Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Global Peace Index

121. Iraq. 120. Sudan. 119. Israel. 118. Russia. 117. Nigeria. 116. Colombia. 115. Pakistan. 114. Lebanon. 113. Cote d' Ivoire. 112. Angola. 111. Sri Lanka. 110. Uzbekistan. 109 India. 108. Myanmar. 107 Algeria. 106. Zimbabwe. 105. Thailand. 104. Uganda. 103. Ethiopia. 102. Venezuela. 101. Azerbaijan. 99. Philippines. 99. South Africa. 98. Honduras. 97. Iran.

These are the top 25 least peaceful countries, according to the Global Peace Index.

The United States missed the 25 most troubled countries list by one; we rank number 96. Norway ranks as the most peaceful country at number 1, followed by New Zealand, Denmark, Ireland and Japan.

The Global Peace Index is the brainchild of Steve Killelea, an Australian information technology entrepreneur turned Buddhist philanthropist. Reaching out from its Australian roots, the project has collected endorsements from Archbishop Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and the Dalai Lama.

A team of economists and social scientists created a statistical model of peacefulness in nations and found the data to assess it from all over the world. Some of the least developed countries of the world simply don't offer enough data to make it possible to include them, so the rankings would change somewhat if it were possible to add in such states as the Central African Republic and Nepal. A fuller discussion of methodology can be downloaded here. It's pretty interesting.

As with all indexes of this type, there are issues of bias and arbitrariness in the factors that are chosen to assess peacefulness and, even more seriously, in assigning weights to the different indicators (measured on a comparable and meaningful scale) to produce a single synthetic measure.

The GPI consists of 24 indicators, of which five relate to conflict and propensity to conflict. ... Ten of the indicators in the GPI assess the levels of safety and security in a society (country), ranging from the level of distrust in other citizens, to the level of respect for human rights and the rate of homicides and violent crimes. ... Nine of the indicators in the GPI are related to a country's military build-up -- reflecting the assertion that the level of militarization and access to weapons is directly linked to how at peace a country feels internationally.

The overall composite score and index was then formulated by applying a weight of 60 percent to the measure of internal peace and 40 percent for external peace. The heavier weight applied to internal peace was agreed within the advisory panel, following robust debate. The decision was based on the innovative notion that a greater level of internal peace is likely to lead to, or at least correlate with, lower external conflict -- in other words, if "charity begins at home" -- so might peace.

This is the sort of stuff that is easy to argue about -- and ridicule. But the GPI's conclusions are interesting:

... it is clear that small, stable and democratic countries are the most peaceful -- 15 of the top 20 countries are western or central European democracies. Most of them are members of a regional supranational and intergovernmental organization, the European Union. Four Scandinavian countries are in the top ten, with Sweden in seventh place in spite of its armaments industry and relatively high score for the exports of weapons. Island nations generally fare well. ...

Three of the world's major military-diplomatic powers (the European Union could be considered the 4th) score relatively badly overall, with China at 60th, the United States at 96th and Russia at 118th. The United States could be seen to be suffering for [imposing] a Pax Americana with very high levels of military expenditure and engagement beyond its borders -- effectively acting as a global policeman. However, it also suffers internally with the highest jailed population (as a proportion of the population) out of the 121 countries and comparatively high levels of homicides per 100,000 people for a developed country.

A few of my own observations derived from a pleasant couple of hours clicking around in the data:
  • It's hard for someone who remembers the other September 11, the 1973 coup in Chile overthrowing that nation's democracy, to believe that the South American country now ranks 16th in peacefulness.
  • Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua all now rank as more peaceful than their tormentor of the 1980s, the United States.
  • Despite the project's Australian origins, that country only come in number 25.
  • As far as I can tell, no variable measuring either a country's impact on global sustainability or a country's vulnerability to climate change is captured anywhere in the rankings. Given the likely impact of resource and climate change conflicts, I think something is missing here.
  • Five of the world's nuclear weapons possessing states -- Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India, and the United States -- are among the least peaceful quartile. China, the United Kingdom and France are somewhere in the middle of the rankings. North Korea is not ranked.
There are vast quantities of fascinating data expressed in these rankings. If there are any other statistics nerds reading this, take a look.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

On violence

Some people understand that responding to fanatical violence with violence only makes for more violence.

Back in March, 2001 Taliban rule in Afghanistan first moved into the forefront of my dim awareness of the world when that regime destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. These giant statues, 121 and 180 feet tall, dating from the 6th century C.E., were carved into niches in sandstone cliffs. Buddhism had long been superceded by Islam; there were no local Buddhists. The statues were historical relics. Successive Muslim rulers had treated them as part of the area's heritage, not blasphemous idols. Even the Taliban at first promised to preserve them; Bamiyan was a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site. For reasons about which there is controversy, in March 2001 the Taliban changed their minds: the Islamists claimed the statues had been worshipped as idols by non-believers and must not be allowed to survive.

The whole world, including all 54 states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, protested their destruction. What struck me as a very distant observer was that the folks who seemed least exercised by this act of cultural violence were contemporary Buddhists. Yes, there were popular, peaceful protests in Buddhist countries. But the following sentiment was also expressed in many forms:

I'm a Buddhist. It's a real shame that any ancient art, Buddhist or otherwise is ever destroyed by anybody. The consequences of any action based on greed, hatred or delusion will inevitably be bad. It doesn't look good for the Taliban. But I think that the suffering of humanity is far more important than any art. So we should respond with kindness to the Taliban, try not to be too judgmental as we too have our own faults.

