Thursday, June 30, 2011

Costs of US wars since 9/11: it's even worse than we think

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The Eisenhower Research Project based at Brown University has created a new website devoted to exploring what the misguided United States wars since 9/11 have cost this country -- and the unfortunate countries and people in the way of the injured, but infantile, imperial colossus. Many of their findings reproduce what people seeking peace have attempted to highlight for a decade, but it seems worthwhile to reproduce the suggestive conclusions from the executive summary.
  • While we know how many US soldiers have died in the wars (just over 6000), what is startling is what we don’t know about the levels of injury and illness in those who have returned from the wars. New disability claims continue to pour into the VA, with 550,000 just through last fall. Many deaths and injuries among US contractors have not been identified.
  • At least 137,000 civilians have died and more will die in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as a result of the fighting at the hands of all parties to the conflict.
  • Putting together the conservative numbers of war dead, in uniform and out, brings the total to 225,000.
  • Millions of people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions. The current number of war refugees and displaced persons -- 7,800,000 -- is equivalent to all of the people of Connecticut and Kentucky fleeing their homes.
  • The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.
  • The human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades, some costs not peaking until mid-century. Many of the wars’ costs are invisible to Americans, buried in a variety of budgets, and so have not been counted or assessed. For example, while most people think the Pentagon war appropriations are equivalent to the wars’ budgetary costs, the true numbers are twice that, and the full economic cost of the wars much larger yet. Conservatively estimated, the war bills already paid and obligated to be paid are $3.2 trillion in constant dollars. A more reasonable estimate puts the number at nearly $4 trillion.
  • As with former US wars, the costs of paying for veterans’ care into the future will be a sizable portion of the full costs of the war.
  • The ripple effects on the U.S. economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases, and those effects have been under-appreciated.
  • While it was promised that the US invasions would bring democracy to both countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, both continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom, with warlords continuing to hold power in Afghanistan with US support, and Iraqi communities more segregated today than before by gender and ethnicity as a result of the war.
Two conclusions made me want to add further comments:
  • The armed conflict in Pakistan, which the U.S. helps the Pakistani military fight by funding, equipping and training them, has taken as many lives as the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan.
I didn't know that. And since our war within Pakistan is barely admitted, does the apparent intent among our rulers to wind down Afghanistan and Iraq suggest they intend to also get out of Pakistan? Or is Pakistan the new central theater of the permanent imperial war? Wouldn't it be a good idea to let the citizens who pay for this stuff in on our government's intentions?

Another bullet point seems both encouraging and problematic:
  • Serious and compelling alternatives to war were scarcely considered in the aftermath of 9/11 or in the discussion about war against Iraq. Some of those alternatives are still available to the U.S.
After 9/11, a baffled and frightened US people wanted vengeance on someone, barely caring who. Collectively, we were suckers for mis-leaders who treated war as if it were an easy, sanitary, cost-free activity and dispatched our military where they had pre-existing grievances -- into Iraq. People who had other ideas about how to respond to the atrocity in New York and Washington -- think for example about 9/11 Families for a Peaceful Tomorrow -- were ignored, as was a massive worldwide peace movement. It would be a very good idea to recognize that the antiwar movement was right and our rulers were very, very wrong and have left the country broke, diminished and without good options.

In fact, the freedom of movement of both the administration (which seems to have some glimpses of this) and the entire political system are profoundly constrained by the destruction wrought by the wars of the '00s. Too many good options available in 2001 -- for example effective, cooperative international police work against terrorists -- are gone, undermined by the jack-booted rendition and torture policies adopted by the Bush administration. Terrorism suspects captured in Europe can fight extradition to the United States because we are considered a torture-practicing country with an impoverished grasp of basic human rights.

The costs of these wars are even greater than the Eisenhower Research Project study -- we have only begun to appreciate them.

H/t Washington Note for pointing to this study.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

California state parks that will be history ...

California is about to lose nearly one quarter of our state parks. In order to help balance the budget, the Department of Parks and Recreation has released a list of 70 (out of 278) that will be shut down beginning in September. Naturally this also means that park staff will lose their jobs and nearby businesses will lose their customers.

How could this nightmare be happening in the midst of high unemployment and our economic doldrums? The state has been driven to this because many Californians refuse to pay taxes for government services, even the ones we like. Starting in the late 70's we passed a series of measures that make it impossible for even quite large majorities of legislators to pass budgets. It takes a 2/3s vote to pass a budget or raise revenue. Consequently, no-taxes-ever-but-give-me-mine Republicans can block everything. Unless we restore majority rule in Sacramento, we can kiss our quality of life in California goodbye. Other states: be warned.

Probably losing the parks isn't the most important damage currently being done by greedy obstructionists: we need roads, bridges, state universities and local schools even more. But shutting down parks is a very visible sign of California's decline. Since I enjoy the parks, I am going to try to chronicle this madness a bit.
***

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Come September, this stuffed mountain lion will no longer greet visitors at the Castle Crags State Park entrance kiosk. Castle Crags is just off I-5 in the far north of the state, on the way to Oregon.

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It's a big place, offering camping, fishing in the Sacramento River, and views of Mt. Shasta and surroundings.

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There's northern California's dominating mountain.

And the park provides trail access to its signature feature: the dominating granite crags.
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These rock formations are unusual for being so rugged at a relatively low altitude. And, thanks to the park, a short trail enables a moderately ambitious hiker to scramble about among them only a little more than 2.4 miles from a trail head.

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I was able to take them in early in the morning after a brisk uphill run.

Of course the crags will survive the park closure. But getting to them will be a lot harder. Ambitious hikers will have to start several miles further away and use unmaintained trails.

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The area is close by the Pacific Crest Trail -- but shouldn't the state be able to make it just a little easier for us to appreciate such magnificence without requiring us to be marathon hikers?

The California State Parks Foundation is leading the charge against park closures. Nobody knows whether citizens will be able to block or modify the closure plan. Every California institution is scrambling for its bit of a too-small pie. Updates will follow.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On the road: ring around the sun

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For several hours on Sunday over Eugene Oregon, this halo surrounded the sun. It exceeded my photographic skills to capture the entire ring, so I shaded out the light from under a tree and caught this half.

