Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Part Two: Food Crisis and Carbon Footprints

I began this two-part series Monday with a piece, “The World Food Crisis: A Hydra-headed Monster.” Trivializing human suffering on a scale impossible to imagine by this writer and those who read what I write is easy. How can you wrap your mind around this reality?
“We are the canary in the mine,” says Josette Sheeran, the head of the UN's World Food Programme, the largest distributor of food aid. Usually, a food crisis is clear and localised. The harvest fails, often because of war or strife, and the burden in the affected region falls heavily on the poorest. This crisis is different. It is occurring in many countries simultaneously, the first time that has happened since the early 1970s. And it is affecting people not usually hit by famines. “For the middle classes, it means cutting out medical care. For those on $2 a day, it means cutting out meat and taking the children out of school. For those on $1 a day, it means cutting out meat and vegetables and eating only cereals. And for those on 50 cents a day, it means total disaster.”
Because the problem is not yet reflected in national statistics, its scale is hard to judge… But by almost any measure, the human suffering is likely to be vast. In El Salvador the poor are eating only half as much food as they were a year ago. Afghans are now spending half their income on food, up from a tenth in 2006. … Just over 1 billion people live on $1 a day, the benchmark of absolute poverty; 1.5 billion live on $1 to $2 a day.
The current population of the world is estimated to be about 6.6 billion people, which means that over one third of this planet’s people survive on less than $2 a day. They are the ones most immediately threatened by the world food crisis.

At another level, but no less real, in the United States,
thirty-seven million people live in poverty, or 12.7% of the population, the highest percentage in the developed world. Under President Bush, an additional 5.7 million have slipped below the line. With today’s oil and food crisis, the number dropping below the poverty line poverty is accelerating at an even faster rate.

I used the word “trivialize” above intentionally, not because I want to make light of this reality but because my inability to comprehend it almost inevitably results in seeing the suffering as less than it is. It is always so when we are not the ones suffering. Perhaps it is also protection for the psychic distress it would cause us if we were able to sense its magnitude.

Trivialization is, to me anyway, less an evil than looking away and ignoring the problem altogether. If you’ve read this far and haven’t done the latter, you can simply be warned that whatever you are likely to read below is not a remedy for catastrophe. At best, I hope to point to ways that will lead us to a better place than we are now.

The world food crisis may in part be an immediate manifestation of an even larger problem looming on the horizon—“global warming,” or as it is sometimes euphemistically called “climate change” to make the reality more palatable to those who refuse to acknowledge that the planet is warming. Without the vast vested interests of fossil-fuel industries lobbying against it and a wide-spread anti-science know nothingism, I am confident there would be no doubts about what has been self-evident to those who have seriously studied the problem for a generation.

While I have no doubt about the reality of global warming caused, or made critical by, human carbon emissions, we still don’t know if it is too late to stop or retard. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing all we can to try. We need to elect a president and congress this November who do not have to be convinced of human complicity in the problem and the necessity of addressing it with a sense of urgency. But neither should we simply relegate it to our leaders.

“Carbon footprint” is a measurement of how many pounds of global-warming-causing carbon dioxide individuals and families emit annually into the atmosphere from our daily lives — energy we use to power our home, to get around, and the energy used to make all the products we consume. For years, governments and corporations have been balancing out their emissions by participating in carbon-offsetting, investing in renewable energy to compensate for the global-warming pollution they produce.

In an important
article in The Los Angeles Times, staff writer Kenneth R. Weiss wrote about taking carbon footprints to another level:
Conscientious consumers who want to tread lightly are increasingly concerned about their own carbon footprints. They've changed lightbulbs. They covet a Prius more than a Porsche. Now their anxiety over global warming has shifted to the supermarket and dinner table.The global food and agriculture system produces about one-third of humanity's contribution to greenhouse gases. So questions about food are shifting from the familiar "Is this good for me?" or "Will it make me fat?" to "Is it good for the planet?"
Weiss explores what diets might be good for the planet and begins at the University of Redlands cafeteria.
"No hamburger patties?" asked an incredulous football player, repeating the words of the grill cook. He glowered at the posted sign: "Cows or cars? Worldwide, livestock emits 18% of greenhouse gases, more than the transportation sector! Today we're offering great-tasting vegetarian choices."
Can what is good for the planet also be part of solving the world food crisis? In a table titled “
Food Miles” one can easily see that not all modes of transporting food are equal. Airplanes emit ten times more carbon dioxide per ton of freight than cargo ships over the same distance. Bon Appétit, the management company supplying the cafeteria with its “low carbon diet” takes food miles seriously.
"Does your sushi get more frequent-flier miles than you do?" another poster flashes on the screen. It draws a laugh from the audience -- until York explains that Bon Appétit is phasing out fresh seafood brought in by air freight.

About 80% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, and nearly all of it takes to the skies. That means delicate slabs of fresh halibut and salmon carry a long contrail of aircraft exhaust to the table. Bon Appétit is setting up supply lines to buy Alaskan salmon fillets and other fish frozen at sea.
I hope you’ll read Weiss’ article to see what else you can do to eat with a lighter carbon footprint.

With “food miles” in mind, another option is to eat locally as much as possible. “Locavore” was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s
word of the year for 2007. It refers to the movement of people committed to eating locally produced food.

What I hope you are asking now, is how this is related to the global food crisis. Think “food miles.” In its April 19 report, The Economist, offered
this prognosis for the world food crisis :
In the short run, humanitarian aid, social-protection programmes and trade policies will determine how well the world copes with these problems. But in the medium term the question is different: where does the world get more food from? If the extra supplies come mainly from large farmers in America, Europe and other big producers, then the new equilibrium may end up looking much like the old one, with world food depending on a small number of suppliers and—possibly—trade distortions and food dumping. So far, farmers in rich countries have indeed responded. America's winter wheat plantings are up 4% and the spring-sown area is likely to rise more. The Food and Agriculture Organisation forecasts that the wheat harvest in the European Union will rise 13%.
The long-term answer does not lie with large producers but with small ones nearer where the food will be consumed.
Ideally, a big part of the supply response would come from the world's 450m smallholders in developing countries, people who farm just a few acres. There are three reasons why this would be desirable. First, it would reduce poverty: three-quarters of those making do on $1 a day live in the countryside and depend on the health of smallholder farming. Next, it might help the environment: those smallholders manage a disproportionate share of the world's water and vegetation cover, so raising their productivity on existing land would be environmentally friendlier than cutting down the rainforest. And it should be efficient: in terms of returns on investment, it would be easier to boost grain yields in Africa from two tonnes per hectare to four than it would be to raise yields in Europe from eight tonnes to ten. The opportunities are greater and the law of diminishing returns has not set in.
There are many obstacles to overcome, and corporate globalization may kill this option, but the “small is beautiful” answer may not only be the most effective way to end the global food crisis, it is also the way with the lightest carbon footprint.

In the meantime, we can contribute humanitarian aid (through reputable agencies) confident that it will save lives. We can also be informed advocates on aid, social protection policies, and trade policies. As individuals and families, as well a corporations and governments, we need to take steps to lighten our carbon footprints. Step lively and without delay! The earth’s people and the planet depend on it.

- Milo

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Global Food Crisis: A Hydra-headed Monster

Who Wants to be President?

I have a long list of critical issues requiring immediate attention when a new U.S. president takes office in January, the length and nature of which will make FDR’s “Hundred Days” plan look small (getting out of Iraq, caring for veterans, dealing with war crimes charges against Bush administration officials, developing an appropriate strategy for combating terrorism, turning the economy around, moving on a plan for universal health care, undergirding Social Security, restoring civil liberties, re-establishing international credibility, cleaning out politicized and crony-corrupted federal agencies, repairing the crumbling infrastructure, to name a few). But, as someone who worked with an NGO on the world food crisis of the 70’s, I’m not sure any of the problems listed above cloud the future more than the current global food crisis. Who would want to be president and face this problem?

