August 20, 2006

Taking Nuremberg Seriously

The Nuremberg Principles say that you can’t defend yourself from war crimes charges by saying that you were just following orders. Each individual has to make sure that they are not committing war crimes, or they can be held accountable, as the Nazi’s were after WWII and as Slobodan Milosevic and others have been in recent years.

The first four Principles lay this out very clearly:

Principle I
Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment.
Principle II
The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.
Principle III
The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.
Principle IV
The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

All of this is taught to US soldiers as part of their basic training and is incorporated into military law. Recently some soldiers are taking this seriously. Confronted by a war that certainly appears to violate prohibitions against ill treatment of prisoners, unnecessary killing of civilians and wanton destruction of cities or towns, they are starting to refuse to fight. Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused orders to Iraq, in a speech to the Veterans for Peace Convention in Seattle said, “to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.” He goes on to say, “The oath we take swears allegiance not to one man but to a document of principles and laws designed to protect the people. Enlisting in the military does not relinquish one's right to seek the truth - neither does it excuse one from rational thought nor the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. "I was only following orders" is never an excuse.”

Kevin Benderman, now serving time in the Fort Lewis brig because his Conscientious Objector claim was refused, wrote ”As I went through the process which led to my decision to refuse deployment to Iraq for the second time, I was torn between thoughts of abandoning the soldiers that I serve with, or following my conscience, which tells me: war is the ultimate in destruction and waste of humanity.”

The military makes provision for soldiers who, like Kevin Benderman, come to the belief that all war is wrong. They can apply for CO status and, if it is approved receive discharges. However, it is a difficult process and, as Sgt. Benderman can attest, the application may be turned down. If that happens, there are few options for someone whose conscience says not to fight. Sgt. Benderman was sentenced to 15 months in prison for his refusal.

Other soldiers, including Lt. Watada, come to the conclusion that the war in Iraq is wrong, even though they cannot in good conscience say that they oppose all wars. For them, the military has no recourse. Soldiers can’t pick and choose which orders to obey. Discipline demands that they be ready to go where they are sent. Lt. Watada, having concluded that the war in Iraq is illegal, expressed his willingness to fight in Afghanistan or anywhere else he was needed. The Army could have chosen a less confrontational course and posted him where he was willing to go, but perhaps they feared having to negotiate with each soldier. They know that, given a choice, there are plenty of GIs who would prefer to stay away from Iraq. They don’t want to make that choice easy.

Thousands have simply walked away. Over 200 are estimated to be in Canada, remembering that during the Vietnam war, thousands of war resisters were given refuge in Canada. Today the situation is not so clear cut. The first applications for refugee status were denied by the current Conservative government, but the appeals process is ongoing, so it is unclear what, ultimately, will be the result. The Canadian War Resisters Support Campaign hopes that ultimately resisters will be allowed to stay.

One of the things that helped end the Vietnam War was a large antiwar movement within the military. The new film, “Sir, No Sir” documents that movement and hopes to encourage antiwar GIs today to take action.

Of course, it is not just up to the soldiers. All Americans are being called to take more vigorous action against the war. For them too, the Nuremberg Principles require action against it. Antinuclear protesters from the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action at the Bangor, WA Trident submarine base carried copies of the Principles as justification for blocking the entrance to the base.

Voters For Peace ask all voters to take the following pledge: "I will not vote for or support any candidate for Congress or President who does not make a speedy end to the war in Iraq, and preventing any future war of aggression, a public position in his or her campaign." And voters are taking this seriously, as Joe Leiberman can attest.

By signing The Declaration of Peace citizens commit themselves to take action to end the war. Some will lobby Congress, some will march and some will commit themselves to nonviolent civil disobedience if Congress does not act by September 21, 2006 to set a timetable for withdrawing the troops. After that date people will take action in their communities and in Washington DC to increase the pressure on Congress to end the war. We have already seen pro-war Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Washington’s Maria Cantwell, who are up for reelection, starting to modify their rhetoric in response to an electoral base that is increasingly critical of the war. If citizens follow up on their frustration with visible actions against the war and a determination to make the war their top issue in the voting booth, then politicians may respond. If not they may find themselves out of office.

Lt. Watada ended his speech with these words, “Many have said this about the World Trade Towers, "Never Again." I agree. Never again will we allow those who threaten our way of life to reign free - be they terrorists or elected officials. The time to fight back is now - the time to stand up and be counted is today.”

August 13, 2006

Karl Rove’s Bookcase: Machiavelli and Iraq

Last week I talked about how Karl Rove might find Machiavelli useful in his job of winning elections. However, on reading The Prince, I was struck by his foreign policy advice, which this Administration might do well to heed. While Rove would have to stretch a little to apply these lessons to domestic political races, Machiavelli writes at length about how to conquer and occupy other countries. Since the Bush Administration is heavily into the conquering business; Afghanistan, Iraq ... and since it isn’t going very well, perhaps they could use some advice.

I have to stress here that Machiavelli takes a very self-centered approach to the whole subject. He is not concerned with the morality of what he is doing, or how the people being conquered suffer. He doesn’t even discuss why one might want to engage in a conquest of another country. His only concern is how to do it effectively. For this the Bush Administration ought to love him, because they have their agenda and all they want to do is put it into effect. The plan was to take over Iraq, and if a lot of people suffer and die in the process, it doesn’t matter because the overall goal is “worthy”. However, they don’t even seem to understand the process well enough to do it well.

In The Prince, Machiavelli talks about the different ways to rule a country that has been conquered. The worst is to maintain an army of occupation, “But in maintaining armed men there in place of colonies one spends much more, having to consume on the garrison all the income from the state so that the acquisition turns into a loss, and many more are exasperated, because the whole state is injured; through the shifting of the garrison up and down all become acquainted with hardship, and all become hostile, and they are enemies who, whilst beaten on their own ground are yet able to do hurt. For every reason, therefore, such guards are as useless as a colony is useful.” He goes on to say that discontented subjects will flock to the banner of a leader who professes to free them from the occupying state.

All of this, of course, has direct relevance to Iraq. The military campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime was easy, given the overwhelming superiority of forces. Much of the Iraqi army simply melted away into the population, rather than confront the American tanks head on. However the US then proceeded to try to rule Iraq with an army of occupation. This is where they ran into trouble for two reasons. One, the quality of life had been degraded for most people there. This started with the bombing campaign of the first war that targeted the civilian infrastructure of power plants, sewage treatment and water purification plants and continued with a decade of sanctions that crippled the country economically. The invasion of 2003 once again put many of these same plants out of commission, leaving most people with very limited access to clean water and electricity, even compared to the sanctions period. Economic opportunities are also extremely limited due to the continued fighting. As Machiavelli had predicted, the growing number of people who were discontented with the state of affairs have come to blame the occupying forces for their troubles. They have thus tended to rally around those who are willing to stand up to the Americans. This fuels the resistance in a spiral of violence, response and revenge that has only gotten worse as it becomes clear that there is no end in sight.

Machiavelli supposes two kinds of state which you might want to conquer. One has a strong central ruler, who controls the whole of the state apparatus. This kind of state can be difficult to conquer because it is united, well organized and strong. However, once you do succeed, it is easy to take over the top post in government and control the rest, more or less as the previous ruler had. The daily life for most people doesn’t change, so they have little reason to resist. In the other case, there are many power centers that are independent of the central authority. It is easy to manipulate these conflicts to pit one against the other, thus dividing and conquering. However, the occupation is much more difficult because these same rivalries tend to make some support you and some oppose you, so whatever you do there is bound to be opposition.

Iraq was more the first type under the Baath Party. The sheer superiority of forces guaranteed a quick victory but the US made a fatal error. Rather than preserving the government as it was, simply supplying a new ruler more compliant to American wishes, they destroyed the whole government apparatus, creating a power vacuum that came to be filled by Iraqi nationalist resistance fighters, Islamic fundamentalists and Kurdish nationalists. The Kurds are willing to go along with the Americans as long as their goal of greater Kurdish autonomy is realized. The Americans accept this, even though it requires finessing Turkey’s opposition to Kurdish nationalism, which they have been brutally fighting, with US support, for years in Turkey. The other power centers have not been dealt with as successfully. The inability of the US to supply normal governmental services turns people to the resistance, in one form or another, as an alternative.

Machiavelli’s conclusion is that in this situation the occupying power will be driven out sooner or later. Furthermore, their position at home is weakened by the strain of the continuing war. Their popularity is down and the upcoming elections will likely weaken, if not break, the Republicans’ hold on all three branches of government. For this reason, Karl Rove might wish that he had lent Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney his copy of The Prince before they got themselves into such a mess.


