November 28, 2007

Small Signs of Progress on the Climate Change Front

Yesterday, NPR's All Things Considered broadcast a story about Roscoe, Texas, a hard-scrabble town in the state's western prairie that is undergoing a minor economic renaissance. Home to just 1,300 people, Roscoe's population has steadily declined since it was bypassed by the interstate and routinely buffeted by the fickle nature of cotton farming, but things are looking up now that residents are licensing their land for a wind farm run by Irish firm Airtricity. While they are mightily enthused about the prospect of new income streams, Roscoe residents are not necessarily green in the environmental sense of the word:
"Everybody likes crisis-type situations and [climate change] has gotten very popular, particularly with the media and so forth," says Jim Boston, a cotton and pecan farmer. "There are quite a few scientists feel like this is normal oscillations in the weather patterns and so forth, and that's more or less my viewpoint also."
Whatever their motivation, the fact that townsfolk are helping supply 800 megawatts of renewable, pollution-free electricity is a good thing; that's enough to fully power 265,000 homes.

In other good news, earlier this month the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sharply rejected the Bush Administration's proposed new pollution standards for most sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and vans, ordering regulators to draft new plans with tougher restrictions on auto emissions. The court ruled that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) failed to explain why light trucks are allowed to pollute more than passenger cars, and didn't properly assess greenhouse gas emissions when it set new minimum mileage requirements for cars built between 2008 and 2011. The court also took issue with the White House's refusal to include in the new standards trucks weighing more than 8,500 pounds, a class that includes the Hummer H2, Ford F250 and other popular large vehicles used primarily as passenger transportation.

Even with both of these positive reports, it's worth remembering that climate change sceptics and deniers like Roscoe's Mr. Boston are still out there. Bearing that in mind, it's worth looking over Climate Scepticism: The Top 10 from the BBC. It provides handy rebuttals to ten of the most prevalent sceptics' arguments:

1. Evidence that the earth's temperature is getting warmer is unclear
2. If the average temperature was rising, it has now stopped
3. The earth has been warmer in the recent past
4. Computer models are not reliable
5. The atmosphere is not behaving as models would predict
6. Climate is mainly influenced by the sun
7. A carbon dioxide rise has always come after a temperature increase not before
8. Long-term data on hurricanes and Arctic ice is too poor to assess trends
9. Water vapour is the major greenhouse gas; CO2 is relatively unimportant
10. Problems such as HIV/AIDS and poverty are more pressing than climate change

Remember, Christmas is on the way, and family gatherings that go along with that holiday often bring together people of widely divergent viewpoints. Have fun and be polite, but drop by "the Beeb," and arm yourself with the knowledge to silence the blatherings of your least favorite brother in law!

(For those interested in analysis in greater depth and reliable, reputable explanations of climate change issues, I highly recommend

November 19, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

No posts this week - we're traveling for the holiday.
Have a great Thanksgiving !

November 16, 2007

Cracks in the Foundation

It was reported Wednesday that Sergeant Brad Gaskins, an 8-year veteran who served two combat tours in Iraq was arrested for being absent without leave (AWOL) from the Army. Sergeant Gaskins left without permission more than 12 months ago to seek treatment for severe depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that he was unable to obtain through approved channels. The sergeant couldn't get the therapy he required because, although the Veterans Administration (VA) has reported that more than 100,000 soldiers are being treated for mental health problems - 50% specifically for PTSD - there were only 6 mental health professionals available to the 17,000 men and women where he was stationed.

While it is unquestionable that stories like those of Sergeant Gaskins and Lance Corporal James Blake Miller (see Whatever Happened to the Marlboro Marine?) are part of any war, another recent report indicates that the volume and severity of mental health disorders in American veterans is at unprecedented levels. According to a 5-month CBS News investigation (videos below), today, veterans are more than twice as likely to commit suidicide as non-veterans, a rate described by various experts as everything from "alarming" to "stunning," and far outpacing earlier estimates from the VA.
Worse, this may only be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A recently-completed Army medical study found that:

One out of every five active-duty Army soldiers and 42 percent of Army Reservists who have served in Iraq cite mental health concerns months after they return home, according to a new Army medical study.
Post traumatic stress disorder rates increased among active duty soldiers from 11.8 percent to 16.7 percent. Reservist rates almost doubled from 12.7 percent to 24.5 percent.

