30 April 2009

Sebelius finally confirmed by Senate on Tuesday

On Tuesday, the Senate finally confirmed Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

It's about time. The Republicans had done their best to stall the confirmation process because they believe she is "pro-abortion".

The GOP's protests are silly on a number of levels.

First of all, the Republicans claimed that she had an "extreme pro-abortion record". However, that is simply not true. Sebelius is a Catholic who personally opposes abortion. But, as Governor of Kansas, she has been patriotic enough to respect the separation of church and state and therefore has vetoed some abortion restrictions. As she understands, Kansas is not supposed to be a theocracy. And she has stood up for the health of the mother in situations where the mother's life would be at risk. The Republicans, apparently, don't care so much about the mother's wellbeing.

Second, in her role, abortion will likely not be an issue she will deal with very much. She's got a full plate as it is, with the potential for a swine flu pandemic, the need to design and implement major health care reforms, and other health-related issues.

At a federal level, when it comes to abortion, the Supreme Court has spoken via Roe v. Wade. That's out of the hands of the Department of Health and Human Services.

So don't worry, guys, she's not going to implement a program of forced abortions for everyone.

Finally, let's look at the facts on Sebelius's record as Governor:

• Abortion dropped 8.5% from 2002 to 2007 in Kansas

• Teen pregnancy dropped 7% from 2002 to 2006

• Funding for adoption support increased by $2.1 million

• She signed a law doubling the adoption tax credit

• She signed a law aiding in the adoption process

So there you have it. This is not an anti-life record by any stretch.

And so, ironically, with all the noise and all the stalling, Sebelius was confirmed by a pretty wide margin of 65-31. And that says a lot.

29 April 2009

Specter switches parties

Yesterday we learned that Arlen Specter, the senior senator from my home state of Pennsylvania, has decided to switch his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat.

At the same time, he said that he will not vote with the Democrats on every issue. And that is no surprise.

I've always had mixed feelings about Senator Specter. There have been many times when he has voted against the Republican majority, and he has sponsored/cosponsored some good legislation related to human rights and other issues near and dear to my heart. On the other hand, there have been many times when he did toe the party line. I would not expect that to change.

But this move does seem to confirm that the Republican party is in a state of chaos and/or moving farther and farther to the extreme right.

It is certainly no longer the party of Lincoln.

It is widely believed that Specter's party switch was a political move, designed to increase his chances for reelection. That is his prerogative, and it will make the 2010 election season all the more interesting to watch.

So I will wrap up by simply saying this:

Hey, Senator McCain, this is what a real maverick looks like.

28 April 2009

On April 28, take action for Fair Pay Day

Here in the U.S., women are still second-class citizens, in some regards.

Pay, for instance.

Today, April 28, marks Equal Pay Day this year -- the day that symbolizes how far into the year a woman must work, on average, to catch up with what the average man earned in 2008 here in the U.S.

It was a good step forward earlier this year when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. The Ledbetter Act will give women some options when they discover that they've been victims of pay discrimination.

But there is more to be done.

To that end, the Paycheck Fairness Act is under consideration in the Senate. It passed the House in January.

The National Women's Law Center summarizes the bill as follows:
The Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced in both the House (H.R. 12) and the Senate (S. 182) and passed by the House on Jan. 9, 2009, would update and strengthen the Equal Pay Act (EPA) of 1963. The Act would deter wage discrimination by closing loopholes in the EPA and barring retaliation against workers who disclose their wages. The bill also allows women to receive the same remedies for sex-based pay discrimination that are currently available to those subject to discrimination based on race and national origin.
What's not to like?

How you can help:

>> Urge your Senators to support the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Learn more:

>> View fact sheets, congressional testimony, and other information about the Act.

27 April 2009

Sadly, racial profiling is alive and well

I have written many times in the past about the problems with racial profiling.

Pre-9/11, its use by law enforcement personnel was primarily targeted at blacks and Latinos.

Since 9/11, Middle Eastern looking folks get to share in the fun of being viewed with suspicion simply because of their ethnicity.

Proponents of post-9/11 racial profiling might argue that the 9/11 hijackers were all Muslims, and so Muslims are more likely to initiate further terror attacks against Americans and should be scrutinized accordingly. Some call this "hunting where the ducks are." But, as I always point out, if you want to use that logic, why did we not crack down on white, European-American men after Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995?

Unfair as it is, racial profiling will continue to exist to some extent as long as racism exists. And, I fear, as long as human nature remains less than fully enlightened, there will continue to be racists in our midst.

And those racists will continue to deny dark-skinned people the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

By the way, it's not just the rednecks in the U.S. who are doing this.

On April 25, the British newspaper The Guardian published a very good piece on the subject by Sarfraz Manzoor, a Muslim man who has himself been on the receiving end of the nonsense.

Check it out: How to tell I'm not a terrorist

26 April 2009

23 years after Chernobyl, nuclear power is still a threat

I am writing this on April 26, 2009, the 23rd anniversary of the tragic and deadly explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The Chernobyl disaster is widely considered to be the biggest technological and industrial disaster the world has ever known.

