News and Features
This magazine has been inundated of late with missives from irate Naderites demanding that the editors immediately exile me to The New Republic, the DLC or worse. My last column on Nader, which merely pointed out that he and his campaign should be held morally responsible for the awful acts of the Bush Administration--since without Nader's candidacy there would be no Bush Administration--inspired 122 such responses, a high percentage of which were personally abusive. Yet when the man himself appeared in these pages to denounce the President whose election he abetted, only twenty-seven readers were so moved. These numbers point to a perennial problem for liberals: Such zeal and enthusiasm that exists for politics at all anymore appears to rest exclusively with the extremes of left and right. Too bad that instead of learning from the far right's march to power through a grassroots takeover of the Republican Party, the Naderite left seems intent on destroying the fragile gains of seven decades of social progress.
True, it's not easy to support a party with standard-bearers like Clinton and Gore, temperamentally conservative career politicians whose lifetimes of compromise have made them untrustworthy except as weathervanes telling the direction of the political winds. Many (though not all) Democrats are no different. Yet virtually every day the Bush Administration reminds the non-Naderites among us that the only alternative is far worse. And so long as leftists are too weak to create a movement to rival the Republican right, the fight against Bush, DeLay & Co. will require whatever imperfect weapons we have at our disposal. The problem is how to excite people about such unexciting prospects.
Fortunately, the landscape is not entirely barren. Beyond the useful-but-wonkish American Prospect and the well-written but frequently neocon New Republic, the niche economics of Net publishing has spawned a number of sites that manage to combine sensible politics with humor and enthusiasm. Most are tiny operations run on love and charity, largely dependent on their communities of readers for information and support. As such, they have remained pretty much invisible to the mainstream media. Here are a few of my favorites.
§ Despite its criticism of this magazine and some of its columnists--an argument I think I'll stay out of--www.mediawhoresonline.com has a wonderful joie de vivre and some great punchlines. They view the mainstream media as being the captive of the right wing, whether for reasons of ideology or, as the site would put it, "whorishness." Most of the site's material and commentary is designed to insure that the media's "credibility in the public mind be brought in line with its genuine lack of credibility." To do this, they're willing to "mimic the tactics of the wingnuts," referring to all with whom they disagree as "whores" or occasionally "fascists" and refusing, on principle, to criticize any writer whose work they deem to be that of a "non-whore." Hypocritical, you say? "We don't believe it is hypocrisy at all to follow their standard, but fairness," responds Jennifer Kelly, the site's guiding spirit. "And what's more, it's really easy and doesn't require anything in the way of conscience or diligence." I don't follow this philosophy myself, but take my word for it: These people are as funny as they are fearless. Unfortunately, they are a bit unfair to actual whores...
§ www.bartcop.com began as a critique of Rush run by a fellow who wishes to remain anonymous but describes himself as "your average Okie liberal with too much time on my hands." It's developed into a very smart, funny critique of the right and is financed to the tune of $600 a month by Marc Perkel of San Francisco, who simply liked it and offered to pay the freight.
§ www.buzzflash.com, run by Mark Karlin, provides a liberal antidote to Matt Drudge, offering a bit less in the obnoxious self-promotion department and a bit more in the way of accuracy. Turn to it for up-to-the-second reports on, and links to, the Bush Administration's outrage du jour, frequently with smile-inducing headlines ("Yes We Have to Post It Twice: Doobie Brothers Guitarist Is Helping Design Bush's Missile Defense Shield").
§ Despite its unpromising name, www.democrats.com has no relationship to the somnolent party it seeks to revive. Its sponsors tell me, "We think the progressive Democratic message is the winning message, but the party needs to live up to its message by fighting for its principles." Bob Fertik, Dave Lytel and some 200 local chapters do this by highlighting news of interest to progressives, connecting a community of progressive Democrats, publicizing demonstrations to "Irk the Smirk," as Mediawhoresonline puts it, to protest the "stolen election of 2000." They try to fill "an enormous void left by the Democratic Party, which keeps Democratic activists at arm's length."
