Friday, April 24, 2009

No one should be above the law

President Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon to avoid divisions in American society that he saw as a threat. “Our long national nightmare is over,” he declared. There would be no more investigations. There would be no more prosecutions.

Yet the message he didn’t declare but came across loud and clear was that some of America’s top leaders are not accountable to the rules. The precedent set was that certain people are clearly above the law.

With the release of the torture memos there have been calls in some quarters to investigate no more and to not prosecute. The list of rationales to do nothing is long and sometimes contradictory (it wasn’t torture/it was torture but justified; it was legal/it may not have technically been legal but everyone else does it; despite what professional interrogators say nothing else works; we were defending our freedom/it is unpatriotic to questions the actions and decisions of our leaders; we were defending our open society/these documents should not be public; etc.). However, the bottom line is we are a democracy and the American public has a right to know what has been done and what is being done in our name. If nothing wrong was done then those involved in the decisions to engage in “harsh interrogations” should have nothing to fear. If they were so clearly right then they should come off as heroes.

But if crimes were committed then prosecutions should follow. We are a nation of laws and the precedent set by this episode in our history should not be that certain people are above the law.

Paul Krugman on reclaiming America’s soul:
…there are indeed immense challenges out there: an economic crisis, a health care crisis, an environmental crisis. Isn’t revisiting the abuses of the last eight years, no matter how bad they were, a luxury we can’t afford?

No, it isn’t, because America is more than a collection of policies. We are, or at least we used to be, a nation of moral ideals. In the past, our government has sometimes done an imperfect job of upholding those ideals. But never before have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for. “This government does not torture people,” declared former President Bush, but it did, and all the world knows it.

And the only way we can regain our moral compass, not just for the sake of our position in the world, but for the sake of our own national conscience, is to investigate how that happened, and, if necessary, to prosecute those responsible.

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability?

For example, would investigating the crimes of the Bush era really divert time and energy needed elsewhere? Let’s be concrete: whose time and energy are we talking about?
Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

I don’t know about you, but I think America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Still, you might argue — and many do — that revisiting the abuses of the Bush years would undermine the political consensus the president needs to pursue his agenda.

But the answer to that is, what political consensus? There are still, alas, a significant number of people in our political life who stand on the side of the torturers. But these are the same people who have been relentless in their efforts to block President Obama’s attempt to deal with our economic crisis and will be equally relentless in their opposition when he endeavors to deal with health care and climate change. The president cannot lose their good will, because they never offered any.

… what we really should do for the sake of the country is have investigations both of torture and of the march to war. These investigations should, where appropriate, be followed by prosecutions — not out of vindictiveness, but because this is a nation of laws.

We need to do this for the sake of our future. For this isn’t about looking backward, it’s about looking forward — because it’s about reclaiming America’s soul.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The false claims of the effectiveness of torture in gathering intelligence

The torture rationalizers claim that the methods at least produced intelligence that prevented further attacks on the United States following 9-11. However FBI supervisory special agent Ali Soufan, who was involved in the interrogations terrorist suspects, not only disagrees but points out the introduction of torture drove a wedge between the FBI and the CIA thus hampering intelligence gathering and criminal investigations into terrorist activities.

This is Soufan in today’s New York Times:
FOR seven years I have remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. I have spoken only in closed government hearings, as these matters were classified. But the release last week of four Justice Department memos on interrogations allows me to shed light on the story, and on some of the lessons to be learned.

One of the most striking parts of the memos is the false premises on which they are based. The first, dated August 2002, grants authorization to use harsh interrogation techniques on a high-ranking terrorist, Abu Zubaydah, on the grounds that previous methods hadn’t been working. The next three memos cite the successes of those methods as a justification for their continued use.

It is inaccurate, however, to say that Abu Zubaydah had been uncooperative. Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned him from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don’t add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.

One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine who knew more about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed than anyone in the government was not allowed to speak to him.

It was the right decision to release these memos, as we need the truth to come out. This should not be a partisan matter, because it is in our national security interest to regain our position as the world’s foremost defenders of human rights. Just as important, releasing these memos enables us to begin the tricky process of finally bringing these terrorists to justice.
You can read the entire piece here.

