Two sobering books

A BED FOR THE NIGHT: Humanitarianism in Crisis by David Rieff is a gloomy assessment of the humanitarian-relief world as of 2002 and the start of the Afghan War (but nothing since then challenges the arguments here). Rieff argues that the effectiveness of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and other relief groups is foundering as they strive to fix the world’s problems rather than merely bandage them (for example some groups cut off aid to Afghanistan in protest against Taliban policies). The problems Rieff sees include the White Man’s Burden attitude of some groups; the way building government support frequently leaves them co-opted by government policy; clumping everything from genocide to earthquake damage together as humanitarian crises (“That’s how Doctors Without Borders would probably have described Auschwitz.”); the PR tactic of emphasizing victims’ innocence (Red Cross workers were shocked to discover that Rwandan refugee camps include Hutu killers fleeing Tutsi retaliation); and promoting the fantasy that the governments of the world are actually willing to stand against genocide on principle (Rieff, having reported on Rwanda, scoffs at that). While much more respectful of humanitarian work than I thought he’d be, Rieff concludes that a band-aid is the most it can offer, given how much of the world remains mired in bloodshed (“I’d like to be more optimistic, but optimism needs a reason.”). Grim, but powerfully argued.
CONVICTING THE INNOCENT: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, by Brandon L. Garrett is a survey of the first 250 cases of DNA exoneration that shows that even such slam-dunk evidence as eyewitness identification, blood samples and confessions have placed innocent people in jail for years or on death row. Garrett shows how startlingly ineffective the rules for protecting the innocent are——a coerced confession can still hold up if a judge decides it’s “reliable,” an eyewitness’ certainty in court may outweigh weeks of uncertainty earlier and claims of innocence aren’t usually grounds for appeal. Garrett also shows that the problems are systemic rather than fluke events: Sloppy forensic work, speculative forensic science, cops who unwittingly nudge eyewitnesses into picking the right person from a line-up, jail-house snitches who contrive to undo even an airtight alibi, and in some cases outright fraud (several cases beyond the ones known to me of forensic experts who fudged tests to get the “right” result). The reform recommendations include audits of crime labs, better funding for public defenders, videotaping all interrogations and double-blind police lineups (so that the cop showing the lineup to the witness doesn’t know, herself, who the suspect is). Scary, but like Rieff, very well argued.

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8 responses to “Two sobering books

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