§ www.americanpolitics.com is a terrific place for links, satires and cartoons. It's also a great place to find incriminating quotes by the bad guys. Oh, and check out the shapely "email@example.com" before someone makes them take her down. Similarly comprehensive, www.onlinejournal.com contains original reporting from a sensibly leftish perspective.
§ www.bear-left.com offers first-rate in-depth analysis of whatever topic strikes the fancy of its authors, Paul Corrigan and Tim Francis-Wright, including an insanely detailed recent analysis of Skull and Bones's tax filings. See also its fantastic links page at www.bear-left.com/links.html.
§ www.mediatransparency.org does not really belong on this list, since it's more of an intellectual and political resource for journalists and scholars doing research on the connections between right-wing foundations and public policy. But it does deserve recognition for its public service and the widest possible audience for the tireless research on this neglected topic undertaken by its founder, Rob Levine.
§ And if you need cheering up, try www.bushorchimp.com, but remember it's a joke. The left got rolled for years by Ronald Reagan's dumb act, and I fear "W" is no dummy either--appearances, quite obviously, to the contrary.
Susan Sontag went to Israel and picked up her Jerusalem Prize on May 9. Ori Nir reported in Haaretz the following day that after accepting the prize from Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag told those present at the convention center: "I believe the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean of course the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes, the destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and access to employment, to schooling, to medical services, or as a punishment for hostile military activities in the vicinity of those civilians."
In her opinion, Sontag said, there will never be peace in the Middle East until Israel first suspends its settlements, and then demolishes them. Some cheered, others left the hall.
Sontag told the Jerusalem Post that there'd been a lot of pressure on her not to attend the Jerusalem Book Fair and accept the prize. Publicly--at least in this country--I think my columns (e.g., here on April 23) constituted the only such pressure. Maybe they helped firm up Sontag to make the remarks noted above. Anyway, I'm glad she did. Out of interest, I asked my colleague Jonathan Shainin to check the record to see if she'd said anything critical about Israeli government policies in the past. He didn't find much, but one document she co-signed as a PEN board member a decade ago signals why it still might have been better for her to decline to accept any prize from Mayor Olmert.
Back on February 18, 1991, amid the war with Iraq, the New York Times published a letter signed by Sontag along with E.L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, Larry McMurtry, Arthur Miller and Edward Said, all executive board members of PEN American Center. It began as follows:
"We are acutely dismayed by the continuing detention of the Palestinian intellectual and activist Sari Nusseibeh in Jerusalem, for what the Israeli Government first called 'subversive activities of collecting security information for Iraqi intelligence.'"
The letter went on to describe how Nusseibeh, professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University, had been imprisoned, though Israeli authorities were unable to produce any evidence against him. "We are concerned that the Israeli Government is exploiting these difficult days of war against Iraq to crack down on precisely those figures whose moderation and opposition to violence will be essential to the conclusion of a just and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of this war."
This May 10, in the same edition that noted Sontag's public remarks on receiving the Jerusalem Prize, Haaretz ran a commentary titled, "What Freedom, What Society?":
Yesterday evening Jerusalem's Mayor conferred the "Jerusalem Prize for the freedom of man and society" to the writer Susan Sontag. At the same hour, a proposal submitted by the Public Security Minister to "shut down for the near future the administration and presidency of Al-Quds University headed by Sari Nusseibeh" was sitting on the desk of the mayor, who serves on the Jerusalem Affairs Committee, which is appointed by the Prime Minister. It can be assumed that only a few of the hundreds of participants in the festive Jerusalem event (all of them committed cultural figures who fight for human liberty) were conscious of the irony.
