Just reward

In Central Park on Monday, we watched a red-tail hawk eating a pigeon. A crowd gathered, but, knowing we had little interest in eating raw pigeon, the hawk ignored us. It’s a bird-eat-bird world out there.

Even more surprising to us than the hawk (we had recently finished reading “Red-Tails in Love,” a book about Central Park’s hawks, other birds, and birders), we encountered cars. The park drive (except for a small section in the southeast) is supposed to be closed to motor vehicles on weekdays from 10 am to 3 pm.

New traffic rules (posted in tiny characters where no one would think to look for them) say that, between now and the end of the year, we have to share the drive with cars. This will supposedly relieve traffic congestion associated with holiday shopping. Ha!

At least no one honked at the cyclists who weren’t aware they no longer had the road to themselves. New Yorkers, I like to believe, almost never honk. For one thing, we don’t own cars. But alien motorists from New Jersey, Long Island, and beyond often DO honk, which is why there are many official signs about the practice.

Tourists from Scotland sometimes take pictures of our “No Honking” signs. To them, the term can mean vomiting. Honking can also mean drunk or stoned. Many New Yorkers would rather someone be stoned and vomit in the street than cause a horn to blare.

Sometimes I try to think up laws that might achieve desired ends. One would be the Horn Volume Equalization Act. It would simply require that all automotive horns be as loud inside the car as outside. I think that would cut down on the noise considerably.

It could hardly do less than the current laws. Drivers often honk in clear view of signs listing the fines for the practice. Of course, I don’t think our fines for improper honking have ever exceeded $500.

Fines and penalties, like many things in life, may invoke a risk-benefit analysis. The likelihood of being issued a violation for blaring a horn is low. The penalty is also low. The benefit of frustration relief by taking even ineffective action is, I suppose, seen to be high to non-New Yorkers. We, on the other hand, weigh another risk — that honking will become more acceptable and worsen our noise load. Or we simply decide that not honking is the better thing to do for society.

Do most of us avoid committing murder because we might go to jail or suffer some divine retribution? Or do we avoid committing murder because murder is the wrong thing to do? Most of us have ethical systems in addition to analyzing risks and benefits.

Kidnapping for a monetary ransom involves a risk-benefit analysis on the part of the kidnapper. The only benefit is the ransom. That’s why law-enforcement organizations oppose paying ransoms. If kidnappers lose that benefit, their incentive is lost. To the families of the kidnapped, however, not paying a ransom may seem an unacceptable risk.

A reward is not exactly the same as a ransom. It’s not a benefit of illegal activity. But, at best, it’s an incentive paid for what should be done anyway. “If you stop hitting your little sister, I’ll buy you an ice-cream cone.”

One danger of such an incentive program is that it can become expected. “Stop hitting your little sister!” “Why? You haven’t given me an ice-cream cone.”

A large reward could even LEAD to criminal activity. Someone can choose to identify an innocent person as the perpetrator of a crime just to claim a reward. In the worst case, someone could commit a crime, intending from the start to frame someone else and claim a reward. In a system of incentives rather than ethics, it all depends on the risk-benefit analysis.

According to the United Nations, the annual per-capita income in Afghanistan in 1999 was the equivalent of about $178 at the same time that it was $32,778 in the U.S. Using the same differential factor, $25 million to us should seem something more than $4.6 billion to an Afghan. We are now offering Afghans (and others) a reward of up to $25 million for information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden and/or Ayman al-Zawahiri.

That’s not the same as a reward for some unknown perpetrator. It’s not even the sort of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” reward that could lead a bounty hunter to harm innocent people in the course of attempting to capture or kill a criminal. All we are asking for is information about the location of someone whose identity is already known. And the equivalent of more than $4.6 billion for a little information seems a VERY powerful incentive.

This isn’t the first time we’ve offered such a high reward. Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, recently convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, was captured in Pakistan as a result of information provided through our reward program. The informant was reportedly given not only the money but also a new identity and life in the United States. Even here in New York, $25,000,000 is nothing to sneeze at.

Abdul Rahman Yasin, however, reputed to be Yousef’s partner in that crime, has not yet been captured. The same reward has been offered for the same amount of time for information leading to his arrest.

We have also been offering multi-million-dollar rewards for information leading to the capture of the accused Serbian war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. We’ve been offering multi-million-dollar rewards for information leading to the capture of 13 Rwandans accused of genocide. We’ve been offering a $25 million reward for information leading to the capture of Junzo Okudaira, a Japanese accused of killing five people with a car bomb in Naples in 1988.

None of those rewards (nor many others) has yet led to any arrests. The million dollars the FBI has been offering for information leading to the arrest of Eric Robert Rudolph, an American terrorist thought to be hiding here in America, has also not yet led to his capture.

My college had an honor system. Part of it asked students not to cheat. That was relatively easy. Another part asked students to turn in others who cheated. If that ever happened, I’m not aware of it.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the U.S. It was celebrated over a month ago in Canada; in Japan, it will be celebrated on Friday.

There are many traditions associated with our Thanksgiving, perhaps the best known of which involves turkey. At a highway rest stop north of Delhi in India a few years ago, we were amused to see an American turkey in an aviary. An Indian who had almost ignored an elephant walking beside the road stared at it wide-eyed.

I don’t know if any Indians participated in the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York in 1924, but it was created by immigrant employees of the store who missed their harvest festivals. They borrowed wild animals from the Central Park zoo. In 1927, giant balloons replaced the lions and bears (shucks!).

Tomorrow’s parade is only the 75th because the parade was suspended from 1942 through 1944 during World War II. The 1945 parade drew 2.5 million spectators; more are expected tomorrow.

One year, quite by accident, I ended up helping to build the parade floats. I was watching them being removed from their warehouse in Hoboken when one started speeding down a hill out of control. I rushed over to help bring it to a stop. The foreman glanced at me and asked where my “Parade Official” badge was. I said I didn’t have one, so he pinned me, and I became part of the crew.

I got to help rig Captain Hook’s pirate ship, and I served as the ballast of a tiny crane rigged on an old jeep. We used it to hoist papier-mache animals to the top of the Little Golden Books train. The construction work was necessary because the large floats wouldn’t fit through the Lincoln Tunnel. My badge gave me the run of the parade, and I was told I would be paid, too, if I helped de-construct the floats at the end. Alas, I had a dinner to attend, and the work was reward enough.

Although the parade was suspended during World War II, it took place shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This year it is taking place 72 days after the worst disaster in New York history.

In late September, it was thought that as many as 6,500 people had been killed at the World Trade Center. As of yesterday, the mayor’s office said the number of missing and dead was down to 3,899; the police department had it at just 3,702.

Just one person dead would be too many killed by a terrorist attack, and it’s unlikely the figure will drop by another thousand. But, in addition to everything else I am thankful for, I’m glad the number keeps shrinking.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and to all a good life.

TTFN, Mark

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