Jenna McLaughlin

Jenna McLaughlin

DC Editorial Fellow

Jenna McLaughlin is an Editorial Fellow in Mother Jones' Washington Bureau. She has previously written and worked for DC Magazine and Baltimore City Paper. She recently graduated from the Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars Department. E-mail her at jmclaughlin@motherjones.com.

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Jenna McLaughlin is an Editorial Fellow at Mother Jones' Washington Bureau. She has previously written and worked for DC Magazine and Baltimore City Paper, and her work appears online at Elite Daily, Untapped Cities, and more. She enjoys running half marathons, sea kayaking, and trying new craft beers. She often covers matters of culture and the environment. She is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins University's Writing Seminars department, and you can reach her at jmclaughlin@motherjones.com.

Pentagon and Other Agencies Slammed for Police Militarization at Senate Hearing

| Tue Sep. 9, 2014 5:07 PM EDT
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo) at the Senate hearing.

In a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing Tuesday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers slammed officials from the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice for their handling of federal programs that help provide military grade vehicles, equipment, and weapons to local police departments across the country. The hearing was called in response to the events that took place in Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer, and peaceful protests were met by a heavily militarized police force. "Aggressive police actions [were] being used under the umbrella of 'crowd control,'" noted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

The panel grilled Alan Estevez, a Department of Defense agent dealing with logistics and acquisition of military equipment; Brian Kamoie, a federal grant regulator at the Department of Homeland Security; and Karol Mason, an attorney from the Department of Justice.

Senators questioned why certain military equipment was on the Pentagon's list of acceptable items for local police departments. Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) declared that police militarization gives him "real heartburn" and wondered "how did we get to the point where we think states needs MRAPS"—that is, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, which have been acquired by a large number of small police departments across the country. In Texas, McCaskill noted, police departments have more than 70 MRAPS, while the state National Guard has just six.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) questioned what police departments could possibly do with the 1,200 bayonets that have been issued in recent years. The Pentagon's Alan Estevez replied that he was unsure. Throughout the hearing, members of the panel underscored the point that police officers are often not adequately trained in how (and when) to use the military-grade equipment their departments acquire. The Pentagon doesn't require police departments to undergo any training before supplying them MRAPS and other military equipment.

Estevez testified that the Pentagon would reevaluate its list of acceptable equipment for police departments. But Brian Kamoie, the Homeland Security official, and the Justice Department's Karol Mason, both acknowledged that their agencies don't do much to regulate how police departments use the grant money they dole out to local law enforcement.

McCaskill condemned the Department of Defense and the other agencies for their lack of oversight over the use of military equipment by local police. "None of them know how it's being utilized," McCaskill said. She pointed out that a police department in Lake Angelus, Michigan, which employs only one police officer, has received 13 military grade assault weapons since 2011. "I think we need to get to the bottom of that," McCaskill said.

Watch the hearing here:

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The Arab World's Version of the Ice Bucket Challenge: Burning ISIS Flags

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 11:44 AM EDT

On Saturday, three Lebanese young men in Beirut protested the Islamic State by burning the extremist group's flag, a black banner emblazoned with the Muslim tenet "there is no god but God and Muhammed is his prophet." The teens then posted a video of the flag-burning online, exhorting others to do the same to demonstrate their opposition to the movement led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In recent weeks, the Islamic State has allegedly beheaded a Lebanese army sergeant and kidnapped about 20 Lebanese soldiers. The flag-burning campaign, modeled on the viral "Ice Bucket Challenge," quickly took off on social media under the hashtag #BurnISISFlagChallenge. "I nominate the whole world to #Burn_ISIS_Flag_Challenge. You have 24 hours. GO!!" wrote one Lebanese YouTube user.

Though the campaign hasn't spread throughout the world yet, it has received considerable attention in Lebanon, where many citizens have rallied behind the cause. But some Lebanese officials are not happy about the protest. Lebanese Minister of Justice Ashraf Rifi has called for the "sternest punishment" for the flag burners for their "insult" to the Islamic religion and its symbols. He contends the flag is a religious relic, not a symbol of the Islamic State. And he claimed the flag-burning could "stir up sectarian conflicts" and, consequently, was illegal under Lebanese law, according to newspaper Asharq al-Aswat.

