Sunday, May 31, 2009

This is terrorism

Today's murder of Dr. George Tiller leads to the question, does this:

Observed at an anti-abortion protest in San Francisco in 2006.

... lead to this?

Not directly, I'm sure. But there's a segment of the anti-abortion movement that has completely taken leave of reality. They are much like the folks (perhaps the same people?) who think the President is a foreigner and a Muslim.

I wish I were more confident that our anti-terrorism spooks were looking at the truly dangerous nutcases running around.

New neighbors

With President Obama on his way to Cairo, this just in ...

Some notes for U.S. viewers:
  • The Brits are enjoying a juicy scandal; their Members of Parliament, from all parties, have been using official expense accounts to buy second homes and pay for personal services, like washing windows.
  • Gentrification is everywhere.
  • Much like our FBI, British cops are hot on the chase for aspirational terrorists.
Enjoy. [2:11]

The Brit blog Chicken Yoghurt pointed me to this at Pickled Politics.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

What's the peace movement waiting for?

My friend Dajenya, who has written here before, left a comment on my previous post that needs to come up on the front of the blog.

Now that I have finished celebrating the election of Obama, I must say that I am very concerned that his election has led to a fair amount of complacency in the anti-war movement. Sure, Obama plans to get us out of Iraq (after a year or two...), and meanwhile he plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Even if you are not a pacifist, even if you believe some wars are either justified or necessary, or might do more good than harm, this war falls into none of those 3 categories.

Even articles in Time magazine (hardly a progressive media) state that war in Afghanistan is un-win-able (as it was for every invader from Alexander the Great to the USSR). Afghanistan is more a collection of tribes than a united nation, and the land/topography as well as the cultural conditions are such that "victory" is not possible. So what will be accomplished? Many thousands of deaths of US soldiers and Afghani citizens, and a continuation of the huge waste of money that is so sorely needed here at home. Just so Obama can prove that he is neither "weak" nor a leftist?

I offer my prior article as my pro-Obama credentials. However, regarding his stance on Afghanistan, it is past-due time for the US anti-war movement to organize and resist the escalation of this newest "Vietnam." Rather than tip-toe on eggshells to avoid conflict with our beloved Obama, I hope that all those who, like myself, supported Obama's campaign with words, money and action, will now feel responsible to send a message to our friend Obama that war is not the answer; certainly not this war!

Obama may be the closest thing to Roosevelt in our lifetime. But there is no president then, now, or ever, who does not need to hear the loud and clear voice(s) of concerned citizens when he takes our money, our children, our conscience, our international reputation to war. Unlike the slow quiet involvement in Vietnam, the escalation of this war is public and publicized. What are we waiting for?

The two women I heard speak today at a meeting of
the coalition of Democratic clubs, Resolution Peace addressed the same urgent question.

Phyllis Bennis of Institute for Policy Studies reminded us of Obama's declaration during the primary:

"I don't want to just end the war, I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place."

She had a number of quite specific suggestions for the peace movement.
  • Educating our own citizens is essential; peace activism has already moved most discussion away from "the good war" frame. This is not a time for calling street demonstrations; it is a time for digging in and raising understanding.
  • We must demand an end to the military's temptation (unfortunately all too likely to come from General McChrystal given his background in "special operations") to use more and more fire power to overcome frustration. More air strikes, more drone killings, more civilian deaths will only make a bad situation worse.
  • The U.S. and NATO occupation must end; foreign presence in Afghanistan should pass to the United Nations. In any case, the right balance is 80 percent civilian development aid; 20 percent security assistance. At present, Afghanistan is getting more like 97 percent war making and 3 percent development.
  • We have to make Afghanistan feel real to people in the United States through such efforts as sister city projects and local peace resolutions.
  • Above all, we need to remind people what war is costing in a time when the tanking economy is causing huge cuts in necessary local services.
Humaira Ghilzai, a Bay Area Afghan-American, works to improve conditions, especially for women and girls, through the Afghan Friends Network. She offered a history of the gradually improving conditions for women under previous governments (not the Taliban!) and reminded us that "change has to come from within and not from outside."

Ghilzai was particularly critical of the role of U.S. and other aid agencies in the war torn country. Over and over, there have been big promises, foreign money gets allocated and then is mostly sucked up by foreign consultants and contractors, agencies neglect to consult or employ the intended Afghan recipients of projects, and far too often projects are then simply left uncompleted.

After 30 years of war, Ghilzai reports that the great Afghan fear is that, as when the USSR was forced out, the rest of the international community will once again abandon them. They don't want more air strikes and dead villagers, but they do want the powers that have fought over them to take some responsibility for helping them recover from the damage left by that long military conflict.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Afghanistan: what's the exit strategy?

Do most people in the United States realize the morass our government is leading us deeper into in Afghanistan? Probably not. As Peter Rothberg recently pointed out in the Nation,

... recent estimates of coverage by major news outlets report that a scant 0.6 percent of reporting has been devoted to Afghanistan.

Several significant perspectives have become available recently.

Douglas Macgregor, a former U.S. Army colonel, recently laid out a scary picutre in Defense News. He sees the United States repeating mistakes that will seem all too familiar to those of us who lived through the war in Vietnam.

In 1965, we misconstrued a region of temporary, tactical importance as being of enduring strategic value. President Lyndon Johnson's advisers had unfounded, naïve and unrealistic expectations of Vietnam's near-term potential to evolve into a modern social democratic constitutional republic if the United States put the "right people" in charge and provided a pile of cash and some "military assistance."

