February 26, 2010

Marriage Laws and Risk to Children

Half the states in the union permit marriage between first cousins. Children of such couplings are at a 2-3% higher risk of birth defects and genetic anamolies than the progeny of couples who are not so closely related to one another.  However, genetic and family counseling can greatly reduce this risk, and most physicians agree that, while non-trivial, the danger is eminently manageable.

By contrast, only six states allow matrimony between members of the same sex.  These unions carry no additional health risks for children in families with homosexual parents, and have been shown to place them at no disadvantage socially or otherwise.

It would appear then, that in matters of marriage, 26 trust states adults to make informed decisions about risks to their offspring when the parents or potential parents are related to one another.  In 44 states, however, parents whose matrimony creates no additional risk for their offspring are simply denied the right to marry for no other reason besides prejudice. 

Or am I missing something?

February 21, 2010

UPDATED: The Straightforward Case for Prosecuting Dick Cheney as a War Criminal

AUTHOR'S NOTE (February 21, 2010; 4:14pm CST): In another forum, the point was made that saying "I'm a big supporter of waterboarding" is not, of itself, a crime. That is absolutely true. The issue with former Vice President Cheney however, is that he claimed he "was a big supporter" of waterboarding in the context of creating policy that was then carried out by subordinates.  For additional background on Mr. Cheney's remarks, please see The Last Gasp of Equality Before the Law?

In my last post, I described the amazing turn of events that took place on Valentine's Day, when, after former Vice President Dick Cheney proudly declared on national television that he was a "big supporter of waterboarding", both the media and the federal government did precisely... nothing.  To those who have not been following the issue of officially sanctioned torture by the White House, this might not, in fact, be all that amazing, so in this post, I will lay out the very simple, straightforward, un-hyperbolic, non-fringe reasons why Dick Cheney should be prosecuted as a war criminal.

Part One: The Constitutional Rights of Foreign Nationals

The Constitution of the United States applies to foreign nationals on American soil or in American custody, and this has been amply supported by case law.   If it did not, it would be permissible for the government to simply kidnap foreign tourists off the street, imprison them indefinitely, and physically abuse them as it chooses.   (For more information, see Glenn Greenwald's excellent article on the topic.) 

Clearly this is not the case, and the contention that we need to worry about "giving terrorists" in our custody rights is - bluntly - stupid. They have rights already, despite the best efforts of people in power to pretend it isn't so. If one doesn't like that fact, passing an amendment to the Constitution is an option, but in the meantime, those are the breaks. Stating otherwise is arguing from a position of political fantasy; it might feel good, but it is no way supported by reality.

Part Two: The Outright Illegality of Waterboarding

We are either a nation of laws or we are not, and we either follow the Constitution or we don't. By definition, neither can be obeyed "sometimes" or only when it's convenient to do so. The law of the land states - flatly - that not only is torture illegal, but that there are no exceptions to this rule. And lest anyone think this is because of some left wing plot, President Ronald Reagan is the man responsible.  His signature and the approval of the Senate made the United Nations Convention Against Torture American law.

Further, waterboarding is unquestionably torture unless, apparently, you have done it to someone, ordered it done to someone, voted for the president who made it part of American policy, think Sean Hannity is a smart, well-informed guy, or haven't bothered to do some very basic reading. To everybody else in the world, waterboarding is torture, period, and has been so legally defined for decades. The U.S. courtmartialed American personnel who did it during the Vietnam conflict, and prosecuted Japanese soldiers who waterboarded U.S. POWs in World War II.

Therefore, if Dick Cheney or anyone else admits to being a "big supporter of waterboarding" he admits to being a "big supporter of torture".  And if he is or was in a position to successfully influence or directly command others to torture and does so, he is guilty of - at a minimum - conspiracy to carry out a crime.

Part Three: Equality Before the Law

If anyone off the street appears on television and admits to committing a plainly illegal act - as Dick Cheney did on Valentine's Day - he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. There are no protected classes in the United States, there is no aristocracy, and there is no one to whom the law does not apply. If one thinks there should be, the opportunity exists to pass a law making it so, but until such a time, equal justice is a central tenet of the American system.