Apparently the phenomenon occurs when tiny hexagonal ice crystals hang in the air at over 30000 feet, reflecting the sun's light in this pattern. Some people claim it means impending rain, but that has not played out here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Still speaking out against the wars

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The Corvallis, Oregon Daily Peace Vigil has maintained its witness against U.S. wars since 2001. On Sunday there were about a dozen people; some days there are as few as two, but the vigil continues from 5 to 6 pm every day in front of the county court house.

After ten years, they are almost a local landmark.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

On the road: bang up idea

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Now there's a plan for a sparkling church fundraiser. Encountered in Eugene, OR.

On the road: off to run Pre's Trail

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Pre's Trail is one the hallowed places of U.S. running. In a park in Eugene, Oregon, beside the Willamette River, the soft surface trail consists of three loops adding up to somewhere between 4 and 5 miles. I have a chance to galumph around it this morning. Blogging must wait.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Remnants of two wars

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The northeastern corner of California is a remote and sparsely populated place. The other day, we missed an unmarked turn-off and drove an extra hundred miles, regretting the trip not at all. Where else would we have encountered in a few hours such an expanse of second growth pine forest, fertile valleys, and high desert?

Our first destination was Lava Beds National Monument, acre on acre of rocky grassland that is actually a huge crater of a long ago volcano. The land is honeycombed with caves and hummocks formed by lava flows that have since eroded.

The Lava Beds were also the site of what one display in the visitor center called perhaps the most expensive war, for its size, this country has ever fought. In 1872-3, a tiny band Modoc Indian warriors held at bay some 600 U.S. soldiers attempting to capture and remove them from the land.

At no time during the Modoc War were there more than 53 Modoc warriors engaged in the fighting. ...

It has been estimated that the Modoc War cost the United States over $400,000; a very expensive war in terms of lives and dollars, considering the small number of opposing forces. In contrast, the estimated cost to purchase the land requested by the Modoc for a separate reservation was $20,000.

(More here.)

The Modocs even killed a U.S. army general during the hostilities.

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It's not hard to imagine how a tiny group who knew the land could hide and fight in this sort of terrain. That's one of the hazards of fighting in other peoples' countries.

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Nearby, a couple of forlorn signs behind a fence mark the undeveloped site of the Tule Lake Segregation Center, also a National Monument, though it would be hard to tell as the signs are the only evidence. (There's also a temporary museum several miles down the road, but it was too late in the day for us to go there.) A flyer available at the Lave Beds explains:

The Tule Lake Segregation Center, beginning as one of ten relocation centers established throughout the United States under the auspices of the War Relocation Authority, held 18,789 of the 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry who were displaced from their homes and forcibly moved to the Centers. It was transformed into a Segregation Center in 1943 when a Loyalty Questionnaire was used to separate the supposedly "loyal" from the "disloyal" internees. Due to the harsh conditions of the Center, strife and controversy arose. This led to the construction of a stockade, , with a jail, and the implementation of martial law.


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...The Tule Lake Unit is a reminder to all Americans that the Constitution is no more than a piece of paper unless we are willing to defend its principles.


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Out on the highway, the state of California, in cooperation with the Japanese American Citizens League, has placed a marker that even more bluntly repudiates this shameful episode.

Tule Lake was one of ten American concentration camps established during World War II to incarcerate 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, of whom the majority were American citizens, behind barbed wire and guard towers without charge, trial, or establishment of guilt. These camps are reminders about how racism, economic and political exploitation and expediency can undermine the Constitutional guarantees of United States citizens and aliens alike. May the injustices and humiliation suffered here never recur.

Never again indeed.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Libya war reveals constitutional rot



Apparently the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly against authorizing Obama's war in Libya this morning. Seventy Democrats joined all but eight Republicans to knock the measure down.

For a nice change, the vote quite accurately reflects feelings in the country. According to Gallup, in aggregate, 39 percent of us approve, 46 percent disapprove, and 15 percent aren't saying. The issue has become mildly partisan. Republicans and independents disapprove more than they approve (47-39 and 52-31 respectively) while Democrats were always more supportive of the president they elected and still approve, 54-35 (pretty much the same as in March).

I was uncertain but worried in March. These martial adventures have universally been bad news in my lifetime. I am horrified by the aspect of this one that amounts to assisting anxious Europeans to hold back a feared hoard of dark immigrants. But I was aware that thee are people who know more about these things than I do, such as Conor Foley and Marc Lynch, who think NATO's war on Gaddafi is a right action. So I'm a little conflicted though instinctively disapproving.

However, I am absolutely certain that the President's ludicrous explanation for blowing off the requirement that Congress approve the mission -- his claim that the Libyan adventure does not amount to "hostilities" -- signals a deep disdain for any legal limit to his executive power. Responsible lawyers, including many past allies, have called "foul." When presidents can get away with taking us to war without seeking even a fig leaf of approval from the legislative branch of government, we are well on the way to one man rule.

Since Democrats in the majority in the Senate are not likely to go along with the House in repudiating their President's war, today's vote against the Libya adventure is not likely to have any practical effect. It's all just one more sign that our creaky Constitutional edifice is rotting away.

Photo is of a Libyan demonstrator in San Francisco, several weeks before NATO began bombing. I have to wonder, what does she think now?

Friday critter blogging: the sheep are gathering ...


And so are the people, in Eugene, Oregon, this weekend. They knit and spin. I don't, but I live with, transport, and love a fiber freak. So here we are, among the women (this event is mostly women) and sheep.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

On the road: an anguished wake up call

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There's a howl of distress in the land. This chair sat in the window of a vacant storefront on Main Street in Dunsmuir, California, a tourist town that was once an important railroad depot. It's a charming place. There appeared to be more vacant storefronts than working ones.

From the seat back:

Why are we so complacent?
What happened to the American spirit?
What will it take to wake up?
What happened to the American dream?
How can we be so complacent?
What happens to America?

You can read the seat.

The war that no one wants must go on

So the President has decided to "declare victory in Afghanistan and get out" except that neither he nor anyone else has a definition of "victory" and we're not actually getting out. By the end of the President's current term in 2012, there will still be more than twice as many U.S. troops in Afghanistan as when he took office.

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The war that no one wants must go on. Just the other day, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, made it all too clear he doesn't want us.