... Politicians frequently substitute a fascination with direct action in the form of air strikes or special operations killings for strategy. They see such action as a "cleaner" approach with its own logic, as well as tactics with less risk of U.S. casualties. But in the absence of a viable strategy with attainable objectives, direct action is problematic.

The whole article is worth reading. Robert Gates playing the part of Robert MacNamara, perhaps?

Meanwhile, a NATO ally, Germany, has had a military base at Kunduz in Afghanistan for several years -- and sure doesn't seem to be making any "progress" according to reporting by the German paper Spiegel. We don't read many U.S. reporters being this forthright about failure.

When the deputy director of Aqtash High School talks of the government, he isn't referring to Hamid Karzai's central government in Kabul. Nor does he refer to the provincial administration in Kunduz. "The Taliban are our government," Bashir says. "They have taken over our region, their commanders give the orders here."

... At least 10 girls' sections of schools located near Kunduz have been closed down in the last three weeks after receiving threats from the Taliban. Parents simply stopped sending their children to school because of the danger. ... Neither the German army, the Bundeswehr, nor the local police force are effective against the Islamist extremists. At the most, they can temporarily dislodge the Taliban, but they then move on to terrorize other areas where there are no German soldiers.

Most of all, though, the closures threaten one of the few successes that the Germans have had in Afghanistan. It is an achievement that has been repeatedly trumpeted by those in favor of continued engagement; hardly a German politician has refrained from mentioning how encouraging it is to visit a girls' school in Afghanistan. Now, though, the schools -- just like in the south where recent acid attacks against schoolgirls have hit the headlines -- have become a potent propaganda tool for the Taliban. Western troops, so goes the message, can't do anything to stop the Islamist fighters.

Pressure in the U.S. for an exit from Iraq built up gradually as people realized first that the war had been based on a lie and second that continued U.S. deaths served no useful purpose. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will keep its promise of full withdrawal; no one should be surprised if the Iraqi civil war, on hold for the moment, breaks out again as the U.S. draws down.

Now in Afghanistan, a military occupation with no clear U.S. objective is being challenged by a resistance that can be tamped down momentarily but not eradicated. At present, in fact, the "bad guys" are winning if we are to believe numerous accounts including this German one. And the war has leaked into Pakistan. The U.S. is now building an Iraq-style super embassy(outpost) in Islamabad.

How long will it take for people in the United States realize our troops have once again been committed to a long, expensive, unwinnable war with no plan? President Obama, what's the aim? What's the exit strategy?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Kamiya: Obama enabling cowardice

Salon executive editor Gary Kamiya has called out President Obama:

Since 9/11, the word "terrorism" has been a totem, a quasi-religious myth, a nightmarish archetype that occupies the same place in our national imagination that "hell" did for the people of the Middle Ages. "Terrorism" blurs the boundaries of political and personal fear: It represents at once a thoroughly human evil to be hated and fought against, and the impersonal, fatalistic face of death itself. Terrorism is fate with a hideous face, like the White Whale that Ahab hates and tries to kill in Melville's "Moby-Dick." (Indeed, the Bush administration's unwinnable, endless, self-defeating "war on terror" is more than a little reminiscent of Ahab's obsessive quest -- which ends, it is well to remember, with the destruction of his ship and all of its crew save the narrator Ishmael.)

Because terrorism in our national imagination is simultaneously villain and nemesis, human and inhuman, the "war" against terrorism slips into becoming a war not just against fanatical jihadis but against our own death, against the very idea of death. As we accept this, repression of reality and the infantile fantasy of perfect safety -- in other words, cowardice -- become the driving forces of our lives.

... Once the argument is framed in these terms, Obama cannot win. By tacitly accepting Cheney's terms -- by shamefully proposing that we detain suspected terrorists indefinitely without real trials, or by refusing to release photographs of Americans torturing people in their control -- Obama has enabled and encouraged our diffuse national cowardice.

What we are living is not a "war." This is no contest that can be won. We're living with our human insecurity and mortality. As individuals, if the terrorists don't get us, a profit-obsessed medical system, or the polluted planet, or simply individual exhaustion will. Individuals can only try to leave a society that is stronger and better for our having passed through it. Ambitious politicians have a similar responsibility, writ large: leave the country you seek to lead better and braver than you found it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What's wrong with the Koreas?

I'm not going to pretend I know anything about North Korea -- or for that matter South Korea. But my friend Christine Ahn does and she's got a point of view on current tensions that people may not have encountered. She sees North Korea's recent nuclear test as yet another episode in a cycle of challenges and feints of violence that all arise from one cause:

At root is the fact that the U.S. is still at war with North Korea. When two nations are at war, there is no room for mutual trust. And so the tit-for-tat games will continue at the cost of an opportunity to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, stabilize Northeast Asia, and divert critically needed resources to the people - not just in North Korea, but South Korea and right here at home.

What we fail to realize is how much this is costing: the millions of North Korean people who endure hardship for the right to be free from another U.S. military invasion, the millions of dollars and Korean won spent on further militarizing the Korean peninsula, the Cold War legacy in the form of National Security Laws in South and North Korea, and the millions of families who are still divided by war.

It's clear that the Six Party Talks were designed to fail. The U.S. entered the talks intending on denuclearizing North Korea, and North Korea entered with the hopes of normalizing relations with the U.S. What would actually break the deadlock is to give the North Koreans what they want: peace. It's about time President Obama actually practiced his rhetoric and gave peace a chance.