Listen to Likbir Ould Mohamed Mahmoud‘s
story. Even before taking the butcher knife to the she-goat's throat, he knew it would only make things worse.
The goat was a living bounty in this parched city on the Sahara's edge, providing the sweet milk that filled his family's stomachs at breakfast time. But as soaring food prices worldwide have hit the poorest nations of Africa the hardest, he has been forced to join many of his neighbors in slaughtering or selling off one of their only sources of wealth -- their livestock.

By sacrificing the she-goat last month, the 39-year-old day laborer and goatherd traded the family's morning milk for dinner meat. It lasted a few days. With the family unable to afford skyrocketing prices for basic foods, he said, his two young children now cry in the morning from hunger. One recent morning, he could take it no more. He took the goat's kid -- one of the last two animals in his flock -- to the squalid livestock market here in the hopes of selling it to buy food. "Everything -- the wheat, rice, sugar and animal feeds -- is higher priced than I have ever seen them before," he said. "What will we do? Soon we will have nothing left to sell."
In different ways, a billion other people on this planet share Mahmoud’s plight. You’ve seen the headlines trying to capture the magnitude of the global food crisis: “Unlucky Confluence of Events,” “Unprecedented Tsunami,” “A Perfect Storm,” and others. In its usual understated tone, The Economist calls it “The End of Cheap Food.”

Those who think this problem doesn’t compare to the ones I’ve listed in the first paragraph simply do not see what a hydra-headed monster it is. A challenge for our new president will be to understand the dimensions of the problem and how its tentacles complicate nearly every aspect of domestic and foreign policy.

Let’s say that you are a farmer feeding out a hundred hogs. As the weeks go by, you notice that some hogs are really getting fat and others are losing weight. Because you know that every day you put enough food out for a hundred hogs, your first conclusion is not that there are too many hogs; your conclusion will be that some are staying too long at the trough.

It is not true to say that there are too many people in the world to be fed adequately. As
The Economist put it,
For as long as most people can remember, food has been getting cheaper and farming has been in decline. In 1974-2005 food prices on world markets fell by three-quarters in real terms. Food today is so cheap that the West is battling gluttony even as it scrapes piles of half-eaten leftovers into the bin.
So, while it is not true to say that there is not enough food for the world’s population, it is true to say that there are too many people in the world to consume at the level of those of us in the West. Most of us are staying too long at the trough. Who are we to say that the emerging middle classes in Asia should not eat and waste the way we do?

While true and deadening for a U.S. president, the roots of this crisis are much more complex. On Sunday, the Washington Post began a
major series of articles on the world food crisis that bears close attention through the week. The first article cautions about simple explanations.
No single factor can be blamed for the global food crisis. An unlucky confluence of events over the past several years contributed to the soaring prices.
Teacherken’s article in DailyKos summarizes causes and effects of the crisis:

1. Trade Restrictions
Cause: Major exporting nations introduced/increased export taxes, bans and other restrictions to keep down domestic prices
Effect: These further strained already tight supplies adding pressure on prices.(Among the nations with such restrictions are Russia, China, Indonesia, Ukraine and Egypt).

2. Increased Demand in Asia
Cause: Economic development and income growth in emerging countries, especially China and India, are changing diets away from starchy foods toward more meat and dairy in China, where per capita meat consumption is up 40% since 1980.
Effect: More grain needed to feed livestock, thus less for human food. (7-8.5 pounds of grain for one pound of beef, 5-7 for one pound of pork, and as per capita consumption has gone up by nearly half, the population has gone from .98 to over 1.3 billion).

3. Weather
Cause: Heat waves, droughts and excessive rain in grain-producing countries taking toll on crops in recent years.
Effect: World cereal stocks have fallen. (true even in US, from 71.7 million metric tons in 2006 to a projected 48.1 in 2008)

(Drought inAustralia : The Deniliquin mill, the largest rice mill in the Southern Hemisphere, once processed enough grain to meet the needs of 20 million people around the world. But six long years of drought have taken a toll, reducing Australia’s rice crop by 98 percent and leading to the mothballing of the mill last December. …many scientists believe it is among the earliest signs that a warming planet is starting to affect food production.)

4. Biofuels
Cause: The push to produce biofuels increasing demand for corn, with US, exporter of 66% of world's corn using increasing amounts for ethanol.
Effect: Corn prices up more than 50 percent since last year, causing European nations to turn to less expensive sorghum to feed livestock, driving up the price of a grain heavily used by poor people (from 98/metric ton in 2004-5 to 191 in 2007-8).

(The Economist put it this way: “But the rise in prices is also the self-inflicted result of America's reckless ethanol subsidies. This year biofuels will take a third of America's (record) maize harvest. That affects food markets directly: fill up an SUV's fuel tank with ethanol and you have used enough maize to feed a person for a year. And it affects them indirectly, as farmers switch to maize from other crops. The 30m tonnes of extra maize going to ethanol this year amounts to half the fall in the world's overall grain stocks.”)

5. Fuel Prices
Cause: All the chart offers is "Rising Fuel Prices." Of course, we know our actions in Iraq are a major contributor to that rise, but so is increasing motorization of the developing world, especially China.
Effect: Costlier to produce/transport grain (from Gulf Coast to Japan up from 60 to 110 per ton, and 97% more to ship to Europe. Those figures do not begin to address the increases in planting and plowing, nor in the use of petroleum based fertilizers.)

Beyond the suffering caused by severe hunger and malnutrition, there are other consequences of the crisis:

The food price shock now roiling world markets is destabilizing governments, igniting street riots and threatening to send a new wave of hunger rippling through the world's poorest nations. It is outpacing even the Soviet grain emergency of 1972-75, when world food prices rose 78 percent. By comparison, from the beginning of 2005 to early 2008, prices leapt 80 percent, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Much of the increase is being absorbed by middle men -- distributors, processors, even governments -- but consumers worldwide are still feeling the pinch.

The convergence of events has thrown world food supply and demand out of whack and snowballed into civil turmoil. After hungry mobs and violent riots beset Port-au-Prince, Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Édouard Alexis was forced to step down this month. At least 14 countries have been racked by food-related violence. In Malaysia, Prime Minister
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is struggling for political survival after a March rebuke from voters furious over food prices. In Bangladesh, more than 20,000 factory workers protesting food prices rampaged through the streets two weeks ago, injuring at least 50 people.

Don’t expect the world food crisis to go away before January; expect it to [ loom larger] and more catastrophic.
Although the cost of food is determined by fundamental patterns of demand and supply, the balance between good and ill also depends in part on governments. If politicians do nothing, or the wrong things, the world faces more misery, especially among the urban poor. If they get policy right, they can help increase the wealth of the poorest nations, aid the rural poor, rescue farming from subsidies and neglect—and minimise the harm to the slum-dwellers and landless labourers. So far, the auguries look gloomy.
The question is not really who would want to be president and confront this intractable problem. We already have three candidates. The question is who we think will be best able to deal with the vast array of critical problems that require immediate and long-term attention? Who will have the cross-cultural sensitivity necessary to understand the problem’s global dimensions? Who has a mind that can grasp and interpret the new complexities of our time? Who will have the courage to advocate for unpopular measures for the long-term good of all?

Although the president will promise to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States,” this crisis requires a president who will look beyond the United States to the rest of the world. More than at any time in the past, we require a president who has the breadth of vision and compassion to see and act with the well-being of the entire planet in mind, for only in so doing can this president fulfill the pledge to defend this country.

Note: In part 2 of this diary, which I hope to get out by Wednesday, I plan to explore how measures to address global warming interface with the world food crisis.

- Milo

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Institute on Religion and Democracy's Attack on the United Methodist Church

My computer is back and now in good health. This afternoon I received an urgent call for action from Steven D. Martin at the Institute on Religion and Democracy Information Project. I have known about the IRD for most of its thirty plus years and found it as Frederick Clarkson has described it:

The oxymoronically named Institute on Religion and Democracy for a generation has sought to disrupt and divide the major denominations of mainline Protestantism, as well as the wider ecumenical communions, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. Even more remarkably perhaps, while presenting itself an agency dedicated to reform and "renewal" of the churches, IRD's leadership and staff have been substantially populated by men and women who are not even members of any of the churches they say they seek to "renew."
If you don't already know about the IRD, follow the links in the article for background.

