Sunday, November 30, 2003

An update

More on the bombings in Turkey:
Ankara, Turkey, Nov. 29 - A suspect in the bombing of a Turkish synagogue was charged Saturday with attempting to overthrow Turkey’s "constitutional order by force," the Anatolia news agency reported. The charge amounts to treason and is punishable by life in prison. ...

Anatolia did not say why the court charged the man with treason. But leaders of outlawed groups that aim to overthrow the system have been charged with treason in the past. ...

Turkish officials have said all four suicide bombers were Turkish nationals, militants with international contacts. Newspapers have said some of them could have been trained in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan or Iran.

Western and Turkish officials say the attacks bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida.

Newspaper reports have said police were conducting DNA tests to confirm the identity of the bomber who blew up a pickup truck outside the British bank. Newspapers identified the man as Habib Aktas, a Turk from the southeastern city of Mardin.

Hurriyet, a leading Turkish newspaper, said Aktas was wanted by police in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir for questioning since 1995 over his alleged involvement in the outlawed radical Islamic group, Hizballah. The group is bears the same name as the better known group based in Lebanon, but is unrelated. ...

At least two of the 20 suspects charged in the bombings were alleged members of Beyyiat el-Imam, a little-known group formed in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan whose name is Arabic for "Allegiance to the Imam," news reports have said.
Frankly, it's looking to me more and more as though my original suspicion was right: The bombings were home-grown, an attack on Turkey by Turkish fanatics with no operational connection to al-Qaeda. Some training, possibly; inspiration, undoubtedly. But this was not an al-Qaeda attack.

There are two issues I see with the determination to find an al-Qaeda link shown in the above item. (Just what are these "hallmarks," anyway?) One is, as I said before, the risk of reversing the cliche and "failing to see the trees for the forest," that is, of overlooking very real threats because you're too busy looking for sweeping international conspiracies. The other is, that may be the actual intent: to deny the existence of internal opposition by pointing to "foreigners." The former risks lives foolishly, the latter selfishly - but in both cases, it is the innocent who will pay the price.

We knew it all the time

The New York Times' review of "The Reagans," the made-for-TV movie that sent the rabid right into such paroxysms of fury because, they'd heard, the portrayal of RR was something less than fawningly adulatory and which CBS then sent packing off to Showtime, describes it as
a movie. More precisely, it is a made-for-television movie that squeezes real life characters and historical moments into a convenient dramatic arc: a love story lived out against a backdrop of the cold war, California politics and Washington intrigue. "The Reagans" is reasonably accurate, at times engrossing, at other times silly and sometimes even dull. It is not a thoughtful look at a critical moment in American history. It is a domestic drama about a loving couple beset by Hollywood agents, Republican backers, scheming advisers and, most of all, their angry, needy children.
Which means that what CBS claimed was a "moral decision" to pull the show was in fact an act of cowardice, a spineless cave-in to the screeching carrion-eaters. (I say this like it's a surprise....)

Traditional values

Pushing their tax-exempt status to the very limits, the Roman Catholic bishops of Massachusetts have issued a "strongly worded letter to be read at Mass this weekend," in which they
are telling parishioners that a state court decision supporting gay marriage is a "national tragedy" that could "erode even further the institution of marriage." ...

Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley and Bishops Thomas Dupre, Daniel P. Reilly and George Coleman also complained that the state high court ruling promotes "divisions in society by villainizing as bigotry the legitimate defense of thousands of years of tradition.

"Marriage is a gift of God ... it is not just one lifestyle among many," the bishops wrote in the letter, which was published in the Boston Archdiocese's newspaper, The Pilot.
While the Bishops's condemnation of the Supreme Judicial Court ruling does go against public opinion in the state, the fact remains the Catholic Church in Massachusetts is both politically potent and socially conservative. It does seem odd, however, for the Church, which is - irritatingly - progressive on a number of issues, to declare that moving toward equal rights for all promotes "divisions."

On the other hand, the argument of "tradition" does have some weight. I mean, be fair, this is indeed an institution whose defenders can argue against change by pointing to "thousands of years of tradition" and numerous Biblical references, so -

Oh, wait, I'm sorry, I was thinking of slavery. My bad.

The news giveth and the news taketh away

A small songbird believed to have become extinct more than a century ago has been found alive and well in Fiji.

A team from BirdLife International discovered the bird, the long-legged warbler, after hearing its distinctive and haunting call in a mountain valley.

BirdLife says the 12 pairs of warblers it has seen are safe for the moment in their remote home in the dense forest. ...

Only four specimens were collected, between 1890 and 1894, since when there had been no confirmed sightings of the bird. Despite unconfirmed sightings within the last 20 years, BirdLife believed the warbler was extinct.

But a year into a survey of Fiji's rare birds, funded by the UK's Darwin Initiative, it turned up again on Viti Levu, the largest island in the group.
However, the article also notes that mongooses, which were introduced to the islands to control rats, "have caused the extinction of all of the ground-nesting birds on the main Fijian islands."

The fourth Doctor called humans "quite my favorite species." (Bonus points for knowing what I'm talking about.) But it does seem sometimes that we screw up whatever we touch. For example the Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN) has 12,259 varieties of animal, plant and water life on its "Red List" of critically-endangered species. The list ranges from Colombian spider monkeys to 21 species of albatross, dozens of types of shark, and an astonishing variety of flora.
And, according to the inter-governmental organization which works with civil society groups and scientists around the globe, it is largely the fault of humans.

"Places such as the Galapagos, Hawaii and the Seychelles are famed for their beauty, their diversity of plants, animals and ecosystems," said IUCN Director General Achim Steiner, introducing the 2003 list.

"But the Red List tells us that human activities are leading to a swathe of extinctions that could make these islands ecologically and aesthetically barren."

The IUCN said studies show that Indonesia, Brazil, China and Peru have the highest number of endangered birds and mammals while plants are most under threat in Ecuador, Malaysia and Sri Lanka as well as in Indonesia and Brazil.

All are countries where industrialization, forest clearance and tourism have developed rapidly in recent decades. ...

There was a similar picture on the islands of Hawaii where there has been rapid housing development, hotel construction and intensive farming. "The future for Hawaiian flora looks grim," the IUCN said.

The spider monkey in Colombia and Venezuela, and its black howler cousin in Mexico, have been driven into smaller and smaller areas by urban growth, agriculture and cattle ranching.

And the population of the Giant Catfish of Southeast Asia's Mekong River, which grows up to 10 feet long and can weigh 660 pounds, has dropped by 80 percent since 1990 from over-fishing and blocking of its migratory routes by dams.
It's sometimes a hard call between human needs and preservation of species - but frankly, most of the time it's not. Most of the time the destruction of habitat, the loss of diversity, the increasing risk of unforeseen ecological consequences, arise because alternatives are either ignored out of habit or laziness or regarded as "too expensive" - which usually translates to "somebody's making beaucoup bucks doing it this way." Even so, the IUCN tried to preserve some hope that we would not continue to be so blind to the effects of what we do:
"By working together, we can help conserve what remains of the earth's biodiversity," said Red List compiler Craig Hilton-Taylor.
Perhaps. Perhaps. But I admit I do wonder if such cooperation is something of which we're capable.

Footnote:I was originally alerted to the article about the IUCN report by an item on the MuseNews-Science group on Yahoo! It's worth a look for science buffs, particularly if you're connected to a science museum or interested in working in the field.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Geometry lesson

Commenting on the secrecy and security surrounding Shrub on his Iraqi drop-in, Condoleezza Rice said "Obviously there continues to be a security problem in the triangle around Baghdad."

Yes, a triangle whose three sides are the border with Iran, the border with Turkey and Syria, and the border with Saudi Arabia.


In Counterpunch, Wayne Madsen notes something I had overlooked - and which, as far as I'm aware, no media story made any point of mentioning:
I may be a bit naive, and it has been a while since I served on active duty, but I can't recall ever sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner at 6:00 AM. Air Force One touched down at Baghdad International Airport, under cover of darkness, at 5:20 AM Baghdad time. Bush was on the ground for two and a half hours, his plane departing Baghdad at around 7:50 AM. Considering that it likely took some 30 minutes for Bush to disembark from Air Force One and travel by a heavily secured motorcade to the hangar where the troops were assembled, that means our military men and women were downing turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and non-alcoholic beer at a time when most people would be eating eggs, bacon, grits, home fries, and toast.
This adds to my suspicion that the soldiers at the din - er, breakfast - knew something was up. When I saw the video of Bush's entry, the group was on its feet cheering the instant he appeared from behind the curtain. Even knowing what to expect, I couldn't have so positively identified him that quickly. I'm not saying the soldiers had been told that Bush was coming, but they for damn sure had figured out that someone was - and I'd even be willing to bet, what with the way rumors can fly through a military post, that the notion that Bush was there was afoot in the crowd.

