May 31, 2008

Understanding the Psychology of Our Involvement in Iraq

Reuben Bolling's Tom the Dancing Bug is one of my favorite comics. Like Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World, it consistently boils down the issues of the day into their most basic components, revealing truths that are always funny, even if they are often based on the tragic, the infuriating, or both. Check out the cartoon below, from earlier this month, to see what I mean:

[Click on the cartoon to go to the original image, and click here to visit the Tom the Dancing Bug archive.]

May 29, 2008

Back in the U.S.A.

Amy and I got home earlier this week from England, and aside from a crying baby with full-on, superhuman endurance on our return leg - no exaggeration: six-plus hours of top-volume infant meltdown during an 8-hour flight - we had an amazing time.

We really enjoyed all three cities we visited - Nottingham, York and London - and York in particular was fascinating. Still encircled by medieval defensive walls and chock full of centuries-old buildings, it is thick with atmosphere and history. Add to that a strong Viking influence - the name York is an Anglicization of the Danish "Jorvik" - and it's a unique experience. The highlight of the city is the York Minster - a mammoth Gothic cathedral that rivals Westminster Abbey in size if not showiness - and under which lie the foundations of not only an older, Norman cathedral, but beneath that, a Roman fortress dating from the second or third century. It's possible to tour the undercroft of the minster and to walk on parts of the Roman paving from the original structure, but unfortunately pictures aren't allowed.

London is, of course, one of the world's great cities, and we made sure to hit as many of the major sites and attractions as we could: Big Ben, Parliament, St. James' Park, Buckingham Palace, the Tate Modern, the Millenium Bridge, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, Picadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Soho, Camden Market, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, and more. We were veteran tube riders by the end of our stay, and had some fantastic meals including wonderfully authentic Szechuan cuisine at Bar Shu in Soho, and outstanding Indian food at the Maharaja of India near Leicester Square.

Nottingham was an unexpected treat, largely because we had a tour guide in Simon Oliver who made sure we took in some of the must-sees. The Galleries of Justice, for instance - from which many of the prisoners punished with "transport" to Australia (and America) were sentenced was excellent, but the really fascinating part for me was the city of caves. It turns out that Nottingham is built on a pair of sandstone bluffs, and in medieval times, cheap housing was frequently had by digging one's self several room's worth of shelter in the hillsides. It's possible to visit a tannery dating from between 1500 and 1640, and cave homes were still in fairly wide use all the way into the 1800's.

Nottingham is also home to what is purported to be the oldest pub in all of England, if not Europe: Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, built in 1189 and the last refreshment stop for knights on their way to the Crusades. It's reputed to be haunted, and Amy and I agreed it was our overall favorite part of the trip, largely, I think, because we spent our time there drinking pints and chatting with Simon. (Training with Sensei Oliver was too brief, but outstanding; he gave me a lot to think about in my approach to karate.)

As I described in a quick note to my friend Barry, the Brits could not have been nicer, and not a one of them offered any "Bush blowback." It was easy to get caught up beforehand in the idea that Iraq is all our mess - which, in the main, it is - but the English view it as their war, too, and if anything, I think they feel as cuckolded by the whole thing as we do.

All in all, it was a great trip, and a welcome opportunity to get out of the U.S. and gain - or regain, as the case may be - perspective. I think foreign, and particularly overseas, travel - even if it is only to a country reasonably similar to our own - is invaluable in not only learning about the rest of the world and getting a sense of other people, but in finding some solace in the fact that, in the end, we're not nearly as different from one another as we might think.

It's easy to get caught up in the hysteria and the media stereotypes that pervade so much of our lives, and while I certainly won't claim that there is a vast cultural divide between the U.S. and Britain, reminding one's self firsthand that pretty much everybody has the same concerns - putting food on the table, keeping a roof overhead, making sure families are safe, ensuring kids grow up strong and healthy and with opportunities - is an important exercise in understanding the implications of our collective actions as a country.

Plus, it's a lot of fun - I can hardly wait to do it again!

May 14, 2008

Off to Old Blighty

My wife and I are off to England for 10 days starting Friday, and packing and preparation are eating up pretty much all available bandwidth. We'll be hitting Nottingham so I can train with Sensei Simon Oliver for a couple of days, but then relaxing and playing tourist in York and London.

It's Amy's first trip overseas, and I haven't been since 1999. I'm really looking forward to it, although I have to admit to being a little reticent about the possibility of Bush blowback. Here's hoping that the historic race between Obama and Clinton - and the concurrent discrediting and unpopularity of the president - will make for cordial international relations!

Posting at Sensen No Sen will resume in the last week of May. Until then, take care!

