26 February 2010

George W. Bush as motivational speaker

After hearing last year that George W. Bush was going to embark on a career as a motivational speaker, all the predictable jokes and comments came to mind. It was just too easy.

Bush never struck me as a great model of motivation. In college, he was described as an average student. During the Vietnam war, his father got him a cushy gig in the National Guard since W. wasn't motivated to do his duty and fight in the war. His oil company, Arbusto, failed, so he apparently wasn't too motivated there, either.

He was, however, apparently motivated to run for public office. Some say that motivation was to keep up with -- or outdo -- his brother Jeb, and thereby win his father's approval.

Then he was appointed by the Supreme Court to the presidency, where he seemed to be motivated only in matters of destruction: Attacking Afghanistan, and then making up excuses to attack the unarmed nation of Iraq.

So now he is a motivational speaker, and I cannot help but wonder how he intends to motivate others, and in what ways? (On the other hand, I probably don't want to know.)

Then recently I happened to watch an HBO recording of Robin Williams in his latest stand-up tour, "Weapons of Self-Destruction". And Williams nailed it: He said that having Bush as a motivational speaker is like having Lindsay Lohan as your guidance counselor.

Indeed. (With apologies to Ms. Lohan.)

25 February 2010

Amnesty Intl USA to honor Howard Zinn at annual meeting

As you may have heard, the great historian and writer Howard Zinn died on January 27th of an apparent heart attack. He will be missed.

Meanwhile, Zinn had been scheduled to speak at the 2010 Annual General Meeting of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) in New Orleans in April. So, upon the news of his passing, AIUSA issued the following statement:
We are saddened to hear about the passing of Howard Zinn, a true American hero. An activist, author, historian, and playwright, he was a legend in the struggle of the people. Mr. Zinn was confirmed to participate in our Annual General Meeting this April in New Orleans, and for those of you who are attending, the conference will dedicate the space for our movement to show our respect and gratitude for his work. He was a social activist to his core and his fight to help marginalized groups have their say is not over. His presence will be felt in New Orleans and we will continue spreading his message. May his legacy live on. http://howardzinn.org
>> Learn more about the Annual General Meeting, scheduled for April 9-11.

24 February 2010

Tell Congress to condemn anti-gay legislation in Uganda

If you tune in regularly to The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC or other progressive media, you may have heard about the "kill the gays" bill that is working its way through the Ugandan Parliament. This legislation would introduce the death penalty as an option for people convicted of homosexual behavior. In addition, even non-gay individuals could face a three-year sentence for failing to report homosexuals to the authorities. Furthermore, the bill condemns HIV/AIDS education and prevention as "promotion of homosexuality".

As CNN reported last December, "Homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda under colonial-era laws. But the bill, introduced in October, is intended to put more teeth into prosecuting violators."

This is homophobia on steroids -- and it is very, very dangerous and very, very wrong.

While the U.S. government cannot actively interfere with the legislature of the sovereign nation of Uganda, it can officially condemn that pending legislation. To that end, resolutions are in the works on Capitol Hill in both the House and the Senate that condemn Uganda's prospective assault on human rights.

Click here to ask your Senators and Representative to co-sponsor these resolutions.

23 February 2010

1000th U.S. troop has died in Afghan war. Vigils are being organized.

We've reached a very sad milestone in the war in Afghanistan: 1,000 U.S. troops have now been killed in that conflict.

To mark this tragic occasion, the American Friends Service Committee is organizing vigils around the country. These vigils are intended to "bear witness to the human and economic cost of the Afghanistan war" and to call on the Obama administration for:

• No additional troops to Afghanistan
• Talks with all parties to the conflict
• Generous civilian-led development funds

>> Find a vigil in your area.

22 February 2010

Santorum continues bashing gays in the military while ignoring a real threat

Even though we the people of Pennsylvania finally voted ultra-conservative Republican Rick Santorum out of the U.S. Senate in 2006 in favor of moderate Democrat Bob Casey, Mr. Man-on-Dog continues to find new platforms from which to spew his senseless hatred and fear of gays and lesbians.

