Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A new no fly list lawsuit

Once upon a time, nearly eight years ago (!) around the dawn of the post 9/11 U.S. security-theater state, my partner and I had a minor brush with the "no-fly list." After airline personnel told us we were on such a list and called in cops who detained us very briefly, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took our case to court to try to find out how such lists were assembled, who was responsible, why we were on the list, and how harmless people could get off the list. We were "good plaintiffs" -- white, female, self-confident, articulate and cooperative. The case limped along for years; at one point our lawyer turned up on a list. After much stalling by the feds and several rebukes from the judge, we got some information about the list though nothing very detailed -- and the ACLU was awarded court costs.

So it is with interest that I read today that the ACLU had brought a far more significant lawsuit on behalf of 10 U.S. citizens and legal residents who are genuinely burdened by the current application of a no-fly list. The way it works is that these folks go the airport and are told no way, no how, no circumstances, no warning, no judicial process will they be allowed to board an airplane. This often happens to them when they are in another country, effectively barring them from coming home.

The ACLU explains its lawsuit:

Today, the U.S. government's No Fly List consists of thousands of people who have been barred altogether from commercial air travel, resulting in a vast and growing list of individuals whom the government deems too dangerous to fly, but are too harmless to arrest. To deprive people fundamental rights without any notice or opportunity to object is unfair, unconstitutional, and un-American.

Meet the some of the plaintiffs:

plaintiffs 1.jpg

plaintiffs 2.jpg

It does sadly appear likely that a common characteristic of these people is that they are Muslims.

Naturally the Obama administration was spooked by learning that its airline security measures missed the underwear bomber last Christmas. But covering the butts of failed "intelligence" hacks can't be enough reason to prevent citizens and lawful residents from traveling without any form of due process. That's "big government" over-reach of a sort that liberals and conservatives should both repudiate.

If you can, consider contributing to the ACLU.

Enjoying English

There could be no more satisfying way to read The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language than listening to it as an audiobook -- and that's what we did while driving across a good bit of the U.S. west on our recent vacation roadtrip.

Melvin Bragg loves our language in all its variety. He delightedly chronicles its evolution. Though English does not boast the largest number of native speakers in the world (that would be Mandarin Chinese), it is far and away the essential second language of the most people -- and hence the essential world medium of much communication. It has thrived by incorporating words from all the cultures it encountered -- and now many of those cultures, for example the Indian sub-continent, are evolving their own variants.

Somewhat surprisingly for a Brit, Bragg celebrates the creativity and informality of the U.S. variant. He thinks our contributions are enjoyable, not some corruption visited on the pure mother tongue.

And he has a great sense of English's considerable absurdity. Here's what is apparently a British school room ditty that captures the mess that is our spelling.

We'll begin with a box and the plural is boxes.
But the plural of ox should be oxen not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese.
Yet the plural of mouse should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice.
But the plural of house is houses not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
The cow in a plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows and not vine.
And I speak of foot and you show me your feet,
But I give you a boot. . . would a pair be called beet? . . .


Where has the oil in the Gulf spread to now?

A citizen-generated, crowd-sourced map is being created at the Oil Reporter.


TechPresident reports on the project:

Citizens have reported oil sightings and sent pictures of oil, both the tarballs and sludge that washes up and the slicks that loom out at sea.

There are conflicting reports, including one that reports “all clear off shore 1-4 miles off shore From Pensacola pass to Destin,” but that one is refuted by several other people.

It's the crowd in action: Messy, not always clear, but pretty accurate, all things considered. It's important to note that these are snapshots of the location of a moving target — the oil slick, the tarballs, and the sludge are all presumably on the move at all times.

Neither the media or the various authorities (and certainly not BP) seem to be doing this for us, so folks are doing it for themselves.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What we, the people, are up against

If Democrats lose their majority in Congress in the November elections, this guy, Rep. John Boehner, will become Speaker of the House. However disaffected we may become, things could be worse.

On entitlement "reform" to "save" money:

I think Social Security is the most logical place to start ...

And on a lighter note, what is it with the conservative guys and their pink ties? Boehner, David Brooks...

Sometimes torturers can face justice ...

even if only belatedly.

When we visited Argentina last winter, a fellow we met who had escaped that country's Dirty War (1976-1983) by going into temporary exile, told us with conviction: "it took a long time, but it is worth it. Finally we brought some of the torturers into the courts."

For example, in 2006, Miguel Etchecolatz, a former senior official of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, on charges of homicide, illegal deprivation of freedom (kidnapping), and torture. Etchecolatz had once held the power of life and death over political suspects; that he was brought to court was a remarkable victory for civil society and the rule of law.

