When Libraries Aren’t Safe

For many bookish kids, myself included, libraries were a fabulous place of discovery during our childhoods. I loved going to the local library and browsing among the bookshelves, looking for a Homer Price book or an Encyclopedia Brown book or a Hardy Boys book that I hadn’t read yet–being careful always to be quiet as a church mouse to avoid being shushed by the librarian. For me, and I think many others, public libraries were a gateway to a lifetime of reading and all of the pleasure and intellectual growth it has brought.

That’s why it is so sad to read about the problem at the main library in Boulder, Colorado. The library had to close before Christmas because there was a spike in people using the library bathrooms to smoke methamphetamine, exposing staff members to meth residue and fumes. Then, when the city conducted tests of the air ducts and ventilation system at the library, it found unacceptably high levels of methamphetamine, leading the city to keep the library closed to conduct further tests of surfaces in the library. You can read the City of Boulder press release about the unfortunate situation here. According to a more recent report from a Colorado TV station, testing showed some contamination in certain seating areas, causing library officials to remove the furniture in those areas and further delaying the reopening of the library.

Anyone who has been in a library branch in an urban area recently has probably noticed that those library branches attract homeless people who are looking for a place to stay warm, particularly during the winter months. Library restrooms often end up being used by those patrons as personal hygiene centers. Some libraries are also dealing with issues of homeless people camping out on library grounds. The homeless issue is a tough one, and no one thinks people should freeze during periods of frigid temperatures. But surely everyone can agree that libraries shouldn’t have to put up with people smoking meth in their restrooms. Libraries aren’t de facto public shelters or drug treatment facilities, and librarians shouldn’t be put in the position of policing library grounds and bathrooms to identify drug use or roust out other people who are engaging in illicit activities.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to whether libraries will be permitted to serve their intended function–as places of learning and wonder that allow members of the community to enjoy reading different books for free–without having to shoulder additional responsibilities as a result of other societal issues. Meth use in library bathrooms interferes with that intended function, and will have regrettable consequences. How many parents in Boulder are going to allow their kids to go to the main library now, to browse through the shelves and find a book that looks interesting? That’s very sad.

Robot Cops

There’s an interesting debate underway in San Francisco about the use of robots to assist the police. The police want to use seven remote-controlled robots in certain situations, such as to check out and if necessary defuse apparent bombs, or to provide video surveillance of a standoff situation. The issue that has raised concern is whether, and if so under what circumstances, the police could use the robots to apply deadly force.

The police have said that they don’t have plans to create “killer robots” carrying guns, but they don’t want to rule out the possibility of using the robots to carry explosives in extreme situations, where there is imminent risk of loss of life to police officers or the public that outweighs any other options. Critics say that those standards are too vague, and that allowing the use of robots in deadly force situations further militarizes the police and creates unacceptable risks for poor and minority communities, where there is already significant distrust of police activities.

Last night the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which had voted last week to allow the police to use the robots in limited deadly force situations, reversed course and banned such use of the robots for now. The Supervisors referred the issue to a committee for further study, and some Supervisors said that they wanted to give the public additional time to understand and react to the robot issue. The robot issue surfaced in the first place because of a recently enacted California law that requires police departments to inventory and seek approval for the use of military-grade equipment in law enforcement activities–a process that obviously contemplates public engagement with policing issues.

American police departments clearly have grown increasingly militarized over the past few decades, and the use of technology in police activities–whether it is helicopters, or drones, or armored vehicles, or advanced SWAT team equipment–is common. Most Americans, presumably, would have no objection to using robots to neutralize bombs, so that human lives are not put at risk. But using robots to apply lethal force raises different issues. Would using robotic delivery systems, thereby removing human beings from direct and immediate involvement, make the police more likely to use deadly force in the first place? Will police departments be tempted to increase their use of what they may consider to be cool new toys? And, more fundamentally, is it a good idea for police to use robots as a kind of technological interface with the public at large, increasing the perception that the police are divorced from the communities they serve and taking us farther and farther away from the cop on the beat of days gone by, who was part of the neighborhood?