Not surprisingly, Santorum turned up at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and preached to the choir about the alleged dangers of allowing gays to openly serve in the military. Dismissing the support of military leaders for repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), Santorum explained that they had been so "indoctrinated" with political correctness that they can no longer "see straight," as Sam Stein reported in the Huffington Post. (Note: I have no idea whether "see straight" was an intentional pun, but I suspect it was not.)

Santorum told the CPAC crowd that repealing DADT would "sap the readiness and effectiveness of the armed forces," paraphrased Stein. But this makes no sense.

Santorum's claims are easily contradicted by the fact that a considerable majority of military personnel favor a repeal of DADT. According to a 2006 Zogby poll of military personnel who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan or related combat roles, 73 percent said they were comfortable interacting with gays and lesbians, and only 19 percent (less than 1 in 5) said they were uncomfortable. So, since Santorum never bothered to serve in the military himself, maybe we should give more credence to those who actually did.

So what motivates Santorum's fear of gays? Does he believe that every homosexual is going to be leering at all his straight colleagues and trying to "convert" them to the "gay lifestyle"? Does he not realize that it doesn't work that way?

Maybe he should instead be more concerned with the fact that -- unlike their gay colleagues -- so many straight men in the military sexually abuse their female colleagues. In fact, statistically speaking, the gays in the military have much better self control.

And, since reports suggest that a vast majority of sexual abuse cases against military women by their straight male colleagues go unpunished, perhaps Santorum's time would be better spent addressing this very real sexual threat. After all, wouldn't this sort of unwelcome man-on-woman activity itself tend to "sap the readiness and effectiveness of the armed forces?"

Of course, homophobia and misogyny so often go hand-in-hand, and Santorum has never been much of a champion for the feminist cause.

So Santorum remains intently focused on the gays. He really seems to be obsessed with the gays.

All facts considered, I can only conclude that Santorum's anti-gay crusade is driven by little more than plain old-fashioned bigotry. And bigotry is not a valid base on which this nation -- or its military -- should be governed.

19 February 2010

The IRS plane crash and the color of terrorism

When I first heard the news on Thursday that a plane had crashed into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, a person standing nearby speculated that it was probably al-Qaeda, and therefore proof that President Obama cannot keep us safe.

And, having written much in the past about the fact that ethnic profiling is ineffective in law enforcement, I was not surprised to learn that the suicide pilot was actually a white guy named Joseph Stack.

Still, these days, people have been conditioned to assume "Islamic terrorism". It has become a knee-jerk reaction. They forget that Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, the Unabomber, and other white guys have been responsible for many more acts of terrorism on U.S. soil than al-Qaeda.

This is the kind of xenophobia that the right-wing hate mongers have created, with far too much willing assistance from their handmaidens in the media.

And it can only beget more fear and more hate.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, I think they like it that way.

18 February 2010

Texas gives Skinner another month to live - and fight for his innocence

We got good news yesterday from Texas Death Row: Hank Skinner, who was scheduled to be executed next week, now has another month to fight to prove his innocence.

As I wrote last week, Skinner was scheduled to die by lethal injection on February 24. His new execution date is now March 24.

Skinner was convicted of three 1993 murders that he maintains he did not commit. To back up Skinner's claims of innocence, there appears to be DNA evidence that could exonerate him in this case. However, to date the state has refused to consider that evidence.

Skinner's lawyers will hopefully be working very hard over the next few weeks to do all they can to get that DNA tested.

And, if I were the Texas authorities, I would certainly want to be sure that I was executing the real murderer. Hopefully this time they will agree.

More information:

>> Hank Skinner's official website

>> Amnesty International's urgent action and background info on the case

17 February 2010

The pope's sex-abuse hypocrisy shows itself again

According to the British newspaper The Guardian, Pope Benedict XVI called a meeting earlier this week with the bishops of the Irish Catholic church and "gave them a public dressing down" over the child sex abuse scandal in Ireland.