And I am remembering the 1979 meltdown at the nuclear plant on Three Mile Island, about 100 miles from where I currently sit.

Today, about a block from my home, I can look to the west and see the cooling towers of the Limerick nuclear power plant sending a steady flow of steam into the sky.

Each month, the power company Exelon, which operates the Limerick plant, conducts a siren test to ensure that the noisemakers are in good working order in case they need to notify the public of an emergency.

And, periodically, potassium iodide tablets are distributed to people who reside within a 10-mile radius of Limerick and other nuclear power plants here in Pennsylvania, to help protect them from the effects of a possible release of radiation.

In other words, where there are nuclear power plants, there is the risk of accidents that could pose a very serious threat to the population.

Indeed, a 2006 report from Greenpeace, "An American Chernobyl", identifies almost 200 near misses at 50 reactors that have occurred in the United States since 1986.

Add to that the consequences of a possible terrorist attack on one or more nuclear power plants, along with the problem of nuclear waste disposal, and it appears to me that nuclear power is not worth it.

Unfortunately, proponents of nuclear power are using the movement away from dependence on foreign oil as an excuse to ramp up nuclear power development. But there are safer alternatives out there, such as wind power and solar energy. We should be putting our time and money into the safer alternatives.

Earlier this month, President Obama promised to work towards "a world without nuclear weapons."

Unfortunately, however, he still seems to approve of nuclear energy. Does he not realize that Three Mile Island, Limerick, and all the other nuclear power plants around this nation and around this world all have the potential for becoming weapons of mass destruction should another mishap occur?

25 April 2009

Multitask, Mr. President

During last year's presidential campaign, one of the many reasons why I supported Barack Obama so strongly was because I believed that he could multitask. A U.S. President has a lot on his plate.

I think back to when Republican rival John McCain canceled an appearance on the David Letterman show at the last minute last fall, alleging that he was hurrying back to Washington to save the economy, when in reality he chose instead to appear on air with Katie Couric. McCain clearly does not know how to multitask. If he is unable to juggle Letterman, Couric, and the economy -- two of which are relatively easy and straightforward -- then he most likely would have trouble dealing day-to-day with the multitude of issues that currently face the nation.

On the other hand, right off the bat, President Obama proved that he could multitask.

In his first not-quite-100 days in office, Obama has accomplished all this:

• He ordered the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay and an immediate review of all Guantanamo detentions, along with a requirement that intelligence gathering by U.S. agents comply with the Geneva Conventions.

• He lifted the Bush administration's restrictions on federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

• He repealed the Global Gag Rule.

• He established a White House Office of Health Reform.

• He lifted a bunch of grudge-sanctions against Cuba.

• He wowed the world at the G-20 summit.

• And much more.

And all while putting together a cabinet and other appointments, and working on fixing the economic crisis.

But when it comes to the torture issue, and the prosecution of those responsible for it, Obama says he wants to look forward, not backward. He suggests that using time and resources to pursue justice against the torturers might impede his administration's ambitious agenda.

To that I say: Multitask, Mr. President.

Work with Congress to launch an independent investigation into the Bush administration's torture policy and to bring those responsible to justice.

Court Senator McCain for bipartisan support on this issue, since he himself is a torture survivor. Torture isn't supposed to be a partisan issue. Work with the other Republican moderates as you did in passing the economic stimulus plan.

You can handle it. And you must.

Do it because this will set a precedent for future presidencies with regard to the rule of law.

And do it because you promised to work to repair this nation's reputation in the world. You cannot do that by excusing our home-grown torturers.

24 April 2009

Driving + cell phone = injured child

Earlier this week, here in Philadelphia, a six-year-old girl was struck by a car as she ran towards an ice cream truck. The little girl is now in stable condition with head and leg injuries.

The woman who was driving the car fled. Witnesses say that the driver was talking on a cell phone.

Things like this are bound to happen as long as people think they need to be chatting on their hand-held cell phones while driving.

In fact, a 2007 study at the University of Utah showed that cell phone distraction was comparable to driving while drunk.

This is why I'd like to see all states or municipalities ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

But will I ever see that day? I will not hold my breath.

Meanwhile, sadly, that little girl might be haunted by this experience every time she sees ice cream.

23 April 2009

Yes, Senator, it is like a banana republic

But not for the reasons that Senator Specter would think.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has released a newly declassified report that details the history of the Bush administration's torture policy.

The first page contains three very good points:
(U) The collection of timely and accurate intelligence is critical to the safety of U.S. personnel deployed abroad and to the security of the American people here at home. The methods by which we elicit intelligence information from detainees in our custody affect not only the reliability of that information, but our broader efforts to win hearts and minds and attract allies to our side.

