Wednesday, November 29, 2006

NOT FLYING WHILE MUSLIM

By William Fisher

The paranoid wing of the blogosphere continues to go ballistic with joy about the six Muslim imams who were removed in handcuffs from a US Airways flight because one passenger thought it was “suspicious” that they knelt on their prayer rugs and prayed in the airport waiting room before boarding their flight.

The six had been attending a conference of imams in Minneapolis and were headed for Phoenix. Like all the other passengers, they had cleared the usual security screenings. But a passenger told CNN she saw the imams praying and thought they had made anti-U.S. statements before boarding and "made similar statements while boarding," according to Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The bloggers went wild.

“I think it's fairly obvious that these people cannot be trusted in any way
shape or form.... Whomever the passenger(s) was/were who raised a stink about
these jokers, he/she needs to be commended! Great work by US Airways for
being vigilant, too...Let the ‘scholars’ sue...They don't have a case with
this kind of evidence... ” blogged one reader on Jihad Watch.

Another encouraged readers to “phone, email or call and express your support for US Airways.”

Yet another inveighed, “Starting to think the imams were testing security-- otherwise why draw attention to yourself by praying like that? Also one was hamas (sic) linked…”

One conspiracy-theorist blogged, “Their refusal to accept the seats they were assigned makes it appear that they were acting as agents provocateurs, attempting to create a ‘cause celebre’ to arouse radicalism in quiescent Muslims in the USA. That wouldn't surprise me at all.”

Yet another used a “Happy Thanksgiving” blog post to give thanks that “Islam is on the radar screens of some pretty sharp minds...” and for “the small arsenal in my basement.”

So let’s hear it for US Airways. Its vigilance saved the nation from God only knows what catastrophe! And maybe the president should confer the Medal of Freedom on the sharp-eyed passenger who passed a note to a flight attendant about these “suspicious” people. She will then be in the august company of other heroes like George Tenet and L. Paul Bremer.

US Airways said it is investigating the imams’ removal. "We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind and will continue to exhaust our internal investigation until we know the facts of this case and can provide answer for the employees and customers involved in this incident," the airline said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, the airline denied the clerics access to another flight and refused to assist them in obtaining tickets on another carrier. One of the imams told the AP that when he went back to the airport the following morning, he was told by a ticketing agent his payment for the flight had been refunded. He said the agent told him that neither he nor the other imams could purchase tickets from US Airways.

Knocke of the DHS defended the airline's action. "We do not criticize anyone who errs on the side of security," he told CNN, but "we have absolutely no issue with any of these individuals."

"This was a difficult spot for the airport police and for the pilot," he said. "This is an unfortunate circumstance, and we recognize that these six individuals were inconvenienced and delayed about three hours." After the six imams were removed, they and their luggage were re-screened and the plane was checked out with dogs, Knocke said. "Everything checked out. The FBI and Secret Service conducted interviews and everything checked out fine," he said.

Still, authorities told the press they thought US Airways “made the right call.”

Right for everyone but the six imams. And the millions of other American Muslims to whom the FBI, DHS, and other national security agencies say they’re trying to reach out.

But US Airways’ knee-jerk reaction to the six imams simply adds another layer of mistrust to the deep suspicion that still lingers after the treatment of Muslims following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

That’s when the FBI began to round up and detain “suspected terrorists.” Arabs and other Muslims – as well as anyone who looked “Middle Eastern,” including South Asian Sikhs -- became the bureau's top targets. John Ashcroft’s Justice Department scooped up hundreds of people for questioning, an effort led by now-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. They were denied lawyers, held in prison-like conditions and, according to a DHS Inspector General’s report, frequently physically abused. The FBI also shut down Muslim charities and froze their assets, monitored mosques for radiation and held refugees for months because of security checks.

That’s the history the US Government is now trying to overcome. But the mistrust persists.

''You never hear the FBI say that part of the reason there has not been another
terrorist attack in this country is because radical extremists have not found a
home in American mosques,'' says Rebecca Abou-Chedid, director of government relations for the Arab American Institute in Washington. “It's as if they believe that we know about terrorist cells and we're not telling them.''

The blogger’s reference to Hamas refers to one of the ejected imams’ alleged ties to a charity known as Kind Hearts, which was founded in Toledo, Ohio, in 2002, after the government shut down and froze the assets of the largest Muslim charities in the U.S. for “providing material support” to terrorists and their organizations.

The Senate Finance Committee conducted a two-year investigation of Kind Hearts, along with two-dozen other U.S. Muslim charities. The Chairman of the Committee, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa announced that his panel found no evidence of criminal activity.

Thus far, even though the charity shuts-downs began in 2002, only one charity has been charged with any wrongdoing, and none has been convicted of any crime. Nevertheless, their assets remain frozen – sometimes resulting in lack of funds to hire defense lawyers.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of the Treasury website proclaims that "Kind Hearts is the progeny of Holy Land Foundation and Global Relief Foundation, which attempted to mask their support for terrorism behind the fa├žade of charitable giving…By utilizing this specialized designation tool, we're able to prevent asset flight in support of terrorist activities while we further investigate the activities of Kind Hearts."

I have no idea whether any of these charities were actually providing “material support” to terrorist organizations. But the place to find out is in court, not on a Treasury Department website.

I do have an idea about what the treatment of the six imams does for the absolutely vital relationships between Muslim-Americans, the U.S. Government, and the “bad guys” that both are eager to bring to justice.

If major corporations such as US Airways and its employees continue to cave on an accusation by a single paranoid passenger, and government officials hand out praise by describing it as “the right call,” then both will have been complicit in crippling real efforts to find terrorists in our midst.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) today called on officials from the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation to launch of formal review of the incident and the possible violation of passengers' civil rights by US Airways. "We hope that by opening this type of investigation, U.S. corporations can be held accountable by our government and the federal agencies can adequately address the racial profiling that is occurring in our nation’s airports," said Salam Al-Marayati, MPAC Executive Director.

An excellent idea. I hope the government agencies will remember that US Airways had a choice: It could have invited the complaining passenger to leave the flight, thus assuring that she, at least, would not be slammed into the White House.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

By William Fisher

The best news to come out of Washington since the mid-term elections is the rumor that Robert Gates, if confirmed by the Senate to be our new Secretary of Defense, will fire all Pentagon political appointees.

If President Bush has heard this rumor, he seems to be stubbornly sticking with his sterling slate of appointments.

Because the worst news to come out of Washington this week was the appointment of Eric Keroack to head family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services. He will be heading the federal office that finances birth control, pregnancy tests, breast cancer screening, and other health care services for five million poor people annually, and advising Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt on family planning issues.

Unfortunately, Dr. Keroack’s appointment does not require Senate approval – because come January 4, when the Democratic Party majority takes over, he wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance.

So if anyone expected a kindler, gentler, more bipartisan George Bush following his election-day disaster, they’re in for a shock. W’s strategy is to circumvent the Congress altogether, wherever possible. Because Dubya’s first appointment since election day rises even beyond the level of Michael Brown to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA.

