30 November 2009

Obama's Vietnam?

Tomorrow evening, President Obama will give a speech in which he will lay out his plans for a troop escalation in Afghanistan. Apparently he has decided to send many more of our young people into harm's way. And for what?

Bush began that war eight years ago for what may have appeared to be a good reason at the time: The Taliban who ran the country were harboring al-Qaeda. But it's eight years later and al-Qaeda is no longer in Afghanistan. The Afghan people don't want us there. Congress doesn't want us there. The American people don't want us there. The American troops don't want to be there. And it seems that all we're doing is continuing to prop up the corrupt Karzai government. And people continue to die.

So Obama has a lot of explaining to do tomorrow evening. And I'm not optimistic that his explanations will be good enough.

I'm also not optimistic that Congress will find the strength to use its purse strings to force some sanity into the debate.

I fear that Obama's Afghan war is looking more and more like Johnson's Vietnam. And we should remember the fact that Johnson's troop escalation in Vietnam ultimately cost him his chance at a 1968 reelection.

I don't want to see that piece of history repeat itself.

29 November 2009

Mr. President, why do we need landmines?

On November 24, again following in George W. Bush's footsteps, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. will again refuse to sign the international Mine Ban Treaty.

When that news received a barrage of criticism from human rights groups, the White House backpedaled a bit and said that its policy review is continuing. If that is the case, I hope that the original decision will soon be reversed. But I will not hold my breath.

The Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Treaty, prohibits countries from using, stockpiling, producing, or transferring antipersonnel mines.

The treaty has been endorsed by 156 countries. The key holdouts are the U.S., Russia, China, and India. This is the company we keep. The U.S. is the only NATO member that will not agree to sign the treaty.

Where is the Barack Obama that I voted for?

And why would he think that we need landmines? After all, they are notorious for killing and injuring innocent civilians, including children.

According to the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), landmines caused some 5,197 casualties last year. A third of the victims were children. Why would Obama want to keep that kind of option open?

In response to the news, Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch, had this to say:
"President Obama's decision to cling to antipersonnel mines keeps the U.S. on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of humanity. This decision lacks vision, compassion, and basic common sense, and contradicts the Obama administration's professed emphasis on multilateralism, disarmament, and humanitarian affairs."

I thought Obama wanted to restore our nation's reputation in the eyes of the world. But all his fancy speeches will ultimately mean nothing if his actions contradict his charming rhetoric.

Fingers crossed in hopes that the administration will soon come to its senses.

28 November 2009

Photogenic felons get TV rewards

First it was the Balloon Boy's parents. They became famous as a result of their crimes.

Now it's the White House party crashers, who will appear on the Larry King Show on CNN on Monday night.

What does it say about our society when these people are glamorized and rewarded with TV fame, however short-lived?

And would either couple have gotten the same kind of attention if they hadn't been so physically attractive?

27 November 2009

Don't put lead-based toys under that tree!

With the holiday shopping season now in full swing, several toys and other children's products containing illegal levels of lead and other toxic chemicals have found their way into U.S. stores waiting to be placed under your holiday tree (and later into your child's mouth). This is despite regulations that had been strengthened in response to the discovery of excess lead in thousands of toys from China over the past several years.

This alarming news came in a new report called "Trouble in Toyland" by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).

The report also revealed the presence of choking hazards, dangerously loud toys, and other threats.

I blame two related factors:

1. The trend over the past decades of Washington being too lenient on corporations that are just out to make a profit despite the effects on the people.

2. The outsourcing in recent decades of so many American jobs to sweatshops in China and elsewhere, where regulations are even more lax.

Products made in sweatshops by child slaves cost the companies a lot less money to produce. Lower production costs = lower prices to consumers. However, you get what you pay for. Not worth it, folks.

So what is a shopper to do?

If your own job has not yet been outsourced to Asia, and you can afford to shop for children's products this holiday season, U.S. PIRG provides some safe shopping tips at www.toysafety.mobi.

Good luck, and safe shopping!

26 November 2009

What I'm thankful for this year

Today, the 4th Thursday in November, is the annual Thanksgiving holiday in the USA. And, while I have much to be frustrated about this year, I also have much to be thankful for.

This year, I am thankful that Barack Obama, not John McCain, occupies the White House. While his work so far this year has been far from ideal, I have no doubt that the alternative would have been much, much worse.