When sex is worse than torture

Kevin Drum on conservative moral relativism:
When the subject has anything to do with sex, the right in America is the party of moral absolutes. We know what's right, we know what's wrong, and even if there's a price to pay we can't shirk our responsibility to set a proper example and do the right thing.

But when the subject is torture, suddenly it's all about carefully weighing the costs and benefits. Having an honest debate about how far we should go to protect ourselves. Understanding the context of what happened. It's just not possible to flatly say that waterboarding and sleep deprivation and stress positions are barbarisms unfit for use by a civilized country. It's much more complex than that.

Funny how that works, isn't it?
It works as a double standard as Andrew Sullivan points out, “… when the Republicans impeached a president for committing perjury in a civil suit, it was about the rule of law. But when it comes to holding a president accountable for war crimes in his public capacity, it is about criminalizing political differences. Do these people even hear themselves?”

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Truth and torture

James Fallows, on assignment in China, weighs in on the release of the torture memos and the reaction of people around the world to this laying bare of dirty secrets:
…I contend that a full process of American self-examination and accountability will make a tremendous long-term difference in international views of the United States. Even among those who at the moment don't know that there is any controversy going on within the United States.

For as annoyed as foreigners may get with America and Americans, there have been two saving graces in the world's opinions of our country. One has been its permeability. Anywhere you go, someone has an uncle or cousin in America. The other, less openly stated, has been a belief that at some point there are rules in America. Long periods may pass when the rules are ignored. Big boys may bend the rules in their favor. Some offenses are never made right. And so on. But in the end, the American system is supposed to recognize injustice and respond -- including with public accountability for even the mightiest figures. It has this in common with the British and some other systems -- which is what Gandhi relied on in knowing he could "shame" the Brits. For all the increases in liberty within China over the last generation, this is a striking difference with the world's currently-rising power. No one expects China's current leadership to conduct a "truth commission" about the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen. But people finally expect America to apply its own rules, even against its own people. Fulfilling that expectation is not sufficient for restoring America's image international standing. But it is necessary.

So even though most of the world's population has no idea of what is in the torture memos or of what will happen because of them, in the long run the Administration's decisions will have a significant worldwide effect. Being true to the world's idea of America does not (in my opinion) crucially turn on prosecuting individual CIA or military interrogators. Instead it depends on full clarifying disclosure of the reasoning that led to these practices -- thus, maximum disclosure of the memos -- and full examination of the decisions that public officials made.

At this point I don't think it's sensible to talk about legal sanctions for Administration officials from George W. Bush on down. But the historical record of what he approved, and what Dick Cheney recommended, what David Addington egged on, and what John Yoo and (sitting Federal Judge) Jay Bybee and others rationalized, should be established in unambiguous detail. For this, some American version of a "Truth Commission" is probably the best solution. Many other countries would not bother. America -- to be true to itself -- must. This will matter in the world's eyes. More important, it will matter to us.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Should the military academies be closed?

When an institution becomes expensive and doesn’t produce products that are particularly unique or better than other institutions then it may be time to consider shutting it down. Tom Ricks thinks we’ve reached that point with our service academies in that we have less expensive, and more democratic, alternatives. He advocates shutting down West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, and using the savings to expand ROTC scholarships:
After covering the U.S. military for nearly two decades, I've concluded that graduates of the service academies don't stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them is more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools ($300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student). On top of the economic advantage, I've been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military.

This is no knock on the academies' graduates. They are crackerjack smart and dedicated to national service. They remind me of the best of the Ivy League, but too often they're getting community-college educations. Although West Point's history and social science departments provided much intellectual firepower in rethinking the U.S. approach to Iraq, most of West Point's faculty lacks doctorates. Why not send young people to more rigorous institutions on full scholarships, and then, upon graduation, give them a military education at a short-term military school? Not only do ROTC graduates make fine officers -- three of the last six chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reached the military that way -- they also would be educated alongside future doctors, judges, teachers, executives, mayors and members of Congress. That would be good for both the military and the society it protects.

We should also consider closing the services' war colleges, where colonels supposedly learn strategic thinking. These institutions strike me as second-rate. If we want to open the minds of rising officers and prepare them for top command, we should send them to civilian schools where their assumptions will be challenged, and where they will interact with diplomats and executives, not to a service institution where they can reinforce their biases while getting in afternoon golf games. Just ask David Petraeus, a Princeton PhD.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Afghan women demonstrate for equality

On Wednesday approximately 300 women in Afghanistan were attacked for demanding equality with men. Counter demonstrators in Kabul threw stones and knocked women to the ground at a rally where women were protesting a law they said would greatly restrict their freedoms.