Nabil Naqoula, a member of Lebanon's Change and Reform parliamentary bloc, took issue with Rifi and maintained that the protesters who started the movement did not intend "to insult the Islamic religion." Ibrahim Kanaan, a member of the same group, offered legal support to the three young men who launched the flag-burning frenzy if they are charged with a crime.

The Islamic State's flag has flown everywhere from a Chicago motorists' window last Wednesday as he made bomb threats against the police, to the streets of Tabqa in northeast Syria where the extremist group seized a military airbase. The black banner has become synonymous with the group's radical violence and mercilessness. 

Here are a few examples of Lebanese activists taking the flag-burning challenge:

Should Pregnant Women Eat Zero Tuna?

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Food-safety experts at Consumer Reports crunched the numbers on mercury levels in seafood—and they have a new recommendation for pregnant women: Don't eat tuna at all.

The FDA recommends that pregnant and nursing women consume between 8 and 12 ounces of fish per week to provide proper nutrition for a baby's brain development and overall health. But some fish are very high in mercury, a neurotoxin that can lead to serious cognitive problems and birth defects in children and babies. And the mercury levels in oceans are rising—humans have tripled the mercury content in oceans since the Industrial Revolution—leading to further mercury absorption by predators like tuna.

Consumer Reports provides charts to help curb mercury levels during fish consumption. Courtesy of Consumer Reports

A team at the Consumer Reports National Research Center analyzed data from the Food and Drug Administration's chart on mercury levels in seafood and determined that consuming 6 ounces of albacore tuna in a week—the level recommended as safe by the FDA for pregnant women—would put a 125-pound woman over the Environmental Protection Agency's "safe" mercury threshold by more than two ounces.

Canned light tuna is thought to offer a lower mercury tuna option, but 20 percent of the FDA's samples of it contained almost double the average level of mercury that it's supposed to. Some samples had more mercury than the king mackerel—one of the FDA's top four high-in-mercury fish—which the agency advises pregnant women and children to avoid. Canned tuna constitutes the second most frequently consumed seafood product in the United States.

Some experts like Deborah Rice, a former senior risk assessor for the EPA, think that research since 2001 suggests that there is "no question" that the FDA and EPA's current limit for mercury consumption is "too high," she told Consumer Reports. The magazine is urging the FDA and EPA to recommend that pregnant women avoid eating any tuna—and to provide more safety information concerning tuna for pregnant women, children and people who eat a lot of fish (24 ounces of fish, around seven servings, or more per week).

Pope Francis Backs Military Force Against Extremists in Iraq, Calls for UN Involvement

| Mon Aug. 18, 2014 6:06 PM EDT

President Obama's recent decision to use force against Islamic extremists in Iraq has drawn some unexpected support. The AP reported Monday that Pope Francis told reporters in response to questions about the US military intervention that "in these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor."

But Francis stopped short of endorsing specific military actions. "I underscore the verb 'stop,'" he added, according to the AP. "I'm not saying 'bomb' or 'make war,' just 'stop.' And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated." And he made clear that he wanted the international community—not just the United States—to decide how to combat the violence in Iraq:

"One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor," he said, apparently referring to the United States. "After World War II, the idea of the United Nations came about: It's there that you must discuss 'Is there an unjust aggression? It seems so. How should we stop it?' Just this. Nothing more."

Two weeks ago, Obama ordered air strikes against the Islamic State—a terrorist group that now controls parts of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon—which at the time was threatening to seize control of of Irbil, the Kurdish capital. The group has waged a violent campaign against Iraqi religious minorities, stranding tens of thousands of members of the Yazidi sect in the mountains near Irbil without food or water. On August 8, the Islamic State seized the city of Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian city, forcing thousands of Christians to flee, convert, pay a fine, or be murdered "by the sword," according to CNN. Many Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, a branch of Catholicism.

The Vatican's support for the US intervention, which includes strikes by drones and piloted US fighter jets as well as humanitarian aid for the Yazidis, seems to be somewhat unusual. Just last September, Francis held a massive vigil urging the United States to refrain from engaging militarily in the conflict in Syria following massive chemical weapons attacks, which killed more than 1,300 people. Francis described war in 2013 as a "defeat for humanity," echoing the words of Pope John Paul II. In 2003, the Vatican condemned the US invasion of Iraq as a "crime against peace."

But, as the AP points out, "The Vatican has been increasingly showing support for military intervention in Iraq, given that Christians are being directly targeted because of their faith."

This article has been revised.