For some time we have been watching the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), a so-called "renewal group" that attacks and undermines the mainline churches. As a United Methodist pastor, I have been particularly concerned about the IRD's attacks on my denomination. I have addressed these concerns in several ways, one of which is to create the video, "Renewal or Ruin?" which is viewable in its entirety online.

I have been watching the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) for several years now. I learned about the IRD by accident when I witnessed them attempting to manipulate events at my Annual Conference from
behind the scenes. For the last two years I have been reading everything I can find about this organization and its divisive tactics. I thought I had seen everything. I have just learned that the IRD has made a significant move that puts the future of the United Methodist Church in peril and the church's General Boards and Agencies at risk. The IRD is an unprecedented threat to the United Methodist Church, and all denominations it attacks.

I have long believed that the IRD functions more as a strategy center, not so much a renewal group. While the language of IRD writers is often couched in terms of church renewal, it is overwhelmingly critical of church leaders and structures. The actions of the IRD as regards a little-known coalition proves this point.

In 2004 an apparent victory was won when the General Conference voted down a resolution to cripple the financing and mission of the United Methodist Church's
General Board of Church and Society (GBCS- the agency tasked with interpreting the church's social teachings to the world). However, in recognition of the minority's concerns regarding the use of endowment funds, which provide significant funding to its ministries, in spite of over forty years of consistent legal opinions permitting the use of these endowment funds, the Board elected to seek legal judgment from the courts on this issue. To settle this matter once and for all, the Board filed a request for a declaratory decision on the use of the United Methodist Building Endowment Fund with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Five persons only peripherally related to this case, intervened in this case, turning a fairly simple matter of clarification into an expensive, contested lawsuit. The Coalition for United Methodist Accountability, an organization comprised of the
Institute on Religion and Democracy, Good News, and the Confessing Movement, three powerful and well-funded right-wing organizations claiming to work for the renewal of the United Methodist Church, is secretly financing the legal expenses of the five individuals who have intervened against the United Methodist Church's General Board of Church & Society's request for a declaratory decision on the use of the United Methodist Building Endowment Fund from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

It turns out that all five of the interveners were recruited to join the action against the General Board of Church & Society by Mark Tooley, director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy's UM Action project, and a law firm Gammon & Grange, based in Arlington, Virginia.

Why are IRD, Good News, and Confessing Movement covertly funding the court case against GBCS? In an
article published in 2004 in Good News Magazine, Mr. Tooley said, "If income from the Methodist Building and old Board of Temperance investments were restricted to alcohol-related work, it would be a devastating blow to Church & Society's ability to lobby for its more favored liberal political causes." Furthermore, Mr. Tooley gloats: "Even more devastating would be any legal finding that required Church and Society to reimburse the millions of dollars it has spent over the years from old Board of Temperance assets, in seeming violation of the 1965 trust agreement’s expectation that all income was to be reserved for alcohol-related work."

Forty years of legal opinions have clearly allowed the Board the latitude to use these funds as it has. But how, and why, did the IRD get involved in this legal case?
The five interveners against the General Board are C. Pat Curtin, Carolyn Elias, Leslie O. Fowler, John Patton Meadows, and John Stumbo. All are United Methodists and all have been delegates to the General Conference at one time or another. The interveners testified they do not all know one another and at the time their depositions were taken at least one of them stated he did not know the identities of the other interveners. None of them initiated their own participation in the lawsuit against GBCS.

Only one of the interveners, Mr. Stumbo, indicated he and his wife, Helen Rhea Stumbo, a board member of the IRD, anticipated being asked to contribute to the legal fees related to the intervention against the General Board of Church & Society.

Ms. Elias said she thought it was Mark Tooley who asked her to be an intervener and that she had no idea who was paying her legal expenses. Mr. Fowler said he was asked to be an intervener by the law firm, Gammon and Grange, and that he had no idea who is paying for his legal expenses. Mr. Curtin said he had heard the IRD was paying his legal expenses.

In a sworn deposition made public by the court, one of the interveners, John Patton Meadows, an attorney by profession, admitted he was not paying his own legal fees nor was he sure who was paying for them but that he thought it was CUMA who was doing so. He also acknowledged that he had sent an email to the General Secretary of the General Board of Church & Society from his office computer in the U.S. Attorney's office in North Alabama and told him he wanted to see him 'muzzled' for questionin President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

Mr. Meadows admitted in his deposition that he had received confidential legal documents belonging to the General Board of Church & Society prior to or during the 2004 General Conference but that he did not allow that to inhibit him from reading them.

None of the interveners did any research into the background and history of the case beyond reviewing documents provided to them by Mr. Tooley, the law firm, and other individuals. Each of the interveners admitted they were unaware of any restrictions placed on any gifts contributed to the General Board of Church & Society.
The IRD has long proclaimed that would like to bring down the General Board of Church and Society and the Womens' Division of the United Methodist Church. Tooley's own words in "Good News" magazine in 2004 reasserts this and adds substance by providing a method.

Now is the time for action. Please circulate this posting as far as you can- especially among United Methodist General Conference delegates with whom you have contact.

In my view, the IRD is to "Religion" and "Democracy" as Mahatma Gandhi's response was when asked what he thought about "Western Civilization." He said, "I think it would be a good idea."

- Milo

Friday, April 25, 2008

Sorry About the Delay

You know how frustrating it is to have your computer not working? Well, mine hasn't been feeling so well lately, so I've called in a repair crew. With any luck (and not a failed mother board or hard drive) the electronic potholes will be filled and I'll be back up and running by tomorrow.

You may want to check on the status of the Foreign Intelligence Surveiliance Act (FISA) and the supplemental War Funding bills. Both are up for action soon.

- Milo

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Other Options on Torture - The Back Door

In my article Monday, I called attention to some legal scholars’ views on the likelihood of any members of the Bush administration being held accountable for their approval of "enhanced interrogation.” The methods are indistinguishable from the original directive by Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller in 1937, "Verschärfte Vernehmung," evidence that was deemed sufficient by a Norwegian court in 1948 to convict three Germans for war crimes.

This is what Spencer Ackerman found in his query of several legal scholars:
With nine months remaining in President George W. Bush's term, virtually no legal analyst expects that anyone in his administration will face indictment and prosecution in connection with the torture of terrorism detainees.
The great irony is that most of the legal scholars he surveyed have no doubt about the illegality of the administration’s behavior. As one said,
The "political appetite for that is nil," since "an excessive of zeal for prosecuting national-security activities, historically, hasn't happened."
Apart from impeachment by congress or criminal indictment by a U.S. court, several options were put forward by the scholars.
—Director of the Washington legislative office of the ACLU, Caroline Fredrickson proposes a commission modeled after the Church and Pike inquires of the 1970s that "revealed massive and systemic illegality within the intelligence services."

—Aziz Huq, director of the Liberty and National Security Project at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, hopes for legislation requiring the videotaping of all terrorism interrogations.

—Law professor at Pepperdine University, Douglas Kmiec says that the ultimate arbitration of the torture debate will occur at the polls when we vote on a new president and congress.
To me, these sound like anemic responses to what one scholar described as a virtual “panorama of illegality.” Is that the best this nation can do? If so, I suggest that we have been failed once again, not only by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government, but that as citizens we have failed by not demanding legal accountability.

In responses to my article, “Legal Options to Restoring a Crumbling Constitution,” a couple of other options were mentioned. With gratitude to the writers, I repeat them here.