May 9, 2008

Tiny Bits of Ourselves in Permanent Government Custody

Today, as I looked over some of my recent writing, I realized that I've been referencing my own previous posts with greater frequency. I realized also that, while I wish it were because I was able to report the reversal of bad policies, deviations from the viciously self-destructive path the United States has followed since handing the reins to George W. Bush, or even - somewhat fantastically, I know - because earlier complaints about Congress and the president were misguided, none of these is the reason behind this trend. Instead, depressingly, it is a mark of how little things have changed that I find myself providing updates about ongoing and deepening problems rather than calling attention to their resolution.

In the realm of civil liberties and privacy rights, for instance, there are new reports that, in service to the White House, the House Democratic leadership is actively seeking to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and gift the telecommunications industry with retroactive immunity for their illegal eavesdropping on American citizens. Likewise, although the battle over the government's efforts to impose a national identification system via the REAL ID Act remains contested (at least in some places) there are ever more numerouse efforts to take this country down the path toward full surveillance statehood.

Among these efforts is the Justice Department's proposal to implement - as authorized by the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005 - the collection of DNA samples from anyone taken into federal law enforcement custody, regardless of whether or not they are convicted of a crime:
This rule directs agencies of the United States that arrest or detain individuals, or that supervise individuals facing charges, to collect DNA samples from individuals who are arrested, facing charges, or convicted, and from non-United States persons who are detained under the authority of the United States.
While the potential for abuse is somewhat self-evident in the above excerpt - federal law enforcement could simply round up people (political protestors, are a likely target) - swab their cheeks for DNA and then release them - there are a host of other potential pitfalls with which we should be very concerned.

First and foremost, innocent people do not belong in a database the sole purpose of which is to make them de facto suspects for any and all future crimes. As a recent article in Nature explains:
Although DNA can undoubtedly be useful in exonerating the innocent, a database of individual DNA profiles - as opposed to crime-scene profiles - is never necessary to exonerate an innocent person, because this can always be done by comparing the suspect's DNA profile directly with the DNA profile from the crime scene. The added value of putting individuals' profiles in a database is to introduce new suspects into past or future investigations, not to exonerate the innocent.
At first blush, this might not seem like a big deal, especially when confronted with statements that claim, for instance, that "A Chicago study in 2005 found that 53 murders and rapes could have been prevented if a DNA sample had been collected upon arrest." After all, if there are innocent people in the database, there is no way they can be flagged as a criminal suspect, because DNA profile matching provides astronomically low rates of false positive matching ... Right?


As it turns out, the type of DNA profile matching used in law enforcement today is nowhere near the precise tool that prosecutors, television crime shows and popular wisdom would have us believe. Because, while it is possible to ascertain that two samples of DNA did not originate from a single person - e.g. testing samples to prove a suspect is not guilty of a crime - the level of precision necessary to determine conclusively that two samples came from the same person does not exist. Accuracy varies wildly based on a number of factors, and the larger the reference database, the higher the odds are that people will be implicated in crimes of which they are innocent because of false positive matches. (See this Los Angles Times article - also linked in the next paragraph - for a fuller explanation of the last statement.)

Recently, for example, a man in L.A. was convicted of murder because his DNA - which had been stored after previous arrests - was apparently matched to that of the killer in a 30-year-old, unsolved slaying. While prosecutors told the jury that the odds of a false match in this case were greater than 1.1 million to 1, because of degradation in the original DNA sample - as well statistical considerations involving the use of California's DNA database - the actual odds of an inaccurate match were as a high as one in three.

Further, implementing a sweeping collection process for DNA would - like the requirements for REAL ID - be wholly impractical. The proposed Justice Department regulation estimates that roughly one million new samples would be collected annually, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) currently processes only about 75,000 samples each year - a sure recipe for massive backlogs and the consequent errors that have plagued other, overloaded DNA matching efforts. One possible solution would be to outsource such a program to the private sector - something the DNA Fingerprint Act openly contemplates - but the potential for abuse, including "shadow databases," of this kind of deeply personal data in such circumstances is hard to deny.

DNA, after all, despite the name of the legislation in question, is not just a fingerprint; it houses highly sensitive medical information. While the use of said information to deny health insurance or disqualify people from certain kinds of employment is currently prohibited, the fact of the matter is that the actual samples used to extract DNA profiles - not just the profiles themselves - would be held in perpetuity. Given the creeping intrusiveness we have seen during the presidency of George W. Bush, it is only a naive or foolish citizen who believes those little bits of themselves in permanent government custody would be in any way sacrosanct.

Given the controversial nature of the proposed DNA collection procedures, one might reasonably wonder why it hasn't been a hot topic of discussion; why this issue wasn't front page news when it was debated in the halls of Capitol Hill. There is an easy answer: it was never debated and no votes were cast for it or against it. Instead, Senator John Kyl, Republican of Arizona, attached the DNA Finger Print Act to the reauthorization bill for the popular (and otherwise commendable) Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This bill, complete with its DNA collection amendment, passed the Senate by unanimous consent, and was signed into law by the president on January 5, 2006.