For many African Americans in Chicago, today's jury verdict, convicting former Police Commander Jon Burge of lying under oath about torturing suspects at his Area 2 police headquarters between 1973 and 1986 was a similar vindication. For decades there has been overwhelming evidence that officers in this police station systematically subjected men they picked up to beatings, electric shock, burns, guns forced into their mouths, plastic bags forced over their heads and other forms of physical and mental torture. Yet judicial, and especially political, obstacles prevented any recourse by the victims of this police misconduct for decades. Juries didn't trust the testimony of Black men with criminal records; judges distorted procedure to police advantage; and the courtroom was the cops' arena of comfort, not nearly so friendly to their illiterate, powerless accusers.

I first read about these cases in John Conroy's 2001 book: Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture. His overarching subject is the implications of torture when it occurs in democracies. His conclusions about the Chicago case are bleak:

The Area 2 cases offered a chance for a Western democracy to show how torturers can be pursued and prosecuted. ... The police force would not have been decimated, since the number of alleged torturers was relatively small: although scores of detectives have worked at Area 2 in the last twenty years, the allegations of torture were made against a core group of about fifteen men ....Helpful officers might have been found by interviewing Area 2 detectives who disliked the Burge gang and their treatment of suspects ... For the Chicago City Council there was no statute of limitations, nor was there one for the local media. ...

[But] the citizens of Chicago were unmoved. The clergy showed no leadership; with the exception of a few mostly low-ranking ministers, religious officials were silent. In the absence of any clamor, politicians showed no interest. Reporters, hearing no complaint, conducted no investigations, and editorial writers launched no crusades. ...

I found I did not have to journey far to learn that torture is something we abhor only when it is done to someone we like, preferably someone we like who lives in another country.

Actually, Conroy did mention one avenue of potential recourse that remained open: a federal prosecutor bringing a perjury case would not be hampered by a statute of limitations. Perhaps if one intervened some justice might be won. And he turned out to be right.

The U.S. District Attorney who won this case today is a familiar figure to political junkies: Patrick Fitzgerald won the only verdict ever that repudiated the Bush/Cheney regime's disdain for law when he won a conviction of Cheney aide Scooter Libby for lying about leaking the name of a CIA agent.

Fitzgerald spoke to the press after the Chicago verdict. The first couple of minutes of the clip are especially telling.

"These sorts of things that happened in 1982, 1985, being punished 25, 28 years later, that's not a full measure of justice," Fitzgerald told reporters. "On the other hand, the sense that finally there's a verdict ... that a jury found beyond a reasonable doubt, all 12 of them, that this happened should be some measure of justice to recognize and reckon with history that we need to have it on the record that this happened."

Chicago Breaking News

Budget short takes:
Am I just being mean about Pete Peterson's Foundation?

I don't think so. David Walker of the Peterson Foundation seems to endorse debtors' prisons for citizens who get in over their heads to the financial bloodsuckers.

Only :31 seconds -- watch it. I stand by the previous post. These people are scary.

H/t Rortybomb.

CORRECTION: I originally, inaccurately, confused the "Peterson Foundation" where Mr. Walker is the big cheese, with the Peterson Institute which seems to be an advocacy outfit for the kind of "free trade" that has devastated Mexican farmers leading to massive undocumented immigration here, while sending U.S. manufacturing overseas. This is not the same as advocacy for squeezing the U.S. poor to benefit the U.S. rich in the name of "deficit reduction." It is another prong of the perennial crusade by the privileged to hang on to what they have by extracting more from the less fortunate. I have corrected the post.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Taking on the deficit hawks

Alerted by such organizations as MoveOn, the Older Women's League, and the Gray Panthers, on Saturday I looked in on the beginning of an odd event in Palo Alto, California.

An outfit called AmericaSpeaks had decided that 8:00 am on a Saturday in an obscure corner of this West Coast outpost of Wall Street opulence was a suitable time and venue for one of the two dozen sites for a "National Town Hall Meeting" on how to cut the federal deficit.

Since AmericaSpeaks is funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and various other fat cat luminaries, organizations that defend ordinary Americans suspect it of acting as a propaganda shop for further rip offs of our taxes to comfort the wealthy. These "non-partisans" are engaged in an agenda setting exercise. If they can convince enough of us that U.S. fiscal problems are caused by greedy Social Security recipients and old people on Medicare who won't die quietly, they think they can distract the vast majority of us from looking for more money for government from the obvious source: people who have more money than they need.

To that end, the Peterson Institute, ostensibly so distressed by deficits, lobbies against even regulations that would prevent multinational corporations from abusing foreign tax credits. Peterson's outfit may not have an allegiance to Democrats or Republicans, but it clearly has a higher loyalty: to rich people.

A small engaged crowd turned out in Palo Alto, determined not to let this charade pass without notice. Their signs showed them to be supporters of Social Security and Medicare for All.

