Sunday, June 30, 2013

"Invasive state surveillance" from a German perspective

Since I've been writing about German history during the Nazi era off and on for some months, it seems only right to amplify a contemporary German opinion about the NSA spying program being revealed by the Guardian UK by way of Edward Snowden. (The U.S. military has blocked its computers from reaching that site, but you still can read it.)

Here's Malte Spitz, a leading Green Party politician and candidate for office:

In Germany, whenever the government begins to infringe on individual freedom, society stands up. Given our history, we Germans are not willing to trade in our liberty for potentially better security. Germans have experienced firsthand what happens when the government knows too much about someone. In the past 80 years, Germans have felt the betrayal of neighbors who informed for the Gestapo and the fear that best friends might be potential informants for the Stasi. Homes were tapped. Millions were monitored.

Although these two dictatorships, Nazi and Communist, are gone and we now live in a unified and stable democracy, we have not forgotten what happens when secret police or intelligence agencies disregard privacy. It is an integral part of our history and gives young and old alike a critical perspective on state surveillance systems.

The rest of this opinion piece tells of Spitz' experiment with acquiring his own phone metadata and showing what an open book it made his doings over a six month period.

... the events of the past few weeks concerning the collection of metadata and private e-mail and social-media content have made many Germans further question Mr. Obama’s proclaimed commitment to the individual freedoms we hold dear.
During Mr. Obama’s presidency, no American political debate has received as much attention in Germany as the N.S.A. Prism program. People are beginning to second-guess the belief that digital communication stays private. It changes both our perception of communication and our trust in Mr. Obama.

Loss of trust is apparently appropriate. Unless the government comes clean, political leaders can only expect to be disbelieved.
Here's my recent German history series about the three volumes by Richard J. Evans.
The Coming of the Third Reich
The Third Reich in Power
The Third Reich at War

National Football League: unpatriotic wimps

Usually I'm not much for the patriotism/patriarchy stuff, but when what you selling is butch aggression, the least you can do is help out with your civic duties. But no, not the NFL. The federal Department of Health and Human Services suggested that the professional league could aid in publicizing the new availability of insurance that starts with an enrollment period during the coming season. Some Republican Congresscritters said "boo!" The NFL caved like frightened rabbits:
The National Football League is not participating in an effort with the Obama administration to help promote enrollment in health insurance plans under the new health care law, a spokesman said. The statement came after two Republican Senate leaders wrote to the heads of six major professional sports organizations, including the N.F.L., expressing concern that they would help encourage people to sign up in the new health insurance programs set to begin next month.

… But the senators, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas, warned that doing so might not be a good idea. “Given the divisiveness and persistent unpopularity of the health care law, it is difficult to understand why an organization like yours would risk damaging its inclusive and apolitical brand by lending its name to its promotion,” the senators wrote.
Obamacare is, after all, the law of the land. Maybe you participate in the national effort because you want to keep your fans alive ?… oh no, I forgot that the Republican solution to the unequal availability of medical care in this country is "Get sick? Just die!"

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: San Francisco busts out in rainbows

That's the upscale conventional sort, bright, clean, and store-bought.

These have a nice exuberance.

This one is big -- really big.

Little ones also have their place -- this one in the claw of a stuffed lobster in a toystore window.

How about a rainbow tea cozy?

Or perhaps a rainbow pompom?

There's always worship and barbeque.

For all the contradictions of this weekend, it's a good moment for this piece of art. 

All except two of these photos came from one, not particularly gay, precinct I walked yesterday for my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look at the link and sign up for sporadic email updates.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Wozniak, Snowden, Manning and the Pride Parade ...

Steve Wozniak, along with Steve Jobs, is credited with creating the Apple computer … and we all live with the consequences.

He has opinions about NSA spying, freedom under the Constitution and the leaker Edward Snowden. I find the way he thinks resolutely sensible.
"I don’t think the NSA has done one thing valuable for us, in this whole ‘Prism’ regard, that couldn’t have been done by following the Constitution and doing it the old way. … The way I was brought up, the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution means you have to have two people testify that this person is likely doing something very wrong just to get a warrant and a court order from a normal court.”

Referring to the secret proceedings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reportedly granted comprehensive warrants for the NSA’s Prism activities, “Why do you set up a little private court? That’s like saying, ‘I need a warrant and I’m going to give one to myself.’ What it leads to is judge, jury, and executioner. It’s the same thing as lynch mobs.”

"I don’t think terrorism is war. I think terrorism is a crime. And by using the word ‘war’ we’ve managed to use all these weird ways to say the Constitution doesn’t apply in the case of a war.

"And I think Edward Snowden is a hero because this came from his heart. And I really believe he was giving up his whole life because he just felt so deeply about honesty, about spying on Americans, and he wanted to tell us.”
I suspect that Edward Snowden is not, personally, my sort of guy. But I'm grateful for what he has revealed. And since the U.S. government has taken to abusing accused leakers before trial, it's not surprising that Snowden would make a run for it. Hope he makes it to Latin America.

This Sunday at the Gay Pride Parade, I'll get to express support for another whistleblower in the government's sites -- a Bradley Manning support contingent will form up at Howard and Beale at 10 am. That shy gay man from Oklahoma has friends in the city by the bay. Definitely the place to be on Sunday.

Friday cat blogging

How can I bear to get up and leave Morty sleeping so peacefully at the foot of the bed? Unlike most other cats I've known, Morty does not feel he needs to arise and bother me just because I chose to be vertical. He knows he can bother me after his beauty sleep.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

One and a half steps forward; how many steps back?

