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Beat the Devil | The Nation

Beat the Devil

Alexander Cockburn

Extreme Solution I: Priests

The old movies used to feature a priest walking alongside the condemned
man toward the scaffold, offering last seconds of comfort,
plea-bargaining strategies with St. Peter, a bolstering hand under the
elbow. Sometime in the next decade the tableau may be reversed, with a
lay counselor assisting the condemned priest as he totters toward that
final rendezvous with the executioner.

The death penalty is being vigorously touted as the best way to deal
with child molesters. And as the world knows, the Roman Catholic Church
has sheltered many a child molester. On the cutting edge here are three
states noted for the moral refinement of their legislators: to wit,
Montana, Louisiana and Alabama. The first two states have already put
Death for Molesters into their statute books, and when Alabama lawmakers
convene again next year they will press forward into legislation, after
an overwhelming vote from the state's House of Representatives last year
in favor of molester executions.

The Montana law allows a person previously convicted of "sexual
intercourse without consent" with someone under 16 in any state to be
sentenced to death if convicted of the crime in Montana. The law was
passed in 1997, but no one has yet been charged under that provision.
Since 1995 Louisiana has had a law allowing the death penalty for people
convicted of raping a child under 12. Thus far, a few charges, no
convictions.

Alabama's bill would authorize the death penalty for people convicted a
second time of having sex with someone under 12. No other states allow
capital punishment for a sex crime. ABC News quoted Marcel Black,
chairman of the Alabama House Judiciary Committee, as saying, "The very
serious meaning of this is to send a message to child molesters that it
is a bad thing to do."

Molesters can take comfort in the fact that these laws will probably not
survive challenges from higher courts. The US Supreme Court ruled in
1977 that the death penalty is excessive punishment for rape. But who
knows, in the current atmosphere anything is possible. Maybe that's why
Pope John Paul II, a far-seeing man, shifted the Church toward
opposition to the death penalty.

Extreme Solution II: Palestinians

Two years ago fewer than 8 percent of those who took part in a Gallup
poll among Jewish Israelis said they were in favor of what is politely
called "transfer"--that is, the expulsion of perhaps 2 million
Palestinians across the Jordan River. This month that figure reached 44
percent.

Professor Martin van Creveld is one of Israel's best-known military
historians. On April 28 Britain's conservative newspaper the Telegraph
published an article outlining what van Creveld believes is Sharon's
near-term goal--expulsion.

According to van Creveld, Sharon's plan is to drive 2 million
Palestinians across the Jordan using the pretext of a US attack on Iraq
or a terrorist strike in Israel. This could trigger a vast mobilization
to clear the occupied territories of Arabs. Van Creveld notes that in
the 1970 showdown between Jordan's King Hussein and the PLO, Sharon,
serving as commanding officer of Israel's southern front, argued that
Israel's assistance to the King was a mistake; instead it should have
tried to topple the Hashemite regime. Sharon has often said since that
Jordan, which has a Palestinian majority even now, is the Palestinian
state, and thus a suitable destination for Palestinians to be kicked out
of his Greater Israel.

A US attack on Iraq would offer appropriate cover. Sharon himself told
Secretary of State Colin Powell that nothing happening in Israel should
delay a US attack. Other pretexts could include an uprising in Jordan,
followed by the collapse of King Abdullah's regime.

Should such circumstances arise, according to van Creveld, Israel would
mobilize within hours. "First, the country's three ultra-modern
submarines would take up firing positions out at sea. Borders would be
closed, a news blackout imposed, and all foreign journalists rounded up
and confined to a hotel as guests of the Government. A force of 12
divisions, 11 of them armoured, plus various territorial units suitable
for occupation duties, would be deployed: five against Egypt, three
against Syria, and one opposite Lebanon. This would leave three to face
east as well as enough forces to put a tank inside every Arab-Israeli
village just in case their populations get any funny ideas."

In van Creveld's view (he does say that he is utterly opposed to any
form of "transfer"), "the expulsion of the Palestinians would require
only a few brigades. They would not drag people out of their houses but
use heavy artillery to drive them out; the damage caused to Jenin would
look like a pinprick in comparison." He discounts any effective response
from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon or Iraq.

But what about international reaction? Van Creveld thinks it would not
be an effective deterrent. "If Mr Sharon decides to go ahead, the only
country that can stop him is the United States. The US, however, regards
itself as being at war with parts of the Muslim world that have
supported Osama bin Laden. America will not necessarily object to that
world being taught a lesson--particularly if it could be as swift and
brutal as the 1967 campaign; and also particularly if it does not
disrupt the flow of oil for too long.

"Israeli military experts estimate that such a war could be over in just
eight days," van Creveld writes. "If the Arab states do not intervene,
it will end with the Palestinians expelled and Jordan in ruins. If they
do intervene, the result will be the same, with the main Arab armies
destroyed. Israel would, of course, take some casualties, especially in
the north, where its population would come under fire from Hizbollah.
However, their number would be limited and Israel would stand
triumphant, as it did in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973."

We've been warned.