And, somewhere down the road, we can expect to hear The Decider proclaim, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Eric!”

Even before he moves into his new office, he could have earned such high praise from the President simply on the basis of his resume. Kerouack, you see, is, according to the New York Times, “a doctor affiliated with a group vehemently opposed to birth control and someone nationally known for his wacky theory about reproductive health.”

The Times details his qualifications: Medical director of an organization called A Woman’s Concern, which runs pregnancy counseling clinics in Massachusetts. Its counseling consists of trying to persuade women not to have abortions, and includes the totally discredited old wives tale that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer.

Women’s Concern also has a policy against dispensing contraception, even to married women. Its Website claims that the distribution of contraceptive drugs or devices is “demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness.”

Dr. Keroack has also pushed the quack-science argument that sex with multiple partners alters brain chemistry in a way that makes it harder for women to form bonding relationships.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

After all, didn’t The Decider decide that Ellen Sauerbrey was the most qualified candidate to head the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, a key agency for responding to foreign disasters?

Her qualifications? She is a former member of the Republican National Committee and was Bush's Maryland state campaign chairwoman in 2000. She has been a conservative activist for decades but has no experience mobilizing responses to humanitarian emergencies. The refugee bureau is a complex agency with a broad portfolio. Past administrations, Republican and Democratic, have generally turned to people with technical expertise to head it.

Sauerbrey’s appointment came just about the time Bush decided to nominate Julie Myers to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE. ICE is the Homeland Security agency responsible for tracking down money-launderers, people who break U.S. sanctions, and traffic in human being. With 20,000 employees, ICE is the second-largest investigative agency in the federal government, and the sole enforcer of U.S. immigration laws.

Myers' qualifications? She was a former chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (when he ran the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice), is married to Chertoff's chief of staff, and is the niece of the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers.

And let’s not forget Dr. W. David Hager to head up the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. This committee makes crucial decisions on matters relating to drugs used in the practice of obstetrics, gynecology, and related specialties, including hormone therapy, contraception, treatment for infertility, and medical alternatives to surgical procedures for sterilization and pregnancy termination.

Dr. Hager's views on reproductive health care make him uniquely qualified for this job. He is a practicing OB/GYN who describes himself as "pro-life" and refuses to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women. He is the author of "As Jesus Cared for Women: Restoring Women Then and Now." The book combines Biblical accounts of how Christ healed women with case studies from Hager's own practice.

Not to overlook the naming former Patricia S. Harrison, now president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Ms. Harrison was the handpick of former Karl Rove pal Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who sparked controversy by asserting that programs carried by public broadcasters have a liberal bias. Tomlinson resigned under pressure from the CPB board a day after the agency's inspector general delivered a report critical of his use of public funds.

Ms. Harrison’s qualifications? She is a veteran public relations executive who served as co-chair of the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2001 and served as assistant secretary of state before her CPB appointment.

Also worth honorable mention is Daniel Troy, a former clerk for Judge Robert Bork. Troy was appointed as the Food and Drug Administration’s chief counsel in 2003, after a decade working as a Washington lawyer to restrict the FDA’s regulatory powers.

He won his share of legal battles, taking the side of the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries against the federal agency. A smidgeon of conflict of interest, you say?

Troy held over 129 meetings with drug industry lobbyists during his three years in office – his predecessor held one -- and has helped drug companies defeat lawsuits. In four separate cases since 2002, the government has asked judges to dismiss potentially costly claims against drug makers.

Then there’s Paul J. Bonicelli, Ph.D., appointed to be Deputy Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, with responsibility for overseeing the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. As manager of the Agency's democracy and governance programs, Bonicelli's office focuses on strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights; promoting competitive elections and political processes; increasing development of a politically active civil society; and implementing transparent and accountable governance.

His qualifications? Before joining USAID, Bonicelli served as Dean of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. That institution is one of half a dozen evangelical leadership programs making steady inroads into Washington. It was founded five years ago with the goal of turning out "Christian men and women who will lead our nation with timeless biblical values." Nearly every graduate works in government or with a conservative advocacy group, and many of its future graduates have served as interns in the office of Karl Rove.

Bonicelli told The New Yorker magazine last year that he believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible – news that his Muslim audience no doubt finds consoling.

Finally, there’s the return of the Contras. There are now several in the Bush Administration who were implicated in the scandal, the most prominent of whom is Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan. Abrams was appointed to the White House office for democracy, human rights, and international operations. Abrams's appointment did not need Senate approval. Just plain lucky!

He would probably have been rejected, arguably even by a Republican-controlled Congress. In 1991, Abrams, who once described himself as a "gladiator" for President Reagan's policies in Central America, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for illegally withholding information from the investigation into the Iran-contra affair, in which arms were sold to Iran and the proceeds illegally funneled to Contra forces waging war against the leftwing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. He was sentenced to two years' probation and 100 hours of community service, but was pardoned by George Bush senior in 1991. Abrams, whose appointment came on the eve of the Nicaraguan presidential election, was a founding member of the Project for a New American Century, the policy think-tank for the neoconservative movement.

What puzzles many Washington-watchers is exactly why we should expect sound policy and competence in policy implementation from people who are either clearly unqualified or who are driven by ideology rather than inconvenient facts.

As for any new spirit of bipartisanship coming from the White House, forget it. The Decider will keep on deciding – he’ll just try to steer clear of the Senate confirmation process.

Monday, November 20, 2006

SPINNING SCIENCE

By William Fisher

More than a decade ago, former President George H.W. Bush stated that “now more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research . . . government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.”

The problem is he never told his son.

We know that from a multi-year series of findings that the administration of President George W. Bush has systematically manipulated science to comply with ideology – and satisfy the political agenda of his right-wing base.

The latest evidence of this scientific sleight-of-hand is contained in a report by the Government Accountability Office – the Congressionally-mandated oversight agency. GAO found that most abstinence-until-marriage education programs -- which receive about $158 million annually from the Department of Health and Human Services -- are not reviewed for scientific accuracy before they are granted funding.

“Efforts by HHS and states to assess the scientific accuracy of materials used in abstinence-until-marriage education programs have been limited," the GAO report states.

"This is because HHS's Administration for Children and Families (ACF) -- which awards grants to two programs that account for the largest portion of federal spending on abstinence-until-marriage education -- does not review its grantees' education materials for scientific accuracy and does not require grantees of either program to review their own materials for scientific accuracy"

GAO auditors contacted 10 states that receive funding from ACF for their abstinence-until-marriage programs. It found that only half reviewed the programs for scientifically accurate data on contraception, sexually transmitted infections and other information.

The report also found that most state and federal efforts to assess the effectiveness of abstinence-until-marriage education programs "do not meet the minimum scientific standards" that experts say are necessary to be scientifically valid.