...and spreads...

TalkLeft has a link to the Washington Post's story on Benamar Benatta, who has been held since September 2001, much of that time in solitary confinement, on an immigration charge - even though the FBI concluded just two months after his arrest that he had no connection to terrorism. "Benatta has yet to have his deportation hearing, and he has been unable to post a $25,000.00 bond," TalkLeft says.

What struck me most, however, was this clip from the Post article:
Benatta was among the 1,200 or so men detained by U.S. law enforcement agents in the frenzied weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He had a most unfortunate résumé: He was an Algerian and a Muslim and an avionics technician, and - like most of the others - he lacked proper immigration papers.

It was as though Benatta became invisible. His name never appeared on lists of detainees. His family in Algeria believed he had vanished. No defense attorney knew of his existence until a federal defender in Buffalo was assigned his case in late April 2002.
It was the generals who ruled Argentina who have been bitterly credited with turning "disappeared" into a transitive verb. Apparently the US government does believe in multiculturalism.

The infection spreads...

Law professor Elaine Cassel, writing in Counterpunch, tells of an American citizen named Ahmad Abu Ali who last June was preparing to return home to Virginia from Saudi Arabia, where he is a student. Instead, he was detained by Saudi authorities for "interrogation" about his supposed involvement in a plot to aid Kashmir rebels. His detention was at the request of the United States.
We have no way of knowing what, if anything, Ali did that might be illegal under our broad and far-reaching anti-terrorist laws. That is beside the point at this time. What is the point, however, is that an American citizen can't come home, and the U.S. government is working with a foreign country to keep him locked up without a charge, without an attorney, without a trial, and with no hope of returning home. Because the U.S. set up his "detention," he has none of the protections normally afforded to a U.S. citizen who may be imprisoned in a foreign country, such as access to help from the State Department and consular personnel.
Maher Arar is by no means alone.

Addendum: Cassel's valuable Civil Liberties Watch site is worth checking out.

Reality check

This from the AP, November 28:
ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Capt. Steve McAlpin, a 25-year Army reservist, spent most of last year deployed in Afghanistan and just returned home in January. Now his unit is about to ship out again, and he's facing insubordination charges for criticizing the quick turnaround.

McAlpin questioned the legality of a waiver that his battalion was asked to sign that would put his unit back in a combat zone after just 11 months at home. Under federal law, he pointed out, troops are allowed a 12-month "stabilization period."

On Wednesday, members of his 401st Civil Affairs Battalion are being deployed for duty overseas, but McAlpin likely won't be among them. A memorandum this week notified him that he was being removed from the 401st's battle roster, and he said he could also face other punishment, including a court martial and losing rank.

The commander, Lt. Col. Phillip Carey, charges in the memo that McAlpin had a "negative attitude" and was being "insubordinate towards the leadership" of the 401st.
I'm sure this has something to do with "supporting our brave men and women in uniform," I'm just not sure what.

Best Summary Dept., Iraq Div.

"To hell with Bush," said Mohammed al-Jubouri. "He is another Mongol in a line of invaders who have destroyed Iraq."

- from the Independent's article.

Best Summary Dept., UK Div.

"The Turkey has Landed"

- headline on the Independent homepage
Their full story is here.

Thanks to Sue for the tip.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Turkey and baloney

It's all about image, about control, about perception, about deception, and the truth and the public and the common good and all the rest of that left-wing liberal claptrap be damned.

There is no other conclusion to be drawn from Shrub's "dramatic Thanksgiving Day surprise."

He flew into Iraq with an "entourage...fitted with ballistic vests, and the plane came in with neither running lights nor cabin lights, parking on a dark landing strip." He had a "secret, two-hour stay Thursday evening and never left the grounds of a heavily fortified U.S. base." The trip was so secret that even his parents didn't know in advance; apparently even dad, a former president and director of the CIA, couldn't be trusted with the secret.

But even if GHWB couldn't know, the White House made damn sure the press did.
Air Force One then left Texas for Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, where Mr. Bush switched to another Air Force One, a refueled 747. The group picked up a few more reporters, bringing the total number of journalists on the trip, including camera crews, to 13. Reporters on the trip were instructed not to tell their families or their employers where they were going.
Certainly, the trip achieved one of its short-term goals:
The surprise visit stunned and confused his rivals, who struggled — in the midst of Thanksgiving dinner — to balance praise for the president's gesture with renewed criticism of his Iraq policy, which they said would be among his greatest vulnerabilities in next year's election. ...

Even aides to Democratic presidential candidates expressed grudging admiration for the political skills of this White House.
However, the longer term is still up for grabs, as a Washington Post analysis notes:
While the troops cheered the moment, it is too soon to know whether the image of Bush in his Army jacket yesterday will become a symbol of strong leadership or a symbol of unwarranted bravado. ...

Iraqis may be reassured that the United States will put down the insurgency and restore order in their country. Or they may take the image of Bush landing unannounced at night without lights and not venturing from a heavily fortified military installation as confirmation that the security situation in Iraq is dire indeed.
A significant number of Iraqis already seem to be taking the latter view, based on what AP reported:
"He visited Iraq for the sake of the Americans, not the Iraqis. He didn't come to see how we are doing,'' Muzher Abd Hanush, 54, said in his barbershop. "To come, say hello and leave - what good does that do?'' ...

"If he takes care of Iraq, he will be welcomed here. If not - whether he's here or in the White House - he is of no use to us,'' said Fadel Hadi, 59, playing dominoes at a teahouse. "If his visit brings us some good, he will be welcome every day.''

Ahmed Kheiri, 24, saw the visit as a campaign tactic.

"He came for the sake of the elections,'' Kheiri said. "He never thought of the Iraqi people. He doesn't care about us. It was a personal visit for his own sake.''

Iraqi politicians had mixed reactions to the visit. Mouwafik al-Rubei'e, a member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council who met Bush on Thursday night, said the president "reaffirmed his country's commitment to building a new, democratic and prosperous Iraq.''

Another member of the Governing Council, Mahmoud Othman, said the trip meant little.

"We cannot consider Bush's arrival at Baghdad International Airport yesterday a visit to Iraq,'' he said. "He did not meet with ordinary Iraqis. Bush was only trying to boost the morale of his troops.'' ...

During Friday prayers on the Muslim holy day, imams at Shiite and Sunni mosques alike criticized the visit, saying Bush should expend his energy helping Iraq recover from war instead of flying across the world to pose for the cameras.

"Instead of coming here to celebrate Thanksgiving with his troops, Bush should release the innocent people in his prisons and arrest the real terrorists conducting attacks,'' Skeikh Abdul Hadi al-Daraji said at the Muhsen Mosque in the poor, Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Sadr City.

"First Bush said he would liberate Iraq. Now he is occupying it. How long will he stay?'' asked the imam at Baghdad's largest Sunni mosque, Abu Hanifa. ...

"The way he made the trip shows he's afraid of Iraqis,'' said Mohammed Kamel, 40, a former soldier who now drives a taxi. "He should be; we're a fierce people.'' ...

Alla Abdul Wahab, a 38-year-old windowpane seller, hadn't heard about Clinton's trip, but asked what Bush's visit would ultimately do for Iraqis.

"What good will this visit bring?'' he asked. "He came to see the Americans - that's all."
But of course none of that mattered. What mattered was a chance for Bush to show off his "spectacular vote-winning form."

Thursday, November 27, 2003

For an "advanced" country, we are so backward

From AP for November 27, via CNN:
SAO PAULO, Brazil -- A Brazilian court issued an unprecedented ruling giving a British man the right to a permanent visa based on his union with a Brazilian man, the couple said Wednesday. ...

They sought the injunction on the grounds that their union qualified in Brazil as a common-law marriage. ...

Lawyers for Harrad and Reis said Brazilian courts have recognized common-law marriages in cases of gay unions before but never for the purpose of obtaining a permanent visa.

In granting the petition, Federal Judge Ana Morozowski wrote: "Although they are of the same sex, the authors of the petition live in a state of matrimony, a fact which extends, to Mr. Harrad, the right of permanent residence."

Morozowski wrote that the basis of her decision was a provision in the 1988 Brazilian Constitution "prohibiting any form of discrimination, including discrimination as to sexual preference."
And just so we're clear on this, the "unprecedented" part was getting the injunction for the purpose of getting a permanent visa, not the gay marriage part.