This whole matter is, at its heart, an extremely simple issue. Pretending that politicians are not subject to the same laws as everyone else, that waterboarding isn't torture, or that we ought to be framing our actions based on what al-Qaeda does isn't just unhelpful, it is deeply detrimental to everything for which the United States is supposed to stand.  In fact, lobbying for inequality before the law and supporting the physical abuse of prisoners is about as un-American as it gets.

And that is why Dick Cheney should be prosecuted for war crimes.

CREDO Action has a petition here if you'd like to add your name to those calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to perform his legal obligation and indict  the former vice president.

February 16, 2010

The Last Gasp of Equality Before the Law?

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled No One Is Responsible about the fact that, to date, nobody has been prosecuted - or even strongly disciplined - for driving the policy that saw the United States adopt torture as a tool in the "War on Terror."  Last weekend, former Vice President Dick Cheney decided that the degradation of America's rule of law was not complete, and openly boasted that he "was a big supporter of waterboarding."

Andrew Sullivan evaluates what this means succinctly and accurately:
There is not a court in the United States or in the world that does not consider waterboarding torture. The Red Cross certainly does, and it's the governing body in international law. It is certainly torture according to the U.N. Convention on Torture and the Geneva Conventions. The British government, America's closest Western ally, certainly believes it is torture. No legal authority of any type in the U.S. or the world has ever doubted that waterboarding is torture. To have subjected an individual to waterboarding once is torture under U.S. and international law. To subject someone to it 183 times is so categorically torture is it almost absurd to even write this sentence.
So the former vice president has just confessed to a war crime. I repeat: the former vice-president has just confessed to a war crime.

There is no statute of limitations for such a crime; and the penalty under law is either the death penalty or a prison sentence for life.

Nations who are party to these treaties must enact and enforce legislation penalizing any of these crimes.  Nations are also obligated to search for persons alleged to commit these crimes, or ordered them to be committed, and to bring them to trial regardless of their nationality and regardless of the place where the crimes took place. The principle of universal jurisdiction also applies to the enforcement of grave breaches. Toward this end, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were established by the United Nations to prosecute alleged violations.

The question is therefore not if, but when, he is convicted as a war criminal - in his lifetime or posthumously.

In fact, the Attorney General of the United States is legally obliged to prosecute someone who has openly admitted such a war crime or be in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention on Torture. For Eric Holder to ignore this duty subjects him too to prosecution. If the U.S. government fails to enforce the provision against torture, the U.N. or a foreign court can initiate an investigation and prosecution.

These are not my opinions and they are not hyperbole. They are legal facts. Either this country is governed by the rule of law or it isn't. Cheney's clear admission of his central role in authorizing waterboarding and the clear evidence that such waterboarding did indeed take place means that prosecution must proceed.

Cheney himself just set in motion a chain of events that the civilized world must see to its conclusion or cease to be the civilized world. For such a high official to escape the clear letter of these treaties and conventions, and to openly brag of it, renders such treaties and conventions meaningless. 
Mr. Sullivan is exactly right.  There are any number of politicians and pundits who have gone to great lengths to portray waterboarding as some sort of controversial "enhanced" interrogation technique that might or might not be illegal.  It isn't.  It is a criminal act, and with the exception of apologists for George W. Bush, has been regarded as such for a long, long time.  Torture is not a "policy difference".

The Obama White House has so far been feckless and cowardly in pursuing legal redress for the criminal acts of the previous administration.  Dick Cheney just raised the stakes in this matter to the table limit, and while I deeply regret this assessment, my bet is that Mr. Obama lacks the guts and integrity to call his bluff.  I would love nothing more than for Attorney General Holder to prove me wrong, but I have a terrible feeling that Valentine's Day 2010 is the date equality before the law died choking on the shovelfuls of disdain that have been thrown into its  shallow grave since 2001.