Sion Williams, UK
BBC Talking Point (a call in show)
March 12, 2001

Just the other day, somebody in Iraq, most likely fundamentalist Islamist insurgents, set off a huge bomb outside the shrine of Shaikh Abdul Qadir al-Gilani (d. 1166 A.D.) a great mystic who founded the vast Qadiriya Sufi order. Juan Cole used this unhappy occasion to explain the place of Sufi mysticism as a current within Sunni Islam and asserted a hope that the attack would not set off retaliation. According to Cole,

One saving grace is that Sufis are oriented toward symbolic meaning, and physical places are therefore not central to their worship. One famous medieval Sufi, al-Hallaj, famously thought that it was better to visit God in your heart truly than to undertake a perfunctory pilgrimage to Mecca. (The orthodox were outraged.) It is a little unlikely, therefore, that there will be a backlash from this bombing in Nigeria or Senegal or India. For Iraqi Sunnis, likewise, it seems a little unlikely to produce further violence, since the imam himself blamed the radical Salafis (takfiris), themselves Sunni.

He goes on to report

Muhammad al-Isawi, the prayer leader and preacher at the mosque attached to the shrine, said, "I send condolences not only to myself but to all Iraqis for what befell this mosque for everyone, for Sunni and Shiite, for Turkmen and Kurd. Who benefits from blowing it up? We must be patient and resigned and deny any opportunity to the enemies, the Takfiri terrorists."

Some people understand that responding to fanatical violence with violence only makes for more violence. Can we learn from them?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pelosi aide on how to end the war
Give Dems a veto proof majority ... please

The Philip Burton Federal Building is imposing -- a bit imperial I think.

This afternoon I joined a constituent delegation organized by Peace Action West that met with Dan Bernal, director of Rep. Nancy Pelosi's district office, and Melanie Nutter, deputy director, in the San Francisco office.

Not surprisingly, we wanted to know where the Democrats left their spines when they gave Bush his Iraq supplemental funding.

As we expected, we were politely stonewalled. It is amazing the degree of weakness Democrats in power are willing to embrace. This guy clung to their sad inability to deliver like a limpet. It sounded something like this: "Really, we did our best but the mean Republicans wouldn't go along -- yet." (To be fair, that's my paraphrase, not his words.) The first part is for grown-ups like the media; the "yet" was for us, slightly irritating constituent peace activists.

Still the meeting was not completely uninteresting...

Given the number of times Bernal said "we have to push for accountability" and "Bush wants a blank check" a lot must have been invested in the focus groups that came up with that language. Also, we should understand the Democratic leadership has a "plan," there's "a process." In September Congress will vote again on the Defense Department appropriation and then on the funding itself. Those will be votes on Iraq too. Maybe if people like peace activists would go off and jack up enough Republicans, the Dems will be able to begin to stop the war.

Sure cedes a lot of power to the Republicans, doesn't it?

Interestingly to me, because I have not noted this elsewhere, (except as Hillary Clinton's Iraq fig leaf) he also suggested that Congress would vote on rescinding the resolution authorizing use of force in Iraq in the fall -- but he didn't expect the Dems to have the votes to win on this.

Bernal made clear that Pelosi's definition of "having the votes" is winning a veto proof majority -- something that would take all the Dems and about 70 Republicans. That is, they are either smoking strong stuff or they don't expect to be able to end the war during Bush's tenure.

To push on the guy, I asked why they don't simply announce "no more funding after a date certain" and take the fight to the people. Or why they don't give Bush the funds in two month chunks with new restrictions each time. He said neither option was on the table.

Then I got a little bit more pushy: "Are those means off the table because the Democratic leadership thinks they'd lose enough Democrats to a discharge petition so the House would pass a Republican bill?" A discharge petition is a parliamentary maneuver that would let a bill come to the floor even if Pelosi and Co. wouldn't bring it up. Bernal said "yes." He said such a thing would be a terrible blow to the leadership. Sure as shooting it would be! I draw the conclusion that the leadership is caving to Bush because some large fraction of their own Democratic members refuse to seriously oppose the war.

If we want to end the war, the first target for progressives has to be these useless Democrats. As long as they provide an excuse, the Democratic leadership will cave.

Other tidbits: Some sort of a vote to point out to Bush that he shouldn't attack Iran without Congressional approval is "in the pipeline." Pelosi has committed to let this happen. Hope it emerges before Bush just attacks. Glad to hear that Congress has some concern for its Constitutional prerogatives.

Restoration of habeas corpus and repudiation of the Military Commissions (torture enabling) Act are not on Pelosi's office's radar screen. I imagine Dems have the same problem with these measures as with Iraq -- they are scared shitless of being accused of being soft on terrorism and want that veto-proof majority to give them cover.

Of course, as long as Democrats are too scared of being called weak to stand for what their constituents want, they'll be bullied by the right and scorned by many of their own. Such behavior merely shows the right wingers that Democrats are weak. It also makes even a sympathetic electorate wonder whether the bellicose Reps don't have the simpering Dems number.