Late in the evening in back-road America you tend to pick the motels with a few cars parked in front of the rooms. There's nothing less appealing than an empty courtyard, with maybe Jeffrey Dahmer or Norman Bates waiting to greet you in the reception office. The all-night clerk at the Lincoln motel (three cars out front) in Austin, Nevada, who checked me in around 11:30 pm last week told me she was 81, and putting in two part-time jobs, the other at the library, to help her pay her heating bills since she couldn't make it on her Social Security.

She imparted this info without self-pity as she took my $29.50, saying that business in Austin last fall had been brisk and that the fifty-seven motel beds available in the old mining town had been filled by crews laying fiber optic cable along the side of the road, which in the case of Austin meant putting it twenty feet under the graveyard that skirts the road just west of town.

Earlier that day, driving from Utah through the Great Basin along US 50, famed as "the loneliest road," I'd seen these cables, blue and green and maybe two inches in diameter, sticking out of the ground on the outskirts of Ely, as if despairing at the prospect of the Great Salt Lake desert stretching ahead.

So we can run fiber optic cable through the Western deserts but not put enough money in the hands of 81-year-olds so they don't have to pull all-night shifts clerking in motels. What else is new?

People who drive or lecture their way through the American interior usually notice the same thing, which is that you can have rational conversations with people about the Middle East, about George W. Bush and other topics certain to arouse unreasoning passion among sophisticates on either coast. Robert Fisk describes exactly this experience in a recent piece for The Independent, for which he works as a renowned reporter and commentator on mostly Middle Eastern affairs.

Fisk claims on the basis of a sympathetic hearing for his analysis--unsparing of Sharon's current rampages--on campuses in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest that things are now changing in Middle America. After twenty-five years of zigzagging my way across the states I can't say I agree. It's always been like that, and even though polls purport to establish that a high percentage of all Middle Americans claim to have had personal exchanges with Jesus and reckon George W. to be the reincarnation of Abe Lincoln, the reality is otherwise. Twenty years ago Fisk would have met with lucid views in Iowa on the Palestinian question, plus objective assessments of the man billed at that time as Lincoln's reincarnation, Ronald Reagan.

Some attitudes do change. White people are more afraid of cops than they used to be. A good old boy in South Carolina I've bought classic cars from for a quarter of a century was a proud special constable back in the early eighties. These days if a police cruiser passes him on the highway, he'll turn off at the next intersection and take another road. Reason: A few years ago a couple of state cops stopped him late at night, frisked him, accused him of being drunk. This profoundly religious Baptist told them truthfully he'd never consumed alcohol in his life. Then they said he must be a drug dealer. He reckons the only reason they didn't plant some cocaine in his car was that he told them to check him out with the local police chief, an old friend.

I know from the stats that a lot of Americans are poor, so how come I'm often the only fellow on the road, or in town, in an old car aside from some of the Mexican fieldworkers in California for whom such cars are home? Most everyone seems to be in a late-model pickup or at least a nice new Honda Civic. I know, I know. The poor are out there, lots of them, but the whole place just doesn't seem to feel as poor as it often did in the early eighties recession. Then, day after day you could drive through towns that felt like graveyards, with no prospect of fiber optic cable.

Take Grants on I-40 in New Mexico, west of Albuquerque, which became the nation's self-proclaimed "uranium capital" in the fifties after Paddy Martinez heard descriptions of what uranium ore looked like and led the mining prospectors to the yellow rocks he'd been looking at down the years. The mines closed, and I recall from the early 1980s Grants looking sadly becalmed, with its Uranium Café and souvenir motels from the great days of Route 66. The audio in the Mining Museum still speaks plaintively about radiation's bad rep, despite the fact that in modest amounts it's good for you and there was much more of it around when the world was young.

Well, 66 nostalgia is still strong in Grants, but aside from the Lee Ranch coal mine the juice in Grants's economy now comes in large part from three prisons--one fed, one state and one private.

No wonder people are nervous of cops. There are so many prisons for the cops to send you to. So many roads where a sign suddenly comes into view, advertising correctional facility and warning against hitchhikers. I was driving through Lake Valley in eastern Nevada along US 93, with Mount Wheeler looking to the east. Listening to the radio and Powell's grotesque meanderings I was thinking, Why not just relocate the whole West Bank to this bit of Nevada where the Palestinians could have their state at last, financed by a modest tax on the gambling industry? The spaces are so vast you wouldn't even need a fence. Then reality returned in the form of the usual sign heralding a prison round the next bend.

West along US 50 from Austin I came to Grimes Point, site of fine petroglyphs. A sign informed me that "The act of making a petroglyph was a ritual performed by a group leader. Evidence suggests that there existed a powerful taboo against doodling." The graffiti problem. Some things never change. On the other hand, some things do. Many thousands of years ago those rocks were on the edge of a vast sea, maybe 700 feet deep. The petroglyph ridge was once beachfront property. The world was warmer then, and we're heading that way once more, from natural causes. To leave you on an upbeat note: At least natural radiation is on the wane.

