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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

A National Call for Criminal-Justice Reform

Justice for All rally and march

Demonstrators march in New York City during the Justice for All rally and march in December 2014. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

On the heels of the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin tragedies—and in light of more recent injustices like the fatal shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an unarmed Mexican national whom Pasco, Washington, police officers saw fit to shoot multiple times despite his apparent surrender—there’s plenty of reason to despair the sorry state of our criminal-justice system and the havoc it wreaks on the lives of too many innocent victims and their families.

But these days, there is some reason for hope. In the wake of so much cop-on-civilian violence, we’re beginning to hear a national rallying cry for criminal justice reform—and not just from protestors and progressives, who have been leading the charge for decades, but also from unlikely allies, including the Koch brothers and Newt Gingrich. This is an issue that unites the ACLU and Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for American Progress and FreedomWorks. And given this broad-based enthusiasm behind fixing our criminal justice system, it’s time we paid attention to a critical component that’s been missing from the conversation: the crisis in our nation’s local jails.

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Although we hear plenty about increasing rates of mass incarceration within state and federal prisons, we hear much less about the role played by local jails. This silence should be startling, as there are 11.7 million local jail admissions every year in the United States—twice as many as there were twenty years ago—compared to 631,000 state and federal prison admissions. The problem looks especially stark—and constitutionally troublesome—when you consider that, at any given moment, some three-fifths of the 722,000 prisoners in America’s local jails have not been convicted of the alleged crime for which they’re being detained. Many, in fact, are simply too poor to post even a small bail to get out while their cases are being processed.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Europe’s Ideologues of Austerity Stand in the Way of Reforms

Greek anti-austerity protest

An anti-austerity protest in Athens on February 11, 2015 (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
— William Butler Yeats

Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” captures reality in Europe these days, although surely not in the sense the poet intended. In Germany, the popular press is captivated by the face-off of the stern German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, clad in black suit and tie and white shirt, against the “charismatic,” “heartthrob,” new Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, bald head, dress shirt unbuttoned and untucked, scarf draped for effect. Only the appearances are deceiving. The buttoned-up Schäuble is the ideologue, with doctrine blinding him to reality. The rakish Varoufakis is the pragmatist, seeking a sensible way out of a catastrophe.

In Europe, it is the conviction of the “brightest and the best” that is loosing anarchy upon the world. In Europe, it is increasingly clear the center cannot hold. The austerity inflicted by the “troika”—the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank—on the debtor nations of southern Europe—Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (dubbed the PIIGS by pundits)—has failed disastrously. Citizens in Greece, Spain and elsewhere suffer unspeakable misery to repay debts that grow ever more impossible as their economies crater. The “responsible” center-right and center-left parties that dutifully sought to enforce the cruel dictates have been discredited. Parties that promise an end to the austerity are gaining momentum. The Greek people elected Syriza last month—a party forged out of a “coalition of the left” of fringe Marxist parties, greens and various social movements. Syriza’s leaders call not for revolution but for sensible reform. Greece would stay in Europe and would repay its debts. The new government pledged to run a primary surplus but not the crippling surplus of 4.5 percent GDP as required by the troika. Syriza also promised to do what no center party dared to do: crack down on corruption and tax avoidance of the Greek oligarchs who have plundered the country. It urged that debt repayment be made affordable, linked to the rate of growth, so that if the economy falters, the debt payments will adjust. It took steps to end the fire sale of the nation’s assets and to supply electricity and food to all.

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“We are a party of the left, but what we are putting on the table is essentially the agenda of a reformist bankruptcy lawyer from the City of London,” Varoufakis says. “The bailout was not a bailout of Greece in 2010, it was a bailout of the German and French banks.”

