Mojo - September 2007

The Attack of the Brain-Eating Amoebas

| Sun Sep. 30, 2007 1:11 PM EDT

Yet another reason to worry about rising global temperatures: Brain-eating amoebas are apparently thriving in warmer water in lakes and other popular swimming spots. The amoebas have killed a record six people nationwide this year, a trend that's expected to get worse as the world gets hotter. The amoebas swim up your nose and eat away at your brain until you die. Experts warn against performing somersaults in shallow water where the bugs hang out. Nose plug sales are expected to skyrocket...

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US Air Raids Quietly Continue to Kill in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 8:05 PM EDT

Obama may want to pre-emptively strike Pakistan, but we're already well on our way.

From June to September Afghan and Pakistani civilians were killed during U.S.-led air strikes in record numbers. Afghan civilian casualties reached its climax in August, when 168 civilians died. Two-thirds of the deaths were attributed to "military operations conducted by international forces." And today it was reported that over 2,500 families have been displaced in southern Afghanistan due to the Taliban; of that, hundreds were forced to flee due to "intense aerial bombing by international forces."

Some have pointed out that there is a gruesome air war quietly going on in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Foreign Policy in Focus points out that some of these air strikes are conducted by unmanned aerial vehicles called MQ-1 Predators (which we fly over our south-west border, I might add). The missiles are guided from a base in Nevada. There has been a "five fold increase in the number of bombs dropped on Iraq during the first six months of 2007 over the same period in 2006," and more than 30 tons of that have been cluster bombs. More civilians, the writer suggests, are being killed by coalition forces than the Taliban.

Furthermore, 59,787 pounds of cluster bombs have rained upon Iraq since April 2003; the Air Force dropped 111,000 pounds of bombs over Iraq in 2006 over a span of 10, 519 "close air support missions." This figure does not include all the other types of weapons and munitions dropped over Iraq, as well as some Army, Marine and private security contractors' operations. Overall, an average of 75 to 100 airstrikes are carried out in the 2 countries everyday by the U.S.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission remarks how Coalition bombardments against civilians come "at a time when the government and people of Afghanistan expect...international forces to cooperate and assist them in ensuring security, rule of law and reconstruction of Afghanistan. But, regretfully, the people of Afghanistan have always been witnessing civilian casualties in their operations against terrorists, particularly during last year [2006]."

— Neha Inamdar

Blackwater's Troubles Deepening

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 4:00 PM EDT

Blackwater USA's involvement in the shooting deaths of up to 11 Iraqi civilians on September 16 is metastasizing into the the largest scandal the company has yet faced regarding its conduct in Iraq. Numerous investigations are underway, both here and in Baghdad. There is growing speculation that, if the political pressure in Washington continues to build (a big if, given the legion of DC lobbyists the company employs to represent its interests), Blackwater's Iraq contract could be in jeopardy.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday at which Blackwater founder Erik Prince will make a rare public appearance. In the run-up to the hearing, Waxman's committee has been trying, without success, to obtain relevant documents from Blackwater. The company's reluctance to cooperate has led to a stand-off between Congress and the State Department, whose contracts with Blackwater for the physical protection of its diplomats are at issue in this month's shootings in Baghdad.

According to a letter sent Tuesday from Waxman to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, "Blackwater has informed the committee that a State Department official directed Blackwater not to provide documents relevant to the committee's investigation into the company's activities in Iraq without prior written approval of the State Department." The State Department issued a statement later the same day, claiming there had been a "misunderstanding" and that all available documentation requested by Waxman's committee "has been or is in the process of being provided."

Perhaps, but according to a congressional staffer I spoke with this morning, Waxman's committee has yet to receive any documentation from the State Department or Blackwater.

Meanwhile, new details have emerged about the September 16 shootings, suggesting that at least one Blackwater operator refused to cease fire when told to do so. He allegedly stopped firing only after another member of the security team leveled a weapon in his direction. A narrative of the incident as reported in this morning's New York Times:

The episode began around 11:50 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16. Diplomats with the United States Agency for International Development were meeting in a guarded compound about a mile northwest of Nisour Square, where the shooting would later take place.
A bomb exploded on the median of a road a few hundred yards away from the meeting, causing no injuries to the Americans, but prompting a fateful decision to evacuate. One American official who knew about the meeting cast doubt on the decision to move the diplomats out of a secure compound.
"It raises the first question of why didn't they just stay in place, since they are safe in the compound," the official said. "Usually the concept would be, if an I.E.D. detonates in the street, you would wait 15 to 30 minutes, until things calmed down," he said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive device.
But instead of waiting, a Blackwater convoy began carrying the diplomats south, toward the Green Zone. Because their route would pass through Nisour Square, another convoy drove there to block traffic and ensure that the diplomats would be able to pass.
At least four sport utility vehicles stopped in lanes of traffic that were entering the square from the south and west. Some of the guards got out of their vehicles and took positions on the street, according to the official familiar with the report on the American investigation.
At 12:08 p.m., at least one guard began to fire in the direction of a car, killing its driver. A traffic policeman said he walked toward the car, but more shots were fired, killing a woman holding an infant sitting in the passenger seat.
There are three versions of why the shooting started. The Blackwater guards have told investigators that they believed that they were being fired on, the official familiar with the report said. A preliminary Iraqi investigation has concluded that there was no enemy fire, but some Iraqi witnesses have said that Iraqi commandos in nearby guard towers may have been shooting as well, possibly leading Blackwater guards to believe that militants were firing at them.
After the family was shot, a type of grenade or flare was fired into the car, setting it ablaze, according to some accounts. Other Iraqis were also killed as the shooting continued. Iraqi officials have given several death counts, ranging from 8 to 20, with perhaps several dozen wounded. American officials have said that no Americans were hurt.
At some point during the shooting, one or more Blackwater guards called for a cease-fire, according to the American official.
The word cease-fire "was supposedly called out several times," the official said. "They had an on-site difference of opinion," he said.
In the end, a Blackwater guard "got on another one about the situation and supposedly pointed a weapon," the official said.