Here we are, twenty years on, and the reports of the Israeli army smashing its way through Palestinian towns remind me of what came out of Lebanon as Sharon and his invading army raced north. Israeli troops beating, looting, destroying; Palestinians huddled in refugee camps, waiting for the killers to come.

But there is a huge difference. Twenty years ago, at least for people living here in the United States, it was harder, though far from impossible, to get firsthand accounts of what was going on. You had to run out to find foreign newspapers, or have them laboriously telexed from London or Paris. Reporting in the mainstream corporate press was horrifyingly tilted, putting the best face on Israeli deeds. Mostly, it still is. But the attempted news blackout by the Sharon government and the Israeli military simply isn't working.

Here's Aviv Lavie, writing in Ha'aretz on April 2:

A journey through the TV and radio channels and the pages of the newspapers exposes a huge and embarrassing gap between what is reported to us and what is seen, heard, and read in the world.... On Arab TV stations (though not only them) one could see Israeli soldiers taking over hospitals, breaking equipment, damaging medicines, and locking doctors away from their patients. Foreign television networks all over the world have shown the images of five Palestinians from the National Security forces, shot in the head from close range.... The entire world has seen wounded people in the streets, heard reports of how the IDF prevents ambulances from reaching the wounded for treatment.

As always, there are the courageous witnesses. These days we have the enormously brave young people in the International Solidarity Movement sending daily communications back to the United States that flash their way round the Internet and even translate into important interviews in the mainstream media.

Meet a few of them. Here's Jordan Flaherty, filing this account on Indymedia:

Last night the Israeli Military tried to kill me. I'm staying in the Al Azzeh refugee camp, in Bethlehem, along with about twenty other international civilians. We're here to act as human shields.... On the hill above the camp is an Israeli military sniper's post. To get where we were staying in the village, most of us had to cross this street. It was a quick, low, dash across the street. As I ran, the sniper fired.... The shots began as I came into view, and stopped shortly after I made it to the other side. They were clearly aimed at me. And, by the sound of them, they were close. All night long, there was the sound of gun shots, as the military shot into our village. We stayed clear of the windows.... The guns and bullets were, no doubt, paid for by my tax dollars. Which is, of course, why we are here.

Or Tzaporah Ryter, filing this on Electronic Intifada:

I am an American student from the University of Minnesota. I currently am in Ramallah. We are under a terrible siege and people are being massacred by both the Israeli army and armed militia groups of Israeli settlers.... On Thursday afternoon, the Israeli army began sealing off each entrance to Ramallah.... Those traveling in began desperately searching for alternative ways and traveling in groups, but the Israelis were firing upon them and everyone was running and screaming.... Israeli jeeps were speeding across the terrain, pulling up from every direction and shooting at the women and children, and also at me...

Or the extremely articulate and self-possessed Adam Shapiro, whose testimony ended up in the New York Daily News and on CNN, where he told Kyra Phillips:

This is not about politics between Jew and Arab, between Muslim and Jew. This is a case of human dignity, human freedom and justice that the Palestinians are struggling for against an occupier, an oppressor. The violence did not start with Yasir Arafat. The violence started with the occupation.... Arafat, after every terrorist incident, every suicide bombing, after every action, has condemned this loss of life, of civilian lives on both sides. The Sharon government, sometimes will apologize after it kills an innocent civilian, but it does not apologize for raping the cities and for going in and carrying out terrorist actions, going house to house tearing holes through the walls, roughing up people, killing people, assassinating people.

Most of the time you open up a newspaper and read a robotic column--as I did the Los Angeles Times's Ronald Brownstein the other day--about Palestinian terrorism and the wretched Arafat's supposed ability to quell the uprising with a few quick words. And then you turn on the NewsHour and there, of all people, is Zbigniew Brzezinski, stating the obvious, on April 1:

The fact of the matter is that three times as many Palestinians have been killed, and a relatively small number of them were really militants. Most were civilians. Some hundreds were children.... in the course of the last year, we have had Palestinian terrorism but we have also had deliberate overreactions by Mr. Sharon designed not to repress terrorism but to destabilize the Palestinian Authority, to uproot the Oslo Agreement, which he has always denounced, in a manner which contributed to the climate, that resulted in the killing of one of the two architects of the Oslo Agreement.

After predictable dissent from Kissinger, Brzezinski went on:

It's absolute hypocrisy to be claiming that Arafat can put a stop to the terrorism.... the fact of the matter is that his ability to control the situation would be greatly increased if there was serious movement towards political process, towards a political settlement and that the United States took the lead.

Between this brisk statement and the eloquent courage of Adam Shapiro and his brave fellow internationalists, the truth is getting out--not fast enough, not loud enough--but better than twenty years ago.

Call it the year of the yellow notepad. Doris Kearns Goodwin, ejected from Parnassus, Pulitzer jury service and kindred honorable obligations, sinks under charges of plagiarism consequent, she claims, of sloppy note-taking on her yellow legal pads.

