30 November 2010

November 30 is Call Congress Day: Hands off Social Security!

President Obama's deficit commission (aka the "cat food commission") seems set on cutting Social Security benefits even though a large majority of Americans oppose such cuts.

So a broad coalition of organizations has designated today, November 30, as a national call-in day to oppose Social Security cuts.

Please take a few minutes to call your Senators and Representative today and let them know that there are healthier ways to save money -- like ending our unnecessary military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Korea.

>> Click here to find the phone numbers for your Senators and Rep.

29 November 2010

U.S. gets human rights advice from the world

On November 5, the United States had its first-ever formal evaluation under the Universal Period Review process before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). This process was established in 2006 to periodically review the human rights records of UN member states. But the George W. Bush administration apparently thought it was above this sort of thing.

As a result of this year's process, on November 10, the UNHRC issued a report of its findings and recommendations from the U.S. review. Most obvious were recommendations that the U.S. ratify several international human rights conventions and treaties that we have not yet formally endorsed. To no surprise, our use of torture and racial profiling, and the obvious culture of xenophobia apparent in our national discourse, also figured prominently in the feedback.

Below are some key excerpts from the report's recommendations on how the U.S. can improve its human rights standing in the world. The recommending nation appears in parenthesis after each item.
92.1. Ratify without reservations the following conventions and protocols: CEDAW; the ICESCR; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; the Statute of the International Criminal Court; those of the ILO; the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, and all those from the Inter-American Human Rights System (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) [with similar recommendations by France, Russia, Spain, Canada, Japan, and several other nations];

92.51. Comply with its international obligations for the effective mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, because of their impact in climate change (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela);

92.56. Repeal the norms that limit freedom of expression and require journalists to reveal their sources, under penalty of imprisonment (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela);

92.66. Enact a federal crime of torture, consistent with the Convention, and also encompassing acts described as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (Austria);

92.67. Take legislative and administrative measures to address a wide range of racial discrimination and inequalities in housing, employment and education (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea);

92.68. Take legislative and administrative measures to ban racial profiling in law enforcement (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea);

92.70. Take appropriate legislative and practical measures to improve living conditions through its prisons systems, in particular with regard to access to health care and education (Austria);

92.75. End the blockade against Cuba2 (Cuba); Put an end to the infamous blockade against Cuba (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela); Lift the economic, financial and commercial blockade against Cuba, which affects the enjoyment of the human rights of more than 11 million people (Plurinational State of Bolivia);

92.81. Take the necessary measures in favor of the right to work and fair conditions of work so that workers belonging to minorities, in particular women and undocumented migrant workers, do not become victims of discriminatory treatment and abuse in the work place and enjoy the full protection of the labour legislation, regardless of their migratory status (Guatemala);

92.82. Adopt a fair immigration policy, and cease xenophobia, racism and intolerance to ethnic, religious and migrant minorities (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela);

92.85. Formulate goals and policy guidelines for the promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples and cooperation between government and indigenous peoples (Finland);

92.88. Invite United Nations Special Rapporteurs to visit and investigate Guantanamo Bay prison and United States secret prisons and to subsequently close them (Islamic Republic of Iran);

92.122. Abolish the death penalty and in any event, establish a moratorium as an interim measure towards full abolition (Australia); Abolish capital punishment and, as a first step on that road, introduce as soon as practicable a moratorium on the execution of death sentences (Hungary); That steps be taken to set federal and state-level moratoria on executions with a view to abolish the death penalty nationwide (Norway);

... and much more.
It is a good sign that the U.S. chose to submit itself to this level of scrutiny. However, good intentions will mean nothing if the Obama administration does not follow through on these constructive recommendations from its partners in the world community.

Talk is cheap. Rhetoric is cheap. The world wants action. And the world wants some positive change that we can all believe in.

Are we strong enough as a nation to comply? Sadly, I shall not hold my breath.

26 November 2010

How Black Friday encourages slavery

Today, the Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday, is nicknamed "Black Friday" here in the U.S. This is the day on which retailers hope to turn a nice profit from holiday gift sales.

