Kenneth Ryesky

Two killings, but the same lame blame game 

Two killings, more than 9,000 kilometers and 10 years apart and seemingly having absolutely nothing in common, can possibly be connected by a common thread – official attempts to blame and ban some specific resource which may well have prevented the killings if the same officials themselves had used the resource in the first place.

On 20 September 2022, 84-year-old Shulamit Rachel Ovadia was bludgeoned to death by an assailant in Tel Aviv.  The manhunt for the perpetuator was called off after his body was found in a Tel Aviv building, most likely a suicide.  It is not clear whether this particular killer, who had a history of making violent threats, had previously posted any indications of his bent toward deadly violence on any social media platforms, but the fact is that many terrorists do leave such clues on their social media accounts.

At the time the Shulamit Ovadia story was breaking, the story emerged that Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai had floated the possibility of shutting down the social media to prevent terrorists from fomenting violence.  In the face of strident criticism, Shabtai did a slight walk-back on his comments, asserting that shutdowns of social media should be only a last resort in the most extreme of circumstances.

Whatever Shabtai’s actual intent might have been in making his utterances, the public perception is that he effectively advocated trashing an information source that conceivably could have aided his own people in preventing the lethal attack upon Shulamit Ovadia.  Even if the particular assailant who killed Shulamit did not leave any clues on social media, there likely are individual victims whose injuries or deaths could have been averted had the Israel Police been more vigilant of the social media postings of known suspects.

Serious questions remain as to whether the Israel Police have effectively made use of the very social media that Shabtai himself has attempted to ban, and whether Shabtai’s veiled threats of future social media shutdowns are in fact political covers for the many failings of the ship of which he is the captain.

In January 2011, Alexis Gina Agin, a girl who was less than three weeks shy of her fifth birthday, succumbed to the malignant brain cancer she had gallantly fought for more than half her life.

A few months later, the IRS rejected Alexis’s parents’ electronically-filed 2010 income tax return because some tax fraudster had falsely used Alexis’s name and Social Security Number as a pretext for a tax refund.  On 2 February 2012, Alexis’s father, Jonathan Eric Agin, Esq., noted in recounting his experiences before the House Ways and Means Committee’s Social Security Subcommittee that Alexis “was victimized twice, once by the cancer that stole her from this Earth, and then by a coldhearted criminal who stalked her and utilized her death for profit.”

Congressional hearings have many functions, ranging from gathering information, to perpetuating a narrative, to currying favor with the congresscritters’ constituencies, but in the final score they all are political theater productions.  This is not necessarily an evil thing.  One of the most famous congressional hearings of all time was the blatantly theatrical Senate Anti-Trust and Monopoly Subcommittee hearing of 8 July 1958, where New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel was asked about his views regarding the judicially-created exemption of professional baseball from the antitrust rules.  There had been some concerns about whether the major baseball leagues were being overly restrictive in the number of teams they allowed. Casey delivered to the Subcommittee – and to the American public – a great performance from the witness stand. Major League Baseball got the message, and shortly thereafter began preparations for additional teams to receive major league franchises, thereby obviating the need to push a curative measure all the way through the complex legislative process (interestingly enough, Casey was the first Manager that one of those expansion teams, the New York Mets).

The Social Security Subcommittee hearing where Jonathan Agin testified was sorely needed.  Billions of dollars worth of fraud were being pilfered from the public fisc by tax fraudsters stealing the identities of others.  The Congress and the IRS had specifically been placed on notice of precisely such modus operandi in plundering the Treasury at another Congressional subcommittee hearing in 1979, and Alan N. Scott’s 1998 conviction for filing 20 false tax returns to receive refunds failed serve as a wake-up call after nearly a decade of no meaningful action.

Unfortunately, Jonathan Agin steadfastly insisted that the public availability of the Death Master File (commercially purveyed as the Social Security Death Index) was the cause of identity theft, and that the DMF needed to be shut down.  This stance was taken in the face of the fact that tax fraud was done with the stolen identities of living people, who would not be listed in the DMF database.  To those of us who  are active in the genealogy community, this was very disconcerting because not only did Jonathan strive to deprive us of an invaluable resource for doing family history research, but he specifically blamed genealogists in his testimony.