These are tough issues that deserve some careful thought. I think the San Francisco supervisors are wise to take their time and let the public weigh in before deploying a force of “killer robots.”

The Disturbed Among Us

Recently I was walking home from work when I was approached by a street person. We have some “regulars” in our part of downtown, and over time you get to know them, but this person was unfamiliar. I immediately noticed that she had that kind of distracted, fidgety appearance that suggested that she was disturbed, or drugged up, or perhaps both. In any case, I kept my distance, and listened as she said she was a TikTok celebrity and asked for money to make a new video. (At least, I think that’s what she said.) When I demurred, she started fumbling in her pockets and dropped an unopened soda can, which started spraying all over. At that point the light changed, and I crossed the street and was on my way.

It was one random encounter on one early evening, and nothing came of it, but it got me to thinking all the same. If you live or work in a downtown area in America, you’ve no doubt had similar experiences. We’ve lived with street people in our midst since the U.S. adopted a deinstitutionalization policy decades ago, but lately it seems that a new layer of concern has been added to the interaction between the housed and the homeless. What used to be predictable panhandling has become more uncertain, and many of us have heard or read of encounters that have turned violent. The son of a coworker, for example, was attacked and stabbed with a screwdriver by a deranged street person in Denver. I’m not familiar with any such incidents in Columbus, where the homeless population seems to be smaller than in many other cities, but you don’t need to hear many such stories to be on your guard.

It’s difficult to get precise data about crime committed by the homeless, although there seems to be a consensus that it is underreported, because many such crimes are committed against other homeless people who don’t want to involve the authorities. Data from Los Angeles indicates that the substantial homeless population in that city accounts for about eight percent of the total amount of crime in that city, but 60 percent of that crime is classified as violent crime. Also concerning is the fact that many of the homeless among us are people who formerly were incarcerated; according to a recent study, people released from prison are 10 times more likely to become homeless than the general population. Drug use among the homeless population just adds to the volatility.

The issue of homelessness obviously is a complicated one, but the failure to address it has produced a culture in urban America where a street person seeking money might become suddenly aggressive, and a random encounter with a total stranger might become violent. That’s obviously not good for our cities, for people who live and work in them, or for the homeless people themselves.

The Life Span Of A Russian Oligarch

Being a Russian oligarch these days seems like a pretty dangerous job. In fact, lately the oligarchs–generally defined as anyone who is deeply involved in running a major industry in Russia, while accumulating vast amounts of wealth–are dropping like flies.

Vox reported last month that at least 15 Russian businessmen have died this year, often under mysterious circumstances. The causes of death include murder-suicides, hangings, shootings, stabbings, and of course falling out of a hospital window. The combination of deaths is so remarkable that one tabloid ran an article this week with the lurid headlineBLOOD FEUD How ruthless Russian oligarchs are ‘MURDERING each other’ in bloody battle for power in Putin’s ‘viper’s nest’‘.” (Speaking of vipers, fatal snake bites seem to be the one cause of death Russian oligarchs have avoided this year, although one oligarch was identified as dying during a shamanic ritual that involved “toad poison.”) The tabloid article includes head shots of the dead oligarchs, with icons identifying their causes of death.

So, what’s going on? Are Russian oligarchs just having a bad run of deadly health problems and sudden suicidal impulses? Based on a long record of suspicious deaths since Vladimir Putin took over, experts generally discount that possibility and say that the official reports of what happened should be taken with a grain of salt. And the sheer number of curious fatal falls–off cliffs, from boats, down flights of stairs, and out of hospital windows–sure seems like an improbable coincidence. But no one really knows what is going on, and whether it is a combination of actual suicides, poorly disguised political assassinations, or that vicious “viper’s pit” of killings within the small circle of greedy oligarchs fighting for every last ruble. And the impact of Russian struggles in its invasion of Ukraine, and the impact of resulting sanctions on the Russian economy, just add to the uncertainty.

The only thing we know for sure is that this is not a good time to be a Russian oligarch. If you’re going to be in Russia any time soon, keep your eye out for falling bodies if you happen to be walking past any hospitals or other tall buildings.