And throngs of American consumers are happy to oblige. They are hitting the stores in huge numbers today, elbowing their way through the crowds, to spend their hard-earned money on toys and gadgets that have been made in Asian sweatshops by underpaid slaves working in horrific conditions. All this, of course, after the manufacturers outsourced the factory work that used to be done here in the U.S.

And so these consumers are supporting and encouraging the cycle of outsourcing, human rights violations, and U.S. unemployment.

And so the corporations have no reason to change their ways.

I plan to stay at home. I won't spend a nickel today. And the limited holiday shopping I do this season will support local and small businesses only. Please consider joining me.

25 November 2010

Help stop violence against women

Today, November 25, the fourth Thursday in November, is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.

November 25 is also the date on which the world observes the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund(FVPF), "One in three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. It’s happening to someone right now, as you read this."

So the FVPF and other organizations are pushing for passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA - HR4594/S2982) during the current lame-duck session of Congress. The bill has been stalled in Congress since February.

According to the FVPF, "The [IVAWA] would improve our government’s response when women and girls are victims of sex trafficking and rape during war and would provide aid to women’s groups on the ground that are working to help survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It would focus resources on prevention and ensure that our dollars are used in the most effective ways possible to help the people who need it most. In some countries, it truly could mean the difference between life and death for a woman or girl."

In the grand scheme of things, isn't this a bit more important than extending tax cuts for the very rich?

How you can help:

In observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, please urge your Senators and Representative to Support IVAWA.

>> Click here to take action online.

And, on this Thanksgiving holiday, let's be thankful for good organizations like the FVPF.

24 November 2010

My life-changing Thanksgiving column

Tomorrow, the fourth Thursday in November, is the Thanksgiving holiday here in the U.S.

Uncharacteristically, I did not write anything original this year to mark the holiday. So, instead, I present below a rerun of my first-ever Thanksgiving column, from 2004. A version of this piece was published in the Philadelphia Daily News that year, and won me my former role as a regular freelance columnist for that paper -- a gig that ended just over year later when the newspaper was sold.

Not all my memories of the Daily News are happy ones, but the experience was worthwhile and truly changed my life for the better. It made me a better writer and a stronger defender of human rights and social justice, with a much thicker skin under which to do my work.

And so here is the piece that started all this:

The first Thanksgiving: Prelude to genocide

As the American Thanksgiving holiday approaches, our minds wander to idyllic images of Pilgrims and Indians peacefully sharing a feast in celebration of the fall harvest. This November 25th, as we break bread with our families and friends, let us take some time to reflect on the fate of Native Americans in the centuries that followed the first Thanksgiving.

This nation was founded on principles of inalienable human rights and civil liberties. It would appear, however, that initially those guarantees applied only to those fortunate enough to have been born white European-Americans. As African-Americans remained enslaved in this country's early years, Native Americans didn't have it much better, enduring centuries of cultural, political, and economic repression, forced relocation, confinement to reservations, massacres by federal troops, and broken treaties.

As European-American settlers pushed westward in the late 18th century and through the 19th century, land theft of a massive scale ensued. In 1830, 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.)

Fast forward to the 20th century to find that things hadn't gotten much better. Beginning with President Ulysses Grant's 1869 "Peace Policy" and continuing well into the 20th century, more than 100,000 Native Americans were forced by the U.S. government to attend Christian boarding schools that tried to school, and sometimes beat, the Indian out of them. These children were separated from their families for most of the year and forcibly stripped of their language, culture, and customs in an effort to "kill the Indian and save the man". Virtually imprisoned in the schools, the children experienced a devastating litany of abuses, from forced assimilation and grueling labor to widespread sexual and physical abuse. School officials routinely forced children to do arduous work to raise money for staff salaries, and "leased out" students during the summers to farm or work as domestics for white families. In addition to bringing in income, the hard labor prepared the children to take their place in white society - the only one open to them - on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

Those who remained on the reservations 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, high school drop-out, and teen pregnancy amongst ethnic groups in the U.S. - a trend that continues to this day.

This Thanksgiving, please take a moment to reflect on the fact that Native American history comprises so much more than just some stereotype caricature sidekicks to macho cowboy movie heroes. They are human beings, and they were here first.

A happy and peaceful Thanksgiving to all. During this holiday week and always, I am truly thankful for your support.

