Archive for April, 2009

Sen. Arlen Specter has switched parties. Yes, that presumably brings the Senate one closer to having the magic 60 votes and a filibuster-proof majority.  That awaits only the seating of Al Franken.  The assumption that 58 Democratic Senators plus two Independents who caucus with them will always stick together to vote for cloture misses an important aspect of the Democratic Party.   It is not monolithic.

The response from remaining members of the Republican Party is emblematic of the party’s inherent problem.  Some have taken a “good riddance” approach.  Russ Limbaugh suggests that Sen. McCain should also consider leaving.  Michael Steele has pronounced Specter’s decision as a self-serving one that simply reflects the political realities in Pennsylvania — a bruising and probably futile primary fight against a hard-core conservative opponent, someone even to the right of former Senator Rick Santorum.  While that may be true, it misses an important fact.  During the 2008 election cycle, several hundred thousand Pennsylvania Republicans had already left the party, leaving the remaining Keystone State Republicans even more conservative than before and Democrats with a 1.2 million registration advantage.  Pennsylvania has been described as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with Alabama in between.  Other wags have nicknamed the south and central parts of the state Pennsyltucky.  That may be an exaggeration, but let’s not forget the spectacle of some of its faithful at McCain-Palin rallies.  It’s hard to imagine anyone to the right of Rick Santorum, but that is clearly the direction the party is moving.

The two remaining GOP Senators from the northeast — Collins and Snowe of Maine — now find themselves in an increasingly isolated position.  Sen. Snowe describes Specter’s move as “devastating” for the GOP.  There is no room in today’s Republican Party for moderates.

And therein lies the other aspect to Specter’s switch — and one that will almost certainly be ignored by the party faithful.  Specter isn’t the first person to decide that the party no longer represents their ideals, their values, their view of America and the role of government.  Arlen Spector is one of millions of former Republicans who have come to believe that the Republican party left them, giving them no choice but to leave.  Only 21% of the nation’s electorate identify themselves as Republicans.   You can’t win national elections, or even most state-wide elections, representing only 21% of voters.

During last year’s campaign, many voices representing the more moderate portions of the GOP decried the tone of some of the McCain-Palin rallies.  Republican stalwarts — at least stalwarts of what many of us remember as the Republican Party — publically endorsed Sen. Obama’s candidacy.  And many of those who did worried aloud at the prospect of the Republican Party moving ever more to the right, and thus into a position that would result in it becoming irrelevant.

Today’s Republican Party is anti-tax, anti-government, anti-choice, anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-public education, anti-diversity, anti-dissent.  It defends torture, defends pre-emptive war, defends corruption at the highest levels of government.  It wraps itself in the flag and the Bible, all the while espousing positions that are both anti-American and anti-Christian.  It continues to alienate thinking conservatives.  Should it continue down that path, its extinction is as inevitable as the Whigs and the No-Nothings.   It’s only a matter of time.


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Now that the memos have been released, what should we do about what we now know was torture? There are a few die-hards who still argue that the methods used to extract information (useful or not) from detainees did not constitute torture.  I disagree.  So do all but the most hard-core of the right-wing.  That debate is effectively over.  What we did WAS torture.  And torture is illegal under both US and international law.  Movement conservatives don’t put much stock in international law.  To them, it smacks too much of an attempt to dilute US sovereignty.  But what about US law?  Doesn’t that count?

Title 18 United States Code, Section 2340 defines torture as follows:

As used in this chapter—
(1) “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;

(2) “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—

(A) the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
(B) the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
(C) the threat of imminent death; or
(D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality.

Section 2340A defines torture as a crime, and specifies the penalties:

(a) Offense.— Whoever outside the United States commits or attempts to commit torture shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both, and if death results to any person from conduct prohibited by this subsection, shall be punished by death or imprisoned for any term of years or for life.
(b) Jurisdiction.— There is jurisdiction over the activity prohibited in subsection (a) if—

(1) the alleged offender is a national of the United States; or
(2) the alleged offender is present in the United States, irrespective of the nationality of the victim or alleged offender.
(c) Conspiracy.— A person who conspires to commit an offense under this section shall be subject to the same penalties (other than the penalty of death) as the penalties prescribed for the offense, the commission of which was the object of the conspiracy.