Most Democrats have been gleefully engaging in this kind of analysis that criticizes the Administration for mishandling the war, and God knows they have, while staying away from the more basic question of why we are there in the first place. At one extreme is Joe Leiberman, who went so far in supporting the whole enterprise that he lost his primary and abandoned the Democratic Party. But others, such as New York’s Hillary Clinton and Washington’s Maria Cantwell, who are both up for re-election, are trying to have it both ways. They are fast to criticize the administration, with Clinton, seeing the handwriting on the wall after Leiberman’s loss, calling for Rumsfeld to resign, but slow to question the legitimacy of the war or present any meaningful alternative to the President’s “stay the course” policy. A professed desire to bring the troops home at some unspecified time in the future after the Iraqi government has control of the situation is not a policy. It is a pipe dream. Anti-war voters (and a majority now oppose the war) are losing patience with these fence straddlers. It remains to be seen how this will all play out in November. Whatever happens here, the prognosis is bleak and getting bleaker in Iraq.

August 06, 2006

Karl Rove’s Bookcase: Machiavelli

Rumor has it that Karl Rove keeps a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince on his office bookshelf. I have been wondering what Mr. Rove might get out of the work of a 16th Century Italian political observer. Now it is true that Machiavelli is mostly loved and hated by those who have never actually read any of his writings and it is possible that Rove cultivates this story as a way of building a myth of himself as a ruthless and masterful political operative. On the other hand, Machiavelli’s observations often ring true in a way that could well resonate with a strategist who values winning above all.

The Prince is above all about power. It is dedicated to Lorenzo Medici, the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, in the hopes of gaining favor with the Prince. He outlines a strategy for success that deliberately flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Rather Machiavelli draws on examples from his contemporary society and history to elaborate on a politics of practicality. It is really very simple. A Prince has power. A Prince wants to hold onto power by whatever means he can. In 15th and 16th C Italy Machiavelli paints a picture of a number of rulers jockeying for position, conquering their neighbors, making alliances, being overthrown. The question is how to thrive in this atmosphere.

For Karl Rove, the first question is how that political landscape relates to contemporary America. Rove isn’t concerned with conquering other states with military power, as Machiavelli was. His Prince is the Candidate and the power he seeks to maintain is the political office. His Candidate enlarges his power by running for higher office, rather than actually conquering his neighbors. As an aside it must be noted that this administration does engage in conquering and occupying foreign lands but not generally in accordance with Machiavelli’s advice and not under the direction of Karl Rove, except as it relates to the American political landscape. In fact, it is possible that Cheney and Rumsfeld might have avoided some of the pitfalls they stumbled into in Iraq through study of The Prince.

The first point that would appeal to Karl Rove is that you have to rely on your own strength. Although it is tempting to find an ally that will supply the troops needed for a campaign, that will ultimately put you at your ally’s mercy. If you have your own power base, you need not fear that your troops will turn against you. Rove has had great success in cultivating the religious right as a strong base that can be counted on to turn out and fight for him when needed. He has, consequently been able to defeat opponents with a less committed base.

Machiavelli didn’t think that virtue was its own reward. He did think that it was well for rulers to be thought virtuous but if there was a conflict between virtue and success, “He need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.” As an example, he cites Hannibal, whose success in maintaining order in his heterogeneous army is attributed to “his inhuman cruelty, which, with his boundless valor, made him revered and terrible in the sight of his soldiers, but without that cruelty, his other virtues were not sufficient to produce this effect.”

Karl Rove’s campaign strategy often seeks victory by undermining the reputation of his opponent, often through the use of half truths or surrogates as we saw in the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry. Although voters say that they are turned off by these negative attacks, they can be effective, especially if the attacks appear to come from a third party and not the campaign itself. This preserves the appearance of virtue in the candidate while allowing the attacks to damage the opponent, Rove’s specialty. As Machiavelli says, “ It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.”

In all things, Machiavelli holds that it is possible to be overcome by a less virtuous and more ruthless opponent. The appearance of weakness that comes of an unwillingness to violate common decency can lead to a breakdown of order that in the end leads to more suffering that could have been avoided by a little judicious betrayal, lies or viciousness that would have avoided large scale lawlessness. It is easy to see Karl Rove, and indeed the whole administration taking heart from this lesson.

Perhaps the final lesson is that when Machiavelli presented his ideas to Medici, he was spurned. He had to satisfy himself with the role of analyst, rather than be the king maker he aspired to. He might have done a better job selling his services by following his own advice and not being quite so direct. It may have been his blunt amoral approach that turned off his potential benefactor. Rove may have been wise to start with Bush at the beginning of his career, when he didn’t have to explain his philosophy in so many words. He could simply use these techniques successfully to push a compliant candidate up the political ladder, rising with him to the top.

July 23, 2006

Gaza, Beirut and Fallujah

First read Robert Fisk’s report from Beirut. Then you can read my article below.

The Israeli attack on Lebanon and Gaza, is out of proportion to the kidnapping that precipitated it by orders of magnitude. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes and live in fear of death under the most primitive conditions due to the systematic destruction of the civilian infrastructure.

This is punishment of innocent people, while leaving the guilty largely unharmed. In fact, volunteers will now flock to fight the Israeli invaders, both in Lebanon and against civilians in Israel. This invasion is a disaster for Israel, which is in much more danger now than before. The worst case scenario involves a war that encompasses the whole of the Middle East and Pakistani nuclear weapons. The best case, years of attacks and reprisals that will kill, wound, displace and terrorize innocent people both inside and outside of Israel. As usual it will be innocent people who happen to be born Palestinian who will bear the brunt of the suffering.

In addition, since the US supplies Israel with its weapons, and billions of dollars in aid, many now blame the United States, as well as Israel for the suffering that is being inflicted. In fact, attacks in Iraq are sharply up, according to Friday's newspaper.

Because of the aid we give them, the US is perhaps the only country that can hope to persuade Israel to change its course. The immediate need is for a ceasefire. In the long term, the only solution is a withdrawal of Israeli settlements so that there can be a Palestinian State with secure borders, internal communication and freedom of movement. In return there needs to be a recognition of Israel and a willingness to live in peace.

However, Israel has it backwards when they demand that all Palestinians make all the concessions before even talking about what Israel can do. Likewise the Administration has it backwards when it declares that they will stay in Iraq until there is peace. We have seen that road leads nowhere. Ending the occupations goes a long way towards establishing the conditions needed for peace to flourish.

President Bush has urged a two state solution for Israel and Palestine, we need to follow up on that declaration with real action to achieve it.

We need to pressure Israel to stop the invasion.

We can call on Hezbollah to agree to a ceasefire but we have no influence with them and the destruction is overwhelmingly caused by Israel.

We need to end the occupation of Iraq. The longer we stay there, the worse it gets for everybody.

Of course, it is unlikely that the current Administration in Washington, DC will do anything. In fact, they have speeded up delivery of weapons to Israel. They seem to have adopted Israel’s foreign policy as their own, despite its utter lack of success. Most people in the Middle East see a clear link between the US occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

There are differences, of course. There is some truth to Israel’s claims that it is acting in self-defense, while US policy in Iraq is wholly driven by lies. And there is no powerful constituency in the United States that seeks to push Iraqis out of their own country and settle Americans there instead, as the Israeli settler movement does in the West Bank.

Still, the tactics are remarkably the same. All men “of military age” are treated as enemies. Women and children are hardly to be trusted either. Heavily armed troops kick down doors and search people’s homes at will. Houses are destroyed. Checkpoints control the movement of people as they go about their business. The economy is destroyed. Unemployment is very high. and when things get bad, whole cities are attacked, be it Fallujah, Gaza or Beirut, for the actions of a few, who usually manage to slip away.

At best, the occupying armies appear to be blind to the existence of civilians as they go about their business of attempting to bomb out a resistance that grows in strength with every martyr. At worst, it is a systematic punishment of a whole people for voting for Hamas, or being unable to do anything about Hezbollah’s occasional attacks, or for wanting the US troops to go home. It is immoral because it punishes the wrong people and it won’t work, if the objective is peace. Almost 40 years of occupation in Palestine shows that.

July 16, 2006

Suzanne Swift - Sexual Abuse in the Military

Yesterday was Suzanne Swift’s 22nd birthday. She is the soldier who refused to go back to Iraq with her unit and was arrested last month at her home in Eugene, Oregon. That’s three Fort Lewis, Washington soldiers who have refused to go, for three different reasons. Kevin Benderman came to believe that all war is wrong and filed for Conscientious Objector status, which was denied. He is now serving time in the Fort Lewis brig. Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to go because the Iraq war violates international law and the Geneva Conventions both in its inception and in the way it is being prosecuted, is awaiting court martial.

Suzanne Swift is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and could not bring herself to go back to Iraq with the same unit where she had been sexually harassed and a victim of what they call “command rape”. That is where your commanding officer coerces you into having sex.