As of today, about 95 million of us live in states where marriage equality prevails. We can realistically expect to pick up a few more states soon -- Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon look likely. At that point, about half the population will discover through experience that gay marriage has no social downsides.

Yesterday's Supreme Court decision that overturns DOMA --the federal "Defense of Marriage Act"-- is a genuine BFD. There are some 1000+ federal legal provisions that apply to legally recognized spouses -- such items as shared health insurance coverage, the chance to file joint taxes, and passing on pensions and Social Security to surviving spouses. States have been able to legalize gay marriage and 12 have, but so long as DOMA prevailed, none of those everyday benefits reached married gay couples. As of today they do. The New York Times has a good run down of the legal changes.

A nice side effect of overturning DOMA is that binational married gay couples will have the same rights relating to immigration as other married people. Republicans flirting with reform warned that including gays in the proposed immigration bill was a "poison pill" that would kill their tentative support. The Supreme Court decision means that, if there is immigration reform, married gays will be automatically included.

The half step forward is the decision to allow the lower court decision to stand re-legalizing gay marriage in California. We were firmly on track to win this one way or another -- at the ballot box in 2014 if worst came to worst. But winning in court sure saves a lot of money and work.

But it is hard for me to join the cheering over these positive legal developments the day after the same court gave the go-ahead to whatever ingenious measures Republicans come up with to try to hold back the rising tide of Black and Brown votes. The party of resentful old white people (Dems get the more cheerful old white people of whom there are some!) will do whatever it can to reduce participation by people they fear. TPM reports
After the high court announced its momentous ruling Tuesday, officials in Texas and Mississippi pledged to immediately implement laws requiring voters to show photo identification before getting a ballot. North Carolina Republicans promised they would quickly try to adopt a similar law. Florida now appears free to set its early voting hours however Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP Legislature please. And Georgia’s most populous county likely will use county commission districts that Republican state legislators drew over the objections of local Democrats.
It would be great if this were a country where everyone affirmed and encouraged democratic political participation by all citizens, but we aren't that kind of country. Our professed civic ideals can prove mighty feeble when power and privilege are at stake. The Voting Rights Act helped give everyone a chance; a partisan court has killed it.

This development poses a question for a gay community that's on a winning roll -- now that marriage equality and full civic equality seem only a matter of (short) time, we will be there for those who have been our allies in the broader struggle for equal rights and justice? This is perhaps the most significant challenge facing LGBT people over the next decade. Will we remember which side we must be on and who is there with us?

I have often written, cynically and/or resignedly, that the signal indicator that a movement for civil rights has succeeded comes when its beneficiaries feel safe enough to relax into the economic, class, and social status positions they would have enjoyed if they hadn't been disadvantaged by gender, religion, race or sexual orientation. The LGBT movement has worked hard at understanding the multitude of ways that some of our members experience discrimination on top of being gay. We've begun to work cooperatively with others who need allies. Will we lose this as our own issues seem less urgent?

Freedom can mean not only relief from imposed restrictions, but also the freedom to join the exploiters and oppressors. Alternatively, freedom can be used to spread freedom and dignity even more widely. Gays have more choices about this than we did yesterday.

At least for awhile, it would be great to see the bulk of the gay movement remembering that none of us succeed alone. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer
"Nobody's free until everybody's free."

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: the Prez steps up on climate change

After (and perhaps before) Obama spoke yesterday announcing administrative measures to cut fossil fuel emissions, my inbox flooded with requests that I thank him.

Good politics that; always thank 'em when they do something you approve of.

The Young Turks clip about the speech posted above -- and Cenk's skepticism about how the Prez might weasel out of doing much -- seem about right to me.

But I'll give a more positive assessment here from Michael Mann who has been fighting the climate wars for decades. He is encouraged.
Ultimately, we need a comprehensive energy and climate policy that prices carbon pollution and levels the playing field for renewable sources of energy that are not degrading our climate and planet. But given that we have an intransigent congress (the current House Science committee leadership continues to deny even the existence of human-caused climate change), the president has been forced to turn to executive actions. His call for carbon emission limits on *all* coal-fired power plants, not just newly built plants, is a bold step forward. It will go some way to stemming our growing carbon emissions, and the impact they are having on our climate.

The President's comments about the Keystone XL pipeline are also encouraging. He indicated that he will block the pipeline if it is going to lead to increased carbon emissions. Since all objective analyses indicated that the construction of the pipeline *will* lead to increased carbon emissions (because it will lead to far greater extraction of Canadian tar sands), this should translate to a decision not to move forward on that project.

Finally, the president spelled out promising ways forward to (a) introduce greater incentives for renewable, non-carbon based energy, (b) reduce energy usage/improve energy efficiency, (c) encourage developing nations to meet growing energy demand through renewable energy, and (d) adapt to those climate change impacts which are already locked in and unavoidable.

All in all, it is the most aggressive and promising climate plan to come out of the executive branch in years, and President Obama should be applauded for the bold leadership he has shown in confronting the climate change threat head on.
Maybe the Prez should just say, "my daughters made me do it." That's what I always hear somewhere in the background when he gets around to climate.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On the crime of impeding the executive in time of war

This headline -- The Espionage Act of 1917 Should Never Be Enforced -- on a Scott Lemieux post at Lawyers, Guns and Money -- sent me scurrying to look up more about the law in question, under which the government is charging our current leakers of spook secrets, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

Geoffrey Stone's enormous Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism describes at length how the law came into being. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson knew he was going to have trouble assembling support for a faraway war in Europe against Germany, the country from which 25 percent of newer immigrants to the United States had migrated. He asked for draconian powers to suppress dissent, including press censorship, a ban on incitement to "disaffection" with recruitment and mobilization for the war, and a power for the postmaster general to refuse use of the mails to dissenters. Congress balked; defeated the press censorship section; and watered down the "disaffection" and "non mailability" provisions in what was called the Espionage Act.