These two sections make it difficult to argue that members of the Bush administration — whether the attorneys who crafted opinions rationalizing that enhanced interrogation techniques were something other than torture, the officials who sought such legal cover, or the persons who carried out the policy are somehow absolved of responsibility.  A footnote on page 43 of the May 20, 2005 memo is most interesting in the context of that definition. It reads:

It is unclear whether a detainee being subjected to the waterboard in fact experiences it as a threat of “imminent death.”  We understand that the CIA may inform a detainee on whom this technique is used that he would not be allowed to drown. Moreover, after multiple applications of the waterboard, it may become apparent to the detainee that however frightening the experience may be, it will not result in death.  Nevertheless, for purposes of our analysis, we will assume that the psychological sensation of drowning associated with the use of the waterboard may constitute a threat of “imminent death” within the meaning of Section 2340 and 2340A.

I want to know the truth.  I want to know how it came to be that the United States turned its back on its cherished values, how we ceded the moral high ground and became like the very enemy we fought against.  I want to know so that we never, ever go down that path again.

I want a full and independent investigation of how people in power came to think that torture was justified, that it was legal, that it was necessary.  I want to know who all was involved.  I want a full and independent investigation of the results of those detainees who were subjected to so-called “enhanced interrogation.”  The memos were simply an attempt to rationalize its use, to provide legal cover.  The lawyers have been identified.  Who asked for their analysis? I want to know who objected and why their advice was rejected.  I also want the role of the media investigated.  Why did they not do their job of investigating and reporting, and when they did, why did they back off when they knew they were onto something that needed to be reported?  And finally, I want the American people to confront our culpability in looking the other way, by giving consent by our lack of universal outrage, by our denial of the truth.

After the attacks of 9/11, we were scared, we were angry, we wanted revenge.  Those emotions were normal responses.  Emotions happen.  We cannot be held responsible for how we feel — for our emotions.  But we can and must be responsible for what we say and do in response to those emotions.  We know that animals lash out in response to fear, to anger, as a form of dominance.  Domesticated animals can learn not to lash out.  We like to think we are better than animals.  We have laws designed to hold us accountable for our actions when we choose not to act responsibly.

I’m not interested in a witch hunt.  Although I disagreed with much of what the Bush administration did, in both the domestic and the international arena, I’m not seeking political retribution.  I fear that prosecution, while warranted, would be seen only as political retribution, and that wouldn’t be helpful.  I firmly believe that torture is not only illegal, it is morally wrong.  And I would want any official who authorized or committed torture, regardless of political affiliation held accountable.  I also firmly believe that the American people can handle the truth.  We can be a very forgiving people.  During the Watergate episode, many members of the public said that had President Nixon opted to tell the truth about the campaign’s involvement in the break-in, fired those who had authorized it, and apologized, the scandal would have died a quick death.  I’m not sure that had President Clinton acknowledged his affair with the intern, the political climate would have been as forgiving.  I like to think that the American people would have taken a higher road than that taken by some members of Congress and the conservative punditocracy.

Historians will, in the future and if the primary source material is made available, be able to determine the answers to these questions.  But what may be lost by having to wait?  It is said that sunlight is the best disinfectant.  We need to shine sunlight on this whole, sorry episode.

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We now have a new crisis to worry about — the possibility of an influenza pandemic.  A new strain of swine flu has surfaced in Mexico and is spreading.  This new strain carries within it DNA of people, pigs, and birds, increasing the possibility of it being passed both between and among the three species.  At least 20 cases have been reported in the US — in California, New York, Texas, Ohio and Kansas.  The strain here in the US seems to be milder than the one in Mexico — at least for now.  And a few cases have surfaced in Canada as well.  So far, all appear to be traceable back to Mexico in some fashion.

DHS has issued a public health emergency warning that Sec. Napolitano characterized as an emergency preparedness warning. Think of it as similar to a hurricane watch — an opportunity to take some precautions to minimize the danger.  Officials are tracking the cases, trying to identify the infectious path.  Travel warnings exist for Mexico, with the whole of North America being carefully watched to see if they should be included in the warning. Unfortunately, birds won’t be able to read the warnings, and this is the time of year when they are migrating back north after winter.

But before we all panic, here are some very simple precautions that will help curb the spread of the illness, precautions that will protect us and our families.