I am thankful that Congress recently passed the Matthew Shepard Act. It's one step forward for respect and human dignity, although we still have a long way to go to achieve full rights for our LGBT sisters and brothers.

I am cautiously thankful that the same Congress and has gotten farther than ever in promoting the possibility of real health care reform. I hope the final bill will be better than the current House or Senate versions. But, even if not, it will hopefully be better than the status quo.

I am thankful to my readers for following my work and for always keeping me on my toes.

And, above all, I am thankful for my small circle of very close friends, who comprise my surrogate family. As an orphan with no siblings and no known blood relatives, these amazing people are always there for me when I need them, even though we otherwise don't get together as often as we should. Thanks, you guys. You know who you are, and you're the best. I don't know what I would do without you.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and here's hoping that we will all have even more good things to be thankful for next year.

25 November 2009

Take action on Nov. 25: Intl Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly designated November 25th as an annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

November 25th was chosen as the date because it marks the anniversary of the brutal assassination in 1960 of the three Mirabal sisters, political activists in the Dominican Republic.

According to the campaign UNiTE to End Violence against Women, which was launched in 2008 by the UN, up to 70 percent of women experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lifetime. 70 percent! That is not acceptable!

How you can help:

On the website of Amnesty International USA, there are several actions that you can take with just a few clicks of the mouse to help stop violence against women worldwide:

Urge the Senate to ratify the Treaty for the Rights of Women
Maternal mortality claims the life of one woman every minute - more than half a million women every year. This is a human rights scandal. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is a crucial guarantee of the right to maternal health. The United States is one of only eight countries not to have ratified CEDAW. While Secretary Clinton's State Department supports ratification, the Senate needs to act now. Urge the Senate to ratify CEDAW!

Demand justice for women in Zimbabwe
Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlangu continue to live under the threat of trial and imprisonment since their arrest on charges of disturbing the peace on October 16, 2008. On that day, hundreds of WOZA members demonstrated in Bulawayo in support of the government declaring a national emergency and distributing food aid to the nation's hungry citizens.

Support re-introduction of the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA)
Urge the Obama Administration to actively support reintroduction and passage by Congress, this fall, of the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA).

Urge President Garcia of Peru to ensure access to maternal health care
Although Peru is a middle-income country, its maternal mortality rate is the second worst in South America. Low-income, rural, and indigenous women are most at risk. Peru has been a focus of the human-right-to-maternal-health community, and President Alan Garcia has promised better equity in maternal health funding. But he has yet to fulfill that promise.

Stand up for the rights of women in South Africa
60 percent of people living with HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are women. In South Africa, women under 25 are 3-4 times more likely to be infected with the virus and have the highest rate of new infections. Women and girls subjected to violence are at greater risk. Many women lack access to the free health care they are legally entitled to. Ask South Africa to reduce HIV and AIDS and address gender based violence.

>> More info and actions to end violence against women.

24 November 2009

Don't blame ObamaCare for new mammogram guidelines

A new recommendation from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force says that women under 50 should not have routine mammograms after all. And that recommendation has generated a lot of disagreement from the public, including breast cancer survivors who say they would be dead if they had not had mammograms at an earlier age.

Some right-wing pundits are pointing to this as an example of the dangers of government-run health care. But they are wrong. Those recommendations have absolutely nothing to do with government-run health care or a public option.

First of all, that task force had been appointed by George W. Bush, not Barack Obama.

Furthermore, Kathleen Sebelius, Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services, has stated that the recommendations will not set policy. CBS News described Sebelius's response to the report (and subsequent uproar) as follows:
"The U.S. Preventive Task Force is an outside independent panel of doctors and scientists who make recommendations," Sebelius said in her statement. "They do not set federal policy, and they don't determine what services are covered by the federal government."

"There has been debate in this country for years about the age at which routine screening mammograms should begin, and how often they should be given," the secretary added. "The Task Force has presented some new evidence for consideration but our policies remain unchanged. Indeed, I would be very surprised if any private insurance company changed its mammography coverage decisions as a result of this action."

What is clear, Sebelius said, is the need for more research and innovation in breast cancer prevention, detection and treatment.

