Thursday, July 3, 2014

Wayward Drones and Other Tales

Nor shall any person . . . be deprived of life. . . without due process of law. Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

It had been an exciting spring for the drones. Notwithstanding ongoing reports of civilians in Pakistan and other countries being accidentally killed by drones, there was some good news. Amazon announced that it planned to begin using baby drones to quickly deliver packages to purchasers. Although the FAA put a hold on that plan, it nonetheless gave the baby drones something to look forward to. Law enforcement agencies were increasingly beginning to use medium size drones to aid them in surveillance activities. And big drones were once again getting to fly over Iraq to keep track of where the insurgents were. All in all, things were looking up for drones. Then along came June accompanied by three reports that put the drones in bad odor. One was a Justice Department Memorandum written some years ago. Another was a report from the Stimson Center entitled “Recommendations and Report on the Task Force on U.S. Drone Policy” and the last was an investigative report by a Washington Post reporter.

The Justice Department memorandum was released pursuant to a court order telling the administration to release large parts of the Justice Department memorandum that explained why the administration thought it was OK to target and kill Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011. Mr. Awlaki was an American citizen who the government believed had gone from innocent citizen to global terrorist. Notwithstanding the fact that the United States had the capability to target and kill him, the memorandum said that Mr. Awlaki’s capture was not feasible. According to the author of the memorandum, soon to be Federal Judge, David Barron, using Dickcheneysian logic, opined that because of the infeasibility of capture it was lawful for the government to kill him. That was accomplished in September 2011 when a drone strike in Yemen, a country with which the United States was not at war, killed him, together with another American citizen in the vehicle who was not a target of the strike. According to a report in the New York Times, that killing was the first time since the Civil War that the U.S. had deliberately killed an American citizen without a trial.

The Stimson Task Force on UAV Policy conducted an extensive examination of the use of drones at the present time. None of its conclusions was likely to give comfort to the drone family. The report observed that UAVs (drones) “have enabled the United States to engage in the cross-border use of lethal force against targeted individuals in an unprecedented and expanding way, raising significant strategic, legal and ethical questions.” It observes that notwithstanding the use of drones, extremist groups “have grown in scope, lethality and influence” in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Among its conclusions is that the use of drones may contribute to the erosion of sovereignty norms. It says that situations in which the United States believes the use of drones justified may not be shared by other sovereign nations who may later use them for their own purposes. In support of its conclusion it says: “Imagine, for instance, if Russia began to use UAV strikes to kill individuals opposed to its annexation of Crimea and its growing influence in Eastern Ukraine. Even if the United States strongly believed those targeted by Russian were all nonviolent political activists lawfully expressing their opinions, Russia could easily take a page out of the United States’ book and assert that the targeted individuals were members of anti-Russian terrorist groups with which Russia is in an armed conflict. Pressed for evidence, Russia could simply repeat the words used by US officials defending US targeted killings, asserting that it could not provide any evidence without disclosing sources and methods and creating a risk that terrorists would go underground. In such circumstances, how could the United States credibly condemn Russian targeted killings?”

Putting aside the morality of drone warfare the report by the Washington Post reporter discloses that there is something slightly whimsical about the behavior of drones when they are not engaged in killing people. Drones are flown by pilots who can be thousands of miles away from the drone they are piloting and among those pilots, pilot error is not uncommon. Several military drones have disappeared while at cruising altitude never to be found again. One drone crashed because the pilot failed to realize she was flying it upside down. Another crashed because the pilot pushed the wrong button on the control stick. The crews of two predator drones explained the erratic behavior of the drones in their charge by saying they had been “possessed” and plagued by “demons.”

One camera operator gave a chronically nervous pilot of a predator drone a helpful piece of advice while the pilot was waiting to take off: “Stop saying ‘uh oh’ while you’re flying. It’s never good. Like going to the dentist or a doctor. . .oops. What the f—-you mean oops?” According to the Post report, shortly after this exchange the drone “rammed a runway barrier and guardhouse. “Whoa” the pilot said. “I don’t know what the hell just happened.”