Note that the legislation turned out be about not what we think of as spying (espionage), but about the crime of impeding the executive power in time of war.

And so the law was employed during the First World War. Government propagandists spread atrocity stories about German war crimes and enemies within. Several thousand people were jailed for such offenses as objecting that young working men were being sent to fight for U.S. capitalist fat cats. War fever was essential to national mobilization and people of German origin and socialist war opponents had to suffer if they wouldn't bend to the patriotic fever storm.

After the war, US judges and leaders recognized that the war time repression of speech had constituted a breach of national aspirations toward liberty. Most of the dissenters who had been given decades long jail terms were freed. A companion Sedition Act was repealed; but the Espionage Act stayed on the books.

Stone sums up his discussion of the era this way; it is interesting in light of current developments.
The responsibility for what occurred during World War I rests less with the Congress that enacted the Espionage Act of 1917 than with the Wilson administration, which sought to exploit and manipulate public opinion; the Department of Justice, which may have meant well but too often lacked the authority and the discipline to fulfill its aspirations; … the federal judiciary, which rashly interpreted and applied the law…; the state and local officials who failed to protect dissenters; the [war time] Congress that enacted the [additional] Sedition Act of 1918; and the Supreme Court justices, who strained to excuse the government's actions. [The jurist] Harry Kalven has rightly described the Court's performance in this era as "simply wretched."
On the morning when we learn that the current Supreme Court has "disemboweled" (Lemieux again) the Voting Rights Act, it is easy to fear that our court may also prove "simply wretched" in relation to the government's current Espionage Act prosecutions.

A little morning cheer

Glad to see that the right wing homophobes at Concerned Women for America are wasting their money again. My mother, the intended recipient of this letter, has been dead for 14 years. It is nice feeling sure that she wouldn't have had any truck with this scare story if she were still around.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Netroots Nation snapshots: Hanging in for our rapidly vanishing freedom under law

Retired Air Force Col. Morris Davis, was the chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo until he resigned in protest after being asked to move cases against prisoners who he believed had been tortured in violation of the Nuremberg principles and the Geneva Conventions.

He pulls no punches:
“After 9/11, we [the people of the United States] became the constrained and the cowardly.”

"Every case that has come out of Guantanamo has been a black eye to the American government.”

Pardiss Kebriaei is a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center Constitutional Rights. She has represented several Guantanamo detainees, both some released and some still held, as well as the al-Awlaki family of the father and son, both U.S. citizens never convicted of any crime, who were killed by U.S. drones in Yemen. She faults the President for failing to follow through with closing Guantanamo.
“Obama has failed to rebut false narratives that depict all detainees as terrorists.”
The majority still locked up at Guantanamo have been cleared for release, but the administration has failed to follow through. Many prisoners are on hunger strike, ready to die if, after a decade, they are left to give up hope.

Kebriaei also emphasized that conditions in supermax prisons inside the United States may not be any more humane than those in Guantanamo; significant numbers of prisoners are being held in solitary confinement on 23-hour a day lockdown, apparently for life.

At the panel "Challenging Drones from Pakistan to Oakland," moderator Zahra Billoo, director of CAIR California, asked participants to answer the question "Why should I care about drones?"

Omar Shakir was one of a Stanford Law School team responsible for a joint report with NYU Law students called Living Under Drones. He pointed out that, after experiencing a half a decade of overflights and repeated missile strikes from drones, most Pakistanis are firmly convinced that the United States is their enemy. How would you feel if you had these things flying around overhead all the time -- and sometimes firing? he asked.
"Only 2 percent of drone kills have been high level al Qaeda leaders."
Nadia Kayyali of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee works with local jurisdictions where law enforcement authorities are often salivating over the prospect of getting their own drones. The federal government seems to have money to throw at these purchases, even if for little else. Politicians listen to the well-heeled drone lobby speaking for war contractors. There is even a Drone Caucus in Congress.

She maintains that widespread domestic enthusiasm for police drones reinforces the normalization of
ambient and persistent surveillance in this country.

Linda Lye of the Northern California ACLU listed three reasons to care about drones:
  • low cost: by the standards of high tech spying these are cheap toys. The usual expense disincentive is weak;
  • surreptitiousness: we'll soon see police deploying bird size drones;
  • and context: these days every public and private entity that can is gathering all the data it can sweep up on all of us.
She emphasizes that the legal framework for protecting individual rights has simply failed to keep up with technological progress. Consequently, we're all in danger of losing basic freedoms without debate or consent.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

And they say we've left racism behind ...

The New York Times can print this phrase in an article chewing over potential Supreme Court decisions:

... actual as opposed to formal racial equality has fallen out of favor in some circles ...

Netroots Nation snapshots: women leaders, spooks, Obamacare and immigration reform

House Minority Leader Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi stopped by Netroots Nation and assured us that she wanted more transparency (within the constraints of "security") about the intrusive spookery of the NSA and the secretive FISA court.

So do something about it, Ms. formerly-the-Speaker…

In the Q&A some of the audience booed Pelosi when she asserted leaker Edward Snowden had to be charged -- and applauded when she said she opposed continued outsourcing of security functions to private contractors.

I had to admire her toughness, the spunky aplomb with which she deals with the vitriol she gets from Republicans. She referred to the House Republicans disgustedly as “them.” She knows how to work to her advantage the gratitude we feel for her doing her job back there in DC, taking flack from misogynist assholes.