Michael Bellesiles, flayed for knavish scholarship in his Arming America, says that his notations from probate records, central to his assertions about gun ownership in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, were on legal yellow pads that were irreparably damaged when his office at Emory University was flooded in May 2000, the year his book was published.

Stephen Ambrose, overtaken by charges of plagiarism, did not have recourse to the yellow-notepad defense, presumably because he had become rich enough not only to discard them in favor of teams of researchers, including his family, but to make an out-of-pocket, $1.25 million donation for environmental good works, including restoration on the Blackfoot River, no doubt hoping that water in Montana would be as efficacious as at Emory in purging the record.

The plagiarist lurks in all of us, and temptation or carelessness looms closer with the cut-and-paste function of the computer, though Shakespeare managed to steal a lot of Holinshed without electronic assistance.

With Bellesiles the stakes are high, because he addresses the issue of gun ownership in America and the Second Amendment. By the mid-1990s the battle was tilting decisively in favor of those arguing that the amendment asserts the right of individual citizens to own guns for self-defense and, if necessary, to counter government tyranny by means of armed popular resistance. (NB: The preceding sentence concludes with twenty-two words lifted from a piece by Chris Mooney in Lingua Franca.)

Like any good tactician, Bellesiles shifted the terms of discussion. He said he'd reviewed more than 11,000 probate records between 1765 and 1850 from New England and Pennsylvania, and discovered that roughly 14 percent of all adult white Protestant males owned firearms, meaning about 3 percent of the total population at the time of the Revolution, and that hence "all this talk about universal gun ownership is entirely a myth that I can find no evidence of." (More cribbing from Mooney.)

So if the people weren't armed, and if even official militias were mostly a disheveled rabble without arms, the Second Amendment was really an antic fantasy, like feudal armor in the mock-Tudor hall of a Bradford cotton millionaire.

The antigun crowd greeted Bellesiles with as much ecstasy as any relief column by early settlers in Indian Country. The Organization of American Historians gratefully pinned the Binkley-Stephenson Award to Bellesiles's bosom for his 1996 essay on the origins of American gun culture. Arming America elicited not only fervent applause by Garry Wills in The New York Times Book Review and Edmund Morgan in The New York Review of Books, but also the Bancroft Prize.

Bellesiles came under attack, but since his assailants included NRA types and even Charlton Heston (who cut to the heart of the matter by charging that Bellesiles simply had too much time on his hands), their often cogent demolitions were initially discounted as sore-loser barrages from the rednecks. Even so, the sappers pressed forward and began to penetrate Bellesiles's inner defenses.

A crucial chunk of battlement crashed to the ground when Bellesiles's most sedulous critic, James Lindgren, investigated his claim to have researched probate records at a National Archives center in East Point, Georgia. The center told Lindgren no such records existed. (Cockburn's source here is Danny Postel in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Since Cockburn once borrowed Postel's car in Chicago and saddled him with a couple of parking tickets, he definitely owes him a cite. These two tickets were probably the final straws in a load of fines that prompted Postel to flee Chicago for Washington, DC.) Then more chunks fell when other archival records cited by Bellesiles, in San Francisco and Vermont, turned out not to exist.

Bellesiles's Little Big Horn comes in the January edition of the William and Mary Quarterly. Primed in part by Lindgren, Gloria Main of the University of Colorado pounds Bellesiles with medium-range artillery, as in "[Bellesiles] found only 7 percent in Maryland with guns. My own work in the probate records of six Maryland counties from the years 1650 to 1720, ignored by Bellesiles, shows an average of 76 percent of young fathers owning arms of some sort." Ira Gruber of Rice slides the bayonet into Bellesiles with incredulous harrumphs about misrepresented evidence on casualty rates in American and European battles ("But Bellesiles has counted 18,000 prisoners among the killed and wounded at Blenheim"). In an interesting essay on guns, gun culture and murder in early America, Bellesiles is finally dispatched by Randolph Roth of Ohio State ("every tally of homicides Bellesiles reports is either misleading or wrong").

To give him credit, Bellesiles falls with some dignity ("Arming America is admittedly tentative in its statistics"), but fall he does. Now Emory is making nasty noises, and erstwhile allies are fleeing into the hills. Morgan, who whooped him up in the New York Review, says he's rethinking. Garry Wills says he's too busy now to address the matter, which is pretty lighthearted, considering that Bellesiles's phony scholarship is as devastating a blow as the antigun crowd has sustained in decades of fighting over the Second Amendment. (I speak contentedly as the owner of a 12-gauge and a .22, though I think too many discussions, pro and con, of the Second Amendment lack any sense of dynamism in the surge and ebb of class struggle in America.)

What about Knopf, which published Arming America? Editor Jane Garrett tells Postel that the house "stands behind" Bellesiles, that his were not intentional errors but the result of some "over-quick research." Knopf is renowned for its cookbooks. Suppose Bellesiles had suggested putting Amanita phalloides into the risotto. I don't think Garrett would be so forgiving.

