling me no nigger or telling me nigger jokes. I don’t like it! I’m just telling you, it’s uncomfortable to me.

Richard Pryor


In early January, my band practiced for the first time since mid-December. There had been a few recent changes and some radio silence, so it felt good to play together again. We talked as well, catching up on holiday happenings and other life developments. A bandmember’s roommate came up in conversation – we’ll call him Absalom – particularly his struggles with mood and intoxicants. “He was saying the N-word in my ear you know, that one night at the bar,” I said.

This was true. The band had gone to a West Side punk bar some weeks prior and encountered Absalom at the establishment, unplanned. He was in truly bad shape, seemingly out on his feet with alcohol and medication. He tottered and leaned, and when he spoke, his thoughts were barely coherent. We formed a sort of casual protectorate around him, trying to head off true disaster. However, this meant we had to converse with him to be polite, which was an awkward proposition. How do you talk to a man receded, on autopilot, his system’s stewards frantically jotting a few dozen pieces of information out of the millions flying past? There was a lot of vague nodding and smiling.

At some point I ended up standing next to Absalom, and he saw fit to cup his mouth with a hand and speak little rap lines directly into my ear, each ending with “niggaaa.” This went on for too long, and I became extremely uncomfortable. I knew that he was not in control, and therefore I could not summon anger at this helpless fool. I became very upset about the situation instead. I left our loose huddle and headed for the bathroom. When I came back I made sure to stand away from Absalom.

I told the band this story at the early January practice. The guitarist – we’ll call her Gertrude – was truly disappointed. She said something like “Shit, I didn’t know my roommate was going around saying nigger.” At this I rolled my eyes and slumped. Gertrude’s blithe words brought up another, closely related issue, one that had been bothering me for a while: Each of my bandmates had at some point said the N-word in front of me, casually, not reading my reactions well enough to see that I did not like it. I had let it go, but perhaps unwisely. Now there was an element of hypocrisy at play, and a call to speak up.

I had a theory. Not that my bandmates are racist and treat dark-skinned people differently, but that on a subconscious level, dropping the N-bomb in front of a black man represents a certain thrill for them, and is an exhibit of a certain cool, mature worldliness they like to feel. They can say “nigger” and “nigga” (these are slightly different words) in front of me because we are all grown-ups, and they have a certain civilized distance from the word in its hurtful, troglodyte form. When they say the N-word, it is from the perspective of scholarly discussion, a sociological study of the way young white people consume rap music and other black culture, and how they relate to race in America. It is also a celebration sometimes, of the unequivocal brilliance of black entertainers and their clever use of the vernacular. For my bandmates, it is a happiness to have a black friend and bandmate that they are cool with, so cool in fact that they can release the N-bomb in front of him and, like smart adults, everyone is cool about it. In essence, saying the N-word is a post-racial activity for them, because they are so beyond the racist origins of the word that they couldn’t possibly pronounce it in a hateful way.

This is a cute idea, but frankly it’s not one that I share, and that they did not consult me on this usage bothered me. When they let the N-word fly, I would roll my eyes or frown or sigh, but I did not sound the alarm. I knew that they did not mean me any particular pain, but in their single-consciousness, they did not see the orchards of strange fruit the word conjured in my mind’s eye. Also, covertly, I had the feeling that there was ulterior motive, however slight or subliminal, and that they were getting a little ego boost and racking up points by being hip enough to break a taboo and get away with it.

I should have sounded the alarm. On a trip to Chicago prior to the practice, I voiced my displeasure, (making many of the same points I’m trying to make here) to a dear friend – we’ll call him Hammurabi – on a lovely, honest nighttime walk through Pilsen. In speaking about it, I realized how upset I was.

I used to say the N-word a lot. For better or worse, it is a cornerstone of the African American comedy and hip hop traditions. I didn’t have many black friends growing up, but when I did, we sort of bonded over the freedom to use the N-word, and delighted in how it was used in the parts of black culture we both enjoyed. We felt like insiders in some ways, closer spiritually to the Chris Rock albums and Jay-Z songs that so many of our classmates of all colors were enjoying. It was also a solidarity move – a tool to gulf the distance between my upbringing – middle class with one black parent who did not originate from America and therefore lacks those cultural imprints – and the people who looked like me.

But I gave up on trying to be “black” at some point in high school really, and just tried to be myself instead. My usage of the N-word dropped to almost nil. It just didn’t seem becoming anymore, especially once I started engineering school at Northwestern. Fast forwarding, I can be almost certain that I did not use the N-word in front of my bandmates, except perhaps for direct quotes from rap songs or Chappelle’s Show. So for them to start using it around me was their initiative, and as I ranted to Hammurabi, I realized that I resented this.

At the end of that early January practice, the bassist – we’ll call him Jethro – left for a snowboarding trip. Gertrude again expressed regret about Absalom’s choice of words. I decided it was time to initiate a confrontation – something I have been working on. “You know, you and Jethro have been saying the N-word in front of me a lot too,” I said, getting things rolling. “In fact you said it tonight.” I made many of the points I have made above, somewhat haltingly and angrily. Regardless, I said the things I felt I needed to say. I felt bad that I was only putting Gertrude in the spotlight when Jethro deserved his own share of my opprobrium. I batted away rationalizations and went at Gertrude though, not backing down. “Remove the straw from your own eye, before you try to remove the rafter from Absalom’s,” I may have said.

It felt good to put my feelings out there, and I don’t regret it. I’ve stood by so many times and reacted to the N-word and (the other) F-word with little more than grimaces and a lowered head. Sure I was calling out a friend, but it’s a start. Gertrude apologized and was genuinely contrite. I still need to call out Jethro.

If I have a conclusion, it’s that words have power, and there is a power struggle that still surrounds those words designed only for hurt and hatred. I am not of the belief that white people (especially young, educated, hip white people) can make their use of the N-word acceptable by means of cultural finesse. I think that’s an egotistical delusion that presumes racial wounds that are more healed than they really are.