(U) Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are taught to expect Americans to abuse them. They are recruited based on false propaganda that says the United States is out to destroy Islam. Treating detainees harshly only reinforces that distorted view, increases resistance to cooperation, and creates new enemies. In fact, the April 2006 National Intelligence Estimate "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States" cited "pervasive anti U.S. sentiment among most Muslims" as an underlying factor fueling the spread of the global jihadist movement. Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2008 that "there are serving U.S. flag-rank officers who maintain that the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq - as judged by their effectiveness in recruiting insurgent fighters into combat - are, respectively the symbols of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."

(U) The abuse of detainees in U.S. custody cannot simply be attributed to the actions of "a few bad apples" acting on their own. The fact is that senior officials in the United States government solicited information on how to use aggressive techniques, redefined the law to create the appearance of their legality, and authorized their use against detainees. Those efforts damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority. This report is a product of the Committee's inquiry into how those unfortunate results came about.
From there, it gets more disturbing, with accounts of many military leaders and intelligence experts who had issued warnings about the illegality and inefficacy of the use of these new interrogation techniques.

But, of course, the Bushies never did let disapproval get in the way of their agenda.

The report's final conclusion:
The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.
And what followed was an erosion of our national conscience and our reputation in the world.

Little Lynndie England sat in a prison cell for following orders, while Rumsfeld sat comfortably at home.

Yesterday, reacting to the prospect of an independent commission to investigate the Bush administration's torture policies, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) said that "going after the prior administration sounds like something they do in Latin America in banana republics."

No, Senator Specter, everything in the Armed Services Committee report sounds like what they do in a banana republic.

Justifying torture, engaging in torture, while saying we don't torture, and blaming it on a few bad apples -- that's what the dictators do in a banana republic.

And opposing independent investigations into such things -- well, that's another thing they do in a banana republic.

22 April 2009

On Earth Day and beyond: Say no to plastic bags

I am writing this on April 22 -- Earth Day. And I am thinking about how many Americans still take home their groceries in plastic bags.

Every time I go to the grocery store and most other stores, I take along my reusable canvas shopping bags. They're easy to find, and they're inexpensive. Most grocery stores in my neighborhood sell them for about a dollar, and I see them reasonably priced in a lot of department stores, too. One supermarket chain here even gives customers a 4-cent discount on each shopping order when you bring your own bags. There, the sturdy canvas bags eventually pay for themselves.

And every time I go to the grocery store and most other stores, I see people walking out with 2, 4, 6, or more plastic bags containing their purchases. When they see me carrying my canvas totes into the store, some of them roll their eyes or call me a tree hugger. But I've been called worse.

What will these people do, I wonder, as (hopefully) more and more municipalities ban plastic shopping bags like San Francisco has done and Philadelphia has been trying to do?

I wonder whether these people are simply ignorant of the effects of plastic bags on our planet, or if they just don't care. Probably some of each, and some of both.

The website Natural-Environment.com highlights some of the evils of plastic bags:

• Plastic bags cause over 100,000 sea turtle and other marine animal deaths every year when animals mistake them for food.

• The manufacture of plastic bags add tons of carbon emissions into the air annually.

• Between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year.

• Approximately 60 - 100 million barrels of oil are required to make the world's plastic bags each year.

• Most plastic bags take over 400 years to biodegrade. Some figures indicate that plastic bags could take over 1000 years to break down. (I guess nobody will live long enough to find out!). This means not one plastic bag has ever naturally biodegraded.

These bags are clogging up our environment and they are not going away. We don't need to add more bags to the problem.

So, on behalf of Earth Day, and on behalf of the future of this planet, please invest in some reusable shopping bags and forego the plastic.

And, while you're at it, this is also good opportunity to break the bottled water habit.

On behalf of Mother Earth, I thank you.

21 April 2009

Troy Davis: Justice denied again -- but you can help

For years, Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis has been on a rollercoaster ride for his life. And the ride just got scarier.

Last Thursday, in a 2-1 opinion, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against granting Davis an evidentiary hearing, at which he could present the new evidence in his favor which has never before been examined in court.

This is despite the fact that the evidence could show that Davis is innocent.

Does Georgia really want to risk executing an innocent man?

And what's to lose by granting him a new hearing? Doesn't Georgia want to be absolutely certain that they are punishing the right guy?

Most of my regular readers are likely already familiar with Troy Davis's case. For those who are not, here is a summary:

Davis has been sitting on Georgia's death row for a 1989 murder that he maintains he did not commit. In March of 2008, the George Supreme Court inexplicably decided 4-3 to deny a new trial for Davis, despite significant doubts about his guilt.

Davis's original trial was flawed, and most of the witnesses have since recanted or contradicted their stories. There is no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and his conviction was based solely on that questionable testimony by witnesses. In other words, there is reasonable doubt as to Davis's guilt. And there's no excuse to execute someone when there's reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

Davis's case is so compelling that the Pope has called for the case to be reconsidered. So have Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter and countless private citizens.

Yet, despite all these considerations, nobody in charge wants to consider that strong possibility that Georgia might end up executing an innocent man.

As long as there are doubts, there is no true justice.

Davis's lawyers now have 30 days to file another petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. (The Supremes rejected the last one.)