The GAO report should not surprise us. President Bush has consistently supported the view that sex education should teach “abstinence only” and not include information on other ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

And there are many other examples:

In an earlier action on abstinence education, the Administration changed sex education performance measures to produce the appearance that scientific evidence supports abstinence-only programs. It doesn’t.

Until recently, a Centers for Disease Control initiative called “Programs That Work” identified sex education programs that have been found to be effective in scientific studies and provided this information through its web site. In 2002, all five “Programs That Work” provided comprehensive sex education to teenagers, and none were “abstinence-only.” But the CDC later ended this initiative and deleted information about these proven sex education programs from its web site.

Information about condom use and efficacy was also deleted from the CDC web site. The CDC replaced a comprehensive fact sheet on condoms with one that emphasized condom failure rates and the effectiveness of abstinence.

In banning federal funding for research on new stem cell lines, President Bush stated that “more than 60 genetically diverse" lines were available for potential research. Soon thereafter, then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson acknowledged that the correct number was 24 to 25. Still later, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni told Congress that only 11 stem cell lines were widely available to researchers.

Global Warming reports by the Environmental Protection Agency on the risks of climate change have been suppressed. The White House added so many hedges to the climate change section of the EPA's report card on the environment that former administrator Christie Todd Whitman deleted the section rather than publish one that was scientifically inaccurate.

Defense Department officials presented misleading information on whether a functional Missile Defense System could be quickly deployed. An Under Secretary of Defense told a Senate panel that by the end of 2004, the system would be 90% effective in intercepting missiles from the Korean peninsula. But in April 2003, the GAO found the President’s plan unworkable and even dangerous. The Defense Department’s claim of 90% effectiveness “is not supported by any publicly available evidence, and it appears not to comport with the Pentagon’s own classified estimates.”

Comments on Wetlands Policy from scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service on the destructive impacts of proposed regulatory changes have been withheld. Scientists at Service, part of the Interior Department, had prepared an analysis showing that a new proposal from the Army Corps of Engineers would “encourage the destruction of stream channels and lead to increased loss of aquatic functions.” But the Interior Secretary failed to submit the scientists’ comments to the Corps, which subsequently issued rules that weakened key wetland protections.

After social conservatives campaigned to require women to be “counseled” about an alleged risk of breast cancer from abortions, the National Cancer Institute revised its web site to suggest that studies of equal weight conflicted on the question. In fact, there is scientific consensus that no such link exists.

A report commissioned by Congressman Henry Waxman of California charged that the Bush Administration is manipulating Scientific Advisory Committees to advance its political and ideological agenda. Examples include appointing unqualified persons with industry ties and ideological agendas, while opposing qualified experts.

The Bush Administration contends that these examples are isolated coincidences. Right!

These are legitimate subjects for Congressional oversight. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate have been A.W.O.L. on oversight and have effectively blocked virtually all Democratic efforts to investigate how our tax dollars get used.

Now that Democrats have won majorities – and subpoena power -- in both bodies, voters should hold the feet of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Harry Reid so that the nation can distinguish truth from spin.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

U.S. v. BUSH, et al

By William Fisher

The scene is a Federal Grand Jury room. There, impaneled ordinary citizens listen intently as a veteran Federal prosecutor asks them to return an indictment unique in American history.

The charge is Conspiracy to Defraud the United States. And the defendants are President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

On the first day of Grand Jury proceedings, the Prosecutor addresses the jurors.
“Please remember that you must decide the case based solely on the evidence that’s presented and applicable law, without regard to prejudice or sympathy. In other words, your politics, and any personal feelings you may have toward the defendants – positive or negative – should have no bearing on your deliberations.”

The prosecutor then passes out the indictment, reminding jurors, “don’t forget your reading glasses…”

The indictment charges that the defendants “did knowingly and intentionally conspire to defraud the United States by using deceit, craft, trickery, dishonest means, false and fraudulent representations, including ones made without a reasonable basis and with reckless indifference to their truth or falsity, and omitting material facts necessary to make their representations truthful, fair and accurate, while knowing and intending that their false and fraudulent representations would influence the public and the deliberations of Congress with authorization of a preventive war against Iraq, thereby defeating, obstructing, impairing, and interfering with Congress’ lawful functions of overseeing foreign affairs and making appropriations.”

Over the next seven days, the grand jurors evaluate a 64-point case presented by the Federal Prosecutor. They hear compelling supporting testimony from three FBI agents. They battle their way through thousands of pages of documentation supporting the alleged crime.

Of course, none of this actually happened – nor is it likely to happen. Rather, it is the scenario of a new book about a hypothetical case, presented to a hypothetical Grand Jury, with hypothetical witnesses.

Only the prosecutor is real. She is Elizabeth de la Vega, a retired government lawyer with more than 20 years of experience. She served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis, and a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force and Branch Chief in San Jose, California.

Her book is titled, simply, U.S. v. George W. Bush et al. It will be published in December by Seven Stories Press. Amazon.com is currently taking orders for the book.

Why did Ms. de la Vega write this book? She says, “The President will not be held accountable for misrepresenting the prewar intelligence unless and until Congress conducts hearings similar to the Watergate hearings. As yet, however, we seem painfully incapable of reaching that point.”

She adds, “Although the evidence of wrongdoing is overwhelming, the facts are so complicated that it’s impossible to have a productive debate about them in the political sphere. One forum where that’s not true is the courtroom.”

Does she believe that her book will lead to making her hypothetical case real? She writes, “Consider this my 911 call. I’m calling on Democrats and Republicans to do the right thing…and convince Congress to do the right thing. I am not talking about bringing people to justice in the vengeful sense that President Bush employs. I am talking about effecting justice…holding out highest government officials accountable for…a criminal betrayal of trust that is strikingly similar to, yet far worse, than the fraud committed by Enron’s top officials.”

She told us, "Many of the victims of the President’s fraud – millions of Iraqis – have no voice in the United States, but the millions of Americans who were deceived by the President’s fraud do have a voice. We should use it, loudly and repeatedly, to pressure Congress into holding the President, the Vice President and their top-level aides accountable for tricking the nation into war."

The indictment takes jurors from the prewar period and the “regime change” influence of the neoconservative group, Project for the New American Century, to the attacks of 9/11, to the formation of the shadowy Iraq Group inside the White House, to the preparation of war plans beginning in September 2001, to the distortion of intelligence information regarding Iraq’s WMD capabilities and programs, to President Bush’s strategy sessions with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to actions designed to end the United Nations inspections, to the abandonment of multilateral diplomacy, to Colin Powell’s deeply flawed presentation to the UN Security Council, to Congressional authorization of the use of force.

It sets out 19 “Overt Acts” allegedly committed by the defendants to “market” the need for preemptive invasion – based largely on their public statements via the media in which, among other things, Administration officials professed absolute certainty about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, use of aluminum tubes to process uranium, to the warnings from then-National Security Advisor Rice and Vice President Cheney that the smoking gun could be “in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

Some of Ms. de la Vega’s readers may be disappointed that we never learn about the decision of the Grand Jury. But that’s one of the points of the book – it’s the reader who is sitting on the jury.