However, the newspaper goes on to note that "doubts remain about the church's openness after the papal envoy in Dublin declined to give evidence to a parliamentary inquiry there."

The latter point should not come as a surprise. After all, we learned a few years ago that this current pope, in his previous role as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, worked to obstruct inquiries into clergy sex abuse.

It appears as though the Church will make an effort to appear to do the right thing when these issues come to light. But, in the meantime, it will do what it can to protect its own public image.

That is neither holy or Christian. It is, in fact, criminal. Literally.

And children are the ones who suffer.

16 February 2010

Does Bayh's retirement from the Senate really matter?

Yesterday, Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) announced that he will not be running for re-election. His stated reason: The overly partisan climate in Washington.

Well, as they say, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. However, it seems that Bayh has done his own part to help the partisan Republicans block the agenda of his own Democratic party.

Some would quite validly allege that Bayh is a Democrat in name only, a conservative "Blue Dog" through and through. As Matthew Yglesias pointed out at ThinkProgress.org, "Bayh's been the second-most conservative Democrat in the 111th Senate."

So, although some people see this as another potential loss for the Democrats, I can't help but wonder: Even if Bayh is replaced by a Republican, will it really make a significant difference?

Probably not, given the current power of the Blue Dogs and the Obama administration's apparent distaste for any kind of toughness in trying to influence legislation to advance its own campaign-promised agenda.

If Obama really wants to effect change we can believe in, he needs to stop being a community organizer -- trying to drum up consensus all around -- and start being a political leader instead. Until and unless he can do that, will the mid-term elections really matter much at all?

15 February 2010

Be thankful on Presidents' Day

Today, the third Monday in February, is the Presidents' Day holiday in the U.S. This holiday used to honor George Washington's birthday (February 22), but was later renamed and rescheduled to fall between Washington's birthday and Abraham Lincoln's (February 12).

On this Presidents' Day, let's spend some time contemplating our democracy and giving thanks to our Founding Fathers for this great American experiment. Even with its shortcomings (e.g., the appointment of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000), our system seems far better than the monarchies and dictatorships that it was designed to replace.

And, on this Presidents' Day, let's be thankful that we have President Obama in the White House today rather than John McCain. While Obama has certainly not been the progressive leader many of us hoped we were voting for, the alternative would surely have been much, much worse.

12 February 2010

250th DNA exoneration

On February 4th, Freddie Peacock, of Rochester, NY, became the 250th person in the U.S. to be exonerated via DNA testing. Peacock was convicted 33 years ago for a rape that he did not commit. His story is compelling, as described in a press release from the Innocence Project, which represented him:
Freddie Peacock, 60, was convicted of rape in December 1976. He was sentenced to up to 20 years in prison and released on parole in 1982. He tried to remain on parole because he thought he would never be able to clear his name if he was released from state supervision. For the last 28 years since he left prison, he has fought to prove his innocence even though he was no longer incarcerated.

"Freddie Peacock was released many years ago, but he hasn't been truly free because the cloud of this conviction hung over him," said Olga Akselrod, the Innocence Project Staff Attorney handling the case. The Innocence Project is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. "Nobody in the U.S. who was exonerated with DNA testing has spent this many years outside of prison fighting to prove his innocence. Today, the decades-long nightmare that Freddie Peacock and his family have endured is finally over."
Think of how many wrongfully convicted people might still sit behind bars, unable to prove their innocence. And, worse, think of how many people may have been executed for capital crimes that they actually did not commit, simply because DNA testing wasn't available to them.

In my opinion, this is the best reason to oppose the death penalty.

>> Read a new report from the Innocence Project on wrongful convictions: 250 Exonerated: Too Many Wrongfully Convicted

11 February 2010

Record snowfalls do not disprove global warming

Here in the Philadelphia area, and throughout the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., we are in the process of recovering from record-breaking snowstorms. And my Republican neighbor has been using this opportunity to lecture the neighborhood on his theory (no doubt inspired by Rush Limbaugh) that all this snow is proof that global warming is a stinking-liberal-pinko-commie myth.