Those Annoying “Buy Your House” Texts

If you own a house–or if you formerly owned a house–you undoubtedly get them: those annoying but also unnerving texts from total strangers who address you by name and want to engage you in a conversation about selling your home. The texts are annoying because they clutter your text inbox and confirm that no form of communication is truly safe from unwanted solicitation efforts. They are unnerving because they show that, somewhere out in the internet vastness, telemarketers and potential scammers are trying to cobble together bits of information to link your name, your cell phone number, and your property holdings.

So, are these texts part of some fraudulent scheme, or are they legitimate efforts to buy a house? Apparently some house-buying texts fall into one category, and some fall into the other. The scam potential of such texts seems pretty obvious: the scammers want to knit together as much personal information about you as possible, which could be used for identity theft purposes, and hope that if they engage you in a text conversation you will divulge some personal financial information that they use to take your money. It’s hard to believe that anyone would fall for such a scam–but then who would have thought that people would fall for the Prince from Nigeria scams, either?

The article linked above, and a local report from a Columbus TV station, say that some of the texts are “legitimate” in the sense that they are from people who do in fact want to buy your house–or for that matter any house. They are flippers looking to purchase properties at bargain prices, perhaps make a few cosmetic changes, and then sell them. The texts you receive from the flippers are the modern equivalent of “cold calls,” with texts being used because no one owns land line phones any more or answers their cell phone when a strange number shows up. It’s an intrusive way to do business, which is just another reason why those texts are best ignored and immediately deleted without responding. If you want to sell your house, a local realtor who has been part of the community for years and who can give you an informed sense of fair market value is a better and safer option.

One final consideration is that, with interest rates going up and house prices going down, the “legitimate” texts about whether you are willing to sell your house are likely to stop, because no rapacious house-flipper is going to want to buy properties, spend money to fix them up, and then try to sell them at a profit in a down market. That means that, in the future, most if not all of those texts will be from fraudsters looking to cheat you in some way or another. It’s just another reason to be wary of unsolicited communications.

Literally Robbing Themselves Blind

War often exposes otherwise unknown things about one of the combatants. That has been the case in Russia, where the invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing fighting have exposed a huge problem with outright theft of the supplies that were supposed to be used to clothe and equip Russian soldiers. The theft problem is so acute that the Russian men who have recently been conscripted to fight have to buy their own uniforms, boots, and other gear–and what they are given by Russian authorities is often obsolete. “The army has nothing,” one of the conscripts said in a recorded call.

The BBC has an interesting story about the official records concerning supplies stolen from the Russian army and the staggering scale of the thievery. One member of the Russian Duma complained that 1.5 million sets of soldier kit, consisting of basic items like uniform pants, shirts, and flak jackets, summer and winter boots, helmets, and other essentials, have vanished even though, for years, Russia has been allocating huge sums toward its military supply budget. One popular item for theft is the night-vision goggles that soldiers obviously need for operations under cover of darkness–which means the Russians are literally stealing themselves blind.

The BBC report suggests that most of the stealing is being done by members of the Russian army, so much so that theft from military stores seemingly is a way of life. Commissary officers are adept at pilfering goods, creating fake stock lists, invoices, or reports to cover their tracks, and writing off perfectly good supplies as damaged by mold or poor storage conditions. Russian army records of the thieves whose schemes have been discovered reveal that the larceny ranges from spur-of-the-moment decisions to boost available items to systematic schemes to take goods in such quantities that trucks are needed. In addition to clothing and protective equipment, the light-fingered Russians are filching food and petrol–which may be why so many Russian vehicles in the Ukraine seem to be running out of gas.

The prevalence and vast scale of the crime makes it likely that the official records of theft barely scratch the surface of what has really happened in Russian supply depots. And the extent of the theft likely would not have been detected but for Vladimir Putin’s ill-conceived decision to invade Ukraine, which revealed that the cupboard was bare when it was supposed to be fully stocked. You have to think that the invasion of Ukraine not only was opposed by the civilized world outside of Russia, but also by the supply officers and soldiers in the Russian army whose criminal schemes suddenly were at risk of exposure. Supply officers who have been stealing for years make for good pacifists.