AmericaSpeaks organizers provided a flack, one Chris Bui, to engage the MoveOn group. Mr. Bui touted his experience in facilitating "trans-partisan" gatherings. I always wonder whether people like this, obviously happily ensconced among the comfortable, think those who have to live off the leavings of their comfort ought to act. Submissive and baffled by their betters, I suspect.

Fortunately, this was not a crowd much cowed by glib talkers. Mr. Bui was asked why there were only two sites in all of California, home to some 43 million diverse people, while Wyoming's 600,000 people got two sites? He explained that some members of AmericaSpeaks have connections .... Nothing against Wyoming (it's lovely), but it seems a little over-represented in the councils of this outfit.

Unlike most of the people I was standing among, I didn't go into the "town meeting" -- nor, when I left, was it clear how many of those outside would get in. I had a lot of other things to do on Saturday, like spell out "NO OIL" on a beach.

One of the side benefits of AmericanSpeaks holding their dog and pony show at this wealthy venue was the elders who managed to find it were not the kind of people who are easily bamboozled. Nor are they the kind of people who want to keep their benefits and screw future generations. (That's for the Tea Party types clinging to their Medicare while denouncing government.) I left confident that they'd hold up our end of things.
People who want to impose their (bad) solutions to problems they have defined often challenge opponents to come up with alternative solutions.

Any number of smart economists, most notably Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman (who unlike the Peterson set did see the housing bubble that led to the financial crash of 2008) think this bunch's definition of the problem is simply wrong. The deficit can wait until the economy is back on its feet. He insists in the linked article that deficit hawk policies are driving us into a Third Depression.

If we do want to cut the deficit, economist Dean Baker has offered three equitable suggestions:

For item number 1: how about a financial speculation tax? Wouldn't the bond markets be impressed by seeing Congress crack down on the Wall Street hot shots whose recklessness helped fuel the housing bubble? That one would show real courage given the power of Goldman Sachs-Citigroup gang.

As a second item, Congress could go after the pharmaceutical industry. By 2020 we are projected to be spending almost $500bn a year on prescription drugs. We pay close to twice as much for our drugs as people in other wealthy countries and about 10 times as much as the drugs would cost if they could be sold in competitive market without government patent monopolies.

Suppose Congress decided to pay for the clinical testing of drugs directly and then allowed all new drugs to be sold as generics. This could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Wouldn't the bond markets be impressed by seeing Congress stand up to the pharmaceutical industry?

As a third item, suppose Congress revisited plans for a public insurance option. The Congressional Budget Office projected that this would save over $100bn by 2020 and certainly much more in future decades. Wouldn't the bond markets be impressed if Congress stood up to the insurance industry?

Baker doesn't even mention my preferred solution to U.S. government over-spending and over-borrowing (that's what the deficit is). We could stop fighting expensive, unnecessary wars around the world and cut back the bloated military. There's lots of money there if we need it. Bring it home!

UPDATE: Dean Baker came up with the best line about these meetings yet:

As they say at America Speaks, everything is on the table, except reforms that would hurt powerful industry lobbies.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Happy Gay Pride Day!

On this 40th anniversary of the San Francisco celebration of our exuberant humanity, we've won enough freedom so I don't feel required to join the enormous festivities downtown.

After all, the party pervades the streets.

And extends onto the back altar in church.

My friends' movie played this week at the Roxie and will show in numerous venues all over the country this month. Catch it if you can; remember where we came from.

BP oil gusher spreads further;
What's happening to clean up workers?

The oil is coating coasts in four states now ... New York Times map.

Yesterday a medical friend attended a training for First Responders. Many aspects of this involved dealing with toxics. Discussing it, we agreed that we hate to think what clean up crews are encountering on Gulf beaches.

CNN has investigated this question:

If it is true that the average lifespan of the people who worked on the Exxon Valdez clean up was 51 and most are now dead, there are horrors ahead.

Many of the Gulf workers are immigrants, according a report from Feet in Two Worlds reporter Annie Correal.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

No oil spill? No drill!

Twas a typical summer morning today on Ocean Beach in San Francisco ... gray, cold and a little blustery.

That indefatigable impresario of beach performance art, Brad Newsham, excels at organizing unorganized masses of people in a very short timeframe to spell out messages on the sand. He always appears calm while slightly confused people mill around him. See more at SLASH OIL.

On this occasion 500-600 people assembled to spell out the word "OIL" covered by the circle and slash symbol, the universal "NO". Take that BP -- and the Obama administration too if they intend to drill more.

Newcomers needed some explanation from Brad's volunteers -- but really all we had to do was lie down within the lines.

Code Pink provided a lot of participants and a long banner that served as the diagonal slash.

