31 January 2009

Closing Gitmo doesn't have to be complicated

Last week, President Obama signed an executive order to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay within a year.

Now we keep hearing how complicated it's going to be.

But it doesn't have to be so complicated.

Earlier this month, the legal experts at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) released a report on how Obama can close Guantanamo in his first 100 days in office.

Here is an overview of the report, as presented on the CCR's website:
This report released by the Center for Constitutional Rights includes the newest and most comprehensive numbers and lists of detainee status by nationality. The three simple steps are: 1) send those can go home home, 2) secure safe haven for those who cannot, and 3) charge those who can be charged and try them in ordinary federal criminal court.

It has been often repeated that closing Guantanamo will be a challenge. The reality is that the restoration of the rule of law to that offshore prison -- and this country -- should be significantly less complicated than the dismantling of the law has been. The time to close Guantanamo is long overdue -- and it can be done in three months.

The new administration must repatriate those who can be released safely, secure safe haven in the United States and other countries for those who cannot be repatriated safely, and prosecute in federal criminal courts those who should be prosecuted. Only 250 of 779 men remain in the prison camp. Most can be returned to their home countries through vigorous diplomacy. A smaller number need to be offered protection in the United States or third countries, many of whom have already begun to come forward to offer help to the new administration. There is no justification for continued detention without trial or the creation of special courts; such proposals would continue the human rights disaster rather than end it.
>> Read the full report. (PDF)

30 January 2009

Obama signs Lilly Ledbetter Act into law

Yesterday, President Obama signed his first piece of legislation into law. It was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Lilly Ledbetter stood by his side at the signing. It was a beautiful and moving thing to behold.

I think it's very fitting that this was the first bill that he signed into law. After all, as he proclaimed at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, "[N]ow is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day's work, because I want my daughters to have the exact same opportunities as your sons."

For any new readers who are not familiar with the Lilly Ledbetter case and the resultant legislation, here is a summary:

Lilly Ledbetter had worked at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company for 19 years when she discovered she was being paid significantly less than her male counterparts. So she sued. A jury agreed that she had been paid unfairly, and awarded her $223,776 in back pay, and over $3 million in punitive damages.

But then a judge cut that to only $300,000 because of a 1991 law that says that you must take action within 180 days of when the pay discrimination first started, or else you're out of luck. If you don't find out about it until it's been going on for several years -- as was the case with Lilly Ledbetter -- too bad! Either you're a mind reader, or you're potentially screwed.

Fortunately, that ridiculous loophole has now been closed with the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which recinds that impractical statute of limitations.

Under this new law, the lower paycheck doesn't have to be recognized within any initial statute of limitations. Each discriminatory paycheck is itself an actionable violation of this law.

Now, as long as your employer keeps handing you unfair paychecks, you have the right to sue.

As well you should.

29 January 2009

Republican hypocrisy on spending for stimulus

Yesterday, President Obama's economic stimulus bill passed in the House of Representatives. Next week, most likely, the Senate will consider the bill. Thank goodness for the Democratic majority, because Congressional Republicans have been openly critical of the bill. In fact, not a single Republican member of the House voted in favor of it.

House Republican leader John Boehner claims that the bill "has nothing to do with creating jobs or preserving jobs." However, creating and saving jobs is precisely what the bill is designed for.

Earlier this month, Obama pointed out that an analysis of his stimulus plan by his top economic advisors "shows that between 3 million and 4 million U.S. jobs could be saved or created by 2010, nearly 90% of them in the private sector."

The Republicans seem to have no problem with the almost $600 billion we've already spent on the unnecessary and disastrous Iraq war and occupation -- funded with no help from the very rich, who got nice tax cuts from Bush. But they do have a problem with spending just a little bit more to stimulate the economy by putting us little people to work on much-needed infrastructure and green energy projects.

Again we see where their priorities lie. Did the 2006 and 2008 election results teach them nothing?

28 January 2009

Ledbetter Act passes in House; Obama will sign

Yesterday I wrote about last week's Senate passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which would remove the requirement that pay discrimination be challenged within 180 days of when it first starts.

Well, the House of Representatives followed up quickly and passed the bill yesterday.

I hear that President Obama is on board with this. No surprise. As he said at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, "I want my daughters to have the same exact opportunities as your sons." This will likely be the first piece of legislation that he signs into law

And this will be a good step forward for pay equality for women and minorities.

Although some people (like Lilly Ledbetter) may not learn that they are victims of pay discrimination until several years into their employment, the existing rules provide no legal recourse past the first 180 days after the very first discriminatory paycheck was issued. It's not fair that they can't challenge the discrimination just because they're not mind readers and weren't aware of it early enough.

Once the Ledbetter Act takes effect, however, the unfair pay won't have to be recognized within any specific statute of limitations. Each discriminatory paycheck will be an actionable violation of this law.

As it should be.

27 January 2009

Taking a step forward for fair pay

Even though the Republicans in Congress are trying to obstruct progress, the Democratic majority is still managing to get some good things done.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 61-36 to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- without any harmful amendments.

This is good news for pay equality.

The bill is expected to pass in the House this week, and then be signed into law by our new President. Fingers crossed.

If you are unfamiliar with the Ledbetter case, here is the background:

Lilly Ledbetter had worked at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company for 19 years when she discovered she was being paid significantly less than her male counterparts. So she sued. A jury agreed that she had been paid unfairly, and awarded her $223,776 in back pay, and over $3 million in punitive damages.