23 November 2010

Who needs START when we've got Sarah?

A group of Republican Senators, led by Jon Kyle (R-AZ), has been trying to block ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The treaty would reduce U.S. and Russian weapons stockpiles and provide protocols for ongoing verification of compliance.

Some right-wing media have also joined the anti-START chorus.

I guess they miss the dangerous excitement of the Cold War.

Or maybe they figure we don't need START since we've got Sarah Palin. After all, she can see Russia from her house, so she can keep an eye on their nukes.

22 November 2010

In terror prosecution cases, justice does not mean convictions

On November 17, in federal court in New York City, Guantanamo detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was convicted of a single charge of conspiracy in connection with the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. He was acquitted of 284 other counts against him. Ghailani was the first Gitmo detainee to be tried in federal court rather than a military commission. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for January.

Some on the right are pointing to the acquittals as proof that trying terrorism suspects in a civilian court does not work. But these critics are conveniently ignoring the fact that four other defendants in the same bombings had been sentenced in 2001 - also in federal court - to life in prison without parole. Ghailani could face a similar sentence, and will serve at least a minimum of 20 years.

They also misconstrue the fact that some evidence in the case - specifically, information obtained under torture - was inadmissible in the case. This is routine in credible legal systems, since experts agree that torture does not produce reliable intelligence. After all, under torture, the victim is likely to say whatever he thinks his torturer wants to hear, in order to make the pain stop.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents a number of Guantanamo detainees, believes that the civilian court system is imperfect but still more just than the military commissions. CCR issued the following statement in response to the Ghailani verdict: "CCR questions the ability of anyone who is Muslim to receive a truly fair trial in any American judicial forum post-9/11. Both the military commission system and federal criminal trials have serious flaws. However, on balance the Ghailani verdict shows that federal criminal trials are far superior to military commissions for the simple yet fundamental reason that they prohibit evidence obtained by torture. If anyone is unsatisfied with Ghailani's acquittal on 284 counts, they should blame the CIA agents who tortured him." Indeed, and the Bush-Cheney administration that authorized the abuse.

Joanne Mariner, counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch, also questions the military commission system's competence. "The federal court system has been tested over time, while the military commissions are making things up as they go along," said Mariner.

Daphne Eviatar, of Human Rights First, agrees. "The questions [Ghailani's] verdict raise are why the government has not tried all terror suspects in federal court and when will the government announce additional prosecutions," said Eviatar. "I have watched the hearings at Guantanamo and Ghailani's trial in New York. What strikes me is how efficient, fair, and transparent the federal court prosecution was in contrast to the recent Khadr decision at Guantanamo which left one with the uneasy feeling of justice gone awry. The military commissions remain rife with constitutional defects. Federal courts have far more legal tools to prosecute terror suspects."

Rob Freer, Amnesty International's USA researcher, addressed the critics' attitude as follows: "If the only procedure that critics of ordinary criminal trials would accept is one that guarantees convictions regardless of the evidence, then what has been demonstrated is a gross failure on their part to commit to the most basic principles of fairness."

So President Obama now faces an important choice: Appeasing the right vs. doing what's right.

Choosing the latter is the only way he'll be able to keep his campaign promise, albeit too late, of closing Guantanamo and returning this nation to the rule of law.

And it's the only way he'll be seen as leading, not following, his critics.

19 November 2010

Philly Eagles stadium to be greenest in the world

I am not a sports fan, but I like what the Philadelphia Eagles are up to these days when they're not playing football: They're transforming Lincoln Financial Field into what will be the most energy-efficient stadium in the world.

They are installing 100 spiral-shaped wind turbines, 2,500 solar panels, and a cogeneration power plant that can run on biodiesel.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, "the three sources will fully power any game, even as the stadium lights blaze, and the sound system blasts."

"In effect, the team will be off the grid," reports the Inquirer, "although the system will remain tethered to feed unneeded juice back into the grid."

Over time, the investment will pay for itself. According to the Inquirer, "[t]he team expects to save $60 million in energy costs over the next two decades."

The renovations are expected to be completed by opening day next September.

Go Eagles!

18 November 2010

Senate Republicans block Paycheck Fairness Act

Yesterday, Senate Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act from even coming to an up-or-down vote.