In a different world, Sari Nusseibeh would be a leading candidate for such a prize, rather than the Jewish-American writer who was involved naively in a celebration of self-righteousness and self-congratulation. A Palestinian prince and cordial, dignified philosopher, Sari Nusseibeh has built a splendid academic research framework. Not the type to surrender to threats, or to physical blows or the temptations of power, he had created bridges of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and furnishes original ideas and plans to resolve the dispute. This is the man depicted by Israel's establishment as "a security threat," rather than a culture hero.... In a different world, people of culture and supporters of freedom would have suspended such an awards celebration, waiting for circumstances to arise under which universal meaning to the concept "freedom and society" might crystallize.... One should marvel at the prize givers' ability to compartmentalize and the ability to reconcile the contradiction between "freedom of man and society," and a "plan" designed not only to ruin human freedom, but also a society located just a few hundred meters from where the prizes were conferred.... One of the last, still operating, joint Al-Quds University-Hebrew University projects is a botanical catalogue, an attempt to identify and describe the flora of the shared homeland. When will these botanists be recognized as the ones whose works should be lauded, rather than those of righteous hypocrites?
So Sontag accepts a prize from a group that's trying to boot Nusseibeh out of East Jerusalem--the very same man whose detention she petitioned to end ten years ago, during the first intifada! She deserves credit for condemning the occupation policies, but she could have gone a lot further. For example, she praised the man giving her the prize, Mayor Olmert, as "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person." This is like describing Radovan Karadzic as a moderate in search of multiconfessional tolerance. Olmert is a fanatical ethnic cleanser, one of the roughest of the Likud ultras. During his period in office, he has consistently pushed for the expropriation of Arab property and the revocation of Arab residence permits. Olmert was a principal advocate of the disastrous 1996 tunnel excavation underneath the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. During the ensuing demonstrations, Israeli security forces shot dead about fifty Palestinian civilians. The mayor was also instrumental in the seizure of Palestinian land at the southeastern edge of Jerusalem in order to build the settlement of Har Homa, another link in the encirclement of Arab East Jerusalem. This too led to prolonged rioting.
Such people have no right to award a prize on "freedom."
His mayoral campaign platform is the most progressive in modern city history.
President Bush's first list of nominees to the US Circuit Courts of Appeal, unveiled on May 8, was deceptively conciliatory and seeded with hard-to-oppose minorities and women, stealth conservatives and even a Clinton holdover, Roger Gregory, who has been sitting temporarily on the Fourth Circuit during the stalled appointments process. Gregory, a black lawyer, was a bone tossed to the left, but Bush's list contains enough red-meat conservatives to please his loyal base. Republicans already control eight of the thirteen courts of appeal and could dominate three more if Bush is permitted to fill even some of the current thirty-one vacancies. On the Fourth Circuit, where Republican judges now hold a 7-to-6 majority, and the Fifth, where they maintain a 9-to-5 edge, there are five and three vacancies, respectively.
For the Fourth Circuit, the farthest right of them all, Bush named two judges who should have no problem fitting in. Terrence William Boyle, a federal district judge in North Carolina and former aide to Jesse Helms, is so off the charts that in a recent voting rights case, Hunt v. Cromartie, the Supreme Court slapped him down two times in a row for ruling in favor of white voters trying to weaken black Congressional districts. The other Fourth Circuit nominee, Dennis Shedd, a federal judge in South Carolina, was a top aide to Senator Strom Thurmond. Both men have the support of Jesse Helms, who blocked all Clinton's North Carolina nominees to the Fourth Circuit on the ground that it didn't need any more judges. On the contrary, as a result of Republican obstructionism the federal courts have 100 vacancies and a backlog of 50,000 civil and 48,000 criminal cases at the district level. Now the brakes are off, and the GOP is rushing to pack the Fourth Circuit so it will remain a conservative bastion for years to come.
Two other Bush first-round nominees to the District of Columbia Circuit Court, Miguel Estrada and John Roberts, could shore up the GOP dominance of that body. Estrada is a Honduran immigrant who attended Harvard Law School. At age 39 he'll sit on a circuit with a tradition of promotion to the Supreme Court. Now a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, he has left few footprints on the public record, but he's considered an Antonin Scalia clone. Roberts, a Washington lawyer, represents Toyota in a case challenging the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Among the women on Bush's list, Edith Clement, a federal judge in Louisiana and a member of the conservative Federalist Society, will add little diversity to the conservative Fifth Circuit. Defense lawyers consider her a hanging judge who always sides with prosecutors. And she has a record of "judicial junketeering"--accepting trips from conservative foundations and corporations that purvey a free-market economic philosophy.