Okay, we can all get together and recite rap songs we all like, but some of my most culturally acute (though certainly not “hip” in the blazer-wearing, detached sense) friends and former schoolmates from Ann Arbor and Evanston have found ingenious ways to self-censor and dance around actually speaking the loathsome word (“Jigga” worked in middle school. “My dude” is a good one, as are “Fella” and “Homey.” “My Man,” delivered as the quote from Training Day, delivered with the right inflection is hilarious). I’ve always appreciated this. I believe that it is the proper balance. After all, what use of the hard work of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements if I cannot say “Don’t say that word in front of me,” to white friends and acquaintances, and have an expectation that they will respect that request? How much better if they realize the hazards ahead of time, and find ways for us to relate with respect and consideration?

In that light, to invoke the word casually – sometimes with the sharp, painful “-er” still attached – is the height of laziness, a lack of consideration and an assumption of unearned spectatorship that rankles. As long as white privilege exists in society, there can be no meta-racial dialogue and N-word immunity. If my bandmates had asked me “Is it cool if we say nigga in front of you?” I would have answered no. The answer is still No, with a capital N.

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The Race Files – Marching for Eric Garner and Akai Gurley


A Comment on Comments


After the eventful Mike Brown rally, I was excited to see how much conversation there was in the media about police brutality, over-militarization and the general state of racial injustice that still exists in America. With the decision not to indict Eric Garner’s killers, there was reason for fresh outrage. I also harbored some hope that with Garner, all but the blind would be forced to see the crisis: here was a man seeking only a chance to explain himself, his last moments crystal-clearly as non-violent as Gandhi’s, being killed on a public sidewalk by a police force so out of control with authority and ego that they could not hear the man they were crushing cry out for air.

However, in my perusing, I stumbled across this. As Grand Dragon McManus clearly explains, only Eric Garner is to blame for his own death, as trying to negotiate a peaceful outcome and trying to breathe clearly constitute resisting arrest. The air went out of my balloon as irreversibly as it went out of Garner’s lungs.

Well, I didn’t want one white man’s racist opinion to ruin my mood, but the more I read about the events, the more the shape of the ugly behemoth started to become apparent. I suppose it had always been there, but it was emerging into clarity from the mist now, hideous, threatening and obstinate.

It was the comments that got me. I would read stories about Mike Brown and Eric Garner and scroll helplessly to the comments section, like a moth drawn to flame. This is where the danger lurked. Many of the comments were from the facebook plugin, and featured white, middle-aged men and women saying things that essentially amounted to “Eric Garner got what he deserved.” I was ready for the victim-blaming with Mike Brown. After all, he got into a physical fight with a lone police officer, which in contemporary black life is something like wrestling a bear: If you live to tell the tale, you have been fortunate.

Eric Garner was supposed to be different though. This was (to borrow from Clarence Thomas) a high-tech lynching. High-tech in the sense that although the man was killed in a nearly real-time youtube broadcast, we somehow managed to allow the towering, ephemeral structure of legal, societal, and governmental complexes to stand between what happened that day, and the meaning of what happened that day. For example, there is still no definitive answer on whether the chokehold that precipitated Garner’s death was legal, illegal or “banned.” There is a creeping vagueness surrounding what seems to be very simple evidence, and it is clearly motivated not by simple morals or ethics, but by issues of race and power.

This is why the space alien test is a useful one here. That is, if you showed the tape of Garner’s arrest/killing to space aliens, how would they interpret what takes place in the video? How much context, presented in what way, would be necessary to convince the aliens that it was necessary for Garner to be wrestled down forcefully and and left dying on the sidewalk?

But alas, the commenters. One hallmark of double consciousness is reading subtext into white speech about racial incidents. One of the lasting victories won by the civil rights movement and liberal politics in general is political correctness. People, particularly conservatives, perennially bemoan this concept, but it has undeniable value for the people it protects. There are no effective[1] derogatory words for white people. Really, only minorities and the economically, physically and sexually marginalized stand to suffer from insensitive terminology.

However, the unintended consequence of this progress has been the evolution of hate language. It has become subtle and clever. A recent example is the ascent of the word “thug” to substitute N-word, and the subsequent battle between whites claiming it for continued use, and blacks calling for its retirement.

But beyond simple name-calling, the ideas behind George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton and Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens are still alive and well. The sentiment du jour is an old, depressing one – that poor black males are permanently guilty of some criminality, or else character flaw – one that makes them disdain steady jobs, have children out of wedlock, commit petty crime, and use and sell drugs. Here’s the upsetting part: because of this blanket guilt in the eyes of larger society, any measure of force used to neutralize these “thugs” is instantly justified. This is why the convenience store footage of Mike Brown, and the untaxed cigarette allegations and past arrests of Eric Garner have become such a part of the debate. For many white internet commenters, these pieces of evidence are enough to justify the deaths of both men. Many of the comments surrounding this sentiment has an almost celebratory feel: “There’s one lazy-ass nigger who won’t be picking up his welfare check on the 1st,” is how some of the comments feel like they read – when read through the lens of double-consciousness. Am I being a little defensive? Sure. Paranoid? Definitely not. Some of the messages are subtle in their coding, and some of them or not. Regardless, one can feel the hate behind them like heat off a stove. Most of them say the same thing, with different degrees of venom: Those thugs deserved the deaths they got.

Let’s face it – the police are, generally speaking, the only people who are sanctioned to mete out deadly violence in America’s public and private spaces. As such, one can sometimes get the sense that they are the outlet for many of the violent fantasies that swirl within in the American psyche. This is why such internet hoorahs seem to be going up as the debate continues over Mike Brown, Eric Garner and the countless others.

These hoorahs got me down. Way down. I felt like the enemy had multiplied, to a force far greater than a few wayward institutions. The police may seem like a runaway gang to myself and others, but for many they are still the ideal manifestation of a widespread desire for a well-armed, highly trained peacekeeping force. Their enemy is still a marginalized American who is somehow getting away with something, whether in a literal law-breaking sense, or, more dangerously, in some larger moral sense. The penalty for non-compliance with the judgments exerted on their lives – a steady stream of harassment, suspicion, violence and disrespect – goes up to and includes death. We call ourselves the people and they call themselves the taxpayers. The taxpayers have the police on their side, and they are excited about it.

I’m not excited about it, and the situation makes me feel unsafe in my own skin. Our struggle as the people is to make everyone, including the taxpayers, understand how unfair this selective security is. If Eric Garner’s death doesn’t make a dent in their front, I worry that it might be nearly impossible for us to get our point across.