"You remember a few years ago I was saying thank you to the foreigners for their help; every minute we were thanking them," he said. “Now I have stopped saying that ... They’re here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that,"

At least 56 percent of us want all U.S troops out NOW. Even Congress is beginning to notice our discontent and they are getting restive. Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman understand the public mood; they want early withdrawal. Democratic stalwart Rep. John Conyers expressed a growing sentiment:

“Our country does not need nearly 100,000 ground troops to hunt down the 50 to 100 al Qaeda who remain in Afghanistan. Our country cannot afford to continue to spend $2 billion a week on a mission that is cumbersome, inefficient, and is not tailored to address the threat terrorism poses to the American people.

Gosh, even the President noted, in announcing his minimal troop pullback, that we need a "pivot" on Afghanistan.

“Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war at a time of rising debt and hard economic times,” Mr. Obama said. “Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource: our people.”

I'm sure those of "our people" who are called upon to die in this purposeless project must wonder who is caring for them.
***
The notion of "declaring victory and getting out" has an honorable history of a sort that seems to fit this President. The phrase is attributed (apparently not quite accurately) to Senator George Aiken, referring to the U.S.'s flailing imperial adventure in Vietnam. The idea is not a bad template for an over-extended empire in decline: when you can't "win," spin and cut your losses.

Aiken was a Senator from Vermont from 1941 through 1975. He supported much of the New Deal and was dubious about world-wide military engagement. In fact he was just the sort of liberal Republican (now extinct) that Barack Obama seems to be. Would that Obama had a little bit more of his savvy and enough stuffing to run with it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: a view from Australia

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky steps into the twilight zone of climate change skepticism: where the sun is made of iron and the royals are out to get you.



Are conspiracy theorists really the people you want to trust, when it comes to the future of our children?

You can read the long version of this argument in this article. These scientists understand how to build a case.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of that inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On a road trip ...

Yippee -- we're exploring Northern California today.

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Tomorrow morning I hope to be up there, presumably by some approach not quite as vertical as this picture looks. Story in the future. This is from Castle Crags State Park.

Why the taxi turmoil?


Brad Newsham explains what San Francisco taxi drivers are protesting today. Brad, besides driving a cab, is the creator of the Beach Impeach and much other creative protest against national and local wrongs.

DURING THE PAST THREE DECADES San Francisco was home to the most driver-friendly taxicab legislation on this planet. A groundbreaking 1978 law stipulated that the city's taxicab "medallions" (the permits that allow the holder to put one cab on the streets) would no longer be held by taxicab companies but by veteran cab drivers.

The cab company owners loathed the new arrangement, and between 1978 and 2007 they crafted eight separate ballot measures intended to restore their supremacy. And on each of those eight occasions, the city’s enlightened voters said, “No -- we like our cabdrivers. The law stays.”

BUT IN 2007, a group of City Hall and taxicab industry insiders pulled off a fast one. The principals have never admitted their roles, but here’s how the dirty deal went down: 2007 was an “off-year” election (no headliner contests on the ballot) and it was understood that voter turnout would be feather-light. Deep within the fine-print legalese of a mind-numbing, ten-page ballot proposal (“Transit Reform, Parking Regulation and Emissions Reductions”) the insiders hid a bomb -- three devastating sentences designed to abolish the San Francisco Taxicab Commission and place the cab industry under control of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). Most cunningly, the bill specified that all previous taxicab legislation would be nullified, and henceforth any decree from the SFMTA would automatically be law in the taxicab industry. The measure squeaked through with the “yes” votes of a mere 15% of the electorate, who had no idea they’d just sabotaged the City’s 7,000 cab drivers.

THE SAN FRANCISCO MUNICIPAL TRANSPORTATION AGENCY is a sprawling octopus of more than 5,000 salaried employees. Its flagship enterprise is Muni, the perennially beleaguered bus and subway system whose brink-of-bankruptcy woes often scream from the headlines. The SFMTA’s director is paid $308,837 per year. The average Muni bus driver earns $82,000. In addition to paychecks, all SFMTA workers receive sick leave, paid vacations, and comprehensive health and retirement packages. (A typical cab driver earns approx, $30,000/year. A cab driver who holds a medallion can earn an additional $25,000 or so by renting out his/her cab and medallion. But when it comes to benefits, every cab driver is equal: no one gets a thing -- no sick/vacation pay, no health care, no 401K.

The SFMTA just about wet its pants when the cab industry was delivered, bound-and-gagged, onto its doorstep. One SFMTA director publicly proposed confiscating all 1,500 medallions (no matter that medallion holders, such as me, have invested their economic lives into the cab industry) for sale to the highest bidder. A veteran city attorney was assigned to conduct “taxicab industry town hall meetings” at which she was straight-up with those of us who attended: her job, she told us, was to figure out how to extract $20 million from the cab industry -- ASAP! -- with so very much more to come later. We cab drivers were invited to offer suggestions on how the extraction mechanisms might be most efficiently structured, but the eventual outcome was non-negotiable. Don’t like it? Well, tough! Elections have consequences.

By mid-May of 2010 all of the various tubes and spigots of the gleaming new money pipeline were operational. In June 2011 the SFMTA reported that, so far, $10.3 million had flowed from the low-paid, benefit-less, health care-less workers in the taxicab industry over into the compensation packages of the SFMTA. The cab driver body has watched all this unfold and has finally began to ask, Can this really be happening right here in God’s Favorite City? And: Are we not human, too?

THE CONFUSING NEWS REPORTS you may have heard (5 percent credit card fees, backseat advertising terminals, honking cabs surrounding City Hall make absolutely no sense if you are unaware of the brilliant 2007 coup engineered by the City Hall “in-crowd.” Already, as a result of that coup, an actual fortune has been transferred away from the city’s zero-benefits, low-pay cab drivers and has been used to fund the paychecks and the benefits of some of the city’s best-compensated employees. The news media have all but ignored this story, but we cab drivers can no longer afford to. Surely, in San Francisco, such a thing can not stand.


So, What DO Cab Drivers Want?

It’s very simple. We ask only that the revenue generated by our humble labor should be plowed back into improving the taxicab industry instead of being siphoned away by the SFMTA. Our regulators at the SFMTA currently regard the taxicab industry merely as a source of funding for the salaries, healthcare, and pensions of the SFMTA’s 5,000 employees. On the other hand, the SFMTA says that the city’s 7,000 cabdrivers are not eligible for such benefits, but are in fact not eligible for benefits of any kind.

This shocking remnant from the days of slavery runs counter to every single value held by the people of San Francisco. We cab drivers are confident that our fellow citizens will soon hear our pleas for mercy and justice, and will agree that the money generated by our labors shall not be hijacked.