We might (and probably will soon enough) do worse.
Marcos Moulitsas (that’s Kos to the blog world) wondered: “If the Republicans want to move Latinos to vote for them, why do they keep insisting on an immigration reform that screams ‘we still want to dick with brown people.’” Why indeed?

Good question. People tend to notice if you say you'll let them into your house, but prohibit them from seeing a doctor if they get sick. One of the "features" of the immigration reform is that legalized persons would be excluded from the Obamacare health insurance exchanges that are supposed to enable near universal coverage. California is trying to figure out how the state can arrange preventative care for an estimated 2.6 million uncovered persons under Obamacare.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has deported 3.5 million people -- that amounts to millions of broken families. And the current reform in Congress evokes unhappy descriptions even from its vehement advocates. Dolores Huerta called it “ugly” but necessary.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez said “people will come to me once the bill is passed and ask ‘how could you do that Luis?’” He argues that the only way to stop the deportations is to pass the bill. “We have to put the 11 million in a safe place -- and then build on their rights and protections.”

I attended three sessions on immigration reform and they all raised to this painful contradiction.

I will be surprised if any reform at all makes it through the legislative sausage maker.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: labor takes center stage at #NN13

I'm plenty old enough to remember when the labor movement didn't always play nicely with community activists -- and when community activists too often scorned the labor movement.

Not anymore, at least at this year's Netroots Nations in San Jose. San Jose has long been a hotbed of labor/community cooperation, but the labor's fulsome support to the big conference of progressive activists is heartening.

Attendees were given a union-sponsored goodie bag ...

... kept in touch on a free WiFi hook-up provided by the Communications Workers ...

... given the opportunity to try on firefighting garb in front of a real ladder truck in the exhibit hall ...

... welcomed by a display of what "educational reform" is like for students and teachers ...

... plied with buttons and stickers ...

... offered a beer ...

... served with gusto by union-member convention center workers.

A great time is being had by all and eventually I'll share some of what I've learned, but the conference has another day to go, so these snapshots will have to do.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Friday cat blogging: Morty aloft

Actually, I'm at Netroots Nation 2013 storing up ideas and posts for the future. But when I came home last night I heard a familiar scrabbling noise in the other room and grabbed a camera.
There he was, looming from the top of the door.

Really, I was only chasing that fly....

Why are you pointing that thing at me? I'm just going for a stroll up here?

Alright, I'm down now. Stop pretending you can get into my mind. You can't.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Military tribunals: in 1945 and today

In all the harrowing reading and writing I’ve been doing lately about World War II era Europe (here, here, and here, and more to come), I made a surprising discovery: A sometime uncle of mine, Brigadier General John M. Lentz, was the president of the military tribunal in 1945 that set the precedents for U.S. war crimes trials of the lesser Nazis brought before courts for atrocities. (I call General Lentz a “sometime uncle” because his wartime marriage to my aunt broke up just about when I came on the scene and I never knew him as “family.”) The discovered connection sent me on a hunt for more information.

It turned out there’s a 2003 book about those trials, Justice at Dachau by Joshua M. Greene. Its focus is the U.S. Judge Advocate General officer who served as prosecutor, William Denson. Denson made the decisions which created, with the cooperation of General Lentz’s tribunal, the legal regime for that era’s “military commissions.” In light of the travails of the “legal” regime successive US administrations have tried to will into being since 9/11 to try “detainees” accused of terrorism, it makes suggestive reading. The legal issues were always difficult.
Of great concern was the accusation that any convictions [Denson] might win would amount to nothing more than "victor's justice." The term denoted executions handed down by courts guided more by vengeance than due process, and it hovered darkly over the Dachau trials, threatening to destroy not only the validity of guilty verdicts but the credibility at those who, like himself, sought to defend the integrity and effectiveness of international law. In war, the accusation implied, victors will always be in the right, the defeated always culpable of crimes for which they must pay. Many who understood the depth of the Holocaust tragedy felt that executing Hitler's henchmen without trial was a perfectly legitimate punishment. Why dignify Nazi killers by providing them with trials? The murder of six million Jews and millions of other victims merited a swifter, more effective kind of response. To insist on proving in a courtroom what had so obviously been done was not to serve justice but to make a mockery of it. Allowing Nazis to stand trial, these voices argued, also meant risking that many might go free.
But U.S. political authorities decided that there must be trials. The intellectual authors of Nazi aggression and racial extermination were tried at Nuremberg by a court with judges from all the Allied powers. But 40 (relative) small fry -- camp commanders, doctors who experimented on living prisoners, especially brutal jailers -- were arraigned at Dachau, the concentration camp that the U.S. forces had recently liberated.
When [Denson’s assistant Paul] Guth informed them they were going to trial, it came as a complete and stunning surprise. Given their own experience, the Germans had fully expected to be summarily executed. Some laughed, others stood with their mouths open not knowing what to say. Even more incredible were the rights Guth then described. If they wished, they could summon anyone of their choosing to defend them. if they did choose to bring in their own lawyers, Uncle Sam would pay the legal fees. None of the accused would be obliged to testify. If they did testify, they could refuse to take an oath. And perhaps most· surprising of all, the prosecution would limit itself, voluntarily, to a maximum of ten witnesses against anyone accused. The Germans could hardly believe their ears.
Prosecution was not simple because the conduct of the US forces that liberated Dachau had not been exactly exemplary -- though it is certainly not hard to understand why. When they came upon the concentration camp ...
"Are you Americans?" the voices cried out in a dozen languages.

