The "Black Jail"

One big news item from the weekend was the stories in the Post and the Times about a "black" detention site at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The stories fill in some details about what's going on at the jail, which previous reporting had suggested is a separate, Special Operations-run interrogation facility that has been kept off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross. According to the Post, detainees there have claimed they were "beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement." 

I asked Jonathan Horowitz, a human rights researcher at the Open Society Institute who was quoted in both stories, whether he thought the Times and the Post had upped the pressure on President Barack Obama to address detainee access issues. Yes and no: While "there's a greater willingness to have dialogue on the story than there's been in the past," Horowitz says, he's "yet to see whether that will lead to any tangible results." Horowitz also said that the ICRC and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission should be given access to the site and that allegations of abuse should be investigated. It's not surprising to hear such things from a human rights researcher, but it will be interesting to see if he gets what he wants.

Few American spectacles are as grotesque as the one we witness every year on what’s known as “Black Friday.” Before dawn on the morning after Thanksgiving, throngs of shoppers stampede the nation’s retail stores, trying to grab up bargains before somebody else does. Last year, one such feeding frenzy took the life of Jdimytai Damour, the 34-year-old son of Haitian immigrants, who was working as a temporary employee at a Wal-Mart on Long Island. Witnesses said that many members of the crowd kept on shopping after they forced their way through the store’s doors and trampled Damour to death. 

Marlene Lang, writing in Chicago’s Southtown Star, sums up the fallout from this gruesome tragedy:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted an inspection and found that the New York store “fail(ed) to implement reasonable and effective crowd management principles,” including training that was “inadequate” to accommodate the advertised “Blitz Friday” that offered cheap-o electronics for all. OSHA slapped Wal-Mart with a “serious citation” and the maximum fine of $7,000. Uh, no, I’m not missing any zeros. That’s seven thousand dollars. Wal-Mart Stores promised to implement a crowd management plan for its New York stores and went to work consulting with big-event security firms.

Meanwhile, the deceased employee’s family sued for wrongful death, and Wal-Mart put out statements saying Damour had been part of the Wal-Mart family. Touching. The retail supergiant then cut a no-prosecution deal with the district attorney, promising beefed-up Black Friday crowd control along with generous contributions to the community–$1.5 million worth of local generosity and $400,000 in compensation to the victims of the incident.

Wal-Mart never admitted any guilt in Damour’s death. But the chain did cite its devotion to ”customer and associate safety” this year in announcing its novel approach to Black Friday overcrowding: To prevent the dangers posed by throngs of bargain hunters waiting for their stores to open, Wal-Mart would simply never close at all.

So on Thanksgiving 2009, nearly all Wal-Mart stores remained open all day, and all through the night into Black Friday.  Recession-strapped Americans desperate for bargains could leave their dinner tables to spend Thanksgiving Day at Wal-Mart. And if they liked, they could stay there all night, wandering bleary-eyed through the aisles as they waited for special blow-out sales to surface at 5 a.m. on Friday. Wal-Mart workers, of course, had no choice but to join in the fun.  Not that working on holidays is anything new for most employees of this notorious union-busting company, which has faced multiple class-action lawsuits for shorting its workers on wages and discriminating against women, minorities, and people with disabilities.  (You can read about these, and much more, at Wal-Mart Watch.)

The climate summit that kicks off in Copenhagen next week may turn out to be more eventful than you might expect, thanks to significant promises from the US and China in recent days.

Last week, the White House confirmed that Obama will make a pit stop at the summit and announce that the United States is committing to reducing planet-warming emissions in the neighborhood of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

The next day, the Chinese government announced a goal of reducing their carbon intensity—the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of gross domestic product—by up to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Since the US and China together are responsible for 40 percent of the world's emissions, these commitments are expected to have a real impact on the negotiations.

Congress already made sure the Obama administration wouldn't have to release photos of detainee abuse, but on Monday, the Supreme Court told the government the same thing: no worries.