The taxicab industry should and can and already does generate all the money required for its reasonable regulation, and we drivers feel that the additional money generated by our labor should not be taken away, but should be used to make the taxicab industry a more vibrant transportation option for the people of San Francisco and all visitors.

Every single issue involving the cab industry can indeed be worked out by reasonable people treating each other respectfully, but not even one of these issues can be resolved if a money-hungry group from outside the taxicab industry is allowed to run amok inside the taxicab industry. What’s generated by the cab industry should stay in the cab industry.

We want a law specifying that the SFMTA shall take from the taxicab industry only the money required for reasonable regulation, and that 100 percent of the rest will be plowed back into the taxicab industry. Or else we want a law cutting us loose from the SFMTA. We feel this is absolutely fair and reasonable.
***

For a more exhaustive treatment of taxi issues, see Brad's article here.

***
I wish Brad hadn't teed off on Muni drivers here, though I understand his frustration. After all, the drivers earn far more than cabbies can dream of. But they won their union contracts by tough bargaining and we shouldn't be blaming them for trying to get the best deal they can win. They have refused to make even token concessions during recent budget crises, so the drivers have become everyone's favorite punching bag. I'd rather concentrate my fire on the SFMTA executives, but this is Brad's piece.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The whens, hows, rights and wrongs of humanitarian intervention

Conor Foley, the author of The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War, reminds readers that, in 1999, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan posed a question that must haunt anyone wishing to prevent and relieve human suffering:

"How should we respond to another Rwanda or Srebrenica [massacre]?"

Foley is an experienced humanitarian worker who has served with a variety of non-governmental agencies in disaster and war zones in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In this book, he breaks down some of what has helped and what has harmed in the various international forays into war-torn and/or disaster-struck countries over the last 20 years. He is not confident that much good has been achieved, but this book certainly provides a lot of context about these civilian interventions.

British and other internationalists have more nuanced categories for thinking about these issues than people in the United States. I had trouble at first disentangling Foley's terminology. Here's what I figured out: when he writes of "humanitarianism," he means non-governmental organizations that devote themselves to the immediate needs of suffering people and that usually have taken up some rhetoric and practice aimed at sustainable development: think Oxfam or CARE. Writing of "human rights," he means proliferating efforts to bring principles of international law to states and people in distress: think Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. In most of the world, the most significant non-governmental organizations of both types are various United Nations bodies -- in this country we remain largely oblivious to the UN, except when our rulers congratulate themselves on obtaining the fig leaf of UN assent to adventures such as the current war in Libya.

Foley begins by sharing one of humanitarianism's dirty and little discussed insights: the 1970 campaign to feed starving Biafrans in Nigeria's southeast separatist corner -- an intervention that set the template for much subsequent non-governmental work in conflict areas -- was badly ill-conceived and executed.

... the Biafra intervention is also now widely recognized, in humanitarian circles at least, as a huge political error. The Igbo leadership used it to raise money to keep the war going by effectively taxing the NGOs who were delivering supplies. They turned down the offer of a supervised 'land corridor', realizing how dramatic the night flights had become. The flights were also used as cover for bringing in weapons along the same route, in clear violation of international humanitarian law.

...when Biafra finally surrendered in January 1970, the central government was noticeably conciliatory to its defeated foes. ... The conflict was also marked by a willingness of aid agencies and the international media to collude in a skillful campaign by the Biafran political leaders who hired a PR company to promote their cause. ...Most aid organizations now admit that the main effect of their efforts was to prolong the conflict by a further eighteen months ...

One trouble is that relief organizations have to spotlight human suffering and then make their own work highly visible within any disaster context in order to persuade donors to fund their efforts. Any of us who've raised money for a non-profit know this well. In the immediate aftermath of a calamity that happens in a place without major prior ongoing conflict, this necessary dramatization may not have such bad consequences. Foley holds up the response to the 2005 Pacific tsunami as such a relatively benign intervention.

If the tsunami diverted resources from elsewhere it was mainly due to the action of humanitarian agencies who understood its fund-raising potential from a business point of view. Aid agencies need to follow the high-profile disasters because it is what their supporters expect. They may well know they are duplicating the efforts of others, but it would be impossible to ignore a disaster on the scale of the tsunami. ...

... Despite the waste, the tsunami relief operation deserves to be remembered as a qualified success. ... Two million people were displaced by the disaster and there were initial fears of a second catastrophe through the spread of infectious diseases. But no public health emergency occurred and within days the majority of people affected received food, water, sanitation, shelter and healthcare. Within a month, the emergency response phase geared to saving lives was completed, and the focus moved to recovering livelihoods and getting children back to school.

In war zones, efforts that Foley has seen and worked within haven't gone so well, especially those that tried to go beyond relieving immediate suffering to promotion of human rights. Most visibly, in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. invading armies made no secret that NGO work was welcome as a "force multiplier" -- a cheap means of providing some benefits to win over occupied populations. The occupied people were not so happy about that; conflict zones have become death zones for "humanitarian" workers who were too often viewed as just more invaders.

NGO's understand the problems; they work hard to transfer their work to local, native country, staff. That means training them in the values of international human rights -- and that process often has an Alice in Wonderland quality as the norms prescribed have so little to do with the experience and society into which agencies are trying to plant them. Foley recounts the response of Kosovan co-workers to a training on children's rights.

A young Scandinavian lawyer working for UNICEF gave one of the speeches, during which she went through the Convention on the Rights of the Child that came into force in 1989, and is one of the most extensive of the human rights conventions. ... I noticed that everyone took copious notes while she was speaking but no one challenged any of her assertions, though they must have jarred with the cultural ethos of the society in which they were raised.

Walking back to the office with one of my national colleagues, 1 asked her about this. She replied that in order to be appointed to any professional position in the former Yugoslavia it was necessary to pass an exam in Marxist-Leninism. "Everyone knew it was nonsense, but we just learned it off by heart and repeated what the examiner wanted us to say. Then we forgot about it and just got on with our jobs. The communists ruled us then and now you do. It is basically the same thing though," she concluded.

So much for facile assumptions of universal values.

Foley is very skeptical of the International Criminal Court -- and not only because the United States has undermined it at every turn, refusing to allow any possibility that possibly criminal actions by our own military might ever be subject to review by an international body. (That's the content of our beloved "American exceptionalism" in the real world: impunity.) Without genuine assent from all the world's great military powers, the ICC remains a backwater functional only "for dealing with mid-level thugs and warlords or retired dictators" -- yet too often the threat of punishment from this ineffectual body only makes ending local conflicts more difficult.