The soldiers nodded, and there followed an eerie wailing that grew to a roar, and out from the barracks staggered the remnants of Dachau's victims, the healthier running in front, others limping, crawling behind. …Meanwhile, outside the gates, Lt. Col. Donald E. Downard had come upon something that made him doubt his eyes. A line of open boxcars stood silently on railroad tracks leading to the camp, overflowing with corpses. Downard counted thirty-nine cars, maybe two thousand bodies. Many showed signs of cannibalism and other horrors that challenged his sanity.

The men entered the camp. Four Germans approached with their hands on their heads. Walsh, weeping, in anger, pushed them into one of the boxcars, opened fire with his pistol, then returned to the camp to grab more Germans. Others in Thunderbird [unit], caught up in the wave of raw emotion, grabbed any Germans wearing SS insignia and lined them up against a brick wall outside a coal yard. Walsh ordered his men to shoot them if they moved. A young private, following orders, set up a machine gun. 'The SS prisoners, aware of their captors' intentions, began moving toward the Americans. "Let them have it!" someone shouted. Someone else yelled, "fire!" Salvos erupted from Browning automatic rifles. The machine gun strafed left to right, right to left.

… Outside, camp inmates begged the Americans for guns and knives with which to shoot and decapitate the Germans. The Americans obliged. A young Rainbow corporal stood agape, watching an inmate stomp an SS trooper's face until he ceased to move. "You have a lot of hate," the young soldier said. The prisoner looked at him and nodded. "I don't blame you," the soldier said and moved on.
Fairly quickly other officers restored US discipline. Nonetheless court-appointed defense lawyers at the Dachau trials, Army officers themselves, repeatedly argued that their German clients had been intimidated into signing confessions -- and perhaps they had.

Prosecutor Denson had to prove that the individuals charged were individually guilty although in the chaos of liberation (this trial took place just months after Germany surrendered) and because so many victims were simply dead, this was nearly impossible. He built his case around the idea that leaders of the concentration camps participated in a “common design” that included murder, cruelty, forced labor and other atrocities.

General Lentz’s court accepted these arguments, taking less than two hours to convict all 40 Dachau defendants. He pronounced:
'The evidence presented to this court convinced it beyond any doubt that the Dachau concentration camp and its by-camps subjected its inmates to killings, beatings, tortures, indignities, and starvation to an extent and degree that necessitates the indictment of everyone, high and low, who had anything to do with the conduct and operation of the camp. This court reiterates that it sits in judgment under international law and under such laws of humanity and human behavior that are commonly recognized by civilized people.

"Many of the acts committed at Dachau," Lentz said, "clearly had the sanction of the high officials of the German Reich and the de facto laws and customs of the German government. It is the view of this court, however, that when a state sets itself up above reasonably recognized international law, or transcends civilized customs of human behavior, then the individuals effecting such policies must be held responsible for their part in violating international law and the customs and laws to humanity."
The court pronounced 38 death sentences.
I have no trouble believing that a kind of justice was done here. As an opponent of the death penalty, I’d have locked them up for life, but decent humanity recoils from the system which these men willingly, even eagerly, served. Some sort of trial was needed to make that declaration -- these military tribunals could have been far less credible than they were. Honorable people tried to maintain some vestige of legal process in a a terrible situation.

Why was such an outcome possible in 1945 but has proved nearly impossibly difficult to achieve now? There were US voices raised against the “victors’ justice” aspect of the trials even then and they came from the same sort of guardians of liberty who question the Bush and Obama military tribunals now. But these voices then were drowned out by the almost universal consensus at home (which the speakers shared!) that US forces had found unprecedented evil in Nazi Germany.

Today, we’ve seen the Bush administration respond to 9/11 by sweeping up hundreds, maybe thousands, of innocent people -- immigrant Muslims, Arabs, South Asians; naive travelers in Pakistan and Afghanistan, etc. -- and fail for years to sort out and charge most of them. Then they followed that up with a war on Iraq started on a phony pretense. There, they enabled widespread torture by US troops, private mercenaries, and spooks. Obama has tried to restart this anti-terrorism apparatus on the basis of secretive, if legally enacted, rules. But trust is broken and the demands of stupid politicians and the “national security” establishment ensure that trust cannot be re-established.

Maybe the lesson of the contrast between these two eras is that legitimacy of a legal regime is a fragile, delicate thing. When it is abused, trust departs, possibly gone for good.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: the seas are rising

The Union of Concerned Scientists have put out an infographic on the rise of the oceans. This is the world we live in. I'm reproducing their graphic and text here.

Why are the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico hotspots of sea level rise?
  • Global, regional, and local factors all affect the rate of local sea level rise.
  • In the Gulf region, land is subsiding, which allows the ocean to penetrate farther inland.
  • Along the East Coast, changes in the path and strength of ocean currents are contributing to faster-than-average sea level rise.

How quickly is land ice melting?
  • Shrinking land ice — glaciers, ice caps, and ice sheets — contributed about half of the total global sea level rise between 1972 and 2008, but its contribution has been increasing since the early 1990s as the pace of ice loss has accelerated.
  • Recent studies suggest that land ice loss added nearly half an inch to global sea level from 2003 to 2007, contributing 75 to 80 percent of the total increase during that period.

How high and how quickly will sea level rise in the future?
  • Our past emissions of heat-trapping gases will largely dictate sea level rise through 2050, but our present and future emissions will have great bearing on sea level rise from 2050 to 2100 and beyond.
  • Even if global warming emissions were to drop to zero by 2016, sea level will continue to rise in the coming decades as oceans and land ice adjust to the changes we have already made to the atmosphere.
  • The greatest effect on long-term sea level rise will be the rate and magnitude of the loss of ice sheets, primarily in Greenland and West Antarctica, as they respond to rising temperatures caused by heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere.