Oh, my....

Okay, it's my conviction that most of what's sneeringly called "political correctness" would in the not-too-distant past have been called "common courtesy."

Further, it's been my experience that most of the supposedly outrageous incidents you hear about ultimately prove to be based on incorrect or incomplete reports by a scandal-hungry media more interested in conflict than truth which were then hyped by reactionaries eager to slam anything they can blame on the Left while re-legitimizing racial and ethnic slurs - that is, when the stories don't turn out to be total myths.

That said, this is utterly silly.

Well, ya really blew that one

"U.S. Wanted to Avoid Label of Occupiers"

- headline on AP article on CNN, November 27

This sounded good, too

"Sharon: Israel Must Make Land Concessions"

- headline on AP article, November 27

Unfortunately, the "concessions" turn out to be only that "Israel cannot hold on to all of the West Bank and Gaza." Some concessions.

In fact, Sharon apparently envisions a Palestinian state considerably smaller than the one suggested three years ago when peace talks broke down, with no concessions on Jerusalem. He also said he will not dismantle all the West Bank settlement outposts because "what is necessary [for "security value"] will remain," refuses to freeze new construction of such settlements, and asserted that Israel will continue to build the so-called "security barrier."

If this is what he means by "concessions," I'd hate to think what he means by "being stubborn."

Return of the geek

Back in the 1960s, Paul Mellon gave to Yale what purported to be a map of the world from the mid-1400s. It included a drawing of the north Atlantic coast of North America and a text in medieval Latin that refers to "Leif Eiriksson" having discovered Vinland around the year 1000.

The authenticity of the map has been debated ever since (Yale takes no position on it). Last summer, using carbon-14 dating, it was established that the paper was made around 1434. The question is, when was anything written on it? That is, is the writing genuine or a modern forgery?

Some tests on the ink say that it can't possibly be over 500 years old; one authority said the ink was likely made after the 1920s.

However, a new study disputes that conclusion and says that the ink comes from medieval times - which would mean the map is real. If so, it would probably be worth about $20 million but more importantly as far as historians are concerned, it would be a clear indication of the state of European knowledge about the so-called "New World" a half-century before Columbus.

Neat stuff.

Footnote: This doesn't have to do with the old question of Vikings in North America, which was settled over 40 years ago with the discovery of a Norse settlement at L'Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland which can be positively dated to the early 11th century.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Sauce for the Goose Dept., Another Footnote Div.

Stephen Zunes, writing on AlterNet a bit back, reported that the US "has secured additional aid for Israel to construct highways connecting these settlements and to provide additional security, thereby reinforcing their permanence. This places the United States in direct violation of UN Security Council resolution 465, which 'calls upon all states not to provide Israel with any assistance to be used specifically in connection with settlements in the occupied territories.'"

So who's going to invade us?

Well, it sounded good, anyway

From the BBC:
The United States is cutting nearly $290m from a loan guarantee package to Israel in response to its settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel is also being penalised for the building of a barrier in the West Bank to separate Israelis and Palestinians.
So is the US actually getting serious about pressing Israel to dismantle its illegal settlements in the West Bank? Well, no, not really.

For one thing, the amount is about 3% of the $9 billion in loan guarantees being provided to Israel. For another, there is still the roughly $3 billion a year in direct (mostly military) aid Israel gets from the US yearly.

Then there's the fact that
The amount to be deducted was agreed by the two sides at a meeting in Washington on Tuesday between top officials from the White House and the office of the Israeli Prime Minister.

Broadly speaking, the US guideline is to reduce its loan guarantee by an amount equivalent to what the Israelis spend on Jewish settlement expansion in the Palestinian territories.
However, as the Beeb notes, the figure is a little more than half of what Israel spends on support of the settlers in those territories, pointing to a study by the Israeli daily Haaretz which concluded that total is something like $500 million - not including the costs of military protection.

To make things even less impressive, "The Israeli embassy even said in a statement that the amount cut had been 'suggested' by Israel."

So the $290 million reduction in loan guarantees, which is separate from aid, was the result of an agreement based on a figure suggested by Israel that actually is less than half of what it spends annually to support and defend its existing illegal settlements. Bold leadership, George, bold.

Bottom line: How much will this actually cost Israel? About $4 million in higher interest costs - while it continues to receive 750 times that in direct US aid. Somehow, I think they can scrape it up.

Footnote: When Israel makes reference, as it does occasionally, to "illegal" Jewish settlements in the West Bank, be aware that the reference is not to all the settlements, but only to those ones not approved by the Israeli government, as noted by the Israeli peace group Peace Now in recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Major media rules

Bowing to pressure from the White House, Congress has agreed to a "compromise" on changes to media consolidation rules, reports the Washington Post.

Back in June, the FCC, chaired by Republican Michael (son of Colin) Powell, dramatically loosened rules restricting media concentration and cross-ownership. One of those changes would allow a single TV network to own enough stations to reach 45% of viewers, up from the present 35%.

Responding to a public outcry that was truly massive, especially considering there was a near media blackout prior to the vote, in July the House adopted language overturning that change by blocking the use of any money to implement it. The Senate followed suit in September and as recently as last week House and Senate negotiators included it in an omnibus spending bill, to the delight of consumer advocates.

But in spite of the clear public position and its own repeated votes, Congress backed down in the face of a threatened Bush veto, agreeing to raise the ownership limit to 39% of viewers in return for having that limit be established in law (as opposed to FCC regulations). Supposedly that will make the figure harder to change, but considering how Congress has been flummoxed, flattened, bullied, and bulldozed on issues ranging from Iraq to Medicare to overtime pay, I don't find that at all reassuring.

By the way, you might be wondering, why 39%? Why such an odd number as opposed, say, to the more obvious 40%? Simple: Two of the Big Four networks, CBS and Fox, already own enough stations to reach 39% of viewers. (Notice how aggressively the FCC has pursued that matter.) So this "compromise" actually serves to legitimize what had been a clear violation of existing federal regulations on the part of two networks while allowing the others (NBC and ABC, which now reach 35% and 25% of viewers, respectively) to expand their reach.

Bizarro Dept.: "Powell and others have argued that there may be no legal justification for setting any ownership cap."

Uh, Mike, uh, guy - didn't you propose a cap (just a higher one) in the vote that started all this? I hate to tell you, but you're never going to be a headliner on the reactionary lecture circuit if you're a trimmer. You just go back to DC right now and start pushing through motions to remove all controls from corporate media and shut yourselves down!

Well, except of course for powers to investigate things like if someone accidentally said "fuck" on live TV and similar issues equally vital to the public interest.

Footnote from the Madness Dept.

If you want an example of the kind of logic the gunophiles apply to the world around them, check out this gem "explaining" why black Americans tend to favor gun control.

Footnote from the Silliness Dept.

An ordinance passed in Geuda Springs, Kansas, requires residents to have guns and ammunition, and fines those who don't comply, the Associated Press reported Nov. 23.

City Council members in the small south-central Kansas town passed the ordinance this month, saying they want to protect the 210 residents. The town has no local police force.

"This ordinance fulfills the duty to protect by allowing each individual householder to provide for his or her protection," said Councilman John Brewer. "This is simply using the U.S. Constitution - Second Amendment in particular - to the city of Geuda Springs' advantage."

Those who violate the ordinance would be fined $10.

The measure exempts those with physical or mental disabilities, the poor, and people who are vehemently against firearms.
Okay, so if you can't handle a gun, can't afford a gun, or don't want a gun, you don't have to get one. Hmmm. So just who is covered by this ordnance ordinance beyond those who'd have guns anyway?

Odds on this particular example of "nutty laws" making the rounds of the right-wing media machine: 1 in, uh, just how many guns are there in this country?

Freedom lives!

We've all heard the horror stories about "lost liberties," about court suppression of, and police-state tactics against, nonviolent demonstrators, about how the "Traitor" - sorry, "Patriot" - Act allows all sorts of government poking and prodding into our lives, powers recently expanded even further.

But fear not, oh ye Chicken Littles, for there is indeed one area of freedom, of privacy, which the Great Ashcroft has kept unsullied and pure: your right to buy guns. Yes, indeed, friends, your homes may be searched without you being told even after the fact, your library records, your financial dealings, all aspects of your personal life can be examined in secret, you can be declared an "enemy combatant" and whisked off to who knows where for who knows how long without access to family or legal counsel - but by God! no one will dare touch your sacred right to amass an arsenal.