Like I said, I don't know much about the Koreas, but it certainly makes intuitive sense to me that maintaining a state of "war" that still festers over fifty years after the shooting stopped is no the way to find peaceful solutions.

A group of Korea-American activists maintain an FAQ on their Korean Peace Treaty campaign. I found their approach to understanding the Koreas broadening. The other two locations I can think of where peoples live in proximity with no peace treaty -- Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan in Kashmir -- aren't doing so well. There might be something to the idea that what is needed is a peace treaty.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Scenes from protests about the Prop. 8 ruling

My sentiments exactly. But as long as there are folks who will treat LGBT people as less than equal, we'll keep protesting.

After all, it's really pretty simple. We just want to love like everyone else.

Now is that so scary?

Sure -- we do take this seriously. We can be very persistent and determined.

But we're usually pretty cheerful about it.

This will not stand.

It can be trying; fortunately, we have each other.

Even at a protest march, meeting can be a cause for delight!

Busy [gay] day

I seem to be blogging elsewhere today.

See Walking with Integrity for photos from the protest in San Francisco against the state Supreme Court's affirmation of Prop. 8, outlawing same-sex marriage.

See Time Goes By for a "Gay and Gray" column on outreach to LGBT elders.

Maybe later for some thoughts on the campaigns to overturn Prop. 8 in California -- got another protest to rush off to now.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Unlikely work

Foundation replacement job in progress.

Several people whose writings I respect pointed me to Matthew B. Crawford's New York Times Magazine article "The Case for Working With Your Hands."

I have to admit, I brought to it an edgy suspicion, hard acquired. For 15 years I worked construction, primarily small scale earthquake retrofitting. The work was difficult, dirty, often unpleasant, required brains and skill, and left tons of additional concrete under scores of San Francisco houses. Every once in a while, we got a break doing a kitchen remodel, a deck, or a fence. There was nothing wrong with this way of earning a living, but there was nothing romantic about it either. I stopped when my body got tired and I discovered that the skills involved in bringing construction projects in on budget and on time were useful in many other, cleaner, arenas of work.

Like me, Crawford is person with a fine education who found satisfaction and perhaps some unexpected insight by working at a manual trade -- his is classic motorcycle repair. His core message:

A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this. ...

Yes -- that's true. But I wish he'd shown some recognition how gendered that perspective is. Women who opt out of the education path to employment have many less options -- they are a lot more likely to end up emptying bedpans than acquiring a skilled trade. Yes, I was an exception, but I know how lucky I was in a particular place at a particular moment.

Just recently a battered pickup truck stopped next to me as I walked down the street and out jumped a woman, her face lined and a hair turning gray. She'd recognized me as the woman who hired her 25 years ago and given her a start in the remodeling trade she still carries on. Yes, she told me, she is still one of the few at the lumberyard and in the supply stores. And it is still a world where she can't count on being accepted for the professional she is.

Yet Crawford is onto a truth: work we experience as having meaning is food for the soul. His essay is very much worth reading. He quoted Marge Piercy's poem "To Be of Use." I will too:

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Not long after reading Crawford's essay, I came across another attempt to explain how an unlikely job can satisfy. The author is "Combat Queer" who writes "A metafictional journey though an enlisted transwomans' junk room of a mind." Here's her explanation of how she relates to her stint in the Army:

You know what fucking kills me? Some times I really like being in the Army. ...there's nothing like doing your job well, like winning the esteme [sic] of people who wouldn't otherwise be your friends because you're good at what you do. Out in the civilian world, I can do this job, and I can rock it out there (and one day I will), but right now, I just want to do my job here. I want to [g]o to the sandbox [Iraq], provide the support I'm trained to, come back, and then be done with the Army. If they kick me out before I do what I've been getting ready to do, well, that'll be damn lame. I can do my job, I need to do it, fuck, I love to do it.

And yeah, I'm a transsexual. It all fits together somehow.

There lurks in most of us, most of the time, a hope to know we are "of use," and to be recognized for our usefulness by some community. I'm less sure than Crawford that it is work itself that gives this satisfaction; perhaps the satisfaction is both more idiosyncratic and more social than we readily understand.

Memorial Day

National cemetary at San Francisco's Presidio, with Bay fog in the background.

I wish I could say there had been a war in my lifetime in which the death of U.S. soldiers seemed worth the sacrifice -- but there hasn't been such a thing.

There are countries where no one living has had to think about that question -- though not many. They are to be envied and, if possible, emulated.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Shivering at Carnaval

San Francisco's Carnaval is an odd municipal party. If you've thought about it at all, you probably think of Carnival as the prelude to Lent, related to Mardi Gras, a mid-winter bacchanal. And in most of the world (the northern hemisphere anyway), it is. But here, in the Mission District, Carnaval takes place annually on the Saturday and Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Just a little smaller than the Gay Freedom Day parade and party, it's our second largest annual festival. Dozens of dancing groups practice for the march all year long; hundreds of thousands come to look on.

That means, in our distinctive climate, that about two years out of three, we celebrate Carnaval by shivering in freezing gusts of fog. This was one of those years.

I foolishly volunteered to join Organizing for America registering voters at the Saturday street fair. Mostly, we didn't. Who wants to talk with some dork with a clipboard while trying to stay warm?

At least I got to wander around. I felt sorry for employees/recruits of various community non-profits hunkered down against the wind.

This young woman had a job: she was promoting a large cell phone company.

The weather didn't deter everyone, but it dictated the appropriate clothing -- lots!