Let's start with Baruch Kimmerling, a sociologist at Hebrew University. Here's what he published in the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'Ir last month: "I accuse Ariel Sharon of creating a process in which he will not only intensify the reciprocal bloodshed, but is liable to instigate a regional war and partial or nearly complete ethnic cleansing of the Arabs in the 'Land of Israel.'

"I accuse every Labor Party minister in this government of cooperating for implementation [of] the right wing's extremist, fascist 'vision' for Israel.

"I accuse the Palestinian leadership, and primarily Yasir Arafat, of shortsightedness so extreme that it has become a collaborator in Sharon's plans. If there is a second Naqba (Palestinian Holocaust), this leadership, too, will be among the causes.

"I accuse the military leadership, spurred by the national leadership, of inciting public opinion, under a cloak of supposed military professionalism, against the Palestinians. Never before in Israel have so many generals in uniform, former generals, and past members of the military intelligence, sometimes disguised as 'academics,' taken part in public brainwashing....

"I accuse the administrators of Israel's electronic media of giving various military spokespeople the access needed for an aggressive, bellicose, almost complete takeover of the public discourse....

"I accuse everyone who sees and knows all of this of doing nothing to prevent the emerging catastrophe. Sabra and Shatila events were nothing compared to what has happened and what is going to happen to us. We have to go out not only to the town squares, but also to the checkpoints. We have to speak to the soldiers in the tanks and the troop carriers....

"And I accuse myself of knowing all of this, yet crying little and keeping quiet too often."

From the press here we learn all the time of the pressure of public opinion on Sharon and his government to bear down even harder on the Palestinians. I just listened to NPR's Linda Gradstein quoting one "expert" after another in Israel to this effect. But if public opinion here is crucial in pressuring US administrations to some measure of constructive intervention (as opposed to carte blanche for Sharon and his band of criminals), then we should be hearing every day of the passionate opposition to Sharon of people like Kimmerling.

There are many others you don't read about here. Take the courageous people in the Ta'ayush movement. On their website (taayush.tripod.com/taayush.html) you'll see the words "Arab-Jewish Partnership," and then you'll be able to scroll through one action after another in which they have braved police and army beatings, marching to beleaguered and often bulldozed Palestinian villages to stand shoulder to shoulder with the victims. Here's what Professor Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University wrote March 6 to Roane Carey, my editor at The Nation: "As to the situation here, it is getting unbearable by the day. We tried to dismantle a roadblock the other day near Hebrew U and were beaten by the police. Three women had their hands broken, one had her head opened. I was beaten while in custody with my hands handcuffed behind my back. Sharon bombed Gaza this morning...."

Plenty of people in Israel see well enough that repression will not work. In December Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shabak, Israel's security service, told Le Monde, "We say the Palestinians behave like 'madmen,' but it is not madness but a bottomless despair.... Yasir Arafat neither prepared nor triggered the intifada. The explosion was spontaneous, against Israel, as all hope for the end of occupation disappeared, and against the Palestinian Authority, its corruption, its impotence.

"I favor unconditional withdrawal from the territories-- preferably in the context of an agreement, but not necessarily: What needs to be done, urgently, is to withdraw from the territories. And a true withdrawal.... If [the Palestinians] proclaim their own state, Israel should be the first to recognize it and to propose state to state negotiations, without conditions." There have been public statements from other Israeli security personnel bearing on the same theme--that the present strategy of extreme repression is doomed to fail and that some form of phased withdrawal is in order.

Is there anything to the Saudi proposal? After all, its suggested bargain--recognition of Israel from the Arab countries in return for Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders--is over thirty years old. Israeli journalist Meron Benvenisti had the right angle in his February 28 Ha'aretz column: "No illusion is more dangerous than the idea being sold that 'the conflict with the Palestinians is small and incidental. We can solve the conflict with the entire Arab world.' It was long ago proven that there is no solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict without a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians--and that is what the Saudi initiative is all about."

The Bush Administration, criminally negligent in its cowardice to engage with this crisis, says the Saudi idea has merit, by which it indicates well enough the standard operating procedure for such proposals. As summed up by Uri Avnery, head of Israel's Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc): "In Israel, every international initiative designed to put an end to the conflict passes through three stages: (a) denial, (b) misrepresentation, (c) liquidation. That's how the Sharon-Peres government will deal with this one, too."

The press here has for decades been as culpable as the government. No administration will ever exert itself positively without popular pressure, and the role of the media has been to avert such pressure by suppressing opposition voices. Here's one thing you can do: Jewish Voices Against the Occupation is running an ad campaign calling for the evacuation of all settlements, return to pre-1967 borders, suspension of US military aid till the end of the occupation and the establishment of an international peacekeeping force. JVAO's Bluma Goldstein tells me 450 have signed it so far and $30,000 has been raised toward the necessary $37,750. JVAO is at PO Box 11606, Berkeley, CA 94712, and www.jvao.org. Remember Kimmerling's line, "And I accuse myself of knowing all of this, yet crying little and keeping quiet too often."