Even some people in Britain and other parts of the rich world who might be expected to be friends of NGO aid work rather lightly refuse to engage imaginatively with the implications of Annan's question. Foley laments

a long-standing ambivalence by a section of the left towards human rights and humanitarianism. The idea that rights should be defended for their own sake or that interventions should be judged by the criteria of whether they help or harm people is derided as naive. The more important issue, these leftists argue, is 'whose side you are on' in a global ideological struggle. This used to be defined in cold war terms but is increasingly presented as one of 'anti-imperialism' versus 'liberal interventionism'. Traditionally, many on the left and right of the political spectrum were prepared to overlook human rights violations when committed by their allies, or refrain from denouncing them lest it provide 'propaganda' for their opponents.

The UN intervention that didn't happen in the Sudan's Darfur region in the last decade -- despite the diligent urging of some humanitarian organizations that the refugee crisis there amounted to "genocide" -- provides Foley with an example of what he considers culpable political incapacity on the part of humanitarian organizations.

One of the noticeable differences between human rights and humanitarian organizations is that the former err on the side of caution when reporting violations, whereas the latter never knowingly understate the scale of a crisis. Advocacy reporting is not humanitarianism's core business and many organizations often use their reports for other purposes, such as fund-raising. Even with the best intentions, there may be a temptation to dramatize a particular crisis, since the general view is that no harm can come from making people care too much about suffering. This means there will always be potential issues of fact-checking, quality control and manipulation...

Yet despite these dangers, there remain the suffering people; in response, aid agencies inevitably undertake compromised missions, at least some of the time.

If a government is deliberately starving a civilian population as a means of waging war, then humanitarian organizations are legally and morally justified in taking the 'borderless doctors' approach in flouting its authority to deliver life-saving aid. Beyond this though, once humanitarians assume responsibility for aspects of state-building, adopt a rights-based approach to aid delivery or the use of such aid for peace-building purposes, they inevitably compromise their principles of independence and impartiality.

There will probably be situations in the future when humanitarian organizations feel that only international intervention will prevent mass killing or where their programme activity can help promote peace, justice and reconciliation, but the experience of recent years strongly suggests that the principle 'first, do no harm' is best preserved by humanitarian neutrality.

Humanitarian interventions are at best a necessary evil since by their very nature they cause harm to the societies they are trying to help. Even at their most benign, relief assistance operations, such as the one following the tsunami, lead to economic and social distortion, weaken local capacity and encourage dependence. Military interventions are even more destabilizing and result in significant costs for both the occupier and occupied. It is noticeable how few places where large-scale humanitarian interventions took place in recent years have succeeded in making the transition to stability. ...

The Thin Blue Line was published in 2008. Reading the book in 2011, I wondered what Foley thought of the current NATO/US campaign in Libya. He is someone who might have a nuanced view. Fortunately, he's told us what he thinks in a post at Crooked Timber. On March 22 he wrote:

... the case for or against a ‘humanitarian intervention’ rests on answering two broad questions: has the level of violence reached such a threshold that the use of counter-force is morally justifiable and is it a practical, strategic option that will actually make things better for the people concerned?

...On balance I am in favour of the current intervention in Libya. ... I think that the UN resolution authorizing it puts the protection of civilians at the centre of its mandate and sends a clear signal to governments of the world that they cannot massacre their own people with impunity.

I do not know what the end game is. I accept that the campaign will result in people being killed by allied airstrikes and I presume that the intervening governments have selfish as well as altruistic motives for their actions. However, I think that the situation in Libya immediately prior to the intervention passed the threshold test that I set out above. I think that the UN is fulfilling its responsibility to protect the lives of civilians in this case.

I wonder whether Foley still looks at the Libya intervention the same way. I've lost any hope I had in the project, in good part because I am watching our president make up transparently flimsy legal excuses for violating our own principles of government in order to carry it out. If jumping in encourages bad conduct here, I tend to think it is not likely to bring good fruit in someone else's country. But maybe I ask too much moral clarity.

The Thin Blue Line concludes by reinforcing that even the most dedicated humanitarians end up living with moral ambiguity.

Tens of thousands of humanitarian aid workers are confronted with [a] moral dilemma every day. They might help individual people in a crisis zone, but they can never be absolutely certain that the overall impact of their presence does more good than harm. While their presence pricks the world's conscience that 'something must be done' it simultaneously reinforces the delusion that humanitarian action can ever be enough. In reality they are just another part of the problem.

Long term humanitarian workers have to be made of tough moral stuff.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

No way to build confidence

medicare insolvency.png
This chart from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows the varying estimates by the the government body entrusted with making the projections of when Medicare might take in less in taxes, premiums and fees than it puts out to the medical industry. It does not inspire confidence that these experts know what they are doing.

But the scary word "insolvency" hides a further misleading implication of this kind of estimate. In this context, "insolvency" means taking in less than enough to pay the bills -- even if that implies only a 5 or 10 percent shortfall. Medicare can still take in 90 percent of its obligations and be called "insolvent." That's not at all the same as going broke! It's more like hitting a bad patch.

If Medicare is in trouble, our politicians should fix it -- go where the money is (hint: rich people have it) and ensure Medicare can pay the bills far into the future. It would not hurt to get more people back to work and paying FICA taxes as well.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Saturday scenes and scenery: Mission graffiti

I see you.jpg
The local artists are enjoying themselves.

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This creature (?) has turned up on several previously black spaces. I think of it as the "Blue Whatsis".

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Urban life can be startling.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Huckster alert

Last night I heard something odd coming from the TV in another room. Some guy was animatedly lecturing on KQED (local public television) about brain scans and weight loss and it all sounded like a sales pitch for a fad diet scam, the sort of thing that you expect on the The Shopping Channel, not on highbrow TV.

A quick look at KQED's listings produced this:

Amen Solution - Thinner, Smarter, Happier with Dr. Daniel Amen
Award winning psychiatrist and bestselling author Dr. Daniel Amen gives you 10 very simple steps that will help you lose weight, boost your memory, and improve your mood. Based on his brain-imaging work with tens of thousands of patients over the last 20 years he has discovered two of the major secrets why most diets don't work. Contrary to what you might think, they have nothing to do with your lack of desire to lose weight or your willpower. In fact, he shows you that for some people the harder they try to lose weight the worse it gets. ...