"Mammograms have always been an important life-saving tool in the fight against breast cancer and they still are today," she said. "Keep doing what you have been doing for years - talk to your doctor about your individual history, ask questions and make the decision that is right for you."
So this is not the beginning of any death panels. The government will not come between you and your doctor.

Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for the private health insurance companies.

23 November 2009

Bob Menendez: My new Senate health care hero

The U.S. Senate acted relatively responsibly this past weekend and worked through the day and evening on Saturday to comment on, and then vote on, whether to bring its health care reform bill to the full Senate floor for debate.

The measure passed on Saturday night by a margin of 60-39. (Those 39 votes were all by Republicans who apparently don't care if you're sick and uninsured.)

I watched some of the floor comments on television and online. A lot of points were made on both sides (some more valid than others).

But, of all of the drama that took place on the Senate floor on Saturday, there was one scene that stood out to me the most. That was a speech by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who spoke out brilliantly in favor of health care reform. Here is a sampling:
"Those who have chosen to block any attempt at health care reform this year are on the wrong side of history."
And then he enumerated how the Republicans throughout this century have done the same thing -- attempted to block social progress:
"There are those who raised the specter of socialism then, and said 'No' to Social Security. They said 'No' to unemployment insurance when President Roosevelt proposed it as part of the Social Security Act. They said 'No' when John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson fought for Medicare. 'No' to the Civil Rights Act. 'No' to the Voting Rights Act. 'No' to the Clean Air and Clean Water Act. They said 'No' to job programs. 'No' to increasing unemployment insurance when people needed it the most. They have said 'No' to government oversight of polluters who poison our land with toxic waste, and then they have said 'No' to cleaning it up.

"They have been on the wrong side of history for almost a century on every major piece of legislation that has leveled the playing field for average Americans. And they are on the wrong side of history once again. All we hear from the other side of the aisle is the dim echo of the past, with no plan for the future..."
And then it gets even better as he starts talking about insurance company greed.

Watch the whole speech on YouTube (9:34) here.

22 November 2009

What's Thanksgiving really all about?

The Thanksgiving holiday is just around the corner, but this year I am tempted to skip the festivities. While some Americans mark this holiday as an occasion to give thanks and gratitude for their perceived blessings, that benign and admirable purpose too often takes a back seat to what Thanksgiving has become in recent decades: a celebration of gluttony and excess.

In conversations about the upcoming holiday, I hear Americans talk excitedly about their plans to overeat -- to eat so much that they've built a post-meal nap into their annual Thanksgiving routine. It's all about the feast. It's all about stuffing themselves fuller than Grandma stuffed the turkey. More mashed potatoes. Extra gravy. A second slice of pie. Then sleep it off. And they're proud of it.

Meanwhile, also here in the United States, millions of people are going to sleep hungry. According to a report from the Department of Agriculture for 2008, 49 million Americans lacked dependable access to adequate food last year, including nearly 17 million children -- more than one in five across the U.S. It can't be any better this year, given the economic crisis. How then can gluttony be celebrated like a sport on November 26th?

There is a rationalization, if you want to call it that. People justify the annual gorging by citing the story of a harvest feast that the Pilgrims shared with Native Americans at Plymouth in 1621. That's all very quaint and sweet, but also naive. And this leads to another reason why I'm uncomfortable with the Thanksgiving holiday: That Pilgrim feast was a prelude to genocide.

As African Americans remained enslaved in this country's early years, Native Americans didn't have it much better. The European "settlers" wasted no time in stealing the land out from under the indigenous peoples -- almost as fast as they spread the smallpox and other epidemic diseases that they brought with them to the new world. In 1830, as the "settlers" pushed westward, the 23rd Congress of the United States passed the "Indian Removal Act", legitimizing the land greed of the white "settlers" and resulting in the death or displacement of countless Native Americans. This legislation was signed into law by none other than all-American action hero President Andrew Jackson himself. (Think of that when you pull out your twenty-dollar bill to pay for your Thanksgiving turkey.)

The Native Americans who survived were herded onto reservations, where they faced their own set of challenges. This form of apartheid separated Native Americans physically, socially, and economically from the world outside the reservation. Traditionally nomadic hunter societies were forced to learn to farm for their subsistence. Disenfranchised and disillusioned, the Native American population came to face the highest rates of poverty, suicide, alcoholism, and teen pregnancy amongst ethnic groups in the U.S. -- a trend that continues to this day. All because of the selfish, imperialistic dreams of the white man.

