Political MoJo

Trouble Brewing in Lebanon

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 7:58 PM EST

After a show of force in this summer's conflict with Israel, the Shiite militia Hezbollah is now trying to drive the Western-backed Lebanese government from power. Nearly a quarter of Lebanon's population took to the streets of Beirut earlier today, while the beleaguered prime minister, Fouad Siniora, took shelter behind hundreds of troops and police.

Lebanon has been a mess for a long time. A 15-year civil war with more factions than you can count ended in 1991, leaving the Lebanese government a virtual puppet of Syria. Syria lost its power in the wake of huge protests following the revelation that Syria was involved in the February 2005 assassination of then-prime minister Rafik Hariri. Siniora took office immediately thereafter.

Trouble began brewing for Siniora's government when Hezbollah single-handedly held its own against the Israeli Defense Forces this summer, earning massive popular support. With the assassination of a Christian anti-Syrian politician in late November, the situation in Lebanon started to look eerily like the one that immediately preceded Lebanon's civil war.

The bloodbath in Iraq isn't helping ease tensions between Lebanon's Sunni Muslims, who generally support Siniora's anti-Syrian government, and Shiites, who oppose it.

So perhaps Iraq is a role model after all—not for democracy, but for civil war.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

AIDS Can't be Fought with Sunshine and Puppies

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 7:18 PM EST

According to a story in today's Boston Globe , a number of faith-based organizations used this year's World AIDS Day to lash out at the Global Fund to Fight AIDS (a $6.6 billion organization that supports programs in 136 countries).

Peter L. Brandt, a senior director at Focus on the Family, thinks Congress should cut all spending on the Global Fund's HIV programs, saying that the Fund concentrates too heavily on condoms and discriminates against organizations like his.

They should instead focus on spreading the abstinence message? A lot of good that's done here.

In the Global South, where HIV is spreading fastest, abstinence and marriage are not adequate protection against the deadly virus. To the contrary, it is often the primary site of infection, especially for women. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, "the stark reality is that what kills young women [in Africa] is often not promiscuity, but marriage. Indeed, just about the deadliest thing a women in southern Africa can do is get married."

Crosscheck that with the following:

-In South Africa, studies suggest that "marital partnerships are mainly responsible for adolescent female [HIV] infection." Studies in Kenya and Zambia show that adolescent girls have an increased risk of HIV infection when they marry significantly older men. (International Center for Research on Women and Population Service)

-In a study of Zambian women, fewer than 25% of the participants believed that a married woman could refuse to have sex with her husband, even if she knew he had been unfaithful or was HIV-positive. Only 11% of participants believed that a woman could ask her husband to use a condom in these circumstances. (United Nation's Fund for Women).

-On Colombia's Atlantic Coast, about half of HIV-positive women are "housewives with a stable partner." (World Health Organization)

Latex anyone?

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Want to Know Your Terror Score? Too Bad, Says TSA

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 5:55 PM EST

Are you a vegetarian who prefers to sit near the front of the plane? If so, prepare to be harassed. CNN recently uncovered that the Homeland Security Department's Automated Targeting System [ATS] assigns a terrorist rating number to every single person entering or leaving the United States. The score is based on the passenger's method of payment, one-way flights, meal preferences, seat assignment, e-mail address, voluntary and involuntary upgrade history, and frequent flier miles. But unlike a credit score, it cannot be challenged or even viewed by the individual. And the score will stay on file for 40 years.

This might not be such a huge problem if passengers' ATS numbers weren't going to be made available to state agencies, students, and private contractors, among others. Theoretically, if a person is, say, denied a job at a post office or a construction company because of their terror score, they'll never know and they'll never be able to challenge it.

Given that many infants have been harassed at airports because they have similar names to terrorists, the chance that the ATS scores and information will be misused seems high. And, with the ATS's new headquarters and a staff that's tripled since 2001, it seems we can expect even more searches and baseless groundings.

—Jen Phillips

Get the Goat This Year

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 4:40 PM EST

This season, the globally aware and trend conscious want to get the goat under their Christmas tree. Charitable organizations have started selling the four-legged critters and other "virtual gifts" in order to address demands for ethical gifts and increase fundraising.

Oxfam is one such organization and has launched a website to sell charitable gifts such as medicines for an entire village, training for a teacher, or even the installation of "lovely loos" to prevent the spread of cholera and typhoid. But goats and chickens have been the best sellers.

While ethical gift giving may be gaining in popularity, some critics say that these karma boosting stocking stuffers may only work as gimmicks—enticing consumers with cute pictures and overly idealistic promises. They say, without the proper resources, goats can actually be detrimental to the vegetation in rural areas.

So be kind, but beware. The Oxfam website sells its goat care kits (including training, food, water and vet care) separately.

--Caroline Dobuzinskis

Iraq Study Group: "Antidemocratic"

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 3:28 PM EST

An article in the Christian Science Monitor by Andrew Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, calls the Iraq Study Group "antidemocratic." Bacevich says the group is in place largely to keep citizens' demands about the war at bay.

Which does beg the question, where has all that citizen anger that was demonstrated on a global scale before the United States invasion of Iraq all gone to? While the war is being widely criticized by media and politicians, voices of dissent in the general public have been quiet. Even after the deadliest month of combat for both American troops and Iraqi civilians, there were no major protests, marches or public outcries calling for an end to the war (with the exception of a Cindy Sheehan led protest on the steps of the Whitehouse that resulted in her arrest on Nov. 9).