I will keep you posted on how this progresses.


How you can help:

Davis and his attorneys are doing everything they can to fight this injustice from the inside. And we need to keep up the pressure from the outside.

Even if you've taken this action before on the Amnesty International website, call on Georgia Governor George Perdue to take action to commute Davis's death sentence.

>> Email Governor Perdue now.

20 April 2009

Spain may indict the "Bush Six" after all

Last week I wrote about how a Spanish could was likely to indict Alberto Gonzales and five other high-ranking Bush administration officials for sanctioning torture at Guantanamo.

Then I followed up with the disappointing news from the BBC that Spain's attorney general had rejected the move. The headline made it sound final: "Spain rejects US 'torture' probe"

But it's not the attorney general's decision to make. It's up to the judge in the case.

The judge in this case is Baltasar Garzon, who handled the international case against Augusto Pinochet, so he's no lightweight.

And Garzon has ordered that the Bush Six investigation remain open.

Stay tuned.

19 April 2009

They are all accountable for torture

It was an interesting and disappointing week for those of us who want to see some accountability for the Bush administration's torture policies.

It had started on a positive note, with the news that prosecutors in Spain would likely issue indictments against Alberto Gonzales and five other high-ranking Bush administration officials for sanctioning the torture of terror suspects.

The hope for justice that came with that news quickly turned to disappointment, however, when Spain's attorney general rejected the move. AG Candido Conde-Pumpido said the case had "no merit" since no members of Bush's torture team were present when the alleged abuses took place.

Meanwhile, back here in the U.S., the Obama administration took a step forward towards transparency and open government by releasing four of the Bush administration's secret memos that had been used to justify torture.

At the same time, however, Obama managed to disappoint when he announced that his administration would not prosecute the CIA operatives who engaged in torture. The reason, according to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, is that it "would be unfair to prosecute dedicated men and women working to protect America for conduct that was sanctioned in advance by the Justice Department." In other words, they were just following orders. They were playing by the rules, however misguided those rules might have been.

So here we have it:

Spain might not prosecute the "Bush Six" because they didn't participate in the torture.

And Obama will not prosecute those who did.

So which approach is correct? In my opinion, neither.

All of them -- all those who sanctioned the torture and all those who carried it out -- are responsible for the torture that has violated U.S. and international law and severely damaged our reputation in the world.

The Justice Department officials who stretched the law in order to justify the unjustifiable are to blame and should be held accountable. They knew that they had stretched it too far. In a 40-page memo dated May 30, 2005, Acting Assistant Attorney General Steven Bradbury actually admitted that they "cannot predict with confidence whether a Court would agree with our conclusions."

The CIA operatives and any others who participated in the torture are also to blame and should be held accountable. The excuse that they were "just following orders" doesn't cut it. If your boss ordered you to rob a bank, would you do it?

The CIA knew that the methods they were using were wrong. (Remember all those evidential tapes that they destroyed?)

Still, Obama wants to let them off the hook, saying "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."

Then why do we bother to have laws at all, Mr. President, if you believe that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame" for certain crimes?

As ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero noted, "We can’t just say 'Tsk. Tsk. That should never have happened' and walk away. We must demonstrate our commitment to the rule of law and demand accountability if our country is going to move forward."

Torture isn't a little white lie or an unkept campaign promise. Torture is a serious crime under U.S. and international law. The use of torture violates the U.S. Constitution, Amendment 8; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 5; the Third Geneva Convention; the UN Torture Convention; and more.

Therefore, the U.S. is legally obligated to bring those suspected of torture to trial.

Instead, by granting immunity to the torturers, the Obama administration is essentially protecting war criminals.

This is no way to repair our reputation in the world.

And this is no way to lead.

America is not above the law.

18 April 2009

Pro-choice is not pro-abortion

On a recent edition of MSNBC's "Hardball", Pat Buchanan described Barack Obama as "militantly pro-abortion".

This is ridiculous.

I don't know of anyone who is militantly pro-abortion. And I don't know of any person of conscience who would choose to have an abortion without any hesitation. But, sadly, the anti-choice crowd loves to exaggerate. They almost seem to believe that we'd like to impose forced abortions on everyone.

The truth is that pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion. It doesn't mean that we are anti-life. It simply means that we respect the right of every woman to make her own decisions regarding her reproductive system. It means that, even though we might find the idea of abortion unsettling, we will not impose our own belief system onto others.

It's about privacy, and it's about a woman's right to sovereignty over her own body.

It's nothing more, and nothing less.

17 April 2009

Spain backs down on U.S. torture indictments

Yesterday I wrote that Spain was considering issuing indictments against the "Bush Six", the architects of the last administration's pro-torture policy.

While those indictments (were they to materialize) would likely never have led to any jail time for the bad guys, it would have been nice to have it all on record.

Sadly, however, that is apparently not to be.

According to the BBC, Spain's attorney general has rejected the move. Apparently, AG Candido Conde-Pumpido said the case had "no merit" since no members of Bush's torture team were present when the alleged abuses took place.

