31 May 2009

Unemployment, foreclosures, and this vicious circle

Reuters recently reported on findings by the Mortgage Bankers Association that about 12 percent of mortgaged U.S. homeowners "ended the first quarter late on loan payments or in the foreclosure process in a crisis that will persist for at least another year until unemployment peaks."

12 percent!

The same piece goes on to say that "U.S. unemployment in April reached its highest rate in more than a quarter century and is still rising, helping propel mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures to record highs."

So they don't expect unemployment to peak for at least another year. So, for at least another year, people will have difficulty making their mortgage payments.

Without money to pay the mortgage, they are not going to buy new cars. So can there be any hope for the U.S. auto industry even if it does manage to get its own act together?

And, without money to pay the mortgage, they are not going to buy any other luxury goods. Which will mean more layoffs among the people who make those goods and the people who sell them.

And on and on and on....

Does the financial crisis of the past six months represent only the tip of a huge iceberg ahead?

And can it possibly be fixed through those taxpayer bailouts of the bankers who created this mess?

That, it seems, would depend on which definition of the word "fixed" is chosen.

30 May 2009

Why the torture photos should be released

The Obama administration continues trying to block the release of some additional photos of detainee abuse. The excuse? They say exposing the photos could incite anti-American violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

They seem to forget that we're already seeing anti-American violence in those countries. And they seem to forget why.

They seem to ignore how much this move is reminiscent of the Bush administration's culture of secrecy. If it's not openly acknowledged, then it doesn't exist. "We do not torture," Bush would tell us, as if saying the words would make it so.

But the world knew better. The terrorists knew better. As they do now.

And that, not so ironically, has contributed to the ongoing anti-American violence in the world.

Now, despite Obama's attempts at containing the photos, descriptions of what they depict are leaking into the media. An article in the British newspaper the Telegraph elaborates:
"At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.

"Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube."
That's our tax dollars at work.

And that is one reason why the Obama administration must release the photos: In this so-called democratic republic, We The People have a right to know how our intelligence agents and military personnel are treating their detainees. Those intelligence agents and military personnel are technically our employees, after all. And detainee abuse is no "state secret".

But the accountability shouldn't stop at the domestic front. The Obama administration should release the photos to demonstrate to the world that the Bush-Cheney culture of secrecy has ended.

Otherwise, the world will continue to wonder what we're hiding, and why. And that can only make things worse. That could be what incites much more anti-American violence.

Obama campaigned on a promise to repair this nation's reputation in the world. In order to do that, we must own up to what happened, apologize to the world for it, and enforce strict policies against repeating our mistakes going forward.

And we must fully investigate the torture issue. All those responsible must be held accountable, not just Lynndie England and her peers who were simply having too much fun following the misguided orders they were given.

Until we do so, the world will continue to view us with suspicion and distrust. And deservedly so.

29 May 2009

The incredible shrinking GOP

A Washington Post - ABC News Poll last month showed that only 21 percent of respondents identify themselves as Republicans. That's down from 28 percent this time last year.

Clearly this is a symptom of GOP's internal chaos that has resulted from its shift from traditional conservative values to the neocon trend that started to ramp up during the Reagan administration.

And now the GOP must search its collective soul and figure out what it will be going forward.

Will the party revert to its modern roots a la Eisenhower and Goldwater?

Have the party's followers had enough of the politics of fear?

Have they had enough of the torture apologetics?

Have they had enough of the flat-earth war on science and denial of climate change?

Have they had enough of Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin?

Have they had enough of the hate?

Or will they continue to sell their souls to the chicken hawks, the special interests, Rush Limbaugh, and the religious right? Sadly, I suspect so.

Time will tell, especially when it comes time for them to nominate their 2012 presidential candidate.

In the meantime, the Republican party meltdown is rather interesting to watch. Pass the popcorn.

28 May 2009

Is Sotomayor a threat to Roe v. Wade? Don't ask the NY Times.

An article in Thursday's New York Times reveals that some pro-choice groups are concerned that "Judge Sotomayor may not be a reliable vote to uphold Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion rights decision."

The article quotes NARAL president Nancy Keenan as calling for the Senate to press the issue during the confirmation hearings:
"Discussion about Roe v. Wade will -- and must -- be part of this nomination process. As you know, choice hangs in the balance on the Supreme Court as the last two major choice-related cases were decided by a 5-to-4 margin."
This is an important issue, and NARAL's concern should not be too readily dismissed. But it's worth taking some time to research the court cases behind their concern.

As the Times reveals, in 2002 Sotomayor sided with George W. Bush on the Global Gag Rule, which had withheld federal funds from nongovernmental health and family planning organizations that provided abortion information or referrals in other countries.

And in 2004 she sided with anti-choice demonstrators who wanted to sue police for using excessive force to break up a demonstration.

I don't see either of these decisions as a threat to Roe v. Wade. They didn't deal directly with the issue of abortion rights as U.S. law.