The demonstration was sparked by a new law passed by the legislature and signed by President Karzai that regulates the actions of women of the Shiite minority with provisions stating women should receive a husband's permission before leaving the house and gives men the right to have sex with their wives on demand. An outpouring of international criticism has urged President Karzai to shelve the bill.

This from the Christian Science Monitor:
The law that sparked the outrage – which was passed by both houses of parliament and signed late last month by President Hamid Karzai – regulates the actions of women of the Shiite minority, which makes up about 15 percent of the population. Among the bill's many articles, activists point to a few particularly oppressive statutes: that women should get their husband's permission before leaving the house, and husbands have the right to have sex with their wives whenever they wish.

An outpouring of international criticism has pushed President Karzai to shelve the bill for now and pledge to reconsider any portions of the law that contradict the Afghan constitution, which guarantees equal rights for men and women. The measure also stipulates that no law should contradict Islam – a fact some conservatives use to argue that the law in question can be reconciled with the constitution.

Although the majority of local opposition to the law started with nongovernmental organizations, the movement has spread to students and others. Still, the women were vastly outnumbered by angry demonstrators who favor the law – including hundreds of burqa-clad women, who chanted, "God is great! Long live Islam!" Many of these counterprotesters hurled stones and spat on their rivals.
But as Juan Cole points out the real issue goes beyond the specifics of the law being discussed:
The government's pledge to amend the law so as to forbid marital rape misses the point. Afghanistan has a civil code on personal status, and all citizens should be under it. If the state farms out personal status law to a Shiite court, then a conservative interpretation of Shiite law (sharia) will become the de facto law of the land for Shiites. Moreover, there is the issue of the state creating the Shiites as a separate group not under national law.

The issue should not be construed as a couple of objectionable provisions of Shiite Islamic law, but the desirability in a democracy of having a uniform civil code for all citizens. Karzai is widely thought to have signed the bill to pander to Shiite clerics, in a bid to attract votes from the Shiite minority, some 22 percent of the population. Karzai is contesting a presidential election in August.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Battling pirates in international waters will take an international effort

Pirates operating off the coast of Somalia have been growing bolder. Last year over a third of all reported incidents of piracy around the world occurred in the Gulf of Aden alone. And they are not just attacking fishermen or pleasure boaters but large container ships interrupting international commerce. They rob and take hostages. Currently there are approximately 250 merchant sailors from many different countries being held for ransom by the Somali pirates.

It would be a mistake to glorify these pirates as political terrorists. They are not. They are criminals engaged in what is becoming a sophisticated criminal operation. While the U.S. response this past week to the attack on the American flagged merchant ship, Maersk Alabama, might be seen as a model for dealing with the pirates it is important to remember this was just a single incident in a region where these incidents are hundreds of miles apart.

If international law is not clear it should be clarified to allow civilian seamen to defend their ships with arms if necessary or allow the posting of armed guards on ships. But more importantly there needs to be a united front by the international community on both policy dealing with the pirates and the enforcement of international law protecting shipping by various navies of the world. We should not allow the pirates and their criminal syndicates to turn this into a political issue of the West (i.e., so far, the United States and France) attacking third world people.

Fred Kaplan has these thoughts:
… Many have drawn comparisons between the Somalis and the Barbary pirates of yore. But the Barbary corsairs, as they were also called, were a far greater and more expansive threat, spanning from the North African coast out into the Mediterranean and sporadically the North Atlantic. Between the 16th and early 19th centuries, they captured more than 800,000 Europeans and sold many of them on the Algerian and Moroccan slave markets. In the early 1800s, the U.S. government—having won independence from Britain and thus having lost the British fleet's protection—found itself spending one-fifth of its annual budget for ransom to pirates who captured its ships and crewmen.

The rest of the story is well-known. President Thomas Jefferson, who had negotiated terms of ransom with the pirate-dominated Moroccan government while ambassador to France, built a navy and sent in the Marines. (The "shores of Tripoli," in the Marine Corps' anthem, refers to their rescue of merchant crews from pirates in Libya.) Meanwhile, the British and Dutch launched heavy bombardment campaigns in Algiers. Finally, in 1830 the French conquered Algeria, and that was pretty much the end of the Barbary pirates.