In a separate article, the Times also reports that Blackwater operators may be a lot quicker to the trigger than their counterparts from other private security firms. The State Department revealed yesterday that Blackwater contractors have fired their weapons 56 times so far this year while escorting diplomats on 1,873 convoy runs. This may seem like a relatively low number. But compare it with that of Blackwater's biggest competitor, DynCorp International. In all of 2006, DynCorp operators fired their weapons just 10 times during about 1,500 convoy runs—this at a time before the much heralded 'surge' supposedly reduced the level of violence in Baghdad.

Does Scalia Think Clarence Thomas is a Nutter?

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 2:48 PM EDT

In his new book on the Supreme Court, The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin apparently claims that Justice Antonin Scalia called his conservative colleague a "nut" in a public speech. While we can't really blame Scalia if he did, not everyone agrees with Toobin's analysis. Read more about it here.

What if They Gave a Debate and Nobody Showed? Again.

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 1:01 PM EDT

Well, somebody showed at historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore last night for the All-American Presidential Forum, just no one likely to be our next president and, man, is the Afro-sphere hacked off about it. My inbox was humming like a tea kettle.

Touted as "the first time that a panel comprised of journalists of color is represented in primetime," focused on 'minority' issues like unemployment and the criminal justice system, and moderated by Tavis Smiley on PBS, you'll understand why the GOP's A-Team all misplaced their invitations. Introducing the world's first invisible perp walk, Rudolph W. Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson found themselves silently indicted as spotlights glared on their empty lecturns all night. (If you can name the ones who showed, C-SPAN must indeed be your dearest friend. And why, oh why, was the Ayatollah Alan Keyes allowed to attend, let alone mic'd for sound? I thought the election for the President of Heaven wasn't til after the Rapture.)

Unsurprisingly, the GOPs usual-suspect mouthpieces made quick work of any notion that their homies were either too scared, too uninterested or too disgusted to show this time either. Having brushed past lame excuses about fundraising cycles and their astrologer's travel advisories, a few addressed the main issue: an auditorium full of hostile Negroes (or, seen another way, the candidates' embrace of an agenda designed to incarcerate every hostile Negro in the auditorium). Jim Geraghty wrote: "when asked about Republicans not showing up for this debate, Smiley responded, "When you reject every black invitation and every brown invitation you receive, is that a scheduling issue or is it a pattern?... I don't believe anybody should be elected president of the United States if they think along the way they can ignore people of color. That's just not the America we live in." Then, Geraghty noted, "When you pretty much accuse candidates of racism before they walk in the door, that doesn't make them more inclined to accept your invitation."

It also doesn't make your "accusers" anymore likely to vote for you. And note the disgraceful sleight of rhetorical hand: Smiley didn't "pretty much accuse" the candidates of anything except either disdaining or passing on the minority vote. However racist he may believe the GOP and/or its candidates to be, Smiley merely pointed out that minority votes have to be both valued and earned or the GOP should formally renounce its renunciation of the Southern Strategy.

Still, you have to give Tancredo, whoever he is, the nod for having the vertebrae to shoot back that he couldn't "agree with th[e] race-baiting comments" of his fellow candidates, who did indeed pander with both hands and all day Sunday. I'm a little embarrassed for them. But since when is pandering new?

But. I started this entry because I, too, am sorta queasy with all these "If not 'A,' then B must be true" denunciations. Barack Obama skips Jena and Jesse Jackson, who endorsed him, accuses him of "acting white". Black Republicans are self-hating sell-outs doing The Man's bidding. Black women who criticize the community's misogyny have been brain washed by white feminists.

If playing "spot the Uncle Tom" has played itself out, perhaps "spot the racist" should, too. Condemning actions and policies as racist is one thing, but mandatory appearances at prescribed black (or most other) venues should not become a litmus test. I hate myself for it, but I had to give Bush his props for refusing to address the NAACP for so long. The organization's rhetoric regarding him had been far too intemperate for far too long (for instance, Willie Horton-ing him with the men who dragged James Byrd to death behind a pick up truck).