  1. Wash your hands frequently.  That’s just common sense.  But it’s also important to know how to wash correctly.  Use warm water, not cold; use soap; lather your hands (fronts, backs, and around you rnails) for as long as it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice in your head.
  2. If you’re sick, stay home.  Duh.  And if you’re not, try to stay away from people who are.  It’s called social distancing.
  3. If you sneeze, do so into the crook of your elbow.  Covering a sneeze keeps all those tiny droplets from being broadcast — those are the droplets that carry the flu virus.  And sneezing into your elbow rather than into your hand minimizes the chance of you spreading them to others through contact.
  4. If you do get sick with flu-like symptoms, contact your doctor.  There are anti-viral medications that can help.

That said, there are a couple of political ironies that this potential pandemic has brought to light.

Seems that Texas has two cases confirmed with another possible one.  Texas also has a significant border with Mexico.  So, only two weeks after he flirted with the idea of seceding from the Union, Texas Governor Rick Perry wants help — from Washington.  He has asked the CDC to make sure that Texas gets tens of thousands of doses of anti-viral medication from the national stockpile.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge Texans getting their fair share of these medications.  But I find it deliciously ironic that Perry thinks it’s just fine to advocate secession one week and two weeks later call on the Federal Government for help.  Maybe secession wasn’t such a good idea after all.  Sometimes that government help is pretty important.

Then, remember when Gov. Bobby Jindal (aka Kenneth the Page) poo-poohed the idea that the Federal Government wanted to spend money on something called volcano monitoring?  I mean, why would we want to spend money on something that silly?  Well, residents of Anchorage, Alaska thought it was a pretty good idea, especially since Mt. Redoubt, which is practically in their backyard, awakened just a few days later.  It’s still erupting, and the pyroclastic flow is threatening to take out a tank farm operated by Chevron on its way to Cook Inlet.  The tank farm contains several million gallons of crude oil… anyone remember the Exxon Valdez disaster???  Turns out that volcano monitoring can be pretty important.

Well, it seems that one of the items stripped from the stimulus package, this time at the insistence of one Senator Susan Collins of Maine, was … [drum roll, please] … flu pandemic preparedness funding. [Smacks head on desk.] If you remember, Sen. Collins was one of three Republicans who ended up voting for the stimulus in order to ensure its passage.  And the stimulus package was one of the grievances underlying the tea parties — the event at which Gov. Perry suggested that Texas just might secede.

I happen to love irony.  Irony is what keeps me sane.  Irony and needlepoint.  Irony is the universe’s sense of humor.  I think I’ll go wash my hands and take my vitamins…

UPDATE:  In the interest of fairness, this statement from Sen. Collins’ spokesperson, Kevin Kelly:

As Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Senator Collins has led hearings on pandemic flu preparedness, worked on “bioshield” legislation and funding, and helped strengthen our nation’s preparedness for a pandemic flu.

Claims that she is opposed to increased funding for pandemic flu research are blatantly false and politically motivated. In fact, in December 2008, Senator Collins joined in a letter to Senate leaders requesting a $905 million increase for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund at the Department of Health and Human Services.

There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds. Senator Collins does, however, believe that it is a problem that the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services still do not have top positions filled. She hopes the Senate will move promptly to confirm Governor Sebelius for HHS Secretary.

Given that any notes from meetings held about stimulus funding allocations will not likely be made public, I’ll take this at face value.  It does contain, however, a swipe at the folks who are holding up Gov. Sibelius’ nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services.  The career folks at that department are doing their job, but they are doing it without top leadership.  That’s a shame.  What’s a bigger shame is that anti-abortion forces, specifically Tony Perkins and Ms. Wright, are trying to imply that President Obama is exagerating the swine flu situation for political gain.

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This morning I came across an article on Politico that’s worth reading.  Seems that despite their drubbing in the last two general elections, the Republican party continues to drift to the right.  Meanwhile, the majority of the electorate is moving the other direction.  While the country as a whole, county by county, is actually a shade of purple, the election results show a definite trend toward Democratic victories — except across the Bible belt.

The more I watch the antics of the Republican Party — the obvious lack of real leadership, the floundering on coming up with anything that remotely resembles constructive alternatives on key issues, the hypocrisy, the more I realize that they, or at least the GOP base, are driven solely by ideology, not by reality.  Facts rarely seem to get in the way.

Some months ago, the cartoon Non Sequitor summed it up.  Two cave men were having a discussion, one standing safely in the cave, the other outside in the rain.  The conversation went like this:

“Um, why you stand in rain?”
“It not raining.”
“Yes it is.”
“No it not.”

“Huh? Water fall from sky… That rain.”
“That your opinion.”

At this point, the first caveman sticks his hand outside, and raindrops can be seen falling into his hand.