It's very unlikely that President Barack Obama or any other world leader would pummel, much less colonize, Somalia today. The scope of the threat, though not to be trivialized, is nothing like that of Barbary days. Memories of Black Hawk Down, as well as troop commitments elsewhere, should stave off fantasies of a "cake walk" through Mogadishu. Nor do Europeans seem to be hankering for a revival of foreign adventurism.

Some, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, say that the roots of Somali piracy lie in the lawlessness of Somalia itself and that the problem won't be fully solved until that country has a strong, stable government. This may be true, but it's a dead-end observation. What to do while waiting for a Mogadishu messiah?

There are some realistic options—SEAL snipers being one of them—and a less-remembered chapter of the Barbary saga offers a pertinent framework.

In 1815, the great nations of Europe—Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia—assembled the Congress of Vienna to forge a new balance of power in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. (More than 200 smaller states and principalities attended the session, as well.) One of the initial motives for holding the congress was to condemn, and coordinate a common policy on, the European slave trade along the Barbary Coast. It was after the congress formed that the Europeans and Americans stopped paying ransom and took action.

Perhaps it's time for another Congress of Vienna, this one amid the instabilities brought on by the end of the Cold War. The parallel is imperfect, to say the least. No Metternichs or Bismarcks strut the global stage today. Nor does any handful of nations seem willing or able to carve out and command "spheres of influence" that keep the rest of the world in subjugated equilibrium.

However, the new assemblage could at least begin by dealing with the Somali pirate problem. The framework for cooperation is already in place. International law has long regarded theft on the high seas as a scourge transcending the normal rules of national sovereignty. Piracy, in fact, inspired the concept of "universal jurisdiction," which allows any nation-state to take action against transgressors, even if it is not a victim of the crime. (In this case, any state is allowed to arrest and prosecute pirates, even if the ship they've pirated is flying another country's flag.) This principle has since been codified in the 1958 Convention on the High Seas and the United Nations' 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Every state has a vested interest in this cause. The Somali pirates have captured merchant ships owned not just by the United States and Western European nations but also by Ukraine, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

Nor is this issue complicated by ideology or sectarianism. The Barbary pirates at least saw, or justified, their actions as political struggle, stemming from Catholic Spain's conquest of Grenada, which forced the exile of the Moors (the name at the time for Muslims), who retaliated by attacking Spanish boats, a practice subsequently supported—and gradually dominated—by the sultan of the Ottoman empire. The Moors and their descendants, in this sense, were the Islamist radicals of their time.

The Somali pirates, by contrast, are simply bandits. They are in fact held in contempt by most of the Islamist gangs that hang out elsewhere along Somalia's coast—though some of these gangs have formed mafia-style alliances offering protection in exchange for a share of the loot. (The extent, or durability, of these relationships is unclear.)

In other words, piracy could be a wedge issue in President Obama's quest for mutual interests between Western and Muslim nations.


The fight against the Somali pirates is not, nor should it be presented as, a campaign in the "war on terror" or any euphemism that the Obama administration might want to substitute for the phrase. Nor is it a battle for Western civilization. In this sense, proposals to deploy naval convoys, as was done in World War II to defend trans-Atlantic freighters from Nazi submarines, similarly miss the mark. These pirates aren't Nazis; their acts aren't sowing a crisis of existential proportion; to suggest otherwise only puffs up their image and perhaps their prestige and bargaining power among other anti-Western outlaws. These pirates are nasty criminals, nothing more. And the fight against them should be treated, and seen, as a routine and legitimate procedure to stamp out nasty crime.
You can read his entire article here.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Imagine what would happen to STD rates or legitimacy rates if heterosexual marriage were somehow not in existence.

This week’s National Review editorial argues against same-sex marriage.
…Few social goods will come from recognizing same-sex couples as married. Some practical benefits may accrue to the couples, but most of them could easily be realized without changing marriage laws. Same-sex couples will also receive the symbolic affirmation of being treated by the state as equivalent to a traditional married couple — but this spurious equality is a cost of the new laws, not a benefit. …

Both as a social institution and as a public policy, marriage exists to foster connections between heterosexual sex and the rearing of children within stable households. It is a non-coercive way to channel (heterosexual) desire into civilized patterns of living. …
Andrew Sullivan disagrees:
National Review's new editorial comes out firmly against even civil unions for gay couples, and continues to insist that society's exclusive support for straight couples is designed

"to foster connections between heterosexual sex and the rearing of children within stable households."