A federal appeals court ordered the photos, which the ACLU is seeking under the Freedom of Information Act, released earlier this year. But the Obama administration convinced Congress to pass a law that allows the executive branch to unilaterally withhold any detainee photos it wants to keep secret. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the court earlier this month that he would use the power granted to him by the new law to withhold the photos that are the subject of the ACLU's lawsuit. The high court's decision instructs the appeals court to reconsider its decision in light of the new law and Gates' announcement.

Supporters of releasing the photos shouldn't blame the courts for their continued suppression. Now that Congress has given the Obama administration almost unlimited power to suppress detainee abuse photos, the blame for using that power lies with the president himself. This isn't John Roberts' problem. It's Barack Obama's.

One of the unfortunate side effects of being subscribed to as many conservative email lists as I am is that you get subjected to a lot of sales pitches. Stephanie already blogged about some of the more offensive Christmas gifts conservatives are selling to each other this holiday season. But this stuff never stops. On Monday, one conservative mailing list tried to sell me a children's book called Help! Mom! Radicals are Ruining My Country!, which is about how liberals are destroying America (what else?):

In a cameo appearance, "Governor Sarah," a Palin lookalike character, attempts to help two boys with a struggling swingset business hang onto the American Dream despite high taxes, burdensome regulations and 246 czars in the recently released children’s book Help! Mom! Radicals Are Ruining My Country!, by bestselling-author Katharine DeBrecht.

"I am trying to let all Americans know that these radicals are killing the American Dream and I want to stop them from hurting people that produce products and provide jobs," the Palin character consoles the frustrated boys. The book then describes an all-out media assault on the Palin figure based on false rumors which discourages the boys:

Unfortunately later that night, while the boys were still ruffling through their bills, they saw a special report on TV. The TV anchorwoman beamed "We have breaking news just in from a 37 year old man who lives in his parents’ basement that Governor Sarah’s mother is actually an alien."

The anchorwoman excitedly went on, "And from this exclusive source, we can confirm that Governor Sarah feeds her children dog food for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

The sample pages from the book aren't particularly compelling, especially since the central allegory is incredibly heavy handed. There's a place for funny conservative caricatures of liberalism. Unfortunately, Ms. DeBrecht is no Christopher Buckley . But the kids' book is interesting in how it echoes Palin's own story about herself, in which she is a victim who was unfairly smeared by a biased news media.

On a somewhat related note, historian Rick Perlstein has done a lot of work documenting how conservative mailing lists show that conservatives treat their constituents like suckers

I've been on dozens of both right-wing and left-wing mailing lists going back well over a decade. I've never, ever, ever received from the left anything remotely like the snake-oil pitches I receive from Newsmax and Human Events nearly every day.

Digby has more on this subject here.

Palin's Latest Error

Geoffrey Dunn dug up an amusing error in Sarah Palin's Going Rogue.* The epigraph for Chapter Three, "Drill, Baby, Drill," is a quote that Palin attributes to legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden:

Our land is everything to us... I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember our grandfathers paid for it—with their lives.

Dunn explains what the problem is:

[T]he quote wasn't by John Wooden. It was written by a Native American activist named John Wooden Legs in an essay entitled "Back on the War Ponies," which appeared in a left-wing anthology, We Are the People: Voices from the Other Side of American History, edited by Nathaniel May, Clint Willis, and James W. Loewen.

That's a pretty big mistake. Here's the full quote:

Our land is everything to us. It is the only place in the world where Cheyennes talk the Cheyenne language to each other. It is the only place where Cheyennes remember the same things together. I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember our grandfathers paid for it—with their life. My people and the Sioux defeated General Custer at the Little Big Horn.

As Dunn notes, that's not quite the message Palin was trying to convey.

*Update, 12/1/09: According to commenters, Lawyers, Guns, and Money had this on Nov. 20. Dunn didn't give anyone credit, so I didn't know. Sorry!