So, in other words:

Little Lynndie England can be prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for participating the Bush administration's torture free-for-all, although she may have just been following orders (and, granted, she appeared to be enjoying it way too much).

But those who gave her the green light to do so can remain free and continue to live their lives with impunity.

This appears to be the position of the Spanish court.

And, sadly, this appears to be the position of the Obama administration and the 111th Congress (with the exception of a few brave and heroic patriots who are calling for justice against all odds).

Apparently, in today's America and today's world, some powerful and well-connected people can still remain above the law.

No change here that I can believe in.

16 April 2009

No, Chris, it's not about Spanish law

On the April 14th edition of MSNBC's "Hardball" program, as a cliff-hanger before cutting to a commercial break, host Chris Matthews asked: "Should Americans be subject to Spanish law?"

He was referring to the fact that a Spanish court is likely to indict Alberto Gonzales and five other high-ranking Bush administration officials for sanctioning torture at Guantanamo.

But, while Matthews' question is certainly dramatic, it is not based on fact.

It's not about Spanish law, it's about international law. Specifically, it's about the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Amnesty International describes universal jurisdiction as follows:
Universal jurisdiction is the principle that every country has an interest in bringing to justice the perpetrators of grave crimes, no matter where the crime was committed, and regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators or their victims. It was most famously utilized in the 1998 arrest of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on torture charges in London at the request of a Spanish court.

The principle of universal jurisdiction is rooted in the belief that certain crimes, such as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture, “disappearance” and extrajudicial executions, are so serious that they amount to an offence against the whole of humanity and therefore all states have a responsibility to bring those responsible to justice.

To fulfill this responsibility, more than three-fifths of all states have enacted universal jurisdiction laws to ensure that their national courts are able to investigate and prosecute persons suspected of committing these crimes, and to ensure that their country is not used as a “safe haven” to evade justice.
So if any of the "Bush Six" were to set foot in a cooperating foreign country, he could be arrested, tried, and punished if found guilty.

And why? Because the U.S. is apparently too timid to prosecute them ourselves.

I can only dream of extraditing all six of them to Madrid straightaway.

15 April 2009

Tax dollars misspent

Today is April 15th -- Tax Day in the USA. This is the date on which our yearly income taxes are due.

And where are our tax dollars going?

According to the National Priorities Project, our 2008 tax dollars were divided up as follows:

• 37.3 cents: Military

• 21.3 cents: Health

• 19.8 cents: Interest on Debt

• 7.2 cents: Income Security & Labor

• 3.8 cents: Housing & Community

• 3.8 cents: Veterans' Benefits

• 3.6 cents: Food

• 3.1 cents: Government

• 3.0 cents: Education

• 2.8 cents: Environment, Energy, & Science

• 1.2 cents: International Affairs

• 1.0 cents: Transportation

Yes, the U.S. government spent more than 12 times as much money on the military than on education. There's something terribly wrong with this picture.

And it gets worse: Even as President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates are working on an overhaul of the defense budget to make it more efficient, they're simultaneously planning to increase the defense budget from $513 billion to $534 billion.

I have nothing against having a strong military in place to defend our country. But the Bush administration used that money and our troops to play offense, not defense.

I remain hopeful that the Obama administration will use the defense budget and our troops more wisely. But Afghanistan makes me nervous.

And so does this economic mess that we inherited from the Bush-Cheney administration.

14 April 2009

A step forward in relations with Cuba

Kudos to President Obama for his latest step in healing our relationships with the rest of the world.

Yesterday, Obama announced that he will be lifting a broad set of sanctions against Cuba.

This is good for the Cuban people, good for Cuban Americans who wish to travel home, and good for our foreign policy's healing process.

Bush held grudges and bullied the rest of the world. Obama instead looks to build bridges, albeit cautiously.

Obama is far from perfect, but he is certainly doing some things right.

>> From the White House: Fact Sheet: Reaching Out to the Cuban People

13 April 2009

In Iraq, have we worn out our welcome?

Of course we have (if we were ever welcome in the first place).

And the evidence couldn't be less ambiguous.

Last Thursday, April 9, was the sixth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces. On that day in 2003, the world watched as the U.S. Army staged one of the most notable photo ops of the war and occupation: The topping of the statue of Saddam in Firdos Square.

And just as that celebration was coerced rather than spontaneous, so our presence there continues to be forced and unpopular.

On that April 9th anniversary this year, there were huge anti-American demonstrations in the streets of Baghdad to demand our immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

They don't want us there any more. And that's understandable.

Not only has our presence there destroyed the lives of so many Iraqi civilians, but Bush's unnecessary and unwinnable war on Iraq continues to squander billions of our taxpayer dollars.

Still, and quite sadly, President Obama plans to keep us there through the year 2011.

Why? So that we can stabilize the country and turn the Iraq's security responsibilities over to the Iraqis. You know, the same kind of thing we were supposed to be doing there for the past five or six years.

