Thursday, August 7, 2014

Congress on the Playground

It could probably be shown by facts and figures
that there is no distinctly native American criminal
class except Congress. —Mark Twain, Following the Equator

Now that members of Congress have returned to the playground at home to enjoy recess time (a considerably longer time than when the members were physically in grade school) it seems appropriate to contemplate what their absence from Washington means for the country. What it does not mean is that because its members are in the playground there will be no new laws passed. No new laws were being passed before they went off to play. What it does mean, however, is that fewer hearings will be conducted.

Congressional hearings are what members of Congress engage in when they have nothing else to do. Ostensibly the purpose of hearings is to learn about problems that Congress can solve through legislation. Since Congress no longer legislates, hearings are principally designed to enable those conducting the hearings to make headlines. If a hearing is especially successful it can be used to embarrass the person who is testifying. This is especially useful if the hearing is conducted by a member of one party and the witness is a member of the other party. If the embarrassment is really good, the person conducting the hearing may conduct lots of hearings on the same subject just for the sake of getting publicity.

The tragedy that took place in Benghazi has been treated by Republicans as a windfall. They are, of course, sorry that Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya in 2012, and three other Americans were killed in that attack but they have not permitted that to deter them from holding 13 hearings and 50 briefings as of this writing and producing 25,000 pages of documents that will never be read by anyone should members of Congress ever decide the hearings should draw to a close. That will not happen for a while. The House Select Committee plans to hold more hearings in September. Since an independent investigation has extensively examined the event and shown what lapses were responsible for the event, the main purpose of the new hearings is to prove that Hillary Clinton is responsible for the death of the ambassador. Were she to announce that she does not plan to run for president, the committee would call off the hearings. Of course the Benghazi hearing is one of only many hearings that the Republican members of the House have conducted. Another was precipitated by the exchange of Taliban militants held for years without charges at Guantánamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

In exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, the president authorized the release of five Taliban militants from Guantánamo without giving Congress 30 days’ notice as required by the National Defense Authorization Act. The president saw a small window of opportunity to negotiate the sergeant’s release and decided to get the sergeant through that window lest it shut before he could act. Commenting on the release Senator James Inhofe (R. -OK) said: “Our joy at Sergeant Bergdahl’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it.” Mr. Inhofe’s joy at the release of Sgt. Bergdahl is probably no less great than his joy at the opportunity to conduct yet another hearing to demonstrate that congress has a role to play in governing the country even without passing any laws. In addition it afforded Republicans a different platform than the Affordable Care Act from which to attack President Obama. There can never be enough platforms as they have repeatedly demonstrated.

Not all hearings are designed to attack the president. Some are designed to permit congressmen to demonstrate their wisdom and their grasp of important affairs of which their constituents may have been unaware because of the dumb things they so often say. One such hearing took place in June at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on religious freedom, a hot topic if ever there was one and one that beggared a hearing. Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State was testifying before the Committee on the issue of the separation of church and state. The hearing gave Louie Gohmert, a congressman from Texas, the opportunity to get some important information in the public record. Demonstrating the same tolerance for those who do not subscribe to his religious beliefs as ISIS shows to those who do not subscribe to their beliefs, Mr. Gohmert asked Mr. Lynn: “Do you believe in sharing the good news that will keep people from going to Hell, consistent with Christian beliefs.” After Mr. Lynn expressed disagreement with Mr. Gohmert’s assertion the Congressman said: “So, you do not believe somebody would go to Hell if they do not believe Jesus is the way, the truth, the life.” His comments will come as a bit of a surprise to those who had not thought they were heading for hell because they did not share Mr. Gohmert’s religious views. Indeed, many people think the country is going to hell not because of its religious beliefs but because of the behavior of Mr. Gohmert and many of his colleagues in the United States Congress. Those who think that are right. Mr. Gohmert is wrong.

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.