With stop-loss policies and repeat and extended tours now the norm for today's U.S. armed services, it was perhaps inevitable that the foundation of those forces - the men and women, the human beings in uniform - would begin to crack from the unprecedented strain under which they operate. "Supporting the troops," as noted by Keith Olbermann in the third video below, is - or should be - about doing whatever needs to be done to ensure that each and every soldier, airman, sailor and marine who risks his life receives all of the treatment he needs in a timely fashion. It should also mean that families aren't kept apart for unreasonably long periods of time and that servicemen and -women aren't pressed into excessive tours of service so that politicians like George W. Bush can continue to tout our "all volunteer army" while fighting a luxury war.

(November 13, 2007)

(November 14, 2007)

(November 15, 2007)

November 12, 2007

Whatever Happened to the Marlboro Marine?

Back in March, I wrote a post entitled Serially Abusing the American Military that detailed the callousness with which the Bush Administration and the previous, Republican-dominated Congress has treated the men and women in our armed forces. At the top of that post was the same picture you see above, a photograph by Luis Sinco of Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller of Kentucky. It is a photo that has become emblematic of the stress under which U.S. forces in Iraq operate as they work to fulfill a poorly-defined mission without proper equipment and under the pressure of stop loss and multiple tours of duty.

As we celebrate those who have served our country in uniform this Veterans Day, pausing also to remember those who gave their lives doing so, it is unbelievably sad to me to learn that Lance Corporal Miller - the "Marlboro Marine" as he has become known - is now unemployed, divorced and borderline suicidal since being discharged from the military after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Although he receives a disability check each month, little else in the way of help has been forthcoming from a government that was only too happy to send Miller out to risk his life. In one of the more publicly human gestures of recent years however, but the man who made him famous - Luis Sinco - has offered to help. Part one of Mr. Sinco's story in the Los Angeles Times can be found here, and the second installment is here. It is an important reminder that James Blake Miller - and all of our veterans - deserve far better than they are getting.

November 10, 2007

The Unsupportable Arguments Against Plan B

[Click on the image above to see the original version at full size.]

In the past couple of weeks, "conscientious objection" to the distribution of certain drugs by pharmacists has again been in the news. As anyone who has read Sensen No Sen from its inception knows - and if both of you are reading this, you have my gratitude - the third post I ever wrote, Personal Belief and Professional Obligation, dealt with this very topic, but I think it's worth re-examining this issue in hope of separating fact from fiction.

One of the medications most often at the center of the conscientious objector debate is Plan B, an emergency contraceptive approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1999, and commonly referred to as the "morning after pill." Those with objections to it, like Washington pharmacists who successfully sued last week to suspend a state law requiring them to dispense Plan B, claim that the drug's effects are tantamount to abortion.

Adding fuel to this fire is Pope Benedict XVI, who told a gathering of Catholic pharmacists in October that conscientious objection was a right that must be recognized by their profession, and that "Pharmacists must seek to raise people's awareness so that all human beings are protected from conception to natural death, and so that medicines truly play a therapeutic role." The pope went on to state that conscientious objection would "enable them not to collaborate directly or indirectly in supplying products that have clearly immoral purposes such as, for example, abortion or euthanasia."

Despite such rhetoric however, Plan B does not cause abortion. From the manufacturer's website:
Plan B works like a regular birth control pill. It prevents pregnancy mainly by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary, and may also prevent the fertilization of an egg (the uniting of sperm with the egg). Plan B may also work by preventing it from attaching to the uterus (womb). It is important to know that Plan B will not affect a fertilized egg already attached to the uterus; it will not affect an existing pregnancy.

Plan B is approved by the FDA and contains the hormone levonorgestrel, the same hormone in the birth control pills that healthcare professionals have been prescribing for more than 35 years. The difference is that Plan B contains a larger dose of levonorgestrel than the amount found in a single birth control pill.

Remember that Plan B is not RU-486 (the abortion pill). Because Plan B is used to prevent an unplanned pregnancy, it will not work if you’re already pregnant. If you take Plan B and are already pregnant, it will not affect your existing pregnancy.
(NOTE: The FDA's Plan B webpage contains the same information. I include the manufacturer's language here because it is clearer and easier to read. Emphasis is mine.)

Essentially, there are two arguments against Plan B. The first is that it causes abortion, and those who believe abortion is immoral should not have to dispense it. The second - which is implicit in Pope Benedict's statements and supported by the positions of the Catholic Church - is that the morning after pill is a contraceptive, and those who believe contraception is against "God's will" should not be forced to fill prescriptions for it. Neither of these positions hold water.

As documented above, Plan B is not an abortifacient, and while some people may "believe" that it is "tantamount" to abortion, it very simply isn't. While it is certainly valid to object to Plan B for some other philosophical reason - opposition to contraception comes to mind - arguing that it causes abortion is completely invalid; this "debate" has been closed for a long time.