But then a judge cut that to only $300,000 because of a 1991 law that says that you must take action within 180 days of when the pay discrimination first started, or else you're out of luck. If you don't find out about it until it's been going on for several years -- as was the case with Lilly Ledbetter -- too bad!

Fortunately, that ridiculous loophole may soon close up.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is designed to recind that impractical statute of limitations. The purpose of the bill is officially stated as follows:
To amend title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and to modify the operation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, to clarify that a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice that is unlawful under such Acts occurs each time compensation is paid pursuant to the discriminatory compensation decision or other practice, and for other purposes.
In other words, the lower paycheck doesn't have to be recognized within any specific statute of limitations. Each discriminatory paycheck is itself an actionable violation of this law.

And rightly so, since most of us are not mind readers.

Stay tuned for updates.

26 January 2009

Court stays Swearingen execution

Earlier today I wrote about the Larry Swearington case, in which it looked like the state of Texas might execute an innocent man.

Good news since then: Today a federal appeals court issued a stay of execution in the Swearingen case.

More info from the Houston Chronicle: College student killer get[s] reprieve

Will Texas execute an innocent man?

Tomorrow, January 27, 2009, the state of Texas is scheduled to execute Larry Swearingen for the murder of Melissa Trotter in 1998.

This is despite compelling evidence of his innocence.

In fact, four forensic pathologists agree that Swearingen could not have killed Trotter. DNA tests showed that blood found under the victim's fingernails was not his. Furthermore, it appears that Swearingen was actually in jail (on outstanding traffic warrants) when the murder occurred.

But it's apparently too much trouble for Texas to consider the evidence in Swearingen's favor. So they're planning to kill him anyway.

And they call this "justice"!

>> Read more about this case. (PDF)

>> Call on Texas officials to stay the execution.

25 January 2009

Holder and Cornyn and torture -- oh my!

Last Wednesday, some Senate Republicans channeled their energy to postpone a vote on the confirmation of Attorney General nominee Eric Holder. So it's been put off for one week. So, at this critical time, our nation is without an Attorney General.

Different Republicans have different reasons for wanting this to drag on. But the most absurd and astounding reason is that of Senator John Cornyn of Texas. Cornyn is in a tizzy over the fact that Holder stated that waterboarding is torture. Which, of course, it is!

In fact, the U.S. convicted several Japanese soldiers for waterboarding American and Allied prisoners during World War II.

If it was torture then, it's torture now. Duh.

But now an Obama nominee admits the fact that we've been torturing terror suspects, and suddenly he's the bad guy, as far as Cornyn is concerned. He is apparently afraid that, if Holder becomes the AG, the torturers might be held accountable. Heaven forbid that we should be a law-abiding nation that holds criminals accountable. So shoot the messenger. Sadly, of course, it's the logical next step after the way that the Bush administration -- with much help from Congress -- has shredded the Constitution.

24 January 2009

Obama repeals Global Gag Rule

President Barack Obama is proving himself to be champion for women's reproductive rights -- not only here in the U.S., but worldwide.

Yesterday, Obama issued an executive order repealing the Global Gag Rule, which had withheld federal funds from nongovernmental health and family planning organizations that provided abortion information or referrals.

Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority, yesterday issued the following statement in response to the good news. Her statement also provides some interesting background on the Global Gag Rule, and the health issues it created.
President Barack Obama issued an executive order today that repealed the Global Gag Rule.

This executive order will have a monumental impact by saving the life, health, and suffering of literally millions of women worldwide yearly. In part because of restricted access to reproductive health services caused by the Global Gag Rule, more than 70,000 women annually die from unsafe abortions worldwide and the incidence of HIV/AIDS is skyrocketing.

The Global Gag Rule prohibited family planning programs in other nations that receive US aid from using non-US monies for abortion counseling, advocacy, and referrals. The rule was instituted by President Reagan in 1984, was repealed by President Clinton, and was reinstituted by President George W. Bush.

The Global Gag Rule inhibited women worldwide from access to gynecological exams, AIDS prevention and treatment, and contraceptive options. It also halted shipment of condoms and contraceptives to more than 20 countries.

The Feminist Majority has been working with the Obama/Biden transition team on women's policy changes and is overjoyed with this victory for our sisters worldwide.
Well said.

As Smeal explains above, the issue is not just about abortion. By restricting family planning information and services, the anti-choice extremists also create an increased risk of HIV/AIDS and complications from untreated gynecological problems.

Thank you, President Obama, for your commitment to women's reproductive health and rights.

23 January 2009

Bush administration must be held accountable

Bush, Cheney, and the rest of the gang are now out of Washington. Good riddance.

But it must not end there. They have abused their power, and they must be held accountable.

Barack Obama has said that we must look forward, not backwards. But we must not let them get away with their crimes. If we do so, then we show the world that the Bush administration is indeed above the law. And nobody should be placed above the law.

If a Democratic president had committed the same crimes, you better believe that the Republicans would have done something about it. (Look at how they impeached Clinton over a mere sexual tryst.)

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers has introduced legislation to investigate the policies of the Bush administration. And apparently Nancy Pelosi is warming up to the idea. Fingers crossed.

This needn't distract Congress or the Obama administration from moving forward on all the work that needs to be done to fix the economy, pull our troops out of Iraq, make health care affordable for all, and everything else that we're counting on them to do. After all, they should be used to multitasking.

The president has sworn to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States". Likewise, each member of Congress has sworn to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

But talk is cheap.