As we approached the moment when a helicopter would fly over to photograph the message, Brad urged late comers to fill in part of the circle where bodies were still a little far apart.

Here's a shot John Montgomery took from the circling helicopter:

You can see the rest of Montgomery's pictures here.

When the helicopter had made its passes over the SLASH OIL tableau, we headed enmasse for the shoreline.

There we spread out, for more photos, over about a half a mile of beach in a long line, holding hands.

Bye til next time.

Newsham's occasional events are a wonderfully benign way to form a temporary community and make a statement from the heart. I am grateful .
(See a previous Newsham event here.)

Remembering the tortured

June 26 has been proclaimed by the United Nations as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

Twenty-three years ago the Convention against Torture came into force on June 26, 1987. One hundred and forty-six nations, including the United States, are parties to this treaty.

From the United Nations website:

Torture is one of the most profound human rights abuses, taking a terrible toll on millions of individuals and their families. Rape, blows to the soles of the feet, suffocation in water, burns, electric shocks, sleep deprivation, shaking and beating are commonly used by torturers to break down an individual's personality. As terrible as the physical wounds are, the psychological and emotional scars are usually the most devastating and the most difficult to repair. Many torture survivors suffer recurring nightmares and flashbacks. They withdraw from family, school and work and feel a loss of trust.

"Today the United Nations appeals to all governments and members of civil society to take action to defeat torture and torturers everywhere", says [former] UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "This is a day on which we pay our respects to those who have endured the unimaginable. This is an occasion for the world to speak up against the unspeakable", he said.

Obviously the need to speak up is not less than in 1998 when those words were written. For citizens of the United States, the need is even greater today when our country has taken to defining so many of the activities of torture listed above as permissble "hard interrogation techniques." The weasel words don't change the reality: the United States has officially joined the torture states.

As a free bumper sticker from Quaker House reminds us:
Accountability Today
Stops Torture Tomorrow.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Iraqi refugees still in limbo, still need help

In 2006, I joined other U.S. peace activists on a visit to Jordan and Syria because I knew my country's assault on Iraq had unleashed carnage throughout the region and I wanted to see for myself. What we saw, then little noticed in the United States, was that millions of Iraqis were on the move, escaping violence at home by flooding into a very reluctant Jordan and a somewhat more accommodating Syria. I wrote about meeting some of them here. In Amman, our delegation visited the U.S. embassy to ask what our government was doing about the human crisis it had set in motion.

Deborah Amos' Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East brings the refugee story up to date -- and much more as she wrestles with making sense of the wider power shifts that the U.S. invasion kicked off among and between the nations and religious sects in the area.

I don't have the expertise to evaluate the latter facet of this book. There aren't many people who do. Amos has deep experience covering the Middle East for NPR, but even she would probably agree that her broader subject is difficult and labyrinthine; I instinctively suspect that on some geopolitical matters she has over-interpreted anecdotal data. But I greatly appreciate her account of what has happened with Iraqi refugees and would recommend the book highly to anyone who wants to know what our hubristic little war has wrought among that ancient society.

Central to Amos' story is that the violence that forced one fifth of Iraqis out of their homes resulted from the sectarian conflict that the U.S. invasion made possible. Saddam had repressed inter-communal strife; clueless Washington proconsuls pulled out the cork, raised the stakes, and watched the scrabble for spoils unfold. And people suffered. She writes:

As of 2009, of the two million Iraqis who fled the country, only about 5 percent have returned. The fundamental problems that fueled the insurgency and the civil war are unresolved, as the exiles know all too well. An estimated 60 percent of the refugees are Sunni Arabs. Fifteen percent are Iraqi Christians. Secular Shiites, Mandaeans, Yazidis, and Kurds are adrift, too, the losers in a brutal civil war that sealed the power of Shiite nationalists.

Yet the sectarian nature of the crisis has been largely overlooked. This shifting population is a huge loss to Iraq, a vast problem to neighboring governments, a collective tragedy for many caught up in it, and a significant indicator of the health, stability, and viability of Iraq and the Middle East. The newly stateless have become the most important indicator of the next phase of the region's history. In their individual stories are found the religious, tribal, and sectarian challenges and conflicts that must somehow be settled for the violence to end. ...

UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, tried to quantify the human damage in a study conducted in conjunction with the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. The polling data showed that the vast majority of exiles suffered from depression and anxiety. More than 60 percent said they experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Most were in deep emotional despair, far more so, according to the study, than refugees from any other recent conflicts. The statistics revealed that an extraordinary number of exiles had experienced violence firsthand. According to the data, 77 percent of respondents had been affected by air bombardments, shelling, or rocket attacks; 80 percent had witnessed a shooting; 68 percent had undergone interrogation or harassment by militias; and 75 percent knew someone close to them who had been killed. In Iraq, the targeting of victims had a horrific logic in a zero-sum game where "sectarian cleansing" was employed to assert a new Iraqi identity -- an identity based on sectarian allegiances that Saddam's regime had submerged. ...