The relationship between a ordinary soldier and her Sergeant is inherently unequal. Any boss-subordinate relationship is unequal, which is why most companies have policies against dating in that situation. If a romance develops, then one of the parties involved has to quit, or at least transfer to another department. There is just too much temptation for abuse of the situation. A boss can easily give special favors, promotions, or overlook poor work if their judgment is clouded by romance. On the other hand, an unscrupulous boss can promise favorable treatment in exchange for sex and has considerable power to punish a subordinate who refuses, or when the romance goes bad. People have been fired for refusing to put out. Even if there are no special favors or punishments there is often a perception that there is. That perception hurts morale and can be coercive in itself. That is why companies have policies against sexual harassment and set up a mechanism outside of the regular hierarchy for reporting and investigating abuses.

In the military, and especially in a combat zone, the same problems exist, only to an extreme level. The military isn’t just a job, its your whole life. Your commander has tremendous power to reward or punish you. In a combat zone, it can mean endangering your life by getting the worst assignments. Spc. Swift refused two sergeants who propositioned her but was coerced into sex with a third. She said, “They treat you like a dog if you refuse and it’s worse if you agree.”

The military has a policy against harassment, but it is not always enforced. Swift did report the harassment but nothing happened, except that things got worse for her, as she was singled out for humiliating treatment and continued demands for sex.

The Pentagon's Joint Task Force on Sexual Abuse in 2004 found widespread abuse in the military, which is not a surprise to women who have served. Estimates are that as many as 2/3 of women, and almost 1/3 of the men in the service are victims of sexual harassment, much of which goes unreported because the military response is often to further harass the victim, rather than punish the perpetrator. As Colleen Mussolino, co-founder of Women Veterans of America (WVA), an advocacy group for women veterans, was quoted as saying about her experience after being raped in "Female Soldiers Treated Lower Than Dirt", by Rose Aguilar, "I was taken by the criminal investigation team and treated like a prisoner of war for six weeks with threats. I finally signed a paper promising that I wouldn't prosecute.” Some female soldiers in Iraq were so worried about being assaulted going to the latrines at night that they wouldn't drink water late in the day and subsequently died of dehydration, according to Col. Janis Karpinski. Perpetrators usually face no consequences, or are simply transferred to another base.

Swift’s mother, Sara Rich, who is leading the fight to protect her daughter, is calling for implementation of the Task Force’s recommendations, an investigation of Swift’s abuse, prosecution of the guilty parties and an honorable discharge. Since this case has received publicity, the Army has started an investigation. It remains to be seen how far it will go but Rich hopes that continued public support for her daughter will force the Army to treat this seriously. It was with this in mind that she celebrated Suzanne’s birthday with a rally, support banners on I-5 and a press conference at the entrance to Fort Lewis.

This isn’t really an anti-war issue and I don’t know what Suzanne Swift thinks, although Sara Rich is against the war and a member of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) and most, if not all, the supporters who turned up at Fort Lewis were anti-war. People who believe that the war is necessary should be outraged at this abuse of soldiers who are risking their lives on our behalf. It undermines the effectiveness of the war effort. In a situation where everything depends on the mutual trust and unit cohesion necessary to be successful in their mission, this kind of abuse of authority can be deadly. It undermines respect for authority and drives away potential recruits.

The War Resisters League(WRL) in a pamphlet entitled “Battered by the Military” states, “Violence against women is not only an accepted part of military culture but an integral component in the training that desensitizes soldiers to violence and killing.” They go on to say, “If you think the military is an option, before enlisting ... Ask yourself whether you want to be part of a system that causes physical, emotional and psychological trauma to both women and men.”

Here is another article that goes a little deeper

Why Soldiers Rape
Culture of misogyny, illegal occupation, fuel sexual violence in military

Additional resources:

GI Rights Hotline 1-800-394-9544

The Miles Foundation is a private, non-profit organization providing comprehensive services to victims of violence associated with the military

STAMP Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel 1-866-879-2568

July 09, 2006

Think Locally, Act Globally

One of the themes of the World Peace Forum (WPF), held in Vancouver, British Columbia last month, which I had the pleasure to attend, was the importance to cities of taking action for World Peace. Cities must respond to the needs of their citizens. One of those primary needs is the need to live in peace.

Vancouver was one of 62 cities designated as Peace Messenger Cities by the UN General Assembly in 1986 for its efforts to spread a Culture of Peace within its boundaries. It was in that spirit that the city organized the WPF. They made a special effort to include representatives from other Peace Messenger Cities and Mayors for Peace.

It is easy to see why the Mayor of Hiroshima is the President of Mayors for Peace, or why Mayor Winstanley Johnson of Freetown, Sierra Leone sees peace as a prerequisite for running a city, as he copes with the aftermath of civil war. Both of those cities have experienced the disruption, devastation and suffering to their people caused by war. The UN makes this case in CITIES - THEIR RESPONSIBILITY TO A CULTURE OF PEACE.

Many city officials believe that they are supposed to pay attention to local problems and ignore everything that happens outside the city limits. In practice, however, you have to work with other cities, counties and governmental agencies to solve regional problems. Most cities wouldn’t hesitate to lobby for laws and regulations on the state level that affect the city. They will even go to the National government for funds for an important local project.

At a time when local governments are having a hard time finding money for maintaining their infrastructure and providing services for their citizens, military spending can be seen as a huge diversion of funds.

Worldwide, military spending reaches $1 trillion a year, about half of it by the United States. President Eisenhower said, that every dollar spent on the military "signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." In more concrete terms the National Priorities Project documents the cost of war to local communities and shows other choices that could be made. For instance, taxpayers in California will pay $40.6 billion for the war in Iraq. For that same amount they could have had 631,955 Elementary School Teachers or built 4,421 new Elementary Schools, or provided healthcare to 16,850,732 people.

At the WPF we heard Jennifer Hostermann, Mayor of Pleasanton, California talk about how her city is affected by its location near the Lawrence Livermore Lab, which is a major research center for nuclear weapons. She realizes that in a nuclear war, her city would be right next door to one of the first targets of incoming warheads. In that she is not alone. Many of us in the United States are close to a military base that is sure to be targeted in the event of a war. Of course, cities will also be targets and the effects of nuclear war will be global so all of us are at risk. It is easy to forget, but Russian and American missiles are still ready for launch, despite the end of the Cold War almost 2 decades ago. She also feels a responsibility for the people who live in her city. That responsibility doesn’t end when the potholes are filled but extends to representing their interests at a state, national and global level.

Many cities, recognizing the detrimental effects to their residents of the war in Iraq have passed resolutions in opposition. Some feel that since they took an oath to uphold the Constitution, they are bound to oppose an unconsitutional war. Likewise, cities in the US, Britain and elsewhere have declared themselves Nuclear Free Zones. These declarations added momentum to the antinuclear movement that in the 1980s led to a significant slowing of the arms race. In an extension of this movement, national governments in the South Pacific, Latin America and Africa have declared Nuclear Free Zones that have had a real effect in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

With the big powers becoming more belligerent, a new arms race is on. It is time for people to act in their cities and communities, where the government is still accessible to ordinary people, to demand an end to the squandering of lives and money on war.

July 02, 2006

War Crimes in Gaza

Outrage can only go so far. These days it seems that everybody is outraged over something. The result is a kind of a moral numbness. A weariness that makes it hard to look at the dark side of humanity that seems so much in evidence today. People are especially unwilling to confront issues concerning war. Something about war arouses primitive instincts that call us to lay aside normal standards of decent and moral behavior as we rally to the defense of our group. The military harnesses these feelings to turn ordinary decent men and women into killers. That is what war is all about. The question is where to draw the line.

International law now attempts to distinguish behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable in warfare. This is not an easy task because war in any form is opposed to peacetime morality. At best, warfare involves the deliberate murder of opposing soldiers. There is a recognition that civilians will inevitably be victims as they are caught in the crossfire, driven from their homes, witness traumatic events and be unable to live normal lives. However, we now condemn deliberate targeting of civilians. The principle is that hostilities should be confined to armies fighting each other.

In World War II the Nazis clearly overstepped these bounds in a number of ways. The genocide against Jews, Gypsies and others was the worst abuse. The death camps could only exist by denying the humanity of these people. We respond by saying “Never Again shall we allow this to happen to anybody.”

The Nazis were also condemned for their brutal occupation of the countries they conquered. They held the entire community responsible for any attack on their troops. They would respond by holding government officials and other prominent people hostage. Sometimes they would be executed in response to attacks by the resistance. In other cases, the whole community would be punished by withholding necessities of life.

After the war, the Nuremberg trials and the Geneva Conventions outlawed these practices as war crimes. They declared that deliberate targeting of civilians would not be tolerated and that reprisals should be proportionate to the “offense” and should be confined to the guilty parties and not innocent people.

Last week’s attacks in Gaza and indeed Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in general appears to violate these principles. At the same time it can be said that Palestinian terrorists violate these principles when they bomb Israeli civilians. It would be a mistake, however, to equally condemn both sides. The degree of violence and power is clearly unequal. Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. The establishment of settlements there violate the principle that military occupation should be temporary and that civilians should not be displaced. It is the settlements that make a political solution impossible. In order to maintain the settlements, Palestinian territory has to be fractured into a myriad of little enclaves that have no economic or political cohesion.