The hoofprints of Lucifer are everywhere. And since this is America, eternally at war with the darker forces, the foremost Enemy Within is sex, no quarter given. Here are some bulletins from the battlefront, drawn from a smart essay on "Sex & Empire" in the March issue of The Guide (www.guidemag.com), a Boston-based monthly travel magazine that has "about the best gay sex politics around," according to Bill Dobbs of Queerwatch, whom I take as my adviser in these matters.

In February 2000, Matthew Limon, an 18-year-old, had oral sex with a 14-year-old schoolmate. A Kansas court sentenced him to seventeen years in prison, a sentence duly upheld by a federal court in February. Last July, an Ohio court sentenced 22-year-old Brian Dalton to seven years in prison because of sex fantasies he wrote in his diary. A woman teacher in Arizona faces 100 years in prison for having an affair with a 17-year-old boy. Frankly, I'd have risked two centuries in prison to have sex with Miss Hollister when I was in school.

Apropos the triumph of identity politics across the past thirty years, Bill Andriette, the author of "Sex & Empire," remarks that "the same PR machinery that produces all these feel-good identities naturally segues into manufacturing demonic ones--indeed, creates a demand for them. The ascription of demonic sexual identities onto people helps drive repression, from attacks on Internet freedom to sex-predator laws. Identity politics works gear-in-gear with a fetishization of children, because the young represent one class of persons free of identity, the last stand of unbranded humanity, precious and rare as virgin prairie."

This brings us into an Olympian quadruple axel of evil: sexually violent predators (familiarly known as SVPs), preying on minors of the same sex. There's no quarreling between prosecutor and judge, jury and governor, Supreme Court and shrinks. Lock 'em up and throw away the key.

The other day I listened to Marita Mayer, an attorney in the public defender's office in California's Contra Costa County, describe the desolate business of trying to save her clients, SVPs, from indeterminate confinement in Atascadero, the state's prime mental bin.

Among Mayer's clients are men who pleaded guilty to sex crimes in the mid-1980s, mostly rape of an adult woman, getting a fixed term of anywhere from ten to fifteen years. In the old days, if you worked and behaved yourself, you'd be up for parole after serving half the sentence.

In California, as in many other states, SVP laws kicked in in the mid-1990s, crest of the repressive wave provoked by hysteria over child sex abuse and crime generally: mandatory minimum sentences, erosion of the right to confront witnesses, community notification of released sex offenders, surgical and chemical castration, prohibition of mere possession of certain printed materials, this last an indignity previously only accorded atomic energy secrets.

So California passes its SVP law in January of 1996, decreeing that those falling into the category of SVP have a sickness that requires treatment and cannot be freed until a jury agrees unanimously that they are no longer a danger to the community. (The adjudicators vary from state to state. Sometimes it's a jury, or merely a majority of jurors, sometimes a judge, sometimes a panel, sometimes a "multidisciplinary team.")

Mayer's clients, serving out their years in Pelican Bay or Vacaville or San Quentin, counting the months down to parole date, suddenly find themselves back in jail in Contra Costa County, told they've got a mental disorder and can't be released till a jury decides they're no danger to the community. Off to Atascadero they go for a two-year term, at the end of which they get a hearing, and almost always another two-year term.

"Many of them refuse treatment," Mayer says. "They refuse to sign a piece of paper saying they have a mental disease." Of course they do. Why sign a document saying that for all practical purposes you may well be beyond reform or redemption, that you are Evil by nature, not just a guy who did something bad and paid the penalty?

It's the AA model of boozing as sin, having to say you are an alcoholic and will always be in that condition, one lurch away from perdition. Soon everything begins to hinge on someone's assessment of your state of mind, your future intentions. As with the damnable liberal obsession with hate-crimes laws, it's a nosedive into the category of "thought crimes."

There the SVPs are in Atascadero, surrounded by psych techs eager to test all kinds of statistical and behavioral models, along with phallometric devices designed to assist in the persuasion of judge and jury that, yes, the prisoner has a more than 50 percent likelihood of exercising his criminal sexual impulses, should he be released.

Thus, by the circuitous route of "civil commitment" (confining people deemed to be a danger to themselves or others), we have ended up with a situation that from the constitutional point of view, is indeed absolutely Evil: people held in preventive detention or being locked up twice for the same crime.

"It's using psychiatry, like religion, to put people away," Mayer concludes. "Why not hire an astrologer or a goat-entrail reader to predict what the person might do? Why not the same for robbers as for rapists? What's happening is double jeopardy. People don't care about child rapists, but the Constitution is about protections. How do I feel about these guys? When I talk to my clients I don't presume to think what they'll do in the future. I believe in redemption. I don't look at them as sexually violent predators, I see them as sad sacks. They have to register; they could be hounded from county to county; even for a tiny crime they'll be put away. Their lives are in ruin. I pity them."

But not goat entrails, surely. The animal rights crowd would never stand for it.

Right till the end of January, Dita Sari, an Indonesian in her late 20s, was preparing to fly from her home near Jakarta to Salt Lake City to bask in the admiration of assorted do-gooders and celebrities mustered by the public relations department of Reebok for its thirteenth annual Human Rights Awards, overseen by a board including Jimmy Carter and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo. Make no mistake, the folks--usually somewhere between four and six--getting these annual Reebok awards have all been fine organizers and activists, committed to working for minorities, the disfranchised, the disabled, the underdogs in our wicked world.