It would be interesting to know what the pilots who have accidentally killed civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other places say when they realize their mistakes. Probably something more than “oops” or “I don’t know what the hell just happened.” We will probably find out as the number of drones continues to climb and kill.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mormons and Apostates

Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.

—William Lamb, From Melbourne’s Papers

Herewith a recent history of the Mormon Church:

1978: That was the year the church discovered that banning black males from the priesthood during the first 148 years of the church’s existence had been an error. The error was corrected in a letter from the president of the church who stated that the Lord “has heard our prayers and, by revelation, has confirmed that the long promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive thy priesthood. . . .” A leader of a group of black Mormons was delighted with the change in church policy. He said the end of time might be approaching because “we perhaps have reached a state of brotherhood.” He was wrong.

1995: That was the year that the Church’s practice of what the Mormons call “Vicarious Baptism” but is more accurately called “Posthumous Baptism”, was disclosed. The Mormons believe, as most religions do, that theirs is the only one worth having and, more importantly, the only one guaranteeing its members a seat in heaven. Generous of spirit and eager to share their good fortune with those not members of the church during life, it was publicly disclosed that the Mormons had a long tradition of baptizing the dead without their consent or the consent of their descendants. Among the beneficiaries of this practice were Adolph Hitler and 380,000 holocaust victims, including Anne Frank. Upon learning of this practice Jewish leaders were upset. One senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center said of the baptized decedents: “These people were born Jews, they lived as Jews and many of them died because they were Jews. They would not have chosen to be baptized Mormons in life and there is no reason they would want to be baptized by proxy in death.” Following the public disclosure of the practice the Mormons agreed to unbaptize all those involuntarily baptized after death and to abandon the practice.

1996: That was the year that the Salt Lake City Board of Education voted to eliminate the ski, chess, Latino, Frisbee and Bible clubs in the public schools. The action was in response to a petition from the Gay/Straight Alliance, a gay and lesbian high school club seeking formal recognition. The club’s purpose was to help gays and lesbians who were struggling with their sexuality, to support one another. Legislators said permitting the club to meet under school auspices eroded family values and promoted homosexuality. In a vote of 4 to 3 the school board eliminated all of the school-sponsored clubs so the board could not be accused of discriminating against gays and lesbians by banning only their club.

2003: That was the year it was disclosed that “Vicarious Baptism” had never stopped notwithstanding the 1995 accords. Furthermore, the unbaptisms never took place. As one of the negotiators of the 1995 accords said: “We never had in mind that we would on a continual basis, go in and ferret out the Jewish names. That would represent an intolerable burden.”

2010: That was the year it was disclosed that “Vicarious Baptism” had never stopped notwithstanding the 1995 accords. Mormons agreed with the Jewish groups that “Vicarious Baptism” would stop and also announced they had a new computer system in place that would make it hard for members to get people posthumously baptized unless those being baptized were direct ancestors of their sponsors.

2012: That was the year it was disclosed that “Vicarious Baptism” had never stopped. Church president, Tomas Monson and two other members in the Mormon First Presidency signed a letter that was read to every Mormon congregation in the world and it says posthumous baptisms of “unauthorized groups, such as celebrities and Jewish Holocaust victims must stop.

2014: That is the year in which Kate Kelly, a human rights lawyer and devoted Mormon who founded the Ordain our Women movement
received a letter from the bishop of her congregation telling her June 22 is the day a disciplinary hearing will be held to see if she should be thrown overboard by the Mormons. In the e-mail notifying her of the hearing she was told that she faces “disfellowshipment or excommunication on the grounds of apostasy.” Kate’s offense is that she has observed that men and women are not equal in the eyes of the church and that should be changed. She thinks women should enjoy the same status as black men and be permitted to become priests.

That is the year John Dehlin, an advocate for lesbian and gay Mormons, got a letter from the president of his region telling him to resign from the church or face a hearing before a disciplinary council. Mr. Dehlin’s offenses include extensive writing about the Mormon Church and LGBT issues, and expressing doubts on Internet postings about some of the teachings of the Mormon Church.