Under current law, the FBI does a background check on gun purchasers. One of the purposes of this is to see if the person being checked is on the Bureau's "watch list" of suspected terrorists. They can't be stopped from purchasing a gun just for being on the list (which is good - suspicion still shouldn't be proof, even now); there would have to be some other cause specified by law. But the idea is the Bureau would know that so-and-so, suspected terrorist, tried to buy a gun. Such background checks are now kept on file for 90 days.

However, Justice Department regulations promulgated by John Ashcroft specifically forbid the FBI from telling local law enforcement agencies about any such discovery, even if the sale is completed. To do so, apparently, would be an invasion of privacy of "legitimate gun owners." The policy was established at the behest of the NRA, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

The gaga gun lovers are on a roll. A provision in an omnibus spending bill now approaching approval in Congress would reduce the time the FBI keeps background checks from 90 days to just 24 hours.
Peter Hamm, spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said government auditors concluded last year that the FBI would not be able to go back and trace fraudulent transactions or mistaken approvals if the records are destroyed too quickly.

"It's paranoia, frankly, right-wing paranoia that fuels this sense that these records need to be quickly destroyed," he said. "There is no sensible, sound public policy reason to destroy these records quickly."
As if to prove Hamm's contention, chief NRA lobbyist Chris Cox called the change "a big step in the right direction." One can only wonder how far he'd like to go in that "direction."

Actually, a hint might be found in an email alert from Brady E-Action Response (BEAR), a project of the Brady Center, which says there are "reports that the Republican leadership is trying to put language in the omnibus appropriations bill that would undermine the ATF's ability to enforce the nation's gun laws. The language is from the so-called Tiahrt amendment that NRA allies have been pushing." (No link because it came in an email.)

The Tiahrt amendment would among other things, ban BATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) from conducting physical inventories of gun dealers, from requiring them to provide documentation for guns sold in a specific period, and from denying licenses to dealers whose sales fall below a certain level. The net effect would make it far more difficult to trace so-called "lost" (usually illegally-sold) and other illicit guns.

Ross Tiahrt (R-KS), the sponsor, admitted that the amendment was mostly drafted by the NRA and asserted, bizarrely, that NRA's support proved that legitimate gun dealers endorsed it. However, it's worth noting that BATF had identified Bull's Eye Shooter Supply of Tacoma, WA, as a problem dealer - unable to account for 238 "missing" guns - even before it became the source of the guns used by DC snipers John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, neither one of who should have been able to buy those weapons. Had Tiahrt's bill been law, none of that would have been known. Just who is being protected by this proposal?

(It also serves to demonstrate the massive, unbelievable hypocrisy of the NRA, which claims a 24-hour period for holding background checks presents no problem because the government can still trace illegally-sold arms through records arms dealers are required to keep - the same sort of records the NRA-drafted Tiahrt amendment would bar government law enforcement from seeing!)

But it doesn't matter, does it, because, as you can see, your privacy is safe. Happiness is a warm gun.

Footnote: There are any number of versions of the Chicken Little story. I choose to use a nonviolent one. Kind of trying to strike a balance here, y'know?

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The good - but the bad are really ugly

Even though the conclusions will come as no surprise to anyone with at least a third of a brain, it's fun to watch Bobby Kennedy, Jr., rip Dubya a new one on environmental issues.

On the other hand, the sheer mass of what the Bushites are doing is really, really depressing.

The geek lives!

Even though I'm not a believer, I have, as I've mentioned before, an interest in the figure of Jesus, the, as I put it then, "real historical person, not the phony created God." Because of that, I find this an interesting story.

For those who've not heard of this business before, an ossuary (an ancient limestone burial box, intended to hold the bones of the deceased after the flesh had rotten away) with the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" recently appeared on the antiquities market. The box itself undoubtedly comes from the time of the Biblical Jesus; the question is, Does the inscription? Or is it a modern forgery?

If it's real, it's of great historical importance: A demographic analysis of the time and place indicates that there should be no more than two people named James who had both a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus. It would mean that there is at least a 50-50 chance that the "Jesus" of the inscription is the Biblical Jesus, and it would be the oldest reference to him known, dating from around 62-65 CE. The oldest reference known now is from about 125 CE, nearly a century after his death. (CE stands for "Common Era" and it's what most archaeologists use in preference to AD, or "Anno Domini," which means "Year of our Lord." Similarly, BCE, "Before Common Era," replaces BC, or "Before Christ.")

Some studies by experts concluded the inscription is genuine. However, a study by the Israeli Antiquities Authority recently denounced it as a modern fake, prompting calls for further examination. So the matter stands now.

Unintentionally Revealing Quotes Dept.

In discussing how the media have spinelessly acceded to the administration's equating of the occupation of Iraq with a "war on terrorism," Norman Solomon notes how in the last few days White House officials have been pushing that line. He quotes GB himself as saying "We fully recognize that Iraq has become a new front in the war on terror."

Uh, no offense or anything Mr. Only-President-We-Have-Damn-the-Luck, but isn't that an admission that it wasn't one before we got there?

Story via AlterNet.

Monday, November 24, 2003

A bit of good news - just for variety

BOSTON (AP) - Two new polls released Sunday show Massachusetts lawmakers could be bucking public opinion if they try to thwart the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling last week that found the state's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional.

Fifty percent of Massachusetts residents surveyed for a Boston Globe/WBZ-TV poll said they agreed with the ruling, while 38 percent opposed it. A separate Boston Sunday Herald poll found 49 percent said they support legalizing gay marriage, while 38 percent oppose it.

Both polls, conducted after Tuesday's ruling, had margins of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Moreover, while I was right in predicting that state legislators would "rush rush rush" to push an amendment to the state constitution to get around the ruling, both polls had Massachusetts residents opposing such a change, by 53-36 in the Globe/WBZ poll and 54-36 in the Herald poll. The similarity of results adds to the confidence that these figures actually reflect public sentiment.

Unfortunately, the country as a whole doesn't seem to agree: A recent Pew Research Center survey says Americans oppose legalizing gay marriage by a margin of 59-32.

Still, what's the line from "Contact?" "Small steps, small steps."


According to an analysis by the Democratic staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, says the LA Times, many seniors would fare worse under the Medicare legislation now before the Senate than they do now.

Over 2.6 million could lose their employer-based retiree health benefits under the plan, while nearly 6.3 million would pay more for drugs and just under 1.6 million would pay higher premiums for Medicare Part B coverage based on their income. (The Times article includes a state-by-state listing.)

The New Republic calls the bill "the second biggest scam in Washington," noting that final language of the 600-page bill wasn't issued until this past Thursday but the Republican leadership pushed for a vote immediately. I suspect they were hoping no one would have time to notice what crap it is and the GOP could crow to seniors "we're the ones who got you a prescription drug benefit!"

Even so, they had to resort to some slimy tricks to get it past a reluctant House. Normally, once a bill is called for a vote, members have 15 minutes to record their vote. At that time, the bill was going down to defeat 216-218 at the hands of an unusual coalition of liberals objecting to the impact on seniors and the attempt to push people into private insurance joined with conservatives up in arms about giving a prescription benefit at all.

But the Republican leaders, sweating blood to do the bidding of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, refused to close the vote. Instead, they coaxed, lobbied, cajoled, and threatened for three hours in the longest roll call vote in House history until they got a few wavering souls to switch their "nay" to "aye." The total was now 215-210 in favor of passage and WHAM! voting closed.

The bill's prospects in the Senate aren't clear but as of this writing the predictions I've seen are it will pass. Majority Leader Bill Frist is calling for a vote on Monday and it appears he'll get the 60 votes he needs to close off debate. Which will be a tragedy.

Truth in Politics Dept.: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, asked specifically whether the bill would guarantee lower costs for seniors a decade from now, refused to commit. "I'm guaranteeing that this is a chance to change health care, to give people more options, to be able to give them a choice," he said.

True. A Hobson's choice. Or, perhaps more exactly, the choice to be worse off than they are now, or to be even worse off than that.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Unintentional humor

It's been fairly-widely reported now that the FBI has resumed spying on antiwar protestors.

The agency claims, of course, that it's only interested in "individuals or groups that would be involved in either conspiring, or actively involved in violent or criminal activity in support of a particular cause." But there are two weasel words in there: "individual," which obviously literally applies to anyone, and "criminal," which could be (and has been) applied to any and all acts of civil disobedience, even of the most nonviolent and carefully-planned sort. So any individual who so much as expresses support for some action of nonviolent CD is covered by that definition as a "conspirator" in "criminal activity." (And before you say I'm going over the top, you'd better do a little checking on how federal prosecutors have used the concept of "conspiracy" in the past.)