Happy Thanksgiving, white America. Enjoy your feast. And be thankful that you were not born on a Native American reservation or in captivity on a slave owner's plantation.

Might does not make right. And so may the laws of karma ultimately even the score.

Meantime, may those with a conscience celebrate the holiday as it was intended -- to join with friends and family in appreciation of what really matters in life: love, health, sharing, and caring.

21 November 2009

Senate health care vote tonight

This evening, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote on whether or not to bring its health care reform bill to the full Senate floor for debate. For this they need 60 votes -- including the support of some stubborn conservative Dems.

Can Harry Reid twist enough arms to move this thing forward? I'm nervous about it, but I hope so.

While the bill is far from perfect, it is better than the status quo. And that may be the best we can hope for right now.

Of course, tonight's vote, if it passes, is just the beginning, opening the door for weeks of fighting about it on the Senate floor -- and amending it perhaps beyond recognition.

So stay tuned and stay healthy.

19 November 2009

Palin-Beck 2012? Or maybe Cheney-Palin?

Just when I thought U.S. presidential politics couldn't get any more bizarre than the inexplicable 2004 reelection of Bush & Cheney, this happens:

Right-wing publication NewsMax is floating the idea of a Sarah Palin - Glenn Beck ticket in 2012!


A part of me loves it, because it looks like an elephant-sized train wreck waiting to happen. And it would provide a virtually endless stream of material for my daily blog posts and weekly columns.

But then I think it through a bit further: What if they won?

As absurd as that might seem, again I remind you of November 2, 2004.

Just imagine what it might look like! Just imagine the consequences to this nation, its Constitution, and the world. A Palin-Beck White House would make the Bush-Cheney White House look almost moderate by comparison. It would clearly not be worth it.

The only thing potentially worse? Cheney for president in 2012 -- an idea that has actually been floated as well. With maybe Palin as his running mate.

And so I keep my fingers crossed in hopes that the Republican leadership and the American electorate really do have more sense than recent news stories might suggest.

If not, heaven help us.

18 November 2009

Racial profiling in the job market

Racial profiling is illegal in law enforcement here in the U.S., but that doesn't stop it from happening, unfortunately.

And racial discrimination is illegal in hiring, but apparently that doesn't stop it from happening there, either.

An article from theGrio.com explains:
According to a study for the National Bureau of Economics, resumes and applications with names more commonly given to white Americans were 50 percent more likely to be contacted for job interviews than those applicants with names more associated with black Americans.

It has also been found that employers download resumes from applicants with "white names" - such as Molly and Daniel - 17 percent more often than those of applicants with "black names" like Maesha and Darius. Some speculate that it is not about race but that names are indicative of social background. Either way, assumptions are being made independent of a person's capabilities.
So, instead of looking for the brightest, they are looking for the whitest. This doesn't seem like a smart way to run a business.

And it doesn't seem like a legal way to run a business. Unfortunately, however, it is also the kind of thing that would be awfully hard to prove, and therefore hard to prosecute.

What century is this?

17 November 2009

Supreme Court allows racial epithet in Redskins case

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from a group of Native Americans who find the Washington Redskins team name offensive.

According to Reuters, "The appeal was supported by more than 30 law professors, 13 psychology professors who are experts on stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination[,] and by the Social Justice Advocacy Group, a coalition of non-profit and religious organizations and socially responsible investment entities." So this case is not the fruit of some far-out solitary whim.

The Supremes didn't even bother to address the issue of offensiveness, however. Instead, they let themselves off the hook by throwing out the case on a technicality: They ruled that the plaintiffs waited decades too long to file the suit. If you snooze, you lose. Political correctness be damned.

I hope now the team's owners will do the right thing and voluntarily change the name to something less offensive. But, given that they let the case go all the way to the Supreme Court, I don't imagine that it will happen anytime soon.

15 November 2009

Debating the death penalty in the Washington Post

Today's Washington Post contains a brief letter I wrote in response to the November 10th execution of DC Sniper John Allen Muhammad. It is preceded on the page by another letter on the same subject in which the writer appears to favor the death penalty. It's an interesting contrast.