“Not opinion. Fact. See raindrops?”
“Don’t need to look.  Already know it not rain.”

“If it not rain, then why you wet and me dry”

The dry cave man waits for a response.

“Define ‘wet’…”
“Owww, brain hurt.”

The caption at the bottom reads, “The Invention of Ideology.”

To be sure, ideologues exist on both sides of the political spectrum.  But when ideology over-rides reality, and ignorance of the facts is celebrated rather than incorporated into one’s world view, how can either party hope to establish a viable political coalition?  The intellectual conservatives — people like David Brooks, George Will (his recent diatribe against jeans aside), Christopher Buckley and others —  have been conspicuously silent as the Republican Party kowtows to the likes of Russ Limbaugh and the theocrats.

The Politico piece points out that social issues still influence the GOP base — abortion, same-sex marriage, immigration.  They remain political litmus tests.  Yet, the first two are driven by religious conviction, the third largely by fear.  The other issue upon which the GOP base seems galvanized is that of taxation — or more properly anti-taxation.  There is the perception that all taxes are bad, save perhaps for spending on defense (and possibly including local policing and border enforcement).

The base may be fired up, but where do they go, particularly if they are increasingly out of touch with the majority of Americans? Unless something occurs to energize the rational elements of the Republican Party, it appears that it will become increasingly held captive by its anti-intellectual, religious base, combined with a distinctly anti-government strain that threatens to erupt into violence.  A more effective path into oblivion and ignominy is hard to imagine.

And that would be a shame.  America needs a vibrant multi-party system.  A permanent majority, of any party, is a prescription for corruption and abuse of power.

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Like most kids, occasionally I’d threaten to run away.  Usually when my mom and I were embroiled in a conflict.  Her typical response was to offer to help me pack.  So, in honor of that, I offer this as the solution for Texas.

Shelley and Alice, consider this an offer for assylum.  You too, Jack.

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Another addition to my thoughts on journalism series is up.  This one is on the difference between news and propaganda.  For more information on the various techniques that may be used to shape public opinion, see here.  In order to be well informed, we need to be cognizant of the ways we can be manipulated to a particular viewpoint.

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Over the past several years, information has seeped into the public consciousness that the United States has used the waterboard as one of a number of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.  The recently released “torture memos” contain obvious attempts to justify waterboarding as something other than torture, although the footnotes to the memos clearly indicate otherwise.  It is important to understand just what the “technique” consists of. The subject is strapped to a board, a cloth covers his nose and mouth, and water is poured over the cloth, “simulating” the experience of drowning or, more precisely, inducing near-drowning.  If continued too long, actual drowning occurs.

eMedicine.com defines drowning as “a process resulting in primary respiratory impairment from submersion in a liquid medium. Implicit to this definition, is that a liquid-air interface is present at the victim’s airway.”  Since we know that children can drown in mere inches of water, submersion is a relative term.  The key point is that liquid is introduced into the airway.

According to medicinenet.com, this is what happens during drowning:

Drowning occurs when water comes into contact with the larynx (voice box).

  • After an initial gasp, there is an initial voluntary breath holding.
  • This is followed by spasm of the larynx and the development of hypoxemia (hypo=low + ox=oxygen + emia=blood), or decreased levels of oxygen in the bloodstream.
  • Lack of oxygen causes aerobic metabolism to stop, and the body becomes acidotic. If not corrected quickly, the lack of oxygen in combination with too much acid may lead to problems with the electrical conduction system of the heart (cardiac arrest) and lack of blood supply to the brain.
  • As body function declines, the larynx may relax and allow water to enter the lungs. However, up to 20% of drowning victims have persistent spasm of the larynx, and no water is aspirated (this was formerly known as “dry” drowning).

Hypoxemia causes brain damage.  And it must be noted that this damage isn’t always immediately apparent.  So, given that Khalid Sheik Mohammed (KSM) and Abu Zubaydah were waterboarded 183 times and 83 times respectively within the space of a single month, one must wonder what sorts of long-term damage — both physical and psychological — resulted.  And, perhaps more importantly, one must wonder if these two men were subjected to the waterboard that many times, how much additional abuse they endured.  These two men were accused of being among the worst of the worst.  Yet, they had not been charged with a crime, let alone tried and convicted, when these events occurred.  And worst of all, the upshot of this treatment was that the CIA spent millions of dollars chasing false leads.  No new actionable intelligence was gained as a result.

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