This slender book is a fascinating, suspenseful, fact-based read. It is a volume that should be read by all those who seek truth and clarity – especially those who returned to Congress after November 7.

HOW LONG IS LONG ENOUGH?

By William Fisher

With everyone’s attention riveted on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea these days, it’s difficult to find anyone interested in thinking about the bankruptcy of U.S. policies right here in our own hemisphere.

Grabbing the headlines recently have been Castro’s illness and endless speculation about a post-Fidel Cuba, Hugo Chavez at the UN, calling George W. Bush “the devil,” the election of Evo Morales, a left-leaning president in Bolivia, and the self-reinvention of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

But, absent such sensational developments, the U.S. mainstream media is largely silent on hemispheric affairs.

The U.S. response to the more sensational events conjures up memories of the Cold War, when two superpowers split the world into rival camps. Or, more recently, President Bush’s Global War on Terror, where “You’re either with us or against us.”

Underpinning these responses is, in my view, a profound misunderstanding of Latin America and the aspirations of its people.

This is not rocket science. For over a century, the countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean have been plundered and repressed by governmental and corporate colonialism. The tiny elites in most of these countries have grown vastly richer while most of their populations continue to live in poverty. Through successive administrations, our own government has compiled a shameful record of meddling to maintain an unsustainable status quo, of overthrowing governments that don’t agree with our view of the world, of supporting despots who practice torture and “disappearance,” and, to be charitable, turning a blind eye to death squads.

Yet today, we seem surprised that this sordid history sometimes persuades Latin America’s people to accept – even champion -- demagogues. But Latin America has had demagogues for more than a century. Most were brutal dictators on the right. A few on the left expressed the people’s pushback against these repressive tyrannies.

The over-the-top rhetoric of this pushback has, for decades, has made the U.S. the sole villain in the piece. And the U.S. response has been to demonize and attempt to isolate the purveyors of this rhetoric. This approach is acceptable only if one shares George W. Bush’s view of the world as neatly divided into “good” and “evil.”

The inevitable result of this “My daddy is stronger than your daddy” approach is a bunch of children talking past one another, and accomplishing exactly nothing.

A perfect example of accomplishing exactly nothing can be found in a report issued last week by our Government Accountability Office, the
Congressionally-mandated organization that helps our legislators fulfill their oversight responsibilities.

The GAO report found that U.S. funds targeted to promote democracy in Cuba have been used to buy items like crabmeat, computer games, chocolate, and cashmere sweaters.

Reuters reported that the GAO found little oversight and accountability in the program, which spent "$76 million between 1996 and 2005 to support Cuban dissidents, independent journalists, academics and others." It also found that 95 percent of the grants were issued without competitive bids.

The auditors questioned checks written out to some staff members, questionable travel expenses, and payments to a manager's family. One group acknowledged selling books it was supposed to distribute under the democracy-promoting program.

One grantee "could not justify some purchases made with USAID funds, including a gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates," the report said.

Out of 10 recipients of public money reviewed by the auditors, three failed to keep adequate financial records, the GAO said. A lot of the money was used to pay smugglers, or "mules, to avoid U.S. restrictions on taking goods to Cuba.
Critics have long charged that such grants are aimed more at winning votes in Miami than triggering political change on the communist island, where Castro has ruled since his 1959 revolution. Imagine that!

To protect recipients from prosecution, none of the money from the USAID or the State Department is paid in cash to people in Cuba. A Cuban law can impose jail sentences on citizens who receive money.

Instead, the funds are distributed to Cuban-American groups in Miami, the heartland of opposition to Cuban President Fidel Castro, and in Washington, and are supposed to be used to buy medicines, books, short-wave radios, and other goods that are smuggled into Cuba.

President Bush has proposed increasing spending on Cuba-related programs, including propaganda transmissions by Radio and TV Marti, by $80 million over the next two years.

Which will accomplish what? Exactly nothing. Except more “My daddy is stronger than your daddy” rhetoric.

It has been 45 years since the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, and 44 years since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. During that time, our trade embargo has provided foreign companies – many of which are longstanding U.S. allies -- an empty playing field for increasing exports and investments, particularly in agricultural produce and tourism. Having no ambassador in Cuba hinders our efforts to know what’s going on there. It obliterates our ability to exert any influence whatever on the Cuban government or people. It totally forecloses any possibility of rapprochement with this island, 90 miles from Florida. And it negatively impacts many of our relationships with other Latin American nations.
For American presidents, however, Cuba is the third rail of U.S. politics. A few have tried to jump over the rail, but Cuban-American voters have always blocked the tracks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. maintains embassies, ambassadors – and even aid programs -- in countries whose behaviors are arguably far more egregious than Cuba’s. Among them are such models of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Burma, and Uzbekistan.
For centuries the criterion for one nation to have diplomatic relations with another has been whether the host country is a sovereign power. These days, the test seems to be whether “you’re with us or against us” in the Global War on Terror. This is America shooting itself in the foot. The time for a serious review of our relationships with Cuba – and many other countries in Latin America – is comically overdue.

Maybe, after the Baker-Hamilton Commission solves all our Iraq problems, we could ask it to take a look at the Western Hemisphere.

Friday, November 17, 2006

HISTORICAL AMNESIA

By William Fisher

Most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I hope we will also remember the heart-wrenching image of MLK compatriot, Andrew Young, in tears as he spoke and being comforted by fellow civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson, at the groundbreaking of the new King Memorial on the Mall in Washington last week.

The groundbreaking for the Memorial – sited along the western edge of the Tidal Basin near the Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt memorials -- was profoundly moving. Speakers from George W. Bush to Bill Clinton to Oprah to Barack Obama reached into some inner place in their hearts to pay tribute to the immeasurable contribution Dr. King made to their lives, to our country, and to the world.

Some of the most poignant words came from Congressman John Lewis. There is no more credible witness to this tumultuous page in American history than this courageous man, who was at MLK’s side as hundreds challenged police by marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. The marchers were attacked by Alabama State Troopers and beaten so badly that the event came to be known as "Bloody Sunday." A white clergyman was killed in the melee. It was Bloody Sunday that captured the attention of the nation – and of President Lyndon Johnson -- and resulted in the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s.

The words of all who spoke at last week’s event were eloquent and heartfelt but, in the end, proved to be imperfect tools to convey the incalculable consequence of MLK’s life and death.

But there was also one joltingly abrasive moment. It came in the speech delivered by the Rev. Bernice King, MLK’s youngest daughter, who is an ordained preacher and an Elder at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Rev. King, speaking in pulpit cadence and sounding much like her father, praised him as a great pastor, not to just to his congregation, but to the nation and the world.