Meantime, how many more will have to die?

12 April 2009

Jesus's death does not justify torture

I am writing this on Easter Sunday. Easter, as celebrated by Christians, marks the alleged resurrection of Jesus Christ, after he was brutally tortured and crucified to death.

And some religious zealots are apparently using Jesus's death and resurrection as a means to justify torture.

I learned this as I was talking with a devout Catholic man -- so devout that he wore a crucifix on a silver chain around his neck.

This man is pro-torture in what used to be called the "war on terror". But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

He explained to me that Jesus was sent to earth in order to be tortured and killed for our sins. If the Roman guards hadn't tortured Jesus to death, he reasoned, then we'd all be going to hell. So, he concluded, torture can be a very, very good thing.

Then he moved from Jesus to the saints. He described the torturous deaths of some of the saints, and tried to explain that torture was a good thing there too, because it provided a fast track to sainthood.

Usually when advocating against torture, I am presented with the ticking bomb scenario, which is another misguided attempt at justification. But this Jesus thing really takes the cake.

Framing torture as a positive religious thing is unholy at best.

Happy Easter to all of you who celebrate this day -- but please celebrate it for the right reasons.

11 April 2009

Are newspapers to blame for their own demise?

Newspapers across the U.S. are in deep financial distress. In recent weeks we've seen the Rocky Mountain News go out of business, while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor have discontinued their print editions in favor of online-only reporting.

Here in Philadelphia, the city's largest newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, is in bankruptcy, along with its sister publication, the Philadelphia Daily News, for which I was a contributing columnist back when they could afford to pay the freelancers.

Some people are blaming the technological times for the print media's downfall. And that is likely a big factor. With most newspapers offering most, if not all, of their content online for free, we no longer have to pay for our news. Why buy a big hunk of ink and paper when you can read the same news on your computer or your iPhone at no cost?

Nevertheless, some people still like to hold that newspaper in their hands and read it at the table, or in bed, as they enjoy their morning coffee. Those people are now out of luck.

But I believe that technology is not the only thing to blame. I believe that the newspapers themselves share some of the responsibility for their own demise.

Over the past several years, the newspapers have failed to serve as society's watchdogs over the power of government. The so-called Fourth Estate slept while Bush lied us into an unnecessary war of aggression, tortured our prisoners, and systematically dismantled the Constitution. Instead of doing their job, the mainstream media sold their souls to the right-wing propaganda machine.

And so they lost the trust of the public whom they were supposed to serve.

And for that, perhaps they're now getting their just deserts.

10 April 2009

HRC debunks new homophobic TV ad

A hate group called the National Organization for Marriage has been running an ad, called Gathering Storm, which is spreading lies and distortions about the alleged consequences of gay marriage.

In the ad, actors portray "victims" of the "gay agenda". They include:

(1) A California doctor who must choose between her faith and her job

(2) A member of New Jersey church group that is punished by the state because they cannot support same-sex marriage

(3) A Massachusetts parent who must helplessly stand by while the state teaches her son that gay marriage is OK

And they contend that they are the ones whose rights are being violated.

Fortunately, we have wonderful organizations like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), who can logically and rationally debunk this craziness.

And the HRC goes to town with this Gathering Storm nonsense, outlining the real facts of each case:
The facts indicate that (1) refers to the Benitez decision in California, determining that a doctor cannot violate California anti-discrimination law by refusing to treat a lesbian based on religious belief, (2) refers to the Ocean Grove, New Jersey Methodist pavilion that was open to the general public for events but refused access for civil union ceremonies (and was fined by the state for doing so) and (3) refers to the Parker decision in Massachusetts, where parents unsuccessfully sought to end public school discussions of family diversity, including of same-sex couples.

All three examples involve religious people who enter the public sphere, but don’t want to abide by the general non-discriminatory rules everyone else does. Both (1) and (2) are really about state laws against sexual orientation discrimination, rather than specifically about marriage. And (3) is about two pairs of religious parents trying to impose their beliefs on all children in public schools.

The real facts of each case are:

• The California doctor entered a profession that promises to "first, do no harm" and the law requires her to treat a patient in need - gay or straight, Christian or Muslim - regardless of her religious beliefs. The law does not, and cannot, dictate her faith - it can only insist that she follow her oath as a medical professional.

• The New Jersey church group runs, and profits from, a beachside pavilion that it rents out to the general public for all manner of occasions - concerts, debates and even Civil War reenactments - but balks at permitting couples to hold civil union ceremonies there. The law does not challenge the church organization's beliefs about homosexuality - it merely requires that a pavilion that had been open to all for years comply with laws protecting everyone from discrimination, including gays and lesbians.

• The Massachusetts parent disagrees with an aspect of her son's public education, a discussion of the many different kinds of families he will likely encounter in life, including gay and lesbian couples. The law does not stop her from disagreeing, from teaching him consistently with her differing beliefs at home, or even educating her child in a setting that is more in line with her faith traditions. But it does not allow any one parent to dictate the curriculum for all students based on her family's religious traditions.
In other words, it's about enforcing legal rights for all -- even for those people whose sexual orientation might make the bigots uncomfortable. You're free to have your beliefs, but you cannot force your beliefs onto others in the public square.

