Political MoJo

Detainee Amendments Decided Tonight

| Wed Oct. 5, 2005 6:11 PM EDT

It looks like the Senate will decide tonight on the fate of Sen. John McCain's proposed amendments to the defense spending bill, both of which would standardize treatment of detainees. According to McCain and others, the odds look good that the amendments will pass:

Republicans, defying President George W. Bush, said on Wednesday they expected the Senate to support imposing standards on the Pentagon's treatment of military detainees in the wake of abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere.

The Senate was to vote later in the day on bipartisan amendments to regulate the Pentagon's interrogations and treatment of prisoners and detainees.

President Bush, of course, has promised to veto the bill—which would be his first veto since taking office—if it contained any amendments that would "bar the U.S. military from engaging in 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment' of detainees, from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross, and from using interrogation methods not authorized by a new Army field manual." He wouldn't veto a pork-laden highway bill that clocked in at billions of dollars over its proposed budget, but by gun, he'll wave a veto right in the face of the first Senator or Congressman who takes away his right to torture detainees in captivity. We'll have to see who wins this battle—hopefully the president has been so weakened by his foul-ups of late that he won't be able to pitch this battle, but who knows?

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VAWA Passes Senate

Wed Oct. 5, 2005 5:52 PM EDT

Late last night, the Senate approved the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), taking a step toward ensuring continued funding for criminal justice programs that advocate for battered women. Amnesty International reports reports that since VAWA originally passed in 1994, designating as federal crimes domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking:

  • Rates of domestic violence incidents have dropped by almost 50% and incidents of rape are down by 60%
  • Intimate partners committed fewer murders in each of the 3 years (1996, 1997, and 1998) than in any other year since 1976
  • Although the Senate excluded an amendment proposed by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and John Coryn (R-TX) to create a DNA database of federal detainees—including those not convicted of a crime—that issue remains on the table. The House and Senate will soon resolve their differences over the legislation in a joint conference. Read more Mother Jones coverage of VAWA, here, here, and here.

    What Does the Crime Decrease Mean?

    | Wed Oct. 5, 2005 4:01 PM EDT

    The Times has a long piece on crime in New York City today, noting that Mayor Mike Bloomberg is pushing to take credit for the massive—and mostly mysterious—20 percent drop in citywide crime since 2001, a decline that has outpaced the rest of the nation. Only towards the end does the piece give a sense that no one really knows why crime has been declining. A few years ago, Andrew Karmen wrote an important book on the decrease in New York City's homicide rate during the 1990s, arguing that neither more effective police measures, nor greater incarceration rates, nor economic development had a decisive effect on crime rates. (Nor was it due to the bold, manly resolve of Rudy Giuliani; see Stephanie Mencimer's review for a summary.) Karmen ended up pointing to four possible explanations: better education, an influx of immigrants (who commit less crime), demographics (criminals getting older), and death (criminals dying out).

    Case closed? Not quite. It's not clear that these four factors applied to, for instance, San Diego or Washington D.C., two other cities that saw a jaw-dropping decrease in homicides during the 1990s. (San Diego tends to get feted often by liberals, who point to its success with community policing.) Nor is it clear that the New York City factors can be extrapolated nationwide. For that, you have Steve Leavitt famously arguing that legalized abortion caused the national crime drop—by leading to fewer unwanted pregnancies, and hence the depletion of a demographic at greater risk of growing up and committing crimes—although his theory isn't, as far as I know, entirely conclusive. Basically, no one really knows what makes crime go away, and the safe, namby-pamby answer is that it seems like you need a whole confluence of factors to cause a decrease; none of which can necessarily trace back to one mayor or set of urban policies. No one will hire me to write campaign slogans for a mayoral race, but there you go.

    On the other hand, the widespread drop in the crime rate does mean two important things, politically. First, crime as an issue, both in urban areas and nationally, has been plummeting lately. A Pew poll way back in January showed that "crime" basically dropped off the map dramatically as a political issue after 9/11, which didn't really spell the death of "law and order" Republicans nationwide—see Jerry Kilgore's campaign in Virginia for an example—but somewhat lessened their influence, which, I think, can only be a good thing. (Indeed, among conservatives, Harriet Miers' bleeding heart views on criminal justice seem to be the least offensive thing about her.)