Still Digging For Jimmy

This summer marks the 47th anniversary of the abrupt disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the former head of the Teamsters Union. On July 30, 1975, Hoffa was last seen in a restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit; he was legally declared dead in 1982. Hoffa is one of the most famous missing persons in American history, right up there with Amelia Earhart. TIME magazine, at least, places Hoffa with Earhart on the list of “top 10 famous disappearances.”

In the 47 years since Hoffa vanished, the FBI has spent a lot of time, and done a lot of digging, looking for him. An interesting article this summer by a current Harvard Law School professor recounts the high points of the extensive, long-running, and so far totally fruitless search for Hoffa’s presumed remains. As the article explains, over the last 47 years a rogue’s gallery of criminals, with the kind of nicknames you would expect if you’ve watched The Sopranos, have claimed knowledge of what happened to Hoffa and where he can be found. Their stories have differed, placing Hoffa’s remains in Florida swamps, in the concrete under Giants Stadium, in a Georgia golf course, and at various locations around Michigan. The FBI has investigated the claims, often to the point of digging, and nothing is found. The most recent, nine-month-long investigation focused on a former landfill under the Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City, New Jersey, and the FBI reported just last month that the effort came up empty.

Based on the record, it’s probably only a matter of time before another colorful character claims to have been involved in Hoffa’s disappearance, identifies a new spot, and the FBI gets out the shovels and does more digging for Jimmy. But after 47 years, it seems like the trail must be awfully cold. Whoever actually knew what happened to Jimmy Hoffa hasn’t talked about it, and unless we get a verifiable deathbed confession, we’ll probably never know. But at the FBI, the shovels are still at the ready, just in case.

The Reverse Starbucks Effect

Some years ago I wrote about the so-called “Starbucks Effect.” discovered when economists had crunched some numbers and found that houses located near a Starbucks coffee shop appreciated more than houses far away from the nearest Starbucks. The open question was whether the finding was the result of causation–i.e., that the decision to locate a Starbucks caused house prices to climb–or simple correlation.

Now, perhaps, we’ll get to see if there is a reverse “Starbucks Effect,” because the ubiquitous coffee chain is closing 16 stores–one in Washington, D.C., one in central Philadelphia, six in the Seattle area, six in the Los Angeles area, and two in Portland–because of personal safety concerns reported by employees. Many of the safety concerns, set forth in “incident reports” Starbucks employees submitted to the company, apparently involve drug use issues and encounters with customers and the general public.

A news article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the closure of the Philadelphia location reports that the Starbucks and other businesses in the Center City District had persistent problems with drug users in bathrooms, and that Starbucks has changed its policies to empower store employees to close restrooms and even entire stores in response to safety concerns. The Inquirer article noted that the drug use problem at the Philadelphia Starbucks was so significant that the store installed blue light bulbs in the bathroom, which are supposed to deter intravenous drug use by making veins less visible, In addition, the article reported that the store was the source of a number of “calls for service” to the Philadelphia police, primarily for individuals fighting.

It’s sad to think that coffee shops have become such unsafe spaces in some cities, but you can’t blame Starbucks for closing locations where there is a pattern of safety concerns that raise obvious liability risks. And you also have to wonder how people in the neighborhoods where the Starbucks stores are closing feel about the decision. What kind of message does it send if your area is deemed too unsafe for a Starbucks?

In Dangerous Times

Earlier this week Dave Chappelle was ending a show at the Hollywood Bowl when he was assaulted by a man who came up on stage and tried to tackle the comedian. The attacker, who was armed with a fake gun that contained a knife blade, was subdued by security as Chappelle finished his show. Ironically, during the show Chappelle had apparently just been joking about having increased security in the wake of the Will Smith-Chris Rock-Oscars incident, and Chris Rock–who was at Chappelle’s performance–came on stage and jokingly asked Chappelle whether the assailant was Will Smith.

