Killing Baby Hitler

When Kevin Drum and Jeb Bush agree about something, one of two grossly implausible events must have occurred: either Kevin is wrong or Jeb is right. Since Jeb’s wrong-headedness is more reliable than even Kevin’s good sense, a devout Bayesian in this situation will start out suspecting that Kevin has made one of his rare mistakes.

Some time ago – sorry, real life has been interfering with my blogging – the New York Times asked what seemed like a remarkably silly question: “If you could go back and kill Hitler as a baby, would you do it?”

Answers: 42% Yes, 30% No, 28% Not sure.

The Huffington Post picked this up and asked it of JEB! by email. Bush (sensibly) ducked it until he was asked on camera, at which point he emitted a characteristically inarticulate grunt of affirmation. “Hell yeah, I would! You gotta step up, man.”

Kevin was more thoughtful but equally decisive:  “I’m not an especially bloodthirsty guy, but hell yes, I’d do it. Sure, maybe World War II would happen anyway, though that’s hardly inevitable. Maybe the Holocaust too. But even a reasonable chance of stopping either one of them would be well worth the life of a baby who would otherwise grow up to be a monster. What am I missing here? I wouldn’t even hesitate.”

I’m pleased to report another success for the Rev. Mr. Bayes. In my judgment (which I would be glad to pronounce ex cathedra if someone would just build me a cathedral) both Bush and Drum are obviously and catastrophically wrong.

Forget about time-travel paradoxes, forget about the risk that something even worse would happen, and assume that your powers of foresight are perfect. You still shouldn’t kill Baby Hitler, for the simple reason that the Baby Hitler you’d be killing wouldn’t have done anything wrong, and intentionally killing innocent people is wrong, the same way torture and slavery are wrong. End of discussion.

Logically, of course, the Right-to-Life crowd should be up in arms about Bush’s expressed willing to intentionally take innocent life. And logically, of course, Bush himself couldn’t really hold his expressed position on abortion and also his expressed opinion about baby-killing. But, of course, logic has nothing to do with it.

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Weekend Film Recommendation: The Sniper


Edward Dmytryk was a talented filmmaker whose career and life were severely damaged during Hollywood’s red scare. As one of the Hollywood Ten, he refused to testify to the House of Un-American Activities Committee and was sentenced to jail. He fled to England, where he made some high quality films including prior RBC recommendation Obsession. When the Brits kicked him out he came back to the U.S. and was incarcerated. He then decided to testify against his communist associates, meaning that Hollywood was divided between those who hated him as a communist and those who hated him for naming names. However, in 1952 his career got back on track when Stanley Kramer hired him to direct The Sniper, a brooding B-picture about a serial killer that gave Dmytryk a chance to express his alienation and isolation on screen.

The story opens with psychologically disturbed veteran Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) struggling against his impulse to gun down a woman in his neighborhood, right at the moment she is kissing her lover on the stoop. As Miller walks the streets, his chance encounters illuminate how he has felt scarred by women from childhood through his adult life, filling him with a mixture of misogyny and sexual frustration. After his efforts to seek help for his psychiatric problems are met with incompetence and indifference by the health care system, this ticking time bomb of a man is stung when a women to whom he is attracted (Marie Windsor) does not reciprocate his feelings. In a rage, he comes unraveled and goes on a fearsome, guilt-wracked hunt for the women whom he believes have wronged him.

For the period in which it was made, The Sniper was startling stuff, particularly the scenes of Miller stalking and then executing his victims. In style and structure, the film draws a good deal from the the police procedurals that became popular after the war (e.g., prior RBC Recommendations He Walked by Night and The Naked City) as well as from film noir. It also has a pronounced streak of urban alienation and rage that prefigures later films like Taxi Driver (I was not surprised to learn that Martin Scorcese admires The Sniper).

Other than Adolphe Menjou, who plays the police detective who tries to track Miller down, the cast of this low-budget picture are unknowns with unremarkable faces, which works well with the underlying message that horrors such as the film portrays have become everyday, ordinary events. Harry Brown’s script, which is based on a story by Edna and Edward Anhalt, underscores this point even more by having the city in which the crimes occur have no name. It could, implictly, be anywhere.

Most of the film was shot in San Francisco, which has rarely looked as moody or lonely. When Miller stalks his first victim, the shadows are surreal as is the lack of any other person on the street. Burnett Guffey, whose work I have praised before, contributes effective photography and Dmytryk worked with him to create excellent camera set ups throughout. I particularly liked the scene where Miller, who has a menial job delivering dry cleaning, is being upbraided by his boss (another women who makes him feel weak and worthless). Rather than shooting the scene in an open space, the film makers put the camera in the front of Eddie’s parked van looking back at him as he crouches in the cramped, dark space surrounded by hanging dresses. His boss on the loading deck is visible because the van’s back door is open, making her tower over him as if he were a worm under her heel.