I only wish the UCS's image of the persons drowning had been a woman and child, as seems to me more likely.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bearing witness to civilized barbarism

Historian Richard J. Evans was moved to write his enormous, exhaustive three-volume history of the Nazi Third Reich (1933-1945) after serving as an expert in a British libel trial, attesting to the reality of the mass murder of European Jews. The third volume, The Third Reich at War, reads at times like testimony, an insistent recital of horror after horror, bearing witness to brutalities great and small, to crimes banal and grotesque. He traces the trajectory of Hitler's armies rampage through Poland, across France and Belgium, and finally toward their own destruction in the Soviet Union, and the fall of the German empire.

This is not a military history. This is a book about what Germans under Nazi leadership did and how that era was lived by Germans, both Nazis and their few surviving German victims. The story from the point of view of Hitler's military foes or of the peoples' of the lands overrun by Hitler's armies is a different one. (I've been reading some of that too and will write about it eventually.)

The pattern of war crimes was set from the German invasion of Poland in 1939:
The invading troops did not need to be convinced by political indoctrination that the enemy posed a huge threat to Germany's future; clearly the Poles did not. … From the very beginning, SS Security Service Task Forces entered the country, rounding up the politically undesirable and shooting them or sending them off to concentration camps, massacring Jews, arresting local men and sending them off to Germany as forced laborers, and engaging in a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing and brutally executed population transfers.

These actions were not confined to the SS. From the very beginning, too, Nazi Party officials, stormtroopers, civilian officials and especially junior army officers and ordinary soldiers joined in, to be followed in due course by German settlers moved into Poland from outside. Arrests, beatings and murders of Poles and especially Jews became commonplace; what was even more striking was the extent of the hatred and. contempt shown towards them by ordinary German troops, who lost no time in ritually humiliating Jews on the street, laughing and jeering as they tore off their beards and made them perform degrading acts in public.

Just as striking was the assumption of the invading and incoming Germans that the possessions of the Poles and Jews were freely available as booty. The theft and looting of Jewish property in particular by German troops was almost universal. Sometimes they were aided and abetted by local Poles. More often than not, non-Jewish Poles themselves were robbed as well. … Popular hatred and contempt for Poles, as for Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians, and even more for 'Eastern Jews', were deeply rooted in Germany. …
People in the United States tend to be more aware of the far more limited atrocities carried out by the Gestapo in occupied France and other parts of western Europe -- that's where our troops eventually prevailed. And the Cold War ensured that eastern European events stayed opaque to us for many years. But Evans strives to reorient our awareness. World War II in Europe was won in the Soviet Union.
What happened in the Soviet Front dwarfed anything seen in France, Denmark, Norway or the Low Countries. From 22 June 1941 onwards, at least two-thirds of the German armed forces were always engaged on the Eastern Front. More people fought and died on and behind the Eastern Front than in all the other theaters of war in 1939-45 put together, including the Far East. The sheer scale of the struggle was extraordinary. So too was its bitterness and its ideological fanaticism, on both sides. It was in the end on the Eastern Front, more than any other, that the fortunes of war were decided.
And it was in eastern Europe -- in the lands that had been Poland before Germany and the Soviet Union had dismembered that country, in Soviet Ukraine, in Soviet Belorussia -- that the Nazis carried out their program of murdering all European Jews and millions of other people they considered racially disposable. Evans traces the trajectory of mass murder through mass shootings, forced labor and gassing. He always has an eye on how apparently civilized men could have taken up this task.
Men such as Hoss and Stangl [SS officers who were death camp commanders] and their subordinates tried to insulate themselves from the human dimension of what they were doing by referring to their victims as 'cargo' or 'items'. Talking to Gerhard Stabenow, the head of the SS Security Service in Warsaw, in September I942, Wilm Hosenfeld [a German military officer who helped some Poles and Jews survive though he fought to the end for the Reich] noted how the language Stabenow used distanced himself from the fact that what he was involved in was the mass murder of human beings: 'He speaks of the Jews as of ants or other vermin, of their "resettlement," that means their mass murder, as he would of the extermination of bedbugs in the disinfestation of a house.'

But at the same time such men were not immune from the human emotions they tried so hard to repress, and they remembered incidents in which individual women and children had appealed to their conscience, even if such appeals were in vain. The psychological strain that continual killing of unarmed civilians, including women and children, imposed on such men was considerable, just as it had been in the case of the SS Task Forces, whose troops had been shooting Jews in their hundreds of thousands before the first gas vans were deployed in an attempt not only to speed up the killing but also to make it somehow more impersonal.

What kept such men going was a belief that they were doing Hitler's bidding, and killing the present and future enemies of the German race. They were not faceless bureaucrats or technologists of death; nor was the killing at any level simply the product of impersonal pressures to obey superior orders or the cold pursuit of material or military advantage for the Third Reich. The careers of SS men like Eichmann, Stangl and Hoss revealed them to be hardened anti-Semites; the racial hatred of their subordinates, stoked and fueled by years of propaganda, training and indoctrination, was scarcely less extreme. Translating visceral hatred of Jews in the abstract to violent acts of mass murder in reality proved not to be difficult for them, nor for a number of the SS Security Service bureaucrats who took over the leadership of the Task Forces in the east.