The Bush administration has torn the Constitution to shreds. Congress and our new President must live up to their oaths and hold the violators accountable. Otherwise, they are not doing their jobs, and should not get any more of our votes.

22 January 2009

Happy birthday, Roe v. Wade

Today, January 22, markes the 36th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a woman's right to choose.

And, by a lovely coincidence, two days ago a pro-choice Democrat became our new U.S. President. According to BarackObama.com, President Obama "opposes any constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's decision in [the Roe v. Wade] case."

Hopefully Obama will keep that in mind when it comes time to appoint new justices to the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, let's be thankful that we don't have anti-choice McCain and Palin in the White House. Under their agenda, women's rights would likely have been rolled back to the 1950s.

For now, we have dodged that bullet.

For now, we are considered smart enough to be trusted with control of our own bodies.

21 January 2009

Why God does not belong at inaugurations

Inauguration Day 2009 was almost perfect. I'm still moved by it all.

I was impressed by the fact that an African American became President of the United States of America in my lifetime.

I was impressed by the crowd of almost two million people who braved the brutally cold weather to stand for hours and hours in Washington, DC, to witness history in the making.

I was impressed by Obama's eloquent, intelligent, passionate, compassionate, and hope-inspiring inaugural address, for the most part. (Exceptions outlined below.)

And I continue to be impressed by the fact that the American electorate has awoken from its 8-year-long fear-induced coma and has finally rejected the cruel and selfish neocon agenda.

Now, with all the niceties out of the way, I must take issue with the unnecessary religiosity of the occasion.

Foremost, of course, was Rick Warren's two-faced invocation. In it, he said:
Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race, or religion, or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all.
Yeah, freedom and justice for all -- unless you happen to be gay. After all, Pastor Warren campaigned heavily for California's Proposition 8, which demoted that state's gay and lesbian population to second-class-citizen status.

Rev. Warren's presence at the event continues to turn the stomachs of many of us who believe in our founding fathers' assertion that all men are created equal. (They did not provide a caveat excluding the homosexual ones.)

But that, however important, is only part of the problem. We also had the heavily Christian benediction by Rev. Joseph Lowery.

And Obama himself invoked God and Judeo-Christian scripture in his inaugural address, saying:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.
The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
Sorry, but we should not rely on any specific concept/version of God to validate the premise that all persons are equal. Equality is a civil right, not a dogmatic judgment.

And perhaps the most ironic thing is that Obama shortly thereafter praised and endorsed the religious diversity of this nation:
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
Right. This is good. So why then impose Christianity on all the American people by making it such a significant part of our inaugural process?

With his racially, religiously, and culturally diverse background, Obama surely could have done better in this regard.

The religiosity of the Obama inauguration was a bit of an insult to this nation's non-Christians, even though I'm sure that the insult was not intentional.

To solve the problem, I suggest that future presidents respect the First Amendment, which rules that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." And all those prayers at the inauguration sure seem like an establishment of religion within our civil pomp and circumstance.

If some more radical (read: other than mainstream Christian) religious viewpoints were included in the inauguration, there would surely be an outrage. But, since Christianity is the majority religion, its imposition -- however radical -- is tolerated.

And it feels too much like tyranny of the majority.

20 January 2009

Turning the page (and writing the next one)

Today, January 20, 2009, we turn the page on another chapter in U.S. history.

As of high noon, when Barack Obama takes the oath of office, the Bush crime family will be out of the White House -- hopefully for the last time. (Hi, Jeb.)

What a mess they have left behind this time! Even far worse than before. (And I suspect they enjoy leaving Democrat Obama with some serious policy-related handicaps to deal with from the git-go.)

Obama will have his hands full, and he will need to do some serious multitasking -- and fast. To justify his mandate, Obama needs to end torture by U.S. agents; pull our troops out of Iraq quickly and safely; work to stimulate our economy in a way that will benefit Main Street and create jobs; undo Bush's tax cuts for the richest 1 or 2 percent, so they can pay their fair share; and provide affordable health care to all Americans. And that's just for starters.

Obama ran on the motto of "Yes we can!" I hope that motto applies to all of the above, and more.

Of course, the motto says "we", not "I". Obama has always said that he cannot do it alone. He needs our help to effect positive change.

And so I plan to hold him -- and Congress -- accountable every step of the way. We all must. After all, that is what democracy is all about.

In the meantime, this has got to be better than Bush, Cheney, Rice, et al.

So viva Obama!

Let's savor the moment, enjoy this historic day, and then get down to some serious work tomorrow.

19 January 2009

Bush farewell haiku

Today is George W. Bush's last full day as President of the United States of America.

Coincidentally, it is also Martin Luther King Day. Free at last, free at last.

There is so much I could say about Bush's impending departure from office. But I've said it all before, so today I'll keep it short.

Therefore, I wrote a simple haiku to summarize my feelings:
Good riddance, George Bush.
You were the worst prez ever.
You will not be missed.

18 January 2009

Qahtani and the case against torture

When I've argued in the past against the use of torture, it has typically been from an ethical and human rights perspective. Torture is inhumane and morally wrong.

Those are still very valid reasons to oppose the use of torture by anyone, including U.S. agents who deal with suspected terrorists. We're supposed to be above that kind of brutality.