For the Sixth Circuit, Bush nominated Jeffrey Sutton, also an active member of the Federalist Society, whose influence permeates the Administration's panel of judge-pickers. Sutton is a leader in the states' rights campaign and successfully argued a recent Supreme Court case that took away the right of disabled workers to sue state governments for discrimination.
The religious right will have a friend on the Tenth Circuit bench if the nomination of Michael McConnell, a University of Chicago-trained professor at the University of Utah College of Law, goes through. McConnell has argued pro-school prayer briefs before the Supreme Court and is antichoice.
The circuit courts are a crucial battleground in the Administration strategy of entrenching conservative policies in this country. As the Rehnquist Court steadily pares its docket--last year it issued only seventy-four signed opinions, compared with 107 in 1991-92--the circuit courts have become mini-Supremes, final arbiters on many important, enduring issues in their districts. Take the Fifth Circuit's drastic restriction of affirmative action in Hopwood v. Texas. The Supreme Court declined review, so that case is now the law in the three states (Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi) that make up the Fifth Circuit. The High Court also let stand the Sixth Circuit's decision in Equality Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, Inc. v. City of Cincinnati, which effectively ignored the Court's holding, in Romer v. Evans, that gays and lesbians may not be excluded from the protection of antidiscrimination laws. Greenville Women's Clinic v. Bryant, in which the Fourth Circuit upheld onerous state licensing requirements--which apply to no other physicians--for abortion providers, still stands.
Much has been made of the need for ideological balance on the Supreme Court, but the argument applies with equal force to the federal circuit courts. Democratic senators should not just play blue-slip politics--vetoing nominees from their state whom they oppose--they should insist on hearings to review the state of the appellate judiciary circuit by circuit. The goal should be an intellectually distinguished bench and, at least, an ideologically balanced one. Nominees should be approved or rejected in this context. Democrats must also demand a full-blown, in-depth examination of each nominee's record (if this is "Borking," make the most of it). Only those candidates should be confirmed who have demonstrated a commitment to protecting the rights of ordinary Americans against powerful institutions, whether government or private, and to our national ideal of civil rights, women's rights and individual liberties; who respect Congress's power to legislate to protect the health and safety of workers, preserve the environment and enforce antitrust law.
Republicans are already crying obstructionism, cynically ignoring their own blockade of centrist Clinton nominees. With the Administration's intentions now on the table, those who will be hurt most by them--minorities, women, working people, the elderly, environmentalists--should launch a missive attack on Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and the nine Judiciary Committee Democrats (who if they stay united have the power to thwart Bush's court-packing scheme) telling them to stand firm. (For information on what you can do, go to www.thenation.com.)
If all goes as the GOP has planned, George W. Bush will have on his desk by Memorial Day a $1.35 trillion tax bill that is wrongheaded and an utterly inequitable pander to the privileged. Every American should be clear about what this bill is: a blueprint that will define the political and social landscape we live in for decades to come. The immense tax cuts will not only disproportionately benefit the wealthy and increase the widening gap between rich and poor, they will also severely circumscribe the government's capacity to help improve the lives of all Americans. (As if to prove the point, the Senate Finance Committee voted out this tax giveaway the same day the Senate voted against increased funding for teachers to help reduce class size.) This downsizing--indeed, emaciation--of government is of course exactly what the right is aiming for. Grover Norquist, "field marshal" of the Bush tax plan, was quoted recently in these pages saying that his goal is "to cut government in half...to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
Under the plan, the 400 richest multimillionaires will receive tax breaks worth an average of $1 million a year. The poorest working families will get zip, even as the nation faces a growing investment deficit measured in children without healthcare, families without housing, overcrowded airports and neglected alternative energy and conservation. Senate "moderates" claim they improved the bill, which is true. Under the original Bush plan, 26 million children in low- and moderate-income families would get no benefit from the tax plan. Under the modified bill, that drops to 10.6 million. The $58 billion a year handed to the wealthiest 1 percent could be used to lift another 2 million children out of poverty, provide health insurance to 5.1 million uninsured children, fund universal preschool and expand childcare services to more than 9 million children--two-thirds of those eligible.