Particularly in the lower ranks of the SS, but also in the regular army, Jews, when encountered individually or in small groups, frequently aroused a degree of personal, sadistic brutality, a desire to humiliate as well as destroy, that was seldom present when they dealt with ordinary Poles, Russians or other Slavs. Slav prisoners were not made to perform gymnastics or dance before they were shot, as Jews were; nor were they made to clean out latrines with their clothes or bare hands, as Jews were. Slavs were mere tools; it was the Jews who were supposedly behind the Stalin regime, who ordered the Soviet secret police to commit bestial massacres of German prisoners, who inspired the partisans to launch cruel and cowardly attacks on German troops from the rear. Rank-and-file German troops, both regular soldiers and SS men, were heavily influenced by propaganda and indoctrination and, if they were young, years of education in the school system of the Third Reich, to believe that Jews in general, and Eastern Jews in particular, were dirty, dangerous, dishonest and diseased, the enemies of all civilization.

… Abusing and humiliating Jews could also serve as a compensation for the lowly status and daily privations of the ordinary soldier. 'The best thing here,' wrote one from an occupied eastern town in May 1942, 'is that all the Jews doff their hats to us. If a Jew spots us 100m away, he already doffs his hat. If he doesn't, then we teach him to. Here you feel yourself to be a soldier, for here we rule the roost.'

Higher up the chain of command, the army often rationalized the killing of Jews as a step necessary for the maintenance of its own essential food supplies, but this claim should not be taken simply at face value. The need to feed the army and the German civilian population at home did at particular junctures create a perceived need to operate what in medical terms might be called a triage, distinguishing those thought to need food most urgently and in greatest quantities from those with a lower priority, But what put Jews at the bottom of this hierarchy was not any rationalistic calculation based on an estimate of their contribution to the economy. It derived above all from an obsessively pursued ideology that regarded the Jews not simply as the most dispensable of the inhabitants of occupied Eastern Europe, but as a positive threat to Germany in every respect, conspiring with Jews everywhere else in the world, and especially in Britain and the USA, to wage war on the Third Reich.
For all Evans' emphasis on how easily most ordinary German troops allowed themselves to be drawn into systematic cruelty and mass murder, he nonetheless keeps returning to descriptions of German civilian opinion during the war that seem not to support any such general anti-Semitism. This book does little to resolve the apparent contradiction. Here's Evans description of attitudes from the German home front:
When they forced Jews to wear the yellow star on their clothing, the better for people to identify them, many non-Jewish Germans did not react in the way that Goebbels wanted them to. Jews reported being greeted on the street with unusual politeness, people coming up to them and apologizing, or offering them a seat on the tram. … Popular reactions to the introduction of the Jewish star were overwhelmingly negative, and those who took it as the opportunity to abuse and attack Jews were in a small minority. When, not long afterwards, the police began rounding up Jews in German cities and taking them to the local railway station for deportation to the east, negative public reactions outweighed the positive ones again.
Evans thoroughly debunks the once common assertion that ordinary Germans "didn't know" what was being done by the Nazi rulers and their armies. He describes responses to unimaginable horror that seem quite insane in themselves.
…reliable and precise information could only come from an eyewitness. One of the most extraordinary of these was Kurt Gerstein, a disinfection expert in the Hygiene Institute to the Military SS. Gerstein was sent by the Reich Security Head Office in the summer of 1942 to deliver 100 kilos of Zyklon-B to Lublin for an undisclosed purpose. On 2 August 1942 he arrived in Belzec and was present as a trainload of Jews from Lvov came in, were forced to undress, and were driven by Ukrainian auxiliaries into the gas chambers, where they were told they would be disinfected. There they had to wait for two and a half hours, weeping and crying, while mechanics outside tried to get the diesel motor going. Once it started working, Gerstein noted punctiliously, it took thirty-two minutes to kill the people inside the chamber. A devout Protestant, Gerstein was shocked by what he witnessed. On the journey back from Warsaw to Berlin, he told it all to Goran von Otter, a Swedish diplomat, who reported the details in a dispatch to the Swedish Foreign Office after discreetly checking Gerstein's credentials. The dispatch languished there until the end of the war, kept secret by officials who feared it would offend the Germans.

Back in Berlin, Gerstein pestered the Papal Nuncio, the leaders of the Confessing Church and the Swiss Embassy with his story, all to no effect. Gerstein did not, however, as one might have expected, resign his post or ask for a transfer. He continued to deliver consignments of Zyklon-B to the camp, while redoubling his futile efforts to spread information about what was going on. … Arrested as an alleged war criminal [by the Americans], Gerstein hanged himself in his cell on 25 July 1945, …
Evans speculates about how carrying the knowledge of their country's criminal deeds actually kept some Germans fighting, though in a state of moral despair. The Nazi propaganda apparatus seems to exacerbated that reaction.
… if people could not be made to approve of the murder of the Jews, then perhaps their evident knowledge of it could be used to persuade them to carry on fighting for fear of what the Jews might do to them in revenge, particularly if, as Nazi propaganda claimed, the Jews were in charge of Germany's enemies: Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.

The last two years of the war were filled with atrocity propaganda emanating from Goebbels's mass media: the Red Army in particular was portrayed, not entirely inaccurately, as hell-bent on raping and killing Germans as it advanced. Yet the effects of this were not what Goebbels intended. Far from leading to a strengthening of resolve amongst ordinary Germans, this propaganda only served to reveal deep-seated feelings of guilt that they had done nothing to prevent the Jews being killed. Such a feeling was an unexpected by-product of the continuing Christian convictions of the great majority of German citizens. … When Cologne cathedral was bombed …, people said this was in retribution for the burning of synagogues in 1938.
This entire three volume trilogy is a monumental attempt to capture an awful era. Evans has filled in thousands of details and achieved a narrative that may have blank spots, but which overwhelms this reader by its breadth and horror. Here's some of his summation; I can't do nearly as well:
As late as 1939 the great majority of Germans were hoping against hope that there would not be a general European war; and a large part of the euphoria that swept the country in the wake of the victory over France the following year expressed the relief that the traditional enemy had been defeated, and the humiliation of the 1919 Peace Settlement avenged, with what seemed to be a minimum of bloodshed. Yet Nazism was from the very beginning a creed based on violence and hatred, born of bitterness and despair. The depth and radicalism of the political, social and economic crises that assailed Germany under the Weimar Republic spawned a correspondingly deep and radical response.