She also embraced her father’s politics – decrying the “triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism” which “are clogging our arteries more today, than they were in his.”

What came next, however, was a shock, not because she invoked the name of Jesus – arguably to be expected from a member of the Christian clergy – but because she implied that what was achieved by the civil rights movement was achieved in His name, and proclaimed, “America is a Christian nation.”

In the context of the civil rights movement, this seemed to me a worrying case of historical amnesia – and one grotesquely at odds with what MLK spent his life trying to teach us. It struck me as being right up there with Jesse Jackson’s unfortunate 1984 reference to New York City as “Hymietown.”

There is no argument that the civil rights movement was largely an African-American movement and that the black church played a pivotal role in getting it off the ground, keeping it going, and persevering against impossible odds to see it through to success.

But that doesn’t qualify America as “a Christian nation.” The struggle for black freedom always had significant and sustained help. And that help came in the form of participation by people of every religious faith – and many of no faith at all.

For example, what Bernice King failed to mention was that in the decade from 1954 to 1964, blacks and many whites worked together to end racial segregation, and that American Jews contributed more than any other white group to support the movement. They raised money. They gave money. And they repeatedly put their lives on the line.

Jews made up nearly half of the volunteers involved in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. While making up only two per cent of the population, Jews made up more than half the civil rights lawyers who worked with the movement in the south. Leaders of the Jewish Reform Movement were arrested with Dr. King in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 after a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations. A year later, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel stood arm-in-arm with Dr. King as he marched on Selma.

One of the co-founders of the NAACP was Jewish, and many of its members and leading activists came from within the Jewish community. Jewish philanthropists actively supported the NAACP and other civil rights groups. The Jewish philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald, funded the creation of dozens of primary schools, secondary schools, and colleges for disenfranchised African-American youth. This effort by the Jewish community resulted in building some 2,000 schools.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, under the aegis of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which had been located in the Center for decades.

Why is this history important? Because it goes to the heart of MLK’s message – that the core of the non-violent civil rights movement was not about Christianity or any other religion. It was about love, justice and equity.

For that reason, news that the achievements of the movement were made in the name of Jesus came as a shock to many of us, perhaps most to the families of Michael Goodman and Mickey Schwerner.

For others with historical amnesia, rewind to June 16, 1964. That was the date on which armed members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan fire-bombed the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, a rural community in notorious Neshoba County.

Along with James Chaney, a black civil rights worker, Michael Schwerner, a Jewish volunteer, was asked to investigate the ruins. With them was Andrew Goodman, another Jewish volunteer who was in Mississippi to coordinate the Neshoba county voter registration project. While enroute back to Meridian, Mississippi, the three were stopped and detained by a Neshoba County sheriff's deputy. Later, they were released from police custody and conveniently intercepted by Klansmen. They were murdered and, after a 44-day search, their bodies were found buried in an earthen dam.

No one was ever charged with the murders but seven Klansmen were eventually convicted for violating the civil rights of the three young men and sentenced to three to ten years in prison. None served more than six years.

Goodman and Schwerner didn’t believe they were working for Jesus. Nor did they believe America was “a Christian nation.” They were working to reverse injustice. And their America was color-blind and religion-deaf.

The civil rights movement galvanized Americans of all shapes and sizes, of all colors and all religious beliefs. Its rich history needs no revision.

Not by any of us, including Bernice King.

Monday, November 13, 2006

ARROGANT TO THE END

By William Fisher

Well, our Pentagon rock star is gone.

President Bush’s encomium to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld after firing him last week was among the most predictable – and utterly forgettable – remarks ever to come out of a White House famous for its predictable and forgettable statements.

The president said the SecDef’s leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan “drove Saddam Hussein from power and helped the Iraqi people establish a constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East.” On his watch, the president said, “the men and women of our military overthrew two terrorist regimes, liberated some 50 million people, brought justice to the terrorist Zarqawi and scores of senior al Qaeda operatives, and helped stop new terrorist attacks on our people.”

Rummy’s response was perhaps less predictable and less forgettable. America’s misadventure in Iraq, he said, was “a little understood, unfamiliar war, the first war of the 21st century.” The war was “not well-known, it was not well-understood, it is complex for people to comprehend.”

So it’s our fault, right?

The people just don’t get it. The images of carnage we see 24/7 on our TV screens were all produced with PhotoShop on Osama Bin Laden’s laptop. The “revolt of the Generals” was a fiction concocted by Harry Reid. The $20 billion we wasted on Iraqi reconstruction resulted in schools and hospitals and electricity and increased oil output – it’s just that the vast leftwing media conspirators aren’t bringing us the good news stories (so the Pentagon better get busy and bribe more journalists to publish more of them). We’re really defeating the Taliban (again). The people we hold at Guantanamo are “the worst of the worst.” And our near-3000 dead soldiers and marines are only a tiny fraction of the 145,000 troops deployed to the Iraqi killing ground.

How is it we don’t understand all this stuff?

Well, American citizens don’t pretend to be military experts. But Mr. Rumsfeld does. And maybe, if we have sometimes found ourselves unable to comprehend all these foreign policy triumphs, Mr. Rumsfeld’s imperious rejection of the realities experienced by the uniformed military is largely responsible.

After all, wasn’t he the guy whose comment on our slain service members was,
“Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war?"

Wasn’t he the guy who told us in 2003 that, “It is unknowable how long (the war in Iraq) will last. It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months?”

Wasn’t he the guy who said about our troops’ lack of armor, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

Wasn’t he the guy who told us a year earlier that the situation in Afghanistan was “encouraging. They have elected a government through the Loya Jirga process. The Taliban are gone. The al Qaeda are gone.”

Wasn’t he the guy who was asked by Jim Lehrer on PBS’ The News Hour in 2003 whether a US invasion would be welcomed by the majority of the civilian population of Iraq?’ To which Rummy replied, “There is no question but that they would be welcomed.”

Wasn’t he the guy who told NBC News the same year, “We know where (the weapons of mass destruction) are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat?”

Wasn’t he the guy who attributed the looting and lawlessness after the fall of Baghdad to “stuff happens?”

Wasn’t he the guy who confused even the White House’s professional obfuscators by declaring, “"The message is that there are known knowns - there are things that we know that we know. There are known unknowns - that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns - there are things we do not know we don't know. And each year we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns."

And wasn’t he the guy who testified that he'd "never painted a rosy picture" of Iraq and that he hadn't been "overly optimistic."

Well, the question about who’s now going to confuse the public and amuse the stenographic Pentagon press corps remains unknown.

But there are a few things we do know. First, our people are not confused. We may not all be political junkies, but we’re not stupid either. And we showed that last week in the best American tradition: We rejected the spin, the lies, the death, the obfuscation, with our feet – on the way to the polling place.

Second, we know there can be no more conclusive evidence that the Bush administration is utterly incapable of crafting any viable strategy for “winning” in Iraq than the very existence of the Iraq Study Group, now widely known as the Baker-Hamilton commission.

