29 April 2012

In abolishing the death penalty, Connecticut joins the civilized world

On April 25, with a stroke of the governor's pen, Connecticut became the 17th U.S. state to abolish the death penalty - and the fifth state to do so in five years. This reflects a growing momentum to end capital punishment in the U.S., which is the only major industrialized Western nation that still claims for itself the "right" to kill its citizens. The death penalty has already been abolished in all European countries except for Belarus. In fact, today over two-thirds of the world's nations have ended capital punishment in law or practice. This global trend towards abolition of the death penalty reflects the growing awareness that there are alternative punishments that are effective and which do not involve state-sponsored killing.

By retaining the death penalty on a federal level and in many states, the U.S. finds itself aligned on this issue primarily with known hotbeds of human rights violations such as Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. This is the company we keep.

But there are better reasons to abolish the death penalty nationwide - and worldwide - than just following the trend.

Studies in several states have shown that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory, arbitrary, and uneven manner, and is used disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor. For example, a 1998 study of death sentences in Philadelphia found that African-American defendants were almost four times more likely to receive the death penalty than were people of other ethnic origins who committed similar crimes. That's not justice, it's discrimination.

In addition to its biased application, the death penalty is demonstrably not a deterrent. According to Amnesty International, "FBI data shows that all 14 states without capital punishment in 2008 had homicide rates at or below the national rate."

Also, execution is irreversible, which is a huge problem, given so many cases of death row inmates who have been exonerated after conviction, based on DNA or other evidence. How many other innocent persons were not lucky enough to be proven innocent prior to their executions? We know of at least a few.

Some people argue that the death penalty is the only way to bring closure to a murder victim's family. But not all such families agree. In fact, so many families oppose the death penalty that some have formed organizations such as Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, through which they actively work to abolish the death penalty. As noted on the latter organization's website, "MVFHR members have come in different ways and times to the understanding that the death penalty does not help us heal and is not the way to pursue justice for victims."

Amnesty International describes the death penalty as "the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights."

And, for those of you who subscribe to a Judeo-Christian faith, consider the commandment that "thou shalt not kill." That commandment bears no caveat indicating that it's acceptable to kill a killer.

Clearly, the death penalty does not represent justice. It represents revenge - sometimes misdirected revenge.

Shouldn't we as a society be above that sort of thing?

24 April 2012

Another problem with the voter ID law

Like several other states, Pennsylvania now has a voter ID law, which requires voters to show a photo ID before they will be permitted to vote. While the new Pennsylvania law doesn't take effect until the November elections, voters for the April 24 primary were asked for ID as a "dry run", although lack of an ID at the primary did not disqualify anyone from voting.

As I was showing the poll worker my driver's license to vote in the Pennsylvania primary, I asked her if many people had shown up without a valid ID. She said no. She said that there had only been a few people who had left their IDs in their cars and had to go back to get them.

But we agreed that this was no indication of how things will go in November. For the primary, the polling place was practically empty, compared to November of 2008, when I got there at 7:00 a.m. and the line was already an hour long.

Opponents of the voter ID law say that it will disenfranchise voters who don't drive and don't have an easy way to obtain a government-issued photo ID. And they point out that those people most likely to be disenfranchised also tend to vote Democratic. They also point out that cases of actual polling place fraud are extremely rare.

And this primary test run showed me another problem with the new law: It takes more time to check in at the polling place. Previously, I would just have to give my name, wait for the poll worker to find me alphabetically in the registration book, and then sign by the "X". This time, in addition to that, I had to dig my wallet out of my purse, dig my ID out of my wallet, wait for her to look it over and then write something down about it, put the license back into my wallet, and put the wallet back into my purse.

And I thought about how I waited in line for an hour to vote for Obama in '08, and how much longer that wait would have been if everyone had had to deal with the extra step to prove our identities.

I can only hope that the turnout this November is as good as it was back then, so everyone can see this extra problem caused by this unnecessary new law.

After all, you don't have to produce your ID until you've made it to the front of the line.

22 April 2012

Things you can do on this Earth Day 2012 (and beyond)

Today, April 22, is Earth Day.

On this day, there are many things you can do to show your respect for the earth and its environment. Here are some ideas, repeated from last year's Earth Day blog post, since they're all still as relevant as ever (and so easy to do):

Say no to plastic bags: There are enough plastic bags in the landfills and in the oceans. If you haven't done so already, please invest in some reusable canvas bags and take them with you whenever you go shopping. You'll look cool and you'll help the planet.

Say no to bottled water: It's less regulated - and therefore possibly lower quality - than tap water, and the plastic bottles they come in are a whole other horror story. Instead, invest in a reusable stainless steel bottle, and refill it with plain or filtered tap water. It's better for the planet, better for your health, and better for your wallet.