So who is this Amen guy?

It didn't take much work to find this:

rick and daniel.jpg
Apparently Dr. Amen -- he does seem to be a legitimate MD, though his claims of university affiliation have been questioned -- peddles his stuff as an adjunct in homophobic mega-chuch Pastor Rick Warren's empire.

Reputable doctors have been trying for years to out this conman. Robert Burton, M.D., former chief of neurology at Mount Zion-UCSF Hospital, describes his exhaustive inquiry into Amen's claims in a May 2008 Salon article. He's almost as disgusted with PBS for hawking this tripe as he is with Amen. The article concludes:

According to the PBS mission statement, "as a non-commercial enterprise, we can maintain our commitment to delivering quality, innovative and distinctive media content as our utmost priority. By guaranteeing our programs treat complex social issues with journalistic integrity and compassion, our audiences know they can rely on us to provide accurate, impartial information."

In the case of Amen, that is simply not true.

Oh, and this Amen character is trying to get in on the cause celebre of the moment, the growing proof, via autopsy not brain scans, that many NFL football players suffer permanent damage from the many hard hits they experience. The legitimate researchers breaking this story seem to be Dr. Bennet Omalu, Dr. Ann McKee and former pro-wrestler Christopher Nowinski. Dr. Amen appears to hope to ride the stardom that has rubbed off on them from what they've learned of the damage to our gridiron heros.

Kind of a sickening play to catch the spotlight, don't you think? And what was KQED thinking to broadcast this junk?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

On leadership in another time when the system reached impasse ...

... [Obama's has] been a pretty tepid and unimaginative presidency and at a moment in history where bigger and harder decisions were needed.

Professor Stephen Walt

I agree with Walt -- we desperately need more imaginative leadership and bolder decisions. We are mired in multifaceted intractable problems that, despite the United States' fading status as the world's lead empire, have planet-wide implications. Yet our politicians and institutions seem unable to take up the work of dealing with these realities at home or abroad.
***

Meanwhile, I just finished reading with fascination Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. In fact, I read it through twice. It's that gripping -- and it gave me a lot of think about. Much of that thinking arises from appreciating that Foner is drawing a picture of another era when the U.S. system of government proved constitutionally unable to solve its vital presenting problems. Lincoln's trial, and the nation's, was the result.

Foner's picture of Lincoln, as the subtitle indicates, makes the struggle over whether slavery would continue the center of the Civil War era impasse. That may seem obvious, but it was not always so. I grew up in a time when historians had acceded to Southern insistence that we'd had a "War between the States," an argument about states' rights that somehow turned violent. As a young person haunted by visiting Civil War battlefields where tens of thousands died, I doubted that this conflict was about anything so abstract and bloodless. As a young liberal, I leaned toward the historiography of Charles A. Beard, now largely forgotten, that placed the war in a context of class conflict leading to capitalist development. Nonetheless, coming up in the civil rights era of the 50s and 60s, I could hardly forget that the Civil War was somehow about the full humanity of "the Negroes" as we would have called African Americans at the time.

Slavery and how to end the institution that held 4 million Black people in bondage frames Foner's history. Here's how he introduces his project:

... My aim is to situate Lincoln within what Charles Sumner, the most outspoken foe of slavery in the U.S. Senate, called the "antislavery enterprise." This social and·political movement encompassed a wide variety of outlooks and practices. At one extreme, it included abolitionists who worked outside the party system and advocated an immediate end to slavery and the incorporation of the freed slaves as equal members of society. It also included those who adhered to what Sumner called "strictly constitutional endeavors," including steps to prevent the westward expansion of slavery and, in some cases, plans for gradual emancipation with monetary compensation to slaveowners and the "colonization" of the freed people outside the United States. At various times, Lincoln occupied different places on this spectrum.

... Much of Lincoln's career can fruitfully be seen as a search for a reconciliation of means and ends, an attempt to identify a viable mode of antislavery action in a political and constitutional system that erected seemingly impregnable barriers to effective steps toward abolition. For most of his career, Lincoln had no real idea how to rid the United States of slavery, although he announced many times his desire to see it end. But in this he was no different from virtually every other antislavery American of his era. ... If Lincoln achieved greatness, he grew into it. Not every individual possesses the capacity for growth; some, like Lincoln's successor as president, Andrew Johnson, seem to shrink, not grow, in the face of crisis. But to rise to the occasion requires not only an inner compass but also a willingness to listen to criticism, to seek out new ideas. Lincoln's career was a process of moral and political education and deepening antislavery conviction.

Rather than try to summarize Foner's dense volume, I'm just going to throw out some highlights from what I learned, hoping they intrigue readers as they did me.
  • It struck me that the names of most of the actors in the Civil War era were the same ones that I learned in childhood were normal for men of the political class. This is no longer quite so true (and now they are not all men); note the President's name. But nonetheless, we still have lot of Clintons and Browns and Bushes, just like the old days.
  • Lincoln was a party building politician, a guy who saw his role as holding the fragile, newly formed, Republican Party together in the 1850s. The glue that worked for that purpose was opposition to the extension of slavery into new territories. Maintaining party cohesion seems to have been the impetus that moved slavery to the center of Lincoln's concerns. (Yes, it's hard to think of Republicans as the party of liberation and progress -- how times have changed.)

    In trying to forge a winning Republican coalition, Lincoln understood he needed to not only keep as many conservatives in the fold as possible, but also to show respect for those who pushed him in more radical directions.

    In July 1856, the Chicago Tribune observed that the "charge of abolitionism" constituted one of the greatest obstacles to Republican success. Fear of being "caught in cooperation with some abolitionist" had led "timid souls" to remain "aloof from the Republican movement." Yet Lincoln was not afraid to work with abolitionists. He understood that without the public sentiment generated by abolitionist agitation outside the political system and by Radical Republicans within it, his new party could never succeed and that it needed to harness the intense commitment that [abolitionist Owen] Lovejoy's supporters would bring to the campaign.