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Time For a ‘New Deal’ For Greece

A supporter of Alexis Tsipras celebrates at a rally outside Athens University Headquarters. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Don’t believe the tripe about the crisis in Europe. With the election of the Syriza Party in Greece, the Greek people have offered Europe hope. This is Europe’s chance to turn from the crippling austerity that has left the South mired in depression and the North sinking in deflation. Syriza is calling for a “New Deal,” not only for Greece but for all of Europe.

The question is whether the rest of Europe will exhibit statesmanship—or condemn the people of Europe to years more of misery. The initial reactions in Germany and Brussels opt for misery. Now is the time for the Obama administration, progressives in Congress and across the country to join in a bold call to save Europe from its folly.

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The facts of the situation are clear. The Greek debt cannot be repaid. When the bottom dropped out of the global economy, Greece, plagued by a corrupt and indebted government, was the most vulnerable of the European Union nations. The so-called “troika"—the EU, the European Central Bank and the IMF—stepped in to bail out reckless banks, assume most of the debt, and inflict harsh terms on the Greeks to repay it. The Greeks have sold off their assets, crushed workers, trampled labor laws and slashed vital public services to ensure that the private bankers be paid.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

A 2016 Debate We Need

Hillary Clinton (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

On Tuesday, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address to a Congress ruled by Republicans. The president has two years left in his second term, but political Washington is so focused on the 2016 presidential race that even the president’s speech is evaluated for its effect on the race.

Presidential campaigns start earlier and earlier, but seem to get emptier and emptier. Already the media is hyping the coming horse race, laying odds on who is in and who isn’t, positioning one candidate against another, treating reform ideas like fashions on a Hollywood red carpet, judged only in relation to the competition. Already the money primary has started, with political contenders dutifully lining up like beauty contestants at big money donor gatherings.

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On the Republican side, contenders seem to be tripping over one another, with a baker’s dozen or more considering the race. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has already built a campaign in waiting, even before announcing her exploratory committee. Activists hoping to avoid a Clinton coronation have launched a “draft Warren” movement, to push Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren into the race. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former senator Jim Webb are also considering a run.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on Bill Moyers

On Bill Moyers’s Legacy

Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers (AP Photo/Ric Francis-File)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

After more than forty years on the air, Bill Moyers has turned off his microphone. While the longtime face of public broadcasting had threatened to retire in the past, this time he has assured us that we have heard his final farewell. His voice and regular presence will be deeply missed, but his legacy, and his impact on public life will surely live on.

During his storied career, the former White House press secretary and newspaper publisher produced groundbreaking reports on subjects ranging from the Iran/Contra scandal and the Iraq war to economic inequality and the corrosive influence of money in politics. His relentless commitment to the truth made Moyers the target of vicious attacks from Republicans, who for decades have sought to dismantle the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but he never backed down. Always fearlessly independent, Moyers provided an invaluable counterpoint to Washington’s conventional wisdom. Yet his true legacy is far greater than the stories he covered or the politics he espoused. Indeed, Moyers constantly reminded us of journalism’s indispensable role in our democracy.

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Moyers distinguished himself as a journalist by refusing to be a stenographer for the powerful. Instead of providing yet another venue for the predictable preening of establishment leaders, Moyers gave a platform to dissenting voices from both the left and the right. Instead of covering the news from the narrow perspective of the political and corporate elite, Moyers gave voice to the powerless and the issues that affect them. “We journalists are of course obliged to cover the news,” he once said at an event hosted by the Nation Institute in Washington, DC. “But our deeper mission is to uncover the news that powerful people would prefer to keep hidden.”

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Lessons From ‘Selma’: It Takes a Movement

Selma

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Director Ava DuVernay’s Selma is a riveting and powerful depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggle. This compelling film reveals the scope of King’s radical vision, the fierce opposition he faced and the conflicting currents that only this savvy movement politician had to navigate. It should sweep the Academy Awards.

The greatest testament to the film’s power is the controversy it has spawned. Defenders of Lyndon Johnson, several prominent historians and even King’s longtime ally Andrew Young have objected to its depiction of the president as being at odds rather than a co-conspirator with King.