Directly in front of one of the bandstands, a few brave souls tried to get into the spirit of the day. It was a weak effort. Maybe next year we'll get a warm Memorial Day.

How can the unchangeable change?

James Carroll makes this challenging historical assertion (among many) in Practicing Catholic:

The psychological mechanism was basic: group identity followed from group threat. Humans know who they are by whom they oppose. From tribalism to nationalism, this polarity shaped human responses, with the dynamic taking extreme form in Europe after Charlemagne. What began in the Crusades [Europe learning to define itself in opposition to Islam] reached a tragic pinnacle with the wars of the twentieth century. That Europe was both the instigator and victim of those wars was the precondition of its astounding conversion, begun at the end of World War II and continuing through the end of the Cold War -- a conversion that amounted to a recognition that the East-West battle was unwinnable.

Pope Benedict saw moral rot in the fact that the magnificent churches of Europe were mostly empty, without asking why the world-historic European renunciation of violence (including the abolition of the death penalty, the condemnation of the abuse in marriage, the final end of colonialism, not to mention the Soviet empire's refusal to save itself through war) was accomplished by the generation that walked away from religion. Did that generation walk away from religion, and from Christianity in particular, because it was necessary if violence was to be fully left behind?

There's lots to quibble with in this; I imagine millions of Indo-Chinese and Algerians might have some questions about it. I could easily make a case that Europe abandoned empire only from exhaustion, ceding global hegemony to rising American power most unwillingly. Still, the idea deserves exploration that clamorous religious (ideological?) identification had to recede before more peaceful civilization became possible.

Practicing Catholic is that sort of book: thought-provoking for a wide variety of readers and ultimately gentle. By way of his personal story, Carroll makes a case that U.S. Catholics, despite the vigorous resistance of their religious authorities, have allowed their faith to evolve into a contemporary form that affirms the goodness of creation, creatures, and God Godself. It's been a tough ride, what with the Church's ongoing degradation of women, condemnation of birth control, and the hierarchy covering up for priests who abused children. But many have found liberation from a sin-obsessed self-hatred into a sustaining faith. Carroll's insistence that U.S. Catholic laity have managed this transformation is confirmed by recent polling. Despite the pope,

Catholics are more likely than non-Catholics to say that homosexual relations, divorce, and heterosexual sex outside wedlock are morally acceptable, according to an analysis by Gallup pollsters ...

There's a live and let live spirit in this.

Somehow these Catholics have lived beyond the contradiction that churns all religions that claim to offer authoritative teaching:

How does a church that claims to be unchanging change?

That's an important question for a lot of us who are not now and never have been Roman Catholic.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

About that Pakistan refugee crisis ...

An internally displaced woman fleeing a military offensive in the Swat valley holds her child as she stands in her tent at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) Jalozai camp. May, 23 2009. Photo: REUTERS/Ali Imam (PAKISTAN POLITICS SOCIETY)

The other day I pointed out that the United States had just encouraged Pakistan's army to drive over a million people out of their homes. I'm trying to follow that story.

I do my homework and I try to figure out what is going on. Sometimes I just get more confused. [Emphasis mine.]

"A key aspect to the new strategy is to put more attention and resources toward Pakistan’s economic and governance challenges," Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to the region, told Congress last week. Yet Pakistan's prideful insistence on its sovereignty means, among other things, that the United States cannot provide relief directly to internally displaced civilians. Their fate will now depend on Pakistan's fragile and unpopular government, with support from charities and the United Nations; the Obama Administration must stand in the rear, urgently working its bellows.

Steve Coll
The New Yorker
May 25, 2009

Okay -- so Mr. Coll says the U.S. has good intentions about the displaced people, but Pakistan resists us tromping around. All understandable, though it does seem it would have been simpler (and easier for a lot of Pakistanis) if the U.S. had been inclined to discourage the sort of military operation that causes a refugee crisis. I am not yet ready to believe we want to make Pakistan more unstable. I hope.

Then I read this:

"It's our war against the extremes," says Marvi Memon, the most outspoken of the visiting delegation and a member of the Pakistan Muslim League. But she wants to know why the U.S. isn't doing more to aid the displaced persons. Why isn't there a number to call on television the way there was for the victims of Katrina? This week, the State Department had put in place a system for people to text $5 for Pakistani relief efforts. That morning, as Memon and the others in the delegation urged more assistance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood in the White House briefing room announcing a $110 million aid package.

Eleanor Clift
May 22, 2009

That reads like a vigorous request for help from a member of parliament.

So is Coll accurate? Or is Clift?

In general, the Clift article is both worth reading and pretty dopey. Dopey because it's an example of the wide-eyed, racist wonder genre: Oh gee, five Muslim women members of the Pakistan Parliament can actually talk, think and make demands -- who'd have thought it? Worth reading because the Pakistanis do have something to say about this Afghanistan-Pakistan war we're carrying on in their country -- and the fact they don't like it is liable to derail the effort.

We are warned.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Obama hanging on to torture option

The President's political guy, David Axelrod, refuses to say clearly that Obama has given up a Presidential claim to the right to torture. [2:47]

Found item III: Time moves on ...

Two weeks ago I noticed this alongside a trail while running.

Two weeks later, still there, but condition not improved.

Previous found items here and here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Are "targeted killings" in Pakistan a crime?

Today President Obama spoke of what he thinks the U.S. needs to do to meet a threat he insists is a "war" and I strongly believe is actually a law enforcement challenge. He said that since 9/11 we have

... failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions ... failed to use our values as a compass.