Besides being unfair, the bill, which stretches the cuts over eleven years rather than Bush's original ten, is dishonest--in reality a stealth raid on the Treasury. The Senate earlier voted to cut the Bush tax plan by 25 percent. To meet this, the Finance Committee simply backloaded the bill even more than originally planned--phasing in the full tax cuts later so they don't count under the ten-year limit used to estimate its costs. The $1.35 trillion giveaway balloons to $4.2 trillion in the next decade, after all the provisions kick in. It also calls for ending popular tax breaks in a few years--like the tax credit for research and development--in the confidence that no future Congress would choose to do so. Plus the bill is designed so that 40 million taxpayers will eventually be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax, insuring changes that will add dramatically to the total cost. And the Republican Congress is just warming up: Even now the K Street lobbyists are cooking up ways to lard a minimum-wage-increase bill with fat corporate tax cuts.
Bush has peddled this tax cut as the elixir for a good economy and a bad one, for rising gas prices and declining stock prices, for small businesses and waitress moms. The repeal of the estate tax is shamelessly presented as a way to save family farmers, even though advocates cannot locate one farm that has actually been lost because of the tax. It's all hype, lies and distortion.
Remember--in 2002 and beyond--those responsible, from Bush to the Republican majority that marched lockstep in support, to the handful of Democratic renegades who provided the margin. They must be held accountable for this travesty.
"Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land. To Britain after a second term of Tony Blair." With these words, Conservative Party leader William Hague began a speech in March that has helped to reignite one of the ugliest political debates over race that Britain has seen since the 1970s. Hague insists that the speech had nothing to do with race or immigration, but many observers here see it as a subtle but calculated attempt to appeal to the worst instincts of the "worst sort of Tory."
About a week after Hague's speech, the leaders of all major parties (Hague included) signed a statement sponsored by the Commission for Racial Equality promising that they would not play the race card during the general election. The statement was then circulated to all MPs. Three Tory backbenchers refused to sign it, citing freedom-of-speech concerns. Among them was John Townend, who claimed that immigration was threatening Britain's "Anglo-Saxon society." Hague condemned Townend's remarks but refused to sack him, arguing that to do so would be a hollow gesture only days before the dissolution of Parliament. Many senior Tories are furious with what they perceive as Hague's lack of leadership. The most vocal has been Lord Taylor of Warwick, the most prominent black Conservative, who is now threatening to leave the party.
The race-pledge row is only the latest episode in a year of worsening race relations, in which an increasingly xenophobic "Little England" note has been struck by parts of the country's tabloid press, exploited by the Conservatives and worsened by the Labour government's apparent unwillingness to take a strong stand against it. The ugliness began last spring when Hague, responding to claims by some tabloids that Britain was being besieged by a tide of "bogus asylum-seekers" and illegal immigrants, delivered a speech excoriating the Labour government for allowing Britain to become "the biggest soft touch in the world" and for not doing enough to stem the "flood" of opportunistic refugees. His remarks were not only insulting but also poorly timed, coming less than a year after the release of the MacPherson report on the murder of a black teenager. (That report concluded that Britain's police were "institutionally racist" and called for tough action against indirect racism in public institutions.) The Daily Mail, the flagship tabloid of "middle England" and self-styled enemy of political correctness, hailed Hague's speech, calling it, "in this insidious climate of racial McCarthyism, courageous."
To its credit, the Labour government criticized the use of the word "flood" as being inflammatory, but did little else. Determined not to give the Tories an issue to run on, New Labour avoided pointing out the obvious--that Britain has some of the toughest immigration policies in Europe; that the 78,000 people who sought asylum here in 2000 were overwhelmingly law-abiding individuals desperate to escape persecution; that the cost of providing basic food, clothing and shelter to them was minuscule (a controversial voucher scheme provides a meager £35 (about $50) a week for food and clothing, and housing is often substandard); and, most of all, that immigration is a healthy thing for a modern, open society.