The debate over the film eerily replays a telling chapter of the primary race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008. In the run-up to the South Carolina presidential primary, in which nearly half the voters would be African American, Clinton—trying to draw a contrast between her experience and Obama’s eloquence—argued that “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964... It took a president to get it done.” Naturally, this raised hackles throughout the African American community, leading Clinton to charge that the Obama campaign was “deliberately distorting this.”

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The conflicting perspectives reflect very different angles of vision. Dr. King and the courageous citizens who were putting their lives on the line in non-violent demonstrations were demanding action at the federal level. President Johnson and his predecessor John F. Kennedy, however sympathetic, were worried about sustaining a Democratic coalition still anchored by powerful Southern senators. Both felt pressured by the demonstrators. This wasn’t a love fest. Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI’s wiretaps of King, which continued during Johnson’s administration.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Antonin Scalia: Torture’s Not Torture Unless He Says It Is

Justice Antonin Scalia

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Perhaps, as Justice Scalia told a Swiss university audience earlier this month, it is indeed “very facile” for Americans to declare that “torture is terrible.” The justice posited to his listeners a classic ticking-time-bomb scenario—this one involving “a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people”—and asked, “You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?” Now, I didn’t see that episode of 24, but I have read my Bill of Rights, and I’m far more inclined to align myself here with James Madison than with Jack Bauer—or with Antonin Scalia.

Psychopaths, sadists, and Scalia notwithstanding, no one really asks the asinine question, “Is torture terrible?” because it’s already been answered. Torture, George Washington told his troops in 1775, brings “shame, disgrace, and ruin” to the country; earlier this month, Sen. John McCain called the CIA’s enhanced interrogation tactics “shameful and unnecessary” and decried their employment. The UN expressly banned torture in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and twice underlined the position in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted in 1966) and Convention Against Torture (adopted in 1984). Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions (1949) prohibits “violence of life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture,” as well as “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” Finally, torture is illegal in the United States under federal law.

In our constitution, the Eighth Amendment is brilliant in its brevity: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” (Torture is also implicated in the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.) Notably, the Bill of Rights omits from its proscriptions countless offenses that a wayward state might commit against humanity, but cruel and unusual punishment is not one of those omissions; along with unlawful search and seizure, torture has been out of bounds since Day One. Still, Justice Scalia has found a chink in the Amendment’s protective armor.

Scalia’s is a truly frightening piece of rhetoric, an interpretation of the Eighth Amendment so narrow as to render it nearly irrelevant. As Judge Sol Wachtler, Chief Judge on the New York Court of Appeals between 1985 and 1993, wrote in December in response to Justice Scalia’s comments, “By saying the torture is not ‘punishment’ if inflicted for a good reason, Scalia redefines the word torture, a component of which is punishment of the most horrendous sort.”

Scalia implies that the emphasis of the Eighth Amendment is on “punishment,” not “cruel and unusual.” Scalia envisions a simple timeline between crime, apprehension, and punishment, seeming to think that the state can do anything it wants to a prisoner, detainee, enemy combatant, whatever—so long as it does not constitute officially meted-out punishment, which to Scalia means one thing: sentencing. In other words, torturing someone in the service of coercion, interrogation, or investigation is fine, right up to when a court assigns culpability and adjudicates consequences, at which point torture instantly becomes punishment and becomes impermissible.

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This callousness to universal principles of human dignity and to the founding principles of the Republic must be challenged. When government’s license to behave inappropriately, immorally, or illegally hinges on the malleable definition of the word “punishment”—and on the technical identification of when conduct is and is not punishment—then we’re in trouble. As Judge Wachtler notes, punishment is a component of torture, whether the torturer admits to it or not: when we torture for any reason, we punish. Would Justice Scalia construct constitutionality at a black site by condescending to a water-boarded detainee that he is merely undergoing interrogation and not, in fact, being punished?

