Thursday, May 2, 2013
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .
‒First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Readers should not take this to be a primer on what God those contemplating terrible crimes should believe in prior to committing those crimes. Nonetheless, and notwithstanding Constitutional guarantees, they should be aware that in the United States how you are treated after you commit an indescribably evil crime may well depend on what kind of a God, if any, you believe in. Within the last 5 years we have had four horrific criminal acts arranged by people who when first apprehended appeared to have acted alone. Three of those occurred within the last 10 months.
At midnight on July 20, 2102 James Holmes entered a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado dressed all in black and accompanied by four guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. He announced his presence by opening fire on those in the crowded theater killing 12 people and injuring 58. In addition to the assault on those in the theater he had rigged his apartment with sophisticated explosives that were designed to kill those who entered the apartment and cause casualties to those in surrounding units. According to an NBC News report of the testimony offered at a January 8, 2013 hearing, there were more than a dozen explosive devices in the apartment loaded with napalm, smokeless powder and live ammunition. Among other things in the apartment was a thermos bottle filled with glycerin suspended over a frying pan filled with potassium permanganate. When combined the two substances would set off a chain reaction. Carpets had been soaked with oil and gasoline. If someone had entered the apartment or played with some toys left in front of the building that were connected to the devices, the explosion would have been triggered. As a boy James attended the Penasquitos Lutheran Church in San Diego, California and his pastor describes him as a proud, intelligent but retiring boy. His attendance at that church suggests he is a Christian. Following his arrest no one suggested that James was a terrorist and should be deprived of his constitutional rights.
On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six members of the staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Dressed in black and armed with a rifle and many rounds of ammunition he shot his way into the school and began his killing spree. Before going to school he murdered his mother. It was she who had home schooled him. Before he was home schooled he attended St. Rose of Lima Catholic School. Since he killed himself after killing others there was no reason for authorities to comment on his religious affiliation or to describe him as a terrorist.
On April 16, 20076, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in a mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Cho was a South Korean citizen but had permanent resident status in the United States. He and his family attended a Christian church in the town in which they lived. After the killing he committed suicide. A note found in his room said: “Thanks to you I died like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.” Since he killed himself after killing others there was no reason for authorities to comment on his religious affiliation nor to describe him as a terrorist.
The Boston bombers were every bit as evil and sophisticated as James Holmes and every bit as vicious as the other individuals described above. The two men, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were both legally in the United States. Dzhokhar was a naturalized U.S. citizen and a follower of Islam who reportedly posted links to Islamic websites. His friends described him as not particularly religious and none had seen signs of his being a radical Muslim. None of that affected commentators and politicians. The Muslim connection was quite enough.
Some members of Congress whose allegiance to the U.S. constitution depends completely on what parts of it are being considered, immediately demanded that the constitutional rights of Dzhokhar be suspended and that he not be advised of his right to counsel. Those comments were made long before any connection to known terrorist groups by the two men had been suggested. Senator Lindsay Graham said in a tweet:: “A decision to not read Miranda rights to the suspect was sound and in our national security interests.” Senator John McCain said Dzhokhar should be treated as an enemy combatant so that he could be questioned more aggressively. Senators McCain, Lindsay Graham, Kelly Ayotte and Rep. Pete King said: “The accused perpetrators of these acts were not common criminals attempting to profit from a criminal enterprise, but terrorists trying to injure, maim and kill innocent Americans.” That is the shallow explanation offered by shallow legislators to justify their willingness to set aside an American citizen’s constitutional rights.
Rational observers might observe that none of the killings described above had anything to with the murderers’ interest in making money as McCain et al suggested. The only murderers from those described above that people immediately defined as terrorists were the Boston murderers. It would seem that how some people choose to define depraved hearts depends on what God those depraved hearts worship. Dzhokhar made a bad choice.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Good government obtains when those who are near are made happy, and those who are far off are attracted.
— Confucious, The Confucian Analects
It doesn’t seem fair. The Italians have a lot more fun doing nothing than do we. And, in addition, they have the Pope and former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. We have no one like the Pope to take pride in and it’s hard to match Berlusconi. This all came to mind while watching the Italian Parliament try to elect a president and undertake other legislative tasks. Comparisons to the U.S. Congress invited themselves to the viewing.
Like the U.S. Congress, the Italian parliament has proved itself incapable of governing. The most recent election in the United States was in November 2012 whereas the Italian parliament was elected in February 2013. In both countries all legislative parties (like Gaul) are divided into three parts. In the United States the three parts are the Republicans who control the House of Representatives, the Democrats who control the Senate and the Tea Party who more or less control themselves as well as those Republicans with whom they disagree. In Italy the three parts are the center left Democratic Party, the center right People of Liberty party and the Five Star Movement that is led by a comedian, Beppe Grillo.
Some of the leaders of the Italian parties remind one of some of the leaders in Congress. The leader of the center-left party (until a few days ago) was Pier Luigi Bersani whose party has the majority in the lower house but not in the Senate and, is, therefore, unable to do anything without the help of one of the other two parties. He is described in the New York Times as being a “somewhat gloomy” individual, a description that could apply equally well to Senator Mitch McConnell, the dour minority leader in the U.S. Senate. Mr. Grillo, leader of the Five Star Party, is an acknowledged comedian, not unlike any number of the members of the U.S. Congress. The Five Star party received 25 per cent of the February vote entitling its members to 163 of the 945 seats in the parliament. Mr. Grillo showed his sense of humor by causing his party to express its disapproval of the parliament’s failure to appoint committees by conducting a sit in. The only problem was they sat in the very chairs in parliament that they were elected to sit in. At the end of the day’s session they declined to go home and stayed in their seats until midnight reading assorted legal texts. No one much cared.