And now - as with so many things in George W. Bush's America - we have to deal with the very real and very serious effects of this short-sightedness, arrogance and hypocrisy.

Like I wrote at the beginning, not much has changed.


If you'd like to make your voice heard on the implementation of this legislation, use this link to go to and add your public comment. Comments can be made on this topic until May 19th.

May 5, 2008

If You Liked George, You're Going To Love John

His Master's Voice
[Image courtesy of 2MillionthWeblog.]

Last July, I wrote a post entitled The Inexplicable Charisma of Fred Thompson, in which I noted the following:
The cognitive dissonance embodied in John McCain's spiraling campaign, meanwhile, is awful to behold. He squandered the straight-talking, maverick image he carefully cultivated after being tagged as one of the Keating Five, and hitched his wagon to the wrong horse, toadying for President Bush when W was at his zenith and irreversibly associating himself with both the Iraq War and the man who is likely to go down as the worst president in history. Worse, with the memories of what Bush did to him in the 2000 election in the back of his mind, he couldn't pull it off without looking like he was trying desperately to choke down a bucketful of foulness and evil. He knows he sold his soul at a tragic discount, but while it's possible to be sympathetic towards him on some level, that doesn't make him any less worthy of derision.
While it was unquestionably premature for me to declare Senator McCain's campaign to be in a death spriral, recent polling indicates that I was pretty much right on the money with regard to American perceptions of the Arizona legislator's links to President Bush; fully 43 percent of voters say they are concerned that he is too closely aligned with the current adminsitration. (As it turns out, with the ludicrous policy proposals sputtering forth from Camp McCain - apparently based on equal parts hand-waving, smoke, mirrors and pandering - I was also right about the derision part.)

In any case, the press has been doing just about everything it can to resuscitate Mr. McCain's maverick straight-talker image and keep his campaign reasonably appealing to a nation justifiably beaten down by two terms of George Walker Bush. As I described in Holding the Media Accountable:
To date, for instance, Senator McCain has enjoyed coverage that is difficult to describe as anything other than "extremely friendly." He is routinely portrayed as a straight-talking maverick foreign policy expert with a reputation seemingly unassailable, no matter how many times he misstates the relationship of Sunni Muslim al-Qaeda to Shi'ite Muslim Iran or makes claims about the economy that are demonstrably untrue ... The fact that Mr. McCain divorced his first wife after she suffered serious injury in a car accident in order to marry his current, extremely wealthy spouse - with whom he had been carrying on an extramarital affair - or that he was at the very center of the Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal hasn't seemed to matter. While new developments about Senator McCain's apparent influence peddling continue to be unearthed, Senator Obama in particular has had to deal with insipid "issues" like his bowling score and use of the word "bitter" to describe some voters in Pennsylvania.
Make no mistake; the media is without a doubt as big a political force in the 2008 presidential elections as any of the candidates, and not in a good way.

So, how to cut through all of the misinformation, sins of omission and soft-headed press-created narratives clouding the facts and warping the political process? For those inclined to follow the continuing devolution of Senator McCain on an ongoing basis, I recommend Think Progress' McCain tracking page for a good, cumulative review. For those who want the thumbnail version, go ahead and take the Bush-McCain Challenge; its 5 questions amply illustrate how out of touch with the country the presumptive Republican nominee actually is, and how extreme his positions really are. Whichever you choose, however, it will be pretty difficult to draw a conclusion other than that if you liked George, you're going to love John.

May 1, 2008

Five Years Closer to Collapse

Today, five years after President Bush paraded in a flight suit on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and announced that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended," comes news that an Army ranger was killed Tuesday in Afghanistan during his seventh tour of duty. Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino - who has apparently had her capacity for perceiving irony surgically removed (the same cannot be said for her ability to compose statements of singular, self-centered crassness) - declared that the administration had "paid a price for not being more specific" in the messaging of the "Mission Accomplished" banner that hung behind the president as he trumpeted false claims of victory in Iraq. Missing from Ms. Perino's comments was an explanation of how anyone could be required to serve seven tours of duty if major combat operations were over.