The Times piece also cites some cases in which Sotomayor sided with Chinese women who were threatened with forced abortions under China's strict population control program. But there is a big difference between opposing forced abortions and supporting a woman's own right to reproductive choice. In fact, opposing forced abortions is, in itself, supportive of the woman's own choice.

And then the Times chose end the piece with a bit of ethnic stereotyping. It presents the views of Steven Waldman of BeliefNet.com, who seems to think that he can predict Sotomayor's legal decisions based not on the law but on her ethnicity:
Mr. Waldman of BeliefNet.com [...] noted that Judge Sotomayor was raised Roman Catholic, although there are many judges who do not follow the church’s dogma -- like opposing abortion and the death penalty -- in their jurisprudence.

Moreover, he said, it is significant that as a group, Hispanics include a higher percentage of abortion opponents than many other parts of the Democratic Party’s coalition. Judge Sotomayor’s parents moved from Puerto Rico.

"At the very least, she grew up in a culture that didn’t hold the pro-life position in contempt," Mr. Waldman said.
And this is supposed to be journalism?

Not only do I find this ethnic stereotyping disturbing, I am insulted by the implication that Sotomayor is little more than a product of her culture, and not a highly educated legal professional trained and practiced in the art of critical thinking and the science of law.

In short, it seems to me that we do not have enough strong evidence to guess how Sotomayor would decide if faced with a challenge to Roe v. Wade.

So, with that in mind, I would have to agree with NARAL that it's up to the Senate to press the issue during the confirmation process, if they believe it to be relevant.

And it is up to Sotomayor to answer or not, based on whether or not she believes it to be relevant.

27 May 2009

California has set an ugly precedent

America is supposed to be the land of the free, a nation of rights and liberties. Unless, of course, you happen to be gay -- in which case you are now once again a second-class citizen in California, as in most of the other states.

Yesterday, tragically, the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in that state.

In passing Prop 8 by popular vote last November, and by upholding it yesterday, California has denied equal rights to a certain group of people.

This is tyranny of the majority.

And it sets a very ugly precedent.

26 May 2009

Connecticut governor chooses death over justice

Last Friday, the Connecticut State Senate voted 19-17 to abolish the death penalty in that state. This came after the state House of Representatives voted 90-56 earlier this month in favor of abolition.

But Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell will have none of it. Upon the news of the Senate's passage of the bill, Rell promised a veto, citing the "anguish and outrage" of the families of crime victims.

She apparently misses the point that killing a murder suspect will not bring the victim back to life.

She apparently misses the absurdity in killing a person in order to show that killing is wrong.

And she apparently misses the danger in using the death penalty in a state where two people have been exonerated in recent years based on DNA evidence. (While those two Connecticut exonerees were not on death row, they illustrate the fallibility of a system that all too often has wrongly convicted capital defendants in other states.)

It would be nice to see the Connecticut state legislature vote to overturn Governor Rell's veto.

But, given the narrow win in the Senate, I am not optimistic.

25 May 2009

Enough casualties of war

Today, the last Monday in May, is Memorial Day here in the U.S.

Many folks will be spending this holiday at beaches and backyard barbecues, celebrating the unofficial start of the summer vacation season. That is all good. But it is also important to remember the true meaning of this holiday -- to honor the men and women who have fought and died in military service to this country.

Whether or not we approve of the reasons for any given war, we as Americans must support our troops who, for the most part, are just doing their jobs and bravely following orders.

And, for that reason, my greatest wish is for all our remaining troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to come home safely as soon as possible.

War never really solves the underlying problems that cause it.

And this world has seen enough casualties of war.

24 May 2009

Obama misses the mark with military commissions

Promising to close Gitmo by January, 2010, was a good move on Obama's part. But he made a big mistake in choosing to continue trying terrorism suspects via military commissions.

Over the past few years, the military commissions used at Gitmo have proven to be nothing more than a kangaroo court system. Reformed or not, there are better options out there. After all, the federal court system has successfully dealt with numerous terrorist cases through the years, and remains best equipped to do so.

Elisa Massimino, CEO and Executive Director of the group Human Rights First, put it this way:
"Tinkering with the machinery of military commissions will not remove the taint of Guantanamo from future prosecutions. The president should listen to the many dedicated military lawyers who both defended and prosecuted cases in the commissions at Guantanamo who have said that the commissions are irredeemable. We cannot achieve justice by reverse engineering a process to enhance the likelihood of convictions. That's not how we do things in this country. The federal criminal justice system has credibility and a proven track record of prosecuting terrorism cases without compromising national security or our Constitution’s values. President Obama should use it."
Some prominent and well-respected retired military leaders agree, and have called on Obama to abandon the use of military commissions.

Obama should heed their advice.

But then, as a constitutional scholar himself, Obama should already know better.

I hope he will reconsider.

23 May 2009

Closing Gitmo: We do need a plan first

Earlier in the week, the Senate refused to allocate funds to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. They want to see a plan first.

Some on the far left have criticized the Senate for this delay. But, even as far to the left as I am myself, I can't say that I blame them.

After all, the last time Congress agreed to fund a fuzzy presidential agenda, we ended up attacking and occupying Iraq.