It is a travesty that we must countenance a Supreme Court justice who holds such contempt for both domestic and international law—and for human dignity and decency as well. There is no justice in torture, and we cannot tolerate a justice who is for torture.

 

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on Obama’s new Cuba policy

The Change in Cuba Policy Is a Nod to Reality

American and Cuban flags on balcony

American and Cuban flags hang side-by-side on a balcony in Old Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba is a decision to recognize reality. For fifty years, the United States has pursued a policy that has failed. The embargo hurt the Cuban people it claimed to help and bolstered the regime that it intended to undermine. The effort to isolate Cuba has been increasingly isolating the United States both in the hemisphere and across the world. And as the president concluded, “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.” To believe that would be, as Albert Einstein taught us, the very definition of insanity.

The best evidence that this change was long overdue was provided by the hysterical and incoherent reactions of its opponents. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), a potential presidential contender, embraced the initiative, making an indisputable comment about the embargo: “If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn’t seem to be working.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) replied that Paul “has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Rubio argued that the United States gets nothing in return for normalization: no free elections in Cuba, no free press, no democratic progress of any sort. But while we don’t know what the product of the new opening will be, we do know that the half-century of the embargo hasn’t produced free elections or a free press in Cuba either. By making Cuba David against Goliath, the US embargo provides the regime a rationale for its internal crackdowns while elevating its stature across the hemisphere and the developing world. Normalizing relations with Cuba enables the United States to advocate for individual liberty, without being seen as a bully trying to club a small neighbor into submission.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Watch The Colbert Report’s Triumphant Final Song

Katrina vanden Heuvel bid farewell to The Colbert Report along with an eclectic chorus of some of Stephen’s favorite guests: Jon Stewart, Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jeff Daniels, Keith Olbermann, Samantha Power, Katie Couric, Matt Taibbi, Charlie Rose, Big Bird… We wish him all the best!

We’ll meet again,
Don’t know where, don’t know when,
But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.
Keep smiling through,
Just like you always do,
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds, far away.
So will you please say hello,
To the folks that I know,
Tell them I won’t be long, (i wont be long)
They’ll be happy to know that as you saw me go
I was singing this song.

The Criminal Justice System Is Broken. Here’s How to Start Fixing It.

(Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

When a grand jury decided not to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Brooklyn resident Jon Robinson declined to join the public protests. Two weeks later, when a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict the New York police officer who was filmed choking Eric Garner to death, Robinson marched through the night, though he remained uncertain of what the protests would accomplish. “I’ve got this rage and hunger for change,” he told a reporter. “But I also don’t know how you really cause change when you’ve got a system so broken.”

That sense of despair is understandable, given the recent spate of incidents in which black lives have been stolen without any justification or justice. But there are signs that the passion in the streets, which was on display this past weekend as tens of thousands of protesters marched through New York, the District and other cities across the country, could translate into meaningful policy changes. Last week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to give his office the power to investigate and prosecute cases in which police officers kill unarmed citizens, a possible model for national reform that could help restore the public’s trust. As Schneiderman wrote in a letter to the governor, “A common thread in many of these cases is the belief of the victim’s family and others that the investigation of the death, and the decision whether to prosecute, have been improperly and unfairly influenced by the close working relationship between the county District Attorney and the police officers he or she works with and depends on every day.”

Indeed, we are now seeing a crisis of confidence in our justice system, which has left black communities in particular fearing that police can torment them with impunity. “This type of independent oversight is a critical first step in making sure officers who brutalize or kill Black New Yorkers are held accountable,” the civil rights group ColorofChange.org said in a statement praising Schneiderman’s request. “The relationship between police and district attorneys is far too close and AG Schneiderman’s request would go a long way to avoid the systemic corruption, cronyism, and failed justice that often results when local prosecutors investigate police abuse involving Black victims.”

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

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