The Constitution gives the President, as Commander-in-Chief, the responsibility for waging war and protecting our citizens. And that doesn’t mean any previous Commander-in-Chief.

W., like all former presidents, has always had virtually instant access to the world’s most thoughtful and knowledgeable experts on virtually any subject. But The Decider didn’t care much for listening. After all, he answers to a higher power.

Well, the higher power at the moment is the Baker-Hamilton Commission, co-chaired by his daddy’s secretary of state, James A. Baker, and Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. The other members are a group of other ultimate Washington insiders, including the one the president just nominated to be Rummy’s successor, Robert M. Gates, former CIA director.

Because this inside-the-Beltway bunch has little Middle East experience, it is being helped by four different think tanks. But despite lack of Middle East experience, we should all pray that the recommendations of this group will be substantive, not just more cosmetics. And that the president will be listening.

Aside from substance, however, this Commission is about giving the president the political cover to admit, by changing his policies, that he got it wrong. Perish the thought that our Commander-in-Chief would ever confront that fact in full frontal mode, as John F. Kennedy did after the Bay of Pigs fiasco!

And if the Baker-Hamilton recommendations go wrong, W. will have a convenient scapegoat to swiftboat.

The one thing we poor confused, uninformed citizens can cling to is that Mr. Bush is now all about legacy. He doesn’t like the idea of being remembered as the president who made arguably the most egregious mistake in American foreign policy history.

The third thing we know is that, even in the event that the president announces some major new initiatives to extricate us from our Middle East quagmire, his government appears to lack the competence to execute those new initiatives. On the basis of this administration’s record, all of us can be excused for being just a tad skeptical – and very afraid.

One final thought about the Baker-Hamilton Commission: Can anyone imagine that it would ever have occurred to Franklin Roosevelt to outsource the decision about the Normandy landing in World War Two?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

GET OVER IT, JACK!

By William Fisher

In 1969, at the end of my first full year of what became a 20-plus-year residence in Britain, I recall jotting down what I found to be the defining characteristics of the UK at that time. They were:

1. Suspicion of people who weren’t “them.”

2. Fear of change.

3. A class-structured society, where the “working class knew its place” and was always reluctant to challenge the old “upper class” power establishment.

What brought this musing back to me was the recent rant by former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw about his Muslim women constituents being covered up. Straw claimed he would be better able to respond to their needs if he could see the expressions on their faces.

Mr. Straw, who is a Labor Party Member of Parliament for Blackburn, where between 25% and 30% of residents are Muslim, explained the impact he thought veils could have in a society where watching facial expressions was important for contact between different people. “Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers -- people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able pass the time of day," he said. That's made more difficult if people are wearing a veil. That's just a fact of life.”

Mr. Straw added, "What I've been struck by when I've been talking to some of the ladies concerned is that they had not, I think, been fully aware of the potential in terms of community relations."

Could this just be a contemporary version of my 1969 note, “Suspicion of people who weren’t ‘them’?” Which raises the question about just who is being unaware of “the potential in terms of community relations.”

In 1969, Britain had a relatively miniscule Muslim population. Today, its Muslim population is estimated to be 1.3 million, or three per cent of those who said they adhered to any religion.

This is undeniably a different dynamic for Brits, especially given their traditional fear of change and the glacial pace of their ability to accept and absorb it. But it isn’t as if Muslim immigration happened suddenly, all at once. The number of Muslims in the UK has grown gradually over the past generation.

To make the controversy even more heated, the veil controversy landed smack in the middle of the arrest of the gang of (Muslim) men alleged to have plotted to blow up U.S.-bound flights from the U.K. Following the subway bombings of last July, the fear of so-called homegrown terrorists in the UK is now palpable. And made far more scary by Britain’s participation in the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, which many in Britain – and not only Muslims – see as a reflection of what they see as President Bush’s war on Islam.

But the dis-integration of Muslim minorities didn’t begin with the invasion of Iraq. Its been happening for years. Muslim immigrants and British-born Muslims from various countries have, like most new immigrants to most countries, tended to want to live in the same neighborhoods – a development encouraged by the block-busting and red-lining practices of banks and real estate brokers. Entire cities have become “Muslim Cities.” In the process, they have displaced “regular” Brits. With UK property prices off the charts and a relatively slow renewal of the housing stock, the “regulars” have come to resent the immigrants.

Like most immigrants, children in Muslim communities attend de facto segregated schools, and their parents start their work life at the bottom of the economic ladder. Many have by now climbed a bit up the ladder, most notably opening small shops and other small businesses. But most of these are situated in the ghettos inhabited by their countrymen.

That raises the question of what successive British governments have done over the years to anticipate an oncoming train wreck and what policies it has put in place to avoid it.

The answer, lamentably, is virtually nothing. Predictably, there are all manner of inter-faith organizations, headed by well-known clergy and other senior figures. But few of these effectively reach the rank-and-file of Muslims, Christians, or Jews.

The situation is similar elsewhere in Europe. The recent riots in the public housing projects dedicated largely to immigrants on the outskirts of Paris demonstrate the bankruptcy of current European efforts to help to integrate their Muslim populations into the life of the nation. But France is but one example among many.

In the United States, Muslim population counts are hard to come by. Estimates range from 2 to 8 million. Whatever the number, Muslim-Americans have become well integrated into the fabric of our society. Like traditional immigrants, beginning with the great wave of the mid-19th century, they first gravitated toward living areas where they could be among their own, speak the same language, eat the same foods. But over the years, they have morphed into a community that speaks English, owns prosperous businesses, serves in elected office and in our government, joins our armed forces, and participates more in public life than their counterparts in Europe.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that Americans, unlike Brits and other Europeans, are less fearful of those who are “not like us,” and more optimistic about understanding and accepting change. And perhaps because of our nation’s struggles with black-white racial issues, we have come to be a bit less paranoid – though our current immigration debate presents yet another challenge.

But the strong and sustained Muslim-American identification with the rest of our country is not immutable. It could change. One of the things that might hasten that change is the current government harassment of this segment of our population. Another is the xenophobia that followed 9/11 – in which, sadly, our right-wing religious leaders have been all too willing to participate.

The bottom line is that, despite President Bush’s many statements in support of Muslim-Americans, some in this community are beginning to feel almost as estranged from their country as their European counterparts. The more that feeling grows, the more likely it is that we will find ourselves unwittingly breeding the anger and resentment that ends in homegrown terrorism.

The issue is not whether Muslim women prefer to cover themselves. Personally, I find the practice demeaning to women. But that’s a view through Western eyes. If they don’t mind, why should we? Do we demand that Christian and Jewish women remove the crosses and stars of David from the necklaces they wear? Do we insist that our Amish people behave like most of the rest of us? Do we rant against Hassidic Jews who wear fur hats, prayer shawls, and funny hair-dos?