Landing at Ground Zero but doing a fly-by over Katrina's devastation? Racist.

Ignoring those who dog you unmercifully, let alone immaturely? Good time management.


Gary Condit Refuses to Go Quietly

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 10:53 AM EDT

Six years after the disappearance of Washington's second-most famous intern, Chandra Levy's former paramour and ex-congressman Gary Condit is back in the news. On Sept. 24, an Arizona judge ordered Condit to pay $43,000 in legal fees to the editor and publisher of the tiny Sonoran News for bringing a frivolous libel suit against the paper, which had no libel insurance. Condit has filed a host of similar suits against other publications that covered the Levy investigation, most of which have since been dropped.

Serial plaintiff Condit is also about to become a defendant. The Modesto Bee reports that his Baskin-Robbins franchise has flopped, and his former business partners are about to sue him over his role in the meltdown.

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Senate Passes Matthew Shepard Act

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 9:38 PM EDT

The U.S. Senate passed the Matthew Shepard Act today. The Act expands federal hate crime laws to include the commission of violent crimes based on the victim's sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and disability, and provides new resources to help law enforcement prosecute such crimes.

The act passed by a voice vote. Its companion legislation in the House of Representatives is the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which passed the House with a vote of 237 to 180. The legislation is supported by a strong contingent of organizations, including the National Sheriffs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, the Episcopal Church of the U.S., the League of Women Voters, and the United Methodist Church.

George W. Bush has called the legislation "unnecessary," and is threatening to veto it.

When Justice Delayed Starts to Look Pretty Good

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 6:05 PM EDT

Big businesses have long argued that arbitration is cheaper and quicker than lawsuits for resolving disputes. That's why they now force customers to waive their constitutional right to sue every time they get a credit card or buy a computer and submit to private arbitration for any future conflict resolution. Now comes the consumer group Public Citizen with a new report on how consumers actually fare when they face off with credit card companies, the major purveyor of arbitration agreements.

As it turns out, arbitration is almost never used to "resolve" a dispute. Instead, credit card companies are using arbitration as a sneaky and unaccountable way to collect debts from overextended customers, even when those customers have been the victim of identity theft or billing errors. In 34,000 cases Public Citizen reviewed, arbitrators (all hired by the credit card companies, of course) ruled against consumers 90 percent of the time, to the tune of $185 million.

Public Citizen's most intriguing finding, though, was the case of arbitrator Joseph Nardulli, who, in a single day, resolved 68 cases—one every seven minutes— all in favor of the credit card companies who hired him. Now that's swift justice!

Dobson Slams Fred Thompson in Private Email

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 5:59 PM EDT

In a long article about how Fred Thompson has lost the evangelical endorsement many expected him to get (in part because Thompson won't sign on with a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage), Politico cites a private email from Focus on the Family honcho James Dobson. Dobson wrote:

Isn't Thompson the candidate who is opposed to a constitutional amendment to protect marriage, believes there should be 50 different definitions of marriage in the U.S., favors McCain-Feingold, won't talk at all about what he believes, and can't speak his way out of a paper bag on the campaign trail?
He has no passion, no zeal and no apparent 'want to.' And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!

Whoa, boy. Dobson sure is cranky. He's already said, "I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances" and already written, "I cannot, and will not, vote for Rudy Giuliani in 2008."

So that leaves Romney. Or a second-tier guy like Huckabee. Or nobody, I guess.

Burma: Saffron Flames Rage Against the Machine

| Thu Sep. 27, 2007 5:08 PM EDT

Burma (or "Myanmar," as the military junta christened it) is in the throes of what some are calling the "Saffron Revolution." For the past two days, tens of thousands of Buddhist monks, nuns, students, activists, and civilians have been staging the largest demonstrations since the 1988 uprising, when thousands of unarmed, pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by the security forces.

Initially, fuel price hikes sparked the protests but they seem to now reflect decades of pent up anti-government sentiments and demands for democratic reform have been ringing through Rangoon for the past two days. On Tuesday, the military enacted a day long curfew prohibiting public gatherings of more than five people. Soldiers used tear gas, batons, and automatic weapons to disperse protesters and so far, nine people have died.

Anger about the military's treatment of monks has ignited even more protests. Soldiers launched several raids on Buddhist monasteries. At least 300 monks and other demonstrators have been hauled away in military vehicles.

China, Burma's principal trading partner, notified everyone that it would halt any UN sanctions, which isn't surprising. The US, for its part, tightened sanctions against Burma and has issued a joint statement with the European Union, stating that they are "deeply troubled" that the "security forces have fired on and attacked peaceful demonstrators and arrested many Buddhist monks and others." They "condemn all violence against peaceful demonstrators and remind the country's leaders of their personal responsibility for their actions." The statement then urges China, India, ASEAN, and surrounding countries "to use their influence in support of the people of Burma/Myanmar."

Too bad the US' foreign policies in Asia are not consistent. Some military regimes get scolded while others, namely Pakistan's, receive full US approval, weapons, and a blank check.

— Neha Inamdar