But even that sort of parsing may be unnecessary. Ted Kennedy is quoted in the linked article as saying "We have the stories going on this morning where they're using the FBI to look into demonstrations in order to find out who is demonstrating and getting into their background. That reminds me to the old Nixon times and the enemies list," adding that the Bush administration had gone to "extraordinary lengths" to attack lawmakers who question the White House policy on Iraq.

However, what prompted the heading on this item was the statement, written, it seems, with a straight face in a time of "free speech zones," massive shows of force, demonstrators attacked with stun guns and concussion grenades, people arrested for having signs opposing Bush in a place he might see them, citizens labeled "enemy combatants" with no legal or even human rights (not that non-citizens deserve such treatment, either), and expanded government powers to search and invade privacy, among other outrages, that the FBI "described activist strategies like videotaping arrests to intimidate police and using the Internet to recruit and raise funds."

My gosh! The violent devils! Right on, Mr. Ashcroft, sorry I doubted you!

Addendum: Another point I should have mentioned is that, as the LA Times noted, "Critics called attention to a section of the bulletin that urges police to report suspicious or unlawful activity to their local Joint Terrorism Task Force, a multiagency group run by the FBI."

As the ACLU ably argues, this in effect equates protest with terrorism. On the other hand, maybe the DOJ doesn't have a problem with that.

Update and correction Nov. 25: According to the Christian Science Monitor, Ted Kennedy did not say the White House had gone to "extraordinary lengths" to attack lawmakers who questioned Bush's Iraq policies.

No, indeed. He said they'd gone to extraordinary lengths to attack anyone who doubted.

Actually, I meant this Georgia

In Columbus, Georgia on Saturday,
a crowd estimated by Columbus police at 8,000 gathered to protest the school once known as the School of the Americas, which they blame for Latin American human rights abuses. It appeared to be the largest first-day gathering in the 14-year history of the protest. ...

School of the Americas Watch holds the demonstrations every November to mark the killings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on Nov. 19, 1989.
Showing the same commitment to people being "allowed to do this" as we've shown in Iraq, the military responded by blasting "patriotic" music at top volume from speakers 50 yards from the demonstrators, drowning out those trying to address the crowd.

Which may not be a bad sign: "The closer we get to closing that school down, the meaner they get," said Rev. Ray Bourgeois, SOA Watch founder.

Footnote: The School of the Americas is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHISC. Which I expect should be pronounced "whisk," like the kind of broom you can use to sweep things under carpets.

Georgia on my mind

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) - Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned Sunday as the opposition threatened to storm his residence. His fall sparked fireworks and dancing among tens of thousands of protesters, and ended a political crisis astonishing for its speed and lack of violence in a blood-washed region.

Shevardnadze's resignation caps a political career during which he won admiration in the West by helping guide the Cold War to an end as Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev. But during 10 years as president of Georgia, he became despised for rampant corruption.
Yes, friends, people power can and does work. For some other details, the BBC report is here.

There's an interesting sidebar to this, however. The day before Shevardnadze threw in the towel with the expected lame excuses that it was to avoid "spilled blood" (perhaps he was thinking of his own), CNN reported that the US "urged all parties 'to refrain from the use of force or violence,'" in the words of State Department media flack Richard Boucher. Further,
Boucher's statement avoided the sort of harsh criticism of Shevardnadze's government in previous department statements issued in the three weeks since supporters of the president were declared winners of parliamentary elections. Georgian opposition leaders, the United States and other foreign observers considered the elections fraudulent. ...

On Thursday, the administration said official results of the election "do not accurately reflect the will of the Georgian people" and said the polling was marred by "massive vote fraud."

The State Department urged Shevardnadze's government "to conduct an independent and transparent investigation immediately and to hold accountable those who violated the law."
Okay, except the article also says
The United States has had troops training counterterror forces for more than a year in Georgia.... The $64 million mission is scheduled to continue through next May.

U.S. troops, led by a contingent of Marines, are training Georgian forces in a variety of military tactics and providing the Georgians with equipment such as uniforms and communications gear. ...

No changes are planned in the mission. "We have an agreement with the government of Georgia and a commitment to them," said Maj. Jim Keefe, a spokesman for the Marine Corps command in Europe. "We foresee no changes to the program. Everything is as it was."
In other words, we were providing military training and supplies to a government in office only by virtue of what we ourselves called "fraudulent" elections, a government "despised for rampant corruption," we openly avowed an intention to keep doing so, and when the people got fed up enough to do something about that government, we wanted to come on like Martin Luther King, Jr.


Alphonse and Gaston Dept.: I wonder what the response would have been if when the State Department called on Shevardnadze "to conduct an independent and transparent investigation immediately and to hold accountable those who violated the law" he had held up a map of Florida and said "You first."

An oldie but a goodie

These are the last paragraphs from "Preparing for War, Stumbling to Peace - U.S. is paying the price for missteps made on Iraq," from the Los Angeles Times for July 18, 2003. The link to the article appears to be no longer valid, so I haven't included it. I. F. Stone used to say that the most interesting part of a story was often at the very end. The "shirttail," he called it. This is a great example. (Emphasis of course added.)
Looking back from the third floor of the Pentagon, Feith dismissed such criticism [of prewar planning for post-war Iraq] as "simplistic." Despite initial problems, he said, progress is being made, with order returning to most of the country and a new Iraqi governing council in place.

Still, he and other Pentagon officials said, they are studying the lessons of Iraq closely - to ensure that the next U.S. takeover of a foreign country goes more smoothly.

"We're going to get better over time,' promised Lawrence Di Rita, a special assistant to Rumsfeld. "We've always thought of post-hostilities as a phase' distinct from combat," he said. "The future of war is that these things are going to be much more of a continuum."

"This is the future for the world we're in at the moment," he said. "We'll get better as we do it more often."

We found WMDs!

A scientist funded by the US government has deliberately created an extremely deadly form of mousepox, a relative of the smallpox virus, through genetic engineering.

The new virus kills all mice even if they have been given antiviral drugs as well as a vaccine that would normally protect them.

The work has not stopped there. The cowpox virus, which infects a range of animals including humans, has been genetically altered in a similar way.

The new virus, which is about to be tested on animals, should be lethal only to mice.... ...

But the research brings closer the prospect of pox viruses that cause only mild infections in humans being turned into diseases lethal even to people who have been vaccinated. ...

Despite the concerns, work on lethal new pox viruses seems likely to continue in the US. When members of the audience in Geneva questioned the need for such experiments, an American voice in the back boomed out: "Nine-eleven". There were murmurs of agreement.
Item from New Scientist magazine via The Memory Hole. The Memory Hole is a great source of information either forgotten, overlooked, or formerly suppressed. And New Scientist is quite simply the best damned popular (i.e., non-technical) science magazine, at least in English, on the planet.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

If you were ever in doubt as to who runs things

WASHINGTON (AP) - Lawmakers hope to iron out lingering disputes over an end-of-session spending bill now totaling close to $390 billion after the Bush administration won a fight over overtime pay that had been the toughest stumbling block. ...

But the biggest remaining problem was resolved Friday when Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., ended his effort to stop the administration from reducing the number of white-collar workers who qualify for overtime pay under federal law.

Specter, facing a strong re-election challenge next fall in a state where unions have muscle, abandoned the fight under pressure from the White House and House GOP leaders. ...

Though the Senate voted in September to block the proposed administration rules and the House used a nonbinding vote to express the same sentiment, the administration and its business allies prevailed in a battle with Democrats, moderate Republicans and labor.
The change in overtime rules could result in loss of eligibility for overtime pay for 8 million workers. The Senate was against it, the House was against it, but it still passed. That should tell you all you need to know.

Footnote: The White House claims that "only" 644,000 workers will lose eligibility for overtime while 1.3 million will gain it. That would seem to mean that business will pay even more for overtime under the new regulations than they do now. Which, I'm sure, is why business groups lobbied so hard for the changes.

I'm also sure the Tooth Fairy is the real deal.

Update: Edited for clarity, to correct typos, and to add the link for the 8 million workers statistic.

How's this for tacky?

According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, last April an International Solidarity Mission volunteer named Tom Hurndall was shot in the head by an Israel Defense Forces soldier in the Rafah refugee camp. He's been on life support ever since.

After months of legal wrangling, the Israeli government sent his family a check covering a little less than half the L17,000 it cost to repatriate him to the UK, but without acknowledging any liability.

The check bounced.