The editors shortened my own letter to save space, but my point remains intact. Here is the text of my letter as it appears in the Post:
John Allen Muhammad has been executed. His punishment is over. Meanwhile, his victims are still dead.

So is the death penalty truly a matter of justice or merely revenge?

Mary Shaw, Philadelphia
>> View the two letters on the Washington Post website.

14 November 2009

In trying 9/11 suspects, Holder gets it right and wrong

On Friday the 13th, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators will be tried in federal court in New York. This is a vast improvement over the military kangaroo courts of the Bush administration, and will help to restore America's image in the world with regard to human rights and the rule of law.

And this is no mere bleeding-heart perspective. In practical terms, the U.S. federal court system has a proven track record of effectively prosecuting complex terrorism cases. On the other hand, says Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program Director for Human Rights Watch, "The military commissions at Guantanamo are simply not up to the task."

Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First, summed up the advantages of this move as follows: "The victims of 9/11 and the American public deserve to see justice done, and the best way to achieve that is by prosecuting these men in a credible criminal justice system where the focus will be on their culpability, not on the legitimacy or fairness of the proceedings. Moving these cases out of military commissions and into the federal courts is smart counter-terrorism strategy. It treats the perpetrators as the criminals they are and deprives them of the warrior status they crave. This is an important distinction and will help thwart their ability to recruit others to their cause."

But, while this may indeed deprive the defendants of the warrior status they crave, it might also grant them the martyr status that they crave even more. While Holder got it right in moving the trials to the federal court system, he got it wrong when he announced that he will instruct prosecutors to seek the death penalty in these cases.

Terrorists will not see a death sentence as punishment, they will see it as a victory. Furthermore, rather than serve as a deterrent, it could backfire and serve as another recruiting tool for al-Qaeda. After all, isn't the promise of lavish heavenly rewards what motivates so many terrorists to fight to the death for their cause in the first place?

The prospect of rotting for decades in an American supermax prison would surely have a much different effect on a would-be terrorist.

Therefore, I strongly urge Attorney General Holder and the federal prosecutors in these cases to rethink their penalty strategy. If convicted, these defendants deserve true punishment, not a glorious death.

13 November 2009

US ranks a pathetic 42nd in life expectancy

This sort of statistic doesn't seem to get much attention from the US mainstream media. But the UK newspaper The Guardian recently reported that "[d]espite spending $230m (£115m) an hour on healthcare, Americans live shorter lives than citizens of almost every other developed country. And while it has the second-highest income per head in the world, the United States ranks 42nd in terms of life expectancy."

These numbers were derived from a new report funded by Oxfam America, the Conrad Hilton Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Those numbers are not surprising when you consider that the US also ranks 37th in the World Health Organization's ratings of the world's health systems (below Malta, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, and numerous other countries that might surprise you).

So, the next time some Republican tells you that we don't need health care reform because the US already has the best health care in the world, ask him why then we have shorter lifespans than almost any other developed nation.

Just don't expect a straight answer.

12 November 2009

Lou Dobbs leaves CNN!

The pressure from the people has apparently worked. CNN's leadership has apparently grown a backbone. Last evening, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs announced on his show that it would be his "last broadcast on CNN." He is going to be taking his hate and his hot air elsewhere.

Dobbs has come under fire in recent months both for his persistent anti-immigrant vitriol and his support for the ridiculous "birther" conspiracy theories claiming that Obama is ineligible for the presidency because he was allegedly born in a foreign country.

Dobbs's brand of radical editorializing, which would seem right at home at Fox News, has no place on a network that calls itself "the most trusted name in news."

Kudos to CNN for shedding the cancer that was eating away at the network's image. The New York Times reports that CNN will announce his replacement today, which suggests to me that the choice has already been made. I hope they chose his replacement very carefully.

11 November 2009

Three short thoughts on Veterans Day

Today, November 11, is Veterans Day in the U.S. -- an annual holiday honoring our military veterans.

On this Veterans Day 2009, I have three thoughts to share:

To our nation's veterans: Thank you for your brave and generous service to our country.

To George W. Bush: Shame on you for misusing our military troops.

To Barack Obama: Please make it stop, not continue.

10 November 2009

House health care bill vs. the First Amendment

While a part of me was happy to see a health care reform bill pass the House on Saturday night, another part of me is disappointed for a couple of reasons.