This is an honest and revealing point, and, in a strange way, it confirms my own analysis of the theocon position. It reaffirms, for example, that infertile couples who want to marry in order to adopt children have no place within existing marriage laws, as NR sees them. Such infertile and adoptive "marriages" rest on a decoupling of actual sex and the rearing of children. The same, of course, applies much more extensively to any straight married couple that uses contraception: they too are undermining what National Review believes to be the core reason for civil marriage. Now, you could argue - and I suspect NR's editors would - that society nonetheless has a role in providing moral, social and legal support for couples with children, however those children came about, and to provide "a non-coercive way to channel (heterosexual) desire into civilized patterns of living." I agree with this, actually, which is why I do not want to alter or weaken traditional marriage in any way, and regard it as a vital social institution that deserves our support.

But what of "channeling homosexual desire into civilized patterns of living?" Ah, there's the rub.

National Review clearly believes that gays exist beyond the boundaries of civilized life, or even social life, let alone the purview of social policy. But, of course, a total absence of social policy is still a social policy. And such a social policy - leaving gay people outside of existing social institutions, while tolerating their existence - has led to some rather predictable consequences. We have, for example, lived through a period in which around 300,000 young Americans died of a terrible disease that was undoubtedly compounded by the total lack of any social incentives for stable relationships. Imagine what would happen to STD rates or legitimacy rates if heterosexual marriage were somehow not in existence. Do you think that straight men would be more or less socially responsible without the institution of civil marriage?


… The fact that gay Americans may feel equal because of inclusion within their own families and societies is now a cost to society, not a benefit. Encouraging commitment, fewer partners, and greater responsibility are important governmental goals with respect to heterosexuals but not with respect to homosexuals. As far as National Review is concerned, homosexuals can go to hell. Their interests and views cannot even be accorded respect. They are non-persons to National Review: means, not ends.

Flip this around and you see what the theocon right actually believes: that society has no interest in the welfare of its gay citizens, and an abiding interest in ensuring that they remain unequal, feel unequal and suffer the consequences of a culture where family and commitment and fidelity are non-existent. And they write this within living memory of an appalling and devastating plague. This is how the social right is responding to our times, and to put it personally, my life and the lives and deaths of countless others. One day, they will understand the callousness and bitterness and willful ignorance they currently represent. As civilized society leaves them increasingly behind.

Birth control pills are as bad as a gun to school officials

A teenager – an honor student and lettered athlete – was suspended from Oakton High School in Fairfax, Virginia for taking birth control pills prescribed by her doctor during school. The suspension was equal to that if she were caught carrying a gun to school but less than if she were taking LSD or heroin.

This from Sunday’s Washington Post:
For two decades, many schools have set zero-tolerance policies on drugs. That means no over-the-counter drugs, no prescription drugs, no pretend drugs in student lockers or pockets. When many teens have ready access to medicine cabinets filled with prescription medications such as Xanax and Vicodin, any capsule or tablet is suspect.

Still, some parents and civil rights advocates say enforcement has been overzealous. Stringent rules have ensnared not only drug dealers and abusers, but a host of sniffling and headachy students seeking quick medical relief. The Supreme Court will consider this month the case of a 13-year-old Arizona student who was strip-searched in 2003 by an administrator who suspected that she was carrying ibuprofen pills.

Fairfax School Board members have debated over time whether to allow students to carry Tylenol or other over-the-counter medicines without registering them with the school nurse. County policy permits cough drops to be carried on campus, for instance, but not shared. Arlington County policies permit high school students to carry over-the-counter pain relievers. A 2006 state law in Maryland overturned some local rules requiring a doctor's note for children to use sunscreen at school.

In Virginia, school systems must comply with state code regarding prescription medications and illegal drugs on campus. Students face expulsion if they bring to school any "controlled substance" or addictive drug regulated by the federal government. "Imitation controlled substances," which could include virtually any prescription pill, are subject to the same hefty repercussions. Local school boards can give a lighter punishment after a review.