…The policies that unfolded in Poland in the opening months of the war set the tone for the Nazi occupation of other parts of Eastern Europe from the middle of 1941 onwards: expropriation, forcible deportation, imprisonment, mass shootings, murder on a hitherto unimaginable scale. These policies were applied to all the people who lived in the region apart from ethnic Germans, but they were applied with particular venom to the Jews, who were subjected to sadistic and systematic humiliation and torture, ghettoization and extermination by poison gas in facilities specially built for the purpose. Other groups, mainly though in many cases not exclusively German, were also killed in large numbers: the mentally ill and handicapped, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, 'asocials', petty criminals, the politically refractory and the socially marginal. Soviet prisoners of war were murdered in their millions, and people of many nationalities were taken forcibly to Germany and made to work and live under conditions that proved fatal for a large number of them. Some people who belonged to these other groups were, like many Jews, gassed to death; but only the Jews were singled out as the 'world enemy,' a global threat to Germany's existence that had to be exterminated wherever it was found.

… In launching a war to be fought on a European scale with the goal of world domination as the long-term aim, Hitler and the Nazis were living out the fantasies that had impelled them into politics in the first place: fantasies of a great and resurgent Germany, expunging the stain of defeat in 1918 by establishing an imperial domination on a scale the world had never seen before. These fantasies were shared to a significant degree by key parts of the German Establishment, including the civil service, the professions and the top generals in the army. Despite their doubts, they all went along with it in the end. But Germany's economic resources were never adequate to turn these fantasies into reality, not even when the resources of a large part of the rest of Europe were added to them. ...
Never again indeed.
My previous posts on the other two volumes of this history:
The Coming of the Third Reich
The Third Reich in Power

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mayor Bloomberg has a brain fart

Dear New Yorkers,

I see your ingenious mayor is having another of those spasms of civic uplift he is prone to impose upon you.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who has tried to curb soda consumption, ban smoking in parks and encourage bike riding, is taking on a new cause: requiring New Yorkers to separate their food scraps for composting.

...Under the program, residents collect food waste — like stale bread, chicken bones and potato peels — in containers the size of picnic baskets in their homes. The contents are then deposited in larger brown bins on the curb for pickup by sanitation trucks.

…It remains to be seen whether New Yorkers will embrace the program, given that some may cringe at keeping a container of potentially malodorous waste in a typically cramped urban kitchen, even if it is supposed to be emptied regularly.

New York Times

I'm here to testify, it's not as bad as you may fear. We've been doing this is San Francisco for more than a decade.

For some years I've been confused whenever we visited my mother-in-law in Manhattan: "where does the food garbage go?" I asked. "What?' she replied. Now you will get to find out.

Really, it's easy. If you don't like whatever ugly kitchen receptacle the program provides (and you probably won't,) get one of these with a charcoal filter. Any number of vendors of kitchen equipment will be happy to sell you one whose appearance you can bear. Finding a suitable container just right for your kitchen could even be a status symbol.

The green bags, another commodity to buy, are themselves suitable for composting though not much else since if left in place too long, the food scraps seem to eat through them. I guess that's part of the point. I don't know if they are same stuff as the bags for collecting your dog's waste; I think those are more substantial.

And then you just dump the green bag in whatever larger receptacle is designated for food garbage (and maybe some garden clippings, though most of you don't have to deal with those.)

You mayor seems a difficult sort. If I lived there I'd be up in arms about his policing policies and would have deeply resented his changing the rules so as to run for a third term. But on food composting, he's on the right track.

I last resided in your city in the early 1970s when the place was an urban dystopia -- I loved it, but I was young and silly. It seems you are showing the rest of the country these days that sustainability not only can be achieved in a high density environment, but that cities can be good places for people and the planet.

Thanks, New York. I always did find the sprawl-burbs boring as shit.

Yours sincerely,

An urbanite

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dirty Wars without end

We saw this film on Friday night. If you have a chance to see it -- distribution is fairly wide so you might have a chance -- I'd recommend it. People who read this blog likely know how the United States has organized its killing forces for secretive, permanent war all over the globe. Without being bloody, the films shows you a few of the people we are killing and the places where they were living.

The sound and music by David Harrington and the Kronos Quartet serve as emotional glue to war reporter Jeremy Scahill's narrative. It works.

Dirty Wars is also a book.

Scahill's work reminds me of this from George Orwell's report from his foray into soldiering:

… every war suffers a kind of progressive degradation with every month that it continues, because such things as individual liberty and a truthful press are simply not compatible with military efficiency.

It is hard to imagine where our current war is taking us, since it is designed to grind on without end.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: George W. Bush residue

This past week the former president's approval rating rose higher than his disapproval rating for the first time in many years.

Not around here. Here's a small sampling of what remains on the streets of San Francisco.
bush is terror.jpg

Something about George W. drove people to scratch strong sentiments in sidewalks.

And then there are the fading bumperstickers:
bush-leave no child a dime.jpg

San Francisco didn't like the guy in office and I doubt many have changed their opinions.

These photos are by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.