DEATH SQUADS–THEY’RE BACK!

Everything old is new again? Perhaps at the Pentagon. Newsweek reported recently that military officials frustrated with the worsening situation in Iraq are considering “the Salvador option.” Under this plan, the Pentagon would use Special Forces to assist Iraqi militia units–made up of Kurds or Shiites–that would target Sunni insurgents and sympathizers. These paramilitary squads might engage in assassinations or kidnappings. It is not unusual for a military facing an insurgency to develop counterinsurgency units within the chain of command. But as the magazine notes, this plan is reminiscent of the 1980s US policy that supported the El Salvador military, which was tied to death squads and fielded brutal counterinsurgency units that massacred innocent civilians while pursuing leftist rebels. Back then, the death squads killed American nuns, Jesuit priests and Archbishop Oscar Romero. The US-trained military slaughtered about 800 peasants at El Mozote, and the Reagan Administration–with State Department official Elliott Abrams leading the way–denied that the horrific event had occurred. Today Abrams works in the White House, and Pentagon planners pine for a return to El Salvador-style tactics. Empowering unaccountable paramilitary units that operate outside military channels would be a dangerous move. The El Salvador strategy yielded horrendous abuse and atrocities. It should be repudiated, not emulated.

JUST SAY NO TO AIDS

Esther Kaplan writes: December wasn’t a good month for abstinence education. Representative Henry Waxman came out with a report documenting that federally funded abstinence-only curriculums were littered with absurd falsehoods–that sweat can transmit HIV, for example. Then new data from the National Center for Health Statistics showed that the number of sexually active women skipping birth control had jumped by 42 percent, a spike that some experts say could be fallout from the abstinence-only program’s ban on mentioning contraceptives–unless to exaggerate their failure rates. But George W. Bush’s faith remains unshaken. He picked longtime abstinence advocate Anita Smith as the new co-chair of his AIDS advisory council and elevated Deputy Health Secretary Claude Allen, known as the abstinence enforcer within HHS, to the post of domestic policy adviser. Smith and her husband have run a string of AIDS organizations that teach “risk avoidance.” According to former CDC official Margaret Scarlett, Americans for a Sound AIDS Policy, under the Smiths’ leadership, even refused to distribute condom information in the early 1990s, when it was required to do so by a federal prevention grant. (Their funding was pulled.) During his tenure as Virginia’s health secretary, Allen proved himself a “family values” true believer, aggressively intervening to keep a comatose man on life support, opposing a child health program because it would cover abortions for victims of incest, and working with the Smiths to institute abstinence education across his state. He’s on the board of an organization called Peacemaker Ministries, which takes a hard-line stance against litigation, favoring instead “biblically-based mediation.” The perfect man to spearhead Bush’s campaign against trial lawyers and to expand his abstinence and faith-based initiatives. Leaders on the Christian right were delighted; as Gary Bauer told his supporters, “The President would have been hard-pressed to make a better choice.”

DEATH OF A UNION MAN IN BAGHDAD

David Bacon writes: Hadi Salih, the international secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, was brutally murdered by unknown assassins in Baghdad on January 4–bound hand and foot, tortured, strangled and then shot–at home in front of his family. There have been a string of attacks on Iraqi union activists and workers in recent months–railroad workers killed, textile strikers shot, the transport union building in Baghdad shelled, union leaders arrested. But Salih’s murder, bearing the hallmarks of Saddam’s old secret police, is the most vicious yet. The political space needed for unions and other organizations of civil society to develop is shrinking under these attacks, which have come from several sources–the government, the insurgents and the US military. Salih was a printer, a longtime unionist, a veteran of Saddam’s prisons and a political activist who, from exile, sought the end of that regime. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney noted that Salih “put aside all thoughts of his own personal safety… [and] returned to Iraq as soon as it was possible, to help make Iraq a better place to live and work.” US Labor Against the War urged that the murderers of Hadi Salih and other Iraqi workers and unionists be brought to justice and called for an end to the US occupation with the goal of achieving “a safe and secure society in which people can exercise their rights as workers and unionists without fearing death and terror.”

GUILTY WITHOUT CHARGES

While at the Justice Department Michael Chertoff, Bush’s nominee to head Homeland Security, installed the post-9/11 policies that resulted in the roundup, detention and deportation of hundreds of Muslims who had no criminal or terrorist ties. The travails of thirteen of them, who were held for weeks or months, then deported, are the subject of a recent report by the ACLU. The title sums up the disturbing findings: Worlds Apart: How Deporting Immigrants After September 11 Tore Families Apart and Shattered Communities. More than a third of the people living in Brooklyn’s “Little Pakistan” were either deported or left voluntarily after 9/11, decimating the neighborhood.

NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW

Tsunami-devastated Sri Lanka received a visit from Senate majority leader Bill Frist, accompanied by Senator Mary Landrieu. Frist, a cardiologist, apparently found no need for emergency quadruple bypasses, so he confined himself to a quick inspection of sites near Colombo, the capital. The arrival of Frist had the virtue, according to the AP, of galvanizing the local Red Cross to set up a clinic, “complete with flags and banners, a few hours before the U.S. senators visited.” Before leaving, Frist organized a private photo-op. “Get some devastation in the back,” he instructed a staff member.