html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: What a shame.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

What a shame.

I saw this Bee article yesterday and it really hit home. I was stunned, simultaneously not believing it and understanding instantly how it happened. In 2005, Bureau of Land Management employee Marlene Braun committed suicide when her boss prevented the release of her management plan for the Carrizo Plain. Clinton created the Carrizo Plain National Monument as he left office; Braun was appointed the first manager. Her job was to create a management plan that balanced grazing with the ecological needs of the Plain. She had worked on the plan for two years and was close to releasing a final draft when her new boss, believing the plan should go in a different direction, blocked it, disciplined and fired her. Shortly after, she shot her two dogs and killed herself.

I never met Ms. Braun or her boss, don’t know anything specific about the Carrizo Plain, haven’t read the Carrizo Plain management plan. I don’t want you to think that I can speak with any direct knowledge of this tragedy. But, I’ve worked in both federal and state bureaucracies and have strong opinions about civil servants. Without knowing anyone involved, I can put together a plausible picture.

There are different kinds of civil servants. Some are deadweight; they’re there for the job security and short hours. They amaze me, because they don’t care what agency they work for! Transportation, tax board, water, health. It’s all the same to them. Me, I deeply love water policy, but only some aspects of it. I wouldn’t even work in the other state water agency; they do totally different stuff. Boring stuff. There are also civil servants who care about their projects and have opinions and do a solid job for the taxpayers, but don’t take their jobs home. Then there are civil servants who believe.

The civil servants who believe believe with all their being, and they make huge sacrifices to be civil servants. The pay is low, the offices are crappy (you wouldn’t believe the taped together chairs and jury-rigged cubes and awful paneling and piles of paper), the hours are long and never ending. But there is nowhere else they can do the work they love. They can’t have that kind of influence over the fate of the Carrizo Plain anywhere else. They also believe deeply that they are working for the people of this country and feel an obligation to balance competing needs fairly. Truly. They are not cynical people.

Those people get worked over by changes in administration. Ms. Braun came to the Carrizo Plain under a supervisor left over from the Clinton administration who supported her process for assembling a management plan. When he retired a year later, Ms. Braun got a supervisor with, at the least, different priorities. At the most, he came in with direct instructions to derail her plan. Here’s the part that is going to be hard for non-bureaucrats to believe. Those long, boring management plans matter. Painful to read as they are, that plan would have determined the foreseeable future of the Carrizo Plain that she loved so much. The administration you work for matters. Bush’s vision for the public lands of the country slowly trickles down to every remote monument, into incremental decisions about grazing loads, and a place is shaped until another administration decides it is important enough to spend three years changing it.

You can read different accounts of Marlene Braun’s suicide by Googling her name. I feel irresponsible speculating, but since I’ve already told you I don’t have any personal information about it, I’ll add one more piece of opinion. The part that convinces me that Ms. Braun was one of the sincere ones, that she couldn’t see a way to live with the loss of her work and with a compromised Carrizo Plain, was that she shot her dogs first. Killing her dogs before she killed herself must have been agonizing; she could only have done it by believing it was the loving, responsible choice to make. She was strong or desperate enough to do it; she must have put that strength and desperation into her plan for the Carrizo Plain before giving up. I’m sorry she saw no shades of grey; I’m grateful people like that work for causes I believe in; I’m thankful I’m not one of them. I hope she didn’t live long after shooting her dogs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, I have no particular love for dogs, but I don't see immediately why shooting the dogs first implies anything about sincerity. If she decided she was going to commit suicide and kill the dogs for the hell of it, I think much less of her that she didn't come to her senses after that sort of brutality.

And there's no way she killed them just so they wouldn't have to live in a world without a properly managed Carrizo Plain. Am I missing something? Ah... because they wouldn't survive properly without an owner? Still...

8:32 PM  
Blogger capella said...

I am glad there are smart, committed people like you working on important things that don't interest me much. It's too easy to forget about people whose jobs you don't see, and just be glad you have a good doctor or bartender or whatever, and ignore all the many, many people without whose contributions things would be so much worse.

9:25 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

You may have forgotten about the third type of civil servant. He or she that is too incompetent and/or unstable to be productive in the private sector. That, without the 'tenured' status of most gov't employees, probably wouldn't be employed. He/she has generally been promoted beyond his/her competency simply because it's easier to promote a problem away than to solve it or terminate it.
I don't know any more about this incident than you just told me, but I'm more likely to settle on the third type. SHE KILLED HER DOGS! Suicide is a chicken-shit "fuck you" to the world. Killing your pets is just selfish, short-sighted, self-absorbed - and CRAZY.
I admire your obvious dedication and the infectious enjoyment of your work and bless you for trying to find the good side of an otherwise fucked up situation, but you're giving far too much credit to someone who, apparently, took a pity party too far.

Knowing as little as I do about this, I'm prepared to be completely wrong.

But I doubt it.

10:42 PM  
Anonymous CBB said...