Ah, 'tis the season for right-wing nuttiness. Black Friday has unleashed a barrage of racist and homophobic political offerings available to stuff this year's stockings. Today's selections:

The Barney Frank Fruitcake: Offered by a Leesburg, Va.-based conservative group called the Public Advocate of the United States, the fruitcake is a booze-free confection topped with a color photo of the gay congressman. Pubilc Advocate offers the cake in exchange for donations of more than $50. "We accept Speaker Pelosi and the current liberal domination but when lawlessness is rampant we must oppose it, and this Fruitcake distribution represents our marking of another season of protesting a sorrowful spirit of immorality in Washington," says PA president Eugene Delgaudio.

Obozo's America: A board game based on the idea that a socialist clown has become president of the United States, subtitled, "Why bother working for a living?" The low-down:

Get your initial $1,000 cash grant at the First of the Month, then maneuver along Obozo’s Welfare Promenade. Get cash for your out-of-wedlock children. Draw from a stack of Welfare Benefit Cards. Get extra cash from Saturday Night crimes: Gambling, Armed Robbery, Drugs, and Prostitution. Play the lottery and the horses. Get your live-in a job on the Government Cakewalk. Experience the Jail Jaunt. Avoid landing on one of those dreaded “Get a Job” blocks forcing you onto the Working Person’s Rut (Somebody has to pay for Obozo’s Welfare Promenade). 50 Welfare Benefit Cards. 50 Working Person’s Burden Cards. Lots of funny money.

The deluxe version available for just $37.90, plus tax and shipping.


Marines with Multi National Force-West circle an empty lot aboard Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, looking for scraps of metal, Nov. 20, 2009. Their base-wide cleanup effort is dubbed Operation Blue Spoon, and the goal is for Marines to leave the base in good order as they wind down their role in Operation Iraqi Freedom. (US Marine Corps photograph by Cpl. Meg Murray)

Need To Read: November 30, 2009

Today's must reads are ready for December:

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An editorial in Saturday's Washington Post, called "Solitary Disgrace," calls for an end to the widespread use of long-term lockdown in America's prisons and jails. The Post's editors write:

At one time shunned in the United States, solitary confinement is becoming a tool increasingly used by corrections officials trying desperately to keep order in grossly overcrowded and sometimes chaotic prisons. These decisions are made even though solitary confinement costs roughly twice as much as keeping an inmate in the general prison population. At any given time, experts estimate that 25,000 to 100,000 prisoners are kept in some sort of "special housing unit" where they are isolated and kept apart from the general prison population. The number changes frequently as new prisoners are sent in and others sent out of solitary....

A short stint in solitary for most does not result in serious or permanent harm. But more prolonged stays of months or years -- a practice not uncommon in many states -- can result in devastating psychological damage, including psychosis and debilitating depression. Studies have also shown that inmates kept in solitary confinement for prolonged periods display higher levels of hostility than those in the general prison population; they tend to carry this hostility with them after they are returned to the general prison population or released back into the community.

Mother Jones has lately been covering the case of the Angola 3, the Louisiana prisoners who have been held in solitary for as long as 37 years. Lawyers for Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace, and Robert King have for years been working on a case that challenges this kind of long-term solitary confinement on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. That case is expected to at last come to trial early next year, and should shed additional light on the true toll of life in lockdown.

Ironically, the issue of solitary confinement only becomes more pressing as some states gradually lose their taste for the death penalty, and offenders languish indefinitely in complete isolation, either on death row or in other lockdown units. Yet even among progressives, the practice has never received the same kind of attention or protest as the treatment of terrorism suspects abroad. The fact that this subject even made it onto the editorial pages of one of our so-called newspapers of record suggests some growing recognition that solitary confinement is a form of torture, and that we have our own Guantanamos and Abu Ghraibs to deal with here at home.