Ohwilleke reminded us that the Military Commission Act gave almost everybody immunity:
The lawyers and electeds also probably had immunity even before then. Prosecutions for cover ups or perjury, a la Scooter Libby, maybe. Prosecutions for the acts themselves -- not happening.
But LiberalBadger said that while the MCA gives them immunity, a case could be made that that provision of the MCA is unconstitutional.
Also an Obama DOJ or commission, can also, in the name of transparency, release documents from the DOJ. Those can then be used by any other country. The existence of immunity makes this case available for other countries to pick up, according to international law. I believe that the case is already being drawn up here in Britain.
Here, the legal option is to release documents so that cases could be brought in other countries. I asked LiberalBadger to let us know more about what is happening in Britain.

In a comment titled, “The Other Option,” Liberal Thinking made a case for “going in the back door.”
I think we can constitute our own legal mechanism outside the federal government to try, convict, sentence and, if it should come to that, punish the offenders.

I call this "civil tribunals" because this is a civil mechanism to put together tribunals where public officials are held to account.

You would immediately object that this is illegal, because it's outside the established legal mechanisms. You would immediately object that these wouldn't be legitimate and wouldn't have the backing of the American people.
Liberal Thinking goes on to explain in some detail. It’s worth taking a close look.
Well, it would take some work but both of these objections could be overcome. And, in the end, having Bush tried by a civil tribunal isn't necessary so long as it forces the normal federal judicial mechanisms to take their course. That's the point, anyway. If he had to stand trial in federal court for violating federal law (and the Constitution), and that trial were fairly done, with whatever outcome (presumably conviction on many, many counts), then that would be sufficient justice.

But to get there we might have to shock the current crop of politicians out of their shells, worrying them that they, too, might end up in the dock. And the way to do that is to carefully, systematically, and inevitably put together civil tribunals to put to trial anyone in the government who violated the Constitution (or committed crimes against humanity) with the threat of a criminal conviction and punitive measures (imprisonment, fines or even the death penalty).

What would give civil tribunals legal force? The same thing that gave the Constitution legal force. It has to be done by an action of the people. To do that, the people would have to set up conventions in all the states and hold elections to impanel delegates. These conventions would then set the rules and set up funding for the tribunals. Acting through this mechanism, which has unassailable legal precedent (because it gave force to the Constitution, which obviously has legal force), the tribunals would be legal and have the same force as any other federal mechanism.

The act of convincing enough people to hold conventions and set up the tribunals would make them legitimate. It would show that they had the backing of the American people.
Read this next paragraph carefully, two or three times.
But this is all a mental exercise because in no case would the current government allow this kind of challenge to its legitimacy. That would mean that if enough people backed the civil tribunals there could only be one outcome. That outcome would be that the federal system would get its act together and put these people on trial.

I don't know if there are sufficient people in this country who care enough about democracy to take action. But I think the alternative at this point is clear. We'll lose Western democracy altogether. Without a concerted effort to hold these people accountable for subverting the government and acting outside the law there is no way to support the experiment we've all become accustomed to, that two-hundred-year-old experiment of giving legitimacy to action through the ballot box and holding everyone without exception accountable to the law.

If we are to push trials into reality then we have to set a deadline. I would suggest the end of 2009 as the sensible deadline. If trials haven't begun before then we should be well on our way to finding locations to hold fifty state conventions.

I can guarantee you that this isn't on the radar screen of our opponents. They think that they've stacked the courts, infiltrated the media, taken over the executive and neutered the Congress, so they probably think they are invulnerable.

That's why we need to walk in the back door.
I need to do some thinking and research on the proposal for a “civilian tribunal,” but I am excited about it. I am grateful to Liberal Thinking for taking the time to make the proposal in the detail he did. His, and all of the other comments I have received, were made by persons who care about this country and who believe that torture must not be rationalized. As one of you wrote,
The truth is very simple....torture is wrong and it is with great shame we as a nation have allowed George and Dick to perpetrate these crimes on our behalf.
To attempt redress of these wrongs, or our good name, with measures less than are merited by the seriousness of the crimes is, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace.” Where do we go from here?
- Milo

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Legal Options to Restore a Crumbling Constitution

Our enemies didn't adhere to the Geneva Convention. Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them even unto death. But every one of us -- every single one of us -- knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or countenancing such mistreatment of them. - John McCain, Republican US Senator

Shamefully we now learn that Saddam's torture chambers reopened under new management, U.S. management. - Edward Kennedy, Democratic US Senator

The debate here isn't only how to protect the country. It's how to protect our values.If cruelty is no longer declared unlawful, but instead is applied as a matter of policy, it alters the fundamental relationship of man to government. It destroys the whole notion of individual rights. The Constitution recognizes that man has an inherent right, not bestowed by the state or laws, to personal dignity, including the right to be free of cruelty. It applies to all human beings, not just in America -- even those designated as 'unlawful enemy combatants.' If you make this exception the whole Constitution crumbles. - Alberto J. Mora, former Navy General Counsel (2006)
In a country that - once anyway - prided itself as being governed by law I find it hard to believe that no indictments have been brought in for Bush administration personnel on charges of torture.

One legal avenue for that was removed when soon to be elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
took it off the table. The impeachable offenses would have included misleading the nation about weapons of mass destruction and violating federal law by approving warrantless wiretaps on Americans. Torture wasn’t on the list at the time, but one assumes that if hearings on impeachment had begun in the House, it would have been added to the list.

There was no little hypocrisy in finding only a couple of lower level soldiers guilty for the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib when the techniques used there had been discussed and approved at the highest levels of the Bush administration. The standard reply by the administration was that they didn’t sanction torture. How many times did you hear the President and other members of his cabinet recite the mantra, “We do not torture”? John Yoo did all kinds of legal contortions in a couple of memos to say that what was torture wasn’t.

What the administration called “enhanced interrogation” methods are indistinguishable from the original directive by Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller in 1937, "
Verschärfte Vernehmung," methods that were deemed by our Allies in Norway in 1948 adequate to convict three Germans for war crimes.

When it was
revealed two weeks ago that the methods of torture were approved at the highest levels of the Bush administration and then confirmed by Bush himself that he authorized the discussions, how could American citizens rationalize this authorized torture?

The revelations have sparked some response. The ACLU has called for the appointment of an independent prosecutor and others have called for the resignation of then head of the National Security Council, Condoleezza Rice. There have begun to be some rumblings in the legal community.
Spencer Ackerman’s article (April 18, 2008) in The Washington Independent reports:

With nine months remaining in President George W. Bush's term, virtually no legal analyst expects that anyone in his administration will face indictment and prosecution in connection with the torture of terrorism detainees. However, a new admission from Bush last week has some legal analysts contending that the case for such prosecution has gotten significantly stronger.
Ackerman queried several legal scholars. According to Erwin Chemerinsky, a civil liberties expert at Duke University,

"I predict that there will be calls for top administration officials to be prosecuted in an international court for war crimes. This meeting supports the involvement of top officials -- including the president -- in approving torture."
Aziz Huq, director of the Liberty and National Security Project at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, agrees:

"If you, as an individual, order such conduct, you're culpable under the aiding-and-abetting provision of federal law. There is at least a colorable theory, a credible case, for federal criminal liability here."
A former lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Council who teaches law at Georgetown University, Martin S. Lederman, said

"In my view this is all patently illegal on many different grounds -- particularly as a violation of Common Article 3" (of the Geneva conventions). But as a practical matter, there's little likelihood of any legal exposure -- and virtually none of domestic federal prosecution, because the president and DOJ concluded it was legal."
So, let me be clear about this: this was illegal on many different grounds, but no likelihood of prosecution “because the president and DOJ concluded it was legal.” That is what he said, didn’t he?

The investigative report in The Washington Independent says that the chain of events leading from Rice’s panel to the CIA’s use of the methods is not known and, regardless of the likelihood that Bush will never face charges, “knowing that is essential.” Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the ACLU concurs:

"He has his fingerprints on torture, but did he grip the whole thing? The real question is, what level of decision-making was the president involved in?"
Other legal scholars do not see it the same way. Douglas Kmiec, a conservative law professor at Pepperdine University, contends that the statutes in question are too vague, and the facts of the matter too obscure, to congeal into an actual case against the president.