And, from a practical perspective, intelligence experts generally agree that torture simply does not work. It is not a reliable way of producing actionable intelligence. Under torture, a detainee will likely say whatever he thinks his interrogator wants to hear, just to make the pain stop. And so he will confess to things he never did, or provide incorrect names or other data. Ask John McCain, who, when asked under torture in Vietnam to provide his captors with the names of the members of his flight squadron, instead rattled off the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line, "knowing that providing them false information was sufficient to suspend the abuse."

But sometimes torture does result in factual information. Such might be true in the case of Gitmo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani, at least according to prosecutors who want to pursue their case against him for his alleged involvement in planning the 9/11 attacks.

But, under U.S. and international law, evidence extracted by torture is inadmissible in court. And rightly so. It would be unethical, and the evidence itself would be unreliable.

So Judge Susan Crawford has thrown out the military's case against Qahtani.

This now illustrates yet another problem with torture. Qahtani might indeed be a dangerous individual, but we can't prove it in court because we tortured it out of him. So what do we do? Continue imprisoning someone who cannot be proven guilty? Or let him go, knowing that he might well pose a threat? Neither alternative is a good one. And we're stuck between a rock and a hard place because some government thugs felt the need to horribly abuse another human being who might -- just might -- be a terrorist.

Torture clearly does nothing to make us safer. When we torture, we run the risk of falling into situations like the Qahtani dilemma. Furthermore, by torturing our terrorism suspects, we are giving the enemy more reason to hate us, and more reason to torture any American that they can capture, as retaliation for the way we treat their captured brethren.

I hope our next Commander in Chief will take a lesson from his predecessor George Washington. During the Revolutionary War, Washington instructed his troops to treat their captured prisoners of war humanely. "Treat them with humanity," he told his troops, "and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren."

And it follows that all who have engaged in torture should be held accountable for their crimes. Otherwise, the laws against it remain fragile.

16 January 2009

Bush stretched the truth on Afghanistan

In his farewell address to the nation last evening, George W. Bush painted a rosy picture of the situation in Afghanistan.

He said:
Afghanistan has gone from a nation where the Taliban harbored al Qaeda and stoned women in the streets to a young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school.
He failed to mention that the Taliban is back, and that women and girls face ongoing threats of violence.

Amnesty International provides a more realistic overview of the situation in Afghanistan:
Women in the public sphere remain at high risk of attack by the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups. [...] Track star Mahboba Ahdyar, only the third Afghan woman to ever qualify for the Olympics, dropped out of training in July 2008 to seek political asylum in Norway after a series of threats against her and her family in Kabul. In an especially troubling development, schools, teachers, and students -- especially those dedicated to educating girls -- have also been targeted. For example, in June 2007 two gunmen opened fire on schoolgirls outside of Kabul, shooting six and killing two, in what was apparently a politically-motivated attack against female education. And in September 2008, Commander Malalai Kakar, Afghanistan’s most senior female police officer and a mother of six, was shot dead in Kandahar. She had been head of the city’s department of crimes against women.
So, Mr. Bush, they may be encouraging girls to go to school, as you say, but only so they can be used for target practice.

I hope that the Obama administration will do better for the people of Afghanistan.

15 January 2009

Washington doctor resigns over death penalty

Last month, Washington state's Department of Corrections' top medical officer resigned in protest of the role of medical personnel in state executions.

The newspaper The Olympian explains:
The state Department of Corrections' top medical officer has resigned, saying that the use of agency staff members to prepare for an execution is unethical.

Dr. Marc Stern, who lives in Olympia, said the American Medical Association and Society of Correctional Physicians oppose physician involvement in executions, "and they say physicians should not supervise somebody who is involved in executions."

"The only way out we found was for me to recuse myself, and the only way I could recuse myself was to resign," he said.

The agency had been set to execute Darold Ray Stenson, convicted of murder, this month. The execution has been postponed.

Stern said he supervised about 700 people in prisons and other corrections facilities statewide. He said at least one of the people he supervised had been involved in execution preparations at Walla Walla State Penitentiary.

He told his superiors that he objected to his division's involvement, but no solution was found, he said.
>> Read the full article.

So the article says that "no solution was found" to the quandary of physician involvement in executions, which is opposed by the AMA and the Society of Correctional Physicians. In my mind, however, the solution is obvious: All physicians should abide by their mission of healing, not killing. Besides, doctors should be smart enough to see the absurdity in killing a human being to show that killing is wrong.

The physicians who work for the Department of Corrections should stick with what they do best: Treat the prisoners who become sick or injured.

And, above all, do no harm.

14 January 2009

Ohio runs out of unemployment funds

If I were jobless in Ohio these days, I'd be nervous. The state has run out of funds for unemployment compensation.

Fortunately, however, Columbus Business First reports that Ohio's unemployed will not see an interruption in their benefits. Ohio will be tapping a federal loan to cover the benefits.

And that is only fair.

If Washington is going to spend my tax dollars to bail out the Wall Street billionaires, they should also bail out the jobless folks who need to work for a living but can't in this horrible economy.

But that's not the end of the story. I think this is just another alarming detail -- another symptom -- in an economic crisis that may be even bigger, wider, and deeper than we thought.

And it's those of us who need to work for a living who will suffer for it.

The Bush family, Alan Greenspan, and Hank Paulson will be just fine.

God bless America.

13 January 2009

Support of Palestinians is not anti-Semitic

It's happening again. There's an outbreak of violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And, if you criticize any of Israel's actions in the conflict, the zionist extremists label you "antisemitic".

So no matter how many innocent Palestinians might be killed or maimed, if you speak out against it, you're walking on thin ice.

This is blackmail, and it is not fair.