First of all, the House bill does not contain the truly robust public option that we really need.

Second, I am disappointed that the bill includes the Stupak-Pitts amendment, which restricts abortion coverage.

The amendment was obviously a gift (or bribe) to the Democratic "moderates" who are obviously pandering to the religious extremists in their districts. After all, most criticism of abortion that I come across tends to be religiously motivated.

And religiously motivated legislation has no place in the United States of America, where the First Amendment supposedly guarantees the separation of church and state.

The fact is that abortion is currently a legal medical procedure in the United States of America.

But, under the new House bill, it appears that a woman cannot even use her own money to pay for an abortion if she receives a federal subsidy for her health insurance.

Of course, as always, poorer women will suffer the most -- the ones who often cannot afford to properly support the children they will be forced to bear.

I contend that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be 100% covered. But they can't. So they cannot (or will not) relate. So women's reproductive rights become a bargaining chip. And the timid left gives in to the demands of the religious right and the "moderate" Dems. The separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment is ignored and spited.

And women and children will suffer as a result.

This is apparently what those so-called "moderates" want for their sisters, daughters, nieces, and granddaughters.

But this is not "pro-life"; it is pro-embryo. Once those embryos are born, they're on their own.

And heaven help them if they're not born to the rich.

09 November 2009

Bush's latest disgusting photo op

Shortly after the Fort Hood shootings, George W. and Laura Bush visited the wounded soldiers and their families.

In my opinion, Bush has got a lot of nerve. (But, of course, we knew that already.)

I believe that Bush's unnecessary and misguided war of choice in Iraq is one of the main reasons for so much post-traumatic stress amongst our troops. And that war, and its effects, and its illegality, and its subtler issues, surely all had something to do with why the Fort Hood shooter cracked. After all, he was about to be deployed there.

The last thing that the victims need right now is Bush's smirking, patronizing attitude. It only adds insult to injury -- literally.

08 November 2009

Rendition prosecuted abroad while U.S. courts do nothing

The George W. Bush administration was the target of much criticism from human rights groups for, among other things, its policy of extraordinary rendition, in which detainees have been transferred for interrogation in other countries that are known for their use of torture. And human rights groups and individuals have long been calling for an end to rendition, and accountability for all those who have enabled or participated in the use of torture in the "war on terror".

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like any kind of accountability will be achieved here in the U.S. anytime soon. The latest evidence of this came on November 2, when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case of Maher Arar against U.S. officials who had sent him to Syria, where he was interrogated under torture for a year.

Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was detained at JFK Airport in September of 2002 while on his way home to Canada from a vacation. After his rendition to Syria and all the torture and abuse, Arar was eventually released, with the Syrian government stating that they had found no connection to any criminal or terrorist organization or activity.

Still, that Court of Appeals apparently believes that the U.S. should not be held accountable for violating international law by putting Arar through that abuse. The court cited the Bush administration's favorite excuse -- state secrets. Case dismissed. God bless America.

Maria LaHood, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), who represented Arar, aptly summed up the implications of the decision as follows:
"With this decision, we have lost much more than Maher Arar's case against torture -- we have lost the rule of law, the moral high ground, our independent judiciary, and our commitment to the Constitution of the United States."

The only voice of reason out of the Second Circuit Court was in a dissent by Judge Guido Calabresi:
"I believe that when the history of this distinguished court is written, today's majority decision will be viewed with dismay."
If it's not ultimately viewed with dismay, then this nation really has sold its soul to the Torture Industrial Complex.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is not going to wait around for us to get our act together.

On November 4, an Italian judge convicted 23 Americans, most of them CIA operatives, for the abduction and rendition of Muslim cleric Abu Omar, who was captured in Milan in 2003. One of the defendants, a CIA base chief, received an eight-year sentence, while the others were sentenced to five years each.

The defendants were all tried in absentia and are considered fugitives.

And while it's unlikely that any of those 23 Americans will ever see the inside of an Italian prison cell, the Italian court's decision makes a statement to the U.S. and to the world: that laws were broken and accountability is crucial in a world that respects the rule of law.