Of course, this attitude is nothing new for Mr. Bush and the people who work to keep him in power. As I have written in earlier posts, the president's "War on Terror" has been one defined by classism, hypocritical politicization of the armed forces, and perhaps most importantly, serial abuse of the military:
Now, not only is the United States stretched too thin to address another significant crisis, current policies are ensuring that, even when our troops are finally brought home from Iraq, the military will be exhausted, substandard and suffering from poor morale. The White House's desire to fight the Iraq War on the cheap and with as little political cost as possible is coming home to roost. Like nearly everything else the Bush Administration has touched, the military will bear the scars of ignorant, ideological, and short-sighted policies for years to come.
Despite statements by leading veterans like Colin Powell that the military is "broken," as well as vivid and public black marks like the Walter Reed scandal, evidence continues to mount that the White House and the modern Republican Party are conducting what appears to be an almost conscious effort to thoroughly undermine the armed forces and the families of those serving in them.

Earlier this month, for instance, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released data on the number of felons allowed to enlist in the Army and the Marines. Hard-pressed over the past several years to make recruiting goals, these services have increasingly opened their ranks to men and women with serious criminal records, and as Chairman Henry Waxman noted, "Concerns have been raised that the significant increase in the recruitment of persons with criminal records is a result of the strain put on the military by the Iraq war and may be undermining military readiness." It is a mark of our utterly misplaced priorities that homosexuals are expelled from active service simply for being gay while the number of felons admitted into the Army jumped from 249 in 2006 to 511 a year later.

In the same vein, a bill authored by Senator Jim Webb that originally enjoyed broad bipartisan support - and which would dramatically increase the educational benefits for troops serving in the military - has now gained substantial opposition from the White House, presumptive G.O.P. presidential nominee John McCain, and Republican legislators. Despite the success of previous incarnations of the G.I. Bill and similar legislation, that saw - for example - Mr. Webb, a Marine veteran, attend law school at taxpayer expense in return for his service in Vietnam, those opposed to this effort to improve the lives of veterans say they are worried that richer educational benefits will diminish the number of career military personnel. In the face of a petition with 30,000 signatures from veterans supporting Senator Webb's bill, Senator McCain has mouthed talking points about bureaucracy and rules:
“There are fundamental differences,” McCain told Politico. “He creates a new bureaucracy and new rules. His bill offers the same benefits whether you stay three years or longer. We want to have a sliding scale to increase retention. I haven’t been in Washington, but my staff there said that his has not been eager to negotiate.”

“He’s so full of it,” Webb said in response. “I have personally talked to John three times. I made a personal call to [McCain aide] Mark Salter months ago asking that they look at this.”

“Hell, no,” Webb bristled when asked if there had been an implicit message that he would attack McCain if he didn’t come on board. "John McCain has been a longtime friend of mine, and I think if John sat down and examined what was in this bill, he would co-sponsor it,” Webb said. “I don’t want this to become a political issue. I want to get a bill done.”

Finally, there is complete disgrace that is the Veterans Administration (V.A.) director for mental health services, Ira Katz. As reported by the Associated Press:
An eMail message from Katz disclosed this week as part of a lawsuit that went to trial in San Francisco starts with "Shh!" and claims 12,000 veterans a year attempt suicide while under department treatment.
"Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" the eMail asks.

Six months ago, CBS News reported on what they termed a Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans, and in that story, Dr. Katz declared that the V.A. is "determined to decrease veteran suicides." Apparently, however, the Veterans Administration Mental Health Group has been more determined to hide the problem than to actually address it, because the group's own eMails admit than 18 veterans kill themselves each day, and five of them are under V.A. care when they do so.

To make matters worse, rather than address the underlying issues, the Bush Administration, as defendants in the San Francisco case, have argued that veterans groups do not have legal standing to bring suit. And to top that off, the V.A. has maintained that medical treatment for combat veterans is not guaranteed, but discretionary, based on the level of funding available in the V.A.’s budget. It's difficult to believe that anyone enlisting to serve their country would ever expect to be treated like this [emphasis mine]:
Multiple times during his opening statement, Justice Department lawyer Richard Lepley categorized the veterans’ groups as “special interests” and argued the changes they seek in their lawsuit - better and faster mental health care, and more rights for veterans appealing denials of benefits - are beyond the judge’s authority.
In March 2007, I wrote a post entitled Serially Abusing the American Military, and noted:
It is hard to come to any conclusion but that our soldiers are being serially abused. Consider for a moment the (by no means exhaustive) list of factors that are presently assaulting the structural integrity of - and the individuals in - our armed forces:
  • Stop loss
  • Insufficient equipment
  • An undefined, long-term mission
  • Cuts in benefits
  • Inadequate veterans facilities
  • Inadequate outpatient services
  • Inadequate psychological services
  • An unprecedented suicide rate
  • Diminished standards for enlistment
  • Deployment of medically unfit personnel
More than twelve months after I wrote those words, the only things that have changed are that the list above should certainly include institutionalized callousness, and that more military men and women are dead, both in combat, and by their own hand. Five years after his costumed performance aboard the Abraham Lincoln, Mr. Bush's war is no closer to over than it was then. Our military, however, is five years closer to collapse.