David Randall: US sheds its trigger-happy image, but no pardon for Billy the Kid

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The Independent Online

From America, one of those bits of good news which seem to find crossing the Atlantic so difficult. In the past two decades, murders have fallen by 79 per cent in New York, by 68 per cent in Los Angeles, and by 46 per cent in Chicago. Violent crime across the nation has not been so low since 1973. Why, then, so little coverage of these glad tidings over here? The reason, I suspect, is that truism of foreign news: that the stories given most play are those that conform to cliché. Russians are drunks, Italians excitable, the French publicly-subsidised idlers, and Americans are trigger-happy. Intelligence that goes against these traditional grains struggles to get a look in.

* And let's start the New Year by laying another myth which has proved resistant to actual facts: the idea, common these past few weeks, that Britain is uniquely unable to cope with sudden snowfall. "Couple of inches, and the whole country grinds to halt," goes the Daily Mailish whinge, a trite observation usually accompanied by a recitation of inconveniences which "they" have failed to prevent.

Those of us who have lived abroad know this thesis for the nonsense it is. In such places as Warsaw and Moscow, the first snows of the year, if heavy enough, can catch even the most winterised country napping. And not just the first snows, either. Last week, in Moscow, airports ran out of de-icing fluid, flights were cancelled, and stranded passengers were starved of information. In New York, snowfall rendered roads, airports, and trains nigh on useless, and snow ploughing and gritting was poor. What happened would, in this country, prompt the more hysterical elements of the press (i.e. almost all of it) to unleash their professional pontificators and demand the rolling of official heads. All in all, a timely reminder that extreme weather has extreme effects, and it is not a basic human right to lead a life untroubled by inconvenience.

* There's been a bizarre debate in New Mexico over whether to grant a state pardon to Billy the Kid, killer of three, and maker of much mayhem besides. Convicted of murder in 1878, he was offered a pardon if he gave evidence in another case. He testified, but no pardon came. As his hanging loomed, he escaped, and shot two deputies before Pat Garrett cornered and killed him. The state's outgoing governor, Bill Richardson, has spent some of the past week or so pondering a belated pardon. He finally decided against, but the present-day trend to tink er with history seems a growing one. One suspects that what was at work here is not mercy, but a desire to be a bit-part player in the romanticised tapestry of the Old West. Billy the Kid (AKA William Bonnie) was a nasty little hoodlum. But then, wait long enough, and the crimes of even the most cold-blooded killer become so mythologised that, to many, they seem like fiction. And, if the immediate descendants of their victims are no longer around to make a fuss, you can play at rewriting history. It's a form of egotism, I suspect.

* The average Italian shopper carries their goodies home, you'd imagine, in some stylish shoulder bag, or natty designer knapsack. Not so, apparently. The country has been by far the biggest user of plastic bags, getting through 20 million a year (330 per person) – one-fifth of all those consumed in Europe. But no longer. As of yesterday, plastic bags are banned. Italy is the first European state to take this step, although France is to follow. Although many countries impose charges on plastic bags, and some cities have banned them, places where there is a nationwide ban are not the usual environmentally progressives. South Africa was the first, in 2003, followed, in 2005 and 2006, by Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, and Tanzania.

It comes to something when you wish your country would bring its policy on biodegradables into line with Somalia.