In response to the kidnapping of one soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, Israel launched an attack on Gaza that clearly holds not only the Hamas led government but the entire population responsible. They bombed the power plant that provides power to most of Gaza, leaving people without electricity and water, which depends on pumps. They have also prevented food and other supplies from getting into Gaza, bombed government offices and taken much of the Palestinian Cabinet prisoner. Israel says that all this is to exert “pressure” on those holding Cpl. Shalit to release him.

It is hard to see this attack as anything other than collective punishment on the entire civilian population and the holding of government officials as hostages, which are exactly the type of war crimes that the Nuremberg Trials and the Geneva Conventions condemned when they were practiced by the Nazis. Of course, Shalit was kidnapped in response to Israeli attacks which were responses to attacks by Palestinian groups.... It seems ironic that the Israeli government seems to be more outraged by the one action that had a military, rather than a civilian target and thus did not violate the “rules of war”.

The current crisis represents an escalation in their tactics but is not essentially different than the policy they have been pursuing in the Palestinian territories in general. Free travel between different parts of the West Bank is not allowed. Periodic blockades and numerous check points give the military complete control over whether people can go to work or school. and whether food an other necessities of life are available. People’s homes are demolished if the military thinks that somebody there, or a relative of somebody there is a “terrorist”. There is no way to challenge such a decision.

The US is quick to condemn Hamas for their refusal to recognize Israel but slow to condemn Israel, who we support with $3 billion in aid a year, for their part in perpetuating the violence and preventing a solution. It will do no good for Hamas to change their stance if the reality of life for Palestinians does not improve. What does the Israeli government think is going to happen if they continue to pursue this course? Palestinians who see no prospect of a settlement they can live with turned to Hamas in the last election. Desperation leads to desperate measures. I can only see a continuation of the cycle of violence in which the unequal power will lead to unequal suffering but suffering nonetheless on both sides. It will be impossible to prevent terrorists from attacking and Israel will never be able to live in peace. Likewise anti-American feeling will continue to increase because of our support for these brutal Israeli policies, with tragic consequences.

The only solution is for Israel to adhere to the Geneva Conventions and move towards an end to the occupation. Palestinians will have no reason to seek peace unless they see a prospect for a return to normal life and self determination. Israel must commit to a policy of peace, justice and self-determination and the US must adopt a policy of “tough love” to get them on track and keep them on track.

June 18, 2006

Close Guantanamo?

When three prisoners at Guantanamo Bay committed suicide last week it focused attention once again on this top secret prison. The US military has identified the three men as Ali Abdullah Ahmed of Yemen, and Saudis Mani Shaman Turki al-Habardi al-Utaybi and Yassar Talal al-Zahrani. Since 2002 the United States has used Guantanamo to hold prisoners in the “war on terror” because it exists in a kind of a legal limbo that, according to the Administration, puts it outside of any legal oversight.

The US established the Guantanamo Bay base during the Spanish American war over 100 years ago. That war “liberated” Cuba from Spanish colonial rule, while firmly establishing an American presence, including extended periods of American military occupation and the establishment of a dictatorship friendly to American business interests. The original lease for the Guantanamo base was signed in 1903 under terms established by the Platt Amendment, which set the terms for ending the US military occupation. In 1934, the lease was rewritten with the provision that it could not be changed or canceled without the agreement of both the US and Cuban governments, or until the US abandoned the base. In other words, the US can maintain a base in Cuba, even against the wishes of the Cuban government and since the revolution in 1959, this has been the situation. Cuba contests the legality of the lease, refuses to cash the checks the US dutifully sends it, and demands that the US leave but recognizes that they don’t have the ability to force the question.

The Bush Administration finds this situation very convenient. They claim that because Guantanamo is outside the US, that US laws and the Constitution do not apply there and since Cuba does not recognize the American presence, they have no oversight either. This is quite different than US military bases elsewhere in the world, which are subject to agreements with the host countries that have to be periodically renewed. This gives them some leverage. Furthermore, the Administration claims that the Geneva Conventions and the international laws of war do not apply because the prisoners aren’t technically soldiers in an established army. Rather they are relegated to the status of “enemy combatants” who have neither the rights accorded to Prisoners of War, or to civilians. Logically this position doesn’t make much sense. Either we are fighting a war, or we aren’t. If we are fighting a war, then our enemies must be recognized as fighting a war as well, and should be treated as enemy soldiers under international and military law, and as POWs when they are captured. If we aren’t, then prisoners should be brought to trial under the criminal justice system.

The “Enemy Combatant” label is a convenient fiction that is maintained to allow the government carte blanche in their treatment of these prisoners. They want to be able to hold people indefinitely with no standards of treatment and no accountability to anybody. Guantanamo is actually the most public of these prisons. Others exist in Afghanistan and Iraq, including Bagram Airbase and Abu Graihb. Add to those the CIA prisons reported to have been established in secret locations around the world. Apparently the Eastern European locations were closed after their cover was blown. And in a process known as rendition, prisoners are secretly transported to other countries, apparently so they can be tortured without any restrictions that might appl under American custody.

Although they don’t like the word, torture is central to what goes on in all of these secret prisons. Interrogation techniques employ a sophisticated combination of physical and psychological techniques to break them down. The military claims that it is necessary to obtain information. The classic argument is that torture would be justified in order to prevent an imminent terrorist attack. I assume that if that ever happened it would have been trumpeted as a major victory. In fact, studies have shown that torture is remarkably ineffective. Prisoners will either resist despite extreme pain or break down and say anything they think the torturer wants to hear, neither of which is useful. Psychological methods, such as isolation, sensory deprivation and humiliation aimed at breaking down personal identity and resistance have been developed by the CIA and are being put to widespread use now.

The continuing resistance of prisoners at Guantanamo calls these techniques into question, even on the grounds of effectiveness, to say nothing of morality or the effects on world opinion of America or the treatment of Americans who are held as prisoners or hostages.

The suicides are a matter of great concern to the military, not out of concern for the prisoners, but because of the effect on public opinion. Amazingly the military considers itself the victim here. This is made clear by the statement of Navy Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, who said, "I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare aimed at us here at Guantanamo, We have men here who are committed jihadists. They are dangerous men and they will do anything they can to advance their cause." (From the Department of Defense defenselink website story Three Guantanamo Bay Detainees Die of Apparent Suicide.)

There is plenty in the conditions of their confinement that could lead to suicide as the only way out. They are at the complete mercy of their captors with no prospect of ever being released, looking forward to the rest of their lives spent under conditions of physical and psychological abuse. Their only avenue of protest has been hunger strikes, which have been combatted by tying the prisoners down and forcing feeding tubes down their throat. It may also be true that the suicides are a last ditch attempt to sacrifice a hopeless existence on the chance that it will attract enough attention to improve conditions for their fellow prisoners.

The new film, “The Road to Guantanamo” documents these conditions, while telling the story of three British Muslims captured in Afghanistan and held for two years at Guantanamo before being released with no formal accusations or charges ever being leveled.

Clearly the veil of secrecy is ever so slowly being pulled aside, leading to pressure to close the prison. At the same time, the publicity and court decisions giving a little bit of access to lawyers and requiring some legal process for prisoners are a hindrance to the policy of total isolation that the Administration thinks is necessary both for successful interrogations and to minimize political criticism. It might actually serve their purposes better to close Guantanamo and use other secret prisons, even more removed from public view instead.

June 11, 2006

Haditha, War Crimes and an Act of Conscience

Lets start with First Lt Ehren Watada, who this week announced that he will refuse deployment to Iraq. He feels impelled to take this action, which puts him on the line for court martial and a substantial prison term, because he believes that “the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law.” Lt. Watada joins a number of other soldiers, sailors and marines who cannot in good conscience participate in the war.

Each individual who has taken this position has acted for their own unique reasons. Lt. Watada is notable because he is the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment. He hasn’t claimed Conscientious Objector (CO) status because he does believe that some wars are justified. In fact, he joined the Army in 2003, when the war was already under way.
However, he has come to realize that the reality of this war is very different from the story that he believed when he signed up. The government told him that the war was about weapons of mass destruction and fighting terrorism. It turns out that the weapons were imaginary and that Iraq posed no threat to the United States. Furthermore is is clear that the Bush Administration knew this very well and deliberately lied to the American people and to the world. They sent our troops into harms way on false pretenses in furtherance of a secret agenda.

The war at its inception was a violation of international law, the UN Charter, and US law because it was not sanctioned by the UN and was not undertaken in self defense.

The war in its conduct is a violation of all of the above as well as the Army’s Law of Land Warfare because of the indiscriminate killing of civilians, collective punishment in Fallujah and elsewhere and torture and mistreatment of prisoners.

Given this new understanding of the war, Lt. Watada could not in good conscience participate. In his words, “My oath of office is to protect and defend America’s laws and its people. By refusing unlawful orders for an illegal war, I fulfill that oath.” He informed his superiors and asked to be assigned to duties not directly connected to the war, or to resign from the Army. The Army has refused these requests and intends to prosecute him if he refuses deployment to Iraq.