For the exiles, the outcome of the struggle to define Iraqi identity was vital to the prospects for their return; they simply had to know the essential nature of the new nation-state of Iraq. ...When the state collapsed, Iraqis took refuge in tribal and religious loyalties, often not out of conviction but because they believed they had to belong somewhere. A country that was forced together by the army was now torn apart by the mosques. While the exiles had fled for safety, many had also run from a raw sectarian identification that had swept the country and replaced the older nationalist identity of the educated class of Baghdad.

Marooned in Jordan and Syria, the exiles, often educated professionals, were/are largely unable to work legally. Sometimes they could/can pick up low status jobs, but such pursuits were dangerous. They existed on meager savings, in chronic fear of running afoul local authorities. They dreamed of home and eventually of resettlement somewhere, anywhere, else.

The most poignant chapter of Amos' book is the story of an evening's excursion with an otherwise matronly Iraqi woman who feeds her family and sends her child to school by picking up paying male patrons in a Damascus bar. Shame and necessity war within the exiles' psyches. Amos recounts an aid worker's reaction to the prevalence of prostitution and other forms of exploitation among the exiles:

Asir [Madaien of UNHCR] finally settled on an all-embracing summation for the shocking behavior of desperate people. "We have learned over time that Iraqis have lost hope. They don't believe in a future any longer. They have become survivors."

Their quest for survival has had ramifications all over the area. They were never legally allowed in Lebanon; however Sunni extremists did sneak across closed borders and soon were embroiled in Islamist violence in the Tripoli area.

Refugees in Jordan tended to be relatively well-off and/or Christians.

Arafat Jamal, the deputy representative of UNHCR in Amman, Jordan, described the Iraqi population in Jordan as highly professional people who would not consider going back without some resolution for their property claims and·the reclamation of lost government jobs. "It's less dishonorable to be a refugee than to be out of work in Iraq;" said Jamal. As for the Christian minorities in Amman, Jamal was convinced they would never return. By 2009, the European Union had stepped up resettlement quotas, promising places for as many as ten thousand Iraqis, mostly threatened Christians, ...

Syria never closed its borders to Iraqis, though the Assad regime had no intention of incorporating them fully either. Amos believes Syrian willingness to serve as a kind of safety valve for this U.S.-unleashed human disaster has reaped a profit.

If there was ever a serious plan for Syria to be next in the Middle East dominoes of falling dictators, that plan was off the books [by 2008]. As the Bush administration faded, there was a revival in the belief that Syria was a difficult but necessary player in the Middle East with a role in the interlocking conflicts. ... With the strategic mistakes in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, the United States had actually weakened its ability to shape events. ... Syria's hospitality and willingness to assume the economic burden for the care of the human crisis spawned by the war in Iraq had paid off. ... Assad had gained a great deal at very little inconvenience to Syria, and without any risk to his personal rule.

Of course, Iraq -- their homeland -- was where the exiles hoped to return. But for most, this wasn't going to happen. The present elected government was hostile to them.

Behind closed doors, Maliki routinely called the exiles "cowards" and "traitors" so often that many United Nations officials repeated the quote to me whenever I asked about the prime minister's seeming lack of compassion for the exile population. The theories for Maliki's poisonous observations divided into two camps. Maliki didn't understand the post-sectarian war trauma because his experiences were shaped by his protected seat in the Green Zone. Or his views were shaped by his own long experience in exile when the international community took little notice of Iraq's exiled politicians and he had to fend for himself. There was a third possibility. Many top officials knew the majority of exiles were Sunnis. ...

Iraq was effectively a different country, transformed by the sectarian civil war. The Shiites had won, the Sunnis had lost. There was no getting around that. In the current political climate, there was little hope of restoring Baghdad's historic character, a city where Iraq's rich sectarian mix once lived side by side. Instead Baghdad had a distinctly Shiite spirit...

Europe took in some of the refugees -- Amos charges that the European Union cherry-picked among these for Christians and the highly skilled; thousands more sneaked into the E.U. illegally. And, as after all of our wars of empire, thousands of the people we displaced have ended up in the United States.

By 2009, Iraqi refugees were the largest group resettled in the United States. But the lobbying coalition of NGOs and refugee agencies that had campaigned to increase the resettlement quotas now had a newly pressing concern. The U.S. program, strained by the global economic downturn, was failing the new arrivals. ...