[1]I would argue that in order to actually be hurtful, slurs and epithets must point to either a historical injury or a current state of injustice. Middle class white people have little to worry about on this front, having enjoyed a run of dominance that has made whiteness synonymous with pride, potential, power and privilege. “White trash,” seems like a candidate at first blush, but really that term is just a way of being hurtful about poverty.



The Absurd Death of Akai Gurley


When I first read about Akai Gurley’s death, I didn’t know how to react. Sure I was angry, but mostly the incident just seemed darkly absurd. Here are a pair of young officers from the NYPD, simply going about their daily business, and they still manage to kill an unarmed black man, by accident!

The affair sounded like some kind of racially-provocative, slapstick prank gone horribly wrong – a candidate for a Social Darwin award. I could only think of it in terms of a screwball scenario, and although it seemed like a terrible idea, I decided to actually write it out. I still think I’m indulging a stupid, bad idea, but I’m posting it regardless. Consider it a “laugh bitterly to keep from crying” kind of thing. I don’t mean to in any way diminish the tragic death of Mr. Gurley, nor to impugn the actors whose names I used. Consider it my way of expressing my shock and sadness at the state of affairs. One can only hope that justice is served in this case, despite its recent poor batting average.


No Verticals


Seth Rogen and James Franco are young NYPD officers. They have been partners for a short time, and as one of their first patrols together, they are tasked with patrolling the Louis H. Pink Houses, a cluster of public housing towers in Brooklyn.

The two are walking a perimeter around the site of the houses. It is early evening. Though alert for developing threats, the two are walking slowly, enjoying the mild weather and having a conversation.

Seth Rogen: So then I said, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you scream or moan can be used against you, blah blah blah. If you cannot afford a contraceptive, one will be provided for you.”

James Franco: Then you put the cuffs on her?

SR: Oh yeah, but then guess what dude, after we were done – and it was glorious, by the way – I couldn’t find the fucking key!

JF: Those things have an emergency release though, right?

SR: Emergency release? They better not [jingles handcuffs on utility belt]. Standard issue. All I did was hot glue some pink fur onto them. Ain’t no emergency release.

JF: [Laughing] No shit dude? Then what did you do?

SR: Well, I had to play it off like I was just messing with her, but all that shit about positive identification and a cavity searches doesn’t play so well when the foreplay was an hour ago, and she’s getting all chilled from the gallons and gallons of love sweat…

They approach a stairwell door and James Franco reaches to open it. Seth Rogen hesitates for a second.

SR: Whoa, I thought we were just doing a perimeter. The sergeant said “No verticals.” I remember it like I remember my first blowjob – “No verticals.”

JF: The first one you gave, or the first one you received?

SR: Haw fucking haw, very funny. Let’s get back to the cruiser and go.

JF: Aw c’mon man! We would be derelict in our duty as police officers if we didn’t secure these stairwells. Who knows what kind of criminal activity could be happening in there.

SR: I dunno…

JF: Dude, the view from the roof is choice. It’ll only take a few minutes, plus, a little exercise never hurts.

SR: [Looks down at his stomach] What’s that supposed to mean!?

Seth Rogen opens his mouth to protest further, but James Franco has already opened the door and slipped through. Seth Rogen lets out a sigh and follows.

The rooftop door opens. James Franco smiles and walks toward the parapet and a grand view of New York. His face is lit by the orange rays of sunset. Seth Rogen takes a few shaky steps forward, before putting his hands on his knees and panting for breath.

SR: [Breathing heavily] Oh holy shit man, I need my inhaler.

JF: Isn’t it magnificent? I wonder if the people who live here even appreciate it. If they did they’d be out here right now. [Pause] I wonder if you even appreciate it, Officer Rogen.

Rogen doesn’t answer, and after a moment James Franco looks back to find him smoking marijuana from a sleek, matte-black pipe.

JF: What are you doing!? We’re on patrol.

SR: Chill out dude. What are you, a cop or something?

JF: [Rolls his eyes] Gimme that. [Shields the lighter with his body takes a hit]

SR: Remember that part in The Matrix where they’re on the roof and Neo dodges the bullets?

JF: [Looking down and puffing] Hell yeah dude. That part was fucking sick. I used to practice that in the mirror in my dorm room and shit. I even dressed like that for a while. I got the long coat and the sunglasses and everything.

SR: Remember the part right after that?

JF: Hmm?

James Franco raises his head to feel the tip of Seth Rogen’s gun resting directly on his right temple. Rogen stands to Franco’s right, his arm fully extended. Rogen is wearing a serious expression and there is a strange light in his eye.

SR: Dodge this.

JF: [Jumping back and coughing on smoke] Jesus fucking Christ dude, don’t fuck around like that! Goddamn it man, you ruined my high and shit.

SR: [Laughing] Chill out dude, the safety was on. If that freaks you out, what are you gonna do when you’re in the bathtub and there’s a shotgun barrel in your mouth – the cold steel hitting you in the teeth and shit.

JF: Did you just sit in a separate room and watch movies, while the rest of us were actually training to become police officers?

The two finish the bowl and walk back to the roof access door. James Franco pulls out his firearm and flashlight and holds them in the distinctive arrangement he learned in training.

SR: Geez man, what are you expecting? You didn’t do that on the way up.

JF: [Staring straight ahead] Well it’s pitch-black in those stairwells, and thanks to you I’m feeling pretty fucking paranoid right now.

Seth Rogen shakes his head and opens the door for James Franco.

The officers descend. Their chatter has been reduced to short, terse exchanges. They pass through the door to the 8th floor landing, and as James Franco rounds the corner to the stairs, his gun goes off. There is a bright flash and the black pistol seems to jump in his hand. There is a distinctively human “urk” sound from the bottom of the flights of stairs, followed by rustling, thumping noises, and what sounds like the low but frantic murmur of a woman’s voice. The cops retreat in a flurry of panic, finally both getting behind the door and closing it.

SR: Jesus fucking shit man! What the hell was that!?

JF: It was an accident! I saw a silhouette!

SR: A silhouette!? What the fuck is this, a burlesque house? The Phantom of the Opera? You saw a person is what you mean, right?

JF: I – I don’t know what I saw… What are you doing?

SR: [Packing the marijuana pipe] I can’t fucking deal with this man. I’m freaking out.

JF: So you’re just going to fucking smoke a bowl right now?