Instead, the government seemed eager to be seen as "getting tough" on asylum fraud, and more concerned with not losing the treasured support of the middle-income suburbanites who had been so crucial to its electoral success in 1997. One of the most controversial provisions of the insidious Asylum and Immigration Act, introduced soon after Hague's speech, was a policy of enforced dispersal of asylum claimants. Home Secretary Jack Straw argued, perversely, that the measure would protect asylum-seekers from the resentment that would inevitably occur if they were allowed to concentrate in large numbers in particular areas. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Until the dispersal policy was introduced, 90 percent of asylum-seekers lived in heavily multicultural London, where they fit into established communities of people from their native countries. Now, immediately on arrival, they were being packed off to places like Dover, with its 99.4 percent white population. A Dover Express editorial moaned about having to receive "the backdraft of a nation's human sewage." Within a short time, the debate between Labour and Conservatives over the asylum issue had become so ugly that the third-party Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman, Simon Hughes, called on the Commission for Racial Equality to carry out an investigation into whether the two main parties were inciting racism, and even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stepped in to condemn the tone of the debate.
But the Conservatives had a surprise in store at their autumn conference. Unbeknownst to many, Hague had spent a few days with the Bush campaign, taking furious notes, and he returned all aflutter with ideas for how to "modernize" the Tory party. "Caring conservatism" and "working families" became buzzwords at the conference, as Hague told the party faithful that he wanted more ethnic minorities to be placed on short lists for parliamentary seats. The Tories' true colors soon showed through, however, after a black 10-year-old, Damilola Taylor, was apparently murdered walking home from school in late November. The police, keen to show the lessons they had learned from the MacPhersonreport, tripped over themselves to appear cooperative and respectful to the bereaved family. Only two weeks later, though, Hague drew a specious link between the report and the boy's death, encouraging police to rebel against "politically correct race awareness courses" and spend more time fighting crime.
Straw, meanwhile, still insists on peddling the myth that the Labour government is one of the most aggressively antiracist ever. True, a new Race Relations Act, which just went into effect, widens previous antidiscrimination legislation to cover police activities, and true, Straw's Tory shadow, Ann Widdecombe, who recently proposed that all asylum-seekers be locked up in "secure detention centers," gives pause to anyone thinking about changing his vote. But the reluctance of the Labour government to take a firm, principled stand has left a scar on the lives of black Britons that is likely to remain, and likely to hurt Labour at the polls. Hughes told me recently, "We now have significant support from the black and Asian communities, more than we've ever had before."
The real effects, of course, are felt most acutely in the lives of people far removed from the hurly-burly of Westminster politics. Britain, for all its problems, is probably one of the least racist countries in Europe, but racially motivated crimes have risen steeply: March saw a threefold increase in reports of racial harassment in London, while race crimes in Britain as a whole were up 107 percent in 2000. A Reader's Digest/MORI poll reports that 66 percent of the public now think that there are too many immigrants in Britain, up from 55 percent a year ago. Many of Labour's black supporters blame Labour more than the Tories for the backlash. Among them is Bill Morris, head of the Transport and General Workers Union, who argues that "by heralding measure after measure to stop people entering Britain, the Home Office has given life to the racists."
The limits of New Labour's commitment to racial equality became clearer than ever when it emerged that ten of its twelve new black and Asian candidates are standing for election in what the party admits are "hopelessly" safe Tory seats, including John Major's seat in Huntingdon. This from a Prime Minister who came to power in 1997 pledging to increase the number of black and Asian MPs "to reflect the makeup of Britain." If this is Blair's idea of Britain, then William Hague's "foreign land" will surely be a long time in coming.
There is probably no punishment more painful to Timothy McVeigh than the great joke just played by the cosmos. In his fantasy life McVeigh has fancied himself a sort of stoic samurai, avenging himself on the FBI for Waco and then committing hara-kiri by halting appeals. In one letter McVeigh referred to his impending execution as a version of "suicide by cop"; he has planned as his last words William Henley's war horse "Invictus": "I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul." It's taken another spectacular FBI blunder to puncture McVeigh's grand delusion. Now Attorney General Ashcroft promises that McVeigh will be executed in Terre Haute on June 11 come hell or high water, but don't bet on it. McVeigh's game is to control his story by any means possible, and he may still play the only Invictus card left in his deck by initiating the appeals he previously rejected.