He speaks of the rule of law. He promises to fix what he diagnoses as broken.

But what of those U.S. activities that are deeply questionable under international law that have become conventional actions at an accelerating rate since this president took office? Since January 20, 2009, there have been at least sixteen casualty-causing strikes by unmanned drone aircraft in Pakistan. According to one list, these shots from the sky have killed 199 people in that time. Very little is known about who they were. They may have been "militants" bent on killing Americans (if they had ever seen one). Or somebody in the spook world may have made a mistake and targeted some guys in a pickup or perhaps the largest house in a village.

David Kilcullen, a past counter-insurgency adviser to General Petraeus, and Andrew Exum, formerly an Army officer in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002-2004, tried to arrive at a balanced guess about who gets killed in the New York Times.:

Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent -- hardly "precision." American officials vehemently dispute these figures, and it is likely that more militants and fewer civilians have been killed than is reported by the press in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, they conclude we are making more "militants" than we deter, substituting a technological tactic for a strategy against our enemies.

But what law allows the U.S. to go shooting people in somebody else's country with which we are not at war?

(Yes, we are probably in league with the Pakistani military as Senator Feinstein leaked the other day, but officially they protest.)

It turns out that the legality of our attacks is very much contested.

The International Committee of the Red Cross refers the issue to a book on "targeted killings" by Nils Melzer.

The book argues that any targeted killing not directed against a legitimate military target remains subject to the law enforcement paradigm, which imposes extensive restraints on the practice. Even under the paradigm of hostilities, no person can be lawfully liquidated without further considerations. As a form of individualized or surgical warfare, the method of targeted killing requires a "microscopic" interpretation of the law regulating the conduct of hostilities which leads to nuanced results reflecting the fundamental principles underlying international humanitarian law.

That is, any country employing this tactic better have damn good evidence that the particular individual targeted is guilty of a capital offense -- and avoid "collateral damage."

Back when the U.S. was employing "targeted killings" far less frequently, there was much more and more nuanced discussion of the practice. In 1981, a U.S. executive order (E.O. 12333) barred our spooks from assassinating people. Eben Kaplan of the Council on Foreign Relations says President Clinton eased this order. President Bush the Younger set it aside altogether after 9/11, notably with a missile strike in 2002 in Yemen that killed a man thought to have master-mindeded the attack on the USS Cole -- and also four other people. Condi Rice fiercely defended this:

"I can assure you that no constitutional questions are raised here. There are authorities that the president can give to officials [and] he's well within the balance of accepted practice and the letter of his constitutional authority."

In 2006, already too overextended to get directly involved, the U.S. took up blowing away suspected al-Qaeda adherents in Somalia. Those killings inspired a dialogue between lawyers in Slate's legal blog, Convictions (here, here, and here). In the last contribution cited, the author, Marty Lederman, observes:

... apart from questions of detainee treatment and the like, the American public, press, and legislature appear to be completely oblivious to the idea that questions of war and military force raise any legal issues at all. It's not as if the public is indifferent to questions of whether and when military force is appropriate. To the contrary: It's simply that it seems never to occur to anyone that law's got anything to do with it.

That same Marty Lederman was appointed by President Obama to the Office of Legal Counsel. Does he still think law might have something to do with the drone program? Do we think so?

Obama's national security speech

A quick comment: civil libertarians have spent the last seven years trying to restore the rule of law in this country without having to counter any intellectually serious arguments from the people in power. The Cheney regime's stance was always just "Screw you! 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 ..."

Our shiny new leader argues on utilitarian/pragmatist grounds that some measures which might still be considered violations of national and international law are justified because we are at war. And if you grant that premise, he at least makes a case that goes beyond raw assertion of power.

I don't grant the premise and I don't think any of us who are serious about the rule of law, dismantling empire, or a sustainable planet can afford to grant the premise. The U.S. and the rest of the world are confronted with lawless actors of various sorts who do vicious things to impose themselves on and inflame the passions of vast, instinctively peaceful, majorities.

This conduct is vicious -- and it is criminal. Survival depends on a combination of coercing and persuading lawless actors to give it up. This isn't about war; it is about law enforcement nationally and internationally.

As for Obama's promises: we must watch what he does, not what he says.

I was heartened that he seemed to feel the need to respond, not only to rightwing fearmongers, but also to people who see view him as simply continuing Bushite lawlessness. We need to keep pushing him -- he is not immune to pressure.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Intemperate gun rant

National Parks Traveler

I need to say it: THIS IS INSANE. Why anyone should be allowed to tote a handgun, much bring it, concealed, into a national park, is beyond my comprehension.

To the frustration and discouragement of many Democrats, House and Senate lawmakers and aides say it now appears likely that President Obama will this week sign into law a provision allowing visitors to national parks and refuges to carry loaded and concealed weapons.

New York Times,
May 20, 2009

The conjunction of old law written for a very different society (we don't do "well regulated militias" anymore, boys) with blustering machismo that makes gun flaunting a sacred right of true Amurrican patriots is bullshit.

And so are the politicians, including our excellent President, who cowtow to the wannabee cowboys and mountain men.

I get the politics. Gotta quiet all the terrified gun nuts who think the Black guy is going to take their pride and joy.

Nonetheless, aside from a very few, very rural holdouts, nobody in this country needs or should be allowed a gun. (No, that firearm is not really your dick -- though I think a lot of you should be relieved of that too.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Some climate polls

The polling outfit Rasmussen Reports decided to find out what people thought about proposals for a legislated "cap and trade" system. As you can see from the chart above, we don't have much of an idea at all.