The Israeli Defense Ministry said it was due to technical reasons unrelated to the ministry, but the bank said, no, no technical problem,the account just didn't have the funds.

Non sequitur award

MIAMI (AP) - Police were accused Friday of overreacting and using excessive force in clashes with demonstrators at this week's trade talks.

Police defended their actions, saying Miami averted the kind of widespread violence that rocked the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999. Seattle was hit with five days of rioting that caused millions in damage.

"All you have to do is look at the videotapes from Seattle and realize the potential for destruction," Lt. Bill Schwartz said.
Ah. So police were justfied in using "tear gas, rubber bullets, batons, concussion grenades and stun guns," resulting in 140 injuries (as compared to three police), because of what another group of people did on the other side of the country four years earlier.

I guess that means we can use tapes of the Rodney King beating as evidence against the Miami police, huh.

What's really distressing is how many people will read Schwartz's statement and go "Yeah, that makes sense."

Another anniversary

It's also the 40th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis, who was the author of what I regard as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, quote of the 20th century:
The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. - from The Screwtape Letters

Just thinking

It was 40 years ago. Forty years and I remember what I was doing: I was home sick from school, watching a rerun of "Private Secretary" with Ann Sothern and Don Porter. (I think they called it "Susie" in reruns.)

Funny how some things stick with you.

In the struggle

Global Exchange issued the statement below on November 20 in regard to the "derailing [of] the proposed FTAA at the Miami Ministerial this week." (This version is a little different from the one posted on their website here. I received the one below by email.)

Just for anyone unfamiliar with the issue, FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, has been described as "NAFTA on steroids." It proposes to make the entire Western Hemisphere (except for Cuba) a "free trade zone," otherwise known as a "corporate wet dream." But - to push the metaphor right over the edge - the dream just might be ending because the smaller nations of the world are waking up to just who actually benefits from these agreements (Hint: Despite some varied successes, overall it ain't them.) and are increasingly acting as a group, knowing that individually they can't oppose the juggernaut but together they can.
FTAA-Lite Leaves Corporate Lobbyists Going Home Hungry
Victory for Social Movements in Derailing Comprehensive FTAA Agenda
Statement by Deborah James, Global Exchange, November 20, 2003

No matter how U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick tries to spin the story, it should be clear that "FTAA-Lite" emerging from Miami is a major setback for the U.S. and the giant corporations behind the so-called "free trade" agenda. After nine years of negotiations, the only accomplishment of the Miami Ministerial was that countries agreed to reduce the scope of each of the nine substantive issues. The real story of Miami is that the U.S. was forced, by powerful social movements across the hemisphere, to acquiesce to the fact that there is no way to achieve a comprehensive FTAA by the end of 2004, a goal that has been the centerpiece of the U.S. trade agenda for years.

The USTR says that, "because all nine boxcars are attached to the FTAA train, it's a success." But the truth is that the boxcars are completely empty - no concrete substance has been agreed upon within the different working groups, on issues such as services, agriculture, investment, and intellectual property.

Considering the strong-arm bullying tactics of the U.S. in Miami, this is indeed a victory. High level delegates from various countries reported that U.S. trade negotiators have been threatening and bullying them - "threatening to stop 'aid' and enticing them with special bilateral agreements" during the Ministerial in order to avoid a repeat of the failed WTO Ministerial in Cancun. In fact, the US announced its intent to negotiate free trade agreements with four of the five Andean nations (Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia) in a special attempt to isolate Venezuela, the country that has been the most staunch opponent of the proposed FTAA at the negotiating table.

And with so much of the complex negotiations put off until the next Trade Negotiations Committee meeting, the bloodbath has just been postponed. Rather than moving on track towards success, it looks more like a train wreck ahead. This certainly must be counted a victory for workers, poor communities, and the environment of the Western Hemisphere.

After nine years of negotiations and very little accomplished, social movements have even more opportunity to achieve our goal of completely derailing the proposed FTAA agenda.

This agreement does contains a new risk: with some of the most disturbing elements removed, "FTAA-Lite" may pass as a wolf in sheep's clothing. But we won't be fooled. We will remain vigilant. We will continue to monitor the talks in Puebla, Mexico, and at the bi-monthly Trade Negotiating Committee meetings. And we will do everything we can to work with our partners across the Americas to ensure that the FTAA never becomes law.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Geek strikes out

More science stuff.

About 250 million years ago, something unknown happened that wiped out 90% of all marine life and 70% of land-based species. Now, new evidence has been found that the cause of the "great dying," which dwarfed the destruction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, came from outer space: an asteroid.


WASHINGTON (AP) - Senate opponents blocked Congress from finishing its energy bill Friday, dealing a severe setback to President Bush's proposal to redirect the nation's energy agenda toward more production of oil, gas, coal and corn-based ethanol. ...

[A]fter the bill breezed through the House earlier this week, it lost momentum in the Senate as a growing number of senators said it was bloated with special favors, was too expensive and threatened environmental protection. ...

"We'd rather start all over again, trying to get it right," added Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, another of the GOP defectors."
I knew the bill was a disaster, containing billions of dollar in tax breaks and other subsidies to big energy corporations, stiffing renewable energy and conservation, and including a notorious provision, included at the insistence of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Outer Space), that would shield makers of the gasoline additive MTBE from liability lawsuits. (MTBE has contaminated drinking water in at least 28 states.) But my gosh, if John SomeMoreNukes is against it, it must really be awful!

Just wondering

There's this guy in Ohio who kept confronting women wearing nothing but a baseball cap so he could take pictures of their shocked expressions. He became known as the "naked photographer."

Turns out - assuming the cops got the right guy - that it's the deputy counsel to the Speaker of the Ohio House, who is a Republican.

How long do you think it would have taken the right-wing talk radio creeps to be all over this if it involved a Democrat?

Addendum to the previous post

From the same LA Times article
The U.S. presence in Iraq is being used by extremist leaders to rally their followers to jihad, or holy war, around the world. ...

The resurgent global menace leads critics to assert that the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have boomeranged by scattering Al Qaeda's forces, making them harder to detect, and inspiring like-minded extremists.
Isn't that yet another consequence that those nutty, anti-American, objectively pro-terrorist peacenik weirdos predicted?

Avoiding snap judgements

In the immediate wake of the awful suicide bombings of synagogues in Turkey on Saturday, officials there and elsewhere verbally rounded up the usual suspects, calling it an al-Qaeda job. Personally, I wasn't so sure. Those attacks that can be clearly connected to al-Qaeda have tended to be, for lack of a better term, flashier. Al-Qaeda, that is, has tended to go for the big target, the dramatic symbol, targets like embassies, the World Trade Center, the USS Cole. (Or, indeed, the subsequent bombings of the British bank and consulate in Istanbul.) What happened on Saturday seemed more like murderous street thuggery, closer to the "let's blow some people up" style of a group like Hamas. (No, I'm not saying Hamas was behind it. We're talking style here.)

Admittedly, authorities gave themselves some wiggle room - Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul left open the possibility the attackers were al-Qaeda "sympathizers...have the same mindset" rather than having "worked directly" with them - but at the same time, such language still is going out of the way to propose an al-Qaeda connection, one which was emphasized in various headlines and leads. This was even though
Intelligence analysts, pointing to a history of dubious claims, are discounting two claims of responsibility made on behalf of al Qaeda for the bombings and for last week's attack on Italian troops in Iraq that killed 19. (From the same article.)
That's why I found this from the November 19 Los Angeles Times (registration required) so interesting:
PARIS - A spate of suicide bombings in several countries illustrates that Al Qaeda has survived by mutating into a more decentralized network relying on local allies to launch more frequent attacks on varied targets, experts say.

In bombings from Turkey to Morocco, experts say, evidence suggests that Al Qaeda provided support through training, financing or ideological inspiration to local extremists. Through an evolving and loose alliance of semiautonomous terrorist cells, the network has been able to export its violence and 'brand name' with only limited involvement in the attacks themselves.

"Al Qaeda as an ideology is now stronger than Al Qaeda as an organization," said Mustafa Alani of the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London. ...

The very name Al Qaeda, some experts say, has become shorthand for a larger jihad fed by the Sept. 11 attacks, the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That is, it's like al-Qaeda has become more of a rallying point than a specific organization, something that even isolated cells of terrorists can feel themselves connected to. I suppose a comparison - strictly in terms of the specific emotion, I emphasize, not the politics or tactics - could be made to the '60s, when we thought of ourselves as being in "The Movement." It wasn't a particular organization (although there were national- and even international-level groups), it wasn't that we were given any orders (although we did respond to calls for large-scale demonstrations), "The Movement" wasn't an identifiable thing or group, it was rather something that was happening, an ongoing event, and of which you felt a part even if all you could do was gather a half-dozen people for a peace vigil.