    More to the point, it can potentially help rally public support around sensible measures to roll back the prison-industrial complex in this country—a complex that has played at most a supporting role in the great crime drop of the 1990s, but brings fairly obvious budgetary and societal costs. Especially with state budget crunches, there's some evidence that voters have had enough. Here in California, opposition to the "Three Strikes" rule nearly passed last fall until Schwarzenegger unleashed his multi-million dollar crusade against Prop. 66. Still, the vote was close. My preferred idea would be to start with parole reform, since, according to a 2002 Justice Department study, of the 51.8 percent of ex-convicts returned to prison, more than half (26.8 percent) are sent back not for committing a new crime, but for violating conditions of their parole (many of which are mere technical violations). That shit ain't right, and the happy part here is that it's not at all impossible to fix some of the most senseless aspects of parole. But one should note that the national homicide rate could just as mysteriously start ticking up again sometime in the near future, provoking an irrational public to support ineffectual "tough on crime" policies once again, so the time to change things is really right now.

    New at Mother Jones

    | Wed Oct. 5, 2005 3:15 PM EDT

    The Republican War on Science
    Chris Mooney Interviewed by Erik Kancler
    How the GOP undermines science in the name of politics

    The Reading Cure
    By Arthur I. Blaustein
    How to Organize a Book Group With a Social Conscience

    Bayou Farewell
    Mike Tidwell Interviewed By Erik Kancler
    The Louisiana Bayou has been sinking for years, and now it's almost gone—taking New Orleans and Cajun culture with it.

    Love In Action doesn't begin to describe this organization

    | Tue Oct. 4, 2005 11:49 PM EDT

    Back in June, many of us were concerned about 16-year-old Zach, whose Christian fundamentalist parents had sent him to a Refuge camp, run by Love In Action International, a group made up of "ex-gays" and their colleages, whose mission is to remove the gay parts from homosexuals. While Zach was at Refuge, there were demonstrations held in Tennessee to protest his forced participation in an organized attempt to turn him into something other than himself.

    In July, The Disenchanted Forest, which has closely followed the Zach case, reported that Love In Action, hearing the rumor that the state of Tennessee was interested in their claim that they offered psychological, drug, and alcohol counseling, suddenly changed their tune and claimed that their only intervention was "faith in Jesus Christ." Their website, however, employed such terms as "therapeutic group," "individual counseling," and--the most damning--"licensed counselors."

    It would have been fraudulent enough if Love In Action had just promised licensed professionals and delivered fundamentalist homophobic nutcakes. But to make matters worse, the organization was also counseling people on how to obtain insurance reimbursement for their "mental health" services.

    In September, Tennessee Guerilla Women reported that the state of Tennessee had determined that Love In Action was illegally treating mentally ill gay men (although one wonders whether any of them was mentally ill other than having the "wrong" sexual orientation). At the time, the state of Tennessee gave Love In Action until September 15 to apply for a license, or be shut down.

    Love In Action received a deferral on the matter, and today, The Disenchanted Forest reports that the organization is defying the authority of the state of Tennessee by claiming that is a faith-based ministry, and as such, does not need to be licensed. There is no word as to whether any insurance companies have sought legal action against the group, though it is clear that insurance fraud was part of the package, and Tennessee has some of the toughest insurance fraud laws in the United States--to be prosecuted, you don't even have to commit insurance fraud, you just have to attempt it.

    More Corrupt? Less? Equal?

    | Tue Oct. 4, 2005 9:19 PM EDT

    Some poll results from Newsweek:

    The good news for the Republicans is that Americans don't see the GOP-controlled Congress or the Bush White House as any more corrupt than most congresses or administrations: 56 percent say the GOP-controlled Congress will turn out to be about the same as the previous Democratic-controlled Congress, 23 percent say it will be more corrupt, 15 percent says less. And 56 percent say the ethical conduct of members of Congress has "stayed the same" in recent years, 34 percent say it has declined and 7 percent say it has improved.