In the weeks leading up to the May 16 execution date, pundits predicted that McVeigh's execution would restore popular confidence in capital punishment. Instead, we have gotten a national teach-in on one of the defining evils of capital trials: the fallibility and corruption of law enforcement. If the FBI can "misplace" a cache of documents in the most notorious death-penalty case since the Rosenbergs, is it any wonder that nearly 100 factually innocent people have ended up on death row in recent years?
While McVeigh's case has in many ways been historically unique, in this respect it is typical. Back-drawer evidence is part of the everyday landscape of capital punishment in America. According to Columbia University professor James Liebman's remarkable study "A Broken System" (available online at justice.policy.net/jpreport), vital suppressed evidence has led to dismissal of one in five capital cases since 1973. (More than half of capital cases, Liebman found, are dismissed or retried for "grave constitutional error.") When it comes to capital punishment, the last-minute "oops" is the norm, not the exception. That so many executions go ahead anyway is only because of the current Supreme Court's cavalier attitude toward evidence discovered after a death sentence is pronounced. Justice Rehnquist complains of the "enormous burden that having to retry cases based on stale evidence" would demand.
Why did President Bush and Attorney General Ashcroft delay McVeigh's execution? To "protect the integrity of our system of justice," in Ashcroft's words, which he defined as "a more important duty than any single case." In other words, official malfeasance, undisclosed evidence and public uncertainty all demanded a timeout. Fair enough.
In reality, though, in capital cases "the integrity of the system of justice" is already nonexistent. Just since January, judges in Louisiana, Texas, New York and Massachusetts have ordered the freeing of two innocent death-row inmates and four innocent lifers--their stories full of coerced confessions, doctored documents and suppressed evidence. Consider Ronnie Burrell, released from Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary in January, who came within two weeks of execution in 1996 for a murder he didn't commit. He had been arrested by a small-town sheriff trying to distract attention from his own corruption and was convicted on the purchased testimony of a career con man. All this came out only because his appeal was taken up by a Minnesota corporate lawyer in search of pro bono work who had a family connection to Louisiana.
Unlike Burrell, McVeigh's factual guilt is not in doubt (although the bomber's degree of culpability and mental state could yet form the basis for appeals of his death sentence). If the FBI's suppression of documents in his case, intentional or not, justifies a timeout, what about the rampant errors in dozens of frame-ups like Burrell's? Doesn't the systemic accumulated record of lost evidence, law-enforcement misconduct and outright factual innocence demand a timeout on all executions? In the final irony of the McVeigh case, which so often has managed to pull the system inside out, George W. Bush and John Ashcroft have now offered one of the best arguments yet for a national death-penalty moratorium.
The recent New York Times front-page headline "Scientists Say Gay Change Is Possible" left me somewhat bemused.
We are, as a nation, about to experience the changing of two guards. First, Ira Glasser, having given a year's notice, is stepping down after nearly a quarter-century as executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, "Liberty's Law Firm" as they like to call it. Second, Louis Freeh is leaving the FBI after serving eight years of a ten-year term as director.
There is, of course, a built-in tension between an organization dedicated to protecting and expanding rights, like the ACLU, and an institution like the FBI, too often bent on invading them. Thus when Director Freeh began agitating for the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, providing for the placement of surveillance-friendly equipment in all new telephones, it was Glasser who pointed out that it was like requiring builders to put microphones in buildings to make it easier for the cops to listen in.
Despite occasional differences over this and that, we will miss Ira's energetic and articulate defense of free-speech values, his "First Amendment absolutism," his stewardship of an organization dedicated to eternal verities in a postmodernist culture.
Freeh is a more problematic proposition. He came to the FBI after the bureau's assault in April 1993 on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and he never fully cleared that air. His public laundering of differences with President Clinton and Attorney General Reno during the year of impeachment was troubling--the head of the nation's secret police has too much behind-the-scenes power to play political-manipulation games without dangerous risks to democratic governance. Also troubling was his decision to leave office two years short of a term deliberately calculated to avoid changing FBI directors and Presidents simultaneously, the Congressional desire being to insulate the bureau from partisan politics.