Our resettlement program was based on the expectation that we had plenty of jobs for newcomers. Unhappily, with the Great Recession, Iraqi refugees (and their trashed country) have slipped out of our national consciousness and concern.
Last Sunday was United Nations World Refugee Day. CNN reported that the UNHCR had announced that 100,000 Iraqi refugees have been approved for resettlement (though not yet actually resettled), the largest fraction in the United States.
In this Gay Pride month, I'd be remiss if I didn't bring forward another Iraqi refugee group, the country's gay population. Taylor Asen and Zach Strassburger, students at the Yale Law School, explain at Foreign Policy:

...the fanatical Mahdi Army is responsible for much of the violence towards gays. "Death squads" murder men, then leave their destroyed bodies in public as warnings to other gay men. Their brutality is matched only by their frighteningly systematic methods: before murdering their captives, the squads interrogate their victims, search through cell phones and demand information on each contact. In this climate, no gay Iraqi whose sexual identity is known to even one other gay man is safe. ...

America has a singular responsibility to protect these men. ...

The writers urge that the Secretary of State used expedited resettlement procedures to help more of these endangered men to escape a horrible fate.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

She's at it again

In the grim days after 9/11 when President George W was doing his full cowboy act, Congresswoman Barbara Lee from Oakland, CA was a lonely voice of sanity.

She's speaking out again as another president enmeshes himself more deeply in the Afghanistan quagmire.

I was the only member of Congress to vote no on the use of military force in Afghanistan after 9/11 because I thought it would give any administration a blank check to wage war.

I don't believe there's a military solution here.

...I've put forward a resolution to stop funding for the surge and I'm going to continue to work on this in Congress and bring our troops home. And bring some of the trillions being spent out back into domestic policy -- money for jobs and the healthcare system.

Of course there needs to be funding to fight terrorism, but, as I said, I don't believe the solution will be a military one.

When our politicians talk sense, we have to have their backs.

When hate crimes aren't about hatred

I don't know what I think about this -- so I'll share. This is my blog after all.

Wednesday's New York Times carries an interesting story about how a Queens prosecutor is using a "hate crimes" enhancement to get win penalties in elder abuse cases. People who steal from vulnerable elders don't hate their victims. As the prosecutor says:

"Criminals that prey on the elderly, they love the elderly -- this is their source of wealth," said Kristen A. Kane, a Queens assistant district attorney.

She's been winning cases. Normally crooks who defraud old people don't go to jail unless they steal more than $1 million, but New York's hate crimes law is written ambiguously enough so that she can bring a hate crime enhancement to a fraud charge simply because the crook in question singled out a protected group -- the aged -- for the crime. Consequently, guilty persons who would have gotten probation find themselves doing short jail time after a plea bargain and in danger of serving long sentences should they re-offend.

It's an interesting tactic and certainly these elder abusers should get hit with major penalties for taking advantage of vulnerable people. The crime is particularly repulsive; we should be able to live out the end of our lives without having to fear ostensible caregivers.

But having mused before on how the media can explain hate crimes well and being a member of group that just recently won inclusion in federal hate crimes laws, I'm a little disturbed by the implications of this prosecutor's legal ingenuity.

Hate crimes laws make the existence of animus toward a group important by making its presence a factor that makes an existing crime more serious. It's not a hate crime to call me a "stinking, ugly lezzie!" But if you yell this insult while walking up to me on the street and hitting me over the head with a bottle, you can be charged with assault and a hate crime enhancement that increases the penalty for the assault.

I was thrilled last fall when President Obama signed the law (the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crime Prevention Act) which finally included sexual orientation and gender identity among listed categories of hate crimes. But I wasn't thinking about the fact that abusers could now get more jail time for their crimes. I was thinking that our society had finally, through its laws and political processes, affirmed that there was something terribly wrong with gay-bashing. What for some had been a kind of acceptable sport was no longer socially acceptable. The affirmation of LGBT humanity was more important than the new legal penalties. I know prosecutors are often reluctant to charge "hate crimes" because doing so complicates the hard facts of cases with discussion of motivation; the new law isn't going to cause much of a rise in prosecutions of violence by bigots. But finally the law was unambiguous about protecting me. Hooray!

Since I am focused on how the public acknowledgment the existence of real hatred against target groups affirms those group's right to be full members of society, I'm a little uncomfortable seeing a prosecutor using a law that serves that purpose to get at the society's failure to properly penalize ripping off or otherwise abusing elders.

Maybe we need tougher laws against abuse, rather than twisting laws that make acting out of hate an add-on offense into an instrument to increase excessively light penalties in cases where no felt hate is involved? Do we really think elders should be safe? Maybe we should make sure our laws enforce that belief.

Poster from Winnipeg, Canada Elder Abuse Resource Centre.
UPDATE: A new instance of my "Gay and Gray" columns, An Elder Hero for Gay Humanity, is posted at Time Goes By today.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Okay, so McChrystal is out ...