The U.S. Congress has its share of clowns. One of the biggest is Georgia’s Paul Broun, a physician who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. His words belie his education and make a mockery of the committee on which he sits. In a speech at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Ga. he reported that: “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior” He may not be funny but he’s definitely a clown.
Last, but not least, among elected characters, is Sylvio Berlusconi whose closest Congressional counterpart might be former New York Congressman, Anthony Weiner. Mr. Weiner sent pictures of his crotch to assorted women he found on the internet. It cost him his seat but not his ambition. He hopes to be New York City’s next mayor. By Italian standards Mr. Weiner’s conduct is fairly tame. By contrast, while Mr. Berlusconi was premier the world’s newspapers were filled with pictures of comely young women who graced the parties hosted by Mr. Berlusconi and expressed their gratitude by giving him party favors of the sexual kind. He, too, ultimately lost his job as a result.
Both the U.S. Congress and the Italian Parliament are incapable of governing. Congress takes advantage of procedural tricks to block legislation, the appointment of judges, cabinet officers, heads of regulatory commissions and virtually all legislation. Defining majority to mean 60% enables Congress to avoid its constitutionally imposed duties. The Italians model themselves after the U.S. Congress.
In February 2012 they held an election for Parliament in which no party got a clear majority. Thereafter the three parties refused to form alliances with the result that no parliamentary committees were set up and it took more than two months and six ballots for the parliamentarians to agree on a new president. (On April 20, 2012 the deadlock was broken and the 87-year old Girogio Napolitano was elected to a second term, the first Italian president to ever be elected to two terms.)
Commenting on Mr. Napolitano’s re-election, Antonio Polito, a political commentator said%: “Our system is no longer able to produce a stable government. The parliamentary system is broken, and it has not been able to fix itself.” An Italian woman commented: “I am sick and tired of Parliament ignoring the will of the people because of economic reasoning.” Neither of those commentators was speaking of the U.S. Congress. They could have been. As I said at the outset, the Italians are lucky. They have the Pope and Berlusconi. We have no consolation prizes.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
—Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha
The pot calls the kettle black.
The magic number is 18. That is the number each country has selected to express its disapproval of the actions of the other. Vladimir Putin said of the United States’ action: “This, of course, poisons our relationship with the United States.” What he’s talking about is the infamous case of Sergei Magnitsky and the United States’ response to his imprisonment and death.
Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian accountant and auditor who, while working at the Moscow law firm of Firestone Duncan, was investigating an alleged $230 million tax fraud in Russia that implicated tax officials and police officers. In response to his investigation Sergei was arrested in November 2008 because of allegations that he himself had colluded with a client of the firm to commit tax fraud. Under Russian law he could be held for one year without facing trial and on November 16, 2009, eight days short of one year, he died in prison. Reports suggest that during his incarceration he was placed in increasingly small spaces of confinement, denied medical care and denied contact with family members. Suffering from untreated pancreitis he ultimately died because of acute heart failure and toxic shock. The United States Congress was outraged by Mr. Magnitsky’s treatment.
On June 12, 2012, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed what was called in part the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012” and on December 14, 2012, it was signed by President Obama. It had nothing to do with the rule of law as it pertained to the prisoners indefinitely detained in Guantanamo, the torturing of prisoners in U.S. custody, nor did it have anything to do with the fact that Mr. Magnitsky was held in prison for 8 days less than one year without being brought to trial. Its stated purpose was simply to punish 18 Russian officials the Congress thought were responsible for Mr. Magnitsky’s treatment. It prohibited them from entering the United States and froze their banking assets within the United States.
In response to the Magnitsky act, Russia took a number of steps, the most recent of which was to ban 18 Americans from entering Russia. Those banned by the Russians include Americans the Russians believe were involved in human rights violations and others who have violated the “human rights and freedoms of Russian citizens abroad” by prosecuting those citizens. The Russians are supported in their belief that the United States was involved in human rights violations by the Constitution Project Study% that was released on April 16, 2013.
In the Study’s opening statement it says “[T]he most important or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture. . . . [T]his conclusion is grounded in a thorough and detailed examination of what constitutes torture in many contexts, notable, historical and legal.” ” Two people included in the Russian ban are John Yoo who was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice who drafted memoranda justifying torture. Another is David Addington, legal counsel and chief of staff to then vice-president, Dick Cheney. He, too, supported enhanced interrogation techniques that the Study concluded were torture. The Russians may have thought those people were as bad as Mr. Magnitsky’s handlers. They may also have thought that keeping Mr. Magnitsky in jail for less than a year was much less worse than what the U.S. has done to prisoners at Guantanamo. If they thought that, they were right.
On April 15, 2013 an op-ed piece written by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, a Guantanamo detainee, was published in the New York Times describing his treatment. Like Mr. Magnitsky, Samir has been neither charged with a crime nor tried. Unlike Mr. Magnitsky, he was not entitled to be released after being imprisoned for one year. He has been at Guantanamo for 11 years and 3 months and there is no end in sight. Unlike Mr. Magnitsky he has not been refused appropriate medical care. Indeed, on March 15, 2013 he was in the prison hospital because he was ill. Prior to being admitted to the hospital and up to the present, he was on a hunger strike. The hospital personnel did not think that a hunger strike was good for him. In response to his refusal to eat while in the hospital “eight military police officers in riot gear, burst in. They tied my hands and feet to the bed. They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go to the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray. . . . I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. . . . ”
The Russians do not understand that by torturing people and detaining people indefinitely our government believes it is doing good things because it is protecting the world from bad things except, of course, the bad things it is doing. If the Russians find that hard to understand, they are not alone.