SR: Hey. You’re the one who might have just shot somebody, why don’t you go see if they need help?

JF: …Fuck you dude.

SR: [Exhaling smoke] Fuck me? This isn’t about me. You’re the one who wanted to go creeping around like Max Payne and shit.

JF: [Grabbing bowl and lighter] Gimme that. [Handing cell phone to Rogen] You text Bartlett.

SR: Bartlett?

JF: Yes, fucking Albert Bartlett, our union rep. You met him after commencement with me. He shook our hands and said “If you ever need anything, just get in touch with me.”

SR: …We should really go check on that guy.

JF: What guy? I didn’t see a guy. Just fucking text Bartlett and tell him there was an accident and that we’re going to need the union’s unequivocal backing.

SR: What’s the address here?

JF: I don’t fucking know. Pink House number goddamn infinity plus one. All these shithole rat’s nests look the same to me.

Seth Rogen looks up briefly, surprised to hear his partner talk this way. He is still texting when a woman’s wail rises from the dark stairwell.

SR: [Presses send] Jesus Christ. This is not what I signed up for. Not what I signed up for at all.

James Franco grabs Seth Rogen by the collar. His face is half in shadow.

JF: Listen to me, we’re in this together alright? You got no choice, I got no choice. Whatever happened happened, and there’s no going back now. I know you might feel like we’re buddies Rogen, but you don’t really know me at all, and I can assure you that if you decide to act funny, there’s no telling…

Another wails sounds from the stairwell, louder this time. Seth Rogen knocks aside James Franco’s hands and reverses the collar grip.

SR: There’s more to me than meets the eye too, Franco. I’m very, very stubborn. If I make up my mind to help you, I’ll be with you till the end. But if you decide to go against me, I’ll fight you until the end of the world. Now listen to me. It’s time for us to be public servants, and go down there to assist the person you may have just shot. Got me?

JF: [Taken aback] Yeah – Yeah you’re right. [Smiles slowly] And hey man, we’ll be alright. We’re proud officers of the New York Police Department, remember? The whole precinct’s got our back. The fucking union too. Plus, you saw what happened, it was an accident. This shit’ll blow over without us ever seeing the inside of a courtroom, and before you know it we’ll be fighting the good fight again. In the meantime – paid leave dude. Let’s take a trip to fucking Morocco or something. I hear you can buy hashish in one-gallon tubs over there.

SR: [Quietly] Yeah. Morocco. Hashish.

Seth Rogen releases James Franco’s collar and pulls out his flashlight. He leaves his gun holstered. James Franco holsters his gun and readies his flashlight. Seth Rogen speaks into his radio – which has been chattering away quietly for several minutes – then opens the landing door. The officers round the corner and start downstairs, yelling “Police!” and “NYPD!” as they descend.


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The Race Files – Marching for Mike Brown

The death of Mike Brown at the hands of Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri seemed at first like merely another senseless episode in a long and painful saga – the centuries-old tradition of African-Americans suffering abuse, injury and death at the hands of those entrusted with the authority to protect and serve. However, each new incident of brutality reopens the wounds of inequality in its own uniquely painful way, and the black, eighteen year-old Brown’s shooting by the white, twenty-eight year-old Wilson touched off a national reaction of surprising potency.

With the grand jury deciding whether Wilson would be charged with a crime and sent to trial, citizens weary of unpunished police crimes geared up to make their voices heard. In Providence, Rhode Island, the protest was planned even before the grand jury’s decision was revealed. The protest would begin at 7:00 pm on November 25th, 2014, in front of Central High School.

Each person brings their own perspective – and often their own discrete cause – to protests like these. I’m no different. I am not a dedicated activist by any means, and thus my beliefs are always fluid, changing with new information and new perspectives. Without a true north for my ethical-political compass, my needle was free to swing toward local magnetic forces. I imagine I was not the only one who found the November 25th protest to be a unique opportunity for deep and sustained consideration of the beliefs one holds as a guide for their behavior and existence in civic society.

Previously, I had argued (civilly) with progressive friends about Mike Brown’s role as martyr. I found it strange that Brown had catalyzed such a long series of vehement protests when his final actions remained under such a cloud. The surveillance footage of him bullying the convenience store clerk was ugly, and the idea that he had fought with Police Officer Wilson over his gun threw an uncomfortable vagueness over the whole affair.

But not for me necessarily. I believe that Darren Wilson should go to jail for as long as Brown’s parents want him to stay there. But half-playing devil’s advocate, I argued that in order to convince white taxpayers of any necessity for change, progressives had to “pick the right horse.” By this, I meant that it would be best to rally against an act of police brutality so barbaric and unforgivable – and perpetrated on a victim so blameless – that it would have the same impact on media-consuming America as that fateful footage of the dogs and fire hoses from the Jim Crow south. After all, by picking this flawed kid as our icon, were we not opening ourselves up for the kind of victim-blaming that – although loathsome – is still incredibly effective in justifying rape, murder, mortgage fraud and any other unjust exertion of power that those in power wish to exert?

So as we arrived at Central High and began chanting for Mike Brown, I still struggled to make him into an icon that I could aggrandize. Yes, in the end Brown was killed for literally walking down the street in a way that a white police officer did not like, but the narrative was too fraught for me to really internalize. I wanted a bigger, purer idea. Police brutality in general seemed like a good one, and in that I had plenty of sign-carrying compatriots. But to what end? It’s no secret that many, many minorities generally mistrust and dislike police. However, for gigantic swaths of America – the silent majority who live in quiet, well-kept suburbs and watch Law & Order and CBS crime procedurals – police represent a pacifying force. Indeed they are a highly-trained, well-armed buffer between family-raising, middle and upper-class America and every terrifying aspect of black and Latino culture that has ever been magnified to great, ghastly proportions by the news and other media forces.

How could we possibly make them understand that something rotten is going on, and that immediate reforms are a matter of life and death? After all, minority relations at the point of a gun are actually working out pretty damn well for police departments around the country. Police enjoy such an esteemed position in the justice system that they essentially have the power to self-forgive when someone goes too far. If we lived in a country where police cars were being blown up by IEDs and gang members in poor neighborhoods were making execution videos and burying police in mass graves (it sometimes seems like must be the case, given the heavy armaments and equipment some departments have procured), metropolitan police departments might have to rethink their tactics. But since these violent reprisals are almost non-existent, the police don’t actually need to rethink anything at all.