Tom Parker, Amnesty International's policy director for counterterrorism and human rights, had this to say:
"The United States shouldn't need a foreign court to distinguish right from wrong. The Obama administration must repudiate the unlawful practice of extraordinary rendition -- and hold accountable those responsible for having put this system in place -- or his administration will end up as tarnished as his predecessor's."
I agree. The world agrees. But the rendition program continues under Obama.

Obama talks about human rights. But talk -- even Obama's fancy variety -- is cheap. Continuing the practice of rendition is not change I can believe in. In fact, it is no change at all.

07 November 2009

Why violence?

On Thursday, an Army major shot and killed several people at the Fort Hood military base in Texas. He was about to be deployed to Iraq.

Then, as if that wasn't enough, yesterday there was a shooting at a Florida office building.

Whether the former inspired the latter is anyone's guess at this point, as far as I know. But it doesn't matter. There is just way too much violence in this world. And, be it a world war or an office shooting, violence is never productive. It only results in needless death and suffering, and no real resolution to the root problems at hand.

Nevertheless, violence begets violence, and I fear that violence will probably always be a part of life as long as human beings live together as a society.

Is there any realistic alternative? Or is human nature simply programmed for violence?

06 November 2009

Texas man executed yesterday - because the Bible said so

Yesterday, the state of Texas executed convicted murderer Khristian Oliver. The case had gained some notoriety because the jurors had allegedly consulted the Bible to justify the death sentence.

A passage that was allegedly read aloud by a juror:
"And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death."
Case closed.

So much for the separation of church and state.

Amnesty International had called on the Texas authorities to commute Oliver's death sentence. Amnesty noted that the jurors' use of the Bible during their sentencing deliberations raises serious questions about their impartiality. In fact, a U.S. federal appeals court acknowledged last year that this use of the Bible amounted to an "external influence" prohibited under the U.S. Constitution, but it upheld the death sentence nonetheless.

If that's not disturbing enough for you, Amnesty uncovered more incriminating evidence against the jury:
In 2002, a Danish journalist interviewed [one of the jurors]. The latter said that "about 80 percent" of the jurors had "brought scripture into the deliberation," and that the jurors had consulted the Bible "long before we ever reached a verdict."

He told the journalist he believed "the Bible is truth from page 1 to the last page," and that if civil law and biblical law were in conflict, the latter should prevail. He said that if he had been told he could not consult the Bible, "I would have left the courtroom."
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

So apparently Texas is a functional theocracy. And the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't care to do anything about it.

05 November 2009

Senate committee to hold ENDA hearing today

The Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee of the U.S. Senate will hold a hearing today on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit employment-related discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

The religious right opposes the ENDA, of course, because they apparently believe that LGBT individuals should be persecuted and marginalized. They apparently think that it's an employer's right to discriminate against people who are LGBT or suspected to be LGBT. How Christian of them! (Not.)

We cannot let the haters win this battle. Employment discrimination is as wrong when used against LGBT persons as it is when used against blacks, women, Muslims, or members of any other minority.

It seems that gay is the new black. And we need to work as hard today for civil rights for the LGBT community as our parents worked in the 1960s for civil rights for African Americans.

Stay tuned for ENDA updates as the legislation (hopefully) progresses through the maze of congressional protocol. And keep your fingers crossed.

04 November 2009

An historic American anniversary

One year ago today, on November 4, 2008, we the people of the United States of America elected our first non-white president.

Even though Obama has not turned out to be the great champion of progress that many of us thought we were voting for, and even though his election did not usher in the post-racial America that some naively expected, the fact that an African-American family now resides in the White House is nonetheless something to be celebrated.

Obama's election came some 146 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 138 years after the Fifteenth Amendment allowed all citizens to vote regardless of race or color, and 45 years after Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

A truly post-racial America is still a pipe dream, but every significant milestone is worth celebrating along the way.

03 November 2009

Runoff election canceled in Afghanistan; more reason to leave

Yesterday we learned that the upcoming presidential runoff election in Afghanistan was canceled. Hamid Karzai's opponent dropped out of the race because he didn't think it would be transparent or valid, given the alleged fraud involved in the original election in August.

So Karzai was declared the winner by default.

His corrupt government wins as well.

So why would Obama possibly want us to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan, let alone send even more? Even General McChrystal has admitted that "widespread corruption and abuse of power" are as big a threat to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan as the Taliban insurgency -- and the corruption goes far deeper than just the elections.