The Haditha “massacre” offers some insight into why people have been talking more and more about war crimes. This was just one incident during three years of war but it is hardly unique. Haditha is a city in Al Anbar province about 150 miles northwest of Baghdad. It is the site of the largest hydroelectric dam in the country, which gives it strategic importance. It has been the site of several attacks against Iraqi officials and police and American troops.

Initial reports from the Marines stated that a roadside bomb killed one American and 15 civilians in November 2005. In February 2006, a video of the bodies of the civilians showed that they had been shot in their homes. Eyewitnesses reported that after the American was killed, Marines stormed nearby houses and killed men, women and children indiscriminately. The story only made it to the mainstream press in the US a few weeks ago, leading to investigations and possible prosecution of the troops involved. The thing that was most shocking to Americans was the possibility that our troops had deliberately murdered civilians. Congressman John Murtha, a former Marine said that the episode might prove to be America’s darkest hour in Iraq. “This is the kind of war you have to win the hearts and minds of the people. And we’re set back every time something like this happens.”

Today’s Washington Post offers an account of the events that day by one of the Marines involved. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich told his story through his attorney in an attempt to show that his actions were consistent with military rules of engagement in Iraq and to defend himself against possible criminal charges.

He says that they did not set out to kill civilians. However, they shot first and asked questions later. “Marines noticed a white, unmarked car full of ‘military aged men’ lingering near the bomb scene. When Marines ordered the men to stop, they ran; was standard operating procedure at the time for the Marines to shoot suspicious people fleeing a bombing, and the Marines opened fire. ... Iraqis .. said the vehicle was a taxi carrying a group of students to their homes and that the driver tried to back away from the site, fleeing in fear. ... AK-47 shots rang out from homes on the south side of the road. ... A corporal with the unit leaned over to Wuterich and said he saw the shots coming from a specific house ... A four-man team of Marines, including Wuterich, kicked in the door and found a series of empty rooms, noticing quickly that there was one room with a closed door and people rustling behind it ... They kicked in that door, tossed a fragmentation grenade into the room, and one Marine fired a series of "clearing rounds" through the dust and smoke, killing several people ...The Marine who fired the rounds ... had experience clearing numerous houses on a deployment in Fallujah, where Marines had aggressive rules of engagement.” Noting that there were only civilians in the room, they figured that the insurgents had slipped out the back door, so they charged into another house with the same tactics and the same results. Altogether, 15 - 24 civilians were killed, including children as young as 2 years old. It does not appear that any actual insurgents were killed.

There are a number of aspects of this report that are deeply disturbing. The Geneva Conventions require troops to minimize civilian casualties. This conduct displays a reckless disregard for civilian life. Troops assume that anybody they encounter is likely to be an enemy and act accordingly. This is especially true of men of “military age”. During the siege of Fallujah, women and children were allowed to leave the city as American troops prepared to attack but men were not. The assumption was that all men were suspected insurgents. There have been numerous reports from American troops that they respond to any attack with indiscriminate fire in that direction, regardless of who might be caught in the crossfire. Air attacks cause the most civilian casualties. The very first “official” bombing of the war, attempting to kill Saddam Hussein, instead killed a small child. Thousands of civilians have been killed and wounded by American troops who cannot or will not tell the difference between fighters and bystanders. Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist covering Iraq, documents many other similar events in his article, Countless My Lai Massacres in Iraq.

Other violations of international law, constituting war crimes, include the use of white phosphorus bombs in Fallujah, attacks on ambulances, preventing people from receiving medical care, and the widespread torture of prisoners. There are also indications that the American supported Iraqi police or militias are involved in rounding up, torturing and killing people. This may be related to the Salvador Option, as outline in this January 2005 Newsweek article.

Lt. Watada is responding to this systematic violation of international law by taking a principled and courageous stand. It is the highest form of patriotism to defend the Constitution, the rule of law and morality when the government seems to have abandoned it.

June 04, 2006

Controlling the Net

Check out last week’s discussion of Net Neutrality

Save the Internet: Click here

When the internet burst on the scene in the 90s it was a classic demonstration of free market economics as companies big and small, new and well established, competed like crazy for their share of cyberspace. It was the most competition the American economy has seen in years.

The same thing happened in the political sphere. And the combination of e-mail and websites made the net a great organizing tool. Advocacy groups get people signed up for e-mail lists that deliver action plans direct to your desktop. Websites give more information and people are urged to pass along these messages to their friends and get them involved too. Bloggers and alternative media sites can deliver a very focused message. Grassroots democracy got a real shot in the arm. These tools are being used by all political viewpoints. It has fostered a competitive marketplace of ideas that is available for anybody to search out.

I didn’t even mention the purely social aspects of the net, which are huge and all sorts of information (true and not so true) that people share over the net in a way that we couldn’t even imagine a decade or two ago. Plenty of people are finding ways to make money facilitating that as well. Plenty of others are just using it for all that it is worth.

Now that we have it, there is a feeling that this is the only way that things could have turned out. The internet as a force of nature. Actually, it was designed to be a structure that is free and open...the information superhighway that would allow anybody to go anywhere they want to go. The idea was to facilitate precisely the kind of competition and innovation we have seen. It succeeded beyond anybody's wildest dreams precisely because of that openness and lack of centralized control.

The internet could have been set up differently, as a more centralized way for companies to deliver content to consumers. Then it might have ended up more like cable TV for instance. Now, cable as a model isn’t terrible. It just doesn’t offer the innovation and flexibility and democracy that we get from an open internet.

China presents an interesting example of more centralized control over the net. They are trying to use their government control over internet portals to limit political opposition. In this case they try to filter out politically objectionable sites, much as filters here try to block spam or porn. Their idea of objectionable isn’t written down anywhere but encompasses discussions of Tibetan independence, Falun Gong, the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and the BBC.

Western companies have come under criticism for helping China control the net in this way. They argue that the tools they provide are basically the same as firewalls and filters that any large network needs. They aren’t responsible for what the Chinese government does with these tools. In any case they figure it is the price they pay for doing business in China. The Chinese market is growing rapidly as they move rapidly into the digital age. China has more people online than any other country except the United States.

In addition to sophisticated filtering, China has established a principle that any website or access provider is responsible for monitoring the content they make available. A crackdown a few years ago closed a number of internet cafes and installed sophisticated filters in others that block 500,000 sites and report people to the police who attempt to access them. This is much more effective than having government officials try to monitor everything. Providers will tend to err on the side of caution to avoid being shut down or even prosecuted. It is difficult to maintain this level of control and some people just put up sites that they know will be shut down in the hope that they will attract an audience in the interim. Still, Amnesty International has documented 33 people who have been imprisoned for using the internet to circulate or download information. Amnesty also reports that China “aims to use advanced information and communication technology to strengthen police control in China and a massive surveillance database system will reportedly provide access to records of every citizen.”

Similar efforts in the US haven’t gotten very far, yet. Schools and libraries routinely restrict access to sites they think are objectionable. Pornography is the usual target but I have heard rumors that schools are restricting access to blogs in general as well. Apparently they think it is a waste of time for students who are supposed to be studying. There have also been attempts, unsuccessful so far, to hold providers here responsible for objectionable content on their servers, which sparked accusations of suppression of free speech. And of course the NSA has been analyzing internet activity as part of their “war against terrorism”. The FBI asked Service Providers to maintain records of everybody’s activity on the net for two years so they can track every site you visited and the searches you made and who you email.

Here corporate telecommunications companies control the portals and without net neutrality there is nothing to stop them from exercising the same kinds of control as the Chinese. The difference would be in the types of sites they don’t like. Right now they are asserting the right to restrict high speed access to companies that pay for the privilege. They could decide to block anti-corporate sites or sites they think are unpatriotic. It’s downright un-American.

Here is a petition to help persuade Congress to preserve Net Neutrality.

May 28, 2006

Hand Over Control of the Internet to Who??

The great thing about the Internet is that it makes it really easy for everybody to freak out about the same thing at the same time...and
Save the Internet: Click here
feel like they are thinking for themselves rather than just being told the official story. The thing about the internet is that everybody tells you what to think. There are a million contradictory versions of the story out there all at once. At the same time it is really easy to get tuned into a particular point of view to get your own personal party line. So if you want somebody to tell you what to think, you can find somebody that you learn to trust because they usually tell you exactly what you want to hear. Then when they come up with a new issue, you can just follow blindly along. Isn’t it great?

Actually, I do think it is great. The free and open nature of the net allows you to find other people who share your views, whether you want to persuade others, be persuaded yourself or just hang out. It doesn’t matter whether you have a political cause or a commercial cause. Both have flourished in recent years. Lots of companies are making money online, either through selling stuff to people or by selling advertising on popular sites. Lots of people are enjoying the diversity of products available, time and gas saved and good prices by buying online.