As we marched, I wondered what would happen if I carried a sign bearing only the goateed, battered countenance of Eric Matthew Frein. Would I be arrested or physically attacked by police? Would my fellow protestors find this image too extreme and ask me to put it away?

Over-militarization of police departments is also a salient issue for protest. After all, this phenomenon belies the notion that even middle-class white people like to preserve, of police being neighborly, approachable human presences.

Picture if you will a young mother strolling downtown with her child, both of them eating ice cream and saying a quick hello to Officer Friendly, whose wife is in the mother’s yoga class. The officer is a common sight on sunny days at the neighborhood park, and sometimes the mother sees him shopping at the local food co-op after his shift. But last week the federal government sent some surplus to the police department, and when the mother and son walk past Officer Friendly this time, he is in full body armor, an automatic rifle slung across his back and a darkened riot visor covering his face. The officer says something, but it is too muffled by the helmet to be intelligible. He goes to shake the child’s hand, but the hard gauntlets pinch the little guy’s fingers and the tyke drops his ice cream and begin to cry. The mother looks close to tears as well, whether of fear or rage it is hard to say. The officer, embarrassed, pretends to take an urgent call and strides, clanking loudly, back to his Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle.

This did not seem like a well-represented topic at the march. Its absence made me realize that my preoccupation with American injustice primarily lies with foreign policy. After all, who will march for those slain in Haditha? Who will chant for those burned by white phosphorus and buried under rubble at Fallujah? Will Al Sharpton travel to Yemen stand at a press conference with the bereaved, weeping grandmothers of Al-Majala?

We should also face the uncomfortable truth here: while the militarization of the police may seem ominous to some, it also represents a potentially huge PR victory for the police. Why? Because mainstream America LOVES THE TROOPS. Even erstwhile liberal voices like Jon Stewart will call out idiotic foreign policy in one moment, but give great big slobbery kisses to our brave fighting men and women in the next. Not all of us stood and applauded at the conclusion of the 2014 State of the Union Address, but like it or not, the United States Armed Forces are enjoying a run of adulation and infallibility that rivals that of Pope Francis himself. Those shining ideals of honor, sacrifice, duty, loyalty and unswerving dedication to the mission have been co-opted for decades by SWAT teams and increasingly by regular police. What matter that their enemies are not Islamic insurgents, but rather marginalized Americans? The combat, military narrative is extremely compelling to the CBS silent majority, and even surreal moments of wartime confusion do little to make average people question just how our domestic society is being incrementally remade in the era of the Global War on Terror.

On the other hand, I felt a strange contrarianism rising within myself as we left Central High and took to the streets. These are the people I agree with, right? Then why did I feel so strange about chanting their slogans, and why was I so self-conscious about whether I appeared enthusiastic enough? There were a number of attractive young women in the crowd, and I found myself eying them as I would at a bar or concert. Was I there for the right reasons? I believe in progressive causes quite strongly, but I have a fierce individualistic streak when it comes to how my reasoning informs my stance. I often find myself very reluctant to agree with people – even when I agree with them. As mentioned before, I often play devil’s advocate, ostensibly to foster a well-rounded discussion, but mostly because I find it uncomfortable to be in simple agreement over complex issues.

And yet, as the march wound through the southern neighborhoods of Providence, which are predominantly black and Latino, I realized why people throw in with revolutions. It’s not about beliefs or reform or adventure any of those other things they tell you. It’s about walking down the middle of the street, surrounded by like-minded individuals, and watching The People throw open their doors and peek from their windows as your procession approaches. “Out of your homes and into the streets” became the chant as The People emerged onto their porches and threw aside their window curtains – pajama-ed, wild-haired and house-shoed, some shy as deer, others pointing cell phone cameras, a few jubilantly raising fists and chanting along with us as we swept past. I couldn’t help but smile as the cause coalesced. These are the very people who are most vulnerable to police harassment and violence, and here we were, marching to where they sleep, to say that we care, and that we will raise our voices for their sake, to try to rein in the vicious, blue-uniformed gangs terrorizing their neighborhoods.

Eventually we wound back to the Providence Public Safety Complex (which includes the police station). One of the protest’s organizers began to speak, holding in his hand a jumbled and somewhat worn pair of American flags. A thrill ran up my leg as I realized that we had approached a dirty, sexy taboo. It took a while to get the flag lit, but once it began to burn, the nylon stench that was too noxious not to have some symbolism – perhaps a comment on the artificiality of the fabric of America, a weave mass-produced and artificial, made without care or patience, and unimpressive to a close eye or touch. I stood entranced as the flags burned, and as I did, a photographer from the Providence Journal apparently snapped my picture, ending my presidential candidacy before it could begin.

While we chanted in the parking lot outside the police station, a lone fireman silhouetted in an office window raised his fist in a gesture of solidarity. We responded, and in a moment of dramatic irony, the cross-armed skeptics in the adjacent office thought that we were waving and cheering at them.

One of my very good friends often expresses doubts about the efficacy of protest marches. He’s the one who always tells me about these things, but afterward he’ll grumble about how it felt good, but won’t accomplish any real result. When I left him at this November 25th march however, he seemed unusually impressed. Why? It probably had something to do with us blocking off I-95.

After protestors had fallen all over the parking lot – in order to have other protestors trace their chalk outlines – one of the protest organizers began to speak through a bullhorn. “We don’t have a lot of time – I don’t want to make this a long speech,” he prefaced.

“They left Mike Brown laying in the street for four-and-a-half hours! We’ve got plenty of time,” shouted a voice from the crowd.

“Let’s shut down the highway!” a third voice shouted. A visible wave went through the crowd and people began to move. The idea was accepted almost instantly (or had already been planned). I-95 was literally around the corner, and by the time my companions and I got in sight of the mighty interstate, people were already jumping the barrier and rushing down the slope for the asphalt.

My companions and I decided to join them. It was an impressive sight – the cars stretched back, held still as if in a photograph, headlights bright around the curve all the way up to Massachusetts. Later comments on the Providence Journal’s story would call us fools for inconveniencing, and therefore alienating everyone on that stretch of highway that day. But were we really after their hearts and minds? I think we just wanted to let them know that we were angry, and that Mike Brown’s funeral would not be a quiet one. We also wanted to make our local police understand that they were indeed to answer in some small way for police crimes nationwide – just as they proudly partake of the fraternal benefits, they must also face the consequences of their compatriots’ crimes.