I strongly disagree with the baseless argument that transferring Gitmo detainees to U.S. maximum- and super-maximum-security prisons would present a danger to Americans. Nevertheless, we need a solid exit plan for Guantanamo just from a logistical perspective. And I have no doubt that Obama and his team can provide one soon.

If so, Obama can still meet his January goal for closing down Gitmo. Unless, of course, the obstructionist Republicans get their way. And unless, of course, the Democrats let them.

22 May 2009

Obama vs. Cheney: Human Rights First weighs in

That was quite a show on Thursday.

First, President Obama delivered a speech on national security, in which he defended his decision to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay and righteously pointed out how we can effectively fight terrorism without compromising our values.

Obama's speech was quite good, but not perfect. He made good arguments against torture, against the politics of fear, and in favor of congressional involvement and oversight. The speech's greatest imperfection, in my opinion, was that he described an unnecessary category of detainee whom he believes cannot be prosecuted and who will therefore remain in custody indefinitely, possibly without any apparent legal recourse.

Of course, the stage was set for that category by the Bush administration, which used torture to obtain unreliable testimony that cannot therefore be used in prosecuting possible terrorists. So Obama finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. But he is a constitutional attorney. So if anyone can find a more just alternative, I would hope that he can. And I hope that he will.

In the meantime, Human Rights First -- a group of mostly human rights lawyers -- also reacted to Obama's speech with some good points.

From Human Rights First's CEO Elisa Massimino:
"[T]he President rightly recognized that our values are our best national security asset; however, his specific proposals undermine the vision he presented. If the President really wants to 'enlist the power of our fundamental values' he will turn to our federal courts and away from the flawed military commissions system, and he will abandon the misguided plans for indefinite detention of individuals without trial. By continuing to treat these prisoners as warriors, President Obama misses the opportunity to delegitimize them and shift the focus from our flawed procedures to their own heinous conduct.

"The decision yesterday to send a Guantanamo detainee to the United States to stand trial was a step toward rebuilding trust in our institutions. If repeated, this demonstration of confidence in our federal courts will make our country more secure."

But then former VP Dick Cheney stepped back onto his own weird and creepy soapbox and continued to preach about how great it is to torture human beings.

Massimino weighed in on that as well:
"Former Vice President Cheney continued his pro-torture public relations push at the American Enterprise Institute today where we heard more of the same: unproven assertions that torture has kept America safe. In contrast, national security experts – interrogators from all branches of the government and military leaders who have served on the front lines -- know that torture produces unreliable information and puts our men and women in uniform at risk. President Obama, the man responsible for setting national security policy and upholding the Constitution, was right to reject these stale arguments of the past eight years in his speech this morning."
All that should go without saying.

Unfortunately, however, it does not. Cheney continues to insist that we must break the law and compromise our values in order to "protect ourselves" even though his preferred methods have been proven ineffective and even counter-effective.

And so his persistence continues to astound me.

After all, 9/11 happened on Bush/Cheney's watch.

On a more comprehensive level, Human Rights First has published a good point-by-point debunking of Cheney's talking points.

>> Check it out: FACT SHEET: Vice President Cheney Debunked

It's been said that Cheney lives on the dark side. We need to keep shining a light on it.

21 May 2009

Roxana Sabari free, but what about journalists held by U.S.?

American reporter Roxana Sabari was freed last week from an Iranian prison, where she had been held on charges of espionage.

This is great news, of course.

But it also serves as a reminder of the fact that the U.S. -- so-called land of the free -- has routinely been detaining journalists for weeks or months, some without charges, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) outlines several such cases in a recent report.

Domestically, journalists aren't exactly safe, either, the CPJ reports. Some have faced legal problems related to protecting their sources. Others were arrested, as you may recall, while trying to document protests at the RNC last summer.

So, in this regard, are we any better than Iran?

>> Read the full report: Attacks on the Press in 2008: United States

20 May 2009

Human rights groups agree with Cheney

Who would have thought that a human rights group would agree with Dick Cheney on anything?

But, as it turns out, at least three such groups have issued statements in response to the CIA's rejection of Cheney's request to publicly release some interrogation-related memos. And Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law all agree with Cheney that the documents should be released. But not for the same reasons as Cheney.

Here is the statement by Margaret Satterthwaite, faculty director the Center at NYU:
"Like Dick Cheney, we call on the CIA to immediately release these documents. Unlike him, however, we seek their disclosure to further transparency and oversight of an unlawful program. The CIA's arguments of a year ago -- that the documents could not be released because they pertained to an ongoing program -- are no longer valid since the president ordered the program closed in January. The American public deserves to have the full details about this program and the CIA should not block the public's attempt to learn the facts."

>> Read all three statements.

19 May 2009

So now Pelosi's to blame for torture?!

It's amazing. It's almost like something out of a Lewis Carroll fairy tale.

Right-wingers who defended Bush's "enhanced interrogation techniques" are now attacking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for allegedly condoning torture.

Now, all of a sudden, waterboarding is a problem.

I should be surprised, but I'm not.

