Monthly Archives: October, 2007

Whitehouse Opposes Mukasey Nomination

Whitehouse is making quite a rousing speech on the Senate floor this afternoon, asking Americans to consider “Whence cometh our strength?”

[...] In many ways, President Bush has made a fine appointment in Judge Michael Mukasey, far better than we have come to expect in this administration.

He is not a political hack. He is not a partisan ideologue. He is not an incompetent crony. We’ve had our share of those.

No, he is a brilliant lawyer, a distinguished jurist, and by all accounts a good man.

And no one feels more keenly than do I the need for repair and recovery of the Department of Justice. In a small way, I served this Department, as a US Attorney, and I feel how important this great institution is to our country, and how important an Attorney General, such as Judge Mukasey could be, is to this great institution.

I wish it were so easy. But there are times in history that rear up, and become a swivel point on which our direction as a nation can turn.

The discussion of torture in recent days has made this such a point. Suddenly, even unexpectedly, this time has come.

It calls us to think — What is it that makes this country great? Whence cometh our strength?

First, of course, is a strong economy, to pay for military and foreign aid activities, to attract the best and the brightest from around the world to our land, and to reward hard work and invention, boldness and innovation.

Now is not the time to discuss how we have traded away our heartland jobs, how our education system is failing in international competition, how a broken health care system drags us down, how an unfunded trillion dollar war, and the borrowing to pay for it, compromise our strength. For now, let me just recognize that a strong economy is necessary to our strength.

But a strong economy is only necessary, not sufficient.

Ultimately, America is an ideal.

America for centuries has been called a “shining city on a hill.” We are a lamp to other nations. A great Senator said “America is not a land, it’s a promise.”

Torture breaks that promise; extinguishes that lamp; darkens that city.

When Judge Mukasey came before the Judiciary Committee, he was asked about torture, and about one particular practice, which has its roots in the Spanish Inquisition. Waterboarding involves strapping somebody in a reclining position, heels above head, putting a cloth over their face and pouring water over the cloth to create the feeling of drowning. As Senator John McCain, who spent years in a prison camp in North Vietnam, has said, “It is not a complicated procedure. It is torture.”

The Judge Advocates General of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines have agreed that the use of simulated drowning would violate U.S. law and the laws of war. Several Judge Advocates General told Congress that waterboarding would specifically constitute torture under the federal Anti-Torture Statute, making it a felony offense.

Judge Mukasey himself acknowledged that “these techniques seem over the line or, on a personal basis, repugnant to me.” He noted that waterboarding would be in violation of the Army Field Manual.

But in our hearing last week, asked specifically whether the practice of waterboarding is constitutional, he would say no more than: “if it amounts to torture, it is not constitutional,” and since then he has failed to recognize that waterboarding is clearly a form of torture, is unconstitutional, and is unconditionally wrong.

There are practical faults when American tortures. It breaks the Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you, enshrined in the Army Field Manual with the question, if it were done to your men, would you consider it abuse?

There are practical concerns over whether torture actually works, whether it is sound, professional interrogation practice. I am not an expert, but experts seem to say it is not.

But the more important question is the one I asked earlier — whence cometh our strength as a nation?

Our strength comes from the fact that we stand for something.

Our strength comes from the aspirations of millions around the globe who want to be like us, who want their country to be like ours.

Our strength comes when we embody the hopes and dreams of mankind.

Driving is Dangerous Due to Pollution

It’s not just accidents that put you in harm’s way when you get in your car, it’s also the toxic fumes from your car and others (especially diesel trucks) you breathe while driving. For those of us who drive little, it is reassuring to find out that we are not exposing ourselves unduly to this health hazard. But for people who drive for a living, or whose work depends on driving a good portion of the day, this news is probably quite distressing. From Livescience:

Driving is more hazardous than anyone knew: A heavy commuter inhales more pollution while driving than in the entire rest of the day, a new study finds.

The research was done in Los Angeles, where the average driver spends 1.5 hours behind the wheel. That time in traffic accounts for 33 to 45 percent of total exposure to diesel and ultrafine particles (UFP), the study showed.

