Will he, wont he?

Published : Dec 05, 2008 00:00 IST

This undated photo obtained from a MySpace webpage shows Daniel Cowart, 20, holding a weapon. He and Paul Schlesselman, 18, were arrested in Tennessee in October for threatening to kill Barack Obama.-MYSPACE/HANDOUT/AFP

This undated photo obtained from a MySpace webpage shows Daniel Cowart, 20, holding a weapon. He and Paul Schlesselman, 18, were arrested in Tennessee in October for threatening to kill Barack Obama.-MYSPACE/HANDOUT/AFP

In dealing with crime among the African-American population, Obama will have to walk the tight rope for the first few months.

IT is more than a week since Barack Obama achieved what to an African American has been a mere dream. As John McCain delivered what was billed the Concession Speech and thereafter Obama matched him word for word in eloquence from Grant Park, Chicago, for a while the power of the English language seemed to convey the whole significance of the historic moment. Yet, I believed it fell a notch short, because the symbolism of the moment could hardly be captured even by the bes t of rhetoric.

The Obama magic has cast a spell on many of us normally not given to sentiment or emotion and are thousands of miles away from where all this happened. The euphoria is, of course, dying down, and the question everywhere is how Obama will deliver on the promises he made during his hectic and imaginative campaigning. Most of us who desperately want him to succeed are overawed by the burden of expectations he carries. What about the man himself. He has displayed unique poise and determination, which generate all-round confidence.

As one who dabbles in criminal justice and has a modicum of knowledge of the complexities that mark the United States scene, I know that Obama faces formidable challenges, which are too much even for the worlds most powerful Chief Executive. Past U.S. Presidents, especially Bill Clinton, had worried on the crime problem. They spent a substantial amount of time trying to improve policing in the big cities, and went further to fund police manpower accretions and actionable criminal justice research.

Cities such as New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Los Angeles benefited greatly from this.

One does not know what Obamas ideas are, but one does know that he is greatly concerned with the conditions that contribute to crime, particularly among the black community in big cities. This is notwithstanding the fact that according to figures put out by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), violent crime in the country has shown a decline over the past few years. But then, who trusts statistics? The recent murder of an Indian software professional in Seattle and the earlier killing of two Indian students in Louisiana University, all three from Andhra Pradesh, convey an impression to the contrary to most people in India.

Interracial violence in the country is not uncommon. Obamas election could accentuate it in parts of the mid-West where white supremacists are known to be active. Of greater concern should be intra-racial crime. It is generally known that an average black person in America is more likely to be hurt criminally by another black person. What about black crime per se?

According to the BJS, for 100,000 U.S. residents, the number of blacks in jail during 2007 was 815, a 45 per cent increase since 1990. The corresponding figures for whites and Hispanics were 170 and 276 respectively. Also BJS figures for 1990 to 2005 show that 94 per cent of black victims of homicides were killed by persons from within the community itself. Significant is the fact that drug turf war accounted for more black victims than others of any other group.

The first question to the first black President is whether he will make at least a modest attempt to alter the image of his blighted community as one that is steeped in crime, both as aggressor and as victim. Obama will be damned if he does not take any positive steps towards reducing crime among blacks. At the same time, if he evinces far too much interest he could be accused of being sectarian. He will, therefore, have to walk the tight rope for the first few months.

Significantly, in the months before the presidential election, he had commended the Harlem Childrens Zone (HCZ), a unique community-building project that has nearly transformed parts of Harlem in New York City from a drug-infested, poverty-stricken hell-hole into an area that has operationalised successfully education, health and other welfare projects for people in nearly 100 blocks. The project was conceived in 1970 as an anti-truancy programme and has been sustained by good private sector sponsorship. During his campaign, Obama vowed to extend the HCZ to at least 20 cities nationwide and was determined to find the money for it. Of course, this was when the current financial crisis had not set in. Propping up programmes such as the HCZ is the best he can do to tackle urban poverty, illiteracy and crime.

With regard to the police itself, I am not sanguine whether he can do enough to alter the average blacks fear and distrust of the white policeman. Despite attempts to push up the African-American numbers, representation for the black community in major police departments has remained modest. Obamas arrival could indirectly persuade more blacks to join the police. This is just a hope, and nothing more. It will happen only if white police supervisers are more sensitive to the black rookie and go the extra mile to make the latter more comfortable.