    Guess more people need to read Sam Rosenfeld's American Prospect piece on comparative ethics, and Louise Slaughter's report on House rules, and Nick Confessore's piece on how the GOP subsumed K Street, and Susan Milligan's three-part series in the Boston Globe on how the GOP runs a "spoils system" in the House. It's not just anyone's imagination; these folks really are more abusive and unethical than previous Congresses.

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    An Outbreak of Presidential Powers

    Tue Oct. 4, 2005 6:03 PM EDT

    Amidst continued, widespread criticism of FEMA's foul-ups in response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush has announced that should an avian flu virus outbreak threaten the United States, he wants to use the military to quarantine citizens. Although currently there is no known strain of the avian flu transmissible between humans, should such a mutated strain arise the World Health Organization does recommend quarantine under certain conditions, in addition to the mass administration of drugs.

    However, quarantine would not necessarily require investing the president with the power to use of the military on U.S. soil, which was restricted by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. CNN spoke with Gene Healy, of the conservative Cato Institute, who said:

    Bush would risk undermining "a fundamental principle of American law" by tinkering with the act, which does not hinder the military's ability to respond to a crisis.

    "What it does is set a high bar for the use of federal troops in a policing role," he wrote in a commentary on the group's Web site. "That reflects America's traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that's well-justified."

    Healy said soldiers are not trained as police officers, and putting them in a civilian law enforcement role "can result in serious collateral damage to American life and liberty."

    Progress Against Al-Qaeda? Almost.

    | Tue Oct. 4, 2005 5:38 PM EDT

    Oh good. Michael Scheuer, the CIA's former bin Laden chief, argues that the next generation of al-Qaeda lieutenants will be more pious, less arrogant, and thus less-easily detectable: "While leaders more pious than bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are hard to imagine, Western analysts tend to forget that many of bin Laden's first-generation lieutenants did not mirror his intense religiosity. Wali Khan, Abu Zubaidah, Abu Hajir al-Iraqi, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, Ibn Shaykh al-Libi, and Ramzi Yousef were first generation fighters who were both swashbuckling and Islamist. Unlike bin Laden and Zawahiri, they were flamboyant, multilingual, well-traveled, and eager for personal notoriety. Their operating styles were tinged with arrogance… and each was captured, at least in part, because they paid insufficient attention to personal security. Now al-Qaeda is teaching young mujahideen to learn from the security failures that led to the capture of first-generation fighters."

    To some extent, one would expect this to happen to any organization, via natural selection, as the most easily-captured are, well, captured. Meanwhile, Scheuer points out that the potential ranks of mujahideen are still very, very large, what with Islamist insurgencies in Iraq, Chechnya, southern Thailand, Mindano, Kashmir, and Afghanistan, along with what he calls the "Talibanization" of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and northern Nigeria. Luckily, though, the administration has been waging a fierce covert battle against lawsuits over defective car roofs. So, you know, it's not all bad.

    Reporters Attacked

    Tue Oct. 4, 2005 4:27 PM EDT

    The crisis in Haiti continues...

    The BBC reported more disturbing news today on the U.S.-appointed interim regime:

    Guards working for Haiti's interim leader have been accused of assaulting at least two journalists at a ceremony in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

    The journalists say they were hit as they tried to cover the inauguration of the Supreme Court, attended by President Boniface Alexandre.

    Mr Alexandre's chief of security said the reporters tried to force their way in after arriving late.

    He said US company DynCorp had provided the president's bodyguards.How nice: Haitian security has been subcontracted out to a U.S. corporation. You would think that foreign governments would have seen how bad an idea this was after the U.S.'s debacle with subcontracting to private security firms in Iraq.

    Miers and Gay Rights

    | Tue Oct. 4, 2005 4:11 PM EDT

    Well this is certainly an, um, interesting surprise...