Some reflections: I went on this little exercise because I've been known to urge peace movement folks to pester our Democratic congresscritters even when they claim to be on our side. So when Peace Action West offered me a chance to go, I figured I'd better do what I urge others to do.

Besides, having watched Nancy Pelosi fight her way into leadership, I don't think she is spineless. We could easily do worse. But it never hurts to remind her what those pesky constituents expect of her.

On the way in, we ran into a group of religious activists who'd just been in to Pelosi's office to pitch their case for getting on with peace. (Several of them had been arrested at the Federal Building in this protest and were carrying on.) So we knew it was "peace day" upstairs.

Peace Action's organizer recruited her delegation members from an open email invitation to members she didn't know. We turned out to be three who had some sophistication about local and national politics and one who just wanted answers. I'm not certain that more of the latter sort, the simply honestly outraged, might not have been more effective than having three of us who could play a little bit of "inside baseball." When you bear an unwelcome message, insider talk can function as a happy distraction from the point of the meeting. We didn't let that happen, but the temptation is always there.

Pelosi's aide did his best to talk with the organizer over the heads of the mere citizen delegates -- an impossibility in this crew, not that our Peace Action leader would have put up with it. Naturally, they'd rather talk with people who "understand" their problems. As activist citizens, we really don't care about the problems they have -- they work for us. And we have to keep reminding our Democratic leaders that we elected them to reign in our rogue President.

On the way out, we passed through a display of AFSC's Eyes Wide Open: 360 pairs of empty military boots lining the street in front of the building to commemorate the 360 Californians killed in the Iraq war. A friend of mine was passing out explanatory leaflets, wearing a "Vets for Peace" t-shirt. I told him what we'd been up to. He nodded: "It's like water. You know, drip, drip, drip..."

Monday, May 28, 2007

How to talk about immigration

Probably not like this, however heartfelt the sentiment.

Celinda Lake, a national Democratic pollster, shared some thoughts (and poll findings) on this nasty wedge issue at the National Conference of State Legislatures' Spring Forum in Washington, D.C. back in April. My transcription of some of her remarks:

Voters are both very emotional yet want to be very realistic about this issue.

Many on the Democratic side, on the progressive side, used to argue this issue from the perspective that "immigrants are good for you." Voters said, "Okay, maybe once they were, but we're full up now. This economy is bad and they aren't good for me anymore."

Some base Democratic constituencies, including African Americans, said, "Hey, don't tell me they take jobs that nobody else wants -- maybe our community wants those jobs."

What has been far more successful is to say: "Immigrants are [like] you. These are hard working people who pay taxes and try to learn English and they deserve a fair route to citizenship. There is no way that we can deport 12 million people."

Voters are very comfortable having deeply contradictory views and usually deeply resent having it pointed out to them. Immigration is one of those [two-views] issues -- but there is clearly a desire to get on a realistic path in a way that is fair to people.

I've heard Lake make these kind of presentations -- she is a very practical pollster who looks for responsible ways to make progressive positions feel attractive to ordinary voters.

Listen to her explain this messaging on this 2 minute podcast. You'll come away with the impression that she believes the U.S. electorate can be talked with -- that folks aren't rubes -- that she likes them.

Via The Thicket at State Legislatures, which bills itself as a "bipartisan blog by and for legislative junkies." It's a pleasant, informative place to visit.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Memorial Day

I just don't have it in me to believe that dead people of "my kind" are any more valuable or missed than dead people of someone else's kind. The fallen are just as missed by those who loved them, regardless of what "side" they came from. So today I offer for our contemplation two images of grief.

Anthony Martini of Chicago, mourns his brother, Marine Lance Cpl. Philip John Martini while visiting a memorial of over 3400 pairs of boots representing the U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq, in Chicago's Grant Park, Saturday, May 26, 2007. AP photo.

In the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad, some of the students killed Tuesday by uniformed gunmen at what seemed to be a phony checkpoint were buried on Wednesday. The students, six men and two women, were traveling in a van when they were stopped by men in Iraqi Army uniforms. Karim Kadim/Associated Press

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Despair and hope
the Keiskamma altarpiece

It takes something like a miracle to find hope when an unknown, always deadly disease with no known cure kills off the young, the brightest, the most promising, the most hard working members of a community. Without warning, hope seems gone. We know this trauma in San Francisco; we watched our gay male community decimated by the "gay plague" in the 1980s. Hamburg, an isolated fishing village in the Eastern Cape [of Good Hope] province of South Africa knows this; AIDS has ripped away its young men and women, leaving mostly the very old and the very young. Fully thirty percent of the remaining population carries the HIV virus. The South African government has only recently bowed to pressure from AIDS patients and the religious community to provide retroviral drugs to the infected.

The Keiskamma Altarpiece is a fabric art creation that documents and seeks to encourage hope in the face of such overwhelming, meaningless death. Inspired and mid-wifed by doctors from an AIDS clinic, using the form of a late medieval German altarpiece responding to the great European plague, this extraordinary creation of the women of Hamburg has been on display at Grace Cathedral for the last couple of months. Unhappily for local readers, the last day of this showing is Tuesday, May 29. From San Francisco it goes on to Seattle, Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC.

I got a look at this very moving creation last week in the company of a class of rapt third graders. Though their teachers has clearly tried to explain about South Africa, the thought of such massive death inspired a little anxiety.