According to the National Organization for Women (NOW), "[t]he Paycheck Fairness Act would have closed loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and strengthened it by creating incentives for employers to follow the law. Additionally, the [A]ct would have assisted women in negotiating for better pay and promotion, furthered skill trainings for girls and women, restarted key research on the wage gap and tracked businesses' compliance with the law. Critically important, the Act would have prohibited retaliation against employees when salary information is shared."

NOW continued: "Women are now half of the paid workforce, but as the recession continues, many women find that their family financial circumstances have changed. An unprecedented number of women are family breadwinners due to deeper unemployment rates among men -- making pay equity essential not simply to the economic security of families but also to the nation's economic recovery."

I wonder how those Senators will explain to their wives, sisters, and daughters that women don't deserve equal pay for equal work?

17 November 2010

PA state legislature passes "shoot now, ask questions later" bill

On November 15, the Pennsylvania state legislature completed passage of H.B. 1926 and sent it to Governor Ed Rendell for his consideration.

This bill "[provides] for civil immunity for [lethal] use of force" in self protection. Specifically, this bill would make it legal for gun owners to shoot (and kill) anyone trespassing on their property or trying to break into their car. It would also make it legal to shoot (and kill) anyone on the street who is perceived to be a threat, even if the shooter could easily and safely leave the situation. It's a paranoid gun nut's dream come true.

And here's the trick: The bill is attached to another measure that would strengthen Megan's Law. So, if Governor Rendell vetoes the bill, he could (and likely would) be accused by his opponents of sympathizing with child molesters.

But it gets worse: In January, we get a new governor, the ultra-conservative Tom Corbett. If the bill does not make it past Rendell's desk before he leaves office, I have no doubt that Corbett would sign the bill without hesitation if the state legislature passes it again next year.

So I suppose I'll just have to practice looking harmless and unthreatening. Wish me luck on that.

16 November 2010

Lame ducks and taxes

Congress's lame duck session started yesterday and the media have been focusing on the likely fights in store over the renewal of Bush's tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of the year if no action is taken.

President Obama and most Democrats would like to renew the tax cuts only for those making under $250,000. The Republicans, of course, along with some Dems, want to renew the tax cuts even for the wealthier people making more than $250,000.

Repealing the tax cuts for the wealthy would help to pay down the deficit. But the deficit hawks in Congress would rather cut services to the "little people" (if indeed they do want to balance the budget rather than just shout about it). They don't work for us, they work for the CEOs.

Will Obama and the Dems cave in to the Republicans? Rumors abound, but only time will tell for sure.

This is an opportunity for Obama to show some leadership and work hard against extending the tax cuts for the wealthy. If all else fails, he could let the extensions expire for everyone and we would all end up paying more. The Republicans could be blamed for that, due to their stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise on the side of true fiscal responsibility. That could ultimately translate into some campaign points, if only Obama and the Dems could get that message across in the next campaign cycle.

But, alas, I think we all learned this past election season that the Dems don't have a flair for effectively getting their message to the people.

15 November 2010

In Mumia case, judges argue penalty and sidestep justice

On November 9, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia heard arguments on whether Mumia Abu-Jamal, Pennsylvania's most famous death row inmate, should have his original death sentence reinstated or serve life in prison without parole. Abu-Jamal had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

Abu-Jamal's latest hearing was the result of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court back in January, 2010, to throw out an earlier Third Circuit ruling that had rescinded his death sentence because of flawed jury instructions in his original trial. The issue involves how jurors were to weigh various mitigating factors that may have resulted in a sentence other than the death penalty.

The Supreme Court ordered the appellate court to reconsider its decision in light of a similar case in Ohio, in which the high court had reinstated the death sentence, saying that jurors do not need to agree unanimously on mitigating factors.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a decision from the Third Circuit is "not expected before 2011."

Meanwhile, as the judiciary reconsiders the penalty, many are questioning the legitimacy of the original trial that led to Abu-Jamal's conviction.