    Would that the current Democratic leadership understood as well the need to keep the core of moral liberal activists within the broad "enterprise." This history also gave me a useful adjective to describe our current incumbent president; as Lincoln was to his critics, for contemporary progressives Obama is often "provoking."
  • I feel a little embarrassed to admit this: this book, for the first time, enabled me to internalize why the common Northern description of the Civil War was as "a fight for the Union." My own ancestors who fought for the North labelled the war that way, but I didn't get it. To take this in (and even comprehend the Gettysburg address!) you have to be able to enter a mindset in which it was still an open question whether democratic government under a constitution written by known human actors could ever work. In the 1860s, this was still debatable all around the world; maybe the idea was just a momentary madness and humans needed kings and priests to govern them? Today we treat legal democratic governance as so normative that we try to impose it on other, unwilling peoples. But in the 1860s, the question of whether humans could intentionally govern themselves under a broadly enfranchised, secular democracy really was up for grabs. Perhaps it is still.
  • Foner puts abolitionist agitation at the center of the national crisis Lincoln confronted. In doing so, he resuscitates a picture of the power of a morally grounded social movement that we've sometimes lost touch in these cynical times. The Constitution as written in 1789 protected slavery; figuring out how to end it required thinking outside established norms -- and led the abolitionist movement to altogether new ideas. Abolitionists were not popular; they were the shit-disturbers of their day.

    In 1795, the Virginia critic of slavery St. George Tucker inquired of the Massachusetts clergyman and historian Jeremy Belknap how his state had abolished slavery. Belknap replied, "Slavery hath been abolished here by public opinion." Understanding the importance of public sentiment, abolitionists pioneered the practice of radical agitation in a democracy. They did not put forward a detailed plan of emancipation. Rather, their aim, explained Wendell Phillips, perhaps the movement's greatest orator, was "to alter public opinion," to bring about a moral transformation whereby white Americans recognized the humanity and equal rights of blacks. By changing public discourse, by redefining the politically "possible," the abolitionist movement affected far more Americans than actually joined its ranks.

    ... The first racially integrated social movement in American history, abolitionism was also the first to insist on the inextricable connection between the struggles against slavery and racism. "While the word 'white' is on the statute-book of Massachusetts," declared the abolitionist editor Edmund Quincy, "Massachusetts is a slave state." Abolitionists challenged both southern slavery and the racial proscription that confined free blacks to second-class status throughout the nation. In the ideas of a national citizenship and of equal rights for all Americans, abolitionists glimpsed the possibility, which came to fruition during the Civil War, that the national state might become the guarantor of freedom and equality rather than its enemy

  • Foner's account of Lincoln's drift toward emancipating the slaves makes clear the extent to which slave and free Black people liberated themselves. Black abolitionists forced the movement to go beyond condemning slavery's bad effects on "free" (white) labor and imagine legal equality. During the Civil War, slaves flocked to Union outposts seeking freedom long before the North had yet considered emancipation -- and by doing so, showed their value to the Union war effort by undermining the Confederate economy. The Emancipation Proclamation was in part a recruiting device: Lincoln needed every Black soldier he could attract to fill the ranks of the army. By war's end, some 100,000 had served. It became unimaginable to Lincoln to treat these men and their families as anything less than full citizens.
At one point in The Fiery Trial, Foner remarks

History, it has been said, is what the present chooses to remember about the past.

This volume indeed gives those of us obsessed with the current impasse in government many insights, "a usable past." That's what I want from the study of history. Foner delivers. Some may criticize such a history; I applaud.

No groping bill for good reasons

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I hate it when things like this mess up my neat categories. Here's a guy who I am pretty sure is right wing nut, a Texas Republican state representative named David Simpson. I disagree with him about just about everything. But he's introduced a bill to curb intrusive TSA security theater at airports and on this, I think he's right. Here's what he told the New York Times:

Q. You call this an antigroping bill. Why is it necessary?

A. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizure of our person, not just our houses, and effects and papers. Right now, searches are proceeding under the object of preventing terrorist activities. But we’ve got to draw a line. You’ve got to have reasonable cause to touch people’s private parts. There was a parallel bill banning these full body scanners that allow people to see you naked. Both are violations of our dignity and impede law-abiding citizens’ access to travel.

Q. Without body scanners and pat-downs would travelers be less safe?

A. If you have reason to believe that someone is guilty of trying to commit a terrorist attack, then by all means investigate them and arrest them. But right now, everybody is having to undergo these searches. Use dogs, metal detectors, ask people questions. What’s wrong with using metal detectors? This is an issue not so much about security but about control. We’ve gone from prudent caution to ridiculous excess.

His idea is popular, though presumably the federal government can block it. But if we are ever going to get back any of the civil liberties flushed away in our post-9/11 panic, it will take a multitude of these eruptions.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Equal treatment under law

Yesterday a federal judge ruled, in vigorous language that Judge Vaughn Walker's holding that Prop. 8, California's gay marriage ban, is unconstitutional should not be overturned because Walker is gay. This seems pretty clear and simple:

In a case that could affect the general public based on the circumstances or characteristics of various members of that public, the fact that a federal judge happens to share the same circumstances or characteristic and will only be affected in a similar manner because the judge is a member of the public, is not a basis for disqualifying the judge.

...[I]t is inconsistent with the general principles of constitutional adjudication to presume that a member of a minority group reaps a greater benefit from application of the substantive protections of our Constitution than would a member of the majority. The fact that this is a case challenging a law on equal protection and due process grounds being prosecuted by members of a minority group does not mean that members of the minority group have a greater interest in equal protection and due process than the rest of society. In our society, a variety of citizens of different backgrounds coexist because we have constitutionally bound ourselves to protect the fundamental rights of one another from being violated by unlawful treatment. Thus, we all have an equal stake in a case that challenges the constitutionality of a restriction on a fundamental right.

...Requiring recusal because a court issued an injunction that could provide some speculative future benefit to the presiding judge solely on the basis of the fact that the judge belongs to the class against whom the unconstitutional law was directed would lead to a [] standard that required recusal of minority judges in most, if not all, civil rights cases.

Obviously the Examiner wasn't paying attention to the content of the ruling because the throwaway paper's cover this morning looked like this:

This ruling is not a victory for Judge Walker. It is a victory for any citizen, of any race, gender, or sexual orientation, who needs equal treatment under the law.

Somehow I don't think the plaintiffs would have dared try this attack on the judge's legitimacy if the issue had been one of women's or racial minoritys' civil rights. But they apparently hope they can still get away with such a discriminatory claim against a gay judge -- in their minds, though not in law, he is disqualified simply because he is gay. The Examiner seems to want to flog the same idea. Homophobes are working hard to keep the gays down -- and they are failing.