The thing everybody is freaking out about right now...One of the things everybody is freaking out about right now is Net Neutrality. The big telecom companies that control the backbone of the net want to give preferential treatment to sites that pay extra for the privilege. They think that since they own the wires everybody has to use, they should have the right to decide who gets to use them and on what terms. This runs contrary to a general principle that a common carrier should allow everybody to use their network on a equal basis. They get paid for providing this service but they can’t favor one content provider over another. If they were to be allowed to do so, it would be easy for them to use what amounts to monopoly power to promote their own sites or other big business sites that can pay extra at the expense of the rest of us.

Congress is working on a major revision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As part of this revision some Senators and Representatives have written legislation to preserve Net Neutrality. A Coalition of big telecom companies are lobbying hard against it. They have even confused the issue by claiming that Net Neutrality would impose government control over the net and change its essential character. You can check out their website, which includes a cute little cartoon, if you want to see what they are saying. It is worth noting that among their major sponsors are AT&T and BellSouth, who didn’t seem to care so much about the abuses of big government when they ignored privacy laws and released customer call records to the NSA. This is not about the government controlling the internet, it is about whether we want to give that power to a handful of monopolistic telecoms.

Thirty years ago, AT&T was broken up into smaller companies because it exercised monopolistic control over the telephone system. Under the competition that resulted the industry has prospered as never before and the telephone system has developed into what is now the telecom industry, encompassing not only local and long distance phone service but cell phones, the internet and cable as well. Curiously, despite the obvious benefits they have derived from this competition the industry is undergoing a wave of mergers that seems intent on recreating monopoly control by just a few huge telecoms. For most Americans access to phone service, cable TV and the net is controlled by just one or two big telecoms.

In this atmosphere, the threat is not government enforcing neutrality but monopolists enforcing control based on dollars and/or political opinions. Already AOL has blocked e-mail that refers to a site critical of their plan to charge e-mailers for preferential treatment. This plan would bypass spam filters to deliver e-mail from companies that pay a fee direct to members’ inboxes. Those who don’t pay would risk having their mail labeled as spam or relegated to a 2nd tier system. The Save the Internet Coalition has documented a number of similar instances of corporate control. Plus they have their own collection of cute videos.

This is a really interesting coalition that brings together a range of consumer organizations, civic action groups and internet businesses to lobby for Internet Neutrality. Although the telecoms try to make it sound like it is just big companies like Microsoft and Google looking for a free ride, the coalition includes groups from all sides of the political spectrum from the Christian Coalition to Move-On Civic Action, Gun Owners of America, Craig Newmark (of Craig’s List) and Consumer’s Union. Some of these groups never thought they would agree on anything, but the internet is such a powerful communications tool for all of them that they have joined together to preserve their ability to use it. Companies that benefit from the innovation and opportunity of an open net and would rather not pay telecoms extra fees are also on board. The real economic beneficiaries of net neutrality are the small undercapitalized startups who have a great idea. If the telecoms have their way they could be priced out of the marketplace before they even start, which would be fine with the monopolists but not so good for the rest of us.

Here is a petition to help persuade Congress to preserve Net Neutrality.

Tune in next week for more on controlling the net

May 21, 2006

Gas Prices

$3.00 a gallon for gas? Outrageous! Unthinkable! Who do we blame? It’s the Oil Companies! It’s taxes! It’s Hurricane Katrina! It’s global warming! It’s the war! It’s those @#$% arabs! It’s those @#$% Texans! It’s that @#$% Texan in the White House! It’s Peak Oil! It’s our consumerist society! It’s the worst problem we have ever faced! It’s not a problem! $3.00 a gallon? I wish it was $3.00 a gallon!

Seriously now, why are prices high and is that a bad thing? Well, first off, high compared to what? Compared to past prices in the US, prices are high but our friends in Europe are laughing their heads off at our present discomfort. They have “enjoyed” prices this high and higher for years. In fact even now, prices in Europe are almost double what we pay here. That is because of higher taxes there that not only raise money for government services but help shape public policy to reduce oil consumption. Cars are more efficient. Public transportation is better. Cities are designed so that people don’t need to go as far to work or shop as they do here. In fact, while some argue for a reduction in gas taxes to bring US prices down, a better case could be made for higher taxes, especially if the proceeds were used to increase efficiency and develop alternative energy sources that could help us make the transition away from oil.

In general, oil prices do not just reflect production costs. Of course, production costs are rising as cheaper sources are used up and replaced by more expensive sources. It should be obvious that cheaper, easier to get at oil is the first to be used. Eventually that gets used up and oil companies dig a little deeper and spend a little more to find new supplies. At some point it gets so expensive that other energy sources become cheaper and people switch over to them. People talking about Peak Oil are saying that we are reaching that point now. They say that we can look forward to declining production and increasing prices from here on out. Since our society is built around cheap oil we had better find a way to deal with this or we will face major problems.

In the long run, this is true. Right now, however, there are other factors that have a bigger influence on the current price spike. Oil prices are set by a kind of auction system with prices going as high as buyers are willing to pay. Contract prices are generally pegged to prices on commodity markets that work like the stock market. People decide what they will pay depending on whether they think prices will go up or down. People are speculating not only on current prices but on future prices as well. Disruptions, or the threat of disruptions will lead people to believe that prices will go up and therefore they are willing to pay more and so prices do go up. Lower supply and higher demand also drives prices up.

A similar system determines prices of refined gasoline, with a difference. The difference is that the major oil companies control the distribution system from refinery to gas station. Independent distributors are in a weaker position because they have to buy from the oil companies. We have seen Big Oil setting refinery prices high and taking a larger profit there while taking a smaller profit, or even a loss, at their own gas stations, undercutting the independents at the pump.

When refinery capacity is reduced, prices go up. This is what happened after Hurricane Katrina. But there have been reductions in capacity for other reasons as well. If a refinery goes down for maintenance it doesn’t have much effect but if several go down at once it can force prices up. I can’t help but be reminded of the electricity “crisis” of a few years ago during which so many power plants went out of service for routine maintenance that there was a serious shortage and prices went through the roof, leading to accusations of price manipulation and collusion. For many of us, that was the first, but not the last, we heard of Enron.

It is worth noting that some oil producing countries sell gas to their own citizens at very low prices. Venezuela, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq under Saddam all have (had) prices well under $1.00/gallon. When Iraq was forced to switch to world market prices, it was a major problem for the economy and made life even more difficult for ordinary people trying to live a normal life.

The big winners from high prices are the big oil companies. Looking back over the past few years we see that every time there is a price spike, there is a corresponding profit spike. While higher prices can be a stimulus to a transition to other sources, quick price spikes are very harmful to consumers and to the economy. What it amounts to is a massive transfer of wealth from the rest of us to the oil companies.

Though not many people are willing to talk about it, this amounts to oil companies enriching themselves at the expense of human misery. Profiteering has always happened but it used to be condemned by society. When the war in Iraq started, oil prices reflected this insecurity in supply by rising sharply. The same thing happened after Hurricane Katrina. So, we saw people dying, others having a hard time making ends meet because of higher prices and a few oil company executives with millions of extra dollars in the bank. Is it surprising that they are nervous about trying to explain this to Congress?

May 14, 2006

Youth Activism

May 14, 2006

I don't know how many times I have been in a meeting with a bunch of people like me - Old People - Well, wait a minute not too old, maybe I should say middle aged. Anyway the point is that somebody is sure to pipe up and say, "Where are all the young people?", meaning, "Why aren't they here at our meeting and why aren't they demonstrating like we demonstrated when we were young?" Well, its a bum rap.

First of all, when I was young I know that sitting though long meetings with a bunch of old people was not my idea of fun, or very productive of anything. I tended to stay on campus and do my protesting with other students. That is who I knew and was comfortable with. I even remember a saying, "Don't trust anybody over 30". So I'm not surprised to see students today doing the same thing.

So, what's with the youth movement today? For starters check out Wiretap, which is full of stories of youth organizing. Just now I took a look and found articles on racial profiling, Log Cabin Republicans, the Army's use of video games in their recruiting, Youth involvement in the Save Dafur campaign, and Youth Activists of Austin (YAA!), who not only get my award for best acronym (the exclamation point makes all the difference) but are doing a great job organizing high school students for counter recruiting and in support of immigrant rights.

Of course, student walk-outs helped to spark the immigrant rights movement with thousands of students walking out to protest punitive laws and discrimination, and millions of people taking to the streets. Part of their inspiration were the Chicano walk-outs in 1968, which were dramatized in the HBO film Walkout.

Students also played an important role in the Save Darfur campaign. Students organized on many campuses and helped turn out people for the big rally in Washington DC on April 30. (see this article at The April 30 rally in Seattle was largely organized by students, who marched to the Federal Building where they staged a die-in to dramatize the dire conditions in Darfur.

The Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) brings together students from college campuses across the country. They held regional conferences last month in New York, Chicago and San Francisco focused on "Turning Antiwar Sentiment into Antiwar Action". CAN's website explains, "Campus Antiwar Network is the largest and leading independent, democratic, grassroots network of students opposing the occupation of Iraq and military recruiters in our schools at campuses all over the country. ...Our goal is to unite all antiwar students on colleges and high schools alike to democratically build a broad antiwar and counter-recruitment movement to help bring the troops home now." They provide a clearinghouse for students to report on what is happening on their campuses and mobilize support when it is needed. The Midwest conference included admission to a concert afterwards.

Counter recruiting has been the biggest issue on campuses recently. The military recruiters have been especially intrusive at High Schools where they roam the halls at will, when the school administration will allow them to, bombarding students with their sales pitch for a military "career". They will also call students at home repeatedly. Students have responded by leafletting, debating the recruiters, and urging their fellow students to "opt out" of having their names released to the military. The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to give out student names and addresses to the military but it also allows students or parents to opt out of having their names released. Unfortunately schools often overlook this part of the law unless there is concerted pressure on them.

Last summer Oregon and Washington students attended a camp designed to give them organizing skills. Organized by the Ruckus Society and the Teen Peace Project (founded by my wife, Liz Rivera Goldstein), the camp used two biodiesel buses to bring in mostly high school activists for workshops on counter recruiting organizing skills. This was the first of a series of Not Your Soldier Camps organized by Ruckus in cooperation with local and national activist groups. The Ruckus Society has long been organizing training camps for mostly young activists on a variety of issues. They have just come out with a new Flash animation called "Punk Ass Crusade". It's packed with mind-bending images and an hot new song from The Coup. It is featured on the Not Your Soldier website. You can even download the song as a ringtone for your cellphone.

College campuses have recently seen an increase in recruiting as the military struggles to meet their enlistment goals. Colleges are now seeing increased counter recruiting efforts as well. Last year students at Seattle Central Community College chased recruiters off campus in a well publicized action that has been repeated across the country. High School and college students staged a walk-out in several cities last November to protest recruiting abuses. Over 1,000 rallied in downtown Seattle. Seattle voters are now being asked to sign a city wide College Not Combat initiative to restrict recruiters. Although Federal law requires that the military have equal access with colleges and employers, there is a lot that local authorities can do to rein them in and prevent the abuses that are all too common. This initiative is based on a successful San Francisco initiative.

The Tent State protests link cuts in education funding to resources wasted on the war. To quote their statement of purpose: "Tent State University (TSU) is a national movement that believes education is a right, not a privilege. Hence, TSU opposes tuition hikes, cuts in public funding, and wasteful wars abroad. Tent State, locally, creates an educational alternative where students, faculty, staff, and community can come together, work together, learn together, and practice democracy together. TSU challenges the undemocratic elements of our universities and our society."

Tent State started at Rutgers, where they set up an encampment at which students can attend alternative classes,workshops and teach-ins, but about 20 other campuses have followed their lead and held similar encampments. Relationships with university officials have varied. Some faculty have been very supportive but administrators don't always feel comfortable with these encampments springing up without asking permission, especially since some of the criticism is aimed at the university itself.

At UC Santa Cruz last year the Chancellor called the cops to prevent students from camping out at the entrance to the campus during a Tent State protest. The police attacked these non-violent protesters with clubs and taser-guns and purposely applied force to pressure points in their necks until some passed out. Other injuries included dislocated shoulders and many bruises. 20 were arrested.

Student activists do no have an easy time these days. There have been several instances of students who have been arrested and/or subjected to often arbitrary university disciplinary proceedings for protesting.

For instance, there is an article on the CAN website about the SFSU 10, asking for letters of support. When San Francisco State students stood up to protest military recruiters on campus, police physically (and none too gently) took them out of the building and banned them from campus. Since some of the students lived or worked on campus they became instantly homeless or unemployed. All this with no recourse, except at the discretion of the university administration.

Young people are doing great work everyday on their campuses and off. They combine activism, socializing and music to make organizing fun and effective. They are making a difference and the rest of us can help out by paying attention and giving them our support when they need it.

May 07, 2006

As We Go Marching, Marching

Wow! Last weekend was pretty extraordinary. Americans turned out in large numbers, very large actually, to voice their opinions on three different issues. These are not all in agreement, although there is some overlap of interest. What ties them all together is a resurgence of citizen activism.

On Saturday, April 29, hundreds of thousands marched for “Peace, Justice and Democracy” in New York. It was initiated by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, National Organization for Women, Friends of the Earth, U.S. Labor Against the War, Climate Crisis Coalition, People's Hurricane Relief Fund, National Youth and Student Peace Coalition and Veterans For Peace. The UFPJ web site for the march says, “All these diverse groups (are) joining together in a unified call to bring the troops home from Iraq now, reverse our government's priorities, and turn our country around.” Opposition to the the war in Iraq, and the threatened attack on Iran, was the primary focus, along with a broad condemnation of Bush Administration policies.

Refreshingly, the march didn’t end with a long, boring rally, but rather with a “Peace and Justice Fair” with 19 tents featuring information, entertainment, food and opportunities to get involved with participating groups in their ongoing work. This is the work that will make the big difference in changing our policies. Most Americans already oppose the war but that alone is not enough to end it. Marches can be incredibly energizing and can demonstrate the strength of a movement but it will take lots of day to day work on a local level to convince Congress that they should change course - or to elect a better Congress.

On the next day, The Save Darfur Coalition staged a large rally in Washington, DC and thousands of people attended supporting rallies around the country. Almost 100,000 people at the Washington Monument listened to speakers ranging from politicians, including Sen. Barack Obama, celebrities (George Clooney and Manute Bol) and Sudanese refugees.

On Friday, 5 Congress members were arrested in a sit-in at the Sudanese Embassy to bring attention to this issue.

Once again, as in Bosnia, Jewish groups led the call for action to stop genocide. Remembering the Holocaust, these groups take the cry, “Never Again” to apply not just to Jews, but to the whole world. Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel stressed this point as he joined the call for international peacekeeping action to stop the killing. "Silence helps the killer, never his victims," Wiesel said. "Darfur today is the capital of the world's human suffering. Darfur deserves to live." Christian and Muslim groups, and Human Rights organizations also joined the call. Students on many campuses have been working on Darfur for some time now. In Seattle, for instance, the demonstration downtown was organized by High School and college students.

Then, on Monday, immigrants marched in huge numbers everywhere. This movement has been able to turn out unprecedented number of people repeatedly over the last couple of months. They have immediately changed the debate over immigration. Before the marches started, new punitive measures against immigrants had passed the House and were headed to the Senate. That bill died with a million people in the streets of LA on March 25. The May 1st “Day without Immigrants” was designed to hammer home the point and try to make sure that the final bill is slanted more towards amnesty and less towards punishment.

The marches included people of all ages. from infants to seniors. Homemade signs abounded, as did American flags. The mood was joyful, at least at the march I attended in Seattle. They were determined to be visible and to show that they had political clout. Indeed any organization that can pull off dozens of huge marches across the country on the same day, has to be taken very seriously. Leaders talked about the need to follow up with voter registration and more involvement in the political process. It was very refreshing to see people that had been marginalized in our society realize the power they could have.

These three movements that all chose the same weekend to march are quite different from each other. Some people will agree with all of them, but others will not. Intervention in Darfur may or may not be embraced by those who want to get out of Iraq, probably depending on what form the intervention takes. There is certain to be skepticism about the ability of military power to solve the problem. At the same time, some who insist on action to Save Darfur are also in favor of saving Iraq militarily. In both instances there are many who know what they don’t want but aren’t so sure what will work. The immigration issue cuts across US political divisions in yet another way. The proliferation of US flags and protestations of patriotism evident at the immigration marches suggest that these activists are not interested in challenging the power structure on issues other than immigration. They will have their hands full building a coalition to achieve those goals.

What they all have in common is the belief that it is the right, perhaps the duty, of us all to make our voices heard. Our country professes to have a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. We don’t always live up to those ideals. In fact, citizen activists are the most frustrated people I know because it is so hard to get the powers that be to acknowledge the concerns of ordinary people, much less do something about them. The unequal ways that money, and the power that goes with it in our country, is distributed make it difficult to have an effect. The antidote to this is persistent broad based citizen activism. We are seeing these movements arise in Nepal, Ukraine, Bolivia and elsewhere in the world. It is refreshing to see more of it here too.

April 30, 2006

Si Se Puede

Si Se Puede (Yes We Can) brings back memories of my summer working for the United Farm Workers as a volunteer on the Lettuce Boycott. I was excited to be able to participate in an historic moment. Poor working people were organizing for decent wages and working conditions with pride in who they were, where they came from and where they were going. Si Se Puede meant Yes we can have a union. Yes we can earn a living wage. Yes we can have safe working conditions. Yes we can be Mexican, or Filipino, or whoever we are and proud of it!