And remember: It wasn't too many decades ago that bigots were spreading similar kinds of propaganda in opposition to interracial marriage.

09 April 2009

CIA physicians: Heal thyselves

When investigations by the International Committee of the Red Cross uncover war crimes, the reports are supposed to be kept confidential. However, journalist Mark Danner somehow obtained a report based on interviews with 14 detainees who were held in secret overseas prisons before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

The report revealed that medical staff had participated in the abuse of prisoners, in violation of international standards of medical ethics.

An Associated Press article highlights some of the findings:
[T]he health personnel monitored detainees as they were subjected to techniques such as waterboarding -- which simulates drowning -- and prolonged stress positions.

In some cases, the Red Cross reported, medical staff recommended stopping the treatment; in others they "recommended its continuation, but with adjustments."


One detainee told the Red Cross that while still being held at a secret site, "a health person threatened that medical care would be conditional upon cooperation with the interrogators."

The report said the health personnel's "primary purpose appears to have been to serve the interrogation process, and not the patient."
This reminds me of the controversy surrounding doctors' participation in executions here in the U.S. -- a practice that is opposed by the AMA and the Society of Correctional Physicians.

I like to think that most doctors choose their profession because they want to help people (in addition to making a very good living). With the Hippocratic Oath, they swear to "prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone."

Why then would a doctor agree to participate in abuse? Only a criminal mind could justify it. And indeed they are criminals.

>> Download the Red Cross report (PDF)

08 April 2009

Ted Stevens & why ends don't always justify means

Former Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) lost his reelection bid last November after being convicted on seven felony corruption charges. It is likely that he would have been easily reelected if not for the corruption scandal.

But yesterday all charges against Stevens were dismissed due to prosecutorial misconduct. Furthermore, the judge has ordered an independent investigation into the misconduct. It seems that the prosecution withheld evidence that would likely have proven the senator's innocence. In other words, it appears that maybe Stevens was set up, which is wrong.

I'm no fan of Ted Stevens, but I'm a huge fan of true justice. And true justice wasn't served in the case against Stevens. So, for the sake of justice, I'm glad to see that the fraudulent charges against Stevens have been dismissed.

And, while I'm happy to see Stevens out of the senate, it's a shame that he had to be unseated in this way and not by the Alaskan electorate.

The ends don't justify the means.

07 April 2009

Supremes were wrong to deny Mumia's appeal

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal by Mumia Abu-Jamal, thereby letting his murder conviction stand. The appeal argued that some blacks had been unfairly excluded from the jury.

Mumia was convicted for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. But I am not convinced of his guilt. Nor is the human rights group Amnesty International (AI). An extensive investigation by AI experts has concluded that "numerous aspects of this case clearly failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings."

Mumia's supporters insist that he was set up, and that racial bias and witness coercion had played a big part in his unfair trial. They also point out that Faulkner was killed with a .44 caliber gun, while the gun that Abu-Jamal was licensed to carry as a nighttime taxi driver was a .38 caliber.

So, given the evidence that Mumia did not get a fair trial, how can the Supreme Court be so quick to deny him a new hearing? If Mumia is guilty as alleged, then it will be confirmed in the new trial and we can rest assured that we are punishing the right person. What's to lose, other than potentially a false conviction? Don't we want to be sure that we're punishing the right guy?

Why be afraid of shedding more light on the subject? If the light reveals that Mumia is guilty, then keep him locked up. But not for any other reason.

For these reasons, I see the Supreme Court's act of cowardice in this case as a travesty of justice.

What are the justices afraid of?

06 April 2009

Does the Senate not care about climate change?

Ayesha Rascoe, writing for Reuters, breaks the disappointing news:
A U.S. Senate vote [last Wednesday] rejected an effort to put climate-change legislation on a fast track, making it harder for Congress to put limits on greenhouse gas emissions this year.

Interestingly, the vote took place on April 1. I only wish it were an April Fool's Day joke.

Apparently, big campaign donations from corporate polluters mean more to our lawmakers than the health of the planet that they'll be leaving to their children and grandchildren.

So they continue to refuse to inconvenience big business by forcing them to limit their greenhouse gas emissions.

The article goes on to cite the sad truth:
John McMackin, a director of a glass container company and part of a lobby for energy-intensive firms, said this vote shows there are still a large number of moderate Democrats from heavy manufacturing states that are skeptical of climate change legislation.

"Until they are satisfied that their industrial base can be protected, they are not going to make it easy for this bill to move," McMackin said.
So there you have it. The Senators have their priorities. And saving the planet is not one of them, even though their corporate bedpartners might someday no longer have a liveable planet on which to do business.

>> See how your senators voted.

My own Democratic Senator Bob Casey has a lot of explaining to do. (I will be calling your office, Senator C.)