Consistency isn't a priority of the right. Smearing the Dems at any opportunity is. No matter how far they have to stretch things.

Under the Bush administration, Pelosi and other Congressional leaders had received CIA briefings about interrogation methods. What exactly was said is under dispute by the various parties.

But one thing is certain: Even if Pelosi had been aware that waterboarding was happening, what could she have done about it? Not much.

The was dealing with classified information, so she couldn't exactly speak publicly about it.

Some say that she should have drafted legislation outlawing waterboarding, if she had opposed its use. But that would have been redundant, since such means of interrogation are already illegal under U.S. domestic and international law.

So is Pelosi misleading us? Or did the CIA -- the same CIA that destroyed all those interrogation tapes -- mislead Congress?

We The People deserve some answers. So perhaps this is what it will take to get a special prosecutor or truth commission in place to investigate the use of torture by U.S. agents, and to hold accountable all those responsible -- be it Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, the CIA, and/or Pelosi.

And somehow, if that investigation occurs, I have a feeling that Pelosi won't be exposed as the guiltiest party.

18 May 2009

Tuesday, May 19: Global day of action for Troy Davis

On Tuesday, May 19, human rights activists worldwide will take part in a global day of action, in a call for justice for Troy Davis.

Troy Davis sits on death row in Georgia for a crime he probably did not commit.

Troy'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 Troy's guilt. And there's no excuse to execute someone when there's reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

Nevertheless, last month the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against granting Troy an evidentiary hearing, at which he could present the new evidence in his favor which has never before been examined in court.

Dissenting Judge Rosemary Barkett stated the following for the record:
"To execute Davis, in the face of a significant amount of proffered evidence that may establish his actual innocence, is unconscionable and unconstitutional."

At the time, the court extended Troy's stay for 30 days to give him a chance to file a habeas corpus petition with the US Supreme Court.

Last October, however, the Supreme Court had rejected an earlier appeal in this case, so I'm not optimistic that they will save his life this time around.

Meantime, the stay has expired and Georgia could set a new execution date for Troy any day now.

Therefore, we need to do everything we can to stop the injustice.

Here is how you can help:

>> Sign a petition to President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Chatham County District Attorney Larry Chisolm, asking them to investigate the injustice.

>> Email Georgia Governor George Perdue and ask him to support clemency for Troy Davis.

>> Participate in a Day of Action event near you.

>> Listen to Troy tell his story. And spread the word.

17 May 2009

GOP misleads on health care bureaucracy

Health care reform was among the topics that President Obama discussed in his March 16 weekly address. He said:
"Our nation itself will not succeed in the 21st century if we continue to be held down by the weight of rapidly rising health care costs and a broken health care system. That’s why I met with representatives of insurance and drug companies, doctors and hospitals, and labor unions who are pledging to do their part to reduce health care costs. These are some of the groups who have been among the fiercest critics of past comprehensive health care reform plans. But today they too are recognizing that we must act. Our businesses will not be able to compete; our families will not be able to save or spend; our budgets will remain unsustainable unless we get health care costs under control."
Hopefully Obama's community organizing skills will enable him to bring about a compromise which, while probably not the single-payer solution that I wish for, will still be much better than the current situation.

The Republicans, however, are misleading the public with scare tactics about health care change. They prefer the status quo, in which the insurance companies and drug companies can maximize their profits at the expense of We The People.

So they bombard us with a silly, invalid argument warning that a national health care plan would put the government between you and your doctor, and that government bureaucrats would be making your medical decisions.

They used that ploy once again in the Republican response to Obama's address. Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA), who happens to be a surgeon, gave the response, in which he catapulted the propaganda:
"A government takeover of health care will put bureaucrats in charge of health care decisions that should be made by families and doctors."
The irony should be clear to anyone who has ever been denied payment by a health insurance company for a necessary treatment or medication. The truth is that we now have bureaucrats in charge of health care decisions that should be made by patients, families, and doctors. But, unlike the civil servants who would be managing a national health care plan, these decisions are currently being made by insurance company bureaucrats with the goal of cutting costs and maximizing profits -- at the expense of the patient and doctor.

This is the difference between the Democrats, who want to promote the well-being of ordinary Americans, and the Republicans, who only want to please their corporate donors.

Only in this case we're talking about life-and-death matters.

As long as the Republicans continue to support the out-of-control health insurance industry that chooses profits over people, I don't want to hear them say that they are "pro-life".

16 May 2009

Health insurance costs and market competition - a clarification

In a recent piece in which I wrote in favor of a national single-payer health care plan, I stated:
By eliminating market competition and a for-profit business structure for essential health services, we can keep costs down.
I received a reply that alerted me to the need for some clarification.

That reply, from someone who identifies himself only as "Capitalist PigDog" from Wyoming, started out as follows:
"Market competition is the single most effective means of lowering costs."
I see his point. And I see that I should have elaborated.