On freeways, diesel-fueled trucks are the source of the highest concentrations of harmful pollutants.

“If you have otherwise healthy habits and don’t smoke, driving to work is probably the most unhealthy part of your day,” said Scott Fruin, assistant professor of environmental health at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California. “Urban dwellers with long commutes are probably getting most of their UFP exposure while driving.”

Ultrafine particles are of particular concern because, unlike larger particles, they can penetrate cell walls and disperse throughout the body, Fruin said. Particulate matter has been linked to cardiovascular disease, but the ultrafine fraction on roadways appears to be more toxic than larger sizes.

Previous research found children on school buses breathe more pollution. And a study in London found people in taxis, buses, and cars all inhale substantially more pollution than cyclists and pedestrians. [full text]

Disaboom.com, A Community for the Disabled

Here is an interesting sign of the times: Disaboom.com. It’s a new community online specifically reaching out to people with disabilities. From their “About Us” statement:

People with disabilities have basic needs that range from occupational therapy to special shower chairs and from catheter comparisons to understanding medical journals through physician interpretations, but their needs go well beyond medical services and products. They often become housebound not just because of their physical limitations, but because they feel unable to control themselves or navigate their own environment. Some may give up on dating or making friends simply because they don’t know where to meet people who will understand them and oftentimes they don’t continue their educations or embark on careers because of transportation difficulties. Many never get the chance to experience a vacation because they’re worried that once they arrive on site their special needs won’t be accommodated. Without the comfort of understanding friends and an empathetic community, many people with disabilities are depressed and have a lower quality of life. [full text]

Disaboom.com is trying to be the solution for many of the problems described above, providing a wide range of information and community options for people with disabilities.

Coincidentally, as I was researching for this post, I found that The New York Times had an article about Disaboom yesterday, primarily looking at it from a business/marketing perspective.

17-Year-Olds Are Kids Again, but Not Retroactively

David Segal reports that the General Assembly did undo the madness that was putting 17-year-olds into the Adult Correctional Institution at a price of $104,000 a year, but the law will not be retroactive. Consequently, about 150 17-year-olds will have permanent records for minor offenses. According to one commenter at RIFuture, the Attorney General made reference to the complications of trying to undo the judgments and sentencings of those already-convicted, comparing it to “trying to unscramble eggs.”

Cost of Young Adult Criminal in RI: $104,000/year

The New York Times is covering “the furor” that has been unleashed by the reclassifying of 17-year-olds as adults in the Rhode Island criminal justice system. Of the 17-year-olds who have been put into the adult system, 46 of them have already had stays at the ACI in Maximum Security for the price of $104,000 a year. Before, they were getting better rehabilitation and it was costing $98,000 a year. How does this make sense? From The New York Times:

The proposal to treat 17-year-olds as adults for criminal-justice purposes was the subject of a legislative hearing in March, where Attorney General Lynch, a Democrat whose office is elective, and others came out strongly against it. Opponents took little action after that, as many thought it would be killed in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

But it survived, and before long it became apparent that the new law could well cost money rather than save it.

The State Department of Children, Youth and Families, which had proposed the idea, had assumed that 17-year-olds would be held among the general prison population, where incarceration costs $39,000 an inmate per year, 60 percent less than the $98,000 in the juvenile-offender system.

But A. T. Wall II, director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, decided that for the sake of the young inmates’ protection, they would be held in maximum security, where the annual per-inmate cost is $104,000.

As of last week, 46 17-year-olds had been held at the state prison since July 1, all in maximum security, said Tracey Z. Poole, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. [full text]

Another problem with this law is that it means more young adults will carry criminal records that may prevent them from getting jobs or make them ineligible for student financial aid.

Thanks for the link from RISLANDER (see Blog Ad in left-hand column), a Rhode Island blog run by URI professor Michael Vocino.

Bernanke Like Bartender Serving Drunks

This needs a little amplification. Our Federal Reserve Chief is being called on the carpet as a rampant enabler for debt addicts. The end will inevitably come, and according to Marc Faber, it won’t be pretty. From the International Herald Tribune:

The U.S. Federal Reserve Board acted “like a bartender” in lowering interest rates and its actions are contributing to a stock market bubble in the U.S., Marc Faber, the Hong Kong-based publisher of The Gloom, Boom & Doom Report, said.