It reminds me of how the Republicans would label as "un-American" anyone who spoke out against the Iraq war or any of the other misdeeds of the Bush administration.

These people refuse to see that criticizing Israel's actions does not mean that you are prejudiced against the Israelis, or Jews in general, as a people.

Or perhaps they do understand that, but feel they have no other leg to stand on. So they make it personal. After all, it's been said that ad hominem attacks are the last refuge of those defending an untenable position.

And, as long as that kind of thing continues, there can be no lasting peace in the Middle East.

12 January 2009

No black senators

With Barack Obama ascending to the presidency, and with Roland Burris in senatorial limbo, we currently have no African-American senators on Capitol Hill this term.


Unlike some folks I've talked with, I don't think that Burris should be accepted into the Senate primarily so that we can have a black senator. After all, while I initially thought that it was great to see two African Americans rise to become Secretary of State within the Bush administration, I can't say that I'm pleased with either Powell's or Rice's performance in that office. But their performance had nothing to do with their race. And that's the point.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2006, 12.8 percent of Americans identified themselves as black.

And Congress is supposed to represent the people. But, with African Americans making up 12.8 percent of the population, they're currently at 0% in the senate.

Fortunately, we have several African Americans in the House -- most of whom are geographically predictable. And maybe that geographic predictability is another problem -- or, rather, a symptom of a larger underlying problem.

We will soon have an African-American president, decades earlier than I ever anticipated. And he has far more of a clue than the oh-so-white clueless fratboy who preceded him in the Oval Office. This is undeniably good.

But perhaps still no black senators.

What does this tell us? It tells us this:

While we may be pleasantly surprised (and overjoyed) to see Obama become our next president, this nation is not yet post-racial.

Be it opportunity, attitude, luck, or culture (or any combination of these), it reflects the fact that African Americans have as high a glass ceiling to reach for as we women do.

As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have shown us, that glass ceiling is cracking. But it still has yet to shatter.

11 January 2009

Gitmo is 7 years old today -- let this be its last anniversary

You've been kidnapped by foreigners and taken to a strange and frightening prison, where you're treated very roughly on the good days -- worse on the bad days.

You don't know why you are there. You haven't done anything wrong. But your captives call you a terrorist as they spit on you and desecrate your holy book. You are not charged with any specific crime. You are just stuck there in legal limbo, with no recourse.

All this is allowed to happen even despite a study by Seton Hall University which found that 55 percent of Gitmo detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies, and only eight percent were characterized as al-Qaeda fighters. You and many of your fellow prisoners may have been arrested as a result of a translation error, or arbitrarily sold to coalition forces for a bounty.

After 5 or 6 years of this, you've had enough. You can't take it anymore. So you decide to just let yourself waste away and die. You go on a hunger strike.

But your captors strap you to a chair, shove a tube into your stomach, and force-feed you. There is no relief -- not now and nowhere in sight.

This is what life is like for many of the prisoners at Guantanamo. And right now, our tax dollars are force-feeding some 25 detainees.

Today marks the 7th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners at Gitmo. 7 years of this is 7 years too many.

Hopefully Obama will turn things around. Fingers crossed, but with both eyes wide open.

10 January 2009

Will Maryland see a more enlightened justice system?

A recent report by the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment found numerous flaws in that state's use of the death penalty.

Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun summed it up thusly:
In its report, the commission concludes that, over the past 30 years, the death penalty in Maryland has been expensive and ineffective, riddled with error and tainted with racial and geographic disparities beyond reform. It should be abolished.

The commission arrived at that recommendation after careful review of research into the familiar points of debate - the alleged biases that make the administration of the death penalty unfair, the costs of death sentences over life without parole, the benefits of executions to the state.

Former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti chaired the commission. He joined with the majority in voting to recommend abolition.

The final vote was 13-9, with one abstention. That's a solid majority, to be sure. But far more revealing -- and damning -- was the commission vote on what, in the minds of many, is the first and last question when it comes to the death penalty: Has its application been affected by racial bias?

By a vote of 20-1, members of the commission said yes -- while there is no evidence of intentional discrimination, racial disparities exist when the race of the defendant and the race of the victim are taken into account.
This reflects similar findings by studies in other states, including here in Pennsylvania, where a study found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. Where is the justice in that?

As a result, in 2003 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System called for an immediate moratorium on executions, citing "strong indications that Pennsylvania's capital justice system does not operate in an even-handed manner."

But, so far, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has ignored the Committee's call for a moratorium, possibly due to the fact that as a former Philadelphia District Attorney, Rendell himself had convicted many of the Commonwealth's death row prisoners.

Hopefully the similar findings in Maryland will lead to a more sensible conclusion.

After all, in addition to its biased application, the death penalty is demonstrably not a deterrent, and is irreversible, which is a problem given so many cases of death row inmates who have been exonerated after conviction, based on DNA or other evidence. (How many other innocent persons weren't lucky enough to be proven innocent prior to their executions? We know of at least a few.)

On a more philosophical note, Amnesty International describes the death penalty as "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights."

These are some of the reasons why most European nations have abolished the death penalty.

But none of these considerations has moved Governor Rendell so far.

On the other hand, it has been more than a year since New Jersey abolished the death penalty, and prosecutors -- yes, prosecutors! -- in that state have found no problems with the new system.

So will Maryland see the light?

I hope so.

Like New Jersey, it would set a good example for Pennsylvania and the other states that still, unfortunately, choose knee-jerk revenge over true justice.

