Don’t mess with us

The Guardian reports that the UK government is using anti-terrorism laws to intimidate citizens with no evidence that they are in any way connected to terrorism. Officers at Heathrow recently stopped an individual, David Miranda, whose domestic partner happens to be Glenn Greenwald, the man who interviewed whistleblower Edward Snowden and published articles about the NSA’s spying programs. The officers held Miranda for nine hours (the maximum allowable time period) and confiscated thousands of dollars of his personal affects. “Suspects” detained under this provision of the UK’s Terrorism Act (called “Schedule 7”) are compelled to cooperate with questioning or risk being arrested for “obstruction.”

Make no mistake, this is not diplomacy. This particular law has been on the books in the UK since 2000. It’s been suggested, with good reason, that most of its victims are racially profiled–that they “look” like terrorists. The detention of David Miranda was not naive racism by ignorant cops who should know better, it was intimidation, pure and simple. It was abuse of power for the purposes of cowing those who might dare threaten the very power being abused. We have every reason to be gravely concerned.

The problem from hell: Syria

So far the best report I’ve found on the mess that is Syria comes from, surprisingly, an opinion piece at CNN.  In it Peter Bergen reminds us that

Whoever ultimately prevails in this fight is hardly going to be an ally of the U.S. It’s an ungodly mess that makes even Iraq in 2006 look good. It is, in short, a problem from hell.

Bergen also discusses the complex legal issues of America entering the fight in Syria and the fact that we’re essentially guaranteed to enter at this point.

Another piece from The Independent brings in the fact that we’ll be fighting against al-Qaeda in Yemen and Pakistan, but with them in Syria.  It doesn’t even mention that fact that we took out al-Qaeda’s leader just two years ago.  It will be interesting to see if the we were on the same side but didn’t directly give weapons controversy will play out again.


Miyazaki’s Newest Film Angers Japanese Nationalists

I’ve been a fan of Miyazaki’s work ever since I saw a butchered version of Nausicaa in school as a kid. I rediscovered the movie as an adult, and then the rest of his work. I’m excited to see his most recent film The Wind Rises, but apparently a lot of Miyazaki’s fellow Japanese aren’t as enthusiastic.

2013-08-16 The Wind Rises

Miyazaki said this about the film:

My wife and staff would ask me, ‘Why make a story about a man who made weapons of war? And I thought they were right. But one day, I heard that Horikoshi [designer of the WWII fighter named the Zero] had once murmured, ‘All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful.’ And then I knew I’d found my subject… Horikoshi was the most gifted man of his time in Japan. He wasn’t thinking about weapons… Really all he desired was to make exquisite planes.

That’s why the film is unpopular with some: it casts Japanese history in a negative light as the beautiful dreams of Horikoshi are warped by militarism. Which, you know, is exactly why I’m so excited to see it. It’s good to have the right enemies, I suppose.

Bono: Africa Unchained

Everyone loves Bono. He’s a good man. And U2 rocks. He has also been one of the strongest proponents of foreign aid. This is why the following has come as a bit of a shock:

Foreign aid has been blasted by the likes of economists William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo. But Bono? While not blasting it per se (not all aid is created equal, mind you), he recognized that it is economic development that is the key to reducing poverty. As The Economist recently reported,

The world’s achievement in the field of poverty reduction is, by almost any measure, impressive. Although many of the original [Millennium Development Goals]—such as cutting maternal mortality by three-quarters and child mortality by two-thirds—will not be met, the aim of halving global poverty between 1990 and 2015 was achieved five years early…The MDGs may have helped marginally, by creating a yardstick for measuring progress, and by focusing minds on the evil of poverty. Most of the credit, however, must go to capitalism and free trade, for they enable economies to grow—and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution…[T]he biggest poverty-reduction measure of all is liberalising markets to let poor people get richer. That means freeing trade between countries (Africa is still cruelly punished by tariffs) and within them (China’s real great leap forward occurred because it allowed private business to grow). Both India and Africa are crowded with monopolies and restrictive practices.

Many Westerners have reacted to recession by seeking to constrain markets and roll globalisation back in their own countries, and they want to export these ideas to the developing world, too. It does not need such advice. It is doing quite nicely, largely thanks to the same economic principles that helped the developed world grow rich and could pull the poorest of the poor out of destitution.