In Maryland, school systems have more leeway to set their own drug policies. In the District, prescription medications should be confiscated if they are brought to school without a doctor's order, Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the school system, wrote in an e-mail.

Health advocates say that harsh penalties for students who take birth-control pills at school conflicts with a campaign schools are waging against teen pregnancy.

A small portion of school health clinics across the country distribute birth-control pills to teens. But in Fairfax, even carrying the pills in a backpack is counted among the most serious offenses in the Student Responsibilities and Rights handbook.

During two weeks of watching television game shows and trying to keep up with homework online, the Fairfax teen, an honor student and lettered athlete, had time to study the handbook closely. If she had been caught high on LSD, heroin or another illegal drug, she found, she would have been suspended for five days. Taking her prescribed birth-control pill on campus drew the same punishment as bringing a gun to school would have.


Deb Hauser of Advocates for Youth, a District-based organization that focuses on adolescent sexual health, said, "To put birth control in the same category as illegal drugs or handguns stigmatizes responsible behavior."

In a 2008 survey, a little more than a quarter of Fairfax teenagers, and 44 percent of 12th-graders, reported that they were sexually active. That was lower than the national average. About 10 percent of those who were sexually active said they had not used contraception the last time they had sex.

The teenager said she started taking birth-control pills over the summer, a decision made with her mother, her boyfriend and a doctor. The pill is supposed to be taken at the same time every day. So when school started in the fall, she kept up with her daily routine during school hours.
You can read the entire article here.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Is it time to reconsider free trade?

As we search for solutions to the current global economy crisis many issues are on the table for discussion with the exception of one. Challenging the tenant of “free trade” has become taboo. The problem with the idea of free trade is that it has become an absolutism for politicians and businessmen. Absolutism always leaves little room for nuanced and honest review and deliberation.

Noreena Hertz argues free trade should be closely examined and we should not let allow debate to revolve around a false dichotomy of free trade versus protectionism. This from Der Spiegel:
The absolutism of the key tenets of neo-liberalism: privatisation, deregulation, balanced budgets have all been rejected by all but the most dogmatic. Apart from one that is: the primacy of free trade.

Its status is basically sacrosanct. While banks are being nationalized, bonuses recalled, and trillions of dollars of debt racked up, while pretty much every other concept, belief or ideal is being interrogated, contorted or just set aside, "Free trade is good" continues to be presented as a totemic truth, ring-fenced from debate or interrogation. Any questioning of this axiom is not even on the G-20's agenda.


So we have countries publicly preaching free trade, but on the sly making protectionist moves. Such dissemblance creates two problems. It fosters distrust between nations -- at a time at which without trust there's almost no chance that a collective solution to the crisis will be reached.

And, it also sends out a dangerous message to domestic electorates that their leaders are unwilling to embrace the intellectual honesty and flexibility that is needed right now to question absolutely everything they have held dear in economic policy over the last three decades, no caveats.

We urgently need a frank, honest and grown-up discussion about the final frontier of neo-liberalism -- free trade. And we're not getting one.

Instead we get scaremongering. "Remember the 1930s; don't take us back there." This isn't even an accurate representation of the past. Leading economic historians now explain the collapse of world trade in the 1930s not as a result of protectionism, but because of shrinking demand and a lack of trade credits.

We also continue to be presented with a false dichotomy -- free trade versus protectionism. What we actually need is a nuanced analysis of where on the free trade/protectionism scale individual nations need and want to be positioned, and what the implications of that would be.

The ability to openly have this discussion is particularly vital at a time when countries are under huge pressure from their electorates to protect jobs and businesses, and create compelling narratives about their own recovery. This is especially important given that, when used specifically and for a limited time, as Sweden and Japan did in the aftermath of the 1970s oil shocks, protectionism can be the lifeline a struggling country needs to survive. It can provide the breathing space an economy needs to retrench and retool its industries and workers.

I'm not advocating trade warfare, nor am I proposing that powerful countries be allowed to erect trade barriers with impunity. It's just that I don't think protectionism should be seen as a non-acceptable taboo. Instead we should see protectionism as a tool in nations' armouries that can be deployed to help address their local economic freefall, but is also capable of creating far-reaching collateral damage. Its use therefore needs to be sanctioned by the global community, practiced with caution, and within guidelines. Perhaps there is a role here for the WTO to play, not in enforcing the letter of the free trade law, but in adjudicating as to what is fair and right for now.


