April 29, 2007

Eugenics in New Orleans

Back in January, I described the manner in which poor - and predominantly black - residents of New Orleans were on The Short End of the Reconstruction Stick as the city struggles to rebuild itself in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Initial federal plans called for the demolition of more than 4,500 St. Bernard Parish public housing units and their replacement with about 800 mixed income units, less than half of which would be targeted to those with low incomes. In the midst of the most severe housing shortage ever seen in The Big Easy, the federal government was moving forward with plans to replace less than one-eleventh of the units it was prepared to raze.

Although attention has been drawn to this issue, four months later, the Crescent City remains at less than half strength. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, speaking at a rally organized to demand answers about the disbursement - or more appropriately, the lack thereof - of billions of dollars in federal aid that remains tied up by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, got it right when he declared, "I see the Saints are back, the basketball team is back, the white-top tablecloths are back and Mardi Gras is back. But 250,000 people are not."

Adding insult to what is already substantial injury, it was also reported this week that $854 million in foreign aid offered to the U.S. by other nations was so mishandled by the federal government that only a fraction of it has actually been used for aid and rebuilding:
Allies offered $854 million in cash and in oil that was to be sold for cash. But only $40 million has been used so far for disaster victims or reconstruction, according to U.S. officials and contractors. Most of the aid went uncollected, including $400 million worth of oil. Some offers were withdrawn or redirected to private groups such as the Red Cross. The rest has been delayed by red tape and bureaucratic limits on how it can be spent.

In addition, valuable supplies and services - such as cellphone systems, medicine and cruise ships - were delayed or declined because the government could not handle them. In some cases, supplies were wasted.

Worse still, a solution to the apparent impasse over re-opening New Orleans public housing - which is, by and large, safe enough for occupancy - remains in limbo. Surprisingly, while no one from the Louisiana Congressional delegation has taken the initiative, Representative Maxine Waters of California has sponsored H.R. 1277, the Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007, which declares a right of return for former public housing residents wishing to come back to the homes they left, and establishes a minimum of 3,000 units to be re-opened.

The bill has passed the House of Representatives and been referred to the Senate, but it appears that neither of Louisiana's two Senators, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, are working to advance the legislation. (As of April 29, 2007, neither Landrieu's website nor Vitter's lists Hurricane Katrina recovery as a major issue on which the Senators are active.) While it is likely that there are some who view the devastation wrought by Katrina as a chance to build a "better" New Orleans, and it is irrefutable that the housing projects in question were poor and crime-ridden, the fact remains that failure to rebuild or re-open sufficient housing will further displace thousands of people who have already been homeless for more than a year. As I wrote earlier:

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown may genuinely believe that "People deserve better than this," but when he says, "If they could just be patient. A mixed-income neighborhood can better attract businesses and better schools," he reveals an arrogance it is difficult to imagine being applied to more affluent elements of Louisiana society.

While there has been little public comment on the status of H.R. 1277, the group Color of Change recently distributed a letter stating its belief that the inaction of Landrieu and Vitter can be described thusly:

Race and class seem to explain Landrieu and Vitter's refusal to step up. Some have expressed a desire to see a "richer" and "Whiter" post-Katrina New Orleans, and many of them have a great deal of political influence. From what we can tell, Senator Vitter is playing to those interests by ignoring this legislation – but as a senator for all Louisiana residents, it's his responsibility to ensure that everyone who wants to come home can - not the just the wealthy, privileged, and White. Insiders tell us that Senator Landrieu is being cautious for the same reason: that she doesn't want to offend "moderate" supporters who have a similar vision for New Orleans.

I would be only too happy to report that the conclusions contained in the Color of Change letter are erroneous, and that there are perfectly good reasons why efforts to provide housing to the poorest and economically weakest residents of New Orleans are not being vigorously pursued. Unfortunately, neither Landrieu nor Vitter has made more than passing statements regarding the plight of the homeless New Orleans poor, and the continued and significant discrimination faced by black families seeking housing only make those conclusions more credible. Both senators ostensibly represent the whole of Louisiana, but keeping their most needful constituents from returning to their homes is social engineering at its worst, and little more than eugenics.