09 January 2009

Interesting British editorial on closing Gitmo

I'm always interested in how other countries perceive the U.S. Of course, our reputation has plummeted under the Bush administration. But Great Britain has been one of our staunchest allies, for the most part, especially while Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

Therefore, I was particularly interested in the leading editorial in the January 4th edition of the British newspaper The Independent regarding closure of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. The editorial makes some very good points -- ones that should be obvious, but sadly are not. And it shows that Great Britain, like the rest of the world, can't wait for Obama to take the oath.

Some excerpts:
Guantanamo has become shorthand for giving the rule of law short shrift and riding roughshod over the Geneva Convention. It has also become associated with practices incompatible with civilised values. Its very location was a means of circumventing protections afforded by the US constitution. And the use of torture – the only honest description of the simulated drowning known as waterboarding – to extract testimony from prisoners would unquestionably be condemned by the US were it practised in other countries. Closing Guantanamo would represent a commitment to the rule of law.

It should also be a signal that the "war on terror" is not an end that justifies any means.


Barack Obama has raised almost impossible hopes, and one of them has been for a new kind of world order in which the rule of law will hold, in which there is some congruence between US rhetoric and US actions, in which America can be an exemplar of respect for the rights of individuals. Closing Guantanamo is just the start of that wider endeavour, and it should have Britain's wholehearted support.

This country's tacit acceptance of "extraordinary rendition" by the US was a sin of omission at the very least. The lack of curiosity shown by senior ministers about the provenance of much US intelligence will surely return to haunt them.
Finally, the article addresses the issue of what to do with prisoners released/transferred from Gitmo:
In any event, what needs to be questioned seriously is just why it is unsafe for detainees to be returned to their own countries. Do we have to accept as a fact of life in this new world order that prisoners are routinely tortured in detention? Yemen has accepted Osama bin Laden's driver, to serve his sentence at home.

The US does have considerable political and economic clout in the region, and under the new administration it will have more. It could use that influence to ensure that prisoners returned to their home countries will not be abused in detention or on release. Otherwise, it should provide ex-detainees with a home, protection and an identity for themselves and their families in the US; that is the minimum price America must pay for Guantanamo.
Indeed. My taxes were spent on torture. It is only fair that they should now be spent on retribution.

>> Read the full editorial.

08 January 2009

Is Israel violating the Geneva Conventions?

Earlier this week, Israeli forces attacked a couple of United Nations schools in Gaza, killing dozens of innocent civilians, including children.

Israel's excuse? They blamed it on Hamas for using civilians as human shields in those locations.

But that is not a valid excuse under international law. According to the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions, relating to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts, parties are prohibited from using civilians as human shields. However, even if the other side does shield itself behind civilians, such a violation does not release the other side from its obligation to ensure that all precautionary measures are taken to ensure that the civilian population and civilian objects are spared.

That's pretty straightforward.

Hamas may have violated the rules of war, and that's wrong. But that is no excuse for Israel to do the same (using US-made weapons, by the way).

Both parties need to stop it. Now.

This deadly aggression will do nothing to resolve the underlying political issues that lie behind the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The problem requires a political solution, not a militaristic one.

But I shall not hold my breath.

07 January 2009

The trouble with Sanjay Gupta

When I heard the rumor that CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta is being considered for the job of Surgeon General, I started to worry about what this could mean for the future of health care in America.

Many of us are hoping that the Obama administration will provide health care coverage for all, and fix the problems with the current health care system that Michael Moore exposed in his movie Sicko.

And I thought about how Dr. Gupta tried so hard to discredit the claims Moore made in the movie, even though it turned out that Moore was right and Gupta was wrong.

When I sat down this morning to write about it, the first thing I came across in my research was a blog piece by New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, posted yesterday.

In it, Krugman points out the following:
So apparently Obama plans to appoint CNN's Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General. I don't have a problem with Gupta's qualifications. But I do remember his mugging of Michael Moore over Sicko. You don't have to like Moore or his film; but Gupta specifically claimed that Moore "fudged his facts", when the truth was that on every one of the allegedly fudged facts, Moore was actually right and CNN was wrong.

What bothered me about the incident was that it was what Digby would call Village behavior: Moore is an outsider, he's uncouth, so he gets smeared as unreliable even though he actually got it right. It's sort of a minor-league version of the way people who pointed out in real time that Bush was misleading us into war are to this day considered less "serious" than people who waited until it was fashionable to reach that conclusion. And appointing Gupta now, although it's a small thing, is just another example of the lack of accountability that always seems to be the rule when you get things wrong in a socially acceptable way.
I'll go a step further and ask if Gupta's knee-jerk response to Moore, and his blatant disregard for the facts in the process, represents the kind of attitude we want at the highest levels of the medical profession in this country.

That's not change we can believe in. It's just more of the same.

For now, don't get sick if you can't afford it.

06 January 2009

Obama's CIA chief and my fantasy appointment

Yesterday we learned that Barack Obama has chosen former Clinton aide Leon Panetta to head the CIA.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (who will be chairing the Senate Intelligence Committee) and others have been criticizing the choice, due mostly to Panetta's lack of direct experience in intelligence.

Others disagree.

I am no intelligence expert, so I will withhold judgment. I'm sure Obama put a great deal of thought into his selection.

But, in the back of my mind, I had my own fantasy about the appointment. I dreamt that Obama appointed Joe Wilson or Valerie Plame Wilson to head up the CIA.