I was part of a Capitol Hill lobbying visit in which we succeeded in doing a minor amount of damage control so that the DMF was not as drastically restricted as originally proposed in the legislation that was enacted.

The claim that eliminating public access to the DMF would halt the identity thieves is as inane and absurd as the claim that shuttering the Hershey’s Chocolate factories would put an end to America’s obesity epidemic.  Once the Hershey’s factory is put out of commission, the chocolate addicts would still be able to obtain their fattening chocolate fixes from Nestle’s, Cadbury’s, Elite, Ghirardelli, or Godiva brand chocolate candies (and for many, the Paskesz and Bonomo candy lines or the various brands of Salt Water Taffy would work just as well).

Just as there are many alternative sources to the Hershey’s factory for chocolate and other fattening sweets, there are alternative sources to the DMF for names and Social Security numbers of identity theft victims.  These include (but are not limited to) lax document disposal practices of police departments; criminal-minded school teachers and administrators, bank employees, and tax preparers; and even IRS employees.  Jonathan Agin’s testimony recounted how a disproportionate number of families in his cancer family support group had been victims of identity theft; this is hardly surprising inasmuch as hospital databases are rich troves of personal identification information, whether by outside online hackers or employees of the hospital itself.

Moreover, there is a political imperative for the IRS (by whom I was employed as an attorney in a previous life) to dispense tax refunds to the taxpaying public as soon as possible, so even delays for the purpose of verifying the validity of the children claimed for the Earned Income Tax Credit present political challenges for politicians.

[Even before the days of the Internet, identity thieves would visit cemeteries and take information from the graves of infants (my eyes were welling with tears as I took this volunteer photograph of the gravestones of three sibling babies who died within a 38-month period in the course of genealogical research).].

Alexis Agin’s posthumous victimization was not caused by the availability of the DMF; it was caused because the IRS failed to use the DMF.  The IRS could have programmed its computers to flag tax returns that claimed a decedent as a dependent (but this would have inhibited the tax refund giveaway process, to the political detriment of the politicians).  Even beyond that, the IRS could have programmed its computers to flag any tax return where the claimed dependent child is not the child of the taxpayer, because the Social Security Administration Form SS-5 Application for a Social Security Card specifically requires the Social Security Numbers of the parents where the application is made on behalf of a child under the age of 18.  This, too, has negative political implications for Congresscritters whose constituents depend upon timely refunds.

By way of disclosure, Jonathan Agin and I have unfortunately had some discomfortable exchanges in connection with this matter; their particular causes and specifics not detailed here are largely irrelevant to the thrust of this posting.  I know others who have had similar discord with him.  Giving Jonathan his rightful due, however, it should be noted that he has become a proactive advocate for finding cures for childhood cancers, and in support for afflicted children and their families.  No less noteworthy is the admirable fortitude he displayed by appearing at the House Ways and Means Committee hearing to tell his harrowing story in the first place.

My own appreciation of what Jonathan Agin and his family experienced is at best third-hand.  Specifically, there have been (and likely will yet be additional) days when my wife’s skilled application of the available technology failed to save the life of one of her pediatric oncology patients.  After holding out with difficulty to maintain a steady and professional demeanor while on duty at the hospital, she would come home that evening in a state of discomposure and dump her anguish and frustration upon me; this surely pales in comparison to the trauma experienced firsthand by Alexis Agin’s family.

Perhaps Jonathan Agin can be forgiven for his misdirected Captain Ahab obsession to ban access to the Death Master File.  He has a parental relationship to the victim. Jonathan’s haphazard thrashing about in dealing with an exacerbated trauma not of his own making might arguably be analogous to the conscious drowning victim they warned us about, in the classes we took to qualify as lifeguards, who poses a risk of causing whomever might attempt to directly rescue him or her from the predicament to also drown.

Kobi Shabtai does not have that excuse.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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