The bottom line here is that the too-easy blaming of any and all actions on al-Qaeda should be suspect and in fact may serve to distract investigators from the real culprits, who might well be home-grown fanatics. Remember, for example, how everyone was eager to blame "Arab terrorists" for the Oklahoma City bombing. In that case, happily, reality quickly overthrew rhetoric - but what if it hadn't? And what if it doesn't now? We all know the expression "failing to see the forest for the trees." This could become a case of failing to see the trees for the forest, and that's every bit as risky.

Israeli Knesset President Reuven Rivlin, in Istanbul for the funerals, also said there was information linking the bombing [of the synagogues in Turkey] to al Qaeda. Israel has been helping Turkey track down the attackers.

"We have found out that we are talking about the al Qaeda and those terrorists who exploded themselves as suicide bombers were coming from Persia, and I understand that they have been taught there, they had training there," Rivlin said.
Uh.., "Persia?"

Pearls from Perle

You've probably already heard about this, but it's a must read anyway.

From the Guardian, Thursday November 20:
International lawyers and anti-war campaigners reacted with astonishment yesterday after the influential Pentagon hawk Richard Perle conceded that the invasion of Iraq had been illegal.
Link via Information Clearinghouse.

Afghanis- Afgha- Where, you say?

"NATO on trial as Afghanistan spins out of control" - Reuters headline, November 18.

Afghanistan. You remember. Afghanistan. "Gonna get Osama!" Taliban BAD, Northern Alliance GOOD. Nation building. Freedom and democracy. Afghanistan.

Maybe I'm smarter than I think

On Sunday, I wondered: Is the insurgency in Iraq actually drawn from "a fallback plan for the leadership in the event the attack could not be successfully repulsed? A plan that involved maintaining a surreptitious command structure, waging a low-level guerrilla campaign, and gathering support as the occupation proved more and more unpopular and less and less manageable?"

Being stuck for the forseeable future in the world of dial-up, I seem always to be running a little behind the curve. So it was only today that I became aware of this from the November 15 New York Times:
Washington, Nov. 14 — American intelligence agencies have found increasing evidence that the broad outlines of the guerrilla campaign being waged against American forces in Iraq were laid down before the war by the Iraqi Intelligence Service, government officials said Friday. ...

[They] acknowledged that intelligence agencies had earlier underestimated the strength of the resistance and the degree to which it now appears to have reflected central planning and organization.
The article goes on to say that
Some government officials cautioned that the idea that the insurgency had been planned by elements of Saddam Hussein's government before the American invasion of Iraq remained only a leading theory.
Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, was quoted in The Washington Post earlier this week as saying that the intensity and sophistication of the insurgency, including signs that it is drawing on caches of arms and money put in place before the war, had persuaded him that the guerrilla operations were planned.

"They were planning to go ahead and fight an insurgency, should Iraq fall," General Swannack said in an interview with The Post.

That deduction, government officials said on Friday, is also supported by increasingly credible intelligence, including accounts provided under interrogation by former members of Mr. Hussein's government. A Defense Department official said the new evidence had left no doubt there was "some centralized planning before the war for the plan that has been executed."
Maybe someday I'll have one of those fancy-schmancy high-speed connections so I can keep up with things.

Freedom's just another word...

I expect every mainstream news outlet carried a Bush quote in response to questions about demonstrations against him during his visit to the UK (demonstrations from which he, of course, was carefully shielded). In fact, it was so widely reported I didn't even bother with a link. The AP had it this way:
"Freedom is beautiful," Bush said Thursday, adding he was happy to be in a country where people were allowed to speak their minds freely. "All I know is that people in Baghdad weren't allowed to do this until recent history."
Allowed to do this? Perhaps he doesn't know about the 17-year old boy who was arrested in June for "insulting" US troops. Or the labor leaders arrested in July because they staged a nonviolent encampment to protest unemployment. Or how L. Paul Bremer has shut down Iraqi-run newspapers and radio and TV stations whose content he disliked. Or the man in Baghdad who was arrested on November 11, put in handcuffs, and had masking tape put across his mouth, for "making anti-coalition statements." Or the two lawyers arrested on November 18 because they were "suspected of supporting Saddam Hussein" (not, note carefully, for anything they actually did).

Or maybe he does but just regards doing whatever the US says as "freedom."

Keep repeating it: Military rule is not democracy. And occupation is not liberation.

(Link re: labor leaders from AlterNet; those re: the teenager and Iraqi media from

Update Nov. 23: Perhaps someone also neglected to inform him of the 28,000 Iraqi teachers fired by Bremer last week solely because of their former membership in the Baath Party.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

I feel a draft

As the US gets further bogged down in Iraq and concerns are expressed about military forces being "stretched thin," old arguments are being dragged out and rehashed in support of re-instituting the draft.

One of the main voices for this right now is Charles Rangel, who has long been a supporter of the idea. Back in January, he introduced a bill to bring back the old days. The intention was hidden under the more liberal-friendly title of "Universal National Service Act," but it's actually just plain old military conscription.

According to the bill, "It is the obligation of every citizen of the United States, and every other person residing in the United States, who is between the ages of 18 and 26 to perform a period of national service" as described in the legislation. But "perform a period of national service," which the bill suggests would be two years, proves to be a euphemism for "provide more cannon fodder:"
Sec. 2(d) SELECTION FOR MILITARY SERVICE - Based upon the needs of the uniformed services, the President shall--

(1) determine the number of persons covered by subsection (a) whose service is to be performed as a member of an active or reverse component of the uniformed services; and

(2) select the individuals among those persons who are to be inducted for military service under this Act.

(e) CIVILIAN SERVICE - Persons covered by subsection (a) who are not selected for military service under subsection (d) shall perform their national service obligation under this Act in a civilian capacity pursuant to subsection (b)(2).
Subsection (b)(2) being that which defines "civilian capacity" as one that "as determined by the President, promotes the national defense, including national or community service and homeland security."

In other words, the military gets first pick on everyone between 18 and 26 and when they're done taking as many as they want, those left over have to work for two years to "promote the national defense" in a manner "as determined by the President." I'm sure things like organizing low-income communities to fight for better services will be high on that list.

Exemptions are almost nonexistent; most are merely short-term postponements. Perhaps most shockingly, the bill makes no provision for a conscientious objection exemption to military service but only to combat service. (Under the old draft system, that status was called 1-A-O and most of those people became medics, often saw more combat than regular soldiers, and despite their status were still required to be trained in and carry sidearms.)

In recent days, Rangel has been talking up a renewed draft, noting that the casualties among American forces in Iraq are disproportionately minority. However, those of us with memories that can stretch back to Vietnam days - as surely Rangel's can - should be able to recall that the same thing was true then, and that was with a large-scale draft. Why should it be different now, especially since, under Rangel's own bill, volunteers are taken first and people are only drafted to make up for any shortfalls? Are we supposed to imagine that the people now volunteering will stop if a draft is imposed? That would be a very bizarre argument, especially since, again back under the old system, it was claimed that ending the draft would cause a drop-off in volunteers, because many people enlisted only because that seemed preferable to being drafted!

I would suggest, contrary to the reasoning of some "liberals," that if the military is stretched "too thin" it's not because we need a bigger military but because we're trying to do too much with what we have. Such as occupying Iraq.

Footnote: Back in the dim past - 1980 to be exact - I was running for Congress as an independent. Claims that the then-relatively new all-volunteer Army had "failed" were abroad and then as now, there were those who urged bringing back the draft. I was asked my position.

"I am," I said, "opposed to military conscription at any time, in any form, by anyone, for any purpose.

"I think that about covers it."

I still stand by that.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Clear thinking on Iraq at last

Democracy Now! reported on November 12:
A new Gallup poll of residents of Baghdad has found that only 5 percent of those polled believe the United States invaded Iraq to "assist the Iraqi people" and only 1 percent believe the U.S. invaded to establish a democracy there. 43 percent of those polled feel the U.S. invaded to "rob Iraq's oil."
Meanwhile, Reuters reported this on November 16:
Baghdad residents responded sceptically on Sunday to U.S. plans for a faster political handover in postwar Iraq, saying any government would be under America's thumb as long as U.S. forces remain.
A perceptive people, indeed.

And it seems to me I previously suggested Iraqis were thinking this way.