We can tip our caps to Chappelle and Rock for their faithful adherence to “the show must go on” tradition in show business, but the attacks on performers obviously aren’t funny. The Hollywood Reporter has published a piece headlined “Nobody’s Safe: Dave Chappelle Attack Raises Concerns For Performers” that addresses the incidents that reflect the increasing risks involved in performing in public. The concern is that the invisible but previously respected barrier between the stage and the audience has been breached, and that performers now have to be wary of the possibility of being physically confronted by some lunatic every time they go before the public to do a show. While that is a risk for any live performer, the risk is greater for a comedian, who is up on stage, alone, and might just make a joke that some unbalanced person in the audience finds personally provoking. And the Chappelle incident, coming on the heels of the Will Smith-Chris Rock assault, raises heightened concern that copycats might be lurking out there, ready to charge the stage at any comedy venue.

Chappelle, who is a real pro, issued a statement after the attack saying that he “refuses to allow last night’s incident to overshadow the magic of this historic moment.”  I hope that turns out to be true, and that performers everywhere continue to perform before live audiences, albeit with enhanced security and greater attention to their safety. There is a certain magic in seeing a live performance that simply can’t be replicated in a Netflix special, and I would hate to see that lost. But if these kinds of incidents continue, I wouldn’t be surprised if some performers decide that live acts just aren’t worth it. In dangerous times like these, who could criticize them for being unwilling to take that risk?

Root Causes Can’t Be Ignored

All big cities have some kind of homelessness problem. San Francisco’s is worse than most. To address it, San Francisco adopted a “housing first” policy and dedicated millions of dollars of the city’s $1.1 billion budget for the homeless to implementing it. The concept was to tackle the issue by getting homeless people off the streets and putting them into “single room occupancy” (SRO) hotels purchased by the city for that purpose.

A recent San Francisco Chronicle investigative report took a look at the program and concluded that the results have been “disastrous”–as the headline above indicates. The Chronicle article is behind a pay wall, but an article in the City Journal summarized the gist of the Chronicle article as follows:

“The horrors of SROs were put on display to the public in a recent San Francisco Chronicle feature. The story tells of people living in buildings with collapsing ceilings, toxic mold, vermin, noxious odors, constant noise, broken appliances, and unchecked violence. It also notes that at least 166 people fatally overdosed in these hotels in 2020 and 2021. This official number, however, is suspicious for being so low. San Francisco’s medical examiner reported at least 1,300 overdose deaths citywide in the last two years, most commonly for illicit fentanyl combined with other drugs.”

The City Journal article indicates that life in San Francisco’s SRO hotels is a nightmare. The article quotes one former resident:

“’There needs to be a better vetting process,’ says 25-year-old Darren Mark Stallcup, who until recently lived in an SRO. ‘The city was moving everyone in; people who were sketchy, violent. They were fentanyl addicts, just out of jail, or in gangs. People were breaking my door down. I would wake up having to throw punches.’”

The “housing first” policy may be good hearted, but it evidently isn’t working because housing is only part of the problem. Mentally ill people need special care; drug addicts need treatment to kick the habit. And putting violent people, mentally ill people, current users, and recovering addicts into the same facilities is only going to create a toxic stew and dangerous environment that won’t help anyone. The City Journal article quotes another “long-time SRO resident,” who explains: “If you’re a woman, your life will be a living hell. No one cares. High functioning people regress. Some want to stay sober, but they can’t. Eventually they pick up a pipe again because almost everyone around them is using.”

Homelessness is probably the most complicated social problem we face in America these days, encompassing a host of challenging issues like drug use, mental illness, spousal abuse, education, affordable housing, and employment, among others. San Francisco’s experiment with its “housing first” policy indicates that providing housing, by itself, isn’t going to solve the problem. If you don’t tackle the root causes, you’re not going to make any progress.

Harvey And His Duds

When I was a kid, Milk Duds were my favorite movie theater candy, without a doubt. I would buy a box and then, as the movie played, put those little chocolate-covered caramel nuggets on my tongue one by one and let them dissolve slowly until nothing remained. With proper discipline and the intestinal fortitude to resist chewing, you could make a box of Milk Duds last for the whole film, in contrast to people who bought a candy bar that was long since gone by the time the credits rolled.