A 2000 report by Amnesty International noted that "numerous aspects of this case clearly failed to meet minimum international standards safeguarding the fairness of legal proceedings." Amnesty expressed concerns about judicial bias and hostility, police misconduct, and the apparent withholding of evidence from the jury. Amnesty called for new trial "in a neutral venue, where the case has not polarized the public as it has in Philadelphia."

And, in 2009, the 95th annual convention of the NAACP passed an emergency resolution calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the cases of Abu-Jamal and some other prisoners.

A coalition of organizations and activists then followed the NAACP's lead and delivered more than 25,000 letters to the Justice Department, calling for a civil rights investigation into the Abu-Jamal case. This was accompanied by a press conference that included representatives of the NAACP, the National Lawyers Guild, Amnesty International, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, the Riverside Church Prison Ministry, and other groups.

To date, the Justice Department appears to have ignored the matter.

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

At the same time, there are many people here in the Philadelphia area, and probably elsewhere, who want to believe that Abu-Jamal is guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, and who are calling for his prompt execution. They say that his execution will finally bring closure to Faulkner's family and his colleagues in the Philadelphia Police Department.

But I ask them this: How can true closure be achieved unless we are absolutely certain that justice was served in a fair and unbiased manner?

Without that, we're not looking at justice, but rather at a case of reckless revenge against a conveniently controversial character.

And that seems downright un-American.

12 November 2010

DOMA goes to court

Again the ACLU boldly stands up for civil rights and equality: The organization, along with other counsel, has filed a lawsuit against the federal government challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA defines marriage for all federal purposes as a legal union between a man and a woman.

The case, Windsor v. United States, was brought on behalf of Edith "Edie" Windsor, who in 2009 lost her spouse of 44 years, Thea Spyer. According to the ACLU, Windsor and Spyer had gotten married in Canada in 2007, and "were considered married by their home state of New York." But, because of DOMA, explains the ACLU, "Windsor was not able to claim the estate tax marital deduction that is available when the surviving spouse is of the opposite sex. In her lawsuit, Windsor is seeking to have DOMA declared unconstitutional and to obtain a refund of the federal estate tax that she was forced to pay following Spyer's death."

The ACLU notes that another lawsuit raising the same legal challenge to DOMA has been filed in federal court in Hartford, CT. "Brought by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders," the ACLU explains, "that case includes five married couples and one widower from three states who are harmed by DOMA in a variety of significant ways, including denial of health care coverage and social security benefits."

These cases will likely be tied up in the courts for years. But they're a good start, especially since we cannot expect the new Congress to do anything about it.

>> Learn more about Windsor v. United States.

11 November 2010

Gay and lesbian troops sacrifice more

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

On this day, I want to thank all our veterans for the sacrifices they have made for our country.

And I especially want to thank our gay and lesbian veterans. It seems to me that they must sacrifice even more than their straight colleagues, because they must deny their own true identities under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".

And that just doesn't seem fair.

Will "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" remained forever stalled in the Senate?

Will it die there as the Obama administration shamelessly challenges court rulings that have struck down the policy?

Will our gay and lesbian service members ever see some change they can believe in?

10 November 2010

Justice Dept says no criminal charges for destroyed torture videos

The Justice Department again fails to address the torture of detainees under the Bush administration: On Tuesday, November 9, they decided against filing charges against CIA personnel who had destroyed videotapes of "harsh interrogations" of terrorism suspects.

According to Reuters, "The CIA has said it needed to destroy the tapes to guard against leaks that could endanger interrogators, but critics accused the agency of covering up illegal acts."

Couldn't they have guarded against leaks by locking the videos in a secure location instead of destroying the evidence? And didn't this all happen long before any of us ever heard of Wikileaks?

On a related note, Prosecutor John Durham, who led this "investigation", is also looking into "possible wrongdoing by CIA employees or contractors for harsh interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan that went beyond approved limits," reports Reuters.

I'm amused by the use of the word "possible" here, since we've all seen pictures showing that prisoner abuse was more than just a possibility. On the other hand, Bush's justice department played semantic games to push the approved limits. Is "just following orders" a good enough excuse? We'll see.