“Each time you bail out, it becomes bigger and bigger, and the credit problems become much, much larger,” said Faber, managing director of Marc Faber Ltd. The Fed “feeds its customers with booze, and when they get totally drunk and are about to fall off their chairs, the bartender gives them more booze to keep them going. One day, it will lead to the ultimate breakdown.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index has risen 2.9 percent since the Fed cut its benchmark rate by half a percentage point on Sept. 18 to keep credit market losses from spurring a recession. Faber said the action spared U.S. financial companies like Citigroup from the consequences of bad lending decisions. [full text]

Greg Hessoin, JD, Writes About Medicating Children

This is an interesting article. It’s one-sided, providing mainly the opinions of Dr. Peter Breggin and Kevin Hall of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, both of whom see little or no value in prescribing psychiatric medications to children. It’s important to remember that there are lots of parents out there and adults with psychiatric diagnoses who will swear by their medications as helping them to function better. And I’m not sure I share Mr. Hessoin’s opinion expressed in his final paragraph that teaching children about God is the answer. While religion and spirituality can bring comfort, focus, and satisfaction for some, it is not the prescription for everybody.

In any case, though, I sympathize with this lawyer’s plight in trying to defend a parent whose child is in state custody and who does not want their child on psychiatric medications. The youngster here is a 6-year-old boy who is reportedly on “Risperdal, Concerta, and Seroquel, plus the stimulant Clonidine and the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin.” I also sympathize with the residential facility or foster home that is trying to care for this child while giving him 5 medications a day. From Mr. Hessoin’s article:

When you are there, standing before an actual judge, real courtroom drama feels much less exciting than what you see on TV. There is no swelling music soundtrack, no scripted performances, and no overblown oratory.

Recently, I participated in a typically dull hearing that likely ruined a life — the life of a little six-year-old mildly autistic boy. The banality of the process was in contrast with the seriousness of the outcome.

Twelve adults gathered in a small, closed courtroom to decide how many powerful, anti-psychotic drugs that the child, who is currently in the custody of the state, would be required to take. The patient did not have a voice, since he was not there. No doctor was present, but plenty of lawyers were. The little boy’s lawyer saw nothing wrong with drugging him into a stupor. As the attorney for the heartbroken mother, I spoke against the whole idea; I suggested to the court that other factors may be causing the child’s problems, and that the compulsory administration of drugs by the state was simply an excuse to avoid addressing those issues.

The verdict: the little guy would be forced to take anti-psychotic drugs Risperdal, Concerta, and Seroquel, plus the stimulant Clonidine and the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin.

This outcome begs the question of whether a six-year-old child, let alone children as young as three, can be diagnosed as psychotic. And, whether children should be drugged by potions so powerful that most of them are not approved by the FDA for use in children. [full text]

Yanking the Lasagna

I have a personal relationship with the Boston Red Sox, the team that is seemingly on the verge of winning its second World Series in four years after having gone without for the previous 86 years. This relationship has endured for more than two decades now, ever since I first made New England home. Lest you think me delusional or psychotic, please rest assured that I do not hear the voice of Yaz or Papi in my head and have not been seeing ballplayers in my shower or toaster oven. I would like to think I have a beautiful mind but not that beautiful.

In any regard, my relationship with the Boston Red Sox is strictly as a baseball fan. I have been enamored of our national pastime since the age of 10 or so, when I used to listen to broadcasts of Atlanta Braves games on my radio and root for my favorite player, Henry Aaron. Back then, in the suburbs of Miami where I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, the Braves were the nearest home team. And I was their fan, which was more than a little challenging given their chronic lack of success in those days. Still, I cheered the team on and grew somewhat accustomed to their inability to contend. Although it was disappointing, it was also predictable. The Braves rarely tormented me with near-success.