Further, giving credence to such erroneous beliefs is essentially the same as considering other ideas wholly unsupported by facts - such as Plan B causing sterilization, sex change, or the growth of enormous reptilian scales that transform potential mothers into lizard women - to have merit. Plan B doesn't do any of those things, just like it doesn't cause abortions, and one is left to wonder how in the world court decisions like the recent one in Washington can be made based on what is easily determined to be complete fantasy.

The anti-contraceptive argument against Plan B is somewhat more opaque, but also readily debunked. To whit, pharmacists dispense numerous forms of birth control, from several versions of The Pill, to spermicides, IUDs and diaphragms. The Catholic Church has been consistent in its position against these and all forms of contraception - however much one might disagree with their tactics, which have included telling African villagers that condoms do not prevent the spread of HIV - but this is beside the point. If Catholic (or other) pharmacists have religious objection to filling prescriptions for Plan B, then they must object to distributing all other contraceptives as well.

While said consistency might be laudable from a philosophical perspective, it clearly amounts to forcing Catholicism on non-Catholics, and calls into question the viability of pharmacology as a dependable element of society. As I wrote in 2006:
The role of a pharmacist is to fill legal prescriptions accurately, ensure that harmful drug interactions do not take place, and answer questions about things like side effects and the consequences of missed doses. This is clear from the moment one enters pharmacology school - or at least it should be – and it should be even more clear that the job of pharmacist does not include a requirement that one’s customers be judged morally. If it is otherwise, then pharmacist Tom Cruise could refuse prescription medication to women suffering post-partum depression – which can lead to infanticide in the worst cases – because of his Scientologist beliefs.
Permitting pharmacists to pick and choose which medicines they want to dispense is plainly unsustainable, and determining court cases based on delusion over established fact ought to be unthinkable. Those with moral perspectives that prevent them from filling certain prescriptions shouldn't be allowed to be pharmacists; judges who issue rulings rooted in fiction should never be allowed on the bench.

When one considers how easy it is to debunk the claim that Plan B aborts a pregnancy, or spends even a short time considering the untenable nature of "morally selective" prescription fulfillment, it becomes increasingly obvious that the argument about Plan B is - if we're honest - clearly not about abortion at all. Since the morning after pill prevents unwanted fertilization, and anyone who wants to stop the abortion of unwanted children - or claims to - should fully support safe, effective means for avoiding unwelcome pregnancies, the Plan B controversy must be about something else. Likewise, any assertion within this discussion that life begins at fertilization can be disregarded because it is completely irrelevant. With Plan B, fertilization doesn't take place, and without fertilization, there is no baby, branding false the claim that this argument is about the life of a child.

In fact, opposition to Plan B makes it completely clear that standing against emergency contraception isn't about the sanctity of life in any way, shape or form - it is about regulating female physiology, and more importantly, sex. That's something to keep in mind if your contraceptive method of choice is something other than abstinence.

November 6, 2007

Lost and Stumbling

Senator Russ Feingold, bookended by whores.
Michael Mukasey's nomination for U.S. Attorney General was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committe today on a vote of 11 to 8, and passed to the full chamber for approval that is expected to come late this week. Because of Judge Mukasey's refusal to define waterboarding as torture (see Americans Torture) Committee members like Ted Kennedy, Russ Feingold and Chairman Patrick Leahy took strong positions against his nomination, but were ultimately sabotaged by fellow Democrats Chuck Schumer and Diane Feinstein. The stated reasons for this betrayal were that the nominee was the best they were likely to get from President Bush, and that he had ensured them he would enforce any laws passed by Congress that specifically outlaw waterboarding.

Unfortunately, the real reason that Judge Mukasey's nomination succeeded in getting out of commitee was that Mr. Schumer, as the sponsor for the nomination, faced significant embarrassment if the candidate he had suggested was rejected by his own party. Further, assurances that new laws against waterboarding would be enforced are meaningless, since any such legislation would face death on the president's desk unless it passed Congress with a veto-proof majority, which will not happen under current apportionment. Worst of all, waterboarding is already illegal - as detailed in a recent letter (*.pdf) from four retired Navy Judge Advocates General (JAG) - and the acceptance of Judge Mukasey's assurances amounts to tacit approval from Congress for President Bush's refusal to abide by current law.