Less than a quarter knew that it had something to do with the environment. More thought maybe it was a way to rein in financial crooks or reform the health insurance business. The rest knew they didn't know.

So-called "cap and trade" is a scheme to harness market mechanisms to make it profitable for polluters to reduce their CO2 emissions. It brings human greed into play on the side of the planet by way of government intervention. Sneaky, eh?

But obviously it's not something that makes intuitive sense to the population at large. For that matter, the urgency of trying to reduce global warming still doesn't make intuitive sense. Political scientists have discovered:

For each three degrees that local temperature rises above normal, Americans become one percentage point more likely to agree that there is 'solid evidence' that the earth is getting warmer.

The notion that humans -- however numerous we've become and however thoroughly we exploit the planet's resources -- could make the place uninhabitable is just too unbelievable to sink in. After all, such a development is outside human experience.


The other day on Daily Kos, Meteor Blades polled that exceptionally tuned-in community on whether they thought global warming was going to get to us in our lifetimes. About 75 percent of those under 65 thought so; even among those over 65, nearly 60 percent thought "yes."

The discrepancy between the understandings among the general public and among more informed citizens is a recipe for a political problem -- but global warming is a planetary problem.

In case you wanted a thorough explanation of "cap and trade,' here's the EcoGeek:

H/t Mr. Natural.

Monday, May 18, 2009

We didn't all have to be taught to torture

Metro Detention Center, Brooklyn

This morning came news of a Supreme Court decision that a Pakistani who charges he was imprisoned, beaten, and abused in New York after 9/11 cannot sue the former U.S. attorney general and the FBI director. He complained that he

was kept in solitary confinement at the center, denied medical care and subjected to daily body-cavity searches, beatings and extreme temperatures. He said that he had been called a terrorist and a “Muslim killer” and that he had lost 40 pounds during six months in the special unit.

There's lots of reason to believe Javaid Iqbal was abused. In June 2003, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine testified about his investigation of detentions of suspected immigrants before a Judiciary Committee hearing:

... we concluded that the evidence indicates a pattern of physical and verbal abuse by some correctional officers at the MDC [Metropolitan Detention Center] against some September 11 detainees, particularly during the first months after the attacks and during intake and movement of prisoners. This generally consisted of slamming some detainees into walls; dragging them by their arms; stepping on the chain between their ankle cuffs; twisting their arms, hands, wrists, and fingers; and making slurs and threats such as "you will feel pain" and "you're going to die here."

Several thousand immigrant men, mostly Arabs or Pakistani, were drawn into a mad vortex of suspicion in the months immediately after 9/11 -- from the point of view of their communities, they were simply disappeared.

Obsidian Wings links to a 2004 New York Times story by that excellent reporter of all matters related to immigration, Nina Bernstein, that lays out Iqbal's charges. Tram Nguyen's We Are All Suspects Now recounts a string of stories of abuse and intimidation mostly directed at Muslim and South Asian immigrants in the first years after 9/11. Since then, immigration authorities now under the Department of "Homeland Security" frequently replicate some of this conduct.

It seems important to be reminded of all this as the country focuses on the overt enthusiasm for torture of foreign captives that apparently emanated from Dick Cheney's office. Cheney wanted (false) evidence of an Iraq-al Qaeda connection. His band of hack lawyers made up an antiseptic maze of convoluted justifications for conduct that was quite obviously illegal as well as immoral. But their bizarre justifications couldn't contain what they set loose. Their "techniques" then leaked out to wherever the U.S. military pursued its "war on terror." Pretty soon the "techniques" were being used brutally in dark jails in Afghanistan and in holding pens in Iraq.

But as the Iqbal case and those of the 2001 immigrant detainees show, abuse of prisoners labeled terrorists was part of U.S. reaction to being attacked from the day after 9/11. We'd been hit and somebody had to pay. We wanted vengeance. Just a month ago we learned that "walling" became a "technique" used on the objects of the Cheney torture program -- but apparently ordinary prison guards in New York City in 2001 immediately employed a variant of it on their immigrant prisoners. The potential violence endemic in U.S. prisons was loosed.

Cheney et al. melded that covert but also conventional institutional abuse with a generalized injured assurance of U.S. rectitude to overcome some of the ordinary barriers to adopting the behavior of authoritarian regimes. They played the country's emotional dark side like the virtuoso abusers they chose to be.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

And we wonder why they hate us...

Aid team with Pakistani families in Mardan and Swabi districts. Manzoor Hussain/Mercy Corps

Yesterday I got a call from a solicitor for a charity. It was not one I regularly give to, but a couple of years ago when a huge earthquake shook mountainous regions of Pakistan, I did some research and discovered that Mercy Corps seemed to have some ability to deliver aid, so I made a small donation. As a resident of San Francisco, I'm attuned to people needing help after earthquakes.

This time they sought cash to help the nearly one million people driven from their homes by the Pakistani Army's offensive in Pushtun areas of their country. The army proudly announces they killed 1000 "militants" and they won't rest until they've "flushed out" every Taliban adherent.

This offensive is something the Pakistan Army has undertaken under intense pressure from the United States. Pakistan's President Zardari visited Washington last week and evidently Obama laid down the law. The groups the U.S. lumps together as "Taliban" must go. So one million people -- people who used to have homes and lives -- are now on the move, many crowded in refugee camps, while Army tanks charge around trying (probably fruitlessly) to eliminate 15000 guerillas.