Bono appears to have grasped this concept (he is a self-proclaimed “evidence-based activist”). And he rocked it at Georgetown University (if for nothing more than his Bill Clinton impression). He spoke of how “it’s not just aid. It’s trade, it’s investment, it’s social enterprise. It’s working with the local citizenry to help them unlock their own domestic resources so they can do it for themselves. Think anyone in Africa likes aid? C’mon.” He said that the hero will be “the nerd” and, more specifically, “Afro-nerds.” These individuals have been using technology and social media to expose government corruption and increase transparency.

Bono with George Ayittey at TEDGlobal. The book is Ayittey’s ‘Africa Unchained: The Blueprint for Africa’s Future’.

Where did this come from? While it may have come from multiple sources, I’m willing to bet economist George Ayittey’s (above with Bono) impassioned TED speech and post-speech discussions with Bono had an influence. See why below.

Marathon Swimmers Navigate Bloodied Waters Littered With Cuban Corpses

2013-08-07 Peter Fechter
Peter Fechter was shot in the back trying to climb the Berlin Wall and left to beg and plead in the mud until he finally died.

That’s the arresting title of this post, which I saw on Facebook yesterday evening. In it, Rai compares the fatalities of those who tried to escape communist East Germany and died on the Berlin Wall with the many thousands who have perished trying to cross the open waters between Cuba and Florida.

2013-08-07 Pacifier
This pacifier was found on an abandoned raft miles off the coast of Florida. The bodies of the child and her parents were never recovered.

In contrast to these grim and tragic tales, Rai talks about the ultra-marathon swimmers who hobnob with the communist rulers of Cuba and, on their self-aggrandizing trek back to Florida, swim through waves that serve as the graves for countless thousands who died seeking their freedom.

Anyone Else Worried About Syria?

Syrian rebels waving an Al Qaeda flag over a government helicopter at a captured airbase.
Syrian rebels waving an Al Qaeda flag over a government helicopter at a captured airbase.

The usual caveat about foreign policy applies: this is not my field. But I find two stories disconcerting:

  1. Iran to send 4,000 troops to aid President Assad forces in Syria
  2. US troops on Syria border as Obama arms rebels

So, President Obama issued a red-line warning some time ago against Syrian forces using chemical weapons. Which they’ve done. Now that the we either hurt our credibility by revealing that we were bluffing, or we react. The problem is that reacting seems tricky given that not only Iran but also Russia support the Assad regime. To say nothing of the fact that the opponents of the Assad regime (e.g. “freedom fighters”) seem to have an unfortunate tendency to swear loyalty to Al Qaeda (which, you know, has boots on the ground assisting them).

I don’t mean to sound callous to the unspeakable horror and loss of innocent life this war has caused, but what are our good options here? This feels like Vietnam 2.0, but worse. And yes: much worse than Iraq or Afghanistan. Afghanistan was at least plausibly a legitimate target and had no major allies or entanglements. Iraq was probably not a legitimate military target (no WMD), but was another isolated regime with no real allies. But the Syrian civil war is an ethnic, religious, and geopolitical quagmire.

I’m not saying an intervention would be impossible, but it looks like the US is getting dragged in against our will without a real plan, and I’m starting to wonder if there’s even going to be an end to the deployment of our young men and women to fight unwinnable wars in the Middle East.

Abortion Laws Around the World

Slate has a great set of interactive maps for exploring abortion and contraception laws around the world. One of the stubborn bits of misinformation that I regularly come across (even with otherwise politically informed and aware individuals) is the idea that the United States has moderate laws on abortion that only allow abortions under certain exceptions. This is not true. As the very first selection on the very first map indicates, abortion is legal in the United States for any reason whatsoever.

2013-05-30 Abortion Legality

The useful thing about these maps, of course, is that they come from Slate. I don’t think anyone accuses Slate of having a pro-life slant. Slate, for its part, credits a variety of sources running from ostensibly neutral, like the UN, to the overtly pro-choice, like the Guttmacher Institute. (The Guttmacher Institute is a branch of Planned Parenthood.)

There are other useful maps as well. The second one reinforces the point of the first one: every possible exception category is included in the US (because no reason at all is needed). Farther down, the “Abortion: Laws by state” map has a setting for “Trigger laws” that helpfully illustrates the fact that overturning Roe would not, by itself, make abortion illegal. Only 6 states (including my home of Virginia) have bans that would automatically go into effect if Roe were overturned.