Dita Sari's plan was to proceed to the podium in the Capitol Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, on February 7, and then, when offered the human rights award, reject it.

Now, this annual Reebok ceremony isn't up there with the Nobels, or the genius grants from MacArthur. Despite Reebok's best efforts, it's definitely a second-tier event. Nonetheless, it has paid off for Reebok. Says Jeff Ballinger, an antisweatshop activist who's organized with shoe workers in Indonesia for the past thirteen years, "With this kind of ceremony, Reebok gets its name into respectable company. When they give a prize to someone like Julie Su, a lawyer for immigrant workers in California, people who wouldn't be seen dead in Nikes are impressed."

Dita Sari got picked by Reebok's judges because she defied her government on the issue of independent trade unions. In her own words: "In 1995, I was arrested and tortured by the police, after leading a strike of 5,000 workers of Indoshoes Inti Industry. They demanded an increase of their wages (they were paid only US $1 for working eight hours a day), and maternity leave as well. This company operated in West Java, and produced shoes of Reebok and Adidas."

She got out of prison in 1999. Since then she's been building a union in plants across Java. It was there that she got a good look at Reebok's contractors, the underbosses of all the apparel, footwear, computer and toy companies. These contractors run their plants in a notoriously harsh manner.

Reebok's flacks can brandish armloads of studies, codes, monitoring reports, guidelines and kindred matter, all attesting to the company's dedication to fair treatment of anyone making consumer items with the name Reebok printed on them. But nothing has really changed. "We've created a cottage industry of monitors and inspectors and drafters of codes," Ballinger says, "but all these workers ever wanted was to sit down in dignity and negotiate with their bosses, and this has never happened."

Due in large part to the efforts of the workers and Western allies like Ballinger's Press for Change, the daily wage in Indonesia actually went up more than 300 percent between 1990 and 1997, at which point the Asian economic crisis struck. Inflation wiped out all those gains. Workers' daily pay is now half what it was before the crisis hit.

These were the points Dita Sari was going to make when she got to Salt Lake City. Then she learned that Reebok intended to schedule her and other recipients for some public events before the actual award ceremony. Rather than let Reebok benefit in any way from her presence, Dita Sari pulled the plug and at last word is in Jakarta trying to raise relief money for workers left destitute by the worst flooding in decades. She's sent the speech she was planning to give at the awards:

I have taken this award into very deep consideration. We finally decide not to accept this....
       In Indonesia, there are five Reebok companies. Eighty percent of the workers are women. All companies are sub-contracted, often by South Korean companies such as Dung Jo and Tong Yang. Since the workers can only get around $1.50 a day, they then have to live in a slum area, surrounded by poor and unhealthy conditions, especially for their children. At the same time, Reebok collected millions of dollars of profit every year, directly contributed by these workers. The low pay and exploitation of the workers of Indonesia, Mexico and Vietnam are the main reasons why we will not accept this award.

But isn't Reebok at least trying to do something decent? The way Dita Sari sees things, the attempt is phony. All the awards in the world--all the window dressing with Desmond Tutu, Carly Simon, Sting, Robert Redford--doesn't alter the basic fact that workers in the Third World are being paid the absolute minimum to make a very profitable product. The labor cost of a $70 pair of sneakers made in China, Vietnam or Indonesia is $1 or less.

Is there such a thing as a virtuous sneaker? Ballinger cites Bata, a Toronto-based company that runs its own factory in Jakarta. Its executives sat down with the union and worked out a contract with significant improvements on issues that employees care about greatly, like seniority. Though the margin has fallen recently, wage scales are better than minimum. Instances of bullying and intimidation are far fewer. Bata's shoes are sold in Indonesia for what an Indonesian can afford: $10 or less.

Ten years ago another courageous Indonesian, Teten Masduki, was asked by the Levi Strauss company to broker a clinic to be built near a contractor's factory. Teten, uncompromising labor advocate that he is, refused, even though the assignment would have made him a local hero. His reason: a clinic wouldn't give the workers what they need, a voice, the power to bargain.

Teten Masduki and Dita Sari see the world clearly, a lot more clearly than the celebrities and activists massed at such events as the one organized by Reebok in Salt Lake City, which is already awash with Olympian bunkum about human brotherhood. Dita Sari turned down $50,000 from Reebok. Teten Masduki turned down a tempting position with Levi Strauss. These days he's been responsible for chasing out a corrupt attorney general from his post as head of Indonesia's Corruption Watch. Do-gooders should study these fine examples and stiffen their spines.

Throwing the book at people is nothing new, but in our post-9/11 world the screws are tightening. Take San Francisco, whose District Attorney is Terence "Kayo" Hallinan, a progressive fellow. Indeed, in his 2000 re-election bid Hallinan survived years of abuse in the San Francisco Chronicle for supposedly being altogether too slack a prosecutor, with poor conviction rates and kindred offenses betokening softness on crime.