"The whole difficulty in this area is the level of generality that exists in the international agreements that the U.S. has participated in and the manner in which those were ratified by the United States -- obviously, particularly with the Convention Against Torture, but where the slippage is, in terms of legal analysis, comes with what those words mean in terms of domestic law. If I've understood matters correctly, we've tried to understand [the convention] in terms of our own Bill of Rights and the 'shock-the-conscience' standard -- which is a standard that's far from self-evident."
It seems clear from Bush’s admission that he will not bring charges against anyone in his administration, which raises another question. Huq says,

"No one in the executive branch is free of the taint of involvement with the 2002 interrogations. Tthe whole idea of the executive branch immunizing itself becomes much more worrying than in other cases. It's really the right hand absolving the left hand of what's been done."
Fredrickson proposes a commission modeled after the
Church and Pike inquires of the 1970s that “revealed massive and systemic illegality within the intelligence services.”

"It's a great model because it was really the mechanism for bringing lot of illegality -- not just by the Nixon administration but prior administrations -- to light. That might be more appropriate, to use a wider lens, because panorama of illegality is quite broad."
Kmiec said he could conditionally support such a commission, provided it didn't degenerate into a partisan witch-hunt.

"If the commission would advance the understanding of the U.S. as to its obligations, and demonstrate to the world our seriousness of purpose, then it's a good idea. If the purpose of the commission is just a surrogate way of establishing a special-counsel investigation into the actions of the sitting president and vice president, then I think it is likely to degenerate into partisan bickering and not accomplish very much. Much would depend on the objective of the commission and its composition."
After all of the discussion of legal options, the report concludes with its assessment that the likelihood of retributive measures against the Bush administration for torture remains remote.

Huq observed that the "political appetite for that is nil," since "an excessive of zeal for prosecuting national-security activities, historically, hasn't happened."
Huq’s hope is for legislation requiring the videotaping of all terrorism interrogations. A measure introduced by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) has been introduced, but has no schedule for a mark-up.

Kmiec said that the ultimate arbitration of the torture debate will occur at the polls.

"The way our constitutional system envisions accountability on questions such as this is accountability through electoral choice," he said. The president made his choice. The people will now make theirs."
Last Wednesday,
Attytood of The Huffington Post reported on an interview that day with Obama. He asked him whether or not an Obama Justice Department "would aggressively go after and investigate whether crimes have been committed."

Here's his answer, in its entirety:

"What I would want to do is to have my Justice Department and my Attorney General immediately review the information that's already there and to find out are there inquiries that need to be pursued. I can't prejudge that because we don't have access to all the material right now. I think that you are right, if crimes have been committed, they should be investigated. You're also right that I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt because I think we've got too many problems we've got to solve.

So this is an area where I would want to exercise judgment -- I would want to find out directly from my Attorney General -- having pursued, having looked at what's out there right now -- are there possibilities of genuine crimes as opposed to really bad policies. And I think it's important—one of the things we've got to figure out in our political culture generally is distinguishing between really dumb policies and policies that rise to the level of criminal activity. You know, I often get questions about impeachment at town hall meetings and I've said that is not something I think would be fruitful to pursue because I think that impeachment is something that should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. Now, if I found out that there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in cover-ups of those crimes with knowledge forefront, then I think a basic principle of our Constitution is nobody above the law -- and I think that's roughly how I would look at it."
I believe that an Obama Attorney General will review the inquiries that need to be pursued. The next step will be the most difficult: deciding whether or not to bring criminal charges against a retired president and members of his administration. Concern that his first term not be consumed by this issue is legitimate because of other important problems to solve; but it is basically the same reason Pelosi took impeachment off the table.

If Fredrickson’s proposed investigative commission, Huq’s advocacy for legislation on videotaping, and Kmiec’s electoral choice are our only real options, then I certainly opt for all three. While each is called for, I think that none of them, or promises by Obama, Clinton or McCain that such practices will not be tolerated on their watches, will send a sufficiently clear statement to the nation and the world that we are serious about changing this broad “panorama of illegality.” A decision made in a court of law after a fair review of the evidence and a judgment requiring real world consequences is, however imperfect, the American way of meting out justice. Will the absence of such a decision make it harder for the nation to restore its crumbling Constitution?

- Milo

Friday, April 18, 2008

Getting Out of Iraq - Insanity or Responsibility?

How important is getting the U.S. out of Iraq to you? At the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night in Philadelphia, both Clinton and Obama were asked how determined they were to stick to their plans to get the U.S. out of the war in Iraq. (Clinton’s position has been that within 60 days of taking office she will begin withdrawing one or two brigades a month. Obama has pledged to have us out of Iraq within 16 months or less.)

Moderator Charlie Gibson added this scenario to his basic question:
So if the military commanders in Iraq came to you on day one and said this kind of withdrawal would destabilize Iraq, it would set back all of the gains that we have made, no matter what, you're going to order those troops to come home?
Both candidates said yes, and defended their answers. I hesitate to quote from their answers because I don’t want to distort their positions. It is best that you read their responses from the
transcript of the debate, but I will select the lines I thought central to their arguments. You can see if you agree or not.

Senator Clinton reminded Gibson about the role of civilian leadership in this country:
You know, thankfully we have a system in our country of civilian control of the military. And our professional military are the best in the world. They give their best advice and then they execute the policies of the president. I have watched this president as he has continued to change the rationale and move the goalposts when it comes to Iraq.

And I am convinced that it is in America's best interest, it is in the best interest of our military, and I even believe it is in the best interest of Iraq, that upon taking office, I will ask the secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and my security advisers to immediately put together for me a plan so that I can begin to withdraw within 60 days…

So the bottom line for me is, we don't know what will happen as we withdraw. We do know what will happen if we stay mired in Iraq. The Iraqi government will not accept responsibility for its own future. Our military will continue to be stretched thin, and our soldiers will be on their second, third, even their fourth deployment. And we will not be able to reassert our leadership and our moral authority in the world.
Senator Obama’s answer to the same question:
Because the commander in chief sets the mission, Charlie. That's not the role of the generals. And one of the things that's been interesting about the president's approach lately has been to say, well, I'm just taking cues from General Petraeus.

Well, the president sets the mission. The general and our troops carry out that mission. And unfortunately we have had a bad mission, set by our civilian leadership, which our military has performed brilliantly. But it is time for us to set a strategy that is going to make the American people safer.

Now, I will always listen to our commanders on the ground with respect to tactics. Once I've given them a new mission, that we are going to proceed deliberately in an orderly fashion out of Iraq and we are going to have our combat troops out, we will not have permanent bases there, once I've provided that mission, if they come to me and want to adjust tactics, then I will certainly take their recommendations into consideration; but ultimately the buck stops with me as the commander in chief.

And what I have to look at is not just the situation in Iraq, but the fact that we continue to see al Qaeda getting stronger in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, we continue to see anti-American sentiment fanned all cross the Middle East, we are overstretched in a way -- we do not have a strategic reserve at this point… That is not sustainable. That's not smart national security policy, and it's going to change when I'm president.
These two responses, one by Clinton and one by Obama, prompted columnist David Brooks
to write that “Obama and Clinton were completely irresponsible…
Nobody knows what the situation in Iraq will be like. To pledge an automatic withdrawal is just insane. A mature politician would’ve been honest and said: “I fully intend to withdraw, but I want to know what the reality is at that moment.”
I won’t take up here what Senator McCain and the Republicans would say about the answers given by Clinton and Obama, but I can imagine—“unpatriotic” is the first word that comes to mind.