Some insist that protest marches and rallies are just inchoate rabbles, lacking any specific plans, goals or even well-articulated viewpoints. Perhaps once upon a time charismatic, dedicated leaders would gather their brain trusts and carefully craft mission statements and key demands, but for whatever reason this is more difficult now. I could see that our protest had some moderate voices, some extremists, perhaps a few out for web and social media traffic, and quiet supporters like myself. I wonder though, what would I say, if I was selected out of the crowd to meet with the chief of police? How would I articulate reasons for the deep mistrust and hatred that so many of us feel for the boys in blue – and offer ways to ameliorate it?

1. The Death of De-escalation (or The Inevitably Fatal Indoctrination of Cop Ego)

One dangerous aspect of the police psyche is this operating principle: no offense given in a confrontation can ever be forgiven. By this I mean that when a police officer is involved in a disagreement with a member of the public, there is a certain low threshold beyond which the situation can only ratchet upward, like a pair of handcuffs, toward punishment, violence and death. If a police officer feels somehow insulted or takes contact that they deem to be “assault,” the inevitable result will be a citation, arrest, or possibly a beating or killing. No self-respecting member of a police force is disposed toward letting things go. The police training and patriarchal institutional mindset simply do not allow it. This is how so many situations go wrong, almost always for the citizen (or non-citizen, as the case may be). While I don’t have hard evidence, I am going to posit that this is a racialized phenomenon as well. There is already a deep mistrust between dark-skinned Americans and the police, and thus any notion of forgiveness or reconciliation is essentially destroyed in the moment that the officer and minority recognize each other as natural enemies.

Perhaps you learned about conflict resolution in elementary school. I did. I remember the idea was that the conflicting parties, with the help of a mediator, should try to relax, explain their feelings and motivations, and walk away from the situation unscathed. Ideally, the near combatants would leave with a better understanding of, and perhaps a new respect for the person they recently felt aggression toward. Modern policing is not structured this way. Instead there are tiers of non-lethal and lethal force, rules of engagement, and slippery, subjective definitions of self-defense.

Police should be taught to resolve conflicts peacefully. Rather than imposing strict, yet subjective interpretations of the law during confrontations (“The suspect then made a furtive movement. When we attempted to take him into custody, he resisted arrest.”) police should be trained to swallow their egos when it has the strong possibility of precluding violence or other negative consequences. There should be a measure of forgiveness inherent in their dealings, as the desperate behavior of people caught in confrontations with police often stem from instinctual panic – a last flailing as they see their freedom literally being taken away from them. Apparently the Henry Louis Gates arrest didn’t teach the nation’s police much of anything, and there will be no Beer Summit for Mike Brown.

However, promoting de-escalation is difficult in a society where confrontational, unforgiving policing is often synonymous with revenue. Many localities make big bucks from citations, court fees, trial time, paperwork and the like. The more citations and arrests a police officer can rack up, the more paid overtime they can earn, and the more money flows into the municipal coffers. Thus there is little incentive in letting the small fish go. Legal minds often warn that the justice system is becoming clogged with petty, small offenses, but this doomsaying means little to those who are on the clock during misdemeanor proceedings.

2. The Deleterious Elevation of Loyalty (or The Virtue Who Concealed His Own Hollowness)

Police and military personnel tend to talk a lot about loyalty. It is not just an ideal, but THE IDEAL – that one must always look after their brothers and sisters in uniform, above all else. This is an understandable notion, but often a poisonous one, as even moderately difficult situations can render loyalty and morality mutually exclusive. I would argue that loyalty has absolutely no value as a free-standing concept. We could talk about all kinds of reprehensible men and women – Nazi generals, Khmer Rouge leaders, Warlords, Manson acolytes – and at the end of listing their crimes we could sigh and say “Well, you can’t say they weren’t loyal.” For some reason the virtue of loyalty has a powerful psychological appeal, likely because we like the idea of people being loyal to us. The concept becomes intermingled with trust, and occupies a special place in our hearts, especially when the larger world seems cold, dishonest and threatening.

However, loyalty in the blue uniform often functions in exactly the same way it would for a street or biker gang. It’s a brotherhood, and any moral or ethical code can be quickly pushed aside if one of the brothers or sisters is in trouble. This is why the “Stop Snitchin’” rule is just as real and in effect in America’s police stations as it is in America’s high crime neighborhoods. In allowing their intradepartmental loyalty to supplant the other, less immediate loyalty – to protect and serve the public, all of the public – police departments across the country have slid toward becoming little more than well-armed, highly trained gangs, accountable only to themselves, and operating with a wildly harmful “It’s us against the criminals” mentality.

So in essence, a minority or other marginalized American who finds themselves wronged by an officer should not and cannot expect the officer’s partner, or any virtuous member of the police department to tip the scales toward justice. This essential conflict has been explored in great depth in film and television, and in most depictions, unless the conflicted cop is a particularly naïve, fresh-faced rookie, the code of loyalty will not be broken. If for some reason it is, the results is usually some sort of shootout or other deadly confrontation. Art imitates life.

This mutation of loyalty obviously needs to be addressed, but it is a damn near intractable problem. How does one enforce an outside code of ethics on a deadly organization that has been given a sanction to do whatever they deem necessary to keep order?


The Providence Police struck a quick deal with those sitting on the freeway. If everyone left quickly, there would be no arrests. However, some stubborn protestors refused to completely clear the highway and there were arrests. The sight of those men being wrestled down on the blacktop soured the mood of the protest in a way that I can barely express. One young black man had his head mashed between the freeway and his own skateboard. It felt as if blood had been sprayed into the air. Back up on the street in front of the Safety Complex, a young man allegedly pasted a flyer onto an unmarked police car. He was pointed out (perhaps by the beefy man with a conservative haircut who my friend fingered as an undercover cop) and there was a melee as the police moved to arrest him. He was cuffed, but many in the protest tried very hard to keep him from being arrested. He was placed in the very car he had allegedly defaced, but an alleged accomplice opened the other rear door, and the young man allegedly sprang out, running like a hare for freedom, borne on the wishes of the crowd that surged behind him.