Go meatless for a day: A 2006 United Nations report called the meat industry "one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." According to the website goveg.com, eating 1 pound of meat emits the same amount of greenhouse gasses as driving an SUV 40 miles. So try going meatless on Earth Day. Then expand it to a once-a-week "Meatless Monday" - or more.

Do you have more ideas for simple things we can do to show our respect for this wonderful planet? Share them in a comment, and they could be included in next year's Earth Day post!

17 April 2012

April 17 is Equal Pay Day 2012 (and women are still not paid fairly)

Today, April 17, is Equal Pay Day 2012. This date symbolizes how far into the year a woman must work, on average, to catch up with what the average man earned in 2011 here in the U.S.

In anticipation of Equal Pay Day, the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) last week released a set of fact sheets that shine a light on the wage gap in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. These facts show that the typical woman working full-time is, on average, still paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to the typical man. The data reveals that the wage gap exists in every state and persists across races, education, and occupations, with very few exceptions.

It's interesting to note that women outnumber men on college campuses, but are still paid less on average. Education aside, it's still a man's world, where women are just not worth as much.

"In almost 50 years, the wage gap has only budged 18 cents," said NWLC Co-President Marcia D. Greenberger. "When women are struggling to regain jobs in the recovery and families are relying increasingly on women's wages, it's especially critical to end the pay gap for women. Since lost wages cut deeply into a family's budget, equal pay is not an abstract principle for women and their families. It's key to their survival."

Indeed. But those who sign the paychecks just don't seem to care.

>> Read about the wage gap in your state.

10 April 2012

Verdict postponed in Rachel Corrie lawsuit

The announcement of a verdict in the civil lawsuit against the State of Israel for the death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie has been postponed due to delays in the filing of closing arguments. It had originally been scheduled for late April.

The lawsuit was filed in 2005 on behalf of the Corrie family. Rachel Corrie was crushed to death in 2003 by a US-made Caterpillar D9 military bulldozer in Rafah while acting as a human shield, trying to stop the unlawful demolition of a Palestinian home. She was 23 years old.

Stay tuned for updates.

09 April 2012

New HRW report on extrajudicial executions in Syria

Today, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 23-page report documenting the extrajudicial execution by Syrian security forces of more than 100 people since late 2011.

According to HRW, government and pro-government forces not only executed opposition fighters they had captured, or who had otherwise stopped fighting and posed no threat, but also civilians who likewise posed no threat to the security forces.

As a result of these findings, HRW calls on the Syrian government to immediately stop and condemn these and other human rights violations by the security forces and pro-government militias, and to bring existing perpetrators to justice.

HRW also urges the UN Security Council to demand that Syria immediately end the human rights abuses committed by government forces, authorize the deployment of a UN mission to follow up, and refer the situation to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Under the principle of universal jurisdiction, HRW calls on the other countries of the world to investigate and prosecute members of the Syrian military and civilian leadership suspected of committing international crimes.

Stay tuned, with fingers crossed for justice and an end to the brutality.

For more information:

>> Download the report or view a summary

01 April 2012

Freedom of religion cannot be exclusive

In recent years, the religious right have moved even farther to the right - to the fringes. Some have even expanded their war on women's reproductive rights to where they are condemning contraception. They even held Congressional hearings on the subject. This is despite the fact that 99 percent of American women who have ever had sex have used contraception, including 98 percent of Catholic women.

When policies were passed that require insurance companies to cover contraception (which, by the way, saves the insurers money, as birth control is a lot cheaper than pregnancy and obstetric costs), they screamed that the government is interfering with their religious freedom.

That is nonsense.

What government is really interfering with is the right's ability to impose their own religious beliefs on those of us who believe differently. What the government is doing is what freedom is really all about.

Freedom of religion in this country means freedom for all religions - not just the religion of the most vocal contingent. And it is also meant to protect us from tyranny of the religious majority. After all, it is that kind of religious tyranny that this nation's Founding Fathers sought to escape when they cut ties with England and spelled out specifically in the First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In other words, while the Christian right are free to exercise their own religious beliefs, so are those of us who see things differently. Their right to practice their religion ends at my own right to reject their religion in favor a different set of views. Still, they try to shove their own so-called values down our throats in the name of Jesus, who would surely be rolling His eyes.

Freedom of religion means going to your church and observing your own religious customs while allowing others the same liberties - even (indeed, especially) - if their beliefs and customs are different from yours.

Freedom of religion means not using birth control - or having an abortion - if you think it is wrong, but respecting the fact that those who do are breaking no law (and deserve no shaming).

Freedom of religion means building your church on one corner and tolerating a temple, synagogue, or mosque that might spring up across the street (even in lower Manhattan).

And freedom of religion means facing the fact that no religion is perfect, and that every religion has its saints and its sinners. It is unfair to blame all Muslims for the 9/11 attack, just as it would be unfair to blame all Christians for the 1996 Olympic Park bombing. For every Osama bin Laden, there is an Eric Rudolph.

As a wise man once put it, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."