I have had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time talking with and listening to Muslim women in the Middle East who wore face veils, or niqabs, covered head to toe, except for their eyes and mouths. I can tell you that, once you get used to the absence of body language as a conversational indicator, how a person happens to be dressed quickly gets trumped by what she has to say.

This is something Jack Straw needs to understand. Maybe he needs to spend a bit more time with each of his constituents. My advice to him is to just to learn and get over it.

GET OVER IT, JACK!

By William Fisher

In 1969, at the end of my first full year of what became a 20-plus-year residence in Britain, I recall jotting down what I found to be the defining characteristics of the UK at that time. They were:

1. Suspicion of people who weren’t “them.”

2. Fear of change.

3. A class-structured society, where the “working class knew its place” and was always reluctant to challenge the old “upper class” power establishment.

What brought this musing back to me was the recent rant by former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw about his Muslim women constituents being covered up. Straw claimed he would be better able to respond to their needs if he could see the expressions on their faces.

Mr. Straw, who is a Labor Party Member of Parliament for Blackburn, where between 25% and 30% of residents are Muslim, explained the impact he thought veils could have in a society where watching facial expressions was important for contact between different people. “Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers -- people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able pass the time of day," he said. That's made more difficult if people are wearing a veil. That's just a fact of life.”

Mr. Straw added, "What I've been struck by when I've been talking to some of the ladies concerned is that they had not, I think, been fully aware of the potential in terms of community relations."

Could this just be a contemporary version of my 1969 note, “Suspicion of people who weren’t ‘them’?” Which raises the question about just who is being unaware of “the potential in terms of community relations.”

In 1969, Britain had a relatively miniscule Muslim population. Today, its Muslim population is estimated to be 1.3 million, or three per cent of those who said they adhered to any religion.

This is undeniably a different dynamic for Brits, especially given their traditional fear of change and the glacial pace of their ability to accept and absorb it. But it isn’t as if Muslim immigration happened suddenly, all at once. The number of Muslims in the UK has grown gradually over the past generation.

To make the controversy even more heated, the veil controversy landed smack in the middle of the arrest of the gang of (Muslim) men alleged to have plotted to blow up U.S.-bound flights from the U.K. Following the subway bombings of last July, the fear of so-called homegrown terrorists in the UK is now palpable. And made far more scary by Britain’s participation in the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, which many in Britain – and not only Muslims – see as a reflection of what they see as President Bush’s war on Islam.

But the dis-integration of Muslim minorities didn’t begin with the invasion of Iraq. Its been happening for years. Muslim immigrants and British-born Muslims from various countries have, like most new immigrants to most countries, tended to want to live in the same neighborhoods – a development encouraged by the block-busting and red-lining practices of banks and real estate brokers. Entire cities have become “Muslim Cities.” In the process, they have displaced “regular” Brits. With UK property prices off the charts and a relatively slow renewal of the housing stock, the “regulars” have come to resent the immigrants.

Like most immigrants, children in Muslim communities attend de facto segregated schools, and their parents start their work life at the bottom of the economic ladder. Many have by now climbed a bit up the ladder, most notably opening small shops and other small businesses. But most of these are situated in the ghettos inhabited by their countrymen.

That raises the question of what successive British governments have done over the years to anticipate an oncoming train wreck and what policies it has put in place to avoid it.

The answer, lamentably, is virtually nothing. Predictably, there are all manner of inter-faith organizations, headed by well-known clergy and other senior figures. But few of these effectively reach the rank-and-file of Muslims, Christians, or Jews.

The situation is similar elsewhere in Europe. The recent riots in the public housing projects dedicated largely to immigrants on the outskirts of Paris demonstrate the bankruptcy of current European efforts to help to integrate their Muslim populations into the life of the nation. But France is but one example among many.

In the United States, Muslim population counts are hard to come by. Estimates range from 2 to 8 million. Whatever the number, Muslim-Americans have become well integrated into the fabric of our society. Like traditional immigrants, beginning with the great wave of the mid-19th century, they first gravitated toward living areas where they could be among their own, speak the same language, eat the same foods. But over the years, they have morphed into a community that speaks English, owns prosperous businesses, serves in elected office and in our government, joins our armed forces, and participates more in public life than their counterparts in Europe.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that Americans, unlike Brits and other Europeans, are less fearful of those who are “not like us,” and more optimistic about understanding and accepting change. And perhaps because of our nation’s struggles with black-white racial issues, we have come to be a bit less paranoid – though our current immigration debate presents yet another challenge.

But the strong and sustained Muslim-American identification with the rest of our country is not immutable. It could change. One of the things that might hasten that change is the current government harassment of this segment of our population. Another is the xenophobia that followed 9/11 – in which, sadly, our right-wing religious leaders have been all too willing to participate.

The bottom line is that, despite President Bush’s many statements in support of Muslim-Americans, some in this community are beginning to feel almost as estranged from their country as their European counterparts. The more that feeling grows, the more likely it is that we will find ourselves unwittingly breeding the anger and resentment that ends in homegrown terrorism.

The issue is not whether Muslim women prefer to cover themselves. Personally, I find the practice demeaning to women. But that’s a view through Western eyes. If they don’t mind, why should we? Do we demand that Christian and Jewish women remove the crosses and stars of David from the necklaces they wear? Do we insist that our Amish people behave like most of the rest of us? Do we rant against Hassidic Jews who wear fur hats, prayer shawls, and funny hair-dos?

I have had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time talking with and listening to Muslim women in the Middle East who wore face veils, or niqabs, covered head to toe, except for their eyes and mouths. I can tell you that, once you get used to the absence of body language as a conversational indicator, how a person happens to be dressed quickly gets trumped by what she has to say.

This is something Jack Straw needs to understand. Maybe he needs to spend a bit more time with each of his constituents. My advice to him is to just to learn and get over it.

Friday, November 03, 2006

POLITICAL AMNESIA?

By William Fisher

Unless you happen to live in Southern Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama, you’re unlikely to have heard from office holders or their challengers the one word that was supposed to be a defining issue of the 2006 mid-term elections.

The word is Katrina.

During late August of 2005, and in the months following, virtually every news cycle led with graphic, grisly accounts of the death and suffering caused by the hurricane and subsequent flooding.

House and Senate Committees held dozens of hearings and issued blistering reports on the failures of “all levels of government” to anticipate and prepare for this unparalleled natural disaster. Lawmakers rushed to the floors of their respective houses to inveigh on the subject and spread the blame around by pointing fingers at the many who they thought culpable.

Billions of dollars were appropriated for relief. After he finally got around to putting his feet on the ground in New Orleans, President Bush praised the then head of FEMA, Michael Brown, for doing “a heck of a job.” The President then told the nation he accepted full responsibility and ordered his Homeland Security assistant to produce a report detailing “failings at every level of government.” She did.