At some point, though, I outgrew the Milk Duds. However, Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul who has been convicted of crimes in New York and is awaiting trial on charges of rape and sexual assault in California, apparently still can’t resist them. Weinstein got into trouble with his jailers in November because he was found to be in possession of smuggled contraband Milk Duds. Jail officials in Los Angeles believe that the candy was passed to Weinstein as he met with his attorneys to prepare for an upcoming trial.

Weinstein initially claimed that he had brought the Milk Duds with him when he came from New York to California in July, which would mean he made a single box of Milk Duds last from July to November–which is a heck of a lot longer than the length of one movie. Jail officials reject that claim because Weinstein was thoroughly searched at that time and found to be Dud-free. It also seems to be directly contrary to Weinstein’s reported history of egregious self-indulgence and doing whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted.

I imagine the manufacturer of Milk Duds isn’t exactly thrilled that this classic movie candy is now associated with Harvey Weinstein, I know I’ll never look at a box of Milk Duds in the same way again.

A Toe-Curling Phishing Attempt

The other day I got a phishing email at work. No surprise there, everyone gets phishing email as a matter of course. But this email was especially insulting because it was clearly age-related, and suggested that the sender was specifically trying to target those of us who have been around the block a few times.

The phishing email purportedly advertised a “New Toenail Clipper.” That’s an immediate ageist tell: the youngsters out there, still possessed of the flexibility that accompanies the dew of youth, probably can trim their toenails with their teeth. A toenail clipper solicitation can only be aimed at the geriatric brigade.

And the email went on to make the intended target audience even more obvious, using phrases like “Do you have pain when trying to clip your nails because of arthritis or other problems?” and noting, in bold face type, that the advertised clipper would make trimming toenails “easy for everyone.” The clipper had an “ergonomic design,” the email said, that would make it “EASY and SIMPLE to clip toenails without painful pressure.” And the clipper even had a built-in light to help those with dim, failing eyesight make sure that they were cropping off a nail and not lopping off a toe itself. And to top it all off, the email offered the opportunity to get this miracle of modern toenail engineering for 57% off.

Why do I know this was a phishing attempt? Because I’ve never done any shopping that would elicit a toenail trimmer solicitation, no brand was mentioned, the email came from an email address that included the word “phamgiang,” and the big inducement was to get me to click on an unknown link. Other than those obvious clues, it was a pretty sophisticated phishing attempt, complete with color photos and without the misspellings you typically see in phishing efforts. The sender didn’t know, however, that this particular recipient would be offended, rather than enticed, by a blatant age-targeted email.

Still, it’s a good lesson: when it comes to phishing, you need to be on your toes.

The Scourge Of Shoplifting

One of the uglier recent developments in America is the rise in shoplifting. Many of us have seen videos of incredibly brazen shoplifting and incidents where gangs have smashed into retail establishments and looted their stores. Those videos are symptomatic of a much broader rise in shoplifting that a spokesperson for a retail trade association called “out of control.”

The statistics are shocking. A CVS spokesperson says that the drugstore chain has experienced a 300 percent increase in theft since the COVID pandemic began. A Rite Aid store in Manhattan closed its doors after experiencing $200,000 in shoplifting losses in December and January alone, and New York City grocers are hiring increased security to prevent thefts of steaks and other costly items. And 69 percent of retailers report a significant increase in “organized retail crime.”

Why are we seeing a spike in shoplifting? Retailers think that the lack of a police presence and the failure to seriously prosecute shoplifting are contributing factors and are advocating for a greater police presence and sterner prosecution efforts, but they also contend that the ability to easily sell goods online is helping to spur the surge. Organized shoplifting gangs who want to sell stolen goods don’t need to find a “fence” anymore–they can use on-line marketplaces to sell the boosted items. That’s why some retail groups are pushing for enhanced federal regulation of on-line sellers.