Washington responds to warming


Sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Warming Wednesday: hot times ahead

We had a warm, sunny day today, the first in weeks. It's been a brutally foggy, windy, cold spring in San Francisco. To check my impressions, I just looked at the National Weather Service data for the last month. It's true: since May 5, every day the temperature has registered at or (mostly) below normal for the date. Not by a huge amount, but the pattern is strong.

But Stanford University scientists insist this is not what's ahead for the area.

... the Stanford team concluded that many tropical regions in Africa, Asia and South America could see "the permanent emergence of unprecedented summer heat" in the next two decades. Middle latitudes of Europe, China and North America – including the United States – are likely to undergo extreme summer temperature shifts within 60 years, the researchers found.

"According to our projections, large areas of the globe are likely to warm up so quickly that, by the middle of this century, even the coolest summers will be hotter than the hottest summers of the past 50 years."

My emphasis. The Stanford researchers didn't home in on California, but a recent Newsweek cover story did.

Picture California a few decades from now, a place so hot and arid the state’s trademark orange and lemon trees have been replaced with olive trees that can handle the new climate. Alternating floods and droughts have made it impossible for the reservoirs to capture enough drinking water. The picturesque Highway 1, sections of which are already periodically being washed out by storm surges and mudslides, will have to be rerouted inland, possibly through a mountain.

These aren’t scenes from another deadly-weather thriller like The Day After Tomorrow. They’re all changes that California officials believe they need to brace for within the next decade or two.

All these scientific projections raise the political question: can our institutions deal with threats of this unprecedented sort or are we doomed to suffer them with minimal mitigation and adaptation because our political arrangements fail us?

On the political front, the news inspires more chills than our recent weather. Writing in the The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert makes as unequivocal a condemnation of the administration as I can imagine.

When Obama took office, he appointed some of the country’s most knowledgeable climate scientists to his Administration, and it seemed for a time as if he might take his responsibility to lead on this issue seriously. That hope has faded. The President sat on the sidelines in 2009 and 2010 while congressional leaders tried to put together majorities in favor of climate legislation. Since the midterm elections, Obama has barely mentioned climate change, and just about every decision that his Administration has made on energy and the environment has been wrong.

Again my emphasis. And the other guys are worse, most of the Republican presidential hopefuls claiming to question the science of climate change.

This is the great challenge to our democracy in this time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Selfish infants grab; real adults share



Busy today; this will have to suffice for a post.

Thanks to Ronni for the clip.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What kind of country is this becoming?

According to the New York Times, the F.B.I. has a new manual for its agents telling them when and what they are allowed to do about checking up on citizens. Essentially, they can do pretty much anything they want without the approval of any court or even, usually, any supervision from within the agency. They scarcely even need a plausible suspicion to open what they call "an assessment"; an individual agent's hunch will do.

[Valerie E. Caproni, the F.B.I. general counsel] said the new manual would adjust the definition of assessments to make clear that they must be based on leads. But she rejected arguments that the F.B.I. should focus only on investigations that begin with a firm reason for suspecting wrongdoing.

A fine secret police we've got these days!

I'm sure Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author David K. Shipler is not surprised. His new book, The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties, chronicles the choices U.S. rulers have made since 9/11, largely with our whole-hearted cooperation, to eviscerate individual privacy and guaranties of liberty. He does a masterful job, cataloging the sorry story of wholesale electronic spying, sneak and peak searches, gag orders, preventive detention under "material witness" cover, "state secrets" claims that conceal government lawlessness, infiltration of political and religious groups, and racial profiling that is the work of the abominably named Department of Homeland Security (love that totalitarian designation).

And this is only the first of two volumes. This one focuses on the demise of Fourth Amendment protections against government snooping on individuals; a further volume will take up how our government is constraining First Amendment rights -- free speech and religious liberty -- and the decline of the legal protections that create the context for such freedoms.

What I liked best about this book was that Shipler put the post-9/11 erosion of civil liberties in the context of their longstanding destruction in poor and, usually, black or brown communities under the rubric of the "War on Drugs." He follows well-meaning, mostly white, cops on the hunt for drugs and street violence in D.C. for whom any right that citizens might have to be secure from random search seems an anachronism from a fantasy world that must be swept aside in the interest of police efficiency.

There is no Fourth Amendment for most of our clients. --Tony Axam, assistant federal public defender, Washington, D.C.

The rest of us, outside those inner cities, have been quite willing to turn away from the lawless void we have encouraged our armed cowboys to enforce in those frightening dark fastnesses.

The post-9/11 destruction of our traditional legal freedoms simply extends this regime to more prosperous citizens with a bit more legal gooble-de-gook. At its core is the confidence of most government agents that they are doing the right thing in a good cause. (We owe a great deal of what we know about this lawless exercise of power to a few individuals within the system who experience scruples.) Government admits few limits on what its agents can do, ostensibly to make us safer. Looking at the power differential, I am far more afraid of the U.S. government at work killing the ennobling idea of a "land of liberty" than of a few terrorists who seek to kill some of us.

Shipler brings an ominous perspective to his gracefully narrated survey:

The best view of American freedoms may be from a country without them, as I learned in Moscow, where I lived for four years as a New York Times correspondent in the Soviet era of the 1970s. Devoid of the intricate balances and protections that preserve individual rights, the Soviet system sent many of my friends to prison camps and Siberian exile after sham trials for the mildest political dissent. ...I wish those who made policy in post-9/11 Washington had spent time in Moscow.

I wish those in power in Washington had identified with the Soviet people, instead of envying their unfettered rulers. The Obama regime is not discernibly better in this respect than the Bush set, though they sometimes talk a better game. We are living the corruptions of power.
***
Full disclosure: My partner and I were interviewed by David Shipler about our brush with the no-fly list in the course of his research for this book. Among the dozens of reporters we interacted with over this minor episode, Shipler was one of the most reflective and measured in his approach to the subject. I have been looking forward to this volume for about five years, because I shared with Shipler completely the insight he says led writing this:

I decided to do this book on the morning of September 11, 2001. Some time around 11 a.m. I finally loosened myself from the grip of the awful images on television, stepped outside into the dappled sunshine of a brilliant day, and in a moment of extreme clarity had an extreme thought: There go our civil liberties.

That's exactly what we said to each other in this household. Little did we know we'd get a bit part in the demise.

If you care at all about what kind of country this is becoming -- about our enjoying a future as a society where freedom is explored and enhanced -- The Rights of the People is a necessary read.
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