If there was any doubt that there are two systems of justice in this country - one for the rich and powerful and one for everyone else - Mr. Cheney's performance on Saturday  certainly confirmed that he not only believes that to be the case, but that he clearly thinks he's untouchable.  He's probably right, and of all the horrible things that were done by the last administration, that is the deepest and most lasting tragedy of George W. Bush's presidency.

February 10, 2010

Persecuting Heroes

From CoffeeGhost.net, this is worth contemplating as the usual suspects dig in their heels about the potential repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell:

[Click image to view at original size.]

February 9, 2010

Snowpocalypse 2010 and Climate Change

Something to keep in mind as climate change deniers rear their heads in the wake of Snowpocalypse 2010.  Remember, just because the ground near your house is flat doesn't mean the earth isn't round!

February 4, 2010

Alcohol Use, Adultery, Fraternization, and Body Art

On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen appeared before Congress to discuss the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy, which prohibits gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces of the United States from openly admitting their sexual orientation.  Both men advocated repealing the 16-year-old law, with Admiral Mullen saying:
No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens... Allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.
A day later, former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell lent his support as well:
I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I will be closely following future hearings, the views of the Service Chiefs and the implementation work being done by the Department of Defense.
While this is a watershed moment for gays in the military, it is nonetheless only the first step in ridding the American services of a rule that not only discriminates against men and women who serve honorably, but which diminishes the capacity of the armed forces.  If the recommendations of Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen are followed, a year-long assessment of the impacts of this change by the Pentagon would have to be completed, and then, of course, Congress would need to pass legislation ending DADT.

Predictably, this set off a round of deeply concerned bigotry from people like the Family Research Council (FRC)'s Tony Perkins, the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon, the serially-incorrect Bill Kristol, and perhaps most comically, Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, fretted that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military would lead to "alcohol use, adultery, fraternization, and body art."  All of these critics focused on what they perceive as the threat to unit cohesion from the presence of homosexuals.

The idea that the presence of openly homosexual personnel diminished unit cohesion is, to put it succinctly, unsupported by anything approaching fact.  A long list of nations - including our close ally Great Britain and a dozen or so NATO countries - have allowed homosexuals to serve openly with little difficulty or drama.  Further, a recent comprehensive, award-winning examination of the issue of open military service by homosexuals in Joint Forces Quarterly had this to say:
If the ban on homosexuals was lifted, it is worth considering what impacts there would be on the Services. There are potential lessons to learn from other countries that have lifted the ban on homosexuals serving openly. There was no mass exodus of heterosexuals, and there was also no mass “coming-out” of homosexuals. Prior to lifting their bans, in Canada 62 percent of servicemen stated that they would refuse to share showers with a gay soldier, and in the United Kingdom, two-thirds of males stated that they would not willingly serve in the military if gays were allowed. In both cases, after lifting their bans, the result was “no-effect.”44 In a survey of over 100 experts from Australia, Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom, it was found that all agreed the decision to lift the ban on homosexuals had no impact on military performance, readiness, cohesion, or ability to recruit or retain, nor did it increase the HIV rate among troops.
The 1993 “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” law was a political compromise reached after much emotional debate based on religion, morality, ethics, psychological rationale, and military necessity. What resulted was a law that has been costly both in personnel and treasure. In an attempt to allow homosexual Servicemembers to serve quietly, a law was created that forces a compromise in integrity, conflicts with the American creed of “equality for all,” places commanders in difficult moral dilemmas, and is ultimately more damaging to the unit cohesion its stated purpose is to preserve. Furthermore, after a careful examination, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly. In fact, the necessarily speculative psychological predictions are that it will not impact combat effectiveness. Additionally, there is sufficient empirical evidence from foreign militaries to anticipate that incorporating homosexuals will introduce leadership challenges, but the challenges will not be insurmountable or affect unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.
It is time to stop shaming honorable men and women who want to serve their country because they are attracted to a member of the same sex.  And it is time to stop sacrificing the much-needed service of valuable personnel because they make the religious and socially prejudiced uncomfortable.  The repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell has been a long time coming, and we will be a better nation for striking it down.