Dixon Osburn of Human Rights First issued the following statement in response to Tuesday's Justice Department decision:

"Accountability is essential to restoring America's credibility as a nation of legal principle and a leader in human rights. We are disappointed that the Justice Department has chosen not to pursue charges in this case, but remain hopeful that the still pending Durham investigation into the actions of CIA interrogators and contractors involved in abusive interrogations will ultimately provide a full, fair, and objective review of allegations of illegal conduct."

I shall not hold my breath.

And, in the meantime, the U.S. dare not try to claim the moral high ground. We lost that even before Abu Ghraib.

09 November 2010

Troy Davis running out of options in life-and-death innocence claim

Troy Davis, an inmate on Georgia's death row, can't seem to get justice. And a new federal appeals court decision makes it clear that he is running out of options.

On November 5, citing federal habeas law, a federal appeals court ruled on a jurisdictional basis that Davis's only recourse at this point is a new appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court "because he had exhausted his other avenues of relief."

Davis is facing the death penalty despite an impressive number of factors that suggest he may be innocent of the murder for which he was convicted: Davis's original trial was flawed. Most of the witnesses have since recanted or contradicted their stories, with many claiming that they had been pressured or coerced by police. And there is no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime. His conviction was based solely on that questionable testimony by witnesses.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered that the new evidence be reviewed in federal court. That happened in June of this year, but U.S. District Court Judge William T. Moore Jr. ruled in August that Davis failed to prove his innocence. Unlike his original trial, in which the prosecution (theoretically) had to prove guilt, in this evidentiary hearing the onus was on Davis's attorneys to clearly prove his innocence. That amounts to trying to prove a negative.

So what now?

According to Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog, "Davis filed a notice that he would file a new appeal to the Supreme Court but also filed a separate appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, to cover all possible routes. So far, a new appeal has not yet been docketed in the Supreme Court."

So stay tuned.

The Troy Davis case makes a good argument for repeal of the death penalty in the U.S. It illustrates how procedural issues and judicial discretion can block the fair and thorough review of innocence claims, thereby risking the execution of an innocent person. That, I contend, cannot be called justice.

08 November 2010

The child soldier and Gitmo's kangaroo court

In October, a U.S. military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay sentenced Omar Khadr to 40 years in prison. A plea deal reduced his sentence to eight years. Under the deal, Khadr pled guilty to five charges, including murder and conspiracy to engage in terrorism.

What sets this apart from other terrorism cases is that Khadr was only 15 years old when he was arrested on an Afghan battlefield. He is also a Canadian citizen.

Because of his young age at the time of his arrest, Khadr has been recognized as a child soldier by the United Nations. As such, international standards prescribe that he be protected and rehabilitated, not prosecuted and abused.

Human Rights First explains: "In 2002, the U.S. ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which prohibits the use of children under 18 in armed conflict and requires signatories to criminalize such conduct and rehabilitate former child soldiers as well as provide 'all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.' ."

But then, this is America in the age of the "war on terror", where human rights no longer seem to apply.

And the denial of Khadr's rights is nothing new.

Upon his arrival in U.S. custody, Khadr was allegedly subjected to harsh interrogations, beatings, and other ill-treatment. Interrogators allegedly threatened to kill Khadr's family if he didn't cooperate. This is how we treat our children in captivity.

And, despite the fact that confessions and other information obtained under torture and other forms of coercion are known to be unreliable, the judge in the case decided to admit it all into evidence anyway. So the deck was already stacked against Khadr at trial.

Amnesty International had this to say about the outcome: "Plea deals, while doubtless an efficient method for dispensing with cases quickly, do not always represent justice being done. They resemble more closely a high stakes game of poker - the defendant reviews his cards and then decides whether to bet on the hand he has been dealt or cut his losses by folding."

Amnesty continues: "The added twist at the Military Commissions is that the house gets to make the rules and stack the deck. Khadr had already written to Judge Parrish expressing his lack of faith that he could receive a fair trial. It seems that, having studied his cards, he decided to fold after all."

So there you have it: At Guantanamo Bay, "justice" is just a high-stakes poker game for brown-skinned males of all ages. Human rights be damned.

This is what America now stands for. And what George W. Bush began, Barack Obama continues.

06 November 2010

Olbermann broke a rule

Yesterday we learned that MSNBC had suspended "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann indefinitely without pay. This was because Olbermann had recently contributed money to three political candidates without obtaining the necessary prior permission from management.