April 27, 2007

Better, Faster, Stronger (Or At Least Functional)

Well, after a week's worth of software-installation-induced boredom spiked liberally with heartburn-generating frustration over various hardware conflicts, program malfunctions and outdated drivers, my computer is up and running again. Posts to follow soon!

April 23, 2007

Please Standy By

Last Thursday night - and for the second time since I have owned it - my Windows XP Dell desktop crashed, requiring complete re-installation of the operating system, drivers, software and everything else. While I keep telling myself that "Once this clean re-installation is done, the machine will run nice and smoothly again," that bit of semi-desperate optimism is tempered by the repeated problems I'm having getting the sound card and the video capture software to function properly.
In any case, what this means is that pretty much all of the time I am currently logging at my keyboard is being devoted to getting my machine up and fully functional again, so posting to Sensen No Sen will be suspended for a few more days.
Wish me luck!

April 20, 2007

Thoughts on Guns

I have resisted the temptation to comment on the Virginia Tech shootings because, truth be told - even in light of the terrible events in Blacksburg - I still find myself neither a full-blown advocate of stringent fire arms control efforts, nor a supporter of unfettered gun ownership. Rather than risk posting an equivocating piece with little value to add to the conversation, I have abstained from expressing an opinion at all.

However, Barry Eisler over at The Heart of the Matter reminds us in a post called - simply enough - Thoughts on Guns, that there is value in framing the debate itself in new ways as a step toward claiming a position of one's own. Barry is the best-selling author of the John Rain series of thrillers, a former CIA agent, an ex-lawyer and a martial artist, and his blog regularly reflects that worldliness in its balanced, rational and thoughtful approach. I've had the pleasure of meeting Barry, and he's a pretty personable individual on top of all that.

So, take a look at Thoughts on Guns, and see what you think. It might not supply easy answers, but I think the post provides an uncommonly good framework for further thought and discussion.

April 17, 2007

Now Do You Understand?

Larry Johnson, a former CIA agent, writes a blog called No Quarter. In a recent post, entitled Now Do You Understand?, he juxtaposes the horrific events in Blacksburg yesterday with daily life in Iraq. As in any instance of tragedy, there is a risk of being accused of trying to score political points by linking it to a larger issue, but I don't believe that Johnson does that. (In contrast to these two alleged human beings.)

Instead, he calls attention to the emotional impact we have experienced as Americans in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, and asks us to imagine mutiplying that many times to fit the length and breadth and depth of daily slaughter in Iraq brought on by the U.S. invasion and occupation. It's a necessary reminder that Iraqis are human beings who suffer greatly because of our nation's policies, and that the lives of people outside U.S. borders have value, too.

April 16, 2007

Calling Rumsfeld to Task

In A Nation of Hypocrites, I wrote about Donald Vance, an American military contractor who was imprisoned by the U.S. Army in Iraq, denied access to counsel, and physically and psychologically abused. Mr. Vance and Nathan Ertel - another man who suffered much the same fate - are today pursuing a civil lawsuit that names former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the primary defendent.

As reported at AlterNet however, there now appear to be even darker layers to the stories of Mr. Vance and Mr. Ertel. Vance, who was also a confidential informant for the FBI, believes that the military conspired to jail the two not because they worked for a security company suspected of supplying weapons to insurgents, but because they shared information with law enforcement agents outside the control of U.S. officials in Baghdad. Further, managers at Shield Security - the company for which the two men worked when they were interned - have never been questioned, and the firm continues to hold contracts with the U.S. government, the Iraqi government, American contractors and non-governmental organizations, under a new name; National Shield Security.

Click here for more.

April 11, 2007

The Very Real Problem of REAL ID


Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, a stark divide has existed in America regarding the relationship between government-provided security, the rights of individuals and the role of citizen oversight. Abetted until November 2006 by what was largely single party rule, those who have maintained an historical perspective about the magnitude of the threat embodied by militant Islam have been at the mercy of those who believe - or profess to believe - that security justifies the sacrifice of civil liberties, diminishing transparency in government, and greater government intrusion into the lives of the people.