What beautiful irony that would be.

And, any humor aside, either one would probably be a fine choice for the job.

05 January 2009

Will Obama help our veterans?

"Support the troops," say the Republicans and the yellow-ribbon magnets that adorn the rears of their big bloated all-American gas-chugging SUVs.

But do they? Support the troops, I mean.

Apparently not. Talk, after all, is cheap, dontcha know.

If this nation truly supported our troops, we wouldn't have 200,000 U.S. veterans sleeping on the streets of America on any given night, as recently revealed in an article by Aaron Glantz for the New American Media.

Our brave veterans made unimaginable sacrifices while Dubya's then-congressman dad pulled enough political strings to get his boy into the elite Texas Air National Guard to avoid Vietnam.

Our brave veterans made unimaginable sacrifices while Dick Cheney arranged for five separate Vietnam deferrals because he had "other priorities".

Given their own cushy deferments, wouldn't you think that Bush and Cheney would take good care of those who actually had the guts to serve, i.e., to cover Bush's and Cheney's elite draft-dodging asses and -- decades later -- fight for their elite imperialist agenda?

If you think so, please guess again.

Our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan may be truly brave heroes, but they are also unwitting and tragically abused pawns and victims in the Bush-Cheney-PNAC agenda.

And, to add insult to injury, they return home to loneliness, untreated physical and mental issues, homelessness, and worse.

Every time an election rolled around, the Bushies would accuse their critics of being unpatriotic. But how patriotic really is the Bush administration, which has allowed our veterans to rot on the streets?

While Obama is not a veteran, he appears to have a heart. I hope that he, along with his Veterans Affairs Secretary, Gen. Eric Shinseki, will make it a priority to provide proper care, treatment, benefits, and dignity for our vets.

If they don't deserve good care, who does?

04 January 2009

US blocks UN ceasefire attempt (Bush apparently wants more blood)

Apparently the air bombing campaign wasn't killing enough Palestinian children and grandmothers. So Israeli forces are now on the ground in the Gaza strip, and the bloodshed continues.

Last night, the United Nations Security Council met in an emergency session to try to push for a ceasefire. However, one rogue nation blocked any progress -- the United States of America.

This is an embarrassment -- and worse.

We need a ceasefire by both sides in the conflict. There is nothing to be gained by more violence. The problems between Israel and the occupied Palestinian terroritories are political in nature, and can only be solved through political means, not military means. More violence will not solve the underlying problems, as we've seen for four decades now. The ongoing hostility and killing only serve to inflame the population and radicalize it on all sides.

But, of course, the Bushies failed to learned that lesson in Iraq, so we can't expect them to learn it here.

I hope that the Obama administration will act in a more enlightened and sensible way.

In the meantime, how many more people must be killed or maimed?

03 January 2009

As much as I dislike him, Blago is innocent until proven guilty

Mea culpa for previously acting as judge and jury and calling for Blago's immediate resignation as Illinois governor. I was caught up in the heat of the moment.

And, while my political senses (influenced by what's known of the tapes) still point to his unquestionable guilt, I have to respect the legal system, under which Blago is innocent until proven guilty.

After all, that is the same pre-trial benefit of the doubt that I'd hope for if I, or someone I care about, were charged with a crime.

Therefore, I have to criticize Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has said that Roland Burris, Blago's pick to replace Obama in the Senate, will not be seated in the next Congress.

The tapes clearly suggest that Blago screwed up and this appointment should indeed be suspect. But, until he is convicted, Blago is the sitting Governor of Illinois, and it falls on him to name the new Senator. We may dislike Blago, and we may find fault with his appointee, but that is a matter to be dealt with by the voters of Illinois at reelection time.

Meanwhile, it's not fair to the people of Illinois to deny them their constitutional right to full representation (via 2 senators) in Congress.

Unless, of course, we want to see similar challenges to the New York governor's prerogative to name the next junior senator from that state.

It's got to be apples vs. apples, no matter how rotten the apple in question -- prior, of course, to any conviction.

PS: There's an interesting discussion about the constitutional considerations surrounding this issue at the Daily Kos site here: Burris, Blagojevich, Reid and the Constitution of the United States

02 January 2009

Cynthia McKinney: "Oh what a day!"

It's not just the Israelis and the Palestinians whose safety is at risk in the current outbreak of violence in that part of the world. Humanitarian workers are apparently also under attack. If humanitarian workers are the "enemy", then the situation is even worse than I thought.

Earlier this week, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) was on a boat that was trying to deliver medical supplies to Gaza when an Israeli navy ship allegedly rammed the vessel repeatedly in an apparent act of hostility.

Israel denies any hostility and blames the relief boat for provoking the incident.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quotes Jonathan Peled of the Israeli Embassy in Washington as saying, "We see all these ships as pure propaganda, they have journalists on them and all kinds of other people who are coming basically to provoke."

So humanitarians providing medical aid to the injured on the "other side", and journalists covering the situation, are automatically seen as "pure propaganda" who are "coming basically to provoke"? With an attitude like that, it's no wonder the hostilities never end.

Not knowing all the facts in the case of McKinney's boat incident, I won't take a strong side on that particular case. But I do want to present McKinney's own account of the ordeal, which I present below in its entirety, with permission.
December 30, 2008: Oh What a Day!

I'm so glad that my father told me to buy a special notebook and to write everything down because that's exactly what I did.

When we left from Cyprus, one reporter asked me "are you afraid?" And I had to respond that Malcolm X wasn't afraid; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't afraid. But little did I know that just a few hours later, I would be recollecting my life and mentally preparing myself for death.