The Internet is all atwitter (pun unintended), with bloggers and petitions calling for Olbermann's immediate reinstatement.

I, too, would like to see Olbermann back on the air in time for Monday night's show. But my reason is a selfish one -- I enjoy his commentary and his passion for progressive values, and, well, I miss him when he's not on the air.

But I recognize that he broke a rule, and punishment is appropriate. After all, Olbermann has himself criticized Fox News hosts who cross a line in promoting GOP candidates.

And therein lies the difference, as Olbermann's colleague Rachel Maddow pointed out during her own MSNBC show last night.

Danny Shea summarizes at the Huffington Post:
"Let this incident lay to rest forever the facile, never-true-anyway, bull-pucky, lazy conflation of Fox News and what the rest of us do for a living," [Maddow] said. "I know everybody likes to say, 'Oh, that's cable news, it's all the same. Fox and MSNBC, mirror images of each other.' Let this lay that to rest forever. Hosts on Fox raise money for Republican candidates. They endorse them explicitly, they use their Fox News profile to headline fundraisers. Heck, there are multiple people being paid by Fox News now to essentially run for office as Republican candidates.... They can do that because there's no rule against that as Fox. They run as a political operation; we're not."
It speaks highly of MSNBC to have acted on the side of ethics instead of letting their biggest ratings grabber go undisciplined for what may be perceived as a conflict of interest.

Perhaps the best next move would be for MSNBC to put Olbermann back on the air as soon as possible, but require that he open his program with a sincere, heartfelt apology.

After all, as Maddow also noted, "the point has been made."

05 November 2010

Lies, money, and the fate of our liberty

The November 2 elections whittled away at the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate and gave the Republicans control once again of the House of Representatives.

So what prompted so many people to vote for the GOP -- the very same party that got this nation into the current economic mess?

Two things that go hand in hand: Lies and money.

The lies came via the campaign ads and partisan propaganda. The money to pay for them came from the corporations to whom the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the keys to the floodgates through its decision in a little case known as Citizens United. Big business can now pump unlimited funds into the election process to further its own interests, little people be damned.

To convince the voter of the need to vote Republican, and thereby preserve the greedy comfort of the very rich, the ads twist reality better than any circus contortionist.

I've heard ads slamming Democrats for supporting "Obama's bank bailout" -- even though it was actually Bush's bank bailout.

I've heard ads slamming Democrats for supporting "Obama's auto bailout" -- even though it was actually Bush's idea.

I've heard ads slamming Democrats for supporting "Obama's tax increases" -- even though Obama actually cut most people's taxes.

I've heard ads slamming Democrats for supporting "government-run health care" -- even though the same old greedy insurance companies will still be running it, and even though people love their government-run Medicare.

On a similar note, I've heard ads slamming "Obamacare" as if there's something wrong with wanting insurers to cover children with pre-existing conditions.

And I've heard ads slamming "Obamacare" as if there's something wrong with wanting insurers to continue your coverage when you get sick and really need it.

The ads are designed to appeal to emotion (usually fear), to strike the audience at a primal level that bypasses the filter of critical thought. It's a technique that folks like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have mastered quite profitably.

And it's a technique that works because it's much harder to think independently than it is to passively absorb whatever Fox News and the campaign airwaves happen to throw your way.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "Convinced that the people are the only safe depositories of their own liberty, and that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree, I have looked on our present state of liberty as a short-lived possession unless the mass of the people could be informed to a certain degree."

I don't think Jefferson had the Fox News kind of "information" in mind, nor the kind of "enlightenment" that comes with corporate-sponsored campaign propaganda.

And so, by Jefferson's own reasoning, we appear to be reaching the end of true liberty -- if we really ever had it at all.

04 November 2010

Is Corbett the new Christie?

In January, Pennsylvania will have a new governor. Democrat Ed Rendell will be replaced by conservative Republican Tom Corbett.

In his victory speech on Tuesday night, Corbett hailed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as a role model.

So what has this role model done for the Garden State since taking office in January of this year? Let's take a look and see what kinds of things we might have to look forward to here in the Keystone State:

• He slashed funds for education and various other public services that benefit the "little people", while at the same time giving huge tax breaks to New Jerseyans making more than $400,000 per year.