But only one person was ever held accountable, the same Michael Brown, who was fired (and claimed he was made the scapegoat de jour). The hapless mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, who hunkered down in a hotel suite while his people drowned, was reelected. Mr. Brown’s boss, Michael Chertoff, the head of the Department of Homeland Security – who decided to go to a conference in Atlanta the day the hurricane struck and the levees were breached – is still in his job (and keeping a lower-than-low profile in this political season.) His boss, Mr. Bush, is also still in his job. This is the “decider” who was in such an extreme State of Denial in his presidential bubble that his staff had to prepare a CD to show him the extent of Katrina’s devastation.

A little more than a year ago, Katrina, and our public response to it, became metaphors for the gross incompetence of our government. How, people asked, could we respond to a terrorist attack if we couldn’t handle a hurricane and a flood?

Well, the question remains unanswered, but the voters seem to have forgotten it was ever a concern. Political amnesia!

In poll after poll, the electorate says its top ten issues are Iraq, illegal immigration, the economy and jobs, defense and the military, terrorism, education, foreign policy, and environment.

These are certainly important issues that voters should indeed be concerned about. And perhaps U.S. government incompetence in prosecuting the war in Iraq and in the so-called Global War on Terror have become proxies for U.S. government incompetence generally.

Most of the money President Bush promised to deliver to the Gulf Coast during his carefully choreographed appearances in the area is still bottled up in the Federal treasury. And much of the money actually released has gone to the same big out-of-state contractors who have so screwed up our Iraqi reconstruction programs. Where are the shiny new “ownership” programs the President promised to spur Gulf Coast economic recovery and growth? Where are the demands for progress reports from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with rebuilding New Orleans’ levees?

People from NOLA are still scattered around America. Mayor Nagin keeps urging them to “come home”, but there are no homes for them to come to and few jobs to help them feed their families. In some Mississippi Gulf Coast towns, the landscape is still decorated by mountains of debris that have never been moved.

And when was the last time you read a headline or saw a TV soundbite about the incessantly promised reorganization of FEMA?

Our voters seem to have the attention span of three-year-olds. Katrina has gone away, but its aftermath – and the underlying problems that enabled it to have such a devastating impact – haven’t. It’s the media attention that’s gone away. If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead!

But media or no, it’s well past time for our electorate to demand that their representatives implement a new kind of “Southern Strategy” -- starting with holding our government accountable for keeping the promises it made. And being transparent about it.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

THE PRESCIENCE OF JFK

By William Fisher

Religious and ethnic bigotry has long been among the most heinous abuses of America’s freedoms. For years, Jews were the targets: They controlled the banking system, the press, and all the other levers of power. Absurdly, they were also Bolsheviks and Communists.

Bolsheviks and Communists were, of course, the bullseyes in later episodes of government target practice. During the 1920s, American fears were whipped up by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, who rounded up and deported hundreds of U.S. citizens and legal residents. Thirty years later, The House Un-American Affairs Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy famously dragged the nation into a scary and pathetic “Red Scare.”

Then there was Papism. Espoused by many prominent Protestant clergymen and embraced by millions of their followers for more than a century, Papists equated the Roman Catholic Church with the absolute obedience of its adherents to the orders of the Pope.

It was against this background that, on September 12, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy decided to take the bull by the horns and deliver his now-famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association.

He told the group he believed in “an America where the separation of church and state is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act…For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew -- or a Quaker -- or a Unitarian -- or a Baptist…Today I may be the victim -- but tomorrow it may be you -- until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”

I wonder if JFK realized how prescient he was. The Cold War is over. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism are of course still with us, but have been largely marginalized to the lunatic fringes of our society. But today – post 9/11 -- we have a new target of hate: Islam. And there is ample evidence that it is being embraced not only by the lunatic fringe of America, but by a majority of our people – including clergymen on the religious right and by the U.S. government.

In the hysterical days and weeks following 9/11, hundreds of Muslims – along with South Asians incorrectly mistaken for Arabs – were rounded up and imprisoned by John Ashcroft’s Justice Department, though not a single person was ever charged with any terror-related crime.

Sadly, many prominent members of America’s evangelical community have joined the Muslim-bashing crowd. Evangelical leaders, such as the Rev. Franklin Graham, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, and the Rev. Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, have publicly branding Islam, or Islam's prophet Muhammad, as inherently evil and violent.

Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham and head of a global missions agency, Samaritan's Purse, said that Islam was ''a very evil and wicked religion.'' Vines described Muhammad as ''a demon-possessed pedophile.'' Falwell said in a ''60 Minutes'' interview that ''Muhammad was a terrorist.''

According to a nationwide survey conducted by Cornell University, nearly half of all Americans believe the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. Our Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence has shut down five major Muslim charities in the United States since 2001, and seized millions of dollars in assets. As of today, not a single officer or organization has been convicted of any crime connected to terrorism. But charitable giving – one of the pillars of the Muslim faith – has fallen precipitously out of prospective donors’ fear of becoming a target of government investigation.

President Bush has lavished praise on Muslim-Americans. But simultaneously, the FBI and our Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are clearly practicing ethnic profiling and conducting surveillance at Mosques and other Muslim gathering places. At the same time, they are actively conducting “outreach” programs to Muslim-American communities in the US.

They are also aggressively attempting to recruit Arab and other Muslim-Americans into the CIA, FBI, and other national security agencies (these recruiting programs have largely failed because, when the agencies learn that many of these prospective employees have friends and family in the Middle East, they are denied security clearances).

Many other forms of more and less subtle discrimination are taking place. For example, seven Muslims who have been waiting years to become U.S. citizens were finally notified that their applications had been approved, but only after they joined a lawsuit accusing immigration officials of illegally delaying background checks and allowing applications to linger indefinitely. In Texas, three Muslim Americans wrongly accused of planning a terrorist attack on a Michigan bridge, and having their bank accounts closed and their neighbors accuse them of being terrorists, demanded that authorities issue a public apology for targeting them because of their race. And an internal investigation by the Justice Department concluded there was "reasonable cause" to believe that senior FBI officials retaliated against the bureau's highest-ranking Arabic speaker for complaining that he was cut out of terrorism cases despite his expertise.


The academic community has suffered as well. For example, for more than two years, Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Muslim scholar, has been denied a visa to teach at Notre Dame. First he was told he had endorsed terrorism and violated the USA Patriot Act. Later, after filing a lawsuit against the government and having a federal judge force the State Department to reconsider his application, his visa was again denied because between 1998 and 2002, he had contributed small sums of money to a French charity supporting humanitarian work in the Palestinian territories.

Is this Islamophobia working? Is it smart? Is it helping us to find and prosecute terrorists?

My view is that we’re using some pretty primitive blunt instruments to conduct our search for the bad guys. In the process, we’re alienating the very people who probably could help us most – the millions of law-abiding Muslim-Americans who live among us – and who are just as terrified of terrorists as the rest of us.

I suppose I might be able to understand our approach if we were still back in 2001. But 9/11 happened five years ago. Isn’t it long past time that all the clever folks in our government came up with something that actually works?