That, dear reader, is nonsense.

In fact, according to the National Wildlife Federation, this extreme weather is obvious proof of how climate change disrupts long-standing weather patterns:
"Oddball winter weather is yet another sign of how uncontrolled carbon pollution amounts to an unchecked experiment on people and nature," said Dr. Amanda Staudt, climate scientist, National Wildlife Federation. "While global warming means shorter, milder winters on average, some snowbelt areas will see more heavy snowfall events. Disruptions to tourism and recreation economies will become increasingly common - for example to skiing and ice fishing that depend on predictable conditions."
So perhaps the more common term "global warming" is better described in more general terms as "climate change". At least that would partially disarm the naysayers

Still, some just won't accept it no matter what you call it. They would rather let the oil companies and other polluting industries continue to run amok unregulated, because that, to them, is "free enterprise". But how free can that enterprise be if it eventually (and purposely) leads to the destruction of the very planet on which we do business? That, to me, is not entrepreneurial freedom. It is criminal negligence.

10 February 2010

Can Palin win the White House?

Much to the delight of her fans, Sarah Palin has been hinting that a 2012 run for the presidency is not out of the question.

This news has also delighted some left-leaning commentators, who appreciate the comedy fodder that a Palin run would provide, but who seem too quick to discount any possibility that she could actually win.

Unfortunately, I don't think that's a safe assumption to make.

After all, the equally unqualified George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 (albeit not via the popular vote) and was even reelected in 2004. Don't misunderestimate the power of the right wing.

That said, for the sake of this nation, I hope I'm giving her too much credit.

09 February 2010

Will Texas execute another innocent man this month?

The reckless fallibility of the criminal justice system in capital cases came to light in a big way last year when a detailed investigative report for The New Yorker showed that the state of Texas had probably executed an innocent man. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for an alleged arson that claimed the lives of his three daughters in 1991. However, a forensic review of the case led to the conclusion that "a finding of arson could not be sustained." In other words, the fire for which Willingham was executed was probably just an accident.

As if that was not enough innocent blood spilled, last October Texas executed Reginald Blanton despite considerable evidence of prosecutorial misconduct.

And now this tragic sort of history might repeat itself this month for no justifiable reason. Texas death row inmate Hank Skinner is scheduled to die by lethal injection on February 24 for three 1993 murders that he maintains he did not commit. To back up Skinner's claims of innocence, there appears to be DNA evidence that could exonerate him in this case. However, the state will not consider that evidence.

How you can help:

As Matt Kelley points out at Change.org, "The case for Skinner's innocence is by no means certain. On the other hand, the case for DNA testing is clear."

>> Send a letter right now to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles supporting Skinner's clemency petition so he can continue to seek DNA testing in the case.

08 February 2010

In tea party address, Palin stokes the anti-rights fire

On February 6th, Sarah Palin gave the keynote address at a tea party convention in Nashville.

As expected, I disagreed with just about everything Palin said. However, there was one part of her speech in particular that really got my blood boiling: She propagated the lie that the would-be Christmas airline bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, stopped talking after he was read his Miranda rights. The right wing likes to use that talking point to further their belief that terrorism suspects deserve no rights.

The Washington Post described that portion of her speech as follows:
"Serving up fiery rhetoric with a broad smile, she attacked the administration's policies on the economy and on national security, assailing in particular the decision to read Miranda rights to the man accused of attempting to bomb a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

'Treating this like a mere law enforcement matter places our country at great risk because that's not how radical Islamic extremists are looking at this,' Palin said to thunderous applause. 'They know we're at war, and to win that war we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.'"
It is alarming to hear this nonsense being repeated and then devoured so enthusiastically by Palin's audience, primarily because it simply is not true.

In fact, law enforcement officials have gained a great deal of intelligence from Abdulmutallab, proving that a rights-based approach can actually be much more effective than the previous administration's preferred pro-torture/anti-rights methodology.