• He "took a wrecking ball to the state's touted Global Warming Response Act," according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Specifically, says PEER, the Christie administration "has blocked required reporting from greenhouse gas sources, diverted $300 million in Clean Energy Funds dedicated to energy efficiency and proposed to zero out the state’s Office of Climate Change and Energy."

• Then he vetoed a bill that would have provided $7.5 million for women's health clinics around the state, causing some 40,000 low-income women to lose services such as birth control and health screenings because of the cut.

You see, it's all about eliminating what's inconvenient for big business and instead inconveniencing the rest of us.

After all, we little people can't afford to fight back.

Or at least that's what the plutocrats are counting on.

03 November 2010

Red state blues

Yesterday I lived in a blue state. This morning, Pennsylvania feels more like a red state.

Our Democratic Governor Ed Rendell will be replaced in January by Republican Tom Corbett.

And ultra-conservative Republican Pat Toomey narrowly beat Democrat Joe Sestak for the U.S. Senate seat.

At a national level, the Democrats will retain a (smaller) majority in the U.S. Senate, but control of the House will go to the GOP. John Boehner is expected to be the next Speaker of the House.

And the gridlock in Congress will continue and perhaps get worse.

What were voters thinking? Didn't they get enough of those Republican "values" during the eight years of the Bush-Cheney administration?

As disappointed as many of us have been with the lack of sufficient progress during President Obama's first two years in office, I think soon we'll be looking back at them as the good old days.

02 November 2010

Vote today. Vote blue. No excuses.

No matter how frustrated and disillusioned you are with the Obama administration's inability (so far) to enact as much change as we may have hoped for, please vote today, and vote Democrat. And please encourage every reasonable person you know to do so as well.

If not, the Tea Party candidates and other Republicans could win and set this nation on a backward course for years. After all, they seem to want to repeal all the progress of the 20th Century. Is that a chance you really want to take?

The right is fired up, and they will be voting.

If you do not vote blue today, don't you dare complain if the Republicans win. After all, it will be your fault.

01 November 2010

The party of thugs

On October 25, a defenseless female MoveOn.org volunteer was assaulted outside the site of a Kentucky Senatorial debate. While engaged in street theater trying to get Rand Paul's attention, Lauren Valle was pushed to the ground by some of Paul's supporters, and then one of them stomped on her head. She ended up with a concussion.

A month earlier, on September 23, a male Sharron Angle supporter pushed a female Harry Reid supporter and then punched her female friend in the face at a Nevada Senatorial debate.

I do not see these as two isolated incidents. I see them as two very disturbing symptoms of a new culture of hatred and violence on the far right.

We saw it brewing last March, when Tea Partiers greeted members of the Congressional Black Caucus by hurling the N-word at them. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver was spat on in the incident. Then they shouted "faggot" at openly gay Rep. Barney Frank.

At least those right-wing protesters were unarmed, as far as I know. But, also that month, ABC News reported that "at least 10 House Democrats received violent threats to their lives or property."

At a protest in Washington, DC, last year, a Tea Partier was spotted with a sign that read: "We came unarmed (this time)". T-shirts are available online that sport the same threatening slogan.

But that line had already been crossed. In the backlash to President Obama's inauguration last year, some people showed up at town hall meetings with loaded guns. And sales of guns and ammunition surged, as did the number of death threats against Obama.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that some Republican leaders are encouraging this kind of thing, either directly or indirectly.

We have Sarah Palin tweeting to her followers, "Don't Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!" On her Facebook page was a U.S. map marking the locations of 20 House Democrats who voted for the health care bill and who represent districts that the Republicans carried in 2008. The 20 locations were marked with crosshairs.

We have Sharron Angle suggesting "Second Amendment remedies" if the elections don't turn out as the Tea Partiers would hope.

And, ironically, we have Glenn Beck warning his followers of impending violence from the left. This, of course, serves to convince the Tea Partiers that their own violent acts are all in self-defense.

But might does not make right. And we do not have true democracy if political opponents are kept down by force of violence. What we have instead is the threat of mob rule. And I don't think that's what the Founding Fathers had in mind for this country.