But I couldn’t help but wonder what the Republicans thought of the Institute for National Strategic Studies’ (INSS)
report on the Iraq war issued today, the opening line of which was this:
Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle.
This report is not from some Leftist think tank in Washington; it is from an arm of the Pentagon. Among other tasks, it produces Joint Force Quarterly, a professional military and security journal published for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After detailing the number of casualties, the dollar costs, and the uncalculated costs to care for veterans of the war, the report goes on with its indictment:
The war’s political impact also has been great. Globally, U.S. standing among friends and allies has fallen.2 Our status as a moral leader has been damaged by the war, the subsequent occupation of a Muslim nation, and various issues concerning the treatment of detainees. At the same time, operations in Iraq have had a negative impact on all other efforts in the war on terror, which must bow to the priority of Iraq when it comes to manpower, materiel, and the attention of decisionmakers. Our Armed Forces—especially the Army and Marine Corps—have been severely strained by the war in Iraq. Compounding all of these problems, our efforts there were designed to enhance U.S. national security, but they have become, at least temporarily, an incubator for terrorism and have emboldened Iran to expand its influence throughout the Middle East.
The sixty page report concludes with this summary and recommendation:
In conclusion, the war in Iraq and its aftermath have exposed a flawed decisionmaking process and weak decision execution mechanisms. In planning for and executing operations in Iraq, basic organizations, organizational cultures, operational procedures, and legislative support systems all have been found wanting and in need of fundamental reform. Our National Security Council staff, Cabinet departments, and especially our Congress have not yet adapted to the demanding requirements of 21st-century complex contingencies. One hopes that, for all of its problems, the decision to invade Iraq and subsequent operations there may point the way to national security reform.
Do you suppose President Bush will ever see this document? I hope the members of Congress read it.

Are Senators Clinton and Obama “insane,” as Brooks suggested? Or, are they the responsible ones who see the necessity of getting out of Iraq as soon as possible? What do you think?

- Milo

Blind Monks, a Donkey, and a Democratic Debate

Okay, so the story as it originated in South Asia had to do with blind monks and an elephant. Each one tried to describe the elephant from touching it only at one place—the tusk, the ear, the tail, etc.—and, not surprisingly, vigorously disagreed on what the elephant looked like. Somehow, though, the image of the “elephant” did not seem quite appropriate, so I have tried to imagine the scene with a donkey; it was, after all, a debate between Democratic candidates for president.

I was out for the evening and did not see the debate. Yes, I know, I could have watched a re-run of it here in the West, but for me that’s a bit like watching a re-run of a baseball game hours after it was been played, and the score of which I could easily find online. I checked my usual news sources to see how the debate was evaluated and I read the forty-five page
transcript of the debate. Still, I came to the debate with my own perspective, which had a lot to do with what I saw in it. I’ll be interested in knowing what you—like me, “blind monks”—saw in the debate.

Editor and Publisher, America’s oldest journal covering the newspaper industry, saw was that the debate was bad, not because of the performance of the debators but because of how the debate was managed.
In perhaps the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years, ABC News hosts Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous focused mainly on trivial issues as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced off in Philadelphia.Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the health care and mortgage crises, the overall state of the economy and dozens of other pressing issues had to wait for their few moments in the sun as Obama was pressed to explain his recent "bitter" gaffe and relationship with Rev. Wright (seemingly a dead issue) and not wearing a flag pin while Clinton had to answer again for her Bosnia trip exaggerations.
Concurring with Editor and Publisher, Hunter on
Daily Kos suggested that the debate was “the collapse of the national press.”
After the first forty minutes of last night's Democratic debate, it was clear we were watching something historic. Not historic in a good way, mind you, but historic in the sense of being something so deeply embarrassing to the nation that it will be pointed to, in future books and documentary works, as a prime example of the collapse of the American media into utter and complete substanceless, into self-celebrated vapidity, and into a now-complete inability or unwillingness to cover the most important affairs of the nation to any but the most shallow of depths.

Congratulations are clearly in order. ABC had two hours of access to two of the three remaining candidates vying to lead the most powerful nation in the world, and spent the decided majority of that time mining what the press considers the true issues facing the republic. Bittergate; Rev. Wright; Bosnia; American flag lapel pins. That's what's important to the future of the country.
As I said, I didn’t watch the debate, but I did read
the transcript. This is what I saw.

One of the early questions was whether or not the winner of the nomination would pledge to take the other to run as Vice President. I was surprised to learn what the Constitution says:
Just to quote from the Constitution again, "In every case," Article Two, Section One, "after the choice of the president, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the vice president."
If it was good enough in colonial times, why not in these time?
Obama said that it was inappropriate to consider a vice-president before the presidential candidate was selected. Clinton said that while there were differences between her and Obama,
they pale in comparison to the differences between us and Senator McCain. So we will certainly do whatever is necessary to make sure that a Democrat is in the White House next January.
Gibson concluded that he had no takers for the pledge.

Stephanopoulos asked about whether the two candidates believed the other could win against McCain in the general election. After several paragraphs about why she was the best candidate, and then more prodding by the moderator, she conceded “Yes. Yes. Yes,” but quickly added again, “Now, I think I can do a better job.” When Obama was asked the question, he said, “Absolutely, and I've said so before. But I too think that I'm the better candidate.”

When Stephanopoulos asked Clinton about misrepresenting her statements about being under sniper fire in Bosnia, I thought it a fair question. I also thought that, under the circumstances, her response was as good as it could be.
On a couple of occasions in the last weeks I just said some things that weren't in keeping with what I knew to be the case and what I had written about in my book. And, you know, I'm embarrassed by it. I have apologized for it.
I thought Obama’s response when he was asked what he thought about the incident was generous and true.
I think what's important is to make sure that we don't get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history. We are going to be tackling some of the biggest issues that any president has dealt with in the last 40 years.
When Gibson asked Obama about not wearing an American flag lapel pin, and suggested some hypocrisy at his having worn one the day before. Obama responded:
And so what I've tried to do is to show my patriotism by how I treat veterans when I'm working in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee; by making sure that I'm speaking forcefully about how we need to bring this war in Iraq to a close, because I think it is not serving our national security well and it's not serving our military families and our troops well; talking about how we need to restore a sense of economic fairness to this country because that's what this country has always been about, is providing upward mobility and ladders to opportunity for all Americans. That's what I love about this country. And so I will continue to fight for those issues.
Obama didn’t forget about the comment about his wearing one the day before:
And let me just make one last point on this issue of the flag pin. As you noted, I wore one yesterday when a veteran handed it to me, who himself was disabled and works on behalf of disabled veterans. I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins.
What I didn’t like about ABC’s handling of Clinton’s Bosnia statements or about Obama not wearing a flag pin, which I in no way equate but which seem to have been “gotcha” questions by the moderators, was the video inserts of two citizens accusing the candidates. I was reminded that for ABC this debate was more about “entertainment” than “news”. That made me both sad and angry.

There were some important things said in the debate. I thought the two candidates’ pledges not raise taxes on those making less than $200,000 or $250,000 a year was important, although they may be impossible to keep after the deep debt the Bush administration is leaving the country in. Columnist David Brooks, another “blind monk,”
said they were being irresponsible. Of course, he also thought it irresponsible of Clinton and Obama to pledge to withdraw the troops from Iraq. I can't conceive of a Democratic candidacy without such a pledge.

It wasn’t just what was said in the debate that was important; it is what was not said or asked about. Nowhere in the transcript does the word “food” or “rice” appear, as in “
global shortage of rice” that has
spurred panicked hoarding in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and set off violent protests in countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Italy, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, the Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
The debate was conducted without acknowledging that we are in the midst of a world food crisis, causing incomprehensible suffering and death as well as political instability.

What was also not deemed of sufficient importance to include in the questions is the ordering back to Iraq of
disabled veterans. The only mention of “disabled veterans” in the debate was when Obama mentioned them in relation to the lapel flag flap.

What made me wonder most, though, was the moderators’ complete and total ignoring of the subject of “torture.” In the 16,405 words (45 pages) of the transcript of this two hour session, the word does not occur, even in passing, once. After ABC’s
breaking the news scarcely a week ago that torture techniques were discussed and approved at the highest level of the Bush administration, information which has produced a call for the appointment of an independent prosecutor and a call for Secretary of State Rice’s resignation, it seems inconceivable that the two Democratic candidates would not have been asked about the matter. Then, I began to wonder if attacking the two Democratic candidates in this debate and avoiding the torture issue by the moderators was someone in ABC management’s idea of “balance.” Or, was the issue simply not deemed of sufficient to importance to inquire about in a two hour debate?