Count me among those who sees the sadness of Ms. Braun's frustration and unfortunate ending. We can speculate all we want about her motivation, but the suggestion is strong, as Megan implies, that a change in policy at the top led to unacceptable compromises at Ms. Braun's level. As a pet owner, I daresay it is an extreme measure (and, in fairness, bordering on selfishness) to take the lives of innocent animals; I only hope Ms. Braun found some peace in her actions.

Those of us on the periphery of policy making and implementation can scarce understand what goes on in the day-to-day workings of government. For what it's worth, I'm a cheerful taxpayer in part because I know there are dedicated people who seek to make a difference. I believe they are soundly in the majority of government workers - some lapses, to be sure, but on average, well above average. (Disclosure: I am not a government worker, but related to some.)

12:01 AM  
Blogger billo said...

I find it interesting and just a bit perverse that there seems to be so much concern over the dogs. I mean, it was the same here when the Thames whale got stuck and we had endless coverage. Thousands dying in Iraq but no, that's only "collateral damage".

2:16 AM  
Anonymous UnderwearNinja said...

Humans usually construct the circumstance that puts them where they are. Dogs are innocent bystanders. I will always feel for the plight of animals before I give a damn about stupid humans.

Maybe she didn't have a way to ensure that her dogs would be taken care of with her gone, so she killed them to make sure they didn't suffer.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

I'm not dedicated like Ms. Braun, for sure. I leave my work at work. But I am also amazed at the vast world of what people do. There's a job for everything! And someone who does it! So much!

I was lumping the incompetents in with the deadweight. Believe me, I can't forget them.

I don't know. I thought it was incredibly responsible of her to kill her dogs first. She didn't kill herself without thinking of what would happen to them. Killing them quickly strikes me as more humane then abandoning them, and also far more difficult. It is too late for me to wish that she didn't feel that hopeless despair, but she must have and she faced the hard parts before killing herself too.

10:49 AM  
Blogger ScottM said...

I hadn't heard about this at all. Thanks for the pointer.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Lo said...

I don't necessarily think it was selfish to kill her dogs, and certainly not *crazy*... an elderly woman I know has specifically requested that if she dies before her two dogs, she wants them to be euthanized.

This is because she knows no one in her family can take over the care and responsibility for the two dogs, and because she knows that if they go to the shelter, not only will this change be traumatic enough for them, but they will probably be split up-- and they are old dogs who have been together since birth.

6:40 PM  
Blogger billo said...

Ninja (excuse me if I don't call you underwear!), I hear what you're saying and can fully understand your position.

I once knew an old man, an old Parsee who owned an old bookshop in an old city called Lahore. He told me that he had given up faith in human beings and was now only concerned about animals. Given man's hatred of his fellow man (Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur...), given the violence he inflicts on nature and women .. I can see where you're coming from.

But you are young Ninja and it is not good to have such an attitude.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Bob V said...

I'm baffled by everyone here!

First, suicide is not cool. I would have respected her more if she decided to do a naked prayer vigil on the plains until policy changed the other way. And that may have in fact been more effective. As is, we are left to speculate how she may or may not have felt about her report, her job, and her dogs.

Second, killing dogs is not cool. It is silly (IMO) to think that they are better off DEAD than in a shelter or with relatives.

Third, killing those who rely on you doesn't make you a hero. Megan, what are you thinking: "Killing her dogs before she killed herself must have been agonizing; she could only have done it by believing it was the loving, responsible choice to make." This logic could be used to justify anything horrific, including shooting innocent animals. I feel like I'm hearing from Megan the Lawyer instead of Megan the Engineer.

billo, in some way I understand you the least! There is plenty of speculation and interest being provided to those killed in Iraq in other corners of the Internet. The fact that this is a thread that shows concern about something else is just representative of the Long Tail. You needn't feel concerned that Megan has distracted the country's attention from the war in Iraq (though I wouldn't put it past her.)

Furthermore, what you call this "perverse" concern for the dogs in this discussion isn't really concern over the dogs. It's over what the killing of the dogs means. Megan offered her interpretation, and her audience is telling her she's wrong. :)

2:54 PM  
Blogger Dennis said...

Well, I'm probably not qualified to comment on her killings or her suicide being right/wrong. But I will say that I am familiar with two things which make me qualified to comment a little.

1) Working for an institution can really screw you up! When they go bad, they can drain your humanity and your will to work (or live) slowly like the dripping of an incessant faucet, or as quickly as a glass smashing on the floor. When projects run in circles, when others take credit for your work, when all the money meant to "do" is spent on "talk" until there's none left and all your work gets canned. Feel the despair baby... the darkness descends.

2) "The darkenss." I'm going on two years spent in my own black. Now is better than most of that time, but at its worst I spent 24 hours/day with a sense of falling. It was a light, terrible, fluttery feeling inside while I was awake and while I slept. I didn't realize I was living with it until it was gone one morning, when I woke up and the drugs had kicked in.