This image from the project's website shows the exterior panels. The altarpiece is 13 feet high and 22 feet wide, fabric and beads hung on a wooden frame.

It is fragile. Docents move the panels in tandem and deliberately -- the fabric could tear if shifted incautiously. In these pictures, I want to share details -- you'll have to see it yourself to get the full impression.

A widow wearing the traditional mourning costume occupies the central exterior panel where tradition would place the crucified Christ. A grandmother is seated beside her.

On the other side, stand some of the many orphans of Hamburg.

When the hinged panels are opened, a middle layer reveals a vision of resurrection, of Eden recovered. The Keiskamma river teems with fish as it flows around the village into the Indian Ocean.

But the dominant figure in Hamburg's Eden, taking up all of one panel and part of another, is Vuysile Funda, known as Gaba, an actual living resident who clearly plays some Shamanic role in the local community.

Gaba is thought to receive visitations from God each day -- he goes to the edge of the sea and stomps out patterns in the sand while wearing a ceremonial red garment.

One of the docents on the day we visited made a point of telling us that they'd asked a woman from Hamburg who visited Grace whether there were any religions in the village in addition to the several Protestant Christian denominations pictured. She said "no." I assume the question was meant to discover whether Islam had reached into that bit of the Eastern Cape. But the depiction of Gaba tells me that everyone may be Christian, but that Christianity in South Africa has successfully found a syncretistic synthesis with existing animisms. And good for that Christianity -- anything else is just colonialism.

The third, furthest interior, panels shows life size photos of the living community of Hamburg, a society whose most visible members are grandmothers raising orphans left by the disease.

These living people are flanked with beaded "ghost trees" set in a shadowy landscape on which are sewn the names of some of the dead.

The base of the altarpiece, the predilla, remains visible at all times. It depicts the death and funeral of an actual AIDS casualty, Dumile Paliso, who died in 2002. Here his body is covered with sores. These scenes were envisioned by the women sewers themselves.

Dumile's funeral.

The hearse from Nontsner's Undertakers delivers the body.

Dumile is buried in the already crowded village cemetery.

This imposing figure, who occupies all of one of the side panels on exterior of the altarpiece is Susan Paliso, Dumile's mother.

If you have any chance, do make time to see this extraordinary response to hope interrupted, hope reasserted.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Drugs lords rising, again

...American officials hope that Afghanistan's drug problem will someday be only as bad as that of Colombia.

Poppy growing is endemic in the countryside, and Afghanistan now produces 92 percent of the world's opium.

New York Times,
May 16, 2007

I've written before about the history that shows that wherever the U.S. imperial adventures intrude, drug activity spikes. But apparently the current situation in Afghanistan is pretty extreme. This goes back to those heady days when Donald Rumsfeld knocked over the Taliban on the cheap, armed with a U.N. resolution, the CIA, Special Forces, and a few bought-off warlords on the make. Now, as the Taliban makes a comeback and security deteriorates, the dirty truth is leaking out.

...the C.I.A. and military turned a blind eye to drug-related activities by prominent warlords or political figures they had installed in power, Afghan and American officials say.

"This is the Afghan equivalent of failing to deal with looting in Baghdad," said Andre D. Hollis, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics. "If you are not dealing with those who are threatened by security and who undermine security, namely drug traffickers, all your other grandiose plans will come to naught."

Somehow I don't imagine that NATO allies will continue to endanger the lives of their troops in Afghanistan for long in order to keep a U.S.-implanted government full of traffickers in power.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, opium cultivation is also on the rise, according to the Independent.

Rice farmers in the fertile plain along the Euphrates, just to the west of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad, have stopped cultivating rice and are instead planting poppies, Iraqi sources familiar with the area say.

The shift to opium cultivation is still in its early stages but there is little the Iraqi Government can do about it because rival Shiite militias and their surrogates in the security forces control Diwaniyah. There have been clashes between militias, police, Iraqi Army and US forces in the city over the last two months.

If history really is going to repeat itself as farce, U.S. troops will get tired of being killed while hopelessly trying to referee a civil war. They'll start using the local product. I'm sure this is one more worry for the smarter officers in the military who see their proud institution chewed up in an indefensible war.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Getting voters mobilized:
some useful research findings

This week I heard political scientists Melissa Michelson (CSU-East Bay), Lisa Garcia Bedolla (UC-Irvine) and Donald Green (Yale) present preliminary findings from their research on which methods used by community organizations among James Irvine Foundation grantees in the California Votes Initiative really worked to increase voter turnout. The research involved doing randomized trials of turnout techniques on low propensity voters using the community groups as campaign labor.

Folks interested in the mechanics of campaigns need to think about these findings through a reality filter -- maximizing turnout is seldom a campaign goal. Campaigns are about maximizing the right turnout, the turnout of voters on our side. (Remember what Karl Rove thought U.S. Attorneys ought to be doing.) Nonetheless, these social science observations can help us think about what we do.

The academics assured the audience that they had not found anything startlingly different from the findings in a previous book by Green and Alan Gerber which I have discussed here. But they brought some nuances and additional certainty about previous findings.