Hold their fire

In a November 18 email to supporters, quotes National Rifle Association Research Coordinator Paul Blackman as saying "Studies of homicide victims, especially the increasing number of younger ones, suggest they are frequently criminals themselves and/or drug addicts or users. It is quite possible that their deaths, in terms of economic consequences to society, are net gains."

Unfortunately, this horrific statement has no source listed and I imagine if confronted with it, NRA executives would either deny or downplay it, as they have in the past with other egregious sentiments. But what can't be denied (it's on their website) is that the NRA has issued a "Fact Sheet" (Isn't "NRA Fact Sheet" an oxymoron?) listing organizations, people, companies, and media outlets it labels "anti-gun." (The list is curious; it's meant to be rabble-rousing but I would think having 35 medical and health professional organizations, some law enforment groups, and a significant number of religious groups on it would give any but the most gaga gun nut pause, but apparently the NRA hierarchy doesn't think so.)

In response,, a joint venture of the Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence and the Million Mom March, established, where people can contact the NRA and ask to be added to their "blacklist." As of November 18, the email says, some 80,000 have done so. Why not join them?

A question of decency

CBC News has background on the case of Canadian citizen Maher Arar. On September 26, 2002, Arar was on his way back to Montreal alone from a family vacation in Tunisia. Unfortunately for him, he had to change planes at Kennedy Airport in New York. There was snatched by INS agents, questioned, held incommunicado for nearly two weeks, and then deported - to Syria. All based on "evidence" from what Tom Ridge called the "international intelligence community," evidence which of course neither Arar nor anyone else working on his behalf has ever been allowed to see.

After a year in captivity in Syria during which time he was tortured and held in solitary confinement for 10 months, on October 5 he was released to Canada. No charges are filed and the Canadian government says it has no information that would have justified his detention.

The US justified sending Arar to Syria rather than Canada because he was born in Syria and had dual citizenship. Yes, he did have dual citizenship, but why Syria instead of Canada, where he lived? The probable reason, as noted by David Cole in the December 1 issue of "The Nation" (online availability limited to subscribers), is that Syria would be more than willing to torture him to get information while we could continue to lay claim to lily-white hands.

The practice of sending prisoners to nations that will use torture is called "rendition." Cole writes:
According to unnamed CIA officials quoted in the Washington Post, such "renditions" are a matter of official policy, not some egregious mistake. To paraphrase Joseph Welch's famous question to Senator Joe McCarthy, Have we no sense of decency?
There is a Chinese proverb that goes "Some questions need only be asked."

Footnote: On November 5, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien (sorry, I don't know how to make the diacritical mark in html) said his government has asked Colin Powell for an explanation of the matter.

Oh, yeah, I'm sure it will be immediately forthcoming.

Update: Through I learn that the Washington Post reports that it was then-Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson who signed the order sending Arar to Syria instead of home to Canada. He did this despite the fact that the law used to remove Arar forbids sending anyone, even on national security grounds, to a country where "it is more likely than not that they will be tortured," in the words of "a U.S. official familiar with the law applied in the Arar case" quoted by the Post.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Footnote to the previous post

The news about the Massachusetts court decision on same-sex marriages prompted an IM exchange between me and a dear friend, which follows (with irrelevant side chatter edited out and syntax cleaned up for clarity).

HER: How do you feel about same-sex marriage?

ME: I think a)the Court decision was good news and b)it will almost immediately lead to a move to amend the state constitution, which is what happened in the two other states that had the same kind of court decision.

HER: Oh, how did they amend the constitution?

ME: Just changed it to constitutionally define marriage as 1 man + 1 woman.

HER: I have mixed feelings about the whole thing; not sure if it should be called a "marriage" but I think a partnership of some sort with rights to medical coverage, etc.

ME: Two questions: If it's the same in terms of rights, protection, insurance matters, etc., etc., why not just call it a marriage? And if it's not the same, doesn't that still mean that heterosexual couples have rights that gay [and, I should have added, lesbian] couples do not?

HER: I believe the term marriage is defined in the Bible as between a woman and a man. That's the reason I hesitate on calling it a marriage. Maybe, if you get married in a church it should be a marriage, if not it should be called a partnership - no matter the sexes? It's back to the difficult process of separating church and state.

ME: I don't know if the Bible defines marriage that way or not, but even if it does, that should be irrelevant to the State. The question is still, is there a difference in rights and privileges afforded to gay and straight couples? If so, why? Whether we call it a marriage or a union is unimportant.

HER: As far as the rights, that's exactly what I think is wrong with the way it is - as I said, I think they SHOULD get all the same rights.

ME: So if it's the same, why apply a different name?

HER: Again, I'm going by the religious term of marriage - as defined in the Bible (and it is). I don't have an answer, I'm just telling you my feelings about it.

ME: And I guess my feeling is that the State - the civil government - should not be defining marriage based on what the Bible says. As you noted, that really brings up Church-State entanglement issues.

HER: OK, so we have different feelings, right?

ME: Apparently, although I'm not sure how far that difference extends beyond what label to use for a legal union of a same-sex couple or even if it goes beyond that at all.

HER: No, I don't think it does, which goes back to the very first thing I said to you. And, I think we agree on the fundamentals of the issue.

Unfortunately, my friend had to take her leave at that moment, while I was typing what I intended as a closing comment, which was to be:

ME: My concern is that as long as we use different terms, there will always be the notion that one ("marriage") is somehow better, superior, to the other ("civil union"). "Oh, well, we're married, you see. You just have one of those civil union things." It implies a judgment.

I'd add here that it's been nearly 50 years since the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that "separate but equal" is actually "inherently unequal." I do not want to see us repeat that mistake in the case of same-sex marriages (yes, marriages). As long as we allow different terms, we allow the perception - and thus justify the practice - of actual difference.

On the other hand, it wasn't all that long ago that there was a sense that getting married in a church was in some inexpressible way better, realer, truer, than getting married by a judge or a JP. That's a difference that I expect nobody really bothers about any more. (My wife and I were married by a County Clerk, and no one seems to think we're not "married.") Maybe if "civil unions" are indeed made genuinely legally identical in terms of rights and privileges to "marriages," maybe the perceived difference between those two will also fade in time.

Footnote: I checked on the notion the Bible defines marriage as one man and one woman. While it in fact does not do so explicitly, you can infer it from certain passages; it's less like a definition and more like a presumption, a "that's just the way it is" attitude.

For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:2 Paul says "Nevertheless, [to avoid] fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband," while Leviticus 20:13 seems to bar Biblical approval of gay marriage, saying "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood [shall be] upon them." (Quotes from the King James version.)

On the other hand, we may not want to push this Biblical definition business. Paul says, in the verse immediately prior to that quoted above (i.e., 1 Corinthians 7:1), "Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: [It is] good for a man not to touch a woman." And Leviticus 20:18 says if a man and a woman have sex during her period, "both of them shall be cut off from among their people," something I haven't heard too many people advocating of late. And how many women among us are going to embrace "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, ... for all that do so [are] abomination unto the LORD thy God?" (Deuteronomy 22:5)

By the way, Leviticus 20:27 declares "A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death." Apparently when Chesterfield County, VA, refused to allow a Wiccan to be among those giving opening invocations, they didn't go nearly as far as they should have, according to the Bible.

Another small victory in the struggle

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has cleared the way for lesbian and gay couples in the state to marry, ruling Tuesday that government attorneys "failed to identify any constitutionally adequate reason" to deny them the right.

In a 4-3 ruling, the court gave the Massachusetts state Legislature six months to rewrite the state's marriage laws for the benefit of gay couples.
So reports CNN on November 18. I expect lawmakers are now going to rush rush rush to introduce and push through an amendment to the state constitution that will specifically bar same-sex marriages. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has already asserted that marriage is a "special institution that should be reserved for a man and a woman." Of course he also muttered the expected bromides: "We must provide basic civil rights and appropriate benefits to nontraditional couples," but just what does that mean? What are "appropriate benefits" and how do they differ from benefits available to straight couples? Or is this, as I believe, just more "separate but equal" baloney rather than advocacy of civil rights?

I invite everyone to ask themselves how they would feel if instead of same-sex marriage the issue was the old anti-miscegenation laws and Romney had said "We must provide basic civil rights and appropriate benefits to mixed-race couples but marriage is a special institution that should be reserved for people of the same race?"

At one time, such arguments were actually common and supported, as nowadays opposition to same-sex marriage often is, with Bible quotes. But eventually and at painful length, the absurdity of the argument became clear. So will it, I expect, be with Romney's statement. It may still be a ways off, but it will come and this Court victory is just one small step towards that.

Okay, so maybe my hope isn't entirely gone.
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