The only significant weakness of the film is something characteristic of many Stanley Kramer productions (Judgement at Nuremberg, The Wild One, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner): It needlessly makes some of its points with a sledgehammer. Starting a film with a printed message telling the audience how shocking and serious the subject is and including a scene where the authority-figure-makes-the-big-pious-speech-about-how-society-is-to-blame are the sort of things that earned Kramer a reputation as the kind of sanctimonious and self-satisfied liberal who drives away more people from his causes than he draws in. Some of that cringeworthy stuff is on display here, and it just doesn’t work.

But let that flaw go and this tautly directed, disturbing film will get under your skin. My belief is that The Sniper is in the public domain, so I offer this link as a place where you can watch it for free.

p.s. Trivia: The bar where Eddie’s first victim sings is the Paper Doll Club, famous in real life as one of America’s first lesbian bars even though it isn’t portrayed that way in the movie.

p.p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Rob Wildeboer and I talk Chicago crime on public radio

My friend Rob Wildeboer and I discussed Chicago’s underground gun market and crime challenges on WBUR with Here & Now’s Robin Young. We had a useful conversation and a good experience. I appreciate WBUR’s willingness to speak with us, and the professionalism of the producers and staff.

I am truly baffled by this video.

Here’s a pro-tip. If you are fighting for social justice by interfering with others’ First Amendment rights, you’re doing it wrong. You are violating core principles of American democracy. And the rest of America will encode you as extremists and will simply stop listening to what you have to say.

The individuals in this video associated with #ConcernedStudents1950 owe photographer Tim Tai an unequivocal apology. It isn’t complicated. They were entirely in the wrong.

With the exception of Mr. Tai, the people in this video disgraced themselves in what should have been a moment of triumph. I am just baffled by the whole thing.

Semi-pro athletes, our moral lodestars

If you still aren’t sure about how completely big-money sports have corrupted universities, today’s WaPo rundown on how the University of Missouri–which is full of philosophers, sociologists, organizational behavior professors, furious students, and what-all other sources of insight–figured out it needed new leadership should knock some scales from your eyes.

The Gran Torino problem

What’s the matter with middle-aged working class white Americans?

06114132_Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino hasn’t yet made it into Keith and Johann’s film selections, but no doubt will. It’s a witty and moving, if formulaic, exploration of the psyche of the American white working class, represented by Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski, a retired car worker in industrial Michigan.

The film has a happy ending. Not so real life. The health of middle-aged white American men with no college education has been deteriorating to a surprising and shocking extent. RBC readers deserve for the weekend a comment thread on this now famous chart:


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What do you believe if you don’t believe in evolution?

I live in a bubble pretty much empty of evolution deniers, so I haven’t had the chance to try this. But I am genuinely interested to hear someone nicely take one, say Ben Carson, through some questions that would explain what they actually believe.

Do you believe DNA controls how an organism develops from a fertilized egg?

Do you believe there is cosmic radiation?

Do you believe it (or anything) could change DNA and therefore that an organism would grow up a little different from its parents, siblings, and the other critters in the pack?

Do you believe such a difference could ever make it more likely to reproduce successfully than the other critters of its kind?

It seems to me that to deny evolution, you have to get off the foregoing train somewhere before the end, but where?

Math and TV

Mythbusters, ending this season, has a long valedictory in the NYT today, and I am ambivalent. I’ve enjoyed the show from time to time, especially when the team blew things up and broke stuff, but I’m not ready to get on board with it as a great science education motivator.  My wife and daughter have a thing for NUMB3RS, a police procedural featuring a trio of mathematicians who help the FBI, and I find it makes me impatient in a similar way. I think the problem is that Mythbusters too often ignored the mathematics that distinguishes engineering and science from tinkering, and NUMB3RS just treats math like a mysterious religious cult, complete with blackboards full of equations we never see long enough to begin to understand; when a real mathematical principle or result gets in the script, it’s drowned by the usual cop-show action/suspense noise. Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: In the Line of Fire

In this week’s movie recommendation, Clint Eastwood makes a delightful play on his earlier career persona. He trades the brooding, solitary gunslinger for a much more vulnerable and aged Secret Service bodyguard in Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire.

Eastwood plays Frank Horrigan, a man bedeviled by his legacy as “the only active agent who ever lost a president.” It was he, JFK’s favorite, who blundered in Dallas on November 1963. When the Warren Commission confirmed his fears that indeed there was more—much more—he could have done to save the president, Horrigan descended into wretched drinking habits.

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Ever wonder whether Medicaid expansion makes a difference?

The New York Times does an amazing job at data journalism within its Upshot section. This interactive map of the uninsured, by Quotrung Bui and Margo Sanger-Katz, is pretty amazing, especially when one considers that Wisconsin, nominally a non-expansion state, already provided significant coverage overlapping with ACA. Why is Medicaid expansion important? Go to the New York Times link and see for yourself. Cross the Kentucky border into any non-expansion state. If anything, this non-population-weighted-map understates the importance of Medicaid expansion, since many of those huge purple counties out west have very few people living in them. Ninety percent of the adults who fall in the Medicaid gap live in formerly-segregated states.

Amazing New York Times infographic.

Amazing New York Times infographic.

PS this amazing GIF showing how patterns have changed since 2013 makes me both proud and sad regarding our country.