What doesn't work
Since resources are always scarce, this can be the most valuable insight. This project reinforced previous research that direct mail has almost no discernable positive effect on turnout. Considering the amount of money that campaigns spend on it, that's important. Mail may persuade a likely voter to choose your candidate as opposed to someone else, but it won't engage unlikely voters. If winning requires engaging those voters, you'll have to use other forms of contact.

Two other contact methods that do not create measurable turnout bumps are robocalls (even by trusted local spokespeople like pastors) and mass emails. Campaigns might believe these are worthwhile to reinforce existing support, but they aren't going raise vote tallies.

What does work
The gold standard remains the "at the door" personal canvass. Researchers provided a lot of useful information about how to raise the quality of these contacts. My takeaway from their findings follows (the academics are not responsible for every nuance I'm giving this.)
  • At the very least, the canvasser needs to be trained to carry on an actual conversation with the voter. This needn't be deep; the researchers were unclear whether messages that were partisan were more effective than messages emphasizing the duty of citizenship. But the canvasser needs to be able to solicit a back and forth interaction with the target voter.
  • Canvassers associated with a known and respected community group were relatively more effective than unconnected volunteers. Campaigns need those community groups in order to be heard by unlikely voters.
  • Canvassers of the same ethnicity and/or language group are more effective with voters with the same demographics. This is intuitively obvious, but it is nice to have research begin to confirm it.
  • Similarly, but not quite so obviously, the closer the canvasser lives to the voter, the higher the likelihood of turning the voter out. Researchers were surprised by how strong the effect was. A canvasser from the same precinct was measurably more successful than one from a few streets further away. For the researchers, the finding has prompted a desire to repeat and replicate the experiment because the finding seems so strong. For the campaign manager, this argues for using "precinct captains" or even "block captains" as much as possible to do the canvassing.
Phonebanks also worked -- again, if the caller could carry on an "engaging conversation" with the target voter. Stilted, scripted contacts didn't work. Volunteers are more able to carry on those quality conversations than most paid phonebanks. In general, the positive turnout effect of phone calls was strongest among young voters and among much older voters reached in their "home," non-English, language. Researchers also found that a second reminder to potential voters found by the phonebanks increased turnout. On that point, all I can say is: "I sure hope so!" Any campaign that goes to the expense and trouble of identifying its positive voters reminds/encourages them until they have voted. Doing that encouragement is the purpose of having a field campaign.

Other observations
This one is sad news for campaigns: unlikely voters are more likely to be engaged by contacts in the last two weeks before election day than they are by earlier contacts. Again, we've always known that intuitively, but we're getting the research to prove it. This argues for firming up your base (and attracting and training your volunteers) in the period two months until two weeks out, then intensively canvassing the unlikely voters.

This also makes the issues raised by vote by mail and absentee campaigns more complex. Donald Green specifically reported that his research says that absentee voting merely moves likely voters from the election day category to the absentee category. It does not seem to attract new voters. Voting by mail does however lengthen that short two week window when contacts are most effective.

I've long argued that pushing absentee voting is the wrong way to go for low budget campaigns in low income, low propensity voter communities. Absentee voting is bureaucratic and expensive to track -- not what community campaigns do best. To draw people into the voting universe, the process should reinforce a sense of community: going to a community polling place on a particular day is more a collective activity than dropping an envelope in a mailbox individually when you get around to it.

All the research reported by these folks supports the premise that voting increases with the strength of social capital; that civic participation expresses and reinforces social cohesion. When we think of ourselves as isolated families and individuals, alone, protecting ourselves in a cruel world, there is little motivation for voting. Why bother? When we experience ourselves as members of a lively community that collectively is creating its own future, we vote and we get together in organizations small and large to influence our quality of life. Campaigns need to live inside of and enlarge the flow of ongoing community life. When they do, they win.

For many, many interesting reports of election research, take a look at GOTV.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Expert advice

Will this:

lead to this:

Actually it was a Saigon hotel, but the scene remains iconic.

The first image is of the U.S. Embassy under construction in the Green Zone in Baghdad. Al-Jezerra reports it is just about the only construction project proceeding on schedule in all of Iraq.

The compound will cost $592m and will cover 104 acres of land, about the size of the Vatican, making it the biggest and most expensive U.S. embassy on earth. It will include 27 separate buildings and house about 615 Americans behind bomb-proof walls. The U.S. ambassador will live in a high-security home on the compound reported to fill 16,000 square feet. His deputy will live in a more modest 9,500 sq ft. They will have a pool, gym and communal living areas, and the embassy will have its own power and water supplies.

... rebels [have] started attacking the multiple cranes surrounding the construction site of the new embassy. Last week, five contractors were injured in a rocket assault.

Despite the growing pressure, the Bush administration insists that the embassy will open in September, and be fully operational by the end of the year. ...

Toby Dodge, an expert on Iraq at Queen Mary, University of London, has just come back from a month spent in Iraq, largely in the Green Zone. ...

"A fortress-style embassy, with a huge staff, will remain in Baghdad until helicopters come to airlift the last man and woman from the roof," he said, adding his own advice to the architects of the building: "Include a large roof."

Monday, May 21, 2007

"Security theater" now peeks under your clothes

Actually, I think this might be less annoying than fumbling to remove a belt, pulling off shoes, and shuffling in socks through the metal detector.

At Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport these rituals have been replaced by a new "active millimeter wave" technology system that creates a dim screen image of the passenger's body which guards use to scan for guns, knives, and other suspicious objects.