Perhaps, as Bacevich suggests, Americans assume the government will take care of it. Or, they are overwhelmed at how badly things have gone. Politicians recently traveling to Iraq experienced shock and awe of their own. After a recent visit to Iraq, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said: "(The Iraqi government) seems to be caught in a crossfire of sectarian angst and violent actions. It's a dangerous environment that will continue to escalate in the weeks ahead."

Trying to Get the Lead Out in Peru

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 3:09 PM EST

In our current issue, Sara Shipley Hiles and Marina Walker Guevara investigate how Doe Run, an American mining company, effectively offshored its pollution when it bought a lead smelter in a small city in the Peruvian Andes. Its operation is coating the town of La Oroya in poisonous dust, with devasting effects on the local environment, public health, and especially its kids, many of whom have unacceptably high levels of lead in their systems. Don't miss the story.

But if you want a quick look at what La Oroya looks like and what local residents are saying about the plant, check out this video from Earthjustice, which is part of the legal effort Doe Run to get to clean up its act.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Study Shows Abortion Pill Could Prevent Breast Cancer

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 3:05 PM EST

A new study just released, reports the Washington Post, shows mifepristone, the active component of the abortion pill regimen RU-486, may stave off breast cancer. The research shows that BRCA1, a gene that causes breast cancer, actually accelerates the production of progesterone (a necessary hormone for pregnant women) in the body. Mifepristone blocks progesterone, and scientists discovered that it was very effective in shutting down cancer-causing genes in mice. It was actually 100% effective. Proponents of RU-486 are hoping that this new advancement will make the drug more available and therefore pave the way for women to use the pill for abortions. Scientists, though, are not yet convinced (and neither should you be-- the long-term effects of RU-486 have not been studied because the drug is meant for one-time use only). There are concerns that long-term use of RU-486 by humans suppresses the immune system and scientists are looking into other progesterone blocking options. So, this is likely not, nor should it be hyped as, the pro-choice ticket to off-label cancer fighting use of RU-486, but, then again, it isn't bad news for the much maligned abortion pill.

Birth Control or Purity Balls, That is the Question

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 3:04 PM EST

I wrote last week about the decline in the nation's teen birth rate, and how abstinence groups would try to claim the downturn is the result of chastity pledges and purity rings. (They have, but you need to be an approved member of the Abstinence Clearinghouse to read the "good news.")

Now, the American Journal of Public Health has released a study, Explaining Recent Declines in Adolescent Pregnancy in the United States: The Contribution of Abstinence and Improved Contraceptive Use, that pops that theory. The study's doctors write:

"The current emphasis of U.S. domestic and global policies, which stress abstinence-only sex education to the exclusion of accurate information on contraception, is misguided."

The study, via interviews with nearly 1400 women in 1995 and 1150 in 2002, looks at the relative contribution of abstinence behavior and improved contraceptive use to the recent decline in pregnancy rates (really teen birth rates) among U.S. women between the ages of 15 to 19. Investigators estimate that the likelihood of pregnancy in this age group declined 34 percent between 1995 and 2002, and that 86 percent of the decline in pregnancy risk was attributable to improved use of contraception.

They found that reduced sexual activity explained only 14 percent of the decline in teen pregnancy. To be fair, let it be recalled that abstinence-only ed didn't become a bankrolled operation until 2000. But also to be fair, there has been zero evidence that such education is more effective than comprehensive sex education which includes, gasp, discussion of birth control options.

According to the study, among 18 to 19-year-olds, the decline in pregnancy risk was entirely due to improved contraceptive use, which includes increases in the use of birth control pills, condoms, or both. The study authors conclude:

"These data suggest that the U.S. appears to be following patterns seen in other developed countries where increased availability and increased use of modern contraceptives have been primarily responsible for declines in teenage pregnancy rates...Our findings raise questions about current U.S. government policies that promote abstinence from sexual activity as the primary strategy to prevent adolescent pregnancy."

Questions indeed. They're being polite.

Happy Methday!

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 3:00 PM EST

For those of you who weren't, um, aware that yesterday was National Methamphetamine Awareness Day, Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance has a holiday card for you. Among his several well-reasoned critiques of our nation's approach to the speed problem - which Piper sums up as "incarcerate as many methamphetamine offenders as possible and hope for the best" - is the nugget that California's policy of diverting low-level offenders into treatment instead of prison has saved taxpayers over one billlion dollars in the last five years.

Calling All Conspiracy Theorists

| Fri Dec. 1, 2006 2:04 PM EST

The Federation of American Scientists' Steven Aftergood unearthed this fascinating nugget in a recent Navy directive on its "Human Research Protection Program," which, much as the name suggests, is tasked with safeguarding human research subjects from inhumane experiments.

The Under Secretary of the Navy (UNSECNAV) is the Approval Authority for research involving... severe or unusual intrusions, either physical or psychological, on human subjects (such as consciousness-altering drugs or mind-control techniques).

Umm, mind control. Part of me is relieved that research, of the Manchurian Candidate variety, if it does indeed exist, requires some form of high level approval. Mostly, though, I'm unnerved by the possibility that government researchers are spending any time whatsoever contemplating this line of inquiry. Perhaps I shouldn't be too surprised. The DoD is known for floating some pretty absurd proposals, such as one in 1994 by researchers at the Air Force's Wright Laboratory who pitched developing "harassing, annoying, and 'bad guy' identifying chemicals." One example:

Chemicals that effect human behavior so that discipline and morale in enemy units is adversely affected. One distasteful but completely non-lethal example would be strong aphrodisiacs, especially if the chemical also caused homosexual behavior.

Your tax dollars at work folks.