That stuff is really hard to deal with. I had no idea until I was there. I wouldn't wish any of the above on anyone. I'm no expert in suffering, but what I have learned scared the hell out of me.

10:03 PM  
Blogger billo said...

bob, my comments were not a reflection on anything megan said. the point that I was trying (rather clumsily ) to make was that
there is great amount of sentimentality expressed when it comes to animals but often the death of other people is thought of in terms of statistics or "collateral damage".

This was NOT a political point, more a musing on what I -and many others in "the East" -take to be a rather odd set of priorities.

On the case of the two dogs (why does that sound like a sherlock holmes storyline?)I don't think people have made the separation you are suggesting. Look at the words: "brutal", "crazy", "selfishness" , "the plight of animals before humans"...all this would imply that there is a concern about the death of the dogs and not just about the *meaning* of the actions.

anyway, how can one separate these issues; it is *because* one is concerned about the welfare of the dogs that one can call such actions selfish, brutal etc.

12:47 AM  
Blogger Bob V said...

Hi Billo,
Thank you for the clarifications.

I stand by my point that the primary driver behind the dog-killing discussion is what it means in the circumstances of this woman's suicide. I admit that the ghastliness of the killings has been acknowledged many times, but even this discussion is important inasmuch as we are wondering if a kind, caring woman would be capable of such a thing. I would suggest that if a raging, sadistic bank-robber had killed two dogs, we wouldn't be having the same discussion because we would understand that the guy was nuts and uncaring and that's why he did it.
I want to acknowledge your concerns about statistics versus sentimentality. I would suggest that when dozens or more people die, it is difficult to apply sentimentality though. It is too overwhelming to feel the same amount of loss per person as we do when only a few die. Sometimes we can only rely on statistics because the numbers are just too big. I don't think that this is just discrimination against people. Let me point you to Hollywood. Think of how much sentimentality is directed towards people's hardships as compared to animals. I think that is a fair reflection of the public's interests.

1:04 PM  
Blogger billo said...

bob, of course, you're right and you make a good point. The death of a large n.o. of people becomes meaningless, the death of a stranger (compared to someone we know) equally so; the death of one of "our own" (race, nationality, religion) affects us more and any complex society will necessarily have to deal with large scale, impersonal, concepts like 'statistics' and the 'population'.

But I'm not sure if the use of terms like 'human capital' and collateral damage' isn't indicative of something deeper: quantification and 'subjectification' are also a part of power strategies (Foucault) and this seems to go hand in hand with the 'sentimentalisation' of our sensibilities.

It is as if an overly rational person has to be compensated by indulging in stories of tragedy and suffering.

But on the whole, re-reading the comments I think your assessment is far closer to the truth than mine.

11:13 PM  
Blogger Bob V said...

Hi Billo,
I definitely agree. We all use the terminology that we believe will stir up the meanings that we want others to hold. That's why our military uses the words "collateral damage" while the media and opponents of the war oftentimes uses "innocent civilians" or "women and young children".

I might point out though that in the case of the military though, it probably *is* appropriate for them to think in terms of "collateral damage". Until very recently, the military was trying to solve the following problem:
maximize (enemy_killed)
Now, the military gets more scrutinity for how its operations are conducted, so they need to solve something like:
maximize (enemy_killed)
minimize (collateral_damage)
If the military uses terminology which humanizes each and every civilian who is killed, it could easily cause a crippling effect on its primary goal of killing enemies.

The same principle applies to businesss' use of the term "human capital". When making high-level, strategic decisions, it is often better to not think about which of your friends in the organization might be affected in which way.

(By the way, I am by no means defending any particular war. Instead, I am just suggesting that the terminology is appropriate for those engaged in the nasty business of war-making.) (And it is also appropriate for us as citizens to remap that "damage" to the actual people who were affected.)

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The civil servants "who believe" are the scariest of all. I'd much rather have a competent, efficient technocrat who works hard than an ideologue who, contrary to yur claim, is incapable of "...balancing competing needs fairly". You are also incorrect in stating: "But there is nowhere else they can do the work they love. They can’t have that kind of influence over the fate of the Carrizo Plain anywhere else." Of course they can. They just won't have the misappropriated power of the government to back-up their idealism.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Marlene Braun I knew was an extremely competent and efficient monument manager. She wanted to work for BLM, not for wildlife preservation groups or environmental groups per se. She believed in BLM's multiple use mandate. She did not believe the Plain should be subjected overwhelmingly to cattlemen's interest, as did the new supervisor. As for her dogs, nothing was harder for her than killing them. She had tried to find them a home. One had had expensive knee surgery and she provided in her will for that care, but the person turned out to be unable to care for them. Her reason for committing suicide was nothing less than the intimidation by her boss that went on for 13 months relentlessly. This supervisor has since been promoted to science coordinator at the BLM in DC despite the fact that he has only a Bachelor of Science degree. The reward for Marlene's "purge" from the Plain is clear as day.

7:41 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home