At the airport in the Netherlands, there haven't been many complaints according to AP.

"People figure, if this is going to let me get through the lines quicker, then I'll do it," said airport spokeswoman Miriam Snoerwang. ...

The guard who sees the image the machine produces is located away from the spot and does not physically see the person being scanned. If a passenger is approved, the guard signals to his colleagues on the spot to let the person though.

Faces are blurred, but not chests or crotches. Snoerwang said that was necessary because otherwise "women could just hide things by stuffing them in their bras."

Of course Europeans react more maturely to nudity than many in this country. The system is also being tested in London and Mexico City.

It's still just theater -- anyone seeking to harm an aircraft will figure out ways around the system. But every time we fly, we'll be reminded we should be very afraid and need protection.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A long story with a good ending

Last Wednesday someone I've been afraid of for 30 years put himself on the road to being locked up for the rest of this life. And a good thing too.

Confronted with overwhelming DNA evidence of his guilt, Altemio Sanchez pled guilty to three murders of women, two of whom were runners, in the Buffalo, NY area. Those crimes spanned sixteen years, but in fact Sanchez is implicated in a string of rapes, mostly of women runners, going back to the late 1970s. Because of the statute of limitations, none of the rapes will be prosecuted, but the crime of murder has no such expiration date.

Sanchez (whose name and face I never knew) haunted me because, though I have not lived there since 1965, Buffalo was the place I did some of my best running. My parents lived in a neighborhood with easy access to the footpaths of Delaware Park. I took my first tentative jogs there in about 1977. Later, as my parents aged, I visited Buffalo more and more frequently. Since I never quite knew what to do with myself when living inside my parents' culturally- and politically-foreign world, I ran a lot when I was in Buffalo. In fact, I ran almost all my lifetime personal bests (none very fast) in road races there in the 1980s.

But when I trotted past the reproduction of the Michelangelo statue of David beside Delaware Park Lake or around the meadow and golf course, I was always slightly fearful and watchful. One heard of rapes and there was something slightly menacing in those woods. A guy was convicted in 1985 of raping women runners in just that area earlier in the decade. Other rapes continued in the metropolitan area.

Then, in 1990, a University of Buffalo student, Linda Yalem, disappeared while marathon training on the Amherst bike path. Her strangled and violated body was found in nearby bushes. The lurking serial rapist of women runners was now a murderer.

Yalem was killed on a September 29. As it happens, my mother's birthday was October 1, so year in and year out thereafter I was in town, running, when local media returned to discussing the unsolved crime. Mother was aware enough of the buzz to worry about me. I always said, truthfully, that I had learned to be exceptionally aware of my surroundings. As I aged I got slower and slower -- and also ran longer and longer, so I was more likely to be traipsing the whole 10 mile extent of the Amherst bike path. Keeping alert was a huge part of the exercise.

Buffalo visits stopped for me in 1999 after my mother's death. I ran lots of miles and lots of trails in California -- keeping alert certainly, but not carrying the special buzz of anxious caution that I always had in Buffalo.

Apparently Altemio Sanchez carried a special awareness about that September date too. His last rape and murder was of a suburban woman runner, Joan Diver, on September 29, 2006.

In January of this year, Buffalo police announced that persistent detective work had finally paid off: they'd caught the "Bike Path Rapist." DNA evidence suggested Sanchez was Yalem's killer as well as having also murdered Diver and another woman. With his DNA in hand, police began to look into other past rapes -- they soon found matches they hadn't previously connected with this criminal.

The fellow who'd been convicted of the Delaware Park rapes in the early 1980s had never admitted guilt, though he was still in prison twenty-two years later. Rather remarkably, lawyers and detectives were able to retrieve the rape kits from those crimes: they matched Sanchez' DNA as well. An innocent man was freed from prison.

In Buffalo, Crisis Services took many calls from rape survivors, some of whom believed their attacker was Sanchez. Those incidents dated back into the 1970s. Counselor Robyn Wiktorski-Reynolds told a local TV station:

I think [Sanchez' guilty plea] puts an end to a chapter in Western New York.

I think there's a nice sense of closure for the greater community that here is this person who was identified, caught, has pled guilty and we don't have to worry about him right now.

For very thorough blogging of this case, see the topic "Bike Path Killer" at Crime Scene Blog.

Though women runners in the Buffalo area have had a special and justified fear of a lurking predator for the last 30 years, all women who choose to take to the trails have to carry some consciousness that there are men who might try to attack them. The burden of this knowledge is much greater for women than for male runners -- the danger of attack is simply much greater. But there are many of us who simply won't let caution keep us from tromping the trails.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Empathy gone missing

It's not that we don't know that this is how it is for U.S. troops in Iraq. If we were there, we might feel and act the same way. But it is still awful to contemplate.

Mosque vs F-18.
Uploaded: May 16 2007 by max.
Location: Iraq. Possibly Tajii.

Via BagNewsNotes and LiveLeak.

What is often missed...

The invaluable Derrick Jackson provided a very necessary postscript to the obituaries written about the less-than-valuable Jerry Falwell in a Boston Globe column:

...there was virtually nothing on one of [Falwell's] greatest offenses. In the mid-1980s, he was an ambassador without portfolio in helping the Reagan administration coddle apartheid South Africa.