When immigrants and their supporters march again on May 1st, it will be the continuation of quite an extraordinary movement. Organizing in opposition to HR 4437, immigrants turned out in record numbers. The Sensenbrenner Bill would have cracked down on illegal immigrants, increasing penalties for them and for anybody who helped them and threatening mass deportations, Over 100,000 marched on March 10 in Chicago, according to police estimates. The official estimate for the March 25 march in Los Angeles was 500,000 but organizers say well over a million people were there. Meanwhile students were staging walkouts from schools across the country. On April 10th, thousands of people demonstrated in each of dozens of cities. 50,000 people rallied in Salt Lake City, 150,000 in San Diego, 500,000 in Dallas. The breadth of the movement across the country was unprecedented in their ability to turn out huge crowds in so many different places at once. In many places it was the largest demonstration to be held there at any time, for any cause. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now ( is fond of saying that together these “constitute the largest demonstrations in the history of this country, not just on immigration but on any issue”.

One of the purposes of the marches is to make immigrants visible. All too often they blend into the background doing the hard, dirty work that America depends on them to do. When they marched in such numbers, they were noticed and when they missed work or school their absence was felt. Their point is that immigrants are a vital part of this country, as they always have been.

After some of the earlier marches, participants were criticized for carrying Mexican flags. This kind of criticism strikes me as being willful misinterpretation by people more interested in finding a reason to denigrate the movement than to understand it. I see the use of Mexican symbols and flags as an indication of pride in who they are. Nobody says that the Irish should forgo the wearing of the green on St. Patrick's Day in favor of red, white and blue. Mexicans in the US are often discriminated against. Why not counter that with strong positive images of proud Mexicans? Remember this is an immigrants movement. They can contribute not only their labor but their culture to the American melting pot. This is no different from anybody else who has come before. Nonetheless, US flags were all over the place April 10.

The marches were largely organized in the Latino community, using Spanish language broadcasters and person to person organizing to get people to turn out. After the first few marches, other immigrant groups increased their participation as well. Students played an important role with their school walkouts and youth rallies. Now an attempt is being made to bring in other sympathetic people to march with immigrants on May 1, including some labor unions. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

May 1st is being billed as “A day without immigrants”. Some organizers are calling for people to not work, not go to school, not shop, not watch TV or use the internet. The idea is to create a gap in the economic fabric of this country that will demonstrate just how many immigrants there are and how much they contribute to the economy. Others are a little more cautious. People shouldn’t lose there jobs, they point out. They also are afraid that people will take offense at a boycott, just as some did with the flags. The media has been playing up the split but it seems to me that it is more a matter of emphasis and language than any real difference in policy.

The immediate goal is to stop the Sensenbrenner Bill and to pass an amnesty law. The Senate was ready to pass an amnesty bill after the LA march but mysterious procedural disagreements stopped it, perhaps in order to allow the enthusiasm to die down a little. The worst parts of Sensenbrenner appear to be dead but there will doubtless be attempts by its supporters to bring as much of it into the compromise package as possible. It will be interesting to see how much amnesty and how much crackdown end up in the package.

In the long term, this is a civil rights movement that looks to end the pervasive prejudice and discrimination against immigrants, especially in the post 9/11 world. These are people that believe in the American dream and want to be a part of it. When they say Si Se Puede, they mean Yes we can contribute to this country. Yes we can have pride in this country and Yes we can be proud of our own heritage as well.

April 23, 2006

Can A Person by Illegal?

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

A selection from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, which is is graven on a tablet within the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands.

We are, after all, all immigrants or descended from immigrants. Even Native Americans, who have been here 10-15,000 years came to America only after their ancestors had lived millions of years in Africa and Asia. There is a kind of hierarchy of immigrants, with more recent arrivals disdained by those who came before and people of color discriminated against by whites. After the Indians came the English, less than 400 years ago. Africans started arriving soon after that, albeit unwillingly. The slave trade ended in 1808, so most African Americans can claim over 200 years working to build this country. There were several waves of immigration from different parts of Europe during the 19th Century. Chinese workers were brought over starting in the last half of the 1800s to build the railroads and pick our crops. Irish and other Europeans did the same work in the East. They were joined in the 20th Century by other Asians, Latinos and more.

These are the people that built this country. Mostly they came because they thought that they would be better off here than wherever they came from. Many came because they had friends or family here. Sometimes they were recruited to come here with promises of plentiful work and high wages. What they ended up with were the worst jobs, backbreaking work that barely paid enough for survival.

Todays immigrants come for the same reasons and they are encouraged to come for the same reasons. Official policy is to limit immigration but too many people profit from this source of cheap labor to effectively stop it. The so-called "illegals" attract most of the attention but they are basically in the same situation as other groups. The difference, of course, is that they are vulnerable in a way that others aren't. Last week's detention of 1200 undocumented workers, who are now slated for deportation, demonstrates this point very clearly. For once, some of the company managers who hired them will face charges but usually employers profit from a cheap labor force too scared to complain, with very few penalties.

The United States has always been of two minds about immigration. On the on hand there is an understanding that this is a country of immigrants. We talk about the melting pot, where people start out with distinct ethnicities but after a generation or two melt together into a distinctly American culture. Some people prefer to think of a stewpot in which people keep their ethnic identity while assimilating into American culture but the basic idea is the same. On the other hand there has always been a resistance to immigrants. People worry that cheap labor will lower wages but there is also resistance to differences in language and culture. This is not a little thing. Over most of human history, ethnic groups did not mix much and when they did, all too often it has been at the point of a sword. We form national bonds based on a common history and a common culture. We have learned to trust our neighbors and distrust strangers.

Restrictions on immigration grew out of anti-immigrant movements like the "Know Nothings" of the 19th Century but they didn't really take hold until we started seeing significant non-white immigration. Laws were passed beginning in the 1920s to attempt to maintain the ethnic identity of the US by establishing quotas for immigration pegged to the proportion of each nationality already here, favoring Europeans heavily. In fact, since quotas were based on the 1890 census, they also worked to exclude Italians and other southern European and Eastern Europeans, who mostly arrived after that date. It should be noted that today's undesirable immigrant may be favored tomorrow. There were also restrictive laws against Chinese and other Asians.

Actually, class proves to be a much more accurate measure of who is welcomed and who is not. Poor people are usually scorned but it is the poor people who provide that low wage labor pool that is so useful for employers. Public policy is weighted against poor people but this is precisely the group that has the most to gain by coming here and that is most in demand. This is where "illegal" immigration comes from. People have shown infinite ingenuity in overcoming obstacles to get across the border. Once here, they fill an important economic niche. However, since they are by necessity in hiding from the authorities, they are vulnerable to exploitation and do not receive the wages and safety conditions that are supposed to be standard here. Complaints can result in a call to the INS and deportation. This creates a labor force that cannot help but undermine worker safety and minimum wage laws for everybody. A case could be made for eliminating these status violations, legalize everybody, enforce the labor laws and eliminate this kind of exploitation.

The other solution is to stop illegal immigration by fortifying the borders and crack down on employers who hire illegals. This has actually been the official policy but it has not been effectively enforced. Groups like the Minutemen say that if we stepped up enforcement we could achieve those goals and protect American culture and jobs from these invaders. They say we could also prevent drugs and terrorists from coming into the country. Perhaps we could, with a Berlin Wall thousands of miles long and a huge military presence patrolling it. We would have to ask if the benefits outweighed the cost.

Nonetheless, this approach has a lot of support and the Sensenbrenner Bill, HR 4437, which embodies this approach passed the House of Representatives. The current wave of protest was in reaction to this legislation coming to the Senate. The bill would make undocumented workers and anybody helping them felons.

Another way to look at it would be to ask what is going on in Mexico, for example, that drives people to make the long arduous journey to the US and put up with the poor pay, bad conditions, discrimination, often separation from their families and the constant threat of deportation. Everybody's story is different but many simply have no better options at home. NAFTA was supposed to help the Mexican economy and encourage companies to create jobs there. Indeed many factories sprang up just across the border, with low wages, often unsafe conditions and poor environmental records. However, now many of those jobs have moved to China where the atmosphere is even more "business friendly". Meanwhile US agribusiness is now exporting food to Mexico cheaper than small farmers there can grow it, causing them to lose their livelihoods and look for opportunities in the north.

The world is shrinking in the modern age. You can travel to any part of the globe in just a few hours. Radio, television and the internet can bring pictures and stories instantly around the world. In this climate, national distinctions are bound to break down. "Free Trade" Movements such as NAFTA and the WTO recognize this but they only give freedom to money. At the same time they restrict the freedom of people to make regulations that regulate business for the common good. and to look for work wherever the jobs may be.

We should be moving towards a world in which people can move freely around the world in a community of nations. It should be a world in which people can live a good life and have good jobs, not just in a few rich countries but everywhere. In a world in which everybody enjoys economic as well as political freedom and justice, we will all be happier and more secure. It may not be easy to get there but at the least, we should head in that direction.