Now can we focus on the real problem? The U.S. war in Afghanistan makes no sense. You're hitting bottom when two of the New York Times' vacuous columnists savage the project on the same day.

You know you're in trouble when you’re in a war in which the only party whose objectives are clear, whose rhetoric is consistent and whose will to fight never seems to diminish is your enemy: the Taliban.

Thomas Friedman

It's just another sign of the complete incoherence of Afghan policy. The people in charge are divided against each other. And the policy is divided against itself. We're fighting a war against an enemy that we’re desperately trying to co-opt and win over in a country where Al Qaeda, which was supposed to be the enemy, is no longer based.

Maureen Dowd

When these two have figured it out, you are pretty far gone.

The Afghanistan adventure is a sad by-product of the country's attachment to imperial power -- to seeing our will be done in far-off places -- and the decline of U.S. ability to impose that power in a changing world. That's the reality within which politicians must shape policy. We're still the largest military force, enjoy a huge economy, possess the greatest potential riches, but we're no longer unchallenged as we were in much of the last century. For politicians and people alike, we need to face the new reality and adjust gracefully, or we'll adjust painfully.

Andrew Bacevich is no hippy peacenik; he's a retired soldier who lost a soldier son in the Iraq war. His Memorial Day musings are thus very poignant:

In recent decades especially, the connection between American military intervention and American freedom has become ever more tenuous. Meanwhile, competence has proved notably hard to come by. Rather than being a one-off event, Vietnam inaugurated an era in which the United States has routinely misunderstood and repeatedly misused military power. Even as political authorities sent U. S. forces into action with ever greater frequency, decisive results — what we used to call victory — became more elusive. From Beirut and Bosnia to Iraq and Somalia, the troops served and sacrificed while expending huge sums of taxpayer money. How their exertions were helping to keep Americans free became increasingly difficult to discern.

The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, already the longest shooting war in U.S. history, embodies these trends. Just about no one, from the senior field commander on down, considers the war there winnable in any meaningful sense. Arguments for perpetuating the U.S. military commitment resemble those once offered to justify Vietnam: We can't afford to look weak; American credibility is on the line.

Los Angeles Times

President Obama has protected the credibility of civilian rule and his own credibility by replacing General McChrystal. But where's the country's credibility? Are we to be solely an engine of worldwide, blundering violence?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

McChrystal called on carpet

I almost feel sorry for General McChrystal. It was his job to "win" the Afghanistan war. Nobody knows what that means. Nobody knows how. He was given 18 months to accomplish the undefined impossible.

And now the cat's out of the bag that he and his people think the civilian leaders who gave them the assignment are less than top-notch. Since I believe that the best people in the Obama Administration, including the President, understand that in Afghanistan they've inherited a deadly conflict with no rational purpose or happy end, I don't blame McChrystal for feeling he'd been pushed out on a limb to take a fall.

At the same time, I hope Obama agrees with James Fallows and fires the unhappy general. The issue here is civilian supremacy over the military. Does the United States still have that? Or are we so enamored of our imperial capacity to impose our will by force around the world that we let generals dictate to Presidents? I hope not. Mistreated military forces sometimes turn on their ostensible commanders; I've been concerned about this ever since President George W fell into the all-war-all-the-time trap.
It won't be much noticed in the U.S., but the Brits are also going through a major shake-up of Afghanistan leadership. According to the Guardian,

Britain's special envoy to Afghanistan, known for his scepticism about the western war effort and his support for peace talks with the Taliban, has stepped down just a month before a critical international conference in Kabul. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles has taken "extended leave", a spokesman for the British high commission in Islamabad said today.

The project is unraveling before our eyes and politicians -- U.S., U.K., and Afghan -- can't put Humpty-Dumpty together again.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Budget short takes:
What polls say the people want

Gazillionaire entrepreneur Pete Peterson has invested in the ideological infrastructure (a foundation, a think tank, conferences, pundits, etc.) to work to make sure that we're properly terrified of the federal budget deficit. Even New York Times economic writers concede that it is odd that he's very so worried about "entitlements" -- programs like Social Security that help keep old people from destitution -- but seems to have a soft spot for tax breaks for the rich (him).

Meanwhile, Nobel Prize winning economist and columnist Paul Krugman, over and over, tries to get it through the thick skulls of the "experts" that running a deficit now is the cheap way to get the economy moving, after which it will be possible to reduce the deficit when the government is taking in more revenues from working, prospering citizens.

Who's winning with the people? According to economist Dean Baker, the mainstream media led by the Washington Post keep trumpeting that we're scared stupid by the deficit. But opinion data says otherwise.