And we wonder why they hate us ...

Professor Juan Cole's popular book, Engaging the Muslim World, devotes a chapter to explaining, simply and clearly, some background realities that should give our bellicose rulers pause. Here's his summary of the misconceptions that drive our Afghanistan and Pakistan wars.

The Taliban create Islam anxiety in the West not only because they hosted al-Qaeda but also beause they dislike foreigners, oppress women, and practice extreme Puritanism. Westerners confuse the social conflict between urban and rural society in these two countries with mere terrorism and tend to assume that the deployment of military might by a praetorian state against tribal and rural peoples is synonymous with a war on terror. In fact, good policymaking would recognize the legitimate social and economic discontents of the rural population and seek to redress them with well considered aid programs instead of bombs.

Ooops. There we go again with the bombs. Furthermore:

It's a fool's errand. These rugged regions along the Afghan border are thinly populated by Pushtun tribesmen who are interested in reducing their isolation from the outside world only if they can see a benefit. ... The tribes' segmentary politics, whereby they pursue internal feuds with one another, can quickly be put aside to unite against a grasping or belligerent outsider. This makes the tribes a formidable obstacle to heavy-handed forms of governance imposed from the outside. Even the British Empire at the height of its power never subdued them.

Nor he goes on to point out, has the government of Pakistan. These people don't recognize the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And they are not necessarily a danger to us.

September 11 was launched not from Khost in Afghanistan but from Hamburg in Germany, not by tribal persons or seminarians [Taliban] but by engineers trained in the West. Even in their heyday in the 1990s, the Taliban were seldom directly involved in committing international terrorism. The conflation of Pushtuns, and their love of relative autonomy, with Talibanism frequently obscures the local politics that drive militancy.

Pakistan is a huge country, with an area the size of the states of California, Oregon and Washington, and a population of about 170 million people. It has a prosperous urban middle class that is sick of both military dictators and corrupt politicians. This democratic group drove the last military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, from office, forced the reinstatement of a deposed chief justice of the Supreme Court, and is proud of the country's freely elected government if perhaps not entirely happy with their political leadership.

And guess what? Pakistanis don't look at the world through American eyes. A few more facts from Professor Cole:
  • Pakistan has fought three wars with India since independence in 1947. Pakistanis tend to suspect any threat to their country comes from the Hindu-majority colossus to the south.
  • Since the U.S. pushed the Taliban out of Afghanistan and propped up the Karzai government there, Afghanistan has become friendly to their enemy, India.
  • About half of all Pakistanis blame the United States for most of the violence in their country, while 14 percent think India is stirring things up.
  • Historically U.S. aid to Pakistan has gone almost exclusively to the military, not civil society.
  • Pakistanis suspect, with reason, that the U.S. has preferred to deal with military rulers, rather than support their struggling democratic efforts.
And we wonder why they hate us ...

President Obama owns his Afghanistan/Pakistan war now. Success, whatever that means and the powers-that-be don't seem to know, is very unlikely. What to do?

Inform ourselves. Cole's Engaging the Muslim World is one source, as is his blog, Informed Comment. Ahmed Rashid's Descent into Chaos is also totally worth the effort.

Support the early rumblings in Congress asking the Administration to name an endgame. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) has put in a bill asking to hear an exit strategy.

Make a donation to help the latest wave of U.S. created war refugees. We're breaking their country; it's the least we can do. Mercy Corps is one place to start.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

An exercise in democracy, Chinese-style

The video below is the trailer for a documentary exploring what happens when middle-class, urban Chinese eight-year olds campaign in an election for the office of "Class Monitor." [1:57]

Neither the students nor their very involved parents have any experience with elections; that's not how these things have been decided in their past, so they are making it up as they go along. They definitely get into the spirit of the competition.

I don't want to give anything away here (you can and should rent this). But let's just say the twists and turns of the campaign will be familiar to U.S. viewers, though with Chinese cultural touches. In China as well as the United States, a girl running for office encounters gender-specific tests she must overcome, though the content of the tests may be different. Charm and glib verbal ease help too, but they encounter limits. Family privilege is an asset in Wuhan as well as Washington.

I had to wonder, how would this election have been different in the United States? I don't remember us having such contests in third grade -- that sort of thing came later. I remember thinking the school elections we did have were empty charades: the most popular kids would get all the offices. Not being one of them, I didn't applaud.

Almost certainly, the parents would not have been so prominent in the campaign. Even in the third grade, most of us didn't want our parents so intimately involved in our school lives. We may already have had a little of that annoying adolescent scorn for our families.

When I was in elementary school, one difference would have been certain: there would have been no girl in the running at all. Girls weren't even allowed to be crossing guards; that was a boy's job. Good little dyke-let that I was, I was pissed. I'm sure that has changed in the last 50 years.

Do check out these Chinese kids -- this is a film that sticks with you.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Found item II

I have no idea why people in the San Francisco Mission district put oddities in trees, but they do. Repeatedly. I encountered this one on an early morning walk.

If more TV were this honest, I might watch it

[4:57] Bravely done, David Waldman.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama, the dark side, and us

The President's about face on complying with a court order to release more torture pictures is unalloyed bad news. His various excuses for the changed posture are transparently feeble. Doubt this assertion? Read Dan Froomkin's careful point by point dissection.

Joan Walsh in Salon caught what so many of us hoped we'd never have to see:

For the first time in his presidency, I had the sick feeling that Obama was lying in his remarks on the photos...