05 April 2009

Is a nuke-free world even possible?

Shortly before his death, Albert Einstein said that he had made "one great mistake" in his life -- facilitating the development of atomic bombs.

Shame on the USA for being the one country that has actually used those bombs in war.

Fortunately, President Obama seems to share Einstein's regrets about nuclear weapons. Speaking in Prague today, Obama promised to work towards "a world without nuclear weapons."

But he will do so cautiously, he explained: "Make no mistake, as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary and guarantee that defence to our allies, including the Czech Republic. We will begin the work of reducing our arsenal. To reduce our warheads and stockpiles we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year."

Obama's approach is certainly wiser and more practical than the "bring 'em on" style of his predecessor.

And we certainly don't need all 5,914 warheads in our arsenals. (Talk about overkill!)

But I question whether a nuke-free world is even possible, given human nature. There will always be rogue states, with wreckless power-hungry leaders, who will want to have that edge, now that the technology exists.

For instance, would North Korea ever willingly end its nuclear weapons program?

Would China?

Would Israel?

04 April 2009

Iowa Supreme Court rules in favor of gay marriage

Hooray for Iowa! Yesterday, via the Iowa Supreme Court decision in Varnum v. Brien, that state joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in guaranteeing equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The justices' ruling was unanimous.

Here is a beautiful excerpt from the decision:
Society benefits, for example, from providing samesex couples a stable framework within which to raise their children and the power to make health care and end-of-life decisions for loved ones, just as it does when that framework is provided for opposite-sex couples.

Contrary to the homophobe propaganda, it's not about special privileges for same-sex couples, it's about equal privileges for all citizens (not just the straight ones). In other words, in Iowa, same-sex couples are no longer second-class citizens. In America there should be no second-class citizens. Everyone should share the same set of civil rights.

And, contrary to the homophobe propaganda, marriage is first and foremost a civil contract, above and beyond any religious recognition of such a union. Our founding fathers wrote the establishment clause into the first amendment for good reason.

And, in Iowa, reason has prevailed.

>> Read the full decision.

>> Learn more about Varnum v. Brien.

03 April 2009

At G-20 summit, Obama showed true leadership

At her coming-out party at the Republican National Convention last year, Sarah Palin mocked Barack Obama's past role as a community organizer.

It didn't work.


Because now we have someone in the White House with true leadership skills, honed in no small way through his years of community service. And Obama is now demonstrating those skills on the world stage.

This became especially apparent at the G-20 economic summit yesterday. While the various world leaders were working on a deal to (hopefully) bring an end to the worldwide recession, things reached a bit of an impasse when the leaders of France and China disagreed on one of the details.

But then President Obama took the two of them aside, one by one, talked with each in private, and managed to work out a compromise. The whole thing ended with the two rivals shaking hands.

Later Obama described his foreign-policy approach as "forging a consensus instead of dictating our terms."

In other words, we now have a president who truly is a uniter, not a divider.


02 April 2009

Miss Universe had "a lot of fun" at Gitmo

Apparently Dayana Mendoza of Venezuela, the reigning Miss Universe, recently visited the military base and Guantanamo Bay and raved about what a fabulous time she had.


OK, so beauty queens aren't necessarily chosen for their intellect, wisdom, and compassion. Still, the Miss Universe website (Note: Not "Ms. Universe") refers to its competitors as "role models", and describes them as "savvy, goal-oriented and aware," and "with hope of advancing their careers, personal and humanitarian goals, and as women who see [sic] to improve the lives of others."

Ms/Miss Mendoza could have looked into the practices that go on at Guantanamo, like torture and the wrongful detention of so many people who have been determined to have no ties to terrorism. And she could have spoken out against these human rights abuses. You know, she could have been a real role model for other young women.

But, instead of advancing a humanitarian goal like that, she instead chose to just hang out with the troops in the sunny weather, and then described her visit to detainee hell as "a lot of fun".

Would someone please explain to this woman that waterboarding is not an amusement park ride?

01 April 2009

How Rihanna can help other women

I don't usually focus on celebrity gossip, but violence against women is a big concern.

Reports out of Hollywood suggest that singer Rihanna is not cooperating with prosecutors in the assault case against Chris Brown. As the Celebrity News Service (CNS) describes the case, Rihanna "was left badly bruised and injured after an alleged altercation on February 8 following the Grammy Awards with her boyfriend at the time, R&B singer Chris Brown." But now she just "wants the whole thing" to go away.

It is not unusual for victims of domestic abuse to refuse to follow up to ensure that their abusers are held accountable. Maybe it's a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe they crave "love" so badly that they'll put up with anything just to have that connection. Or maybe they have self-esteem issues and believe that they deserve to be treated badly.

These things do not excuse the abuser's behavior. No one deserves to be battered and bruised by a loved one.

That is why I wish Rihanna would be strong and use her celebrity status to speak out against domestic violence and cooperate with authorities in holding Brown accountable.

In doing so, she would instantly become a better kind of role model for other women and girls.