From my position, albeit as a “blind monk,” I concur with the judgments that this debate was “the most embarrassing performance by the media in a major presidential debate in years.” As for the candidate’s performances in such difficult circumstances, I have no quarrel with the judgment rendered by the
The Wall Street Journal poll with its 16,403 respondents. It was, of course, not a scientifically selected sample, but because the Journal is not known to be a friendly to Obama, I thought the results were noteworthy.
Obama 63%
Clinton 29%
No one 8%

Can you imagine 16,403 hands on one donkey? What did you “see”?

- Milo

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Of Torture, Garlic, and Vampires

Discussing a new documentary about torture at Abu Ghraib, Frank Rich observes that “Iraq is to moviegoers what garlic is to vampires.”
This is not merely a showbiz phenomenon but a leading indicator of where our entire culture is right now. It’s not just torture we want to avoid. Most Americans don’t want to hear, see or feel anything about Iraq, whether they support the war or oppose it. They want to look away, period, and have been doing so for some time.
Are you tired of looking away?

On Friday morning, I wrote a piece titled,
Verschärfte Vernehmung Revisited, on the Bush administration’s authorization of torture. I did not write it with glee (“Look, I’m right!”); I was sad, angry, and ashamed that my country had copied and approved for use a torture policy adopted by Nazis in 1937 and approved it for use by the CIA. Friday night, in a national television interview on ABC News, President Bush directly admitted that the White House was deeply involved in decisions about the CIA’s use of torture.

Bush’s admission came after
ABC News first broke the story that members of the Bush administration including Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and George Tenet met regularly and approved the CIA’s use of “combined” “enhanced” interrogation techniques -- tactics that amount to torture. It was about those meetings that then Attorney General Ashcroft said in one of them: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly." I can’t imagine that Ashcroft is surprised to know that there would be demands for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate these decisions, as the ACLU did Monday afternoon.
Congress should long ago have gotten to the bottom of which top officials approved, condoned and authorized U.S. involvement in torture. But, now that the President has admitted to a policy of top-down torture, the ACLU is calling on Congress to demand an independent prosecutor to investigate possible violations of the War Crimes Act, the federal Anti-Torture Act and federal assault laws.
President Bush and his administration claim that such the “terrorist threat” justified the use of such methods and makes himself and his administration immune from prosecution.
Sunday evening on CNN’s “
Compassion Forum,” Senator Obama was asked about the torture memos:
This one said that not even interrogation methods that, quote, "shock the conscience" would be considered torture nor would they be considered illegal if they had been authorized by the president. Senator Obama, this kind of reasoning shocks the conscience of many millions of Americans and many millions of people of faith here and around the world. Is there justification for policies on the part of our nation that permit physical and mental cruelty toward those who are in our custody?
This was Obama’s unequivocal response:
We have to be clear and unequivocal. We do not torture, period. We don't torture. (APPLAUSE) Our government does not torture. That should be our position. That should be our position. That will be my position as president. That includes, by the way, renditions. We don't farm out torture. We don't subcontract torture. (APPLAUSE) And the reason this is important is not only because torture does not end up yielding good information -- most intelligence officers agree with that. I met with a group -- a distinguished group of former generals who have made it their mission to travel around and talk to presidential candidates and to talk in forums about how this degrades the discipline and the ethos of our military.
His answer made me proud to be supporting him for the office of President. If you were wondering what Hillary Clinton’s answer to this question was when she was interviewed earlier, the answer is she didn’t get the question. Her answers to the questions were so lengthy that they didn’t get to ask the question about torture.

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, Obama wasn’t President during 9/11 and hasn’t President Bush has said repeatedly that the use of such methods might save hundreds or thousands of innocent people.” I have a story. Please bear with me.

Looking Back:

In my lifetime, there may be no one who struggled with the questions of violence and valuing human life more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When Hitler took power in Germany in the 1930s, this brilliant scholar left the security of the United States to return to his own country where he became one of the leaders of German Christians who refused to accept Hitler's doctrines of National Socialism and even entered into an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested, kept in prison, and executed in April 1945, just before the Allies liberated the area where he was imprisoned.

Bonhoeffer's expertise as a theologian was in the area of Christian ethics ("ethics" is the study of values and principles that guide one's actions). His "valuing of life" led him to the conclusion that killing Hitler would save many lives. What you may not know is that Bonhoeffer never expected to receive immunity for his act. Even more than the State, Bonhoeffer feared God, as he once confessed to a friend, "I know that I may burn in hell for this action." Even for participating in an act to kill the “terrorist” Adolph Hitler, Bonhoeffer did not seek immunity from the law. If he lived long enough, he expected to have to answer for his actions in a court of law.

Should not the Bush administration have to answer in a court for its decision to torture?

As I wrote on Friday morning, I don’t think we can wait for a new administration; nor will another administration led by a different party be enough regain what has been lost of the American soul or re-establish credibility with our friends and enemies.

Monday afternoon, I joined an effort demanding that my members of Congress support strenuous efforts, including the appointment of an independent prosecutor, to hold President Bush, Vice-President Cheney and other high-ranking officials accountable for their role in crafting torture policy.

I did not take the decision lightly because I don’t know what an American public that wants to “look away” from all this unpleasantness will do if a prosecutor is appointed and begins work. I don’t know what it will mean for the presidential election.

If you are tired of “looking away” and want to do something about it, I think the ACLU’s proposed action is the first step. To take action, follow the link below.

- Milo

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Heart-Healthy Shrimp Étouffée

Does it feel to you like the world, and consequently our lives, are completely out of control? Some days seem that way to me. Maybe that’s why I seek temporary refuge in the kitchen. I do a lot of the cooking in our house. My mother used to say that she thought I loved cooking because I so like to eat. These days, it’s more than that. In the kitchen, surrounded by foods, herbs, and spices, I can exercise some control over my life in the creation of a new recipe. Sometimes it works, but sometimes, like the issues that face us in the larger world, more creativity is required.

This recipe began with reading about a Shrimp and Okra Étouffée in the
New American Heart Association Cookbook in a heart health magazine in the Heart Center office. I had never made étouffée before and this seemed like a heart-friendly way to learn. I tore the recipe out of the magazine and brought it home. I know, I deprived the next reader from the joy of trying the recipe.

I tried it. It was too bland, not just in the amount of pepper but without the spark of a unique étouffée taste, as if I would know what that was. It just wasn’t right, and I don’t think the problem was in the Creole seasoning that I made up from other recipes. But I thought I knew what was lacking. From “
Nola Cuisine,” which is an online site purportedly by Cajun chef, I read about the importance of using “shrimp stock,” instead of the chicken stock called for in the original recipe. How could I not trust one that spoke with such affection about this dish?
The smell of Etouffee, be it Crawfish or Shrimp, is one of the most heavenly aromas that I know. The word Etouffee (Ay-2-FAY) translates roughly to smothered , stewed, or braised. To me it simply translates to happy taste buds.
I was tempted to take Nola’s recipe, but the butter made it not so “heart-healthy.” (You can find her recipe at the link above.) I took several things from her recipe and into incorporated them in the heart-healthy version. First, I made and used Nola’s shrimp stock instead of chicken broth. To my recipe I added tomatoes, peppercorns, and Worchester sauce, and I doubled the amount of Creole seasoning I used before, as seems indicated in other étouffée recipes. It worked! The other eaters had seconds. It tasted like a dish I would be proud to serve to company.

Here, in three steps, is my version of a heart-healthy shrimp and okra étouffée.

[This I conflated from several different recipes.]

Ingredients: (For a lesser amount, use “teaspoons” instead of “tablespoons.” You only need half a tablespoon for this recipe.)

2-1/2 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons garlic powder

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon onion powder

1/4 tablespoon cayenne (that’s one quarter of what is often called for, and it’s enough for us)

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried sweet basil

1 tablespoon dried thyme

Combine all the ingredients thoroughly in a bowl. Store in an airtight container away from light. Use within three months. Makes about 2/3 cup.