After all, experts agree that torture does not work. It does not produce reliable intelligence, because the victim is likely to say whatever he thinks his torturer wants to hear, in order to make the pain stop. Palin's former running mate John McCain made that very point when he told the story of how, when asked under torture in Vietnam to provide his captors with the names of the members of his flight squadron, he instead rattled off the names of the Green Bay Packers' offensive line, "knowing that providing them false information was sufficient to suspend the abuse."

And, because torture is illegal, and because information obtained under torture is not reliable, it is not admissible in court, opening up another can of worms: If the only proof you have against a defendant was obtained under torture, you have no basis for conviction. But what if the defendant is deemed too dangerous to release?

As Georgetown Law Professor David Cole wrote in a 2005 article for the Los Angeles Times:
"[B]y electing early on to violate the universal prohibition on torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, the [Bush] administration has not only inflicted unconscionable harm on detainees from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo, and done incalculable damage to the U.S. image abroad, it has painted itself into a corner. It is becoming increasingly unacceptable to hold so-called enemy combatants indefinitely without trial. But we have shielded the vast majority of them from being tried for the wrongs they may well have committed."
But all these facts are apparently not enough to stop Palin and her rabid fans from calling for more of the same. So, for this reason and many more, if Palin does decide to run for the presidency in 2012 as her fans are hoping, Democrats and others must work very, very hard to keep her from winning. Regardless of President Obama's shortcomings and unkept promises, we cannot afford another neocon in the White House any time soon. There's still far too much healing to be done.

05 February 2010

How al-Qaeda causes climate change

In his latest audiotape, Osama bin Laden criticized the U.S. over climate change.

And, while I have to agree that the U.S. has been quite guilty of emitting more than its fair share of greenhouse gases into the environment, al-Qaeda doesn't have a whole lot of room to talk.

In a recent article, UMich Professor Juan Cole takes a look at the top ten ways al-Qaeda causes carbon emissions and climate change.

According to Cole, "Global terrorism is a high-carbon activity and very bad for the environment, not to mention humans and other living things."

An excerpt:
1. Bin Laden wants to take over Saudi Arabia and pump its oil for himself and his movement. Use of petroleum and natural gas puts more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and is a major source of climate change. In short, Saudis who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. Saudi Arabia produces about 11% of all the petroleum pumped in the world every day. Al-Qaeda would not reduce exports significantly, since it would want the income they generate to pursue its political projects.

2. The attacks of September 11, using airplanes full of jet fuel and destroying skyscrapers and buildings, were -- quite apart from being monstrous acts of mass murder -- among the largest discrete man-made events causing high carbon emissions in this century.
>> Read the full article.

04 February 2010

Sudan's president may face genocide charges after all

Will we ever see true accountability for the gross human rights violations in Darfur? I'm starting to feel cautiously optimistic.

Yesterday, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) reversed a previous decision not to charge Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir with the crime of genocide. Under the earlier ruling, the court had agreed on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but stated that the prosecutor had not provided enough evidence to prove genocidal intent.

According to Citizens for Global Solutions, yesterday's ruling ordered the ICC judges "to re-examine the case using a more reasonable standard of proof similar to what is required in courts in the United States."

The British Newspaper The Guardian quotes an interesting point made by the Coalition for the ICC, an NGO that supports the court: "The ruling is hugely significant, as it could lead to the inclusion of charges of genocide by ICC judges for a sitting head of state and for the first time in the history of the court."

Regardless of the court's new findings, I'm sure that enforcement of any charges against Bashir will be difficult and complicated. But at least they are trying. And the world is watching.

03 February 2010

More injustice at Justice Dept: Yoo and Bybee are off the hook

In the early days of the Bush administration, lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee performed their semantic gymnastics to justify the use of torture by U.S. agents.

Now, however, even though torture is in violation of U.S. and international law, the U.S. Justice Department is letting Yoo and Bybee off the hook.