Yet this is the same Hallinan who's hit two gay AIDS activists with an escalating barrage of charges, currently amounting to forty-one alleged felonies and misdemeanors, all adding up to what he has stigmatized in the local press as "terrorism." That's a trigger word these days, as Sarah Jane Olson, a k a Kathleen Soliah, recently discovered when a judge put her away for twenty years to life for actions back in the 1970s.

Held in San Francisco County Jail since last November 28 are Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli. Neither man has been able to make bail, which Hallinan successfully requested to be set at $500,000 for Petrelis and $600,000 for Pasquarelli.

Why this astonishing bail? What it boils down to is that the two accused are dissidents notorious for raising all kinds of inconvenient, sometimes obscene hell about AIDS issues. They've long been detested by San Francisco's AIDS establishment, which Petrelis in particular has savaged as being disfigured by overpaid executives, ineffective HIV-prevention campaigns and all-round complacency and sloth.

They've taken kooky positions. Pasquarelli, for example, believes that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. Petrelis hasn't scrupled to form alliances with right-wingers in Congress when it suits his tactical book. Being attacked by them can be an unpleasant experience. Who wants to get phoned in the middle of the night and be asked whether your wife has got your syphilitic dick in her mouth?

The two were thrown in jail because of an escalating campaign they launched late last year amid calls for an expansion of quarantining laws across the country, prompted by fears of bioterrorism. Petrelis and Pasquarelli took after an SF public health official, Jeffrey Klausner, for seeming to endorse quarantining of people with AIDS. They also assailed the media, notably the San Francisco Chronicle, for relaying what the two claimed were inflated statistics about increases in the rates of syphilis and HIV in San Francisco. The higher the stats, the more dollars flow to various AIDS bureaucracies. The Chronicle claimed tremulously that not only had its reporters been showered with filthy nocturnal calls to their homes but that there had been a bomb threat against the paper.

On the basis of what has surfaced so far, the charges and bail are way out of kilter with the facts of the case. Their severity defies logical explanation, unless we acknowledge the loathing Petrelis and Pasquarelli inspire in San Francisco's respectable element and among some well-known organizers.

Take Kate Sorensen, an AIDS activist who herself was held on $1 million bail for leading demonstrations outside the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. The DA there took her to trial on three felonies, though she was only convicted of a misdemeanor. Such experiences have not evoked any solidarity with the San Francisco pair. Wrote Sorensen recently, "I will fight for our right to demonstrate. I will fight for our right to free speech. I will fight this police state, but I will not fight for you."

This self-righteous stance was elicited by an open letter of concern addressing the prosecution of Petrelis and Pasquarelli. Organized by the radical gay civil libertarian Bill Dobbs of Queer Watch, the open letter (go to www.openletteronline.com and look under "Politics & Activism," then "Petrelis-Pasquarelli") has been signed by hundreds, including many well-known gay figures like Harvey Fierstein, Scott Tucker, Barbara Smith and Judy Greenspan. The letter questions the motivation for the charges and makes the scarcely extremist demand that the two get fair legal treatment and reasonable bail.

Moderate though the terms of the letter are, it has aroused much fury from the San Francisco gay establishment, whose animus against Petrelis and Pasquarelli was what apparently prompted Hallinan to have the pair charged and arrested in the first place. On November 15 Martin Delaney of Project Inform, Mike Shriver of the mayor's office and fifteen others published a letter in the Bay Area Reporter urging people to pressure Hallinan, demanding "full prosecution of Pasquarelli, Petrelis and their collaborators."

Petrelis and Pasquarelli have a potent posse howling for their heads. "They fucked with the wrong people," said a health official quoted in the San Francisco Examiner on January 23. The "wrong people" include a broad swath of liberals and leftists in and out of government, the AIDS establishment and media figures.

Time was when a decent death threat used to be a badge of honor in the Fourth Estate. Jimmy Breslin recently recalled to Dobbs his glorious "Son of Sam" days, when violent threats were so routine at the New York Daily News that the paper's switchboard operator was wont to ask callers whether they were registering "general death threats" or "specific death threats for Mr. Breslin."

Granted, Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein is a terror survivor of "Attack by Lizard in the LA Zoo," and his wife, Sharon Stone, is the marquee celebrity for one of Petrelis's targets, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, but Bronstein should remember that Daily News phone operator and get off his high horse.

Hallinan's got a radical past and even radical pretensions. He knows as well as anyone that conspiracy charges have long been used to smash protest. And he knows as well as anyone that militant protest is at the cutting edge of social conscience. It's easy to grandstand about the foul tactics, the obscenities, the all-round vulgarity of Pasquarelli and Petrelis, but should this add up to a demand that they be thrown into prison for years? Of course it shouldn't. Judge Parker Meeks Jr. should resist the entreaties of the posse and cut the preposterous bail drastically or release them on their own recognizance. Hallinan should get his sense of perspective back, and drop the drastic charges.

Author

Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one...

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