With the opposition now in control of both houses of the legislature, oversight has begun to be restored, but as the conduct of the executive branch has been revealed, claims that power can be safely ceded to government officials in anything but the most tightly controlled, revocable, and limited fashion are being revealed to be naive at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. Civil libertarians and close observers of the Bush Administration know that there is already a laundry list of laws, policies, initiatives and plans that significantly infringe on the individual rights of Americans, and it seems that more instances are brought to light every day.

Just last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) admitted it exceeded the broad powers granted it in the renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act, but - despite breaking the law by doing so - tried its best to dismiss concerns over its actions by promising to do better going forward. Also in March, it was revealed that the Treasury Department's so-called "Specially Designated Nationals" (SDN) list, a 265-plus page document compiling the names of individuals and organizations suspected of terrorism and published on the agency's website, is increasingly being used to deny services to innocent men and women unfortunate enough to share one of the 6,000 names on it. Worse still, the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC)'s terrorist watch database has ballooned to more than 435,000 files, and while the database's administrator expresses confidence in its accuracy even he concedes that it is only a matter time or error before "horror stories" of mistaken identity begin to occur.

Obscured by all of this worrisome mishandling of personal information - but undeniably related to it - is yet one more new authoritarian law that is slowly inching its way forward, but which may not be too late to stop. Originally designated H.R. 418, the REAL ID Act of 2005 passed the House of Representatives, but lay stagnant until it was attached as a rider to one of the off-budget funding bills for the Iraq War by Congressman James Sensenbrenner. It was signed into law in 2005 without any meaningful debate, and states have three years to come into compliance with the Act, which legislates the following:
  • State drivers licenses must conform to uniform standards developed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in order to be accepted for "federal purposes" such as accessing planes, trains, national parks, and court houses
  • A national database linking all state ID records together must be constructed and maintained
  • State IDs must be compatible with "common machine-readable technology" so that the government and businesses can easily read personal information off the cards.
On March 1st, the DHS released draft regulations [PDF] for implementing REAL ID, but opposition has continued to grow, perhaps fueled by the examples of ineptitude and misapplied government power described above. In addition to the concerns of civil libertarians over the obvious intrusion into individual privacy by what would be a de facto national identification card, it is the states and individual taxpayers who will be forced to bear the estimated $23 billion burden of implementing the law. (That figure is also likely to be conservative, given that the required verification systems don't yet exist.) Even some Christian fundamentalists - usually solidly behind the GOP and so-called security issues - are against it, albeit because they believe it to be the biblical mark of the beast from the Book of Revelation.

Leaving aside for the moment the implications of prophecy, the reasons behind this rising tide of defiance are several and entirely legitimate:
  1. The technology to accomplish the aims of the REAL ID Act doesn't exist, and on top of the already considerable cost of implementation, represents a financial black hole.
  2. REAL ID is an unfunded federal mandate, pushing enormous costs down to the already-cash-strapped states.
  3. The Act fails to improve national security, since identification cards do little to stop those who haven't already been identified as threats, and wrongdoers will still be able to create fake documents.
  4. It has been reported that DHS will outsource the management of the REAL ID database and infrastructure, placing the personal information of millions of Americans in the hands of a private company.
  5. Perhaps most importantly, REAL ID represents the first step on a path to ever-increasing government interference with and monitoring of its citizens. (Social Security numbers for instance, were established ostensibly to enable the government to provide benefits, but are now a prerequisite for receiving almost all government services, and are widely used by private companies as unique key fields within massive databases of personal information.)
Under the REAL ID Act, the delivery of DHS regulations means that states must now create an implementation plan by October of this year. There is still time to turn back this gross encroachment of government intrusion and authoritarianism, and now is the time to make sure that your Congressional representatives support the repeal of REAL ID. When the Attorney General of the United States stands accused of firing U.S. attorneys for failing to be loyal enough to the president, there is no starker reminder of the good reasons the Founding Fathers had for constructing the Constitution around the rights of the individual, and not the convenience of the government. Call your Congressman and your Senators!

For more on the REAL ID Act, check out these links:

  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) REAL ID Act page
  • The American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) "Real Nightmare" page
  • The Electronic Privacy Information Center's (EPIC) March 2007 Spotlight on Surveillance

  • To contact your congressional representatives:

  • United States House of Representatives
  • United States Senate