Actually, I think Obama, like all politicians, tells falsehoods all the time on policy issues. To take one example, I don't think he is a "fierce advocate for equality of gay and lesbian Americans." Past behavior belies this. Instead, I think he knows what he has to say to stay well positioned on LGBT issues and he will do some fraction of it for us, if it doesn't him cost too much. I don't consider that sort of posturing to be "lying" from a politician. Actual "lying" occurs when the politician asserts important things that are substantively untrue, knows it, and believes that the false statement is nonetheless necessary. Like Walsh, I think that was what we saw yesterday.

Withholding the photos is not the first and won't be the last dip by the Obama administration into the dark side. Apparently they've taken a decision to resuscitate the Bush-era kangaroo courts -- the so-called military commissions -- for Guantanamo inmates. Those are the lucky captives; the administration apparently intends to hold some large number of prisoners who have had no legal process at all in a black hole prison in Afghanistan. At home, they are hanging on for dear life to a "state secrets privilege" to deny people the chance to bring government misdeeds to court. With less notice, they are continuing the arbitrary anti-Muslim border policies of their predecessors, harassing visitors and citizens at entry and excluding a distinguished scholar in an apparent case of pure prejudice.

The ongoing allegiance to the dark side scares the crap out of so many of us who have supported Obama not only because it undermines the constitution, the historic rule of law, and chances for a more peaceful international order, but also because this administration came into office with such great prospects of doing real good for millions of us. We want universal health care, decent education, an economy that rewards its members, and a planet that humans can go on making civilization in. We want, and need, the good parts of Obama's program to succeed. And we don't want this attractive politician to fail.

Instead Obama's policies demonstrate that the President is likely to further mire us in a failed war of empire in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With no discernible end point and no exit strategy, that's a recipe for another failed presidency. Years of Republican battering about Democrats being weak on "national security" force any Democrat to prove he or she is "butch enough" to run a nice little war. The dark side stuff is the symbolic obeisance an aspiring warrior has to give to our authoritarians and military establishment.

So okay -- it's time to get used to some truths. We didn't elect a magician; we elected a very capable and attractive politician. He'll be as good a President for the citizens of this country as we make him. That means we -- the people who want a peaceful future and an equitable society -- don't get to go home and rest. We have work to do, as those who came before us have long known.

The professor rides off to work

In honor of Bike to Work Day, Thursday May 14.

The thing is, she doesn't teach on Thursdays, so I had to record the scene on Wednesday.

She extracts the bicycle, a cheap beater, from the garage.

She attaches massive panniers. That's a lot of student papers to drag around.

And she's off, helmeted and stunningly visible in her fluorescent lime green jacket. Let's hope the multi-ton steel competition for street space can see her. She says she feels safe.

I almost never feel safe riding my bike. I'm always on the lookout for danger -- and I think my wariness is appropriate. It's not much fun being so on guard.

But that's not the only reason why I don't ride much in the city. I'm lucky. I work from home, can walk to most stores I use, and go a lot of places by jumping on BART (the subway).

However there's one necessity for which I use a car at least four times a week: getting some place where I can run on softish (asphalt or dirt) surfaces without crossing traffic. The car serves as a mobile locker room, a repository for extra clothes and perhaps a post-run snack. You can't do that with a bike.

Perversely, if I didn't run many miles on foot for exercise and pure pleasure, I wouldn't need a car. What's wrong with this picture?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Elders rally against budget cuts

About 500 elder San Franciscans gathered in Civic Center Plaza Tuesday to protest city budget cuts to health and social service programs. The speaker above is Vera Haile, a retired agency manager who has been speaking out on the effects of the economic crisis on old people. She wanted the assembled crowd to understand that, though elders have many friends in City Hall, this year they are no longer "golden." Services really will be cut.

With the city getting squeezed by the state's dysfunction, dozens of programs are being chopped from health, housing and social services. Many less meals will be available; in-home help will be more expensive and sporadic; and crisis intervention more difficult. Perhaps as bad, the nonprofits that enable elders to navigate the maze of potentially available assistance are all getting slashed.

San Franciscans know how to put on a good rally. It was nice to see the folding chairs provided. The last time I saw that courtesy provided to elders at a rally was by the African National Congress in South Africa. As the "Silver Tsunami" rolls over the country in the coming decades, perhaps we'll get used to such amenities so more can participate?

Bobby Bogan of Seniors Organizing Seniors called on folks to help each other. He has organized elders to share their food supplies with the homeless.

And the homeless were there too.

As is true in the city in general, the largest ethnic group was people of various Asian origins.

Organizers made sure everyone who wanted one got a box lunch.

Folks from the 30th Street Senior Center singing group led choruses of "If I had a hammer," "De Colores," and "You are my sunshine."

Does all this raising a happy ruckus do any good? It certainly puts politicians on notice that there is an organized, voting constituency out there watching them. They know they'll take heat for failing the elders.

The Coalition of Agencies Serving the Elderly (CASE) which sponsored the rally fears that, on top of the direct cuts, the effect of current budgets will be to dismantle the intricate "continuum of care" we have collectively has created to meet elder's needs -- just as the Baby Boomer wave begins to rise. The need is great and will be greater. They point out that by 2030, demographers believe that one in five San Franciscans will be over 65. One in three people age 75 or older in San Francisco lives in poverty; 28 percent of San Franciscan elders speak English "not well" or "not at all."

We are challenged to maintain our community in hard times.