This week's G-20 meeting will show us whether the world is led by intellectual sophisticates or a dogmatic generation unable to respond powerfully and flexibly to our economic nadir. Productive trade arrangements will be pivotal to our collective futures. So rather than simply re-stating old beliefs about the supremacy of free trade, the G-20 should place it firmly under the microscope. For surely if we have learnt anything over the past few months it should be that economic axioms are at best schools of thought, and that wisdom comes not from blindly accepting convention but from questioning, interrogating and challenging what we think we know.
You can read her entire piece here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The stolen children of Franco’s Spain

Civil war engulfed Spain between 1936 and 1939. On one side was the Republican government supported by liberals, socialists, Communists, anarchists, peasants, the working class, and advocates of regional autonomy. They ranged from those supportive of a moderately capitalist liberal democracy to those advocating a revolutionary state.

On the other side was the military led by General Francisco Franco, nationalists, conservatives, fascists, Roman Catholic clergy, large land owners, and monarchists. They generally favored a strong central state and a dominant role for the Roman Catholic Church in Spanish society and opposed democracy. The Republican side was divided while General Franco was able to unite the various right-wing forces and prevail.

Atrocities did not end with the war. The Franco regime hunted down suspected leftists and either imprisoned or executed them. They also stole their children by the thousands often with excuses as flimsy as accusing mothers of being morally degenerate because they were politically active.

This from NPR:
In recent years, there's been a movement in Spain to dig up the dark secrets of the Franco dictatorship — but there's one atrocity that is only now coming to light.

It involved the stealing of thousands of children from leftist parents so they could be indoctrinated in fascism and archconservative Catholicism.

Ushenu Ablana, 79, was one of those children. He is still afraid to talk about his childhood because it evokes a part of Spain's past that many people in the country would rather forget.

On one particular day, Ablana sits in the corner of a restaurant, away from the other diners, in the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela. He takes out a faded photo album and begins his story.

In the 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War, the town where Ablana was growing up was overrun by right-wing insurgents seeking to topple the Spanish Republic. How his mother died remains a mystery.

"First they told me it was in childbirth," he says. "But that was one of their many lies. Later, I found out from old folks in the town that the rebels had tortured her to find out where my father was."

Ablana says his father was suspected of being a leftist and was imprisoned until long after the war ended. Ablana was shuttled between orphanages, where he got tuberculosis. He says the priests starved him, sexually abused him and indoctrinated him in fascism.

"I am a Falangist, and will be a Falangist 'til I die," are words to one of the songs that he says still echo in his head. "They ruined me," he says. "They stole my youth and my life."

Ablana and thousands of other children were stolen in the early years of the dictatorship, when Francisco Franco's victorious forces were killing, imprisoning and sending thousands of people to labor camps.

But the stolen children were forgotten until around a decade ago. A historian, studying the plight of female political prisoners, stumbled onto evidence that more than 12,000 of their children had been taken and sent to orphanages or given to families that supported the regime.

That historian is Ricard Vinyes, who was himself jailed by the Franco dictatorship. He says the regime was alarmed at how Spanish women had broken out of their traditional domestic roles under the prewar Republican government. So a state psychiatrist came up with a theory that politically active women were by definition morally degenerate, and should not be allowed to raise children.

"It was amazing to see all the letters and telegrams of congratulations he got from the senior military brass," the historian says.

Vinyes helped make a documentary called The Lost Children of Francoism. In it, a voice reads from the diary of a prison chaplain who was troubled by what he saw. He recorded the mothers' despair as their children were stolen, often just before their executions.

"They cried, 'Please don't take my daughter,' or 'Kill her along with me,' " he says.

After Franco died in 1975, Spaniards decided not to rake over the past. But in recent years, volunteers have been digging up mass graves from the Civil War, and the last statues of Franco are now being torn down. A few months ago, an investigating magistrate called on the judiciary to investigate the stolen children.

Back at the restaurant, Ablana says he thinks the investigation won't go far, because most people would rather forget about the dictatorship.

"The young, none of them know what happened. Even my own children who are in their 40s and 50s don't want to talk about it," he says.

The dictatorship may have ended more than 30 years ago, but for many Spaniards, the tyranny of silence endures.