Church officials explained the reasons for ordering Ms.Kelly and Mr. Dehlin to defend themselves. In a statement released on June 11 the officials said: “Some members in effect choose to take themselves out of the church by actively teaching and publicly attempting to change doctrine to comply with their personal beliefs. This saddens leaders and fellow members.” Unknown is whether this language originated with the present leadership of the Mormon church or was simply copied from a similar statement made in the years before 1976 when black men were trying to get the church to permit black men to enter the priesthood. It probably doesn’t matter.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Guns and Georgia

There was a little man and he had a little gun . . . .
— Opening line of a nursery rhyme

The question a number of you have asked is whether the events in Cumming, Georgia that took place on June 6 would have been any different after July 1, 2014. That is the date that the “Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014” goes into effect. Not all my readers have read of that act and a brief word of explanation is in order.

Georgia legislators believe that the reason we have so many gun inspired deaths in this country is because our citizens are not adequately armed. Legislators can point to random shootings occurring on a daily basis in which innocent people have been killed in recent months, many of them in schools. The shootings range from those in which many are shot before the shooter kills himself or is caught and those in which only one or two people are killed. What is obvious to the legislators is that many of these deaths could have been avoided if more citizens were permitted to carry arms and could respond to the violence by shooting the shooter before the shooter shoots himself. That explains why during 2014, the Georgia legislature passed, and the governor signed, the “Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014”. The purpose of that act is to make Georgia a safer place. The way that is accomplished is by increasing the places into which people with concealed carry permits can carry guns.

The act permits concealed carry in all sorts of buildings and
institutions. For example, a person who “has been authorized in writing by a duly authorized official” may carry a concealed weapon in the school safety zone of all educational institutions in Georgia. (The “school safety zone” refers to a building owned or leased by the educational organizations described in the act.) Patrons of bars may find themselves seated next to a drunk with a gun at the ready should violence erupt, unless the bar owner specifically bans individuals with concealed weapons. Those in charge of churches may now permit weapons to accompany parishioners to all church functions. People entering government buildings do not have to worry about whether or not they’ve forgotten to leave their concealed weapon at home. The act provides that license holders “shall be authorized to carry a weapon in a government building. . . when [it is] open for business. . .and where ingress is not restricted or screened by security personnel.” If the building “is restricted or screened by security personnel” one of whom is certified as a peace officer, concealed carry is not permitted and a person entering the building with a weapon is guilty of a misdemeanor. All of that brings us to the question posed at the outset. That was whether what happened on June 6 would have happened after July 1.

The event that happened on June 6 was the attempt by Dennis Marx to enter the Courthouse in Cumming, Georgia. Wearing body armor and a gas mask, brandishing an assault rifle, and using his car as a battering ram, he drove up to the courthouse, attempted to run over a deputy who tried to block him and threw out “homemade spike strips” to block other vehicles from following him. In his car he had gas grenades, smoke grenades and pepper spray grenades and assorted other paraphernalia. Mr. Marx was engaged in a lawful pursuit in attempting to enter the courthouse. He was facing 11 felony charges, 10 of which pertained to the manufacture and sale of illegal drugs and was going to court to enter a plea to the charges he was facing. His preferred method of entering was, of course, unlawful. The question of whether his behavior might have had different consequences after July 1 is answered in the negative. The Safe Carry Protection Act does not permit people with assorted hand grenades to enter courthouses using vehicles as battering rams. And even if Mr. Marx had not had in his possession all the weaponry that he hoped would go into the courthouse with him (except for a concealed gun), he would have been unable to enter the courthouse. That is because even under the liberal provisions of the “Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014”, concealed carry is not permitted in courthouses.

When Governor Eaton signed the “Safe Carry Protection Act of 2014” at a picnic ground in Ellijay, Georgia, he said: “This law gives added protections to those who have played by the rules-and who can protect themselves and others from those who don’t play by the rules.” Perhaps the governor or the legislators can explain why the legislature decided that the Act and what the governor described as its “added protections” would not apply to buildings with security screening. Buildings excluded from the Act include the buildings in which legislators meet. Could it be that all their posturing notwithstanding, the governor and the legislators think they are safer if they are in an environment where no one has guns and, therefore, they have no need for the “added protection” afforded by the Act? We’ll never know.