Here's a chart based on Baker's data showing what we're most worried about:

Looks like jobs and the economy win hands down. So how do we get politicians to do what most people want instead of what fat cat Peterson says we should want? That's the project.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

How far has the BP oil disaster spread now?

A map helps imagine the extent:

This graphic is from the New York Times interactive oil spill tracker. At the link, you can set the date back to the beginning of the disaster and watch the oil move.

As with developments in mile-deep undersea oil containment technology, showing the extent of the horror is evoking creativity in visual display of information.

Scenery for a Sunday: Southwestern states roadtrip

If it were not for the unhappy events described in my last post, these photos would have closed out the week yesterday. Today will do just fine.

That one above is from Turtle Rocks, just off Interstate 80 in eastern Wyoming. It's a place I'd been ambitious to explore ever since driving by on the way work on electing Obama in 2008. This year, we took the time to circle the outcropping on a 2.5 mile trail.

In southern Colorado we got ambitious. We decided to hike to the summit of this 13,000 foot pile of rock: West Spanish Peak. Native Americans call this mountain and its eastern twin the Wahatoya, "Breasts of the World." When early settlers on the Santa Fe trail glimpsed these peaks, they knew they were finally about to escape the endless plains grasslands.

For a couple of flat-landers, the trudge up the loose rock talus was a tough go ... but awe inspiring.

The 360 degree summit view made the exertion worthwhile. This fellow as the only other human we saw on the mountain.

From the heights to the (relative) lowlands: we stopped by Great Sand Dunes National Park. Who knew that such a thing was continually building itself in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo mountains?

When you have enough water and the temperature is not blazing hot, the desert can have a surprisingly benevolent feel to it, grand but not hostile to humans. This was such a desert last week.

The next day we hiked easily outside Gunnison, CO ...

... on the north rim of the Black Canyon, another extraordinary national park. Modern adventurers still test themselves by traversing the canyon at water level. We peered down several thousand feet and marveled.

What's life without a goal? Here's our next one: Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, adjacent to Nevada's Utah border, another relatively isolated 13,000 footer. I don't know when we'll get there (there's a relatively short snow-free summer season) but it sure looks like fun. The trail starts at over 10,000 feet so there is only 3000 feet of rocky scrambling.

At trail head altitude, in mid-June, the trees have not yet leafed out, but you can just see they are trying ...

'Nuff wandering for now. I'm home and back to work.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
A desert delay

Well...I had meant today's post to be a retrospective of some of the best scenery from our Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada road trip. I got some gorgeous shots.

But fate and the desert intervened. Instead of heading home, we're stuck in Fallon NV, waiting for a mechanic's verdict on the vehicular overheating that marooned us in our faithful Subaru out in the sands this afternoon. We'll get out eventually, more or less expensively, but for the time being, here's the story.

You see, it is not only Colorado that boasts a huge sand dune. Nevada has one too.

It rises 600 feet above the Great Basin and boasts additional attractions.

Just a quarter-mile west of the turn-off to Sand Mountain is a dirt road leading to one of the best-preserved Pony Express stations in Nevada. If you are planning a journey along highway 50 take the short side trip and see this amazing mountain of sand.

We took the side trip and it was hot, interesting, and a little spooky.


The old station where riders shifted to fresh horses has been reduced to a rather sad pile of volcanic rocks. We figured the area was probably hard on both men and horses. The Pony Express only lasted one and a half years, then being supplanted by the telegraph and the railroad.

Out there in the desert, only the lizards seem to be thriving.




When we got back to the car and started up, we immediately observed that the temperature gauge was reading above the "H" (HOT). We poured in all the water we had and set the heater to full on -- but the gauge didn't go down. So we pulled over, flagged down folks with a working cell phone (curse your weak service AT&T) and waited for a tow from AAA.


The scenery was lovely, but I sure didn't want to stay out there any longer than necessary. And, amazingly, we were there less than an hour before the rescue truck appeared.

Now we're lodged in a motel in Fallon, looking at this view out our window and waiting for the verdict on the faithful 'Ru. This too shall pass and no human harm done.

UPDATE: Only minor vehicular harm done as well. Dave's Automotive of Fallon found a Subaru thermostat to replace the one that had seized up leading to boiling coolant. We were on our way by noon Saturday. Thanks Fallon; you were kind to marooned wanderers.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Critter Blogging

We're on a road trip this week. The cat is at home, cared for by our long suffering neighbors and undoubtedly indignant about her servants' absence. She'll reappear on the blog soon enough.

However I did photograph a few mammalian critters on hikes this week.

This squirrel dodged away from us at Turtle Rocks in Wyoming.

There was more sun when this chipmunk checked me out near Estes Park, Colorado.

At the appropriately named Big Elk Meadow, this animal came out to feed at dusk.

At the Great Sand Dunes National Park, this deer was feeding among creekside brush.