Shrimp Stock(from Nola’s recipe)

The Shells and tails from 1 lb. of Shrimp

1/2 Cup chopped Onion

1/4 Cup chopped Celery

2 Garlic Cloves

1 Teaspoon Lemon Pepper

2 Fresh Bay Leaves

3 Sprigs Fresh Thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1 tsp. Black Peppercorns


1. I brought 2 cups of water to a boil with the lemon pepper, then added the shrimp for 2-3 minutes until it turned pink. I removed the shrimp and put them in a pan of ice to cool.

2. While the shrimp cooled, I added the rest of the ingredients and let them heat up on a Low setting. I peeled the shrimp and removed the tails, and added them to the pot. I put the shrimp in the refrigerator. I brought the stock almost to a boil on Medium, and then turned it down to a low simmer for 45 minutes. Then, I strained the stock, keeping only the liquid. I used 2 cups in the étouffée. Viva la difference!


1 ½ cups uncooked brown rice

¼ cup all-purpose flower

1 teaspoon canola or corn oil

1 medium sweet pepper, finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

¾ cup chopped tomatoes

2 cups fresh or frozen sliced okra

2 cups of home-made shrimp stock (see recipe above)

2 teaspoons Creole seasoning blend (see my recipe above)

1 tablespoon Worchester sauce

1 pound medium raw shrimp (prepared earlier when I made the stock)

1. Prepare the brown rice; start it 40-50 minutes before you want to eat.

2. In a large nonstick skillet, cook the flower over medium heat 8-10 minutes, or until browned, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a medium bowl. Let cool for 5 minutes.

3. Wipe the skillet clean with paper towels. Heat the skillet over medium heat. Pour the oil into the skillet and swirl to coat the bottom. Cook the bell pepper, onion, and tomatoes for 2 to 3 minutes, or until tender-crisp.

4. Stir in the okra. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes (4 to 5 minutes if frozen), or until the okra is tender crisp.

5. Whisk the shrimp stock into the flour (there may be a few lumps) and add the Creole seasoning to the stock mixture. Pour into the vegetable mixture. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the flavors have blended.

6. Stir in the shrimp. Simmer, covered, for 2 to 3 minutes or until the are warmed..

7. To serve, spoon the rice into each bowl. Ladle the shrimp mixture over each serving.
I served this with celery sticks. Enjoy!

If you try the recipe, I’d like to know how it worked for you, or what adjustments you made. If time in the kitchen creating is an outlet for you, let me know.

- Milo

Friday, April 11, 2008

Verschärfte Vernehmung Revisited

(ABC News Photo Illustration)
“Tell me something I don’t know,” is a regular feature of The Chris Matthews Show. On Sunday night, Andrew Sullivan responded:
The latest revelations on the torture front show—the memo from John Yoo—as well as revelations from Phillippe Sands’ book, mean that Donald Rumsfeld, David Addington and John Yoo should not leave the United States any time soon. They will be at some point indicted for war crimes. They deserve to be. (Check out the video.)
I probably should have, but I didn’t know who Andrew Sullivan was, nor did I know Phillippe Sands. Soon enough, I learned that Sullivan is a political scientist blogger on The Atlantic Online and a senior editor at The New Republic. I’ll get to what else I learned a little later .

Phillippe Sands is author of a book to be released on May 18, 2008, titled Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values. I obviously haven’t read the book, but I found a review on Amazon by someone who had, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. This is what he said about Sands’ book:
"Philippe Sands has uncovered the proper assignment of responsibility for torture and cruel and unusual punishment administered by the U.S. in the so-called Global War on Terror. Read this book to learn who made these decisions. More importantly, read it to learn how under George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney America abandoned its strongest pillar of power--its own integrity." (Bold is mine)
Back to Andrew Sullivan: when I looked at his website, I found an article detailing a nightmare for a person of conscience. The phrase "Verschärfte Vernehmung" is German for "enhanced interrogation". Other translations include "intensified interrogation" or "sharpened interrogation". According to Sullivan,
It's a phrase that appears to have been concocted in 1937, to describe a form of torture that would leave no marks, and hence save the embarrassment pre-war Nazi officials were experiencing as their wounded torture victims ended up in court.
As is obvious in an English translation of Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller’s directive, the methods are indistinguishable from those described as "enhanced interrogation techniques" by President Bush.
It is not only the use of hypothermia, authorized by Bush and Rumsfeld, that will chill you as you read Sullivan’s analysis; it is also the truth of the assertion that under Bush and Cheney, “America abandoned its strongest pillar of power—its own integrity.”

Sullivan cites a court case from Norway in 1948 that weighed whether “enhanced interrogation” using methods approved by President Bush amounted to torture. He reviews the charges against three Germans convicted of war crimes for “enhanced interrogation” and observes:
Freezing prisoners to near-death, repeated beatings, long forced-standing, waterboarding, cold showers in air-conditioned rooms, stress positions [Arrest mit Verschaerfung], withholding of medicine and leaving wounded or sick prisoners alone in cells for days on end - all these have occurred at US detention camps under the command of president George W. Bush. Over a hundred documented deaths have occurred in these interrogation sessions. The Pentagon itself has conceded homicide by torture in multiple cases.
Sullivan cites the criterion to define torture in 1948:
In deciding the degree of punishment, the Court found it decisive that the defendants had inflicted serious physical and mental suffering on their victims, and did not find sufficient reason for a mitigation of the punishment in accordance with the provisions laid down in Art. 5 of the Provisional Decree of 4th May, 1945. The Court came to the conclusion that such acts, even though they were committed with the connivance of superiors in rank or even on their orders, must be regarded and punished as serious war crimes.
Moreover, he points out that the victims were not in uniform:
And the Nazis tried to argue, just as John Yoo did, that this made torturing them legit. The victims were paramilitary Norwegians, operating as an insurgency, against an occupying force. And the torturers had also interrogated some prisoners humanely.
I wish every American citizen could read Sullivan’s account. It is important to include the qualifications he made in his conclusion:
Critics will no doubt say I am accusing the Bush administration of being Hitler. I'm not. There is no comparison between the political system in Germany in 1937 and the U.S. in 2007. What I am reporting is a simple empirical fact: the interrogation methods approved and defended by this president are not new. Many have been used in the past. The very phrase used by the president to describe torture-that-isn't-somehow-torture - "enhanced interrogation techniques" - is a term originally coined by the Nazis. The techniques are indistinguishable. The methods were clearly understood in 1948 as war-crimes. The punishment for them was death.
This brings us back to the uncomfortable present. On Wednesday, we learned on ABC News that President Bush’s most senior advisers discussed in detail and approved "enhanced interrogation techniques" of top al Qaeda suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency. While the other principals defended their “tough tactics,” John Ashcroft saw the implications when he said,
"Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."
One of the most difficult problems to be faced by a new Democratic president and congress will be to decide what to do about this. Will the new president and congress breathe a sigh of relief that they are gone and sweep this unpleasant reality under the rug? I think we can be assured that as he leaves office President Bush will do all he can to protect himself and his administration from criminal charges.

I don’t think a change in administration in itself will be sufficient to regain what has been lost of the American soul or re-establish credibility with our friends and enemies. Are there indictments for war crimes in our future, as Sullivan predicts? What do you think?

NOTE: We might get to hear how Clinton and Obama view the events on torture as they unfolded this week. I received a note Thursday from NRCAT (National Religious Campaign Against Torture) with word of a “Compassion Forum” to be broadcast on CNN on Sunday, April 13 at 8 p.m. EDT.
All three presidential candidates have been invited to discuss urgent moral issues that matter to people of faith: climate change, genocide, torture, poverty, and HIV/AIDS. Sens. Clinton and Obama have accepted invitations to appear at the Compassion Forum. John McCain said he would not able to be present. The message went on to say that torture will likely be the subject of one of at least one of the questions.

This is all I know about the program. If you have more information, please add it in a comment.
- Milo