I cannot say the same for the Boston Red Sox. Ever since the 1986 World Series, when they were one strike away from winning the championship and then collapsed, the BoSox have annually tantalized and tortured me. The disappointment that I have felt at their hands (or mitts) is nothing compared to what I felt as a youth rooting for the Braves. It is one thing to go hungry. It is quite another to go hungry but have someone put a plate of steaming lasagna before you and then, just as you are prepared to sample a cheesy morsel, yank it all away, leaving you with nothing more than the promise of its rich, garlicky scent. It is painful.

Even after the Red Sox improbably came from behind to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against the hated Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series and then went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, I still expect them to yank the lasagna from me. I find it difficult to trust them. The memory of their many near misses over the years and my subsequent heartache remains more powerful than the positive regard engendered by their more recent successes. My beloved BoSox have scarred me.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, such scars are ever so modest. But I am nonetheless aware of them and the ways in which they shape my attitude and behavior. Last night, for instance, I sat before the television watching Game 3 of the 2007 World Series. In the top of the third inning, the Red Sox scored the first 6 runs of the ballgame and seemed well on their way to victory. However, in the bottom of the seventh inning, the Colorado Rockies rallied. With nobody out, Matt Holliday hit a three-run home run, the third straight hit of the inning, and the score was suddenly 6 to 5. After the BoSox reliever gave up a single to the next batter, I shut the television off and scooted to bed. I could not watch anymore. I could not bear witness to the team I loved letting me down once again. I preferred to push away from the dinner table before the lasagna could be yanked from me. I felt sick and slept fitfully.

When trust has been breached repeatedly and one has been helpless to prevent such occurrence, when certain meaningful assumptions have been turned upside down and no longer seem safe to hold, it is psychologically damaging. It compels adaptation, healthy or not, to preserve the battered psyche. Early and chronic violations of trust and safety invariably color or distort in some measure all future actions and interactions. This is what happens to children who are raised in environments in which abuse, neglect, family violence, substance abuse, or mental illness are prevalent. They learn not to trust or to trust warily. They learn not to rely on their needs and wants being met with any consistency. They learn to resist the temptation to believe in others or believe in their own self-worth. They learn to associate love and trust with disappointment and pain.

In my career as a clinical social worker, I have regularly seen the damage wreaked upon the most vulnerable members of our society. I have borne witness to their struggles and suffering, which often persists even after their environment has improved or stabilized. It is ever a shame—one that makes my own disappointment and pain over a baseball team’s performance pale vastly by comparison. For, in truth, my relationship with the Boston Red Sox is very different from a child’s relationship with their parents or caregivers. I am not (or should not be) dependent upon these ballplayers for anything of substance. Their successes are, at best, a proffered side dish. The real lasagna is the trust and safety that should be every child’s birthright.

By the way, last night, the Red Sox defeated the Rockies 10 to 5.

When Is a Sex Offender Not a Sex Offender?

Justice delayed is certainly better than justice denied, but it would be preferable if travesties of justice could simply be avoided in the first place. The case of Genarlow Wilson—about whom I have posted on this site before—and other teens like him should serve as a cautionary tale for those who create and enforce the law. Mr. Wilson’s case amply demonstrates what happens when (a) legislators write laws in a reactionary and hysterical manner that blinds them of common sense and foresight and then (b) prosecutors don their own blinders and apply those laws with the fervor of the recently converted. Fortunately for Mr.Wilson, after serving nearly three years in prison for committing the egregious offense of engaging in a consensual sexual act with another teenager, cooler and wiser heads prevailed. But others still await their justice, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution points out:

Genarlow Wilson is free … but others are not

Several months ago, Genarlow Wilson was not optimistic Georgia courts would ever rule in his behalf. Interviewed in June at the Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, he pondered his chances.

“I’m really praying for the best, but at the same time I’m expecting the worst,” he said.

On Friday, Wilson got the best. He won his freedom after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that “… Wilson’s sentence is grossly disproportionate to his crime and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under both the Georgia and the United States Constitutions.” Later that day, Wilson left the prison, flanked by his attorney, B.J. Bernstein, and his mother, Juannessa Bennett.