When we left Cyprus, the Mediterranean was beautiful. I remember the time when it might have been beautiful to look at, but it was also filthy. The Europeans have taken great strides to clean it up and yesterday, it was beautiful. And the way the sunlight hit the sea, I remember thinking to myself that's why they call it azure. It was the most beautiful blue.

But sometimes it was rough, and we got behind on our schedule. We stayed on course, however, despite the roughness of the water and due to our exquisite captain.

There were no other ships or boats around us and night descended upon us all rather quickly. It was the darkest black and suddenly, out of nowhere, came searchlights disturbing our peace. The searchlights stayed with us for about half an hour or so. We knew they were Israeli ships. Who else would they be?

They were fast, and they would come close and then drop back. And then, they'd come close again. And then, all of a sudden there was complete blackness once again and all seemed right. The cat and mouse game went on for at least one half hour. What were they doing? And why?

Calm again. Black sky, black sea. Peace. And then, at that very moment, when all seemed right, out of nowhere we were rammed and rammed again and rammed again the last one throwing me off the couch, sending all our food up in the air; and all the plastic bags and tubs--evidence of sea sicknesses among the crew and passengers--flew all over the cabin and all over us. We'd been rammed by the Israelis. How did we know? Because they called us on the phone afterwards to tell us that we were engaging in subversive, terroristic activity. And if that if we didn't turn around right then and return to Larnaca, Cyprus, we would be fired upon. We quickly grabbed our lifevests and put them on. Then the captain announced that the boat was taking on water. We might have to evacuate. One of my mates told me to prepare to die. And I reflected that I have lived a good and full life. I have tasted freedom and know what it is. I was right with myself and my decision to join the Free Gaza movement.

I remembered my father's parting words, "You all will be sitting ducks." Just like the U.S.S. Liberty. We were engaged in peaceful activity, a harmless pleasure boat, carrying a load of hospital supplies for the people of Gaza, who too are sitting ducks, currently being bombarded in aerial assault by the Israeli military.

It's been a long day for us. The captain was outstanding. Throughout it all, he remained stoic and calm, effective in every way. I didn't know how to put my life jacket on. One of the passengers kindly assisted me. Another of the passengers pointed out that the Israeli motors for those huge, fast boats was U.S. made -- a gift to them from the U.S. And now they were using those motors to damage a pleasure boat outfitted with three tons of hospital supplies, one pediatrician, and two surgeons.

I have called for President-elect Obama to say something. The Palestinian people in the Gaza strip are seeing the worst violence in 60 years, it is being reported. To date, President-elect Obama has remained silent. The Israelis are using weapons supplied to them by the U.S. government. Strict enforcement of U.S. law would require the cessation of all weapons transfers to Israel. Adherence to international law would require the same. As we are about to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, let us remember that he said:

1. The United States is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, and
2. Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about things that matter.

I implore the President-elect to not send Congress a budget that contains more weapons for Israel. We have so much more to offer. And I implore the Congress to vote "no" on any budget and appropriation bills that provide more weapons transfers, period.

Israel is able to carry out these intense military maneuvers because taxpayers in the U.S. give their hard-earned money to our Representatives in Congress and our Congress chooses to spend that money in this way. Let's stop it and stop it now. There's been too much blood shed. And while we still walk among the living, let us not remain silent about the things that matter.

We really can promote peace and have it if we demand it of our leaders.

Cynthia McKinney
2008 Candidate for President
Green Party of the U.S.
In defense of President-elect Obama, as he has pointed out repeatedly, the U.S. has only one president at a time; and, for now, Bush is it. But I hope Obama is taking this all in, considering all sides, and working on a plan to address the situation immediately upon taking office.

If anyone can make some progress in this ongoing mess, it's Obama. But only if he is beholden solely to the cause of peace and not to the special interests.

01 January 2009

Some New Year's resolutions for the new U.S. President

I don't know what Barack Obama has included on his list of New Year's resolutions. But here is my list of the top ten resolutions that I'd like to see on his agenda for 2009.

He will need to multitask. But any president must do that.

1. Announce a plan and date to close the prison at Guantanamo. (Apparently Secretary Gates is already working on this, but they'll need to turn talk into action.)

2. Issue an executive order to ban torture (including waterboarding) by U.S. agents.

3. Work with the Justice Department to launch a serious investigation into Bush administration crimes in the "war on terror" -- and prosecute the offenders. (No one is above the law, and it's time for the Bushies to learn that lesson.)

4. Stimulate the economy and job growth via massive public works project.

5. Revoke Bush's tax cuts for the rich, effective immediately. (It's time they started paying their fair share to help the economy.)

6. Start the ball rolling on universal health care coverage for all Americans. (Please hurry. People are sick and dying and cannot afford the care and treatment they need.)

7. Renegotiate Bush's "security agreement" with Iraq. Get Congressional buy-in on an alternative plan to get our troops out more quickly. (Remember the 16-month timeline that you promised us in your campaign?)

8. Work with other world leaders to develop a new international blueprint to stop global warming and "green" the planet.

9. Work with all involved parties to find a lasting solution to the ongoing hostilities in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

10. Work with the United Nations to escalate efforts to pressure Sudan to admit UN peacekeepers into Darfur. (It's time for the genocide to end. Then we must say "never again" and really mean it this time.)

Fingers crossed in hopes that 2009 will be a year of great progress.