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Violence on the mind


The manhunt following the tragedy in Boston ended Friday night better than it might have. Now we want answers.

Why did these two young men – one of them little more than a boy, really – want to do this? Was the target of their hatred the marathon? Boston? The United States? Did they get advice, help, inspiration from anyone else, in the US or elsewhere?

Is this part of a larger plan to kill Americans, to instill fear, to exact revenge for US actions and policies in other parts of the world? Or were the bombings on Boylston Street individual, isolated acts, more akin to those of Timothy McVeigh than those of the 9/11 hijackers?

Equally important to the answers to those questions, though, is our response. What will we do with the knowledge we gain?

Days before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's capture, there were calls from some quarters for tougher security at events like the Boston Marathon. But what could we do to protect participants and the public in an event like that? Screen all runners and bystanders? Put every backpack and handbag through a metal detector? Hold marathons in remote, secure places, accessible only to the runners, watched only on video?

A marathon is a joyful, exceptionally public event – joyful for both runners and observers. And running – even in an intense form like a marathon – is joyful by its very nature: free, innocent, almost childlike at heart. Start trying to protect it from every conceivable threat, and we turn it into something very, very different.

And we have let the bombers win.

The bombers win if we erode basic rights in the name of national security. (It is a relief that the Obama administration will prosecute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the civilian justice system, not treat him as an enemy combatant.)

The bombers also win if, in our anger and fear, we start profiling classes of immigrant Americans.

They win if we turn our backs on immigrants who need assistance and who want to live and work here. And yet already some politicians, debating immigration reform in Washington, are bringing the Boston Marathon bombings into the discussion.

And shouldn't we talk, at last, about the relationship between our culture of violence and the violence that takes place in this country? I was struck by an article on New York magazine's website last week, "The Roar of Young Male Rage."

Youth and gender and anger don't predict whether someone will act violently, says writer Lisa Miller, but testosterone is an "aggression drug," and "young men have more of it than older ones."

And, writes Miller, citing therapist and author Michael Gurian: "The willingness of men to imagine themselves as warriors is rooted in a protective impulse that can get distorted through culture and especially trauma...."

This is certainly not to say that movies, television programs, or video games led to the Boston Marathon tragedy. But doesn't it matter what kind of culture our young people are raised in?

Culture, the broad, societal culture and its values, can nurture for both good and ill. Doesn't it matter whether our culture nurtures, celebrates, and encourages violence? Can we deny that it does?

State of corruption

You have to laugh:

A Sienna College poll has found that New Yorkers don't trust state government. Shocking, yes?

That finding came on the heels of a Quinnipiac poll that found that A) New Yorkers are fed up with the corruption in Albany, and B) we want Andrew Cuomo to clean it up.

And just what do we want the governor to do about it?

OK; that's a bit flip. He can do some things, and once again, he's promising action. He wants tougher penalties for politicians found guilty of corruption ("make it even more against the law to be a crook than it already is," as the Times' Jim Dwyer wryly put it). He has created an "independent enforcement unit at the state Board of Elections to investigate and prosecute election law violations." He wants to let New Yorkers change their political-party registration and vote in their new party's primary in the same year.

The impetus for all this, of course, is the latest Albany scandal: the arrest of State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat, who is accused of trying to bribe his way onto the Republican ballot for New York City mayor. Also ensnared in the case: a member of the state Assembly, two New York City councilmembers, and a suburban mayor.

Good government groups have been outraged about state government for years. They've pushed for campaign finance reform. They've pushed for an end to the redistricting collusion that lets the major parties divide up the state's election districts like Halloween candy. That little example of bipartisan love has let Democrats keep control of the Assembly and Republicans keep control of the Senate. (That control is slipping away, though, and the state's demographics guarantee that at some point, the Dems will control everything. Then, Katy bar the door, as my father used to say).

Enact term limits; pay legislators more so we attract "better" people to politics; stiffen the penalties for corruption; lower the threshold for what counts as a bribe; make it easier for candidates to get on the ballot; end the practice of party cross endorsements: there's no end to suggestions for cleaning up Albany.

Unquestionably, the problem is serious. Earlier this month, the New York Times, citing studies by the New York Public Interest Research Group, passed along this tidbit: "Over the past seven years, 31 state officeholders have been convicted of a crime, censured, or otherwise accused of wrongdoing."

Other media have been quoting a NYPIRG finding that since 2007, it's been likelier that members of the New York State Senate would be arrested than lose a general election.

When I talked with Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle recently, he didn't deny that there's a problem. But he defended most of his colleagues.

Given the comments of US Attorney Preet Bharara, who called Albany corruption "rampant" as he announced charges in the Smith case, "you'd think that outside the lobby of the Capitol are these seedy-looking characters with paper sacks," Morelle said, "and it's simply not true."

Most legislators, "99 percent, or maybe 98 percent, are really honorable people," Morelle said. "It's not a glamorous job. You spend a lot of time on the road, staying in crappy hotels."

And, he said, many of the suggestions that pop up after scandals in Albany wouldn't prevent a thing. In fact, campaign-finance reform that would provide $7 in public dollars for every dollar of private donations not only would not have stopped Malcolm Smith, Morelle said, but Smith would have taken advantage of it.

"Some things, there is just no deterrent for," said Morelle. "The Speaker [Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver] said to me the other day, 'What do people want us to do, give a psychological test to people?' After all, they were elected."

Government offices and politics supply plenty of temptation. And, said Morelle: "If your design is to take money, or to leverage people into giving you money to put in your pocket... like Willie Sutton said about the banks, that's where the money is."

So do we just have to tamp down our ire – and our expectations? "It's like saying we want to get rid of drunk drivers," Morelle said, "and we do...."

That can't mean that we abandon the push for reform, though. Bribery isn't the only atrocity taking place in Albany. The blatant rigging of election districts, the influence of money in politics, campaign regulations and party practices that make it hard for newcomers to run for office, the virtual impossibility of third-party candidates to get elected, decisions made behind closed doors: all of these have undermined the public's trust in government – at all levels.

And one of the worst effects of the Albany scandals is that they further undermine that trust.

Every scandal is followed by state officials' pronouncements that they'll push for reform. But the scandals recede, and very little changes. Andrew Cuomo went into office promising that he would see to it that an independent commission, not politicians, would draw election districts. He has kicked that off into the future.

If we could see some major reforms in other areas of politics, the news that yet another Albany pol was under investigation for yet another act of stupidity might not do so much damage.

Meanwhile, I don't know what to do but laugh.

When we get answers to our questions about the Boston bombings, what will we do with that knowledge?