From the JAG letter, which could hardly be more clear:
In the course of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s consideration of President Bush’s nominee for the post of Attorney General, there has been much discussion, but little clarity, about the legality of “waterboarding” under United States and international law. We write Because this issue above all demands clarity: Waterboarding is inhumane, it is torture, and it is illegal.
The Rule of Law is fundamental to our existence as a civilized nation. The Rule of Law is not a goal which we merely aspire to achieve; it is the floor below which we must not sink. For the Rule of Law to function effectively, however, it must provide actual rules yhat can be followed. In this instance, the relevant rule - the law - as long been clear: Waterboarding detainees amounts to illegal torture in all circumstances. To suggest otherwise - or even to give credence to such a suggestion - represents both an affront to the law and to the core values of our nation.
Likewise, as recently as 2004, senior Department of Justice official Daniel Levin was so disturbed by what he had learned about waterboarding that he subjected himself to it in order to understand its effects. His personal experiment confirmed his belief that waterboarding is torture, but before he could follow up on a memo (*.pdf) he had written previously that aimed to curtail Bush Administration abuses, he was forced out by incoming Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

So here's where we are today: We have officially joined the ranks of countries that countenance torture. Not only do we think torturing people is the right thing to do, we actually follow up on that belief, despite the fact that we have prosecuted as war criminals men from other nations caught doing the same. Finally, if anyone speaks up about the fact that we are torturing people against international, domestic, and basic human law, they are removed from public view as quickly as possible, or tossed under the wheels of a political machine that values personal image over substantive support for the Constitution.

These are black, black days in America.

We have wandered so far from the path of our history and our ideals that, even when someone shines a light to guide us back to it, we prefer to stumble further into the darkness. George W. Bush deserves every ounce of damnation he will suffer in the afterlife in which he so fervently believes, and if there is any justice left in the universe, the men and women who have supported him - from the most active promoters of the neoconservative agenda to the submissive and vain Chuck Schumers of the world - will be right there with him, joined in their corruption, hypocrisy and cowardice as they are today.

The 2008 elections - and every midterm vote for the next several years - should rightfully come down to a single issue: Will the candidate fulfill his or her oath to uphold the Constitution in all circumstances? A vote for anyone who cannot answer "yes" is a vote for the continued erosion of the United States and the national character of its people. Both the Democratic American Freedom Campaign and the Republican American Freedom Agenda are working to make restoration of the Constitution a centerpiece of the presidential campaign. I urge you to support either or both - links are below - and add your voice to what must become a chorus of discontent too loud to ignore.

  • American Freedom Agenda

  • For further motivation, here's Keith Olbermann's special commentary from November 5th on Daniel Levin and the torture policies of George W. Bush:

    November 2, 2007

    Americans Torture

    Senate confirmation of U.S. Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey has been imperiled - although certainly by no means killed - as the respected former U.S. District Court judge refuses to say unequivocally whether or not the practice of waterboarding is torture. Waterboarding, despite being squeamishly labeled everything from "simulated drowning" to a "CIA-sponsored swim lesson," is neither; as former Master Instructor and Chief of Training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School writes, it is torture - period. Far from merely inflicting mental distress, waterboarding is controlled drowning in which fluid enters the lungs, and it carries with it the risk of brain damage, internal trauma and death. The United States has both court martialed American personnel who have engaged in it and prosecuted foreign perpetrators of the technique as war criminals.

    In spite of these facts, President Bush made two extraordinary claims on Thursday. First:
    I believe the questions he's been asked are unfair. He's been asked to give opinions of a program - or techniques of a program - on which he has not been briefed... The American people have got to understand the program is important and the techniques used are within the law... He doesn't know whether we use that technique or not.
    and later:
    If the Senate Judiciary Committee were to block Judge Mukasey on these grounds, they would set a new standard for confirmation that could not be met by any responsible nominee for attorney general... That would guarantee that America would have no attorney general during this time of war.
    Even a quick reading of these statements by all but the most partisan backers of the president reveals the utter lack of rationality, conscience and respect for the rule of law that is embodied therein. Unfortunately, however, the media continues to support this narrative, focusing on whether or not Judge Mukasey is being asked to retroactively label as a toturer anyone who has interrogated prisoners in the days since 9/11, and/or whether the United States tortures under current interrogation programs. Despite the president's hysteria, he's not being required to do either.

    In point of fact, Mr. Mukasey has not been queried on his opinion of a technique used by the United States government at all, unless the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or military are currently violating the orders of CIA Director Michael Hayden and the Army field manual, both of which explicitly prohibit waterboarding. On the contrary, the judge is being asked to define whether a technique that is roundly considered cruel, inhumane and degrading - and therefore in violation of the Geneva Conventions to which the U.S. is signatory - is "torture." (It should be noted that treaties ratified by Congress - as in the case of the Geneva Conventions - carry the force of domestic law.) This being the case, it flatly doesn't matter whether Judge Mukasey knows whether or not waterboarding is being used by American interrogators, only whether or not waterboarding is torture.