We wish Ira well in his post-ACLU career; we wish his successor, Antonio Romero, good luck in keeping a fractious community coherent without sacrificing First Amendment principle. We also look to the ACLU to help define the qualities and criteria the Administration, Congress and the people should look for in Freeh's successor. J. Edgar Hoover's name and shadow still dominate and darken the FBI. It's only because of organizations like the ACLU that his bureau did not do more damage.
News that the United States has been voted off the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN international drug monitoring board has elicited vows of revenge from conservatives in Congress. They threaten to withhold payment on the long-unpaid dues owed the UN. They blame our adversaries--China, Cuba, Sudan and others--for the insult. But the secret votes enabled allies as well as adversaries to vent their mounting exasperation with US policies. At the last session of the commission, the United States stood virtually alone as it opposed resolutions supporting lower-cost access to HIV/AIDS drugs, acknowledging a human right to adequate food and calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, while it continued to resist efforts to ban landmines.
The global outrage is by no means limited to US policies on the Human Rights Commission. In barely 100 days in office, the Bush Administration has declared the Kyoto accords on global warming dead, spurning eight years of work by 186 countries. It banned US support for any global organization that provides family planning or abortion services, even as an AIDS pandemic makes this a matter of life and death. It bade farewell to the antiballistic missile treaty, while slashing spending on nuclear safety aid for Russia. It casually bombed Iraq, helped shoot down a missionary's plane over Peru and enforced an illegal and irrational boycott of Cuba. It sabotaged promising talks between North and South Korea, publicly humiliating South Korea's Nobel prizewinning president, Kim Dae Jung. The nomination as UN ambassador of John Negroponte, former proconsul in Honduras during the illegal contra wars, is an insult. "There is a perception," said one diplomat in carefully parsed words, "that the US wants to go it alone."
Our lawless exceptionalism is a deeply rooted, bipartisan policy that didn't begin with the Bush Administration. Under previous Presidents, Democratic and Republican, Washington denounced state-sponsored terrorism while reserving the right to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan or unleash a contra army on Nicaragua. It condemned Iraq for invading Kuwait while reserving the right to invade Panama or bomb Serbia on its own writ. The United States advocated war crimes tribunals against foreign miscreants abroad while opposing an international criminal court that might hold our own officials accountable. Our leaders proclaim the value of law and democracy as they spurn the UN Security Council and ignore the World Court when their rulings don't suit them. The Senate refuses to ratify basic human rights treaties. The US international business community even opposes efforts to eliminate child labor. And of course, there are those UN dues, which make us the world's largest deadbeat.
Worse is yet to come. US policy is a direct reflection of its militarization and the belief that we police the world, we make the rules. The Bush Administration plans a major increase in military spending to finance new weapons to expand the US ability to "project" force around the globe--stealth bombers, drones, long-range missiles and worse. The tightly strung Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounds increasingly like an out-of-date Dr. Strangelove as he pushes to open a new military front in space, shattering hopes of keeping the heavens a zone of peace.
As the hyperpower, with interests around the world, America has the largest stake in law and legitimacy. But the ingrained assumption that we are legislator, judge, jury and executioner mocks any notion of global order. From the laws of war to the laws of trade, it is increasingly clear that Washington believes international law applies only to the weak. The weak do what they must; the United States does what it will.
After the cold war, we labeled our potential adversaries "rogue nations"--violent, lawless, willing to trample the weak and ignore international law and morality to enforce their will. Now, in the vote at the UN, in the headlines of papers across Europe, in the planning of countries large and small, there is a growing consensus that the world's most destructive rogue nation is the most powerful country of them all.
This is not a role most Americans support. Public interest groups and concerned individuals will vigorously remind Congress of the widespread popular backing in this country for paying our UN dues, for global AIDS funding and other forms of international involvement. Unilateralism must be opposed in all its guises, from national missile "defense" to undermining efforts to curb global warming. The United States was founded on a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. Let's keep it that way.
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