Below is my response to Capitalist PigDog's comment:
In many cases, perhaps most cases, market competition does indeed keep costs down. With health insurance, however, it has had the opposite effect. In order to remain competitive, insurers take on a lot of unnecessary overhead, including administrative costs and marketing, which drives costs up. And those costs are subsidized via the pervasiveness of employer-sponsored medical benefits, so the market will bear the high costs.

And so the poor and the unemployed remain uninsured.
Many thanks to Capitalist PigDog for keeping me on my toes.

15 May 2009

Human Rights Watch weighs in on Obama's torture photo flip-flop

This morning I was preparing to write about my thoughts on President Obama's recent decision to block the release of some additional photos that show U.S. troops abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last month Obama had agreed to release those photos as mandated by an appeals court ruling per a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU. But now he's going to fight it, alleging that the photos would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Excuse me, Mr. President, but the world is already aware of how we have tortured and, in some cases, killed our prisoners in Bush's "war on terror". Hiding the new pictures isn't going to change that fact. It will only make it worse. It will make it look as though we've got more dirty little secrets that we're not willing to own up to.

That said, while doing my research for this piece, I came upon a news release from Human Rights Watch (HRW), which the group issued on Wednesday after learning of Obama's unfortunate change of mind. It very effectively conveys some of my own thoughts on various aspects of the issue. So I'll now turn this soap box over to HRW.

Below is the full text of the release:
US: Reversal on Torture Photos a Blow to Openness, Accountability

May 13, 2009

(Washington, DC) - President Barack Obama's decision to block the release of photos depicting the abuse of detainees in US custody in Iraq and Afghanistan strikes a blow to transparency and accountability, Human Rights Watch said today.

"We understand President Obama's concern about protecting US military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the real danger comes not from the knowledge that abuse happened but the sense that those responsible for planning and authorizing it haven't been held accountable," said Stacy Sullivan, counterterrorism adviser at Human Rights Watch.

The photos, believed to number as many as 2,000, are part of detainee abuse cases the military investigated between 2001 and 2005. They reportedly depict US military personnel humiliating and otherwise mistreating detainees. A federal judge ordered them released by May 28 as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Obama administration initially supported the release of the photos, but reversed course on Tuesday, May 12, after top US military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan told Obama they feared the release of the photos could endanger US troops. The administration now plans to appeal the judge's ruling to release the photos.

President Obama stated today that the soldiers depicted in these pictures engaging in conduct not authorized by the US Army Field Manual had been investigated and sanctioned, suggesting that the underlying problem had therefore been addressed. However, the administration appears to have ruled out taking any action against the senior military and civilian officials who authorized such conduct.

"In the Bush era, abuse was a policy dictated from the top down, but just about the only people who were punished were the privates and sergeants who had the misfortune of appearing in photographs," said Sullivan. "It would be tragic if the Obama administration accepted that outcome."

Human Rights Watch has called for prosecution of those responsible for authorizing and ordering detainee mistreatment, as well as a commission of inquiry into the full extent of post-9/11 abuses.
I call for it too, along with the prompt release of the photos. After all, Obama campaigned on the promise of more openness and transparency in government.

But I shall not hold my breath.

14 May 2009

Why I oppose the Inquirer boycott

There's a new controversy here in Philadelphia. It seems that our once-great newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer (aka the "Inky"), has hired John Yoo as a regular columnist. Yoo is, of course, one of the architects of the Bush administration's pro-torture policy and a supporter of warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens and the unitary executive theory. In other words, Yoo is an anti-law kind of lawyer.

In his Attytood blog on Monday, Will Bunch of the Inky's sister paper, the Philadelphia Daily News, expressed his displeasure with the move:
"[W]hile promoting public discourse is a goal of newspaper commentary, it should not be the main objective. The higher calling for an American newspaper should be promoting and maintaining our sometimes fragile democracy, the very thing that Yoo and his band of torture advocates very nearly shredded in a few short years. Quite simply, by handing Yoo a regularly scheduled platform for his viewpoint, the Inquirer is telling its readers that Yoo's ideas -- especially that torture is not a crime against the very essence of America -- are acceptable."
Bunch makes a good point.

Others, too, have jumped on the anti-Inky bandwagon and have called for a boycott of the paper.

But I'm not sure I agree with them.

Yes, I cringe at the thought of my local newspaper paying someone like Yoo to litter its pages with his misguided viewpoints, just as I cringed when the Inky made a similar deal with Rick Santorum.

But this is America, land of the free, and land of the First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

In this country, John Yoo has the right to spew his vile nonsense, and the Inky has every right to publish his distasteful content. I don't have to read Yoo's columns if I don't want to. But I might want to. Because a key to defeating one's opponents in an argument is to understand the opponent's thought processes.

Hopefully Yoo's columns can provide us with some insights into the psyche of the torturer, and hopefully we can use those insights constructively to present better arguments to counter Yoo's talking points.

That is where we can be truly effective. Rather than boycotting the Inky, we should read each and every one of Yoo's columns. And we should respond to each column en masse with well-reasoned and well-written letters to the editor, in great enough numbers to ensure that some will get published.