Wilson, who served nearly three years of a 10-year sentence, may be the most extreme example of a teenager entrapped by the state’s regressive sex laws. The conduct that led to his felony conviction took place at a sordid 2003 New Year’s Eve Party, when he was 17 and the girl just two years his junior.

But Wilson is not the only young offender caught in a maze of draconian sex laws. Many young people are trapped on the state sex offender registry for nonviolent and consensual sex acts as teens.

The registry is a prison sentence in its own right, fencing even low-risk offenders off from most of society. Georgia law bars offenders from living or loitering within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers, parks, rec centers or skating rinks. Last year, the General Assembly added churches, swimming pools and school bus stops to the list, and, for the first time, placed limits on where offenders could work. Now, sex offenders can’t hold jobs near schools, child care centers or churches.

In his long journey toward freedom, Wilson turned down plea deals that would have sprung him from jail because he felt that he’d never be free if he were on the sex offender registry. “I just don’t feel I’m a sexual predator,” he said.

Those sweeping limits have stranded other young offenders with virtually no place to go. Also convicted at age 17 of having oral sex with a 15 -year-old, Jeffery York, 23, of Polk County has resorted to sleeping in a camper van in the woods to comply with the registry. When she was 17, Wendy Whitaker, 28, of Harlem had oral sex with a teen about to turn 16; her sodomy conviction landed her on the registry and forced her and her husband to move twice already.

Now that the Supreme Court has issued a common-sense ruling that sex between teens is not the equivalent of adults preying on children, it’s the Legislature’s turn to act on reason. Lawmakers must amend the sex offender registry law so that it distinguishes between two immature high school kids hooking up at a party to a pedophile molesting the toddler next door. [full text]

Ministry of Truth Tells Us All We Need to Know

I guess even Fox News couldn’t be trusted not to ask an inconvenient question, so FEMA made sure they had control of the message…

FEMA scheduled an early afternoon news briefing on only 15 minutes notice to reporters here Tuesday to talk about its handling of assistance to victims of wildfires that were ravaging much of Southern California.

But because there was so little advance notice for the event held by Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy FEMA administrator, the agency made available an 800 number so reporters could call in. And many did, although it was a listen-only arrangement.

At the news conference itself, some FEMA employees played the role of reporter, asking questions of Johnson– queries described as soft and gratuitous.

“I’m very happy with FEMA’s response,” Johnson said in reply to one query from a person who was an agency employee, not an independent journalist.

Even a small-town radio talk show isn’t afraid to take live questions over the phone. This isn’t crisis mode, this is standard operating procedure. Our government has been using our tax money for years to make commercials for itself — disguised as news. Then we vote them back in because we heard on the news what a great job they’re doing. Pretty circular, huh?

Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.

Sometimes the administration uses real people instead of actors, but that can be expensive, as seen here…

U.S. communications regulators cited conservative commentator Armstrong Williams on Thursday for violating a ban on “payola” in promoting the Bush administration’s education plan.

After investigating for more than 2-1/2 years, the Federal Communications Commission concluded that Williams and his firm violated agency rules by promoting President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy on television without disclosing they had been paid to do so…

Williams was not immediately available for comment. He has denied any wrongdoing but has acknowledged that the Education Department’s outside media firm paid $240,000 to promote No Child Left Behind during a television show he owned and hosted.

They haven’t neglected our print media, either. Remember ‘Jeff Gannon’? He was the fake reporter with the fake name who tossed softball questions to the President in the White House press room. And don’t think they’ve failed to take advantage of the propaganda value of our troops.

Letters from hometown soldiers describing their successes rebuilding Iraq have been appearing in newspapers across the country as U.S. public opinion on the mission sours. But many of them are the same form letter.

Religious programs like the 700 Club run segments formatted to look exactly like network news. If you switch the channel to Fox you might find they’re singing from the same hymnal.

I am scared because the fact is, we only catch them when they are inept. Several years ago, when urban legends were going around like the common cold, I learned to recognize them by the rhythm of the narrative. Lies are nice and neat, truth is messy. Do we have the patience to hear the whole story?

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