Another issue that should agitate and possibly embarrass Obama is the easy availability of guns. It is a million dollar question whether he has the guts to take on the mighty gun lobby represented by the National Rifle Association (NRA). This has political connotations because the NRA has always had unconcealed Republican support, and possibly the furtive backing of Democrats.

Obama has flip-flopped on this emotive issue. In the past, he was known to be against laxity in administering the gun laws. Surprisingly, however, he supported the U.S. Supreme Courts judgment in June 2008, which overturned the ban on handguns in the Washington, D.C., area. It is anybodys guess whether in doing so he had his bid for the presidency in mind.

Obamas arrival has been widely welcomed in West Asia as well. His promised early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq could explain this. Some Al Qaeda websites have also been positive to him. Actually, a statement attributed to Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the pseudonym adopted by a leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda affiliated organisation, released in the form of an audio tape, has been extremely conciliatory in tone while asking for the U.S. early exit from Iraq. Such moves should pose a dilemma to Obama who is committed to the pull-out.

The practical difficulties and complexities in the mechanics involved and the impossibility of agreeing to a deadline should place Obama and his policymakers in a tight corner. But any delay in the process could trigger a revival of terrorist action, something that could influence a reversal of U.S. focus on peace.

It is against this background that Obama will have to arrive at a decision on what he is going to do with the contentious Guantanamo Bay camp. Both McCain and Obama had taken the position that holding prisoners seven years after 9/11 was untenable. A rough estimate is that there are still about 255 prisoners in the camp. Of these, 13, who form part of the 23 original detenus picked up in January 2002, have spent nearly seven years. Sixty of those in the camp have been cleared for release but are still languishing in Guantanamo because of procedural difficulties. Only 18 of the detenus are facing war-crime charges. In a Senate speech in 2006 Obama had taken the position that the charges against those held in Guantanamo had to be taken seriously.

More recently, during the election campaign, he stated that the U.S. legal system was strong enough to take care of terrorist charges, a slight contradiction of his earlier position. The whole world will watch with interest what he is going to do about a detention camp that has become infamous for its downright disavowal of international law and the basic principles of human rights.

Another flip-flop that Obama could be accused of is with regard to his views on the death penalty. He is known widely for his abhorrence of the penalty. As a Senator in Illinois way back in 2003, he brought about reforms in the controversial death penalty law in favour of greater respect for human rights, including the mandatory recording of interrogations of the accused in police custody, a procedure that could eliminate framing of the innocent.

In fact, around that time, the courts in the State found that more than 10 prisoners on the death row had been indicted wrongly for a crime they did not commit. Obama brought in great powers of persuasion on the occasion, a quality that was to stand him in good stead in later debates on many contentious issues.

This anxiety to protect the innocent accused and a general dislike of capital punishment was quite out of tune with his criticism of the U.S. Supreme Courts judgment in June this year, when it struck down a Louisiana law that prescribed death for a child rapist. When asked to explain an apparent contradiction in his well-known stand, he took the position that while he was generally against the death penalty, he favoured it in cases of extreme cruelty, like child rape. What supports his apparent hair-splitting is his statement in his memoir, Dream from My Father, that he supported death for crimes which are so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment. One can hardly blame him for a slight conflict in the positions he has taken on two different occasions, because the mans utter humanity and compassion for fellow-beings are beyond dispute and speak for themselves.

Closely impinging on his stand on a variety of criminal justice issues is the question of what he will do when he has to pick judges for the U.S. Supreme Court when vacancies arise during his tenure. The current bench is widely known for a conservative dominance, and given his opposition to George W. Bushs nominees, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., Obama may be expected to inject some arch-liberalism into the court as and when vacancies arise. Asked what he was looking for, he quipped that Chief Justice Earl Warren was his model. He added: I want people on the bench who have enough empathy, enough feeling, for what ordinary people are going through.

Earl Warren had carved his name in the annals of the court through his landmark judgment banning segregation in schools. Warrens appeal therefore to Obama is obvious and most reasoned. Possibly Obama would bring in an Asian American as well.

His Harvard Law School education and the teaching of Law in Chicago for 10 years equip him eminently to make a rational and not a purely emotional choice during the process of shaping the future of the countrys Supreme Court. That is something many Americans who voted for Obama would look forward to and endorse wholeheartedly.

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