The surge in shoplifting should be of concern to all of us. Brick-and-mortar stores have historically been important parts of their communities and the sources of many jobs–especially starter jobs. Every retail store that is forced to close due to shoplifting reduces employment opportunities. And I don’t want to see an America where the only shopping is on-line shopping, or retail stores become prison-like settings with armed guards and all products kept behind lock and key. Unfortunately, if we don’t do something to stop the spike in theft, that may be where we’re heading.

The Fistfight At The Golden Corral

We’ve all heard about the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, when the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday had a deadly confrontation with the Clanton-McLaury gang in Tombstone, Arizona. This week, the news has brought us reports of the Fistfight at the Golden Corral.

It happened last Friday at the Golden Corral restaurant in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. A massive brawl involving about 40 people occurred and reportedly began when the Golden Corral buffet was running out of steak and somebody cut in line. An astonishing video of the incident, which you can find at the above link, shows a turbulent and dangerous scene in which customers are throwing haymakers, swinging and then hurling wooden high chairs and other large items at each other, knocking around the restaurant furniture and colliding with overhead light fixtures while employees try to stop the madness and someone standing nearby repeatedly says “Oh shit”!

Have we really reached the point where Americans will get into mass fistfights at generic suburban restaurants about people cutting in line to get a piece of steak? It’s disturbing to think that general tensions have risen and people are on edge to the point where the slightest provocation could cause them to start hurling wooden chairs at complete strangers in a riotous melee. It makes you wonder just how many people are walking around with a hair trigger, ready to burst.

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been made into multiple movies. I doubt that the Fistfight at the Golden Corral will be memorialized on anything other than cellphone video–but that’s bad enough.

Rail Yards And Front Porches

There’s a serious, new crime problem out in Los Angeles: As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, thieves have been breaking into cargo trains in the Los Angeles rail yard, stealing packages being shipped, breaking them open, and running off with the contents–leaving the railyard littered with shredded boxes, wrapping, and other packaging debris. The Times article describes the situation as a “wave of rail car thievery that officials say has been on the rise in recent months.” The Union Pacific railroad is reporting a significant increase in thefts and has brought in drones and additional security and is appealing to local law enforcement for help in policing the rail yards.

You may not have seen the reports on the rail thefts, but you might have unknowingly experienced them if you didn’t get a delivery of a product that you ordered on line. All of those packages that have been taken from rail cars and opened were being shipped to someone, and now they won’t be reaching their intended destination. Many goods being shipped in our internet economy are transported by rail, and if they are intercepted and stolen by thieves they aren’t going to make it to your front porch.

Why are the rail yard thefts spiking? The Times article quotes officials who say that the Los Angeles rail yard is a bottleneck, who note that a large homeless encampment is nearby, and who blame Union Pacific for not employing more security in the area. Others think there are deeper causes. The City Journal, in an article on the rail thefts, contends: “These recent rail thefts are an example of what happens when a progressive prosecutor—in this case Los Angeles County district attorney George Gascón—virtually eliminates nonviolent property crimes from a state’s penal codes by declining to prosecute such cases.” The City Journal article reports that Union Pacific has reached out to DA Gascon to ask him to reconsider his prosecution policies, and Gascon’s office has responded that it is working with law enforcement on the issue and says it has filed charges in some cases while not pursuing others due to lack of evidence.

Some people dismiss property theft crimes as minor and inconsequential and argue that police and prosecutors should focus on violent crimes rather than worrying about stolen and opened delivery packages. But not all of the packages being stolen and opened contain harmless consumer goods; among the items that have been stolen from the cargo trains are shipments of handguns and shotguns. And if criminals conclude that there is no risk in committing crimes, they have every incentive to expand their criminal activity. If a culture of lawlessness develops, it isn’t going to stop at the rail yard fence line.

Equally important, the security of every link in our fragile national supply chain is important: our ever-growing internet economy can’t work if thieves can brazenly steal packages destined for consumers from trains–or trucks, or other delivery methods–without fear of being caught or prosecuted. If Amazon and the countless other internet retailers can’t safely ship packages, the consequences in terms of jobs and economic activity could be immense. And if you are one of the many people who used internet shopping as a lifeline during the shutdown periods in the COVID pandemic, you should be concerned about that lifeline being snipped by unprosecuted crime.