In the end the young man was recaptured. It was a microcosm of everything. The police were inflexible, and thus angered the crowd. This caused an escalation, which the police were unwilling to de-escalate (the flyer was easily removed, and the alleged paster could have easily been forgiven). I left shortly after, somewhat impressed, but also very confused. Like Occupy Wall Street, the fast food protests, the Walmart strikes and any other progressive mass action in recent memory, the Mike Brown protest seemed to solve a section of a much larger puzzle. The image on the box is one which few of us can escape – a portrait of rich, powerful, greedy white men – in public office and atop giant corporations – making every important decision in America, and hoarding all of the money, power, resources and land for themselves, to be shared only with those who agree with them and do their bidding. Meanwhile, the marginalized – the working poor, the unemployed poor, the dark-skinned, The artistically inclined, the environmentally conscious, the LGBT, the black teenager lying dead in the street – stay marginalized, held in states of quiet struggle or fed to the system for their defiance by the militarized pawns of the ruling elite.

I felt very alone as I walked away from the sympathetic sea of protestors. “They can’t arrest us all” had been the rallying cry on I-95, but as I walked past the police station – admiring the visual impact of the chalk outlines – I realized that I was very vulnerable. This is an essential fact of life as a dark-skinned person in America – balancing the fear of muggers with the fear of an encounter with the police, adjusting the fear ratio based on the time of day and the neighborhood. You learn to wear your hood a certain way, not pulled all the way forward. You learn to walk with your hands outside of your pockets, to project a certain body language of nonchalance and hopefully, innocence…

Had I committed a crime? I knew in my heart that I hadn’t, but watching that flag burn had left me feeling like I had crossed an invisible line. And encounters with police are all about invisible lines, after all – hidden traps and thresholds, silent signals and unconscious mistakes. I knew that if they pulled up in a cruiser, I would be all alone, incapable of winning any argument over my actions or non-actions. My middle class background, hoity-toity education and spotless record would all be blown away. My tongue would turn to wood, my nerves would make me look furtive and weird, and I would become another suspect to them, one whose skin resonates directly with the police socio-racial lobe – the part of the brain that controls the trigger finger. They would have impunity to take me away, and if I “resisted,” that action could very well ruin my career and finances, all because of an ill-timed but completely human desire to preserve my freedom and dignity.

Or the confrontation could end in my shooting. The officer would be suspended with pay then return to a desk job until things blew over. Meanwhile, I would be dead, like Mike Brown, or Amadou Diallo, or Sean Bell, or Eric Garner, or Kendrec McDade, or Tyisha Miller, or Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., or Manuel Loggins Jr., or Akai Gurley, or Ousmane Zongo, or John Crawford III, or Derek Williams, or Allen Daniel Hicks Sr., or Fred Hampton, or Timothy Stansbury Jr., or Orlando Barlow, or Aaron Campbell, or Victor Steen, or Rekia Boyd, or Ronald Madison, or James Brissette, or Henry Glover, or Oscar Grant…

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Sympathy for Maggots and The Armchair Jain

I.     Sympathy for Maggots

My sublet roommates and I had a maggot infestation in our kitchen. It was nobody’s fault really! Just an unfortunate design failure! Let me explain. The trash can residing in the kitchen at the time of move-in was rather cheaply designed swing-top contraption in which a section of the peaked lid swings on an axis to allow garbage in. Unfortunately, there was perpetual gap in the lid that also let flies in – licentious beasts on a one-track mission to propagate the family line. They buzzed and rutted and laid eggs in the glistening meat-remains – which were in abundance due to an orgiastic early-summer spree of deck-top cookouts.

Enter the maggots. They emerged one day and began to wriggle across the floor, bound for some dark, moist promised land hard-coded into their genetic imagination. Some died in the ambiguous clear-brown liquid that oozes perpetually from under the refrigerator. Others seemed attracted to the light that would slant in from the clear plastic deck door. I was unhappy with the situation, and spearheaded an effort to get a trash can with a lid that closes all the way. After my reimbursement request was rebuffed by the landlord, I struck Craigslist gold, finding a bargain on a cylindrical, foot-activated can in elegant stainless steel.

The woman who sold me the trash can was somewhat chatty. Sometimes during a Craigslist transaction, a sympathetic spark can pass between the parties, and the semi-anonymous figment of your inbox with whom you have been exchanging terse logistical dispatches with takes form as a living, breathing person who might, just maybe, perhaps in perfect, or at least more open world– become a friend.

The woman with the trash can was not quite a kindred soul, but she was friendly and a plain dealer and wanted to talk and I didn’t mind listening. I confessed to our little problem, and we agreed that it was unfortunate and disgusting. However, the woman ventured something unexpected, along the lines of “Well you look at them, and they are just…” I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it expressed mercy for these little wriggling things, so helpless and under-formed and oblivious. I want to be clear that we were not finding the maggots “cute” or endearing in any other way. They’re disgusting! But this woman had found some measure of empathy for these larvae, brought into the world so blind and hideous and vulnerable. And though I did not respond to her sentiment in an enthusiastic manner, it resonated with me in a real way.

Over the previous week I had picked up maggots and tossed them vigorously out onto the sun-baked deck. I had swept them into a dustpan and flushed them down the toilet. At one point I tried to smother them in their breeding ground by emptying a full load of vacuum cleaner dust on top of them. When then crawled up through the choking grey stratum, I sprayed them with bleach-based household cleaner and watched them shrink and curl away. They were the enemy, and I did not feel guilty about my tactics. Still, some part of me wished the maggots hadn’t been born in my kitchen, so that I wouldn’t have to wage this callous war against them. Why should these writhing carrion-cleaners be brought into this world only to be despised and destroyed? This was why the Craigslist trash can woman’s mercy touched me. For a moment the two of us agreed, in unspoken terms, that it is a valid thing, even a natural thing, to feel sympathy for maggots.


II.     The Armchair Jain

The whole maggot affair was small chronicle in a much longer, private arc – my moral struggle with insecticide. How should I, as a thoughtful 21st century man, approach the practice of killing bugs? What kinds of bugs should I kill or not kill, and what is the basis for this favoritism? What are the rules of engagement? Are these rules hard and fast, or should there be flexibility based on my mood and other factors? Indeed, this preoccupation may seem silly, but the debate represents a certain ethical microcosm. The way I adhere or don’t adhere to my principles tells me a good deal about my character as a whole.