For every justification for torture, we need to point out that torture is illegal and ineffective, and that our doing so risks the enhanced likelihood of our own troops and civilians being tortured in retaliation if captured by an enemy.

For every justification for warrantless wiretapping, we need to stand up for the Fourth Amendment as our Founding Fathers intended.

And for every justification for the Bush administration's crackdown on constitutional checks and balances, we need to defend the separation of powers that has served this country so well for more than two centuries. And we need to point out that Yoo sang a very different tune when he felt that Bill Clinton was overstepping his presidential bounds. There is no room in our legal system for double standards.

We need to keep exposing Yoo as the human rights violators that he is.

Now excuse me while I fire off a letter to the Inky in response to Yoo's latest column.

13 May 2009

The trouble with health "insurance"

Washington is abuzz with news from the Senate Finance Committee's recent Health Care Roundtable Discussions and President Obama's announcement on Monday that he supports proposed voluntary action by the insurance industry and its allies to cut health care cost inflation by 1.5% per year.

However, as the National Coalition on Health Care points out, health care costs are actually rising at a rate of more than 6%.

One step forward, 4 or 5 steps back. Not a solution.

The problem is Washington's apparent acceptance of the health insurance industry as a necessary player in its health care reform efforts.

Insurance companies are in business to make profits for their shareholders. And they are profiting from the suffering of others, often by denying payment for necessary medical treatment. That itself is incompatible with the core definition of health care.

This is why we need single-payer health coverage for all Americans. By eliminating market competition and a for-profit business structure for essential health services, we can keep costs down.

Alternative or add-on coverage could be offered by the private insurance companies for those who can afford it, and could cover luxuries like elective cosmetic surgery and private hospital rooms.

Furthermore, government-managed health care could eliminate the link between your job and your health care coverage. When I've talked with people outside the U.S. about how most Americans get our health insurance through our employers, they were amazed.

Health care should be a right, not a privilege granted by one's employer or one's employment status. (Indeed, Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "[e]veryone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including ... medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of ... sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.")

And taking the cost of health insurance benefits off the shoulders of employers could serve as its own little economic stimulus plan that could help to keep some struggling businesses solvent.

On the campaign trail last year, Obama said he would consider a single-payer system. Unfortunately, however, it now appears that the insurance industry is stronger than our president.

The insurance lobbyists have apparently bought and sold our lawmakers to the point where a single-payer option is now off the table.

These are the people we elected to represent us. And indeed a majority of Americans support a national single-payer health care program.

Instead, however, it looks as though the majority in Washington favor the moneyed special interests over the people they were elected to serve.

This is not how democracy is supposed to work.

12 May 2009

American journalist freed from Iranian prison

Yesterday we got the good news that American journalist Roxana Saberi was freed from prison in Iran. She had been arrested in January and sentenced to eight years on charges of spying for the U.S. But now an Iranian appeals court has suspended the sentence and has given Saberi permission to leave the country.

I can think of a couple of factors that likely contributed to this good outcome.

First, Amnesty International had launched a worldwide action alert that resulted in more than 26,000 messages to the Iranian government demanding Saberi's release. Other organizations also conducted letter/petition drives. As with other grassroots success stories, this is proof that letter writing and petition campaigns really do work sometimes.

Also, the Obama administration's calm and diplomatic approach to foreign policy probably served the cause much better than his predecessor's bullying cowboy act would have. As my grandmother used to say, you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. And Obama'a approach is more likely to make other nations want to support our cause -- including some nations that Iran happens to respect.

Grassroots and honey -- not cowboys and vinegar. It works. So there, Mr. Bush!

11 May 2009

Bailed out companies send our jobs oversees

We the American taxpayers have been watching our hard-earned tax dollars being used to bail out the greedy bankers and auto execs because, as we are told, they are "too big to fail".

And what do we get in return?

In return, those bailed-out mismanaged corporations are showing their appreciation by shipping our jobs overseas!

That's a big corporate "f*** you" aimed at us regular folks who have paid to keep them afloat. And I'm not happy about it.

Bank of America, for example, thumbing its nose at any domestic economic stimulus on their part in return for their government handout, decided to cut as many as 69,000 American workers in favor of sending thousands of jobs overseas to India. (Will they change their name to Bank of India?!)

Ditto allegedly to JP Morgan/Chase, who accepted a $25 billion bailout.

And, in the auto sector, we are watching as GM sends its bailout money to Mexico and Asia. Take that, Michiganders!

Do they think that we -- the American workers -- are toxic assets too?

These mismanaged corporations are allegedly "too big to fail", but we the people -- the conscientious workers -- are apparently negligible.

The bailout plans should have included provisions against this sort of thing.

And it shouldn't be too late.

10 May 2009

On Mother's Day in a war-torn world

Today is Mother's Day in the U.S. -- the second Sunday in May when, each year, we celebrate the mothers in our lives.

And, on this Mother's Day, my heart goes out to the mothers of the world who have lost their children to war.

And, on this Mother's Day, my heart goes out to the mothers of the world who sit by anxiously as their sons and daughters serve as pawns in needless and senseless wars and ethnic conflicts -- mothers in the U.S., Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and everywhere else in the world where peace is just a pipe dream.