    By contrast, the president's statements essentially amount to an admission that the U.S. - despite claims to the contrary - is (or has been until recently) waterboarding prisoners in violation of its own orders and the law. This assertion is supported by the accounts of CIA officials who told ABC News in 2005 that waterboarding was authorized by agency leadership, and while the president has repeatedly declared that "we do not torture," there can be little question that we have done so in the very recent past, or that we may continue to do so today. Mr. Bush is desperately working to prevent his nominee for Attorney General from defining waterboarding as torture in order to avoid removing any last doubt - purely semantic or not - that, on this topic, he is an unmitigated liar.

    Finally, the idea that requesting Mr. Mukasey's legal opinion on whether or not waterboarding is torture is somehow beyond the pale is patently ludicrous. Judge Mukasey is a former federal prosecutor, private practice attorney, district court judge and professor at Columbia University Law School; it is hard to imagine someone more qualified to have an opinion on matters of jurisprudence. If Mr. Bush is honestly interested in ensuring that the nation has an attorney general "during this time of war" and Mr. Mukasey needs to be briefed by the president in order to answer a question, that briefing should take place. Given that it has not, the only possible explanation for Bush Administration stonewalling an eminently reasonable inquiry is fear that the president and his team will be revealed to have been working beyond the legal limits with respect to interrogation, and again, repeatedly lying about it.

    Pausing for a moment to briefly ignore these impeachable violations of United States law, it is important to understand why all of this posturing and rhetoric continues to be costumed as "debate." The first reason, I believe, is our great national discomfort over what we know - whether we admit it or not - is being done in our names. The second - which is related to the first - is that there remain apologists who claim that even if waterboarding is torture (and it is) it is somehow justified because of the threat we face from al-Qaeda and radical Islam. Such claims, however, grossly and obvioulsy inflate that threat. As Bill Maher notes:
    At the Republican debate this week, Mike Huckabee said, "Islamofascism is the greatest threat we ever faced." Really? More than the Nazis, and the Russians and the Redcoats? In his latest ad, Mitt Romney warns eerily that Muslim jihadists want to establish an Islamic caliphate covering the whole world, including America. Yes, and I want to be adopted by Angelina Jolie.
    Even if one accepts the false premise that we live in circumstances of extreme danger that demand an extreme response, there is no evidence that torture works at all. Stuart Herrington, a 30-year veteran of military intelligence and an interrogator, states that success comes from building rapport with prisoners, not through inflicting pain until they will declare and say anything in order to obtain relief. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, for instance, is acknowledged to have been waterboarded, but as recounted in The One Percent Doctrine, confessed to pretty much every crime or plot he could think of, real, imaginary, past, present or future.

    Of course, the most pernicious defense of torture is usually encapsulated in the "ticking time bomb" scenario, but even here, in the most dramatic of possible set pieces, the reasoning and justification are unsound. The underlying problem is this: in real life, all of the facts that precede the last, crucial piece of knowledge - what is planned, where it is to take place, when, and by whom - are precisely the facts an interrogator works to uncover. It is total fantasy to think that an interrogator will have all the answers except for one, and will be capable of distilling the single piece of good data from the verbal deluge that results when a prisoner breaks. Jack Bauer might be a favorite of G.O.P. pols, but that doesn't make his fictional successes any more realistic.

    Few things have horrified me more since George W. Bush took office than the fact that we are now debating what kinds of torture are acceptable and what might or not be torture; these lines should be clear. Today, our national self-degradation continues with the Mukasey nomination, as, instead of calling the president on the carpet for the rank and ugly stain he continues to work into the fabric of our cultural identity, we treat his declarations and his obstructionism as if they were honorable speech. Just a few years ago, the debate - if there was any debate at all - would have been whether to imprison torturers with the possibility of parole or without. It is a measure of the effectiveness of the fear mongering, the intellectual laziness and the moral bankruptcy of the Bush White House that we have fallen as far as we have.

    As a people, we are judged by how well we live up to the principles we expound and to which we aspire, not just when it is easy to do so, but when it is most difficult. By allowing our government to unjustly imprison and torture on our behalf we fail both our nation and ourselves, and it is high time that we stopped letting cheap thugs elevated to positions of power - for which they have repeatedly demonstrated neither capacity nor ability - ruin our names, our reputations and everything for which the United States once stood.

    The first step toward recovery is the painful one of admitting we have a problem, and it's time to call a spade a spade: Americans torture.