In both a LexisNexis search and a Dow Jones Factiva search, no newspaper in the top 20 of circulation in the United States mentioned Falwell and South Africa in its news obituaries. ...

As Nelson Mandela remained behind bars, as police killed black children at funerals, as miners went on strike, and as the black majority remained without the vote, Falwell urged Christians in the United States to invest in South Africa's gold Krugerrands. He said of [Archbishop Desmond] Tutu, "I think he's a phony, period, as far as representing the black people of South Africa."

Jackson points out that in this, as in much else, Falwell was "a perfect complement" for the views and policies of the Reagan Administration.

Scratch most any U.S. conservative and there'll be a racist component to his/her preoccupations, even if their claim to notoriety is primarily in some other foul swamp of bigotry. The original sin of racially-defined slavery is deeply rooted in the national cultural DNA, passed down the generations. Fortunately, the national history is also the history, still profoundly incomplete, of the struggle to root out that racism.

Friday, May 18, 2007

From Iraq


We are happy that we got rid of Saddam but we will never be happy to give away our country in return.

Sorry if our flesh harmed your knives... is that what they want us to say? Is this what they came for?...

we had enough, let our country go free. by staying; you are forcing people to join Al Qaeda and militias.

Inside Iraq

Read it all, as the cliche requires. Enough.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Mr. Big Head

It's hard to tell whether he's sinking into the grass or rising out of it. Either way, he seems kind of impassive about it.

Why do I think this head is male? After all, I've known shaved headed women -- I've been very close to being one myself. Close enough to get a sunburn on my scalp. But I think he's male. Getting close doesn't answer my question, whether he sank or rose.

He's big. People want to touch.

And walk all the way around.

Sadly, he is not immune to urban hazards.

He's currently staring at you from a meadow on the east end of Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park. Don't miss him.

According to a two year old article in the San Francisco Chronicle. he once went to the Burning Man festival with creator Pepe Ozan.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Watching those watchlists

Thomas Burke, a lawyer who worked on our lawsuit about the no-fly list, wrote today to let me know that he is now trying to find out what the U.S. government is doing with yet another huge list of "suspected terrorist" names. Assisting the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR), he has sued the Treasury Department for denying access to public records about the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) watchlist of some 6,000 people and entities, mostly overseas, all labelled dangerous suspected terrorists, drug traffickers, and other “specially designated nationals.” LCCR explains what is wrong with the way this list is being used:

An increasing number of private companies, including banks, mortgage companies, car dealerships, health insurers, landlords and employers, screen consumers' names against the OFAC list. Few people in the United States are actually on the list, but sharing a first, last or even middle name with someone on the list can trigger a "false positive" match. Consumers discover the OFAC alert when they are told that they cannot make a purchase, open an account, or do business because their name appears on a terror list.

The OFAC list includes many extremely common Muslim or Latino names.

This is not harmless stuff. An LCCR report available for download here [pdf], describes numerous instances of law abiding people in the U.S with names similar to ones on the OFAC list having trouble with the most ordinary financial transactions: being turned down for a mortgage, refused credit to buy from a used car dealer, kicked out of PayPal, and denied store credit to purchase a treadmill. Some of these people were able to argue their right to purchase eventually, but all were put through the inconvenience and stigma of being falsely labeled "terrorists."

Businesses screen using the OFAC list for two reasons. First, the Treasury threatens stiff fines if they engage in commerce with someone on the list. (But do they really think a foreign terrorist wants to buy a treadmill?) But additionally, the OFAC list, with its thousands of names that partially match innocent people, provides an easy cover for any company or employee wishing to discriminate against people with Muslim or Latino names.

How easy is it to find yourself on the list? Since businesses checking names often accept partial matches, these people could find themselves turned down for purchases (the matching portion of their names is in boldface):
  • Barack Hussein Obama
  • Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi
  • Alberto Gonzales
  • George Lucas
You can check out this government list yourself here. Click on Specially Designated Nationals List (SDN List), select the text version, and use your find function to check your own name.

I did. I could get in trouble (again) for my middle name.

I figured I should also check up on the name of a prominent convicted terrorist we've recently welcomed to this country. I learned that Luis Posada Carriles (an anti-Castro Cuban bomber) did not make the OFAC list. How's that for vigilance at Treasury?

With the spreading use of this list, as with the no fly list, airport "security" theater, and repeated "terror alerts," we are all being conditioned to think of ourselves as endangered mice, not free citizens of a powerful country. This artificially heightened fearfulness is both objectively crazy and awfully convenient for rulers who want us cowed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Let 'em compete to end the war!

Many of us are so cynical about politics that we just ignore this stuff as meaningless noise. But peace activists would do well to realize that in their eagerness to sign up supporters, Democratic presidential hopefuls are competing to offer us actions to stop the war.
  • Barack Obama urges us to hammer Republican senators who might break a filibuster on a war vote.
  • Senator Clinton wants us to sign a petition to Bush not to veto Congressional restrictions on funding.
  • John Edwards, from his perch safely out of office, urges us to sign his petition to Congress to stand up to George W.
  • Bill Richardson, positioning himself as a diplomat, wants diplomacy, not "irresponsible aggression," in dealings with Iran.
  • Chris Dodd wants us to sign up to help him restore habeas corpus and to end torture.
  • Joe Biden wants our endorsement of his plan to end the Iraq war.
Sure -- all they really want are our email addresses. But just remember what they think it will take to get those addresses and to win over progressive activists. They have to speak our language, at least in mobilizing supporters. In the primary phase, they correctly think they need us, or at least need to neutralize our concerns.