And, on this Mother's Day, I assert that all wars and ethnic conflicts are needless and senseless -- if only all of mankind could just see each other as human beings, as brothers and sisters, with empathy and compassion.

I shall not hold my breath. But I can dream. And I can have hope.

Happy Mother's Day, with hope for a more peaceful and loving future for all in this world.

09 May 2009

I'm not against religion, I'm against religious hypocrisy

From time to time I write articles and blog posts that are critical of religious hypocrisy.

That always generates hate mail to my inbox from Christians who seem to think I am criticizing their religion. I assure you that is not the case.

While I am not a religious person, I respect the right of every human being to subscribe to whatever religions/philosophies work for them. Indeed, as a human rights activist, I feel obligated to defend Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
So, while I might not share your beliefs, I will defend your right to hold those beliefs, and to practice them so long as they do not interfere with the rights of others.

In other words, observe your religion, but be respectful of everyone else's right to their own belief systems which might not coincide with yours. Live and let live. Do your thing but don't try to shove it down everyone else's throats. That is how different kinds of people can live together in polite society.

So I tend to get a bit critical when the so-called "Christian" right-wing extremists in this country try to impose their views on the rest of us -- especially when their agenda can hardly be called "Christian".

Like when so-called "Christians" try to justify torture.

And when they use religion to justify a war of aggression.

And when closeted homosexual "Christians" fight against gay rights. (See Ted Haggard and Larry Craig.)

True Christians recognize that Jesus was all about love and kindness and tolerance and forgiveness, not war, hate, torture, or knee-jerk sanctimony.

True Christians will recall that Jesus labeled as hypocrites those who try to publicly impose their dogma:
"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men."
-- Matthew 6:5
And true Christians will recall that Jesus taught that religion should be practiced in private:
"But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
-- Matthew 6:6

08 May 2009

Charges dropped against Ehren Watada, soldier of conscience

A lot of people join the military because they want to defend our country. Unlike some of their colleagues, they're not in it to play offense. They're not in it to participate in a war of aggression against a country that posed no threat to us. And, unlike some of their colleagues, they're not in it to flex their muscles without good cause and go "kill some towelheads" for the fun of it.

But, in 2006, when 1st Lt. Ehren Watada refused deployment to Iraq because he believed that the war was illegal and immoral, he was court-martialed. He was punished for not wanting to participate in war crimes.

Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, spoke out against the prosecution of Watada:
"It's really quite simple: Ehren Watada's freedom of conscience must be respected. The United States is obligated under international law to protect the right to refuse military service for reasons of conscience. If Watada is found guilty, Amnesty International would name him a prisoner of conscience and demand his immediate and unconditional release."
The court-martial ended in a mistrial, but the Army continued to try to pursue the case. Until now.

This week, at the request of the Justice Department, the U.S. Army dropped its case against Watada.

Watada will soon return to civilian life, and hopes to attend law school.

I wish him much happiness and success in his new career.

07 May 2009

Sex vs. torture

Republican politicians and their mouthpieces in the media continue to oppose any attempt at legal accountability for the Bush administration officials who advocated torture and the agents who did the torturing.

Some of them go so far as to argue that torture is justified when it is used to obtain information from possible terrorists.

The fact is that torture is illegal, under domestic U.S. law and international law. Period.

It is almost amusing to note that many of the people who are defending the Bush administration's use of torture are the same ones who worked so hard to impeach Bill Clinton over a sexual tryst.

So to them, it appears, lying about sex is a horrendous crime deserving of very harsh consequences, but torturing human beings is not.

God bless America.

06 May 2009

Arrested for murder at 13, exonerated at 30

Some people waste the best years of their lives through drugs, crime, or laziness.

Others have those years wasted for them, through wrongful convictions for crimes they did not commit.

Thaddeus Jiminez ("TJ"), a young man from Chicago, is among the latter.

In 1993, when he was only 13 years old, TJ was arrested for a murder he did not commit. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Imagine what it must have been like to be an innocent adolescent in an adult prison surrounded by real criminals.

Fortunately, justice has ultimately prevailed, albeit 26 years too late.

TJ was exonerated on May 1st, 2009, through years of pro bono work by lawyers at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions. TJ is the youngest person at the time of his arrest ever to be exonerated in Illinois and likely in all of the United States.

Kudos to his lawyers for their hard work and perseverance.

>> Watch a short video about the exoneration. It features interviews with TJ's lawyers and footage of TJ leaving prison and seeing his mother for the first time as a free man.

05 May 2009

U.S. soldiers instructed to evangelize for Jesus in Afghanistan

It seems the job description just grew a bit longer for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. No longer are they merely responsible for maintaining order, keeping the Taliban and al-Qaeda in check, and rebuilding the country (as if any of that ever got very far anyway).

Now they have a new instruction to follow: "hunt people for Jesus ... so we can get them into the kingdom." So they're also Christian missionaries now.