Newsweek reports:
While the probe is sharply critical of the legal reasoning used to justify waterboarding and other “enhanced” interrogation techniques, Newsweek has learned that a senior Justice official who did the final review of the report softened an earlier OPR finding. Previously, the report concluded that two key authors—Jay Bybee, now a federal appellate court judge, and John Yoo, now a law professor—violated their professional obligations as lawyers when they crafted a crucial 2002 memo approving the use of harsh tactics, say two Justice sources who asked for anonymity discussing an internal matter. But the reviewer, career veteran David Margolis, downgraded that assessment to say they showed “poor judgment,” say the sources. (Under department rules, poor judgment does not constitute professional misconduct.) The shift is significant: the original finding would have triggered a referral to state bar associations for potential disciplinary action—which, in Bybee’s case, could have led to an impeachment inquiry.
So now, not only is the U.S. guilty of torture, we are also guilty of letting those who conspired to "legitimize it" off the hook with barely a slap on the wrist. This is shameful.

02 February 2010

Terrorism trials belong in federal court

Due to logistical concerns, it is now looking quite possible that the trials of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four accomplices will not be held in New York -- the primary scene of the crime -- after all. But, regardless of the location, these trials should be held in a federal court.

Some Republicans are instead calling for these and other terrorism-related trials to be handled via the military commission system at Gitmo. However, as we've seen during the Bush administration, that kangaroo court system has done little to achieve justice and has done much to erode America's image in the world with regard to human rights and the rule of law.

And, as the Center for American Progress recently pointed out, the federal court system is much more effective:
"The facts are clear: Criminal courts are a far tougher and more reliable forum for prosecuting terrorists than military commissions.


"The extensive record of criminal courts in successfully prosecuting terrorists stands in stark contrast with the shockingly poor military commissions system. Since 2001 -- the same period in which military commissions have convicted just three terrorists -- criminal courts have convicted more than 200 individuals on terrorism charges, or 65 times more than military commissions. Criminal courts racked up these convictions with none of the uncertainty that still plagues the military commissions system."
Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of Human Rights First, agrees, and provides some further food for thought:
"Logistical debates about the appropriate New York venue to hold the trial for four accused 9/11 terrorists do not change the fact that they must be brought to justice in federal court. There can be no dispute that these cases belong in federal civilian court and should be tried on U.S. soil. 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 reliable and credible criminal justice system where the focus will be on their culpability, not on the lack of legitimacy or fairness of the proceedings. Federal trials are part of a coherent and smart counter-terrorism strategy, which involves treating these perpetrators as criminals and depriving them of the warrior status they crave. This is an important distinction and will help thwart their ability to recruit others to their cause. Logistical and security concerns can -- and should -- be addressed. But they cannot overshadow the importance of these federal trials."
Amen to that.

01 February 2010

In trial of Dr. Tiller's killer, justice has been served

On Friday, January 29, a jury found Scott Roeder guilty of the murder last year of Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller. Roeder shot Dr. Tiller in cold blood in a church where the doctor was serving as an usher during Sunday services. Roeder will be sentenced on March 9.

Justice seemed iffy for a while, especially when it appeared last month that the judge might allow the jury to consider what would have amounted to a "justifiable homicide" conviction as an alternative to first-degree murder. But, fortunately, reason and justice have prevailed.

Roeder was hoping for a reduced sentence based on his belief that the murder was justified because he was "saving babies" by killing Dr. Tiller. It obviously didn't occur to him that abortion is actually legal, but that murdering an abortion doctor is very much a crime in these United States.

When the news of the verdict broke on Friday, I was spending time with a friend who is a practicing Catholic. I mentioned to her that Roeder had tried a justifiable homicide defense, because he believed that he was saving babies' lives by taking Doctor Tiller's life. Without any prompting from me, my Catholic friend shook her head firmly and noted that it makes no sense to kill the doctor simply because one believes that he kills babies. Killing is wrong, she pointed out, no matter who does it.

It's nice to be reminded that not all religious folks are as unreasonable as the more militant extremists among them.

And I suppose the same could be said of any segment of society.