This is what people's power looks like, at least at this stage of a long struggle. We need to force them to take their endorsements of our views far further than we have. We need action, not endorsements. But we shouldn't let the reality that we haven't won yet obscure how amazingly influential we've become! We're setting the terms of the 2008 Democratic debate -- that is progress.

Monday, May 14, 2007

San Francisco markets
Fair Oaks and Fair Trade

This is story about San Francisco mini-neighborhoods.

When my friends and I bought the communal property where we live, the seller's real estate agent optimistically handed us a descriptive flyer claiming the house was located "just blocks from Noe Valley!" Sure and pigs can fly. When you are half a block from 24th Street and Mission, you are pretty far from Noe Valley.

Noe Valley, a neighborhood five long blocks up a steep hill from where I live, was a quiet working and lower middle class location when I moved to the city in the 1970s. Folks who lived there were families, mostly white but with a large sprinkling of Latinos. The one thing that Noe Valley had in common with the Noe Valley of today was lots of kids. Now though, the children are mostly blonde and they are often watched by nannies while their upwardly mobile, professional parents toil long hours in the upper reaches of San Francisco's economy. The houses are valued in the million $$ plus range and the commercial thoroughfare, upper 24th Street, is a mix of boutique shops and yuppie chain stores.

Don't get me wrong. I like Noe Valley fine -- my gym is there and their supermarket sure beats anything else in walking distance. But Noe Valley is another country from the Mission.

Last Saturday was the annual Fair Oaks Street Fair. Real estate optimists aside, Fair Oaks is where you know for sure you've gone far enough uphill to be in Noe Valley, absolutely no longer in the Mission. The annual garage sale is a BIG DEAL, 5 blocks of neighbors selling their junk in front of their houses.

These young women were enthusiastically hawking "Lemonade -- Cookies."

There were some amusing items for sale.

But it was hard to imagine why anyone would want most of this stuff. Even the sellers seemed simply to be going through the motions, acting the part of holding their annual garage sale.

The most enthusiastic participants were folks selling food for the benefit of the local schools, public and private. This woman was slinging hot dogs and tamales for Fairmount Elementary.

I bought a cookie to support these women, though I had to interrupt their conversations to make the purchase.

As I walked north on Fair Oaks, the displays became further apart -- less householders were participating. This segment of Fair Oaks hopefully aspires to be another neighborhood altogether:

I've never heard anyone actually use that label for this area, but I haven't been reading real estate flyers lately.

In its northernmost block, Fair Oaks runs uphill coming to an end at 21st Street -- Noe Valley shades over here into Dolores Heights, land of magnificent Victorian follies.

It was a pleasure to wander down into green Dolores Park itself, an oasis where the Mission, Noe Valley, and the Castro come together, more or less amicably.

There I found another kind of market where volunteers were eager to tell me about World Fair Trade Day. These good folks sent me off with a message of global hope and a sampler of goodies they trust are produced equitably.

I wandered home via Valencia Street, a main drag in gentrifying transition which I'll document another day.

Still not getting it after all these years

Philip Zimbardo, an emeritus psychology professor at Stanford, has a recent book rehashing the famous psych experiment he carried out over twenty five years ago. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil has as its thesis that pretty much any of us will act in accord with roles that a respected authority puts us in. The experiment, in which students were assigned roles as "prisoners" and "guards", soon degenerated into brutality. Zimbardo writes:

Anyone, when given complete control over others, can act like a monster.

Zimbardo's girl friend (later wife) shamed him into stopping the experiment which had become all too real.

Zimbardo seems awfully defensive of his famous bit of psych theater, even though a good part of his claim to fame is that he stopped it. He still needs to score off one of the "prisoners" who concluded the whole thing must have been a bit of government research on how to control antiwar protesters since Zimbardo was funded by the Office of Naval Research of the Defense Department. The suggestion still riles him.

Little did he know that I myself was a radical, activist professor, against the Vietnam War since 1966, when I had organized one of the nation's first all-night 'teach-ins' at New York University.... I organized thousands of students into constructive challenges to the continuing war. I was a kindred political spirit but not a mindlessly kindred revolutionary.... [was] upsetting to think that my research grant status [was] being accused of being a tool of the administration's war machine, especially since I have worked to encourage effective dissent by student activists. That grant was originally given to fund empirical and conceptual research on the effects of anonymity, of conditions of deindividuation, and on interpersonal aggression. When the idea for the prison experiment occurred, I got the granting agency to extend the funding to pay for this research as well, without any other additional funding.

Seems to me the gent protests too much: according to his bio as a member of the board of the American Psychological Foundation,

Dr. Zimbardo has also recently become the Director of a new terrorism center sponsored jointly by Stanford and the Naval Postgraduate School, The Interdisciplinary Center for Policy, Education, and Research on Terrorism.

Zimbardo is still on the Navy's dime apparently. And probably still oblivious to -- if not willfully self-deluded about -- the fact that his intentions have little to do with how others may may use his insights into breaking down human beings.