And, just to preempt objections from folks who are familiar with Roe but not with Doe, it was the two court cases working together that created our present circumstance where no reason at all is required for an abortion in the United States. Although Roe ostensibly allows states to enact regulation based on trimester, they are forced to leave open a “health” exception. Doe, handed down the same day as Roe, defined “health” so broadly that basically anything goes and–in addition– left the determination in the hands of the woman’s doctor. Which is to say: the abortionist gets to decide if the abortion is for the woman’s “health”, with no oversight or penalty. This is, in effect, abortion without any restriction whatsoever.

There are some states, of course, that ban late-term abortions, but these bans are in tenuous legal territory. Pennsylvania, where Kermit Gosnell operated his clinic, has a law against late-term abortions without a health exception, but when the PA law was challenged in the Supreme Court (Planned Parenthood v Casey), Planned Parenthood decided not to contest that aspect of the law. Since it was not challenged, it remains on the books. Does that mean late-term abortions are illegal in PA? Well, you tell me. Kermit Gosnell was performing them for decades without any enforcement. He was only ever charged with illegal late-term abortions during his trial for murdering infants after they were born. I haven’t found any prosecution of an abortionist for illegal late-term abortions independent of the death of an adult patient. I would argue that if no one is ever independently charged with violating a law against late-term abortions (even when they obviously conducted thousands and are on trial for other, related charges) it’s safe to conclude that late-term abortions are still legal in practice.

Which brings me to the final map I found interesting. It’s still the “Abortion: Laws by state” map, but this time the “Abortion providers” filter. What this illustrates is how few and far between abortion providers are. The real difficulty in securing an abortion in this country (when it exists) is not about legality. It’s about the fact that so few doctors are willing to perform abortions. To what extent this is from pressure by the pro-life movement vs. the internal psychological toll of killing human beings for a living is a topic I’ll leave for another day. (If you think the psychological toll is not important, however, I suggest you try reading this paper, which gives a pro-choice abortionist’s perspective on the matter.)

[NOTE: This post updated at about 5:30pm Eastern to correct an error. The original post stated that Kermit Gosnell was never charged with illegal late-term abortions, but a friend of mine who attended the trial told me that he was. She also provided this article.]

Forced Abortions Around the World

As a general rule when I’m talking about the abortion issue I’m talking about it primarily in America. And, within that context, I usually refer to those who want abortion to be kept legal as “pro-choice”. I use that term for three reasons. The first is that, in my experience, it is generally accurate. Most people who call themselves pro-choice are genuinely concerned with the welfare of women and with ensuring women have the power to determine their own destiny. The second reason is that I generally think it’s a good idea to let your political opponents describe their own positions, including naming it. And the last is that trying to advance alternative names (e.g. “pro-abortion”) ends up doing nothing but creating silly, endless debates about terminology that accomplish nothing. Usually: it’s a waste of time.

But, while most ordinary Americans are really pro-choice, the specter of forced abortions is a real human rights concern both here at home and also internationally. Here are three stories from three very different countries (the US, Ireland and China) that don’t attempt to be at all comprehensive, but just look at different impacts of forced abortion policies on women and society. 

Read more

Al-Qaeda battles for control of chemical weapons plant

2013-04-29 Chemical Weapons Plant

From the Telegraph:

Set amid the rolling plains outside Aleppo, the town of al-Safira looks just like another vicious battleground in Syria’s civil war. On one side are lightly-armed rebels, on the other are government troops, and in between is a hotly-contested no-man’s land of bombed-out homes and burned-out military vehicles.

The fight for al-Safira is no ordinary turf war, however, and the prize can be found behind the perimeter walls of the heavily-guarded military base on the edge of town. Inside what looks like a drab industrial estate is one of Syria’s main facilities for producing chemical weapons – and among its products is sarin, the lethal nerve gas that the regime is now feared to be deploying in its bid to cling to power.

That would be ominous enough, but then there’s this:

Among the rebel lines in al-Safira flutters the black flag of the al-Nusra Brigade, the jihadist group that recently declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda. Known for their fighting prowess honed in Iraq, they are now taking the lead in nearly every frontline in the Syrian war, and earlier this month, pushed to within just over a mile of al-Safira, only to for the Syrian troops to regain the ground last week.

Yeah, this can’t end well.