Needless to say, this is hardly the way to win hearts and minds and demonstrate that we're not engaged in a holy war against Islam.

Jeremy Scahill provides the details in a blog post at RebelReports.com:
New video evidence has surfaced showing that US military forces in Afghanistan have been instructed by the military's top chaplain in the country to "hunt people for Jesus" as they spread Christianity to the overwhelmingly Muslim population. Soldiers also have imported bibles translated into Pashto and Dari, the two dominant languages of Afghanistan. What's more, the center of this evangelical operation is at the huge US base at Bagram, one of the main sites used by the US military to torture and indefinitely detain prisoners.

In a video obtained by Al Jazeera and broadcast Monday, Lieutenant-Colonel Gary Hensley, the chief of the US military chaplains in Afghanistan, is seen telling soldiers that as followers of Jesus Christ, they all have a responsibility "to be witnesses for him."

"The special forces guys - they hunt men basically. We do the same things as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. We do, we hunt them down," he says.

"Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them into the kingdom. That’s what we do, that’s our business."
By the way, trying to convert Muslims to any other faith is a crime in Afghanistan.

And it's not supposed to be the American way.

04 May 2009

Alliance for Justice weighs in on Supreme Court vacancy

On the news of U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter's retirement, the Alliance for Justice issued the following excellent statement:
Associate Justice David Souter has served the Court and the country well for nearly two decades. He has dedicated his life to public service, to the rule of law and to the Constitution.

Justice Souter’s retirement is also a reminder of the legacy a president leaves with his appointments. Justice Souter remained on the bench long after the president who appointed him left office. President Obama now has the opportunity to nominate someone worthy of his own historic legacy. The president can look to a broad array of legal talent to select a nominee who not only has an excellent record in the law, but also a respect for core constitutional values and a commitment to equal justice for all not just a few.

03 May 2009

Pew survey (no pun): Churchgoers are more likely to support torture

So-called "Christians" are supposed to be followers and worshippers of Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ was supposedly all about love and compassion and tolerance and healing -- at least according to that allegedly holy book.

And so you would think that "Christians" would oppose torture. I think of that bumper sticker that says "Who would Jesus torture?" And I think: Case closed.

But apparently not.

CNN reports:
The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week -- 54 percent -- said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is "often" or "sometimes" justified. Only 42 percent of people who "seldom or never" go to services agreed, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified -- more than six in 10 supported it.
Aren't these some of the same folks who continue to justify Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq (which at the time of the invasion posed no threat to us)? And surely these are some of the same folks who lobby against love when they don't approve of who you happen to be attracted to.

If Jesus could see what his "followers" are doing in his name, I'll bet he'd be righteously angry.

Jack Bauer isn't Jesus, folks.

02 May 2009

Will GOP filibuster Obama's first SCOTUS pick?

President Obama now gets to nominate his first U.S. Supreme Court justice, per recent news out of Washington that Justice David Souter plans to retire at the end of the current term in June.

Hopefully he will choose a judge who is committed to restoring the laws and standards of the U.S. Consitution that have been so flagrantly distorted and/or dismissed under the Bush administration.

And I wouldn't be surprised if the Senate Republicans (i.e., the party of "no") decide to filibuster whoever Obama chooses, for whatever petty reasons they can come up with.

But, if they do, will they see the irony in it?

After all, when the Dems tried to block votes on a tiny handful of George W. Bush's nominees, the Republicans went wild and threatened to use the "nuclear option" to thwart Democratic attempts to filibuster.

Now, all of a sudden, the right to filibuster is crucial?

Of course, if the Republicans were to try it now, we could do the same thing they did just a few years ago -- if only Harry Reid had the backbone to do it. For that, I shall not hold my breath.

01 May 2009

Specter staff to constituents: Your letters will go straight to the trash

Senator Arlen Specter is, as I've said before, a maverick. I've liked that about Specter when he has sponsored, cosponsored, and/or voted for legislation to advance human rights and social justice.

But there have also been so many times when he has voted in favor of various misguided Republican policies.

But, even though I've disagreed with Senator Specter's votes more than 50% of the time in recent years, I liked to think that he was interested in hearing his constituents' views on the issues. So I wrote to him frequently.

And, apparently, I wasted my time. It looks as though Specter doesn't want to hear from me or anyone else who might disagree with his preset opinions on the issues.

Last week, pro-labor activists tried to deliver petitions to Senator Specter's office in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act. And a Specter staff member actually told them that "as soon as you leave, your letters will go straight to the trash."

Despite his move this week to the Democratic side of the aisle, Specter will continue to vote his own interests rather than those of the Democratic party. That is his prerogative, and I have to respect it. But I don't have to like it, especially when he will be voting against the rights of working Americans in favor of their greedy and selfish corporate overlords (many of whom are probably good campaign donors).

And for his staff to imply that the views of the constituents don't matter is downright un-American.

Here Specter is caving in to the corporate lobbyists and thumbing his nose at Pennsylvania's workers.

And this is one of the reasons why I suspect he will have a hard time getting reelected in 2010, no matter which side of the aisle he happens to sit on.