As I kid, I indulged in all the usual cruelties. I cooked ants with magnifying glasses. I pulled the long legs off many a daddy long legs. I stomped earwigs with extreme prejudice. My family swatted flies at the campsite and congratulated each other on deft kills. I clapped bugs and sprayed them with toxic chemicals and drowned them and maimed them. My mother had a long war with the slugs that would eat her garden, and my brother and I used to watch her salt the ones she cornered, fascinated with the contortions they would perform in their final slimeful agonies. One of my most vivid memories of Jamaica were the hours my brother and I spent finding caterpillars on the Soursop tree, incapacitating them slightly, and dropping them at the entrance of a nest of vicious ants for our sadistic Roman-coliseum viewing pleasure.

I am not proud of many of my past actions in this arena. Over the years, I have found myself less and less willing to use force against insects, arachnids and other “pests” and “vermin”. Here are a few thoughts on the matter:

  • One sympathy I have for bugs is that their lives are somehow judged invalid and expendable because of their appearance, or because of some critical yuck factor they have been yoked with. “Ew” or “It’s just a bug”, or “It could bite me” become valid arguments for crushing a living thing. I’ve looked into the eyes of strangers and seen looks of disgust in reaction to my aspect before – but I didn’t have to worry about them swatting me. What if we killed every creature that made us feel vaguely threatened or uncomfortable? Huh, what’s that? Another drone strike in Pakistan?
  • And yes, let’s take this idea one step further. The rhetoric of dehumanization, used in too many horrific campaigns to name, often equates humans to insects. To wit:

“In Rwanda they referred to Tutsis as cockroaches,” explains Omaar. “They were not human beings. This is very important to understand, [there are] very close parallels to what happened in Hitler’s Germany. [They said,] ‘Don’t worry, you’re not killing humans like you. You are killing some vermin that belongs under your shoe. You’re killing cockroaches.'”

It’s a pretty big jump from killing bugs to massacring humans, but a callous, often cultivated indifference to the lives of certain beings is where it starts, and I don’t want to share in those attitudes.

  • I’ve adopted a sort of one-sided dialogue for escorting insects out. Yes, I talk to them. It’s mostly “C’mon buddy, I’m trying to help you out here.” I’ve scooped daddy long legs out of the shower before I turn on the water. I done the old cup-and-card containment to ferry centipedes and spiders to the front door. It makes me feel benevolent, this little narrative. But to be honest though, this mercy of mine is often a practical matter. Squashing larger insects results in carcasses and goo puddles that are gross and sometimes difficult to clean up. To be fair, I am not without my moments of caprice. Sometimes I lose patience. “Sorry guy, not your lucky day.” I might say, as I watch a silverfish disappear down the sink. Other times however, I find that I have injured the insect in my oft-hurried attempts to get it out of my dwelling. I usually feel guilty about this for at least a short time, as I watch the poor bug limp away into a dim and uncertain future.
  • I have actually become somewhat fond of spiders. They are just fascinating creatures, with amazing capabilities. The web-spinning, the mathematically pleasing number of legs and eyes, the jumping, parachuting, the fishing, the catching of clumsy insects and the subsequent mummification. Do I want them crawling all over me? No. But I respect what spiders do, and so I try very hard to avoid harming them. It bothers me quite a bit when people kill spiders out of irrational fright. Sorry ladies but this means you! Do you know people who get bitten by spiders? I venture that this barely happens in cities and towns above a certain size. Yet people of both sexes will jump and shriek and swing shoes and magazines at the first sight of a harmless arachnid. I usually try to jump in front of the deathblow, and usher the creature outside.
  • Flies and Mosquitos are usually on my kill list, but I am finding it harder and harder to lower the hammer. Flies can be annoying as all hell, especially if they are landing unapologetically in your food, or on your person. But have you looked closely at a fly lately, beyond the ick factor? Just their compound eyes alone are bizarre technological masterpieces. And the way they are always rubbing down their mouthparts seems fastidious, and somehow worthy of consideration. Mosquitos are a funny one, because I often kill the bloodsucking females, but leave the feather-antennaed males alone. Does this make me a misogynist? While they bear diseases and leave itchy irritating bites, it seems cruel to escalate with the old pinch-trick – In which one can over-engorge the mosquito until it is overfull, or, as the rumor goes, it explodes.
  • Killing a bee should be an arrestable offense, as bees are facing significant levels of endangerment. Without them, agriculture will become a mechanized, macabre affair involving Monsanto, micro-drones, human fertilizer, slavery, and long gun battles with sentient crops.
  • As I write this, I am in a vacation home with people that I don’t know terribly well. They do not share my qualms about insecticide. Moths have been swatted, ants crushed, and spiders assaulted. These acts have even taken place outside on the deck, which seems horrifically unfair, as this is the insects’ turf. I’ve been spiriting a few bugs out of harm’s way – today I did a spider and an earwig-looking thing. “I’m getting you out of here before those barbarians spot you” went the dialogue. It’s an uphill battle, but one worth fighting.

So there you have it. This one of my stranger posts, and a bona fide navel-gazer, but I’ll say this. If one takes a certain attitude toward the beauty of life, it is impossible not to delight in the joy of the interconnected ecosystem of the earth. Even insects possess some small measure of animate spark – a vitality and sense of purpose that is wondrous and precious. Somewhere, right now, children are running through summer fields in pursuit of vibrant butterflies and winking fireflies. However, in less idyllic places, someone is putting out their cigarette on a beetle, or grinding a crane fly into the porch with their heel. The wanton killing of the many frail insects that surround us – simply because of their “creepiness” – has become inconsiderate and cruel in my eyes. Life is life, mysterious, inscrutable, nigh-impossible to recreate, so why not preserve it – live and let live? To see the beetle breached and oozing, the moth broken in its own dust, the critically injured ant struggling to crawl before the final blow – these sights hurt me every time. And so I welcome this softening in my own action, this forbearance toward household bugs. In social situations, there is often a moment of panic and calculation when a bug is discovered. Often I am not fast or courageous enough, so when someone else shouts “Wait wait, don’t kill it!” it makes me happy, and I feel good to know that I am not the only armchair Jain.

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