In fact, as MSNBC has reported, "There's some evidence that such rampant and blatant government corruption is driving many Afghans into the hands of the Taliban."

This is a no-win situation for our presence there.

Besides, it's not as though we could realistically create a full-fledged, uncorrupt, cheery-happy democracy in Afghanistan even without those complications. Even if we could, it is not our place to do so.

You cannot spread democracy at the point of a gun. And trying to do so can only be construed as imperialism. And haven't we had enough of that sort of thing under the Bush-Cheney administration?

02 November 2009

Vote tomorrow. Meantime, do your homework.

Tomorrow, November 3, is an off-year election day in the U.S., when Americans will elect some judges, school board members, mayors, and a handful of governors.

Many Americans skip the off-year elections, especially in states where no gubernatorial election is taking place. But I encourage all registered voters to go to the polls tomorrow. Staying engaged in the political process, even in these off years, is good for the community and good for its citizens. This is democracy at the most local level, and it's no less important than the big national elections.

But true democracy requires an informed citizenry. So, before you vote tomorrow, please spend some time learning about your choices in this year's elections. A good place to start is the Project Vote Smart website. At this nonpartisan online resource center, you can select your state and learn about state-level candidates and ballot measures. Here you can also find a directory of local election offices, which can then fill you in on your local-level candidates and ballot measures. It won't take long, and doing your pre-election homework is very empowering.

See you at the polls!

01 November 2009

Legislating inequality: Last year in California, this year in Maine?

A lot of Americans pay very little attention to the off-year elections, like the ones that will take place on Tuesday, November 3. After all, we're not electing a president, or members of Congress. This year's election is mostly about judges, school board members, and a handful of state governors.

However, there are often some ballot measures that merit a greater turnout than they usually see. This time around, the one I'm watching most closely is the Maine referendum on same-sex marriage.

Last year, Californians passed Proposition 8, which amended that state's constitution to declare that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California. Prop 8 overturned the California Supreme Court's prior ruling that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.

This year, the same kind of battle is taking place in Maine. Depending on the voting results, Maine's Question 1 could repeal the recently passed law legalizing same-sex marriage in that state.

If Question 1 passes, Maine -- like California -- will have legislated inequality. In a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal, the law will now say that gays and lesbians are not so equal. It will officially define gays and lesbians as second-class citizens who are not entitled to equal rights in that state.

State constitutions, like the federal one, are designed as living documents, amendable as society progresses, to address new issues that the original founders might never have anticipated. But, traditionally, constitutional amendments have been used to grant new rights, not take rights away. Now they're looking to take rights away from people who already have those rights in Maine. That's like suddenly telling women or African Americans that they can no longer vote, or like outlawing interracial marriage at this point. Who would stand for that (outside, perhaps, the Deep South)?

A big driving influence for the anti-gay bigotry in the U.S. is religion, particularly Christianity. The religious extremists like to scream that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Case closed. So they are out to save the soul of America by fighting against the so-called homosexual agenda, i.e., equality, which they see as an affront to their god.

But these people fail to recognize -- or refuse to recognize -- the fact that the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation. They conveniently ignore the language of the First Amendment, which explicitly prohibits government from establishing a religion, and which protects each person's right to practice -- or not practice -- any faith without government interference. In other words, you cannot impose your own religious beliefs on others. So religion is not a valid justification on which to judge the validity of civil marriage.

But this is exactly what the anti-equality crowd insists on doing. And they do it using scare tactics, claiming that allowing gay marriage will destroy the institution as a whole -- apparently more so than divorce, and more so than their own hypocritical, often-closeted ringmasters. (Hi, Ted Haggard! Hi, Larry Craig!)

And the sheep -- whipped into an emotional frenzy by these scare tactics -- actually believe that their own marriages will be threatened if the gay couple down the street is allowed to marry. And so they will vote accordingly on Tuesday, even as I question whether these people -- led by emotion rather than reality -- are really qualified to make constitutional decisions that will affect all the state's citizens. After all, it has been said that true democracy requires an informed electorate -- not a frenzied mob of bigots.

They would do well to ponder one of my favorite quotations on the subject, by political commentator James Carville: "I was against gay marriage until I found out I didn't have to have one."

And they would do well to ponder the words of their very own Jesus Christ: "Judge not, lest ye be judged."